Cripple, fiction by Jeff Wallace

You got any­thing for me?” I asked Kyle. I was sit­ting in his wheel­chair and he was lying in bed. He was pret­ty well naked, but he was gen­er­al­ly naked when he was at home. Maybe some sweat­pants, some­times. But right then he’d just got out of the show­er, and lay there under just his sheet.

There’s some T-3’s in that bot­tle,” he said, point­ing towards the shelf on the far side of his room. His grand­pa was down in kitchen, just a short ways off his room, and was mak­ing din­ner. Saman­tha was help­ing him. “You got any­thing for me?” he asked.

I put a five dol­lar bill on the bed, just out of his reach and I stood, the straight­en­ing of my knees push­ing the chair back­wards and away. I walked across the room and shook two pills from the bot­tle. I chewed them like Tums and walked back to the side of his bed. If I was to get him out of the house tonight, first I’d have to get him dressed.

Saman­tha,” he hollered. He didn’t reach for the five or even watch me as I moved. His eyes were tuned to his TV, his mouth towards the door. He nev­er turned that TV off, not even when he had his radio on. It was a con­stant roar in the lit­tle room. The pan­el­ing shook, and the heavy cig­a­rette smoke, pulsed.

I’m hur­ry­ing,” she shout­ed back.

I hadn’t seen her except when she opened the door to his room for me. She had been dressed plain and easy, a sim­ple white t-shirt and jeans, but she still looked good. I don’t know how he got her to stay, she just seemed to stay. But for what one don’t know.

Hur­ry up, God­damn it. I can’t take my pills with­out any food,” he said, all of us know­ing he didn’t need not one more. But what’s a per­son gonna tell a crip­ple?

Kyle had got hurt when the skid­der he was run­ning had tipped over. He’d rolled down a hill, the roof land­ing on him at the bot­tom. When I’d heard, I’d pic­tured the top of that yel­low Cater­pil­lar tip­ping and com­ing down on him like a jaw. It had near­ly bit him in half. When I’d heard, I kept think­ing about night crawlers and how we’d pinch them in two when we fished. He would have died if his boss hadn’t found him and called the para­medics. He was lucky.

You need to get out of here,” I said. “Get your shit togeth­er, and let’s get.

You going to dress me? It’ll be fun.” It wasn’t exact­ly humor filled. His black hair hung loose almost to his shoul­ders. It had been long before the acci­dent, but he had refused to cut it since. “Hand me my cow­boy hat,” he said, point­ing towards a black Stet­son on the floor to my right. I didn’t move. Saman­tha would help him change after she brought him din­ner. I would go and sit with his grand­pa while she was doing it. He would ask me about my folks, about my long gone broth­er. But the whole time I would be think­ing about her rolling him, shift­ing him. Even­tu­al­ly she would come get me and we would go.

You’re going all-out tonight, then?” I asked Kyle, straight.

If you’re gonna go, it might as well be all the way.” He turned his face towards the door then back to me. “Where in the fuck is my chick­en?” he asked. His eyes, dark brown, looked flaked.

***

We got to McNeal’s about mid­night. Kyle didn’t get up before late after­noon any day of the week, so mid­night was the mid­dle of his day. I was tired, and not just because the pills had start­ed to work through me. But my nose was itch­ing. The thing about pills like that, at least as far as I’m con­cerned, isn’t that they make you feel bet­ter. A lot of the time they just make things bear­able. Smoother. Life gets to be like the sound of ice skates, if that makes sense.

Kyle had sat beside me dur­ing the dri­ve over, while Saman­tha had been wedged in the back­seat with his wheel-chair. We took my car because her car was too small for the four of us, if you count the wheel chair as one. She had to sit in the broke down pieces for every­thing to fit. My trunk was full of clothes, so we had jammed it into the seat.

The unload­ing was tougher than the load­ing. I didn’t know what to do to help Saman­tha, so I just stood back. He near­ly hit the ground when the board he used to slide him­self into his chair tilt­ed back. He caught him­self on the top of my door. I heard the cheap met­al of my car bow, his weight bend­ing some­thing.

That door ain’t gonna shut right,” he said. He arranged him­self in the chair. I start­ed to walk and Kyle didn’t roll for­ward, just sat there look­ing.

Do it your­self,” I said. But it wasn’t mean spir­it­ed.

I’ll do it, Jim­my,” Saman­tha said. She had changed from the t-shirt into a yel­low tank top. She had kept the jeans. I had watched from behind as she changed in Kyle’s room. She hadn’t been shy about it. She turned around and pulled her shirt off. Her browned skin was white where her bra line was. Angry red bands stood out on her shoul­ders from the straps. I could see light hairs form­ing a v-shape above the waist of her jeans. Kyle didn’t even look.

Push me, woman,” Kyle said, and I shook my head.

Saman­tha didn’t say a word, just grabbed the chair’s han­dles, and pushed through the wet grass. I thought she would slip in the dew, but she didn’t. He pulled a cig­a­rette from a pouch some­where on the chair and strug­gled to light it as she worked her way to the back­yard. We could hear the music and talk­ing from where we were. The McNeal’s were rich. They’d gone to Ten­nessee for the week, a vaca­tion, and left their only boy to watch the house. He had his own place out­side of town, but was throw­ing a par­ty like he was still in high school.

Peo­ple will think that I’m shittin’em,” Kyle said. He couldn’t get the cig­a­rette lit, the jostling of the chair mak­ing his hands bounce and the tip of itdance.

They all know,” I said. Not very many peo­ple vis­it­ed him now.

Lots of peo­ple came in the begin­ning, but as time wore on, and the nov­el­ty, some­thing, wore off, few­er and few­er came. Now it was me, Saman­tha, and a cou­ple more. Our oth­er good friend, Dale, had moved away pret­ty recent­ly. He went sober and moved to Colum­bus. It seems fun­ny to move to a city to get sober, but some­times it works. It’s not real­ly the sober part that’s sur­pris­ing, it’s that he was able to stay out.

It used to be that the three of us, Dale, Kyle and me. Once, when Dale, Kyle and I lived togeth­er, Dale and I talked about Kyle and Saman­tha. This was before the acci­dent. I told him that Kyle didn’t deserve Saman­tha and he said I was right. Kyle was cheat­ing on her with some lit­tle blonde. That girl was mar­ried to a guy in the army. He was in the Iraq, and Kyle was sleep­ing with his wife. She kept see­ing him after the acci­dent, even after Saman­tha moved in. She didn’t stop until she saw Saman­tha put a catheter in him. Dale had said that Saman­tha would look a lot bet­ter if she’d lose the ten pounds she’d put on since grad­u­a­tion. “I’m not say­ing she ain’t good look­ing, I’m just say­ing we’d all be bet­ter off with a lit­tle less extra poundage.”

But he wasn’t going to be here, and Saman­tha didn’t need to lose any weight.

Well, hel­lo there,” Kyle said, laugh­ing as we turned the cor­ner of the house. A fire was burn­ing close to the deck of an above ground pool. Extra wood lay under­neath the deck, up to the edge of the pool. Even though it was hot and there was a fire, the pool was emp­ty except for the dozens of float­ing beer cans. Trucks were cir­cled like wag­ons in the grass, their lights all point­ing inwards towards the fire. The music blared from the trucks’ radios. It was pret­ty orga­nized for that group, all the radios on the same local sta­tion that played new coun­try. One truck, a red-cabbed flat-bed dual­ly, was backed up to the very edge of the pool. The tre­ble on its radio was threat­en­ing to shred the speak­ers.

I need some­thing to drink. You want any­thing?” I asked them.

See if any­one has a bot­tle of wine I can buy,” Kyle said.

I’ll get my own,” Saman­tha said. Peo­ple who hadn’t been to see Kyle were begin­ning to inch towards us.

I had always thought Saman­tha was tough, but these last few months proved it. Her father had left when she was young, and then every­thing that hap­pened with her own grand­pa, but she didn’t talk about it. Real­ly, she didn’t talk much. But when she did, she seemed hap­pi­er than she had any right to be.

I walked away from them, try­ing to get lost in the par­ty. My head buzzed from the drugs, I knew I would get sick even­tu­al­ly, but didn’t care. I went around and thought about beg­ging beers. I didn’t real­ly talk to any­one, but I wasn’t the most pop­u­lar guy in the world. I stood next to the fire, kicked at it, made sure it kept burn­ing. I watched Kyle and Saman­tha. She stood behind him, drink­ing slow­ly from a bot­tle, and he held court. That’s what it looked like any­way.

***

It’s eas­i­er to get lost in a par­ty of thir­ty than peo­ple think. Some­body had turned the out­side lights of the house on. Peo­ple had been pour­ing in and out of the first floor. It was begin­ning to become a mess.

I’d sur­prised myself by not drink­ing. I’d got to talk­ing with some boys I’d gone to school with, Tur­ley and some oth­er Jenk­ins. It may have been one of his broth­ers. All those boys seem to get rolled up. Big and tall the lot of them. But I’d rode those pills out and was begin­ning to feel myself.

Tur­ley was near­ly kin now. He was gonna mar­ry a cousin of mine, or so the sto­ry went. After what my uncle had done to him after he got my cousin preg­nant, I don’t see how he could. I would’ve been scared to come with­in a mile of the girl, but Tur­ley still kept hang­ing around. I’d asked them if they had any wine, final­ly, feel­ing guilty. Tur­ley had laughed and had walked into the house. He brought a bot­tle back out and held it by its neck. His hands looked big enough to wrap the neck twice and strong enough to wring the cork straight out.

I found it,” he said. “Swear to God. Right there on the ground. Just lay­ing. Some­one must have dropped it.” His cousin or his broth­er slapped him on the shoul­der, laugh­ing. I grinned back at them. Their arms thick as rolled rope, seemed to grow like branch­es out of their t-shirts.

Take care of that baby cousin of mine,” I said. I took the bot­tle by its bot­tom

Tur­ley count­ed up on the fin­gers of his just emp­tied hand. Count­ed up through four, and when he got to his thumb he looked at me, seri­ous as a heart attack, “Which one?”

I stared at him. I knew he was jok­ing, try­ing to rile me. I spun the bot­tle in my hand. The label on it looked weath­ered. I won­dered if it was old or if it was just treat­ed to seem that way. It rasped as I spun it, the edges catch­ing on the hack-sawed edges of my nails.

You love that lit­tle girl?” I point­ed the sealed cork at him. The red and pur­ple foil caught the light from the fire. It would flash and crin­kle gold.

Aww,” he said. He moved towards me, slight­ly down the long aching hill that end­ed some­where off this ridge, down in some hol­low some­where. “That baby’s mine,” he said. He turned and seemed to look at the pool. “That ought to be enough.” The broth­er walked off, know­ing when, I sup­pose, to leave some­thing alone.

I hope it is,” I said. I wasn’t sure what I was pro­tect­ing, or even if I was.

Let’s open that thing,” he said. He jerked it out of my hand and walked back towards the house. I fol­lowed him. He walked straight in the slid­ing glass doors straight into the kitchen. His big work boots, light brown and leather, thumped across the hard­wood of the kitchen. There were oth­er peo­ple inside. Hid off in bed­rooms and on couch­es. The glow of a TV quiv­ered around a cor­ner. Tur­ley dug through the draw­ers swear­ing.

God­damn,” he said, “folks as rich as this ought to have a corkscrew laid out in the open.”

Yeah, I reck­on they ought’a,” I said. The kitchen and the din­ing room were near­ly on top of each oth­er. There was a lit­tle table that looked out onto the lawn and the pool, and I sat down in one of the wood­en chairs. The seats of them were faced with cush­ions, blue and red checks. They were tied to the backs of the seats by rib­bons. It felt almost like I was sit­ting in the kitchen.

The hard­wood stretched through both, and it all smelled like lemons and bleach. I thought back on that lit­tle trail­er that we used to share, me, Kyle and Dale. Cig­a­rettes and whiskey. It’s not such a bad smell when you get used to it. Sweet warm beer, sticky in the morn­ing sun. The table was clean and smooth, not even crumbs from their toast or sug­ar from their cof­fee.

Found one,” he said. He held both up to me. The corkscrew was ivory han­dled and shaped like a ‘t’. The screw of it seemed about two inch­es too long. There was a roar from out­side, and I heard a truck rum­ble to life. I didn’t look out­side, afraid the fire had done some­thing. “This thing’s worth more than both of us put togeth­er,” he said.

Tur­ley stabbed the cork through the foil work­ing it in, set­ting his jaw like a man who was enjoy­ing his work, a plea­sure from a job hard done. He tugged twice, then a long slow shud­der­ing pull, and the cork popped out. He smelled it, wav­ing it in front of his nose. “Very fine year, sir. Some of the best wine I’ve ever found.” The tip of the screw had burst through the under side. Pieces of cork clung to it. I was afraid he would catch the end of his nose. He didn’t get glass­es, just sat down beside me, col­laps­ing his long body into this family’s kitchen chairs.

So how about you, Jim­my? You got a woman?” He drank, the green rim of the bot­tle hid­den behind his lips. His black hair was shaved short. It was sum­mer. His kid was six months old.

I don’t know,” I said. I took the bot­tle from him. I want­ed to wipe it off, but then thought how that would look, him near­ly my own blood, and just drank. I could feel it in my teeth, the acid of the wine bit­ing my tongue and my gums, burn­ing and hurt­ing. “No.” I said.

Aww,” he said. “But I saw you look­ing at that lit­tle girl out there. Your boy’s girl,” he start­ed snap­ping his fin­gers, look­ing down and away. The TV in the oth­er room was laugh­ing and blue, foot­steps thumped upstairs, and for a sec­ond my world lurched and I won­dered if this was what life was real­ly like. “What’s her name,” he said. “Grand­pa just died?”

Saman­tha.” I said.

Yeah, Saman­tha. I seen the way you look at her.”

Just look­ing,” I said. I hand­ed the bot­tle back to him. “You know how it is.”

He drank from the bot­tle. I watched the apple on his throat move up and down as he drank the McNeal’s wine. When he low­ered it there was red around his lips. His teeth were stained pur­ple. “I know,” he said.

There was third roar from out­side, this time loud­er and I looked out. The flat-bed truck, raised high on its sus­pen­sion, had been backed clos­er to the edge of the pool. Peo­ple were div­ing in off of the flat of the back. It was somebody’s dad’s work truck. Kyle had posi­tioned him­self next to the wheel-well. I could see him shout­ing up at the four boys in the back of the truck. They were all stripped down to their under­wear. One was in briefs, the oth­er three in box­ers. The red and brown hair of their heads was slicked back. They glowed in the light from the fire which had grown con­sid­er­ably. It had worked its way up to the deck, smol­der­ing and scorch­ing the treat­ed lum­ber. Every­one seemed to know what was going to hap­pen, but no one cared.

I stood up from the table, the chair push­ing back and away from me. Tur­ley seemed to say some­thing to me as I walked out. I slid the door hard, angry at what was going to hap­pen. It banged into the house, and I gri­maced think­ing about the sound of all that plate glass. Saman­tha was at the truck, her shoul­ders bare­ly com­ing to the door han­dles. I could see the mud stick­ing to the under­side of it. She was try­ing to talk to Kyle. The four boys jumped down bare­foot and heaved him up onto the wood­en bed. I jogged to the bed, lick­ing my lips try­ing to get the stain off.

Kyle was in the back of the truck, the light from the grow­ing fire lick­ing at the treat­ed lumber—swelling up around it—and he was smil­ing. He was wear­ing his cow­boy hat but had tak­en off his shirt. The scars from the acci­dent looked pur­ple in the light. There were four round scars the size of quar­ters from his chest tubes. There were scars run­ning down his bel­ly dis­ap­pear­ing into his sweats where they had fixed his pelvis. I could see scar run­ning down his shoul­ders, dis­ap­pear­ing onto his back. It’s hard to tell some­times where the doc­tors stop and the acci­dent starts.

The oth­er boys scram­bled back onto the bed. I looked at Saman­tha.

He won’t lis­ten,” she said.

Goin’ all out,” Kyle shout­ed. The music bounced into the heady night air. He leaned for­ward. “You all want to see some­thing crazy?” He start­ed to push at the wheels as hard as he could. The bed was sev­en feet, and when he’d reached the end, he’d bare­ly reached any kind of speed at all. The chair seemed to tip off the back of the truck. One wheel caught the alu­minum edge of the pool, snap­ping him down into the utter black of the water, his voice, dis­ap­peared a sud­den. The music kept up, so did the sound of the flames. No one moved.

The chair float­ed to the sur­face, the seats on it lift­ing it, but Kyle didn’t come back up. I felt Samantha’s hand on my arm. I wasn’t sure whether she was hold­ing or push­ing but I went. The boys on the truck didn’t move. I heard Tur­ley shut the door to the house, the same rasp­ing and slap­ping sound it had made for me. I lunged over the edge, my knees bang­ing and shak­ing the whole thing.

I didn’t go under but for a moment. My shoes find­ing the bot­tom, my hands find­ing Kyle, his arms thrash­ing and beat­ing in the water. He struck at me hand and at my wrists. My fin­gers slipped over his skin. I felt his scars, the soft and always ten­der lumps of his flesh. The pink puck­ers of skin where the doc­tors had fixed what was near­ly ruined. I dug at him, going under final­ly, into the ink of the water, grab­bing him not with my hands but my arms. I raised him up in an embrace, grip­ping him tight under his arms. We came out of the water togeth­er, his legs touch­ing mine like ten­ta­cles. I remem­bered when we were kids, fight­ing and rolling with him, test­ing each oth­er like ani­mals.

He sput­tered water into my face. “I’m swim­ming, Jim­my,” he said. His long black hair streaked back from his rais­ing straight from the water. It made him look younger. His face was near­ly translu­cent, and I won­dered the last time he’d seen the sun.

You was drown­ing, Kyle,” I said. He was taller than me. I had for­got­ten. I could feel his thighs bend­ing back and away from me as I held him, my hands locked behind his back. I looked first to the deck, but the flames had cov­ered it. The crowd had moved to watch it instead of Kyle. They were cheer­ing it to go, hop­ing it on. I car­ried and pulled him towards the truck, the water sick­en­ing­ly warm. Saman­tha watched us, watched him. She glanced at me and nod­ded, sharp and hard. She was ask­ing for him. I stopped, the waves push­ing us togeth­er, lap­ping at us. The warmth of the fire made me think that it would cir­cle us, sur­round us, the alu­minum, melt­ing and drip­ping into the grass, the edges, bow and bend, before they gave  way, and the two of us would be washed out and rushed towards Saman­tha, towards her feet, a mess of arms and legs. But the real light from the flames cast her shad­ow back and away, up the slight rise towards the house. It stretched to Tur­ley, the dark bot­tle in his hand—Turley, who watched us all now, was cov­ered in the ink of her.

Jeff Wal­lace received his MA in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and his MFA in Fic­tion from Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of numer­ous short sto­ries and has been pub­lished in mag­a­zines such as The Louisville ReviewAppalachi­an Her­itageKey­hole Mag­a­zine, Plain Spoke, and in such online jour­nals as New South­ern­er, and Still:The Jour­nal. He lives in Mt. Orab, Ohio with his wife Emi­ly, son Oscar, and mutt Mem­phis. He cur­rent­ly teach­es at South­ern State Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege and is work­ing on his first nov­el The True Sto­ry of the Appalachi­an Rev­o­lu­tion.

 

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5 Responses to Cripple, fiction by Jeff Wallace

  1. Jeff Wallace says:

    Hey, guys. Thanks for the kind words. If you like my work, head over to here:
    http://​www​.stilljour​nal​.net/​j​e​f​f​-​w​a​l​l​a​c​e​-​f​i​c​t​i​o​n​.​php
    Anoth­er one of my pieces from a while back. Hope you like it–
    Jeff.

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  3. Wendy says:

    This pulled me in and held me under. Loved it.

  4. Ginger Hamilton Caudill says:

    I like authen­tic details about para­ple­gia (one of my sons is a para­plegic). I enjoyed this sto­ry and, like Misty, want­ed to keep read­ing.

  5. Misty Marie says:

    just wow. i want­ed to keep read­ing and read­ing this one.

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