Clark wheels himself up to the bar, clearing space with his hands. ‘Fat a whiskey never dry,’ he says when the bartender catches his eye. Sam is quick, and he bangs Clark’s drink down in front of him before Clark has even finished sliding his crumpled bill across the counter.
‘How’s it going, buddy?’ Sam asks. Sam’s kid has a gimp leg.
‘So man so phone.’ Sam nods. Clark picks up his drink, takes a sip, and asks, ‘What heat the kid?’
‘He’s hanging in there,’ Sam says. ‘My son’s a fighter, mark my words.’
The Steelers are in town. Clark looks up at the flatscreen television in the corner. ‘Some fierce by drown my shirt!’ he yells at Roethlisberger’s image before turning away from the bar, his drink balanced between his thighs.
A strip of dirty carpet runs the length of the room between the barstools and the tables and booths. The carpet’s always covered in people acting like there are no other ways around the place. Clark points himself toward an empty table, pushing down hard on his wheels to cross the migratory pattern. ‘Graham thump!’ he curses, working his arms harder over the kinks in the carpet.
‘Stop, for chrissakes!’ A man wrenches Clark’s chair back to free his foot. The man’s hands are wide but his fingers look dehydrated, like tanned leather. Dredger hands. Clark scowls down at them. His wheels run smooth once the man is gone.
Clark aims his chair toward his table to find it’s not his table any more. A woman whose frame is pulled tight from aerobic exercise is rubbing her forearms all over it.
‘Clark, hon, get over here and watch the game with me!’ Mindy waves like a brain-dead pageant queen from the corner booth, saving him from his miserable jawing. Clark backs into the stream again, letting the bodies push him down the strip of carpet until he pops out at the end.
Mindy is tapping her acrylics on the table in rapid succession when he reaches her booth. ‘Well, you sure know how to keep an old gal waiting.’ She’s wearing head-to-toe pink spandex with a big bedazzled acid-wash jean jacket. Her body was taut about twenty-five years ago; now her breasts are the only things with any kind of lift on them. Mindy eases a nail deep into her teased blonde hair and shakes it while she looks Clark up and down. ‘Drinking them neat already. Well, if it’s going to be that kind of night we’d better line you up with another one.’ She frees her finger, using it to signal for another round.
A red-cheeked man in a letterman jacket swings into the booth next to Mindy, shoving her closer to Clark. Ned’s been hanging around Mindy for as long as Clark can remember. ‘Where’s my drink, baby?’ he asks, pinching her thigh through the spandex.
‘It’s coming, you old coot,’ Mindy squeals, fending him off with both hands.
‘Hey Clark, how’s the old lady?’ Ned winks.
‘Not bad for carrot nothing lost,’ Clark responds, patting his chair with the thick wool covering his palm. Clark never takes off his gloves. Now an ashy grey, he couldn't tell you what color they were when he first put them on.
Sam appears with their drinks, and a warning not to kill them too slowly. Clark knocks his back, the whiskey spilling hot down his throat. Ned and Mindy laugh.
‘I’ve got the Boss lined up on the jukebox, ten solid gold hits,’ Ned brags. ‘Are you ready to cut it up?’
Mindy groans. ‘We’d better dance now before that shit starts,’ she tells Clark, shrugging off her jacket. Mindy isn’t the type to take no for an answer, so Clark lets her push him over to the dance floor, a square of wood laminate on the other side of the room. Mindy shimmies her hips and the pink spandex creases into her pelvis. She’s liberal with the spins. Clark watches the blurred bodies, enjoying the way they rush to get out of the way before Mindy whirls him in their direction.
But one pair isn’t moving. At the other end of the floor, the dredger pulls Forearms in for a dip. ‘Looks like we’ve got company!’ Mindy booms. ‘Let’s show them how it’s done!’ Forearms moves more gracefully than Mindy, long hair swishing down her back as she dances. She and the dredger look happy. Each time his chair turns, he sees it on them. Clark misses his whiskey.
With one final spin, Mindy sends Clark straight across the laminate, his inertia shifting only as his handlebars collide with Forearms.
‘Watch it, pal,’ the dredger warns.
She smiles, but the dredger doesn’t.
‘Off an inch by maybe heal,’ Clark says, shaking his head.
The dredger asks, ‘What did you say?’
‘Might a fuse may leak me,’ he explains.
The dredger’s eyebrows meet, sending stubbly hairs deep into the creases of his cheeks. The dredger puts his hands on Clark’s chair. Mindy’s voice is loud behind him.
Clark locks his wheels. Just for a second, the equilibrium evaporates from his inner ears. Lily is sitting at the counter drinking soda from a red straw. When the equilibrium returns, Bruce Springsteen is belting Born in the USA and Clark is back at the booth with Ned and Mindy.
‘One down, a million to go,’ Mindy elbows Ned in the ribs. ‘Right, Clark?’
The whiskey is down Clark’s throat before he can even taste it. He watches a roach crawling along the wall behind Mindy’s head. Mindy’s lips move but he doesn’t hear any sound.
‘So purse my day,’ he says with a small salute for Ned, pulling away from the booth. Mindy makes a sound like squeezing a whoopee cushion and calls Clark a party pooper, but leaves a wet kiss on his cheek.
Exiting is quicker, the path blissfully free, and Clark bypasses the bar altogether on his way out, connecting up with the carpet just ahead of the door.
‘Good night!’ Sam shouts.
‘Bald shoe,’ he returns.
Clark pushes the door open with the weight of his chair and humid summer air blankets his shoulders. The neon lights from the pizzeria across the street are reflected on the surface of his eyes.
‘No, that’s not a finger, that’s webwool,’ Clark mutters to himself as his gloves turn the rubber, propelling him across the sidewalk. Essex’s main drag is clogged with muscle cars. He feels their bass inside his chair.
Clark wheels into the street. When he needs to, Clark becomes a car, honking back. When his caseworker asked him to wear the reflective strips she bought him, he replied, ‘Give a half maybe tape is bright for pussies.’
Clark rents a small apartment above a bait shop at the south end of Eastern Boulevard, right across from the McDonalds. He can time his journey by the giant green sign for I-695: twelve minutes before, four minutes after. When Clark makes it past the entrance ramp, he’ll be almost home. When he gets there, he’ll pull a beer from the fridge and gargle it in bed. He won’t turn the lights on in his kitchen or his bedroom. The giant twin arches across the road keep his apartment lit twenty-four hours a day.
Clark’s glove catches on his wheel, a thread looping out from hand to spokes before he jerks it free. He lifts his hand to his face, shaking it like he’s trying to lose the glove. ‘Watch it watch the crown,’ he intones. Clark doesn’t have time for any more funny business tonight.
Lily is coming down the stairs in a blue sleeping bag, holding the fabric up to her chin. Snatches of the flannel lining are visible below her face, in her armpits. Caught mid hop, her face is slightly blurred. Her sleeping bag went moldy after the tent flooded on their trip, teaching Clark not to pitch camp at the bottom of a valley.
Clark pushes down the street with one hand, the thumb of his other tugging at loose strings that emerge from a hole in the glove around his ring finger. He propels himself forward now without looking at the road. ‘Not sex, I’ve got a day flip me over.’ His chair leans to the right, cars honking around him, the dredger’s hands lurking in the corners of his vision.
He picks at the glove and shakes it, fingers banging into each other as he coasts onto the entrance ramp. Headlights build behind him. Clark peels back the glove and his hand emerges a lighter shade of grey. ‘Ark glue!’ he shouts, stuffing the glove into his pocket and returning a newly bare hand to the wheel. His chair curls left, following the curve of the ramp.
At every meeting, his caseworker manages to ask him about his daughter. ‘Have you called Lily yet this week?’ Or, ‘Lily’s birthday is coming up, have you sent her a card?’ Clark always nods. He hasn’t talked to his daughter since she was thirteen and that must have been a decade ago, easy.
Clark lifts his eyes to the road and the one he expects is gone. Two lanes have opened up to four, all pushing him away from Middle River. He grips his wheels with both hands and builds up speed, merging into the center lane. A sign tells him he’s headed for Baltimore. Clark sees the city lights bleeding up the dark sky ahead. He hasn’t been west of Essex in years. The realization of this hits him deep in the chest, below the sternum, then radiates to all the live parts of his body.
The driver behind him leans on his horn before passing him on the right. The air around the car batters against his wheels. ‘Glib roller!’ he curses at the tail-lights. He thumbs through pictures of his daughter he keeps tucked away in his mind, stopping on one of her at age three, kinky red hair coated in sand, tiny tie-dyed bathing suit bright against her darkened skin. She is laughing in this picture, the gap between her front two teeth visible even at this distance. Clark had built sand castles around her, filling buckets with sand. She had her feet in the moat, delighted at the minnows swimming in with the tide.
A semi-trailer truck bleats on its horn behind Clark. He feels the hot breath of the grille on the back of his neck and cuts to the left. He imagines what might have happened if he hadn’t, the handles on the back of his chair stuck in the grille propelling him faster and faster. He cuts left again at the thought, overwhelmed by the need to get off this damn highway.
The serrated edge of the road plucks at his wheels and Clark watches as the pavement jumps up to meet him, his chair overturning him onto the thick shoulder of the median. The wheelchair sags behind him, watching. Clark lies still, his cheek open to the gravel, until he feels ready. Then he stands and walks down the median toward Baltimore.