The incident with the van happened a few months after his wife choked to death. She didn’t die on my shift, as I imagined she would. I used to have nightmares about it. I would wake hearing the choking sound she made when she ate. Every time I put a spoonful of anything in her mouth she would tilt her head back and most of the food would spill out of her mouth and onto her chin and neck and the rest she would swallow not as if swallowing but more as if breathing, and she would cough and her eyes would get wet and a noise so terrible would come from her chest that I was sure the food had gone directly into her lungs. I would stand there watching her face turn red, and her husband, Henry—who, unlike his wife, could speak—would say, “She’s O.K., she’s O.K., give her some more.” Even when I wasn’t working, even if I was doing something I like, like smoking a cigarette or watching a quiz show on television, I would hear her choking sound in my head just as clear as if she were sitting on my lap, and I would think, She’s going to go on my shift, I know it, that’s just how my luck goes, it’s only a matter of time.
But like I said, she didn’t go on my shift—she went on the shift after my shift. I set her up on the couch with a towel and a pad under her and turned the television to the news program she watched every evening before dinner, and I even made the chicken she would choke to death on and blended it the way I knew she liked it blended—enough so that she could get it down, but not so much that she couldn’t taste it. Then my shift ended, which is when I washed my hands, literally and figuratively. From what I was told, it was only a half-hour after my shift ended that she started choking. The woman working the shift after mine called 911, but by the time they came it was too late. They stuck tubes down her throat and rushed her to the hospital, but she was dead before they got there. Again, this is what I heard from the woman who worked the shift after mine, and I would understand if her version of the story might not be exactly the way it happened—you know the way people slant their stories sometimes to make things seem more in their favor.
It didn’t surprise me that Henry started pointing fingers at me, even though I wasn’t there. “He was the one who made the chicken,” he said. “I think he wanted her dead. I saw the way he used to look at her when she asked him to change her.”
People asked me questions for the incident report. I told them exactly what happened: I made the chicken, blended it like I usually blended it, washed my hands, and left.
The way Henry looked at me after his wife died, you would think I poisoned her or something.
Meanwhile, what I had been doing for the last two years of her life was wake her, wash her, dress her, brush her hair, feed her, carry her, wash her clothes, open and read her mail, give her her medication, change her diaper, wipe her ass, brush her teeth, change the television station, wheel her to the store, wheel her home, carry her to bed. For Henry I did the same, except I didn’t have to carry him and I didn’t have to change his diapers because he didn’t wear diapers. Henry I had to lift onto a special bathroom chair and strap him down so he didn’t fall when he was straining to go, but when he was finished I had to wipe him just like I had to wipe her.
But I should get back to the incident with the van, which is what I started with. Two months after his wife died, on the day I’m talking about, Henry decided he wanted to have his best friend, Casper, over. They were going to watch the ball game, he said—the Sox and the Yankees. I assumed that Casper was like me—you know, that he was just a regular walking, talking guy, not someone in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. I’m not sure why I assumed this—maybe because most of Henry’s friends I had met had nothing wrong with them—not that having cerebral palsy is having something wrong with you, I only mean that these other friends weren’t disabled in any way, unless you count the usual human disabilities like not knowing how to be nice or being a little too funny for your own good or having bad breath or not thinking before you act—those kinds of things—but what I’m trying to say here is that none of them had cerebral palsy, which is why I was surprised when I answered the door and saw this man in a wheelchair, and I was even more surprised, when he spoke, that his voice sounded just like Henry’s voice—garbled so much I had to ask him to repeat himself two or three times before I got what he was saying.
But there’s no good reason I should be surprised by anything anymore.
Case in point:
“Where is your personal care attendant, Casper?”
“He dropped me off.”
“What do you mean he dropped you off?”
“He’ll be back later to pick me up. I told him whoever was taking care of Henry would take care of me.”
“Why did you tell him that?”
“Because that’s what Henry told me to tell him. My guy is pretty stiff—he doesn’t even let me have a beer once in a while or nothing.”
Casper had a young face but his hair was white. Even his eyebrows and eyelashes were white. I knew Casper had to be a nickname—nobody names their kid Casper, not even if he’s in a wheelchair and speaks with a garbled tongue, not even if every hair on his body is white. I’m not making fun, I’m just being honest about the name Casper.
He didn’t have a power chair, like Henry did, so I had to go outside and wheel him in.
As soon as I had him inside he asked me for a sandwich.
“I’m not making you a sandwich.”
“Make him a sandwich,” Henry said.
“I’m not being paid to make him anything.”
“Then make me a sandwich,” Henry said.
“What do you want?”
“I want what I always want,” he said. “Peanut butter and butter.”
I made the sandwich like I always made it—with about half a jar of peanut butter and half a stick of butter. Henry was almost seventy but his body was the body of someone maybe thirty or forty—lean from all the shaking he’d been doing his whole life. I liked to load his food with as much fat as possible to see if he would ever get a belly like the one I had. It got to be a game—I wanted to see how much he could eat and stay thin. I would put so much butter on his toast I was sure he would say something, but he just ate and ate—anything I gave him, he ate. One time I dumped so much salt on his eggs I thought he would hop out of his chair when he took his first bite, but instead he told me the eggs were too dry. But my favorite was to see him struggle with peanut butter—he would have to chew a single bite so many times I thought his jaw was going to lock on him. Sometimes I used to imagine his jaw locking and I would have to walk out of the room just to laugh. I don’t mean any of this in a mean way, and I don’t want to give the impression that I wanted him to choke or anything—it’s just that he had a sharp tongue and was always picking on me for not doing things right—don’t put the food in the garbage, put it in the garbage disposal, what do you think we have a garbage disposal for, what are you some kind of dummy, didn’t you make it past the third grade—that sort of thing. Not to mention the fact that he made me make him a sandwich just so he could say, “I’m not hungry,” and give it to Casper, who had the nerve then to ask me to cut the sandwich in fours.
When Casper finished the sandwich he said, “Let’s go for a walk downtown.”
I said, “I’m not going downtown.”
“Why not?” Henry said.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m not lugging you guys through the street.”
“I want to see some fireworks,” Casper said.
“Have your own attendant take you somewhere on the Fourth,” I said.
“He doesn’t like to do anything.”
“Does he wipe your ass and cook your breakfast?”
“That’s his job.”
“Well, then don’t say he doesn’t do anything.”
“I’m just saying I want to see fireworks.”
“I have to finish the laundry,” I said.
“I have to go to the pot,” Henry said.
“Hurry,” he said.
I strapped him into his bathroom chair and waited outside. I could hear him thrashing around in there: I knew, because I had seen it before, that his arm was smacking against the wall near the toilet, the skin of his face was pulled tight, and his glasses were crooked on his face. When the thrashing stopped I went in and wiped him.
But get this: As soon as I came out of the bathroom Casper said he had to go.
“To the bathroom.”
“That’s not my responsibility.”
“Come on,” he said. “I have to go.”
“Your guy should be here for that.”
“He can use my cup,” Henry said.
“I don’t need the cup,” Casper said. “I have to sit.”
“I’m not wiping your ass,” I said.
“What’s the difference? You wipe Henry’s ass.”
“I get paid to wipe his ass—that’s a choice I make. Here is eight dollars an hour, now go wipe that man’s ass—that’s how it works. But I don’t get paid to wipe your ass. If you want a sandwich, that’s one thing—”
“You wouldn’t even do that.”
“If you want a sandwich, that’s one thing. If you want to watch the ball game, that’s fine. If you need me to tie your shoelace, O.K. But wiping your ass is where I draw the line.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Hold it in.”
“I’m telling you I can’t.”
“I’m going to report you,” Henry said.
“For being abusive,” he said.
“Hold on,” I said.
“You’re always being abusive,” he said.
“You’re the one who’s abusive,” I said.
“How can a man in a wheelchair be abusive?”
“I’m really going to go in my pants,” Casper said.
“If you let him go in his pants,” Henry said.
“You can’t even imagine what it’s like to mess your pants,” Casper said.
“You’re right—I can’t.”
“It’s humiliating,” he said. “And then you have to sit in it the rest of the day. I don’t have a change of clothes.”
“I’m not a walking closet. I don’t bring an extra pair of pants when I go out. I just assume if I need to go to the bathroom I’ll be able to go. I never thought someone, another human being, would say, Listen, man, you’re going to have to go in your pants.”
“If you can just get me on the pot, even that would be better than messing my pants—I mean, I’d have to pull my pants up without wiping—that would be terrible, it would be very uncomfortable, I don’t even like to think about it—but at least I wouldn’t have the whole mess in my pants.”
“For Christ’s sake—I said all right.”
“You wouldn’t have to wipe.”
“I’m reporting this,” I said to Henry.
“Report what—that a man in a wheelchair asked for your help?”
“This is unacceptable.”
“Remember,” Casper said, “you don’t have to wipe if you don’t want to.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I said I’ll wipe.”
“I’m just going on record as saying that you don’t have to.”
“I heard him,” Henry said. “I’m a witness—he said you don’t have to.”
I lifted Casper out of his chair and onto Henry’s bathroom chair. As soon as I had him over the toilet I could hear him going. “Hold on,” I said. “At least wait until I have you strapped in.”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“Well, just let me get out of here.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I went into the other room and wouldn’t look at Henry. He asked me to change the light bulb over the stove, but I just sat where I was. I lighted a cigarette even though I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the apartment.
“Hey,” Henry said, but then he stopped himself. He must have figured that I didn’t care anymore, that no matter what kind of a stink he put up I was going to smoke my cigarette down to the filter.
Then I heard Casper in the bathroom. “I’m ready for you to pull my pants up now, if that’s what you’ve decided you want to do.”
I went in there with the cigarette in my mouth and didn’t care where I breathed out the smoke. At that point I wanted everyone around me to choke—I wanted to give everyone lung cancer, including myself. I put two rubber gloves on each hand and wrapped the gloves in toilet paper. I reached between the bathroom chair and the toilet seat and wiped, hoping it would be a dry wipe, but I could tell without looking that it was messy, so I wadded more toilet paper and wiped again, and Casper was sort of mumbling “thank you” in this way that made me furious—it was the way he was so half-assed about it, like he didn’t know if saying “thank you” would make me think, You better do more than thank me for this, buddy—so he just kept mumbling these thank you’s with every wipe. If I leaned forward the lit end of my cigarette would have burned his thigh, and I’m not ashamed to say that I thought about it—I told myself I could make an easy case that it was an accident, and Jesus, I don’t want you to take what I’m saying—what I’m being honest about, for Christ’s sake—you know, the real things real people think about doing—I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying and think, Man, this guy is a cruel bastard—this guy really did want to see Henry’s wife die—maybe he really did blend the chicken a little bit less than usual. All I’m saying is that I had been at this job too long, and now I was wiping this guy Casper’s ass for free—that’s how I looked at it, wiping his ass wasn’t part of my eight bucks an hour—and the lit end of my cigarette was maybe an inch away from his thigh. But let’s not forget that I didn’t burn him, I didn’t move my face even though I knew I could have gotten away with it. The point I want to get to here is that I was “rewarded” for making the “right” decision by getting shit on my wrist. I really do believe that moment was a turning point for me—I mean, something in my head went snap. I pulled his pants up—I didn’t even care if he was clean—and washed my wrist for about ten minutes with three different kinds of anti-bacterial soap—and Jesus, I’m not saying it was the guy’s fault—that’s exactly what I’m not saying—all the guy wanted to do was take a dump, it’s not like he purposefully got shit on my wrist—and this is what I mean when I say turning point—I started thinking that it wasn’t anyone else’s fault that I had shit on my wrist, it was my fault—who else could I blame that I had this job and that I was making this guy peanut butter and butter sandwiches and that I was wiping his ass for free and that I was the kind of guy who gets rewarded for not burning a disabled man’s leg by getting shit on his wrist. I must have been doing something wrong, I told myself, and once I realized that, something in my head snapped and I thought, Oh man, I’m going to kill these guys with kindness, I’m going to pull down Casper’s pants and make sure he’s clean, and that’s what I did. And not only that—I rubbed some lotion on his ass and asked him if he wanted another sandwich (he did), and then I changed the light bulb over the stove, and when Henry said the bulb wasn’t bright enough I was perfectly gracious about digging through the drawers until I found a 60-watt bulb rather than a 40, and when that was done I said to them, “Men, how about a few beers?” and at that moment, if they could have high-fived each other, they would have, and I said to myself, What can I do for these guys to really blow their minds, what can I do to make this the best fucking day of their lives, and I kept thinking about this while I went back and forth—a sip of beer for Henry, then one for Casper, then another beer, back and forth—and I looked at Henry’s Yankees shirt and I said, “Men, you’re not going to watch the game on TV tonight,” and Henry turned his chair towards me and almost whacked me in the shin, and then I said, “I’m going to throw you guys in the back of the van, and we’re going to head to the stadium—we’ll sit in the bleachers with all the nutjobs, and I’ll get you good and drunk, and I’ll even get each of you a pennant or something.”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I did at that moment. It was this fucked up feeling of wanting to squeeze each of them until they couldn’t breathe—it would be violent and loving at the same time—I’d squeeze them almost to death. I was absolutely manic with emotion for these guys. I wanted to throw them off the Brooklyn Bridge and watch them flap around in the water and then jump in and save them. I wanted to kiss them on the lips—not in a gay sort of way but in a Jesus, I’m so fucking happy right now I could kiss you on the lips sort of way. Like I said, something in my head went snap and now I was prepared to just go—anywhere, it didn’t matter. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done. At that moment death meant nothing. I wanted to save everyone who needed saving.
I gave Henry the pill that makes him shake less, and then I gave myself one, and then I washed it down with a beer, and then I went back into the medicine box and took another pill. I lighted a cigarette and breathed smoke near Henry’s face and then I asked him if he wanted a drag and he said sure, and so I put the cigarette between his lips and he was shaking so much he almost sucked the cigarette into his mouth, so I held it for him while he breathed in. “I used to smoke two packs a day,” he said, and I said, “Get out of here,” and he said, “I’m telling you,” and I said, “Get out of here,” and he said, “When they had me in the state hospital, all I had to look forward to was the next cigarette,” and I said, “I know that feeling,” and he said, “Give me some more,” and I took a drag and then held the cigarette between his lips, and sure enough he smoked like an old pro—he took a nice deep drag and breathed out the smoke through his nose.
Casper said we should bring some beers for the ride and I said, “Now you’re talking,” and I grabbed a six-pack and a bottle opener and a few clean straws for Henry and Casper.
The sun was low in the sky and I could hear fireworks going off in the distance. The sun was huge—the largest it had ever seemed to me. I swear I was taking deeper breaths than I had ever taken. The fact that I was sweating amazed me—for several minutes I could think of nothing else but how strange it was that my skin was wet. I looked at a tree and thought that it was alive—I mean alive with thoughts and feelings like humans have—and I actually spoke to it, “Hey, thanks for helping me breathe”—something (looking back on it now, that is) only a nutcase, or a person who didn’t care anymore, would say.
I strapped their chairs in the back of the van—Henry’s in his usual spot, Casper’s where Henry’s wife’s chair used to go. I could hear them garbling to each other back there—something about how good it was to have a few beers.
While I was driving I started having this fantasy about how we would keep going and maybe never stop. It was as if we had no destination—there was no ball game—fuck the ball game—and we were setting out on some crazy adventure with no fear of what might happen. I wanted these guys to remember this night—to remember me—for the rest of their lives. I had this image in my head of Henry choking to death—just like his wife did, only he would choke on peanut butter. Just before blacking out he would think about this night. Some poor sucker like me would be pounding on Henry’s back, giving him the Heimlich, reaching into his mouth, and Henry would be thinking, Best fucking night of my life, and then he would go under and die happy, which is something I could only hope for myself, and Jesus, who the fuck knows, I was thinking, maybe when I go under this will be my best night too—sure there had been lots of nights of drinking and drugging and getting laid and getting into trouble, but right now I can’t remember one of them as separate from the rest, they’re all one long night, and where are all those people now—no, this is going to be my best night too—me and a couple of guys in wheelchairs who can’t speak right and who need their asses wiped and who need someone like me to make their food and wash between their toes and give them a few beers and give them for once in their lives a happy fucking memory.
When we hit the expressway, I turned up the radio. I scanned the stations until I heard Roger Daltry wailing, and Pete Townshend was no doubt breaking a guitar, and I swear if there was something in the van to break I would have pulled over and broken it—Jesus, this was better than being high at a concert—the sun was setting and Henry and Casper were in the back trying to sing with The Who; they sounded like a couple of coyotes, but it was more beautiful than singing, and I actually pulled off the highway just to slow things down and listen to these two guys; I opened a few beers and made sure they were getting nice and drunk, and I took a swig and my bottom lip was starting to get numb, and I tried to remember how many pills I took before we left, but I wasn’t sure, and then I heard Roger scream and then I screamed, which at first scared the shit out of Henry, whose head snapped back, and this made me laugh, made me almost piss myself, and then we all started screaming together, a bunch of coyotes howling at the moon, which I could see above the city in the distance, and I thought, Why not scream, why the fuck not, from now on we’re going to scream all the time, these guys need to go out and scream a little bit, they need to get laid for Christ’s sake, and then I thought, Fuck the game, these guys are getting laid, and I finished the beers I had opened and pissed on the side of the highway and got back in the van and drove.
On the bridge Henry said, “Where are we going?” and I said, “Trust me,” and he said, “Do you know where we’re going?” and I said, “Just trust me,” and Casper said, “I want another beer,” and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to give you something better than beer,” and Henry said, “Are we going to smoke some weed?” and Casper said, “I don’t want any weed, I want another beer,” and I said, “Hold your horses, men,” and Henry said, “I have to pee,” and I screamed, only this time they didn’t scream with me. Henry said, “Cut that out, you’re breaking my eardrums,” and I said, “It’s good to scream once in a while,” and when we got off the bridge Casper said, “Is this the way to the stadium?” and I said, “Fuck the stadium.”
There was a strip joint I had been to a few times—I’m talking the kind of place where you can get a “private lap dance” in a back room, which everyone knows is more than a lap dance—only now my mind was fuzzy and I couldn’t quite remember where it was, so I drove all the way up one avenue and then all the way down the next. I ran a red light and almost got us smashed up and Casper started talking about getting to the game, and I said, “Jesus, are you dense—we’re not going to the game—this is going to be better than a stupid ballgame,” and Henry said, “We could be watching the game at home,” and I said, “Just sit tight,” which made me laugh since they were strapped into their chairs and their chairs were strapped to the inside of the van.
I drove downtown, turned west somewhere in the twenties, and when I reached Ninth Avenue I saw a joint on the corner that looked good enough—flashing red X’s, a fat guy standing at the door. The place looked a little scummy, which means you don’t know what the ladies will be like—some clubs have ladies like the ones you might see on the cover of Playboy, other clubs have, you know, regular everyday ladies who live down the street and have three or four kids and whose stomachs might not be so flat, maybe a little extra flesh on their asses, which some guys like—but this wasn’t for me, O.K., this was for the two coyotes in the back who, let’s face it, were in no position to be picky—I mean, when I said I was planning to get these guys laid, I didn’t literally mean laid—as far as I know, I don’t think they can do that—you know, I don’t think they can control that part of their bodies, and I’m not saying that as a negative thing, just as a fact—as far as I know, I mean. What I meant by getting these guys laid was something like a lap dance—a few tits in their faces, a bare ass, some dirty talk—something to make them feel like regular guys—not that they’re not regular guys the way they are, but you know what I mean.
I left them in the van garbling about where are we, what are we doing, where are you going, you’re not supposed to leave us alone, and I almost stopped and shouted at them, There’s no such thing anymore as supposed to, boys, or not supposed to, tonight is about want, do, want, take, O.K., but I said screw it, let them stew for a while in the back of the van, let them curse me all they want, let them garble about missing the game, because I knew this night was going to be better than that, way better than anything that had ever happened to them, or had ever happened to me.
The bouncer asked me for the ten-dollar cover and I said, “Hold on, I know people here, I’m one of your best customers,” and he said, “I don’t care who you are,” and I said, “I just want to go in for a second and have a word with a few of the girls,” and he said, “What girls?” and I said, “You know—the girls—I don’t know their names,” and he said, “Ten dollars,” and I said, “Listen, I’ve got a couple of guys in that van right there, maybe you can see them thrashing around in the back, and it’s very important that I—” and he said, “Are you going to give me ten dollars or what?” and I said, “O.K., let’s play it your way, fine, ten bucks, here you go,” and he stepped aside and let me in.
You could tell the ladies dancing on stage were regular ladies who had other jobs and maybe husbands and kids, which made them in a strange way a little sexier—you know, knowing they were actual people you might pass in the grocery store with one kid yapping in the basket and the other whining about his feet being tired. But they weren’t too regular, which would have ruined things—you know, too much of a belly and stretch marks from giving birth and cottage cheese on the skin of their thighs, not that there’s anything wrong with women with imperfections like that, I’m only talking about what a guy might want to look at in a club after paying ten bucks to a goon outside and after paying eight-fifty to a goon inside who won’t leave you alone and keeps asking you if you want a drink, would you like to order a drink, sir, are you sure you wouldn’t like to order a drink, and he gives you this look like it’s some kind of crime to pay ten bucks to a goon outside for absolutely nothing and then not order a drink, so I stood there and drank my drink and felt my legs loosen a little bit, which I knew was from the pills and beer.
I looked around the club and saw a lady standing near the back wearing a white robe with the belt untied, not much underneath, so I assumed she worked there. As I walked closer to her, I kept saying, Jesus, Jesus, because she was one of the tallest ladies I’d ever seen—I mean, she was a giant of a lady, but nice—you know, a nice body; she looked exactly like a normal lady only she was incredibly tall. Her hair was pulled back tight like a ballerina might pull it; her eyelids sparkled from the glittery blue eyeshadow she was wearing.
“Excuse me, but I’d like to make you an offer.”
“You have to talk to Burt.”
“You don’t understand—this isn’t for me.”
“Everything goes through Burt.”
“Listen,” I said. “I’ll give you two hundred dollars if you come outside for ten minutes, that’s twenty bucks a minute, and give a few guys in wheelchairs lap dances.”
“Right out front. They’re in the back of the van.”
“No vans,” she said, and I said, “They can’t even move,” and she said, “What about you?” and I said, “I’m harmless,” and she said, “No way,” and I said, “I swear, I’m just a regular guy,” and she said, “I’m not getting kidnapped and raped and chopped into forty pieces.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, “these guys couldn’t swat a fly on their noses.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch—just a lap dance for each of them, you know, tits in the face, that kind of thing.”
“They won’t touch. If they touch it will be by accident—you know, if they have a spasm or something.”
“No funny business.”
“What funny business? Listen,” I said, “these guys have had hard lives. One was in the state hospital for twenty years. It was brutal—piss on the sheets, slapped around by the workers, the whole nine yards—they thought he was a retard. The other one is an albino on top of being disabled, so you can imagine what it’s like for him. They need someone to cook for them, clean for them, wipe their asses, do everything. I’m telling you—this would make their lives.”
“All right, all right, I never said I wouldn’t do it, I only said no funny business, and I get to hold the keys.”
When I got outside I could see through the van window that their mouths were open, probably howling about the ballgame, which I didn’t want to hear. I leaned against the van and smoked a cigarette. I could feel the vibrations of their garbling. I turned around and told them to keep their pants on. Spit was flying out of their mouths; if they could have, they would have pounded on the windows.
When she came out of the club she whispered something to the goon at the door, probably something about keeping an eye on me. She was wearing black sweatpants with white stripes up the sides, a white t-shirt, heels. I said to her, “What’s with the jogging suit?” and she said, “You didn’t say striptease, you said lap dance,” and I said, “You’re taking those off, right?” and she said, “The top comes off, the panties stay on, and any touching and I’m out of there,” and I said, “Didn’t you listen to me when I told you this is for a couple of guys in wheelchairs?” and she said, “I’m just saying,” and I said, “Don’t worry,” and she said, “I get the two hundred now,” and I said, “This is practically my entire paycheck, you know,” and she held out her hand and I gave her the money.
“I’m not doing it right here,” she said.
“Where do you think you’re doing it?”
“At least pull around to a side street.”
“What difference does it make?”
“I don’t want a crowd standing next to the van watching.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You dance in front of a crowd every night.”
“Those people are paying customers.”
“All right,” I said, and I opened the door for her.
“I’ll meet you around the corner,” she said.
“What’s the matter?”
“I already told you—I don’t get into vans when someone else has the keys.”
“I just gave you two hundred bucks.”
“So what if I drive around the corner and you disappear.”
“I won’t do that.”
“How do I know?”
“I just won’t.”
“Give me the two hundred.”
“You’ll get it when you meet me around the corner.”
“Jesus,” she said, and then she gave me the money.
“Where around the corner?” I said.
“Right around the corner, only ten or twenty yards from the avenue. If you’re too far up the street I won’t get into the van.”
“Make up your mind,” I said. “Do you want to be around people or away from people?”
“I don’t want people watching,” she said, “but I don’t want to be found two weeks from now chopped into forty pieces.”
“Take a look in the back of the van,” I said. “Look at those guys.”
“So,” she said. “A couple of guys in wheelchairs.”
“Do you think these coyotes are capable of chopping you up? Trust me, they can’t even chop an onion.”
“I’m just saying,” she said.
As soon as I opened the door I could hear them yelling in the back, but they were so worked up I couldn’t tell what they were saying. Henry was thrashing around in his chair and his face was tight; the veins in his neck were bulging, thick blue worms; his glasses were sliding off his face. “Take it easy,” I said, and Henry, from what I could make out, was saying something about a dog, so I said, “What dog?” and his mouth kept trying to make the sounds he had in his head, and Casper looked like he was falling asleep, and I said, “What’s this about a dog?” and finally, as I was pulling around the corner, I was able to make out that Henry was saying, “Not even for a dog,” so I said, “What dog are we talking about?” and Casper said, “It’s illegal to keep a dog locked up in a car in the summer,” and I said, “So,” and he said, “So you’ve had us tied up back here for almost a half-hour,” and I said, “It hasn’t been a half-hour,” and Henry almost fell out of his chair he was thrashing so much, and he said, “It has too been a half-hour,” and I said, “You’re crazy,” and Henry said, “Don’t tell me I’m crazy, that’s what they used to say in the state hospital,” and I said, “Sorry.”
I parked the car two buildings from the corner, in front of a closed bread shop, and I thought, Man, who the hell is getting their bread here, you’ve got to be crazy to—
“Don’t call me that,” Henry said. “Don’t ever call me that.”
“Call you what?”
“You know what.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“It’s hot back here—we can’t breathe.”
“I think I’m going to be sick on myself,” Casper said.
“Take a deep breath,” I said.
“Where the hell are we?” Henry said.
“Just around the corner from where we were before.”
“Where were we before?”
“Right around the corner.”
“Where is around the corner?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Somewhere in the twenties.”
“Yankee Stadium is all the way up in the Bronx.”
“I’m going to be sick,” Casper said.
“Maybe he has heat stroke,” Henry said.
“No one gets heat stroke in the back of a van at night.”
“I have low blood sugar,” Casper said.
“Jesus,” I said. “You just had a peanut butter and butter sandwich.”
“That was hours ago.”
“It was an hour ago, tops.”
“At least two.”
“Son of a bitch,” Henry said.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I said. “I didn’t say you were crazy. I was talking to him.”
“I don’t care who you were talking to,” Henry said. “It’s not nice.”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Tell him it was at least two hours,” Casper said to Henry.
“O.K.,” I said. “Listen, I don’t want to fight about this. It was two hours—whatever you say.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Jesus, I mean it. I just said it was two hours ago.”
“You didn’t say it like you mean it.”
“For Christ’s sake, I mean it—it was two hours ago!”
“At least,” Casper said.
“Where the fuck is she?” I said, and Henry said, “Who?” and I said, “Never mind,” and Henry said, “Are you meeting one of your girlfriends or something?” and I said, “This is for you,” and he said, “I don’t want this, I never asked for this,” and I said, “Sometimes you don’t know what you want—what you really want—until someone gives it to you,” and he said, “I want to go home, the game is probably over by now,” and then I heard Casper getting sick.
I found a rag on the floor of the van that someone must have used to check the oil, and that seemed to be the only thing I could use to try to clean up Casper’s mess, so I got out of the van and opened the back doors. Casper had puke on his lap, on his hands, on the bottom of his shirt, on his shoes, and I said, “Jesus, I’m sorry,” and he opened his mouth like he wasn’t finished, so I backed away and waited, but it was a false alarm, dry heaves, and now the back of the van smelled like a subway station, and here comes Miss Two Hundred Bucks sticking her hand out, “Where’s my money?” then, “God, what’s that smell,” then, “No way, I’m not giving him a lap dance.”
“Fine,” I said, “but you’re giving him a dance—some kind of dance—anything.”
“I need an extra hundred for the smell.”
“Come on,” I said.
“That’s terrible,” she said. “You get in there and dance for ten minutes.”
“Don’t you have a fucking heart?” I said. “Don’t you ever just want to do something nice for someone who’s maybe had it rougher than you have?”
“You don’t know my life,” she said. “How do you know I haven’t had it rough? For your information, Buster, my father—”
“O.K., O.K., I don’t need to hear this.”
“Don’t get me started,” she said.
“I don’t have any more money,” I said.
“I want to go home and watch the game,” Henry said.
“In a few minutes,” I said.
“I didn’t ask for this,” he said.
“Give me a few minutes.”
“How do you know what we want?”
“I said give me a few fucking minutes, O.K.?”
“Listen to them,” she said. “They don’t even want this.”
“Trust me—they want it.”
“I’m reporting this,” Casper said.
“I don’t care what you report,” I said, “as long as she dances for you.”
“I don’t want anyone to dance for me,” he said.
“You want this,” I said. “You need it.”
“We’re not you,” Henry said, and I said, “What did you say?” and he said, “You think we’re you, but we’re not you.”
With the rag I wiped Casper’s hands.
I gave the lady from the club the two hundred dollars. “I don’t want this,” she said, and I said, “Just take it,” and she said, “For what?” and I said, “I have to give somebody something,” and she said, “How about I take fifty and we pretend this never happened?” and I said, “Take whatever you want, just leave me something for the tolls,” and she took fifty and gave me her robe and said, “You’re going to need this,” and I said, “I’m sorry,” and she walked away.
With the robe I cleaned Casper’s
shoes, and then I lay the robe over the puke on his lap.
As I was about to close the back doors Henry said, “Hey, what about my glasses.”
“Higher up,” he said. “It pinches my nose that way.”
“It still pinches,” he said. “I need new tape on the bridge.”
“Well, we don’t have any tape,” I said. “Do you think I walk around with tape for the bridge of your glasses in my back pocket?”
“I’m just saying,” he said.
“Well, I’m just saying we don’t have any tape at the moment.”
“All right, all right,” he said.
“Anything else before we head back?”
“Anything else for you?” I said to Casper.
“No,” he said.
Before I closed the back doors I said to Henry, “You know, I didn’t kill your wife,” but he said nothing. “Listen,” I said, “I blended that chicken just like I always blended it.”
I waited, I kept waiting, but he said nothing.
When we got back to Henry’s apartment, the police were waiting for us.
But that’s not the end of this story—the end is what happened the other day that made me want to try to figure this out—you know, why regular everyday people like me do the things we do. I was sitting in front of the laundromat, waiting for my clothes to dry, when I saw some guy, clean cut, glasses, button-down shirt, wheeling Henry down the street. They were coming right towards me. I hadn’t seen Henry since a week after the incident with the van when I went to pick up my check and almost got arrested for being near him when I wasn’t supposed to go near him. At first I got scared and tried to sneak back in the laundromat, pretend I’d never seen him, but then I said, Screw this, I’m not going near him, he’s coming near me, that’s not my fault, and besides, I was curious what, if anything, he’d want to say to me.
I stood in the path of the wheelchair and said, “Hey, Henry, what’s going on?”
“Hi,” he said, very friendly.
“So how’s your life?” I said.
“Terrible,” he said. “Did you hear my wife died?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Choked to death,” he said. “This crazy guy who used to work for me—he didn’t blend the chicken the way it was supposed to be blended, and by the time they came it was too late.”
“I’m sorry to hear about that,” I said, because by this time I was figuring he didn’t remember me, maybe he was going senile or something.
“So this guy who used to work for you,” I said. “Are you sure he—”
“He was crazy,” he said. “Listen to this,” he said. “One night he took me and one of my friends on a wild goose chase. He drove us into the city, into a bad neighborhood, and locked us in the back of the van in the summer heat and we couldn’t breathe and he tried to get this lady to dance for us.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“I swear,” he said, and I shook my head as if to say, Some people, and the guy pushing Henry’s wheelchair nodded his head as if in agreement.
“So what happened to this guy?” I said.
“Fired,” Henry said. “As soon as we got back the police were waiting and they took him away and then we fired him.”
“That serves him right,” I said.
“Crazy,” he said.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “Could you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Could you tell me more about this guy?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I want to know everything you know about him.”
“Like what he was like—what he looked like, what he talked like, any strange mannerisms, what kinds of things he talked to you about, what he did for you, what he did for your wife, was there anything he was particularly good at, was there anything especially nice he ever did for you, do you think that deep down, despite his craziness, he could have been a nice guy—like I said, I want to know everything.”
“Trust me,” he said. “You don’t want to know this guy.”
“No,” I said. “I do want to know him. I’m very interested in what kind of person would do some of the things you’re telling me he’s done.”
“So you want to know everything,” he said.
“Everything,” I said. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Nicholas Montemarano is the author of the novel A Fine Place (Context Books, 2002) and a forthcoming short story collection, Cancer. Recent work of his has appeared in Pushcart Prize 2003, DoubleTake, Zoetrope, The Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, and others. He was awarded a 2002 NEA fellowship and teaches at Franklin & Marshall College. (5/03)