Breath & Shadow
Winter 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 1
I’m the leader of a loose coalition of the mouthiest, most opinionated blind, deaf, quad and para people you’ll ever meet. I’m sure Joe’s Coffee where we gather would rather we were a bunch of stoned Hell’s Angels. We get worked up. We bump things. Sometimes we spill things. We take up a lot of room. Special chairs. Crutches. Blind Sonja has her white cane. Deaf Yves has his dog. It’s a hoot to be with everyone at the noon time rush. I guess one of us with a cranky two-year old in a high chair would be wishing too much.
It was into this mix that Marcus arrived, appointed pro bono by the law firm where he articled, a firm famous for winning tough right-to-accommodate suits. He looked lawyerly in a legal aid sort of way—expensive black suit jacket, a wrinkled white collar shirt, black jeans, short black hair, combed over fifties-style. He was youthful, a small man, tiny hands. We usually don’t let outsiders in, but we were going after a city councilor who decided wheelchair users in bicycle lanes should be ticketed and we planned to go as far as we could, berating him as a petty, ignorant prick—darling of the cheerful people who rode bicycles to save the planet, and who, likely with glee, imagined the satisfaction they’d get kicking granny in the head as they passed her. Poor granny in her wheelchair, too many people on the sidewalk, too many sandwich boards to navigate safely. (Perhaps I exaggerate. I can be dramatic, but drama is a trait of winning protests.) Anyway, Marcus could be helpful. He could guide us along the legal no-cross line of slander, not that all of us cared, but it was good to know the location of that line. We planned to demonstrate, hand out leaflets, write letters, even try to get some of the official disability organizations on board. Most of them are wimps. They get funding from the city and the United Way. They abhor controversy. They find us useful, though, like cousins from the country who skillfully trap the rats in their backyards, but who they’d never invite to summer barbecues.
At the end of our most recent meeting at Joe’s Coffee, I was sending messages to local media on my iPhone about plans we’d finalized for a protest at city hall. The rest of the gang had left. Marcus was gathering up his stacks of legal papers. A tall fellow with short and spikey hair, a couple of days’ beard, walked in and came over to our table. His blue and black checkered wool jacket smelled of wood shavings.
“You look like you’re about done,” the man said to Marcus.
Marcus looked up. “Oh yeah, hi. Just in time.”
“Are you heading home, Charlie?”Marcus asked me. “You live in Centertown, right?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Us, too. We’ll give you a lift.”
I nodded, finished the last of my texts and got my forearm crutches on.
“Oh, Charlie, Steven. Steven,Charlie,” said Marcus.
“You have a good day, sweetie?” Marcus said to Steven when we got outside, his head on Steven’s shoulder.
“Not bad. The old man still thinks he owns the place, though.”
I was behind them. Marcus turned and said, “Steven is my boyfriend.”
Steven jabbed him with his elbow. “I hate that word. Christ, we’ve lived together for two years. ‘Boyfriend’ doesn’t cut it.” Steven winked at me. The car—a rusty, circa early 80s faux-paneled station wagon—was just around the corner. Half the backseat was taken up by a wooden rocking horse. It had red nostrils, shockingly black eyes, and a brown, stringy mane. Its blue paint was chipped and scabby. I laid my crutches on the floor and crawled in.
“Don’t mind that old thing. Steven picked it up. He restores antique furniture and things with his father. You just bought half the business from him, didn’t you, sweetie?” Marcus said from the front seat. “He’ll own it all when his dad retires.”
“When he kicks off, more like it,” said Steven. “I’m not putting another penny in unless I have to; unless, of course, my honey here coughs up and we kick the geezer out.” He leaned across and gave Marcus a kiss.
At my building, Marcus got out and opened my door. I handed him the crutches. He leaned in. “Hey Steven, we should have Charlie over for supper.”
“Yeah, it’d be great.” Steven reached a long arm over the seat and squeezed my knee. “We can be your gay friends.” He winked again.
“We’re just over on MacLaren, across from Dundonald Park. I’ll email you and we can fix a time,” Marcus said as I secured my crutches.
He got back in the front seat and waved. I glimpsed the black eyes of the rocking horse, iridescent under the street lamp, as the car pulled away. Were Steven’s winks flirtatious? I wondered.
For the event I dressed in my light purple—almost pink—t-shirt, khaki pants, and blue canvas sneakers. Why not look good?
I like to flirt. I’ve had an endless and meaningless string of girlfriends, drunken fucks, and dalliances. Apparently, this could mean I’m compensating, that I’m gay or bi at least, or so I read in a magazine.
Flirting with Steven would be powerful, I thought. He was, after all, able-bodied. I got around with strapped-on crutches. The women I bedded, now, were almost always aided by some sort of metal apparatus or used a wheelchair. I should have been ashamed. Why was I impressed, even remotely flattered for that matter, by the thought of an independent-biped taking a sexual interest in me? I was an activist.
I wrote news articles, editorials, and blogs for the e-magazine Urbania You Cripple Me! Hell, I co-founded the thing. I am not a person with a disability. I am disabled by icy sidewalks, little shops with stairs, crossing lights that run too short.
I decided against a taxi. There was an incline to tackle at first, but the weather was dry. Damp leaves and waxy bits of litter wouldn’t threaten my crutches to slip. Somerset Street was busy with vehicles and pedestrians exiting the city core after work; busses packed with people squeezing out at stops like blobs of toothpaste from a stressed tube. At the stop in front of the liquor store a young man in a powered wheelchair and two women with baby strollers waited, eyeing each other warily, like gunfighters.
Tobias is my man at the liquor store. .His younger brother and I played scrub hockey together at university. I pulled out a twenty when he went to get my beer. “Here you are, dude,” he said, putting the beer in my packsack. “Remember, don’t drink and dive.” He never tired of the joke.
I passed the bus stop again—one of the women with a stroller was still there—and stepped on the curb. I crossed quickly.
Having crutches and funny legs—knees almost touching, ankles splayed apart like there was a two-foot rod welded between them—does wonders. Cars stop even when there are no traffic lights. I liked to think I was parting the Red Sea. Moses with two walking-staffs, six cans of Lakeport in his satchel because it’s dry in the desert.
At Dundonald Park a swarm of teenagers leaned on cars and sat on the curb halfway down to MacLaren Street. My only problem with them, really, was that the boys wore those oversized hoodies and those high-headed baseball caps with wide, flat brims. So fucking stupid looking. I walked on the paved path parallel to the sidewalk between the park’s grass border and the fenced-off children’s play area. Dusk made the red maple leaves on the path hard to see. The orange and yellow ones stood out like scraps of fancy wrapping paper.
One of the teenage girls ran right in front of me, brushing my chest with her shoulder, screaming, a baseball cap in her hand. I almost fell backward from the weight of the beer. A boy with untied sneakers, his jeans, the baggy, loose way they wear them now, well below his hips, came tripping after her. “You fucking cunt! Get down from there!” he screamed.
The girl had scrambled up a maple tree and was far out on a limb that reached over the play area. “Come and get it! I got the last pill. You popped the other one! You know you did!” Her eyes were agitated and dark.
“I didn’t. I didn’t! I love you, pussy.You know I do.”
“Come and get me then.”
I could have preached, of course, bellowed a stern warning, used a visual aid: me. Recklessness and heights could have amazing consequences, like when I mixed alcohol with racing with my friends before dawn toward a swimming pool we didn’t know was drained. I dove in. One moment I was a journalism student on scholarship, then I’m thinking it’s fanfuckingtastic it hasn’t rained and the leaves in Dundonald Park are dry beneath my crutches.
Marcus’ and Steven’s address on MacLaren was a two-story brick house. The stairs leading up to the porch were impossibly narrow. My crutches almost got stuck between the railings as I struggled up. I saw two mailboxes by the front door. “Christ, let them live on the first floor,”I mumbled. A sticker by one doorbell read ‘Johnson,’ the other ‘M&S.’ I pressed the bell and peered through sheer curtains. An inside door, off to the right, opened. It was Marcus.
“You made it, thank god. I don’t know why you wouldn’t let us pick you up.”
He held the door wide to let me through and did the same again as I entered their first floor flat. One of my crutches got snagged in a loose strand of carpet outside the door; I yanked to get it free. Steven was standing across the room between two yellow solitaire arm chairs, a bottle of beer in his hand.
“Those things must be a bitch to dance with,” he said.
“I don’t,” I replied. “I dance with people.”
Steven looked at me, stupidly. Marcus laughed.
Behind Steven was a large, wide mirror with a gold-embroidered frame above a mantle of what must have once been a fireplace, now plastered over. The floor was hardwood. On the opposite sides of a chocolate brown area rug sat two ivory and silver striped loveseats, each facing a low, blue glass table. The walls were densely populated with dry mounted art deco posters. The room was busy. I interrupted my inspection when Marcus asked to take my bag.
“How do we do this?”
“Just slip the straps from my shoulders and let it slide to the floor.”
“Heavy. What’ve you got in there?”
“A few beers.”
“You’re a good man,” said Steven. “So, like, do you take those things off now that you’re here?” he asked ,pointing to my crutches.
“I have to be sure of things to lean on. It’s different if I sit for a while, of course.”
“Well then, let me show you to your seat.” Steven touched my elbow maître d’ style and made a big show of leading me to one of the loveseats. He turned to look for Marcus.
“Marcus…oh, he must be off getting cheese and things. How about a beer or some wine?”
“Be right back. I’ll get the camera, too”
I looked out their huge bay window at Dundonald Park. In the shadows of the dim park lights I watched a dog shit and a master who did not bag it. I’d have liked to cover the tip of my crutch with that shit and make the bastard choke on it. There were low bookcases beneath the window. My crutches were still attached, so I got up to take a look. What people read, the music they listen to, the movies they watch, fascinates me. I was distracted before I even got close to the titles. That creepy rocking horse was poking out from between two bookcases and peering up at me, silently rocking on air blowing through the vent beneath it. Steven had done his work. Its body was painted a bright aqua blue, its nose sunset pink. Its mane was combed and silky. The eyes were brilliantly black, like polished eight balls.
“Cheese and crackers, chips and dip!,” Marcus sang from behind me. “And your beer. Steven said beer.”
I turned. “Steven’s horse is looking well.”
“Yeah, and he found another just like it to fix up, on Kijiji. It’s nice to bring broken things to life. We’ll have a matching pair.”
Steven came back. He held a camera above his head.
“I couldn’t find this thing anywhere. Finally…it was buried in our camping stuff in the back porch. It’s getting too cold to leave it there. I told you that, Marcus.”
They directed me to sit in one of the solitaires.
“What’s all this for?” I asked.
“We like to take photos for our New Friends Album,” Marcus said. “Next time you’ll bring your girlfriend or your boyfriend. That will make it nicer. It’s nice to have pairs. Anyway, we’re very sociable. Now, pose au naturale. How about a beer in your hand? Can you do that with your crutches on?”
“He has to show them on,” said Steven.
Marcus gave me a beer. “Smile!”
I did, but I felt uncomfortable. They clapped. I felt I was in a beer commercial for the handicapped—a posh chair, a gold mirror, my crutches displayed. Who the fuck were these people? My anxiety was redirected by a frantic knock on the door.
“It’s me, it’s me!”
Steven looked at me, apologetically.
“We’ll deal with this quickly, Charlie.” He opened the door and a short, round man wearing a green housecoat and slippers rushed in. He was crying.
“Our upstairs neighbor,” Marcus whispered to me.
“Rodney, Rodney dear, settle down. What’s going on?” Steven patted him on the head. A gesture and tone of voice appropriate only for a child or a moron, I thought.
“She’s gone again! We’re fucking through.” Rodney bent over like he was about to vomit.
“Look, Rodney.” Marcus went to him and put one hand under Rodney’s chin, the other at the small of his back. “Now, why don’t you go upstairs and rest? We have a guest right now. You know we don’t like to be disturbed when we have guests.”
“NO! NO! I’m breaking down, man. You guys said we’d be good together. You have to help.”
This was too much. I had to leave. I appreciate my own drama, but not others’.
“Marcus, Steven,” I interrupted. “I’ve got a horrible headache coming on. I’m really sorry. It happens sometimes. I better get some air and head for home. Rodney, I’m sorry for your troubles.”
He looked at me and, I guess because of my crutches, mumbled, “Yeah, you too, pal.” He was a moron.
Steven’s face flushed like I’d slapped it. “But, but we haven’t even had our appetizers. The soup, the stir fry. I found the recipe online and got the ingredients fresh at the market, pressed the tablecloth…”
I cut him off. I lifted a crutch to touch his arm and console him. “It really is beyond me.” I moaned, feigning anguish, and lowered my head. “I am embarrassed when it happens. You must forgive me. I’m soooo sorry.”
“Steven,” said Marcus, “hush. Let the man be. You’ll have to promise to come back soon, Charlie. And bring a friend. Maybe Sonja or Yves from the group.”
I held one arm out and Marcus slid a packsack strap along my crutch and over my shoulder. He walked me out and closed the apartment door behind us. My beer was in their fridge, but I didn’t care.
“Poor Rodney,” Marcus said. “I advised some overeaters’ groups that wanted street food vendors to display nutritional information—calories, fat content—that sort of thing. It just happened that upstairs was available. I told him about it when he said he was looking. I even hooked him up with a woman from another group for a roommate. Anyhoo, now they’re our fat friends, not as jolly as you’d think.” Marcus shrugged. “What can you do?” He smiled, it seemed, deliciously. It dawned on me that I was their disabled friend and I wanted to spit. I said good-bye.
I stopped on the sidewalk on MacLaren Street and looked in through the bay window. Steven and Marcus held Rodney in their arms. I pictured the rocking horse looking out at me, its black eyes pleading to be put on wheels and mounted. I should have yelled at fat Rodney, “Get away! Waddle, bounce, run if you can—whatever it takes!—though never near dawn near empty pools. The consequences are unfathomable.”
I should have. I didn’t.
Scott MacAulay resides in Ottawa, Canada. He is a former community development worker and educator, including extensive work with disability organizations. He has lived with bipolar disorder for more than two decades. His short fiction has been published in The Antigonish Review, The Feathertale Review, and On the Premises among others.