‘This girl…!’ Candace! Arguing with her was going to make Chick crazy.
Maybe he could get her to see reason by prosecuting himself as a bad housemate; then she’d want to return to Val’s. Right?
If only she would hold up redecorating his place with her own stuff for five minutes; stop somewhere both their wheelchairs might fit and be face-to-face with him while he at least tried.
But since her taxi had gone, and she’d practically sped through Chick’s front door with a big striped bag on her lap as soon as he’d opened it, she’d all but ignored him; instead smoothly wheeling throughout the house with periodic palm heels on rubber, her unbroken motion simply the continuation of her arrival.
Whether through the kitchen, the lounge, or even down the hall leading out to the back verandah, beneath frangipani shade, she proceeded as if alone, while Chick found himself mustering hastily what he had to hope would be convincing evidence against him: his regimented early rising; his weightlifting, with the metal thumps of the weights hitting the floor after every set, the bar clacking back on the bench rests; his sweaty-and-cologned man-smell all over the place; or even that she would have to start paying rent now and he’d have to charge her? How would she pay for that?
But Chick could only watch as she continued furnishing his place, leading him through it like he was the one looking to move in and not the other way around.
She produced a small box of incense from beneath the bag of clothes in her lap. The bag had remained there because Chick hadn’t even managed to address that and have her set it aside anywhere. Unendingly it seemed to Chick, she continued conjuring various items: a couple of candles for the coffee table; a silver picture frame on the end of a homemade, plank-and-brick bookshelf, with a drawing in it instead of a photo; and a small wooden bowl on the kitchen table,
As much as he might’ve wished to, Chick would never grab hold of her chair by the handles. And especially not from behind, out of her sight like that. Even if he so easily could just reach out and clasp one in his giant fist, stopping her dead.
So Chick failed with all his apparently unpersuasive objections: the real ones he offered up and the imagined, but unspoken, ones he couldn’t even think to utter when he looked at that wide, cheeky grin that, he was sure, Candace knew was working him like a pro, leaving her to finally push the bag off her lap with the back of her wrists, dumping it on the floor of the room at the back of the house, thereby claiming it for herself. There wasn’t much choice anyway; for her or for Chick, who knew there’d be no more debate.
And, that was it. Chick lived in a share house now.
Stacked in the room were a few boxes of Chick’s stuff. With a good square brace against the footplates of either of their chairs, the boxes could be made to slide over the floorboards and out the door. Some clothes hung on a wheeled rack, but at least there was a bed, a wood frame single with a soft but heavy mattress.
Candace was never going back home to her mother’s, and certainly not after Val caught her there in the middle of the day in bed with a man.
Clearly, Val had no idea who the man was; or that Candace did such things. With anyone. Not a lover or a friend. Val wasn’t sure Candace had friends.
She demanded her daughter explain herself.
‘He ’yadh money,’ is all Candace would’ve said had she answered.
But she ignored Val, spoke only to the man, who looked like a taxi driver, though he had no uniform, telling him to ‘Pizh off,’ which he did without argument, putting on his sweaty shirt and grey slacks and skulking away, past Val, who’d just stood at the doorway the whole time, and now watched open-mouthed and silent while Candace commenced and then kept on packing, picking up loose handfuls of clothing, enough for her to travel and then stay a while…somewhere.
Her mother hovered a minute more, and then left in disgust.
Candace felt the vibrations of slamming.
‘What the…? Candace?!’
Chick had once given Candace his address in Petersham. He didn’t really expect to ever see her again. He thought he’d get a letter, something like that, after her rehab.
But now here she was, having turned up without warning on his doorstep, her latest taxi already gone, and a big bag of clothes towering on her lap.
She looked good to Chick, a little thinner, maybe; prettier than he remembered with her short hair and thick-rimmed glasses,
‘You cut your hair,’ he said.
While pondering where he might store his extra stuff from now on, to give Candace space in her new room, Chick made coffee; rolling himself around the kitchen from the cupboard to the sink, to the fridge, the table, in strong snappy bursts of expert motion, impelled by his T-shirt-stretching, iron-fed muscles. His legs were draped loosely in his usual track pants. Black ones today.
He felt sweaty, and must’ve looked it, judging by Candace’s face as she watched him whiz about. ‘I was working out,’ he said.
There was a silence before Candace began.
This time Chick heard Candace’s other stories: about a father Candace never knew, who Val mentioned only rarely and always grimly; Candace falling ill with a fever at two or three, Val ignoring it long enough for it to rob Candace of her hearing; and the way she first learned to speak then with her lively dancing hands.
Chick hated that Candace was on junk, and for some reason also hated hearing mention of her failed surgery again, which he’d learned of for the first time during one of those group sessions they made everyone in the programme do, as part of their rehab.
She never wanted to talk, about her feelings or her reasons or even excuses, for anything, but she did ease her grip eventually on what seemed to Chick, even then, a quiet, cryptic fury.
The surgery was intended to restore Candace’s hearing. And Val, with visions of a perfect daughter, had too eagerly submitted to the confidence of the surgeon.
Instead, the operation took Candace’s legs from her and put her in a wheelchair, stole her hands and erased her best words. No one could say why. Perhaps something about the anaesthetic-maybe the mix of gases, something in the substance itself.
The one thing Chick could not figure out was how she ever managed to inject herself.
‘’zame adz the ‘orniquet. Udz my mout’,’
‘That just seems so dangerous,’ said Chick. ‘It’s a wonder you’re not, y’know?’ He was embarrassed pointing out the obvious and was sure he looked a little panicked.
Candace agreed with his concern. But what else could she do?
Her thin arms could still reach cigarettes to her mouth. More and more, one or other of her slender hands would be perched there, in a parody of elegance due to the way, after the surgery, both wrists had bent in a permanent spasm of the tendons, curling her fingers inwardly toward her. This new lust for smoking had also begun leaving indelible brown spots on her fingertips.
Cooking up a shot, though, could take some time; even if she was careful and not disturbed by the growing itch and ache, which increasingly demanded she compulsively scratch at her skin. And shooting didn’t always work out. She might spill the spoon trying to hold it over the candle with her mouth, or miss the vein, or any one of a dozen things.
If anything went wrong, she would have to waste more powder, or find another guy with money.
Managing at all to get pinned was miraculous and she needed it almost daily now.
Sometimes there were others willing to help her, which always risked her exposure to their tendency to fuck up and freak out.
Chick, the seated strongman, couldn’t believe what he’d agreed to in the end; becoming her pimp, her dealer, and the Madame of the House, for when the men came to visit. At least he’d look intimidating enough, with his arms clearly as big as some people’s legs.
‘Why am I letting you do this?’
‘Becau’ I’m irre’itible?’
‘Cute. But no more fishing on your own, okay? I’ll find them.’
She fluttered her eyes at him.
‘I mean it, Candace. There’re some weirdos out there. Also, I should at least be with you when you meet them, just in case. And we can’t have the cops. Ever!’
‘Yedz, ‘ir,’ Candace offered up a bent little mock salute. ‘Where wiwl we- ‘
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Chick.
She grinned like a naughty child, ‘Okay. Coow.’
‘Yeah, right. Cool.’ Chick rolled his eyes at her, pushed away from the kitchen table, put on the jug. ‘You want another one?’
‘Let me do it. The injection, I mean.’ He put a mug of coffee in front of her where she could lean into to meet it. She had a straw she always carried.
Candace felt a little horrified realising what she’d been telling Chick. It was bad enough he knew as much as he did. Now she was dragging him in deeper.
‘Look, I just think it’d be safer,’ he said, ‘And quicker. I promise I won’t fuck it up. I know what I’m doing. I’ve done it before.’ Chick wasn’t clear on how.
Bull’zhyit.‘You? Needle’?’ Candace always believed his muscles were the product of hard, honest work. Needles didn’t add up in her picture of him.
She remembered instead a kind of older brother/hero type, for his part in her rehab as a peer supporter, returning the fire of a sullen young woman who, four months earlier, was silent as stone and imploding.
Candace initially despised her wheelchair life, the way its rigid metal frame swallowed her body, made her hands feel clumsy on the wheels, after she used to speak so beautifully with them.
Through her anger, Chick stood by her, absorbing her poisonous fury, her struggle through tears towards new ways to speak.
She guessed she owed him more than she realised.
‘Re’cue me again. Plea’?’ Candace smiled.
It was about midday, Candace guessed. Chick wasn’t home and the house was dark, as she liked it. Chick apparently didn’t mind. He never said anything.
Rent was due and she had only a couple of cigarettes left; some grapes and cheese lay untouched in the fridge.
There was also the ache again, everywhere. It was stupid to resent this screaming demand she’d called down on herself and which rarely left her alone now, but she did anyway.
Her tiny muscles burned, her head ached and her skin itched beyond soothing. She felt nauseated. Candace knew Chick had her kit stashed in his room somewhere, and that he kept his door unlocked; his sunlit room with his window open late into autumn, for the air, and his curtains permanently furled.
Maybe he’d gone to the gym, to buy another tub of that disgusting powder he mixed in a tall glass every morning with orange juice and sometimes a raw egg.
She could’ve been in there already; but it would take too long to go through all the possible places the kit could be stashed, trying to wheel around the spaces between his bed and his workout bench, and Chick could show up any moment. She doubted her arms would lift enough to turn her wheels an inch anyway, let alone go rifling through his dresser, lifting up assorted documents, old bills or whatever; after negotiating a path past end of his bed, around his barbells and the various hand weights arrayed on the floor.
Chick would obviously hate it, Candace being in there without him knowing anything about it. She was ashamed to think on it further.
Ten minutes later, Chick opened the front door. ‘Whoa!’
Candace was sitting right there in the hall.
‘You okay?’ he said.
‘Where -er you?’ Sometimes Candace seemed not to know how loud she could be.
‘Hey, princess! Simmer down, okay? I just had to get a few things. Got you cigarettes.’ Chick was obviously annoyed at suddenly defending himself.
Candace visibly relaxed. ‘No I’ not,’ ‘‘orry. ‘orry. It’ ju—’
‘I know.’ He saw the scratch lines on her skin.
He went into his room, closed the door a minute, then re-emerged with the kit on his lap. ‘Here, then,’ he said. ‘The little black box of fits.’
Candace felt a brief anger; how quickly Chick had retrieved what she’d just been craving.
‘I found another guy today,’ he said. ‘Should be fine. Met him a little while ago. He’s gonna come by tonight. That okay?’
Candace said nothing and Chick could see her starting to look blissful as she watched him cook up.
Chick answered the door and brought “Bob” in to meet Candace who was waiting in the kitchen. It was the best place for three people and two wheelchairs, and the light was brightest.
Bob looked all right, not handsome or unattractive, in jeans and a blue jacket and smelling of cheap spray-on.
Candace was dressed in a light cotton dress with straps that showed off her pretty shoulders. She asked Bob to speak clearly. Not slowly, just clearly. She never thought much about this special insistence of hers but she supposed a man in Bob’s position expected certain rules, of some kind anyway, assuming he’d done this before. So far, the men had understood her particular requirements and not just the usual ‘Take a shower,’ or ‘Let’s have a look at you, then’, which Candace also made sure to put them through.
Bob suggested maybe his moustache would make lip-reading tricky. ‘Okay, ‘jhave it off or no deal,’ said Candace.
Bob’s smile arrested, his eyes widened. Candace burst into laughter, though it sounded more like gasping, and she rocked back and forth in her chair with a big smiling face.
Bob started smiling again when she said ‘Actuwly, it u’ually helpdz.’
While Bob showered, Candace lit a couple of candles and a stick of incense. She enjoyed the scent and her clients seemed to expect some sort of suitable ambience. Heavy purple velvet hung across the window. It was dark outside anyway.
Candace knew her room could actually smell worse sometimes; no client had ever mentioned things one way or the other to her, but she was aware her bladder incontinence, while mild, wouldn’t always stay managed; she worried that it was noticeable despite her precautions.
She had fragrant lotions for her body also, for the same reason.
Bob would be Candace’s third or fourth guy. She caught herself pausing briefly over the thought she was losing track already. For now, she stayed dressed. Bob had already handed over the money to Chick earlier. He came from the shower wearing only a towel. Candace said ‘Okay ledz have a look a’ you, eh?’
Candace felt the floorboards pop in the hallway; Chick rolling to his own room. Often he stayed there when she was working. He put on his stereo and headphones and in his own way, disappeared.
Chick and Candace had lived together nearly six months. She hadn’t seen anyone for a couple of weeks, hadn’t needed to, their money was good.
One night they stayed up late with some especially delicious noir, watching stupid movies, sharing their embarrassing tastes — Dutch rock music for him, books by Richard Bach for her.
They were both drunk, slumped in their chairs and Chick started with his muscle-man routine. Candace was laughing, imagining a big circus tent with a bald Chick and his black curling moustache.
‘Off, off, off,’Candace bellowed between laughs.
But then she stopped, her brow wrinkling above her glasses in a way Chick didn’t recall seeing before. He seized up mid-pose like he’d broken something, feeling his chest cave in.
‘Whadyo look like?’ she asked, ‘Compledly, I mean.’
Seeing she’d provoked his embarrassment, even shame, she said ‘ ‘dzorry,’ then immediately went on, asking him ‘But whad idz’‘ho bad?’
What could he say? He’d already seen her naked, a few times now, in the bath when occasionally she needed him to wash her back and wanted to keep talking. She would ask him to light a couple of candles and grab her wine glass and it would never occur to her she was nude, or different from any other time.
Chick wasn’t always sure how he felt either about Candace’s bodily freedom, or what she was now asking of him.
She wanted to see him. Naked.
Chick worked out every day in his room, with his weights. After more than fifteen years, his shoulders swelled with strength, his arms and chest too. He had much more power than he needed to propel himself about anywhere, up almost anything. And when it was sunny outside, he would sometimes sit in the backyard near the mango tree and honeysuckle trellis, or some mornings in the kitchen with his only track pants and a towel around his neck and feel as thoughtless for his partial dress as Candace seemed in her nudity.
So he took her request for mere curiosity about the spectacle that, even Chick had to admit, he had transformed himself into; not a disinterested curiosity but warmly inquisitive, as one person to another.
‘No, hey, it’s okay. Look, don’t worry. It’s okay, I’m…okay.’ A flow of adrenalin made him feel too loose. He tried explaining about his chicken-bone legs, looking pink and somewhat picked clean of flesh, his too-obvious kneecaps, and of course, the bag strapped to his leg, fed an endless supply of piss through the permanent tube in his cock.
‘They’re jush’ bodie’,’ she said ‘they don’ mean anything.’
Chick thought she was right but didn’t like her saying so. Normally, he felt anchored inside his flesh, and he enjoyed the certainty of it. Despite the obvious complications, and extra demands these made of him, he could not be removed so easily. He could offer resistance.
It might have been the wine, probably was, but Chick suddenly felt lethargic. He was also aware he was taking too long to respond Candace, and her request for a viewing. But he stayed motionless with head bowed a little, staring at the floor.
Candace was also drunk, though still lively, and had already smoked nearly half pack of cigarettes. But since, it seemed obvious to her, that Chick would be going along no further with her little show-and- tell, she looked on his slumped form a moment then made a quiet little snort, reached for her wheel rims and started herself backing away from the coffee table, finally spinning around awkwardly toward the door.
Speaking back over her shoulder, she said ‘I’m ‘oing to bed.’
Candace stopped unbuttoning. As the man turned to face her, he seemed to be speaking.
From next to the bed, she could undress and keep an eye on the whole room. Her instinct was to pick up faces as quickly as possible because they told her everything and she relaxed then, felt the control anyone has in a conversation.
‘Did you zay ‘umpthing?’
This guy she watched all the way as he turned back toward her after closing the door. He’d introduced himself as Gary, rolled up in a big car whose engine was loud enough toCandace actually felt it in her bones.
‘No, yeah,’ he said, grimacing because already he had forgotten her rule. ‘I…I was just saying, “So, this is Candace’s house, eh”?
‘What doez ‘at mean? “Candy Howdze”?’
‘No, no! Talking to myself’ “CAN-DACE-ES HOUSE”? He smiled down at her, almost craning his neck forward, emphasising each syllable of his last sentence with a little nod of the head. He got down by her wheelchair on one knee and put his hand over hers. ‘It was nothing okay? I am sorry. I was… It’s just nice to be here, y’know? You seem like, I don’t know, very honest. I like you.’
She wanted to know how the fuck he knew that already. His face was close and warm-looking in the candle light. It made it difficult to judge him.
But she had a job to do and suspicion only got in her way, so she kept undressing. Muscular tension, for the last few hours, had started its usual crawl up from the middle of her gut, through her whole body and in a while would soon try stretching her dry skin apart. The sooner she fucked this guy, and while she could still stand to be touched, the sooner Chick could score. She knew he had a guy he could call now, get him to deliver. Candace hoped Chick was already on the phone.
‘While ‘ou’re ‘own there,’ Candace said. She thought it was funny but Gary just stared blankly at her.
He did, however, eventually figure out she meant they were starting and she was inviting him to pick her up in his arms, deliver her to the bed.
He got up on his legs, stayed bent over her, while she lifted her arms around his neck. He slipped his hands beneath her and took her weight, such as it was.
Once on the bed, she made room for him next to her, sliding a little awkwardly toward the wall.
But this guy Gary wanted to get onto her straight away. He stopped Candace from moving too far from him, his dry warm hands all over her skin as he pulled her back to the middle of the bed, mostly by her crooked knees, while she tried awkwardly to help him, pushing from her weak fists.
After that, he took over her limbs entirely, her little body arranged to his will; his idea of satisfying desire.
He kept her legs bent at the knee. Setting her feet flat on the mattress meant her knees would naturally fall away from each other from their apex, giving him the space required to proceed.
It probably looked like a deliberate act on Candace’s part, giving the appearance of real invitation. But it was just how it was, her paralysis, though it worked, more or less the same way.
At least he was lean and attractive, Candace thought, an appealing pattern of hair on his chest and pleasant enough features to his face.
He guided his stiffness to her, his fingers feeling for her wetness. He knew by now, the few things she’d said, that some small amount of it was piss. He did smell fresh but salty acid beneath the incense, but smelled clean and pretty.
He thrust at her body, met her rigid hips that moved more as a direct consequence of his physics alone. In this way, Candace didn’t fuck as much as was fucked. She never knew whether the men ever wondered: was she was fucking them back? Candace wasn’t sure herself.
Sometimes, she thought distractedly about whoever she was with at the time; what he might be like away from here, not naked and laying on top of her while trying not to crush her. These musings occurred to Candace but never stayed with her; and never felt to her like answers.
Had Gary been her lover, she’d want to see his face, and in this light, a dark kind of orange, or in total darkness, touch his face, his lips, and from this understand most clearly and intimately what he might say to her, a fleshy Braille of love writhing beneath her fingertips.
While he finished, Candace lay there, watched the familiar grey lines of mold radiate across the ceiling and attempt escape from the candlelight.
Afterwards, Gary stood in the middle of her room dressing, facing the window as he talked and talked, and because he stood in profile, Candace didn’t catch any of it, really.
At last he faced her directly.
‘Okay?’ said Gary.
Candace grinned weakly, having no idea what she might’ve committed to but it was plenty to satisfy him. Gary smiled broadly. He laughed and hesitated approaching the bed again where she sat with the covers up.
He pointed at her wheelchair, Do you want…?’
‘No., it’ okay,’ she said.
‘Okay then I’ll see you later.’
A minute later the windows rattled again as Gary drove away.
Chick found her, trailed the ambulance in a taxi. He nearly vomited twice while waiting, helpless to do anything useful like leap out of his own chair and scoop her up in his big arms, lift her somehow back to her bed.
In Casualty, a triage nurse assailed him with questions: ‘Do you know what Candace took?’ ‘Was she conscious when you found her?’ ‘Does she have any allergies?’
Numb for a second, and desperate to be helpful for the nurse, Chick was horrified to find himself trying to provide details of a stranger. Of course, he knew certain objective things, but they were situational. Roughly what time he had found Candace, how white her skin looked, that she still breathed.
But he couldn’t even tell the nurse very basic things, vital things; like her last name, or her actual birthday. Surely he knew Candace better than this, right? His nausea deepened.
Then Chick remembered he’d grabbed Candace’s bag while waiting for the ambulance. It was hanging off one of Chick’s chair handles. It had never occurred to him to actually look in it. The nurse found Candace’s purse, wrote down the few bits of personal information, along with Chick’s uncertain answers, then promised to find out personally what was happening. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’ll be okay. Okay?’
Chick smiled weakly at the nurse but didn’t feel at all relieved. Didn’t feel that was even possible now.
The nurse disappeared into the ward.
Two hours later, with no word from the nurse, Chick was no wiser.
Instead he’d been queried by three other nurses and a nice-smelling young doctor, who’d crouched with one hand on Chick’s back, beside his wheelchair. ‘Has anyone seen you yet?’
‘I’m not the bloody patient!’ Chick said. All he’d done was sit there, in his chair, at the back of the waiting room near the pay phone.
‘Fuckin’ idiots,’ he said to himself after the doctor left.
Chick called Val. Without his mobile and no clue where it was he used the hospital payphone. At least it was lower than those on the street. He slipped a gold coin in the slot and dialed.
When he heard her cool-toned, business-like greeting it disarmed him and he blurted out simply ‘Candace nearly died. Can you call the hospital?’ and hung up. Chick was actually frightened by how he’d sounded when he spoke to Val, angry for this nervous betrayal, when he saw the triage nurse weaving briskly through the rows of seats towards him, careful to avoid bumping into any of the people, furniture or equipment crowding the ER. She only met his eyes at the last instant.
‘Are you actually next of kin?’ she said.
‘What do you mean “next of kin? Is she…?’
Chick’s throat tightened hard enough to rip.
‘No. God, sorry, it’s not that. But the doctors are looking at an induced coma and…’
Chick thought he might vomit again.
‘It’s fairly routine, really. She’s not quite rousing as we’d expect and might need our help breathing. But it’s a precaution for now. Authorising it, though…’ The nurse was trying to be polite about some of what the staff had obviously discussed at the nurse’s station. Clearly he was not enough. Where the fuck was Val?
‘Well, can I see her?’
‘Yeah sure, come on through.’
With her magnetic key the nurse opened the security doors ahead of Chick. He was careful with his wheels and foot plates, not that he lacked room wheeling through but he but felt compelled to hurry, wanting to wrench his wheels with deep arm strokes, throw himself towards wherever Candace lay.
Chick sobbed when he saw her.
Candace lay straight and still in her bed, her head turned away from the doorway.
So pale in a white gown, she appeared faintly drawn onto the sheets. On the far side of her bed, a blue machine like a computer pulsed with light and sound. A drip line ran to one arm by her side.
A tea trolley came around but Chick couldn’t bother himself enough to ask the lady for a coffee. An ER nurse in dark overalls checked on Candace’s drip feed and circled the bed to the computer-looking machine. Apparently, it was doing the right thing. In less than a minute she’d been and gone.
Candace heaved a deep breath, opened her eyes and rolled her head towards Chick. He started to
He stopped when he took in her face, her crushed expression, as if he was the last person she wanted to see.
and he rolled close as he could to her bedside, leaned forward.