Uneasy riders

      As Valerie O’Sullivan awoke one morning from uneasy dreams she found herself transformed in her bunk into a rag doll. There was a tapping at the window and she asked, “Who’s there?” It was an unexpected, muggy spring, the spring following the Americans held hostage at U.S. Embassy in Tehran and she didn't know what she was doing in Maine.

      Dominic Lambietto raised the wooden sash and grinned, “Hey Val let’s go over to the beach.”

      Two years after the polio was discovered, the intense therapy that followed and she was still dreaming that she was whole. As she slipped blue shorts and a matching tank top over her bathing suit Valerie wondered when she would accept this as normal. Fumbling with the straps on the leg braces that supported her weakened muscles she stood up and almost tipped over grabbing her crutches. Dom would want to go over in her father’s small launch since it was set up to accommodate the wheelchair.

      He pushed off quietly in the cool morning, rowed out from the shore until he thought starting the motor wouldn’t alert anyone to their adventure. To the right was Moose Island. It got its name from the animals trapped there after the spring thaw. It was less than two miles in diameter and sometimes moose stumbled across the ice and into winter woods. Even though folks called it Panther Pond was really a lake fed by a fresh water spring.

      Dominic cut the motor and tipped it up as they glided over a small sandbar. The tide was out and the bottom of the boat scraped to a sudden stop pitching Valerie forward onto the bench. They both giggled as she plopped herself on it for the rest of the short ride. She watched the water slip by; every time she began to contemplate what the rest of the summer would be like, her stomach lurched with excitement.

    Come on and be my little good luck charm

      A thin crescent moon, Venus and Mercury formed a triangle on the horizon. They had been to camp since childhood and spent many summers watching Mars grow in redness until it would reach its command performance in August.

      Valerie asked, “Did you hear Dougie squeal last night? "

      They both snickered at Dougie’s shock of brushing the top of Val’s foot with his and exclaiming how soft it was. It had been her deal and Val called out Hearts for this game. Sometime during the conversation Carol tittered on about her upcoming dances then Val had wondered out loud how she would be able to dance if she was asked. Her face had drawn for a moment then she laughed with the rest.

      Dom said, "That’s precisely why we are here at the butt crack of dawn. You and I are going into the water and we’re going to boogie across to Moose Island."

      "Sure." said Val with some hesitation and she took off the braces then crawled across the sand then plowing through the waves with strong arms. Dominic caught up with her wrapped his arms around her waist then sang in his worst Elvis Presley voice as they danced through the gentle roll of the waves, There's a laaady who's suure all that gliiitters is gooold, And she's buy- yi-ying a stairway to heaaaa-UHH-vuuuun

      Val sang along in a strong mezzo-soprano. As the off key harmony rose in the air, red winged blackbirds took cover from the bear in the blackberry brushes their tender shoots strained skyward destined to be eaten by the local bull moose. As they approached the island neither saw him standing alert in the alder branches overlooking a seaside trail worn deep by his enemy's regular patrols.

      It would be a rich summer, one with life changing events that altered Val from a young girl who anxious if anyone would ever love her, into a woman confident in the love of another who looked past the burdens of her legs and saw her for who she really was. At least these were her thoughts.

      For a few weeks they worked together until Val could drop the crutches by pressing her knees together and balancing her weight on his arms while they shuffled around the porch in step with the tunes they played on his Aunt Betty’s ancient Victrola. How could she have known that by the end of summer she would also be stronger and wiser in ways neither one had yet to imagine.

      They were all shocked and amazed when the coach called. A scout had video taped Dominc playing short stop last season and the Red Sox wanted him at Fenway Park for some early tryouts. His record-breaking sprints made him one of the best base runners Raymond, Maine had ever seen. The gang at the Stone Dog Cafe up at Windam had congratulated him. Val was so keyed up as she drove him to Twitchell's Airport to see him off. He hugged her hard and gave her the glove he used all through Little League. She took it home and hung it on the wall where she could see it every day.

      Squadrons of horned and tufted sea parrots darted back out to sea, beyond breaking surf where baby brown otters wrapped themselves up in beds of kelp as Val rolled up the road to the summer camp where she worked as a counselor. Dad had worked in the Peace Corps for two years as an advisor on soil management. He had never been to Africa, but when Africa called to him he went with his whole heart. He came home, married Mom and by the time they all went back Ghana was called Zimbabwe. When Val contracted polio there he called in every favor he could to get her on the Mercy Ship Anastasis.

      Everyone’s lives had taken a 180. Now Dad was teaching at the local community college while her mom did elder care. While she waited for Jason to arrive she realized that this was the first time she had the opportunity to help out. She missed her friends back home. The water waltzes at dawn reminded her of a proverb she had heard from her best friend’s mom when she was five, "If you can walk you can dance, if you can talk you can sing!"

      As Jason entered the cafeteria, she thought, now here is a real piece of work in progress. He liked to write trivia about the sea calling his column Lobster Tales, some of the stuff he wrote about was fascinating. They were getting together to work on an article for this week’s newsletter. A short note had arrived from Dominic three days after he left. He talked about meeting Dewie, Yaz and El Tiante and gave her his phone number and address. He said his parents would be back in Boston by the end of the week and he would be in town for the 4th. Val was lost in thought about how much she would miss the evening card games with the Lambiettos.

      She put the letter away when one of the doors swung open and saw Jason swaying like a willow tree on a windy day, his motorized wheelchair was spinning in crazy directions scaring the campers and counselors. His garbled speech stuttered out, "Hi, my name’s Jason. What’s your name?"

      It was his typical icebreaker. More often than not his attempts of friendly chitchat were met with dumb founded shellshock or brittle silence. Pronouncing the words slowly enough to be immediately understood was physically and emotionally draining. Most of the time the campers were too self-absorbed to even make eye contact.

      He joined a group at the next table and Val watched in heart sinking knowledge as everyone at the table Jason joined stopped talking, inhaled their food then took off like he had a small pox instead of cerebral palsy.

      "It was nice to meet you." Jason whined, " Have a lovely afternoon!"

      His right hand abruptly flew off his joystick. Arms and legs flailing wildly, his left shoe suddenly hit the wooden floorboards with a thud as tears of 100% pure frustration blinded him.

      "HEY," he yelled at no one and everyone, “YOU NEVER SAW A BOY DANCE IN A WHEELCHAIR! WANNA JOIN ME IN A JIG, HUH?"

      Predictably nobody appeared to hear him. After a couple of minutes he overcame his involuntary movements. Then Val watched in amazement as he finally took off and tried to mow down the campers pretending he was a ghost by walking by him.

      "YO! OUT OF MY WAY!" Jason shouted as he huffed and puffed.

      Campers started jumping left and right without apologizing for being so rude.

      When Jason’s aging parents could no longer control him they turned him over to the state and he was institutionalized for two years. The people in charge were more interested in keeping beds filled so that they could keep their jobs rather than mainstreaming kids into the public life. An aunt with a lot of money was trying to give Jason a second chance and he was showing promise.

      He had seized on the idea of becoming a psychologist for the disabled, but first Jason had to develop some writing skills and that’s where Val was focusing. As his tutor she would proof read the articles he painstakingly tapped out on the keyboard with a head pointer. The irony that the camp’s head counselor Hank Hawkins had teamed them up because they were both physically handicapped was not lost on either one of them.

    Every sweet thing that mattered

      The wind was up and crashing waves added to the summer symphony. It had been six weeks since Dominic had left. She had called his mom for several updates. His proud parent’s invited her up to Boston when he came home for the 4th of July weekend. They went to watch the fireworks from the Boston Commons and she cried when he walked down the ramp and onto the plane headed to Winter Haven, Florida for spring training with the Sox. Even though he hadn’t called or written like he promised she figured he was too busy or too tired. One night she called and was thrilled when he put Carlton Fisk on the phone.

      By the time he reached the Computer lodge that afternoon Jason’s entire body was drenched in sweat. He looked around the room wondering if anyone felt his presence.

      Val placed a hat with a long metal rod on his head and Jason stuttered, "Yes folks, you are seeing a gigantic narwhale from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I guess you have not seen anybody typing with their heads. Why don't you try head typing instead of writing chicken scratch?"

      Nobody seemed to notice. Jason drew in a deep lungful of air and began to settle down as his head pointer skipped across the keyboard.

      That afternoon when Val got home she found the letter from Carol lying on her bed. She opened it up and found a newspaper article along with a note from her.

        Hey Val,

        Doms made it in the newspaper with an interview. I thought you’d like a copy!

      She read about how well Dom was doing then came across the part where the reporter quoted Dominic as saying, "I talk to my girlfriend every day! She keeps me on track and motivates me to do better."

      Confused Val put the letter down and picked up the phone. She asked to speak to Dominic Lambietto if he was available. When he came on the line she asked him about this girlfriend he talked to everyday because it sure wasn’t her. He explained that he had gone down to he boardwalk the day he got back to Winter Haven and met this gorgeous blonde. He just couldn’t resist talking to her.

      "She is so good for me," he said. Val bit back the bitter tears as he went on about wanting to make new friends.

      Finally spent he said, " ’cides Val you know...”

      She refused to point out his double standards that were becoming painfully obvious. He wasn’t even worth the sarcasm racing through her head.

      She told him how pity and love don't go together. Pity distances; love connects. Somewhere along the line his charity had turned to pity and Dom had looked at and treated her as a tragedy. He had never stopped seeing the deformity, he hadn’t been looking for the beauty to emerge in a smile or twinkle of the eye, or even in stormy cry of her anger. She slammed the phone down and there the bold truth sat, an accusation, soon to be a scab, then a scar.

    Return to sender, address unknown

      After she dropped off Dominic’s glove at the post office she headed off to work. She was looking forward to working with Jason. It was time to put this behind her and move on. She thought about how most able-bodied people would never reach the level of Jason’s achievement and the challenges has had to overcome by refusing to give up In spite of his rebellious antics, he inspired her. Valerie was hopeful that Jason’s Olympian determination would touch the lives of many handicapped people who may one day benefit from his painstaking work.

      Head Counselor Hawkins was in the room to observe her working with Jason. Summer was nearing an end and it was time for evaluations.

      While Jason tapped out words that appeared on the screen a girl, sitting next to him, smiled and whispered, "Jason, I really liked your article in this weeks newsletter. I'll call you later so that we can talk more, okay?"

      Head pointer halted in mid air Jason shrieked with joy, "YES! I DO EXIST!!!"

      Head Counselor Hank Hawkins’s head snapped around towards the loud screeching.

      Some people just don’t get it and Hank Hawkins never would. They watched as he gazed past them under the guise of looking at the bulletin board. Val typed a message to Jason, "Do you think he would have put us together if we both had diabetes?"

      Hank noticed them snorting then turned and walked out.

      When she got home Val reread the newspaper article trying to decide about holding on to the last vestiges of her first love. Like most others, it had been doomed to fall short, but this one failed from such a spectacular pinnacle. Considering Dominic’s future in professional sports, would it be worth holding on to she wondered.

      Geese, flying overhead at low altitude were so loud, even the flapping of wings were audible at such heights...almost within reach. A trio of hooomphs from a stranded moose on the island floated across the water. She thought for a moment about the rutting season that would be starting soon and how Panther Pond is a place that has always moved her. It was a place that she had canoed in and slept beside. It was where she fell through the ice one winter and nearly drowned and one day the lake would be where she would sit and sip wine by, teach her kids to swim in and pull a thousand fish from. For the rest of her life she would often dream about the summer and beginnings with a boy named Dominic.

      Val threw the letter away. Life was moving ahead at regular speed. It was a reassuring feeling.

for our dear etouffee

    Inspired by Yes, I Do Exist!!! by Yvonne Singer.

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