by Edward Ahern
Petey never talked to our therapy group about Holly, although he was worse off after she happened to him. Before Holly, he’d been living alone except for a scrawny cat he’d called Surly, and the cat had run off.
A few years earlier, he’d been in a motorcycle accident. Not his fault, a drunk had run a light and taken him out. His right leg had been removed from the knee down, and his left leg was always in a shin high medical boot. He wasn’t comfortable talking about his legs with our group, telling me privately that he felt their focus was hijacked by his triad of cane, metal leg and bright plastic boot.
“So the insurance company finally settled?”, I asked.
He smiled wryly. “Yeah, George, between disability, the insurance payout and eventually a half-assed pension, I can live a long, busted-up life.”
Whenever he could he sat in a tall, upright chair. Standing up if he was too low to the ground was painful to watch and, judging by his winced expression, painful to achieve. Petey infrequently shaved and had let his hair grow long, but from the knees up he was a normally okay-looking guy.
Holly was a major part of our group, grifting a little because she had to, but sympathetic to everyone’s problems. She was an alumnus of a drug rehab, divorced, living in a shelter, kids with the dad. Her clothes were Catholic charity, but her few bits of jewelry looked expensive. “I’m always afraid in the shelter,” she’d tell us, “because half of us are using and I’m offered hits all the time, and because stuff gets stolen every day. And worse.”
One morning, Petey began a rare sharing to us all.
“Okay, I’ve got enough to live on, family house paid off, but everything I do is in slow lurches- almost an hour to gather and put out the garbage, and another hour to undress, shower and dress again. I’m not bitching, some of us have it worse, but I remember what it was like to be better.”
I’d sat near Petey, and scanned everyone’s eyes. They were staring, not at Petey’s face, but at his cripple’s trinity. Except for Holly—she focused on Petey, broadcasting warmth. When the meeting ended, she cut across the circle of chairs to talk to him as he struggled to stand.
“You’re the odd man out, Petey. We’re screwed up inside. You’re torn up outside and in.” She paused, then put a hand on his arm, not to help him up, which she perhaps sensed he would hate, but more likely to offer emotional support. “You got to me with what you said. There’s a Starbucks just down the block, could you spare a little time and listen to me?”
Petey’s lips puckered. “I, ah, I don’t think so. I’m bad company, even for myself.”
“Please. I won’t bury you with sad stories, but we’ve got some of the same demons.”
“All right, I guess, but just a half hour.”
They left together, and for weeks afterward they sat beside each other at therapy. Petey admitted to the group that Holly had moved in with him. “She seems to be comfortable with me,” he said. She held his hand and nodded.
A few months after that Petey showed up on his own, and Holly never came back. When asked about her, Petey’s usual neutral tone was replaced with short, testy responses, like “she’s fine,” and “you’ll have to ask her.” I’d felt obliged to corner him.
“All right, what’s going on with you and Holly?”
“Go pick on somebody else, George.”
“You’re my best prospect. Let’s go have a parking lot discussion.”
Once outside I resumed.
“Did Holly take off? Relapse?”
Petey hesitated. “Nah. She’s clean. She’s still living at my place. But not with me.”
“It started off good. After a few days we got—close, and we only needed to wash one set of sheets. She seemed okay with my legs. But a couple months later she moved back to the spare bedroom and told me we weren’t working out. She takes care of her own food and cooking.”
“But she doesn’t do anything with you or for you?”
“Nah. It’s like I’m not there. And I think she’s been stealing some stuff and pawning it.”
My anger surged. The manipulative bitch was abusing a friend. “Tell her to get the hell out!”
“I did, but she just ignored me.”
“Get the cops to throw her out.”
“I wish. She claims I told her she could stay as long as she needed to, that she’s a tenant. It would cost me several thousand to go through legal proceedings, and even then there’s no guarantee. She’s not mean, still talks with me a bit, just withdrew back into herself.”
“Jesus. Do you want me to talk to her?”
“Yell at her, you mean? She’d probably just say you’d assaulted her.”
“I’m really sorry, Petey. Maybe she’ll find someone else to victimize. You’re not helpless. Make her life so miserable that she leaves. Go on line, check out other guys with similar problems. She’s less company than your bad-tempered cat was, get her out.”
His expression softened and saddened. “You may be right. She’s not much better now than Surly was. Maybe if she finds someone else, she’ll leave. But I’ve been alone for a long time, George. There’s no pleasure left in our relationship, but there’s a twisted comfort in her presence.”
“That’s a hell of a compromise,” I said. And then it struck me that maybe Holly was also paying her dues, willing to abandon our group friendships and live next to an alienated Petey to avoid the hazards of a shelter. “Let’s hope she finds someone else.”
* * *
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over three hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of nine review editors.