How We Scuffle Along
This whiskery old guy came out of nowhere and swerved right in front of us in his huge wheelchair on the sidewalk of the Burnside Bridge. A squirrel tail hanging from a jury-rigged antenna at the rear of the motorized contraption swung back and forth. There was a big black skull and crossbones painted on the back seat of the wheelchair. My guest, my important guest who was here to decide if he’d make Portland his new West Coast headquarters and jobless me his only female rep, arched his eyebrow at me.
Great. Politically correct Portland let the derelicts run all over this part of downtown, the gateway to the Old Town and the one sight my guest wanted to see, the Chinese garden. The bums never bothered me before but I needed this job. The city was so anti-car that there was little parking, the reason we were out here hoofing it across the bridge on this blustery fall day. “It’s not far,” I said. “You’ll love the garden. The whole thing, from these giant stones to little red tiles on the roof, all of it came from China.”
The guy slowed in front of us. I stepped to the right — waved with my hand to my guest that we could get by him — but the man moved with us, the chair motor churning. The squirrel tail almost swiped my guest in his face. He pulled his head back, his dark eyebrows bunched. “Whoa,” he said. “Close one, buddy.”
Wheelchair man slowed to a crawl. The wind from the river picked up. There was the smell of exhaust and rubber tires and yes, the crotch rot of the guy in front of us. My guest, his nose wrinkling, spoke loud. “I bet that wheelchair’s just for show,” he said. “Anyone who gives these bums anything is a fool.” The strap on my purse cut into my shoulder. I always kept some bills down at the bottom. Mugger money, but I was such a soft touch, more than once I’d handed one to a guy like this. I moved the strap forward to relieve the pressure on my shoulder.
We scuffled along. More than a long block left to go to get across the bridge. My guest looked down at the tassels on his tan Gucci loafers, barely moving with his steps, and spoke even louder. “This guy should get up off his duff and get a job,” he said. “Like the rest of us.” What a hard nose. I mean any of us could end up on the street. I prayed that somehow this wheelchair guy would know my karma, know I’m not usually like this, that he would let us pass, not keep fooling with us. I pointed over to the other side of the bridge. “That sign over there, the Made in Oregon sign with the neon deer,” I said, the taste of grit in my mouth, “its nose glows red at Christmas.”
A few raindrops started to fall. Wheelchair guy stuck out his hand, and a nickel-sized drop plopped on his orangey palm. Time to take things into my own hands. I grabbed at my guest’s arm, pulled at the sleeve of his beige sweater. My voice low but hoarse, I said, “Now. Let’s get around him.” We headed to the left, toward the bridge railing. But the wheelchair guy once again was too fast for us. A high-pitched noise to the motor and he swung back in front of us, his greasy pony tail swaying across the skull and crossbones, the squirrel tail bopping.
The chair noise stopped and the contraption quit moving. My guest threw up his hands, crisp black hairs on the knuckles. The wheelchair man’s hand, square and rough, worked at the joy stick on the arm of the chair. A clicking and whirring and he maneuvered so he faced the street, blocking our passage. He had no legs.
The man in the wheelchair cackled. He fumbled at his pants and pulled out his penis, all pink and fleshy. A spurt started from his lap, became this stream. “Thar she blows,” he said. “I’m a regular Moby Dick.” A perfect steamy arc, the longest urination I’d ever seen, splashed down into the gutter below. Yellow foam bubbled there. My guest’s face went pale, both black eyebrows flying high. His voice a croak, he asked, “Is Portland always like this?”
I took a deep breath, last chance at a save, weak as it was. “Portland,” I said. “Keep it weird?” My guest’s dark eyebrows were now angry little tarantulas.
A whir again and the man wheeled the chair to face us. His fingers, grease under the thumbnail, shook the last drop loose from his penis. It landed on the top of one of my guest’s loafers, a little dark blot on his Guccis.
His shoe tassels flying, my guest jumped back. “This is profane,” he said.
The man looked up. His eyes were watery blue. There was a magnetic ribbon stuck to the metal of the armrest, the yellow enamel chipped, the black words “Support our Troops” almost too dull to read.
My guest grabbed at my arm and tried to pull me to get around the man. I shook my head no. “I have to do something,” I said. I reached into my purse, down into the bottom, into the jumble of lipstick and keys till my fingers found the crumpled bill. I pulled it out, straightened it, the texture almost of cloth, the purple five in the corner, the creased face of Abraham Lincoln. I held the bill out toward the wheelchair man.
“Are you always like this?” my guest asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I guess I am.”