Hitting the Wall
This is an extract from a current project:
Shaving off the stubble around his goatee, Albert daydreams of languid beaches in Yevpatoriya, lying beside a scantily-clad Cloe. Probably bombed to hell by now. He aggressively clips off the longer bits of his hair. In the bachelor-suite “main room”, he looks at the few sticks of scavenged furniture that he makes do with. This can go up in smoke and nobody’d miss it. I can take a few clothes and the USBs of my files, and… Shit is it seven-thirty already? Finish later.
He slips on his shoes and heads out the door to meet Andrew. On the drive to Port Coquitlam he wonders what his former best friend wants; what he was up to; what’s “serious”. Can’t tell him what I’m doing. Andrew might still be active. Shit! What if there’s a contract out on me, and he’s… No. Not Andrew.
Albert is uncharacteristically a few minutes late. As he parks on the street near the coffee shop he and his former long-time friend had used as their favourite hangout, he sees someone in a wheelchair making his unpowered, strenuous way up the slightly inclined walkway to the front door. Albert hurries a bit to be there to open the door for the fellow.
With the door half opened he looks down at the person in the wheelchair. Dumbfounded at seeing the unmistakable eyes of his old friend, he stands holding the door half-open.
Andrew struggles to bend his neck enough to look up at Albert. “Thanks, but I might need it open more than that, if you don’t mind.”
Albert stares at the contorted grin on the face that he used to see just about every day for years, even before their time in the GRU’s Unit 74455. Snapping out of his astonishment, he pulls the door fully open. “Andrew! What the fuck…?”
“Good to see you, too, dickhead. Let me in, will you?” Albert steps back as Andrew has to push hard to wheel over the threshold, then he heads inside for a particular table. Albert has trouble forcing his legs to follow. A young couple are already sitting at the table. It has a wheelchair symbol on it. Andrew nods at the symbol as he parks aggressively at the open side of the table. The couple look at each other, shrug their shoulders, and make a point of slowly collecting their phones and cups to look for another table.
Albert shrugs apologetically as the couple leave and he takes one of the seats. He is about to start a conversation, “Andrew, I…”
“Get me an iced tea, will you? With a straw.” Andrew keeps his eyes down.
Albert notices his gaunt fidgeting hands are tightly bent in. MS?
“Oh. Sure.” Albert gets up. “Be right back.” He avoids a strong urge to put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder as he passes the wheelchair. He sees that the chair is heavily scratched and worn.
After a few minutes, Albert comes back to the table with two drinks. He puts the iced tea down in front of Andrew, turning the straw toward him. “Is that close enough, Andrew? Oh…” He pulls a few serviettes from a pocket, “…here. In case you, like, need them…”
As Albert sits down with his coffee, Andrew’s jerked movements settle down and he is able to put an arm on the table. “Can still talk, thank god. This fucking MS is going there next.” He creeps his arm in stages, closer to the cup. A finger and thumb finally capture it. Albert is about to jump forward to help, but he doesn’t. Andrew slides the cup near the edge toward himself. He uses his other arm to awkwardly roll closer to have his mouth near the straw. Albert stares in slow-motion fascination as short, barely controlled movements finally combine to have Andrew’s mouth capture the straw. He takes a satisfied slurp. A few drips escape onto his lap.
Albert slides the serviettes closer to Andrew’s hand. “Do you want me to…”
Quietly, “Fuck off, Al.”
Sitting in stunned silence at what his friend has become, Albert has trouble saying anything further. He sips his coffee, waiting for Andrew to say something.
After a few more difficult sips, Andrew works hard to focus on Albert. “Still want me to cover your back?”
“The last thing you told me was to cover your back. That game in the so-called industrial league. No contact, they said. Thought I could stick it out. Just to be… well… with a friend. Who really knows me.” Tremolo captures the voice.
Albert leans forward, “Jesuschrist, Andrew. What happened? I mean, this MS. You had it then?”
“Yeah. Got the doctor’s visit a couple days before… Floored me. Thought it had to be some secret plot to get me to spill… everything. Still don’t want to believe it. But here I am.”
“Does your mother… Well of course you told her…”
Andrew shakes his head. “Didn’t want to tell her. Right away. Burden her… But it gets worse sometimes. This is as bad as it’s been. Usually I can walk alright. Mom’s been a rock. She does everything for me. Reverted to speaking Russian…” He snaps his head around automatically to see if someone is listening. The tremolo gets more pronounced. “I can’t… can’t do this to her any longer, Al. She getting old, herself. Probably put years on her, being my… It’s getting worse. When I can’t go to the can by myself and I can’t eat anymore… what’s the use?” Andrew ends quietly.
It tugs on Albert’s heart. Tightens his chest. He can’t speak.
“Al, I want to end it. How can I end it? Can you… can you help me? Al?”
Albert is devastated. What’s he want me to do? Kill him? Push him off a cliff? “Andrew… I don’t know what to say. I really hate seeing you like… like this. But I don’t know what to do.”
Andrew hisses, “There’s only one fucken thing you can do for me goddamnit!”
Andrew slurps angrily a few more times, each one with extra drips falling down to his lap. Albert reaches over to put a serviette on his lap. He notices how much weight his old friend has lost. “Andrew, I want to help you. I’d do anything I can to help you. But… Maybe I can contact Vladi..” He shakes his head.
“Vladi for fucksake? Is that what you want? Shoot me like a fucken dog?” Andrew fidgets hard for a minute, shakes his head, then decides to leave. “Dickhead. Just fuck off. You can’t do anything for me, now. Have a good fucken life.” Andrew pushes back from the table.
Alarmed, Albert gets up to reach for Andrew’s chair as it turns, but Andrew heads aggressively for the door. A person entering holds the door open for Andrew as the wheelchair bounces past. Albert watches, helplessly, watching with a tear forming, seeing his old friend roll away. What the hell’s he want me to do!?
From a nearby table, a young woman who had been pretending to read on her phone since Albert first sat down, looks up to Albert’s face. “He’s been a sonofabitch. Comes in here almost every day and mopes at that table. Same table all the time. Gets people to buy him a drink. Bought him a couple, myself, at first. Let him go. Just let the sonofabitch go.” She taps opens her phone to actually do some reading.
In a daze, Albert takes the half-full cups from his table to the dishes tray. He walks outside, looking for Andrew but without enthusiasm. His heart feels empty. Frozen, and yet beating hollowly. But what could I do? He wants me to kill him?
Albert can’t sleep that night. He relives what he should have done with Andrew. Then Cloe’s face floats in, shaking silently, back and forth. Over the very early morning he stares at the phone’s time in twenty minute intervals, waiting for the hours to pass. Too early, he rises to get ready for his trip to Seattle. Echoing in his mind is the phrase, But what can I do for him?
An amazing story, George.
Known a couple of people with M.S. One of the two got very snarky as she became progressively worse. Sister-in-Law. Did a lot of those personal things for her on visits to our home or the in-laws. Changing her when nobody else was able or willing. Emptying her colostomy bag. She cursed me at every move while I remained ever jovial with her. I think that, in her imprisoned state, she resented my freedom.
Your story brings back a lot of memories. Very real.