HABIT by Steve Prusky

I can’t tell you what affliction placed him in that wheel chair. I’m sure it was one of many, or maybe a combination of some. He was an arthritic knot carelessly dumped in a four wheeled tomb. His thinned hair stayed ratty, well beyond the help of a comb. His ninety pound body was eaten bare of flesh like a smaller version of Hemmingway’s stripped marlin still tied to the skiff on a Cuban beach. He smelled like the rotting odor of near death no bath can wash away. Abject defeat lined his worn face. His dulled eyes portrayed disappointment there are laws preventing burial of the breathing dead. He was a lump, slowly dying in the dry desert air his former New York doctor said might slow his dying.

He was as gregarious as a used car door. His wife was always pushing him to one destination or another. When she wheeled him too close to me he’d fold his hands across his lap, cock his head down to face the ground, avoiding eye contact as if he were ashamed of his condition. She’d hunch over, push hard to speed up and scoot him by, gesturing with an off handed wave and weary smile as they passed. He’d grumble at me then toss spear-like insults at her. I would still hear his cursing, even after they rolled out of sight. His disposition was as repulsive as his final days alive.

What sort of resentment was this? Why would it occur between the helpless and helpful? Dying left him with only her to trust for all his needs. She catered to him with the pent up urgency of a desert monsoon storm, yet he treated her as if she were a cruel keeper with the only key to his personal (no visitors please!), jail of pain. Gratitude must have been too big a piece of pride to slice from his half dead heart when the part still living wasn‘t ready to quit. Knowing what he was facing..…something must have tripped in him; turned him sour, angry, withdrawn. He was a snarling old dog turned permanently mean. Once he may have been reliable, honorable, a loving father and husband, a good earner. Now, all he had left was this undignified slow dying in a wheel chair. Even without talking to him, which I never did, I sensed his bitterness at all that went wrong in his life. I doubt he acknowledged she was all that went right. Sometimes, when we’d cross paths, I could almost see her lips repeating “’Till death do us part. ‘Till death do us part. ’Till death. . . . ” When the time came she’d get stuck with the funeral and the bill. The kids would come out from New Jersey for the first time in ten years. She’d handle the will, then move on. Until then, she ignored his verbal abuse, pushing him where ever they had to go.

Taking care of him full time (doctor’s visits, meds, bills, therapy, him), must have been a full time task. Some of the tedium from so harsh a routine must, at some point, grow repetitious, habitual, somehow easier to perform. At first, the hard core chronic patterns refuse to break after the dead leave the living behind. The day she pulled up to her assigned parking spot–alone–was the day I realized he’d died.

She softly stroked the tattered fabric of the worn thin seat, convinced it still held some form of his arthritic frame, as if years of sitting there during her errands pressed his shape indelibly into the thread bare cushions of their aging car. To her, the seat assumed his mold like an inside-out cloth cocoon from which, by dying, he had morphed. What blissful moment of their marriage did she just recall?

She walked to the rear trunk slowly, in no hurry to heave out and unfold his chair. She was even less enthused she’d have to come around to his side, lift him from the car and properly stuff him in his envelope on wheels. At the trunk she stopped short, clutching its opened lid to steady herself. She stared into its dark emptiness a few seconds, then woke up, struck dumb there’d be no more wheel chair to fetch. She glanced my way and briefly shared the grief in her joyless eyes, offering me a glimpse at an unread novel of habits his absence may never break. Then, she turned and walked away.

STEVE PRUSKY lives and works in Las Vegas.  He attended Northern Michigan University before joining the Navy during the Vietnam War.  After that he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  His prose and poetry has appeared in the Foundling Review, Lake Superior Review, Calliope’s Corner, the Legendary and other journals.

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