Confessions of a Gimp (short story)

(Published in the October 2004 issue of “PulpLit”)

Gimp(gi’mp)(Slang) n. 1. A limp or limping gait. 2. A person who walks with a limp.

I’d always found this term hilarious, but had really made it a part of my vocabulary since I’d heard it in “Pulp Fiction.” My buddies and I, kind-hearted as we tried to be, always had an inner group-guffaw when we saw someone with a physical ailment. “Indeed…” one of us would say, our unspoken like-mindedness like some weird version of menstrual synchronization.

Already wobbling through life as a semi-successful actor, I was modestly surviving a Gen-X lifestyle, and had recently moved to upstate New York from my home in the Deep South to begin a new contract. For us starving artist types, it was a darn fine job. My new town was a burg of about 30,000 tucked into the Finger Lakes region. I was a New Yorker after being there about an hour. The lakeside community eerily resembled the Civil War-era river town of my roots, and seemed to be a comfortable, crime-free nest.

Surrounded by similarly jaded types over a long period of time, I’d developed an attitude of detached cynicism about my existence–any Steely Dan fan will understand. I reacted to every social situation like that guy at parties who ridicules people behind their backs (and come on, you know you love that guy!) Prime example: my co-workers and I would occupy ourselves during the maddening hours on the road by coming up with names of recipes that contain the meat of retarded people. “Mongoloid Mutton!” someone would yell with glee. “Ground Down’s!”

In our desperate abandon, we would’ve made a great case-study for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You remember Maslow, right? His theories are based on a pyramid of life needs, with food/shelter/nurturing at the base; a person’s needs become more complex as the pyramid goes up. Our “need” for entertainment is probably in the top .0005 percentile, so you get my meaning.

My lack of awareness of the challenges that lay ahead for me is filled with a certain self-empathy–how on Earth can one prepare for something like this? One can’t. Believers in karma could have a field day; I smile to myself even now when I think about my ignorant bliss of years ago.

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I remember strange, vivid dreams about being a guest at different people’s houses, and hoping they didn’t think it strange that I kept wanting to take a nap. The weirdest one was of an Englishman who kept a spinning wheel next to the couch I was sleeping on; I also kept trying unsuccessfully to light his pipe on a wood-burning stove.

Ginger, God bless her, played James Taylor’s “Greatest Hits” nonstop on a CD player by my bedside for pretty much the entire time I was in a coma. I’m sure that music helped keep me alive. (And even now, when I hear one of those songs, I just…go somewhere else for a moment.)

My memory of events during what doctors refer to as an “open-eyed” or “vegetative” coma is hazy at best. I’m told now that upon my emergence from the coma I was a complete jerk, mean to everybody. I think my body was shutting down all auxiliary power–it was too busy keeping me alive to worry about stuff like what was for breakfast.

I turned into the quintessential problem patient-–biting nurses, refusing to see visitors, yelling at Liz for folding my clothes, even telling doctors that their breath stank. “This behavior is normal,” they said. I think it was all part of reaffirming my foothold in consciousness. To quote Gloria Estefan, I was coming out of the dark.

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That day a month before had played out pretty ordinarily, starting with my reluctant attendance to the first day of yet another dead-end, part-time job. ‘I’m starving for my art, dad-gummit!’ I would tell myself. I’d always had an overly rosy outlook on life, sometimes to a fault; I always believed my big acting break was just over the next hill. So on I slaved, unaware of how profoundly my life was about to change.

The day wore on as most others, ending with yet another evening of that public baring of souls we call “clubbing.” I consider myself strangely but thankfully fortunate that the entire night has been erased from my memory, as a result of either the ungodly amount of alcohol I consumed, or just a simple gift from God; from what I’ve pieced together from police reports and eyewitness accounts, I was “politely asked to leave” after being “overly friendly” to some of the female patrons around closing time at a nameless bar. It was there I met Natsu; he and I supposedly ate at a nearby diner shortly thereafter, with yours truly paying the entire tab.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    CUT TO:

EXT. NIGHT-CITY STREET

JOHN
(Slurring drunkenly) Dude…you know what would make this night purr-fect? A big fat joint, man…

NATSU
Aw, man, that ain’t no problem…you bought my food n’ stuff…C’mon–in here…
(They step into an alleyway, and moving into some shadows, start smoking a joint that NATSU has produced.)

EXT. NIGHT-ALLEYWAY

(They talk and smoke for a while; JOHN, becoming increasingly incoherent, falls silent. Suddenly, NATSU punches JOHN hard, knocking him over. NATSU kicks at his face, JOHN instinctively covering himself in the fetal position. After a few more kicks, NATSU takes JOHN’s wallet from his back pocket; rifling through its contents, he pockets the cash as he runs away. JOHN lies motionless behind some overturned garbage cans.)

An old woman who was leaving her apartment building the next morning honked twice at me. When I didn’t move, she got out, annoyed. ‘Another drunk,’ she thought. A few seconds later, she was running to the door of the adjacent laundromat, her mind in a panic after seeing my bloody face and bruised body. I was rushed to the hospital, barely alive. Later that day, after I had been identified by my boss and my mom was flying cross-country in terror, I was transferred to a better-equipped facility in the neighboring metropolitan area. Six months of terrible re-birth followed.

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Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) (Phrase) n. Damage to brain tissue caused by an external mechanical force, as evidenced by loss of consciousness due to brain trauma.

My overeducated guess is that my injury was to the cerebellum and/or brain stem, which form the control center of the brain and therefore the entire body. The damage is mainly to the centers for balance and fine motor movement, but I think the brain is such a complex “machine” that damage to any part of it lessens its effectiveness as a whole.

I can now barely walk, and when I do the process is mechanical, almost as if my brain were following some Twelve-Step mantra, taking it “one [step] at a time.” That’s how I walk–step by step. The whole procedure could be considered normal, except I resemble a slow, jerky version of Pinocchio.

I once described to a therapist this constant condition of vertigo: You know that state you’re in just before you fall back in your chair, after you’ve leaned back just a liiiiitle too far? That momentary feeling of “OH-AAAH!!”? That’s the best thing I can think of for comparison–now imagine feeling that way every time you stand up.

My speech–one of my strong points as an actor–is now like listening to a person talk with a balled-up sock in his mouth. (The irony here is strong enough to stand on its own, I know.)

My stepfather and I still joke about one of the customers at his gas station, an ancient, kindly wisp of a man named Mr. Martin. He would walk in slow, small steps, sometimes taking five minutes to get from his car to the station office. To be funny, Sonny and I would do the “Martin Shuffle” in the parking lot of a restaurant or other public place. Needless to say, I am now the Martin Shuffle master! Hierarchy of Needs, again, I’m sure.

I think the biggest blow to my lifestyle is that now it takes for-EVER to accomplish small tasks. The process of getting ready (or doing the three S’s–Sh*t, Shave & Shower) used to take about 30 minutes, quick bite included. It’s now maybe twice that; sometimes I forget, and run late–a vice I previously despised. In a nutshell, I’m “forced” to slow down; the upside is that I never have to be in a hurry. (Hey, I’ll play that cripple card every chance I get.)

I sometimes swallow incorrectly, with food or drink going down my windpipe instead of to my stomach. I yawn incessantly when tired, but when I attempt sleep I lie awake watching the History channel or infomercials, hoping they’ll bore me into slumber. I win small victories when I rediscover a forgotten pleasure, such as walking to the corner store; major projects like dancing are out of the question. Welcome to my world.

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Sympathy(sim’-puh- the) n. 1. A feeling or expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another. 2. Compassion or commiseration.

My six-month hospital stay is full of anecdotes both amusing and heart-breaking. There are always those characters who gravitate towards anguish, as if they need it to remind themselves they’re doing OK; they’re always delicious studies too. I told one of these “repeat” visitors never to come back because her patchouli was scaring me.

There was the Singing Nurse, who would warble show-tunes, a musical Florence Nightingale who did a daily dance with death through the ICU. Then there was my neurologist, who would pinch my cheek with all his might to wake me up; he’d yell in his thick Middle-Eastern accent, “JUHN!! JUHN!! WAKE UP, JUHN!!” One day a guy in a nearby bed answered, “No…I don’ wanna.” Oh, I got a million of ‘em!

As if in some hideous joke, time strode firmly on. Tears were shed, promises were made and forgotten, holidays were celebrated, jobs were gained and lost. My first words after emerging from the coma were “Harlem Nights.” Seems Ginger was watching it on TV, and asked someone else in the room what it was, so I answered her–she said afterwards that she nearly jumped out of her skin.

I recovered at a snail’s pace, making infinitesimal but constant improvements. The milestones, simple as they were, seemed huge: feeding myself, standing up, going to the bathroom on my own…new projects came, were conquered, then instantly taken for granted again. “Oh, you’re doing so well!” I heard again and again from people with reassuring grins plastered to their faces. I still don’t know whether I believed them or thought it was just false encouragement.

Since my attack had happened in a small town, the legal proceedings came and went in a blur. Most of the folks involved must have believed in a “fair and speedy trial,” because only about a month passed between my first interviews with the D.A. and the sentencing. Natsu was a repeat offender, so the judge happily, sternly doomed him to 25 years with no possibility of parole. Gotta love those Neighborhood Politics…

To add irony to the headline-making case–remember, this was a small town–Natsu’s father is a well-known, well-respected local reverend. Not farcical enough? All right, here’s more: jammed right into the center of town is a federal pen, famous for its harsh treatment of inmates.

The biggest advance was my transfer to a rehab facility, where I crashed for 3½ months. Nestled in the suburban hills, my new unit was the site of innumerable “rebirths”; the whole place gave off a good vibe. I was finally able to take stock in my unbelievable new life; my adventures at the other hospital still seem dreamlike. I became much closer to my family, who was always there to chase away the boogey-man named Death. My siblings and parents alternated taking the sad, 1,300-mile flight to my bedside so that I would never be alone. My mom, knowing I’d always been a huge Harry Connick, Jr. fan, actually emailed him. What she expected him to do, I don’t know–the whole situation stank of a bad movie of the week.

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Four roommates (and what seemed like twelve lifetimes) later, I was sprung. My last (and lengthiest) roommate was a tragedy of a man who could no longer walk or speak, but was otherwise healthy. Timothy would have long conversations with his wife, but all he could really say is–let me see if I can spell it right: “Ge-PAT-te-pa-te-pa-te PA PAAA!” It was heartbreaking to listen to; the inflections and emotions remained, but Timothy’s words were just unintelligible. Before my eyes, he dissolved into a sad, broken picture of frustration, and cried himself to sleep most nights. I felt I had become Maslow by that point.

Home I went, overwhelmed by my new lease on life. Twenty of my former co-workers descended upon my empty, sterile apartment; like a ten-year-old with a new pet, they had me moved in and set up in a half-hour. To underscore the bizarre social situation, one guy showed up just as they were finishing, and proclaimed much too loudly, “Hey! I thought we were gonna have pizza!” Words to live by.

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So here I sit some 15-odd months post-beating, trying to eke out a living in my new but still seemingly fruitless profession. “Oh, you’re doing so well!” people say, but this time there seems to be an air of sadness behind their pasted-on grins. I toss off names of my “new writing projects” like so much fluff, trying (mostly triumphantly) to remain the cool, brooding-but-successful artist type. When Meredith Willson wrote “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” for The Music Man, he probably had no idea how universally dead-on it was.

“So why write about it?” you’re probably asking. The truth is, I’m really not sure. All I know is that it feels good to be sitting here at my computer, finally rid of these particular monsters. I guess a synopsis of my experiences will allow me to both escape from and embrace the whole blessed thing.

I think I need to make a disclaimer, too, however reluctant it is: I am not perfect, nor do I ever claim to have been. I’m selfish, forgetful, greedy, vain…but whose list wouldn’t be endless? (At this point I could say that I, with all the life-blows I’ve taken, have every reason to be cynical; truth is, I was cynical before this happened.)

I can sum it all up with a saying I heard from some barfly years ago–a quote that I’ve held on to: “Life is just too screwed up to be taken seriously.” My God, truer words were never spoken.

To add the final piece to this puzzle–the perfect tutorial on irony–I just started yet another part-time job as a “greeter” at a very well-known department store. The feeling of coming full-circle is amusing and overwhelming; the only difference now is that everyone’s kid gloves are just too big.

It’s a perfect opportunity to give ol’ Maslow’s theories a gut-check: My favorite customers are those wanna-be old ladies with their fake furs and too much anti-wrinkle cream, who rush into the store as if they actually have more pressing matters to tend to; the demand is usually something like, “Can you put that wide-screen in the back seat?” I always look at my walker, then back at them, and say through the balled-up sock, “No, I can’t. But I’ll be glad to find someone who can…” One lady actually shed a tear after she realized.

And that’s what keeps me hangin’ on–the fact that, no matter what happens, I can always find a way to laugh.