“No Oxygen Here” by Stephanie Austin

My husband and I talk around things.

We’re at Marketside shopping for my father-in-law, a schizophrenic who’s been on and off drugs and alcohol most of his life. Currently, he is lucid and recovering from a broken hip in an after care center in west Phoenix. He asked us to bring him Rold Gold pretzels, instant coffee, pizza, and air freshener. He told us not to go to Safeway. They don’t sell Rold Gold there.

“He only likes generic instant,” my husband says when I give him a jar of Folger’s. He considers the coffee by holding the jar in his hand and moving it up and down like a weight.

I look at my watch. “This is all they have,” I say.

A bag of pretzels is tucked under his arm. The packaging is blue and white. Not Rold Gold, I point out.

My husband’s shoulders slump, and he continues to stare at the jar of coffee.

“There’s a Fry’s down the street,” I say.

“I don’t want to spend my entire day looking for a specific brand of pretzels,” he says.

The truth is that I don’t either.  We move on the air fresheners. Wordlessly, my husband reaches out and selects the first spray he can reach, which has some nonsensical air freshener name like Basket of Spring.

The care center is forty-five minutes away providing traffic is light, which of course it will be because it’s Sunday. My husband turns on the radio to 960 AM, one of the conservative talk stations. I’ll listen to talk radio, but only if it’s NPR and only if it’s a show I like. He’ll listen to all sides so he can form a constructive opinion. Today, we catch a man in the middle of a pause, a breath, so the air isn’t all the way quiet; rather, it’s simply waiting. When the man begins speaking again, I can’t focus on what he says because the tone in his voice—the agedness of it, the superiority of it—feels like someone is sandpapering my chest.

“I can’t deal with this guy,” I say.

He doesn’t like the music I play in my car, but he listens because he says he respects my interests.   Marriage is an eternal compromise and so on and so forth. My husband responds by turning the dial back to FM, back to 91.5, our local NPR station. Car Talk is on. They’re laughing. I start laughing because when other people laugh it makes me laugh. My husband turns off the radio. He opens the vents and turns on the air conditioning. I get cold and turn them off and open a window. He doesn’t look at me. He is angry, or not angry, and says nothing.

*

My stepfather talked mean to me.

We came and left the house through the garage, never the front door, and inside the walls were a hot mess, a big pink. Salmon.

I wanted the boys to want me, so I wore short shorts and mascara, and if only, goddamn it, if only I paid more fucking attention I’d notice all the dust on the tables in the living room. If only my mind wasn’t always in the gutter when I was 12-years-old thinking about showing off my legs at school.

If only I could focus on what was in front of me, my chores. The carpet. I was supposed to vacuum the carpet, an awful, brown, bare, shredded carpet.  He’d stalk the edges and find dirt, debris, signs of sloppiness. He’d inspect, and he’d say a job poorly fucking done, and I’d do it again until I did it right, and he held the belt over me and told me he’d give me something to cry about.

Breakfast at our house was four or five strips of bacon. Lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich or pizza at school and chips and cookies and Little Debbie snacks. Dinner was Hamburger Helper and a can of Mountain Dew, and I was a fat girl when I was 12, and the boy didn’t look at my legs when he’d ambush me on the way to my locker and grab me, and tell me I was his pretty girlfriend while all his friends laughed.

*

My husband and I exit the highway.

“Do you have a plan for picking up a pizza?” I ask.

“I figured we’d just see something,” he says.

I wait a beat before answering. “What if we don’t see something?”

West Phoenix is the color of smog. Strip malls and buildings that look like they couldn’t survive a single monsoon wind line the streets. The open desert in July could sustain more life. We pass a blue apartment complex where the stucco has worn down in most parts. The grounds are colorless and empty save for a few early spring weeds. My husband knocks on the car window with his knuckles.

“That’s where I lived with my mom and stepdad for a few years,” he says.

“Looks like no one has bothered to do anything to it since then,” I say.

“No,” he says, “that’s how it always looked.”

The complex across the street isn’t in much better condition, but at least people—life—stand outside. Three Hispanic gentlemen cluster together on a curb. They are all wearing baseball hats, t-shirts, and jeans. Behind them, TVs are stacked on tables. Bicycles, with price tags hanging off, are leaning against them. Stuffed animals–a dog with a big blue bow and a brown teddy bear–are in the dirt, tipped over.

My husband and I live in a two story, 1500 square foot house in the suburbs. There’s a pool out back. We have a respectable backyard and a two car garage. We bought it from the bank, but the bank didn’t seem to care about fifteen-year-old carpet lining the upstairs hall and our bedroom. Every few months, I make a dramatic statement about the stains. I’ll pop my head in the bathroom while he’s in the shower and speak through the steam, “I thought a stray cat had wandered into our hallway, but it’s just that big gray stain catching me off guard again.”

His response is always the same. “We have a nice house,” he says.

We come up on a Pizza Hut, and my husband pulls into the parking lot. Inside, we order a large: half pepperoni and half veggie. My husband adds wings. I don’t like wings. We sit. I place my purse between us. Everyone who works behind the counter is overweight.

We watch as a woman in sweat pants and a Lollapalooza ’93 t-shirt comes in. Before she steps up to order, she coughs. It’s a deep, throaty, wet smoker’s cough. Her hair hangs in strings around her shoulders as though it’s given up.

“Did you eat here when you were a kid?” I ask.

“At this particular Pizza Hut? I don’t think it existed twenty-five years ago.”

“I remember when I was in grade school, you could get this big-ass button and a star sticker for every book you read.  Book-It. Did you have Book-It? Anyway, when you got so many stickers, you got to go to Pizza Hut and order a personal pan pizza. I read a lot of books. Yet another reason I was a fat kid,” I say.

My method of crisis control is avoid-avoid-avoid and then humor-humor-humor.

“My grandparents took us to Pizza Hut.”

“Did your dad ever go with you?”

“Sometimes.”

My husband watches the woman in the sweat pants hover by the soda machine. She’s filled a large cup and holds the straw between her lips while staring at nothing. They call our number. I stand immediately. He takes his time. We say thank you to Pizza Hut and then we leave.

We slowly cruise into the after care facility, and it’s unclear where we’re allowed to park. We circle once, end up on the main road, turn back in, park along the street and commit to walking the rest of the way. My husband’s father is sitting in a wheelchair on the sidewalk next to the circular driveway. From this distance, he looks like a blurry photograph from 1974. His brown hair is parted down the middle and hangs to just above his shoulders. He wears plain, large-framed glasses, and he has a mustache. Up close, his skin is tight and lined with crisscrosses. Today he wears sweat pants and a t-shirt.  Several of his teeth are gone. They’ve been gone a long time. My husband carries the pizza and waves one-handed. I have the bag with the pretzels, the instant coffee, and the Basket of Spring.

“How are you?” I call out.

“I’m doing ok,” my father-in-law says, his voice low and uninflected.

He speaks deliberately, as though each word is a test he’s in danger of failing. I haven’t had a conversation with him in six months, not since the dog incident.

*

My stepdad always brought dogs home. He once plucked a puppy out of a box of more puppies that belonged to a woman sitting outside of Wal-Mart. He’s saving the puppy, but the puppy had mange and passed it to the other five puppies at home my stepdad was saving.

The dogs were overfed just like we were overfed. Everything was heavy and nothing could move, and no matter how much we tried, no matter how much bleach we used or how many times we washed the sheets and the blankets and the couch cushions, the mange wouldn’t die.

*

My father-in-law knew I worked at a shelter. I volunteered as an adoption counselor. I decided who got a dog and who didn’t get a dog.

So he called me and said he’d found a dog. He was reaching out.

“Where? What are your cross streets? What kind of dog do you think it is?” I had asked when I called him back. I had begun to think about breed specific rescues. I had wondered if it was too late to call our intake director. “Does it look sick?”

I’d heard lost dog and forgotten everything else. I’d forgotten why I wasn’t answering the phone when I saw his name.

“It’s tan and white, I think,” he said, his voice lined with a familiar edge. “I wanted to tell you I don’t know what to do with a dog. I know you gave him to me, but I can’t really keep him.”

He waited for me to say something, but I had realized my mistake and stayed quiet.

“I saw you,” he said. “I saw you behind him, urging him to come to me.”

I had erred on the side of compassion and gave him several phone numbers. I explained the difference between County and the Humane Society. They don’t euthanize for space, but County does. County should be a last resort.  When I told my husband about the phone call and the dog, he rolled his eyes. He said there was no dog. I said no one could be sure. He said that yes, one could be sure and he was sure. There was no dog. But I pressed. How can you know for sure there is no dog? He told me he knows because he’s worked his whole life to stop counting on anything his father ever says.

My father-in-law struggles slightly with releasing the brake on his chair, and my husband watches him. Moments later, he gets it, turns his wheelchair, and we follow him inside where he’s been staying since the end of November.

“You’re pretty good on that thing,” I say.

“Practice,” he says.

He points to a big red book. “You have to sign-in.”

We look at the sheet and there’s a space where we fill in our license plate number. My husband asks me if I know it. I respond that it’s his car. He thinks there’s an R and a four and a six. He hovers over the line for a moment and then just leaves it blank.

We follow my father-in-law down the hall. The care center feels like a large public restroom. Everything is the same aged off-white. I can’t tell where the walls end and the floor begins. The inside smells like commercial disinfectant and hundreds of travelers without access to a shower. I look in each room we pass. TVs are on.  A tiny man with wisps of white hair is propped up in his bed, asleep or dead, his mouth open, his eyes closed. I don’t recognize the show, but the people on it are laughing.

When we reach my father-in-law’s room, he wheels himself in, pulls out a chair for me, goes into the bathroom for paper towels for the pizza, and offers to take my husband down the hall for the vending machines. He looks up at me and asks if I’d like something. I tell him I’m fine with my water bottle. He asks my husband what he wants to drink, and before my husband can answer, he asks, “You probably want milk, right?”

While they’re gone, I go into the bathroom and wash my hands. I don’t feel they’re particularly dirty, but I suddenly need soap and water. My hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and the fluorescent lighting highlights all the white strands that have become more pronounced since I entered my 30s.

They return with two cartons of milk each. My father-in-law sits on his unmade bed, and my husband and I sit on the perfectly straightened empty bed on the other side of the room. We open the box of pizza, and the wings, and start to eat. It feels like a school lunch. My father-in-law turns on the TV to TBS. Fun with Dick and Jane is on. Someone down the hall is watching it too.

While we’re eating, my father-in-law takes off his sock and points to all his calluses. They are large and yellow and make me feel bad. His doctor pointed them out, and asked if he wanted them removed. My father-in-law said he’d think about it. He thought about it until that night when he took apart a razor for the blade to see if he could remove them on his own.

“I cut too hard. Man, there was blood everywhere,” he says.

He speaks matter-of-factly, as though there’s no difference between a bloody foot and throwing away a pile of junk mail. My husband puts down his piece of pizza and wipes his mouth.

“You should probably let a doctor do that next time,” he says.

My father-in-law reaches into a drawer. He shows us a print-out of the x-rays of his hip. The pages are stiff and something like coffee or soda has spilled on them. My father-in-law brushes them off, but the brown remains. They’re damaged, not ruined, and we can still see inside him. The x-ray shows his entire pelvic bone and the hip that’s been repaired. We see the zipper-like outline of the unnatural things now holding a part of him together—he’s pins and metal. He is bionic.

“The doctor said I’ll develop arthritis in a few years.” He stretches out on his bed and lifts his right leg. “I can get this one up.” Then he tries to lift his left leg, but it just stays on the bed. He strains and breathes hard and then collapses. “I can’t do it. It’s weird.”

We all stare at the dead leg. I want to stand and start high-kicking. I want to know I own my legs. They belong to me, and I make decisions for them, and they listen.

“When do you see your doctor again?” my husband asks.

“A few weeks.”

“What happens then?”

“He might release me.” My father-in-law sits up again and takes a bite of pizza. He chews for a long time, and then drinks from his carton of milk. “Tell you the truth, I don’t really want to leave. I don’t want to go back to that.” He takes another bite of pizza and swallows.  “Except for the smell. I can’t stand the smell in the bathroom.”

“We brought air freshener,” I say, getting up and digging it out of the bag.

I spray the bathroom for him. I spray too much, and it gets in my mouth. I try to pretend like it doesn’t bother me.

“Dad,” my husband says, cleaning up the pizza box, folding it up to make it fit in the plastic trash bin in front of the bed. “I need you to give your doctors permission to talk to me. I want to ask them some questions.” But the trash bin is small, so the top sticks out.

“About my hip? What do you want to know about that?” my father-in-law asks.

“You’re not married. Grandma and Grandpa are out of town a lot. What if you end up unconscious? I need to know what to do.”

“I told them not to wake me up,” my father-in-law says. “I said I’d take a feeding tube but only for a few days.”

My husband tries a different approach with his father.

“You told me they were giving you Zoloft. Is that making you feel better?” my husband asks.

My father-in-law watches the TV when he responds. “A little. Not really. I need t—

My husband and I both say what at the same time. That last word, we didn’t catch it.

“The anti-psychotic,” my father-in-law responds. “That’s the one I’ve taken before. They won’t give it to me. It’s too expensive. I’ll have to wait until I get out and go back to that clinic.”

The conversation idles, and we all focus on the movie. As is his way, my father-in-law suddenly starts talking about his new friend, a gal named Marie, as though he’s just picking up a conversation we’ve been having all along. She lost both her legs from diabetes, and she was here recovering from surgery just like him. But it’s hard to hear because the TV is so loud. I can hear him smiling and having a good time. The phone rings while we sit there.

“Yeah,” he says. “There’re here right now. OK. OK. OK. OK.” He hangs up. “That was Marie.”

I’ve never known my father-in-law to have a friend.

“Do you want to see the dining room?” he asks.

He hauls himself off the bed and plops in his wheelchair like he’s been doing it his entire life. My husband doesn’t offer to help. Instead, he checks the clock. We pass the nurses’ station, and they are huddled and whispering. A light above one of the rooms is blinking.

“That means someone needs something,” my father-in-law says. We pass the room, and there’s a man sitting in a chair with his head at an angle like he’s asleep on an airplane.

“I like how everyone’s rushing to help that guy,” I say in an outside voice.

My husband puts his hand on my arm, frowns, and shakes his head no.

“I’ve lost five pounds since I’ve been here,” my father-in-law says. “The food isn’t as bad as you would think it would be in a place like this. They give us a lot of choices. Yogurt. Oatmeal. Toast. I usually get toast.”

He continues to list the items available for breakfast: scrambled eggs, orange juice, coffee, milk. He does not mention the government, the people he believes are following him, or the voices coming out of the radio in his van telling him my husband and I, my husband’s sister or his niece and nephew are all being held hostage.

He pushes himself with purpose. He isn’t wandering aimlessly in the front yard, yelling up at the tree trimmers that he knows what they’re up to with all that surveillance equipment. He isn’t sitting down the street in his van waiting to see if the people he believed kidnapped us go out for a smoke break. He isn’t walking across the street and assaulting the neighbor, and the neighbor isn’t knocking him to the ground and breaking his other hip.

My husband told his grandfather to tell the neighbor to press charges. The police will pick him up, my husband explained to him, and he’ll be committed and maybe that’ll get him to take his medication again. His grandfather called back and said the neighbor was done with it. He wasn’t pressing charges. He wanted it to go away. The neighbor had lived across the street from them for thirty years.

The dining hall is a four-walled mural with a purple background. A cartoon man plays the violin. A cartoon woman in a low-cut black dress dances with her cartoon boyfriend who wears a black tuxedo.

Two overweight women with prickly hair play a card game. A bingo machine is pushed into the corner. A man on oxygen sits in a wheelchair near the back of the room. I’m curious how he got there. If someone put him in that position or he just gradually worked his way there on his own. My father-in-law shows us where he sits. The table only has two chairs. I presume the other two slots are for wheelchairs. Four slips of paper sit in front of each chair or space.

“We have to sit in the same place every time,” he says. He picks up a slip of paper and looks at it. “These say what we eat.”

“Oh?” my husband asks. “Why do you have to sit in the same place?”

“I don’t know. We just do.”

My husband looks at the table a little while longer and then seems to accept it, despite what is obviously a lingering doubt or question.  My father-in-law leads us back into the hall. We round a corner. “I used a bungee cord and hooked Marie’s wheelchair onto mine so she could get around easier. They got so mad at us, man, those ladies came running. You can’t do that, they screeched. Marie, she got no legs, but she’s a spitfire. She’d look them in the eye and say how sorry we was breaking rules and promise not to do it again and then laugh behind their backs. She slammed into the walls on purpose. Do you want to see the tortoise?”

He leads us out the side door into a mini-courtyard. The smoking section. A large metal sign with a green background and white lettering is drilled into the brick wall: NO OXYGEN HERE. It looks like a highway sign. The tables all have ashtrays. At least half of the butts are coated in red or pink lipstick.

“We’re not allowed to keep lighters or cigarettes in our rooms,” he says, “but Marie always had a lighter and I always had cigarettes.” He laughs when he says this, and his voice moves up a level. “They got so mad at us again. You can’t have lighters, they said.” He points to a refrigerator that’s locked with a padlock. “That’s where we’re supposed to get the cigarettes, but it’s a pain in the ass to go ask someone to open it for us. They treat us like we’re two years old.”

My husband points to the nicotine patch on his father’s arm.

“You don’t smoke with that on, do you?” my husband asks.

“Yeah. And they get all mad at me. You can’t smoke with that on, we’re not going to let you have any more cigarettes! I haven’t passed out or anything yet,” my father-in-law replies, then positions himself in front of the “courtyard”—a small rectangular area of grass. “It feels kind of good, actually.”

“You shouldn’t smoke with the nicotine patch on, Dad.”

My father-in-law, when not in a clinical environment, is a relentless chain-smoker. I know about cigarettes. Nicotine is a stimulant that gives you a false sense of what’s right in your life.  I don’t know anything about schizophrenia except what’s in front of me, which can be angry and unreasonable and hallucinatory and depressed and, at various points, addicted to crack.

“There,” my father-in-law says, “can you see him? He’s under that bush.”

The tortoise is mostly hidden, but I can make out its shell, which is thick, hard, and fixed. I know my father-in-law doesn’t interact in positive ways with his delusions. This is why I believe Marie is real. This is why I again wonder about the dog.

“Does he eat the grass?” I ask, not sure what else to say.

“I guess,” he replies. “The soda machine don’t work.”

And we look where he’s looking now, at an old Coke machine. My husband, needing a task, needing to keep himself busy, needing to get away from the scene for a moment, goes over to it and taps a few buttons.

“It don’t work,” my father-in-law repeats. He pauses. “You guys probably want to go.”

“Yeah, I have some work to do this afternoon,” my husband says.

We pass a photo on the wall of elderly patients in wheelchairs in front of the courthouse downtown. The few that are looking at the camera appear sullen. The others are looking off at odd angles, maybe at birds. The inscription under the plaque says: “God Bless America.”

In the lobby, my father-in-law pushes the automatic door. It doesn’t open. The young girl in a dark blazer behind the desk says, “Oh cripes, not again.” She hits a button, stands up, and leans over the counter. The door stutters, but stays closed. “Damn it. This always happens at the worst times.” She hits the button, and my father-in-law hits his button. Again and again they do this and then all of a sudden the doors open, and he wheels quickly in front of us.

“I’m escaping,” he says to the receptionist.

She laughs. “You won’t get far in that chair,” she replies.

“I’m just kidding. I’ll be back,” he banters.

In the sunshine, we bend over and put our arms around his shoulders in a sort of hugging, comfort move.

“I’ll tell the doctor it’s ok to talk to you, but it’s just a broken hip,” he says to my husband.

“I know. I just want to ask him some things,” my husband replies.

We wave goodbye. I look at my watch. We were inside for an hour and a half. We walk to the car in silence, my husband looking straight ahead, me looking straight ahead. I walk faster than him, then I’m ahead of him, which is something he’ll eventually bring up in marriage counseling.

Why can’t you wait for me? He’ll ask me this directly because the therapist will instruct him to do it that way. You always go so fast.

I will answer that I don’t know why I walk away from him, but I will try to be better about it. I will be lying. He will tell the therapist about the night I told him I wanted to leave. She will look at me and ask what I think at that point, if I want to stay and work it out, and I will say I want to learn how to communicate better. I will say, I’m here, right? I found this place, right? I did all the work to get here, right? Then I will spend the rest of the session crying.

But that afternoon, sitting in the parking lot with my ex-husband, I said, “I figured we’d visit your dad in a hospital someday, but not one where they let him have razors.”

He smiled, sighed, and leaned back. All we needed to do then was go home. We needed to get back on the highway and drive back the way we came.

“Well,” he says, “the state knows how to fix a broken hip.”

He started the car. Neither one of us moved toward the radio.  His phone rang. His dad called a lot, and my ex-husband didn’t answer most of the time. He’d look at the screen and then put his phone away. That day, he answered it. I listened to his end of the conversation. He said ok, and thanks, and good, and sure. He didn’t say people aren’t after me, or people aren’t after you, or you’re not making any sense and I won’t talk to you when you’re like this, or it’s your sickness, your disease is talking right now.

“He wanted to tell me he liked the pretzels,” my ex-husband said when he hung up.

My dad adored my ex-husband.

My dad made this cabinet awhile ago, and we had to move it to make room for my stuff. I’d be staying with him a few months until I sorted out my finances.

“I always imagined he and I would make something together,” my dad said. “I guess I’ll have to go get my table saw back from him.”

My ex-husband never used the table saw. He didn’t have time to make anything. If I’m being fair, I should say I never pushed him to.

More nonfiction at Used Furniture.

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Comments

  1. Great story very well written…

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