"What a marvelous expectoration, Madrigal. Children, see what Madrigal has produced."
A beam of morning light descends from the classroom's only window. In it, Mrs. Esperanza's gauzy dress glows, her wet teeth sparkle. She cradles in both hands, on the blanket of her hanky, Madrigal's still warm, opalescent lunger. It shines like a jewel.
"Children," she says, "Madrigal has been sick. Too sick I'm afraid for our daily exercises. Her feet have been above her heart, her finger-paintings incomplete." The humming masses around me drool un-artistically, and I push them aside for a better view.
"Out of my way," I hiss at the Tony by my side, and claw past two Mildreds and even a James. "Let me see!"
To Mrs. Esperanza's right, on a wheeled cot strung with tubes, shawled in a thin quilt, the little girl Madrigal, the best among us, shivers and blinks like a kitten. The crusts of dry snot flap on her cheeks in the quickness of her breathing.
"She's had to forfeit her role in the seasonal spectacle," Mrs. Esperanza says. "Nevertheless, her sick little body has fought on. What you see in my hanky here is quite honestly a miracle of the plastic arts. Come. Touch. Sniff. Just don't scoop."
As Mrs. Esperanza directs us into rows with her free hand, the janitor, Mr. Mannish, pumps a bellows with his foot, its rubber hose disappearing under Madrigal's blanket. He holds onto the cot's metal railings and whispers viciously. I imagine him saying, "my precious little genius, what else have you got for me?" He pats Madrigal's mouth with his open hand and waits like a cat hunting goldfish.
All one hundred of us children stand before this presentation basted in awe. As we one by one dab our index fingers into Madrigal's cooling goo, the only sound louder than our squeaky tennis shoes or Mr. Mannish's bellows is the loop of Mrs. Esperanza saying, "Yes, yes. Don't be afraid."
The light's reflection on the phlegm, regardless of whether it touches the green spots or the brown, the long line of blood or the sea of cream, is always the same bright non-color. It dances on the surface of the lunger and shatters when a finger makes contact. As the line progresses, the shattering becomes more and more complete and the vibrancy of the light less. When the presentation began the phlegm was as smooth as a candy, but by the time I touch my finger to it, it is rough with the ridges of everyone else's prints.
"Thank you," I say to Mrs. Esperanza.
"It is beautiful," she replies, rapturous.
Until they reach the double doors to the play yard, the children remain passive, bovine. In the light of the early afternoon, however, they shove loose and sprint from the classroom to their particular countries, the Tonys to the trees, the Jameses to the woodchip pit, the Mildreds to the solitude and seclusion of roaming the far field.
Mr. Mannish picks up the bellows, and, steadily pumping it with his long hands, inserts it into his armpit. Madrigal's chest inflates with each flap of his wing. Suddenly she fills the classroom with a whooping thunder of coughs. Mrs. Esperanza yells at me, "Out children! Out!" Her beatific demeanor undone, she slams the door in my face. Through it, muffled, I hear her say, "There will be more art-time later!"
Madrigal is producing another masterpiece.
On the hills and in the trees, the other children, small already in the distance, bounce and skip. A strong wind like always is blowing, and as slowly as I can I walk against it towards them. I tell myself I am crossing zones. Walking to the only little crumb of playground available to me, I run my fingers over my gums and suck what's left of Madrigal's stickiness loose.
I'd had Madrigal's tubercular inspirations once, though they brought me only fruitless, humid shudders. Mr. Mannish discarded the napkins and towels I'd covered in my hot breath without a second thought. I fevered long enough I hoped to earn a name as Madrigal has, but in the end I failed. I got better.
In my mouth my hand tastes salty as a second chance. It is delicious with power.
A thick stand of maples forms the southern boundary of the recess field. A low fence and beyond it a swift river bind the west. The rumor is that the north is tundra, and, of course, the east is Mrs. Esperanza. In the middle of central field, before the pits of wood chips become common, there is a tetherball post at which I often like to sit. Its frayed, limp cord blows peacefully in the wind. Leaning against it, I try to recreate the colors of Madrigal's lunger. I shut my eyes and clear my mind like I've been instructed. That there was a marvelous light is all I remember.
To the west, the Jameses sharpen wood chips on the cement rim of the wood chip bin. In a circle, heads down, they scrape the wood chips until they are sharp and hot to the touch. They carve pictures into each other's pectorals, deltoids, across each other's necks, anywhere free of markings. They carve rainbows over pots of gold, zebras with cuddy mouths, grand staves full of waltzes. They pack their red wounds with dirt and sing—oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa—reading from each other's bodies. Though some of their songs are quite good, I avoid the Jameses, not being one of them.
And I avoid the Tonys too who leap from the shrugged shoulders of the maple trees and tumble without injury to the earth. Landing, they throw up their arms, thrust out their chests, snap closed their legs, and make of their bodies a Y. They hold this posture until clapping comes from the trees. Only then do they bow and climb back up. During certain festivals, the Tonys will drop in synchronized succession, performing identical routines. Then it is the Jameses and the Mildreds who clap. The value of these displays I no longer comprehend.
My tether-post is on the Mildreds' range. Aimlessly, they shuffle back and forth across the hills, alone and silent except when there's gossip to share. One offered me a dandelion once and laughed when I tried to keep it. She stopped my fist from sliding the wet stem through my buttonhole. She rubbed her nose against mine and slowly blew the cotton into the wind. Looking up, in every direction, every few yards, I saw other Mildreds bent forward as we were, discharging the weedflower's seed. Great clouds of fluff filled the air. In the spring, when the fresh yellow florets model a galaxy across the field, the Mildreds stoop to them and whisper.
The nearest Mildred to me now, catches her neighbor and pulls her close. Seeing me, staring directly at me, they cover their mouths as if to hide what they say.
The first says, "Madrigal's been escorted back to the nurse."
"Yes, and what's more—she double-produced today."
"You betcha. Blue ribbon on the new one."
"He's watching," says the second.
They stick out their tongues, and drift into the scatter of their namesakes.
By sunset the sky is inky with storm clouds. Madrigal, the railings of her cot flashing orange with the daylight's surviving rays, appears on the roof of the school with Mrs. Esperanza, Mr. Mannish, and the nurse. A bolt of lightning cracks the eastern sky and a strong, hot rain falls on us children, unsheltered on the lawn. This is our chance. If this were my first chance, panic would take me. I would run to the classroom door and pound my hands blue. I would search desperately for an awning, or run to the trees and sob to beat the thunder. Instead, I breathe in the hot water and manifest a chill. My head aches. My tonsils hurt. My eyes bulge. I can feel it. I knock on my chest. I fake a cough. I envision a thickening in my lungs. It's coming.
On the rooftop, umbrellas open left to right in a row. Mr. Mannish opens two, and rests one of them over Madrigal's face. Though they're too far away for me to know for sure, I imagine her torso and legs, her thin quilt, soaked through. Lightning replaces the sun's reflection in the railings of her bed, and despite the storm the Jameses strike up a rowdy number, one with words I don't understand, and time flies by. We receive our chance for an hour before we're brought to the bunkhouse to lie blanketless on our plastic sheets.
Sometime around midnight, a coughing breaks the quiet. Like clearing a throat at first, it escalates into a thick, wet whoop. Between volleys, in a smaller voice, the boy—the whooper—whimpers, and it's as if there's a great struggle, as if the James or the Tony he was were being taken over by something monstrous and immense. The dark room slowly comes to life with the sound of wet bodies sitting up on plastic, the sound of yawning, of children asking, "Who is it? Who is it this time?"
The door at the end of the bunkhouse bursts open before long, and Mr. Mannish appears in waders. His headlamp searches up and down the rows of beds, blinding the squinting children, until he finds the new, young artist face down in his bunk, holding his sides. The bright circle stays on the back of the boy's head until he takes a deep breath, and starts coughing again. Mr. Mannish throws him over his shoulder, kicks open the door, and marches back out into the storm.
A heavy silence fills the room, and without the headlamp it's darker than ever.
"Who was it?" they all ask, but no one knows.
Before long the excitement dissipates and everyone is fast asleep again. Thunder fills the silence and the little window in the door flickers with light. My forehead is not hot to the back of my hand. It does not hurt when I swallow. The only result of breathing in deeply is breathing out again. After a period of self-beratement, jealousy, and tears, I crawl out of bed, and drag myself across the floor on my belly. As quietly as I can, I sniff at the boy's empty bed, at his plastic sheets. I sniff for understanding. What did he do that made him so different? Who was he? A James? A Tony? Is this what shoving dirt into your blood does? Is this why they jump from the trees? I get no answer but the neutral odor of rainwater and the combined musk of the bunkhouse's bodies.
When he left, Mr. Mannish took my hopes with him, my aspirations, everything I wanted to be. Or anyway, that's what I tell myself as I cross the grounds through the rain to the nurse's office. He got the wrong boy. I was meant to whimper on that wicked man's shoulder, not that other him, whoever he was.
The light is on in the nurse's office. Through the window I see Mr. Mannish and Mrs. Esperanza, their bodies blocking the boy's. Mr. Mannish yells, "Come on lad! Let's see what you can do!" shaking his fists in the air. Mrs. Esperanza kneels before the boy, petting his face with a fresh hanky. "Come out, come out," she says. Madrigal is asleep on her cot, and the nurse is practically hidden in a shadow, arms across her chest, a cigarette burning in her hand. A small end table in one corner is set with plates of cheeses and wet sauce. There is a coffee urn, and a large garbage can. They are ready for a long night.
The honor station, just a few doors down from the nurse's office, is actually the janitor's closet. There is a mop in a bucket in one corner. A few bottles of Pine-Sol and other cleaners stand here and there on the shelves, but for the most part it has been completely given over to jars of lunger. Hundreds of jars in rows like soldiers, stacked three jars high on each shelf. I pull the string to the dangling bulb and shut the door behind me.
At random, I pick a jar labeled "Fabian 6" and open it, releasing an ancient smell. I sniff at the mouth of the jar, swirl the old air inside the glass, and breathe it in deeply: aromas of wet fir, wood rot, and fish. I touch it, but then I more than touch it. I pinch it. Its surface is stiff with age, but it's gooey inside. I smear a dab of it in the palm of my hand, and, just like Mrs. Esperanza said it would, its odors express deeper sentiments—the scenes of the lung, she called them. It is a love story, a camping trip in the woods with food from a lake hissing on a spit over a fire. It's like a memory, but it's not a memory. It's pleasant and nostalgic.
I clean off as much of Fabian 6 as I can from my hand and put it back into the jar, seal it, and return it to the shelf. Surrounded by so many disgorged clumps of psychic blockage, I wonder, if I had produced, what would my smells evoke? How would my label read?
Displayed prominently on the desk in the middle of the room is a new jar, fresh, with a blue ribbon. Its label, in bleeding wet ink, says "Madrigal 25." I open it. I put my hand in it. I sniff it. I coax new shapes out of it and smear it. It's cool, but sticky. I can't believe its size. It must have taken her half the afternoon to produce and its odors are epic, its images abstract. There is a rusted bucket leaking water, though water is continually added back to the pail. There is a house collapsing, purple crocuses all around it. Baby birds in a nest chirping. I strain my nostrils to keep up. I try whiffing a second handful, and the images change. Now there is a siege battle, plague, livestock, oil fires, bottles of perfume. It's exhausting and overwhelming and I lose myself in it. My own petty jealousies seem to disappear, and I take handful after handful of Madrigal's lunger, maybe taking it in too quickly, maybe not permitting the subtler olfactory nuances, but I can't help it. It's too good.
A light comes on in the hall and I hear the harsh sound of Mr. Mannish's voice. I realize as if for the first time my hands are covered in phlegm, and there's no way to return the crusty smears of it to their jar.
Mr. Mannish says, "What a wonder! That boy is going places!"
The door opens slowly, permitting the familiar, institutional light. I close my eyes, take a final whiff from my cupped, almost prayerful hands, and try, as heroically as I can, to cough.