WARNING - this story may contain adult content including coarse language and/or sexual content which may be offensive to some
EXAMINED LIFE, OFF AND ON
a short story by Mark Kolke
May 30, 2011
I thought I was the only one.
The only one who felt the way I did.
Iíd spent twenty-five years looking around, searching for someone.
Finding nobody like me; in fact, finding very few people who actually like me at all, let alone someone who would want hot romance with me!
Many, most actually; most women donít find me an acquired taste.
I was left with a view that Ė destined to be alone without finding anyone who understood me or wanted to be with me, I had to do a single.
Sure, I had some career success Ė as a lawyer, but as lawyers go, lowest form of that species Ė the civil court litigator.Collections, foreclosures, car crashes Ė exploiting the world of soft tissue injuries and mitigated compromise, more often bullied by insurance adjusters than won in a courtroom.
I felt impotent in both a professional and spiritual sense, without a sense of my value, my worth as a person and unable to find my center of gravity no matter how deeply I had slunk down in my chair.
There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around complaining about having a useless life, that had become a personal and professional wasteland that held a purposeless impossible future.
Then I met Jeanette.
Like me, she was twice married, twice divorced. Her daughter was from her first union. I had no children.
By the time we met, Lynn Ė Jeanetteís daughter Ė she was grown so it was too late to adopt her. Efforts to blend families were challenging. She was an only child, like me, with some serious issues to work out.She would have been sweet to know and raise as my-daughter or step-daughter, but it seemed we were destined to be just cordial friends.
It would have been great if sheíd ever called me dad.
Not to criticize her, but despite my efforts and her motherís best orchestrations, we never got to feeling close. I wasnít looking to be a substitute dad. She had one, though I donít think they ever spent much time together. I just wanted to be a good step-dad.
Iíd had two, mostly forgettable and childless marriages. I also had a few hot but unsatisfying bad-fit romances.
Like I said, then I met Jeanette.
She worked for the MS Society in Portland as a program director.
I met her at the rehab center there.She was on her way out then, retiring, moving back to this old house to care for her dying mother.
I came along for the ride.The ride of my life, as it would turn out, in so many strange and wonderful, and tragic ways.
For a while it was Camelot - it could not have been better if Iíd made it up.She made it all worthwhile. Caring for and about me, it was like reliving an unrequited lost young love, the kind I wished Iíd had as a younger man.
Socrates said Ďthe unexamined life is not worth livingí.
Sometimes, however, the examined one isnít so hot either.
Iím no expert on ways of the world or depths of psychoanalysis Ė hell, Iím barely qualified to be an expert on the parts of me that I know.
We all have our own shit.
We donít pay it much heed when things are good, and we wallow in a self-pity bucket of it when things are crap.Mostly, my life has been good - some earlier portions being fantastic - but mostly, these days, mine sucks.
After the accident, examining things sometimes seemed the easiest part of it all . . . because it is tougher than any punishment Iíve ever heard. Some laughs or tasty bits of life seem so powerful when compared to the low and empty feeling Iíve been left.
I live at a seaside location, in this modified old bungalow on South Ocean Avenue, overlooking Gin Ridge here in Gearhart, west across the bridge and south from Astoria along the Oregon coast highway.
Dreary never ending overcast on this January Saturday afternoon, winterís grey brown effect on waving grass layered on slumping dunes, on both sides of the path that wends its way for a quarter mile down to the beach. Just over there, I can see it from here.
I often spend time sitting outside, in the enclosed veranda for hours just watching wind move the sky around, as if clouds were pieces on a sky-wide chess board, and bringing water to the shore in never ending beauty to watch.
It can get really cold in there, but it is sheltered from wind.An old blanket covering me in my chair does wonders, as does an occasional shot of brandy. Sometimes I see fishing boats or a coast guard cutter, and occasionally a container ship bound for Portland. I keep my Bushnell binoculars strung around my neck Ė heavy, but handy for that purpose at a momentís notice.
I was out there most of this morning.
Freda summoned me for lunch.
I wheeled around the corner of the kitchen to a pungent but pleasant aroma of her sherry-laden butternut squash soup heavily spiced with cinnamon, cayenne, nutmeg and clove, and served with spongy slices of fresh Ciabatta bread sheíd picked up at the farmerís market in Astoria this morning.Awesome, such simple food gives such great pleasure.
Now I was set.
Well lunched, and ready for my nap.
But first, a trip to the john.
Of the few physical pleasures I have anymore, the one I enjoy most of all Ė is reading a newspaper while sitting in the absolute solitude and privacy of my own bathroom, taking a dump.
The closest I get anymore to sexual joy-like pleasure is difficult to describe, and should not be underestimated or undervalued.Perhaps this pleasure is reserved for the over-the-hill gang, men slightly past their prime, entering middle-age. I doubt women could understand it but I am certain every man can relate.
Maybe Iím blessed with its pleasure more than some. If Iím to live very long at all into my sixth or seventh or eighth decade, I simply MUST have this near-orgasmic pleasure stay with me.
Otherwise, life will be too much to bear.
Iím no ordinary man.
Not typical either.
I donít have the opportunity to go ahead of time. Or to go on the go Ė I go when my sedentary bodyís plumbing is backed up like a debris laden plugged sewer pipe, when massive doses of Sennecot tablets and Fredaís blueberry bran breakfast muffins have finally worked their magic Ė then I get to go.
Only then does Freda unceremoniously transfer me onto my jacked up custom toilet.A lot of culinary skill plus gymnast quality (or is it Greco-Roman wrestling?) work by Freda gets me on the john. For me a pleasure worth enjoying from start to the very end.
I usually - like today Ė scan my unread portions of last Sundayís edition of the New York Times. It is a thick paper. It usually lasts me six or seven movements Ė from a single issue.Sometimes longer.
They call it Ďall the news thatís fit to printí.Iíve thought of writing them, with my new slogan, Ďall the news it takes to shití.They probably wouldnít get it, but Freda and I share a good laugh each time I mention it.It has been a running joke for us.
Today was no exception Ė reading about the latest on Broadway, and remembering trips there. It was my favorite place to holiday before I discovered Mauiís joy and all the pleasures of paradise. After that, I never wanted to holiday anywhere else.I still love New York Ė museums, theatre, the buzz on the streets, honking taxis and street corner vendors with steamy hot pretzels streaked with grainy mustard, roast chestnuts and hot dogs on push carts.
I tossed business sections directly into the trash. Being out of the flow of things, it gives me no joy to read about so many shakers shaking or daring young movers moving.
I was only interested in one kind of moving. My bowels. Now.
I read some op-ed pieces and the weekend magazine.
I was putzing away on the crossword puzzle, but I was mostly stuck. I have been since Wednesday with no hope of getting more clues without cheating, by looking them up.
I was reading an advertisement the other day, in the career section. It seemed like a decent entry level job in a big corporation in Seattle. I read the qualifications. After thirty-five years of working life, loads of experience in many fields that would over-qualify me for that job, I realized I didnít have the basic elements. It had nothing to do with the job they wanted performed.They wanted three years experience doing the work (I have more than twenty).Maybe I should apply, but they wonít likely hire a broken down wreck with a degenerative disease in a motorized wheelchair.
Oh well, some kid just out of law school with young tousled hair, no visible tattoos and a skinny frame, and with the right pieces of paper framed and hanging on his wall, will get it. He (or she) probably needs that job more than I do.
He wonít be as happy as I might have been or do as good a job, but thatís what companies want Ė young grist for the mill that churns through them like so much raw material without concern for what is left when they have their pound ortwo of flesh.
But, I digress . . .
Iím sitting here in this porcelain jungle, vanity and sink to my left, empty tub to my right, my dog has been lounging so often on the white bathmat Ė now turned gray-brown from too many dog-rests between washings. Iíll ask Freda to toss it in the hamper.
Iíve been sitting here quite a while.
You know what I mean Ė like when you wait ten minutes in a doctorís office it seems like thirty, and when you wait an hour it seems eternity.
I donít have a watch on. Since the MS diagnosis I try not to wear anything tight that binds or restricts me. I donít know if it makes much difference, but I think it does.
Thatís important I think Ė that I think it is making a difference.The other thing, not wearing a watch has me less stressed about time and schedule than I can ever remember.
Afternoon sun has dimmed. Hall and kitchen lights were off when she left. Iím well lit here in the john, but Iím done reading and donít especially need it. What I need, now, is to get off this throne and to get out of this smelly little room Iíve so effortlessly filled with odor.
Freda, my weekend care-giver said sheíd just be a minute Ė going to the convenience store at the end of the block to buy some ingredient she needs for cooking dinner and a newspaper.
She is a breath of fresh air for me on weekends. Russet haired, sheís a bawdy type Ė not wild, just with a ribald sense of humor. I like that so much better than the endless stream of day workers and sleep-night staff my service provider agency sends over each week.I know it is hard for them to get staff, given the low rates they can afford to pay.
I like that term, sleep-night staff. They send student types, who get paid half-wages to sleep here and to be available if I need them in the night.
Iíd like to be paid to sleep!
On the weekends things are different. Freda comes on Friday afternoon and stays until my Monday morning person arrives.
She said sheíd be quick.I think she was going on an unnecessary errand Ė maybe to get away from me, or my odor, for a while and to grab a smoke break too.
She said she would be quick Ė sheíd be back before I needed a wipe.
Nothing wrong with that.
I love peace and quiet when I crap.
That was three hours ago.
It must have been three hours.She brought me in here just after lunch.That would have been 12:30ish.Iíve been here a long time.
It must be well after 3:00 by now.
My ass is numb.
Much more than usual now. Usually I have the comfort of my Hudson Pressure Eez 3 gel seat cushion on my Quickie S646 power wheelchair to make my way about the house, but it wonít make the turn in and out of the bathroom. Renovating an old house to make it barrier-free is not an exact science.
Irony, I suppose, that chair cushion dealer is called Shamrock Medical.As if there was something lucky going on for me now.
My Coke bottle, is sitting there. I can see it from here, just outside the bathroom door, hanging on the edge of my wheelchair where Freda parked it after she transferred me onto this throne.
My craving for that Coke - right now Ė is so illogical, but I want it so very badly.I want it more than sex.Well, more than sex with Freda.
I can wait a while longer I suppose, but I am getting very thirsty.
Címon now Vince - sheíll be back.Soon.
It wasnít uncommon for her to go out like that. Weíve been getting on just fine. Sheís been my care giver/jailer and handler on weekends for eighteen months now.She took over when Gaby hurt her back transferring my limpness around. Gaby had been with me since a few weeks after the accident when I came home from hospital to live alone in this place that used to fill my life with joy.
Fucking drunk driver. Sure. It was 2AM, wee hours of a Sunday morning when only drunks are on the road, but I was careful Ė so careful to make sure nothing happened.My sweet bride Jeanette was at my side and grandson Bryce was safely stowed in the back seat in a securely anchored car seat. He should have been safe.
We had been over at Jack and Lynnís house till far too late. But it was so much fun celebrating with them. It was their fifth wedding anniversary Ė seeing Lynnís face light up like fireworks when Jack announced his gift to her, a trip for a week at a great resort on Kauai, the most relaxed of the Hawaiian islands, and that they would be leaving first thing the next morning was a priceless moment.As expected, Lynnís first comments were that she couldnít go because Ďwho would look after Bryce?í.
We had plotted with Jack for weeks. It was all arranged. We would take Bryce home with us that night.We should have left about 10:30, but Jeanette and Lynn were having so much fun packing.I remember saying, ďjust take your purse and a pair of shorts to change into when you get there Ė then get Jack to take you shopping. You wonít need much, sandals and some tee-shirts.ĒI wish Iíd been more emphatic.
My custom Toyota van handled beautifully, but it was no match for being hit; we were t-boned by a 3/4-ton jacked-up muscle truck.
Itís a good thing the driver died at the scene because I would have cheerfully crawled across the gravel and asphalt in the rain that night to wring his drunken neck.
It was over so fast. I held firm. Tie downs for my chair, together with my seatbelt, kept me in place through two complete roll-overs. Jeanette was crushed into a tree on the second roll.I know, because thatís when her shrieking stopped.Poor little Bryce didnít know what hit him. He was asleep in his car seat, strapped in securely but the punishment of the sudden collision and the roll-over shook his tiny body beyond repair. He lived three days in hospital before, blessedly, agonizing parents gave the OK to remove life-support.
They never went to Kauai.Jack began drinking heavily. His marriage to Lynn didnít last to the sixth anniversary.
He left her.She seemed relieved when he did. Their grief was unique to each of them - they handled it so differently.Jack lost his only son. Lynn, poor thing, lost her son, her mother and her husband - and soon also lost her ability to cope with day to day life very well.
Her teaching elementary school lost its joy immediately. Facing little kids each day was too much.Her return, to do a Masters Degree in Teaching at SeattleUniversity, proved fruitless too.She was just too emotionally drained to function.
That night, the night of the accident, a rookie paramedic told me I was the lucky one.If I could have choked him AND the drunk driver, I might have found some comfort.
Multiple Sclerosis teaches us - wevictims - to cope with loss of function; like learning to be old and feeble, just thirty years earlier than our peers.Eroding capability teaches us to accept that an ability we had yesterday could be gone without warning today, or tomorrow. There is no fighting it. Only coping with it. As I had to cope with losing Jeanette, and Bryce. And Lynn.
My life had gone from bad to worse; coping with my loss of ability to function as a paraplegic from the debilitating vagaries of MS was nothing. It was insufferable, but after the accident robbed me of so much more Ė I now had just three remaining joys in my life.
These three simple pleasures of a broken man keep me going: writing poetry (mostly the depressing kind), seeing Lynn when she is smiling Ė which is not often Ė and taking a shit.
You bet I am.
I think about it so often it has become part of my daily routine.
Where the fuck is Freda?
Now itís getting dark outside.It must be getting close to five.
It appears my only way to get anything to drink will be if I reach over to the sink tap, just out of reach.
If I pull myself around enough to reach the tap, I can get it started, but what will I catch the water with?There is nothing in reach. I see Fredaís tooth-brush stowed in a tumbler on the far side of the vanity counter,but by the time I reach that far Iíll likely have fallen and be splayed all over the floor.I would rather, if Iím going to crawl like a dying man in the desert, try to make it to the Coke in the wheelchair pouch.
The last time I spilled onto a floor and had to crawl without help I spent two weeks at the Rehabilitation Clinic at the Legacy Good Samaritan hospital in Portland learning the excruciating lesson of dislocating a hip.
I donít want to do that again.Ah, just a minute Ė genius and innovation are not lost.
I looked down. No floaters.
I flushed again just for good measure.Then I reached down, cupped my hand and brought sweet wetness to my lips. Water never tasted so sweet.
What took me so long to figure that out?
Where the fucking Christ is Freda?
My thirst quenched, I assessed my situation. I couldnít call the dog because Freda had taken her along to the store.She wouldnít have been much help in any case. Sheís a yappy little shit, a Shih Tzu that Jeanette named Anais (after my favorite writer) in efforts to appease my horror at getting that little lap mutt.
I said, ďget a REAL dog or donít get one at allĒ.
Anais, all kidding aside, isnít a bad little critter for her type, but sheís not a real manís dog, if you know what I mean.Having a pet around the house is a good idea and even a lap mutt can be entertaining.
Iím getting sleepy now. I missed my nap.
And Iím getting hungry.
I havenít done anything all afternoon except shift my ass back and forth on this toilet seat.
This is the only time Iíve ever thought to thank Freda for getting me a padded seat.
I remember, when she had it installed, I didnít like it. I thought it was a prissy-ass thing no real man should admit to sitting on. Or shitting through.
Also, it was just about an inch higher than standard, so transferring over from the wheelchair required a slight lift. I donít know if it was my body withering down to 135 pounds or Fredaís agility Ė but we managed to get me across, and up.
I am, at this moment, so grateful for this cushy life!
This is so unlike her.And she hasnít phoned.
Not that I could get to the phone anyway, but she would normally phone if sheís delayed.Maybe she is delayed, but not phoning because she knows where Iím sitting Ė and knows I canít get to the phone.
There goes the door bell.
Itís a cranky old-fashioned ringer; sounds like a British cop-car siren; bringggg, bringgg.
Again, it rang. Again.Damn, there canít be any lights on at all, except for this one in the bathroom. It looks like nobody is home.
Fuck. Thatís lame.I had no idea how feeble Iíve become.
Again, bringggg, bringgg.Bringggg, bringgg.
HELP!HELP!I called out again, as loud as I could manage. No one answered.
I couldnít be heard.
I have no idea how late it is now.
Iíll keep reading a while, hoping Freda will rattle her key in the door and come in with some wild whacky story involving a hot roll in the hay with some guy in a Winnebago she met while he was gassing up at the convenience store Ö. my imagination going in many directions now Ė a much more enjoyable notion for me than images of her splattered in a crosswalk or strapped to a gurney in a squealing ambulance.
It must be midnight.
I donít know. It seems like such a long time. Even if I fell or slipped onto the floor at this point, my legs Ė which arenít much use at the best of times Ė are numb from lack of circulation and from sitting on this seat for what seems, by now, like forever.
Looking around, and I guess I am admitting I have lost faith that Freda will return Ė damn, Iíll miss her company and good cooking.
Shit, Vince, thatís stupid.
There WILL be an explanation, so letís not bury her just yet!
I have to do something.
There is no engineering or athletic skill in this bent broken wimpy litigatorís body, but let me see.The towel bar, I can reach that. It looks to be about 18Ē long.If I hold that at one end, can I reach the light switch?
It looks close.
Reaching over to the towel bar, I can reach the towels. I am pulling them off. One at a time, onto my lap, then up on the lip of the sink.I donít know if Iíll need them or want them for any reason, but it seems stupid to do this too quickly.Iíve wasted so many hours not thinking of a solution Ė just sitting here waiting to be rescued. There is no point rushing this.
I can reach the bar. It will likely come away. The screws go directly into the old plaster.The question is, when I pull it Ė and if it pulls away as easily as I predict Ė can I hang on to it without it falling to the floor and out of reach?
OK, grip it Vince . . . now pull, firm, steady now . . . got it. Screws and fittings tinkled to the tile floor.
Now, hang on to the dammed rod Vince.
It was old, oak dowel I think Ė or maybe maple. Hard wood, probably as old as this house.
Hitting this light switch should be easy.
Jeanette had the house re-wired, using some of her inheritance after her mother passed.
The switches throughout the house are oversized wide push in at the top, or push in at the bottom, types installed exactly 42Ē off the floor so I could reach them all from my chair.
Thank you sweet-thang Jeanette!
I donít know Morse code.I canít do signals.
Iíll just have to push the switch back and forth in hope someone notices the flashing light and comes to investigate.
Steady now, Iím reaching over, pushing the rod on the switch. Got it, great Ė push.
Itís dark now.
Canít see the goddamm switch!
Hit the damn wall.
Again. The wall again.
Again, caught the edge of it but no joy. Again. Got it.
Let there be light!
OK, if I hold the rod against the switch fitting Ė lean forward a bit; thatís it, now Iíll just poke back and forth, top Ė then bottom, top-bottom, top-bottom.
On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off.
Somebodyís at the door again. Bringggg, bringgg, bringggg, bringgg.
On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off Ė címon Vince, you can do it.
On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off.
Whatís that?I can hear somebody at the back door now.
On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off.
ďThe key is under the matí, but my voice is so feeble I canít make spit let alone an audible sound.
On, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off Ė dammit Vince, donít quit.
I heard the crash of glass from the side-window next to the back door.
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