All Stories, General Fiction, Story of the Week

Cor Pulmonale by Todd Levin


I always had trouble seeing the signs despite the signs always pointing in the right direction. One day I left home and walked down to the next town and decided not to walk back. As it turned out this was a place that didn’t have signs and I was alone.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that this place was a warmer one but it felt like that. I stayed from May to November in this one bedroomed house called Cor Pulmonale and it started to feel a little like I knew where I was and that it might be a better place if not the home I’d been looking for, for a lot longer than that.

The river that broke it in half was the same thing that held it together, a stretch of five miles that was neither deep but you could never have seen the bottom. From what I heard from gossips, of which there were many, everyone knew everyone else’s business running down that length up until my door. The landlady had asked me for a deposit, a first month’s rent and a last month’s rent as assurance too. She told me that the last three tenants who had lived in the house before me had moved on without notice, each with just a month left on their contract and she’d never heard from them again and, to be blunt, she didn’t trust strangers. She’d never seen anything like it. But it was unusual to find something so small and so cheap in such a place but I couldn’t say no, so, as always, I just said yes and took everything that came with it.

It was two degrees in September, five degrees in October and while it was less predictable than the place from which I walked away, it was consistent in and of itself, a security I never knew I needed, a coldness that might offer an apathetic understanding, more comforting than the last year in the wilderness. I’d tried it the other way and this is why I left with nothing in the hope of finding little more when I watched the world still new that I was growing into. That is until I saw Christine.

Like most things that seem way out of reach, they are untouchable but just a few feet away. The first time I saw her she was climbing onto the 67 bus while I was waiting for the 29 which was twenty minutes away and, like any man sat watching the people go by, you don’t think you’ll ever see them again, like that bus will never come back, as if it’ll reach where it’s going and then there’ll be no way back, even in the smallest of towns. Faces can be familiar but they look like just all the others. But it wasn’t just the face. She wore this coat, blood-red with tassels, small and black and they looked like glass, like they’d shatter if you were to approach, like the ink of an octopus, but they were the first thing I saw. Then I saw the pockets, sewn Unikko poppies patterns, poppies, classic Marimekko like that worn by Jackie Kennedy when her husband was just a candidate for the Presidency, known to no-one around us but enough for me to talk about the next time I was waiting for the 29 and she’d just missed her 67.

“I’ve been wondering where the poppies grow here but I never expected them so soon and so quickly going by,” was enough to make her laugh through her frustration and sit down next to me on the cold bench.

Christine lived a couple of miles along the water and most days with winter approaching she stayed home. Her parents were nowhere to be found and she rarely brought them up preferring to talk about her dog Maija, but she lived from the house selling quilts created from discarded sheets she had found in the attic when she moved in, each one classic designs from the 1920s up until the 1960s, miles and miles, reams and reams of the stuff, enough to last a lifetime, including that amazing Unikko. She told me she didn’t know how they all got there but when she arrived she didn’t know what to do with her life, and when she settled in she knew she had found herself and I hoped for the same. But I found Christine.

There were nights where I’d walk up to her house and by the time I got there the cold was setting in but she’d always have a remedy. She made soup and the quilts she hadn’t sold that day would be our warmth. We didn’t know anyone else and we didn’t want to. I never found out where Christine came from but I knew that she wasn’t from here and that she had cried herself to sleep for weeks when she first got here. There was one night where she moved up close to me and the cover fell away onto the floor but we didn’t even notice until it nearly caught fire on the faulty heater she’d gone to the city to replace but had spent the day talking to me in the bus stop instead. I felt guilty but only until I noticed her lips on mine.

For the next few weeks we enjoyed the sun in the sky which was soon to be gone, hibernating here but travelling to the other side of the world to live until April. Christine stopped worrying so much about how much she sold and I beat the demons away with the wood I’d collect for the local furniture factory. I had splinters and cuts, little pieces of wood drinking my blood but better than feeling nothing at all. I stayed with Christine most nights. Without her knowing I’d watch her sewing and I’d see the love in her eyes, the passion in her cheeks and the understanding from her mouth as she gently sang to herself, perhaps the patterns. That’s when my old ways started against me and I’d wonder how she could care so much about a flat albeit bold canvas flapping and falling to the ground as she worked on it, but why when I asked her to come patch me up she’d turn away. One day she turned and told me that the winter’s coming and that’s hard enough, that there’s too much on her mind as it is, that the patterns and the colours were merging into one and how the warmth she’d once felt had turned back into tears. I told her that I was just sad right now but it seemed that the wood had become ingrained and had warped too far.

Christine moved to the city in November from which I had fled and I returned to Cor Pulmonale and packed my things and left the next day. In the bus station I’d thought about following her to the city to show her I could be more than this, that I could be better but I left on a lie and refused to go back on one, no matter the cost even if that was everything I ever saw for myself, now ripped material on the floor under the bus stop bench, her last act of her own heartbreak and the very first one of mine.

I held out my hand and hailed down the bus and moved on down the river until it merged into the earth.

“There’s always another town,” I thought to myself, “but I’ll always wonder where the poppies grow.”

Todd Levin

4 thoughts on “Cor Pulmonale by Todd Levin”

  1. The river, the bus stop, the poppy designs, the constant cold and the broken heater were just some of the vivid elements in this fine story of two lost souls snatching at a comfort never meant to last. Marvelous, Todd! June


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