by Ray Busler
Sister Dominica examined Alain, then looked over at me. “Is
his father with you, in the waiting room perhaps? It’s all right
for him to be in here.”

“No sister. His father is not with us.” I didn’t say, “His father
didn’t come with us.” No, I didn’t say that because I did not
want to lie, and I didn’t say, “His father is no longer with us.” I
didn’t say that because I did not want to tell the truth. But, her
question worried me.

“Is his father from Medellin? I have heard of men from Medellin
who had things like . . . . Oh, men who are, well, men who are
like Alain, you know?”

I understood then, and relaxed. She knew nothing. There was
no dreadful diagnosis she wanted or needed to tell only to both
parents. She wasn’t asking where his father was, just who he
was. “His father is a sailor.” The nursing sister waited, seeming
to expect something more.

“Look, is something going around? Alain coughs all the time.
Have the other sisters treated coughing children?” Affirming my
words, Alain summoned a deep, phlegmy, chest cough. “You
see? Like that, all the time now.”

“You brought him in just for the cough?”

“Sister, sometimes bad things start with just a cough. I wanted
to take no chances.”

“You may get him dressed now. The cough? Simple congestion.
Use any over the counter syrup that has guaifenesin. I’ll write
that word down for you. Just read the label. Air in Bogotá isn’t
good these days, too many cars now, too much exhaust. Modern
times they say—progress. At least we don’t have all the drug
problems they have up north.” She ran her hand lightly over
Alain’s back and guided him off the table. “And, you’re sure
about Medellin?”

Perhaps it
was only the air. Outside the clinic Alain coughed
three times in racking succession. “Mamma look, Italian ice.
Can I have an Italian ice? Do they have cherry? Please Mamma.”
Just the thought of Italian ice seemed to stop his cough and I
bought him a small cherry scoop. Maybe this is all in his head—
or in mine?

“A good ear, nose and throat man. That’s what you need for
Alain.” My mother never lacked opinions. She watched all the
television doctor shows.

“The nursing sister said it was bad air and—”

“Sister? Nuns don’t give a shit about a boy’s body. Now,
collection plates? That’s something they know. They understand
money pretty damn good. How can a woman who never spread
her legs for a man understand children? You find a Jew. Jew
doctors are smart, know how to fix things.” Mother knew all
about it. The sun had risen and set on her Jew, Dr. Weismann.
He put up with her for years until he finally smoked himself to

“He seems better. I’ll keep him inside today. Maybe it is only
dirty air.”

“Right. Don’t listen to your mother. That’s how you got Alain in
the first place. If you had listened to me—”

“Enough Mother. I’m glad to have Alain and I would change

“No, no changes whatever. Your little nameless sailor boy. Sure,
sure, I believe all that shit. But, I tell you his father was from
Quito. There are men like that in Quito, high up in the
mountains. I’ve seen too many doctor shows about heredity to
be wrong, and I know there are men like that in Quito. Not
exactly the seashore resort, Quito, but you can make a baby
anywhere. Here, rub his chest with menthol cream.”

The menthol cream smelled nice but did nothing for Alain’s
cough. In the morning it was no worse, and no better either. My
aunt, who is not quite as crazy as her sister, told me about an
old woman who had been born up in the Andes. She told
fortunes and hexed away warts, but it was said she could draw
thrash from a child by sucking his breath. It wasn’t that long a
trip and my aunt took us in her car.

The woman gave us tea that smelled like rosemary, but had no
taste at all. “You aunt, she told me you were to bring this boy.
Is shy? He shy?”

“Alain? No he is just trying to be polite. We’ve been working on
manners. He wants to please me. Very outgoing, not shy at all.”

“Sorry, I say wrong. Is modest? Bashful? I want to see naked.”

She put her craggy head on Alain’s back and pushed his
shoulder blades apart with her hands. She listened for about
five minutes until Alain began his impolite, restless, flitter
flutter. “Heart strong. Little fast, but strong.” She ran her hands
all over Alain’s body and seemed particularly interested in his
nails and pinched the flesh between his fingers and toes. She
stroked the skin of his ankles up and down with the backs of her
fingers, and probed the base of his spine just north of sodomy.
“The father, he Peru man, no? Men like this boy sometime in
Peru they say.”

“His father is a goddamn sailor. What about his cough”

“Cough? Oh, I give you a tea, fix up good. But probably just bad

* * *

The allergist was a very nice man, not a Jew, but obviously good
at his job. His office was wallpapered with diplomas and awards.
He had a soothing professionalism that wasn’t a bit cold or
distancing. Alain seemed to take to him immediately, sensing
the genuine interest behind his avuncular, familiar manner.

“It’s an allergy. The scratch test confirms it.”

“Thank God. I was worried about lung disease and every fatal
illness I’ve ever heard of.” I was so relieved that tears welled up.

“Normal reaction, to fear the unknown. Relax, you did all the
right things. This isn’t a common allergy, it’s extremely rare
here, but all allergy treatments are essentially the same. First
we treat the symptoms. Medication to quiet the reaction. An
injection today will jump start the process. Pills every day for a
week, and then a pill as needed. In your son’s case we won’t be
able to easily isolate him from the allergen, but the pills will
keep him on track.”

“I’ll be sure he takes the medicine. Is there no way to keep him
away from the, what did you say, the allergen?”

“Don’t worry he’ll probably grow out of it, and it will stop when
he gets old enough to groom his own . . . to groom himself
properly. Tiny organisms that live on avian mites are the cause.
His father isn’t Chilean by any chance? I ran into men . . . in
cases like this in Chile.”

“I don’t talk about his father much. Frankly, I did not know him
well. We were together only briefly. I never even learned his
name, but he said he was a sailor. He told me that when he had
to sail again he would never be able to sail back. He said that.
That, and he said he would never be able to forget me either.”

“I see." The doctor tousled my boy's hair and stroked his back
affectionately. "Alain, you are lucky to have your mother’s eyes
and good heart. Perhaps when you are older and more
developed you will sail like your father. Well, give him the pills.
Call me if he runs a fever that baby aspirin won’t reduce or if he
is still coughing after a day or two. Oh, and if his wings begin to
molt, even a little, bring him straight in.”

Ray Busler is a grateful old man. He is grateful for his Aunt Pearl
who sat him on her lap and read comic books to him until the
words began to make sense, grateful to his teachers at Woodlawn
High School who taught him what to read, and grateful to his
friends at The Write Club of the Hoover Public Library who
encouraged him to write his own words. Ray is grateful to Melissa
Libby, a talented writer and editor at Sick Lit Magazine who gave
him lessons in feminism and published him anyway.

Ray is primarily grateful to his wife of forty years, Patsy. Patsy too
often puts aside her own writing to help and encourage him. Ray
and Patsy live in Trussville, Alabama.
Short Story
$25 Prize