My Berkeley Sky by Willy

The Berkeley sky looks just like a blister, watery and sad.  I like it.  It’s my sky.  My Berkeley.  My home.  I know every tone of this sky.  I can sit and reflect on it for hours.  When it shines, I shine.  When it is sad, I am sad.  Because the sky today is a blister, I am a blister.  This is appropriate.  Today I have a hangover and can barely keep my arms from trembling.  I know blisters and hangovers are two separate things altogether, but I see their likeness, their fluid kinship.  By association they are one and the same.  I sit in the Café Roma on College Avenue and give the stink eye to the world.  My stink eye is the surface of the blister, the ocular manifestation of a night of poor choices.  My body, my arms, my useless legs, are the flesh under the blister.  I am now wholly defined.  The Berkeley sky and I are complete.  I am the angry guy in the wheelchair by the door, the guy you will not stare at for fear of bringing attention to his crippleness.  I get it.  This goddamned chair sets me apart.  Go ahead and stare.  I will stare right back.  When he is hungover, blister man is not to be fucked with.

A few of my friends come by, ignore my blister state, say, “Hi, Ron, how you doing?” Because I don’t want to be a total jerk, I act happy for a second, give a big wave, say something appropriately upbeat.  When they are gone, I go back to my angry blister state.

Cynthia comes by at 10:00 and shares her news.  I have now gone from anger to peevishness.  I peevishly listen as Cynthia talks about pilates and NGO’s for a while, then mentions that she’s getting divorced, is living now with a broker from the city.  I act like this doesn’t bother me, say, “Yo, girl, that’s good news.  Glad you got rid of that last fool.”  Cynthia pats my hand, says, “Ron, you always could tell what was best for me.”  I smile and say, “Just happy you’re happy.”  And then I sit there and fume as Cynthia tells me how happy she is.  Even though I am no longer with Cynthia, I wish I was.  She was with me for almost six months, nearly a record.  I did not appreciate her.  When she told me she was leaving, it was a big deal for her, lots of tears, lots of explaining the damage the men before me had done, how I had brought out the real Cynthia.  I was glad she was leaving.  I’m good at bringing the real person out.  I am not good with staying with them.

Cynthia takes off when she gets a call from her ex.  I go back to watching the sky, see a blue patch opening up over Oakland.  My mood changes.  I like that patch of blue.  I am now a sunny person with a hangover.  I order a second cinnamon twist and chill by the door.  I know I shouldn’t have the twist, will have to put in extra miles on my chair to work it off, but I stick with my decision.  I consume the twist in minutes, just like the bottle of Malbec I drank the night before.  Great.  The twists means at least a four mile roll up and down the avenue.  Not a good idea with the old pair of chair gloves I have.  They’re barely hanging together.  So I’ll get shredded up on the way home.  The sky clouds up again, which makes me angry again.  Goddamned world.  Goddamned bad luck.  Goddamned me.  Another shitty morning in October.  And me in this fucking chair gaining weight.

I read my news blog on my laptop and worry about getting lonely.  This wasn’t always the case.  I wasn’t always this pathetic.  The first ten years after my accident I got lots of action.  There was a certain type of young woman who would see me in the chair and they couldn’t help themselves.  They had to care for me, cuddle me, treat me like a little toy.  It was the perfect guy in the chair relationship model.  After a few months they went off and found regular men that didn’t need chairs to move around in.  I was okay with it.  I mean it.  I did really well.  I was the dirty perv in the wheelchair.  No one really judged me for it.  Because you can be a player in a chair and people will congratulate you for it.  They feel you deserve it after all the hell you’ve been through.  So you can be kind of a jerk and get a free pass.  Every few months I got a new girlfriend, a whole new perspective.  It was a great routine.  I loved it.  Before I was in the chair I dated a lot of girls who thought I was full of myself.  But the chair put a stop to that.  All was good until my looks started to fade, and I had to do extra time in the gym.  I got wrinkled.  My hair turned gray.  I started going through dry spells, sometimes a week, sometimes a few months.  When the women finally came around, they had problems worse then mine, and I was the permanent therapist guy in the wheelchair.  I would like to say it’s only been a few weeks in my particular dry spell, but it’s been more like two years.  I worry enough to have another twist.  I am now a damned loser food sublimator.  I eat to forget that Cynthia has reminded me of Alice.  And Alice of Sarah.  And Sarah of Mercedes.  Mercedes of Laney, et cetera, et alia, ad nauseum.  My line of saved ones.  I look at the sky.  It’s turning foggy underneath the clouds.  No hope for me today.  Not now.  I go back to giving the stink eye to the world.

When I see them standing in line, a blonde and a brunette, I turn, stare.  Two stunning women around their mid-forties, perfectly made up in alternative East Bay wear, dark clothes, leather boots, alternative poet types, the not quite bad girl look.  Used to be I wouldn’t look twice at a woman past thirty, but now I stare all the damned time.  At my age my window of criticism is far wider open.  I throw the brunette my cool-cripple-from-the-chair grin.  She flashes a smile, turns away, says something to the blonde.  The blonde checks me out.  I raise my espresso cup.  She nods.  This is good.  I have not been acknowledged like this in at least six months.  I keep staring.  They look away, move along in the line.  They have already forgotten about me when they reach the pastry counter.  I go back to my blog.  At least I’ve given it a try.  I’m not out of the game yet.  Not a total loss.

A few minutes later I notice a commotion at my side.  It’s them.  They are carrying plates and coffee cups, trying to navigate the midmorning rush, bumping into people.

“Hey, are these seats taken?” asks the brunette.  She is looking at me again.  I see her eyes are bright, the make-up around them expertly applied.  Perfect.  Sophisticated with a hint of exotic.

“I’ve been holding them for you,” I reply coolly.

“Ah, I thought all gentlemen had disappeared in this modern world,” notes the blonde.  “Look at this.  Now I find a few are still around.”

“I have my moments,” I say.  “Though just be warned if you sit here you might have to talk to me.”

“Oh really?  You’re one of those types?” asks the brunette.

“Not normally.  But after my morning jog I’m usually quite intense,” I say.  “You know, the dude really into getting into the gym, sculpting his body, now he can’t stop talking about himself.”

They hesitate for a second, consider not sitting down.  I can see their minds working.  What’s with the self-deprecating joke?  Am I the cool guy in the wheelchair or the angry loner?  I shoot them my big grin.  It’s my winner grin.  I’ve crafted this grin for twenty years.  It’s the good guy grin, the guy in the wheelchair who can laugh at himself grin, the funny guy at the party who can make everyone feel comfortable.

“He is one of those types,” says the blonde.

“You bad, bad man,” says the brunette.

“Hey, a second ago I was a gentleman.”

“You bad, bad gentleman,” amends the blonde.

“Come, pretty ladies, have a seat,” I say.

They sit down.  We shoot the breeze for the next half hour.  I learn the brunette is Shob-nom, the blonde is Payton.  I am enchanted.  The way they speak sounds like they attended some art institute or college in the East somewhere.  I have always been a sucker for east-coasty intellectual women.  They have a way of deleting everything in the world around them except their accessories.  The sky starts to clear over College Avenue.  I feel my old dog ways coming back.  I throw out another smile.  This is my zone.  I can charm them with my infinite knowledge of all things screwed up with Berkeley, tell a few more jokes.  I won’t tell any cripple jokes, though.  Not for the moment.  I have a whole repertoire of really good cripple material.  I get can anyone laughing when I need to.  But I keep my cripple jokes for social occasions when I can show off what a cool guy I am, how I am good with all the pain that luck has found for me.

Before you get all politically correct on me, don’t get worked up over my use of the C word.  I get to use the C word because I am a cripple.  It’s like the N word.  Certain people have rights to it.  They have suffered for it.  It is their right. As a guy who’s spent his last twenty years in a chair, I’ve earned my cripple tag a thousand times over.  In fact, I like it a lot more than handicapped.  I hate that word.  It’s a disability euphemism, and I hate disability euphemisms.  I hate how I have to fill it in on forms.  On my taxes.  On my applications for a driver’s license (yes, we cripples can drive too).  On my health insurance forms.  Hey, I know I’m in a chair.  At least I can see it.  I am sure as hell not hiding behind it.  And where is the “human” box on the form?  Can’t we all be just human and stop having to worry about categories we never really fit into?

“What’s with the laptop?” asks Shob-nom.  “You keep glancing at it.”

“Whoops, sorry,” I say, fold the top down.  “A bad habit.  Sometimes I bring my work down here.  Can’t stand being trapped at home.”

“You have a job?” asks Payton.

“Well, not every guy in a chair is on disability,” I point out.  “Contrary to popular myth, we are not all useless.”

“Oh dear, you’ve offended him,” notes Shob-nom.

“Not at all,” I say.  “I’m not your regular guy.  I don’t take offense easily.”

“That’s for sure,” says Payton.  “What do you do?”

I am about to lie and tell her that I do some kind of meaningful job, you know, like some kind of an outreach for marginalized people, or that I coordinate a cooperative for general assistance adults in West Berkeley.  You know the game, the guy who can’t get a “real” job sort of thing, the type that needs to soak the government.  I hold back.  Enough kidding.  I have a great job.  I make a good income.  “I write code,” I explain.  “Right now for a startup.  Used to have my own company, sold it a few years back.  Now I freelance.  I may be in a chair but I work harder than most guys my age.”

“Hence the really nice chair,” says Payton.

“Ah, you noticed,” I say.

“That’s one sharp piece of metal,” notes Shob-nam.

“This is my titanium ride,” I say proudly, giving my chair a tap.  “Straight dope.  No motor.  Super light weight.  I can roll fast in this baby.  I also have a medical at home.  Full blown electrical with an archery rack.  Lady Gaga step back.  Bitch, my chair is faster than your chair.”

“Dude, he’s so cool,” says Shob-nom, then touches my shoulder lightly.

“You’re not kidding, sister,” says Payton.  “Why haven’t we met him before?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we’re hanging out with the wrong people.”

“You are.  It’s evident.  I hate to tell you this but I am so the right people,” I say.

“And he’s a terrible flirt,” says Shob-nom.

“Cute,” avers Payton.

“Cripple cute,” I amend.

“Oh my God, you are a bad boy,” says Payton.

We talk more.  I learn they live in the hills off Shasta, have houses next to each other.  As I too am a North Berkeley home owner, we settle into the common conversation of all Berkeleyites.  We complain about our city, the screwed up politics, why our roads are so shitty.  I learn that Payton is a financial adviser.  Shob-nom has her own clothing company.  She manufactures out of Viet Nam, has some light production in Mexico.  So we talk the economy, small businesses, venture capital.  Things I’m good at.  We both agree the American business environment is collapsing upon itself, that drastic change is upon us.

Just as I am explaining why the city won’t allow me to modify the ramp to my front door without a full architectural review, Shob-nom checks her portable phone, stands up abruptly, “We have to run,” she says.  “Ron, this has been great, but we need to get to the gym.  Personal trainer time.  It’s been great talking to you.”

“Is it something I said?” I ask.

“Ron, how do you think we keep these young bodies?” says Shob-nom.

“Hey, I have an idea.  Why don’t we ask Ron to our party,” suggests Payton.  “He seems like he’d fit in with our crowd.  I mean, he’s cool.  And we really, really, really need new blood.  Our last get together was a flop.”

“I didn’t think of that,” says Shob-nom, looking me up and down.  “Yes, he’ll fit in nicely.”  She reaches into her purse, removes a card.  “This is my home address, Ron.  We’re having a party tomorrow night.  We’d like it if you’d come.”

“Party?” I say.  “I love parties.”

“I should warn you, Ron, it’s a Save The Western Mountain Lion theme.  To be more succinct, it’s kind of like this new sustainability movement we’re into.  I know, totally Berkeley, right?”

“Are you kidding?  I love mountain lions,” I aver.  Which is true.  I’ve written code for a few environmental scientists who work in Panama.  It’s a program that tracks the movements of the little known dwarf sloth.  They fabricate a collar for the sloths that contains a very small processor and a radio transmitter.  My code consolidates vital statistics, allows the scientists to review their data from a research station on Bocas Del Toro.  I am somewhat proud of it, have even taken a flight to the archipelago to see the sloths.  Wheelchair accessible they are not.

“Good, it’s settled,” says Shob-nom.

“I’m so there,” I reply.

We say good-bye.  Payton and Shob-nom give me a hug.  The feeling of their hair falling over my face is wonderful.  I shiver.  How long have I missed that?  Two years?  I breathe in, suck in their perfume.  Lord, they smell good.

Despite what I told you about my four mile ride up the avenues, how it’s going to shred my hands and all, I was exaggerating.  My gloves are in not such bad condition.  They still have fifty miles left in them.  Plus, I’m stoked.  Here are prospects at last, beautiful prospects.  I feel like I’ve been revitalized.  I roll out of the Roma, pop a wheelie, juke my chair over the curb, and go flying up College Avenue.

“Cripple, you’re getting laid,” I tell myself as I pump down on my wheels, take the slow climb to Bancroft.  I vary my mantra as I ride to Lou’s house.  I sing, “Cripple’s gonna get laid” and “This cripple’s gonna tap those rumps” and things like that.  A few people hear me say this and are shocked.  I don’t care.  I am allowed to be the gritty little perv in the chair.  I ignore traffic signs, pop wheelies, rush lights.  The Berkeley sky is cool blue with shots of yellow on the hills.  The fog has rolled back to University Avenue, is working its way to Richmond.  I am in a rocking good mood.

My oldest friend, Lou, lives in a building off Cedar.  He comes to the door in his dressing gown, says, “Yo, Ron, let’s get high.”

“Holmes, you said the right thing,” I say.

“My, looks like we are in a good mood,” notes Lou as I roll inside.

I tell Lou about Shob-nom and Payton.  We smoke a few hits of Train Wreck.  I roll around Lou’s kitchen, popping wheelies in my chair, saying, “Lou, this is it.  If you saw these women, I mean, you’d go nuts.”

“Nuts, huh?”

“A thousand percent, dude.”

“Yo, you want me to do your wing work?” asks Lou.  “You know there is nothing better than a guy at your side to read the play.”

“Yes and no,” I say slowly.

Lou frowns.  “You’re not saying what I think your are?  I mean, you come and tell me about these girls but you don’t really want to share?”

“Sorry, Lou, I got to do it my way,” I say.

Lou makes a what-the-fuck face.  I know Lou’s an excellent wing guy but I got the vibe I was supposed to ride solo to this party.  I am going to play it safe, have Lou drop me off, act like I’m all alone.  It’s an act I’ve played before.  You know, the guy in the chair without a ride thing.  I know, it’s cliched.  But I have to work my angles.

“You running the stranded guy in the chair play?” asks Lou.

“It is that obvious?”

“It’s stamped all over your face.  You’re grinning like a fool.”

“If nothing works out, I’ll roll home.  They’re way up off Shasta.  I thought I’d do a wild ride home.”

Lou thinks about this, says, “You need a driver to get you up there.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Drop me a bottle of that killer Dry Creek pinot and we are even.”

“I get action, I’ll buy you a whole case.”

“Brother, I so have your back.”

I pop another wheelie, say, “This cripple’s gonna get laid.”

“Don’t count your chickens,” warns Lou.

 

****

 

Lou drops me off a few blocks away so I can come rolling down the avenues like a madman.  Lou’s helped me clean up the chair.  We’ve buffed the rims, shined the leather, and hit the moving parts with biking silicon.  I have on a white t-shit, black jeans, black Ferragamo wingtips, new black bike gloves, a blue Hermes scarf, and a black leather jacket.  The rebel in the chair look.  The Berkeley sky is a red-orange, the fog fighting with the smog on the flats.  Later it will push its way up the hills, engorge Tilden with its soft cool.  An excellent portent.  I turn the corner, bear down on Payton’s big classic Berkeley mansion, a John Hudson Thomas from around 1910, a huge neoclassical landmark on a three acre park.  It has expansive Bay and Golden Gate views.  A real gem.

Payton is in the front drive in a Versace slash cocktail dress.  She is flanked by Shob-nom who is in a vintage Chanel.  Even though I try not to look astounded I feel my eyes widening.  They are more beautiful than I remember.  I tell myself this is not the appropriate time to pop a wheelie.  I need to roll down to them with measured speed.

“Ron,” they say in unison as I come down the drive, “you made it.”

They kiss me on the cheek as I arrive.  I smell their lovely perfume, Gucci and Chanel.  It’s almost so sweet that I think I’m drowning.  I hand them the bottle of Veuve Clicquot Exra Brut champagne I’ve brought as a gift.

“Ah, my favorite.  How did you know?” says Payton.

“It’s my favorite too.”

“Come inside and meet everyone.”

Payton’s house is decorated in understatement.  Nothing flashy.  Subdued taste.  Antiques next to new items.  Oriental carpets.  She has a few frat boys in white jackets serving us.  A catering table has been set out in the back garden.  There’s a bar in the kitchen and one in the main hall.  The bartenders are elderly gentleman with dyed black hair.  Payton introduces me to Bas Washington, a tall black man in a blazer and khaki jeans.  Right off I see Bas is a player like me, is into Payton’s look.  He can’t keep his eyes off her.

“Classic babe,” I tell Bas.  “All style.”

“Man, you are not kidding.  That dress.  It’s killing me,” says Bas.

“Dude, you’re going to have to fight me for her,” I inform Bas.

He gives me a look.  Most guys don’t realize many of us guys in chairs are veteran horndoggers.  It’s always a surprise.  Before they know it, we’ve taken their girlfriends away.  And we don’t feel at all bad about it.

Bas says, “Oh, Jesus, man, I ain’t fighting you for that.  I’ll back off, let you take lead.  You get a piece of her, man, you are in another league altogether.”

We sip a cocktail, talk.  I learn Bas owns a car dealership downtown, has twenty people working for him.

“Man, I got to keep on their asses.  It’s a dog eat dog world.  I got to be the big dog.  You feel me?”

“Shit, you know I do.  I did five years in my own startup.  You got to find the right employee, the one that will do anything for the company.  The days of the forty hour week and weekends off are over.”

“Then you know.”

“I know.”

“I see that.”

The sky now is a furious red as the sun disappears.  It gets me feeling more rebel than usual.  “Say, do you smoke dope?” I ask Bas.  “I mean, if you don’t I’m cool with it.  I just feel like sparking up.  This day.  This perfect sky.  And I feel like a rebel tonight.”

“Shit, do I smoke dope?” says Bas.

We roll out to the back deck and smoke a jay.  I feel cool.  This is a great party.  We’ve got cocktails, reefer, women in great dresses.  It’s going to be a night.

Shob-nom comes by and takes a hit off the reefer, says, “Dude, I’ve been dying for some good pot.  No one brings pot to parties anymore.  It’s like we are supposed to deny that all of America hasn’t been getting high for the last thirty years.  Dope at parties went out with Reagan.”

“Little brother sure likes his weed,” says Bas, pointing at me.  “Where’d you find him?”

“You know me, I’m always on the prowl for new people,” says Shob-nom.

“Man, this little guy’s a keeper,” says Bas.  “Hundred percent.”

I feel my heart swell.  I’m included.  I’m in.  There’s nothing like that feeling.  Especially if you’re a guy in a chair and a black man points it out.

Shob-nom pulls out her i-phone, says, “Let me get a picture of you guys.  You look like you’ve been friends forever.”

“Sure feels like it,” says Bas.

I make goofy faces.  Bas points at me, gives me the you’re-one-cool-cripple look.

“Jesus, stop it, be normal,” says Shob-nom, laughing now.

“Shit, we anything but normal,” says Bas.

We clink glasses.

“What it is,” I say.

“Oh not he didn’t.  He’s talking ghetto now,” says Bas.

“It’s all you, brother,” I come back.  “You a good influence.”

“Don’t think you can talk black just on account you’re in a chair,” says Bas.

“Shit, I haven’t even started.”

Payton approaches.  She has a cocktail in one hand, a young man in another.

“Guys, I want you to meet Xavier Gonzales.  He’s a writer for the Chronicle.  Does great stuff.  You know business page, things of interest.  Xavier, this is Bas and Ron.  Both have run their own businesses.”

“Great to meet you guys,” says Xavier.  He reaches out to shake my hand and Shob-nom takes another picture.  Xavier turns to the i-phone, gives her a smile.  I am instantly jealous of Xavier’s excellent teeth, his dark hair slicked back like a TV star.  Women no doubt find him very attractive.

“Oh my god, look at those teeth,” says Shob-nom.

Xavier smiles even wider.  I pass him the roach.  He takes a hit.

“Don’t take a picture of me smoking,” warns Xavier.  “This can’t go on Facebook.  I mean, no traces.”

Shob-nom holds up her i-phone.  “You see anything you don’t like, just delete it.  These are fun photos.”

“Well, in that case,” says Xavier, pulls his shirt open.  I see he is covered in piercings and tattoos.  Most of his tattoos are religious, a few are icons of Zapata and Villa.  One looks a lot like Cantinflas.  Another is a naked man with a snake around his torso as he kisses another man.  I realize that I have nothing to fear from Xavier.  He is obviously not interested in women.

“Say, did you guys get a raffle ticket?” asks Payton.

“Raffle ticket?” I ask, intrigued.  I love raffle tickets and playing the lottery.  I know, it’s a cliché, the guy in the chair buying tickets, the hopeless one.  But there is always hope in winning something.

“You know, Save the Mountain Lions.  We’re selling tickets at a hundred dollars a pop.  Winner gets a trip to Colorado,” informs Payton.

“It’s for a totally good cause,” adds Shob-nom.

Bas and I both buy a ticket.  Xaxier gets two.

Next I meet Gary, Xavier’s husband.  They are your typical Berkeley hills gay couple:  witty, politically correct, a little snooty, like to drink.  Gary has brought a few friends from the city.  They are a mix of cluttered heterosexuals and preppy style gay men, very serious.  Everyone buys a raffle ticket.  The East Indian couple from Oakland buys ten tickets.  They are very well-dressed, not as sharp as Shob-nom and Payton but close.  Most of the guests went to Cal, which is no surprise.  It’s understandable.  Half of Berkeley went to Berkeley.  Like half our city’s inhabitants, they came during college, found they could never leave.

“This place, it’s just too much damned culture,” complains Payton after she’s established we all went to Cal.  “Too much freaky politics.”

We agree.  We all complain about the university controlling the town, which on some evenings can take over the entire conversation.

More photos are taken, more cocktails are drunk.  I’m having the very best time I’ve had in a year.  It’s a party.  New people.  New faces.  And everyone likes me, comes by, gets a picture taken, talks about saving the mountain lions.  Shob-nom makes sure of this.  She stops by every few minutes to check on me, runs a delicate arm over my shoulders.  And Payton, not to be outdone, makes it by just as often, stops and rests a haunch on the arm of my chair.  She clearly likes me.  Who else would be daring enough to put a rump on my chair?  It takes all my self-control not to grab her and pull her onto my lap.

I hear a muted metallic clang.  I glance around Payton’s sculpted back, see one of the bartenders holding a brass dinner bell.  Shob-nom is at his side.  “Everyone into the main hall,” she announces.

We all head into the main hall.  There is a particularly large step down.  Bas and Xavier lift my chair as Gary holds the back handles for support.  I am wheeled to the front of the crowd so I can see.

“Does everyone have their tickets?” asks Payton.

I am in an expansive mood.  There are at least forty people in the front room, all of them very elegantly dressed.  The room smells of English furniture polish, perfume, cologne, and Hangar One Vodka.  The view out the all glass windows is of the bay, cars, lights on the bridge, the shrouded glow of San Francisco.

“Over the last two weeks we have sold five hundred tickets,” says Payton.  “That’s $50,000 towards Save the Mountain Lion.”

There is a long, appreciative applause.

Bas pulls out his ticket.  “Man, I sure hope it’s me.  I can’t wait to bag me a lion.”

“I’d like a carpet,” adds Xavier.

“Carpet, shit, I want a trophy,” says Bas.

“Whoa, trophy, carpet?” I ask.  “You mean kill the lion?”

“No, we mean save the lion,” corrects Bas.

“I don’t know about you,” says Xavier, “but I want a nice lion carpet for my front room.”

“Our front room,” amends Gary.

“So you are saying this is about killing the lion,” I point out.

“We save the lions,” explains Bas.  “Cull the herd.”

“It’s a pride.  They call it a pride,” I say.  “You mean cull the pride.”

“Well, it’s really about applying standard sustainability theory to their population,” replies Xavier.  “You need to eliminate the ones putting a strain on the infrastructure.”

The next few minutes are blurry.  Like I told you, I am a nature lover.  If you are in a chair like mine, nature can be a flirting hope.  You feel unnatural in a chair.  You dream of running.  You watch birds flying.  You see animals swimming.  You miss nature.  In fact, you yearn for it.  That’s why I contribute my code to my pals in Panama.  So I can feel close to places I can never go.  Let me say that again.  There are places I can never go.  At times like that morning as blister man, it eats me up.  I reach up, rub my eyes.  I have a difficult time focusing on one thing for more than a second.  I see Payton in her exquisite dress bent over the raffle jar.  I see guests checking their tickets.  I see Shob-nom taking photos with a Nikon D4 Digital Camera.  I hear Payton announcing the winning number.  I don’t have to look down at my ticket to know it’s me.  Number 506778.  I have won the right to shoot a Western Mountain Lion on the McCoullough Triple Bar Ranch, a nonprofit 501c3 retreat/hunting lodge whose guests have included five presidents, innumerable senators, several members of Congress, and almost every member of the Bohemian Club.  I also learn that the Save The Mountain Lion at McCoullough Fund has earned over $500,000 this year towards further critical habitat acquisition on the northern border of the ranch.  By expanding habitat and offering hunts, the group hopes to have a sustainable mountain lion population by 2060.  I feel suddenly nauseous.  Bas and Xavier push me towards the microphone.  They are laughing.  I am holding the winning ticket in front of me.  I am rereading the number, wondering if I made a mistake.  No, it’s the right number.  Several cameras are flashing.  Payton makes a speech, mentions she is so happy to have me as a guest.  Shob-nom explains the importance of growing the party to include all varieties of people, that it’s time for their little group to me more inclusive.  The party has gone for too long as monolithic monument of white people.  When the mic is pushed in my direction, I babble some useless line about never winning anything.  People laugh.  I hear a man joking about shooting a high powered rifle from a wheelchair.  Someone comments that we all need a gun or two.  Payton quips that mine should probably be low caliber.

I take my winning envelope, the one with the details of my lion hunting trip and the fun I am going to have and I push my chair to the front door.  I have a difficult time getting the door open because my hands are shaking and I am still confused.  Payton finds me pulling open the massive mahogany doors.

“Hey, are you okay?” asks Payton, her voice full of concern.

“What the hell, Payton?  A lion hunt?  New party members?  You didn’t say this was a Republican party mixer,” I point out.  “I mean, not once.”

“I… I… thought you knew,” says Payton.

“Knew what?”

“I thought you were one of us.  You know, the self-deprecating handicap jokes, the talk about your own business, your startup, your complaints about Berkeley, the roads, the university.  I guess I assumed.”

“I’m good with all that,” I reply.  “That’s my fault.  I get it.  I might look conservative around here.  Shit, anyone in Berkeley not way left of centre looks conservative.  But the inclusive line speech, about making the party friendlier.  I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.  The black man.  The gay Latino couple.  The East Indian couples.  Why didn’t you just say up front you needed a cripple in a chair?  The only thing missing is the dwarf.”

“Marty couldn’t make it.  She cancelled,” says Payton. “And we don’t call them dwarves.  We say little people.”

“Jesus Christ,   I thought, you know, like we had something going there… like possibilities.  Now I see I was getting played.”

Payton wrinkles her nose.  It’s hard for her to hide her disgust.  I know the look.  It’s the I-would-never-sleep-with-a-creep-like-you-in-a-thousand-years look.  In all those years I was getting lots of girls who felt sorry for me, I met a lot more who were repulsed by my useless legs, my helpless body in the chair.

“I’m sorry you got the wrong impression, Ron,” says Payton.

“I know.  I’m just another hormonally challenged male.  I get a boner at whatever skirt I look at.  I guess I should know it by know.  But what I’d really like to know without all the bullshit, is why’d you play me like that?” I ask.  “I mean, neither of us are kids.”

“It’s the party, Ron.  We need people like me.  You seemed like a good fit,” Payton explains.  “And we really, really need people like you.”

“But god forbid one of us shows interest in you.  Thanks for an enlightening time.”

“Please, Ron, I really do think you’re overreacting just a little bit,” states Payton.  “You need to calm down.”

“Really?  Calm down.  I guess I probably could calm down if it weren’t for the gun jokes.  What the fuck?  I was shot by a couple of fifteen year old dipshits with guns.  That’s how I got in this goddamned chair.  So you can see how this cripple doesn’t like gun jokes.  Maybe I don’t even like what you stand for.  So take my small caliber rifle and shove it up your Yankee ass.”

“Oh my God,” says Shob-nom, now standing behind her girlfriend.  “Party foul.”

“I guess I just thought it was a car accident or maybe you fell or something,” replies Payton.  “So don’t put that on me.  It’s your problem.”

“Yeah, I just fell,” I say, pushing my way through the door.

“How are you getting home, Ron?” asks Shob-nom.

“Go back to your party,” I say.  “You don’t have to worry about me.  We cripples can get around just like you non-cripples.  You have your guests waiting.”

They argue with me for a while about getting me a ride home.  I explain about ten times I am not a total gimp.  They give up after one of the bartenders has wheeled me to the curb and I have made a call for Lou to come and get me.

“And the photographs, I don’t give permission for you to use my image,” I say as they depart.

“Ron, everyone was taking photos.  I don’t think I can control that,” Payton replies.  “You’re going to have to suck that one up.”

Shob-nom and Payton go back inside.  I look at the dark sky and stew.  The fog has turned up the hillside, is fighting the warm air from Contra Costa.  The moon is full.  It divides the sky with light and turmoil.  I look down at my hands, see that I am still clutching the envelope with my instructions for my lion hunt.  After a few minutes of scanning the turbid horizon, I know what I am supposed to do.  It’s as if I’m seeing straight after a long spell of confusion.  I wheel my chair up the drive and twist it into a cement curb.  I take a breath, consider, then I let loose.  The chair hurtles down the drive.  I hit the retaining wall, careen to the other side of the drive.  What should have come off as an excellent launch and landing is more of a tumble and a roll.  I make it down the first brick risers, lose it on the last step by the front steps.  I fly onto the tiny circular patch lawn, scrape my chest on a sprinkler head.  My chair goes crashing by to the road.  As I pull myself up, I scrape my chest again.  I give myself a minute to review my condition.  Nothing too bad.  Just the two jagged scrapes.  Some blood.  No head injuries.  I lie on the lawn and contemplate my condition.  After a few seconds, I pull out my phone, call 911.  An operator answers on the third ring.  She tells me she is dispatching the police and the fire department.

I am on my back now, looking up at the Berkeley sky.  I hear the sirens calling, behind them the sound of a person walking her dog, the chain clinking on the ground, the dog wailing with the approaching rescue vehicles.

“Hey, are you okay?” asks a voice.

I push myself up.  She is tall, an alternative type of Berkeley woman, the sort that wears hand knit sweaters and drinks fair trade Nicaraguan coffee.

“Are you okay,” she asks again.

“No, I don’t think so… well… I’m not sure.”

The woman approaches.  I see when she gets closer that she has wonderful green eyes.  Her face is smooth.  She’s about forty, very attractive.  I check her hand.  No rings.

“I really don’t remember the last few minutes,” I say.  “So I called for help.”

She sees the scrape on my T-shirt, gasps.  I look down.  The blood has soaked through my T-shirt.  The injury has formed a perfect swastika.

“Who did this to you?” she asks, horrified.

“They’re having a party.  Something about guns and hunting mountain lions,” I say with a nod to the door. “I didn’t know it was going to end like this.”

“They had a party?  They did this?” she says, her voice going up.

I give her my best I’ve-been-kicked-around-a lot smile, say, “Do you think… um… you can help me back into my chair?  I mean, I didn’t expect this sort of welcome.  I thought they wanted to be my friend.  I didn’t know these kind of people lived up here.”

As she leans over me, I feel the warm touch of her hair on my face, breathe in her soft aroma.  My god, she smells wonderful.

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About the Author

Willy is a West Coast writer whose works have appeared in anthologies and journals around the US, in Great Britain, and Canada.  His spoken word radio pieces have aired on public and college radio around the country.