Schiffman’s Asthmador by Chloe Cocking

Missouri, 1938

As the sun was setting, Chet leaned against the chain link fence across the road from the prison’s gatehouse. He looked cool and confident, except for the twitchiness of his hands. His brown eyes were haunted.

Smoking always calmed Chet’s nerves. Should he have a smoke while he waited to catch Boucher, the prison screw, as Boucher headed home for the day?

When he was inside, he’d seen that Boucher could be relied on to procure a little reefer, or a Valomilk candy bar, or some French postcards—for the right price, of course.

He had heard rumours Boucher might do more than bring in contraband. Quite a bit more, according to some of the hard-timers on Chet’s cell block. He believed them. Chet wanted something very particular, and Boucher was the only one who could help.

He felt his chest tighten as he waited. He noticed his armpits were damp. Better calm down. Being nervous sometimes brought on one of his asthma attacks. No time for that now.

Chet reached into his pocket for his smokes. He admired the new packaging—before he’d gone into the joint, Schiffman’s Asthmador cigarettes had come in plain grey cardboard boxes by prescription. Now, two years later, you could buy them off the druggist’s shelves. The new packaging was eye-catching—a tin case enamelled Kelly green with a drawing of some chump, presumably Schiffman himself. Chet reckoned he’d seen better heads on mugs of beer.

He placed the medicated cigarette between his lips, closed the shiny case with a satisfying snick, and struck a match against the sole of his prison-issue work-boots. He’d only been out of the joint for a couple of days, and wasn’t interested in shopping for new shoes, even if he’d had enough scratch to do so. So far the only thing he’d bought was a few flat tin packets of Asthmador. He had smoked two entire packets in the last two days, and was half-way through his third. Chet loved them. He hadn’t been able to get them very often when he was in the joint, mainly because Doucette took everything—food, clothes, self- respect—and beat him to a paste if he tried to object. Chet learned fast and took his lumps. What else could he do?

It was full dark now. Where the hell was Boucher? Chet stamped his booted feet to warm them up. A ’37 Ford emerged from the prison’s long gravel driveway, headlamps piercing the dark. Looked like Boucher was turning left.

This is it! Chet flagged the car down. Sure enough, Boucher was at the wheel, heading home after shift change.

“Heya sissy, miss your prison boyfriend?” Boucher’s neck was thicker than Chet’s bicep. Even after working a ten in the prison, his uniform was clean and pressed; he kept his hair cut short and neat, his face clean-shaven. Despite all that, something about Boucher made Chet want to wash his hands.

Chet’s brows met in a frown, but he kept his cool, shrugged off his discomfort. “Gimme a ride, Boucher, I can make it worth your while.”

 Boucher looked him up and down, then leaned across the bench seat and opened the passenger side door. Chet flicked the butt of his smoke on the ground and got in the car.

They drove in silence for a quarter mile, and when Chet didn’t speak, eventually Boucher did.

“Ok, Nancy, what do you need?”

He took a deep breath, steadying his nerves. “I want Doucette’s head in a fucking box.”

Boucher smirked, but it melted from his face when he saw that Chet was serious.

“Didn’t like being the little woman for your cellie?”


“What makes you think I’m the man for the job?”

Chet smiled and pulled his wool jacket closer around his wiry form. He drummed his fingers on the tin Asthmador packet in his pocket. “People talk in prison.”


“This car proves it. How do you have last year’s model on a prison guard salary?”

Boucher grinned, macabre in sudden boyishness. “Would you believe my wife is an heiress?” He winked.

Chet shuddered inwardly, but kept his cool. “I would not. Look at you: you’re an animal.”

Boucher stopped smiling and his ears grew red. Maybe he was gonna slug Chet?  

Instead Boucher said, “Head actually sawed off and delivered in what, a wooden butter box?”


“No fooling, cut it off? Not just give him a Cinncinati smile?

“If I wanted his throat slit, I coulda done that myself.”

“Sure, right,” Boucher sneered.

They drove on in silence.

Chet waited.

Finally Boucher said, “Five hundred.”

A fortune, to be sure, but Chet knew where he could get his hands on that kind of dough. Even though he was poor, his grandfather was not. The old man didn’t believe in banks or paper money. He always converted any money not needed for immediate expenses into gold coins or gems and kept the whole stash squirrelled away in his house. If you asked him about it, Gramps would tell you a long and boring story about how his own father lost his fortune when Confederate bills became worthless after the Civil War.

The old man had still been sharp when Chet went into prison, but according to a letter Chet’s sister sent him about six months ago, Gramps had changed. He was so addled now, he wouldn’t notice if Chet helped himself to all the little stashes the old man had hidden over the years.

“Five hundred in gold coins and gems okay with you?” Chet asked.

“Gold coins yes, gems no. Too easy for them to be glass or paste or something. Hard to get value out of them from pawn shops and fences. When do you want it done?”

“By tomorrow night.”

“Tight time frame. Better make it six hundred.”

“Sure,” Chet said, taking the green enamel tin from his pocket, “Mind if I smoke?”

“Do your worst, Tiger. And I want half up front, the other half on delivery.”

Chet gave Boucher his grandfather’s address, and shortly they pulled up out front. Boucher turned off the engine.

“House don’t look like much, you sure you got that money?” Boucher said. He cracked his knuckles against the steering wheel.

“Three hundred up front, three hundred when you bring me Doucette’s head in a box. I’ll be back in twenty minutes with the first payment, wait here.”

Boucher shrugged. Chet exited the car and used the key hidden under a cracked flowerpot on the porch  to open his grandfather’s front door. The old man was sprawled on the chesterfield, jaw slack as he slept. The arm of the chesterfield was damp from Gramps’ drooling. The radio was on full blast, tuned to some comedy programme Chet had never heard before. Lots of changes in the past two years.

Chet walked quietly through his grandfather’s house, searching all the niches and hiding places he had discovered when he was a boy. It took only ten minutes to find slightly more than three hundred dollars’ worth of gold coins.

He carefully counted the money. I can come back tomorrow night to find the rest. He put what he needed to give to Boucher into a pillow case, and stuck the remaining coins in his pockets, his socks, and even into his prison-issue underwear.

He left his grandfather’s house as quietly as he had entered.

When Chet climbed back into Boucher’s car, he said, “Here it is: three hundred. Meet me back here tomorrow with the box after dark, I’ll have the rest of the money for you. If I give you an extra ten bucks, will you drop me at the YMCA?”

“Sure thing, Nancy, you got a boyfriend there, too?”

Chet glowered at Boucher, said nothing.

“Aw, don’t be sore, I’m just breaking your balls. I don’t mean anything by it. Doucette’s twice your size and as mean as he is crazy. You’re right to want his head, after what he did to you.”

Chet nodded, his lips compressed in a stern line. “I think so.”

After Boucher dropped him off just a couple of blocks away from the YMCA, Chet sat up in his room, chain-smoking his Asthmadors. He imagined all the brutal ways an animal like Boucher might liberate Doucette’s head from his body. As the night wore on, his fantasies became more twisted and bloody. He imagined that once he had Doucette’s head in a box, maybe he’d be able to talk to it, maybe it might answer back . . .he shook that thought off. Decapitated heads don’t talk.

Around dawn, Chet noticed that the walls of his small room were breathing—in, out, in, out—the same slow rhythm of Doucette’s breathing when he was sleeping in his bunk below Chet in their cell.

“Wait, what?” Chet said out loud. Something is wrong with me. Walls don’t breathe. Doucette is not here with me in the YMCA. This is crazy stuff, real rubber room shit.

Chet tried to lie down on his bed, but moving made him nauseated. His head was pounding, his mouth dry. Something is happening to me. I need a doctor.

Chet crept his way down to the front desk, stopping every few stairs so he didn’t vomit. Weak and shaking, he held on to the reception desk with both hands, knuckles white.

The desk clerk stared at him. “Mister, you don’t look right.”

“You don’t say,” said Chet.

The skinny, pimply young desk clerk, green enough to be immune to sarcasm, said, “Yeah, it’s like your eyes are nothing but pupil. Did you smoke some reefer or something? We don’t allow that at the YM . . .”

Chet vomited on the reception desk.

“Lemme help you over to those chairs, Mister, then I’m calling you a doctor.”

Chet didn’t respond, mesmerized by the young clerk’s bobbing Adam’s apple and badly shaved neck. The bumpy texture of the pimples and ingrown hairs seemed to undulate right before Chet’s eyes, as though the skin on the kid’s neck had a mind of it’s own, crawling like testicle skin in a cold draft. Were the pimples singing to him? Chet felt his eyes roll back in his head, and wondered if he would ever be able to see what was on the inside of his own skull. He sat where the clerk put him.  The room seemed to spin around him. The walls of the lobby are breathing, too.

After what seemed like an eternity, the doctor arrived. Chet couldn’t exactly follow the doctor’s conversation with the clerk, but there was some shouting, and Chet felt himself being lifted. They are carrying me to a car? Then nothing . . .

He came to in a crisp white hospital bed. Someone had sponged all the vomit off him, and dressed him in a thin green cotton hospital gown. He had a rubber IV tube going into his left arm. His stomach hurt, his agonized throat felt raw, his head pounded. He was also jonesing for a cigarette.

He rang for a nurse. She entered the room, tall, middle-aged, green-eyed, used to be pretty. Her hair was in a tidy bun, her starched white nurse’s cap perched on the top of her head.

He croaked, “Where’s my smokes, my clothes, my money?” He struggled, but managed to sit up in his hospital bed.

The nurse scowled, the parenthetical lines around her mouth deepening. “Your clothes are being laundered. Your money went into the safe. The cigarettes are the reason you are here, so I’m not giving them to you.”


“How many of those have you smoked in the last few days?”

“Maybe four packs?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, it’s a wonder you are still alive.”

“I don’t understand”

“Those cigarettes, you aren’t supposed to smoke that many.”

“Why not? They’re for my asthma!”

The nurse sighed. “Yes, for your asthma. Which means they are medicated.” She nearly spat each syllable.

“Yeah, so?”

“So they contain belladonna leaves, not just tobacco—to say nothing of the tincture of opium—you’ve been poisoning yourself, you chump!” she said, her cheeks bright pink with irritation.

Chet shrugged. “Okay, what time is it? When can I leave?”

“You can’t leave yet,” she said, stern.

“Try and stop me.”

Her chest rose and fell as she took a deep calming breath. “Sir, you don’t understand. We thought you had swallowed poison, so we pumped your stomach, gave you activated charcoal. It didn’t help. We need to do something else. The poison wasn’t in your stomach. We finally figured out you’d inhaled it. And you are not out of the woods yet.”

“Meaning what?” Chet snapped.

“Meaning if you leave hospital right now, you will die. You might even die if you stay. Your only chance to survive is to stay here, get more treatment. We’ve sent for a poisoning specialist, and are just trying to keep you alive till he gets here. He has developed an antidote to belladonna poisoning, but now it’s a race against time.”

“You can say that again, sister.” He glanced out the window at the glowering dusk. “What time is it?”

The nurse sighed. “It’s almost six pm. You got somewhere else to be rather than in hospital trying not to die?”

Chet swung his legs off the bed, and planted his feet on the floor. He was shaky but he could stand.

“As a matter of fact, I do. I gotta meet a guy and pay him for something, something important. And I don’t need no lippy broad telling me what’s what.”

“Do you not understand that you will die if you leave?” Her hands were on her hips, her voice was loud, exasperated.

“Do you not understand that I don’t give a rat’s ass?” Chet shouted back. He was surprised he had the strength to shout. But he was going to see Doucette’s head in a box, even if it was the last thing he ever did.

The nurse turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. By the time Chet had yanked the IV from his arm, found a pair of hospital slippers, and put on a second hospital gown—backwards, so his ass was covered—she had returned with the gold coins and his last remaining tin of Asthmadors. Only three or four snipes left in the tin packet. He wanted one.

“I’ll make you a deal, darlin’,” Chet said, as he signed the form acknowledging that he was leaving against doctors’ orders. “You call me a cab, and I won’t light up another one of these darts until the cab pulls outta the parking lot.”

“It’s your funeral,” she said, disgusted.

When Boucher pulled up in front of Chet’s grandfather’s house, the porch light was on. He could see Chet, lying in a heap on the front porch next to a lumpy pillow case. Boucher picked up a newspaper-wrapped box from the floor of his ’37 Ford, and set it—gingerly—beside Chet’s body. The layers of newspaper, thick though they were, were damp and had started to seep red at the bottom corners. Boucher would need to clean the car tonight.

Satisfied with the heft of the pillowcase, Boucher walked back to his car, put it in gear, stomped on the gas pedal, and headed home to have dinner with his wife and kids. It was pot-roast night.