Frank's Big Toe
The photo of Frank was what got it all started. It was on the front cover of my friend's magazine, a quadrapalegic flat on his bed. And there was an article inside, too, with a preface telling me it was "based on a true story." There he was, this guy living outside Baltimore paralyzed from the shoulders down, except he could move the big toe of his right foot. He would lie there just moving his big toe around all day. What a freak, I thought. And that's not all. The writer claimed that, not counting the man's sister, he was the first person this guy had talked to in five years, he was so pissed off about being paralyzed. And he did it for a story! That was enough to get me interested, but what's more, it was written that he hardly even talked to his sister, just nodded and grunted instead. When he finally spoke, he told the writer, "No one knows shit."
And that was how the writer started the article, with those words. All these things put together were ideal for what January and I liked to do: that is, go find people we considered freaks. Freaks of nature, be their strangeness physical, mental, or spiritual. We would go check them out and January would take pictures. So we went to see Larry, that magazine's editor and a friend of mine, at his house, leaving D.C. in my old Chevy, the bumper attatched with duct tape behind us, listening to music come out the one speaker that worked. When we got there, his mother let us in and led us down to the basement.
"Larry," I said, after he got off the phone, "where do we find this paralyzed guy?"
"Sorry," he said, hardly looking at me. "Can't tell you."
"C'mon," I said. "January just wants to take pictures of him. Make him famous. That's what he wants, isn't it?" January had a show running in Georgetown. Things were starting to happen for her.
"Isn't that what everyone wants?" my literary friend said sarcastically. I couldn't tell if he held such an opinion, or was placing the cynicism squarely on me. Seeing I wasn't getting it, he added, "Or so you would say."
"No, no way, Larry," I said. "I'm sure he's"
"You just want" He stopped himself short and turned away.
"What?" I said.
"You didn't let me finish." But he wasn't interested. I shrugged at him then, thinking that he was always trying to play the smart one.
We were silent for a few moments. January walked around his room, picking things up off shelves, looking at them, putting them back. I shuffled around a bit, but stayed in front of him. He was trying to ignore us. The silence was like a beer whose head was curiosity. When it rose to the top, I was questioning the whole thing, and myself for getting into it. Didn't I have anything better to do with my time? But before I had a chance to retreat back to D.C., Larry gave in, just like that. I didn't get it: Did he think we had something to bargain with, or have a reason to fear us?
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll give him a call and see if he'll talk to you." I was more than happy to wait for the possibility.
He went upstairs to find the phone number and we looked around some more. Not much had changed since the last time I'd been there, except more magazine covers were on the wall. I shook my head. I didn't know how he put that magazine out, spending all his time in the basement of his parents' house, and I didn't understand the fascination with trying to find out just the right way to put two stories together, or how to fit two poems on the same page. Whenever I visited him, it was just him and the computer. He had a girlfriend once, but, apparently, she'd broken up with him. That's what I'd heard anyways.
"Is this him?" January asked, pointing to a cover on the wall, and it was him. There he was on the wall, looking like a dead dog.
When Larry came back down he had the surprise news that the quad, as I was calling him, would actually see us, telling me, "Frank's his name. In the article it's George, but we changed it for the article." He handed me a piece of paper with directions on it and Frank's phone number. I couldn't understand why they put this guy's picture on the cover of the magazine if they were so bent on changing the name.
January and I got back in the car and started towards his house. All the way over I kept thinking of that photo, and of what he'd said: "No one knows shit." I didn't know anything else about the guy. I didn't know what was true and what wasn't. How could you when it came to magazine articles?
January pulled out a bag of weed and we smoked up in the car. We usually did this on these missions. It was the kind of thing like if this guy had three heads and one testicle, we were going to see them in all their detail. If he wasn't going to speak to us, clam up and get all angry and shy again, we thought it would help us to feel just how uncomfortable the room really became. We thought of ourselves as doomsayers and artists all at once; at least I did.
His house was a red brick two story building framed against a back yard full of trees, and there was a fake dog in front, pretending to jump up in the air. He was out there in the middle of the woods, practically. This was not what I thought of when I thought Baltimore.
"January? Did you bring a gift or anything?" I asked.
"Whaddya mean, did I bring a gift or anything?" she said. "Why do you always gotta say that. Shit, give me a fuckin' break, Chi Chi."
"All right, all right," I said. "Calm down. We'll ask him if he wants to smoke some weed, that's all."
I knocked on his door lightly. I was really high at this point so it sounded loud to me, loud enough to make me nervous, but there was no answer anyhow, so I had to knock again, and louder. "Oh shit," I thought. "What if the guy can't hear us? What if he can't come to the door, anyway? How the hell is he gonna come to the door?"
I stared at the yellow of the door. At some point, he must have been happy, I thought, with his red brick house and yellow door. "It's like we're in some fairy tale," I said to January, which seemed like a freakish idea in itself, but one I liked, picturing a previous life of squared with the American dream, a man at the top of the world before a freak accident ruins him. His life is spared, but for what? I could hear the story on the television news magazine already.
When the door finally opened, we were met by a stout, middle-aged woman whose name, I learned later on was Margaret.
"Are you Chi Chi?" she asked me.
We stood looking at each other until I suddenly realized I hadn't introduced January. "And this is my assistant, January." We were trying to make it look like a professional photography gig. We were there to take pictures, nothing more.
But she only looked at January the same way as she'd looked at me. Her grin scared me because I couldn't decipher its source.
"Are you Frank's... mother?" I asked her, which was stupid, really, given her age and the age you'd guess Frank to be, given the cover photo.
"I'm his sister," she said.
I thought of charging the place, of pushing her over and watching her roll away, walking in and finding her paralyzed brother. I had tricked myself into believing there was something heroic about all this, that I was on some sort of mission. But I was just a lazy and this was what I did to excuse myself; it pleased me to seek a definition of the abnormal and have January document the search. The last one we'd done was siamese twins. One of them was trying to become a professional singer while the other said she was her biggest fan. Nothing courageous or sad in finding them, but easier than looking in the mirror.
Finally, she stepped aside and let us in. The place was cleaner than I'd imagined it, and that was a letdown, since I'd dreamed up the outlandish: White Snake on the radio, maggots in the kitchen, pornography on the walls and cum stains on the bed posts; the quad drooling on the bathroom floor and multiple episodes of Jerry Springer projected across his walls from a satellite dish. I wanted this house to be my version of an Oklahoma I'd never been to, with children who smelled like cats, and sheep who ate with a knife and fork. I had wanted that, or else total silence, Frank ignoring us while we took pictures of him. In the second scenario, I'd had January against his bed frame while he looked on, paralyzed and hopeless - except that big toe wagging at the possibilities. That's how I pictured it the night before, and though I was disappointed now, I still thought I could clean Margaret out of there so we could go through with it.