Kurt and I were friends going back some years. Sometimes when he was really sick, feverish from piss-tract infection, he thought it was his whole life. I actually didn’t go back very far, only twelve years or so. And for most of that time he’d been living handicapped as a result of a fluke accident.
It went like this: a slip and fall, his head hit concrete hard, and unfortunately no one to assist him for most of a whole day until his family got home. He’d tried to get a neighborhood dog to get help, but the fool dog only licked his face and curled up next to him for a nap. Subsequently the broken neck swelled up, cutting off blood to the spine for too many long hours. This is a recipe for a quaddy.
The Quadrophenia creates requirements above and beyond the usual human desire, I pointed out.
“I used to have that record,” Kurt said, looking distant, remembering his favorite Who anthems.
My visiting had become sparse. I felt awful about it, but, there wasn’t much I could do. They moved him to a North Durham care facility when they closed the nearby care facility he had been housed in. He had his own little dorm room in the that facility, a big screen TV on which we could watch movies, and talk complete shit about the more attractive of the young nursing assistants. We were stuffing chocolates into their hideous, puke green or wallpaper-flowered uniform pockets, plying them to be playful women for us, making them laugh, blush a bit, roll their eyes, make promises they would not keep, . . . Then they moved him and I simply couldn’t afford the gas for the trip as often anymore. Also, the situation had changed drastically. The new place was crowded. Kurt had been doubled up with a Hispanic man who was in even worse condition than himself. There’s always someone worse off. This poor guy: full paralysis on a ventilator and completely bed-ridden. The machines that kept the poor fellow’s bed inflated and kept him breathing rumbled like someone mowing the grass outside the window. Each night a large Spanish speaking delegation, half of them antsy young children with huge, snapping, black eyes—scampering about, getting tangled in hoses, tripping on drains, beating one another with the padded gear used to stretch out quaddies’ arms (to resist the inevitable and tireless contraction of the paralysis)—came in as if going to a show. They seated themselves in a huge crush of chairs at bedside and they contemplated hopelessness.
They also drove Kurt out of his mind with their noise. It was a kind of hell of embarrassing, pesky closeness, only a drape imperfectly separated them. It was hard to visit, the room was packed and maintained a din.
Kurt’d suggest we go out. I’d chase him, his 300lb electric wheels hurtling him dangerously down the hallways around the laundry bags, into nursing cabinets on wheels. He’d greet the nurses, warn them, josh them.
“Now mistah Kurt, where you off to?” Nina half smiled at me.
“I’m leaving you, Nina!” he’d yell over his shoulder.
“Dat probbly for da best,” she’d call back.
I’d follow him down the hall, wait the ten minutes for the nerve-wracking, overworked elevator to arrive, make it to the bottom floor, race over to the little refreshment station—a fridge full of sodas—grab a couple—Fanta flavors—and sit out on the wooden deck facing the parking lot and scrub forest overlooking buzzing Erwin Road. Despite being incapacitated in a wheel chair, Kurt did not abide putzing around. Once the decision was made, he was off.
If it was later in the evening we might go out to his handivan and I’d pack him a pipe in the back of the thing—teenager drug paraphernalia stowed in the depths of his knapsack where no one cared to look lest they be rooked into doing something not on their list of duties. I’d crank the classic rock tunes, help him lift off a bit. Another friend of his, I’d only met once, supplied the weed. It was all much better stuff than when we were kids, he’d always point out.
I’m sorry man, this Quadrophenia is bullshit, I would say.
“I used to have that record,” he pointed out with a philosophical nod.
This trip up, however it was a bit of an emergency. I arrived, steeling myself to the usual mild stench of diapers and antiseptic. I did not look left or right, did not glance curiously into open doors, did not want to see any more oppressive hopelessness than I already had to deal with. I had my own mission to complete. Kurt’s battery charger had shit the bed. He’d messaged. There were no other chargers in the entire facility, and no one in the facility knew anything about repairing it, even if they felt like it was part of their job description to do so. No battery charge meant Kurt’s chair would not go. He would be a potted plant, sitting helplessly wherever he was parked.
Somewhere on the floor, a woman barked like a dog.
“She thinks she’s a dog,” Kurt looked at me with misery.
“She does that all night.”
“My tools are in the top container, or they should be, I don’t know where anything is anymore,” Kurt drawled.
I was poking through his armoire which contained the majority of his life now, a few sweaters, sweat pants, t-shirts, plastic containers full of straws, protein bars, protein powder, the usual pens and scraps of paper, DVDs, an expensive office printer wedged into the bottom of the thing, a spare older laptop also wrapped in cables and jammed haphazardly into the bottom, collections of CDs in black, zippered folders (almost all of it classic rock), some pictures in frames, one with me in it, and piles of law books. Finally, I located the little tool kit, and came back to the bed and began operating on his charger. He seemed to think there was a way to fix it. I had no clue. He was directing me to open the box, and change the polarity of the output cable—which made no sense, but you don’t argue with a quaddy lawyer.
“Ah! This the fix-it man you was telling me about?” a large man stood in the doorway, southern, and kindly.
I could still hear the woman barking.
“Yes . . .” Kurt said enthusiastically, “this is Doctor Les Miller, PhD, from NC State yoo-ni-vers-ity. And he knows about ev-ri-thin!”
“Uh, guys, I don’t know how to fix this!” I chuckled.
The man shook my hand, in extra-friendly style. I forgot his name almost immediately, being not one of the lovely ladies.
“Kurt, this thing’s dead,” I could tell because the little green charging light would not come on, “how much charge you got?”
“I probably got like ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“We need to get you a charger,” I said, some stress in my voice.
“Maybe . . . I’m hoping they can still fix this one,” he nodded toward his computer, “I gonna call the people I bought that one from.”
Back to shuffling around in his cabinet, locating papers, warranties, sales receipts, all jammed into a plastic hanging folder box.
“Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo-woo!” said some lady down the hall, seeming to get excited.
After an exhausting call to the company, the technician said he’d take a look at it, but could make us no promises. A replacement would cost 150 bucks.
“We don’t have much choice!” I said and hung up the Skype call. Kurt’s only phone was one he could yell into operation through his laptop.
Kurt was all about the off-campus excursion. He spun his chair around, nearly toppling the small, adjustable, bedside table his computer was locked down on (stuff goes for walks all the time), and zinged out into the corridor. He was soon yelling at the extremely full-figured lady behind the desk, plump as the Red Queen, who had me sign a black book of responsibility—providing return time. It always amazed me that they didn’t much care to know who I was, didn’t even wanna check a driver’s license. Would he want his dinner? Should they keep it in his room? Will I feed him? Yes.
Sometime back, the director of the facility had shown up when Kurt had just been relocated, and while his staff ran about him being obsequious underlings hoping to please Xerxes, Kurt rolled over to him and took him on a quaddy’s tour of his facility.
“Here is a white board of the weekly events, notice it’s got a curtain in front of it that I can’t move, why is there a curtain in front of it? Do you have any idea? No, you don’t. Follow me, please,” and Kurt pointed out thoughtlessness after thoughtlessness, that potentially ruined the day of a person who could not use their arms or legs.
“Here we have a common room, except that I can’t navigate it because it’s full of tables and chairs, none of which can be used by most of the patients in this facility. Maybe you can see that there is no one in this common room, despite the bowl of fruit and the big screen TV. Can you suggest to me a purpose of a room full of chairs that none of us can sit on? A bowl of fruit many of us can’t reach out and grab fruit from? No, you can’t, because it’s not reasonable.”
At the end of the tour the director stood before Kurt with a look alternating between consternation and chagrin, while his staff surreptitiously smiled at Kurt.
“I will certainly be taking these recommendations under advisement, Mr. Beckham,” the director intended to wrap up.
“Hold on, I’m not done with you yet.”
“Oh? I’m sorry. Of course,” the director, as reported by Kurt, had squeezed out a nauseatingly patronizing smile, returning his attention.
“You dress like a little boy. You think people are going to take you seriously looking like that? Your socks don’t even match your shoes!” And on it went, while Kurt dressed down the director for the entire staff.
As I was loading him into his handivan with the broken lift and the doors that didn’t accommodate the lift gate properly—nothing worked as it was meant to—Kurt snapped orders at me.
“Make sure that door doesn’t get hit again, . . . just the simplest things . . . make sure no more damage happens to that door.”
I could see where the ends of the platform had bashed the plastic of the door, causing tears and divots, “Got it, man, no worries.”
A thick conifer branch was used to keep one of the aluminum lift arms in line, it having a tendency to want to warp and snap.
“Make sure that stick holds that arm straight,” he said wearily.
Also, the plate that kept the lift from getting hooked under the bumper regularly, itself, hooked under the bumper. You had to watch it. If that happened it’d cause the lifter arms to strain and shatter into a surprising number of pieces.
“Don’t let that plate catch under the bumper,” he said as I raised him on the platform.
“It’s good, don’t worry,” I said as if this were such mindless rigamarole there were no chances of anything going wrong.
One time, unfortunately, I forgot to watch the plate and it hooked under the bumper and I didn’t notice until too late and it destroyed a lifter arm. That was a fifteen hundred dollar mistake that happened so fast I couldn’t believe it had actually happened for several minutes. I felt terrible, but I was also angry that Kurt left everything in disrepair. He never insisted on getting the function correct. Friends who had worked with Kurt before his accident told me that when he ran his law office he had the best coffee machine available and then would only run instant in it, and, more often than not, run water through the day old grinds still in the machine. What he liked about the fancy machine was how fast it made the coffee.
Once loaded, Kurt had to aim his chair toward a holding clasp that grabbed a bolt under his legs. It was a very narrow fit, the lift and the van. We had put his arms inside the chair arms, no hanging them over the edges as he might get damaged. His arms were already covered in scratches and bruises from cutting the corners in the hallways, scraping door frames, and tearing past the mobile nursing trollies. He was good at hitting the locking mechanism in one shot though, at least sober.
I got the van started and crawled up the dilapidated parking lot and after a while, got us out onto the exceedingly busy Erwin Road. His position didn’t let him really take in the trip, he could see out the windshield, but not much of the sides.
“How’s Kate?” he drawled from behind me.
“Dude, I haven’t seen her in about eighteen months,” I chuckled.
“Oh no! She was so sweet! What is wrong with you, maaan?” he sounded downright hurt by the news. And of course, he’d heard all this before, just a few weeks ago.
“Nothing, she got busy, I haven’t been able to get up with her, she’s out of the country right now being a missionary.” I said this with some vehemence.
“Oh, man, she was soooo sweet,” he was off on his reverie about the lovely Kate, a young lady I was able to date off and on for a few years, which indeed maintained her as a sweetness that while occasional, was always delicious. “Mmm mmm mmm.” he added, shaking his head as if he had a mouthful of down-home cooking.
Kate had come in a few times with me to see Kurt, having heard me discuss him so often, and she had indeed immediately taken over feeding him and giving him some grooming. Intimacy broken people miss, and men just aren’t really comfortable supplying. I didn’t mind packing and lighting his pipe, but I was short on rubbing moisturizer on his face.
“Yeah, boy, that Kate is a fine girl,” he almost sang.
“You know she’s in Afghanistan with her church group, tryina convert Muslims,” I laughed in the rear-view.
“Oh shit, she might get killed over there,” he sproinged back to reality like a cartoon character, sobering up.
“Ah, they go over there, that Peak Church, and they provide some internet, and some English classes and try to sneak in some Jesus,” I laughed, “she says it mostly doesn’t work, anytime they’re doing their little ‘house church’ thing the locals, ya know, the few who are allowed to interact with them—and it ain’t many—they politely excuse themselves.”
“He he he!” Kurt laughed in his high-pitched manner, “she never even convert you!”
“Yeah I tole her that,” and that was the truth, she saw me as more difficult to convert than a Muslim. Muslims at least accepted God.
“Heathen, he he he!”
“Yeah, well, she liked my hedonism! She broke some rules with me!” I grinned in the rear-view mirror, arranged so I could see Kurt slumped in his chair, his silver mane wrapping his face like Antisthenes, an earring of a cross dangled from a lobe. Antisthenes was the hairy guy most famous for saying: Pay attention to your enemies as they are the ones most invested in finding your faults.
“Godless man,” Kurt laughed some more. Of course, I remember once when he—playing with one of his Baptist friends who was excitedly witnessing to him in his law office—suddenly asked the guy if his Hindu intern, Anondo—who just happened to pop in at that moment to pass Kurt some papers—would go to Heaven. The fellow had hemmed and hawed uncomfortably over this and Kurt had slapped his desk shouting, “No sale!”
“Maybe, how do I know? Maybe I’m just here as God’s tool to test all you believers.” We were cruising down I-40 toward Cary, where the wheelchair place was.
Kurt liked this idea. He loved anything that undermined authority, the way a young man might enjoy the assertion that Shakespeare was not a great writer (as no less a great than Tolstoy had pointed out), especially pleasurable after a painful break-up with a beautiful ex who had once portrayed Othello’s Desdemona in a college production.
“You know, it’s so confusing, it’s people’s belief that gets in the way of their wanting to be reasonable about religion. You know, they act like they became Christians. They didn’t become Christians it was foisted on them as babies. They didn’t go shopping for it! . . . A-and who was a Christian anyway? Jesus was Jew! He was a Jew who upset other Jews, you know, pushed them toward his beliefs, getting into trouble and arguing with the authorities—that’s a pretty exciting thing for a kid like Kate. She wants to be like Jesus too, you know, she wants to shake people up. She wants to convince her people that she’s right, get them to be more liberal, see women as equal, forget all that bad Paul stuff,” I was shaking my head on a roll.
“You can see, anytime they preaching that shit, . . . a woman gotta be quiet and full of submission, you know, . . . Eve was deceived not Adam, . . . all them good Baptist men all puffing themselves up in their seats,” he laughed a good belly laugh.
“Yeah the girls wanna get rid of that, but it ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
I pause a moment, returning to the thought, “Jesus is a hard role model, I mean, you don’t get to be Jesus, there was only that Jesus, ha ha ha!” I change into a freer lane, staying conscious of how big a vehicle this handivan is, “but what young woman could resist wanting to be that kind of Jesus rebel? I mean they’re sitting there getting that story of rebellious Jesus plucking the grain on the sabbath, you know, of course they wanna do that too! Ha ha ha! But modern Christians don’t want that!”
“Only want Jesus if he’s tellin’ em they doing it right!” Kurt laughed and started choking. He’s been told it’s good to exercise that diaphragm and push phlegm anytime he notices it, but it’s really disconcerting when he does it as it appears he’s choking to death.
“You OK, man?”
“S’OK,” he nodded solemnly, a little breathless.
Cary is a lot of red brick plazas set off the main road and hidden by crepe myrtles. It took a while to find the place, it was located on the back of one of the flat, puzzle-piece-like buildings.
“I don’t have much charge left, I’ll stay here,” Kurt said, “see if that guy can fix it.”
“Got it,” I jumped out, rushed around to the side door, opened it up and left it open so Kurt could enjoy the fall day, a little sunshine falling on his lap. I grabbed the box, the wires wrapped around, and headed into the shop, the extra-wide doors opening automatically for incapacitated folks.
It took a little while for the receptionist to locate the technician we talked to, but he came out and grabbed up the box and disappeared. I wandered the shop. Beautiful gleaming equipment for handicapped folks on display, it all looked like something out of a fantasy about human augmentation. It almost seemed like it wouldn’t be bad being handicapped with this stuff.
“Sir!” the tech returned, “I’m sorry. We can’t fix this one—it’s shot.”
“Damn! Hey, can you come out and explain it to my man, he’s in the van.”
“Right, yeah, of course.”
I lead the fellow out carrying the junk box, left unscrewed, in parts. Kurt became alert as we approached, opened his eyes.
“Bad news, man,” I started.
“Sorry, sir,” the technician, a thirty-something balding fellow said, “this one isn’t fixable.”
“Oh, well, that’s that then,” Kurt chuckled, “looks like I’m fucked.”
I frowned, “Well, what’s a replacement cost?”
“Ah, we have a unit that works with this chair, it’s about a hunneret-fifty dollars.”
At this point, I fully expected Kurt to have me dig out his cash, stuffed into a black nylon wallet deep in his knapsack hanging off the back of his chair, and buy a new unit. But he had no intention of doing such, and I suddenly realized I was going to be stuck trying to push him in his dead, three-hundred pound chair back into his care facility. I suddenly felt a surge of anger, he brought me out here, saddled me with him in this dead chair on purpose, all on the whim that the box was fixable. He didn’t care!
Kurt directed a gaze at the technician, a look that only a career lawyer knows how to produce. It was something like what you might use to respond to someone trying to sell you door to door meat. The look said “Is that the story we’re going with?”
There was a moment of connection, the fellow seemed mesmerized by Kurt’s blue gaze.
“Wait here a minute,” the technician suddenly said and rushed back into the building. Kurt closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
“You’re gonna buy one, right?” I asked him.
“Nope,” keeping his eyes closed.
“Well what the fuck are we doing here?”
What is this wild goose chase with no backup plan? Had he really no intention of actually solving this problem? I couldn’t solve it, I was as broke as a seagull.
Suddenly, the technician reappeared with another box.
“OK. This is a charger that’ll work with your model chair, it’s a discontinued model, and as long as you don’t leave it plugged in too long it should work just fine, . . . they had overheating issues—recalled them. You can just have that, no charge,” the fellow said.
“Thank you so much, brother!” Kurt bellowed enthusiastically.
“It’s fine, just be careful not to leave it plugged in and you’ll be fine, have a good day guys,” and with that he turned around and disappeared back into the shop.
On the way back, hauling ass up I-40, trying to be on time, Kurt beamed in the rear-view, “Why do you think he did that?”
“I don’t know, man, you got some luck there.”
“Naw man, that was some magic from Gawd right there, a blessing!”
“There you go, Gawd was on your side about being too cheap to fork over the money for a new unit,” I laughed, mimicking his Carolina accent.
“Do you think it was my earring?”
“I think he liked the earring,” Kurt was moving his head around to flash the little crucifix in the rear-view mirror.
“Right, it must have been that.”
“What time is it?” he suddenly switched topics.
“It’s late man, it’s after four,” I grumbled.
“You gotta keep better track of time,” he chuckled, knowing I needed to be heading back by four to get to work, “why don’t you pay attention to that?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I’m the hippy.”
“Yessir, Gawd did me a blessing today,” he said, craning his head back and smiling.
Before he passed away this past summer, he’d been playing a lot of online chess with me. Mostly just whipping my ass and talking complete sore-winner shit to me. I’m not a good chess player. I don’t focus on it well. I don’t know the procedures for passing pawns, or checkmating in the endgame, or any other essential routines that you really need to study to be any good.
When I visited him he surprised me by asking me if I wanted to be on his contact list if he died.
“What for?” I jibed, “so I can come cry?”
He laughed heartily, loved that, the idea that I’d be crying over his passing.
“My heart isn’t good,” he finally told me. He didn’t say much more, but I understood. He was still smiling at me. But I knew quaddy’s often have bad hearts. Paralysis isn’t good for us.
“Quadrophenia,” I joshed.
“I used to have that record,” he said.
We watched a shit movie and laughed about the chunky nursing assistants, one of which we thought would be a fun wrestling partner. I stuffed beef jerky into him, and we had sodas. The usual.
One day playing chess over the internet, I could see that I had him pinned. No matter which way I looked at it, I could see that I’d played my game well. I’d finally absorbed some of his lessons. I checked the site about ten times that day wondering what was taking so long. I hoped he’d not gotten another of his famous piss-tract infections.
And then I got the email. Kurt had passed in the night.
Kurt’s ladies were grief stricken. Over the next few days I received email from them. Each of them wrote me long messages to exhale some pent up frustrations regarding his recalcitrance about being more serious about their love. They were each certain they were his special objet d’amour. I said nothing to dissuade their belief. Told them Kurt’s amorous intentions were not open to my scrutiny. Privately, I was still stunned that a guy who couldn’t feel or move anything from the shoulders down could have three girlfriends each vying for his more definitive attentions. I knew all about them of course, and knew that he looked forward to something specific from each one of them.
And that’s real chess there. The man was a master.
It’s possible I was callous, maybe yelled at him too much, expected too much of a poor handicapped man. That could be right. But I would point out that in all the time I spent with my friend, all the trips to the stores, the regular spoon feedings and pot-smoking facilitation, all the emergencies, stretches, and rewiring of computers to televisions, in all the reminiscences of the old days and discussions of love and life, it was just him and me.