Song and Dance
Colin curled his head forward and rested it on his motherís
shoulder. She grasped him around his torso and leaned back, lifting
him from his chair, then shuffled to the left and deposited him onto
the toilet. As she caught her breath, she scooped a lock of hair
from his eyes, brushed a finger down his scruffy cheek. She then
spread his legs with her hands. Colin stared at the shower curtain
rod as his mother tugged on a latex glove, spread petroleum jelly on
one finger. She knelt on the tile floor and reached between his
legs. With her free hand, she removed the lid to the large tub of
glycerin suppositories. She pinched one of the bullet-shaped
capsules between her fingers, then inserted it into his rectum.
Colin did not wince. Kathy removed her finger, discarded the glove.
She washed her hands and patted Colin twice on the shoulder. She
leaned against the sink and hummed three minutes of "Take a Chance
on Me" before his bowels moved.
"Thatís a boy," she said.
Colin continued staring at the shower curtain rod as his mother
wiped him, rubbed the area with alcohol, and flushed the toilet.
The story, as Colin had often told it in the years since the
accident, goes like this:
He was six years old and upside-down, watching Woody Woodpecker
while practicing handstands in the second-floor TV room of his
grandmotherís townhouse. Grandma was downstairs, changing young
Brianís diaper in the kitchen. She was humming Moon River and
Brian cooed along with her.
The TV room was framed on one side by an oak balustrade. Colin
would occasionally stand on the sofa that abutted the railing and
look down at the living room below, at the china hung on the walls,
the oil paintings of flowers and fine porcelain, the octagonal poker
table directly beneath him, its green felt scuttled beneath a wooden
cover since his grandfather had died three years before.
Now: on the carpet, practicing the handstand Jake Capitolo had
demonstrated for him in the tanbark of the monkey bars during
recess. An inverted Woody Woodpecker pecked at the small of an angry
zookeeperís backóHuh huh huh heh heh! The zookeeper lurched
in pain and the credits began to roll. As Colin told it, he had
decided at this point to attempt a handstand on the sofaís cushions.
Why, he could not exactly say. The whim of a six-year-old, heíd
explain with a weak shrug.
His forward momentum wasnít sufficient on his first two attempts
and he fell back down on the carpet. For his third try, he took four
large steps backward and stood straight. He extended his arms
slowly, then brought them back down to his side as he had once seen
a gymnast do on TV. He jogged a few steps, brought both hands up,
then tucked his torso and planted his palms on the sofaís cushion.
His feet lifted from the carpet and a small tickle of alarm began to
register up his spine, and then he was over, and falling.
The second floor disappeared, the first descended into view. The
fading sound of Woodyís credit song and a soft whoosh of air in his
ears. Tumbling, the world seeming to right itself, downside down
again, his mindís volume cranked high, gritted teeth, pinched eyes,
Had someone been filming the moment, a still frame would reveal:
Colin Borgia, his body taut, torso pointing at ten oíclock, legs at
two. Six years old, three feet from the ground. Advance one frame
and his buttocks sink, his body becomes an acute V. Arms wide, palms
outward, fingers stretched, hair dancing as if electrified. He could
be doing a back dive. He could be bouncing up from a trampoline.
Another frame on, the head thrown forward, one corner of
Grandfatherís poker table sunk neat and deep between the fourth and
fifth cervical vertebrae of Colinís spine. Press play, thereís the
sodden crack of the spinal cord, cold asparagus snapped underwater.
Thereís the dull resonant thud from the poker table. The V
collapses. Eyes go wide. For moments afterward, on his back, a
weightless heap, the only movements from Colinís body are the
blue-black contusion enshrouding his spine and the silent fish-gulp
twitter of his six-year-old lips.
This was how Colin described the accident, as a filmstrip. He
told the story again and again over the yearsóto doctors, nurses,
strangersóuntil it calcified in his mind, slowly replacing the
memory of a slightly different account of events. The truth was more
complicated, but the truth didnít seem to matter anymore.
From the instant his spinal cord hit the edge of the poker table,
Colin would no longer sweat below his neck. He would never again
have control over his limbs. He could give a weak shrug, however,
and often did so to express a number of emotionsóhappiness, sadness,
indifference. He had feeling at the top of each shoulder, fading to
a tingle along his collarbone. Below that, things turned prickly and
distant, and touch was more like an echo than a sensation. Feeling
turned shy, almost mute, and then descended into nothingness as one
traced a finger down the deltoids and biceps and pectorals.
He could speak normally, could breathe on his own, though not
quite as deeply as before. He was still afforded the luxury of
swallowing. His intake was normal; his output proved more
troublesome. He wore a condom capped with a catheter that looped to
a collection bag in a pocket of his wheelchair. Each morning Kathy
administered an anal massage and inserted a suppositoryóa routine to
which, at twenty-two years old, he had grown numb, during which he
would fix on some spot in the room and try not to think. He ignored
her as she hummed ABBA or Chicago or occasionally Billy Joel, until
finally there was the disturbance in the water beneath him. And then
he was cleaned, and the toilet was flushed, and with arms dangling
he was hefted into his chair to start the day.
Kathy first invited her new boyfriend Ted to dinner two weeks
before the sixteenth annual Swim with Colin, a fundraiser she
had founded the year after the accident. Colin expected to hate Ted
from the moment his mother mentioned him. Just the nameóTed. A Ted
is a person with whom, by default, most people do not enjoy spending
time. Ted is someone who gives you a double thumbs-up, gives high
fives with a backside, down low, youíre too slow. Ted has blond wavy
hair that bounces when he runs, has white whites and a beaming
smile. Male cheer squad leader, clapping the side of a megaphone
above his head.
But his motherís Ted turned out to be none of these things. This
Ted had a three-day scruff of beard, wore dirty jeans and T-shirts
with stretched necks. He listened to the Boss, Zeppelin, The Stones.
During the dessert of that first dinnerófudge cake with extra
frosting, which Kathy spooned into Colinís mouthóColin proclaimed
that, easy choice though it was, the Beatles were the best band of
"Sorry," Ted said, fingering a swath of frosting from his plate,
"itís The Clash."
They argued music until the last remainder of daylight winked
out, at which time Colinís mother stood and cleared the dishes. When
she was out of earshot, Ted leaned across the table. "Youíre full of
shit," he said. "The Clash, man, thatís where it is."
The two became quick friends.
It was overcast and windy during the sixteenth annual Swim
with Colin. The cook sheltered his tin of hot dogs while one of
the volunteers chased down an airborne vinyl tablecloth. For the
first four years, the event had been called Swim for Colin.
The proceeds paid for Colinís motorized Theradyne wheelchair with
custom chin control, paid for the rehab nurse and the psychologist,
paid for elective medications the HMO went Dutch on or refused to
cover altogetheróanti-depressants, anti-anxiolytics,
anti-convulsants to treat spastic muscles, opiates for pain control,
a cocktail of downers to muffle the stab and burn of limbs that
teased at night.
And then in 1989, after Colinís father finally started paying
alimony, Kathy decided that she and her son had indulged long enough
on the communityís goodwill. They had, she said, a moral obligation
to turn their efforts toward others in need. And thus for
became with. Swim with Colin drew hundreds of donors
every year. The mayor always made an appearance, along with the
districtís congressman or a fading celebrity. Local news had covered
Jeffrey Osborne performing in front of the diving well three years
before, and there were rumors that for year seventeen Colinís mother
was courting Meredith Baxter-Birney.
So, year sixteen: a redheaded boy with braces snapped the
training bra of a girl leaning against the lifeguard chair. She
chased him past the three beneficiaries of the yearís proceedsóa
ten-year-old boy who had fallen off a ladder while scooping leaves
from a rain gutter, a sixteen-year-old girl hit by a drunk driver
the night her parents had given her a used Cabriolet, and the recent
Wesleyan graduate shot through his Adamís apple after withdrawing
forty dollars from an ATM. At the start of the event, each said a
few words into a microphone held by a smiling volunteer. They
offered thanks and appreciation to Colin and his mother, and each
was buttressed by applause. Kathy took the microphone and gave a
slight variation on the speeches she had delivered in previous
years. She said she had learned the meaning of the word courage from
her son. She called him a survivor. "Heís my life," she said.
Colin sat by his motherís side, listening to her words
reverberate off the concrete enclosure of the Dayton High pool deck,
until the microphone appeared in front of his mouth. He looked out
at the expectant faces. "Thanks for coming out," he said. There was
a pause, then clapping.
"Yeah, Colin!" someone yelled, and the clapping morphed
into whoops and cheers. Mothers smiled, fathers offered clenched
fists of support, sons and daughters looked on angelically,
bemusedly. If it were up to Colin, there would be no more Swim
Ted arrived at noon. He said a brief hello, then dove into
the pool. He swam three lengths with frenzied determination
before clutching at the poolís edge and breathing hard. After
weaving through the water-jogger traffic, he climbed the poolís
ladder and sat next to Colin. He smoked a cigarette as he
dripped onto the concrete deck.
"How much longer does this go on for?" he asked.
Water sprayed up from the pool. In the near lane, the Dayton High
swim team glided back and forth in a tight formation. In the far
lane, a group of older women floated on inner tubes. A mass of
teenagers clotted the middle section, splashing one another, dunking
heads. "You suck!" one boy said.
"Six more hours," Colin said.
"Holy Jesus," Ted said. "This is depressing. You bored?"
"I am so bored," Colin said.
Ted stood and surveyed the pool deck. "Wanna jet?" he said.
"Goodóright back." Ted crossed the deck to Kathy, who was talking
with the captain of the Dayton High flag team. Ted whispered into
Kathyís ear, pointed at Colin, gave a light shrug. Kathy looked at
Colin, then back at Ted, said something brief. Ted came jogging
"Letís beat feet," he said. "Your mom thinks you did a number in
your drawers, so maintain the party line if she asks any questions."
Ted looked at Colinís wheelchair. "No way we can fit that thing
in the convertible." He looked Colin up and down, as an engineer
would size up a building. He nodded once. "Iíll have to carry you,"
Ted lifted Colin from the chair and held him in his arms, and
although Colinís limbs were atrophied, though his torso was slim,
his weight was dead and awkward. Ted readjusted himself several
times during the walk to the parking lot. As they left the pool
deck, Colin could just see over Tedís shoulder, glimpsed a few heads
turning, no doubt wondering why the eventís namesake was being
carted off by a scruffy stranger.
Ted hefted Colin into the car, flipped down the top of his old
LeBaron convertible, and sped out of the lot.
They sat on the shore of a reservoir five miles outside of town,
Colin propped in a lawn chair Ted had retrieved from the trunk. Ted
held a burger to Colinís mouth, dipped his fries in ketchup and
brought them to his lips.
"Your mom seems like a pretty great person," Ted said.
"Yeah," Colin said and shrugged. "Wipes my ass every day."
"There you go," Ted said.
"Sheís great, she is. Butó"
"Swim with Colin?"
When Colin had finished eating, Ted unwrapped his own hamburger
from its paper. He stood and opened the car doors wide, turned on
the radio, inserted a tape. "Music education time," he said, and
"London Calling" began to play.
It was while Ted was looking out at the water, eating his fries,
singing with The Clash, that Colin first noticed the large scar
snaking up his right thigh in a long S and disappearing under his
shorts. The tissue was tough and raised, looked angry. The wound
seemed as if it had been hastily repaired, sewn perhaps in a back
alley by a jittery veterinarian paid in cash, the sutures jagged and
tentative through the suppurating flesh.
"Whatís that scar all about?" Colin said.
Ted chewed, swallowed. "Knife fight with a semi-retarded midget,"
he said. Over the months they knew one another, Colin would often
ask where the scar had come from, and Ted would always offer a
different story. On another occasion, "Freak potato peeling
accident, Cheyenne, 1972." It was sliced by the propeller of an
illegal Japanese whaling ship while he was on a covert scuba mission
for the NSA, had been gnashed open by a one-eyed hippo as Ted saved
a curious baby from certain death at the San Diego Zoo. A scorned
Latina lover had stuck him with a rusted razor, then ripped the
wound open with her crooked teeth. After being fired from the
recycling plant, his drunk father had smashed a tumbler of gin and
tonic on Tedís thigh, then dug in the shards with his bare, bleeding
hand, squeezed the lime into the wound, all while Ted sheltered his
mother from being beaten with the electrical cord from the Mr.
"That son of a bitch midget," Ted said on this day. "What about
you? Whatís the storyóyou born like that?"
Colin told the story of his accident, long since rehearsed. When
he finished, Ted sat staring at him. "That sucks, buddy," he said.
"Sucks like a duck."
Colin glanced out across the reservoir. The sun glinted in a long
strip down the middle of the water. There wasnít another person in
sight. The roof down on the LeBaron, the doors open, speakers
blasting The ClashóSwim with Colin was a million miles away.
On the drive home, Ted turned down the volume on the radio.
"Weíve got to do something about your drawers," he said. "Sheíll
definitely remember, huh?"
"Yeah," Colin said. "Maybe if we swing by the house, put on a
fresh set, sheíll think you took care of it."
"Okay," Ted said. "You canít do any of that on your own, can
Ted nodded, stilled his head for a moment, started nodding again.
"Okay," he said finally, "okayóletís do it."
That night, as Kathy looked into the mirror, brushing Colinís
teeth: "What happened to your pants?" Vertical strokes, up,
down, careful attention paid to molars. "And your underwear?"
Colin spit out the toothpaste. "Ted threw them out. It was pretty
"Uh-huh. And he cleaned you up?"
Colin shrugged. "Iím clean, arenít I?"
"You certainly are."
She flossed him in silence, washed his face, carefully probed
each ear with a cotton swab. They left the bathroom and sat together
in the living room, watching a late-night movie.
"Some people wondered what happened to you today," she said.
"We came back."
"A half hour before the end. After the news crew had come and
"We did come back, though."
"Sweetheart, how can there be a Swim with Colin if thereís
They said nothing after this, and Colin soon nodded off. As he
slept, his mother lightly rubbed his thigh while on TV a town was
overrun by suspiciously intelligent five-year-olds with severe brows
and a taste for tapioca pudding. The neurons below the skin on
Colinís leg sent signals along their pathways, registering touch,
axon connecting to dendrite, closing a long network of synapses all
the way up to the fourth vertebra, where the signal ended, confused,
the electricity dispersing across the scar, a connection failure
that occurred billions of times every day.
Colinís bedroom walls were still lined with trophies from his two
years in youth soccer and Tee Ball, trophies which Colin had often
asked his mother to remove. The wallpaper was still the same as when
he was six: baby blue, dotted with falling leaves and flitting
butterflies. The Bernal Guide to North American Reptiles and
Amphibians still sat on the small shelf near the window.
Each day, Kathy helped him from his bed to the toilet, bathed
him, fed him, brushed his teeth and doled out his medication. She
would position him in his wheelchair, affix the chin control to his
chin. She would kiss him on the forehead, blow another kiss from the
door, and then she was off to the Mobility Initiative Fund, forty
miles away, where she managed fundraising. When she was gone, Colin
might watch televisionóhe could press the remoteís buttons with his
mouth stickómight flip through a magazine or perhaps even a book,
though he didnít read much after his homeschooling had ended and he
decided, against his motherís fervent pleas, not to attend a
university. She had such hopes for him, she often said. He could be
anything he wanted: a lawyer, a professor, maybe not a doctor but
certainly a researcher. During the day, Kathy might call to check on
him, and he would press the speakerphone button with his mouth
stick, and her voice would boom throughout the living room. Once or
twice a year, perhaps, the voice would be his fatherís.
They had separated soon after the accident. Colinís father won
custody of young Brian and moved to Zurich, where he tried without
success to break into the diamond market. He called on Colinís
birthday every year, and sometimes on Christmas. His voice was raspy
and deep, sounded marinated in bourbon, singed by cigarettes. Their
conversations were always short and consisted mainly of silence,
which came through the speakerphone as a sullen humming buzz.
Brian phoned, too, his voice seeming to grow deeper each time he
called. But Colin and his brother had little to talk about. They saw
each other only once every four years. An agreement had been made
between Colinís mother and father to spend Independence Day together
every election cycle. It was a short and painless holiday with no
dinners or functions to attend, where they could lose themselves in
the spectacle of a fireworks show. Colin still felt strange around
his younger brother. Even seeing snapshots of Brian made Colin
uneasy. Photos of Brian playing soccer or with his arms around
classmatesóhis face, his haircut, even his freckles so similar to
Heíd never gone to visit his father or brother in Zurich. His
days away from home since the accident numbered exactly seventeen.
They consisted of: at eight years old, five days (of a scheduled
nine) at the Sunshine Retreat for the Gifted, from which Kathy had
to prematurely retrieve her homesick son; two nights at age nine
bunking at the house of his old kindergarten pal Christian (who
watched Jeopardy! with Colin three nights a week from the
ages of eight through sixteen, at which time Christian started to
talk about girls and cars and Colin asked his mother not to invite
him back); seven days at age eighteen camping in the foothills with
his mother, during which time he noticed his happiness neither rose
nor fell; and three days at Disneyland at age twenty, during which
time he noticed that his happiness did indeed fall, the trip
experienced too late in life and having the air of a good meal left
in a Tupperware container for several months.
When she left each morning, Kathy encouraged Colin to go
outdoors, get some sunshine. There was a rope fastened to the front
door that Colin could grasp with his teeth. He could roll into town,
to the park, the farmerís market. Other people with his condition,
his mother often told him, brought themselves to a level of Maximum
Independence. They had Functional Goals. She clipped articles for
him, inspiring stories about people overcoming obstacles, the
triumph of the spirit. She would lay the news clippings on his
wheelchairís tray with the gravity of a motherís disappointment.
But now there was Ted. Ted had moved to the area a year before,
worked out of his home, a small one bedroom over the hill, just east
of town. His businessóairbrushing fantasy scenes on the sides of
cars, his specialty being ferocious demons and busty womenówas
faltering. His LeBaron served as a mobile advertisement. A medieval
banner painted on the driverís side read: "Tedís Fantasy
Workshoppe." The banner furled across the chest of a muscular man.
An impossibly curvy woman was draped in his arms, one of her legs
lifted across his torso. The manís sword was bloody, and a slain
dragon lay at his feet, its tail looping over the wheel well and
around the trunk, ending in a curl near the license plate frame.
Ted came to dinner a few times each week. The three watched
television, or occasionally made trips in the van to the ice-cream
parlor or the movie theater. Afterward, Kathy put Colin to bed,
setting him on his side and pulling the sheets and blankets to his
neck. And when he was alone, Colin would hear the talking and
giggling from the living room, and after some time, the scurrying of
feet on the stairs above.
This day, Ted knocked on Colinís door at noon. "Business is
slow," he said. "How about we hit the reservoir?"
They sat on the shore, Colin in the lawn chair, Ted lying with his
hands behind his head. The LeBaron was splayed open, The Who playing
through its speakers.
"Wanna play a game?" Ted said.
"See that buoy out there?" A gray buoy bobbed in the water thirty
yards out. "First one who hits it with a rock wins. Iíll throw for
you, weíll alternate."
"I go first," he said. He picked up a round stone and lobbed it
into the air. It fell short. "Youíre up," he said and threw another
stone, which went long. "Now me," he said, and threw another. Stone
after stone splashed around the buoy until ten minutes had passed.
Ted rubbed his shoulder and sat down next to Colin.
"Little break," he said. "Cigarette?"
Colin looked at the pack. "Iíve never smoked."
"No shit," Ted said. "Wanna start?"
"You ever smoke a joint?"
"Jesus." Ted lit a cigarette and dragged deeply. "Your mom keeps
a pretty tight ship," he said as he exhaled.
"She does indeed."
"You just let me know if you ever want to do anything a little
bit crazy. Youíre a man, should be able to taste the fruits of the
Ted stood and finished his cigarette, dropped the butt and
grinded it with his foot. He picked up a handful of stones. "Your
throw," he said and hurled a jagged rock. It landed two feet to the
left of the buoy. "You were damn close with that one."
"Maybe if you followed through a bit more," Colin said.
"Yeah," Ted said, "weíll hit that sucker, donít worry."
Ted came close with the next four stones. His aim floundered then
as his arm grew tired. He squinted at the buoy, arms at his waist.
He pointed at it with his left arm, wound up, hurled the stone with
his right, following through after it was released. It landed five
feet beyond the buoy, rings silently expanding where it entered the
"Iíve never seen a woman naked," Colin said.
Ted turned around. "What?"
"Well, in movies and stuff. But not the important parts."
"Youíve never seen a porno?"
Colin shook his head.
"Wow," Ted said. "Want to see one?"
Colin shrugged resolutely. "Yeah, I think so."
Ted dropped the remaining stones and clapped his hands. "Easy
peasy George and Weezy," he said.
Ted hoisted Colin into his arms and carried him up the shore. "I
got to admit something to you," he said when they reached the
"I almost cheered when that Christopher Reeve went ass over
Colin nodded his head magnanimously. "I forgive you," he said.
Ted smiled. "More than most peopleíd do."
Inside Tedís small house, staring at the TV, Ted kneeling behind
Colinís wheelchair. Moans, grunts, the slap of flesh.
"Do they all look like that?" Colin asked.
A reflective silence. "Pretty much," Ted said.
There were pictures, then, that entered unwittingly into Colinís
mind in the middle of the night, pictures that synched up with the
sounds he heard, of his mother and Ted in the upstairs bedroom. He
would have liked to go outside for a breath of air during these
times, but of course he could not. He lay in bed, the images and
sounds coalescing in his mind, until finally things quieted and he
drifted off into sleep.
In his dreams, he did occasionally rise up from his chair and did
in fact run and leap and skip and hop, his alien parts suddenly
imbued with life. Heíd imagine feeling all the sensations that were
now distant rumors in the recesses of his brain. Heíd experience the
beautiful ache of hurling a pitch across the plate, the wondrous
electric snap of a ball connecting with the barrel of a bat. He
twisted ankles, jammed fingers. And he dreamt of what it feels like
to be with a womanóto be atop her, beneath heróto move his hips, to
caress a cheek, to glimpse the twisted fury of sheets in a Sunday
The next day, after his mother checked his buttocks and lower
thighs for bed sores, Colinís left calf started to convulse in the
"God Iím sick of this," he said, his leg kicking up water.
"I know, sweetheart," Kathy said. She went to the medicine
cabinet, gave him a pill. "Lifeís just a little messy. Sometimes we
have to clean up after it."
Teeth brushed and flossed, hair combed, toenails cut. Kathy blew
kisses, hurried to the door. "Any plans today?" she said.
"Ted and I are going to hang out."
"Okay," she said. "And thatís it?"
She placed one hand on the doorframe, looked up, took a breath.
"ĎThe heights by men reached and kept were not attained by sudden
flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward
in the night.í Henry Wadsworth Longfellow."
Ted arrived at one oíclock. "You got any aspirin?" he said. His
eyes were bloodshot and his hands jittered.
"Medicine cabinet," Colin said. "In the back bathroom."
Ted disappeared for a few minutes. There was rummaging, then
silence. "You drowning in there?" Colin said.
"Got it," Ted said when he reappeared. "Killer headache."
At the reservoir, Ted carefully set Colin in the lawn chair, then
placed a straw hat on his headó"Margarita Mollyís" stitched into the
brimóto block the dayís strong sun.
"I brought beer," Ted said when they were settled.
Ted threw rocks at the buoy again, though his arm quickly grew
tired. "Maybe if I just quit aiming Iíll nail it," he said. "Hit
every other damn spot in the reservoir except that buoy."
Later, as the sun was setting, Ted fished out the beer from the
trunk and popped the caps on two bottles. "You know, Iíve got an
idea," he said as he tipped the beer to Colinís mouth.
Colin swallowed. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Thereís this girl I went with a long time ago from around
here. Pretty hot. I was thinking maybe I could get her to come by my
Ted sipped his beer. "Was thinking maybe I could arrange for you
and her to spend some time alone together."
Colin looked at him, looked away. "Yeah?"
A gull landed on the buoy. "Would she do that?"
"Donít know. Was a stripper for a while in her twenties. You want
me to look into it?"
Ted tilted the bottle to Colinís lips. He swallowed, sighed. "Not
like I could really do anything with her," he said. "Maybe I could
just watch her."
"Sure," Ted said.
"Maybe she could kiss me a little."
"Sure she could, sure."
Three days later, at two in the afternoon, Colin and Ted sat in
Tedís bedroom, staring out the window. Ted tapped his foot. "You
okay?" he said.
"Iím okay. You okay?"
A faded red hatchback soon appeared up the road, trailing a long
cloud of dust.
"Is that her?" Colin said.
"Think so." The hatchback rolled up the driveway and came to a
rest beside Tedís LeBaron. "Yes it is," Ted said. "Yes, that is
A woman emerged from the car. Her eyes panned across Tedís
"Iíll be right back," Ted said. "I need to go have a little hello
in private, if you donít mind."
Ted walked to the front door, paused, took a breath, then flung
it open. "Sweetie pie!" he said, and the door banged shut.
Colin pushed his chin forward, activating the wheelchair. He
rolled to the open window, watched as Ted and the woman embraced.
Ted showed her around the outside of the house, pointed out his
garage, pointed out the small plot of dirt where heíd told Colin he
planned to sink a pool someday. The two walked around the side of
the house, out of Colinís view. They emerged a minute later from the
opposite side, then stood beside the womanís car. Ted was talking in
low tones, and though the window was open, Colin couldnít make out
what he said. The woman began to rub his arm. Tedís stomach heaved,
as if he had been punched, and the woman pulled his head to her
chest. Colin could just barely hear Tedís muffled sobs, and
underneath them, the womanís conciliatory voice. "Oh Teddy, oh
Teddy, oh Teddy Teddy Teddy," she pleaded, "what happened to you, my
Colin eased his chin backward and the wheelchair crept away from
the window. He sat in silence, staring for a time at the black glass
of the television, until the front door opened and Ted appeared in
the bedroom doorway. He smiled at Colin, then turned his palms
upward and lifted his arms toward the doorway, as if in offering.
"Here she is," he said.
The woman stepped into the room. "Hi," she said, "Iím Alexis."
Her eyes met his, and he saw her immediate refusal, which she
likely rationalized as courtesy, to look below his neck. A silence
fell over the room and Alexis looked at Ted, then back at Colin.
"Well," Ted said. "I think Iíll go out to the garage for a bit,
let you guys talk some."
"Do you have any music, Teddy?" Alexis said.
"You know Iíve got The Clash, baby. In my car."
"Donít you have something a little more sexy?"
Ted pointed a finger at Alexis. "Right back." He dashed out of
the room and soon there was a rummaging from the garage.
"So," Alexis said, "youíre the lady-killer, huh?"
She let out a quick puff of air, as if she had been holding her
breath since the moment she entered the room. Her lips were curled
in a smile, but the skin around her eyes and cheeks was smooth and
mirthless. "You sure are a good looking kid," she said.
Colin forced a grin on one side of his mouth.
Alexis glanced briefly at the doorway, then leaned a few inches
toward him. "My nameís actually Barbara," she whispered.
"Okay," Colin said.
"Teddy thought a little stage name might turn you on. Donít tell
him I told you that."
Ted returned with a small radio, its surface covered in sawdust
and a few frozen drips of pale blue paint. He turned the tuning
wheel until the fuzzy outlines of a techno song came through the
speaker. He clapped his hands once, then rubbed them together.
"There we go," he said. "All right, Iím in the garage." He backed
out of the room. The door from the house to the garage opened and
shut, and the house was silent.
"Oh, Teddy," Barbara said, exhaling and staring at the empty
doorway. She played with one earring, her eyes without focus, lips
apart. She turned to Colin. "Well," she said. "How about it?"
"Yeah," he said.
Barbara started bobbing to the techno song. She twirled around
once, shuffled to the left. The reception on the radio failed. She
moved back to the right, it returned. She took a few steps backward,
and again the song faded into static. Moved forward, and it
"Maybe if you just stand right there," Colin said.
Barbara nodded. She stood in one spot, dancing stiffly. She
unbuttoned her shirt, ran her thumbs under a turquoise bra, half its
sequins lost to time. She stopped. She glanced down at Colinís
waist, then back up. "Can you feel anything?" she said. "Down
"Oh, honey," she said. "Thatís too bad."
Colin shrugged. Barbara knelt in front of him. She brought a hand
forward and touched his cheek. The song was lost in a steady static.
"Do you want me to touch you there anyway?"
"Teddy said you might like it if Iíd kiss you."
"Yeah, I think so," Colin said. "If thatís okay."
She stood and walked to the radio, clicked it off, walked back to
Colin and planted her knees on his chair. She put a hand on either
side of his neck, then stopped. "Is it okay if I do that? Am I going
to hurt you?"
"Itís fine," Colin said.
She kissed him on his cheek, kissed him across his forehead. She
glided her lips over his eyebrows. He shut his eyes, she kissed each
lid. She framed his lips with the tip of her tongue. She kissed
behind his ear, carbonating a spindle of nerves down his neck, and
there was a surge within him that reached with futility toward
something below. Colinís shoulder jolted upward and he tilted his
neck to meet it, a half-shrug of ecstasy.
"Whatís wrong?" Barbara said.
"Nothing," Colin breathed, his eyes still shut.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No." He opened his lids and saw her eyes dancing across his
"Is this what you want?" she said.
Colin noticed that her bra was faded and a bit too small for her,
probably from an old routine and not worn in years. He thought of
the phone call Ted must have made to her, the wording of the
request. He saw her wide eyes, her tentative hands, her posture
seemingly magnetized toward the garage. "No," he said, "thatís all
Barbara crouched and placed a hand flat against his thigh, which
of course he couldnít feel, but by which he somehow felt soothed.
"Do you want to talk?" she said.
"You probably want to catch up with Ted."
Barbara remained crouched, her hand on his thigh, until a polite
enough stretch of time had passed. She then stood and dressed. She
said a brief goodbye and walked to the garage.
Colin sat in Tedís bedroom for an hour, or perhaps longer. He
then heard a pair of footsteps on the gravel outside. There was a
mumbled conversation, then silence again, then a car door shutting.
An engine started. Tires rolled across the loose driveway and down
the far dirt road, and it was several minutes until the sound of the
car was a tinny whine, a bug in the ear. Colin thought that perhaps
Ted had left with Barbara, had decided something right then and
there, made plans. Life has changed, letís hit the open road,
hallelujah. And then a slow set of feet stepped across the gravel,
walked up the steps and into the house.
Ted entered the room. His face was red and lost. "Sorry, buddy,"
he said. "I tried."
"Sheís pretty though, right?"
"She is gorgeous," Ted said. "God, she is gorgeous, gorgeous,
gorgeous." They both looked at the spot where the hatchback had been
parked. "Want me to turn that porno on for you?"
Ted nodded. "You sure?"
"Iím sure," Colin said. The house settled. "Maybe Iíll have a
Ted fished out his pack of cigarettes, retrieved two. He held
both between his lips, lit them, primed each with a deep drag. For
the next few minutes, Ted held a cigarette between Colinís lips, and
Colin puffed shallowly. He coughed a few times in thin croaks, and
when he did Ted patted him lightly on his back, then rubbed him at
the base of his neck, and they both stared out the window.
"I heard you and Ted have been talking about women," his mother
said the next morning as he sat on the toilet.
"Sort of." Colin was looking at a crack he hadnít noticed before
in the grout of a tile near the ceiling. He felt his motherís eyes
"You know, thereís someone for everyone, my dear," she said.
"Yeah," he said. "Iím sick of this."
"I know sweetheart," she whispered and brushed a palm down his
cheek. "I know." She crouched and began to clean him. "Life is
"I donít want to do this any more. I want to go somewhere."
Kathy finished cleaning him. She stood and placed a hand on his
shoulder. "A man should always consider how much he has more than he
wants, and how much more unhappy he might be than he really is.
"Joseph Addisonís mother didnít stick a suppository up his ass
every morning," Colin said. "Would you flush the toilet, please?"
"Aspirin," Ted said as he entered the house, rubbing his eyes.
He walked to the bathroom, emerged minutes later. "All set. Iím
going to hit that buoy today if itís the last thing I do."
The top was down on the LeBaron as they drove to the reservoir,
though the weather had turned slightly for the worse. The hood on
Colinís sweatshirt was pulled tight around his face. Ted had the
heater cranked high.
"This is the life, man," Ted yelled against the wind. "There is
nothing like the open road. You ever been on a road trip?"
"Best time in the world. Just pick a place and go, thatís what we
used to do."
"Iíve always wanted to drive across the country."
"Yeah? Which route?"
"North on the way there, south on the way back. Through the
middle if I wanted to do it all over again once I got home."
"Now youíre talking," Ted said.
They drove on, the cool wind encroaching on the warm cabin, the
two fronts meeting in a plane at Colinís nose.
"Maybe we could take a trip sometime," Colin said.
"There you go! There you go, man! The open road, you and
me. Imagine itóweíre in California, weíre at the Grand Canyon, weíre
at Cape Cod. Weíre cruising route sixty-six, getting our kicks just
fine, maíam, breaking into song and dance. Close your eyesócan you
"I can feel it."
"I can feel it too, loud and clear," he said. "Loud and clear."
Ted had wandered down the shore, out of sight, and was now
walking back. He cradled a pile of rocks in the belly of his
t-shirt. "Got some good ones," he said when he drew near.
He emptied the stones before him, chose one, and threw. "I was
thinking," he said, "we could liberate the winch from my brotherís
Chevy and make a little pulley system for you, get you out of bed,
tug you to the bathroom."
"That might be dangerous," Colin said.
Ted considered this. "Might be," he said, "but we could really
accessorize your place. You like gadgets?"
"Sure," Colin said.
"Weíll get you some good gadgets." Ted examined a stone, tossed
it lightly in the air, caught it.
Colin turned his neck. "Are you and my mom serious?"
Ted threw the stone, which missed the buoy by a foot. "Oh, I
donít know," he said. "Donít know if Iím your momís type when allís
said and done. Sheís a really great woman, though. People look up to
her." Another stone hit the water. "You know, sometimes Iíd like to
He threw two more stones, one a near miss, one way off. He threw
another. There was a hollow dong sound and the buoy listed
"Huh," Ted said. "Damn thingís made of metal. That your throw or
"Yours," Colin said.
Ted stood. "Well," he said and stared out at the water, "I win."
They listened to the Beatles that day, Colin expounding on
"Eleanor Rigby" and "The Magical Mystery Tour." Late in the day, Ted
turned on the engine to recharge the LeBaronís battery.
"Ted," Colin said as the sun was setting.
"You ever going to tell me about your scar?"
Ted looked at the lake and threw a few more rocks in different
directions, no longer trying to hit the buoy. He looked into the air
above the lake as the circles in the water where the rocks had
landed spread and interfered with one another.
"A mistake," he said. "Thatís all it is." He picked up one last
stone, lobbed it in a high arc, didnít look to see where it landed.
"Thatís all Iíve got to tell you about that scar."
* * *
Kathy stepped outside with the cordless that evening. Colin heard
anger in her voice, heard her once speak Tedís name in a livid
burst. She reentered the house with red eyes.
"Tedís not coming over tonight," she said.
Colin asked her what was going on, pressed her again and again
until she disappeared into the bathroom. He heard a low moaning
sound for a few minutes, then nothing. She emerged an hour later,
and he did not ask any questions as she put him to bed.
And then late, woken from sleep, groggy, Colin heard his mother
yelling, heard Tedís voice in the house, low and sorrowful. Although
he couldnít make out any words, did not know what they were arguing
over, he was angry with her and wanted more than anything to jump
out of bed and drive off with Ted to somewhere cool and blue, top
down, music blaring.
In the morning, on the toilet, Colin saw the lack of sleep in the
bruised bags under his motherís eyes. She hummed softly as she
waited on his bowels.
"Could you stop humming?" Colin said.
She went silent. Colinís bowels moved. Kathy quietly cleaned him,
flushed the toilet, heaved him into the wheelchair, and walked out.
Colin rolled into the living room as she opened the front door. She
turned and stared at him. "Goodbye," she said. "I love you." The
door shut behind her.
Two seconds later, the phone rang. Colin heard his motherís heels
slow on the patio. He bit down on his mouth stick, pressed the
speakerphoneís large button. "Hello?" he said.
"Hey," Ted said.
There was nothing for a moment. Then, "Oh God, Iím so sorry,
The heels grew rapid on the patio and the door flew open. "Ted!"
Kathy said. "Dammit, Ted, donít you call here."
The empty buzz of the speakerphone filled the living room. "Iím
so sorry," Ted said again.
"Iím going to work now, Ted. Iím going to hang up. I donít want
you calling back."
Colin spent the day in the house. The phone rang at noonóit was
his motheróand was silent afterward. He was expecting a getaway,
thought Ted might burst through the door at any minute. And then it
was dark. Tires rolled up the driveway, and from their slow creep,
from the lack of squeak in the brakes, he knew it was only his
The two did not speak until she sat next to Colin at the dinner
table. A bite for him, a bite for her, a bite for him, a bite for
"I want to get rid of my trophies," Colin said.
Kathy looked at him. "Sure, okay."
"Seriously this time. I want you to actually get rid of them."
After dinner, Kathy cleaned and began to make cookies for the
Mobility Initiative Fund. "Big drive coming up," she said. "Which
reminds me, thereís an article I found about a man named Lonny
McDougal. Heís a quad, like you. Heís writing a novel. Says that he
has nothing but time on his hands. Isnít that amazing?"
"He blinks at a little censor and letters pop up on a screen."
She wiped her hands and retrieved the article from her purse. She
placed it in front of him. "Have you ever wanted to write?"
"No, Mom," he said, "Iíve never wanted to write."
Kathy pursed her lips and turned away, walked back to the
counter. "Weíre all in the gutter," she said, "but some of us are
looking at the stars." She turned the mixer off. "Oscar Wilde."
"Yeah," she said and turned to him. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was
stealing your damn medicine."
She turned back to the counter, spooned dough onto the cookie
sheet, twelve neat little dollops. She placed the sheet in the oven,
closed the door. "He was stealing from you," she said. "From us."
"I donít believe you."
"He was. Heís been doing it for months, Colin."
"I donít care," he said.
"I know how much you like him," she said. "I didnít want to tell
"Yes you did."
"Heís a liar, Colin."
"Heís not a liar," he said. "People arenít one thing."
"Do you know I could have called the cops?" she said, pointing
the spoon at him. "The man doesnít give a shit about you or me."
"Who gives a shit about anybody?"
She tossed the spoon in the sink. "I give a shit," she said. "Me,
I do, I give a shit."
She sunk her face into her palms, though she did not cry. When
the buzzer sounded, she looked up, emerging from somewhere, and
removed the cookie sheet from the oven. She sat next to Colin.
"Forget about Ted," she said. "Please, sweetie, Iím sorry. He was
a mistake. Heís in the past."
Colin sat motionless for several minutes, staring at the table.
He looked up. "I want to tell you something," he said.
The truth of the accident, until that night known only to Colin,
goes like this: his grandmother was indeed changing young Brianís
diaper in the kitchen below. Colin was watching Woody Woodpecker,
true, and had at one point been practicing handstands in front of
the television. At some point, however, Colin had decided to climb
over the sofa. His plan, quickly devised, was to hang from the
railing and yell for help. His grandmother would run from the
kitchen, see him dangling, and rescue him. His mother and father
would smother him with tearful hugs, would marvel at how he could
have reached out and snagged the railing with a free hand. So close,
they would say. So, so close. He would command attention, tug at
least a small amount of love away from the newcomer.
Hanging from the banister, an impulse, to see what would happen
as much as anything else: he let go. He went tumbling. He felt
helpless. There was a last glimmer of hope, a darkness, and then
that long and gray inability to understand why some things canít be
His mother sat silent for a time, staring out the window. "Why
are you telling me this?" she said.
"You going to call me a liar, too?"
"Itís not," he said. "Thereís always more drugs."
She looked at Colin. "You let go?" she said. "On purpose?"
He could have said then that he was sorry. He could have said
that he wasnít truly angry with her, but with something more
difficult to admit. He could have told her he loved her. But his
neck was tingling and his cheeks were flushed. He felt a reflex, a
knee being tapped with a hammer.
"Life is messy," he said.
A quick shot of air came from her nose, an involuntary and sad
laughter. She reached across the table and grabbed Colinís hand,
began to absently rub it. They sat as the evening passed and night
came on, sat well into that silent dead space of an autumn night
where nothing seems to move in the world.
"I think I want to go away for a while," Colin said.
His mother turned to him. "A trip?"
"Yeah. I want to get out of here."
Colin shrugged. There were so many options.
"You and me?" Kathy said.
Colinís pulse throbbed in his throat. He almost erupted. But he
saw in his motherís eyes a searching light, saw her hand rubbing
his. "Sure," he said. "You and me."
Mark Lafferty is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop
and currently lives in Los Angeles. His fiction won a Nelson
Algren award and has been published in The Chicago Tribune.