Jody Buckingham called the St. Francis staff lounge around eleven that morning. Frank Yance and I sat on the lounge sofa eating salami sandwiches. I don’t know how Frank could have sat there, small and dark and ravenous, downing that salami sandwich like nothing after cleaning two of Pernell’s accidents.
“Yeah, Jody. What’s up?”
“I’m on my way down now.”
“Your ride’s not till noon.”
“I know. Got any smokes?”
“Can I bum one?”
“I’m coming down now to smoke it on the patio.”
Frank looked at me. He had shaved his head a few days before. He had a thin neck, narrow body, and a head shaped like a giant light bulb. His white T-shirt had a yellowish feces splotch on the right shoulder, but I didn’t say anything. I knew Pernell could be a mess sometimes, but I wondered how Frank had managed to get feces on his shoulder. He bit into his sandwich and tore off a piece too big for his mouth. No matter. He tipped his chin up and somehow worked it down.
Jody came down in dark blue sweats and a black T-shirt that barely covered his distended belly.
“Hey, fatso,” Frank said.
Jody grinned and gave him the finger. I joined Jody for a smoke on the patio. I tugged his T-shirt and adjusted the brakes on his wheelchair. The spina bifida had only affected Jody’s lower body. He could use his arms fine, but his legs were shriveled, his genitals. He’d lived through fifty surgeries in his lifetime. His back was an accordion of scar tissue. Still, compared to the other guys, he had it pretty good. Jody was healthy, relatively speaking, his illness not degenerative. I brushed some lint from his shoulder.
“Sean might be moving out,” he said.
“Over that Charlene thing?”
“Yup. She screwed him up big time.”
Jody’s eyes pointed in opposite directions. He nodded gently while speaking or listening. He had long, stringy brown hair and a frail goatee happening.
“Charlene’s nothing but trouble.”
“Thought she was your friend, Jody?”
“That skank? She’s no friend of mine.”
Pernell joined us, wearing black sweats and a black Harley sweatshirt. He had Duschene’s muscular dystrophy, but unlike many victims of that illness whose bodies wither up, his was thick and stiff; he weighed over two hundred pounds. He wagged his mouthstick. He used it to tap on doors. He had bleached his red hair blonde and looked odd what with his red eyebrows and lashes. He sported a new tattoo on his left forearm, a wobbly Yosemite Sam.
“Hey guys,” he croaked.
“Pernell,” Jody said, “I hear your snake got loose.”
“Yup. Two days it was out. Igor finally found it. In a speaker.”
Jody grinned and nodded.
“You going for a workout?” Pernell asked. How he talked and kept that mouthstick in place mystified me.
“If you see Leo tell him I want my gloves back.”
“Tell him yourself.”
Frank, with shit on his shoulder, poked his head out the door. “Telephone, Bobby.”
“Yeah.” I went in. Kirsten, my partner. She’d been calling me at work a lot lately.
“Can’t talk about it now.”
“I’m very upset, Bobby.”
“Where are you?”
“At the office.”
“Is it okay if I call you back in a little while, I gotta run?”
“Yeah, I guess so, eh? You gotta run.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She hung up the phone without answering. My stomach churned. What could be wrong now? It had been a month of upsets. I loved that girl, but I couldn’t make her happy. I had the feeling she would leave me soon. There wasn’t much I could do about it. Pernell needed his leg bag emptied. I went inside and grabbed a bottle from the washroom. God, his urine smelled awful. It was thick, almost green.
Jody’s ride arrived. He boarded the wheel-trans without saying goodbye to Pernell. I sat near Jody and slid on my shades. The clouds had dispersed; the sun flexed its glorious muscles.
“That’s not nice, Jody.”
“He’s stupid. He bothers me.”
“He smells bad.”
When we got to Variety Village the first thing Jody wanted to do was smoke. I had one too. We said nothing while we smoked. Jody gazed abstractedly at his cigarette. I lost myself in thoughts about what could be troubling Kirsten. I had cooked her a beautiful Moroccan chicken dish the evening before—her favourite—and she had barely touched it. After Jody smoked his cigarette down to the filter he asked if he could smoke the remainder of mine. I handed him my half-finished cigarette.
“Can you buy me a drink, Bobby?”
“Jody, I can’t buy you a drink every time we come here. I’m here to make money, not spend it.”
Jody looked deflated. I knew the guy was broke, but it wasn’t my fault he blew all his money on rings—he had over ten of them, some of them gold—and heavy Harley Davidson belt buckles.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“I’ve got to make a call first.”
I rang Kirsten’s work number but the machine came on. I called home but she wasn’t there either.
I decided to buy Jody a drink after all. I put some change in the pop machine by the phones and selected ginger ale, Jody’s favourite. He was wagging his porky finger at a thin dark guy with a red baseball cap on his head, big white runners. Leo. He had a touch of cerebral palsy but was ambulatory. He denied the charges Jody brought against him.
“You’re lying, Leo.”
I handed Jody his ginger ale. He only wore one ring that day, I noticed, a tarnished silver eagle’s head. Jody drank the ginger ale and belched. Leo grinned. Jody tossed the empty can into a blue box near the pop machine. Leo just stood there with his hands at his sides and his mouth still open.
“Jody,” I said. “Are you ready now?”
“Yup. And Pernell will deal with you later,” he said sternly to Leo who looked like he might burst out crying, or laughing at any moment. He did neither, turned around, and shuffled out the front doors.
We first went to the change rooms, though Jody already had on his work out clothes. He wanted to wash his hands. A palsied white-haired man stood near the drinking fountain, nude. He wasn’t doing anything, just standing there. Jody eased his chair up to a basin and washed his hands with soap and water. I handed him some paper towels and he dried off his hands. I pulled his T-shirt down again. He shot a glance over to the old man and grinned.
We went up to the field house. People jogged around the track. Others shot hoops over on the courts. Some sat around talking. Lisa, one of the fitness instructors, in black tights and a white warm-up jacket, approached us.
“Hello there,” she said, all smiley and jumpy. Her light brown hair was in a pony tail. She seemed almost too full of life.
“Hey, Lisa,” said Jody.
I nodded to the girl and tried not to look at her perfect legs. Jody had once confessed to me that he loved her. I didn’t know what to say to him about this. Good, Jody?
We shot some hoops over on one of the empty courts. His shot sucked; he kept throwing up air-balls. I had a nice little fader dropping. Lisa jogged around the track effortlessly, perfect form, seemed she could do it forever. She jogged more easily than I breathed. Jody finally sank a basket. He pulled up his sweats. He was winded.
“Come on, Jody, you’re just getting warmed up.”
He grinned but there was pain in it. He clutched his diaphragm and coughed.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take a blow, I’ve got to make a call.”
“Can I go down for another smoke?”
“Maybe later. I’ve got to make a call, Jody. Why don’t you do some stretching?”
Jody stared at me, or the track, I wasn’t sure. I went to a payphone in the hall and called Kirsten’s office. Still not answering. I called Frank back at the staff lounge and asked him if anyone had called.
“Did she leave a message?”
“Nah. She said she’d try later. Pernell had another accident.”
“Fucker. I can’t take it any more.”
He chuckled. “Talk to you later, man.”
When I returned Jody was stretching his arms, Lisa still springing around the track like a young gazelle.
“She’s so beautiful,” Jody said.
“Yes, she is.”
“Man, if she were mine …”
What if she were his? I wondered. What? What? I asked him if he wanted to go for a spin. He shrugged. “Come on, it’s good for you.”
We circled the track a few times. Every time Lisa passed us she made a high-pitching hooting sound that cracked Jody up. I found myself staring at her immaculate ass and getting somewhat aroused. The high-pitched hooting translated into something else in my imagination. Truth was, Kirsten and I hadn’t see each other naked in six months. Kirsten was beautiful but in a constant state of offense, always beefing at me about one thing or another. I felt guilty about not desiring her anymore but I couldn’t fake it. My erection died with these thoughts.
We left the field house. Jody needed his leg bag emptied. The palsied old man in the change room had moved from the fountain to his locker and stood before it staring blankly, his hands held out before him.
We entered the crowded weight room. Barrington Pope stood by the mirrors doing some neck exercises. I used to care for him but he wrote me up once for refusing to help him masturbate. He eyed me warily. Barrington had no arms. Prosthetics. Imagine trying to jerk off with those. I felt for the guy, but the way I saw it, a hooker made at least a hundred and fifty an hour. I earned less than ten per cent of that. Jody didn’t have Barrington’s problem. He had no sexual drive whatsoever. This perhaps explained his intense romanticism. He sat around all day dreaming of love, of being in love, of what he would do if he was—but he rarely discussed sex. He listened to country and western music and got weepy over songs of lost love and heartbreak. That’s where he was at.
Connie the weight-room instructor was on duty. She had severe short blonde hair and sturdy trapezius muscles supporting a thick neck. She looked powerful, and was.
“Hey, Jody,” she said. She nodded at me.
I helped rig Jody up for some cable flies.
“Add five pounds,” he said.
He cranked out ten solid repetitions. A month before he could barely do five reps at a lighter weight. He cranked out two more sets and then commenced on some shoulder presses. Sweat poured off his brow. Barrington kept glancing our direction. Connie performed deep squats with three plates. God, she was strong, a former Olympic rower. Wrecked her knee. She respected me for also having blown out a knee. We even compared scars once. I wanted to try Kirsten again. Jody needed a break anyway.
Nothing, no answer. I’d never gotten it right with Kirsten, not from the get go. And I didn’t blame her really, but nor could I blame myself. Her dissatisfaction was justified; she expected certain material things out of life that she had every right to pursue. But I wasn’t prepared to join that crusade, at least not yet; though more and more it seemed I had taken the stupid way through life.
After the workout we went to the change rooms and Jody washed his hands again. The old guy wasn’t around anymore. Jody’s condom leaked, staining his crotch. The glue had dissolved. He happened to have an extra condom and a small bottle of glue in his back bag. I dried him off the best I could with paper towels. Getting the condom onto his tiny, uncircumsized penis wasn’t easy. He kept leaking urine.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
We then went out to the front of the building. I bought Jody another ginger ale and he smoked two cigarettes in rapid succession. The wheel-trans came eventually and took us back to St. Francis.
A cursing Igor Bajc had relieved Frank, his glasses all fogged up. “I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “Cleaning that bastard’s shit every hour. Why doesn’t he see a fucking doctor or something?”
“Good question. Start refusing service.”
“If you don’t clean up you feel cruel. If you do you feel used. Mah. It’s too much. By the way, Kirsten called. She sounded pissed off.”
Igor blinked behind his glasses.
Jody rang down. He needed an assist with his catheter. When I got to his apartment his roommate Scan was battling with Charlene in the living room.
“You’re a rat!”
Sean and Charlene fought constantly; relations between Sean and Jody were strained to the breaking point. Jody refused to talk to Charlene anymore. Now he looked at me in his cock-eyed fashion, and moved his mouth distastefully.
“I know, I know,” I said.
It was all very trying. All the bickering, the mayhem, the confusion. Sean whirling around in his electric wheelchair. Charlene working her manual feverishly, eluding his furious thrusts, yelping, squawking. Finally Sean rammed his wheelchair into hers and sent her sprawling to the floor.
The tapping on the door indicated that Pernell had arrived to join the party. Pernell with his mouthstick, Pernell with his smell. No matter. There he was, he had his part in the program.
While Jody peed, I clipped his fingernails. What a body Jody had. In this instance nature and man had combined to butcher the human form, make a mockery of it. And to what end? I had to ask. Of course, his line stopped at him, a built-in corrective. Nature was wise, most of the time.
And yet the bigger picture was vague, incomprehensible. I saw no design here; or rather I saw the consequences of an overwrought design. Either way, clarity was needed, simplification.
What I saw was Sean ramming the walls now, gouging them, his skull lolling, his face expressionless; Charlene still sprawled on the floor, clawing and wriggling to right her toppled wheelchair; Pernell tilting back and forth with his fatuous tattoo and his wagging mouthstick, an accident waiting to happen. And Jody in the corner with the heart and the fucked up eyes and fifty surgeries transcending nature and its mistakes, me and mine.
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