Michael the orderly, before it had all come down to the most private of acts, remembered his wondering if Marty and Valerie, in their lives beforehand, before the catastrophic crashes, before cement and machines and phone poles adjusted to flames around the piles of their motorcycles, he was a bull in bed, she was the puma come down to drink. Images loomed early on, lively, kicking images on how they must have cut a path to the heart of their appetites, their excitements, from what he heard up and down the entire east coast. Even pinned now to lives in rolling chairs, they evoked a fierce amount of energy, fire and brimstone, taste and distaste. Even then he thought the world of them, wanted to be god on the hill for them, Thor or Odin or a damned good magician with a damned good wand. Hell, he had the black skin; all he needed was the black hat with a few secret compartments.
From friendly sources, but in a roundabout way to be honest about it, what follows is how this whole story started and then came to me in episodes. I have held onto it for years, hoping to hear how it closed down. Nothing as yet has come to alter that wish, and with time and impatience working me to the bone, a bit of tiredness too, and the way time touches us from eld, the way it does from the back row of an old movie theater or from the front seat of an old Ford, I must release it, get out from under, tell it so it can be shared.
I was in tight with a few of the staff; a nurse without a phony bone in her body or a crook in her tongue who needed a big bed once or more a month, a maintenance guy with flannel for a tongue, one of the drivers who thought he told stories buried enough in riddles and verbal camouflage to disguise his protagonists. Each had a share in this business from their own angles. None of them were voyeurs, but I bet the thought came around once in a while.
Outside the long-term care facility the sun was bright and the light was nearly white on all surfaces of the building, and the glow penetrating the interior was warm and entertaining as it carried rose attar, the smell of new cut grass, endless hope. Inside, at edges of the dayroom and in minor corridors, a few shadows hung around, lazy ones, afraid to let go, hanging out in far corners, struggling to hang on.
Michael the black orderly, in his daily run at life, siphoned off some of that light, knew it was his due in this world, along with the multi-sensory perceptions he had inherited. The glowing warmth leaped inside him, carrying messages and sensations. Things, he knew, came to him, from a past history he could barely traverse. In darkness he could trace himself without lines. Hell, he thought, there’s character formation here I can understand.
“Michael,” said Todd Grimson from his wheelchair in the facility’s dayroom, quantum sparkle in his eyes, energy lifting itself at bold knuckles, fists, “What do you do, outside of here, to get so damn muscular and,” he flashed his eyes, “so chocolaty?” One thick, gray eyebrow, parted by the faintest of scars, moved with his question, leveled in interpretation. Huge hands lay curved over the wheels; his arms corded from the constant demand of those wheels. Tilting his head in mock uncertainty, he half smiled his own glee. Realization flushed through him that an electric quality existed about Michael. Was this favored orderly merely magnetic? Magnetized? The way dissimilar entities might find engagement, there was brightness atop the darkness of him.
At that exact moment, Marty Vreeland, a broad-shouldered, heavy blond guy in a fast-rolling wheelchair, zipped through the dayroom. Todd yelled out, “Where’s the fucking fire, Marty? You ain’t that hard, are you?” Marty disappeared around a corner, but could be heard cursing someone most likely in his way. Todd smirked again at noise from another corridor, the way dissipation takes place, let’s go.
Michael, clean as a sharpened ax in his pressed white orderly’s uniform, giggled deeply in his throat, fond of Todd Grimson and his no-nonsense and no-self-pity about his way of life, a “wheeler” now instead of a “biker.” A mutual respect ran between them needing no overt statement ever since he had met the man a year earlier.
The building cited here, where Todd and Michael spent their days, was plunked on the side of a hill in the next town to my town. White, shining in the sun, casting all kinds of reflections at the beginning and end of the day, it clung on the hillside like an invader of sorts, lately come and eager to stay. Just as its grip said. Below its clinging post, it was separated from the rest of the town by a stream, a small bridge of one-way traffic, and a wide and long field of green in the spring, and mostly golden in late summer and fall; like a farmer’s moat it was. Local geography, or topography, it appeared, had aided in the seeming seclusion of the facility. Out of sight, as one might say, and therefore out of mind; insular as some neighbors and friends of mine have said. Many of the patients were motorcyclists coming off catastrophic accidents, and let’s face it… bikers are not the most envied of citizens. They were like those strays passing through, as the cowboys used to say.
The half suppressed grin continued on Todd’s face, where it resided just about every day, as opposed to most of the accident victims that inclined about the facility or moved around on their wheelchairs. In his upper arms the muscles had near grotesque proportions, and some latent power existed as his aura, loitered about him despite his impairment, finding a place where it belonged.
The white building in the sun was a long term care site founded upon devotion and deep therapy issues. None of the patients, of course, had ever desired to be there, or ever entertained the possibility of coming there. And some of the others, like Michael, belonged, the way a calling is granted atop care and compassion since the first big match was struck so men could see what they were bound to.
Todd was looking straight into the deep brown eyes of the only orderly in the building he had any real liking for. Michael Truegrove was standing above him, six feet and five inches of slim but noticeable muscle, browner than a bear or a cup of camp coffee or a Hershey bar, his eyes filled often with warmth and understanding and a deeded sense of dignity. Deep black hair with a luster flowed neatly down his back over the white shirt of his uniform. Each of his movements telegraphed knowledge of grace, sense of balance and awareness of body, of good luck in this hard life.
“The chocolate’s all the way from the Congo,’ Michael said, his own grin coming as wide as ever, “from what my daddy told me years ago.” Like a warrior he stood, the sun from a large window flowing about his frame, lighting on his shoulders. “I am the Congo Kid come home to take care of one of my favorite guys. You’re a special man, Todd. I never once saw you falling all over yourself, commiserating.” The pause, like the tempo of a poet, was liquid, fluid, “and I play some ball three nights a week, and move a little iron with my nephew on another night or two when we can arrange schedules.”
Todd nodded a slight understanding, his head bobbing less than it did only a little more than a year earlier, after his bike had almost gone all the way under a pick-up truck exiting a dark driveway, no back-up lights at warning. His hair could have been called prematurely gray or lazy blond. “Like they say, Michael, what brung you here?” His grin disappeared. Serious mien grew in its place. “I like stories. About people. I bet you have one, the real one about you I haven’t heard. I’d like to hear it, and then I’ll tell you one of mine. I might as well tell you, we might just have a couple of lovebirds hereabouts.” Todd’s eyes flashed a miniature sign of disbelief. “Deal?”
Michael was aware of many of Todd’s traits; allegiance, loyalty, love for the underdog and the downtrodden; resurrecting a small bit of hope for his roommates and other patients whenever he could, wearing a smile when he didn’t feel like smiling on some of his bad days; and he had a few of those all on his own. I can’t imagine that Michael had no idea of the type of secret Todd was holding in place, or what “lovebirds” really meant in such a facility, the word really stretching the image for all that it was worth. Michael had a sense for everything, he believed.
Michael’s full grin was sweeping and warm, a collectible. “You swing a hard bargain, Todd. I bet you could sell furnaces in the Congo.”
“Hey, that’s a twist to the old adage.” Todd’s eyebrow still played the field of expression. And he must have noted for the hundredth time, the neatness of Michael’s white uniform, as clean as wind-blown snow in a wide field. And its cleanliness was starker against the deep color of Michael’s skin.
“We’re funning, right?”
“We’re swapping,” Todd replied, “like we agreed, just so. Your story for mine, and mine’s a doozie, though it might break your heart.”
“That big, huh? That good?”
The clincher came from Todd, as he propelled himself adroitly into a far corner of the room, as he looked over his shoulder. “Come over here, Mike, and tell me. Then, I’ll knock your socks off.”
“It began, all of it,” Michael said, his voice Julliard-smooth, the long-ago sitting in his eyes, “when I was perhaps five or six. I had an uncle, Ephel was his name. He was a paraplegic, not from riding a bike, but getting hit by a bike, right in the middle of Atlantic Ave. The irony of it came crawling all over me when I first came here, seeing all these guys, and some gals, now maimed forever. Anyway, he was relegated to a back room in my parents’ apartment. They had the whole floor of a three-decker in Mattapan because there was a gang of us. They’d been there for years, and three of the older kids had moved out, two brothers and a sister. When Ephel had to come out of the hospital and stay someplace, ours was the place, the only place.”
Michael looked a bit sheepish as he continued. “But he was dumped into the backroom of the apartment; no way out on his own. All he ever asked for were new books. Any kind of books he had not read. Then once he asked for a good light and a friend of his came by and put up this set of lights could blind the sun. He read to me, old Ephel did, days on end. I loved him, wanted to take him for walks, see the city, see some of his friends, get some fresh air, smell the tide, smell the fish, smell the salt flats, but I couldn’t. I hated the way he had to live. I always thought the books kept him alive, kept him going, the way he’d just rise the damn magic out of them with this magnificent voice he had, a cross between Pappy Grinstone down in Raleigh and Dylan Thomas at a poem and the guy whose name I can’t remember who did the old NFL films.”
The lost look stayed on his face, even in the high coffee shine of his cheeks, as he kept bringing back moments that could be lost forever in a second. “Seemed to have it all together, he did, he really did, and then one day, just before I got home from school, he jumped out the window, no more a burden to my folks. It crushed my father and mother. Crushed me. We hadn’t done enough; it was that simple looking back on how it all had slipped away from us. I tell you, I wasn’t born for this job, I was made for it. Ephel made me come to it. It’s that simple. I owed him a lot. He knew what he was doing… he shaped me for this.”
“All just that makes you what you are? You know you’re so different from the others. I won’t say all the others, but most of them. There’s a special cut about you. Now I can see where you’re coming from.”
“And where are you coming from? What about the lovebirds? You got me smoking my pipe, tipping out my insides, trying for an opening. You used all the good tools. Now, what’s in the back of your mind? It’s like you’re bargaining, Todd, I swear, making proposals.”
Michael was seated on an ottoman, nodding his head slowly as if drawing information from Todd, the creases still visible in his shirt sleeves and in his pant legs, a composite of elegance, of quiet dignity with a mute trumpet at work.
“I think Marty Vreeland’s in love with Valerie Pinchon.” Todd’s eyes flashed. He nodded his head, and said, “Or he’s crazy hungry, like he might have been before. You can’t knock a guy for that. Least, I can’t.”
Michael nodded his head. “Everybody has to love somebody around here or they’d go nuts. You have to grab some kind of anchor. Valerie’s his anchor.”
Todd thought Michael might have sounded like a professor at the lectern, but he had often heard him dispensing good advice to good listeners in the facility. “But there’s a new edge to this,” he said, and quickly added, “they want to screw around, French or what, I don’t know, but it has to be handled by someone kind enough, thoughtful enough, and liberal enough. No crap in it. No taking sides. Sex or love, I don’t know. That’s up to them.”
“Yes, and…?” Michael said.
“Somebody has to put them up to it. Literally, I mean. Find a room where they can have some time for themselves. Line them up like loving little soldiers on parade. Place them. Position them, whatever it takes to let them be aware of each other.” Todd’s voice must have risen then. “He’s dying to get near her. It sure ain’t easy, as the saying goes.” He had a quizzical look on his face, one would gather, as he continued: “They get washed up or whatever, I don’t know, but I can guess where I’d be if I had it in for her.”
“That’s not privacy,” Michael said, standing beside Todd, and Todd in the shadow of the human eclipse. “That’s invasion!”
“Oh, knock it off, Michael, how in hell otherwise would they get at it? They need help. That’s why I came to you. Think I’d go to any of those other jerks with their noses half the time up their own butt? They’re about as sensitive as crutches. This whole thing is a paycheck for most of them, every damn minute here.”
For a brief second, Todd reassessed his statement, and then continued. “Well, not all of them, but sure enough, enough of them that they make politics out of it, something more than just economics. And sure as hell they’d blab it from here to kingdom come. I’d bet on it. They’d shoot their mouths off about it. They’d carry tales down to the city. They’d fall all over themselves trying to get out the poor-ass story about a couple of quads think they’re okay playing fucking games!”
Todd would have risen from his chair, but his legs were long gone, as if frozen in time, the nerves severed, all the controls gone over to the other side. His face turned pink and then turned to a red carrying an anger Michael could measure. “Can’t you just see some of them, down there in O’Malley’s or The Dugout or The Meadowglen, just shooting off their mouths about the two quads going at it?”
Sensitive as he was, Michael had the sudden look on his face as if he were thinking about his wife Mercedes and how it would be with her and a third party if anything like this might ever come between them. Oh, he could feel the small riot building almost immediately. There were grounds on which one never trod with her, not even hinted at in discussion.
“What’s Valerie’s take on this?” Michael said. “She really have a say the way she wants to go?” His question, he realized, hung itself out in the air bright as any double-entendre.
Even as Todd snickered a reply, Michael also had questions posing for answers. He probably couldn’t broach the subject with Valerie, never mind even asking her questions about preferences, positions, whatever. Then Michael must have realized it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference if he could just get Valerie and Marty together.
He reinforced himself, saying under his breath, “It’s what makes the world go ‘round.”
“She’s all for it,” Todd replied, the tinge of red now fading, his huge hands relaxing on the wheels. “Marty didn’t tell me. Valerie told me herself, those blue eyes of hers lit up like the match is burning all the time regardless of what everything else looks like in here. Like a frigging pilot light, on all the time. We know she had a lot going for her before her accident, the guys chasing her since she was barely fourteen or so. Now, sometimes, she says, she’s half wild again with the idea. I swear to God it’s like she could have been crying, like coming out of a long dream or a damn nightmare for that matter, not that it’s ever going to be over by a long shot. But you know her almost as much as I do. She’s one tough chick to hang on this long, not cracking her head wide open, going off the other side. Got to admit, memory’s often a killer in a place like this. Have to keep it in some kind of order, and that’s a reverence and a preference in itself, so if she’s for the oral stuff or whatever, it makes no difference. She’s just game. She even kissed me on the cheek after we talked about it, said I smelled like the old days. How do you like them apples, huh? The old biker’s still got a wallop!” He wagged two forefingers on the wheels as though denoting minor erections. “And she was wearing some goddamned sweet-ass perfume, I can tell you!”
Michael, on his rounds a few minutes later, saw Valerie sitting at the end of the corridor, looking down on the span of field between her and the town spread wide in a brown and gold encounter with day. October had crashed in a late rain the past week, the leaves at flight, acorn color coming once again. The same color was in her hair. She felt the shadow over her shoulder, measured its play on the wall and knew it was Michael, her favorite orderly, a hunk and a half in his own right.
“Hey, man,” she said, “you been talking to our mutual friend, my agent of sorts?” The throaty tone rose from her as small as child’s laughter. Her eyes were lit-up blue, her nose small and neat with a slight bump in it, and a scar, slim as a saber, accompanying her left brow. The thin span of the scar was a testimony to the hand of the surgeon who had saved her face but had come hard against saving her limbs from permanent dangle. She spun the wheelchair about, let the light of an overhead neon hit her eyes, knew the flash of light bounced on its way. Michael had once again assessed the warmth in the 27-year old woman who had been bounced against the back end of a trailer rig by her biker boyfriend out on the Mass Pike. She had been 22 hours between the emergency room and the operating room before they threw in the towel.
“This proposal of sorts,” Michael offered, “that your agent offered up. I can assist, but it’s got to be a very private matter, and I don’t want it blabbed about so that I’ll be inundated with private heart requests. I can’t become a full-time Valentine and do the job I’m intended to do.” His deep brown eyes poured into hers in a serious demand. “And before I get caught up in some strange embarrassment, I’d want to get a few things squared away with you.”
“Don’t you worry, Michael, he’s pulling my strings all ready, probably having a merry old time as it is. Guys’ stuff, you know. Something about him gets me and I’ll have to admit, it has for a long time. I can give you all the instructions you need, and please, don’t for a minute get any deeper involved than what it appears to be, just a little exploratory sex and matters of the mind. We’ve all had a try at that.”
She told him all that she could. He listened, he nodded, he left.
The next day the arrangements were settled and put into action; the room set up, the key to the door was set aside.
Night came. Valerie took herself to the appointed room, the corridors silent, the wheels rolling softly under the wheel chair, a heart running ahead of itself. Marty Vreeland was there first. They looked at each other, aglow. Michael walked in and locked the door behind him.
“You ain’t staying, are you, Michael?” Marty said.
Valerie laughed at him. “Strange number,” she said. “Strange combo.”
Michael and Marty let it go past them.
The arrangements were set in place. Michael, with care and aplomb and utter respect, shifted Valerie so that she was comfortable on the bed. He wiped a few beads of perspiration from her brow. Then, with heavy muscles working, cords and sinews contrasting against the white of his uniform, he situated Marty. He felt no embarrassment, saw none, saw the face of Mercedes as it might be if she were in the room, the cold fears she would exhibit, seeing her mother over her shoulder where she resided for too much of Mercedes’ life.
Michael, preparing to part, smiled at the two of them. “Ring the buzzer if you need me. I’ll be at my desk.”
He smiled again in his bright darkness and touched each one on the shoulder where full sensation swam. The three of them felt the connection, light or electricity or sense of passion and need and want and utter frustration all rolled into a single charge that ran right through them.
Valerie’s eyes were on fire again. She said, with eyes flashing, “Oh, what a threesome we could make.”
And she finished by saying:
Today the sun is shining, the clouds have sprung on past,
The heart is playing somewhere, though this love can never last;
But somewhere a guy is smiling and somewhere a doll exults,
For though we keep on dreaming, think long about results.