By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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for Mark O’Brien
The first time we had Joe over, one spring evening some years ago, he lay on his gurney with his face positioned toward us. Because we were sitting, we could see his face at eye level. When we spoke, we looked directly into his eyes, not acknowledging the gurney, the sheets and straps, the tubes, and the hard silver rails.
Only I knew the rest of Joe’s body: the underdeveloped, paralyzed lower half, with its baby-white flab and deep red creases. He allowed pictures of himself to be taken only from the neck up, and in them he looked like an attractive nineteen-year-old, though, like us, he was in his mid-twenties. He had contracted polio just before the vaccine became widely available, and it left him dependent on an iron lung, unable to use his back, arms, or legs. His genitals, I’d noticed with relief for his ego, looked perfectly average.
I knew intimate details about him — things only a mother or lover should know, things we would not speak of over wine and cheese this evening — because it was my job, four days a week, to take care of Joe. About to graduate from San Francisco State with no desire for a nine-to-five, I had cast about for the least robotic job I could find. So, for six dollars an hour, I fed and talked to Joe and washed and dressed him. Being a masseuse, I occasionally threw in a brisk back rub. (I couldn’t support myself through massage in Berkeley; the competition was vicious.)
Tilting a glass toward Joe’s open mouth, I moved to direct the straw, but Joe pulled it toward him with his strong tongue. He drank, his eyes smiling at me.
At the far end of our living room, with its cathedral ceiling, its fading velvet couch, and its tired leather armchairs, one of my housemates was reading Virginia Woolf out loud to us. East-coast and anorexic, Susan was ablaze, consumed by her graduate study of suicidal writers. Although she claimed to have overcome her eating disorder, she still measured out three minute meals a day with scientific precision, allowed herself no sweets but the occasional secret raisin, and stole bits of food from her boyfriend’s plate when he glanced elsewhere. The slightest flaw in household routine — our forgetting to put out the recycling, a phone call after her bedtime — could cause her to skip meals for days, hoping we would notice and pretending to hope we would not. I noticed and pretended not to.
Over the rim of the book I could see her hair, short and straight like a boy’s, and her owl-like glasses. She looked thin and serious, but this was joy for her.
Our plan to entertain Joe was succeeding. Not only was it giving him pleasure, but it also allowed us to feel kind, since Joe required more emotional effort than other guests. There was the gurney to ignore, all six feet of it. And there were so many topics to avoid in the presence of a handicapped person. But having Joe in our home assured us that we were open-minded.
We accepted him because, like us, he wanted to be alternative and intellectual. Joe liked classic books and classical music, and he had a degree from Berkeley in psychology. He had gotten it in six years by doing a lot of independent studies. He envied Susan’s graduate program. He envied my hands. We liked him.
We all liked Susan’s Monday evening poetry sessions, to which a small troop of smart white people regularly carpooled, bringing with their signed first editions small gifts of Irish soda bread, nitrate-free wine, and coffee from El Salvador that cost ten dollars a pound. On those nights, Susan polished the silver and made me go over the floorboards with linseed oil. Sometimes our friends brought their friends, and after they had gone we would discuss the newcomers. Generally they were not quite right, and Susan would arrange that they not be encouraged to return.
But this was only Friday — an informal Joe-rehearsal to see if he’d fit on Mondays. Susan thrust her brittle chin outward as she half-read, half-recited the Woolf with a militant, hypnotized inflection. After she had finished, she set down the book with a little pat, but kept her eyes on the cover. Virginia Woolf’s doglike visage gazed back.
In the silent interval that followed, Susan’s boyfriend Loyton brushed back his bangs, gazing at the fire. He’d grown his wheat-colored mane six inches since coming to California. When Susan found him in the Cafe Roma, he’d been wearing plaid pants, but under her coaching he’d made some changes, started buying camping equipment from L.L. Bean. On weekends they went hiking to hot springs and shot many rolls of film. He was turning out all right.
Far more all right than my own boyfriend, I felt. Timothy’s tubular body was bent into a grotesque pretzel, legs in a denim lotus, arms entwined like fighting snakes, and he was studying his new shape with a blank, puzzled expression. He was waiting for someone to ask him what he was doing so he could untwist, shrug, and say, “I don’t know. It’s fun.”
The silence went beyond a pause. It seemed likely to extend indefinitely. I was impressed that no one needed to break it, that we seemed so comfortable with each other. Maybe we were. The four of us had been sharing a house for almost a year, and Joe was beginning to blend in. But eventually, it seemed as if we were all demonstrating how we didn’t need conversation. Loyton squinted determinedly into the fire. Susan kept up soulful eye contact with Virginia Woolf. Timmy stared slack-jawed at nothing. I was afraid to fidget.
“Could I have some more wine, please?” Joe’s question was low and unobtrusive, but an opener if anyone wanted it.
“Of course,” I muttered. As he drank, I ventured, “I like this Zinfandel, Tim. Good job.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. It had a fancy-shmancy label.” Tim swirled his ginger ale and pretended to sniff the bouquet. He hated alcohol.
“Speaking of wines,” Susan perked, “we’re headed up the coast for July 4th, aren’t we, Loyt? My friend told me that we must stop at a few of the little vineyards on the way. Has anyone been there?”
She looked brightly around the group. It was a good effort, but it flopped. She knew Tim hadn’t been there, nor I, and the only one left was Joe. In progressive northern California, the wineries would boast wheelchair ramps and outsized toilet stalls, but I doubted they’d be iron-lung accessible. Joe could leave his lung only if he had oxygen. The cylinder lay strapped under the mattress, and from its rubber hose he occasionally needed to suck a rejuvenating hit. That was how he went to church and how he was able to be at our house, but even so, he could stay out only about four hours — not long enough to tour Napa Valley.
“I hear it’s really beautiful up there,” Joe said, the way someone else might speak of the Himalayas. “I’d love to go one day.”
Susan drew breath to invite him, but held the invitation in; her pale cheeks warmed a little. I knew she was thinking of the gurney, Loyton’s Toyota, the oxygen tank and pee bags. “We’ll have to put on a slide show,” she covered. “With samples.”
“That would be wonderful,” Joe said, as if he’d been promised something valuable.
No one spoke. I feared another silence.
“I hear,” Joe continued, “they’re trying to make that German frost wine up there now. They wait till the first freeze and press the grapes when all the water inside is frozen. It’s sweeter that way.”
“Where’d you learn that?” said Tim, rocking slightly.
“TV,” said Joe. “It’s how I find out a lot of things.”
The phone rang and Timmy untwisted himself, then lumbered off the couch to get it, his heavy, spraddle-legged walk rattling the glasses. I heard Joe laughing and looked at him.
“Don’t look so pissed off,” he whispered.
At the time I thought about Joe’s disability this way: I regretted it had happened to such a nice guy — as if polio would’ve been OK for, say, Phyllis Schlafly or Al Haig — but I wondered if he was so nice partly because of what he’d been through. Was he made patient by hospitals, or humbled by pain? No, I thought, no one else’s character improved under stress: Susan’s eating disorder didn’t mellow her snobbery, Tim’s awkwardness didn’t make him more eager to please, my own vague loneliness didn’t lessen my critical nature. If Joe were de-paralyzed, I thought, he’d still speak quietly, sit straight but relaxed, remember birthdays, laugh at all jokes, return phone calls promptly, and visit the sick. He would remain reliable and sweet, better than my friends and I.
He was so polite that although his drivers had gotten him to our driveway that night at six-thirty, he had waited until seven, the time we’d mentioned, to come in.
“You mean to say,” said Susan when she heard, “that you just stayed outside for half an hour?”
“It was no problem,” Joe said gently. “A different ceiling to look at.” After every sentence his lips stayed slightly parted, and he searched your eyes.
I said the drivers could have taken him out of the van so he could look up at the moon and tree branches, but of course they hadn’t thought of that. Underpaid, overweight, poorly educated, and ultimately desensitized to suffering, the drivers hauled Joe and his gurney around like luggage. That night the driver was Manny, according to the name on his shirt. Manny rang the doorbell at seven and through his soda-flecked mustache grumbled, “CPS delivering Mr. Joseph Beardsley. CPS accepts no responsibility for client’s welfare inside your home. Will you sign here.” He held a chipped clipboard a few inches from my face, like a gun. I signed an X in protest.
“OK,” Manny said, sweating. “We’re going to proceed inside.” He and another man negotiated the gurney, Joe aboard, up the two flights of steps from street level and then through our narrow porch. The angles weren’t all that steep, but to Joe, who had once been thrown off and broken a wrist, it was a roller coaster. He closed his eyes.
They labored up the first steps one at a time, but then, accelerating at the curve, they clipped the edge of the gurney.
“Hey!” Joe yelped, eyes wrinkling tighter.
They held him in midair. “What?”
“Take it easy, OK?”
“Shit.” Manny jolted his end back up. Joe was lying at about a sixty-degree angle, pointing headfirst toward the ground. He slipped a little down the mattress.
“Slow down,” he said. “I mean it!”
They ignored him.
The porch was too narrow for the length of the gurney, so to get him in the front door they had to tilt him up and sideways, like a banking jet. The pillow tumbled off, and Joe fell hard against his restraining strap. “Goddamn!” he yelled. “What are you trying to do to me?” He entered our house angry and afraid. But as soon as the door closed behind the drivers, he sighed and his forehead cleared. “I brought cookies,” he said. “Mrs. Field’s.”
After we’d finished two bottles of wine that first night, Joe asked me to retrieve some notes from his backpack. As I withdrew the wrinkled printout, Susan and Tim gaped at the typed pages. “Joe writes with a mouthstick,” I told them. “He taps out words on a keyboard mounted over his head.” I didn’t add that I was always afraid it would fall on him.
“I average about fifteen words a minute,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I can only hold down one key at a time. At first I wrote everything like e.e. cummings, till I figured out Caps Lock.”
The printout, he explained, contained notes for his talk at a medical conference at San Francisco State. The doctors hadn’t invited him to speak; he’d volunteered after learning that they were studying a prototype mover called Progress — basically a bed with a small engine attached, which could go anywhere an electric wheelchair could. Joe’s body couldn’t be supported in a wheelchair, but in the mover, he had heard, he could lie flat and drive by mouthstick. He was going to the conference to campaign for a test-drive.
He wanted to try out his talk — part poem, part speech — on us. I set aside my plate and held the crumpled paper up to his eyes.
It was hard to understand him. Joe couldn’t speak for long without the respirator, and every few lines he had to suck in oxygen. Also, since his lungs held little air, his voice didn’t carry. Since I was next to him and used to his nasal, low voice, I could hear, but the others were straining and lost. Tim sat up straight and squinted. Susan and Loyton glanced at each other with polite, secret alarm.
Even I could make out only parts of the poem: the last day before polio, six-year-old, sun-freckled Joe had rushed ahead of his siblings into the outdoor pool. Pools to him since then, the poem said, were grayish whirlpool baths, feebly pumping tepid water. Pools since he was six meant someone holding him, keeping him afloat, helping him to breathe. At six he’d dared the high board once, had lost or won uncounted races. Now he slumped on plastic rafts, drifting wherever the jets propelled him, chlorine covering the smell of urine. Now he didn’t race for anything.
I hated it. He would be addressing doctors, not social workers, and they’d want details of his physical pain or relief, and the side effects of his drugs. But when he stopped I said, “It’s great.”
Susan and Loyton echoed me and invented other encouragements. All of us, except Tim, praised Joe’s talk because its pain was true, and we had never felt pain like that.
Several hours after our party, someone called for Tim’s word-processing service. A private detective would pay double for a report typed before eight. Such jobs didn’t worry Tim, who was most coherent between midnight and dawn anyway, but the sleep interruptions irritated the rest of us, especially me. All the next day, calls for Tim swarmed into the house, and customers kept coming to pick up work. It felt like living in an office.
Later that day, Tim abruptly decided to get his own business line. He lumbered into our bedroom, where I was reorganizing our tape collection, and said, “If I get any more calls at night, Susan’s going to starve to death.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Oh, sure it is,” he said. “You have no sense of humor about anything anymore.”
“Well, fuck you,” I said, cleverly. I strained to find something lighthearted to say.
“So, anyway,” Tim said, “I need a reference for the phone company.”
“Well?” I snapped. “I’ll give you one.”
“No, someone with a phone has to.” He rubbed at the lobe of his ear, nervously. “Susan’s in class.”
“Loyton?” I put a Tom Waits tape under W, then moved it to T. “He has good credit.”
“Joe.” Tim reached for my phone book. “Joe’s always at home. They can call him.”
His using Joe, his assurance that Joe would be lying by the phone, annoyed me. I took his Best of Gershwin and hid it deeply among the Grateful Dead.
After the phone company and Tim had finished with him, Joe called to speak to me. “Thank you for including me yesterday,” he said. “I tried to call you earlier, but it was busy. It was one of the best evenings I’ve had.”
I waited for him to add “in months” or “for a long time,” but he didn’t. He invited me to dinner. “I’m sorry I can’t ask Susan and Loyton and Tim, too,” he said firmly, “but you know how small my place is.”
So, on a day when I was not working for him, I went to Joe’s place as his guest. Usually I wore jeans as his attendant; to be his guest I put on a long skirt and a shell necklace. I announced to Tim, “I’m going over to Joe’s for dinner.”
Tim barely looked up from his hacking. “I’ll eat a potpie.”
“OK. You don’t have to kiss me goodbye.”
We kissed with lips puckered, like children. He looked back at the screen, but I put my arms around his shoulders from behind. “Hey.” I breathed into his neck. “Maybe later.” But I didn’t much feel like it.
Joe had the best-located apartment of anyone I knew. One block off the happening end of Telegraph, Dana Street was quiet and bushy, with houses in eccentric colors. Wind chimes dangled over doorways, kites sailed from verandas, and cats stalked through the flowerbeds, hunting songbirds.
Joe’s apartment was in a long redwood building. On such a street, even with rent control, it could have cost six hundred dollars a month, but with his government subsidy, it was only fifty. He shared the apartment with an invisible female roommate who had the kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms, which were upstairs. Joe lived in his lung in the front room, through which she entered and exited at uncompromising hours.
Sunk a few feet below street level, the place was terminally dim. Joe was parked near the only window so he could read and hear people passing, but the rest of the room tapered into darkness unless he turned on a lot of lights.
That night he had candles, which the last attendant must have set up. They glimmered on the window ledge, inches from his hair, and on the TV table and the radio. Two flames were reflected in the rounded side of his lung, which looked like a water tank lying on its side, with Joe’s head and legs sticking out. In the candlelight, his pale skin looked healthy. He started chattering as soon as I came in. “Hope you’re hungry, I have a lot of food. Go ahead, if you want to change the CD. I was playing Madame Butterfly, but I could handle something less dramatic. Would you like some wine? It’s been breathing heavily for an hour.”
I admired the candles, rolled a chair near his head, and began to act social, although I felt I should be opening the lung to straighten the pads Joe lay on, or getting out his toothbrush to clean his teeth. He said again how he’d enjoyed that Friday, and how nice it was to hear poetry read aloud, although he found Woolf too alienated. And Tim, he said, was charming, not at all as I’d described him.
“He gets on my nerves,” I said. “Obviously he’s a good person, and smart, and all the et ceteras, or I wouldn’t be with him.” This was a lie; the truth was that I was afraid to break up with Tim in case no one else materialized. “I just wish he were more mature. He acts like a little boy sometimes.”
“Like when he piled up all the plates and cups into a tower?”
“Exactly. Loyton’s talking about fission, and my boyfriend can’t even keep his hands still.”
“Well, isn’t that appealing, though? Don’t we like people who are free with their emotions?” Joe turned his face toward me more fully. “At least he isn’t all hung up or a workaholic.”
“I guess.” I hadn’t expected a challenge to my complaining: it was my pressure valve. “But he isn’t really emotional, you know? I thought he would be. When I met him, at that Reikian massage workshop, I thought he was really playful and open. He liked to touch everyone. Later he told me he went there just to meet women.”
“Looks like it worked.”
“Yeah, I guess it did, for him.”
“Spare me the self-pity,” Joe said. “You told me he gives great acupressure.”
“He also works on my car.”
Despite my disappointment over not being sincerely in love with Tim, I doubted I’d be any less critical of anyone else. And when I looked around, impatient with Tim’s refusal to get a real job, to save money, to attend to world events, or to think beyond next week, I didn’t see any other available men.
A spicy aroma was making me hungry. “You had someone cooking?” I asked.
In the kitchen I found a tray, with china and daisies perfectly arranged on a blue cloth. The oven held warm ceramic bowls filled with vegetarian entrees and exotic side dishes from the Good Earth restaurant. He’d spent more than I made in a day. I’d gathered that he had wealthy, if absent, parents, as well as income from the state. I called out my appreciation. “Hot damn.”
The candlelight was gold, the wine was wine-colored, Joe’s cheeks looked pink, and I suppose mine glowed, too. We shared one plate, which I held on my knees, and we ate and ate, nearly moaning with greedy delight. The rice tasted of saffron and fennel, and the mushroom casserole was made with herbs I couldn’t even guess. I said, “You’ll love this,” and scooped a big mouthful for him.
He chewed it slowly, with his eyes shut.
“Do you know how they make this?” I said.
“Of course not.”
“I mean, do you think it’s sautéed first, or do you think they —”
“ ‘Sautéed,’ ” he said. “Is that like ‘fried’? Is that what the Galloping Gourmet does with onions?”
“We ought to cook together sometime.” I slathered butter on a dark rye roll. “You could supervise.”
“Sure,” he said. “We’d end up with dog food. Don’t eat all the stuffed artichokes.”
“This is fun,” I said around a hunk of bread. “You ought to feed me more often.”
“Good,” he said. “I get the feeling you could use more fun.”
That stopped me. Did I come off as dull? Me, with my functioning legs, poetry readings, and bright Berkeley housemates? “I have fun.” I tried to produce an example. “Sometimes Tim and I go to the rose garden and watch the sunset. And we play tennis. That’s fun.”
“OK, maybe I’m wrong.”
“You’re right. I don’t even like tennis.” I held on to the sunsets, though.
It was late when I rose to go. “I told Tim I’d be home early,” I said.
“You did,” he answered flatly.
“You didn’t have to go to so much trouble.” I folded up the linen napkin.
“No, I didn’t, but I wanted to.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. Susan wanted me to invite you to come over one Monday. She has a few people in to read poems and things.”
“So,” I said. “Shall I brush your teeth, or . . .”
“Ha!” He glared at the ceiling.
“Is that what you usually do after you have dinner with a man? Brush his teeth?”
“I don’t usually have dinner with anyone but Tim,” I said lamely.
“And? Do you brush his teeth afterward?”
“No,” I said. “After we eat, we do the dishes.” I quickly kissed the top of his head, and left.
Weaving down Telegraph, dodging the lousy buskers and aggressive panhandlers, I wondered if Joe had interpreted my complaints about Tim as a request for a replacement. Well, I wondered, what if we became lovers? Could I bathe, make love to, then bathe again that soft, still body? No, I could not make love to just a head. I did not always want to be on top.
“I think Joe wanted me to kiss him goodnight,” I announced the second I got home. Susan was leaning against the stove, with the kettle on high, and Tim was sitting on the wooden table, kicking his heels and eating a carton of ice cream with a serving spoon. I settled on the bar stool.
“Well,” said Susan, watching wisps of steam emerge from the kettle. “Did you?”
We decided that Joe must be a virgin. “That’s odd.” Susan spooned leaves into her little brown teapot. “He’s not unattractive.”
“What?” said Tim. He held the spoon like a lollipop, licking it.
“His face,” she said. “He has a film-star face.”
“He’s paralyzed,” I pointed out. The steam thickened into a spout, then began to whistle. “It wouldn’t matter if he were a movie star. No one would get into bed with him.”
“Can he even have sex?” Tim asked me. “Does the equipment work?”
“I think so.” He’d said something once to another attendant about masturbating. Nothing untoward, just a mature, casual remark, which she maturely and casually passed on to me. The slight movement he had in his right fingers was, apparently, sufficient. “But, I mean, he can’t roll around, obviously. And he’s lacking a partner.”
“No sex?” said Tim. “What would be the point in life?” The whistling grew shrill. “Aren’t you going to turn that off?”
“It must be a full, rolling boil.” Susan raised her voice over the shrieking kettle. “In San Francisco there are sex substitutes. No, surrogates. I read an article about them. They help people overcome sexual problems.”
“Joe has the worst problem of all,” Tim said.
Susan looked longingly at the ice cream Tim was eating. “God, I’m hungry.” She poured the boiling water into her china teapot and clapped its lid on.
The following week Joe said he needed me to take him to Wednesday night mass because his evening attendant would be out of town. “What do I wear?” I asked. “The last time I went to church I was six, and we had doilies on our heads.”
“Dress up if you care what people think,” Joe said. “God doesn’t care.”
I couldn’t decide if Joe’s faith was amazing or conventional. I didn’t see how he could believe in some supreme being after all his misery, yet I could see the appeal of an afterlife, complete with wings.
On Wednesday I wore my reliable pink number, but among the more elegant high heels and fitted waists I felt marked as an atheist. The church had sweeping wooden rafters going up to a point in the middle like a circus tent. From the apex hung a cross, and from the cross hung Jesus, balancing with bleeding hands, looking sadly down his nose at us.
I wanted to go sit up front near the flowers, but Joe explained that he had to make his confession first. I rolled the gurney up to a little black box with a curtain at the back of the room. I pulled Joe into the confessional and stood cramped between him and the wall. There was no light, except a sliver from where the curtain hung crookedly over Joe’s long gurney. Joe looked at a little screen, which was right at the level of his mouth. I supposed most people knelt down to it. He said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession.”
“Should I leave?” I whispered. Joe shook his head.
“Is there someone in there with you?” asked the priest.
“Yes, there is. This is Joe Beardsley. My friend helped me get in here.”
The voice mumbled something I couldn’t catch, and then Joe began. “Well, Father,” he said casually, “I’ve been angry this week. I’ve been in a lot of pain, and I haven’t accepted God’s will. When I’m in pain I swear a lot. I take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Jesus, I thought. Jesus fucking Christ.
“Also,” Joe said, his voice suddenly more sincere, “I’ve had impure thoughts. I have wanted to be sexual with women, one in particular, and also with some men.”
Men? He’d never hinted that to me. It seemed odd — I’d assumed heterosexuality for Joe in a way I wouldn’t have for anyone else. And how was I supposed to react to the “one in particular”?
“I’ve watched pornography on television, Father. And I’ve masturbated, three times, I think. I’ve been trying to stop but I can’t.” He sighed hugely and waited.
“Is there anything else?” The voice sounded strained and depressed.
“That’s all, Father.”
“Say one Hail Mary, and one Our Father. Let the peace of God enter your heart, and —” The voice stopped; the priest on the other side was trying not to cry.
“Yes?” Joe said, attentively, and suddenly the whole thing reversed: Joe was ready to receive the priest’s confession and to absolve him of guilt and grief.
“— and it is not a sin to be angry.” The voice was calm again. “Go with God.”
I stood, sat, and knelt with the others at the appropriate times in the service, holding the prayer book in front of my face. At first I held it for Joe to read, too, but he shook his head; he knew all the responses.
After everyone else had gone to the altar to receive communion, the priest who had given the sermon came toward us with a goblet, followed by another man with a golden tray. Their white robes swished on the red carpet. The congregation turned to peer until they saw Joe’s gurney, and then all but the children swiveled their necks back.
The children stared, and I watched nervously as the first priest said, “The body of Christ,” and placed a white wafer on Joe’s tongue. I wondered if they’d need a straw, but the other man moved softly to Joe’s head and with a silver spoon lifted a little wine to his mouth. “The cup of salvation,” he said, and he and Joe smiled into each other’s faces.
And then a small shudder went through Joe, and he closed his eyes like someone in love. The priests quietly returned to the altar to finish the service. I felt jealous — jealous that I couldn’t have that magic.
When we were back outside again, heading for the van, I told Joe how the communion had made me feel.
“You could always convert,” he suggested. “Let’s go get ice cream.”
But I felt as if I had already been converted, because I had seen something in Joe that I’d never seen in anyone else: what I could only call a soul.
A week after the mass, I agreed to help Joe get to the medical conference so he could give his talk to the doctors. I didn’t want to take him. But I didn’t want the guilt of refusing either, so I enlisted Tim to help.
Getting Joe into the back seat of my car was relatively easy. We put his head on my rolled-up jacket, folded his legs, and braced him with a couple of seat belts. But then we still had the stupid gurney — half the length of the Honda — to squeeze in. It was supposed to fold up, Joe knew, but he had no clue how. The contraption had little hooks and levers and handles, all of which we twiddled. Nothing worked. After ten minutes, Tim and I were flushed with exasperation, and the gurney was the same size.
“Wait a second,” Tim said. “We’re doing this wrong.” He walked two yards away and gazed at the contraption. “It’s more Zen this way,” he said. “Think about how it should go down.”
“That’s not Zen.” I kicked the wheels. “Zen doesn’t use should.”
“Look.” Tim came back and pointed at the cushions. “There’s a seam in the middle.”
The gurney bent in the middle so that the two halves of the mattress lined up with the legs. It folded down to the size of a large suitcase, but lifting it was like hefting a large suitcase full of books. It was one frustrating inch too big to go in the hatchback, no matter how we pushed and at what angle. Finally we tied it to the roof with some twine and trundled over the bridge, the gurney knocking and Joe flat in the back, asking what time it was every five minutes.
The San Francisco State University Hospital sprawls up a hill, with about an acre of steep ramps between the visitors’ lot and the hospital entrance. When we finally made it to the auditorium, a couple of hundred doctors in suits were watching a video of a model in an electric wheelchair cruising and pivoting around a tennis court, hitting killer returns and showing off his legs in white shorts.
Tim fetched the person in charge, a wisp of a woman with a lavender nose and sad eyes. She squatted to talk to Joe. “Thank you for coming out here today,” she pronounced loudly.
Joe shut his eyes. “No problem.”
“Sorry,” she said, standing up. “I thought you might have a hearing aid.”
“Nope,” Joe said, not looking at her. “I hear just great.”
She consulted her spiral pad, covered with floral handwriting. “You’re on in about half an hour, but we’re running a little bit behind. Is that OK?”
Joe had already been away from his lung for two hours; two more and he’d be seriously uncomfortable. “Fine,” he said, his breathing a bit labored. We waited for forty-five minutes, Tim and I standing up the whole time. Only when she came back did we notice the long, narrow steps up to the podium. The woman pointed out the way to the backstage entrance instead, which entailed bumping Joe back out the way we’d come in and going around the building to the loading dock. She trailed us the whole way, whining, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I should have thought about this.” When we finally made it backstage, she said, “OK, thank you, I guess I’ll take over now.” She edged me away from the gurney with a martyred look and tried to push it with the brake on. The gurney lurched crookedly, and Joe frowned at me.
I put my hands back on the grips. “I got him this far, I’ll take him onstage.”
Blinking, she flapped onstage and began talking about Joe into the microphone as she struggled to lower it. I maneuvered him over the cables and around the chairs that littered the backstage. As soon as I pushed past the black curtains, the light blinded me. I stopped for a minute to let my eyes adjust, and I guess the audience had been waiting some time for Joe’s appearance because they started clapping. He wasn’t even up to the mike yet, and the applause was bursting our ears. It felt as if they were cheering both of us, him for being in the gurney and me for helping him. I felt needed and glamorous; he was helping me.
From the wings, I watched Joe’s face, assured and vibrant as he talked. His thick, wavy hair shone in the spotlight, which shadowed the gurney into obscurity. I watched all those people watching his film-star face. He made the whole audience laugh. I had been utterly wrong about the doctors. They loved his poem, and they asked questions about how he could use the Progress mover. I would have to apologize, I thought; we’d have to celebrate. A dinner on me, maybe the symphony. We could get a box; we’d glide the mover in front of the seats, indulge in the music, enjoy ourselves. With the mover, it could be an almost perfect date.
Tim nuzzled into my hair with little grunts. “Let’s fool around.”
“Don’t.” I pushed him away. “There are other people back here.”
“It’s boring. And I’m starving. You want to go eat later?” He looked as he always looked when he was hungry: weak and confused.
“Maybe.” I’d been thinking of staying over at Joe’s and talking after taking him home. I wished I could go out with Joe instead; I wished I could put Joe’s head on Tim’s body. “Maybe not.”
I planned the date. I told Tim something about paying Joe back for the dinner he’d fed me, and I got busy ironing a dress, booking tickets for one evening of the Mozart fest, finding my almond massage oil. It was time, I thought, to give Joe a treat: an hour-long, full-body massage. That I could offer guiltlessly.
That Saturday night, Susan saw me putting on the new dress. “Black?” she said. “In summer?”
“I look great.” I fluffed my hair up a little higher. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Touché,” she said crossly, and flounced back to her room.
Joe had never eaten lobster before. They take a long time, I told him, but I willingly got my fingers buttery and accidentally spritzed his nose with lemon, feeding him the most succulent chunks. While I was cracking shells and teasing out pink wedges of meat with a little fork, Joe talked.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said of the mover, in which he’d been practically living for two days. “Yesterday I decided to go visit the Enabling Center on Telegraph. While I was there, three of us decided to go next door for coffee. It took me an hour to get to the center and another fifteen minutes to get next door, but it was great! All the streets between my house and the center have ramps, and —”
“Eat.” I offered the tip of a shiny claw. “I’m so excited for you. Can you get the mover in a car?”
He nodded, chewing. “Yeah, and I can take more oxygen! I can go anywhere, almost! I still get tired, but I can be out now all day.”
“The wine country,” I said.
“The beach,” he said. “I haven’t been to the beach since I was six.”
How terrible, I thought, remembering dried seaweed strands, the hiss and whisper of waves, the salty, sunburned rides home. “You know,” I said, “I haven’t been to the beach yet this year.”
“That’s amazing,” he said. “I’d go all the time if I could. But I guess it’s hard for you, too, sometimes. Sometimes I think that if I weren’t paralyzed, I’d be Superman. You know, I’d be a corporate executive and get married, and stay married, and have two nice children, and take them to Europe and the beach a lot, and grow organic vegetables, and teach Sunday school, and get my master’s and another B.A. in history, and learn how to cook like this, and exercise every day, and learn to sing and maybe compose a little for the saxophone. And study more French, and Italian, too.”
“In your copious free time,” I said.
“But I guess maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d only learn how to fly a glider.”
After dinner, we headed for the silver, shining marquee of the Palace Theater, joining the crowd in white dinner jackets and splashy sequins jostling the velvet ropes.
As we neared the entrance, more people crowded behind us, politely pushing. I let Joe navigate his mover with his mouthstick, instead of pushing him myself, so he could show off. But I kept my hand on his shoulder to establish myself as his date. As we got close to the door, I moved a little ahead of Joe toward the ticket taker looking at us. Oh, my black dress is perfect, I was thinking, reaching into my perfect purse for the tickets, when I heard a sharp, prolonged clatter of metal striking stone.
The mover toppled off the curb and fell sideways, throwing Joe into the street. Wheels screeched as limos and taxis swerved, honking. A dozen people surrounded him, shouting for help. I pushed through the elbows and hips as fast as I could. Joe was screaming for me.
I went with him in the ambulance, rushing back up the hills to the same hospital where he’d spoken. I stayed until after midnight, waiting while they set his arm. I wanted to know exactly how he’d fallen, and to apologize for not pushing him. But Joe was wired to so many IVs and monitors it was as if he were in a cage, and the combination of pain and drugs made him groggy and uncommunicative.
I returned the next morning and stayed past dinnertime, then returned the next day, and the next. I hauled his computer in and set it up, although he was too tired and dopey to care. At night I phoned his other attendants from home, demanding they at least call Joe. I reached his parents in Los Angeles, and his mother promised to come up. When Joe was not asleep, we played checkers; I made tired fun of the hospital food; I read aloud to him from Rolling Stone and Mother Jones and the ward’s Reader’s Digests. When my voice gave out I turned on soap operas and game shows. “Quick, Joe! What’s the capital of Colombia?” I took charge of understanding the doctors and physical therapists; I made charts of how he might expect to heal. By the end of the week I was running on instant coffee; I’d lost weight and stopped washing my hair. When I could not be at the hospital, I slept like a stone or ran errands, buying books, tapes, sweets, and fruit, anything to cheer him.
Timmy stopped it. The day Joe’s mother was to arrive, Tim took the keys to my car and made me go for a walk. “This is Saturday,” he told me. “I haven’t seen you for eight days. You look awful. Can we at least talk?”
Walking up the steep hill, I was panting. I felt light-headed and strained from the lack of food. Tim’s arm around my shoulders felt heavy. “Wait,” he said. “We don’t want you having a heart attack. Breathe.”
I didn’t want to stop; I wanted to hurry up and get back so I could rush to the hospital, grab the elevator to the fourth floor, take the second corridor on the left, and run into room twelve.
But Tim brushed the leaves off the curb and tugged me to sit down. He pulled my head down against his chest and stroked my hair and held me until I relaxed.
Around us people’s gardens bloomed in the soft colors of late summer. A small, neat, gray cat with blue eyes licked its front paw on a stone wall. In one of the seminaries a choir was practicing. Squirrels ran up and down the phone lines, sparrows rustled the hedges. “It’s all right,” Tim said, rubbing my neck. “It’s all right.”
“What would you do?” I asked him. “I can’t just abandon him because I’m tired.”
“You don’t have to abandon him,” he said. “This is not black or white. I just think you’re overdoing it, going there all day every day.”
“He doesn’t have any choice,” I said. “He has to be there all the time.”
“But you don’t.”
“I feel guilty if I don’t!”
“And you feel crummy if you do! Do you really think it helps Joe for you to be as miserable as he is?” Tim broke a branch off a bush and angrily stripped the leaves from it.
I thought of the priest telling Joe it was not a sin to be angry. I remembered how the priest had seemed to ask Joe’s forgiveness. And how Joe had given it, without even knowing.
Joe’s mother stayed even after he got out of the hospital, and she hired a nurse for him. I visited a few times, always with Tim. We drew rainbows on his cast. We talked of Tim’s strange customers, of an odd coin I had found in a parking lot, of television movies. Joe said they had put better brakes and safety straps on the mover, and he could have it back as soon as his arm was better. “I’ve got to get back on that horse,” he said.
Once when Tim was out of the room, Joe asked if I would help him relearn to use the mover. “I think I’ll remember the steering,” he said. “It’s using the mirrors that gives me trouble. If you could go with me and sort of tell me which way I’m headed, I think I could get the hang of it.”
“Is that why you fell?” I asked. “You didn’t get jostled?”
“I don’t know.” Joe closed his eyes. “I don’t remember. There were a lot of people around. I was trying to stay close to you. I turned too hard to the right, and the back wheel went off the curb. Maybe I misjudged the distance. I think the mirrors really distort distances.”
“Oh,” I got out. “So it wasn’t anybody’s fault?”
Joe shook his head slowly. “Of course not.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I just said it wasn’t your fault,” he said.
“I’m sorry anyway.”
When the time came for Joe to get back on the horse, I was starting a tough course in bioenergetics and working for Tim, too. He had gotten a hefty contract with a city office, and the job was so big that he hired me to do some of the grunt work. I did not miss being Joe’s attendant, and I was generally glad that Tim was my boyfriend. I felt that it was not necessary to be in love; we had an effortless life together.
But Susan was gone, and I missed our Monday evenings. I wished our doorbell would ring and I could answer it to find a new person waiting there, someone I didn’t know, someone who might turn out to be quite perfect.
Although I didn’t work for Joe anymore, I thought about him and his mover. His new nurse helped him relearn it, and once I saw them together, progressing slowly across the campus. She had a round, thoughtful face and a strong, simple body. She looked like a wonderful woman, I thought, much kinder than I.
I was very offended to read “Jesus fucking Christ” in cold print [“Progress,” Gillian Kendall, July 1993]. I do not know what percentage of your readership is Christian, but I am sure a lot of them were just as shocked as I was to see such blasphemy. What on earth do you think gives you the right to be so dismissive of others’ feelings?