Oxygen by Kenneth Radu



by Kenneth Radu


Some days the smell of flowers is nauseous. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a flower hating sort of guy. I’m not afraid to admire roses in a city park or plant marigolds for my mother who now dribbles into her bib at the Nursing home – try to hold your head up, mama, it makes the soup go down easier – it’s just that when confronted with a certain combination of floral beauty resplendent over a coffin, I need all my mental powers, such as they are, to suppress insurrection in my stomach.

Feeling much better today at the visitation, but yesterday the fragrance became so potent that I gasped and had to be held up – held up! – a man of average build, no longer young but not a decrepit octogenarian either – held up by two adolescent sons with iPods plugged into their ears like frigging Martians on a tour of hotspots on earth. Only a Martian would call a funeral home a hot spot. The understated shit-brown draperies and furnishings made you want to cry, except they also seemed to suck in all the oxygen. Show some respect, I wanted to say to my boys, but lack of air and fearful of digested food regurgitating out of my mouth restrained me from correcting manners. Instead, I focused on my stomach jerking about like Michael Jackson’s dancing.

Of course the boys have picture phones. What hormone-hyped kid doesn’t these days? Aside from rudely snapping pics despite my admonition and severe frowns from other relatives, who had all put on their now-is-the-time-to care faces, they actually text-messaged friends and each other while the priest carted his oxygen tank to the front, hacking and honking like a force-fed goose. Pausing a moment over the lectern to gather together his wits, he began a pre-packaged, one-sermon-serves-all spiel about the deceased, my sister who had stopped attending church after she decided there was no reason at all to believe in, never mind worship, a deity, angry or benevolent, just about the time she reached puberty. God loved her anyway because, deep down, and he knew this as a self-evident truth, she had not abandoned her faith and God was calling her home. I guess all her denials over the years equalled affirmation in her husband’s eyes. How could the priest know what she believed deep down anyway, confusing his smoky banalities and biblical folderol with truth, unless her husband had insisted that Anna never really meant what she said? He may even have concocted a lie about a death-bed conversion.

Leave it to Anna’s husband to ride roughshod over her principles and disrespect her last wishes that no religious ceremony or words of any kind should be spoken at her funeral. At least my sister had left no child behind whom her husband could also not listen to. Despite promises, Phil told me over the phone that burying Anna without benefit of clergy, without reference to the fact of God, why, Jesus, it made his heart virtually stop. He had to fend off godlessness at every turn. God would forgive him for breaking his promise to the dying because, after all, he was bringing her to Him as he had no choice. By that time I was muddled by his pronouns.

I blurted out, “what the hell are you talking about?” Which is hardly the thing to say to a man addled by grief over the sudden demise of his wife, my twin sister whose dying made me want to heave up my innards beside the casket with silver rails. That, and the arrangement of giant odoriferous white mums and blue gladioli interspersed with yellow and blue freesias, blending in so well with the excruciatingly well-appointed salon. Beige drapes stood at attention like guards at Buckingham palace and the hacking priest couldn’t complete one line of his formulaic prayers without coughing up syllables tainted with blood.

Jesus, I almost screamed from exasperation, not faith, would you please spare us the consoling anodynes and give your cancer-mangled lungs a break? Phil once smacked my head because he couldn’t tolerate my happy scepticism. “You really chafe my ass with your fucking disbelief,” he had said. Then he proceeded unbidden to lecture me about God’s love and the reason why we were born. Anna had once told Phil that she’d divorce him if he harangued her about religion which he had grabbed onto like a life raft some years after they had married.

Believers occupy the earth, their name is legion. Amazing how tuned in they are to the will of God. The odour of flowers, the stillness of conditioned air, the droning priest, Phil sniffling as my sons text messaged the world outside; relatives bending over the ghastly cosmeticized face of the corpse in the casket: not surprising that I fainted and woke up on a caramel leather sofa in the funeral home’s basement lounge coiffed and manicured like the salons upstairs. Attendants had brought me down, I later learned, having determined no immediate medical aid was required. They knew real demise from a false alarm. Mugs and stale pastries abounded in the windowless room of respite from seriousness, mournful whispers, quiet tears, suffocating religiosity and embalmed bodies, although Anna I know had expressly desired a swift cremation without benefit of embalming or divinity. A wide LED television screen affixed to a wall broadcast the empty highway down which Michael Jackson’s hearse drove.

Where were the sorrowing multitudes? The media had predicted a countless throng. Where was the carnival of public lamentation the like of which the world had not witnessed since the first crucifixion or Princess Di’s quasi-state funeral? Now I have scant interest in celebrities and their fantasy worlds, no more real to me than comic-strip characters speaking in bubbles or the Prime Minister expressing obligatory sorrow over the death of a soldier. The passing of a star is no occasion for wrenching grief, but people need their fix of adulation and prayer frenzy. I saw more cops than civilians on the sidelines. Ah, a couple of fans with tearful confessions of broken hearts, feeling good about feeling bad, expressed their dismay over how their particular universe had collapsed now that Michael Jackson, a person they had never met, no longer held it up like some sort of deity, a slender Atlas in spangles and sequins, a glittery angel with a nose job come down to earth to walk backwards on stage and to give their life a significance it had not hitherto known. Praise Jesus.

His daughter stood in front of the microphone and spoke about her father, just a line, he was a great dad, something like that, and she cried. She put to shame all the phony frenzy, all the religious hype and hyperbole, all the convenient prayers and pieties, all the embarrassing drivel and mendacious eulogizing. But Michael Jackson’s daughter, a small figure in a crowd of celebrities, spoke from a personal, grieving heart, not from propaganda, not for entertainment; so thank you, dear child, you provided one true thing finally at my sister’s funeral. I remembered Anna’s funny off-the-cuff remarks and her love of food. I regretted that I hadn’t been able to stop her husband’s violations of her last wishes. I too preferred cremation. Personal anecdotes allowed before, if anyone cared to speak. Then music of my own selection, followed by fire: elegant and pure. My sister and I used to drink tea together in her kitchen, talking about our plans, our beliefs and opinions, and how difficult she found living with Phil’s praying over meals and spiritual smugness and absurd arguments in defense of his faith. Holding a stale cream puff, watching Jackson’s televised memorial service, the camera panning the coffin, I wondered if I’d be able to go to the cemetery for Anna’s interment and a priest spitting blood in the earth. So hard to breathe freely: I sobbed. UG

Kenneth Radu’s latest book is Sex in Russia, a collection of short stories published by DC Books Canada (see image at top of this post). Of the contents Radu says there is some Russian and some sex, and a whole lot of neither in between. Radu has also published five novels, three volumes of poetry, a memoir, and four collections of short stories. He has won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for fiction twice, in 1991 for A Private Performance (Véhicule Press) and in 1989 for Distant Relations (Oberon Press). His first book of stories, The Cost of Living (The Muses’ Company/La compagnie des Muses) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He lives in a Quebec village where he writes compulsively in English which his neighbours, like most of the world, know nothing about. Urban Graffiti is very pleased to publish Kenneth Radu’s exploration of how our manic technological media addicted culture deals with an increasingly hyperreal Disneyfication of death. With “Oxygen” Radu proves one does not require sex to be transgressive.

Update: Kenneth Radu’s short story, “Oxygen” which first appeared online in Urban Graffiti has been published in Radu’s most recent collection of short fiction, Earthbound (DC Books, 2012).

Posted on by urbangraffito Posted in Fiction, Writing

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