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Dead Weight

By Janet Allon

This singer songwriter I like, Daria McVeigh, stands on the cramped stage singing a song about changing her name, her address, and even the name of her town to avoid some guy who is stalking her. She and I and about 50 of her fans -- mostly women in their late twenties with sensible haircuts and assertive eyeglasses -- sway in the dark, claustrophobic backroom at Maxwell's in Hoboken. Clive is on the other side of the room, looking nervous, and hunched as though he's suddenly realized how rude it is to be so tall. I know it won't be long before he peers over the small sea of heads, notices I'm here and comes over all eager and cheerful. The singer croons about moving train tracks and redirecting roads to get away from her lover.

I've been avoiding Clive ever since he wrote me a love letter two years ago, slipped it beneath my apartment door, and then called me at work to see what my answer would be. He was completely undaunted by the fact that I was really good friends with his wife at the time, and seemed genuinely perplexed when I told him that there was no chance of me and him ever getting together on account of that. "Eileen and I never really loved each other anyway," he said. "We just got together out of loneliness."

"I think you're rewriting history," I said.

"She wants the white picket fence," he said. "The whole thing, all the stuff I don't want."

A few weeks later, he moved out for the last time, then six months after that, he married a woman who bore a striking physical resemblance to Eileen and moved out into the New Jersey sticks. His scramble back into marriage and domesticity made me wonder why he had bothered to leave in the first place.

Clive sees me and gives me this sort of half wave and a lop-sided smile. He parts the women between us like a bushy head of hair and stoops to get his mouth even with my ear. Daria is singing her hit song, Too Much to Ask and the room is really starting to ooze and shimmy while everyone sings along. "How are ya?" Clive yells, loud enough to pass through my head and into the girl-next-to-me's head. Yelling back over the din seems like too much work and I don't want to encourage him, so I just smile and act like I might not have understood the question. He says, "Did you hear about Will?"

"What?" I say. I'm very attentive now, because I haven't heard a word from Will since I drove him to the train station after our divorce was finalized. I asked for my grandfather's wedding band back and with one leg out the open door, he worked it over his swollen middle knuckle, glanced at it and said way too cheerfully, "Here ya go. See ya." I studied the way his butt twitched under his drawstring pants as he walked away from me and hoped like hell that the next time I saw it, it would be sagging as low as I felt right then.

"He was in a really bad accident." Clive says. "It looks like he might be paralyzed."

I'm glad for the noise and the dark and the smoke in the room and the fact that nothing that is not amplified and lit is all that easily discerned. I squeeze out, "Oh my God," and "That's terrible," and almost convince myself with my air of anxious concern. Daria lets her guitar dangle, and claps her hands over her head while the audience chants her song back to her a capella. She is lapping up the one-sided love they're showering on her.

I buy Clive a drink out at the bar in the front room where it's quiet and milk him for more information. He tells me a friend of Will's was driving him home from a bar out in Montauk late one night, and swerved to avoid a deer. The deer might have left a few dents, but they rammed into a hard, still tree on the other side of the deserted road. Will flagged down help, while his friend sat crumpled around the steering wheel. They took them both to the hospital and released Will a few days later, walking. At home the next day he tried to get up from the couch to have a piss and just flopped down on the floor like a thing with no bones. He stayed there until his girlfriend got home from work in the evening and scooped him up and drove him back to the hospital.

"By herself?" I ask.

"Yeah, I think so," Clive says. "She's strong."

Somehow, the doctors had missed the hairline fracture in Will's neck that caused a permanent rift between his upper and lower halfs.

For the next couple of days I try to figure out my stance towards Will's paralysis. I wonder if he appreciates the irony of how he left the city where he worked as a bike messenger, dodging danger and buses every day, for the relative safety of rural Long Island, and this is what he gets. I wonder if he holds his experience out in front of him and studies it from every angle as an artist would. I realize that not all of me is appropriately devastated. Once or twice, I catch myself smiling just walking down the street, or on the subway, as if I've just remembered a good joke, and when I trace the origins of my amusement, I recognize that a wave of gloating has just rippled through me.

I tell everyone I know the story of what happened to my ex-husband. It's a good story and I'm getting some mileage out of it. I also want to see how people react, and how they think I should react. When I get to the end of the story, they say, "That's terrible," and then look at me searchingly to see if I agree.

One evening, after being cooped up in my loft for the whole day, I'm steaming broccoli when a telemarketer calls to sell me a new long distance service. I actually let her do her whole pitch without hanging up on her because it's been a long day and I'm a little bored and her voice is strangely compelling.

"Can I just tell you something?" I say when she's finished.

"Sure, ma'am."

"I just found out that my ex-husband was paralyzed in a car accident."

"Really?" she says, her voice bright. "I wish my ex-husband would get paralyzed."

I laugh way too hard at that.

I tell no one about these inappropriate feelings and giggling fits and decide I should track Will down. He hasn't exactly stayed in touch with me since the divorce, so I have no choice but to call Clive a few days later, to ask him for a number where I can reach Will to call and express my deepest sympathies.

He tells me Will lives in Brooklyn now with his girlfriend, gives me his number and says, "Hey Beth, what are you doing Saturday?"

"I'm not sure," I say, worrying that Clive's gotten the wrong idea again. "Why?"

"We're having a barbecue out here at the place. C'mon out if you can make it? Here, I'll give you directions. It's easy."

Will does not immediately recognize my voice on the phone. This throws me but I figure he must be a little out of it from his ordeal or else is on medication.

"Oh .... Beth." He clears his throat loudly and directly into the phone. "It's good to hear from you."

"Will, Clive told me about your accident, and I'm blown away," I say, feeling my face get hot. "I can't believe this happened to you."

"Yeah, yeah, thanks. Yeah, it is unbelievable. Yeah." It sounds like he's trying to smile.

I ask him about the prognosis, whether the doctors think he'll ever walk again. He sighs and says it's iffy. "There've been little signs of hope though," he adds. "Sometimes I feel a tingling in my toes. And I can still fuck. As long as my girlfriend climbs on top of me and does all the work. So, maybe I can still be a father."

"Oh, well that's good, Will," I say, thinking, Thanks a lot asshole. "That's really good. I just wish that there was something I could do for you." I figure I'm safe offering. No way he'll take me up on it.

"Do you still have that slate blue Rabbit?" he asks, and I'm ridiculously touched that he remembers the color of my old car.

"No, the engine died. A friend of mine borrowed it and burned it out. I tried to fix it, but the garage totally ripped me off. I was just throwing money down a hole. Anyway, you don't need to hear my troubles. I got a used lemon yellow Saab, why?"

"How 'bout a lift to Clive's barbecue."

For the rest of the week, I keep making mistakes at my freelance fact-checking job with a video trade magazine, the gig that keeps me pinned to my loft for whole days waiting for callbacks. I have a system that's supposed to make the work idiot proof, squiggly lines for I'm not so sure, double underline if I'm certain. Red if just the spelling needs to be checked. I triangulate from the vintage S-shaped couch in the living room that Will decided to let me keep when he split, to the bleak little kitchen that has all of the charm of a demilitarized zone, back to the makeshift desk in my room, and try to remember who I just called. The avocado plant I've been trying to grow from a cracked pit is struggling for life on the window sill, and I think I might have drowned it with too much attention and water. Too much or too little; I can't seem to get that right.

When I'm waiting for calls, I usually try to fix things in the apartment. Something always needs fixing. The refrigerator leaks water and I'm thinking of tackling that next. But I decide to make one more work call.

"I told you I'd have someone call you back who can answer your questions," says the bitchy assistant to somebody or other.

"Oh," I say, looking down at my paper and realizing I've just called a place I called earlier. "Sorry."

Sorry's not such hard thing to say when the stakes are low. Will was always liberal with his apologies about the small stuff. Sorry the tea's too hot. Or sorry, I forgot to buy the milk. Never, sorry I messed around with your best friend while you were away, or sorry, I didn't take it seriously when your fever raged after your abortion, and you had to beg me to take you to the emergency room.

When he left, I stared out the front window of our low-ceilinged cinder block loft above the limousine garage in Hoboken for weeks, riding his bike down the sidewalk, and back to me, but he never did.

A few weeks later, I called him up and asked him to meet me at a diner. It was pouring rain and we both had miserable colds, the sort that renders supermodels unattractive. "I didn't like our thing anymore," he said, biting into his grilled cheese and tomato. "I don't want to make it sloppy and dragged out, leaving and coming back, like Clive keeps doing to Eileen."

"No," I said. "I guess that wouldn't be very aesthetic."

Saturday, I drive up to Will's basement apartment in Caroll Gardens, and find parking on the street. Will's girlfriend answers the door. Pretty. Reminiscent of a young Mia Farrow, with short-cropped bleached hair and a wall eye, and long legs that are kind enough to hint at a few ripples of incipient cellulite just below her shorts.

"I'm Trez," she says, extending a wiry hand.

"Hi," I say, freshly resenting my parents for naming me so prosaically. "Beth."

She can't come to the barbecue, she's working that afternoon, she says, stage managing a local production. I'm kind of pissed that she doesn't seem to feel remotely threatened by me.

Will sits in their living room, in his wheelchair reading Kafka.

"Hullo Beth," he says. "Don't mind if I don't get up, do ya?"

Blood rushes up into my head, and I try to smile pleasantly. Where's the etiquette manual for this situation, I wonder.

His face looks smaller and his green eyes bigger than I remember them. His hair is flecked with gray, and has grown wilder. I concentrate on keeping my eyes at the level of his head, but catch his inert looking legs in my peripheral vision.

"I really have to pee," I say, gliding past him. "Is the bathroom over there?"

The gray of Route 80 meets the orange of the horizon line in a way that reminds me that sometimes even violence begets beauty. They blasted through a mountain to put the road here, just wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. We're driving straight back through the point of a V.

"Want something to drink?" Will says sipping Bud from a can and gesturing to the paper bag between his feet. "You must be thirsty."

He's being gallant. It drives me crazy when he's gallant.

A steep ravine pitches away from us on the right. I picture the car rolling down it, over and over, first him on top then me on top then him then me then him then me, then coming to rest at last.

"No thanks," I say. "I'll wait until we get to Clive's."

Will never got his license. He thought driving a car was too much responsibility and he didn't trust himself to shoulder it. He never wanted to be the designated driver. He said he felt better putting himself in someone else's hands. Bike messengering appealed to his sense of place in the transportation food chain until he accidentally knocked down a pregnant lady in a crosswalk one day. An old man came up and screamed at him. "You should be ashamed of yourself." The mood of the gathering crowd grew ugly, and Will grabbed his package and his mangled bicycle and bolted. He figured he'd do a good enough job torturing himself with guilt. He didn't need their help.

"Don't like to drink and drive," I say, but it sounds a little like I'm chastising him, so I add. "Anyway, I'll just have to take another pee."

"Yeah, well, I don't have to worry about that anymore," Will says. "Now I carry my bathroom around with me." He points to a bulge near his once bicycle-sculpted thigh. I furtively shoot glances over at it for the rest of the ride.

At Clive's house, the flaming sun drops behind a cloud. Eight or ten people are milling around the gently sloped backyard choking long-necked beers. I cut the engine, and everything goes quiet. Clive walks over to the car and the others follow. Clive opens Will's door and bends down to get his head even with Will's.

"Hey, man. It's really good to see you," he says. "I'm glad you could make it."

He sounds like he really means it, and for the first time I find Clive's awkward sincerity incredibly endearing. I never see his ex-wife anymore; she more or less dropped me and everyone else they knew as a couple and moved on. At the moment I'm grateful that Clive is the ongoing presence in my life.

"Thank Beth," Will says, cheerfully.

I open the trunk to get out his wheelchair, unfold it and snap it expertly into place, just as Trez showed me. Clive and another guy lift Will into it. They hold their straining faces away from Will in a conspiracy of effort and grace that says Will's weight is something they can bear for this short time.

Clive and his new wife Julianne own just a little plot of land, neither big enough nor flat enough for a game of croquet, which I thought was the whole point of living in the suburbs. The house is old and badly in need of a paint job, and their life and that of Julianne's teenaged son spills out onto the porch and down the backsteps. Some people are tossing a frisbee around. Clive's wife's son is sitting on the backsteps in an AC/DC shirt looking bored and kind of desperate. Every once in a while, the faint odor of a backyard septic tank comes wafting through. Songs from Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," fill the spaces between conversations.

Will's wheels leave dents in the grass as I roll him up next to some people sitting around on lawn chairs. He grabs another beer, and hands me the bag containing the two that are left. Clive returns to the grill, which he towers over. In one hand he holds a spatula; with the other he holds a paper chef's hat he is good-naturedly donning on his head. An old friend of Clive's exhales smoke from a cigarette over the head of the baby sleeping in a Snuggli on his chest. I put my finger in the baby's curled hand."

"You should get yourself one of these," he says. "They're great. Like a wind-up toy you can't turn off."

"Pfff," I say. "I can't even figure out how to keep my houseplants alive."

Clive smiles and tells me to have a look around his "chateau," if I want, and I wander up the stairs and into the dark living room. Light comes from the kitchen, where Clive's wife Julianne is chopping tomatoes into a big wooden bowl for salsa. I search the fridge for space to put Will's remaining Buds. Julianne is a little plump, with a big round butt and always dressed with a plunging neckline and a full skirt whenever I see her. Before she and Clive got together, I saw her at a party once pinning a guy in a corner while she told him about how her father used to make her give him blowjobs in the basement when he was drunk. Whether this was her idea of light, flirtatious party conversation, or part of her seduction technique, I've been leery of her ever since.

"Do you ever see Eileen anymore?" she asks, looking out the window to the backyard.

"No, I really don't," I say a little too emphatically and follow her gaze out the window to the group that surrounds Will. If they feel pity for him, they're doing a good job of concealing it. They're having a good laugh at something he's just said. Will's head is down, and he has a shy, self-deprecating smile on his face that reminds me of why I fell in love with him. I wish the accident could have knocked that look permanently off his face.

"What's your son's name again?" I ask Julianne.

"Jesse. He's 14. Clive got a kind of insta-family. You know, just add water."

I smile.

"Clive came along at a pretty good time for me," Julianne says. "Jesse was just starting to seem like a complete alien. You know, teenaged boys and 35-year-old women don't exactly have a lot in common."

Except a raging sex drive, I think. But I say, "You mean you don't like AC/DC?"

Clive is flipping burgers off the grill and looking for all the world like a man who is king of his castle. I sense that he has somehow found a place here, an equilibrium between needing and being needed. To me the whole world seems like a system of weights and measures, of leaning and being leaned on that I can't master.

Outside, the night has grown a little chillier, and I get my sweatshirt from the car. Will gestures to me and rolls away from the group so that he can speak to me privately.

"This is a little embarrassing," he says.

"No it's not. People are really impressed with you."

"I don't mean the whole thing, I mean what I'm going to ask you to do."

"Oh, what?"

"I need you to help me out in the bathroom. The bag's completely full, it's gonna leak in a sec."

I figure Will doesn't really need to be criticized right now for drinking too much, but I still have to fight an overwhelming urge to yell at him. I wheel him around to the front door, where there are only two steps, and find a bathroom off the bedroom on the first floor.

"Pretty handicapped accessible," Will says, and for some reason, his attempt at jocularity makes me want to explode.

In the bathroom off the bedroom, there is just enough room for the wheelchair, Will and me. Will shifts his weight from one arm to the other and works his pants down off his hips with the other. "Could you give me a hand here?" he says, and I do, but it's still a case of too many hands in too little space. A tube coming out of his briefs feeds into a plastic bag filled with pale yellow urine taped to his leg. He rips the tape off and doesn't even flinch. There's no hair left to uproot

"OK, here's the hard part," he says. "Detaching the bag without spilling the piss that's backed up in the tube." He pulls the tube out, using one hand to cover the end of that and the other to pinch the bag shut, and swivels around to dump them in the sink.

"It's a good thing I've got two good hands," he says.

I'm thinking what a surprisingly good sport he's being but I just nod and say, "Yeah, it really is."

"Wait," Will says, turning back around. "Sit down," he says, pointing to his crotch, where his dick is now poking optimistically under his briefs. "It's really good to see you."

"Are you serious?" I say, and part of me says I should not even consider this and another much more forceful and loud part of me says, I am definitely considering it. I pull down my tight black pants acutely aware of how much wiggling and maneuvering it takes to perform this simple operation. I mount him, kneeling with my legs around Will's and squeeze his between mine, and they're a little cool to the touch and they offer no resistance, which makes me want to squeeze harder. I pull his briefs down and his dick pops up like some sort of absurd crocus growing on a bombed out landscape.

I give a "Well, I'll be damned," kind of look, and Will murmurs, "Some things don't change." I lower myself onto him and slowly work him into me.

"You don't mind doing all the work, do you?" he says.

So, I ride him, rocking myself forward and back and up and down. The top of his head smells faintly like piss and the swirl of hair in the center of his head is thinning. He sticks his head under my shirt and kisses my chest, moves his head from side to side and scratches me with his stubble.

He asks me if my legs are getting numb since they're wedged against the sides of the wheelchair and if I want to turn around. That seems like a pretty good idea, too, and I turn around and sit on his lap, and arch my back while he cups my breasts. I experiment with different angles of entry, lift and lower myself using the arm rests and begin to see the appeal of a totally immobilized lover. His breathing gets hard and I recognize the soft grunts of his orgasm, then slowly settle myself onto him and squeeze. His legs are beneath me, looking oddly detached from him now. They are mottled, and pale, and much less hairy than I remember them. They are the saddest things I have ever seen.

"I forgot," he says. "I forgot that you always get emotional when you come."

"No," I say. "I'm crying because of your legs. You had such beautiful strong legs."

A few weeks later, I've decided to move out of the loft. I found a good deal on a walk-up downtown nearer to the Path with a view of Manhattan out the front windows and Jersey City Heights out the back. I sell the S-shaped couch for $50 on the street in a tag sale, junk the makeshift desk and buy a new refrigerator.

Friday night, I go to Maxwell's to hear the Pogues. I'm sitting at the bar when I see the lead singer walk by. I have a massive crush on him, always imagine he's singing "Girl with Brown Eyes" to me even though my eyes aren't brown. I screw up my courage, jump up and offer to buy him a drink.

"No thanks," he says, taking a bite of a banana and looking for all the world like the missing link. Then he leans toward my ear conspiratorially and says, "But do you know where I can get some drugs?"

"No," I say. "I really don't." Never has an object of my long distance fascination had such a rapid fall from grace.

But it's a great story and I scan the room for someone to tell it to.