Maria is late. She works at the Gap store in the mall and was supposed to get out a half an hour ago. I am near the mall exit waiting for her. Arms folded, I lean against the black, imitation granite pillar. It is cold. The chill jumps through my T-shirt and lands on my spine. Above me the neon lights hum. There is one down the hall that flickers and strobes — going out for a minute then coming back on.
I watch the people, bleached out by the merciless, mean lights and I move my feet. I notice a spilled Coke on the floor. The ice cubes sparkle and twinkle. And melt. They’ll be gone soon — they’ll be little puddles. I kick one of the cubes, and I wait for Maria.
I am standing against the pillar, hating those lights, and a bleached-face woman is walking out of the store across from me. Well, she doesn’t really walk, she hobbles because she is on crutches. The padding on the hand grips is taped, and the tops are wedged under her armpits. She has black, wavy hair that stops at her shoulders. Her profile is sharp, but pretty. I notice her breasts and follow the line down to her legs. The uninjured one is nicely shaped and proportioned. The thigh is muscular and sculpted, as is her calf. Her other leg is nice too, but it is bandaged from the knee down. And her foot is gone — amputated. Gauze covers the stump where her ankle should start.
So I am standing, arms still crossed, trying not to stare at this woman. I look at my shoes, clear my throat. I cross and uncross my arms. Put my hands in my pockets. I try to occupy my eyes, but my gaze keeps resting on this woman, or more correctly, her stump. For a moment I think I see a blood stain on her bandage, but I realize it is just a shadow. Probably.
The woman’s back is to me; she is looking in the store window. In my mind flashes the face of Jerry — a friend of mine who used to be a big, likeable jock. He used to be, until he was paralyzed playing football. He’s small and fragile now, and in a wheelchair. When I think of Jerry, I think of the time I had to help him drain his catheter bag. I think of how I had to hold the bottle because his hands were too weak. I think of how warm the fluid felt as it filled the bottle, and how I was afraid the urine might spill. And that smell. That’s what I think of when I think of Jerry, or when I see him. And now when I see him, which isn’t often, I don’t look into his eyes.
Anyway, this woman is across from me looking in the store window. I see her turn slightly in my direction. She twists her crutches around and her body follows. Her dark-circled eyes catch mine. I look away. She starts to hobble towards the exit. Her footless leg swings rhythmically, like some kind of strange pendulum.
She hobbles along and comes even with me. She looks at me, not at where she is going. I squirm. This woman, this woman with the wrapped stump that may have blood on it, continues to look at me as she hobbles. Suddenly, her crutch slips out. It probably slipped on the spilled drink I have forgotten about. Anyway, she falls. She falls hard; I hear the breath grunt out of her.
“Are you okay?” I ask. I am kneeling next to her.
She sits. For a moment I worry she’ll get her pants stained by the spilled Coke.
“Yes,” she says. “I think so.”
She rubs her shoulder, brushes her black hair from her face. I retrieve her crutches and help her to her feet.
“I guess you slipped in that Coke,” I say, pointing.
She brushes her pant leg and says, “I saw you looking at me. I saw your reflection in the window.”
What can I say? I want to say “You’re still pretty.” I want to say “You’re beautiful.” I want to hug her, protect her. I want to give her her foot back. But I can’t say or do any of these things.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I can think of only that.
She looks at me. She looks at me while those neon lights bleach out her face. Mine too, I guess.
“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry too.”
She makes her way towards the door, steady now on her crutches. I’m motionless, watching her. I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Maria.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say.
We walk outside into the parking lot. The bright sun makes me squint until my eyes finally adjust.
Maria says, “Look, look, honey.” She is pointing by moving her head, jerking it. “That woman came into the store today.” She is talking about the woman who just fell. The woman without the foot.
“I saw her too,” I say.
“It’s sad, you know? She’s so pretty otherwise. I thought I saw blood on her bandage.”
I watch the woman go down the sidewalk. Her hair glistens in the sunlight, like pieces of those ice cubes from the floor are caught in the strands. Her face, what I can see of it anyway, looks healthy in the natural light. I watch her until I feel Maria’s hand touch mine.
“Come on,” says Maria. “let’s go home.”
She grabs my hand and pulls me along.
So I go along, stumble behind her. I squeeze her hand and feel her strength in response. I crave her warmness, and I go along. I go along because I don’t know what else to do. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t do it anyway.
Anthony Lawrence Gordon is a teacher and writer living it up in the wilds of Central Wisconsin.