by MARTIN TOMAN
My brother chews eleven times for each mouthful. It doesn’t matter if it’s mashed potato or meat in his mouth. His hands rest lightly on each side of his plate as he chews, steak knife and fork poised above the porcelain. Cut, eleven chews, swallow, and repeat until his plate is empty. I only know this because last year I found myself counting how many times he chews. He sits eating silently until he is finished. Then I wheel around and use his napkin to clean his face, and lead him to the toilet to stand him in front of the urinal. He unzips and sometimes he goes, sometimes he doesn’t. I check his pockets to ensure that he hasn’t taken anything from the table, and then wheel out of the bistro and pay, load us into the car, and take him back to the home.
Since we were hurt I take him out every Tuesday night for dinner. It’s not a simple process. I have a spinal cord injury which has made me paraplegic, so there are a few practical issues for me to manage, but my brother is compliant while I wheel around. I can use every part of my body above my belly button. I own an electric wheelchair, but I prefer to use the manual one unless I am really tired. I have the arms and shoulders that I always wanted when I played footy, but that’s where it ends. The main thing I have to worry about are pressure sores from the chair. The health nurse comes by once a fortnight to check on me. I used to have a female nurse but I found her attractive so asked for a male. I get by.
My brother, well that’s a different thing. He can’t get by. That’s what happens with some brain injuries. I can’t manage his care, so he lives in a home. He’s an automaton. He can’t make any choices for himself, but does everything that he’s asked. Every now and again, something unusual sneaks out. Once he hid a toothpick in his pocket when I took him out for dinner. After I dropped him off, he dug it into his arm and ripped a trench. But otherwise he’s a robot. So I have a brain, and he has a body. I imagine the waiting staff at the bistro think we’re quite the pair. Half a wit and half a man on either side of a table in an RSL every Tuesday night, the sounds of the gaming machines the only interruption to my stream of small talk that goes nowhere.
Tonight I talk about the footy, the weather, politics, my job. My employer lets me work from home after it made some office people uncomfortable when I didn’t get any better. No one said anything, but the way the conversations stopped when I wheeled in sent a message. It’s fine, though. I can do everything in my role from home, and once a year, I wheel in and complete a performance review with my bosses. I always exceed the requirements of my position. It’s extraordinary how much you can get done without the distraction of people.
My brother doesn’t answer me back. The gaming lights flicker on the shiny porcelain of my plate. Greens, reds, blues, yellows. Addictive electronic tunes over and over, punctuated by the occasional excited trill when someone scores a minor prize. I’ve never heard what a jackpot sounds like. Chicken parma for me, steak and chips for my brother. That’s what he used to order most of the time when he still made choices. I make sure to keep asking questions in case one day he answers. But not yet. Still a mute.
You look like you’ve enjoyed your meal.
I look up to see a waitress addressing my brother, his now empty plate in front of him. She must be new, and no one has let her know there’s no point talking to him. She’s attractive in her tailored white shirt and looks like she could be studying at a university. I look away in an attempt not to leer. There’s a pause.
Thanks very much, but my brother doesn’t speak at all.
I try to help her out of this awkward moment, but she just looks confused.
He had a brain injury a while back, the same day I ended up in this.
I tap the arm of the chair by way of explanation. She looks at me.
Oh, I thought he was here looking after you.
Then she looks embarrassed and quickly clears the table. It’s ok, though. It’s nice that she spoke to us.
I go through the familiar actions of leaving the RSL and lead my brother to the car. I’ve done it so many times that it’s automatic. Toilet, pockets, pay, car doors, wheelchair. Initially, the home wasn’t sure I could handle my brother, so they sent a staff member along to observe and help if required. After three trips, I convinced them I could manage. It cost me a meal for the orderly each time as I couldn’t have them just sitting there watching us eat, but that’s fine. I have money and no cause to complain about the staff at the home.
I pull out of the undercover parking and see that it’s been raining. There’s no rain now, but the traffic lights shine a green and red sheen across the bitumen. I drive deliberately. My car has been converted so that all of the controls can be managed with my hands. It’s safe, but I leave a long distance to the car in front of me just to be sure. Other drivers push into the gaps I leave when I’m in traffic, so I tend to avoid driving at certain times of the day. I don’t mind. There’s always the wheelchair accessible taxi.
The streetlights illuminate my brother’s face as we pass from light to dark, light to dark. His features become indistinguishable in the dim, only to appear again, unchanged. His eyes remain open, staring into the middle distance through the screen. He could still be standing at center halfback, hands on hips, staring at the play in the forward half. He could be anywhere or nowhere.
The drive to the home is short but involves a series of intersections and traffic lights. Traffic is always light on a Tuesday night, which is one of the reasons I choose this time of the week. I look at my brother again. Sometimes I daydream that he will suddenly turn to me with a smile and say Sucked in! But it’s an idle thought, or maybe the joke isn’t ripe yet, and he’s still biding his time for the punchline.
I’m within sight of the home when out of the darkness a car sharply changes lanes to cut in front of me. It’s too close and my car crunches into the rear end. In the time it took for my mind to register the threat and push the brake lever, momentum carried us inexorably into the accident. There’s a sharp smell of stale air as the air bag deploys, powder fills my nose, and I’m blinded by the plastic. I reach out and touch my brother. He’s still there, unmoving and safe.
I try to paw away the bag while unclipping the seatbelt and opening the car door. Several things happen at once. Hands pull me backward out of the car by my collar, and I hit my head on the road. In the dark, I see a shadow above me, blotting out the light. There’s a flash behind my eyes, and my head hits the road again, and I realize I’ve been punched in the face. I try to roll over and protect myself, but my legs drag, and it’s hard to move. The road is wet under my elbows, and I scramble for purchase on the grainy surface. I notice the light is reflecting a sheen of oily green and purple on the tarmac, and I’ve got grit on my hands. A thought keeps circling: I can’t be hurt again, I can’t get hurt again, I can’t end up even worse than my brother. I try to crawl under my car to shelter. My body feels like a boat with an anchor. There’s another flash inside my head, and my nose smashes into the road. My face feels wet, but I don’t reach up to check. I keep scrambling towards the darkness. Then over the racing of my heart, I hear my brother. He’s shouting.
The last time I heard my brother shout was the day we were injured. I was playing footy and partway through the second quarter, I went up for a pack mark. I can’t remember all of what happened, but the evidence tended at the subsequent inquiry noted my legs were swept from under me, and I landed on top of my direct opponent, compressing my lumbar vertebrae and severing my spinal cord. There was a push and shove between players, but when I couldn’t get up, the tussling stopped, and the ground hushed. I can recollect the blue of the sky and the winter clouds whipping across my line of sight as I lay on my back, the earth supporting my body, the cold seeping through my jersey.
At school, my brother, who was in the year above, was my defender. It got to the point where no one would dare pick on me out of fear. It was the same on the playing field. He was the first in to fly the flag if he saw something that he thought was wrong. When the ambulance arrived and they put a neck brace on me, my brother started laying out the opposition with his fists. It became an all-in brawl, including the spectators. In my memories of that afternoon, I recall the fight as a series of sounds, the loudest being my brother’s yells. He was apparently hit from behind during the brawl, knocking him unconscious. When he was taken to hospital, the emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain was performed too late to prevent critical damage. So he became the automaton I take out every Tuesday. Our mother had died the year before, scraped away by cancer, and we’d never met our father. So we just had each other, and after that day, we became the half-wit and half-man.
From under the car, I try to turn to see what’s happening. Feet are moving in the light, and then a person falls face-first onto the bitumen. It’s not my brother. I crawl back out onto the road and pull myself upwards onto the heels of my hands. Cars have stopped, and there’s a small crowd standing away on the footpath. My brother moves to stand over me. His face is impassive as he looks down. His shirt has a rip on the collar. I drag myself over to the fallen person. His face is turned towards the light, and I can make out a series of crude tattoos on his neck and under his eyes. He has four blue teardrops that have bled out into blotches on his cheekbones. His skin is mottled, littered with lesions, sunken into his face. His open mouth reveals few teeth. Meth mouth.
Protruding from his eye is the handle of a fork. The tines are stuck in halfway up the stainless steel handle. Blood flows around the stem and onto the road spraying out in a wide arc that becomes progressively less concentrated the further it is away from the body. As time passes, the blood tide seems to ebb.
I turn to my brother. He looks at me. There is no middle distance. I see him walk past the body and around the undamaged back of the car, and then the passenger door clamps shut. I hear sirens in the distance.
I lie on my back and stare up into the darkness. There are no stars, only clouds colored yellow by the light of the city. I can feel the wet seeping through my clothes. I reach up and feel my nose. The shape is different, and my fingers come away sticky. I try to piece together what happened. My brother must have concealed the fork when I was distracted by the waitress.
I pull myself off the ground and into the open driver’s seat. It hurts to move, but it’s such a relief to be off the road and away from the blood and grit, the oily damp. The sirens are close now, the blue and red light pushing out into the corners of my vision. My brother’s face is expressionless, staring forward through the windscreen.
I wonder what he sees through the glass, how clear his vision is into what lies ahead. I close my eyes, the police light strobes through the darkness. I realize that I may never sit across from my brother again, never carry his weight. But you never stop being your brother’s keeper, and you never stop being kept.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martin Toman lives with his people in a treehouse overlooking Melbourne, Australia. He spends his working hours teaching literature and daydreams about writing it. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Fresh Ink and Literally Stories.
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