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Learning From Injury

by Kyle Mayer

It is true that disaster awaited him. Almost to be expected, if you knew him. Which I did not. It is said that he was a well-liked kid and a good person with plenty of friends and seventy years of success waiting for him. He was regarded as intelligent by most and had already been accepted to a prestigious research program at a faraway university. I can’t claim to have known much more about him, but his past exploits are largely irrelevant, as his old life pales in comparison with the severity of his misfortune.Do not mistake me, however, for his life was not entirely without merit. Had there not been disaster in his life he might not have become the man he did, and I might not have met the kid he was.

Do not mistake me, however, for his life was not entirely without merit. Had there not been disaster in his life he might not have become the man he did, and I might not have met the kid he was.

*****

The night on the boat will always be an important moment in his life. It was a celebration of sorts, a festivity. A gathering of friends. A place of restricted beverages.  A place where age was not scrutinized.

I was not there, but I have heard it from the man-with-long-hair. I have heard that the well-liked-kid was enjoying himself like the rest of them, and still functional enough to attribute his haphazard swagger to the motion of the waves.

My source did not claim to know who suggested that they swim, but in his telling it was he himself who volunteered to dive first. Upon resurfacing and returning to the boat the entire crew had a laugh at his expense and it became the turn of the well-liked-kid.

He too dove from the boat and into the water. Perhaps his dive was slightly different. Perhaps the boat had drifted to a shallower section of water. Or perhaps he just managed to find the one rock that was out of place on the flat bottom of the shallow lake. Luck can be strange like that. All it took was one bad jump, and just like that the man-with-long-hair no longer has a part in this story, and the well-liked-kid became the unfortunate-kid. I wasn’t there. I try not to judge.

*****

It was a year and a half later when I entered this story. I’d been working at the place-with-four-rear-doors-and-no-front-lobby for two years but I still didn’t know the name of the man-with-the-red-beard. I wasn’t terribly big on names and we hardly ever interacted. I’d seen him around before, of course, but that was the first time he had approached me. I was a solid mess back then. I’d been working in manufacturing for the better part of a decade, but well into my fourth job I still hadn’t learned any useful skills and constantly found myself sitting on the bottom rung of the cooperate ladder. Whatever he saw in me I didn’t see in myself, or maybe that’s why he picked me.

I was a technician, which is a fancy way for saying that I moved the heavy shit from the north end of the building where the trucks dropped it off, down to the south end of the building where the important people needed it moved to, and then after the important people had finished tinkering with their important shit, I’d move it back. The only difference between me and the people-who-clean-the-stuff-that-nobody-wants-to-clean is that I had to have government security clearance, seeing as I was lugging around the very-important-shit. Which back in those days was a fancy way of saying that on top of my union dues, I also owed the state an annual fee for a personal history inspection that never happened, and that I had to sign a great deal of forms saying I wasn’t a terrorist, that I hadn’t been a terrorist, and that I wasn’t planning to be a terrorist. Oh, and my family couldn’t be terrorists either. The government officials were very insistent on that.

Sometimes the very-important-person would be there when I dropped things off, and that was fun because I could hang around and watch him open it. Once I was actually allowed to help assemble the thing, which I was told was a waveguide for a beam column. It felt kind of special to be privy to whatever advanced government shit they were building, but driving the fork lift was considerably more fun.

The man-with-the-red-beard wanted to know if I was looking for a job, even though he knew that I wasn’t, and told me that he knew of a place at the university that was looking for someone just like me. Which, given the state of government contracts back then, was a courteous way of telling me that I was now working for the university.  He told me that with my radiation training and my government security clearance, I was the perfect candidate for the job. I later found that to be considerate, but incorrect. My new boss, whom I came to know as the man-in-the-brown-suit, ran a far more professional operation than I was used to, what with his relationship to the university and all.

And that is how, dressed in a clean polo and khaki pants, I found myself on the third floor of the building-that-looks-like-a-punch-card, standing face to face with the unfortunate-kid. Or rather, I was standing. He was sitting.

*****

It was a few weeks before the first time I heard him speak. He sounded like one of those smokers who smokes too much and now has to smoke through the little hole in their neck. Only there was no hole in his neck. It sounded like the air was never making it past his throat, just kind of circulating around in his mouth until it had rolled over his tongue enough that he got bored and expelled it to form raspy words. He was impressively understandable, all things considered. His intonation, totally devoid of accent or regional lisp, exposed a very intentional compensation for a condition he was astutely aware of. I still get shivers on my back when I recall him speaking.

He talked forever, that first day we finally began our business together. He, it seemed, had as little choice in choosing me as I had in taking the job. Never once did he hold it against me. He talked about neutron extractors and high voltage suppression coils and vacuum chambers and a great deal of other things that meant very little to me, but by then I had learned to just nod whenever he paused for his frequent and arduous breaths.

He showed me his office. It was the most extraordinary place. Once I opened the door for him, the entire place came alive. The computer monitor covering the entire wall blinked on, and a small tray that appeared to be floating on a slender robotic arm swung down to rest directly in front of the unfortunate-kid.

The computer proceeded to perform a wide variety of tasks seemingly without instruction. It showed me a great many things, none of which helped to explain precisely what was expected of me here.

I learned some time later that the device tracked his eye motion such that the entire computer, and in fact, all the devices in that room, from the telephone and the printer to the vending machine in the corner (which did not appear to get much use) could be controlled using only his eyes. It almost made me wish our positions were swapped, so I could get the personal assistant and all the fancy-futuristic-technology-toys.

*****

Some time passed and I fell into a bit of a rhythm. Whenever he was in and could catch me (which was not often), the unfortunate-kid would talk to me about things I didn’t understand, and then the man-in-the-brown-suit would tell me what I should be doing. Sometimes it was a sentence or two, other times just a few words such as ‘clean arc gap’ or ‘machine standoff,’ at which point I would go to the man-with-the-red-beard for translation. He worked in an office down the hall; it didn’t have any toys but the vending machine was mostly empty.

Not that I couldn’t go to the man-in-the-brown-suit and ask for more instructions. It was just that he scared me slightly, and he always seemed so busy and so smart, and I didn’t like interrupting smart people. It was many years later when I finally learned how kind and understanding of a human being that he really was, and that his often cryptic instructions were the result of a vibrant endorsement from the man-with-the-red-beard that left him with the false assumption that I understood everything he was saying. I never did learn why the man-with-the-red-beard wanted to help me so much. Some people are just inexplicably kind like that.

*****

I was expected to attend a weekly meeting. I made it when I could, and often brought lunch with me. Nobody ever commented on it, but I got the impression that it was frowned upon to be eating in the conference room. Nearly all the graduate students were there, in addition to the man-with-the-red-beard, the man-in-the-brown-suit, and the guy-with-the-keys, and I’m sure there were a few others whom I talked to at some point or another. The unfortunate-kid was there some weeks but most of the time he joined via video chat, as it was more effort than it was worth for him to come into the office for a single meeting.

The video chat worked all right after we got the kinks worked out. For a while, he had to turn off his microphone when he wasn’t talking or his breathing became overbearing. We ordered a different cable, and he missed a meeting because we had not properly installed it, but these things are to be expected with a new system.

*****

At one point, the unfortunate-kid quit coming to work altogether. I didn’t question his absences, and since he rarely gave me direct instructions anyway, I continued on in my daily activity, unaffected. Through the grapevine, I found out that he had become ill and that he would not be coming to work for a while, and that I should find other people to help where I could and when I could.

The snows came, and then melted, and then came again. I became a more familiar addition and stopped drawing blank stares from students in the lab, although I never personally felt as though I belonged. I was always the outsider in a place of learning. The man-with-the-red-beard became the man-with-the-big-red-beard and then became the man-with-no-beard-at-all, at which point I have no more memory of his existence. I’m sure we still interacted but by that point, I was largely self-sufficient in interpreting the conversation and instruction of the unfortunate-kid, and in any case, in his absence, I was primarily dictating my own assignments in whatever method best amused me. Which, as far as I could tell, was exactly what had been asked of me.

*****

I would roam the labs at night. Having an open access card meant that the guy-with-the-keys had a lot more faith in me than I would perhaps grant myself. I taught myself to use the equipment. During the day, I would watch the various students working on it, so that at night I could try to replicate what they had done. “Gove’ment work,” the kids would call it. I never got a clear definition from any of them, but it seemed to me to be a colloquial term for surreptitiously using company property. However, I could never understand what sneaking in for personal gain had to do with the government. I broke a lot of tools, but there were sufficient hiding spots around the lab, and they were always buying new tools anyway.

Soon, I was making parts of my own design. I’d bring my motorcycle down for modification, a tricky feat as I had to drag it down a split flight of stairs with a landing in the middle. The only elevator that serviced the basement required a key card that I had no reason to have, and would that probably would have raised some eyebrows, had I asked for it.

At first, I replaced all the worn and rusty parts. Then I added new parts that it didn’t need. Then I replaced them again. It was risky, of course. But there was something sublimely entrancing about the feeling of creation. To be shaping something with my own hands. To know that this one motorcycle would be forever unique and that only I could ever replicate it.

It was times like this that my heart bled for the unfortunate-kid. How terrible it must be, to live an entire life knowing that forever you will have to look at the things that others have made for you, done for you, given to you, never again to make them yourself.

Eventually, the lack of sleep caught up with me, and I ran out of things to modify, and the guy-with-the-keys started asking questions, so I quit my nightly charades.

*****

The unfortunate-kid’s condition improved and he returned to the lab. I saw him arriving one day just in time to watch him enter the building, a truly inspiring feat. His wheelchair, which he controlled via a joystick with his one hand that sort of moved, had a long range key tag in it so that he only had to drive past the door for it to open. Which is easier said than done, when you have as much control over your arm as an epileptic patient during a seizure.

With the erratic fashion with which the wheelchair would slam to a stop and then accelerate at alarming speeds, it was surprising that the straps were sufficient to keep his head in place.

Still, he made it all the way up to the third floor through the elevator, where the one button was really large and stuck out from the wall so he could back into it with his wheelchair, and then down the hall and through the office door, which he could open by driving into it at considerable speed. The handle had recently been taped ajar for this specific use.

I stood there and watched this unfold, first from the window and then from the end of the hall where I could peer unnoticed at the advancing wheelchair. I could have helped, of course. I could have made it much easier for him. But I did not. Part of me would argue that it was because I knew that I would not always be there, and that I would not want him to grow dependent on my help. But also, his struggle was alluring to me, and as the foreigner in this place of learning I did not want to ruin the beauty of the moment.

*****

Only once did the unfortunate-kid and I ever talk about his life outside of the office, although I’d thought about it often. He described to me the hardships of his personal life, the rigors of his survival. I am certain I am paraphrasing here, as he would have described it differently. Our conversation occurred during his recovery, while I was feeding him soda through a straw. Typically he had someone else to do that sort of thing for him; I was just there for the technical work. But he was just getting over a cold, which for him could be a process of months and his constant need of fluids meant that I was drafted for the task.

He’d never sleep the full night. He’d wake up in the dark with muscle convulsions that seemed to twist and contort his entire body, curling it into a tiny ball and simultaneously stretching, as if by effort alone he could return to his original form. Eventually, the sun would rise and the mirror on the door would reveal the truth. Save the Parkinson’s-like twitching of his left arm, nothing moved beneath his neck.

His caretakers would massage the cramping muscles of his neck until the fire dissipated and the feeling of full body tension slowly dissipated. Having his teeth brushed wasn’t nearly as bad as being bathed, for at least he could open his mouth on command. Getting him moved from room to room and eventually saddled into his wheelchair for the day was a process, and eating required aid. Transportation was slow. The city only staffed two taxis that could accommodate a wheelchair with a patient such as himself, and it could take the better part of an hour to get him adequately positioned and strapped down for the ride.

First, he’d travel to the hospital for daily blood work and tests. Minor ailments could quickly turn life-threatening, and his physical condition left him particularly susceptible to illness and disease. Then, if he had energy left, it was on to the university where he continued his work. It takes a lot of dedication, I have been assured, to make education a priority equivalent to that of survival. He could work until mid-afternoon and still leave sufficient time for his evening routine, an altered version of his morning efforts.

At the end of it all, he usually still ended up with a mostly pain-free hour or two left to pursue his dreams at the university.  Twenty-four hours in a day, and he was lucky to have one or two. I hoped he’d learn to dream small.

*****

One day, we had to clear the building due to fire alarm. We all suspected a prank by a local no-good kid, but had to evacuate nonetheless. Seeing as the elevators shut down automatically when the alarm was pulled, we were faced with three flights of stairs and a wheelchair far too heavy to carry.

It took a surprisingly long time to undo the myriad of straps and buckles that held him to the chair. Three straps bound each arm, looped back upon themselves; one at the wrist, and the others above and below his elbows. A large leather binding held his neck in what could only be described as a choke. The head strap was complex, designed not to impair his eye movement or vision, while still providing stability and support in the event that he hit a bump. The chest straps worked in a series of rings until the last two circled down beneath his crotch. The leg straps were arranged as with the arms, with particular attention around the joints, only the straps were thicker and differently buckled.

I’ve wondered how much time of his day must be spent just getting in and out of it, although I supposed his caretakers must get faster at it eventually. I’ve also wondered, in the case of a real fire, how long I would stay to unstrap him before running to save myself and informing the firefighters where I had left him.

Atrophy had disintegrated his muscles, giving him the appearance of an anorexic, shrink-wrapped skeleton adorned with a perfectly ordinary head, perched precariously on top. He now weighed under eighty pounds, and two of us could move him with ease. Our biggest concern was accidentally breaking something, should we hold him incorrectly.

He took the whole experience in stride, with an unfaltering sense of good humor and positive attitude, but I couldn’t help but consider the humiliation of being manhandled down three flights of stairs in such a fashion as you might carry your grandmother’s china. Through it all, he never seemed phased by his complete and utter dependence on others for his survival.

The prankster was never caught; the day was entirely wasted.

*****

One day, I arrived for the weekly conference, but there was already a meeting going on in the room. Apparently, it had been double booked. The building-that-looked-like-a-punch-card was full, and the only available room was on the top floor of the building across the street. It was a newer building and designed for the administration, which meant nicer toys, more money, and no whitewashed brick walls. The view was astonishing. You could see all the way across the city in any direction you looked, as all four walls were made of glass. The chairs were comfy, and I am certain I dozed off once or twice.

The elevators didn’t reach the top floor, however, and the unfortunate-kid who had come into the office on this particular day had no choice but to call in from a room on the floor below us.

*****

Another day, when the unfortunate-kid had failed to come into the office one day and I assumed there was a medically-related reason, I learned from the guy-with-the-keys that he was at the DMV.

I asked him about it, the following week. It was painfully obvious, really. He wanted to learn how to drive. On the road, he could be just another driver, like everyone else. Independent and ordinary. He forwent his typical lecture that day, talking instead at no end about the technology they were exploring and about designs for a custom car he could drive his wheelchair into and control with his eyes and his arm and his head.

Not that he would have used words like normal or ordinary. I think girls came up somewhere in the conversation, but I don’t recall.

I encouraged him, of course. I told him never to let any obstacle stand in the way of his heart and some other clichéd shit that I’m sure he didn’t need to hear from me.

*****

He had a birthday. We threw him a party. He did not attend, kept at home by some medical complication. But the food was good, and the man-in-the-brown-suit was buying.

*****

I went to his house once. I can’t remember why, but something or another needed doing, and I was the one to do it. I remember seeing a photograph of a motorcycle on his wall. We spent some time talking about bikes, and the ones he’d owned and ridden back before everything happened. I guess his mom had gotten rid of his when it became clear he’d never ride again. I didn’t tell him about my after-hours work in the shop.

*****

One night I was at home with the girl-whose-eyes-were-different-colors. Or it might have been the one-who-wore-glasses-but-didn’t-need-them. It’s not terribly important.

But I woke up in the middle of the night, which is not typical for me. I spent some time sitting. Just sitting and thinking. Sometimes the best course of action is to simply await serendipity.

I had always wondered why the unfortunate-kid no longer had any friends. It wasn’t as if he were a different person. I can imagine that the circumstances he had endured would change some people, but he was still smart and kind and funny and all the other things people might want in a friend. His girlfriend had left him shortly after the accident; most of his friends had a similar story. How could they all be such cowards who would not stand by him now when he needed them most?

I mean, they were still his friends. They were still there for him. As long as he didn’t really need them.

Sitting there in bed looking down at the girl-whose-eyes-were-different-colors or the one-who-wore-glasses-but-didn’t-need-them, I couldn’t help but think how hard it would be to be there for someone who would never hug you back; whom you couldn’t spend an evening with at the beach or go out for a nice dinner, when it takes six hours to get anywhere and another six to get back; whom you couldn’t hold tight at night when you’re afraid that rolling in your sleep would break a few bones; who would spend the rest of their life deformed and shrunken, like some alien from a bad movie. I would have left him too. Does that make me a bad person?

*****

Eventually, I reached my Inevitable Existential Crisis, and it came time for me to leave. Leave the city, leave the state, leave the country. It didn’t really matter. The man-in-the-brown-suit said kind words and wished me well. Saying goodbye to the unfortunate-kid was not as easy.

I told him the same story I told everyone. I don’t think he bought it. I said goodbye, and that he was a great person, which was true. I told him I’d miss helping him on his project, which was partially true. I told him that I was sorry that all of his friends had left and that I wished that I didn’t have to leave as well; the first half was true.

He looked at me then and told me that good people are not hard to find. Sometimes people are just difficult to understand. And although he may have fewer close friends now than he had before, he loves them, and he knows they love him too. He said not to be sorry, and that he had every friend he needed, and that they gave him strength when he needed it, and that he was happy. He also told me that he would always be here if there was anything he could do for me. I couldn’t keep the tears from my face so I left.

*****

It was the better part of a decade later when I got the call. Or rather, my secretary got the call, and I got the post-it stuck to my computer screen that covered the whole wall. The unfortunate-kid was dead. Medical complications.  There was a funeral and a wake, and his family wanted to know if I wanted to write anything for his obituary.

Apparently, he had never finished his thesis. Things take a long time when you only have a few hours a day to be productive. I never did figure out what he was working on, but it was important to him. Important enough to live for.

Apparently, it was important to a lot of other people too. Or at least his courage and his attitude and his perception of purpose were. The college gave him an honorary degree, posthumously. Apparently, that was highly prestigious—something that had never happened before.

I didn’t respond to the call nor did I return for the funeral. For how could I? How could I go back and stand there and pollute the ocean of sadness around me with my tears of shame? How could I stand there and show my cowardice, hidden in plain sight?

I’ve thought long and hard about the last thing he ever told me. But no matter how long I think, I can never decide. Did he consider me his friend? Was I, to him, one of those people who gave him the strength to continue? I certainly didn’t deserve it. But it has always been the power of those without entitlement to a painless life to see only the best of the people around them. And, despite the unfairness of the world, to never hold a single regret for it. The unfortunate-kid was one of those people, even if he would never admit it.

*****

His obituary had a lot of kind words and a few things people remembered him saying. There was a whole section about the accident. I’d never asked him about any of it, but he must have talked about it frequently during his life. He had said that the incident may have crippled his body, but that it had been enlightening in its own fashion. He had also said, when asked if he ever wished that he could change the past, that he couldn’t have imagined living another life than the one he had and that he had neither nostalgia nor bitterness for what he had lost.

It took me a lifetime to figure out what he learned in the moment of a single night, but sitting here, now, at the end of my own life, I believe I finally understand the man-who-had-love.

Portrait

Kyle Mayer is an Electrical Engineer from Wisconsin. He currently attends Alaska Pacific University, where every third Tuesday of the month he studies Environmental Science. The complete and extensive collection of his published works can be found within the confines of this volume. A relatively new author, Kyle began writing seriously during high school. Much of his unpublished work involves near future science fiction, and is often satirical in nature. He has a restless soul, and fresh adventure will always keep him traveling. Kyle enjoys photography and piano, and a good conversation over a cup of coffee. It is worth noting that Kyle has never tried coffee, and intends to keep it that way.

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