He has made a believer of me—the man who enters my classroom preceded by a low buzz, a stop-and-go whir from the motor of his wheelchair. He glides through the door and into place about five minutes after class begins. People have learned to leave a space for him at the table near the door because the room is small and he can’t negotiate turns past book bags, coats, and umbrellas.
The motor is attached to the right side of his chair and has four buttons: forward, back, on, and off. I’m not sure yet how he handles turns. Watching, I step over the arcs his wheels seem to etch on the marble floors as he exits. I try never to leave the classroom before him. Several times when I’ve hurried away to a meeting, I feel I have abandoned him.
He carries his notebooks in a large square woven bag that hangs from the back of his chair handles. It fits exactly as if someone made it for him. I picture a wife perhaps, measuring the chair with a yellow tape, describing a design as he pivots to determine if he will be able to reach it himself. He practices the twist of his shoulders, the lurch of his arms over the top, his hand dipping down to bring up his supplies.
If I am talking when he enters—or someone else is talking— we don’t stop, though I can tell by the tilt of heads that each of us has him caught in the corner of an eye watching him pull up tall out of his torso to take off his coat, pivot to the bag, and finally move himself close to the table. We are all slightly distracted by the mechanical whir until he turns it off.
I teach a fiction workshop in an adult-education program which provides services for the handicapped. Next semester I will have a blind man. I will learn not to write on the board. My voice will draw diagrams as I conduct circles and arrows on their imaginary way to the words floating before us all. I will come to terms with closed eyelids, awake and waiting like a dark empty canvas. My lesson this semester from the man in the wheelchair is different.
One morning when I am dozing late, planning classes, wishing for a hot cup of tea, I notice my desk chair on its small black wheels, near my bed. I roll toward it, dragging my legs across the sheets. Soon, my arms are tired but I’m sitting straight; my feet propped up on rungs are forbidden to move. I roll my chair to the bathroom, to the kitchen, pulling myself from tables to toilet to chairs to doorknobs, leaving fingerprints moist from exertion. The small wheels of the chair balk at doorstops. Unable to reach the toaster, I retrieve a coat hanger, surprised yet ashamed of my unnecessary ingenuity. Tea bags sprinkle the floor. The refrigerator door gives me a new respect for leverage. Milk is definitely out of reach. I am exhausted by breakfast.
I glide ungracefully through the next hour, my hands touching places never noticed before, door frames, carved table legs, the stucco of the hall walls. I feel closer to the surface of things. After another hour I give up. Unforgivably I tell myself that a wheelchair would make this all a lot easier—a wheelchair and a bag to haul around necessary items, similar to the one the man has. He has not yet brought a coat hanger to class. During the day he is a research assistant at MIT.
The other students are a librarian, a lawyer, a waiter, a teacher, a dog walker, a housewife, and a pilot, for whom grades and graduations are irrelevant. These students have left behind the pain of first love, the agony of leaving home; they have perspective on parents, pets, hangovers, cars, losing their virginity, leaving God. Irony is a shimmering possibility.
I couldn’t return to teaching undergraduates, encountering again their preoccupation with explicit sex, with drugs whose names I suspect they are misspelling. Their stories are all hot encounter and easy exits. Here, around this table, my students are aware that exits require more than an open door or someone yelling to the flat undescribed back of a character a final sentence holding variations of the word “fuck.” Their narrative sometimes exhibits a wisdom I’ll never attain. They are all in or have moved through situations longer than a year or a semester. Their feet recognize a quicksand the young mistake for music.
The man in the wheelchair is in up to his waist, but his arms are strong, and the wheels are oars he uses well. The characters in his stories all walk, drive cars or trucks, straddle chairs and horses, make love with no accommodations for useless legs or an unresponsive pelvis. Last week he read a story about a man whose wife leaves him for her lover, his old college roommate. He knows they have headed to the desert. The man is in agony over his wife’s departure, his friend’s betrayal. He abandons his job, lives on Campbell’s soup, and wanders from bar to bar looking for answers. Somehow he presumes his wife’s return as from a short trip; his grief lacks the finality of mourning. An old friend sympathizes, but the narrator is too distraught to trust him. One day he finds himself outside the Center for Psychic Research (he lives in Los Angeles). Inside, the place is busier than people whose fingers are taking the pulse of the future should be. He is given an appointment with a sour woman who listens to his story as if she were expecting it. Then she suggests he follow his wife and her lover; she describes the advantages of astral travel. Unnerved, he flees back to the bar where he ridicules the woman’s advice to a fat bartender sadly cynical about all women. The story ends when the narrator goes home and waits for his wife’s return.
No one in the class has heard of astral travel so they don’t question the narrator’s response to the old woman. Several people suggest the story needs the wife’s return. Another student says the worse betrayal was by the friend, that it is their story. We discuss “what is at stake.”
Later, at home, I write comments on stories read that day. But first I look up astral travel. Astral Projection. I read about West Indian charm songs, yoga breathing exercises. Of the safety in the invisible elastic cord that extends from the forehead of the physical body to the back of the head of the astral body. Distances and geography are nothing. I recall earlier class discussion around that table, his silent chair. I give him different advice, I write:
This story needs a leap of faith, a confrontation. Forget cars and trucks; motorcycles are dangerous. Omit the last bar scene and have him listen to the wise, not sour, woman. Give him topographical maps, books about desert birds, a need for the sweeping beauty of sand. Then lift him to the desert, over the mountains to the clear dry air to float on the heat of the day—his eyes the eyes of an eagle—to sink with the cool dark nights. Then see what happens. You must convince the reader this is possible. You must believe and take us all there. I for one am prepared to travel.