Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kicking Back

People who know me well have noticed that I inevitably gravitate toward the nearest wall. My Uncle Al always used to sit with his back toward the wall. "A good cowboy," he assured me, "never sits with his back to the door." I am not a cowboy, and my affinity for walls has nothing to do with bad guys and bar rooms. It's all about kicking back.

Life in a wheelchair isn't as easy as it looks. I know, all we do all day is sit down. How hard can that be? Depending on how high one's level of paralysis is, much of one's day is engaged in the business of keeping one's self upright and in the wheelchair. I am paralyzed from the chest down, for example, and all those lower torso muscle groups which would otherwise provide balance and support have been on vacation since a dock railing broke in 1975. So one hand, at least, is forever busy holding me upright. Unless, of course, I'm kicking back.

My first trip to Craig Spinal Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver was a revelation on many levels. For instance, every wheelchair user at Craig seemed to be cooler than I was, faster than I was, and everybody there was kicking back. Before I could master kicking back, however, I had to learn how to do wheelies, the art of balancing the chair on its rear wheels. Wheelies are helpful when dropping off sidewalks, popping up small curbs, or rolling down steep hills. The side benefit is the fact that when the chair is tipped backwards, gravity holds you in instead of trying to pull you out. In technical terms, it's the L.B.E., or "Lazy Boy Effect." Head back, feet up...where's the remote control? Anyway, once you master the wheelie, you can enjoy kicking back any time you want. All you need is a wall.

I used to think that any wall would do. I was wrong. My first mystery novel was published in 1991. I actually saw it in book form for the first time at the Midwest Mystery Convention in May of that year. It was stacked on one of the booksellers' tables, right there alongside a host of the great mystery authors...Dick Francis, Nancy Pickard, William Kienzle, Elmore Leonard, William Love, et al. I'd died and gone to heaven. I held my book. I fanned the pages ever-so-gently. I even sniffed it. By the time I rolled into an author panel discussion called "Humor in the Mystery" and looked for a place to kick back and enjoy, I felt like I'd finally arrived. Now, all I had to do was get readers to notice.

The only available wall was one of those fold-out partition jobs that hotels use to divide large rooms into not-so-large rooms. I pushed against it to make sure that it was fastened to the floor as well as to the ceiling. Once satisfied that it was, I popped a wheelie, leaned back against the wall, and locked my brakes. Several moments later, I was laughing--along with everyone else--at Nancy Pickard's witty remark about how one recognizes the difference between what is funny, and what is not. A split second after that, I was on the floor in the next room...without my trusty wheelchair.

The wall, as it turned out, felt secure only because a huge banquet table was leaning up against it in the next room. The vibrations caused by my laughter were enough to topple that table, and what several hundred startled people in the first room heard when it fell sounded much like an explosion. What they saw when they turned around en masse left them stunned. A laughing disabled man just disappeared. Right before their eyes. He was leaning up against the wall one second, then the wall swung out like a gigantic pet door, then the strange man was gone. The wall returned and an empty wheelchair lay on its back, its footrests pointing at the ceiling, proof positive that the audience's collective vision had not been a dream. Their dazed silence remained until I butt-scooted back in around the far end of the wall and said: "Now that's funny!" Then they laughed.

Well, 18 years later, I still kick back whenever I can--many wheelchair users do--though I tend to scrutinize each new wall a bit more thoroughly than I used to. Life, the Universe, and Everything is like that.

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