Angelo Bardi was going home. It was the strangest feeling just standing there in the lounge with all the cripples, standing, mind you, even if there was the crutches—he’d be rid of those soon enough. Standing there watching all those wasted suckers with their strokes and amputations and never going to get any better, most of them fixing to get shipped off to one of the other wards where the only way they’d ever get out was feet first in a plastic bag. Not this guy. No, Angelo Bardi had beat them, had beat the crazy sort of fate that had him paralyzed from the waist down just six months back and wondering if he was ever going to get it up again let alone walk. It was a frigging miracle, but he had brought it on himself just out of sheer willpower and determination, and one thing was certain. There was going to be no more of that fag King handing out his water in the morning and even washing his back and breathing hard all over him, big strapping virile man he knew himself to be, just a year ago going 190 with a 32 inch waist.
Tommy had asked him if he had learned anything from the experience. In a sense, he had. What he had learned was not to take things for granted, to get the most out of life really, and to live for number one, Bardi himself. Because the strangest thing was that of all the women he knew, and he had a book full of them, only the first wife had had the decency to pay a visit, fat old slut that she was, and even then after the way he had treated her. Not one of those other witches—he could think of worse words—had even paid a call, and he had set them all up proper and made sure they were in clothes and what have you just so they was available when the urge came, and the urge came often, very seldom for the same woman, that was sure, but came nevertheless and came hard and true, because if one thing was certain Angelo Bardi was a real man, not the kind of wimp they put him in with when the lower half of him was as limp as your grandmother’s udder and he had to listen to the guy all night, Jeeter Simpson, shaking the bed, abusing himself, and coasting around during the day in a white vinyl crash helmet with those ugly thick lips and the vague eyes and the goatee and hairy as the back end of an ape. No more Jeeter Simpson. No, back to the Co-op and a bottle of Asti and that woman he had hired to take care of him in more ways than one—he had made that clear with the ad.
It all started in Reno where he had spent the weekend at the Mustang Ranch and had gone through every high class hooker in the place, gone through all that anatomy and enough Bourbon to drown a small horse, had spent the weekend there blowing off steam, and came back into town and looked over a second hand Porsche that he thought might improve his image, and took it out for a test spin, and some Puerto Rican in a big Chevy slammed into the back, and they said it was whiplash, but he ended up numb from the neck down and hardly moving his arms the first month, and ending up here on this ward with the awful food and the sloppy service and no call system so that you had to lay in it for hours sometime, hollering out and no one hearing, not to speak of King’s hands on him mornings washing him, and bit by bit the feeling came back in the limbs and a trace of hope and hanging on and knowing that the whole world was totally bent crooked and that if he ever had the chance to do it again he would really be selfish because the only one that came and brought him a bottle once in a while was Winnie, who was sagging and ugly and hoping maybe for a hand-out.
Bardi stood there by the door watching them listing in their wheelchairs and the hophead in the motorized one inching his way through the doorway, and he was just tasting his impending freedom, when the first night in Twin Oaks flashed past him so fast his knees nearly buckled and he just missed hitting the deck. It was a fleeting vision, but the whole thing was there, all that unquenchable misery he would never quite forget.
They had flown him back to his home state, and he was given the option of two hospitals and he took Twin Oaks and he arrived on a litter toward evening, and they lifted him into bed in a double room where the curtain was drawn on his neighbor, and he lay there, and they fed him, and he used what was left in his right arm to get to his face and scratch it, and he was laying there till about nine, when the screw scooted out from behind his curtain and down the hallway, quiet there for hours so that Bardi hadn’t even known he was there, and then the nurse came in, and Bardi asked who was the creep? And got the information that he had an epileptic for a roommate, somebody about 25 with an incurable brain tumor they kept cutting away at, and that he was sleeping was why there had been no noise, and that he’d be back in soon enough, that he stays up nights reading Hustler.
Sure enough, he was scooting back in about 11, and pretty soon he could hear him breathing hard and the bed shaking, and Bardi hollered out for the nurse, and finally she showed, and Bardi asked her to take a look at his neighbor, he was having a seizure or something, and she just smiled kind of and said there was nothing to worry about he was just abusing himself, those exact same words, and for the next six months he had to listen to that bed shaking all night long, and one time, when he had his arms back, he leaned over and pulled the curtain aside, and the covers were jumping up and down like a madhouse, and he could see young Jeeter with his eyes closed and his back arched and the heavy lips and the goatee, and he swore if he ever had the chance he’d cut the bastard’s throat, the dirty sick SOB that reminded him night after night, hour after hour, that there was no way in hell he was going to ever have another Mustang Ranch, and this guy was simply expending it on his hand, the same hand he offered out to shake the first day they met head on when Bardi had gotten as far as a wheelchair, and Bardi had just pushed on by, wanting to split the creep’s big lipped face, Jew that he was probably, and cut his equipment off and nail it to the bulletin board.
No, he was going home. A little damaged maybe, but still in the ball park. He was going home to some sipping whiskey and maybe a little reefer when his son showed, cause he’d show soon enough when he heard the old man was back on his feet and a source of income, not down the tube like he figured. And the ladies? Well, they’d show too. Word gets out. And they’d be sweet and loving and forgive him a bit if he didn’t produce like the old days just so long as the money and times were there, the restaurants, the night clubs, weekends in the Catskills. And yet, somehow it’d never be just the same. Thing he learned here in Twin Oaks was you were just a little embolism, they called it, a clot away from creeping Jehovah, deads-ville, just like the hophead there sucking a cigarette from a catheter tube. Just a clot and you wouldn’t know your mother’s name. And worse than that, nobody in the whole bitching world would remember you even existed ‘cepting some loser who still had a heart. Maybe he’d look up old Winnie. Nah. Too late for that. Just get the hair touched up in the back and go on chasing, running like Jesus, toward the darkness. Getting your jollies now and then, mind you, but always toward the darkness. And then, leaning into the aluminum crutches, the tall man with streaks of yellow in the gray hair and the faded sun tan finally began to cry.