Winston Speaks


 Jill Caputo, Fiction


Winston sold candy at the bus station on Wednesdays because that was the only day Georgia could give him a ride there. He kept the goods in the pack on the back of his chair: Snickers, Milky Ways, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, M&Ms, both peanut and plain. The sign mounted on the back of his chair told his customers what Winston could not: ALL CANDY IN KING SIZE PACKS FOR $1. He was an entrepreneur.

Winston loved the bus plaza. The chipped blue benches, the mock-sparkle concrete floor, the bird-screeching sound of the buses. Even the unrefrigerated water fountain by the stairs. This Wednesday Georgia parked Winston by the center bench, the circular one, where he could watch the people go by. Impatient mothers holding the hands of their children, fat ladies walking with canes, old people carrying groceries, even bums. Winston knew he would stand out to all of them.

Georgia popped open the top of Winston’s A&W Root Beer can, and set it in the cup holder on the right side of his chair. She retrieved a straw from her purse and stuck it in the top of the can. Later in the day when it got hot he could lean over and take a sip when he felt like it. She took his body in her hands, pulling him up in his chair by his armpits. He was wearing his red button-up shirt today, and the red-and-white hat he knew she’d always hated, Budweiser plastered across the front of it. She took his head in her hands, slightly ruffling the unshaven whiskers, lifted his hat and pushed his hair back. Her calloused knuckles, the too-small dollar store thumb ring, the nails bitten back so far you could see the skin—Georgia’s hands were the part of her Winston knew best.

"I’ll be back to get you at five," Georgia said. “I’m sorry it’s such a short visit today, but I’ve just got so much to do.”

Winston nodded with his eyes. He watched the full round rump of her ass jiggle away and he wondered what she looked like naked. He couldn’t believe he’d never seen her body, even after all this time.

Winston knew Georgia so well by now it was hard to imagine that the first time she had ever given him a bed bath he was actually embarrassed. Newly divorced and fresh out of Certified Nursing Assistant school, Georgia was the sixth nursing assistant Winston had had in a year, but he was her first real patient. He was sick of them coming and going: the pretty ones, the ugly ones, the fat grandmothers who pretended to be nice when they were hired. When they left they all said the same thing, “It’s just too depressing. He can’t even talk. I don’t get paid enough for this kind of job.”

Georgia was thirty-four, and while she fell somewhere in the middle of the pretty scale that Winston used to rank his nurse’s aides, she talked to him, treated him like he was real. And she explained everything. “I’m going to give you a bed bath, is that okay? I don’t want you having to lie here dirty all day.”

Winston smiled at her, showing his eye teeth, trying to let her know it was okay.

"The first time I gave someone one of these baths was in CNA training. But then I didn’t even have a real person to practice with. I worked on a dummy. I was still married then, to my husband, Tom. He was in the Air Force and never home. Always at the base, always flying planes, always fighting his own personal wars. I was always alone. I think he was having an affair, you know, with another woman. Am I hurting you?"

Georgia had folded the bed sheets to cover most of Winston’s nude body while she worked on one limb at a time, dipping the washcloth into a bowl of soapy lukewarm water on the nightstand. She was stroking him up and down, up and down, starting with the corners of his eyes all the way to between his toes. Winston realized how long it had been since he was really clean.

“Tom never wanted me to get my certification. I think he just wanted me to stay at home while he went gallivanting all over the country. Even to other countries. It’s what drove us apart. I was too independent. I have to be around people in order to survive.”

Her hands were younger then, less calloused, large, but almost delicate. She had shiny pink polish on her nails and her wedding ring was still on her left hand. Winston wondered when she had gotten divorced. It couldn’t have been that long ago. He began to see her hands as beautiful, and the lower and lower her hands moved on his body, the more excited he became until he was having a straight-up erection. Part of him hoped Georgia didn’t notice, part of him hoped that she did. He wanted her to know that he was a real man.

“Oh!” Georgia said. She looked away from Winston’s eyes. “I guess you were even happier to have a bath than I thought you would be.” She draped the sheet over Winston’s genitals. “I’ll just leave you alone for a while.” Georgia left the room. Winston breathed in and out to calm himself down. At forty-three, handicapped his entire life, Winston had had thousands of bed baths in his life, but none of them had affected him in this way. That was two years ago.

 

Max was coming to talk to him now. Winston could see him without turning his head—the small beaky nose, the sharp wrinkled jaw and overbite like the teeth of a rodent. No hair was left on the top of his head, only gray fuzz. Max was Winston’s only real friend at the bus station. He was always there on Wednesdays, always with his briefcase, always trying to sell his papers. He never remembered anything he had said to Winston the week before. Winston was surprised he even remembered his name.

"How are you doing there, Old Winston?" Max patted Winston on the shoulder, his body swaying with the movement of his arm. He was old, probably about eighty; so skinny it looked like he was starving. “What bus are you waiting for?” Max should have known by now that Winston never got on any buses. “Me, I’m not going on any bus today. I’m just going to stay here and try to sell my papers. Five dollars each. Wanna buy one?”

Winston shook his head, but Max opened his briefcase anyway. “Did I ever tell you that I got a masters degree in mathematics from the University of Minnesota? That I was going to get my PhD, but my wife got pregnant?” He got out one of his papers and showed it to Winston. The title read, “Proof That God Did Not Create the Universe.” Max had shown it to Winston every Wednesday for the past four months. “It can be mathematically proven, you know, even with the help of the Bible. God didn’t create shit.”

Max sat down on the bench beside Winston. “I’ve got something for you, Old Winston. I’ve got something for the both of us.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out two fancy Cuban cigars. “What do you say? Let’s smoke it up.” Winston watched as Max licked the end of one cigar, then the other one too. His sharp teeth moved in a swift motion as he bit off the end of the first cigar and spat it out on the ground. He stuck what was left in Winston’s mouth. “Ever smoked a cigar before?” Winston had not. “When I was younger and had a job I used to smoke these things all the time. Used to drive Phyllis crazy.” Phyllis was Max’s wife; she had left him years ago to pursue her country-western dream in Nashville. Max lit his own cigar with a rusted silver lighter, then leaned over to Winston and did the same for him. “Just hold it in your mouth, boy. Let the ash build up and it will smell and taste real good. Like nothing you’ve ever done before.”

Winston coughed. He let the ash of his cigar build up and up until the sweet and sticky smell overpowered the air all around him, and he’d never felt like such a man before.

 

The normalcy of Winston’s relationship with Georgia was what pleased him so much that first year she worked at his house. Every day it was the same routine. Georgia would get up and get dressed, then she would get Winston ready and up in his chair. Sometimes Georgia would have to leave Winston alone while she went to the supermarket or ran some other errand, but mostly they were together all day, every day. Georgia would talk to him; Georgia would read to him. Winston could read, but he couldn’t hold the book. His hands were too shaky. That was part of the problem. Winston couldn’t even write because he lacked the fine motor skills. Georgia would cook for them. They would even watch The Young and the Restless together every day at noon. Winston couldn’t believe how engrossed he became in the soap.

One day, they were watching “their show”—as Georgia called it—when she said something odd. She had her knitting in her lap, a hobby she’d taken up only since Winston had known her. Her fingers worked meticulously on a green and brown thing she had been knitting for over a month. Winston knew it was a scarf for him, meant to protect him from the cold. Her hands looked tired now, the knuckles hard and chafed, the pink polish gone. The wedding ring was gone too. Winston hadn’t seen it for months.

When the soap segments were on, they would watch in silence, but during the commercial breaks Georgia would put the TV on mute so she could talk. “Winston,” Georgia said, putting her knitting down, “have you ever been in love?”

Winston closed his eyes. He had not been in love, at least not in love with anyone who had been in love with him back.

Georgia kept talking. “I mean, really in love, so in love that you felt like there was no one else left in the world? That you’d found your soul mate? That’s how I felt when I first met Tom. Every moment I was with him I was giggling and happy and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. But then everything just went wrong. Things just got too quiet. No communication. I think true love is constant even in silence.”

Winston shifted his weight in his chair. Suddenly every part of Georgia seemed to be speaking to him, from her peroxide blond hair to the laugh wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, to the constant movement of her hands. They were both lonely people, but they needed each other. Why else would she say such things to him?

Five months into the first year that had Georgia moved in with Winston to take care of him, it snowed. The house Winston lived in was small, just one level, and two bedrooms, with doorways he could barely get his chair through. Winston’s house was paid for by his disability check, but it was falling apart. The toilet leaked when somebody flushed it too hard, the stove wouldn’t turn off once it was turned on, and the heater was temperamental. Georgia’s room was on the other side of the house, but when Winston heard a knock on his door at 2:45 a.m., he wasn’t that surprised. He hadn’t been sleeping. Just thinking.

"Can I come in?" Georgia said. She was wearing her Snoopy nightgown with the bows that tied at the shoulders; her bare feet scuffled on the hard floor. She walked over to Winston, and even by the soft light of the nightlight he could see the circles under her eyes. “I can’t get the heater to turn on in my room. It’s freezing in there—you know how it gets, with all the windows exposed to the wind from the street. Do you mind if I sleep with you, just for tonight?”

Winston wouldn’t have said no if he could have. His bed was too large for just him; there was plenty of room for the both of them. They could sleep without touching. Georgia got in, always polite, on the opposite side, and slept. But there was no sleep for Winston. He could feel his whole body, tight and contracted, almost pulsing with the presence of her. Winston was a virgin, but he was almost positive everything worked right because he’d had wet dreams before. What if Georgia thought he wasn’t capable? She knew him better than anybody else, but what if she thought he wasn’t able to perform? Or worse, what if he ejaculated in his sleep?

By morning nothing had happened, except she was much closer to him, her arms flailed out around his shoulders and the round of her breasts next to the curve in his back. Winston blinked his eyes. He was tired and sleepless, but happy, happier than he’d felt in a long time.

Georgia got up. “Are you awake, Winston? I’m going to make us something warm to eat. This is the kind of day you want to stay inside.” She walked to the window and opened the shades, pulled back the curtains. The bright white of the snow outside was almost painful; the sun glinting off it created a fire in Winston’s eyes. “It’s white, like Christmas,” she said. But it was still only October, not even Halloween. Georgia slept in Winston’s bed for the rest of the winter.

 

Although he loved the bus station, Winston was scared of the buses. On the platform of the bus station, with the power on his wheelchair off, he was safe, but he always had some fear of falling off, of hitting his joystick with the edge of his elbow and speeding out into the street where the buses would smash him. He’d thought about getting on a bus; he knew they were all handicapped accessible, some with lifts, some with ramps. But the problem was there was nowhere to go—if he got on, where would he get off? What if he got lost? Occasionally one of the friendlier drivers would offer Winston a ride, but Winston always shook his head. Today when Winston’s favorite driver, Bess, came round, she opened the doors of Bus Number Three as if to invite Winston in. “How you doing today, Winston? How about a ride?”

Max answered for him. “He can’t get on your bus. At least not today, woman. Old Winston has too much business to take care of right here. Too much candy to sell.” Max patted the pack on the back of Winston’s chair. “Isn’t that right, Winston?”

Winston nodded, relieved.

 

The spring of their first year together had been the happiest time for Winston. It was warm outside, but not too hot, and on most days Georgia would take Winston outside. They would sit together on the small cracked patch of cement that served as Winston’s backyard patio, Georgia reading to him or sometimes even singing—her alto voice squeaked on the high-pitched notes, but Winston didn’t mind. She would feed him slices of oranges and pieces of watermelon with the seeds already carefully taken out—she didn’t want Winston to choke. And she would talk about her life, what it had been like before she’d met Winston—how much taking care of him had helped her grow as a person.

Summer had been much the same, only hotter, which meant more time spent indoors, but when the fall came around again and the weather got cooler, Winston noticed a change in Georgia, as if she had gotten cooler too, more distant. In her eyes, Winston often saw she was thinking about something far away. When she spoke, it was almost deliberate; she chose her words carefully.

She was getting Winston dressed for the day when she first brought up the idea. Pulling the T-shirt over his head, working his arms through the armholes. “Winston,” she said, “have you ever thought about getting another aide?”

Winston instinctively jerked back, his eyes growing big; Georgia recognized the panic in them. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not abandoning you. I just thought it might be nice to have someone else who could help out too. A second aide who could maybe help you do some little things, get you showered and in bed at night. I’d still be here too. And with someone else to help with the bothersome things, you and I could spend more quality time together during the day. Plus, I’d like to go back to school and get my LPN license. And most of those classes are at night.”

It wasn’t long after that conversation that Winston fell. He had been trying to pour himself a glass of grape juice. He didn’t try to do things like this very often, but Georgia was gone so long that day that he’d gotten impatient, and thirsty. Georgia had left Winston in his power chair so that could go anywhere in the house that he wanted. Winston knew that the grape juice was on the bottom shelf of the fridge and that he could reach it if he could get the refrigerator door open. Opening the door was easy, but the shelf was lower than he had expected. When he leaned forward there was nothing to keep him in his chair except for his hands, which instead of reacting quickly, decided to tremor.

Initially Winston tried to get up, using his hands like tiny claws and trying to bend his knees so that he could raise up on them, but the more he twisted and turned the more uncomfortable he became, and the more he thought about it, the more pointless his situation seemed. He could never get up by himself.

The linoleum floor of the kitchen was harder than Winston had thought it would be. From his chair, and under his wheels, the linoleum had seemed soft, almost malleable. But lying on the floor, the top of his body curled in a tight ball and his legs bent back under him, wedged between the kitchen table and the refrigerator, Winston felt there was nothing in the world more solid than the floor. Or more cold. His legs began to grow numb from lack of blood flow; his shirt was twisted up around his armpits.

When he could no longer feel his legs, he closed his eyes and thought of Georgia. Soon she would be home—any time now for sure, and when she saw Winston lying on the floor she would scoop him up in her arms and hug him. She would rub his arms and legs and maybe even kiss him on the forehead. Winston could almost feel her warmth.

When Georgia did come home, she almost stepped on Winston. She was carrying paper bags from the store, and wearing a mini skirt, which Winston thought was strange. She didn’t even notice Winston until she went to put something away in the fridge, and then, there he was.

“Winston!” she said, just missing him with her left foot, but her voice wasn’t kind and soothing like he expected it to be. She seemed annoyed. “What the in the hell are you doing down there?” Georgia had hardly ever cussed around Winston; she seemed to have endless patience with him. “You know you really shouldn’t try to do things by yourself. You might really get hurt and I won’t be responsible for it. What if something had happened to me, and I didn’t make it home? I could have gotten held up; I could have gotten in a car wreck. There are millions of things that could have happened to me, and then what would have happened to you?”

Her eyes were big and watery as she lifted Winston roughly up by the armpits and sat him down his chair. She took a dishtowel that was hanging over the edge of the sink and wiped her eyes with it. “I have too much stress in my life for this, Winston.”

 

Winston didn’t know the name of the old homeless woman who lived in the bus plaza, and he didn’t think Max did either. She sat in the corner, by the restrooms, and yelled things at people walking by. Her hair was tied back with a ratty yellow bandana; her cheekbones—harsh and sharp from malnutrition—had black smudges on them. She was always sipping on something, from a thermos. Max said it was whiskey to keep her warm, and that he hated her.

Today Max was bothering the homeless lady because, it seemed to Winston, there was nothing else to do. Winston watched as Max walked over and sat down on the ground beside her, trying to talk to her. Max opened his briefcase and pulled out his paper. He showed it to the lady, talking about God and the universe again. Winston watched as the woman snatched the paper out of Max’s hands, ripping it in half. “Fucking moron!” she yelled at Max. “Fucking waste of God’s time!” She leapt back, taking the pieces of paper with her.

"Give me that back, bitch! That’s valuable property!" Max began chasing the woman, hobbling around on his stumpy old legs and dragging his briefcase behind him; they circled the bus plaza until they came right up next to Winston and stopped. The homeless woman was much younger than Winston had thought from a distance, probably in her early forties.

"You and your papers," she said to Max. “You and your papers nobody wants to buy! You’re just an old man who has nothing better to do than talk to a cripple!” She looked at Winston. “Fucking cripple riding around in your goddamn chariot! If I had my way, I’d throw you out into the street!”

Winston watched as Max pulled back from the homeless woman, raised his hand, and with as much force as his bony frame could muster, slapped her across the cheek. The homeless lady, gasping, knelt down on the ground.

“Don’t you ever talk like that about my friend Winston! He has a name, you know, and he’s a lot more capable than you.” Max walked over to Winston, abandoning the homeless lady and even the pieces of paper that were now scattered all over the ground.

 

Eventually Georgia apologized for the way she had acted when she found Winston on the floor. She said that she had gotten in an argument with her sister, Lorna, earlier in the day and that traffic had been terrible on her way home from the store. But even after the apology, Winston still saw Georgia differently. She never called him a cripple to his face, but he began to think she thought of him as one. And she stopped talking so much. Sometimes she barely talked to him at all. They spent whole dinners in silence. Winston couldn’t figure it out. For some reason Georgia was mad at him. Now Georgia used words for business matters only.

"“Winston, I’m making you macaroni and cheese for dinner.”" "“Winston, your dinner is done.”" Georgia shoveled the macaroni and cheese into a bowl in front of Winston. On days when Winston felt good, he liked to try and feed himself. He had gotten better at it since Georgia had been with him, but only because she had constantly encouraged him.

Now as he reached for the spoon to put into the bowl, Georgia gave him a hasty look. The journey from the bowl to Winston’s mouth was a laborious one, and Winston missed. Georgia let out a big sigh. “Just let me do it for you, Winston. You’re going to make a huge mess.”

 

“Don’t let that crazy old broad get to you,” Max told Winston. “She wouldn’t know a real cripple if she saw one. Crazy homeless bitch. Listen, don’t ever let anyone call you crippled, Winston, or even handicapped. You’re physically challenged, that’s all. You just have limitations.” He slapped Winston on the back. “Did I ever tell you about the day I had to put my little Peggy in a home? She was mentally handicapped. Retarded, you know. Had the mind of a four-year-old. We took care of her ourselves for as long as we could, but when she got older it was just too much for Phyllis to handle by herself. We had to put her in a home. Sunflower Lane, it was called. Real nice joint. I visited her every day for years.” Max put his hands on his knees, leaning over, real close to Winston’s face. “Anyway, my point is, no matter what someone calls you, crippled or whatever, at least you’re doing something for yourself. At least you’re out here in the world.”

 

Things between Winston and Georgia never got better. He began to look at her as someone who was scared, overwhelmed; someone who saw him as helpless and handicapped. But this only made him want her more. Now he spent most of his time thinking about Georgia, even when she wasn’t at home. He thought of all the good times they’d had together; the fact that Georgia was the closest thing to a real woman or relationship that he’d ever had. The beginning with Georgia was the happiest Winston had ever been in his life, and he wanted that back. He was scared of her leaving. She was on the phone all the time now, talking to her sister, who lived in Florida. Winston thought she had a boyfriend. He wondered what the boyfriend looked like, where Georgia met him, and if she went to see the boyfriend when she left sometimes at night. Other nights Winston overheard Georgia’s conversations when he was supposed to be sleeping.

"Honestly, Lorna, there’s got to be some other way." Georgia was crying. “He’s just so sweet, and little, but I don’t get paid enough, and even the heater doesn’t work.”

Winston began to see that for Georgia, living with him was just another job. "“Yes. But he’s always trying to do things for himself, and if something happens to him, I don’t want to be the one to blame. Budd says I should move in with him; he says he has enough money to support the both of us for a while.”"

The next day Georgia was gone all day, and she didn’t tell Winston where she was going. She just left him in the bed. No matter. It wasn’t like Winston had never done anything for himself before he’d had an aide like Georgia who he depended on so totally. And with Georgia becoming so distant, Winston had become wily, figuring things out for himself. He had discovered a way to get out of situations such as this. His chair was parked parallel to his bed. He flipped himself over onto his side, with his arms, which were stronger than the rest of his body. He lay there, paused in slow motion, and in movements he considered as lovely as ballet, he flipped himself into his chair.

In the kitchen, where he was getting something to eat, Winston saw papers. Newspapers, and ads. Job ads circled in red: pediatric nurse’s aide, nursing home attendant, even an ad for a receptionist at a beauty salon. Georgia really was leaving him. Winston squeaked in panic, and his whole body stiffened, his legs shooting out from their place on the footrests. His fingers extended to graze the edges of the newspaper. Paper cuts, bleeding.

 

That was yesterday, Tuesday. Now it was 4:45 on Wednesday. Soon Georgia would be coming to pick him up from the bus station to take him home, maybe for the very last time. Winston breathed, took a swig of this root beer, thirst and saliva coming out of his mouth. Max was asleep on the bench beside him, snoring. Winston thought Max might die any day, probably where he was right now, in the bus plaza. Awake or asleep, it didn’t matter; Max had lived a long life.

It was amazing, Winston thought. He was only forty-five, but he felt as old as Max. He was forty-five, but he had the experience of an adolescent boy. He pondered these contradictions, and he mulled over the past two years he’d spent with Georgia. How quickly the time had passed, but how much their relationship had changed, until it was less than a relationship at all, he decided. The Georgia of now was just an acquaintance.

Winston heard a screech, a clicking sound, and he knew at once the sound of Bus Number Three, and Bess, coming back to the station for the fourth time today. He saw the girl on the side of the bus eating the Subway sandwich, and her whole face seemed to smile directly at him. He wasn’t scared anymore. He thought of Georgia and the red circled job ads, the late-night phone conversations. Georgia in the bed with him, Georgia feeding him macaroni and cheese, Georgia leaving him, Georgia fucking another man.

The doors of the bus swung open, and somehow Winston found himself right in front of them. He looked at Bess and her great heaving body, her gray hair hanging down in her eyes, the coffee cup in her hand. She smiled at him. “Hey, Winston,” she said. “Do you want to get on my bus or what?”

And this time, Winston got on.