ONE MISTAKE. ONE BAD NIGHT. ONE TOO MANY DRINKS. Sarah Aronson's Head Case is a powerful and heartbreaking debut novel about a guy who had it all...until he drank that fifth beer and got into the car.
Frank Marder is a head, paralyzed from the neck down, and it's his fault. He was drinking. He was driving. Now Frank can't walk, he can't move, he can't feel his skin. He needs someone to feed him, to wash him, to move his body.
But if you ask most of the people who are posting on www.quadkingonthenet, he hasn't been adequately punished. Two people are dead because of him. Frank should go to jail. Only "Annonymous" disagrees.
About the Author
Sarah Aronson is a former physical therapist who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. Head Case is her first book.
Sarah Aronson is a former physical therapist who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire. Head Case is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
By Sarah Aronson
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2007 Sarah Aronson
All rights reserved.
Two people are dead. I have to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down.
For the record, I smoked pot twice and I cheated on one exam in ninth grade. I had sex with Meredith, even though I didn't love her.
Justice, to me, was as simple as Newton's third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Now I know better. Sometimes the reaction is bigger than the action. Sometimes the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Justice is a bullshit concept created by some scholar who never spent one day strapped to a bed in a hospital, unable to move a muscle.
One bad night.
One too many drinks.
You think you know the rules. Just say no. Wear a helmet when you ride a bike. Buckle up. Study hard. Don't let your friends drive drunk.
Now look at me.
Mornings suck. In dreams, I walk. I touch myself. I scratch my own ass. In the light of day, I need help to put my glasses on. I move my wheelchair with my chin.
Walk, run, touch, fuck? Never, never, never, and never.
Actually, afternoons and nights suck, too.
"I'm sorry, Frank," Dr. Rockingham said. "But, please, don't lose hope."
"Easy for you to say." Rockingham might have earned an MD and a PhD, but he wasn't a good liar. Science is decades away from figuring out how to fix me.
I'm a head.
My mother disagrees. "You could be dead, like those four kids in Florida." Or the young man in Nevada, the old lady in Tennessee. She lists headlines, bad news, from memory. "Thank God you're alive." Since my accident, she's prayed every morning: first for a full recovery; then for a functioning arm or leg; now it's, Please, God, let my son accept his body for what it is.
My father thinks God's a joke. He looks at my useless limbs, my shriveled dick, and walks out for a scotch, single malt. I think about talking to Dad, man to man, head to body. "Go ahead, Dad, pull the plug. Smother me. Anything," but I don't have the nerve. What if I'm wrong? What if my mom is right and God's just waiting for me to prove my faith so he can cure me? Maybe the science is wrong. Maybe I'm missing the big picture.
Chill out, Frank, God here. I just gave you this pill so you believed that you were paralyzed, that you killed Meredith. Get up. Walk. Come see her. She's been waiting for you, right here, all this time.
Really, none of this should be happening. I am seventeen years old.
* * *
Someone knocks on the door. "Good morning, men." Cecilia, the nursing assistant, makes a quick soft-shoe beeline past Richard Freeberg's bed to mine. "I changed shifts just so I could be here to see you."
Cecilia grabs my glasses off the bedside table and in one swooping motion, slides them onto my face. The wonderful world of rehab comes into focus. "Thanks, Superwoman."
"No problem, bud." Cecilia, the hero of us crumpled, disfigured gimps and crips, smiles the way she does every morning — like we're all here for some high-class party or award ceremony. Her teeth are about three sizes too big and the left one in the front is chipped. She doesn't care. She smiles all the time — when she comes in, when she cleans me, when she single-handedly gets me out of bed, into my chair. "Sleep good?"
I control my urge to say, "You mean, sleep well." Walking Frank loved to point out other people's grammatical problems. Walking Frank had to feel smarter than everyone else.
"So-so, I guess." She puts both hands on my shoulders to straighten me out. Cecilia can't get started until I'm dead center in the bed.
"What's the diff?" I asked her once.
She didn't have much of an answer. "I don't know. Habit, I guess. My mother couldn't keep house to save her skin. I guess I just like things neat."
She shifts my body again and again and one more time, wedging my nose into her cleavage. She's short, so she's practically on the bed with me. The straps of her pink push-up bra stick out, her T-shirt is crinkly. Her heavy silver cross hits me smack on the chin. "Sorry," she says, tucking it into her shirt, out of sight, and shifting me one last time.
"Nice job, Doctor Love." Makeup cannot camouflage the gigantic hickey on her neck. It's easily the size of a quarter.
Cecilia pretends to smack me across the face. "Don't go there, pal." She steps back from the bed and points the remote control at me like she's going to shoot. "Elevator up," she jokes. "Time for breakfast."
"What's on the menu?"
"Cereal with milk. Last night's fruit cocktail. Toast." She picks up a napkin, and places it under my chin, for no good reason; she'll be undressing me shortly. She feeds me little bites, just the way I like it, and every three or four is ready with the OJ.
The hickey has a little blue spot.
"Oh, Cilia," Freeberg whines, "this bran shit tastes like fuckin cardboard."
She covers her neck with her hand. "That's nice." With Freeberg, it's best to react as little as possible.
After I'm done with my last spoonful, she puts my tray on the counter, picks Freeberg's pants off the floor, and chucks them across the room. "You're a slob, Richard," she says. Her ponytail bobs up and down as she struts past the foot of my bed to snatch my chart. Freeberg just grunts; he's always a bastard after breakfast. She hums while she reads.
"Looks good, Frank." She's holds my chart with one hand, the other is glued to the hickey. Not an easy feat — my chart is as thick as a phone book. She sets it down and shakes out her hand. "Last call, Marder. Anything to report on this fine and most magnificent day?"
"Would you believe I went for a ride with my buddy, Freeberg, and we ate three ice cream sundaes?"
She laughs at my joke — it's part of her job. I've been lying in this bed all night, and we all know it.
I'm a head. I'm a head. I'm a head. I'm a head.
"Ran a marathon, too."
That part falls flat.
Cecilia rubs my head. Her hand is moist, hot and cool at once. "Your mom is signing you out as we speak." She picks a piece of cereal off my face and pops it into my mouth. The flake is soggy; it gets stuck on my tongue. "I really liked taking care of you." Cecilia gives me one more big, toothy smile. She is my friend.
Meredith thought people of the opposite sex couldn't possibly be just friends. Sex and attraction trumped friendship every time. But I'm living proof. Now that my sexuality is null and void, I have a ton of girl friends. Not just techies, like Cecilia. The nurses and the cafeteria girls, too.
"Help me, Cecilia!" Freeberg yells. "Help me, please. I have a cramp."
Cecilia looks at me and rolls her eyes. All three of us know what's coming next.
"No, honest," my roommate says. "Really. Right here. It's real, real bad." She turns around, just in case it is bad, and groans. She doesn't have to tell me that he's pointing to his inner thigh and crotch. Ever since he got his first posttrauma erection, he's been begging everyone to give him a therapeutic hand job — in the name of science, of course.
Call it perv head humor. These are our morning rituals. We eat. We talk. We make up stories. Freeberg says something rude. They take care of us anyway. Every morning since we came to rehab.
For me, that would be one day short of six weeks.
Cecilia pulls the drapes around my bed. "I actually look forward to that stunt," she whispers, and shows me a bottle of vanilla milkshake face cream before slathering it on my forehead, cheeks, and ears. "They were giving samples away at the Saks counter." Cecilia had wanted to be a cosmetologist, not a nursing assistant.
You would think that beauty school should be easier to get into. But Cecilia's makeup is pretty tacky and her hair color is two shades lighter than her skin — definitely not natural.
Her old boyfriend used to hit her. Dr. Love took her to Macaroni Grill. My mother says all things happen for a reason.
Cecilia massages the geography of my remaining functioning sensory sites: my temples, my cheeks, my forehead, and my neck. I wonder if I'll ever get an erection. I wish for one more erection.
"Nervous?" she asks.
"It's been a long time since I've been home."
"I'm going to have to live on the first floor."
She picks up my right hand and holds it up in the air. I smell my stale pit stink; by some higher ability, she does not even wrinkle her nose.
"The school doesn't care if I don't come back. They say I have enough credits to graduate." Freeberg has no trouble getting it up.
"I hated school," she says. "Especially Math."
Her nails are orange ovals, and there is a rhinestone glued onto each one.
"Your nails look good," I say.
"You mean it?" she asks, putting down my hand. "I did it myself."
"The doctor will love them." I take two deep, forced breaths. Too much talking makes me tired. Cecilia understands and continues working in silence. She shaves my chin, plucks my unibrow and brushes my hair. The complete head treatment.
So I can't get a hard-on. What's the point anyway? I can't feel it, can't see it. Can't use it.
"How about your shaving me today, beautiful?" Freeberg asks. Another ritual.
She looks at me, rolls her eyes, and says what she always says. "DIY, baby cakes." Do it yourself. He has arms and chest and even some leg; he can put on his own deodorant, go home and have sex. I can't even masturbate. Why did my cord snap all the way across? Why am I completely paralyzed from the neck down? Why can't I DIY?
"Big day," Cecilia says.
"Really big," I say.
"Really, really big fucking day," Freeberg says. None of us has any real privacy.
Cecilia whips off my clothes to wipe down the deadwood — my legs and arms. She can see my dick. "You're not sad about leaving, are you? Everyone wants to go home." She rubs me with more lotion and powder. I might as well be at the car wash. "It's going to be so great. In your own bed, in your own house ..." She really should cover my dick already.
"Enough with the melodrama," Freeberg says. "You're making me cry, Cecilia." He pauses. Footsteps. "Head!" he yells. "You got a visitor."
"Hey." Harry Lassiter, best friend since fifth grade, steps inside the curtain. No Can I come in? No Are you decent? He considers himself family and, thus, above the knock-before-entering cardinal rule.
When is he going to get a clue? When the curtain's shut, Cecilia's working south of the border.
"How's it going?" he asks.
It takes him a full second to figure out why we're not bringing out the welcome wagon. His face drops like he stepped in dog crap. But he does not move. He stands there and looks at the curtain and sputters, "Oh. Sorry. Geez. I'm sorry. I should have knocked."
Should-a, could-a, would-a.
He rubs his hands on his baggy jeans. Crosses his arms over his chest. Then puts his hands in his pockets. But he does not move.
You'd think he was paralyzed.
Cecilia waves a towel in my face, then covers my privates. "Hi, Harry. What's shaking?"
"Can you leave?" I ask him, but no one responds. My voice is too weak. I suck in as much air as my lungs will take. "Can you leave?" Deep breath. "Now?" The last thing I need right now is my best friend staring at my useless body.
Freeberg shouts, "Yeah, get the fuck out! Give the head some privacy."
Harry pulls the lid of his Yankees cap over his forehead. He stuffs his hands back in his pockets. He shuffles his feet.
And the pitch ...
It's a curve. He steps back and stares at the curtain, but he does not leave.
"Your mom told me you were going home today." The forced enthusiasm makes his voice crack. "She asked me to ride with you in the ambulance."
Cecilia keeps washing me. "That is really nice of you. Isn't it?" She raises her right eyebrow, my cue to lose the bad attitude.
Freeberg shouts again. "Do you not understand the goddamned English language? I said get the fuck away from the head, dork!" I smile — can't help it. I might be a head, but at this moment, I am not a dork.
Cecilia stops working. "Why don't you wait outside until we're done, hon?" She turns her back to me. "I'll call you when the prince, here, is accepting visitors."
Harry obeys. He folds and creases the brim of his hat and finally steps outside the curtain. The whole time, Freeberg chants, "Done, hon, done, hon."
Cecilia leans in and whispers, "That wasn't so smart, Marder. He was being nice. You're going to need him."
Yes, I know the drill. A head needs support. Those so-called friends. A head should never complain when his privacy is violated. A head should be happy that anybody — any walking human beings — want to visit him, even if they do stare at him like he is the main exhibit in the House of Horrors. "If he can't take it, he doesn't have to stay."
Harry's sneakers squeak as he trips out the door. "Have a nice fall," Freeberg says.
Finally, she pulls out clean pants and a shirt. "You could cut him some slack. He's been here almost every day." No pity party here. She is all contempt. "That's a good friend you just pissed off."
"What did you say?"
"Okay. I know. I'll make it up to him."
"Good." Cecilia dresses my lower half first. "Thank the Lord for Velcro," she says. She straightens the wrinkles out of my shirt and centers my head on the pillow. "I gotta leave you here, bud. Transport's taking you home. They want you in the bed. Losers don't feel like transferring you from the chair." She presses the remote until my head is just where I like it. Before she whips open the curtain, she gives my face a hug and wipes her eyes. "I'll go get Harry. You apologize."
"And keep in touch. But don't come back too soon."
"You got it."
"And apologize, Frank. Now." She blows a kiss and disappears.
"You see the shit on that girl's neck?" Freeberg asks. He whistles.
"Yeah," I say, taking a breath, trying hard not to cry. It's hard to breathe and stifle tears. "A six-point-oh on the Richard scale."
Freeberg rustles the blankets, throws his legs over the side of the bed, and transfers all by himself to the candyapple red sports chair at the side of his bed.
"Head case." He pops a wheelie and rolls on his back wheels to the bathroom. The therapists have already recruited him for the local wheelchair basketball team.
The doctors and therapists have nothing more to offer me. I am a boring case, a complete injury, right out of a textbook. A curiosity, a nightmare, maybe even a freak show, but not a challenge.
I'm leaving exactly as I arrived.
Some people report that when they are close to death, they see a light beckoning to them. A bright, warm glow urges them to follow, come, seek out your ultimate destination. They also feel the pull of loved ones telling them to live, fight, come back. Your time has not yet come.
I didn't see a light. Loved ones did not urge me back. No voices, no music.
I felt nothing. I floated in the most peaceful place in the universe.
I felt nothing. I was alone.
I felt nothing, or maybe it's more accurate to say I felt the absence of everything.
* * *
I know the car skidded twenty-five feet before we hit the old man and the tree, before Meredith and I went flying into the window, but that's because the Mooretown Valley News covered my story for two weeks running. It was the biggest tragedy in our town's history. In Boston, we would not have caused a ripple. But this was Mooretown. The famed George Washington High. I was the local boy done wrong. Sidebars on national statistics. Testimonies by friends and relatives. They covered it all.
Harry saved every article in a big white envelope.
For the record, it took three paramedics to get me out of the car and get me here in two pieces — ha-ha — although one report said that four people worked for two hours to get me out. "He was conscious the whole time," the EMT driver said. "He told us some jokes. How many people with ADD does it take to change a lightbulb?"
The doctor said, "Everybody laughed. (The answer, Who wants to go ride bikes? is on his Web site.) We thought it was a good sign."
The nurse added, "When Frank made that joke, we were sure we were going to save his life. We were confident that we were going to see some magic."
Excerpted from Head Case by Sarah Aronson. Copyright © 2007 Sarah Aronson. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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