Things You Carry
Caleb pushed the beer can between his legs, rolled his wheelchair over to the black paint-chipped iron railing, and locked the wheels. He removed the cigarette from his mouth, tilted his head back and took a long swallow, shook the can and let the last few drops trickle into his mouth. He drew hard on the cigarette, let the smoke flow through his nose, and then dropped the butt in the empty can. After a while he nodded off, unbothered by the bouncing basketballs as young men made their way to the nearby playground, or the roar of the traffic speeding out the one-way street. A blaring horn awoke him. He stuck two fingers in his shirt pocket and pulled out the empty cigarette pack.
“Shit,” he said, throwing the crumpled pack to the floor. He thought about going back down to the deli again before his wife, Lucinda got home from work, but the traffic was getting heavy and the construction crew working on the sidewalk had barricades all over the place. He decided not to go. He maneuvered his wheelchair around, leaned over the railing and squinted toward the corner of Georgia and Irving. Jacob and several friends were lollygagging around, dancing to music from a Boombox, on the graffiti marred wall. The corner, a popular strolling area for young women from the local university is a favorite spot for young men. Old men, whispering, and elbowing one another strolled past occasionally too. The proper young women enjoyed the attention when Jacob and his friends yelled and whistled. They walked past the same time every evening, giggling, looking back over their shoulders, accentuating the twist of their hips. Jacob and his friends strutted behind them moving their hands back and forth, pretending to be controlling the motion of the young women backsides. “That’s what I’m talking about” the young men often yelled, slapping palms with one another.
Willie, the local number runner spent most of his day cruising up and down Georgia Avenue in his Green 68 Eldorado. He picked up numbers, scribbled on small scraps of paper and torn pieces of brown paper bags along with crumpled bills and small change from people working in barbershops, service stations, and other small business, sometimes paying out hits to the lucky ones. He honked his horn and cheered the group on. Caleb smiled and shook his head as the young men performed their ritual. He had engaged in the same type of activity, growing-up over in southeast.
After finishing Anacostia High, Caleb worked as a janitor at Hecht’s over on 7th and F. He started driving a cab part-time after he and his longtime girlfriend, Lucinda got married. A while later got a job driving a bus for Metro. Lucinda went to work as a clerk for a large government agency. They moved from their small apartment to a row house on Irving Street in a recently integrated neighborhood to raise their son Jacob and other children they figured would come. Eighteen years, Jacob was still the only child.
The sun hung low in the west sending slants of light between the duplexes lining the street. Years earlier, government workers, police officers, teachers, and others who moved into the quiet uptown neighborhood went out and sat on their small porches to enjoy the evening breeze. Now, the once proud homeowners sat on their porches complaining about all the traffic-noise and pollution after the “Big Shots” downtown changed Irving Street to a one-way express to suburbia after the original homeowners moved out.
Jacob glanced up the street and saw his father leaning over the railing, gazing down toward the corner.
“I got to go home and check on my old man,” he said
He ran across the busy one-way street dancing between cars, the sound of blaring horns and angry yells of people hurrying home to the suburbs. A green Plymouth Minivan swerved toward him, almost bumping his leg. He banged his fist on the hood of the vehicle and gave the finger to the mean looking fellow yelling obscenities’ out the window of the van. Jacob ran up the sidewalk toward the house. He spoke and waved to the porch- sitters and skipped around a group of young girls playing hopscotch on the chalk-marked sidewalk. The fellow in the minivan, cursing at a higher volume shoved his hairy arm out the window and thrust a finger in the air. Jacob turned and patted his behind a couple of times and blew the angry man a kiss. The man started gesturing and screaming so loud Jacob couldn’t understand what he was saying.
“Boy you better quit messing with that man,” a laughing toothless fellow yelled from one of the porches. “No telling what he’ll do to you if he gets his hands on you,” he said leaning over slapping his hands on his bony knees, wheezing with laughter. Jacob laughed and waved to the old man and continued jogging up the sidewalk.
“What’s up Pop?” He yelled from halfway down the block. Jacob loped up the sidewalk with long graceful strides. A smile eased across Caleb’s lips when he remembered how the two of them had spent many evenings in the small fenced backyard. Jacob a tall spindly boy at the time chased his Nerf football or tried to catch baseballs tossed in the air by Caleb. Lucinda cheered from the small metal porch. Caleb always wanted his son to be an athlete, maybe a football or a basketball player, something other than a bus driver. Sometimes when Caleb was home alone he sat on the back porch with a beer in one hand, squeezing the small football with the Redskin insignia with his other hand. He kept the football tucked away in the bottom drawer of his dresser, along with letters he received from Lucinda when he was in Vietnam. Memories of that tall skinny boy played around in his mind.
“Pop!” Jacob yelled again. Caleb glanced up waved, turned, and rolled his wheelchair toward the door bumping his amputated leg against the small wrought iron table. “Damn,” he said rubbing his palm over the tucked khaki pant leg covering the nub of his missing right leg. It still hurts like shit, even after all these years—it still hurts. Caleb’s National Guard unit was activated in 1971. He ended-up Vietnam where he lost his leg and suffered wounds to his right hand three months before his tour ended.
“You need me to run to the store?” Jacob asked, picking up the beer can and the balled-up cigarette pack, following his father in the house.
“Who’re your friends?”
“Dudes I used to go to school with.”
“They don’t work either?”
“Yeah I bet—looking at them gals. Why don’t ya’ll join the army?”
“You went in the army. Look what happened to you.”
Caleb’s face flashed with anger. He stared at Jacob a moment and strained to push himself up out of the chair. His arms trembled. Sharp pain passed through his shoulders. He dropped back in his chair. “Shit,” he said, rubbing his palm over his leg.
“Go ahead and say what you mean. You don’t want to end-up being a damn cripple like me. That’s what you mean ain’t it?”
“No, no that’s not what I mean Pop. Stuff happens to people sometimes. Leon got shot down on 14th Street. He wasn’t even in the army.”
Caleb stared at his son feeling his body shake with anger. He wasn’t angry with Jacob. He was angry at what happened to him.
“I’m sorry Pop. I didn’t mean nothing. You want me to run to the store for you?” Jacob asked lowering his voice. He walked into the kitchen threw the beer can and the cigarette pack in the trashcan opened the refrigerator and poured a glass of milk.
Caleb sat in the living room rubbing the sore stump of his irritated leg. The stump still hurt even though he hadn’t used his artificial leg in four or five days. He came home one day and threw the damn thing in the corner and starting using his crutch whenever he ventured out. He went out less often after Lucinda complained so much about his drinking. He started inviting his friend over. They sat around on the porch playing cards and drinking beer for hours. Lucinda complained about drunks hanging around the house. Caleb told his friends they couldn’t come back to visit no more.
“What you want me to do Cindy?” He asked. You don’t want my friends here and you don’t want me going nowhere. What you want me to do?”
Lucinda took a deep breath clasped her hands together “I’m sorry,” she said. I’m not trying to be mean to you Caleb.”
Caleb didn’t go out much after that, when he did he steadied himself on his crutch and walked the three blocks to the small deli to pick up beer and smokes and buy lottery tickets. He liked playing the street numbers best, but since they changed Irving to a one-way street. Willie couldn’t park and walk door to door picking up number slips and dropping off hits like he used to. Now he spent his time moving up and down Georgia Avenue.
One day when Caleb was on his way to the deli, he attempted to make his way through a construction site where part of the narrow sidewalk was being replaced. He fell and struck his head on a piece of concrete. He floundered around on the ground with blood streaming from a large gash on his head before he was able to pull himself up with the aid of a street sign. He made his way home and went into the bathroom.
“What happened Pop, somebody jump you?” Jacob asked hurrying in the bathroom. He wetted a face cloth and tried to wipe the blood from his father’s head. Caleb pushed him away and slammed the door.
“What in the world happened to you? You been hanging around with them old drunks again?” Lucinda asked when she came home and saw the wound on Caleb’s head.
“For your information, I ain’t been hanging around with nobody!”
“Well, what happened to you then?”
Caleb turned and started toward the door.
“I asked you a question, Caleb!” Lucinda said, moving around in front of him.
Caleb balanced himself on his crutch, slapped her hard across the face, hobbled out, and slammed the door behind him. He stumbled home from the bar several hours later and maneuvered his way up the steps of the small row house. He tripped and pushed the door open, sending the doorknob disappeared in a hole in the faded blue entryway wall. The drawing of Jesus fell to the floor.
“Shit,” Caleb mumbled grabbing the doorjamb —struggling to maintain his balance. Lucinda rushed to the door. “Oh my goodness!” she yelled. “You knocked Jesus down.” She picked up the drawing, went in the bedroom, and closed the door. Caleb stood balancing himself on his crutch with his other large hand pressed against the wall. Lucinda walked back in the living room still clutching the drawing to her chest, wiping a tear with her trembling finger trying to hide the bruises on her face. She knew Caleb wouldn’t remember hitting her. In fact, he would never believe he could ever do such a thing.
“How come you stay drunk and mad at us all the time Caleb? We ain’t done nothing to you.” Caleb stood with his fist balled-up wavering back and forth leaning on his crutch. He staggered over, and dropped down hard on the pink and black floral sofa with his elbows on his legs holding his face in his hand. Lucinda walked around the small coffee table and placed her hand on his shoulder. Caleb never told Lucinda or anyone else how he felt, how he carried shame and the hurt around in his chest like a ten-pound bag of wet sand.
“I ain’t mad at ya’ll Cindy. I reckon I just want things to be like they used to. I can’t even work no more. How you reckon I feel when I can’t even take care of my own family?” he said looking up at his wife.
“We’ll be all right. I can get a part-time job if I have to. Anyhow, I thought the people down at Metro said you might be able to come back to work as a dispatcher,” Lucinda said wiping her eyes and patting Caleb on the shoulder. “You talk to them?”
“Yeah, I went down there in a cab the other day.”
“I couldn’t pass the little bull-shitty test. I didn’t want to tell you.”
“You used to work for’ em.”
“I know, but I still got to pass the dispatcher’s test. Sometimes I can’t remember stuff like I used to. Anyhow, I pretty much used up all the little money from my Metro retirement.”
“How come they taking so long to approve your disability claim?”
“I don’t know they keep talking about a heap of backlogs.”
“You ought to go back down yonder to the Veterans Administration and talk to the doctors again and ask them about your disability claim.”
“All they gonna do is ask me a bunch of stupid questions and write some shit in a folder like they always do?”
“Just keep going down there, you ain’t asking nobody to give you nothing you ain’t supposed to get.
“Yeah, I reckon I ought to.”
Jacob walked back into the living room turned his glass up and finished his milk.
“Well, do you want something from the store or not?”
Caleb looked up as if he was surprised to see Jacob standing there.
“Do you want me to go to the store or not?”
“Oh,” Caleb said. He leaned over somewhat and rummaged around in the pocket of his wrinkled khaki pants and pulled out a folded twenty. “Can you leave your friends and them gals alone long enough and go down yonder to the deli and get me a six-pack and a pack of smokes?”
“You ought to stop smoking Pop, the way you running around here coughing and going on. Mama’s gonna be on your case again.” Jacob said placing his hand on his father’s shoulder,
“You gonna tell her?” Caleb asked, leaning away, trying to avoiding his son’s touch.
“I ought to.”
“You ought to mind your own business and get a job, that’s what you ought to do. You make sure you bring my change back!” Caleb said handing Jacob the money with his large shaking hand.
Why you all the time getting on me about a job Pop? I’m trying.”
“All the time.”
“Mamma got choir practice tonight?”
“Called, said she’d be home early.”
“You want me to get something to eat?” Jacob asked.
“You got some money?”
“Sure do.” Jacob said waving the twenty-dollar bill in the air.
“Gone to the store boy and get my smokes and beer like I told you, boy.”
The setting sun moved down below the top of the duplexes across the alley behind Caleb’s back yard. He decides to get away from the fumes and the traffic out front. He pushed his wheelchair in the corner of the living room. Then he picked up his crutch and went in his bedroom, rummaged around in his dresser drawer until he found the small Nerf football. He went out on the back porch and sat on the step, listening to the laughter of children playing in the back yards. The aroma of cooking supper meals carried by a warm slow evening breeze saturated the air.
“Caleb, you allright?”
At first, the voice startled him.
Caleb twisted around and looked back over his shoulder.
“You okay?” Lucinda asked.
“Hi Cindy,” Caleb said trying to push himself up.
“No you sit down, I’m gonna fix dinner.”
“I got a letter from the VA today,” Caleb said handing the letter to Lucinda.
“You did, what they say?” she asked reading the letter. She closed her eyes and pressed the letter against her breast. “They approved your disability pay!”
“It’s about time.”
“That’s wonderful,” Lucinda said, walking back into the kitchen, still reading the letter.
Caleb settled back down on the step. A little while later Jacob pushed the screen door open and walked out on the porch carrying a brown paper bag. Caleb reached for the bag and placed it on the step below, trying to hide it behind his leg.
“She saw the bag.” Jacob said.
“She did?” Caleb asked, ripping the tab of a beer can and taking a long swallow.
“What she say.”
“She didn’t say nothing, “Jacob said.
“No. What you doing with that?”
“My football.” Jacob said.
“I use it to exercise my hand sometime.”
“Where’d you find it?”
“I stumbled across it somewhere the other day. I don’t remember where.” Caleb said.
Caleb took another long swallow from his beer.
Jacob walked down the steps and started running in place in the small yard.
“Hit me Pop!” Jacob yelled.
Caleb leaned back and sent the small football arcing toward the back fence. Jacob reached up grabbed the ball with one hand and raised his arms high over his head signaling a touchdown.
Lucinda stood in the kitchen looking through the screen door, clapping. Caleb leaned his head back and laughed long and loud, for the first time in a long time.