The Wheelchair

by Wesley Turner

“It’s just easier so you don’t have to keep standing up and sitting down. You’ll be able to sit tight and relax,” the attendant said calmly.

“I don’t need that.”

“Listen to the nurse, dear,” her husband said.

With a thin frown on her face, Ruth sat down in the wheelchair. It groaned under her weight.

“That’s it, just like getting into a car.” The attendant wheeled her into the waiting room while her husband, Mac, finished some paperwork.

Ruth didn’t like the wheelchair or the waiting room or the hospital. The walls were bare, it was terribly crowded, the air conditioning was on too high, and everyone was being such a bother. She’d only fainted. The last time she had swooned was years ago, and that time she awoke in the arms of a handsome neighbor gently fanning her face with a magazine. The wind had smelled of apples then. Her neighbor’s smile was all she needed to get feeling better.

This afternoon she had woken to wrinkles of worry crowding her husband’s eyes. Those lines had become more numerous and more pronounced lately, ever since Ruth’s husband had begun secretly reading articles in AARP explaining how to confront a loved one about their health. At the moment, however, Mac was more concerned with how exactly to pay for this hospital visit. He hated to call his son, but he wasn’t sure how his insurance would cover this sort of thing. He wanted to sit next to his wife. She was no doubt uncomfortable here.

“Hello?”

“Hi, James. It’s Dad.”

James insisted that he and Mabel would be over as soon as they could. Mac tried to protest, told James he could handle things. But he wanted them here. He grabbed a clipboard and shuffled into the chair beside his wife’s chair.

“James is coming.”

Ruth ignored her husband. Silence would be his punishment.

Some Mexicans on the other side of the room were staring aimlessly out the window. Nobody seemed to be watching them, and after a few minutes Ruth figured that if they were going to steal something (aside from health care) they would have likely done so already. She instead turned her attention to the other side of the room, where some kids were watching the small television in the corner. Even with her diminished hearing, Ruth knew they were laughing too loudly. She hoped for their parents’ sake that they hadn’t gotten into any drugs, especially after she’d seen footage of that bath salts man on the news.

Ruth imagined a clean, white square around her wheelchair. So long as no one entered and she didn’t leave, she would be all right. No Mexicans, no crazed bath salts men, no germs could enter her square. Not even Mac’s wrinkled eyes were allowed.

James arrived with Mabel. After he helped Mac fill out the paperwork, he breached Ruth’s protective square.

“How you feeling, Mom?”

“Terrible. Everybody’s being ridiculous. I ought to be watching Perry Mason right now.”

Her son glanced at Mac, then back at her. “You can watch tomorrow night. They all end the same anyway.”

“Nothing wrong with a little consistency. Nothing wrong with loyalty. Perry’s a loyal man, James. You’d do right to learn from him. Women used to appreciate a man like Perry Mason, yes, sir.”

“Wasn’t the actor gay?”

Ruth’s eyes widened, and she turned her face in disgust. James gently grabbed her hand.

“You’re getting older, Ma. You have to start taking it easy. Thank goodness Dad was there.” Ruth didn’t look at him. “Ma?”

It seemed like everyone knew exactly what she should do. Sit down. Relax. Take it easy. Did any of them even think to get her a blanket? The temperature was Siberian. It took every effort not to shiver underneath her thin blouse. She hated the way everyone always warned her about “taking it easy” and “getting older.”

James knew nothing of death. Yes, perhaps he had observed it at seven when Mr. Paulsen ran over his dog, or learned about it at Aunt Grace’s funeral. But it trickled down to him secondhand. He didn’t feel death tracing its finger in the small of his back every morning. He didn’t see it standing behind him in the mirror before bed. He didn’t know that when you got closer to death, you began to forget your life. That when you got old your breath became putrid, as if your lungs were eager to rot. He didn’t know yet, though someday he would. Someday everyone would know.

Ruth knew death now. She could feel it standing over her as she waited to fall asleep at night, covering her ears with its cold hands, blurring her eyes with its pale, hungry face. And she knew that even though it was close, and that some days it wrapped its cold hands around her neck just to see how it felt, she still had time. Mac could not live alone.

After some time, a laughably male nurse asked Ruth and Mac to follow him.

“I can take her,” the attendant said.

“No, no. I’ve got her,” Mac insisted. He tried to grab the handles, but the nurse insisted, wheeling Mac’s wife into a triage room. Mac followed behind, glancing back at his son and daughter-in-law.

The nurse checked Ruth’s blood pressure. He asked questions like “What were you doing before you fainted?” and “Has this ever happened before?” Then he asked obscene questions, about bowel movements and sexual activity. It made Ruth very uncomfortable so she asked him where his candy-stripes were. The nurse asked Mac the rest of the questions.

When they returned to their condo after stopping by the pharmacy that night, Ruth was adamant about getting up the steps to their condo alone. Mac grabbed her side anyway, and she was too weak to protest. She made a point not to thank him as he closed and locked the door behind them.

“Why don’t you get ready for bed? I’ll get you some water and bring your medicine.” Mac knew very well that she wouldn’t be able to get her clothes off alone.

Ruth walked slowly into their bedroom, placing her hand gently on the wall for support. She was thankful her clothes all buttoned today, and she managed to get most everything off with surprising ease. It was her bra that gave her the most trouble. She tried and tried to reach around behind herself, but she couldn’t get at the clip.  Finally, the latex burst open and her breasts drooped in saggy freedom.

She tried not to see herself in the mirror on the vanity. She put her clothes in the hamper and, exhausted from getting undressed, sat down naked on her side of the bed. She would attempt her pajamas once she’d caught her breath.

Mac entered with water and medicine. He had expected her to be struggling to get her clothes off when he entered, and was surprised to see his wife nude on the side of the bed. She seemed intent on staring at the floor. Mac still liked her body, even the saggy parts, and took a moment to see every wrinkle, every mole. Her still electric eyes. Forty years ago it was those eyes that brought him across the dance hall to meet her. It was those eyes that told him when she was lying. Those eyes that had wept after James was born.

“You should not have made me get in that wheelchair.”

She said it to the floor. For a moment Mac was worried she was drooling, until he saw that the water dripping down her chest was from her eyes.

“You shouldn’t have done it.”

Mac placed the water and medicine on the vanity and sat down beside her, his bony shoulder a little higher than hers. She rested her head in the crook of his neck, just like they had done after the miscarriage, after James’ first wife left. Mac wrapped her up in his tired arms. And for a while they sat in silence, listening to each other’s pulses echo through the room.