first published: Halfway Down the Stairs, June, 2013
About six years ago, a dark-haired, thirtyish man in a white T-shirt pushed an arresting young woman in a wheel chair up the main aisle of the hardware store. She had intense brown eyes, smooth tan skin like her companion, and exuberant, thick eyebrows.
He approached me. “Do you have a little time you can spend with my sister? Anna has a few questions.”
“Sure. What can I help with?” I said. I was grateful. I am a rover in the store, free to help almost anybody with pretty much anything, but especially a pretty girl.
The girl had the same shiny rich, black hair as her brother, shoulder length. Her upper body was brown and broad; her legs were in jeans, but Velcro-wrapped to the foot rests of the chair.
“Well, I hope you can help me with pulleys, because I have to invent some things. I can picture it, but I need help to get the pieces together.”
Her eyes were mirrors into which I didn’t dare look. “Okay. Anna, I’m Jerry. What are we building?”
“Well, I’ve got a month before my brother has to go back to L.A. and he’s getting my house set up for me to stay in alone. I need to work out the bedroom. He is redoing the shower and toilet right now and we’ve got the kitchen figured out, but…”
“Sounds like you guys have a lot to do in a short time.”
“Yes, but Tony’s very good. He’s a finish carpenter in Orange County.”
“But she’s the engineer,” said Tony. “She figured out the bathroom design.”
“Well, practically all I do is think, nowadays,” Anna said, with a smile that picked my pocket and slipped her picture into my wallet.
“She’s modest,” said Tony, putting his hand on her shoulder. “She graduated MIT, Mechanical Engineering, with honors. She’s got dad’s brains.”
“Don’t get me started about genetics,” said Anna, smiling. Tony laughed. The love between them stopped time just then.
I was glad for this vibrant young woman. She must be spell-bound, to not be standing up. So trapped.
“I can still get into bed on my own, now,” she said, “if I lock the chair wheels against a board we screwed to the floor. But I won’t be able to do that for long, as some of my key muscles get weaker.”
“What can you do? What do you have in mind?” I corrected myself. We could dance. With our skills, we could fashion a harness that would allow us to dance face to face with your weight on me, feet off the floor. We could sway and spin and carry on, regardless of gravity.
“Well, I can still pull with my arms and I am supposed to be able to do that the longest, they tell me. So I need a rope that I can pull on, that reaches from the far side of the bed and up a bit. Something soft but strong. And hooks for the wall.”
“Where do the pulleys come in?”
“Well, I have to wrap something around my legs and pull them up. I don’t have any lift in my thighs or stomach even now. And I’m getting fatter.”
“You’re so far from fat!” I said. “But let me try to draw something. Like this?” I sketched a rectangle and some lines to represent ropes.
“Yes, but wouldn’t it pull easier, and into bed better, with another hook and pulley here?” she said, and pointed to a spot on the drawing with the knuckle of a crumpled finger.
“I also need to pull up the sheets and comforter after I get in,” she said.
I threw off layers of impossibility and unfairness and positivity and sadness and attraction, so that I could understand the plan.
“If we put spring clamps on the ends of the covers and small ropes that lead to pulleys… We can hang cords near the headboard. I can pull them once I get in and have myself lined up right.”
“I see it,” I said. I didn’t volunteer to lift her into bed with her arms around my neck.
“I just have to make sure I don’t get snagged in them somehow, when I’m climbing in.”
“How will you get uncovered in the morning?” I asked. And dressed? I was thinking in pictures, now, like getting postcards from a possible future. The bed was on the shore of a lake.
“Well, I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t know,” she said.
Let me arrange you, I thought. Here’s where I could really help. And if one thing led to another? “What if the cords to the covers continued in a big loop to pulleys at the bottom of the bed? Could you pull one direction for up and the other direction for down?” I asked.
“It might work…” She was thinking.
“You’re the engineer,” I said.
“Let’s try it,” Tony said. “Doesn’t cost much to find out and it sounds reasonable.”
“Alright, let’s do it,” she said. “You think like an engineer; what stopped you?”
“I…” I had actually been all lined up for it. Was it the claustrophobia in class, my exam anxiety, my need for change, motion, excitement? My next customer approached with a broken light fixture.
Anna was in by herself, two months later. She drove up on a small gray three-wheel scooter. She had a big black canvas carry-all bag slung to one side of her body. She had put on some weight. She wore a red helmet over a jet black pony tail. She smiled and I went over.
I didn’t like the way the helmet hid her hair. And she didn’t need makeup, like she was going on a date. The scooter is cold and mechanical and un-alive. Can she ever detach from it? Could she ride on my back with a strap we’d contrive and shop and hike and be close. But I’d get tired quick. “Hi,” I said.
“I wanted to show you pictures,” she said. “Of your pulleys. Can you get the envelope out of my bag?”
There were pictures of her kitchen with a microwave and small fridge on low tables, cupboards with no doors. The whole bathroom was tiled and a roll-in shower had three shower heads with paddle-type controls on all the faucets.
The bedroom would have done a spider proud. Eyehooks and pulleys festooned the ceiling and ropes, thin and thick, seemed to run every which way.
“Wow.” I said. “Does it work?”
“Keep going,” she said.
The last two pictures showed her lying down with her head on the pillow, smiling at the ceiling, covers in place. This is more like I had imagined. I wondered who took the pictures.
“Of course, it works,” Anna said. “Thank you. This one’s for you.” She gave me one of the last pictures.
“You did the engineering,” I said. “Where’s Tony?”
“He had to go back to L.A. He’s going to be up once a month and tweak things, he says. He’s got a family.”
“He sure does good work.”
“Well, thanks, Anna. I’ve got to get to Receiving. Glad you came in.”
Months after seeing the photos, I picked up ‘Line 8.’
“Hello, this is Jerry. How can I help you?”
“Anna? How are you?”
“I’m okay.‘Min L.A.”
“You must be with Tony? How’s he doing? I’ve missed you guys.”
“Okay. Wife’s mad ‘bout me.”
“What’s up with that, Anna? What’s she mad about?”
“Built deck and bedroom on their house for me. Tony’s time and money.”
“You must have moved there. You’re staying with them?”
“Your voice sounds different.”
“And you gave up your house?”
“Renting out now. For Tony.”
“Yeah. I get it. To pay him rent.”
“Anna, is there something I can help with? Or do you need something from the store?”
“No. Thanks for help.”
“Hey. That was just fun. I was glad to help. Anytime. You know you can always find me here.”
Six or eight more months went by. I answered the phone.
A big pause.
“Is everything okay?”
“Are you in L.A., at Tony’s?”
“You’re coming back to town? To your place?”
“Home. Bye, Jehhr.”
About two years ago, she had still been able to ask for “Elmer’s” and when we had a clerk bring an 8 ounce bottle of the white glue to the front counter, she laughed out loud with the delight of being understood. Her hands worked well enough to loosely grip the handles of her small gray three wheel cart, but her fingers were not able to pull her credit card from the canvas bag slung from her shoulder. In more verbal times, we had learned to extract her American Express card, read it electronically and return it to her wallet. She drove off through the automatic door with a “thang you” and just the whirr of the electric cart. She just had one speed, which was full-bore; faster than a carry-out clerk could walk. Her red helmeted head bobbled on the turns.
I hadn’t looked at her picture for a long time. In the store, she looked directly into my eyes when I attempted to make conversation, which was disconcerting.
Then, as I came to work last week, she must not have seen me, because she rocketed past and up the small walkway leading from our lower parking lot to the sidewalk in front of the store. It’s narrow and requires a couple of switchbacks, which she handled on her scooter like a MotoCross racer.
A red plastic rose was zip-tied to the upright of her steering column. She had on her red helmet. She had gained a lot of weight, almost doubling in size; her cheeks, stomach, thighs, all big to bursting.
Where the walkway met the store front, in the space between the display of the Cedar Shed and the Cable Rail System, she began to drive in a tight circle, round and round, in fast doughnuts that would have thrown me out of the seat. And she was humming, deep as a throat singer, in almost words: “ngngnang ngngnang ningnangningnang ngngnang.” It was a tuneless melody, but her smile called it a song.
She zoomed in through the lumberyard gate and down the rows of dimensional redwood, circled the beam rack and came back past the sheetrock and plywood. As she drove past the yard shack, the gate man waved and called out: “Have a good one!”
She drove off past the Garden Center, smiling and humming loudly.
I had to go punch in.