Oxygen to the Brain

Oxygen to the Brain

Oxygen to the Brain 1920 1280 Chris DiPlacito

The church is already full as we bring in the casket. Grampy wasn’t exactly the sociable type, but in a village this size, no one wants to miss out on a good funeral. A wee dram and a free hot lunch. To trade tales of the dead, the dying and divorced.

I can feel their eyes. The collected judgement of the congregation boring holes through me as I approach the altar. I try to imagine they are in awe of my presence. The prodigal grandson returning from the big city to pay his respects. Mysteriously blowing in on a glamorous wind before escaping, once again, from the suffocation of village life. I suspect they are staring at the finger-shaped bruises around my neck.

The closer relatives, they’ll be wondering why Troy isn’t here. I go to touch my ring, instead rubbing on the pale band of skin around my finger as I wait in the centre aisle.

It’s then that I see him. Alan Denton. The first man I ever loved. Mum is helping Dad with his genuflecting and I catch a glimpse of his big frame up by the Virgin Mary. Dad crosses himself, his knee groaning in arthritic adoration, and I can feel my cheeks redden as we take our seats in the front pew.

Once we are seated, a small priest steps from the pulpit. His cassock trails the ground as he approaches the coffin, his skeletal frame buried under a sea of black. I don’t recognise his face, but then I’ve been out of touch with our direct line to God for quite some time. I recall Father O’Brian eloping with Mrs. Mulgrew around the time I was applying for college. It’s said they run a small organ tuning business down south now and have a daughter called Ethel. When Father Doherty took over, he was a surprise hit with the elderly members of the congregation. He died six months later, and Grammy wore her black shawl for thirty days.

The priest signals for quiet, despite the already breathless silence. As we stand to sing I steal backwards glances at Alan.

He hasn’t changed much. Not really. His big lumbering body stoops over his hymn sheet, his bushy blonde eyebrows furrowed like he’s working out a puzzle. He’s heavier now; less muscular and more jowly. He still looks gentle, but now seems haunted by a sadness.

The tiny priest shoots me an accusing look. He asks us to bow our heads in unison and reflect on our own “special memories” of Grampy.

I think of the beach.

I was around eight years old and it was just me and Gramps. He liked the beach, liked looking at the boats. Sand, sea, and Sinatra—that was enough to keep Grampy happy. He said his true calling was always out there at sea. That he was never meant to live his days trapped down a mine. I’m not sure he ever left the village.

We were walking along the stretch of beach that joined the harbour from the east side. The tide was out and I could feel the ridges of sand, sculpted by the sea like miniature dunes, pressing hard against my Converse and into the soles of my feet. Grampy was puffing on a cigarette and I was collecting shells in a plastic bag when we saw the cat up ahead, his tortoise-shell coat camouflaged by the slimy browns and greys of the rocks.

I ran to him as he yowled in distress, his hind leg trapped down a narrow crack. The angle looked unnatural, and I could see the grey-white bone through matted clumps of fur. He scrambled desperately, his front claws clacking against the rocks. I stroked his head as Grampy caught up, wheezing and stubbing his cigarette out in the sand.

“Shite,” he said, assessing the situation, doubled over with his hands on his thighs.

“He must have slipped on the slimy stuff, Grampy. He’s trapped.” I said.

“Shite,” he said again, pulling at his beard and walking around the rocks.

“Right, son,”’ he said eventually. “Go fetch yer auld Grampy some of them shells up by the pier. Give me that bag, and then you just go look out for some real big shells, OK?”

“But Gram—”

“Just go, Rory,” he said, and I ran off along the beach, the sun shimmering on the sea through the wetness of my eyes.

I turned around halfway to the pier. Grampy was walking towards the shore, the plastic bag swinging low in his hand and sagging with rocks. I squinted through the glare of the sun, raising my hand to shield my eyes, sure that the bag had twitched and bulged as it sailed through the air and into the sea.

 

***

 

As Mass comes to a close, an instrumental rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” plays on cassette. This proves to be a controversial choice among the traditionalists as a flurry of tuts and clucks ripple through the church.

Dad protests to mum and me with hushed indignation.

“Sinatra was a bloody Catholic,” he whispers through gritted teeth.

The miniature priest thanks everyone in attendance and announces that a gathering will be held in the function hall of the Miner’s Welfare Club. The news of a free bar is met with some upliftedmutters.

On the way to the club I get lost. The town is less than five miles in radius—five miles of streets where I spent my childhood—but I have no idea where I’m going. Mum is nagging in the passenger seat. Apparently there is nothing stopping “our kind” from raising a family these days.

“Am jist saying is all, yer no getting any younger,Rory,” she says, holding a hanky to her nose as Dad sits in the back, puffing his pipe and filling our lungs with smoke.

We arrive at the club to a milieu of drunken mourners. Mum joins Aunt Frances and Uncle Ed as Dad makes a dash for the bar. I am left alone. Alan is by the buffet at the back of the hall and I catch myself staring. Staring at my first love. He is cornered by the women of the St. Margaret’s Rotary Society. They’re fussing on him with cups of tea and sausage rolls. He towers over their cotton-white heads, his funeral suit big and black, like a cuddly bear amongst a flock of sheep.

I take a deep breath and walk over to where they have gathered. I touch his shoulder, ignoring the scowls from the society secretary.

“Alan,” I say.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I say.

“You look well.”

“Thanks, you do too.”

“Hey,” he says. “I’m real sorry about your granddad.”

“Listen,” I say. “You—you wanna get out of here?”

“Oh,” he says. “Aye, sure. Of course. Aye. We can go somewhere quiet, right? It’d be good to catch up, you know—we can go back tae mine. Or no. Or someplace else. I don’t mind. I live close by. Jist up the hill, likesay…”

He looks down at his shoes. I look pasthim, over his shoulder, making accidental eye contact with Aunt Frances. She waves and stands up from the table, lifting her glass of sherry and teetering on her tiny heels.

“Oh Christ,” I say. “Let’s go.”

 

***

 

I park the car at the top of the hill by a row of cramped bungalows that line the narrow street.

“Sheltered homes,” Alan says, and I watch an old lady twitching at her curtains.

“Mainly for the pensioners, likesay,” he says. “But the council, they put ye on a housing list. They say ye should take what yer offered. That ye can wait years for something better tae come along.”

“Somethingbetter.” I say, and continue to sit.

“Hey, you fancy a drink?” he says.

“Oh,” I say. “Yeah, sure. But just the one.”

Inside, the house is hot as a furnace. The muggy air throttles me as soon as he opens the porch door.

“Ach hell, the heating. Damn thing has a mind eh its own,” he says, as if apologising on behalf of an unruly dog.

“Hey, sit down. I’ll get ye a drink,” he says.

He stands for a moment, bashful and awkward, then disappears to the kitchen. I take a seat on a springy sofa. I bounce once or twice, testing the rusty creak, and look around the room. There is a checkered La-Z-Boy in the corner that doesn’t match the sofa. It doesn’t match the threadbare tartan carpet either. In fact nothing in the room has any relationship to anything else.

I notice a cluster of framed photographs sitting shrine-like on top of a sideboard. I get up and absently stroke the dust from one.

The woman in the photo is pretty. She is petite, with a moon-shaped face and sea green eyes. Her hair looks dark and hot, the colour of burning coal. It hangs loose and curled around a modest dress.

The boy standing next to her looks around eight and has the same blonde hair as Alan, dull like wet straw. He is slight, like the woman, and has the same fragile eyes.

“Hey,” Alan says, coming into the room with two beers in his hands.

“Claire,” he says. “And Josh.”

“Alan,”’ I say. “Is she—is she your wife?”

What was I thinking—of course he’s married. Back then, it was just a game to him. An adolescent phase. One that he would grow out of— that could never be spoken of. A secret.

“Was,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. “Divorced?”

“Widowed.”

“Alan, I’m—the boy?” I say.“Your son?”

“Aye,” he says. “He’s with his mother.”

“God, Alan, I’m sorry. I—I didn’t know.”

“Hey,” he says, and offers me a beer from the sofa.

I sit down next to him, the springs groaning beneath us. He sighs, ready to begin a story I’m not sure I want to hear.

“We married not long after you left town,” he says.

“I didn’t know,” I say.

“Hey, I was never gonna leave this place. I knew that. After high school—after us—I got a job at the wool mill. Hell, now that the mines are closed, we all get a job at the mill.Machine maintenance man—that was me. They’d send me under the big blocks of machinery between shifts. It was ma job to get right up in between those machines and to unpick all the trapped wool fae the nooks and crannies. It was a tight squeeze for a felly ma size. Real claustrophobic down there, ye know? But hey, it paid the bills. That’s where I met Claire, ye see. She was a machinist. A young pretty thing. And it was time for me to grow up, Rory.”

“Hey, do you believe in love at first sight?” he says.

I take a sip of my beer, thinking about Troy, my hand instinctively touching my neck. Was it love at first sight? Christ, was it love at all? Sure, I loved our city apartment. And the expensive things that filled it. I loved our friends, and the dinner parties. But with the parties came the drinking. And then came the fights. Lately they had gotten worse. Escalated. He had always been possessive. But these days…

“Hell, I don’t,” Alan says. “But I do believe ye can grow to love somebody. That ye can grow to love each other. That was like me and Claire ye see. We were both jist children,Rory—we all were back then. She was seventeen, wi’ one in the oven. And me no knowing ma arse fae ma elbow. But we got along somehow.”

“Eventually I made my way up tae being the foreman at the mill. Bringing enough dough home every month tae cover our rent—wi’ a little left over as well. We were happy, Rory. We didnae know any better.”

“Then Josh comes along, and hey, the wee felly wants for nothing. Hell, I’d work seven days a week if I had to. A man’s got tae provide for his family, right?”

I shift uneasily on the thinly cushioned sofa, perspiration dampening my shirt. I take a gulp from my bottle as Alan continues on.

“One day we’re sitting at breakfast, and I just sort eh get this idea, likesay. ‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Why don’t we go tae the zoo? You’d like that kiddo, right? You’d like the zoo?’’I don’t care too much for the zoo myself. Do you like the zoo,Rory? I dunno, all those wild animals tamed and all locked up in tiny cages like that. It isnae right if you ask me. But the wee man…he’s got tae see the zoo at least once, right?”

The sofa springs dig into my flesh and I wish he’d turn the damn heating down. There’s something in the way he’s talking now.Excited. Faster. Like a freight train.

“So we load up the car and Claire packs us a picnic. Josh, he’s high as a kite, but Claire has this nervous energy, this panicky twitch she gets when she’s all worked up about something.”

“‘You sure we can afford this, Al?’ she says.”

“‘Hey,’ I say, “leave it tae me. I got it,’ I say.”

“So off we go. A regular family, ye know.”

He swigs at his beer and smacks his lips, wiping his mouth with a shirt sleeve. The heat in here, the dead air, it heightens my senses. It makes me aware of my body. My skin prickles. I can smell his emotion.

“We’re nearly there,” he goes on. “Nearly at the zoo. I’m making good time, flying down the road, and maybe goin’ a wee bit fast. Maybe doing ninety, but I’m determined tae make the most eh this day. Claire’s up front wi me, and Josh, he’s in the back, reading comic books. He’s flicking through a Batman comic and sucking on a pear drop fae a tin I keep in the glove box. It’s the middle eh August. The A/C’s knackered but Claire’s messing around wi’ the dials anyway.”

“Then there’s this sucking sound, like a vacuum. A short, sharp intake of air. I turn around and Josh, he’s thrashing, like a wee trapped bird. His face darkens, first purple, then blue. The veins on his neck bulge and strain. And he looks at me. His eyes are wild, pleading.”

I look at Alan. He’s sweating now. Big beads of moisture run down his brow. His face is flushed, all red and pink and fleshy. I can’t stand this anymore.

“Christ, Alan, please stop,” I say. I get up off the sofa and stand in front of him. “I don’t want to hear any more,OK?”

But there’s no stopping this train. His eyes are feverish, and he’s not even looking at me. He’s staring right down the damn tracks.

“‘Slap him!’ I say to Claire. And I’m shouting at her. Screaming. ‘Slap him on the fuckin’ back!’ She has her seatbelt off and she’s climbing over intae the back seat, straddling the front seat, head rattling against the roof, tryin’ tae get at Josh. I have one hand on the wheel and I’m tryin’ tae pull over but there’s traffic roaring past, and I’m turned around, grabbing at him. Grabbing at air.”

“I dunno how long ma eyes were off the road. I dunno if it was my fault. They say it wasnae. They say the truck was going too fast tae stop. But if I had seen it coming—”

“Stop!” I say.

I can’t listen any more. He stares at me. Stares through me, his eyes glazed over. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what to do. So I kiss him.

His mouth is dry, his lips cracked, but then I swear it’s like I’m pouring life back into him. And he starts to kiss me back.

And then we’re pulling at each other’s clothes, and we’re on the floor. He’s on top of me, and it’s so hot in here. Our skin is burning, our flesh sticky and clammy. And he’s gentle, but he’s heavy too, and I can’t breathe and he’s grunting, and I’m panting under his weight, gasping for air.

He comes and rolls onto his back, and my chest is heaving. My earspound and my brain feels light and dizzy. I just need some oxygen, some fresh air.

We lay there in the darkness and he drifts off pretty quick. I can hear his low rumbling snores. His big body rises up and down, slow, like a slumbering bear.

A sliver of moonlight cuts through the musk and sex of the room. It catches my shirt, slinking on the floor like a black cat. I scramble around, pulling it on, grabbing my trousers, and taking another gulp of beer. Then I head for the door. It’s a shit thing to do, just leaving him there like that, but I have to get out. I have to go now.

Outside, the night cold hits like a punch to the gut. I stand for a moment, allowing the bitter air to rasp in my throat.

I look down on the village. Rows of giant firs enclose the streets, raised and ragged as old scars. Cars scurry around the same old roads like trapped bugs. Out past the forest, the moon leaks over the coast, the fierce waves flickering free.

And then I drive. I don’t know where I’m going but I drive down the hill and through the village, passing the mill, the mines, the church.

Terraced houses stand dark and grey as giant tombstones. I was once part of this graveyard, once buried beneath, but I no longer know the people in the tombs. I don’t want to. I just want to drive.

Header photography © J. Bish.

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