A Nice Day Out
If you can judge a city by its pavements, New York was in a bad way. People say the streets are mean, but they are also rutted, cracked, buckled, and cut about by grooves and furrows that, with just a little extra work, could serve as tank traps, should Manhattan ever be invaded. Some of these, I saw ahead of time, and steered around. Others seemed to lurk, invisible, then spring themselves upon me in one final, jarring moment, and the wheelchair I was pushing would abruptly jerk, buck, then crash back down, leaving its occupant to yell and fume at me. “Dumbass!” she’d cry, and ask if I was trying to kill her. Which by that time was a prospect I was starting to consider.
This should not have been my job.
I worked Field Ops.
Field Ops kept me far away from people.
I was Field Ops, not a fucking geriatric’s nursemaid.
The lady I was now escorting was named Melody Duchess Vanderlisle de Vere, a label so improbable it just had to be real. Yet she was not a duchess, save in name, and there was precious little melody about her, either. She had the voice of a crow and the manners of a Third World dictator. She would browbeat, badger and intimidate; at the same time, she could be suddenly, capriciously generous. She gave twenty bucks to the man who held the door at Tiffany’s, and was never less than courteous to the passersby—and there were many—who offered us assistance with the wheelchair, with doors, elevators, and whatever else we needed. She would gaze at them with helpless gratitude, these kindly souls, and her whole demeanor seemed to radiate: “Thank God you’re here to save me from this idiot.”
I was the idiot.
It was a verdict I found hard to disagree with.
By my third day on the job, though, I had a plan. I arrived at her apartment building, bright and early, determined that today, at least, I’d have an easy time. This was New York, when all was said and done, and Melody Duchess was cultured. Very, very cultured.
I squinted at the sky.
“Looks like rain,” I said. “You want to try the Guggenheim? The Metropolitan?”
She said nothing.
I said, “There’s a Degas exhibition.” I made this sound the greatest news on Earth. “Ballerinas, horse racing, you know? Be really good.”
But she sniffed, tipped back her head.
“Dagos,” she said, slowly, chewing the word around her mouth. “Why’d I want to go see dagos?”
“Degas,” I corrected, though of course, she’d heard me perfectly. Her thin lips pressed together in what might have been a smirk.
“Must be your accent, hon,” she said. “I swear, there’s times when I can’t understand a word you say.”
I was a servant here, and it is not the servant’s place to show emotion. So I smiled, and felt the venom seep between my teeth.
She laughed then.
“I’m just getting a rise out of you, honey,” she announced, like that made everything OK.
And I said, “Fine,” just like it did.
Melody Duchess did not want to see a gallery. Melody Duchess, it turned out, wanted to trek up half the length of Broadway, recapturing the memories of her youth (“Though it was different then,” she’d always say). She wanted to go anywhere she’d been with “Frugs,” the late lamented Ferguson de Vere, Esq., her husband. In real terms, this meant everywhere. Frugs had worked as an attorney, with an office just off Wall Street and the cream of all Manhattan for his clientele. She’d been married to him more than forty years. He’d never strayed. “I would have known,” she said. “I would have known immediately.” Frugs had been gone twenty years now, and I couldn’t help but think that it was probably a great relief to him.
So from the WTC station, we pressed north. I offered her a taxi; she shook her head.
“Young man. If I want a taxi, I will ask for one. You know how long it is, since I had a chance to get around like this? I want to feel the wind in my hair—”
“The rain on your skin,” I said.
“It’s only a few drops. Now come on! Come on!”
You’re 86, I thought. So what’s the rush?
But I’d more than likely answered my own question.
Maybe a half mile further on, we struck a cross street. I was busy watching out for cars, not looking at the ground. The front wheel hit a rut, the chair jumped in my hands, then slammed down on my shin so hard I felt the bone vibrate. The nausea slid over me.
She was outraged. She was furious.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
I twisted up. I hopped about there in the middle of the road, trying to block the throbbing in my leg. I have been beaten up and injured fairly badly in my life, but this one, stupid pain just really got to me. Melody might well have been a frail old bird, but that chair weighed a ton. And I had just collided with it. I slumped down on a doorstep, wondering if my leg was broken.