Authors: Richard Scrimger
“You dial Mike’s Pizza, you want pizza. Am I right? Course I’m right.”
“I want my father,” I say.
“Then try the adoption agency. And while you’re there, see if they’ll give you a new name. Ask for something a bit spicier. Jake, maybe. That’s a good name.” His voice is growing really faint now. “And put down the violin.”
I hold the phone away from my ear.
“Wrong number?” asks Frieda.
“I hope so,” I say.
I get out my piece of paper and punch the correct numbers. And SEND.
My dad says hello. His voice sounds far away and faint, but it’s
voice. I almost cry.
“Dad! Am I ever glad to –”
He interrupts me to say that it’s Monday, July 10th, and he is away from his desk right now. If I care to leave a message, I can do so at the sound of the tone. I wait and wait, but there’s no tone. I can’t tell if he’s hung up. “Hello? Hello?”
“Well?” Frieda says.
“I don’t know.” I hand her the phone.
“There’s the problem.” She points to a flickering signal light. “Out of power.”
“What do you mean?”
“The phone needs recharging. I meant to do it in Toronto, but I forgot.”
I grab the phone from her hands and try the number again. I can’t hear anything.
“What now?” I say. “Are we really going to walk all the way to your place?”
She smiles bitterly.
going to walk,” she says.
So there we were on the couch, talking to the doctor, k.d. lang was lying down. I was in a chair in the front room with a mug of cocoa. The doctor was very curious about me, kept wanting to know more about my childhood on Jupiter. And when I finally ran out of gossip, the doctor said, “Ms. lang, I really think you should go ahead with the procedure.”
We’ve walked a few blocks along 50th Street, and now we’re walking up Broadway. All right, Sally and I are walking. Frieda is rolling. It’s up because the numbers of the cross streets are getting bigger. 50 … 51. Norbert is explaining how he got here to New York from Los Angeles, where k.d. lang was staying.
“But I like my nose,” she told the doctor. “I don’t want to look like someone else.” “Good for you,” I said. And the doctor frowned, and made a note
“You were talking to a therapist,” says Frieda. She’s leading the way. She turns her head to face Sally. “Weren’t you?”
A therapist, that’s right, k.d. got the name from a friend, shortly after I arrived
I laugh. “A therapist? Like a crazy doctor? A shrink? Poor k.d. lang.”
“I see a therapist sometimes,” says Frieda.
“Oh.” Smart, Dingwall. Very smart. “Sorry,” I say.
We come to an intersection. The light turns yellow. The DON’T WALK sign appears. I slow down, but Frieda keeps going. I reach out to grab the wheelchair so that she can stop in plenty of time. “What are you doing?” she snaps over her shoulder. No one else stops. In fact, they speed up. A man runs into us from behind, bangs his knee pretty good, and hobbles out onto the street anyway. A lady hurries past us. “What’s with you?” she says. A car turns the corner, just missing the hobbling man. The car behind it just misses the hurrying lady. The light changes from yellow to red. Horns blow. Traffic shoots ahead, as if from a catapult.
“Hayseed!” says Frieda. “In New York, you have to move fast.”
“I can move faster than you!” Of course it’s a bad thing to say, but when I’m talking to Frieda I keep forgetting she’s in a wheelchair. The light is still red for us. Sally is sniffing something on the sidewalk, which upsets Norbert.
Leave it alone! It’s dirty. You don’t know what that is, Sally. What do you mean, you do know what that is? What is it? Oh, great galaxies, NO! Come on, Sally. How many times do I have to tell you….
Poor Norbert. The light turns green. The WALK sign appears. We move forward. A car turns the corner,
slams on its brakes, just missing us. Frieda ignores it.
“But Norbert, what procedure was k.d. lang’s therapist talking about?” she asks.
I didn’t understand it either, at first. I tried to ask, but the doctor wouldn’t answer my questions. “You can control your own nose, Ms. lang,” she said. “You don’t have to listen to it. I think a simple rhinoplasty – even if it doesn’t change the shape – would be very therapeutic.”
Frieda laughs. “They were talking about a nose job, weren’t they?”
1 gave them a piece of my mind, I can tell you. I packed last night, and left this morning. Poor Nerissa was upset when I told her. She’s a big fan
“Who’s Nerissa?” asks Frieda.
“A … friend,” I explain. “Back home on Jupiter.” I think she’s more than just a friend, but I don’t feel like getting into that with Frieda.
“Can you talk to Jupiter by telephone, Norbert?”
Well, it’s a long distance call
No one says anything for a moment.
She asked for help, you know
“Who?” asks Frieda, “k.d. lang?”
That’s why I went to L.A. Do you know what it’s like to realize you’re not wanted?
Frieda doesn’t say anything. Her face is shut again.
New York is full of people who live and work on the street. Homeless people, of course, in boxes and doorways. Any big city has them. But New York streets offer
more possibilities than most. I see people selling and eating stuff I’ve never seen before. I don’t even recognize the writing on the side of the carts. We pass a woman whose office is on the sidewalk. There’s a desk, a lamp, a wastebasket, a chair for clients, and a sign offering advice about income tax. Further along, a well-dressed man promises to find you an acceptable parking solution. I didn’t realize there was a parking problem, but Frieda assures me there is.
It starts to rain when we get up to 55
Street. I cross – quickly – and duck under an awning with Frieda. Sally runs in circles around us.
“Buy an umbrella?” asks a pimply teenager. Where’d he come from? He wasn’t here a second ago, when it was sunny. Now it’s raining and his arms are full of umbrellas. There’s another umbrella guy across the street. It’s like they spring from the pavement fully equipped, like the soldiers who grow from dragon’s teeth in the Greek myth.
“No, thanks,” says Frieda.
I wonder how the lady with the desk outside handles the rain.
The store in front of us sells men’s clothing. I stare at the suit in the window. Could that price be right? It looks like what you’d pay to buy the building. And speaking of buildings, across the street and down a bit from the umbrella salesman is the coolest – sorry, I’m going to have to work at this – the most not uncool building I’ve ever seen: soaring, rounded, rippled, as if the wind were the architect. A great combination of the futuristic and the familiar – like
a cross between a missile and a thermos. I ask Frieda what building it is. She shrugs.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Insurance, maybe. Or Public Utilities.”
Public Utilities? A boring idea for such a great building. There’s a Public Utilities building in Cobourg, right next to the Toronto Dominion bank. My teacher’s sister works there.
Suddenly, I want to talk to someone from home. Mom will be out hiking. I could phone Miranda, I suppose. Or Victor. Except, what would I tell him? “Hi, Vic. I’m somewhere in New York City with no money and nowhere to go. Oh, yes, and a couple of bad guys are after me.”
Drat Dad anyway. And drat Slouchy and his dyed hair and Skinny and his federal powers, and Veronica, and Frieda. Drat them all.
The rain has stopped. The umbrella salesmen have all vanished. We push on.
Broadway is, well, broad. Looking up, I can see a big strip of gray sky. I have no idea where the sun is – somewhere behind the tall building on our right, I think. We pass a wide entrance, with steps going down. Hot stale air hits my nostrils. A rattle and hum of the trains underfoot. Subway. I think about Frieda getting down the steps. I don’t see how she can do it by herself. I don’t see how I can help her. She hasn’t mentioned taking the subway.
Coming towards us, working his arms like a windmill, is a man in a wheelchair. Shaved head, sunglasses, black chin
beard, he looks tough but nice. In a movie he’d be the bad guy who saves the little boy’s life just before going to jail.
“How you all doing?” he says, with a special smile for Frieda.
“Fine,” I say, trying not to stare.
“Great day,” he says, disappearing quickly into the crowd behind us.
Frieda sinks lower in her chair after he’s gone. She thrusts herself forward sharply, knocking her hand against the spokes. She’s done it before; her knuckles are bruised. She jerks her hand away from the wheel, and there’s a tearing sound. She swears.
“You okay?” I ask her.
“My suit isn’t.” She holds up her arm.
“I don’t see anything.”
“See?” She shows me a tiny rip on the inside of the right sleeve. She must have caught it on the chair. “See that?”
“That’s okay. You can hardly notice it,” I say.
“Shut up,” she tells me. So I do.
The light ahead turns yellow. I know to speed up now. All around us people are striding faster, making sure they get through the intersection before the traffic starts moving the other way.
I can’t help thinking of Cobourg, where cars actually wait on a green light so that oncoming traffic can make a left turn.
On the other side of the intersection, still moving fast, we almost run into an elderly couple in matching orange track-suits. For a moment I actually feel angry at them. What are
they doing in my way? Sidewalk rage. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. “Sorry,” I tell them, hurrying on.
Frieda hears me. “Don’t say sorry,” she says. “It shows you’re from out of town.”
“Sorry,” I tell her.
I caught my first fish when I was six years old. It was pretty small: I could have mounted it on a postcard. To be honest, I didn’t even catch it. I reeled in my line after sitting for hours in the boat, picking at my peeling sunburn, and found a small dead perch on my hook. My uncle figured it had died of boredom. But I was only six years old, and proud of myself. I carried the poor dead thing around all afternoon, showing it off to neighbors and relatives. And – this is my point – all that week I saw people with fishing rods and tackle boxes. I’m sure they’d been there all along. But I didn’t notice them until I caught my fish. Of course I nodded to them, knowingly, as if to say, me too! Experience had broadened my world to include people who had, until then, been invisible to me.
Now I realize I have never seen so many people in wheelchairs. I’m sure they’ve been here all along, like the guys carrying fishing rods. But because I’m with Frieda, I seem to see wheelchairs everywhere. My attention is caught by a young man in a motorized chair. His body’s spiraled up in spasm. His head’s on one side. His hands are twisted claws. He’s doing fine. On the side of his chair are five people-shaped stencils. Underneath is the legend:
The wheelchair community, like the fishers’, is very welcoming to other members. They all have a smile for Frieda. They even smile at me, because I’m with her. The driving ace waves as he passes. “Hi, guys!” he shouts. Not uncool. My world is bigger.
We come to a phone booth. Not a booth, really, just a phone on a pole. “I could call my dad from here,” I say. “Got a quarter?”
“Not here,” says Frieda.
“Why? You could call too. Maybe someone can come and get us,” I say.
“Not here,” says Frieda again.
“Because the phone is broken.”
She can’t even see it. I go closer. The phone
broken. How did she know?
There’s a small hunched-over lady in a wheelchair waiting by a bus stop with a bunch of nondisabled people. Sounds funny to call them that.
, I suppose I should say. I don’t know what the hunched-over lady is waiting for. If she can’t get down the steps to the subway, no way can she get up the steps into the bus.
A businessman goes past, talking into his cell phone. I’d like to borrow his phone, but I’m too shy to interrupt.
Another block, and we come to the biggest intersection I’ve ever seen. It’s a circle with two wide roads cutting through the center of it, and then splitting off in five or six
directions, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Part of the circle leads to a park, a real park with grass.
We cross three streets. I follow Frieda. When we get to the park, she calls a halt.
“Good idea,” I tell her. “I’m feeling a bit tired.”
“We’re not stopping for you,” she says. “It’s for Sally.”
I look round. Sally’s right here, the way she always is. An obedient dog. Her tongue is lolling a bit, and she looks tired. When she hears her name, she comes over to the wheelchair and puts her head in Frieda’s lap.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.
“She’s thirsty,” says Frieda. “Look at her, panting, the poor thing.”
The only living creature that Frieda speaks kindly to. I wonder if the dog appreciates it.
There’s no cold water in the kitchen tap
, says Norbert.
Only hot, and not much of that
“You see,” says Frieda. “Why don’t you give her a drink.”
There’s a water fountain nearby – a square stone pillar about chest height, with a push button on the side. No one’s using it.
“How am I going to give her a drink?” I say. I look around for a dish, or something to put the water into. Nothing. I turn on the fountain. Sally gives a little yelp and hurries over. She stands on her hind legs and reaches up with her paws, but she can’t quite reach. She’d look funny if she weren’t so eager, so desperate.
I catch sight of Frieda, whose face mirrors the dog’s distress. It occurs to me that Frieda might be as thirsty as
Sally. She probably can’t reach the fountain either. No, that can’t be right; I’ve seen Frieda stand up for a moment before getting into the cab. But I’ll bet she knows what it’s like to be unable to do something, through no fault of your own.
Sally looks for help – not to me, standing next to her with my thumb on the fountain button, but to Frieda.
Frieda rolls herself over. Sally scrambles, with difficulty, onto Frieda’s lap. She’s a big dog. She can reach the water easily now. Her paws go right over the fountain. Frieda holds her from behind. The chair starts to roll backwards. When I grab for the chair, I let go of the button. The spray of water disappears. Sally whines and laps frantically.