Mr. Sheffield’s Day
by Michael Gary Naber
The man in the wheelchair exhaled loudly as a small amount of saliva hung from the pool in his lip and draped spaghetti-like from the several-day old whiskers to his shirt. The shirt, once a crisp plaid and now faded, was stained by many days of food and saliva deposits. His head rolled back and a deep throaty gurgling ensued. He slept in the wheelchair often, it having become too much of a nuisance getting undressed and then dressed for bed and then getting in bed and only to repeat the process the next morning; and what if he needed to go to the bathroom during the night? It was all simply too much effort, too much even to think about.
But this was the middle of an afternoon without sun. He had not left the apartment in years, and there was really nothing much else to do there. He spent hours peering through the only window at the street three floors down.
The wheel tracks had worn the carpet clear through till the knap showed its tattered weave. The burlap now black with filth, it looked like a Rohrshach image on a sculpted field. When he stared out the window, it was not so much out of curiosity about events in the neighborhood or even the world, for that matter. He was more likely to be reliving his past experiences with an embellishment or two, granting himself the witty quip in a conversation or the final word of an argument. He had made a ham sandwich earlier but then fell asleep before eating it and left it lying on the lamp table by the window. His companion and only source of conversation, the radio, played softly while he snored loudly.
Decades of self-indulgence had left him with increasing girth but with no desire to be any other way. He allowed himself the pleasures he craved and denied the guilt plaguing so many others afflicted by advancing years. Once the full mirror in the bedroom reflected a depressing image of a man thinning on top, thickening in the middle and standing perhaps not quite so straight or quite so tall. Eventually, the reminder had to go away.
As a consequence of denial his legs were finally beaten by the pain of bad hips and knees and were replaced in essence by neoprene-treaded chromed wheels. As was his position as a Press Attaché to the U.S. Ambassador to Norway. A cushy job on a bad day, the high life came with a price. Retirement was the only option.
Today, he was dreaming about a formal reception he had attended years before. This was not so long ago that he hadn’t forgotten the sounds and smells of the affair. Everyone was finely dressed and well-mannered. He lingered over the polite conversations, the how do you do’s? What a marvelous orchestra. You look lovely, and so forth.
“Excuse me!” A pause and then, “Excuse me!” exactly as before.
“I beg your pardon,” he mumbled as he became aware of being in the colorless apartment and not in the Embassy garden. Startled, he looked about the room for whomever he must have imposed upon. No orchestra or champagne fountain here, just the faded furniture in a dim room.
He focused in on a black silhouette perched in his window staring directly at him. The man rolled slowly toward the window. “So, pretty bird. What brings you here?”
“Pretty bird,” The raven quipped sharply. “Thank you.”
“Well, well. Aren’t you a clever one?” The raven gazed fixedly at the man rolling cautiously forward but remained steady on the sill. “Have you nothing more to say?” He continued approaching as slowly as he could. “I’m sure I have something around here you would find interesting if only you would spend a little time in conversation with me, hmm?” But it simply perched there unflinching and unblinking.
When the man had gotten very close he slowly reached out toward the bird. Its body leaned forward, beak widening and shrieked, “Mom!” sounding like a young girl in panic. The man recoiled wide-eyed and upright in his chair. After a moment he relaxed and feeling a bit amused at the incident leaned ahead to make another attempt to touch the stranger. Once again came forth the scream, “Mom!” for an entire three count.
Startled, he wheeled the chair backward a few feet. “Well then, stay if you wish. How did you become so fearless?” Regaining composure, he began to occupy himself with other tasks while the raven watched him from its perch: impossibly black without details against the bright grey sky, a menacing presence with the accusing gaze of a roadside tent preacher anticipating your eventual collapse.
The man shuffled through his mail, bills and contest entries. There was nothing new. He attempted to work on a crossword puzzle begun earlier in the day but it was difficult to concentrate. Each time he looked up only to meet the deepest black eyes staring back at him. He found that he was incapable of not looking, like a disobedient child unable to make eye contact with his disciplining parent yet hopeful that forgiveness will appear. He refocused on the puzzle. “Um, exult, four letters, uh, second one is an r. Brag? Maybe it’s brag.” then a moment later, a whispered, “Maybe not.”
In frustration he tossed the puzzle aside and stared back at the dark figure. Unwilling to continue the discomforting relationship the man pressed forward hard against his wheels and began shouting, “What do you want? Go away! Shoo!” He hurled a dusty cushion at the window but it was poorly thrown and fell softly to the floor. A cloud arose around it and curled into the pale light from the hidden sun. The raven stepped sideways twice and cocked his head but never left his station.
“Fine! Stay as long as you like, you bastard. You don’t bother me.” He wheeled about until his back was to the window and rolled forward to the radio. He turned the volume up and tried to become interested in the music. Within moments he dozed off, the result of conditioning during these last years.
Later, unsure how long he had slept he glanced over his shoulder. “Are you still here?” then, “What brings a crow to my apartment?” more to himself. He slowly picked up an ashtray taken from a hotel in Oslo years ago and concealed it in his lap, spun about once more and began rolling forward. “Tell me crow, what do you want? Are you lost? sick? crazy?”
Suddenly stopping: “Crow? Crow. That’s it. That’s the word.” He smiled wide at the bird continuing to explain, “The puzzle: exult, crow. Pretty funny, huh?” Still smiling, he pulled the ashtray out and flung it Frisbee style. The heavy saucer wobbled but sailed through the window untouched and he winced at the sound of the glass shattering in the street.
Hands pumping like pistons he charged ahead with the determination and voice of a warrior. When he was close enough to grasp at his tormentor once more he lunged ahead groping in the air but the bird merely arose above his flailing arms. The man and chair smacked into the wall causing the man to launch and the chair to bang and bounce back.
Now he clung to the sill with both hands. The chair rolled a few feet away, out of his reach. He was as close as he had come yet to the fascinating phantom which had alighted on the telephone line beside the window. Pressing himself up and leaning against the sill for balance he awkwardly reached out one-handed. Rebalanced and tried again. He strained with both arms outstretched but the bird gently kicked off from the line and watched as the man dove over the edge and plummeted to the pavement below.
Voices were heard on the street and people asked each other, “How did that happen?”
“Haven’t seen him around for a while.” and
“I heard a child crying, didn’t you?” and
“I thought he died years ago.”
While the raven perched on the lamp table busily shredding the ham sandwich, the phone rang several times and then went silent. The voice on the radio reported that Mr. Sheffield had not answered so the weekly prize money would be added to the growing total for next week’s contest.
Copyright © 2003-2005 by Michael Gary Naber