The long-haired, bearded man in the filthy clothes, scuffed along a chalky gravel road that gently sloped downhill and curved to the left, disappearing behind the remains of a late-summer Nebraska corn field.
Rising in intervals from the midst of the withered and straw-colored stover were weathered timber telephone poles, tilting and leaning in different directions. On the man’s right stretched a brown and green expanse of mowed grass, weeds, and clover. He thought he saw the tops of some houses and silos in the distance, partially obscured by hills. He’d been cycling for a long time on his favourite sooter from scootersleuth.com, and fantasized that a kind farmer or his family would offer him fresh cold water or a frosty bottle of beer.
“Mike, Michael,” Tom called. “Stay with me Bro.” He quickly replaced the oxygen tank that was attached to the side of the reclining wheelchair. He turned the valve to open. He checked Michael’s mask and tube.
The familiar sucking, swishing, clicking sound resumed.
Michael’s cheeks collapsed as he drew in air. The hospital gown clinging to his bony chest expanded. His limp hands were crossed over the plastic tray secured in front of his slouching upper body, his elbows were tied to the padded arm rests. His legs extended at an angle, stretching forward under a couple of white sheets, his feet tied with blue Velcro straps to the chair’s stirrups. Under his head were two smallish pillows, and hooked to the side of the chair opposite the O2 tank was a catheter bag half filled with yellow urine.
Tom exhaled forcefully as he took a step back from his brother’s motionless form. He brought the thumb and extended fingers of one hand to his forehead, then slowly with an upward motion began to wipe the sweat away from his receding, gray-limned hairline. His large frame was trembling. He’d almost missed the oxygen sensor’s alarm. Michael’s dark eyes bored into him. “Look man, I’m sorry. I fell asleep,” Tom said. “I spent half the night cleaning up your colostomy pouch. I was tired. Really tired.”
The clicking, swishing, sucking sound beat on and on like a ticking clock.
The space they were in, once a dining room but converted to a first-floor intensive care bedroom, was beginning to brighten as yellow-orange sunlight streamed in at the corners of the windows, through the slats of almond-colored mini blinds. It was going to be a beautiful December day in Metro Miami. With highs in the upper 70s, and beaches open. Tom narrowed his eyes and felt his pulse quicken as a burst of rage rushed into his head. His breathing intensified; he wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon, with his brother a quadriplegic just recovering from pneumonia.
The man in the dingy, baggy clothes sat in front of the grocery and dry goods store somewhere outside of Alliance. His matted salt-and-pepper pony tail trailed down the middle of his back. He leaned on his forearms as they rested on his angled knees. Someone’s shadow fell across his face and he peered up, squinting into the light but not attempting to shade his eyes.
“Hey man, what’s up?” a man’s voice asked.
“Not much,” the haggard stranger replied. “I could use something to drink,” he added.
“Sure, no problem,” the other said. “I’ll be right back.”
In a few minutes, the shadow figure — who was a tanned and creased but lean older man in his sixties, dressed casually in slacks and a short-sleeved polo shirt — returned carrying two cold soda cans, and sat with a grunt next to the stranger. He held a Sprite out, and a grimy hand with blackened, broken fingernails quickly grabbed the can. There was the sound of tops popping, the hiss of carbonation.
“My name is Garrett, Garrett Hankins,” the older man said. “I own a farm outside of town. What brings you through this way?”
The dirt-caked beard seemed to shake as the stranger took a long draught of soda, gulping it in like a suffocating fish dreaming of water. After a short time, he lowered the can. “I’m on the run,” he said. He lifted the soda to his mouth once more.
“Yuh, okay. So, what did you do that made you go on the run?” the farmer asked. He checked his watch, then cradled his can of Diet Coke in both of his hands suspended between his knees. He turned his head again in the direction of the derelict man resting beside him.
“I made a list. I said famous people — like a rock band — were appearing at a convention center in Miami, Florida, and I created a web site and fancy tickets and set prices,” he answered without any hint of fear, shame, or concern.
“Well now, I’m sure that’s a felony, stealing folks’ money,” Garrett Hankins said.
“Well yeah, it would be, if I’d actually stolen any person’s money,” he replied, gazing out over the small, asphalt parking lot with the pickups and older model cars and SUVs scattered about. Squeaking wheels caught his attention; he stared at a young woman pushing a grocery cart carrying two toddlers and bags bulging with boxes, cartons, and cans. “I put the whole thing together for a different reason entirely,” he said.
Tom pushed Michael in his bed-like wheelchair, over the terra-cotta pavers in front of one of the entrances to the Miami Convention Center. Because of their special permit, he’d been allowed to park the van close to the building, alongside a sign that read “James Knight International Convention Center,” instead of in the parking garage across the highway or under the Hyatt Regency Hotel next door.
He was neatly dressed in tan slacks and a sky-blue t-shirt and carried a large duffle, slung across one shoulder, stuffed with supplies. It looked like an oversized diaper bag. The oxygen rhythmically swooshed, the tube apparatus clicked, the extra large rear wheels of the chair trundled evenly as Tom lifted the front slightly to move over the threshold of the glass and metal automatic doors, into the lobby. They paused a few feet inside, on the avocado-green and flamingo-pink carpet. Tom craned his neck, looking up and around at the large double-story windows and huge sign over the entrance to the Ashe Auditorium.
Michael’s thinning brown hair was slicked back, and his piercing eyes were wide and sparkling. “Mmph…al…eee…ch…ch…” he attempted to say around the breathing tube.
“Hey, I told you, you be good and stop all your biting and spitting shit, and you get to meet them,” Tom said, coming around to Michael’s side so he could make eye contact with the supine and excited younger man.
“What’s that?” a security guard asked as he approached them from a hallway in the rear of the lobby.
“He’s saying ‘Alice in Chains,’ Tom offered. “We have tickets,” he added. “It’s my brother Michael’s favorite band.”
Michael seemed to bob his head, attempting to nod in agreement.
The guard’s face took on a plastic, slack expression, his mouth open just a bit. He stood perfectly still as he stared at the quadriplegic who appeared to be so happy, then at the older, bigger man who claimed to be the brother. “Uh, what tickets?” he found voice to ask.
Tom confidently walked over a couple of steps, and handed the guard a computer print out. “We bought the tickets online,” he said. “For today, December tenth, the Ashe Auditorium. It’s supposed to be more of an appearance by members of the band, like an interview, and we were told that they would sign autographs afterwards.”
The guard held the two pieces of paper some twenty inches away, then moved the sheaf closer. He scrunched up his eyes and nose as if he wasn’t just confused, but something didn’t smell right. “I have no ‘lecture’ by ‘Alice in Chains’ scheduled for today. In fact,” he said, glancing at Michael, who didn’t appear to register the gist of the discussion, “in fact, we’re not going to host a rock band here for many months to come.” He handed the sheets of paper back to Tom.
Tom appeared to look shocked. His eyes widened, he assumed a stricken expression. His heart raced. “But … but … we paid for the tickets. For tonight. We bought them off a salesman online who had good reviews and was supposed to be reputable….”
Michael began to rotate his head from side to side. The swishing-sucking-clicking sound became louder and more frantic. His eyes were slits and seemed to fire lightning. He banged his head against his pillow and started making an “uh uh uh” sound.
“Calm down, Bro,” Tom said to him. “I’m going to find out what’s going on. Things are going to be okay.”
Garrett Hankins drained the last of his drink, then set the can down on asphalt between his legs. He also seemed to be surveying the comings and goings of shoppers as they slammed their doors and headed for the store, or shoved shopping buggies over the cracked and crumbly parking lot, back towards their waiting vehicles. “Good people, here,” he said, with a seeming absent kind of air. “They don’t leave their cars or trucks locked. Everyone knows everyone else….”
The stranger might have smiled; it was hard to tell. The sun-browned skin around his blue eyes wrinkled up. He rubbed the facial hair around his mouth with the back of a hand. “Yeah, so…. I’m not going to disturb their tranquility. Just passin’ through,” he said.
“So, the law got after you for trying to scam folks into buying tickets for celebrity shows that were fake?” the farmer asked.
“No, nothing like that. I told you, I only did it once, for a reason.”
Michael’s head was thrashing as he puckered his lips and drew on the tube in his mouth. His eyes were closed. He began to wheeze and moan. The flashing lights from the red and white fire rescue truck parked outside bounced off the tinted glass windows and shiny metal walls and cast a glimmering green pall over Michael’s figure as he lay inert under his pristine sheets. Two of the emergency services techs were trying to check his vital signs.
A third EMT, a tall, plump, powerful looking woman, was writing on a clipboard as she asked Tom questions. “And your name?” she continued.
“Thomas Brinneger,” he replied, rocking from foot to foot, casting frequent glances behind him at Michael, who was growing still.
“Relation to the patient?” she asked.
“He’s my brother, my younger brother. Michael Brinneger.”
“I’m forty-five, he’s forty.”
“What’s the nature of his condition?” She also raised her eyes and stared for a second at Michael. “I think they’re going to take him to Jackson-Memorial,” she interrupted herself.
“I want to go with him,” Tom offered, knowing that he wasn’t allowed. “I have a van, I can follow, drive there.”
“Nature of his condition?” she asked again, with an insistent tone. Her white shirt and navy-blue slacks seemed to bulge and twist and she looked agitated.
“Quadriplegic. A car accident, twenty years go. It was my fault. I was drinking….” Tom said in a low voice. He spun around as he noted that Michael was being wheeled out the door. He couldn’t see his condition, as the back of one of the EMTs obscured his brother’s face.
“Sir, sir….” she said sharply, “I need you to concentrate here. Any other preexisting medical or physical conditions….”
“He just got over a bout of pneumonia.”
“Who is the principle care giver? Who has medical power of attorney?”
“Me. I’ve taken total care of him for twenty years,” Tom said, tears flooding his eyes unexpectedly. He brought a thumb and forefinger to his brows and lowered his chin.
The stranger stretched out his burly arms, and crushed the Sprite can in one hand. “Thanks a lot for the soda. I really appreciate it,” he said to Garrett Hankins. “I guess I’ll be moving on, now.”
The older man pulled a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his shirt, tapped it until one smoke fell free. He held the pack in the other’s direction. “Like one?” he asked.
The rumpled, dusty, and careworn stranger shook his head. He groaned a little under his breath as he stood, and almost humorously brushed off his rear end that was already coated in muck.
Hankins also rose to his feet, fluidly and lightly, like a cat. He lit his cigarette, using a match. “See, here’s the thing of it, buddy,” he said, flicking the match stick and tossing it to the ground. “I was the county sheriff around here for many years; retired now. And I really want to know more about you.”
“Name’s Tom, Tom Brinneger,” the stranger said, thrusting a soiled and greasy set of fingers in Garrett Hankins’ direction. “I don’t have a home. I just keep moving. Free as a bird, you know?” As the older man ignored the offered hand, Tom continued, “If you’ve got any problems with that, if you want to call someone, or charge me with a crime, go ahead. Otherwise, I’m headin’ on west. Bye now, and thanks for the drink.” He pushed his shoulders back, hiked up his trousers, and began walking in the direction of the afternoon sun.