Pneumonia ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
In third grade I wore a navy pea coat. Some of the kids in school made fun of me for wearing a kind of coat that nobody else had, but I didn’t care. I liked my pea coat. It made me look like a little navy man.
Any time I think about that pea coat I think about my mother lying sick in a hospital bed.
In November of that year, she slipped on gravel down the street from where she worked and hit her head on the sidewalk. She had a brain concussion and it made her plenty sick. Her doctor thought three or four days (a week at the most) in the hospital would fix her up, but she just kept getting sicker and the three or four days became weeks. (He eventually admitted she wasn’t getting any better and sent her to a hospital in the city, but that’s another story.)
Since I was only nine, I missed my mother while she was in the hospital. I wasn’t a baby and I could manage without her for a few days, but I was afraid she wouldn’t be out of the hospital in time for Christmas. My biggest fear, though, was that she would die in the hospital while I was in school and I’d be left alone with my father. He and I didn’t like each other very much. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it was.
We went to the hospital every evening to see my mother after eating our quick and meagre dinner (a tuna salad sandwich or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup). These visits were disheartening because she wasn’t like herself. She just lay there, hardly moving, and didn’t say much. She was pale, her hair looked terrible, and her eyes were hollow. When I asked her when they were going to let her come home, she just shrugged and didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I wasn’t the only one thinking she might die; she was thinking it herself.
Since it was November and the weather was turning cold, somebody at school was always sick, spreading germs all over the place. It was impossible to be in a closed, heated classroom and not breathe in some nasty germs. A couple of my friends came down with the flu or whatever was catching, and then, before I knew it, I was the sick one.
My mother noticed at the hospital during visiting hours that evening that I didn’t look quite right. She tried to get me to take my pea coat off, but I felt chilled and wanted to leave it on. My throat was raw and my chest hurt. I had developed a cough, which was impossible to hide.
“Aren’t you taking care of your son, Roy?” my mother asked my father.
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” my father said.
“Make sure he takes a hot bath and goes right to bed.”
“He thinks if he can convince you he’s sick, he won’t have to go to school.”
“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m not sick.”
The next morning I felt terrible and my cough was worse. My throat felt like I had been snacking on razor blades. I went to school and I sat in my seat all day long without telling anybody how bad I felt, but I was glad when the bell rang and it was time to go home at the end of the day. When I got home, I put on my pajamas and got into bed. I only wanted to shut everything out.
I hoped I would feel better in the morning, but I only felt worse. I got up at the usual time and went into the kitchen. My father was sitting at the table drinking coffee and smoking his Marlboro cigarettes. He barely looked at me.
“You’d better get a move on,” he said in his absent way, “or you’re going to be late for school.”
“I don’t feel like going to school today,” I said.
“I said I’m sick and I don’t feel like going to school today.”
“You don’t look sick to me.”
“My throat really hurts and my chest hurts and I have a lump in my throat.”
“You’ll feel better after you get there.”
I sat down and poured some corn flakes into a bowl and got the milk out of the refrigerator, but I wasn’t able to eat anything.
“I’m running a fever,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”
“You’re just being a baby. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“If mother was here, she’d take my temperature and know I’m too sick to go to school.”
“Well, she’s not here, so go brush your teeth and get dressed and get your little ass to school before I kick it up between your shoulder blades for you. I have to get to work. I don’t have time to mess with you.”
The wind and the cold air didn’t help my cough. By the time I got to school, I was wheezing and gasping for breath. I took my seat in the third row, as usual, and hoped I’d drop dead before too long.
I coughed and I coughed and I coughed some more. No matter how much I cleared my throat, that old frog seemed to have taken up permanent residence. Every time I coughed, somebody turned and looked at me with distaste. I couldn’t blame them. They were wondering what I had and if they were likely to catch it from me.
I hadn’t been sitting in my seat for long when Miss Goldschmidt came and stood over me and put her hand on my forehead.
“You don’t feel very well, do you?” she asked.
“I’m all right.”
She motioned for me to stand up and go along with her. She took me out into the hallway and down the stairs to the nurse’s office on the second floor.
“He’s too sick to be in school today,” Miss Goldschmidt said to Miss Bouchard, the school nurse.
Miss Bouchard looked at me and told me to sit in the chair beside her desk.
“Let’s see your throat, honey,” she said.
She took a tongue depressor and a flashlight and looked at my throat so long I thought I was going to choke.
“How long have you had this throat?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Three days, I guess.”
When she took my temperature, she found I had a fever of slightly over a hundred and two.
“I’m going to call your mother and tell her to come and get you.”
“She’s not home. She’s in the hospital.”
“Oh. What about daddy?”
“He’s at work.”
“Well, I guess we’re stuck with you, then, aren’t we?”
There was a cot made up like a bed against the wall. She told me to take off my shoes and get into the cot and cover up like a little baby. She would be in and out of the office all day long and if I felt worse to let her know.
She gave me two aspirin tablets and a cup of water and after I swallowed the tablets I covered up in the warm little bed and coughed my head off for a while but then my cough lessened and I went to sleep. I slept right through lunch and most of the rest of the day. When the bell rang to go home, I was surprised at how much time had gone by.
“Time to go home, little man,” Miss Bouchard said.
I sat up on the cot and put on my shoes and tied them.
“Do you feel like walking home?” she asked.
“I can get the janitor to take you in the truck if you don’t feel like walking.”
“I can make it okay.”
“And don’t come back to school until you’ve seen a doctor.”
“I’ve written a letter for you to give to your daddy. You need to see your doctor. We don’t want you in school if you’re sick. You might be contagious.”
Being told I could stay home from school the next day, and maybe the day after that, cheered me considerably. It was the best news I had heard in a long time.
When I got home, he was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. He gave me a sour look and blew smoke out his nostrils like a deranged bull. I put the envelope from Miss Bouchard on the table in front of him.
“What’s this?” he said.
“A letter,” I said.
“From one of my many admirers?”
I wanted to tell him he didn’t have any admirers, but all I said was, “No, it’s from the school nurse.”
He read the letter and crushed out his cigarette angrily.
“So, you’ve been complaining at school about how sick you are?”
“I didn’t say anything. They knew I was sick. Some people pay attention to those things.”
“I don’t have time for this crap!” he said. “You’re a lot more trouble than you’re worth, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
In the morning he took me to see Dr. Froberger. He was an old man with cold hands and I was a little afraid of him, but I liked him well enough. His office girl complimented me on my navy pea coat.
Dr. Froberger set me up on a high table and looked at my throat and into my ears and felt my neck. He took my temperature and listened to my heart and lungs.
“This boy’s got pneumonia,” Dr. Froberger said. “His lungs are filled with fluid.”
“I didn’t think he was that sick,” my father said. “He’s always been quite a pretender.”
“Well, he’s not pretending now! I want him to go to the hospital. We need to start treatment right away, or he’s going to be very seriously ill.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I said.
“It’ll be all right,” Dr. Froberger said. “We’ll take good care of you and you’ll be back to normal in a few days.”
They took me to a different hospital than the one my mother was in. I was worried that she wouldn’t know where I was, but my father said he’d tell her and he’d bring her to see me as soon as she was able.
They took my clothes and put me in a high bed in a room by myself and stuck needles in both arms and gave me oxygen. For a couple of days I felt like I was dreaming or floating through the air, but it didn’t matter to me if I was. Nothing felt real. My father came a couple of times to see how I was doing, but he didn’t stay long; he always had something more important to do.
After I had been in the hospital for a while, a nurse arranged for me to talk to my mother on the phone. She sounded better than she had in a long time. They were giving her a different kind of medicine, she said, and her doctor had decided to send her to a better, smarter doctor at a hospital in the city.
“How long before they’ll let you come home?” I asked.
“I’ll be home before you know it.” she said.
She wasn’t going to die after all.
When the doctor finally released me from the hospital after a week (that’s how long it took for my lungs to clear up), he said I couldn’t go back to school for a while (two weeks or so), which was altogether fine with me. I had to have somebody, a “sitter,” stay with me during the day when my father was at work, so that’s where Barbara Legaspi entered the picture.
Barbara was recommended by Dr. Froberger’s office. She had experience as a nurse’s aide and was used to dealing with sick people. I could tell my father didn’t like her because she was fat and had big arms and a dark mustache, but he hired her because it was the easiest thing for him to do.
I liked Barbara right away. She bought me candy and comic books. She lived with her parents and had never been married and had lots of funny stories about men she had dated. The men she liked didn’t like her or were married, and the men who liked her were unacceptable and undesirable for one reason or another (one had rotten teeth and another one was a midget).
When we got to talking about my father, she told me she had an “instinctive” feeling about him. He was a “negative” individual from whom “nothing good” would ever come.
“How do you know these things?” I asked.
She told me she was psychic and “an old soul” who lived “many times” before. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I thought it sounded good.
I told her how when I became sick with pneumonia and my mother was in the hospital, my father didn’t want to be bothered with me and made me go to school because he thought I wasn’t really sick at all but only pretending.
“He never wanted to be your father,” she said. “People who have children they don’t want make me sick.”
“Me too,” I said.
“He doesn’t treat your mother well, either, does he?”
“No. I don’t know how she stands being married to him.”
“I can take care of him for you if you want me to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can put a spell on him.”
“You mean, like, kill him?”
“No, that would be a curse. I’m talking about a spell.”
“You can put spells on people?”
“If I can’t, I know somebody who can.”
“What kind of a spell would it be?” I asked, fascinated.
“A kind of spell where he gets what he deserves.”
“That sounds good. I don’t want you to kill him, though, or burn him up in a car crash or anything like that.”
“No, I know what you mean. Moderation is the key.”
“Yeah. Fix it so he has stay in the hospital for about a week.”
“I think it might be arranged.”
My mother came home from the hospital in the city a week before Christmas. She wasn’t over her brain concussion yet, but she was getting better every day. She and Barbara Legaspi had a long talk at the kitchen table. When Barbara left for the last time, she said I was her favorite sick person and she and I would be seeing each other again. She winked at me when mother wasn’t looking and I knew it meant that she and I had a secret together.
My mother gave my father the silent treatment for not taking care of me the way he should have and for not keeping me home from school when I was obviously sick. She cooked his meals at mealtime and then she went out of the kitchen while he sat at the table and ate alone. She slept in the spare bedroom and didn’t speak to him unless she had to.
We had a happy Christmas that year. I was over my pneumonia and had returned to school. My mother was still taking lots of medicine and it seemed to be helping her. She was going to return to her job after New Year’s. She wasn’t a stay-at-home; she liked being around other people, she said.
In the middle of January, my father passed out at work. They came and got him in an ambulance and took him to the hospital. After the doctor examined him, he said he had “smoker’s heart” and was going to have to cut back on his Marlboros and go on a diet.
When my mother and I visited him in the hospital, I stood at the foot of his bed and smiled. He barely looked at me, but I knew he knew I was there. If he had known what I was thinking and why I was smiling, he would have had to light up another Marlboro and blow an angry stream of smoke out his nose.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp