Write about a loss: something (or someone) that was part of your life, and isn’t any more. —Writing 101, Day 4
I heard him before I saw him. Earl led me down an aisle in the warehouse and from outside the open rollup door of the shop I could hear a death-rattling cough. It was one of those coughs that start behind the toenails of both feet and vibrate upwards, shaking the body in a sine wave of muscle spasms, mucus and noisy gag reflexes.
When we got to the back door I saw Tom bent at the waist, one hand on a knee and the other pressed to his chest below his throat. Tom’s face was beet-red, lips wet, his black hair was disheveled and his dark eyes were sunken and watery.
“About time for another one there, Tom,” Earl said.
Tom coughed again. “Yeah, you got that right,” he said, reaching in his left shirt pocket for a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. “Hi, I’m Tom.”
I shook his outstretched hand, “I’m Al, glad to meet’cha.”
Tom was in his late forties, a nervous guy with a five-pack a day smoking habit. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that he was on fire based on the volume of smoke and ash that he discharged all day long.
Earl said, “You guys are going to the Appliance Repair Center today. You will be adding some lighting and power circuits over a new test bench they just installed. Al, please load the truck with the material on this cart; Tom, come with me and we will go over the layout drawing.”
I went to work loading the truck and Tom went to work learning the plan. I could hear him coughing in Earl’s office all the way from the back of the shop. I wasn’t sure if it was smoker’s cough or a bad chest cold. Whatever it was, it sounded seriously bad.
I finished loading the truck before Tom and Earl came back so I took a good look around at the inside of it. The vehicle was one of those 1950s milk delivery vans that approximated the shape and size of a Brink’s armored truck. The van was tall enough for the average-sized man to stand up and move around, with material shelves down both sides of the interior.
The lower one-third of the shelves on the passenger side was modified to store an assortment of steel conduit and boxes of wire were stacked on the shelves of the middle one-third of the shelving unit. The top third of the shelves on the passenger side of the van had the lightweight items such as light bulbs and fixture parts, tape, rolls of flexible metal conduit, and extension cords.
Behind the driver’s seat the shelving units had the ‘meat’ of the material stock: nuts, bolts, screws, washers, nails, straps, anchors, drill bits, boxes, covers, connectors and couplings (both setscrew and compression types for both EMT and rigid conduit). There were condulet fittings, waterproof covers and boxes, mounting brackets and boxes with built-in brackets stashed in every nook and cranny, but in a neat, orderly fashion. Everything was in place and there was a place for everything. Oh yeah, you should know that Earl was a Virgo.
Tom came out of Earl’s office fumbling to light the cigarette that was between his trembling lips – there was no smoking in Earl’s office or in his personal vehicle. Tom started coughing immediately with his first puff. He spit out such a large cloud of smoke that I thought that a new Pope had been elected.
On our way to the truck Tom said, “I’m not always this bad; I mean, I’m not always coughing this much… cough….for so long…cough, cough… all the time…cough, cooouuugggghhhhhh,” he sputtered.
“Do you usually cough more or less than this amount?”
Tom was wracked by a coughing spasm that doubled him over. His body was wracked alternately with fits of coughing and the labored inhalation of air. I looked around for help but we were the only ones there. I asked, “Can I go get you some water or something?”
Tom waved a hand over his head and between coughs, nodded and said, “A small cup of water….would be nice.”
I hurried to the water cooler in the back of the shop and pulled a paper cup out of the dispenser on the side of the unit. I looked up and saw Earl. “Just getting a cup of water before we head out.”
“Is Tom ok?”
“Oh, yes. I guess. I mean I think that he’s fine. He seems to have a heck of a problem today.”
“Tom is a good man, but those cigarettes are going to kill him. Do you smoke?”
“No, I never did—I have Asthma.”
“Well don’t start, it’s a nasty habit and it is hard to quit once you pick it up.”
“Thanks for the advice. Do you smoke, boss?”
“Not anymore, and I don’t know which was more difficult, smoking or quitting.”
The clock in my head said that it was time to go. “I gotta get this out to Tom.”
“Go ahead, and keep an eye on him today. Remember what I said, He’s a good man and he’s having a tough day.”
“Will do, Boss. Thanks.” I took the cup of water to Tom.
Tom was lighting another cigarette off the end of the one in his mouth. His breathing was less labored and the coughing was reduced to a form of dry hacking associated with post-nasal drip. I handed the cup of water to him and he drank it in slow measured sips, letting the liquid sooth his parched and ravaged throat.
“Aaahhh, that hit the spot. Thanks for getting that for me, buddy-boy.”
“No problem, I am glad that you’re feeling better. Would you like me to drive today?”
“No, that’s ok. Thanks for offering. I’ll take us there, no problem.” Tom started to cough slightly and his hands tightened their grip on the steering wheel. He backed the truck out of the parking space and headed for the highway.
I said, “Ok. Just so’s you know, I don’t mind driving if you want me to. Anytime. Just say the word.” I felt more secure with the idea of me being behind the wheel of this three-ton beast, even though I had never driven it.
Tom coughed half a dozen times as he stopped at the end of the parking lot. He turned on the left-turn signal and waited for a break in traffic. “That’s nice. That’s good to know. You seem like a very nice young man.”
“Not like one of those draft-dodging, pot-smoking hippies you see on television every night. Fucking bunch of Commies, they are, let me tell you,” Tom stared directly at me, “If ya don’t like this country, get the fuck out, am I right? Love it or leave it, yessir, that’s my motto.”
Ooooh, boy. I watched helplessly as Tom turned left and merged into the morning traffic. The familiar warehouses across the street from the shop grew smaller in the rear view mirror on my side of the truck as I struggled to figure out how I was going to keep my mouth shut and work with this guy for the rest of the day.