A Short Story by Ann Marie Meyers
I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I hurried south on Seventh Avenue.
Tucked firmly under my arms, the computer keyboard I had purchased just yesterday was wrapped in a bag I had accidentally torn. Such a waste of my time I fumed, storming across 38th Street. I have so many things to do today: clean the house before Derek comes for dinner tonight, buy groceries, call my parents, do my wash. And here I am wasting time because I have to return this dumb keyboard. Why did that foolish salesperson have to sell me this defective piece of junk.
I saw him out of the corner of my eye, through the blurs and shapes of New York’s masses. Traffic had gridlocked, and across the street I caught a glimpse of his white T-shirt, of a tin can resting on the handle of a wheelchair, his look of expectancy as he observed the pedestrians scurrying by. I tore my eyes away from this man whose hopeful, smiling face contrasted so heavily with his circumstances. My hands felt cold, despite the sun’s clammy heat. I quickened my pace even more, trying to avoid the hordes of people swarming around me. I wanted to swat them away like flies.
I knew what I would tell the salesperson when I got there, I knew exactly what I would say and how I would say it. It’s defective, I would shout and I would glare at him so that he would know just how angry I was. I want my money back. End of story.
I looked back and saw his hopeful expression fixed on the scuffling mob. A tin can rested on the handle of his wheelchair. He was black. A man walked by, a tall, white guy, who threw some coins in the can and continued on without stopping or even looking down. The man in the wheelchair, I placed him at about twenty-five, gave him a wide smile of gratitude, which was never seen.
Today had started out so well. Until I had turned on my computer, equipped with its new keyboard, and it still wouldn’t work. All my plans ruined. My day shot.
Penn Station. One more block, down the stairs and to the right.
I would give him $1.00, I told myself. No. $5.00.
“May I help you?” a Chinese man with a baseball cap asked, the same guy who had sold me this defective equipment. I yanked the keyboard out of the bag, banged it on the counter. My eyes gave full vent to my frustration.
“Yes. I bought this here yesterday. It doesn’t work. Here’s my receipt.”
“No problem. We’ll exchange it for you.”
Imagine being stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, never able to walk or dance or stand. Never to play sports, to run, to feel the joy of movement. I would give him $20.00.
I tapped my fingers on the counter. What was taking so long? I turned around and stared wide-eyed at the grim-faced, dark-complexioned woman glaring wide-eyed at me out of the full-length, rear-wall mirror. I looked like I was pouting, I noticed in surprise, and I had this deep frown on my forehead. I adjusted my face, forced a smile. My hair needed a cutting. It was all over my cheeks and almost touched my neck. Do I have time to go to the hairdresser today?
“Here you are ma’am.”
“Receipt please,” I said, swinging around.
$20.00. I could afford that. I allowed myself to speculate on his surprise, his gratitude when he saw…
“Here you are ma’am.”
I rushed outside, my new keyboard in its new bag bouncing at my side. 35th Street. 36th Street. Where had I seen him? I ran a few steps. Stopped. Ran again. Where was he? I started to cross 37th Street, along with about thirty other people. The light turned red. A taxi honked. The driver cursed. Suppose he had gone?
Then I saw him. Sitting in the same spot, with that same avid look on his face and the same steady flow of pedestrians darting around him. Several people placed money in his can. The man grinned up at them.
I hurried across 7th Avenue. I could picture his reaction at my generosity. He would give me a wide smile, wider than he had given anyone else. I would say: “You are very welcome,” and smile down at him in a fully non-condescending way. Equal to equal.
A man approached him. About the same age. Same dark color. He stooped to eye level with the man in the wheelchair. They started talking and laughing with what appeared to be the ease of long friendship.
Yes. He would look at me with gratitude, and I would say: “You’re welcome.”
I stopped in front of the wheelchair and froze. The tin can had been welded onto the handle. The man continued laughing and talking with his friend, unaware of my presence. Both men appeared relaxed, happy to be in each other’s company, stealing a few moments of camaraderie from Manhattan’s hustle and bustle. But, how could he laugh like this? What could a man with no arms or legs, not even the stubs of arms and legs, possibly be happy about? How could he laugh in such a carefree manner with the knowledge that he could never embrace a loved one, be it man, woman or child?
My hands trembled as I fumbled with my wallet. When last had I felt as relaxed or at peace with myself as this man who, in my mind, had nothing?
“Here,” I said, waiting.
The man looked at me. Eyes warm, a deep brown, held mine. I placed a $1.00 bill in his can. He nodded and turned back to his friend.
I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I made my way up Seventh Avenue.
JUST A TRUNK won first prize in the 1996 Los Angeles Southwest Manuscripters Short Story Competition