The Facts


 Mark Rigney, Fiction

 

Occasional lapses in taste or discretion within this narrative are entirely intentional. They serve to damn the innocent and punish the guilty, all of which the media, in their infinite fourth-estate wisdom, failed to do through the omission of facts, spirit, and other vagaries. So, if it seems inappropriate to interrupt a tragic drowning with observations about the nesting habits of local birds, then consider this: Lewis Kohler knew even less of those birds than they did of him. It is a stone-cold fact that he never once opened a book on birds or enquired after the name of a species he did not already know, which amounted to three: cardinals, blue jays and sparrows—and the sparrows he lumped into one large group, completely ignoring the ten-odd variants flitting through the Olentangy valley.

Further, if it seems callous to contrast Lewis' unhappy death with two small pony-tailed girls on silly bikes, then remember: small pony-tailed girls on silly bikes are everywhere in this country, as is death, and thus the two are inseparable. They go together, hand in hand, and on occasion they meet, scythe and sickle versus Barbie and bells.

Not that life is always such the proverbial veil of tears, but honestly—drowning just isn't any fun. Might as well liven things up.

Newspapers of the day described the drowning of Lewis Kohler in quick, definitive terms, using sentences like "Mr. Kohler, of 104 Schuyler Street, had been confined to a wheelchair since a 1998 car accident." They correctly apprehended both his age and the fact that he was a regular visitor to Antrim Park Lake, a placid, kidney-shaped pond encompassed by a looping, mile-long bicycle trail. They gave his address and noted his former occupation, the sale of hardwood flooring through Kohler's, founded by his father—but bankrolled by his diminutive, ambitious mother—in 1947. And, when it came time, they offered a perfectly factual obituary, dry and depressingly efficient:

Lewis Kohler, 68, of Clintonville, died Saturday morning, May 6, 2000, at Antrim City Park. He is survived by his son, Edward, of Akron, and his sisters, Lottie (husband John) Felson and Shirley (husband Josh) Lutz, both of Marysville. Mr. Kohler was a 1960 graduate of Whetstone High School and attended the Ohio State University, majoring in Business. Arrangements are pending through the Robert October Funeral Home in Worthington.

None of the papers bothered to note how odd it was that all of his remaining kin made their livelihood, in one fashion or another, from the auto industry—Edward for Goodyear, and the sisters, both secretaries, for Honda. Editors deemed ephemera of this sort as irrelevant to the matter at hand, that matter being Mr. Kohler's sudden and terminal immersion in Antrim Lake.

Lewis Kohler often asked his in-home caregivers, Maurice and Kaylie, to load him into his Delta 88 Oldsmobile and lug him up to Antrim. It was among the few city parks easily accessible by wheelchair from beginning to end. The fact that traffic on Highway 315 (an interstate by any other name) buzzed by at speeds exceeding seventy-five miles per hour did not put him off sufficiently to explore other options.

"I'm used to the roar," he'd tell anyone with whom he might strike up a conversation, usually dog owners. He liked to borrow sticks and hurl them for Yuppie Labradors. Not surprisingly, both the Yuppie Labradors and the sticks (mostly box elder and cottonwood) escaped the newspapers.

So, in a descriptive sense, did Lewis Kohler: not a single article ever mentioned what he looked like.

Well, to be fair, one paper did run a small single-column black-and-white photograph, very grainy and very out-of-date, as evinced by Lewis' nearly full head of hair.

Maurice, meanwhile, received no fewer than five photographs over a one-week period, all of which revealed in no uncertain terms that Maurice, full name Maurice S. Myles, was black. In print, no one ever mentioned Lewis Kohler's ethnic heritage, but, just to be absolutely certain, the newspapers identified Maurice's racial status nine times, three times in articles that also contained redundant photographic evidence. These self-same articles went on to mention how Maurice had worked for HomeHealth for five years, and Lewis Kohler—wonderful, helpless, world-class Caucasian Lewis Kohler—had been only his second assignment. Maurice Myles had large hands, proclaimed one writer, which caused most readers to assume Maurice was a giant, the sort of hulking menace that causes God-fearing white parents to lock their daughters inside after dark. In fact, Maurice was a small man, lightly built; in his hip-length caregiver's jacket, pressed and whiter than polished bone, he could not have been more unassuming.

To the credit of the profession at large, at least one reporter sought to capitalize on Maurice's meeker side by describing how Maurice wept when relating the events to police officers—and he cried not once, not twice, but even days and days after the initial event. "It's my fault," he whispered, speaking only to himself. "All my fault."

When these words hit the paper, letters appeared suggesting that Maurice S. Myles be prosecuted, as swiftly as possible, for criminal negligence, reckless endangerment, and a host of far less applicable charges, including littering.

One of those letter writers turned out to be Kaylie Linderbuck, Lewis Kohler's weekend caregiver. Recall: Lewis Kohler died on a Saturday morning, a day which usually would have been Kaylie's watch, starting at midnight Friday. She and Maurice had agreed to the switch in advance, so that he would work Saturday for her—and draw lucrative overtime pay—and she would cover for him on Monday. Readers of newspapers, especially grumpy early-morning pre-coffee readers, promptly found fault with both. Kaylie Linderbuck appeared lazy and shiftless, a woman who would do anything to avoid the duties of her thankless but easy job of pushing, on demand, a wheelchair-bound codger around a lake. Maurice S. Myles, whose middle initial invariably appeared together with the rest of his name, struck these same readers as over-tired, greedy, and possibly incompetent. The truly avid fans who followed the story into its second week, were not, therefore, surprised to find that Mr. Myles lost his job, that he was fired by HomeHealth after a summary and previously unscheduled employee review. Ms. Linderbuck retained her job, albeit with another patient, but the article covering Maurice's dismissal didn't bother to mention Kaylie's status. Nor did it mention her consistently ignored middle initial, M for Monique.

The actual events of the day, while straightforward enough, became surprisingly slippery once police and reporters determined to pin them down. Here is what they settled on:

At nine-thirty sharp, Maurice bundled his charge into the aforementioned Delta 88 (copper-brown), and after a short drive of precisely three point six-five miles, they arrived at Antrim's lower parking area, where, after a ten or possibly eleven-minute struggle with the chair and the Delta's recalcitrant seatbelts, Maurice and Lewis eventually departed for the lake. The paved walkway led first through an underpass below Highway 315, a hybrid of a tunnel and a bridge which stank constantly of river muck and dead fish from the Olentangy River's regular floods. The Olentangy, which chugged along on the far side of Antrim Lake, tended to pool and collect under the bypass thanks to an engineering gaff with a drainpipe which, rather than helping a small local stream enter the river, instead allowed the river to enter the stream, sometimes for weeks at a time. Lewis often griped about this, since the residual layers of mud also gummed up his wheelchair and left dust prints of the river on his immaculate golden oak floorboards. "Rivers," he was fond of saying, "are not good indoor pets."

At nine forty-seven, Lewis said, or so Maurice explained it later, "I'm a big boy now, and I can damn well get around a one-mile trail on my own, thank you very much. I know I'm ready, you know I'm ready. The question is, are you going to let me do it?"

"No," said Maurice, and continued to push.

Did we mention it was a gorgeous day, with alternating sun and shade, puffy clouds, low humidity and a cheeky, water-ruffling breeze? Or that "Olentangy" is an approximation of the original Shawnee, meaning, simply, "muddy river"?

No matter. The distance between the parking lot and the far side of the underpass, where the bike trail came in from two sides to create a T-junction, was and is exactly fifty-five point three-seven meters, plus an additional ten point three meters tacked on for the particular spot where Maurice had parked the Delta 88. This is not a lot of space in which to frame a convincing argument, especially one so radical as what Lewis Kohler proposed that day. As he well knew, no caregiver, or at least no care-giving employee of HomeHealth, was supposed to let his charge out of either sight or hearing range.

"Maurice," Lewis griped, staring straight ahead and eyeing, not unkindly, a pair of spindly pony-tailed girls riding pink training-wheeled bicycles, "what was all that therapy for if not to give me a little independence?"

"Don't know," Maurice said.

The girls rode off and Lewis frowned at his useless feet. "If you don't let me go, I swear to God in Heaven that I will make up the worst, most insidious lies about you. I'll tell them you never wash me, you leave crumbs all over, there are cockroaches crawling out of my bed sheets, you smoke in the house—no, you mainline in the house—and you never, ever, come when I call. You'll lose your job before I'm even off the phone."

"No," said Maurice. "Capital N, capital O."

Lewis changed tactics. "Not only will I get you fired, but I'll give you a hundred bucks, right now."

Maurice leaned around so he could Lewis' face. "You serious?"

Lewis dug into his left trouser pocket and hauled out a rumpled wad of green. "Two twenties and a fifty," he said. "I'll give you ten back at the house."

"Can't do it," Maurice said, accelerating the wheelchair for emphasis. "Sorry."

"I'll make the call. I'll tell 'em about Sarah Selzer."

Maurice hesitated for one full rotation of the chair's wide rubber wheels, and then he took the money.

He gave in, not, as he told the press and a gaggle of detectives, because he felt sorry for Lewis and wanted to do something nice for him, but because of Sarah Selzer. While Maurice had only been with Lewis for six short months, he had made his living as a caregiver for five years, and most of those five had been spent in the household of Ruth Selzer, an ill but irascible woman with knitting-needle eyes and a flirtatious, slightly unstable teenage daughter, Sarah. When the convalescent mother, formerly Jewish but now a devout born-again Christian, caught the pair in flagrante delecto on the floor, she opted to forgive—but only on the condition that Maurice never again fail to do anything less than his finest work. Ruth promised she'd be watching, following his career with private investigators if necessary, and while Maurice had never doubted her, now he had the proof: Lewis knew. If he told, Ruth would back him up. He'd wind up a security guard in a parking lot kiosk, freezing in winter, sweating in summer, no tips, no perks, no future.

"Second chances," Ruth had said to him, pointing a brittle finger his direction as if applying a curse, "that's what Jesus is all about. But third chances, no, sir. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Don't make me do the Lord's work, son."

Maurice had never forgotten, not even for an hour, that single pointed finger. Worse, he found he could barely remember Sarah and how she'd felt, naked and squirming beneath him, how she'd slid her fingers inside his pants and brushed his ear with her tongue. All he was sure of was that she hadn't been fat. She'd been small, young. She'd been unbelievable—and thus, apparently, forgettable.

Maurice hadn't realized how heavy a really fat woman could grow until he met Kaylie Linderbuck, who, despite her winsome name, was easily the widest, stoutest mortal he'd ever encountered, a sort of human building, soft and squishy. Kaylie heaved from place to place, crippling the floor joists of every home she entered. She never walked: she lumbered. By comparison, Maurice was emaciated, almost skeletal; predictably enough, they despised each other, although both enjoyed their mutual charge, Lewis.

The one thing Kaylie truly disliked about Lewis Kohler were his wheeled walks around Antrim Lake. She hated these with couch-potato passion, indolent and furious all at once. A mile, to Kaylie, required a Herculean effort from her knees, ankles, heart, and lungs. All three—Kaylie, Maurice, and Lewis—knew full well why Kaylie had begged off Saturday. It was Lewis' favorite morning for a walk—"walk" being a term he used with cynical satisfaction—a walk he would do his level best to take come rain or shine or melon-sized hailstones.

Facts such as these never entered the public ledger, at least not through the newspapers. Nor did the papers ever publish a photograph of Kaylie Linderbuck, so most of those who tracked the events following Lewis' death pictured her as lazy, yes, but also as some sort of track star, lithe and quick, the picture of health. Pony-tailed, in all likelihood, a grown-up version of the bicycle girls. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Her actual hair rose in piles off her head, it wound into dark balls, and then dropped down her shoulders and over her forehead in great curly moplets. Her father was mixed Dutch and Zuni, her mother a French emigrant born in Quebec City; their forbears were no more pure than she, and traced their roots to Shanghai, Botswana, and Mirenburg.

Thus the cast: Kaylie Linderbuck, mutt. Maurice S. Myles, skinny black American male. Lewis Kohler, who finally won his battle for independence with a timely threat plus ninety dollars, dead.

Maurice kept the two wrinkled twenties and the equally ratty fifty in a Mikasa flower vase, and he placed the vase atop his television in the dark spare bedroom of his dim, unloved apartment. Thomas Jefferson stared at him nightly through the criss-crossed cuts of the glass. Some nights, Maurice thought about getting rid of Mr. Jefferson by spending him. It's only money, he thought, but he couldn't bring himself to touch the bills, and so they sat there, three stern little judges, eating him up by degrees. Only money: to Maurice, it was blood money.

At the exact moment that Maurice and Lewis separated, a fisherman, standing on the newly emplaced concrete wharf just past the T-junction of the trails, caught a crappie. Whether it was a black crappie or a white crappie, he could not be sure. He knew that both species lived in the Olentangy, and that both, thanks to the very same ingenious overflow pipe that flooded the underpass, could occasionally swim out of the river proper and into Antrim Lake. Unfortunately, all crappies tend to look more or less identical, the one being ever so slightly darker, or blacker, than its lighter, whiter cousin. The fisherman, despite feeling vaguely inferior for not knowing his catch's exact identity, was, overall, quite pleased. It marked the fifth crappie he'd landed in three hours, which was not such a bad rate of return, considering he was inside the city limits, and besides, crappies made for excellent pan-fry—or so he told his wife and his three young sons. In the strictest sense, this was something of a fib, since crappie, like most fish, tend to taste much like the waters they swim in, but the fisherman had, over time, convinced himself that crappie, pan-fried, made a tasty meal. So, of course, it was true. Factual. Printable, even—except that nobody bothered.

Until now.

Traffic on the highway was light that morning, which allowed Lewis to overhear snatches of several conversations as he wheeled himself clockwise around the pond, including a few snide remarks about "some damn fool" who'd "caught another crappie." Lewis looked forward to reaching the far side, where the highway receded and the woods took over, where it was quieter, where there were fewer fishermen and he could catch occasional glimpses of the meandering Olentangy through the trees. Maurice had hurried away in the opposite direction, counter-clockwise, and Lewis correctly surmised that Maurice would try very hard to catch him well before the halfway point, just to make sure that everything was all right. Which, as Lewis knew, it would be. What on earth could happen?

The odds are good that as Lewis mulled those thoughts, a red-winged blackbird called. Antrim in the early summer is home to many red-winged blackbirds and so, while it may not be an absolute front-page fact that a blackbird sang just at the point where Lewis Kohler arrived at the curve—the only sharp curve on the entire circumference of the lake—it does seem entirely probable that a blackbird could have done so, and that it very likely did.

Lewis, meanwhile, whether by accident or design, hit the curve at a good clip. First one tire and then the other rolled off of the pathway. Did he fight to get back on? Did he curse or mutter? Ah, too late! On to the next stage, over and across the steep, grassy banks, then down with a messy splash into the shallows of the lake. Now he cursed; he must have, because those steep, grassy banks turned out to be just steep enough to give his wheelchair the requisite momentum to plow right through the shallows. Another curse! Or was he just wide-eyed? He knew what was coming: the submerged lip of what Antrim had formerly been, a limestone quarry.

The lip was hidden, precipitous, dramatic. It took only a moment: Lewis Kohler tipped forward—did he call out to God? Was he composed? Frightened? Surprised?—and then, with only the smallest of ripples and a few heavy bubbles, he was over the edge and gone.

In point of fact, he was not actually gone, since he remained just below the surface for some time, and in any event he never truly vanished so much as he merely departed from obvious view. It is also a fact—or at least very likely—that a large number of crappies saw him there, and that one or more red-winged blackbirds flew overhead, looking not for him, and not for crappies, but for each other, probably to fight—if they were males—or to nest, if one was male and the other female. Female blackbirds rarely fly simultaneously, perhaps because they are constantly browbeaten by their gaudy husbands into staying with the eggs.

The papers missed all that, of course. It's their job to miss such things.

Kaylie Linderbuck, middle name Monique, woke up at about that time in her apartment, and she rolled over in her bed, a bed with a sizable dent in the center where her body came to rest each night. She then rolled up and over the lip of the mattress, shed a mountain of bedclothes, and placed both feet, gingerly, on the floor. She burped. She went back to bed.

Lewis, meanwhile, began to sink. All the air pockets in his clothes had escaped, and now there was nothing to stop him from finding the bottom. First he floated out of his wheelchair, and the chair sank beneath him, banking slowly off the vertical quarry walls and leading the way deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ink-dark lake. Lewis kept struggling, and spurts of wobbly bubbles flooded out of his nose, then out from the corners of his mouth. He waved his arms and tried to swim, but his clothes and the dead weight of his legs conspired against him. Very much against his will, a single enormous bubble of air escaped him, rising skyward like a special effect, and Lewis felt the lake rush into his lungs and throttle his final gasp for breath.

It hurt more than he had expected, as if someone had stuffed an anvil into his chest and now the anvil was suddenly and dangerously expanding.

On the far side of the lake, Maurice, jogging now, passed two teenage boys trying their hand at fly casting.

"I thought you said crappies didn't like flies," said one to the other.

"They don't," said his friend. "That one must have been starving."

Maurice ran on. He had never admitted it to anyone, but he was hopelessly near-sighted, and he couldn't tell, not for the life of him—so the saying goes—whether Lewis was still on the path, or even on the planet. All Maurice could see of the far side of Antrim Lake was a kind of shimmering blur, the merry sparkle of the sun glancing off wavelets on the water. He became more fearful with every jogging step.

It is a fact, recorded by various witnesses, that when Maurice reached the halfway point, he was already out of breath, but when he did not find Lewis waiting for him, he proceeded to run at a dead sprint all the way to the single sharp curve, a bend where a small crowd had gathered to point and whisper at a stew of objects drifting in the water: a cheap pocket address book, a blue Clippers billcap, several receipts, and a nearly empty bottle of SPF 45 sunblock, all of which had floated out of an open pocket on the back of Lewis' chair. Two gawky girls on Barbie-pink bicycles informed Maurice that they'd seen a man in a wheelchair crash into the water just about there—"There," said one, pointing afresh—and wasn't it gross and sick and disgusting?

"Someone," said someone, "should call the police."

Maurice himself performed that duty, from a small callbox near the underpass. "Hello!" he yelled over the roar of the highway. "There's been an accident"

He later reported that he couldn't hear anything on the other end of the line, and the Parks Department sent a team that afternoon to fix the phone. They went home in a sullen mood after making a terse note in their log, Phone in perfect working order.

The police arrived promptly. They appraised the situation and summoned a diving team to return Lewis Kohler and his wheelchair to the surface.

End of story. On to the epilogues.

Kaylie Linderbuck continued her stint with HomeHealth for another seven years, during which time she applied for disability leave on five separate occasions, four of which were granted. She died of a heart attack while bobbing unhappily through a water aerobics class at HomeHealth's private health club. Seventy-three mourners turned up for her funeral service, sixty-three more than had attended the memorial for Lewis Kohler.

Maurice S. Myles, thinking of Sarah Selzer, wracking his brains to remember her touch, sank into a fierce and crippling bout of depression, a lonesome struggle which saw him move through three Ohio cities in less than two years, always one step ahead of Sarah and two steps behind his mordant sense of guilt. He tried churches, he tried dating, he tried drugs. For a time, he was addicted to painkillers, sleeping pills, and caffeine, all at once. He took up bowling. He participated in the making of an amateur X-rated movie, but felt nothing, neither joy nor revulsion, and he quit before the lunchtime break was called. He joined a cult and became, for a period of almost three weeks, Shining Star, Master of His Own Destiny, Blessed Child of the Cosmos. He developed a liking for canned pears, and it was this, more than anything else, that drew him back to the world, to a world stuffed full of miracles, miracles like lakes and joggers, white and black crappies, girls on bikes with clackety training wheels and women so fat they could buckle a floor.

Maurice moved one last time, to Alaska, a fact the newspapers missed, for they were on to the next scent, something about abuse in the public schools and how someone would have to pay and heads would roll—and it happened, too, but only after a Special Crimes Unit took charge. In Alaska, we lose sight of Maurice, for the papers there are different, consumed as they are with local road conditions and the forty thousand names for snow. It wasn't hard for Maurice, a grim black man in a snow-white uniform, to blend in to Alaska's hospitals and background checks as if he had always been there—as if he had always been faultless in his work.

For Lewis, there can be no epilogue, except to remember that for all the details added here, for all our pathetic attempts to do justice to his life, we have only begun to discern the steps of his dance, the pattern of his music, and the marvel of all that we must miss.