One Trip

I’d have been better off if they had amputated it, he thought.

Gene placed one hand under his knee and the other beneath his calf muscle, then hoisted his left leg out of the car. He was frustrated with the leg. He would have smacked it with his cane if it weren’t still attached to his body.

Good-for-nothing leg.

The wound was closed. The gauze had been removed. Gene dabbed it with a handkerchief even though it was dry. He stared at the healing tissue. The vertical line on his knee cap was so straight it could’ve been drawn with a pen.

Come on, leg.

He slid his cane off the passenger seat. With one hand on the door and the other on the cane, he pulled himself out of the car. The afternoon sun glared off of the molding on his Buick. He could hear a Brown Thrasher chirping in the trees of his back yard: da-dit, da-dit.

Gene set his left foot on the ground. He put some weight on it. The pain was slight, but it was still pain - something he would rather avoid, if possible.

“It’s time you get off those crutches for good,” the doctor had told him. “Use your cane. You don’t need the crutches anymore.”

The back patio was fifteen feet away. Gene kept a hand on the hood of the car as he inched around to the other side. The tip of his metal cane brushed amongst the dead leaves on the pavement.

He stepped away from the Buick.

Some retirement.

This thought kept coming to him, day after day. Gene had never been the type of man to feel sorry for himself, but he was allowing it more and more lately. He had thought retirement would be pleasant. Rest and relaxation. A garden. Some travel. He had considered looking for a place on the coast. Maybe a condo, or something he could rent out when he wasn’t staying there himself.

But in the three years since he’d sold his dry cleaning business, he had been cursed.

First, his mother had died. Six weeks after he retired. A diabetic, she had seized in her bed at the rest home. Her heart stopped. She was dead before the staff could reach her room. Gene had no living family, other than two ex-wives, neither of whom knew his mother well enough to attend a funeral. So his mother was cremated. Despite the fact that there was no service, Gene cancelled the trip to Savannah that he had planned for following week.

Cancer came next. Colon cancer. At first, he hadn’t mentioned the blood in his feces, but he finally summoned the fortitude to tell his doctor. After a colonoscopy, the doctor informed him that lesions had been found on the walls of his intestine. The cancer was removed in surgery. He spent weeks recovering.

With the disease eliminated, Gene labored for good health. He adhered to a particular diet. A two-mile walk in the mornings. Ten glasses of water a day. He took multivitamins and Ginseng tablets. Gene’s body responded. He felt twenty years younger. Then he fell down in his backyard and tore the cartilage in his knee. He was hanging a bird feeder when he lost his footing on the wet grass. The left leg folded under him. His weight crunched the knee.

Some retirement.

He would have been in Florida right now - the Keys - if he hadn’t taken that fall in the backyard. Another vacation cancelled. He supposed, however, that he would not have planned the trip if it weren’t for his ailments. He kept bringing home travel magazines from the doctor’s office. They ended up in a basket in his bathroom, and periodically, he would pick one up and focus on some coastal town or a place on a lake. He wanted to live by water.

Stairs. Here we go.

Three concrete steps and a screen door stood between Gene and the patio. No handrails. He clenched his teeth in anticipation of pain. He opened the door and kept a hand on the frame.

Gene stepped with his good leg and hitched up his bad one. The knee bent slightly. It did not hurt as much as he had expected. Maybe the joint had loosened. The doctor had forced him to walk around the examining table.

“You need to be using that leg. I don’t want you to remain stationary. I want you move around a little every day, and do those exercises we talked about.”

Exercises. Ha.

A certain amount of movement was inevitable. Gene figured he could handle the everyday comings and goings. But bending and straightening his leg in increments of twenty - exercising it - was out of the question.

“Your physical therapy will start in a week. Don’t come in here having not put any weight on that leg.”

The porch door slammed behind him. Gene limped toward his easy chair. He couldn’t shake the notion that this sort of thing would keep happening. The illnesses, the injuries. These lovely surprises would keep knocking him down, knocking him down. He was old. He hated to admit that to himself, but it was true. His joints were wearing out. His balance was off. The next surprise might lay him out for good.

Just let me get down to the coast before you take me.

Gene dropped into the old Broyhill recliner, and a heavy breath hissed through his teeth. He hooked his cane on the wicker end table next to the chair. It was supposed to be a fancy cane - lightweight aluminum with a padded grip. He had bought it after his cancer surgery, but he had picked the cheapest one. Already the shaft had worn through the rubber knob on the bottom.

“You can replace that piece, you know. Call the company. If that cane slips, you’ll have another fall on your hands, and I know you don’t want that.”

The sound of his cane clinking across the patio was still in his head. It reminded him of the blind kids from the special school up the road. Every so often, one of them would be on the corner, long stick in hand, teacher at her side, learning to cross the street. He couldn’t help staring at these kids as he drove by. Sometimes he would stand in his driveway as one of them passed, stick tap-tapping, teacher attentive.

Gene took his cane and examined the end. He traced his finger over the half-circle of metal poking through the rubber.

This better not cost me, he thought, and twisted the knob off the cane. He set it on the end table, on top of an issue of American Coast. A photo of a beach was on the cover. Blue sky and blue water. Monterey.

It was the other side of the country, but that wouldn’t matter once he walked out onto that beach and smelled salt in the wind. No hotels, he told himself. He would rent a bungalow right on the sand. The birds would flutter onto the porch and eat crackers from his palm. He could sit and watch the waves crash until the sun had buried itself into the ocean.

Gene traced a finger over the line on his knee. He was afraid of more surprises, but if he could squeeze in one trip, he would be grateful. One trip. It was all he needed.

A Blue Jay darted across the lawn and squawked at another that was pecking on one of his feeders. The two of them spiraled up into the air and away.

Is it too much to ask?

He dropped the cane next to the chair and shifted his weight forward. Gene straightened his left leg, as the doctor had instructed. He felt a shot of pain and relaxed. Then he bent the knee as much as he could. He relaxed. Took a breath.

Nineteen more to go, he thought, and straightened his crippled leg.