This thing with the fat man in the wheelchair happened years ago outside that bar called Deep Eddy Cabaret.
It was a few weeks after my co-worker Tom Churchill had been killed, struck by some idiot in an SUV, while riding his bike home after a dinner shift.
Tom’s death is, at least on the surface, irrelevant to this story; but the fact of it continued to stain my mind as I walked over to the Eddy for a post-shift beer or two with other co-workers and their friends. Which is just the sort of thing that anybody would do after the closing sidework’s been taken care of and the night’s money’s been counted, right?
You finish rolling the required quota of silverware, you nod to the incoming crew – the poor fuckers who’ll have to deal with all the puking frat boys of bar rush – and you go somewhere loud and boozy to unwind?
Three things were unusual about my walking to the Eddy: 1) I seldom hang out with co-workers after a shift. 2) I seldom drink alcohol, and when I do it’s usually not beer. 3) I hardly ever spend time in a bar, even one as neighborhoodishly welcoming as the Deep Eddy Cabaret.
I suppose I’m a bit antisocial to begin with, preferring to keep to myself, always more comfortable staying in my apartment with a good book, etc. I could do a YouTube video: How To Spend Quality Time With Your Stupid Hitler-Mustached Cat And A Bunch Of Old Paperbacks. But also, I had other social networks beyond my co-workers at the Magnolia Cafe: I was a theatre person.
Or, rather, I was involved in the local theatre scene. There’s a distinction.
I had an occasional itch to perform onstage, one of those desires that are so many parts joyful-expression-of-self and so many parts desperate-attempt-at-public-validation. That whole thing of Hey, look at me, I’m a worthwhile member of the human race, as evidenced by this display of talent and effort, right?
The sort of thing that’s maybe an especially urgent gambit among people whose childhoods were, let’s say, devoid of certain forms of parental nurture.
I mean, whatever.
Don’t cry me a river, okay?
But what’s true is true.
But let me make this clear: I wasn’t like so many other members of that community, so many actual theatre people who live and breathe the stuff, who covet it while very young and study it in college and buy into the whole deal and its celebrated history and arcane trappings, like it’s what they do instead of mainlining some born-again religion.
To each his own and whatever gets you through the night, sure. But also give me a fucking break, you know what I mean?
Antisocial, like I said.
And I was thinking about all of that, and thinking about Tom’s death, as I walked across the street to the Deep Eddy Cabaret.
I could see the van among the other cars in the single spotlight outside the Eddy. The van was parked in the handicap space next to the front door, partly illuminated by a flood from the mercury-vapor bulb attached to one corner of the bar’s shingled roof. There was a wheelchair next to the van, between that vehicle and the Eddy’s front door. There was a man in the wheelchair, actually slumped halfway out of the wheelchair, pretty much horizontal and holding on to the wall of the van where the side door had been slid open. Darkness inside.
The wheelchair, the man, that side of the van: All of this was in shadow. Stars barely discernible in the dark clouds overhead. Chilly little breeze bracing the air.
I got across the street, heading for the Eddy’s front door, trying to make sense of what I was seeing with the guy and the wheelchair. Trying, at the same time, not to stare at what might be something I’d rather not be involved with.
The guy slumped in the wheelchair was immensely fat. Not like Guinness Book of World Records fat, but definitely not what you could call heavy-set and retain any sense of credibility. He was around four hundred pounds, I think, maybe more, not much of it muscle. He wore loose jeans, a Longhorns windbreaker over a dark T-shirt, had a miserable little beard, wide chin and jowls sunk into his neck.
The man’s legs, in those jeans, were stretched out in front of him. Useless, I figured.
I looked away, reached to pull the Eddy’s door open.
“Hey,” said the man in the wheelchair. The word came out in a sick-frog croak, slurred and urgent.
I stopped, my hand on the doorknob.
“Hey, uh,” said the fat man, his voice straining.
I let go of the doorknob, turned toward him.
“Can you …” he said. “Help me?”
I looked at the man, at his pale and whiskered jellyfish of a face. His moist eyes almost glistening, even in the shadows.
See, I told myself, this is what comes of deciding to spend time with people. This is the kind of shit that happens when you make the mistake of getting involved.
“Just gimme a little help here, ‘kay?” said the man in the wheelchair. He grunted, tugging on the van’s metal wall, shifting himself in the chair. One of the chair’s arms, on the side near the van, had been detached; it hung down from whatever apparatus had locked it into place.
“What do you need?” I asked him.
“Just …” grunting, tugging at the van, “just gimme a huh-hand here, man.” He shook his head like a dog shaking off water, took a couple of gasping breaths. His eyes locked briefly with mine, then unfocused.
The guy was drunk, of course. This pathetic hippo of a guy who couldn’t use his legs was drunk outside the Deep Eddy Cabaret and trying to pull himself into the back of his van and he wanted me to help him. Between the van and his wheelchair was a gap of about three inches.
I looked around. We were the only people among the cars in front of the Eddy. The parking lot at the Magnolia on the other side of Lake Austin Boulevard was busy with customers coming and going. There was a gas tanker delivering fuel to the Texaco down the block. Newly upgraded streetlights obscured any stars in the night sky.
I could hear, very faintly, Willie Nelson’s nasal twang coming from the jukebox inside the crowded bar.
And there I was. Right out in the middle of it all.
Because Tom had died? Because being on a theatre’s stage every now and then wasn’t enough of something? Because a stupid, Hitler-mustached cat and an apartment full of books was somehow insufficient in the, what, the bigger scheme of things?
I walked over to the fat man, stood behind his wheelchair. Braced myself against the side of the van.
Jesus fucking Christ.
“Okay,” I said. I reached over the chair’s back and shoved my hands under the guy’s jacketed arms. His soft body was warm in the cool night. “Okay, now, come on.” I started pulling him out of the chair.
He grunted, straining, trying to work with me, trying to roll sideways into the van.
“Okay, yeah, that’s it,” I said, supporting him as best I could, using whatever strength a decade of tablewaiting had imparted to my spindly arms, angling the guy toward the van’s cluttered cavity. “That’s it, just, yeah, okay, okay, here we go.”
We struggled and strained in the darkness. Old booze stench and sour body odor wafted off the big guy like drafts of sewage. His long hair flopped wetly, clumps of rotting kelp glued around a bald spot that seemed to blaze in the shadows.
Eventually, we got him inside the van. One leg hanging over the edge, but the rest of his blobbish form stable on the carpeted floor. He was breathing heavily, his eyes closed, his face covered with sweat.
I reached down and took hold of his hanging leg, figuring to lift it in there with the rest of him.
“No!” the guy barked, dark eyes springing open. He looked at me with maybe embarrassment or maybe fear or anger, I don’t know what, but he looked at me, momentarily adrenalined sober, and he said, “I got this.”
I let go of his leg and straightened up.
He raised a hand, scraped damp hair off his forehead. “I got this,” he said again, watching me. “Thanks, I got this.”
I nodded at the guy. “Okay, man,” I said.
He closed his eyes, let out a long, shuddering breath.
The tanker from the Texaco, finished with dispensing its cargo, rumbled past in the street.
I turned away from the van, leaving the fat man lying in the back, leaving the empty wheelchair there on the crumbly asphalt. Wiped my hands on my jeans. Opened the front door and walked into the brightness and noise of the Deep Eddy Cabaret, where my Magnolia co-workers – the hopeless longtimers and the ones who’d been with us for only a few years – were finishing their second pitcher of beer.
Or maybe it was their third pitcher?
Like I said, this was a while ago. Some of the details may be a little off.