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Mark Lafferty

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.

ē

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, flexed muscles.

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 all time.

"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 with Colin.

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.

"Definitely."

"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 back.

"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."

"Okay."

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," he said.

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?"

"Bingo."

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. Coffee.

"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.

"Sure does."

"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 you?"

"Nope."

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 disgusting."

"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 gone."

"We did come back, though."

"Sweetheart, how can there be a Swim with Colin if thereís no Colin?"

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 Colinís own.

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.

"Yeah."

"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."

"Okay."

"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?"

"No."

"You ever smoke a joint?"

"Nope."

"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 world."

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 water.

"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 LeBaron.

"Hit me."

"I almost cheered when that Christopher Reeve went ass over teakettle."

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 morningís light.

The next day, after his mother checked his buttocks and lower thighs for bed sores, Colinís left calf started to convulse in the bath.

"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?"

"Thatís all."

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."

"Goodbye, Mom."

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.

"Great."

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 place."

"Okay."

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?"

"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 definitely her."

A woman emerged from the car. Her eyes panned across Tedís property.

"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 baby?"

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?"

"I guess."

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."

"I wonít."

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 returned.

"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 there?"

"No."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

"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?"

"Not particularly."

"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 face.

"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 right."

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."

Colin shrugged.

"Sheís pretty though, right?"

"Sheís gorgeous."

"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?"

"Thatís okay."

Ted nodded. "You sure?"

"Iím sure," Colin said. The house settled. "Maybe Iíll have a cigarette now."

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 on him.

"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 messy."

"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 Addison."

"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. "Right back."

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?"

"Not really."

"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 feel it?"

"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 be better."

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 slightly.

"Huh," Ted said. "Damn thingís made of metal. That your throw or mine?"

"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.

"Yep."

"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.

"Whatís wrong?"

"Tedís wrong."

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.

"Hey."

There was nothing for a moment. Then, "Oh God, Iím so sorry, buddy."

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 mother.

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 her.

"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."

"Okay."

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?"

"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."

"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 you."

"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 taken back.

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?"

"Thatís different."

"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."

"Where?"

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.  

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