(drama at a racetrack with a laser pointer)
Wheelchair-bound Puddles and her father win big at the track, but after he leaves her to cash in the ticket, she gets robbed. When her father fails to return, Puddles must deal with having lost forever the one she loves most, or accepting that he, like her mother, has chosen the easy way out.
Easy to tell who the winners were. They lingered in the stands and at the pay windows. Talking loud. Back slapping. Dad was somewhere among them.
I studied the wager board, tried to calculate what our winnings would be. It was beyond my grasp. My home schooling had ended several years back, after Dad accepted the futility of continuing. It just didn’t seem the best use of the time I had left.
Fallen leaves and bet slips had drifted against my right wheel. I was looking at them when I noticed men coming from behind me. Their stench arrived first. Sweat. Cigarettes. Beer.
“Fancy chair you got there. How fast does it go?”
He stepped in front of me. Squatted down. Clumps of greasy hair poked from beneath his Budweiser cap.
“Leave me alone! My dad’ll be back any second.”
Except it came out, “Eee mmm-lo! Muda bubaa ne-ekk.”
Budweiser shook his head. Looked at his buddy.
“Damn shame,” he said. “Lady pretty as this.”
His friend stepped around. Looked me over. Shrugged.
“I’d still do her,” he said. He grabbed the crotch of his far-too-big jeans, gave it a shake.
Budweiser looked disgusted. “You’d screw a grapefruit.”
Baggy Jeans laughed. Smacked his friends shoulder.
“Grab the backpack and let’s go.”
“Oo-aaa mi!” Translation: No, that’s mine!
Bud grabbed the strap of my backpack and slung it over his arm. I tried to watch where they went, but could only turn a little before my head support blocked my view.
“Ep! Ep!” I yelled weakly, but there was some kind of commotion over at a cashier’s window. People were yelling, others ran to see what was up.
My meds are in that bag. My insurance card. My I.D. My suctioning rig.
The realization triggered a familiar thickening in my throat. I heard myself gurgle.
This is it. I’ll choke. Dad will get back just in time to see me turn blue again. And then, I told myself, he’ll do his thumping trick and it’ll be enough and I’ll be fine—again. Dad to the rescue. Always Dad. My throat relaxed just a little. Just enough.
Coming here had been a fluke. Dad had gone to the bank to close our account so the tax man wouldn’t grab what was left. Sitting at the table, he finger-dragged his hair, staring at a mess of 20s and 10s and a few rumpled 1s lying on top of a newspaper. I flashed my laser pointer to get his attention.
“All the money we have in the world, right there,” he’d said. “Might last another few months, but after that…”
He looked to where my laser dot hit the paper. Sat up a little straighter. Swept the money off the newspaper.
“The last races of the season are at Churchill today. Maybe it’s a sign. What you think?”
My smile probably looked more like a grimace, but Dad knew.
“That’s my girl!”
Dad got a stranger to help lift my chair into the trunk. We’d had to sell the lightweight several months ago. We should’ve sold the fancy one instead, but back then, I could still drive it.
Dad insists it’s a temporary setback, but muscles don’t un-atrophy. It’s been easier for me to accept than for him. If I’d died as quick as predicted, he wouldn’t have this financial nightmare to deal with on top of everything else. The only pain involved with my disease is watching what it’s doing to Dad.
There are times I wish he was more like Mom. Sometimes, I wonder if he wishes he could run away, too. I think I might be relieved if he did.
“You okay, honey?”
A woman was squatting in front of me now. Sensible haircut. Practical shoes. A teacher, I guessed.
“Where are your parents?” she asked. “Can you talk?”
She wouldn’t understand if I tried, so I shook my head no. Dad could still understand me, but even he had trouble sometimes.
“You need help? Can I search your chair for I.D.?”
I tried to nod, but my head tipped too far forward and wouldn’t go back. Drool spilled onto my lap.
The woman straightened me, dried me. Sent her husband after security.
“They’re probably all at the pay window,” she told him. “Must be a fight or something.”
She turned my chair to face the mural of all the jockeys who’ve won the Derby since 1875, and began telling me its history.
Should be the horse’s pictures up there, I think. Wished I could say.
I liked that she talked like I’m in here. Like I’m not just a shell.
I heard sirens. One was an ambulance. That sound, I knew. The other was probably a police car. Then two.
I wished Dad would hurry. I distracted myself by trying again to calculate how much money we’d won; wondered if that was the cause for the commotion. Our pot was that big.
The last race, we’d bet nearly everything on a long shot named Lacey’s Puddle Jumper. Dad said it was fate. He’d nicknamed me Puddles long ago because there a bonelessness to me that makes me hard to lift. He said I’m like hugging a puddle.
“Think she’s abandoned?” Security asked. “How long’s it been?”
“Over an hour,” she said.
That couldn’t be right. Dad hadn’t wanted to leave me at all, but it had been too crowded at the windows for my big, awkward chair.
I strained to look around, but the way I was turned, all I could see was the mural.
They began talking in hushed voices. I strained to hear.
“No ID at all.”
“Too crowded to notice.”
“Happens more than you think. Caretakers get desperate.”
“Calling for another ambulance. That one’s not for her.”
“Some old guy. His heart.”
I felt my throat thicken. I gurgled. Gasped.
Please don’t let some old guy be Dad.
Please let him have run.