This is the fourth chapter. If you're just starting out, you might prefer Chapter 1. I've messed with the post dates to keep the chapters in order.
We could have been rich.
Lawyers lined up to sue the hospital where I was born. Lawyers love cerebral palsy. Babies with injuries pull at a jury’s heartstrings, so doctors and hospitals pay up.
Sometimes they deserve to. Look at Donna. The doctor who delivered her muted the machine monitoring her heart rate, and then forgot to turn it back on. When he realized he’d fucked up, he threw out the paper showing Donna’s slowing heart rate and told the nurse things would go badly for her if she opened her mouth.
When security cameras showed him disposing of evidence, Donna’s parents got two million dollars. In exchange, they had to promise never to reveal any of the facts to anyone. So they couldn’t go to the papers to let everyone know what an asshole the doctor was. They couldn’t go to the DA to get him charged with fraud. The couldn’t even go to the AMA to file a complaint. But they had all the money they needed to support Donna: rent, food, wheelchairs, therapists, you name it.
Sometimes Donna wonders if, without all of that money, her parents would still be together and her mom wouldn’t be an alcoholic. But life doesn’t get a control group.
My parents never sued. Mom almost died when I was born. Her blood pressure was ridiculously high, and she was in intensive care for three weeks. My dad told me the story two years ago after her funeral: how he’d stood there and watched the doctor cut into his wife as the anesthesiologist fought to keep her alive; how he’d walked between two ICUs, how he’d been woken up from a rare nap by a lawyer who wanted to represent him.
He told that lawyer to go fuck himself with the nearest sharp object. Without that doctor, dad said, he would have been walking between two caskets, not two bedsides. He wasn’t going to say a word against that man, not even for a million dollars.
So we weren’t rich.
Who knows, maybe not having the money they needed kept my parents together. But dad had to work like hell, pulling cable and installing breakers by day, helping me at night.
Now his stubby, rough fingers scrub down my back while I sit in a shower seat he made from a lawn chair and PVC pipe. Next come my arms, chest, and crotch.
Dad wears swim trunks when he helps me shower. Growing up, mom sometimes made him shower naked with me. She used to giggle when she told the story: I’d ask dad why his penis looked different from mine. He said I had enough medical procedures when I was a baby, and I wasn’t going to have another one just to make my dick looked like his.
It wasn’t until sex ed that I realized he was talking about circumcision.
Brandon handles most of my personal care now (he also wears swim trunks in the shower), but he won’t come by until bedtime and I don’t want to be covered until then in blood and asphalt and whatever else I picked up from PokerLive’s parking lot.
The shower washes the morning away, and once I’m dressed and back in my chair, my thoughts turn to the evening. Donna and I both have the afternoon off. No reason why we shouldn’t still play mini-golf, eat steak for dinner, and take advantage of the bedroom adaptations. There are only so many such opportunities in a lifetime; I shouldn’t let one go by on account of my busted-ass chair.
But that’s for after dinner. Right now it’s time for lunch. Dad rolls me into the dining nook and starts unpacking the Chinese take-out.
He fills my plate with the usual: mu-shu pork, pot stickers, and egg rolls. Finger food, so I can feed myself. My table manners are a bit medieval; I grab the food, get it close to my mouth, and bite off whatever I can. Crude but effective.
Donna rolls silently in from the office. She tells Gonzo to rest in the corner, then takes the seat to my right. She opens the carton nearest her considers it silently for a few seconds, and then closes it again.
“Anything I can help you find?” dad asks her.
She shakes her head and opens another carton. After making her way through the entire forest of white cardboard, she selects fried rice, cashew chicken, and broccoli beef. She wields chopsticks with well-mannered precision, and stares at the lines of the table.
I look across the table at my dad. He nudges his head toward Donna and raises his eyebrows. Even he can see something’s bothering her, and I’m pretty sure it’s something about me. When she’s pissed about a work thing, she turns bright red and carries on about how unfair the school system is. Icy silences, though, mean I’ve fucked up.
“You two should go do something this afternoon,” dad says. “Relax after the stressful morning. Maybe go to a movie?”
Donna’s head is down, her eyes fixed on the last kernels of rice that are stuck to the plate. She’s picking them up one by one. “We were planning on minigolf,” she says.
“Great! It won’t be crowded; school’s still in session.”
But Donna said ‘minigolf’ like it was a disgusting chore. Not that I’d blame her for getting sick of mini-golfing with the putting rig Marco built. It looks kind of like the shoe-on-a-stick you see in Mousetrap, but it has sentimental value. We used it on our third date, the one the ended with us completely failing to get each other’s clothes off.
I decide to give her an out. “Do you need… to work on… the home computer to… finish up?”
Donna finally looks up. Her lower lip twitches, but her eyes narrow with concentration as she gathers her composure. “Why can’t you just use a Verimobile power chair? Why do you have to use Marco’s latest crap?”
She reaches up to scratch her right eye, trying to be discrete as she dispatches the single tear that has escaped her composed facade. I look over to my dad, whose eyes have widened. He’s never seen Donna and me fight. We do fight - I imagine every couple does - but not in front of other people. Wherever this conversation is going, it’s either something she can’t hold back or something she wants dad to see.
Either way, it won’t be pretty.
I figure my best bet is to try to end the conversation now, and pick it up later when Marco’s not in the garage and dad’s not at the table.
“Maybe you’re … right.”
She nods and goes back to her food. She likes to be right. Emergency averted. For now.
Then dad fucks it up.
“I don’t know,” he says. “You went all custom ten years back. This is the first major failure. All things considered, it’s pretty solid.”
Donna turns on him, and her voice goes up an octave. “What if he’d been alone? What if they'd taken him to the hospital? Right now I'd be calling around to find out where he is!”
“I'm ... all right. Let’s … talk later.”
But Donna’s not done. “If they’d even tell me where he was. Maybe you’d need to make the calls, while I just sat here worrying. Unless I just lied and claimed to be his wife.”
At last she looks back at me. The word 'wife' hangs over the empty white containers like a cloud of tear gas. Donna starts to sob.
I look over to dad, who has suddenly developed a keen interest in removing splinters from his chopsticks by rubbing them together. He glances my way for a moment, then puts his head down and returns to whittling.
I’d like to go give Donna a hug, but My chest strap is holding me against my chair. All I can do it sit here and watch her cry. Pretty useless.
She gets control of her breathing and pulls back into a red-eyed version of her courtroom presence. “My doctor called today. All my test results are normal, and he says that medically there will never be a better time to get pregnant.”
And there we are. That’s what we’re really talking about. Not marriage, not my injuries, not my custom power chair, but pregnancy. I really have nothing against it, and I rather enjoy the sex that leads to it. What scares me is the part that follows, that other F-word. Fatherhood.
I've gotten used to a mechanized life, one of motors and circuit boards and communication panels. I didn’t choose this life, and there are days when I’d give anything to be able to hike up Windy Hill, swim in the ocean, or even just wipe my own ass. I didn’t choose this life, but I’m living it. And Donna’s chosen to share it with me, and that’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me.
But I’d never force anyone to share this life, and our children wouldn’t have any choice. They’d be stuck with a father who can’t teach them to ride a bike, can’t play catch in the park, can’t teach them to shave or threaten their boyfriends. There’s really only one role model for such a mechanized fatherhood.
“We still … have the … Darth ... Vader … problem.”
Donna slams her hand into her armrest. It must not have been seated completely, since it crashes down with a metal clang and cuts a strap on her backpack, which slips sideways and dumps her water bottle on the floor. Gonzo looks up to see if he’s supposed to pick something up, but Donna waves him back down as she regains her composure.
“You'd be a loving father, and that's all the matters.” She turns to dad. “Isn’t that all that matters?”
Dad sets down his splinter-free chopsticks, rubs his eyes, and takes a deep breath. “What matters,” he says, “is that I raised my son to make his own decisions. So my role,” he stands up. “My role is to support those decisions. This discussion is between the two of you, so I’ll leave the two of you to have it.”
Dad gives me a pat on the shoulder as he steps around me on his way to the front door. I hear it open and shut as he lets himself out. That leaves the house completely silent as Donna and I sit and look at each other.
“You asked … a question … you didn’t know … how the … witness would … answer.”
I’m going for funny, but Donna’s not about to laugh. She nods absently. “We'll need help,” she says. “Everyone needs help raising kids, but we'll need more than most. Your dad can help, my mom can’t. But we can hire people if we need to. We might not be perfect, but we don't have to be perfect. Nobody's perfect.”
“You... try... to be.”
“Is that it? I try too hard? You think I'd pressure our kids too much?” Her words are coming slower as she breathes between them and looks at me with her great green eyes bloodshot and scared.
“No … It’s me. … Fatherhood … is … broccoli beef … not … mu-shu pork.”
“Then you'll just have to get your hands dirty.”
A board creaks out in the hall.
“Hello?” Donna calls.
I roll over to take a look. Marco is standing with his back to the wall, and steps out into the dining area with a pained look on his face and my communications panel in his hands.
“Sorry,” he says, “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Donna’s look at me screams he’s your friend; deal with him.
“So …” Marco kicks the floor and looks around the room. “The ‘840 in the motor controller and the ‘970 in the tablet are both blown. Both Immertel chips. All the pins are stuck high. Clocks and power look good going in, but nothing’s coming out. They don’t even respond to the debug interface.”
It’s an interesting technical result. I can take the chips in for failure analysis tomorrow, but I know enough not to start talking tech right now, so I let the silence fall again.
Marco walks over and snaps the panel back onto my chair. “I replaced the board,” he says, “All better now.” Then he turns to Donna. “I put an Immertel 2056 in your computer. That’s three crashed systems with Immertel chips, two of them confirmed as the chips themselves. Then there’s your navi, and the alarm at Poker Live, and the streetlights. I can check the navi now.”
Donna’s been sitting silently, but now has no choice but to respond. “You’re not touching my car,” she declares. “It’s under warranty.”
“I was just going to check a teardown site to see what processor it has.”
Nice recovery, Marco. “What about … the computer?”
“I can pick a chip up at ComputerWorld and replace it anytime.”
“Anything to get you out of here,” Donna says. She pulls her office key off her key ring and offers it up. “The files are full of attorney-client privileged information. You listen to us talk about our future, you piss me off. You open those files, you go to prison.”
Marco nods nervously as he grabs the keys. “I’ll just replace the chip.” He heads out through the garage, leaving Donna and me in silence again.
I look over at Donna, perfect as always except for the tears that have returned to her eyes. I’m going to lose her one of these days. I’ve worried about that from our first game of mini-golf. Sometimes I lie in bed and wonder when she’ll find some athletic guy who talks fast and works out daily and has a full complement of bedroom moves. Now the biggest problem seems to be me.
“I was almost done with a parent response when my computer died,” she says at last. “We need to submit it tomorrow. I can do it on my laptop, while you think of something to say.”
She rolls into the hallway and turns toward the office. I sit there for a few minutes until I realize that there’s one thing I do need to say. I follow Donna into the office and get there just as she finishes bringing up her laptop.
“I love … you.”
She pushes herself back from the desk and spins to face me. “I love you, too,” she says before rolling up next to me and leaning in to give me a peck on the cheek. She gives me a tender pat on my shoulder and knee as she turns back to her work.
I roll into the living room. I wish I could go back to PokerLive. Taking people’s money would give my mind a chance to calm down again. I look over my choices of movies. Dad and I have built the home theater together (well, I picked it out and then watched him install it.) It’s a 4K projection system and enough speakers for a stadium concert. Star Wars catches my eye, but I don’t need reminding of mechanized fatherhood. I settle on binge-watching Lord of the Rings.
Marco calls between the first and second movie to report that replacing the Immertel chip in Donna’s computer fixed it. He also stopped by PokerLive and begged to look at their broken alarm system, but left when they threatened to call the cops.
Dad texts me to see if I’m done fighting with Donna, and comes over when he realizes I’m watching movies alone. He sits through The Two Towers and answers the door when Marco drops by. He returns with a plastic box packed with anti-static foam.
“He asked you to take them in for FA,” dad says.
I use my talker. “OK. Please put them in my backpack.”
“Failure … Analysis.”
“Makes sense. Wanna switch to The Blues Brothers for movie number three?”
That’s dad’s favorite movie. He tells stories of a couple dozen run-ins with the police when he was in high school, and seems to relish watching cop cars being destroyed en-masse. He puts together a simple dinner of cheese, crackers, and salami that I munch on while we watch. Then Brandon arrives to help me take a shit and get into bed.
“Imagine how much fun it would have been to make that movie,” dad says on his way out the door.
He says that every time we watch The Blues Brothers. This time I look it up on my panel as Brandon pushes me to the bathroom. Turns out The Blues Brothers was sheer hell to make. Hollywood execs questioned everything, and the shooting schedule had to revolve around John Belushi’s cocaine addiction. He died less than two years after the movie was released. But somehow he left behind something wonderful and enduring.
I’m sure there’s a lesson there for me.
Hopefully someday I’ll learn it.