Fiction | June 01, 2003
The Shortest Distance Between Me and the World
Our town has no streets. Paths wind through it. We’re surrounded on three sides by a city residential area. Three long narrow streets are all that separate us from the city. One side of our town ends at the edge of a city cemetery. I love our town.
It used to be an area of garden plots for people living in the city. People liked it so much that they began building small houses on the plots. People planted their lives here. The cemetery’s caretakers call our town the nut town. One house is an overturned yacht hull on a tall foundation. It looks like a sculpture. Another house uses the shell of a rocket for an antenna tower. We call the cemetery the ghost town.
Some of us walk or bike or take a bus to get somewhere in the city. Some of us own cars and park them on the narrow streets surrounding us. My sister Asia and I don’t own a car. Asia bikes to work. When I need to go somewhere she calls the handicap service. I use a wheelchair. The platform lifts on the sides of their vans make me dizzy. I don’t like leaving our town.
Asia is looking over my shoulder at my laptop. She asks me what I’m writing. I’m writing about our town. She asks me who I’m writing to. I’m writing to the world. She says that my writing sounds too stiff and that I should write as if I’m talking. Why should I write as if I’m talking? I can’t talk. Asia says don’t be a smart-ass.
We’ve just finished eating. She keeps an eye on me at breakfast and supper. I have trouble swallowing. Maryam comes at noon. She’s Iranian. She keeps an eye on me at lunch. She’s a whiz at cleaning. Asia says thank Godfrey for that. Dad used to say “Thank Godfrey” all the time. He didn’t like saying “God.” Asia says Dad thought God was a butler or something.
Our house is right next to one of the streets surrounding our town. People often walk by and stop to admire our house’s weird turrets. If I’m sitting out by our fence sometimes they’ll ask if I like living here. I whip out my laptop and write that we love living here. When I smile people don’t always know I’m smiling. Sometimes I write a smiley. If I don’t feel the energy to smile I don’t write a smiley. Life can be this simple if you let it be.
More women than men walk by. Some women stroll by pushing baby carriages. Others walk in pairs and speak seriously to each other. Asia says it’s amazing how much I get laid considering I can’t talk. I let my laptop do my talking for me. Asia says my laptop is a real hunk all right. Not all women go for hunks. She says that some women come from the cemetery and they’re vulnerable and horny from grief. I don’t mind helping them. She says she doesn’t doubt that one second. She says I’m an unprincipled little bastard. Then she gets up and starts mowing the lawn.
Asia is wrong. I get laid about twice a year. Women taking their grief for a walk never notice me behind our fence. My last lay was a caretaker at the cemetery. She coaxed me into bringing my laptop along to bed. After a while she told me what to write. It was things she wanted me to want her to do. I didn’t mind even though none of it was exactly true. Beggars cant be choosers.
I love our town. I love small yards filled with tribes of flowers with hardly any space to walk. I love window shades of African beads. I love the row of porch windows painted over with a gallery of Norse gods. I love our mailman who stuffs the mail in my wheelchair’s side rack without a word. I love one-story houses with a million angles. I love spruce trees swinging over unclipped hedges. I love skinny red-haired Alicia skipping down the street swinging ropes-and-balls. I love patched stucco painted in circles of red and purple. I love our town because we’re all so different and there’s so much life squeezed in and beaming out of our town. I love our town because it’s here and I’m here. Asia says puh-leeeeeeze.
Peter lives three paths down from us. He bikes by on his black threewheeler almost every day. He doesn’t notice weather. He was born with a birth defect. His legs are like loose piston rods. He wears a wrapped bandana on top of his head with a small flap sticking up in front. His head looks like a red fort with a flag. He never sees me. Sometimes he yells hello hello hello from the time he approaches until he’s long gone. Maybe he yells it to people inside his head. How can I know?
Sometimes he’s angry when he passes. He yells fragments of sentences over and over. He sounds like an infantry captain screaming “Attack.” Asia says he sounds like someone is squeezing his balls in a bathroom. She’s probably jealous of whoever does the squeezing. Asia says oh yeah.
I had my first multiple sclerosis attack when I was fifteen. Almost no one gets it that early. Asia says I was lucky because I didn’t have to give up a great career. This happens all the time. People get married and have kids. They buy a house. Suddenly their vision blurs or they start tripping over their own two feet. After six months or a year or two a neurologist tells them they have MS. Sometimes MS breaks them into small pieces and crumples their lives up like scrap-metal machines.
This is what they write in the MS magazine. I never hear them say these things at the MS Center. Once I belonged to a therapy group. People talked about not letting MS take up too much space in their lives. They called neurologists meat inspectors. They talked about how hard it is to decide what to tell their children about their symptoms when they don’t even know what to tell themselves. They talked about drugs and street curbs. They talked about God. They never mentioned things like scrap metal. Asia says at least I don’t have to work. She has a point.
I wrote a lot of large-font smileys on my laptop in the therapy group. I wanted to make the others feel better. I’d read that the act of smiling causes brain activity that leads to a happier life. Someone suggested that I was suppressing my anger and pain. I wrote back that I was pissed at Asia for fixing carrot soup with oregano the previous evening. She should have used rosemary. The psychologist smiled.
I tend an herb garden in a raised bed. Maryam gave me a curry plant last May. It looks like a hundred moldy spider webs. She’s watching me write this. She’s laughing. I love you Maryam. She’s not laughing now. I love the way honeybees dance in the dark. I love the sun. l love watching people of all colors and sizes go by. I love every damn thing I can.
Maryam hugs my head and walks off.
The sun doesn’t love me. It squeezes the muscles inside my arms. It turns my legs into air. It drills into my skull. An MRI technician showed me a picture of my brain. It’s full of small scars. My theory is that the sun shorts my brain out. I think of them as sunspots. Loving the sun gives me practice in loving things that don’t love me back. Asia says that loving the sun is another in the long well-documented line of my stupid-idities. She has a point.
Another of my stupidities is trying to figure out why I don’t love Peter. Instead of thinking about it I should just get it together and love him. What’s stopping me? Asia says I don’t love Peter because what I really see when I look at him is my own situation. That’s not true. Asia says oh yeah? She says talk to the shrinks. You talk to the shrinks. She says she talked plenty to the shrinks at the MS Center. They aren’t shrinks. They’re psychologists. Asia says whatever.
The psychologist talked to me after my third therapy session. She didn’t believe I was getting much out of the group. She suggested I join the forty-and-sporty group. I wrote back that I was only thirty-seven. Then she suggested I take one of the MS Society-sponsored vacation trips. I wrote that I’d consider it if she’d be my wheelchair buddy. She smiled and said she was flattered. I could see that she wasn’t all that flattered.
Many of us in our town travel a lot. In our community building we give video shows of our travels in western China or New Guinea. I read travel magazines and biographies. I listen to music with words. I listen to singers who sing so you can understand what they’re saying. Asia likes Tom Waits. I like Nat King Cole. I like his name. It sounds like a street name in Saigon. Pedestrians in Saigon never obey traffic lights. Neither do the scooters and cars and trucks. The traffic flows around pedestrians who inch across the street as if their feet are bound.
Asia says I should use commas. I don’t like the feel of commas in my head. She says you cant feel commas in your head. I can in mine. She says I sound like a retardo. I don’t sound like anything and I’m not a retardo either. I can write commas. , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . See? I don’t mind them this way. They’re like a parade of elephant trunks. She says I’m just so fucked-out stupid. I’m not stupid. Stupid people don’t take correspondence courses in anthropology and the behavior of bees. She says I can never be anything from these courses. She says who’s gonna hire a teacher who can’t speak and who’s gonna read a paper on bees if I don’t use commas? She says I don’t have the stamina to be anything anyway. I don’t plan on being anything. She says I’m wasting money. It’s my money. She says it’s actually Dad’s money. It’s not. It’s my money. Dad left it to me. She says I’m a selfish little fucktard. She says girls come by and slobber all over me and fuck me. She says I sit outside in the sun so people will come by and pity the poor unfortunate fucking little guy while she’s the one who shops and cooks and sets me on the can. She says she could live with a guy and get laid every fucking night. That would get old. She says she’s fucking willing to take a chance. There’s nobody stopping her. She says yeah. She says oh yeah.
Later on she says it probably would get old.
If I used commas it wouldn’t be me writing this. I’d be like Nat King Cole. After he died Natalie Cole stuck herself in the middle of a bunch of his songs. I wonder if Asia will add commas when I’m dead.
There are millions of bees in our town. We have bees under our house. Asia says she hates them. They’re too busy working to care about stinging anybody. She says just wait until one flies up my pantleg and can’t get out. Why would one want to fly there? She says it might smell my piss bottle. They’re not attracted to piss. Asia says oh really.
Honeybee stingers look like commas.
Experts write in the MS magazine that we need challenges and goals in our lives. They claim that it’s important to maintain a link to the workforce however tenuous because work is an important part of our identity. Love can be a challenge and a lot of work. I’m a successful
man. I love our town. I love Asia. I love the sun. I will find a way to love Peter.
Peter lives with a sad drunk. Our Town Council tried to do something about this. Social workers from the city around us investigated the situation and concluded that the drunk takes good care of Peter. The city concluded that this is the cheapest solution to the problem of Peter. Our Town Council didn’t think Peter should be treated as a problem to be solved. They thought he should be treated as a human being.
Things are always happening around Peter to make people think about him. The other day Peter screamed at the men repairing the electric box on the path behind our house. He chased them off with his submachine watergun. They complained to our town’s fix-it man. He told our town’s town chairman. Peter is a human being and a problem for all of us.
MS strips the insulation off nerves so they short out. Other nerves try to find a way around the shortcuts. My body is a network of detours and dead ends. I don’t want to write like I have MS. I don’t want to take detours. I want every sentence to march directly to its end. MS thinks it can divert me. MS wants to cut me off from the world. Love wants to connect me up with the world. Love is the shortest distance between me and the world.
Asia says this entire love manifesto is one big detour. She says my brain is a big traffic accident and I can’t see the detours because I am the detour and it’s my own fault because I’ve stopped taking betaseron. She says sitting in the sun is killing me and the pot’s not helping things either.
I smoke a very small amount of marijuana before bedtime. It lessens the spasms at night. The past few mornings I woke up to my fingers drumming against my thigh. My fingers do my talking already. Maybe they’re trying to dream for me? Asia says she doesn’t want to hear this shit. She goes inside the house.
Betaseron had side effects. I woke up some mornings not knowing if my head was on top or underneath my pillow. It depressed me also. Why should I sit around depressed feeling like I have the flu? Some people with MS let bees sting them. When I informed Asia that I was considering that idea she stormed off and mowed the lawn in record time.
Asia says that what she meant with the detours is that I should explain things from start to finish. Let me explain this. I can make sounds. I can’t talk clearly enough to be understood except for duh stuff. My neurologist suspects I’m exaggerating my speech difficulties. She thinks I’m acting. She wanted to be an actress herself when she was younger.
On my last visit she demonstrated the different ways her other spastic patients walk. When I applauded she ignored me. I understand why she didn’t make it as an actress. Actresses have to love their audiences.
Our town is great to take walks in. Sometimes Asia and I take a walk after her work when my legs and arms have enough substance. She strolls and I crutch along. Asia likes these walks because I can’t take my laptop.
Asia works for a travel bureau. She has “A. Neff” on her nametag to avoid all the smart-ass remarks. On our walk this afternoon she said the gofer boy smashed a box against her monitor today on purpose. He said he tripped. She cussed him out but her boss didn’t do anything about it.
While she was telling me this I stopped. We were about a hundred feet down the street. My legs felt like two columns of air that weighed a ton. Asia said her boss sucks green donkey dicks and that men are babies. I pointed at my legs. She said what’s the problem? I pointed at my legs again and jerked my thumb like a hitchhiker and said something like “Let’s go home.”
On our way back my stomach muscles disconnected and I started to topple over. Asia knocked my crutch away and grabbed me around the waist. She half dragged me along. My brain skipped a few steps. My body sobbed for a few seconds. Asia said please don’t start this. I hadn’t started anything. It was my body crying. It’d had enough. Asia hefted me through the gate on her shoulder.
We finish supper on our terrace. 1 drop my napkin. Asia picks it up for me and swipes at my mouth. I grab my laptop and write a smiley. Her eyes fill with tears. Then she leans away from me. She says men are such babies. You’re the one who’s crying. She goes back in the house.
Most of us in our town work. We have two plumbers and three electricians. They help the rest of us with our houses. One man is a photographer. He’s taken photos of all of us in front of our respective houses. There is a large poster in our community building of all the photos. Asia wheeled me out in our yard and stood behind me for our picture. He lay on the ground. In the photo I have the toes of a giant. I’m holding my laptop up. It’s impossible to read what I wrote. It was a limerick:
They say we are nuts in our town
They say we’re an orchard of clowns
It’s true we are strange
But our Homes on DeRange
Are déclassé of all de surrounds
A man who develops ground software for Nokia jogs by every afternoon. His name is Eric. In good weather I push the gate open and wait for him. He shows up around five-thirty. He jogs in place in front of me while we communicate. Sometimes I write limericks for him. He laughs at them. Sometimes Asia gets home while he’s there. She asks me how I’m doing and generally acts like a responsible sister. Then she zeros in on Eric. She’s sure he’s got boocoo buckaroonies.
Some days I spend a lot of time writing limericks to show Eric. Who knows? He might be my brother-in-law someday. He takes Asia to movies and they’ve probably slept together.
Some days I’m too empty to write. Some days the best part of life is dozing in the sun. Let the chips fall where they may. That’s one of Eric’s favorite expressions.
Here’s a limerick I showed Eric the other day:
A butler woke up in Cardiff
And discovered his member was stiff
He stifled his fear
His duty was clear
He proposed to his pillow forthwith
Eric liked that one. He said I’m one crazy little fucker and laughed and jogged away. I love Eric in principle. Like the way some families love each other. Asia could adopt Peter.
Peter traipses past our house. He holds his arms out stiff like Frankenstein bumbling around outside the castle. Somebody loved Frankenstein but I cant remember who. Or was that King Kong?
Asia says all my talk about loving everything is a crock of shit. I never wrote that I loved everything. I’m trying. She says if I’m really trying 1 should be able to write “I love Peter.” There. I just wrote it. She says you asshole. She says to write it like I’m the one who says it. She says come on lover boy.
She says she’s getting fucking sick of reading everything she’s just said all the time.
She says all right you asshole. She says I think I’m better somehow than Peter. She says take a look in the fucking mirror. She says think about what people see when they see me and think about how the people in our fucking town would feel if they had to take care of that thing in the mirror. She says get real. She stomps back inside the house.
My insides feel swollen like I’ve been stung. I’m not real pleased with my body either but it’s the only place I have to hang out. I close my eyes and let the sun fall where it may. I don’t blame her for being sick of reading what she says. It’s like someone’s sticking a mirror in her face all the time. It’s good for her though because it’s a step toward knowing herself better.
A lecturer at the MS Center said it’s important for us to know ourselves as well as possible. She said that it will make the inevitable choices we face easier to deal with. One man felt that we should put our lives in the hands of God. She said it couldn’t hurt to give Him all the help we can. The man said that God needs no help and that He will take care of us and answer our every prayer.
God might be the Butler of the Universe. Maybe He’ll be my wheelchair buddy. Maybe He’ll wheel me around His town.
Asia comes back out and kneels down beside me. She puts both of her hands on my wheelchair arm. She rests her head on her hands for a moment. She looks up at me. She says please don’t write what I’m going to say to you now. All right Asia.
Maryam and I eat tuna salad for lunch. We have live music once a month at our community center. Our town entertainment committee has booked a klezmer band for Friday. Maryam says that’s cool. She says she loves klezmer music. I knew that already. I’m on the committee. I was instrumental in choosing the band. She gives me a little hug.
She says she hopes she can come. They’re supposed to be really hot. She says her father would throw a fit. Men are such babies. She says I’m not a baby. At least I can still feed myself. She says that not being able to feed yourself has nothing to do with acting like a baby. We look at each other. She laughs.
I drop my napkin. She picks it up and hands it to me. She says she’d better get this tuna back in the fridge. She takes it inside. I love you Maryam.
This is what happened last night:
Asia wheeled me up the ramp into our community building. The klezmer band was playing in a large alcove surrounded by low windows. Everyone was either dancing or trying to dance. Asia parked me on one side of the alcove a few feet away from the band and got us both a beer.
The band played a tune in some weird time that no one could clap to even though they tried. The four of them formed a square with a spotlight blaring down inside it. While they played the drummer gazed out the windows. The clarinet player looked around the floor as if he’d dropped something. The bass player stared above the crowd. The accordion player closed his eyes and stared inside himself. It was as if they were playing the same tune on four different continents and the tune met in the ocean of spotlight. After a few numbers I realized they weren’t going to sing. Asia told me to not look so bummed out. Without my laptop the best I could do was give her a dirty look.
They laid their instruments on the floor and took a break. Eric came over and said hey wild man what’s happening in this neck of the woods? Asia grabbed his arm and they left. I drank. I’m not used to drinking. My vision and hearing swerved between fuzzy and superclear. While I stared at the instruments in the spotlight my brain shifted into automatic pilot. The homeless bass slept on its side. The cymbals harvested rice in a baking sun. The clarinet’s snout sucked ants out of the floorboards.
The musicians walked back to their corners like robot boxers after the bell and started in again. Nothing felt right. Nothing fit. The accordion player shook his accordion like he was busting concrete while the bass sleepwalked. The music funneled into a frenzy and the dancers screamed.
Maryam brought me another beer. She wanted to dance with me but the dance floor was about as safe as a Saigon street. I held my hands up to signal surrender or something. She grabbed them and pulled me back and forth a while until my arms ran out of steam. Then she helped me lift my beer to my mouth and it felt like rainwater gushing down an iron pipe into a barrel.
I spotted Peter against the opposite wall. He wore sunglasses but I was sure he was watching the band play. He limped to the edge of their square and started dancing. Time after time he dipped like he was doing lopsided kneebends. He has zero rhythm. His mouth hung and his cheekbones stuck out. The flap on his bandana flapped. He looked like a Living Dead biker.
He stepped into the square and instantly the yellow spotlight carved his body into a hologram. The music speared him and he shook. His arms blazed spastic trails in the air. His sunglasses fell off. He died and arose from the dead as a writhing sculpture of music. I turned to Maryam but she was gone.
The music straightened and sped into bullets and sirens. The rhythm melted out of shape. Peter froze and stared straight into me and suddenly the music began bouncing off us. We were isolated in a glassy cell of silence. I saw through Peter. Inside he was as busy and flighty as a butterfly. That was his dance. A butterfly caught in a gale of music.
The drunk he lives with came out of nowhere and stumbled toward him and pounded his shoulder. Peter jerked back a step and pointed a trembling finger at him. The finger curled like a bee’s stinger. Then he lurched forward and I saw he was going to hit Peter. Without thinking I wheeled toward the drunk and rammed his leg. Asia grabbed him from behind and pulled him back into the crowd.
Suddenly I was alone in the spotlight. The band stopped playing and stared at me and it hurt so I turned toward Peter. In a flash we were linked up again. I knew him perfectly in that moment. He wasn’t grateful for what I did. He wasn’t frightened of the drunk. He wasn’t acting either. He just didn’t like being touched. He didn’t want to be loved or hated or anythinged.
The band began playing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.” A few young boys breakdanced close by. One couple hooked elbows and pranced and swung each other in circles. Others began shimmering and weaving and herky-jerkying and Egyptian-hieroglyphing. In the melee my brain’s autopilot crashed.
I put my head down and wheeled toward the entryway. Asia followed. It felt like a spigot at the bottom of my spine opened and my life began pouring out. She said I didn’t look so hot. She glanced back at the people dancing. Then she wheeled me outside where the stars looked close enough to sing to. The starlight rattled inside my eyes on the way home.
Asia brings my oatmeal out onto our terrace. It’s cloudy today. I love butterflies and bees. I’ll never love Peter. Why should I love someone who doesn’t want to be loved? Asia says forget Peter. She says Eric probably took somebody home and gave them a royal screwing last night. Forget Eric. She says he probably took Maryam home. Maryam deserves it. She’s a queen. Asia says funny. A queen of Asia. Asia says don’t push it buddy boy.
I’ll never love Peter. Maybe love is not seeing someone’s insides so well. Asia says try again. Maybe love is seeing someone’s insides and loving what you see. Asia says love is an autopsy. She says love is never having to say you’re horny. Maybe love is a four-letter word beginning with L. She says love is not the answer to everything and especially for me. What’s the question? She says forget the question. She says drop all this “maybe love is” shit. She says tell it to John Denver and what’s-his-name.
Asia says give me the laptop. What for? She says hand it over.
This is Asia speaking. My brilliantly stupid little brother has forgotten to write his name. It’s Alexandrias. Our father owned a travel bureau for years, so that explains our names, sort of. Also, our great-grandfather was a butler in Cardiff. If I were him I’d be rattling chains in Alex’s bedroom every night.
What are all these commas doing here? Asia says don’t touch them. She says don’t touch my commas and I wont touch your noncommas.
I think I know why Natalie Cole did what she did. She wasn’t out to change the way her father sounds so lonely. She wouldn’t do that to him. But she made sure he doesn’t sound lonely all by himself. She loves him and now they’ll be together forever. Maybe love isn’t exactly the answer. Maybe being loved is. Maybe it only takes one person loving you and you’ll never be alone.
Asia shakes her head. She steps off the terrace and heads for the lawn mower.
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