FICTION: Crazy by Stephen Dixon
I have a dream. In it I’m pushing my wife in a wheelchair on a narrow street in New York. Chinatown, during the lunch hour. Four- to five- story buildings, lots of small restaurants, sidewalks very crowded and people walking fast. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I say to people in front of us. “Better watch out. I don’t want to run in to you.” I’ve no idea where I’m going. I’m just pushing. My wife sits silently, looking straight ahead.
Then the scene changes to a street on the East Side of New York. In the 40s; near the East River. Not a street but an avenue: First or Second or Third. The sidewalks are wide and again very crowded. Lunch hour. People walking very fast. Despite the tall office buildings on both sides of the avenue, plenty of sun. “We’re in the Gravlax District,” I say to my wife. “Can you hear me above all this noise? The Gravlax District. I only used to come here to go to a steakhouse or an art movie theater.” I stop pushing and look around. “So many people,” I say, with my back to her. “We never get crowded streets like this where we live. Nor the car traffic. It’s exciting, don’t you think?” When I turn back to her, she and the chair are gone. I took my hands off the chair’s handles, something I almost never do when I’m outside with her and we’re moving, or even when we’ve stopped but people are moving around us. Where could she have gone to? She wouldn’t have just left without saying something to me. She must have been in a hurry, probably to pee. And stood up, told me where she was going and what for — most likely to a restaurant to use its restroom — but I didn’t hear her because of the street noise, and then pushed the wheelchair there, or else wheeled the chair there while she sat in it.
I’m on a corner and see a restaurant a few doors down the sidestreet. I run to it and say to a man behind the lunch counter, “Did a woman in a wheelchair come in here in the last minute or so?”
“In a wheelchair?” he says. “Couldn’t have. We’ve three steps leading up to our door.”
I run farther down the street to a park at the end of it. Jacob Riis Park? Does it come this far downtown? Anyway, a park that borders the river. Maybe she thought there’d be a public restroom here, and I look around. No Abby. She’d be easy to see, too, because she’d be in the wheelchair or pushing it. She can’t walk on her own. No public building anywhere around, either. Just a playground, surrounded by grass and trees.
I run up the same sidestreet on the other side of the block. I look through the vestibule doors of all the brownstones on that side of the street, just as I did on the other side of the street when I ran down it to the park. In one dingy hallway I see at the end of it what looks like a wheelchair turned over. Oh my God; is it on top of her? I ring all the tenants’ bells, am buzzed in. I run down the long hallway. It’s a baby carriage turned over, nobody under it.
I run to the avenue where I last saw her, cup my hands over my mouth and shout “Abby, it’s Phil; come back to the spot, Abby, it’s Phil; come back to the spot.” People stare at me as if I’m crazy. “I’m looking for my wife,” I say. “She was here, in a wheelchair; now she’s not.” I shout again “Abby, it’s Phil; come back to the spot.” I keep shouting that while also looking in every direction for her. It’s better to wait for her here than run around looking for her. If she comes to this spot and I’m not here, she might not know what to do to find me. I don’t see her or anyone in a wheelchair. The street’s still very noisy and crowded. And now I hear music, symphonic, coming from someplace, and which is so loud I won’t be able to shout above it.
I wake up. The music’s from the radio on my night table. I was listening in the dark to the classical music station, when I fell asleep. I think about the dream. We were in Chinatown first and then on the East Side in the 40s. I have to go there. I have to find her. This is crazy, I know.
I drive to the train station, park the car in its underground garage and buy a roundtrip ticket to New York. When I arrive, I go straight to Chinatown. I don’t quite know how to get there, though. It’s been five years since I’ve been in New York, my home city and also Abby’s. The borough narrows at the southern end close to where Chinatown is, so just take any subway train south and get off at Worth Street or Canal Street or Chambers, whichever comes first. I get on the subway and get off at Houston Street — I forgot Houston — and think I’m near Chinatown, but it turns out to be a long walk. I’m hungry — I rushed out of the house so fast, I didn’t have anything to eat and the train didn’t have a food car. I should stop in one of the small restaurants here and sit at the counter and have a bowl of soup and plate of noodles, but I don’t want to lose any time in looking for her.
I walk all around Chinatown. I think I cover every single block. This is crazy, I know, but I thought I could find her down here, or at least there was a chance. I don’t want her to be lost. She’ll get sad, frightened; maybe even terrified. She’s become that vulnerable. She used to like going alone to places — even faraway countries — she’s never been to before or hasn’t been to in a while. But not since she got so sick. She needs me. She once said I keep her alive. Not said it to me but wrote it four or five years ago in one of the notebooks I found of hers. “Phil keeps me alive. What to do?” and she dated it: October 6th; I forget the exact year. I give up looking for her in Chinatown. Only other place to go is the east 40s. Maybe I’ll find her there. Since it was the last place I saw her, I should have gone there first.
I take the subway to Times Square, then the one-stop train shuttle there to Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. I go upstairs and walk on 42nd Street to First Avenue. I walk down First Avenue to 34th Street, then walk up Second Avenue to 42nd Street, then walk down third Avenue to 34th Street. Then I walk along all the sidestreets between First and Third Avenues from 34th to 50th Streets. I look in stores. I look in most of the brownstones I pass and also the lobbies of the tall apartment and office buildings and even in a few movie theaters. This is crazy, I know, but for some reason I begin to think I’ll find her, that it’s more than a slight chance. But no Abby or wheelchair anyplace. And no wheelchairs in the ground-floor hallways of any of the brownstones, though plenty of baby carriages, none turned over.
I have to go to the bathroom. I go into a coffee shop, order a coffee at the lunch counter and go to the men’s room. I drink the coffee, have a buttered English muffin with it and ask the server behind the counter if she’s seen a woman in a wheelchair here today, and I describe Abby and the chair and its tote bag hanging on the back. “I was pushing her in the chair, got distracted for a few seconds and let go of it, which I almost never do, and she was either wheeled away by someone or wandered off by herself.”
“If she was in here I would’ve seen her,” the woman says. “I’ve been on duty all day, never a work break. The door to this place is hard to open from the outside by someone in a wheelchair, so I always have to come out from behind the counter to help.”
I pay and leave. I go to the corner of 40th Street and First Avenue, which is where she disappeared, and look around some more for her and then cup my hands around my mouth and shout “Abby, it’s Phil; come back to the spot. Abby, it’s Phil; come back to the spot.”
Lots of people look at me. One man stops and says “Anything wrong, Chief?”
“Yes,” I say, “I’ve lost my wife. She was in a wheelchair.”
“If she got separated from you in a wheelchair and was able to move it by herself, she’ll come back.”
“That’s why I’m shouting for her,” I say. “The streets are crowded and she’s sitting so low in the chair that she won’t be able to see me from it. But she’ll hear me and come back to the spot I lost her at.” I cup my hands around my mouth again and shout “Abby. Abby, it’s Phil. Come back to the spot.”
A policeman comes over and says to me “You can’t be shouting out like that, sir. Is it something I can help you out with?”
“My wife, in a wheelchair, was here with me and then vanished.”
“I can take down a description of your wife and have a patrol car look for her.”
“No,” I say, “it won’t help. This is crazy, I know, to do what I’m doing, but I had to see it through. Thank you. I’ll go home now. I’ll just have to believe she’ll be okay.”
I hail a cab, take it to Penn Station, and get the next train back to my city. I better watch out, I tell myself. I could get arrested. Put away. And that’s not something I need.
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Stephen Dixon has published 15 novels and 15 story collections since 1976. His most recent novel, His Wife Leaves Him, and his last story collection, What Is All This?,were published by Fantagraphics Books. He recently finished a new interlinked 55-story collection, Late Stories, of which “Crazy” is one. He is now at work on a new story collection, Simple Stories. Retired from teaching in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University since 2007, Dixon lives in Ruxton, Maryland.