"The atom bomb fell just the other day,
The H-Bomb fell in the very same way;
Russia went, England went, and then the U.S.A.
The human race was finished without a chance to pray.
But the cat came back, the very next day."
– Folk Song
In the weeks following his accident, Tony becomes a regular fixture at my house: "It's the only place on the block with a wheelchair ramp," he said when I asked him why he hadn't left for three days. I haven't mentioned it since.
I admit that there is truth to Tony's claim, that our neighborhood isn't an easy place to be handicapped. He used to live next door until he lost the ability to climb the spiral stairway that snaked up to his one-room apartment, and now I'm not sure where he goes when he's not sleeping on my sofa and eating my yogurt – without asking, I might add. But Tony wasn't considerate with four working limbs, so I don't know why I would expect him to change now that he only has two. He leaves skid marks on my hardwood floors, wheeling back and forth with such urgency that sometimes he crashes into the walls, only to rebound and resume his game a second later.
"I'm pacing," he tells me.
"You're not pacing. You're, uh, rolling."
He likes this. I can tell by the way he stops, grinding his teeth with his eyes clenched shut. Then they flutter open and look like butterflies. "Yeah!" he says. "You can't stop a runaway train!" He barrels towards me and I have to jump out of the way, but he doesn't notice me scowling at him. "Toot, toot! All aboard!" He starts to sing, an old campfire song: "First the train hit the track, then it jumped the rail. Not a soul was left behind to tell the gruesome tale."
His train sure did hit the rail, but what I want to know is: where was it going in the first place? No clue. In the song it goes west, but Tony and I are already west – right at the edge of things. I can see the ocean from my upstairs window and remember that even James K. Polk couldn't figure out how to thrust a railroad through it. Manifest Destiny, he said, giving a name to something so obvious it never needed one. I know all destiny is manifest: hurtling to the edge of a continent and crashing into the Pacific like a brick wall, Tony hurtling into my bookshelf, every one of us rolling in an out-of-control wheelchair to our graves. What I also know is how the song ends: the cat comes back the very next day.
Why? I think, and answer my own question: Why not? Nowhere left to go.
"They thought he was a goner," Tony croons, "but he just couldn't stay away, away, away!"
It's like he owns the place and has to keep tabs on everything that's going on, all the time: the way the books are organized on the shelves, the precise angle of the half opened door, the speed of the ceiling fan. I mean, the guy is reading my mail! I begin to associate the word "upstairs" with "sanctuary." I notice the subtle mechanics of how my legs work and appreciate it fully for the first time: flexing my ankle, bending my knee, what a marvel!
I also see a lot of Doug, who is Tony's new friend from rehab. He's nice enough, but when the two of them get together it can be a little tiresome. Doug is always making dumb jokes and Tony laughs at them like it's a Laurel and Hardy sketch or something. One time when I'm making them iced tea I can't find the sugar and Tony has to show me where it is.
"Looks like he's got a leg up on you in the kitchen!" Doug remarks, and they both scream with laughter until they are red in the face and panting. When they regain composure, Doug continues: "It's a good thing you don't have to buy any more sugar," he says. "That stuff can cost an arm and a leg!"
"HA!" Tony bellows. "More like two legs and no arms!" He pauses. "Do you get it, Doug? Because our arms work but not our legs?"
"THAT'S FUNNY!" Doug shrieks.
I feel absurd as I watch them, holding the pitcher of iced tea like a torch – like the Statue of Liberty, welcoming with open arms the tired and poor who show up on my doorstep, without really wanting them there. I try to join in. "You two could talk the legs off an iron pot!"
Silence falls over the room. Doug blinks. Tony sniggers.
Doug became a paraplegic when he was hit by a school bus full of handicapped children and the incident seems so purposefully ironic that he sometimes has a hard time believing that it happened at all. He leans forward in his chair, giving the constant impression that he's about to stand up. His spirits are high and he regards his condition with the same flippancy that he devotes to soap operas, game shows, anything unreal. Tony is another story. Although he remains generally buoyant, particularly when Doug is around, I know that his moods are more delicate and sometimes – when the sugar goes to his head – his jokes become almost bitter.
"This girl," he says, giving me a twisted smile. "She's something special. Most of 'em are happy just to break your heart, but she had to go and break my legs too!"
I want to protest: I know I didn't break your legs, Tony, and I hardly believe I broke your heart. But I can't bring myself to say it, so I refill his glass of iced tea and shuffle my feet uncomfortably. I think about the day after his accident, when I went to visit him in the hospital. I remember how well the room suited him, the fluorescent lights sharp and bright as his eyes.
"What the hell were you doing climbing onto my balcony?" I asked him.
"I was trying to scare you," he responded blankly, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.
"Do you… Did you do that often, to girls?"
"You were the first."
First and last. Tony's days of urban alpinism are over, and he likes to remind us of it.
"I don't ever want to look at another balcony!" he declares. "I don't ever want to look at another window!"
"What about that one?" Doug asks, pointing at the wall.
"Shut those blinds!" Tony aims his index finger in my direction like a loaded gun. "Come on, woman. I'd do it myself, but my goddamn legs don't work."
Somehow he has managed to make his condition contagious – the essence of it at least – and I find myself as indentured to him as he is to the wheelchair. Tony is there when I go downstairs for breakfast, there when I come home at the end of the day.
"Where have you been?" he demands.
"At work, Tony."
"Oh." He considers this briefly. "I forget that other people work since I'm such a goddamn useless cripple. I forget that other people have lives, you know?"
And then I'm comforting him. Why am I comforting him? I run my fingers through his hair and he purrs like a cat under my touch.
"You're not useless," I murmur. "You had a setback, but you'll get back on your…"
"On my what?"
"Feet," I finish, embarrassed. He gives me that old twisted smile and I believe for an instant that maybe he really does love me.
It's hard to tell when he's being serious. Sometimes I think everything he says is a joke and sometimes I don't think he understands what a joke is at all – or maybe no one does. I begin to wonder if something even has to be a joke to be funny. But anyway, I can't make heads or tails out of anything he tells me.
"I wish you were a cripple too," he says as I pet him.
He rolls his head back on the sofa cushion, watching me with a gaze that feels intrusive, incomprehensible, like blunt force. I am tongue-tied and think wildly that he is touching me with his eyes.
"You'd look good with wheels," he says finally. "It's like you said, you can't pace with them."
"Thanks, Tony. I think I'll keep my legs."
"You can only go on wheels." He quotes Rimbaud: "Il faut etre absolument moderne!"
"Pacing is modern," I say.
"No. It's modernist. Rolling is modern. Do you know what? Ever since I met Doug, I believe in God."
I give a snort. "Christ, Tony. God isn't modern."
"Mine is," he shrugs. "I just know he's real. I just know there's some sick bastard sitting up there, getting a real kick out of all this."
I don't know what to say to him anymore. I close my eyes and imagine myself as I see him: crippled. We are both in our wheelchairs tearing down a mountain somewhere, swerving to avoid trees and stray rocks – neither one of us going ahead of the other, and why should we? We're going to the same place.
We are laughing.
BIO: S. B. Brody is a hapless young San Franciscan currently lost somewhere in the Northeast, where she is often cold. Her work has also appeared in Eunoia Review.