Overlooking

By Robin Underdahl       


Apiece of slimy ham fell out of Bailey’s fingers and flopped onto the floor next to his right footrest. With the long arms his occupational therapist raved about, he easily reached it. He swiped at the shiny spot on the vinyl with a paper towel. The cleaning service wasn’t due for days.

He wheeled the chair around to face the window and took ten slow breaths.

Then he called Helpers so he could get out of the apartment. The TV said snow was coming. So a ride to the shopping area was what he requested, who cared what for. To talk to someone--anyone who wouldn't go on about independence strategies or meds-- that was what for.

He rolled over to the fridge, and the half and half was there in easy reach. Susan, his sister, could be depended on to put everything in the right place. All he owed her was undiluted gratitude and the decency not to comment when she accidentally bought fat free, or sank to store-brand anything.

He poured less than usual into his coffee, burned his mouth on the first sip, and spilled it on the front of his shirt. Changing shirts was kind of a big deal. A film of sweat was the price of getting it done before the van drove up.

Through the blinds, he watched a girl in blue boots step onto the running board and turn around. It was the slow way she moved that he recognized. Leah. He hadn't seen her in months, thought she'd quit driving.

She was moderately overweight, but moved as cautiously as if she were really fat. She had a pretty look about her, but the most remarkable thing—it happened as he opened the door for her—was the slow way a smile developed on her face.

No doubt she had a last name, but people who were paid to be with you, he had noticed, never offered their last names.

He was prepared for the conversation. He was going to say he needed shoes, and then look at every pair available and just not happen to find any that looked right. The justification was that he tended to look at his shoes a lot more than standing people ever did, so he had to like them a lot.

Instead he said. "I just want to get out of here, Leah."

"It's kind of melty out. Want to be outside a little?"

"A lot."

"Where?" She'd go anywhere, he sensed.

"I used to go to Garvin Heights with this girl."

Wow. Where had that come from? He hadn't remembered making out in the car up at the overlook with Barbara St. John since he'd dropped her for another girl. A year before his accident.

Better not to remember people. Last summer he managed to avoid his ten-year high school reunion. But Susan had made it her business to collect information on his classmates. She sat with him out on her patio, her girls chasing each other around the yard with butterfly nets, Bailey burning up in the sun, closing his eyes. Crickets chirped, and he zoned out on their sound and pictured them rubbing their legs together up in the trees. It didn't help. Now he knew what Alan and Dave and Jacob and everyone else was doing in their great careers, and who married who and divorced them, with the result that, instead of missing his good old buddies, he felt a hatred he could taste in his throat like bile. Susan didn't offer news of the shithead who had starved himself to get into the lightweight class and then broken Bailey's spine on the mat, but he'd bet anything she knew all about him. Maybe she was saving that tidbit.

"You think Garvin Heights would be accessible?" Leah asked.

He should have thought this through. "Aren't you supposed to know that, being a Helpers employee?" he said to stall. It was depressing when things were awkward, but his chair was motorized, that would help. Yes, he would go.

Leah was a sport. She called in and told the dispatcher there was a change of plan. They were going to drive up along the bluffs and look for a spot where Bailey could shoot winter photos of the Mississippi River from the van.

He excused himself for a last trip to the bathroom and, when he came out, caught her chewing something and trying to hide it. It was the Oreos, the open package on the table. She headed for the closet to guess which jacket he wanted from the low-hanging rod, or to chew her cookie with her back to him. But he wheeled over and reached past her.

"I get my own stuff."

"Sorry."

Up at the overlook, no other cars were around—people mainly looked at the river in the summer, when it showed—so no one ogled while Leah got him out of the van. The pathway to the overlook wasn't bad, snow soft and shallow or melted away completely. The ramps were slight and he was able to motor up to the limestone terrace, which actually looked like someone had shoveled it.

He couldn't see over the wall from the chair, but she pulled him up till he could grip the edge and leverage himself into position. Leah arranged his legs below him and supported him from behind with her arm. He took a minute to catch his breath before giving himself over to the view.

First he looked to his left and right at the bluff tops next to theirs. And the matching ones far away on the Wisconsin side. The interstate bridge looked flimsy in the distance. Below, the black tree branches wove a dense web. Snow was hardened into crotches of the trees, but otherwise blown off. Way down was the flat double lake, like a piece of white wool cinched to a waist in the middle. Then the town, tiny houses on the spit of land, color washed out on a winter day. Then the far side of the town, the real view—the big river, the whiteness of snow over ice, the islands surfacing and furred over with bare trees.

Leah could come up here whenever she wanted. She watched him. Did he like the view?

It was okay. He wouldn't say more, though he was drinking it in like cold water.

She was a view too, fresh color against a white sky. Her coral lips parted. She looked up at the thick clouds, her eyes squinted, the only bit of blue anywhere in sight.

"You drove sometimes this summer, didn't you?" he asked.

"Yeah. I work when I'm in town."

"Where else are you?"

"Up at the U. I'm a freshman."

Limited potential there. She'd be around less and less. "So is college just wonderful?"

She fished in her pocket for chapstick. "Could we talk about something else?"

"Sure. What else do you do? Your parents are here in Winona?"

"My parents live here, but right now they're in Amsterdam."

"Let me guess—both in international banking? Or one works for an aerospace company?"

"They're rescuing prostitutes."

"My next guess! Another thing they got over there." She didn't laugh. "I'm sorry," he added.

She took a breath, chest rising and falling under the puffy white jacket.

"You must miss them."

"Not really. I like staying with my grandparents. My parents got converted." A big sigh.

"So they drag you to church all the time?" He liked church, when he'd been able to get there. The conversation felt weird, like he was faking something.

"It was more like they quit our church. There was this Wednesday fellowship they started going to, and it was all about God speaking to you in your heart and that happened to them sometimes too, but it never happened to me. So I signed up for a Wednesday night art class."

"What did they say about that?"

"They said they had to respect my decision about that because I'm old enough to make up my mind. My mom said she would never stop praying that the Lord would break into my heart."

"What's that about? Really, I mean."

She shrugged and seemed finished. He was ready for a new subject. In his mind he saw himself getting up and walking to the other side of her. On his feet he saw dirty sneakers, the pair he'd had when he last walked. Sometimes he wished the accident had happened earlier in his life, so early that he wouldn't find it natural to generate these images of himself doing things.

He would put his hands on her shoulders and say things to her about going to school, about opportunities. About driving up to the U. to see her next week. His hands would feel nice to her, resting on her shoulders. She would like the look of his face if she could look up at it instead of down.

This was how he tormented himself. From his perch, gripping the stone wall and supported by her arm.

"You majoring in something?"

"Studio art, and art history."

"That must be cool."

"I don't know. I just had required courses this semester. I haven't had any art yet."

He was slipping from his perch. She tightened her arm and tugged him upward, and he assisted by putting his arm around her. Her jacket was short, and he found his hand under it, on the slippery fabric of her shirt, while she worked at pulling him up. His arm went easily around her all the way to the front. Midriff, girls used to call it. He was up on the wall again, and they both looked out at the town below, and the river, and she wasn't moving even though he was inching his fingers along, and sort of readjusting his arm now and then, as if it all had to do with his comfort and support. She was perfectly still, stiff in fact, as his fingers arrived at the underside of her plump breast, which he probed, through the shirt and the bra.

A terrible sound came from her. She didn't even push his hand away—afraid of making him fall, maybe—but a sound like a wail and sob quietly mixed and went out into the cold air, over the trees. Rivulets sprouted from her scrunched eyelashes and ran down.

He jerked his hand to the outside of her jacket. "Sorry. Really really sorry."

He got the words out fast because the train roaring down on him was going to smash his voice box. Hanging the apology out there would give her something to react to while he floundered for a way to hide the explosion of shame. Heat flooded through him and there would be beads of sweat on his upper lip, his forehead. His armpits were wet. He had done it again, misread mere pity for something more substantial, for real interest, or attraction. As if that were possible.

People who could stand up, walk a few steps, even just turn their back on the other person had a wealth of options. But his face was always stuck out there in view. Bending your head down or covering your face with your hands barely decreased the nakedness. You had to develop facial control way beyond anything standing people would think of. You had to break your face down into component parts and analyze the range of motions of each, and what each conveyed to anyone looking at you. Rapid blinking showed strong emotion. So did flared nostrils, twitching cheeks, open mouth, or a mouth too tightly closed.

He thought about his forehead and relaxed it, then followed a line of relaxing like a gentle finger running down his face, passing between his eyes and calming them, down his nose and regulating the breathing, bisecting the lips and softening their position. He was good at this.

He didn't look at her.

"I didn't mean to scream like that."

That was unusual. Not what he expected her to say. "No. It was my fault."

"I don't think so." Her head was bent, the short wavy hair falling forward.

"Well, I know so. Comes as a shock to people. Accidents like mine should leave you incapable of more things than walking."

She didn't answer that, and he didn't expect her to. He should regret saying it, but didn't.

Her mouth opened for a puff of air her diaphragm sent out—something less than a laugh, but conveying a bitter sort of amusement.

"What does that mean." The hostile tone, sometimes it just flew out of his mouth. He would never get used to being seen as a freak.

"Before, I thought you were lucky," she said. "I don't believe in romance. It's just torture. I thought maybe you'd escaped it."

"Definitely not."

The temperature had fallen, and the clouds were lowering. To distract her from his unmanly shivering, he began to blather about the roadwork going on down below, and Leah answered. They made the moment seem normal.

Soon, without mentioning the obvious fact that he was freezing—these people must get weeks of tactfulness training—she began to maneuver him back into the wheelchair.

To warm up they went to a coffee shop. Her suggestion. She was willing to wheel him in and find a table with enough room for his chair.

"Double cream," Bailey said.

"That's me too," she said. "Best part."

He had just begun to think she was taking her time in order to fatten her paycheck—as if she could be expected to be here for fun—when she troubled herself to move the conversation along.

"What's it really like? I mean we're told to act like you're just exactly the same as unhandicapped people, and of course you are, but, I mean, your life—it must be completely different."

Well this, anyway, was different. "Yeah. It's crap pretty much. It's not so hard to get the details down, how to take care of yourself, how to set up an apartment that works for you. There's all the social services."

"And you have a job, don't you? Didn't you tell me once you do work on the computer?"

So she remembered something about him. "Editing. Mostly tech stuff or training manuals. It supports me."

"I wonder if I could do that." She had this look on her face, kind of hopeful, her thick eyebrows pulling toward the middle.

"Don't you have some great career in art ahead of you?"

She folded a packet of fake sugar. It broke open and started dribbling onto the table. "Oh!"

He slipped a napkin under it to catch the rest, and then cleaned it up. She leaned back in the booth and watched like a kid ashamed of spilling milk. "I'm quitting," she said.

"After your first semester?"

"Uh huh."

"What about your friends? College is where you make friends. And your roommate—won't she be pissed if you don't go back?"

"My parents will be. Nobody else."

"Then what?"

She looked confused.

"What will you do?"

"I'll do this. Helpers is short right now."

The look on her face got to him. Like a person who had just that minute climbed onto a raft, out of danger, and realized she could float for a few minutes. Such a pretty face, sculptured little nostrils, curvy eyebrows, eyes meeting his with no hint of hidden layers like ambition, or even hope. A simple face.

That's when the full stupidity of his mistake hit him. Trying to feel a driver up was beyond anything. It gave her every right to blacklist him.

"Leah," he said. He had managed to lean way over the table to clean up the sugar and could have reached for her hand, just to touch it. He didn't. "What I did up there…it was inexcusable." He was pulling out his dress vocabulary.

She looked away and grimaced. Did she think he was apologizing for the fresh move and at the same time suggesting that there was an appropriate way to go forward? He watched her face, trying to read it. Conversation with him was fine. Going into a coffee shop okay. Just keep your paraplegic fingers to yourself. He slid his hands out of sight under the table and pressed his fisted knuckles up against the underside.

Back in his apartment, she went around turning on all the lights. "There. It'll be dark in fifteen minutes. I guess you can turn on your own lights. But I like to see you in a nice setting when I leave."

"In case you happen to think of me when you're not here?" He caught his breath and felt his face coloring. He ought to sign up for a laryngectomy.

Her laugh came out, the only time he'd heard it. An airy laugh, almost unvoiced. "I'll think of you," she said. "What else have I got to think of? Well, Bailey—" yes, she'd said his name—"I'll see you again since I'm sticking around. Ask for me."

The door closed. In the glow of the lamplight he sat, his hands on the wheels, his head resting to one side, a smile at no one refusing to leave his face. There was a blanket over his legs; she had done that too. He listened to her laugh again and again in his mind. It was the best moment, the unguarded response, not required in any way and not compensated, just given.

Things like this were enough for Half Bailey, as he sometimes called himself. He could stand it, living like this, doing only this work and knowing only these people.

Except when it happened, as it was starting to happen right now, that Full Bailey, who refused to die, suddenly looked in. Then the things that lay within his pale of wants were nothing, just trash. A pretty girl consenting to drive him places, if paid. Just a piece of candy in the eyes of Full Bailey.

He wheeled around turning off every light Leah had turned on. The dusk closed in around him like a filmy net. The refrigerator was loud, working hard to chill food to keep him going in his crap apartment. He should be over at his blue screen clarifying documents about, at the moment, training traffic safety officers.

The laugh that came out of Leah's mouth in such an appealing way—it had come after he'd asked if she would think of him when she was gone. And it was funny, if you thought about it. Really funny.

He noticed that he was clenching his hands around the wheels of his chair. It was similar to an exercise he was supposed to do to maintain his arm and hand strength. He wished he could squeeze hard enough to break the wheels. And that he had the strength to not ask for her again. To decline the token offering.

But he would ask. And she would come. And maybe allow some borderline moment of connection that invited him briefly, in his mind, to stand. He would look down from a high place, like a tall man, and re-imagine love.

 

Robin Underdahl spent an unencumbered childhood in Winona, Minnesota, She has published fiction and memoir in Notre Dame Review, Short Story, Dark Sky, upstreet, and Stirring. She also co-authored The Red McCombs English & Irish Silver Collection: Every Piece Tells a Story. She earned her M.F.A. from Columbia University.

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