As the West-Hesperidan Free Clinic’s Administrative Manager, Gretchen was the closest thing they had to fundraising staff now that their Director was on stress leave. She was supposed to represent the clinic at these house party things but here she was wandering on the edges, again, frankly worn out just from hauling herself in the door. Here was a question: Why does philanthropy so often require climbing stairs?
As was typical, she was charged with raising funds where funds hung out: a wealthy someone’s house. The house, as was typical, had been a nightmare for her to get into, a mountain of boxy, tiled steps out front and an over-sized brass banister that was useless, taste that indicated new dot-com money was hosting. A middle-aged woman saw her hesitating on the sidewalk and offered an arm. She turned out to be a charge nurse at the university hospital who knew even better than Gretchen how to get a person up some stairs. Gretchen thanked her effusively and filed away the hand-on-elbow, lean-on-forearm technique.
Gretchen had been there for a very long hour when she started to need a bathroom. She asked a man standing alone near the front door who was staring into his glass if he knew where it was. He pointed to a line of people in the hall toward the kitchen.
“Only one,” he said. “I took care of things right away, myself.”
“Great, thanks so much,” Gretchen said, moving away.
He trailed after her, still eyeballing the bottom of his glass with its quarter inch of liquor. She attached herself to the bathroom queue and crossed her arms, resolutely facing away from him.
He — “They call me ‘Randy,'” — became quite chatty now that she had her back to him. Divorced, newly retired, just bought a house nearby. Fantastic investment except for the scum that came with it.
She turned around. “Scum?”
He made a forty-five degree turn so that she was looking at the side of his face. At least the glass had been lowered.
“It’s tragic, I suppose, but I’m already sick of having to look at them. It’s the clinic down the street. Draws them like flies.” He shook his head and swallowed what was left in the glass.
“You do realize this party is a fundraiser for that clinic?” They moved several feet forward.
The half of his face she could see was rueful. “E-mails are too damn long to read these days. I thought this would be a good networking thing for the coaching I’m doing now. Field’s flooded with idiotic young girls – oh, sorry, no offense – and I need to get myself out there.”
“I’m here as the clinic’s representative.” she said.
“So you think handing out health care for free is the answer?”
“It’s the answer if the question’s, ‘What’s this foul-smelling discharge?’”
“Isn’t that what hospitals are for?”
“You do that weird thing, you take care of their pets, ‘animal companions’ as I’m supposed to call them these days.”
She said mechanically, “We’re not a veterinary hospital but we’ll do basic first aid for a homeless woman’s dog or cat, and connect her with the SPCA if necessary. It helps women trust us so that she’ll come back to us for her health care.”
“Oh yeah, women only. I’ve got something to say about that but it wouldn’t make me very popular.” He gestured at her with his glass.
“Oh. Well. Maybe keeping it to yourself is a good idea.”
He looked friendlier now. “Well. I’ve got a solution to the whole problem.”
“Solution for what?
“For the problems in your clinic. For our country.”
“Does it involve coaching?”
He snorted. “Very funny. No. Now you tell me, how do you keep their population under control?”
“Dogs and cats. Think about it. How do you keep them from out of control multiplying?”
Gretchen said, “I hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”
“Come on, hear me out. People talk so much about being open-minded in this town but they never want to listen to a really alternative opinion.”
“You have no idea of what I listen to on a regular basis.”
“These women have kid after kid and they expect the government to pay for them. Not that I don’t think men have something to do with this. But it’s, and you’ll have to agree with me on this, a lot easier, a lot more efficient, to stop a woman from breeding than a man. History is history and it’s just plain biology. Look at our evolution. Men spray their seed around. It’s very hard to pin us down. Women are a lot easier to catch. It’s all about it being easier to get a fix on where they’re located. A woman’s more likely to be sitting still, like on her nest of eggs. Guys, not so much.” He looked pleased and ready to hear her response.
She took a deep breath. “If it weren’t an insult to the many perfectly pleasant and intelligent people who have mental illnesses, I’d say you were out of your damn mind.” She shook her cane at him. “You actually feel entitled to complain about how badly some women are performing as mothers. Like it’s some kind of peep-show and you should control whether they get your quarter.” The guy in front of her turned to give her a curious look then went on with his conversation.
“Excuse me for interrupting your tirade but you pay prior to seeing a peep-show, not after. You feminists might like to get your facts right before you condemn an entire gender.” But he showed no sign of serious offense. The line moved up five feet.
“It’s been real interesting but can we just stop,” she said. “We don’t agree and…oh shit.”
It was a terribly modern house, narrow but with an open floor plan. She could see now that the one bathroom was at the top of a flight of stairs. So very modern was the house that these steps of highly polished wood were between two cream walls denuded of anything so visually distracting as a banister.
The iced tea she’d carelessly downed made it clear she had to get up those stairs – and down, but that was later. She scanned frantically for the charge nurse.
She was up. Brace herself with hands on two walls? Nope, too wide. And risky. Go up backwards on her ass? It was just a smidge less demeaning – and painful – than crawling on her knees, but it was safe.
“Do you need a hand?”
It was Randy, holding out an arm. Was taking assistance from an aspiring sterilizer of the indigent morally acceptable? Was peeing on his shoes more embarrassing to her or him? “Yes, I do,” Gretchen said. “Thank you.” Damned if she did, damp if she didn’t.
She adjusted his arm and they went up the first step smoothly. Of course he turned out to be right up there with the charge nurse in terms of skill. They were on step three when she asked how he knew what he was doing. “My brother’s paralyzed,” he said.
“Always?” she asked. They went up one more.
“No, he was in a car accident,” he said. “He’s like you, it doesn’t stop him.”
She hrummphed. “I get stopped all the time,” she said.
“But you asked for help,” he said. “You found a way.”
“No, you offered to help,” Gretchen said. “And I give up all of the time. Remarkably like the scum you complain about.” They were at the top. Yay.
“I just don’t understand how someone like you can put up with people like them,” he said. “You know, I –“
“Randy, there’s going to be a river running through this conversation in a minute,” she said. “Thank you very much for helping me.”
“Shall I wait for you?” Good lord, he was one for extremes, mean-mouthed then courtly.
“That’s very kind of you,” Gretchen said, closing the door in his face. “Hey, imagine how much money I might get tonight if people saw poor little me coming down on my ass.”
There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-age crip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.