“How far do you go?” asked the man in the wheelchair as I lengthened my stride, intending to pass him in an intimidating whirl of arms and legs.
He half blocked the sidewalk about fifteen feet ahead. I could tell by his squinty cowboy face that he was one of the third-generation Okie hell-raisers infesting this part of Southern California. He’d have some dustbowl name like Norland or Coyt, and he got paralyzed screwing around with his buddies. A joust with dirt bikes and iron pipes, or some harebrained commingling of beer, an engine block, and a chain fall.
And now he made the world pay for what he’d done to himself. That lean face scared me. It burned with a merciless challenge. If I pretended I hadn’t heard him, he’d ram me with his chair.
“Two miles,” I said, the distance between us closing fast.
“Do you do it because you like it or because you have to?”
I gave up and stopped beside him. My heart raced in an unpleasant, bubbly way; a few minutes of rest wouldn’t hurt. “Because I have to. The plan is to make it up to the hotel at the top of the hill. That’ll put me at five miles a day.”
“How long have you been coming out here?”
“This is only my third day.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I thought you were new. I never seen you before.”
But I’d seen him. I’d driven past him for years. A local fixture, he was always on the other side of the street, sunning himself on the sidewalk next to the high school. He was there almost every day in his electric wheelchair, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. His silvery blond flattop made his purple-brown skin look even darker. Every time I saw him, a chain reaction went off in my head: squamous cell carcinoma to the evil medicine man Misquamacus in Graham Masterson’s terrifying novel The Manitou to summoning the Great Old One to Cthulhu to the end of the world. A ruminative loop, it’s called.
“My doctor told me I had to start exercising and lose about forty pounds,” I said.
He looked me up and down. “More like fifty or sixty.”
And with that, I hated him. The next thing he’d say in his slight twang was that I looked just like a hog. He’d call me “boy” and order me to squeal.
Instead, he asked, “Are you taking time off from work today?”
“No, I work at home.” I rubbed my hands so I could sneak a glance at my watch.
He noticed and said, “Didn’t mean to hold you up, man. I’m just nosy. I like to meet new people and find out about them.”
“Well, I have to be somewhere soon.”
“Cool. You tell me when you wanna leave. So whatta you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer?” He looked like a confused dog. “You mean books?”
“No, I’m a copywriter. I work for a marketing corporation.”
He lifted a length of clear tubing and sucked on it, sipping water from a white bicycle-racer’s bottle attached to the side of his chair. His clenched hands were sheathed in cream-colored plastic wrist braces with elastic straps, the kind typists used for carpal tunnel syndrome.
“What does a copywriter at a marketing corporation do, exactly?” he asked.
I willed myself to not sigh.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’m a dumb-ass.” His smile was mocking.
“It’s just that people fall asleep when I try to explain what I do,” I mumbled. I was so angry, it was hard to speak.
“Now you got me interested,” he said. “Tell me.”
“Okay. I work in the creative department of the frequency marketing division of Soledad Marketing Group.”
“Yeah? And what the hell does all that mean?”
Can’t a car hit us? Or a bolt of lightning?
“Frequency marketing is how companies boost customer loyalty and increase repeat business,” I said. “Uh, you know when you buy a carton of cigarettes and they give you a baseball cap with the company logo on it?”
“That’s a ‘continuity-premium program.’ If you use a certain long-distance service, and they award you frequent-flyer miles and discounts at a DVD-rental service? That’s an ‘external-group program.’” I counted on my fingers. “Clubs, sweepstakes, coupons, escalating rebate offers, mail-in rebates, membership programs, time-release programs, points, stamps, contests, scratch-off games, collect-and-win games, gift cards, punch cards—they all lure customers back. My company is hired by other companies to come up with repeat-business programs like that, and in the creative department, our job is to supply all the words and images.”
“So if I get a coupon or a scratch-off game, you’re the guy who wrote the words on it?”
“One of the guys and gals, yes.” Now he could make fun of me some more.
He laughed. “Far out! You got a great job. That’s something I never even thought of. I was just gonna be a machinist.”
His response floored me. My hate turned to intense love, and I almost started crying. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who didn’t think my job was stupid.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because I’m not stupid. I’m not just some blue-collar asshole.” In the blink of an eye, he’d become furious. “You wanna guess how I broke my fuckin’ neck?”
The love changed back to fear. “Um…no, that’s okay.”
He changed back to affable. “Aw hey, it’s cool, man. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I get carried away.” He smiled as he sipped water from his tube.
Sunny-cloudy-sunny-cloudy; he was like a time-lapse video of the sky.
“When I was eighteen,” he said, sunny again, “I was helping my dad hang curtains. He made me climb up on this rickety, piece-of-shit stool, and the leg snapped off, and I fell and hit my head on the edge of the dining-room table. There was a big, white flash, and my whole body went pins and needles, and I knew right away I was jacked up. I been in this chair twenty-two years, five months, two weeks, and six days.”
I rubbed my beard, took off my sunglasses, put them on again. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” I finally said.
He twiddled the joystick on the right-hand armrest of his chair, spinning himself in an aimless half circle. “Yeah. Pretty ridiculous way to break your neck, huh? I don’t even have an exciting story to go with it.” He nodded. “I know; I’m really bitter. Let’s change the subject. You said you gotta get exercise. You got health problems?”
“I…wow. I’m sorry, I’m kind of…having trouble keeping up.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m too abrupt and ask too many personal questions. Just tell me to fuck off. I won’t mind.”
“Well…no. I’m not going to do that. Uh, I don’t think I have any major health problems, except for my weight and my borderline high blood pressure. I just had my physical a few days ago, and my doctor told me I was at the age where I’d start having problems if I didn’t get into shape.” I laughed. “I can’t believe I’m saying all this.”
“Well, I…I’m sorry, but I don’t know you, and I’m, well, I’m a very private person.”
“Trey Gillespie.” He held out his right hand, palm down. I touched his knuckles with mine, the way I’d seen hip-hop stars do on TV.
“Elliot Finell,” I said.
“Nice to meet you. So do you ever run when you come out here?”
“No, I never run if I can help it.”
“Don’t like running, huh? That’d help you lose weight faster, you know.”
“Yeah, but I broke my legs pretty badly when I was a kid.”
“Yeah? How’d you do that?”
“Fell out of a tree house. When I run, my legs hurt. They hurt most of the time, actually, but worse when I run.” I never spoke about my legs. Trey had bewitched me. He was a medicine man!
And now he was an angry, evil medicine man again. “Don’t tell me about pain! I live with total pain twenty-four hours a day!”
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry to hear that.” The spell he’d cast rooted me to the spot, preventing me from shutting up and walking away.
“Yeah, my whole body hurts from the neck down, all the time. You ever burned your finger? My whole body feels like that, like I been burned. Burned and smashed, like when you hit your thumb with a hammer. My whole body throbs. I can’t sleep, I can’t lie down, I can’t sit up, I can’t do anything. I couldn’t even leave my house for four years after my accident except to go to the doctor. I seen a hundred doctors, easy. I had twenty-five operations. They tried everything. I had a morphine pump implanted. I had electrical therapy. I had my nerves severed. I’ve tried every painkiller, every single one. I been to every single pain clinic in Southern California. Nothing works.”
“That’s really terrible,” I said, picturing my hands over my ears. Or over his mouth.
“In half a second, I lost everything. I lost my health, my girlfriend, my ability to work. I lost my ability just to have a life. All because I was too chicken to tell my father to cram it. Well, I had enough of this shit.”
I didn’t respond.
“Yeah, I had enough of this shit,” he said again.
“Um. I’m sure you have.”
“My father croaked ten years ago. Car accident. Drunk. I made his life miserable. Every chance I got, I reminded him what he did to me. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore and moved out, and about a week after that, he was dead. Too bad. I wish he was here now, so he could see what I’m gonna do.”
“That sounds…pretty ominous.”
He sipped water, shook his head. “Nah, nothing ominous about it. I’m just gonna…well, let’s just say I’m gonna write the last chapter of this stupid story. Pretty soon now. Time to take care of business once and for all.”
“Ah.” I had to get away from him. Immediately.
“Shit,” he said, “I know I’m bumming you out with this. I can see it in your face.”
“No, it’s, I…it’s just that I have to go! I have an appointment!” I didn’t know if I was screaming or not.
“Okay. Are you going to come out here some more, or have I scared you off?”
I was an open book to him. “No, I’ll be coming out every day,” I said.
“Well, if you want, why don’t you stop by on my side of the street sometime? I was over on this side today to say hi to someone, but I’m always on the other side. I wanna hear more about frequency marketing.”
“Sure.” My armpits and belly ran with sweat, and my knees were about to fold.
“Great. Take it easy, man.”
On the way home, I pondered the fact that I’d have to pass Trey every afternoon. No other street led to the hotel at the top of the hill. I’d have to talk to him again and listen to some hideous explanation of what he meant by taking care of business once and for all. It couldn’t be any worse than what I was about to do.
Though I’d covered less than two miles, I was exhausted. The handful of berry-flavored antacids I gobbled in my kitchen had no effect on the bubbling sensation in my chest, and an ice-cold shower didn’t stop the sweat from rolling off my face and down my sides. As I dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, I rehearsed the speech I’d give in about half an hour. My sense of fair play nagged at me; I should’ve chosen a suit and tie or a pink tutu, an outfit that served as an inoculative pre-shock. To walk in on her as my everyday self and then unload was to perpetrate an ambush. But I was too fat for my suits, and I didn’t know where to buy a tutu with a forty-six-inch waist.
I got in my ancient Toyota and found that I was unable to begin the drive out to Valley Village. My hand refused to turn the ignition key. Starting the car would set in motion a sequence of events that would culminate in the end of everything. My Toyota was a bomb; the explosion would be slow and gentle, I knew, but it’d kill us anyway.
The bomb didn’t have to be detonated. Nothing had to change. It wasn’t my responsibility. Everything could stay as it was. I could get out of the car, retreat to my back porch with my laptop, and write, gazing at the cactus and aloe in my garden, watching the hummingbirds until the sun set.
For a few rapturous seconds, I believed my own lies. Then I started the engine.
I had to kill us or let her die.
We were in the living room of her condo; she sat at her desk with her arms folded, and I was on the leather sofa, where I’d given her three orgasms the previous evening. While I delivered my speech, she stared out the sliding glass door that opened to the balcony. On clear nights we’d go out there and take turns gazing at the moon with her telescope. Hers was much more powerful than mine.
“And I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been really concerned,” I finished.
She didn’t say anything or look at me; the gentle explosion was in progress. I rubbed my left shoulder, which had begun aching in the past few minutes. Under stress I often became so rigid, I actually pulled muscles. The tension of waiting for her to speak also made me light-headed and nauseated.
Finally, she cleared her throat. “Well, I don’t know how you expect me to react to this. I really don’t. You’ve totally blindsided me. All of a sudden, I don’t even know who you are. You were the last person I ever would’ve expected to go behind my back.”
…Ah evuh woulda ’spected to go b’hind mah back. When she was upset, her North Carolina accent thickened until it was like a rich, golden batter. She also talked that way when she was very happy. After her third orgasm the night before, she’d smiled sleepily, put her lips on my ear, and rumbled, “Whatcha been snackin’ on, man, oh-sters? Hoo-ee.” I loved listening to her. It didn’t matter what she said; even now, expressing her shock and betrayal, she gave me an erection that I hid under a throw pillow. Her smooth timbre and indestructible Southern graciousness were more potent than any little blue pill.
“I can’t believe you’d actually go so far as to spy on me,” she went on, calm as ever. “In my own home. After I basically let you move in with me. For once I open the door to someone, and look what happens. That’s what hurts so much.”
I felt her pain in a bolt that shot from my jaw all the way through my left arm and down to my fingertips. My hands tingled and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was about to faint from shame.
“Tell me again, how long have you been doing this?” she asked, still not looking at me.
“About two months,” I said, massaging my chest.
“About two months. Let’s see…that’s almost sixty nights, give or take, that you went through my cupboards and my garbage. How did that make you feel, doing that?”
“Awful.” A sensation of prickly cold spread across my forehead and cheeks, down my neck, and over my thorax. Oily pearls of sweat popped out of my skin. A jagged rock formed under my sternum, and my left arm was squeezed in an invisible vise.
“You felt awful,” she said with what sounded like genuine sympathy. “I should think you would. All that sneakin’ around while I was asleep in bed, totally unsuspecting, after we’d made love and I’d told you again how happy I was that we’d found each other.”
I wanted her to shriek at me, to turn purple with rage and sock me in the nose, but she seemed only mildly regretful, as if she’d missed a TV show that she’d kind of wanted to see. It chilled me to my core, made me look for a wastebasket to vomit into.
“Well, you’re concerned about me, so I presume the next step is that you want me to get help, right?” she said.
“Ow,” I said.
She turned and frowned. It was the first change in her face since I gave the opening statement of my speech. “You’re all gray and sweaty,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“No. I’m pretty sure I’m having a heart attack.” I laughed.
For an instant she registered a kind of guilty horror, the look of someone whose dark wish had been unexpectedly granted.
She leaped to her feet. “Oh my God! Are you serious?”
“As serious as a heart attack. Ha. Owww.”
“Elliot, after what you just pulled, if you’re messin’ with me, man, so help me God, I’ll slap your face off!”
I wrapped my arms around my swelling, tightening, airless chest. “I’m not kidding. I’m having a heart attack. My left arm and my chest hurt, and I can’t breathe. I think I’m going to die.”
“Godawmighty. Don’t move. Just sit there.” She snatched up the phone next to her computer. “My boyfriend’s having a heart attack. We need an ambulance. Yes, I’m positive. His skin’s all gray and he’s having chest pains and he can’t breathe.”
After she gave her address, it happened for at least the eight-hundredth time that I’d known her. “Gary Pruett. No, not Carrie. Gary. G-A-R-Y. Yes, like the man’s name. Yes, I’m a woman!”
I laughed again as tears of terror flowed into my beard. Gary scowled at me, clawing at her hair.
“Why do you care how weird my name is?” she snapped into the receiver. “What’s wrong with you? Just send the ambulance. Okay. Okay.”
She raced out. I heard her crash around in the bathroom, dropping things into the sink and running the water. She burst back in and thrust two white tablets at me.
“Aspirin. Open your mouth.” She shoved them past my lips. “Chew ’em up real good, now. Come on.” I chewed, and she gave me a sip of water to wash down the dry bitterness. She set the glass on the coffee table and vaulted onto the sofa next to me. “Hold on, sugar. The ambulance is coming.” I leaned against her; she pulled me into her chest, her powerful arms wrapped around me like metal straps.
“I’m sorry, Gary,” I wailed. “I’m sorry. Oh my God, I’m going to die. I’m sorry about everything. I’m sorry about spying on you. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Owwwww-wow, Christ.”
I put my head in her lap and curled up like a fetus. She rocked me, shushed me, told me to relax. I wasn’t going to die. Everything was going to be all right.
“I wet my pants!” I blubbered. “God, I wet my pants!”
“Don’t worry about it,” she soothed. “It doesn’t matter. Shhh. You’re gonna be fine, Elliot. Shhh.” I cried and apologized, waiting for the sudden plunge into blackness or the fiery pit, while Gary stroked my head and whispered something long and rhythmic, like a chant.
“I can’t make out what you’re saying,” I said into her crotch. I could smell her through her sweatpants. In my wet jeans, another insane erection stirred.
“I’m just praying,” she said.
“That won’t work. I haven’t been to church in twenty years. God hates me.”
“Well, then how about some of my gramma’s Irish blessings?”
“Uh…um…okay. May the blessing of light be upon you, light without and light within.”
“Nice. More, please,” I gasped.
“May the blessing of the great rains be upon you, that they beat upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean, and leave there many a shining pool and sometimes a star.”
“May the blessed sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart until it glows, like a great peat fire, so that the stranger as well as the friend may come and warm himself at it.”
A clamor of pounding, doorbell ringing, and muffled shouts, as though a jealous husband had found us. Gary gently slid out from under me and ran into the foyer. Two obese paramedics sailed into the living room with a collapsible wheeled stretcher.
“How you doin’, pal?” one of them asked.
“Never better,” I said.
They both laughed and piled equipment around me.
“Okay, we’re gonna ask you a buncha questions and do a lotta poking and prodding to see what’s going on,” the heavier man said. His name tag read “Salazar.”
The other paramedic slipped an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose and took my pulse. “Any nausea?” he asked. His tag said he was Lee-Burnett.
“Pain in your upper arms, shoulders, neck, or jaws?”
“All of the above, especially on the left side.”
Salazar cut off my shirt with scissors. Next to him was a device that looked like a combination laptop and fax machine, with a dozen or so cables leading out of it. He stuck paper disks to my chest and attached the cables to them. “This is an electrocardiogram,” he said as he listened to my heart with a stethoscope.
“Feeling of anxiety or impending doom?” Lee-Burnett asked.
“No, they’re possible symptoms of myocardial infarction. Answer the question, please.”
“Yes, I do have a feeling of anxiety and a feeling of impending doom.”
The electrocardiogram spat out a piece of paper with jagged mountain peaks sketched in black ink. Salazar studied it.
“Yup,” he said. “You’re having a heart attack.”
“Marvelous,” I whimpered.
“We’re gonna give you some medication and take you to the hospital. You need more treatment than we can give you here.”
“I already gave him two aspirin,” Gary said from behind him.
Lee-Burnett smiled at her. “Good thinking. Do you have medical training?”
“I’m a copywriter,” she answered.