Now, in the Grand Union parking lot, he falls. Who knows why—it could be the wet ground. He's in the skinny aisle of asphalt between our car and the one parked next to us. He falls, and it's pouring, and I'm still loading grocery bags into the back.
"Mom!" he calls at me, half barking, half crying. "I fell!" There's such anguish, such anger, in his voice when he falls, and such resignation. He never thinks I hear him.
And why am I suddenly so angry? Such terrible impatience rises in me now. Am I really such a witch, such a bad mother, that when I'm loading groceries and my son falls, I don't have the time or patience to cope? Why am I so angry?
"Wait a minute," I say. "I'll be there in a minute."
So he sits on the wet pavement between the cars. I know his sweatpants are at this moment soaking through. I can see that the wheelchair, waiting to be rolled up the ramp, needing to be pushed and yanked into position, is also getting wet. Its foamy-nylon seat will need drying out later.
A middle-aged blonde woman has wheeled her shopping cart into the lot and approaches us. "Can I help?"
No, you definitely cannot help, runs through my head. This is both true and self-righteous. Physically, the job is not meant for two; it's easier for me to do on my own. How would we two, and Ansel, even fit between the cars?
I grit my teeth and smile and say, "No, no thanks, really. I can do it." People always seem puzzled and upset when they see him fall. It's so sudden, an instant crumpling, without warning. They can't see the weakness, the steady deterioration of his pelvis. Maybe someone would fall this way if he'd been hit hard in the solar plexus; I don't know. But Ansel's feet give way for no apparent reason, and he's down.
The blonde woman has heard me, but she keeps standing there, her hands clamped around the handle of her cart, her eyes moving from Ansel to the grocery bags to me. I know she means to be helpful, and in a way I do want something from her—pity? an acknowledgment that I am more noble than she? But mostly I want her to go away. Don't look at me. Don't watch this.
"Mom! Where are you?"
I turn from the blonde woman; she fades away. "Okay, I'm coming," I say. I try to wedge myself between the cars so that I can retrieve Ansel. There's a special way to pick him up: you have to come from behind and grab him under the arms, raise him so that his toes dangle just above the ground, and then set his feet down precisely the right distance apart.
I'm in pretty good shape, but Ansel is dead weight. Another child could help you, could put his hands around your neck. His feet would come off the ground at even the suggestion of lifting. But Ansel is pulling me down, his limp shoulders, his heavy leg braces, his sodden pants, his clumsy sneakers. I can't hold him. My own sneakers slip on the wet pavement.
II. Chaos, 1999
The New York Academy of Medicine, on 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, is not exactly in the slums, but it's not really the Upper East Side either. On a dreary, drizzly morning I park at the Metropolitan Museum garage, on Eightieth Street, and walk up Madison, past Banana Republic and Ann Taylor and patisseries and fancy meat purveyors and little French children's-clothing shops that display sashed dresses with hand-embroidered yokes in their windows. But above Ninety-sixth Street, near the Mount Sinai Hospital complex, the scenery and the people change abruptly; everything's older and more run-down. Street peddlers hawk books, batteries, Yankees caps, cheap scarves, acrylic ski caps, five-dollar handbags. I see an obese black man leaning on a cane, harried-looking workers with Mount Sinai badges, a woman exiting a hospital building through a revolving door carrying crutches.