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Russ Dodge

 

Mickey Mantle

The morning that Mickey Mantle died my husband Dewayne put down the newspaper and walked out of the house without saying a word. I heard the car start and putter off in the distance, and I knew that I would be in for one of his outbursts when he returned. Dewayne didn't get over things by himself. And while I have nothing against seeing men cry, Dewayne got upset over such silly things. Mickey Mantle? Before that it was some race car driver in France. I mean, I didn't even know that Dewayne followed the Grand Pre circuit, but there he was, sitting in front of the television, sobbing, because some idiot had smacked into a tree at one hundred and fifty miles an hour.

Sure enough, an hour later Dewayne came back and set a snub-nosed revolver on the table beside me. Unzipping a blue knapsack with the price tag still hanging off it, he pulled out a topographical map and laid it across the arm rests of my wheelchair. He wasn't crying, and I watched as he leaned forward and traced the road to Turkey Creek with his index finger, which was as fat as a hot dog.

"We can take Ruby," Dewayne said.

A ride up into the mountains with a gun didn't sound too good. Ruby was lying right beside me, and I reached down and gave her a pat.

"Not if we are going hunting," I said in a calm voice. I didn't know what Dewayne was up to, but I thought it best to play along. Ruby's tail slapped the floor a few times while I massaged her ear. Men in Arizona hunt javalina with hand guns, I understood, and it was very exciting, since a person had to get very close to the animals to kill them.

My father was a gun nut. We lived in Idaho, and he taught me how to shoot all sorts of weapons. I leaned across the table and looked at the gun. It was a .38, and it looked as if it didn't care what it shot.

"We will need protection from the marijuana farmers up there," Dewayne said. He picked up the gun and held it out in front of him, pointing it at the hutch where I kept my good dishes. "They don't speak English," Dewayne explained. "Firearms are the universal language."

"Great," I said. "A gun battle with drug dealers." I cranked my wheelchair back so that I could pet Ruby's haunch. "Maybe we should go to the Desert Museum instead," I suggested, and I handed the map to Dewayne. "Check out the new additions to Prairie Dog Town."

"Don't you understand?" Dewayne's face crumbled, and he burst into a tearless cry. Turning away, he walked over to the refrigerator and gave it a slap. My physical therapy schedule, which had been stuck to the refrigerator door with a Pizza Hut magnet, went flying. Dewayne shook his head. "The Mick," he said. "The end of an era." He turned and aimed the gun out the window over sink. "Pow," he said in a low voice. "Pow, pow, pow."

This was the second go-around for both of us, and I was not sure how long it was going to last. As I said, I had trouble with Dewayne's values. And I read in one of my magazines---ladies' magazines, Dewayne called them---that Mickey Mantle was a big alcoholic and a poor family man. So who cared if he was dead? I wanted to give Dewayne a big slap the way that he slapped the refrigerator.

I was single for four years after Frank left, but then, because of my illness, I sought male companionship. I was hesitant, though, since during my years alone I learned that men who are attracted to a woman in a wheelchair have a broad range of psychological problems. I met ordinary drunks and liars, of course, and, to be specific, I was also introduced to a Mr. Eugene Hargrove, a photographer, who wanted to take a picture of me naked and tied to the front of his car like a dead deer. "Life in the Handicapped Lane" is what he would call it. The man still phones me.

Then there was Barry Childs, a stock broker who took me to dinner at the Presidio Grill. While we were waiting for our food, Barry reached under the table and put his lit cigarette against my leg. I screamed like a scalded cat, and he jumped up out of his seat.

"Ha!" he shouted. "Ha! You're faking!"

"Faking!" I could smell smoldering polyester, and I touched myself where Barry's cigarette had burned through my slacks. "I'm pressing charges, Buster," I said, and I shifted my wheelchair into reverse and backed away from the table.

"Wait!" Barry ran around behind me and grabbed the handholds on the back of my chair. "Wait. Whoa, slow down. My wife. She pretended to have cancer." I pushed the throttle all the way forward on my control box, and the electric motor whined and then Barry let go. I flew straight into the booth next to ours, knocking a vase of sun flowers into a man's lap. He was wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with a woman half his age. That's not his wife, I thought, as I crashed into their table.

Barry came up and apologized all around. "A few funny cells on her pap smear, and we had to fly to New York," he said. I was still in gear, but he pulled me backwards, leaving skid marks on the parquet floor. "Sloan-Kettering. Then to Mexico for mud baths. It cost me a fortune."

Barry felt so bad about what he did that he bought me a new hospital bed. It had a vibrator and control panel for the television, and I still use it every night. I didn't press charges after all.

My first husband Frank ran off with Evelyn Mosby, a woman who worked at the county employment office. She was a strapping blonde and---I learned later---an ex-Olympic swimmer. 50 yard breast stroke. At the time that Frank left I was having double vision so bad that I couldn't get out of the house or even watch television. He sat down beside my wheelchair one evening and wiped food off of my cheek and admitted that he didn't want to be saddled with me for the rest of his life. For the rest of my life, I corrected him, as Dr. Rogers had given me only a few more years. 	

I should have seen it coming. Frank was a happy-go-lucky guy who skipped over the hard parts of life. When he lost his job repairing cars at a Volvo dealership, for example, he came home laughing. He told me that he had been fired because the manager had overheard him telling a customer that the problem with Volvos is that Swedes don't know shit about air conditioning. How could they, living up there among those fjords? And Frank was saying all this, of course, in Tucson, Arizona. He hung out around the house for months, driving me crazy, until I finally convinced him to visit the employment office.	

Just let me say this: I was fifty-four years old back then. I couldn't dress or bathe myself or sit on a standard toilet, but I could put groceries away and heat up soup and frozen vegetables in the microwave since I had the kitchen remodeled with low shelves. I had a "Help, I've fallen" two-way radio that fit on my wrist, and I could talk on the phone all day too. I sold light bulbs to strangers and made enough money to keep myself in liquor and cigarettes, things that Dewayne wouldn't buy for me. If I could have stopped the muscle spasms that I had all day long, life would have been worthwhile. But I couldn't, so it wasn't, and I did contemplate killing myself. I was not talking the talk---with Dewayne or anybody else---but I was walking the walk. That is, I had a stash of Dilaudid and Ativan and Soma in the bathroom that would have killed ten people. And it only would have taken a string of bad days for me to have used it.

Dewayne did not approve of the kitchen remodel. He stood in the doorway and made rumbling noises in his throat whenever I asked him what he thought of the contractor's progress. Dewayne also did not think that I should be using my wheelchair or wrist radio.

"You got to fight," he told me. "Fight the way that John Wayne fought."

"John Wayne is dead," I said, "or haven't you noticed. And even Superman has a wrist radio, for Christ's sake. Leave me alone."

"You can beat it," Dewayne answered. "Look at Betty Ford. Bad alkie and pill-popper. Now she is queen of California."

"Whew," I said. "All that plastic surgery. Who would pay?"

"Fight, fight, fight." Dewayne came over and pounded his fists on the arm rests of my wheelchair. "Throw this chair away, sister."

"Don't sister me," I said, putting my chair in reverse. And it wasn't as if he didn't have his own set of problems. Dewayne hadn't saved any money in his life, he had trouble getting his penis to work, and he was as fat as a walrus. But as I said, the men who swam in my stream weren't perfect. My photographer, Eugene, had a collection of child pornography that filled three closets in his house. And Barry Childs confided in me that he had tortured the family dog while he was growing up by putting it in the pond at Randolph Park and pushing it back in whenever it tried to climb out. Dewayne didn't hit me. He didn't tomcat around. He didn't shower as often as I'd have liked, but on days that he didn't I didn't get close. I was tired of the fight, fight, fight business, but a woman in a wheelchair couldn't do any better than Dewayne.

"Things are going good," he said a couple of weeks before Mickey died. He showed me a picture of Mickey in his wheelchair, giving reporters the thumbs up sign after his liver transplant. "He's fighting," Dewayne said. "He's battling it all the way."

I didn't answer. I mean, I had nothing to say about Mickey Mantle. I had no views on the man. As I understood it, he had a talent for hitting a baseball and swilling down whiskey and chasing women. Finally, when his liver gave out, he went out and got a new one. Now where's the fight, fight, fight in that?

	*

"Could you shoot another human being?" I asked. I was sitting in my chair in the back of the van, working on a 16 ounce styrofoam cup of white wine. Dewayne was up front, eating a burrito and taking it nice and easy on this little dirt road alongside Turkey Creek. He humped for Mayflower off and on for years and could have driven my van right up the Coronado Trail if I had let him. He knew that bumps would trigger my back spasms, so he was up on the center of the road, with the right wheel on the shoulder. Junipers alongside were taking swipes at the vehicle, and I was inhaling deep drafts of pine pollen. Dewayne had Wagner on the tape deck, and I was glancing through the newspaper. Mickey's picture was on the front page.

"It depends," Dewayne said. He looked back at me and grinned. "I could if he was raping my wife."

"Ho," I said, looking out the window. No wonder I drink. I had a Foley catheter and a bag of pee hanging on my leg, so I didn't need to be reminded that nobody was going to rape me. Well, except Eugene Hargrove. He was always trying to get me to take my clothes off. The junipers retreated, and we headed across a large meadow. At the far side, a big stand of aspen covered the gentle slope to a butte of brown rocks.

"It's too high to grow marijuana, isn't it?" I asked. Dewayne had slowed down, and I was scanning the plants in the meadow. Marijuana plants were small and looked like ferns, I knew, as I watched "Police Files" regularly. 	"Up to 6000 feet," Dewayne said. "Just about where we're at."

I wanted to ask how he knew so much about raising marijuana, but I let it go. In the past, I had been sorry when I asked Dewayne questions like that. He was missing a little piece of his right ear, for instance, and he told me that the deformity was the result of a fight with three whores in El Paso.

Maybe it was the wine doing my thinking for me, but I was glad that we had brought the gun. It was tucked away in Dewayne's knapsack, right below my feet, and he said that he was going to do some target shooting. I wanted to take a few shots too, as I had been thinking about packing myself. I rode around the park by our house in my wheelchair sometimes, and we had a killing or two over there every year. A gun would have helped me level the playing field, as Dewayne might have said.

My doctor told me once that having multiple sclerosis was like going down a staircase. It wasn't a gradual decline or a slow decay. Rather, things happened abruptly---such as the time that I woke up one morning with the left side of my face drooping. Then, as if I was standing still on the stairs, nothing changed for months. The doctor called it Bell's palsy. But then suddenly, another step down---numbness across the top of my shoulders. And I lost my sense of smell. So the doctor changed the diagnosis. MS, he said. Only thing that could do that.

I always noticed these little setbacks in the morning, when I woke up, so I was leery at that time of day. After I opened my eyes, I wiggled my arms. Then I tried my right leg, which I could still move. I did a quick check all over before I called Dewayne to help me in the bathroom.

If I found something new---around the time that Mickey Mantle died I had an eyelid that fluttered whenever I turned my head to the right---I flopped back down in bed. I could stay there for all day, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and yelling for Dewayne. I hated the disease. I mean, Dewayne wanted me to fight but how could I fight something that slipped in and out of my bedroom at night like a goddamn Indian, wounding me while I slept?

Indians. Turkey Creek and the Chiricahua Mountains were famous because the Apaches lived there once. Cochise and Geronimo and Juh and the whole bunch of them. Cochise's Stronghold, people called it. Looking up at the trees and across the meadow at the light blue sky, I saw why the Indians had liked this place. It felt like a sanctuary, a safe haven from the hard life on the floor of the desert. It would be a good place to die, I thought. Now that definitely was the wine talking. I rolled down my window and poured out the rest of the cup.

Because it was a Wednesday, Turkey Creek campground was empty except for a big dark blue Lexus parked at Number Five and a pickup camper at Number Nine. As we drove by the Lexus, I didn't see any camping paraphernalia, and I wondered if somebody was checking on his crop of marijuana. Dewayne drove around the campground to Number Fifteen and pulled in.

He unloaded me through the side door down a wooden ramp that I had built by the same man who did my kitchen. Dewayne didn't approve of that project either.

The campsite was sandy, so I could see that getting around was going to be a problem. The motor wouldn't pull my chair through sand or even over tree roots on a trail. I could drag myself a little ways over soft ground if I had to, but I tired quickly.

It was a pretty scene, with big spruce trees forming the perimeter with a couple of juniper shrubs. A circle of flat rocks in the center marked the fire site. We had a picnic table, and there didn't seem to be any flies. I decided to pick a good spot and stay there.

Did Apaches come down with multiple sclerosis, I wondered as I adjusted Dewayne's knapsack on my lap. No reason why not. And did they fight it? A big black bird, a crow I guess, lifted off from one of the trees. If an Apache woman lost the use of her legs and couldn't see straight and was too weak to grind corn or weave baskets, what happened to her?

I was loaded down, with Dewayne's knapsack and the big leather bag that I kept on the back of my wheelchair. It was full of pills and styrofoam cups and wine. Since I couldn't operate a cork screw if my life depended on it, I was carrying two bottles of Sutter chardonnay with the easy screw-off cap. 	I pulled out a bottle and a fresh cup. Thinking about paralyzed Apache women had changed my mind about not drinking any more. I let out a big sigh and poured myself a cupful of wine. By nightfall Dewayne would want dinner.

It was October, and the afternoon was cooling off. I kept a blanket in the bag at the back of my wheelchair, and I put it around my shoulders as best I could. Alcohol and multiple sclerosis were a trade-off, as the pain got better but I lost strength. After I'd had a few, I could hardly keep my head off of my chest.

"How about letting me have some of those cups?" Dewayne asked. He came over to me with his hand out. In his other hand, I noticed, was a half-eaten caramel apple, one of a half-dozen that he had bought at a fruit stand in Wilcox. The wind was picking up, moving through the trees, and I didn't see how a styrofoam cup was going to stay still long enough for Dewayne to shoot it.

"Help yourself," I said, gesturing at the back of my wheelchair.

"When do we eat?" Dewayne asked. He was rummaging around, and I leaned forward to give him more room. "This is gonna give me an appetite." 	The ice chest was still in the van, packed with a couple of roasted chickens and a Tupperware container full of mash potatoes. I had also thrown in a Sara Lee chocolate cake, still frozen.

"Maybe you should go out and get us dinner," I said. "Kill a deer or quail or something."

Dewayne had moved around to the picnic table with a stack of cups. He looked at me and cocked his head. "Mickey Mantle meant a lot to me," he said. "He was the biggest sports star of this century."

"Bigger than Jim Thorpe?" I asked. I was still thinking of those Apache women. They didn't have much say, I suspected. And they died in whatever way their chiefs and husbands wanted.

"Bigger than Jim Thorpe."

"He was an asshole," I answered. "Nothing but a booze hound." I folded my arms in front of me. Maybe it was all the fresh air, the freedom of the place, but I didn't feel like humoring Dewayne anymore.

"He was a hero," he said, raising his arm and pointing that huge index finger at me. "Everybody loved Mickey."

"He was a useless human being," I said. "And I'm glad that he's dead."

Dewayne didn't move. Not a twitch. Well, his mouth dropped open, but that was it. Finally he lowered his arm. "I can't believe that you said that, honey," he managed. "Mickey Mantle was a brave man. Grew up in the Heartland. Played with those bad knees. And he died looking death in the face. I don't---"

"He died on a morphine drip. High as usual."

"Okay, okay." Dewayne was nodding his head. And he began to pace back and forth in front of the picnic table. He was angry, but I didn't care. I was getting to the point of feeling just as strongly about Mickey Mantle as Dewayne did. He stopped beside my van and leaned against it.

"Okay," he repeated. "A little morphine. How do you think that you're going to die? Huh? I've seen that stockpile you have in the bathroom."

"Good," I said. "I hope to die in my sleep. If you will let me."

"That's sick." Dewayne clinched his fists in front of his face. "Com'on, honey. Let's get you back to your old self."

"There is no old self," I said. "And stop calling me honey."

Dewayne shook his head. "I'm going to let you think about this for a while," he said. "While I go for a drive and cool off."

"A drive?" I said. I pulled my blanket around me tighter. "You can't just leave me here, Dewayne. I'm as helpless as a bug on his back."

"I sure can," Dewayne said. He walked over to his recliner and folded it back up and tucked it under his arm.

"It's my van!" I yelled. "It's registered in my name."

Dewayne disappeared around the front of the van. I heard the sliding door open and the clatter of his recliner inside. He came around the front again and folded his arms on his chest. "Do you take back what you said about Mickey Mantle?" he asked.

I raised my cup of wine to my lips and took a long drink. "No way," I said.

"Okay," Dewayne said. He grinned and disappeared behind the van again.

I pulled the gun out of the knapsack. Checking the cylinder---I couldn't believe that it was loaded---I waited until Dewayne was inside the van. Then I lifted the safety and aimed at the back tire, which was about fifteen feet away. I squeezed off three rounds, and the tire just sat there. With my ears ringing like cymbals, I aimed lower and fired twice more. The car buckled and eased down to the sand.

"Jesus H. Christ!" The door of the van slammed, and Dewayne yelled from somewhere behind there. "Are you fucking crazy?"

A glow was coming over me, and it wasn't the wine. I should have been carrying a gun all these years, I thought to myself. No wonder kids did. Instant respect. I could have shot Barry Childs through the heart when he put his cigarette on my leg. Drilled him right there in the Presidio Grill.

I rummaged through the knapsack, looking for bullets. While I was reloading, Dewayne peeked around the front of the van.

"Mickey Mantle," I muttered as I snapped the cylinder up. "I thought that you were leaving."

Dewayne took a couple of steps toward me with his arms out. "Get out of here, you fat slob," I yelled. He didn't move, so I pointed the gun at him. "Hey!" Dewayne dropped his arms and stood still. I aimed at the side of the van and fired another couple of rounds, shattering the window. That sent Dewayne scurrying around behind the van again. I let out a whoop and fired straight up into the sky.

Dewayne didn't show his face again, and after a few minutes I decided that he had taken off on foot. Hightailed it. That was fine. I didn't need him.

I tucked the gun under my blanket and slumped down in my wheelchair. The sun had disappeared behind the trees, and the sky was turning feathery. It was chilly, but it would be a beautiful evening. If I had to, I could get back into the van and spend the night. With the amount of food I had, I could hole up for days.

This was it for us, I was thinking. Dewayne was disgusted by my outlook on things, and I had called him a fat slob. He was very sensitive about his weight. Deep down, I guess, I didn't like him much. Life was supposed to be about compromises, but Dewayne was too much of one.

I had closed my eyes and maybe dozed off when I heard the siren. It grew louder and louder and then popped off when it was close. A few seconds later a green Jeep with a blinking red light stuck on top wheeled into our campsite and stopped right behind the van. I straightened up and put my hand on the gun under my blanket as a man in a broad-rimmed hat strode up to me.

"You see anything?" he asked. "Anybody?"

I hesitated. This man was wearing a gold bar above his shirt pocket, but I couldn't see his name. Border Patrol or Forest Ranger, I figured. I didn't see a gun, so he was a Ranger. Plus, he was too young to be in the Border Patrol.

"No, but I heard shots," I said. "They seemed to come from over by that car." I tilted my head in the direction of the Lexus, which was partially visible across the campground. "Hunters?" I asked. "Is it hunting season?"

"No, it isn't hunting season," the man answered. "And there's no firearms allowed in the campgrounds at any time." He took off his hat and wiped his forehead. He was cute, with straight blond hair and a Roman nose. He looked like a surfer, a surfer dressed up like a Forest Ranger. "Goddamn it," he said.

"I hear that there are marijuana farmers up here," I said.

"Not this high," the Ranger answered. He put his hat back on and looked around. Surveying our campsite, he noticed the flat tire. And he turned back to me.

"You out here by yourself, honey?"

I hesitated again. "Yes," I finally said. "Just up here from Tucson enjoying the scenery."

The Ranger was looking back and forth from me to the van. Dewayne had put my wooden loading ramp back inside, so the tracks of the wheelchair started abruptly in the sand about four feet away from the van. I could see that Mr. Ranger was puzzled.

"Do you really need that wheelchair?" the Ranger asked me.

"Oh, no," I said. "I just like to use it. You know, pretend that I'm crippled."

"Then you can change that tire?" the Ranger asked. He was grinning the same way that Dewayne did before he left.

"Oh, dear," I said. "I didn't see that." I leaned forward and squinted at the flat.

The Ranger pointed his finger at me. "If you are going to come up here alone, you should be prepared to change a tire."

"You're absolutely---"

"It's not my job," the Ranger interrupted, spreading his arms out in front of him. "People think that it is, but it isn't. I have a college degree, and I'm here to manage the forest." The Ranger had turned away and was talking to the trees and sky. Then he turned back to me and saw the gun.

"I'm making it your job, okay," I said. That sounded good. I wiggled the gun back and forth the way I saw Katherine Turner do in one of her movies. The Ranger put his hands up in the air, and I let him keep them there. I was enjoying the moment.

"Mickey Mantle would never do this, would he?" I said.

"What?" The Ranger let his hands drop to his sides. "What did you say?"

"Mickey Mantle," I repeated. "He'd never pull a gun on a Forest Ranger."

The Ranger grimaced. "Mickey Mantle is dead," he said. "It's been on the radio all day."

I shifted to get more comfortable. Holding the gun was a strain for me. I extended my arm, keeping the gun aimed at the Ranger's chest. The wind was getting stronger, whistling through the tree, and I was getting cold and stiff. "Let's change that tire," I said, and I waved the gun around some more. After I got Mr. Ranger to put down my ramp, I figured, I could shoot out his tires too.

He fell to it, opening the back of the van and pulling out the spare and the jack and the tire wrench. Watching him work, I kept marveling to myself about the power I had over this man. He didn't turn around and look at me until he was finished. And by then, I had undergone a change of heart. It wouldn't do any good to drive away, as he would radio the Highway Patrol or somebody, and they would catch me on the road. It would be better to make my stand here in Cochise's Stronghold. So I let Mr. Ranger drive away.

The wind slackened as it grew darker, and the trees became black silhouettes in front of the dark sky. I was sitting with the gun in my lap, unable to move. The Ranger would be back, I knew. He would be back with reinforcements. Maybe Dewayne would come back too.

I pulled my blanket up higher, but it was my feet that were getting cold. My right foot, that is. The left one was numb all the time. And I was seeing things across the camp. Shadows that didn't make sense. I leaned forward and squinted into the dark. There was something behind the picnic table. A person. Dewayne? The ranger? I heard the door of the van slam shut, and out of the corner of my eye I saw movement over in that direction. They were surrounding me. Dewayne and the Ranger. Then I saw a man standing beside the picnic table. Plain as day. He was coming toward me, and he raised his arms. I gripped the gun again and raised it level with my eyes. "Fight, fight, fight," the man said. He was big, but it wasn't Dewayne's voice. It was low and mocking, not encouraging the way Dewayne's would have been. "Fight, fight, fight." He was getting closer, crowding me, and I had to make a choice. So I squeezed the trigger and shot him right between the eyes.

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