Geoff Balme : Quadrophenia (memoir) Dec. 2018
I’ve published with you a couple of times, but I don’t mind updating my SOUTHERN Legit statement. I identify weeds, mushrooms, trees, bugs, and wildflowers. I’m fond of dwarf irises, rue anenomes, foam flowers and, of course, hen of the woods. I know that mullberries and black locusts will take over like weeds. I know that honey mushrooms are parasites. And I know that I’ve disappointed ladies from Wilmington to Oxford in a personal corridor of escaping–often inelegantly– the expected. Hoo! the foolishness I’ve invented to smooth it all over. And I’ve defended the Lee memorial on the state house grounds because I thought these things were sober reminders of men’s folly and youthful pride gone madly awry. I’ve been passionate about letting go of pride because it goeth before a fall. It ticks me off when just any old Hollywood actor decides to portray a “southern” accent without a care to this legitimacy. I miss my dog. My best friend is someone from Bahama (Buh-Hay-muh) who was born to redneck Ma, and Palestinian Pa and it’s not a surprise that his Pa is buried in the churchyard where his Ma has always gone (though his head points east). OK Carry on!
Kurt and I were friends going back some years. Sometimes when he was really sick, feverish from piss-tract infection, he thought it was his whole life. I actually didn’t go back very far, only twelve years or so. And for most of that time he’d been living handicapped as a result of a fluke accident.
It went like this: an ill-fated fall from his kid’s scooter, his head slamming concrete hard, and unfortunately no one home to assist him for most of a long summer day until his family got home—a wife and kids he now only saw when his medicare check came in. On his back in his driveway, staring at the sky, he’d tried to get a neighborhood dog to get help, but the fool dog only licked his face and curled up next to him for a nap. Subsequently the injured neck swelled up, cutting off blood to the spine for too many hours. This is a recipe for a quaddy.
My visiting had become sparse. I felt awful about it, but, there wasn’t much I could do. They moved him to a North Durham care facility when they closed the nearby care facility he had been housed in. He had his own little dorm room in the that facility, a big screen TV on which we could watch movies, and talk complete shit about the more attractive of the nurses and their assistants. We were stuffing chocolates into their hideous, puke green or wallpaper-flowered uniform pockets, plying them to be playful women for us, making them laugh, roll their eyes, and make promises they would not keep.
Sometimes we’d just have sodas on the porch. But in the evening we might go out to his handivan and I’d pack him a pipe. Sitting in the back his drug paraphernalia stowed in the depths of his knapsack always reminded me of being a teenager. No one cared to look deep in his sack lest they be rooked into doing something not on their list of duties. I’d crank the classic rock tunes, help him lift off a bit. It was all much better stuff than when we were kids, he’d always point out.
“I’m sorry man, this Quadrophenia is bullshit,” I would say.
“I used to have that record,” he always pointed out with a philosophical nod.
This trip up, however it was a bit of an emergency. I arrived, steeling myself to the usual insistent stench of diapers and antiseptic. I did not look left or right, did not glance curiously into open doors, did not want to see any more oppressive hopelessness than I already had to deal with. I had my own mission to complete. Kurt’s battery charger had shit the bed. He’d messaged. There were no other chargers in the entire facility, and no one in the facility knew anything about repairing it, even if they felt like it was part of their job description to do so. No battery charge meant Kurt’s chair would not go. He would be a potted plant.
Somewhere on the floor, a woman barked like a dog.
“My tools are in the top container, or they should be, I don’t know where anything is anymore,” Kurt drawled.
I was poking through his armoire which contained the majority of his life now, a few sweaters, sweat pants, t-shirts, plastic containers full of straws, protein bars, protein powder (he still ate like a weight lifter). There were some pictures in frames, one with me in it, and piles of law books. Finally, I located the little tool kit, and came back to the bed and began operating on his charger. He was directing me to open the box, and change the polarity of the output cable—which made no sense, but you don’t argue with a quaddy lawyer.
“Kurt, this thing’s dead,” I could tell because the little green charging light would not come on, “how much charge you got?”
“I probably got like ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“We need to get you a charger,” I said, some stress in my voice.
“Maybe . . . I’m hoping they can still fix this one,” he nodded toward his computer, “I gonna call the people I bought that one from.”
After an exhausting call to the company, the technician said he’d take a look at it, but could make us no promises. A replacement would cost 150 bucks.
“We don’t have much choice!” I said and hung up the Skype call. Kurt’s only phone was one he could yell into operation through his laptop.
Kurt was all about the off-campus excursion. He spun his chair around, nearly toppling the small, adjustable, bedside table his computer was locked down on (stuff goes for walks all the time), and zinged out into the corridor. He was soon yelling at the extremely full-figured lady behind the desk, plump as the Red Queen, who had me sign a black book of responsibility—providing return time. It always amazed me that they didn’t much care to know who I was, didn’t even want to check a driver’s license. She handed me a large card of pills in pop-out bubble plastic (they aren’t pharmacists they said, so I had to take the whole lot) Would he want his dinner? Should they keep it in his room? Will I feed him? Yes. Sure.
As I was loading him into his handivan with the broken lift and the doors that didn’t accommodate the lift gate properly—nothing worked as it was meant to—Kurt snapped orders at me.
“Make sure that door doesn’t get hit again, . . . just the simplest things” his exhaustion with directing us fully able idiots always apparent, “make sure no more damage happens to that door.”
I could see where the ends of the platform had bashed the plastic of the door, causing tears and divots, “Got it, man, no worries.”
A thick conifer branch, a necessary makeshift tool, was used to keep one of the aluminum lift arms in line, it having a tendency to want to warp and snap.
Once loaded, Kurt had to aim his chair toward a holding clasp that grabbed a bolt under his legs. It was a very narrow fit, the lift and the van. We had to put his arms inside the chair arms, no hanging them over the edges as he might get damaged. His arms were already covered in scratches and bruises from cutting the corners in the hallways, scraping door frames, and tearing past the mobile nursing trolleys. He was good at hitting the locking mechanism in one shot though, at least when sober.
I got the van started and crawled up the dilapidated parking lot and after a while, got us out onto the exceedingly busy Erwin Road. His position didn’t let him really take in the trip, he could see out the windshield, but not much of the sides.
“How’s Kate?” he drawled from behind me.
“Dude, I haven’t seen her in about eighteen months,” I chuckled.
“Oh no! She was so sweet! What is wrong with you, maaan?” he sounded downright hurt by the news. “Nothing, she got busy, I haven’t been able to get up with her, she’s out of the country right now.” I said this with some vehemence.
“Oh, man, she was soooo sweet,” he was off on his reverie about the lovely Kate, a graduate student I was able to date fairly seriously for a few years. “Mmm mmm mmm.” he added, shaking his head as if he had a mouthful of down-home cooking.
Kate had come in a few times with me to see Kurt, having heard me discuss him so often, and she had indeed immediately taken over feeding him and giving him some much needed grooming. Important intimacy broken people miss. I didn’t mind packing and lighting his pipe, but I was short on rubbing moisturizer on him.
“Yeah, boy, that Kate is a fine girl,” he almost sang.
“You know she’s in Canada,” I said in the rear-view.
“Oh shit, where?” he sproinged back to reality like a cartoon character, sobering up.
“Ah, she’s doing a post-doc up in Alberta, she got one.” I’d told him all this before, but he enjoyed the story.
Kurt laughed in his high-pitched manner, “You’re stupid not going with her!”
“Yeah well, she didn’t invite me, and I don’t have the means.”
He made a face of disbelief, “She’s gonna find herself a new man.”
I watched him in the rear-view mirror, arranged so I could see Kurt slumped in his chair, his silver mane wrapping his face like Antisthenes, an earring of a cross dangled from a lobe. Antisthenes was the hairy guy most famous for saying: Pay attention to your enemies as they are the ones most invested in finding your faults.
“You’re a fool. You take love for granted,” Kurt shook his head some more.
Kurt laughed and started choking. He’s been told it’s good to exercise his diaphragm and push phlegm anytime he notices it, but it’s really disconcerting when he does it as it appears he’s choking to death.
“You OK, man?”
“S’OK,” he nodded solemnly.
Cary is a lot of red brick plazas set off the main road and hidden by rows of crepe myrtles. It took a while to find the place. It was located on the back of one of the flat, puzzle-piece-like buildings.
“I don’t have much charge left, I’ll stay here,” Kurt said, “see if that guy can fix it.”
“Got it,” I jumped out, rushed around to the side door, opened it up and left it open so Kurt could enjoy the fall day, a little sunshine falling on his lap. I grabbed the box, the wires wrapped around, and headed into the shop, the extra-wide doors opening automatically for incapacitated folks.
It took a little while for the receptionist to locate the technician we talked to, but he came out and grabbed up the box and disappeared. I wandered the shop. Studying the beautiful gleaming equipment for handicapped folks on display, it all looked like something out of a fantasy about human augmentation. It almost seemed like it wouldn’t be that bad being handicapped with some of this stuff.
“Sir!” the tech returned, “I’m sorry. We can’t fix this one—it’s shot.”
“Damn! Hey, can you come out and explain it to my man, he’s in the van.”
“Right, yeah, of course.” He did not hesitate.
I lead the fellow out carrying the junk box, left unscrewed, in parts. Kurt became alert as we approached, opened his eyes.
“Bad news, man,” I started.
“Sorry, sir,” the technician, a thirty-something balding fellow said, “this one isn’t fixable.”
“Oh, well, that’s that then,” Kurt chuckled, “looks like I’m fucked.”
“Well, what’s a replacement cost?”
“Ah, we have a unit that works with this chair, it’s about a hunneret-fifty dollars.”
At this point, I fully expected Kurt to have me dig out his cash, stuffed into a black nylon wallet deep in his knapsack—behind the weed—and buy a new unit. But he had no intention of doing such, and I suddenly realized I was going to be stuck trying to push him in his dead, three-hundred pound chair back into his care facility. I suddenly felt a surge of frustrated anger.
Kurt directed a gaze at the technician, a look that only a career lawyer knows how to produce. It was something like what you might use to respond to someone trying to sell you door to door meat. The look said “Is that the story we’re going with?”
There was a moment of connection, the fellow seemed mesmerized by Kurt’s silver-haired guru gaze.
“Wait here a minute,” the technician suddenly said and rushed back into the building. Kurt closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
“Well what the fuck are we doing here?” I snarled with annoyance.
Had he really no intention of actually solving this problem? I couldn’t solve it. I was as broke as a bird.
Suddenly, the technician reappeared with another box.
“OK. This is a charger that’ll work with your chair, it’s a discontinued model. So long as you don’t leave it plugged in too long it should work just fine, . . . they had overheating issues—recalled them. You can just have that, no charge,” the fellow said.
“Thank you so much, brother!” Kurt bellowed.
“It’s fine, just be careful not to leave it plugged in.” And with that he turned around and disappeared back into the shop.
On the way back, hauling ass up I-40, trying to be on time, Kurt beamed in the rear-view, “Why do you think he did that?”
“I don’t know, man, you got some luck there.”
“Naw man, that was some magic from Gawd right there, a blessing!”
“There you go, Gawd was on your side about being too cheap to fork over the money for a new unit,” I laughed, mimicking his Carolina accent.
“Do you think it was my earring?”
“I think he liked the earring,” Kurt was moving his head around to flash the little crucifix in the rear-view mirror.
“Right, it must have been that.”
“Yessir, Gawd did me a blessing today,” he said, craning his head back and smiling.
When I last visited him he surprised me by asking me if I wanted to be on his contact list if he died.
“What for?” I jibed, “so I can come cry?”
He laughed heartily, loved that, the idea that I’d be crying over his passing.
“My heart isn’t good,” he finally told me. He didn’t say much more, but I understood. He was still smiling at me. But I knew quaddy’s often have bad hearts. Paralysis isn’t good for us.
“Quadrophenia,” I joshed.
“I used to have that record,” he said.
One day playing chess over the internet, I could see that I had him pinned. No matter which way I looked at it, I could see that I’d played my game well. I’d never won a match. But he was late. I hoped he’d not gotten another of his famous piss-tract infections.
And then I got the email. Kurt had passed in the night.
Kurt’s ladies were grief stricken. Over the next few days I received email from them. Each of them wrote me long messages to exhale some pent up frustrations regarding his stubbornness about being more serious about their love. They were each certain they were his special objet d’amour. I told them Kurt’s amorous intentions were not open to my scrutiny. Privately, I was still stunned that a guy who couldn’t feel or move anything from the shoulders down could have three intimate ladies.
I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t care to see his family, who were never around. Not even on the holidays. I usually rang in the holidays with him, just him and me.