Wheelchair

by tobias crabtree

From where I sit, I can see through the black, metal railing to the pool. Beyond the pool the Gulf of Mexico spills out on the horizon as far as I can see. The fella I’ve been watching is probably 35 years old. He’s got a couple of kids, a boy and a girl, and they’re playing in the pool with their mama. The woman is a blonde with a build that reminds me of a mom from the midwest– a form that is simple and strong but not affected by beauty magazines. But it’s the father I’m watching. He’s watching from his wheelchair. He’s watching his son who is dressed in his little swimming outfit, a superman one-sy. The man is broken, it looks like paralysis from the chest down. He has a little blue tattoo of a surfboard in the middle of his back, between his shoulder blades. I am wondering. I can’t help it.

Three black hooded sea-gulls are heckling from the sign above the cheesy beach bar that is attempting some Carribean theme that is failing in every possible way. The little boy is asking his mama about how a television works. He wants to know if someone draws pictures that move and then puts them in the T.V. She is answering with words like “pixels” and “HD” and “plasma”. The little boy pushes on with more questions about how the things that seem real get inside the television and who puts them there and whether they are real or not. I am listening and loving these questions. I can’t answer them. I love things I cannot answer. Finally the lady says, “maybe ask dad, dad’s smart.” I am watching. The father speaks of how things used to be and how there were pictures that flashed in front of a light real fast and that made things that were still seem alive. He said this as he sat still in his wheelchair, and he was looking out at the Gulf. He said that now things are more digital, the still pictures are gone and have been replaced by small dots of color that are controlled by codes, that the dots imitate what is real. He is thin and white, he is in the shade of a palm tree. He is in board shorts and his slouch is one that cannot be straightened. It makes my back hurt to see him sitting like that.

I’m here with a bundle of athletes. They are all fighters. Dan Henderson is an old buddy, someone I would like even if he had never stepped into a cage. He’s an olympian that came from older blood. His toughness outruns his health in a lot of ways. His ears are wadded up and his profile looks like some cartoon exaggeration of a person who has been punched in the nose many, many times. Brian Foster is a fighter himself. He has come to prepare Dan for the fight. The fight, we found out last night, will not happen because of some kind of substance taken by his opponent. Things are not like the old days. My allegiance lies easily with the friend that is staying in the next room over — Dan is a good ol’ dude. But right now, while the fighters eat sushi, I am wondering about the heart of the man in the wheelchair by the pool. Car wreck? Surfing accident? A 3 martini trip down a flight of stairs? I dunno. He’s wiping his face with the towel his wife just gave him. She is sweet. She scruffs his chin with her hand and allows her fingers to linger on his collar. His eyes follow her as she walks off into the bar for a drink.

This morning I swam down the coast with the water flat and smooth, as if it were made of something heavier, like milk or blood. I swam strong and easy. I walked back on two serviceable feet (yeah, they click and clack and give off tiny pains, but they’re certainly good enough) and made coffee. Henderson’s fans were fluttering to and fro when he checked to see what we were up to. Poncho, the big, good natured Brazilian, was joking and laughing. Gonzo, the lean and wily cuss from Aspen, was already scheming some kind of plan that will be one part fun and two parts trouble. Heath was smirking at me. Foster had his coffee and his blue eyes were looking at me, and I understood the look, deeper than most, and that our existence here on this planet, together,  is not lost on him.

When I think about fortune, it is not in a usual form. It’s tough to say this without it sounding trite, but I do know I’m lucky. I am so privileged. I have a free and beating heart. I can buy a brick of cheese whenever I want. My Ma calls me and tells me she loves me. My body is strong enough to dance under the stars and run down long stretches of dirt road. And my mind is fishing for awareness. That in all this, there are lessons that matter.

And two of the seagulls have flown. The last is silent.

And the little boy in the superman swimsuit is sitting on his father’s lap.

And the father is still looking out at the Gulf. I wonder if he is looking forward or back. I hope the former.