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If Brains Was Gas

Abraham Verghese

I turned thirteen that week. I assumed that it came with some new liberties, but no one had specifically said so, and I was too uncertain to ask. Still, the night after my birthday, Elmo and me made plans to go out. I washed and conditioned my hair when I got home from school, then dried it and combed it out. Usually I wore my hair in a French Braid, but for that evening I left it loose. When I looked over my shoulder into the mirror, I liked the way my hair reached to my low back.

I came out to the living room and sat on the edge of an armchair. My uncle, J.R., lay on the sofa where he had flopped down as soon as he came home from work, his jacket and boots still on, watching an Andy Griffith rerun. Mamaw—my grandmother—was sitting on her recliner, a cigarette sagging on her lips, the smoke above her head looking like the blurb of a cartoon, her hands busy with her puzzles. She glanced up at me and I knew she had me figured out. I had been about to ask Mamaw for permission to go out, but now I pretended to have come out of my bedroom to watch TV. 

Mamaw let off a resonant fart and then settled back into the recliner, as if she were momentarily airborne. 

“Sheba, Sheba,” Mamaw grumbled looking round her chair, but Sheba was in the kennel behind the house and could not be blamed for this one. J.R. and I exchanged glances; “power farts” was what J.R. called them and he claimed they were the cause of the trailer being so loose on its foundation and the brick skirting starting to come loose. He wrinkled his nose, and pushed his front teeth halfway out his mouth. A laugh—though it sounded more like a hiccup—escaped me; I couldn’t help myself.

Mamaw glared at me. “Missy, I guess you done done all your homework? Or ain’t you got none again?”

“Mamaw!” I said, knowing I had just blown my chance of going out, “It was J.R.! He made me laugh. He pushed his teeth out!” 

“Junior Hankins!” She put down her puzzle. “Tell me, son, why did I pay an arm and a leg to have your jaw fixed so it wouldn’t stick out like a lantern? For you to scare people half to death?” 

J.R., not looking at her, raised off the sofa and leaned towards the TV as though something of the gravest importance had caught his attention: Bill Gatton of Gatton Ford-Hyundai-Mazda was dressed as an Arab and talking about a tent sale. Mamaw’s eyes bored into J.R., but his own eyes became little slits as he studied the TV and tapped his temple with a thoughtful finger; he nodded as he listened to Arab Bill. I tensed up. Now I was in trouble with both of them.

“Thirty-one year old and act like a four year old,” was all Mamaw said. She turned back to her puzzle. J.R. kept his eyes on the TV. I had been holding my breath, and now I let it out. There was a step I felt I was missing, rules that no one had explained to me. 

In a minute J.R. caught my eye and he did it again: his upper lip bulged, became pale as it stretched, then turned out to reveal the denture. It slid out like the head of a snail, came to a rest perching on his chin, pink, wet, and in a perpetual leer. When I was a baby, J.R. had stuck his teeth out at me and made me terrified of all men—this is what Mamaw told me—and I was two years old before I would go near my father who left soon after anyway. My mother (J.R.’s only sister) had disappeared soon after. Mamaw had raised me. J.R. had lived with us ever since I could remember. When he married Onesta, she joined us, which I always thought was one too many people to be living decently in a double-wide, but nobody had asked for my opinion. 

“Missy,” J.R. said, heaving off the sofa, “let’s you and I go to Kmart. I need motor oil. Just run out.” He shook his key chain with the big-boobed mermaid. Jingle, Jingle, Jingle.

“She ain’t going to Kmart or nowheres this time of night,” Mamaw said without looking up from her puzzle.

“Mamaw!” I said, sure that my date with Elmo was off, but hoping at least I would get to go with J.R. 

“Ma,” J.R. said, “we’re going to Kmart, and she is plenty old enough to go out, and it’s only seven-thirty, and Onesta ain’t back from work yet, and supper ain’t ready, so quit your whining, and think about dining…” He walked over behind her and bent over and kissed Mamaw noisily on the side of her face. When he raised up, he grimaced for my benefit, as if he had slammed into the stink wall behind her recliner. 

My coat was on, my pocketbook was on my shoulder, and I was shining the door knob with my sleeve, avoiding Mamaw’s eyes, waiting for J.R., hoping Mamaw would say nothing to stop me. 

I climbed into J.R.’s pickup and shut the door. “Lock and load,” he said, just as the engine came to life. With one fluid, practiced motion—I had never seen anyone else do this—J.R. flipped the heater on defrost, the fan on high, the radio on WJHW 104 FM, the headlights on high-beam, the parking brake off, the gear in reverse, pushed the cigarette lighter in, let the clutch out, and it seemed we were rolling before the 351 big block completed its first cycle. J.R. looked at me while he did all this, to show me that he did this entirely by feel and because he knew I appreciated this sort of talent. Elmo couldn’t do nothing like that.

Sitting Big-Foot high in that cab, the night dark around us, the unlit gravel road crunching beneath our wheels, only the instrument lights glowing, I felt we were in the cockpit of our private plane, off on a secret mission. Only J.R. could make me feel this way. With his short beard growing high on his cheekbones, his close-set blue eyes that always made it seem as if he could see right through me, and the brown hair parted in the middle and longish like Jesus Christ, I thought he was the handsomest and sexiest man I knew. Kind of like the Alabama lead singer, though J.R. had done that look first. It was strange how I could be with Elmo, him smelling of hot water and soap, the Pinto giving off Pine Sol fumes, ten-dollars in Elmo’s pocket to burn, but never feel as good as I did with J.R.

At the first traffic light within the city limits, J.R. pulled up next to an old couple in a blue sedan and yelled through closed windows, “Hey Stupid!” and then stared straight ahead. The old man, thinking he heard something, looked up at us. J.R. turned to the old man as if to say ‘What in the hell are you looking at?’ The old man looked away. I wished I had peed before we left the house.

We pulled into Kmart and parked in a handicapped spot. A lady with giant curlers under her scarf and a shopping cart half-full of Alpo and paper towels, scowled at us. J.R. put on a limp and let one hand curl up in front of his chest, spastic-like, and stumbled in her direction. She muttered and her little steps got faster and faster as she tried to skirt J.R. When J.R. stepped on the rubber mat and the door swung open, he was miraculously healed. His back straightened, his arm unfolded, his chin was held high, and he strode in as if he were Stonewall Jackson in Levi’s, boots, and black bomber jacket. And he knew I was behind him, watching.

We walked the aisles; I looked at the shelves while J.R. looked at the women. The place was full and Christmas music was still playing. The customers seemed relaxed and happy, while the store clerks looked harried. J.R. asked a brunette with a “Let Me Help You” button whether condoms were sold in the hardware section. She gobbled and her eyes got goldfish big before she fled. “Happy New Year,” J.R. called after her. 

My heart was racing. Was it just coincidence that he asked about condoms? I started to check my purse, and then snapped it shut when I remembered the cameras above. They might think I was shoplifting. The speaker above my head blared “Attention Kmart Shoppers,” and J.R. stopped in mid-step and yelled: “Yo!” 

In Household Furnishings, J.R. sneezed his “accshit” sneeze. People stared around aisles and between shelves. J.R. sneezed again, a double sneeze: “accshit, aaaacshit,” leaving no doubts.  He pushed his teeth out at an old lady who seemed hypnotized by him. I stood there. I knew people looked at me and thought I was J.R.’s girl. There was nothing I could do about that, and besides, it made me feel good. I wondered if J.R. felt the same way. 

In the parking lot we ran into a guy J.R. knew. J.R. was fixing to buy dope. The guy’s hair was extra long and he pushed it behind his ears, first one side then the other. His fingers had gnawed-down nails with clear polish on them and he had letters tattooed in the webs between his fingers. I studied his face to see if he felt stupid about any of this. I heard J.R. say, “Don’t worry about her. She’s fine.” 

We went to the guy’s car and drove to the far end of the parking lot, near the dumpster. He and J.R. lit up a fat joint and passed it back and forth, ignoring me. I sat in the back seat, looking out the side window, trying to breathe in as much of the car air as I could without drawing attention to myself. When they were ready to leave the car, I stepped out and almost fell on my face, grabbing the door. Back in the pickup, J.R. said, “You high, Squirt? I seen you trying to suck up all the air in the car.”

I shook my head, trying to look bored, but I was smiling and could not control it. I closed my eyes and leaned my head to one side. This was my test to see if I was high: if I was, my head would feel like a large boulder rolling down the side of a mountain. It felt that way now in J.R.’s pickup.

Elmo pulled in to Kmart just as we were pulling out. I made J.R. stop and roll down the window. I leaned over J.R. to hear Elmo. Elmo stuck his head out and twisted it up to talk to me. He had gone to my house looking for me, he said. 

“I’m with J.R., tonight,” I replied, leaning against J.R., squishing him. 

“So?” Elmo said. But his voice lost confidence. “He’s your uncle, right?”

“Damn!” J.R. said to Elmo, “you really should go to college. Missy, he is not as dumb as he looks.” Traffic was backing up behind Elmo. A car honked and even though it was dark, I knew Elmo’s face was turning beet-red. We pulled away. 

If brains was gas,” J.R. began, and I joined in, “Elmo wouldn’t have enough to prime a piss-ant’s go-cart around a Cheerio.” When we reached “Cheerio” we were both rolling with laughter. I felt sorry for Elmo but I couldn’t stop laughing. Everyone in passing cars knew we were stoned. They were looking at us. Everyone knew. I was glad we were heading home.  

J.R. looked down at a couple in a Corvette next to us at a traffic light. “Holy mackerel, Missy,” he said, “look at the cock-box on that young’un.” I didn’t get a good look at the woman, just an impression of long legs and lipstick. “Fuck her, buddy. I did,” J.R. shouted

“What’s a cock-box, J.R.?” I asked for no reason, thinking of how Elmo squirmed when I had wanted to study his hard-on. Elmo hadn’t minded if I touched it, but he didn’t want me to look.

“You know damn well what a cock-box is, Squirt. Get fresh with me and I’ll tell Mamaw all about you smoking dope and fumbling with Elmo in the burley shed.”

I felt my face turn red. J.R. laughed his ‘Hee-Haw’ laugh and said “Fumblefumblefumblefumble,” his lips a’splutter. I slapped at him. He can read my mind, I thought. The lollipop condom, floating in its juices and burning a hole in my pocketbook—he knows. Since I got the condom, I hadn’t been with Elmo. Mamaw, and then J.R., had seen to it.

“I control Elmo,” I said to J.R. for no particular reason. “That’s what I like about him. I control him.” 

J.R. looked at me strangely. “Control this,” he said to me, sticking his middle finger in the air. I tried to break his finger, but my laughter made me a poor enforcer.

“You know something, Squirt,” J.R. said in the pickup, as we rode back, stoned, from our Kmart, motor oil mission, “I have found my true love. I have found the person who can satisfy me sexually, spiritually, and in every other way.”

“Yeah, I like Onesta too,” I said, lying through my teeth. 

“Hell with Onesta. I don’t mean Onesta.”

Does he mean me? My mind worked like slow treacle and no words came out. I felt tingly all over. My face was burning. I knew in the last year I had blossomed. My tits in profile were every bit as good as Cher’s. And J.R. had seen me once when I had put on make-up and heels when Mamaw was out shopping, and he had given me a wolf whistle. I didn’t have slut eyes like Daisy Nunley, I didn’t have knockers like Juanita Clayber, I didn’t have a brother who pimped for me like Wanda Pearson. But I guess I had something, I knew that, and it was a good feeling. Mamaw knew it too and it made Mamaw extra surly and made her keep close tabs on me, and warn me about “turning out like your dang-fool mother.”

“I don’t know why I am telling you this, Squirt,” J.R. continued, “but I sure as hell don’t mean Onesta.”

My stomach tightened. I felt like I had been in a car like this before and some other man said these same words. I looked around at the field whizzing by. I told myself: I must remember this moment clearly. I focused on a field on my side of the car, but the field had no boundary and as we drove by it went on forever.

“Me?” I blurted out. “Do you mean me?” 

J.R. laughed for a long time. He looked at me with admiration, as if he didn’t know I could be so funny. A little girl inside me began to weep, even though I knew I should be relieved. 

“Someone else, Squirt. Not you. The love of my life. The reason for my living,” he said. 

Did this mean J.R. would leave home, I wondered. The thought of being alone with Mamaw—without J.R. or Onesta—crossed my mind and was painful. I thought of Onesta: Onesta from Oneida, raven-haired Onesta, pretty Onesta, dumb-as-a-coal-bucket Onesta. Yet, J.R. had always acted like he knew what he wanted from Onesta. And what she was—pretty and dumb—was exactly what he had wanted.

I found myself speaking: “What the hell do you get married for in the first place? If you’re just going to…” I was surprised at the half-sob in my voice. I turned away so he couldn’t see my face.  

J.R. gave this careful consideration. “When I met Onesta, ‘This is it,’ I said. ‘This is it.’ So I got married.”

“Well you were dumb as shit for not knowing better.” The look of surprise on J.R.’s face reminded me of Elmo’s face in the parking lot. “This is it, you said?” I continued, taunting J.R. “This is it? So what the hell happened? What happened to, This is it?” A part of me felt as if I were Onesta.

“Things happen,” I heard J.R. say. “That feeling you have when you marry someone, when you love someone…it’s great for a while, but it doesn’t last. I met someone else now, Missy. She gives me that feeling again. It feels so good, Squirt. I can’t control it.”

“Same thing can happen again, J.R.” I said softly.

He didn’t say anything for a while. We were into fog again and he slowed the pickup. He lit up a fat roach that had been in his pocket and took in a deep drag. His eyes bugged out. “Hell, I know that,” he said between his teeth, holding the smoke in. I snatched the roach from him. The pickup swerved as he tried to get it back. I leaned against my door, out of his reach, my feet raised, ready to kick him in the face. He backed off. I took deep leisurely drags, holding them in as long as I could.

“You’re something else, Missy,” he said. Now, give that back…” 

“Fuck you, Uncle,” I said. “Fuck you, you big dummy. You can be so…funny, so…brave. But you’re a stupid shit on top of that.” 

I saw him flinch. He got serious, his eyes mournful, and I sat up and was just about to say I was sorry when he stuck his teeth out. I threw a punch at him, but he slipped it and it buried itself in the shoulder part of his jacket. He held his fist out, ready to bust me if I tried to hit him again. He was bobbing on the seat now, like Ali, jiggling his eyebrows up and down, a big grin on his face, stealing glances at the road, waiting for me to punch. “The greatest of all time!” he said. I was still glad I didn’t ride with Elmo.

 When we came down our driveway it was almost eight o’clock. A car without lights came roaring out of the driveway and took off up the hill. I looked back and could see it was a Chevy hardtop.

“Who the fuck . . .,” I said. 

I didn’t recognize it, but J.R. seemed to and was subdued. I could see that the car had stopped near the main road and now it waited, the engine running. Onesta’s car was in the yard. J.R. sat in the pickup for a while and I waited with him. Something told me not to open my mouth.

 J.R. entered the trailer through the kitchen door and I followed. Mamaw and Onesta were at the kitchen table, facing each other, smoking. Onesta’s eyes were red. Mamaw had her bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table and was sucking on ice chips at the bottom of her glass. She looked mad. Maybe she had found out about the condom. Maybe Elmo came back and spilled the beans. Maybe the pickup truck was bugged. Maybe that car was the FBI and we were going to the slammer. 

When Mamaw opened her mouth I thought she would ask me why my eyes were red. But she was looking right through me at J.R. 

“It’s about time you brought the young’un home,” Mamaw said softly.

“Missy, sweetheart, would you go to your room?” Onesta said, not looking at me, but staring at the table.

“What are you, her mother?” J.R. asked. His voice sounded funny.

Mamaw hissed: “What are you, her father?”

“Could be,” said J.R., looking at Onesta.

Mamaw reached up and slapped J.R. across the cheek. The anger in her eyes was like nothing I had ever seen. My body felt heavy; I could not move.

“You tell Mamaw about your girlfriend?” asked Onesta in a quiet, restrained voice.

You tell her, Onesta,” he replied, glancing at the door that lead to the living room.

“You tell Mamaw how she’s married?”

“She ain’t…married,” said J.R., a quaver in his voice that gave away his lie. The second hand of the kitchen clock was the loudest sound in the room. We all looked at him. I thought to myself: this is not real, this is not happening. But for the first time since we walked in, it dawned on me that this might have nothing to do with me.

Mamaw grasped J.R.’s shirt, almost fondling it, and slowly pulled him down so his face was inches from hers, She whispered, “Read my lips, dummy. She is married. You are married. Her goddamn husband is in the living room waiting to talk to you.

“She ain’t married,” J.R. said. His voice had cracks in it.

The swinging door from the living room opened and a man I had never seen before walked in. I was sure he would have a gun in his hand. I wanted to pee in my pants.

He was squat and carried himself very upright so as not to waste inches. He was wearing a cream shirt, jeans, and black loafers with white socks. He had red hair that was pulled from behind one ear in a sweeping arc to cover his baldness.

“Are you J.R.?” the man asked, pushing his glasses back on his nose. His teeth were even, with spaces between them. They were clearly his own teeth. His eyes were blue and clear. 

I stepped away from J.R. 

J.R stepped behind Mamaw.

Mamaw sighed, her head bent over the table, and then she ground out her cigarette. J.R. looked around the kitchen—as though seeing it for the first time—and his Adam’s apple bounced like a yo-yo. Mamaw poured a big dollop of Jack.

“I am Katherine’s husband,” the man said. 

J.R. seemed about to say something, his hands moved, but no words came out.

“Katherine done told me all about you and her,” the man said. “She asked for my forgiveness and I’ve given it. She done confessed in front of the whole church. God has forgiven her. She confesses of her own free will.”

J.R. tried to look at the man while he spoke but could not hold his gaze. 

The man continued, his voice rising in pitch, but very clear. “I done forgiven you, too. I don’t appreciate what you done to my family but I’ve forgiven you. I sure hope your wife can do the same.”

Onesta began to cry. J.R. tried to glare her down but she was not looking at him, and besides this was not the time for it.  

“I will ask that you stay clear of my wife. I don’t want to see you anywhere around her,” the man said. 

J.R. looked at the wall behind the man’s head. The man turned to go out through the swinging door. He stopped and bowed his head as though about to add something, and then, thinking the better of it, left. We heard the Chevy pull into the driveway and then drive out.

No one spoke in the kitchen. 

J.R. took a deep breath as if to compose himself, to ready his explanation.

Onesta took a long sip from Mamaw’s glass. Neither Mamaw nor Onesta would look at J.R. He looked at me over their bowed heads. He tried to get the mischief back into his eyes but they appeared shallow and shifty. He tried to smile, but his cheeks were quivering and the smile threatened to degenerate into a sob. 

I waited. 

J.R.’s eyes pleaded with me. 

As if with a will of its own, his denture came pushing out at me—an offering. Under his sad eyes, he gummed the denture. It glistened with saliva. His upper lip was flabby and sunken. It was pathetic, like an old man’s nakedness.

Then, in what I think now was the cruelest moment of my life, I yelled at him. “You big dummy!” 

Mamaw and Onesta looked up, surprised at my outburst, but I continued, “You big dummy! If brains was gas…you, you…” 

I walked out. My eyes were blurry and my feet slipped on the gravel road. I took deep breaths. I took the condom from my purse and ripped its cover off with my teeth. I chewed the condom, tasting the oily lubricant, hearing it squeak as I ground it to a pulp. I felt a calmness, a sense of who I was, a sense of completely inhabiting my body. It was like nothing I had ever experienced.