TODD WALTON: Forty Years Ago

 

crossroads tw

Crossroads painting by Nolan Winkler

From TODD WALTON
Under The Table
Mendocino

I completed my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended. I had a medical deferment that saved me from going to that war. I lost friends to that needless conflagration and had friends who came back from those horrors emotionally disturbed. And long before the Vietnam War, my uncle Bob was severely disabled in a car accident, and spending time with him as a boy and a teenager was a huge influence on how I looked at the world.

Before I wrote Inside Moves, I lived in Santa Cruz and played music in a tavern in which one of the booths was reserved for a group of disabled men. I like them and they liked me, and I wrote a short story about them and then attempted without success to craft the story into a one-act play.

These were all antecedents to my writing Inside Moves, though the largest influence was being disabled as a teenager and spending half a year unable to walk and several years with terrible hip and back pain and a pronounced limp before regaining normal physical functioning in my late twenties.

I would like to share the opening chapter of Inside Moves with you. If I had not succeeded in publishing Inside Moves—a miraculous saga in itself—and if it had not been a modest success and made into a motion picture, I almost surely would not have had a career as a professional writer. The gods, I believe, wanted me to keep writing books and so engineered the unlikely process that brought Inside Moves to the world in 1978.

Reading these opening lines today, forty years after I wrote them, they feel as relevant to me today as they did in my youth when the voice of a man began to tell me this story and I wrote it down.

1.

My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.

I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.

So I told him, “Really, Doctor, I can walk.” He’s a young guy, luckily, so he still has some energy and curiosity. He goes off to talk to a surgeon to find out if I can be disconnected from the bed and the tubes they had going into me. He wanted to let me try to move so I’d know I couldn’t, which he figured would help me accept my paralysis. So the surgeon comes back with the psychiatrist and a couple orderlies and couple nurses and some patients come in too. It was a big event. I could write a whole book on that hospital, but they’ve already written so many like it, there wouldn’t be much point.

The surgeon says go ahead, unhook him. The nurses pull my tubes and then very dramatically this one nurse throws back the covers and there I am in my crummy, piss-stained bedclothes. Nobody’s changed me in over a week. Like I said, I could write a book about that place, but don’t worry, I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

Anyway, after the surgeon says what a disgraceful situation it is, me not being changed and my tubes not functioning properly, and the nurses and orderlies get done passing the buck to some boy who works the graveyard shift, I swing my legs off the bed, push off with my hands and stand up for a few seconds before my legs, which I haven’t used in a year, give out and I sit back down on the bed.

I’d give a hundred dollars right now to have a picture of all those people staring at me.

But I can’t really blame them for not changing me. What difference does it make when you think somebody’s just a vegetable anyway. I was just a raspy voice coming out of a scarred up face to them. Most of them didn’t even know I had a body.

So that’s why I shuffle when I walk and why my head leans to the side a little. I grew a beard and let my hair get long because that covers the scars front and back, and also my head leaning isn’t so noticeable with all that hair. I guess I’m fat because when I’m lonely I tend to eat to fill in for whatever I’m lonely for. Sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes I just need somebody to talk to. So I eat.

But I don’t want you to get the idea this book is about me, because it isn’t. It’s about Jerry, but I thought I’d better say something about myself so you’d know what kind of an angle you were getting. In a way, you’re getting a cripple angle, but then again I wasn’t born a cripple. There’s a big difference between a born cripple and somebody who gets crippled. The main difference seems to be how bitter they are. That isn’t always true, but take Jerry, he was born cripple and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. Me, I was born straight, played fullback in high school. Me, I’m bitter. I’m no sweetheart.
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