Bruce in his Chair – Derek Maine
October 15, 2020
The first day Carl showed up for work at Bruce’s apartment was a Thursday which meant he had to give Bruce an enema. Bruce only shat on Mondays and Thursdays. Carl had never administered an enema. Bruce talked him through it, lying on his side. Carl popped a capsule out of its plastic casing. He squirted Vaseline on his gloves and guided the capsule with his pointer finger slowly up Bruce’s asshole then said something stupid.
Carl asked him, “Am I hurting you?”
and Bruce laughed, “I haven’t felt anything below my neck in twenty years dumbass.”
Bruce liked to drink vicariously, and Carl just liked to drink.
After two beers, Bruce would start in: “What does it feel like?”
“It feels like I’m floating in the ocean and a little wave just rolled underneath me.”
Bruce liked to hear the descriptions. He wanted to know when the sensation came, when it changed, when it left. He would spit his chaw in an empty Dr. Pepper 20oz, pulling the bottle right up to his lips like he was going to kiss it, using his wrists to gain leverage.
After seven or eight beers, he’d be really excited, “Room spinning yet, champ?” he’d pry with a goofy cock-eyed grin.
If he knew that this was just necessary maintenance for Carl, a light pre-gaming, he was cool enough to pretend otherwise. So Carl humored him, “It feels like I’m bouncing up and down on the world’s biggest marshmallow trampoline.”
Carl took the bus home every night at 10:00 p.m. when his shift ended. He waited for the bus in the bitter New Hampshire cold, furious with himself for leaving the South. On the bus he played Snake on his Nokia cellphone and did not look out the window and did not look at the other passengers and did not collect memories.
Carl’s apartment was a finished room above a barn, with a bathroom. The barn sat at the top of the hill of the college town, about a ten-minute walk in the cold down to the bars teeming with kids his age living very different lives.
The Truman Capote line rolled around his head those two winters he spent in New Hampshire.
It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.
Carl’s room was filled with those books, most of them dog-eared to pages with passages like the Capote. He would crawl around the floor, in a particularly manic phase, scratching at the carpet, slobbering drunk, leaving guttural voicemails to friends back home, knocking over stacks of books searching for a sentiment to put himself at ease. He rarely read whole books. Narratives bored him or made him angrier. He hated the idea of things happening. He hated characters changing. If he liked a character then he wanted him or her to stay exactly like that, immobile on the page, impenitent, incapable of change.
Every change ––– every so-called “growth,” anything resembling an arc ––– was a step towards death, that impassioned march. Fictional characters should resist this fate and were uniquely positioned to do so. They existed as private emotional avatars for anyone who needed them. Carl imagined he was never alone in that room, as suffocatingly small as it was. It wasn’t just Perry. He conjured Travis McGee, Danny Deck, Nick Corey, Eddie Brown, Quentin Compson, and Jack Levitt. These were his friends.
Carl resisted Bruce’s friendship at first because the company that hired him, Granite State Independent Living, told him Bruce was going to die and when he did Carl would have to be re-assigned. While they waited to re-assign him, he would not be paid any portion of his $11.00/hr wages but the demand for aides far outstripped the supply so the home office scheduler assured him he should not worry when it came time to switch assignments. That is what they said before he started and that is how they said it.
Carl had a cat, Jello, that mostly stayed outside. One night she was mauled by something. The hissing and wailing actually woke Carl up. He lit a cigarette and walked outside. It was nothing but darkness. The next morning he found some of Jello’s fur and he kept finding it for weeks after.
Bruce loved an outing. His primary existence occurred in his small bedroom, watching Law and Order re-runs during the day and the Boston Red Sox in the evenings (in the off-season he suffered from depression and watched action movies). From his bed he could see into the other room in his apartment, but only enough to spot the fridge and a few counters. His world was small and unchanging. The tiniest adventure outside was a godsend.
His favorite activity was to have Carl get him and his chair up into his blue retro-fitted van and take him to Applebees to play Keno and eat boneless ribs.
“I don’t understand how you can eat those.”
“I can still chew, asshole.”
“No, I mean they look fucking gross. A rib cannot be boneless. A rib is a bone.”
“Do you want to eat a bone? I can ask Sarah to get us a bone from the kitchen.”
The waitress’ name was Dawn, which Bruce 100% knew but it cracked him up to call every woman under fifty Sarah.
Bruce was really warming up, “I will sit here and watch you lick that little bone to your heart’s content. The Sox are in Oakland tonight so the game doesn’t start for three more hours. I have all night and it would be an honor to watch you suck a bone dry.”
Carl rolled his eyes, shook his head, and just kept on drinking his beer. Bruce was cracking himself up. Carl was feeling sensitive. When Carl started getting like this Bruce could sense it immediately. He would harangue him, scold him, laugh at him. Bruce believed living too much inside your own head was dangerous. He lived in a bed and a chair and mostly one room and to watch someone who lived in the entire world, free to move and drink and fuck and trip and bathe himself, just sit idly stewing in his thoughts was a giant ‘fuck you’ to Bruce.
At the corner of Legends, the bar Carl would walk to most nights after work, there was a Megatouch video game machine. Carl would walk in and prepare his area. An ashtray. A pitcher of Coors Light. A roll of quarters. He fed the machine endless quarters, chain smoking Basic Light 100s, drinking that night’s special on draft.
Carl only ever played two games. TriTowers was a solitaire-type card game. He played that sometimes. But mostly he played Erotic Photo Hunt which had two seemingly identical pornographic images side by side with 5 subtle differences in the photos that you had to spot before the timer ran out. He would play it for hours. Not for one single hour that Carl lived in that town did the Top Ten of Erotic Photo Hunt at Legends Bar and Grill ever feature a name that was not his.
The nurse came on Friday’s to clean the wounds and administer the shots. The nurse changed every few months. Bruce flirted with all of them. All of them told him to stop chewing tobacco. He’d spit the juice into his Dr. Pepper 20oz. with such a brilliant, beautiful grin in reply.
Carl placed his hand on Bruce’s bare chest to roll him on his side. Carl placed the disposable pad under Bruce’s ass. The new nurses, even the oldest ones, always flinched. Bruce had two bed sores so deep and wide you could stick your fists inside of him. Each one looked like a crater or an abyss. The body folding in on itself. Carl wiped the puss and blood around the sores gently with a damp cloth. Bruce’s body was disappearing. Carl talked loudly over the nurse, usually about the score of the baseball game or, if it was a Wednesday, the latest Lost cliffhanger, so Bruce would not hear the nurse’s groans. Bruce’s body was eating itself.
When the nurse left they ate King Size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and talked about how hot the nurse had been – how nasty she was in bed and the filthy little mouth she probably had.
One time Bruce said, “I bet she wants to crawl inside me,” and Carl pretended not to hear him, having nothing to follow that.
Carl was slowly losing his bearings in the apartment.
Before moving to New Hampshire, back home, he had been gripped, with a sudden, necessary compulsion to run.
A scream inside Carl ordered him to drive his Jeep Cherokee as fast he could into a telephone pole. It happened on that empty stretch of road buttressed by corn fields, right by the ditch where he could tangle his body with the metal and erase his consciousness. In that moment of terror his consciousness was split into two non-functioning, antagonistic sections at war inside his skull which caused actual, real physical discomfort like a vertigo separated by two giant fields of brick, his head a bouncing ball passing back and forth between this violence. The only agreement the two sides reached was a near-constant begging to shut the other half down to quiet these tremors. The graceful path being a sacrifice of the body, such a temporal thing anyway and useless besides if the consciousness could not settle this argument. But he had a moment of clarity and instead slid slowly into the ditch, sobbing for hours until a passing car stopped and helped him out, physically unharmed.
He knew then he had to leave. He picked New Hampshire because it sounded boring. But ever since he arrived he had slipped further into himself. His waking and sleeping dreams were often a fantastical re-enactment of his “crash.” He would stack his cheap paperbacks around him where he’d lie in the apartment, and balance as many as he could all over his body, trying to maintain an absolute stillness, like he used to when he created elaborate forts of stuffed animals as a boy and he wanted to feel every bit of his body physically attached and connected to something that was not himself.
He was not well and would have succumbed to the screams if it were not for Bruce and their burgeoning friendship. Also, without Carl, Bruce could not take a shit. This gave Carl a purpose he needed that year.
“I’ll pay you. It’s free money, Bruce.”
“Can’t, champ. Wish I could. Wish I could.”
Bruce did wish he could, but he also resented Carl for asking when he knew the guidelines. Bruce’s apartment was in a building specifically, and only, for single paraplegic and quadriplegic men. No spouses could live there. Overnight guests were allowed once a month for a single evening. The State of New Hampshire paid the rent and the State of New Hampshire made the rules. This was a last resort place built for men the world had no use for. A spouse, roommate, loved one, significant other — if there was anyone in the picture capable & willing then the State was off the hook. So, the arrangement was they would provide housing, 24-hour nursing on call, a morning aide (8:00 a.m. – Noon), evening aide (5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.), and, in return, you didn’t sublet your couch to your drunk evening aide.
After Carl left that night Bruce cried. Carl would never know how much Bruce wished he could. For Carl it was a temporary lack of shelter — without getting into the specifics he said he’d been kicked out of his apartment and just needed a favor for a few nights. For Bruce living with someone else was a fundamental need in the hierarchy that he would never be allowed access to.
One day, 16 years before, Bruce was riding in the front seat of a silver Toyota Camry and he didn’t hear anything and he didn’t see anything and he didn’t feel anything and he didn’t remember anything and then he was, in an instant, a burden to everyone and everything around him. His body was now an obstruction. His body was a thing that had to be tended to by others. His body was useless and caused everyone problems and he would never feel any part of it again.
Part of what that meant is he didn’t get to climb that hierarchy. His problems were not a gnashing against a coming adulthood. He couldn’t piss without paid help. He had two giant fucking holes in his ass. Yes, he wished he could offer Carl a room. He wished he could live with someone. He felt for Carl going through a tough time but Bruce didn’t know any other kind.
An unspoken boundary had been crossed. So, he cried that night not because he had to say no or because he couldn’t have a roommate. Bruce dealt with all that years before Carl showed up. He cried because Carl had asked.
The next morning Bruce woke up before the morning aide arrived and pressed a button on his bed, signaling for the front desk. He had them call Granite State Independent Living. He asked them to re-assign Carl.
Carl was on the white linoleum floor in the kitchen of his apartment. He was naked.
The responding officer wrote:
male early twenties found undressed in state of panic – spoke to landlord – male late forties – lives next door in main house – tenant rents room – is converted barn – room is a mess – books covering floor – some books torn up – heavy alcohol smell – bottles and food stuff everywhere – young man requests to plead the 5th – screams repeatedly at officers intention to plead the 5th – unable to follow simple commands – taken in for one night on disorderly conduct and for psychological evaluation…
Carl woke up the next morning in jail with no memory or place to stay. He consented to an interview with a social worker, identifying herself as Donna Thomason. The interview was perfunctory and Carl only whispered quietly that he was sorry, that he had no memory of the events being described to him, that he had no place to stay, that he had no history of psychological traumas nor suicidal ideations, that yes he drank to excess, that he was willing to attend an anonymous meeting, that yes he knew where Christ Church was, that he rode the bus and needed to get to work soon, that he would be able to stay with his friend Bruce if he could just please get going so he wasn’t late to work, that Bruce was his best friend and it was no problem at all.
“Are they still serving breakfast, ma’am?”
“Is who still serving breakfast?”
“The jail people.
“No, they do not serve breakfast here.”
Carl signed papers and received pamphlets and left a free man on an empty stomach.
“What the fuck, you asked them to re-assign me?”
“Carl, sit down.” Bruce’s voice was expertly measured.
“I don’t want to sit down, you fucking sit down.”
They both laughed. Bruce in his chair, Carl standing a few feet away gripping the railing of the rented hospital bed hard.
Carl started bawling. “They’re going to make me watch Jeff.”
Jeff lived in the apartment five doors further down the hallway, closer to the nurse’s station. Jeff was round. He had a weird, mean cat that was also round.
“It smells like shit in there, Bruce. He eats fucking cat food. Wet cat food! Out of the can. I told him once it wasn’t tuna and he laughed at me, said he didn’t give three fucks, man.”
“Carl, I’m not going to…”
“He doesn’t even have a fucking t.v. He listens to the radio, Bruce. Bruce, he listens to the radio.”
Carl fell to his knees and jokingly mimicked crawling towards Bruce in his chair, clasping his hands together in prayer, pleading, “The fucking radio, man. That kind of psycho will cut me in little pieces, he’ll sic his cat on me. You can’t do this to me.”
Bruce told Carl to get off the floor and sit down on the bed.
“I live here, Carl.”
“I know, man, I’m not trying to…”
Bruce’s voice boomed, his eyes got much, much smaller and focused in on Carl, “Don’t interrupt me. I listened to your bullshit, now you listen to mine.”
“I live here. You’re just visiting. Working, actually. Or supposed to be. But let’s say you weren’t working and you were just here. You’d still be visiting. I’ll die here. Either in this chair or on that bed. And sooner than not. But not you, Carl. You’re just stopping over for a while then it’ll be back out there, next place, next town, next job. Get drunk. Fuck. Get married. Babies. Watch em’ grow. Get old. I see it all, man,” Bruce was crying harder than anyone had ever cried in front of Carl. Before. Since. Ever.
“And I’ll just be a story you tell. About how funny it was that you had to stick your finger up my ass.”
Carl was sober and now he felt sober and he sounded sober and resigned, “Yeah, well. Things aren’t going real good right now.”
“They will. You watch.”
“You’re not going to be some story I tell at parties.”
Bruce laughed a big, turbulent laugh. “It will be so far away; it won’t even feel like your life. You’ll tell it in third person!”
And Bruce, in his chair, was right.
Dedicated to Jeffrey Gadwah
January 30, 1971 – July 25, 2007