The Ability of Gary Cudgel

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I am taking a break from The Sympathetic Universe for a few weeks in order to try my hand at a writing competition. I won’t describe the competition in detail here, but I will use the next several weeks to demonstrate my writing process. Each week, I will post a draft of my story. This week will be the first draft, next week the second, and so on until I am satisfied. The due date is August 15th, so that’s a maximum of 7 or so drafts, not that I think I’ll need that many. This draft was probably about two hours of work total between many interruptions.

***

I think it would be a lie to tell you that I fully understand just what happened at the Cudgel residence on 24 Pine Way at the end of September. I was an army medic, with discharge papers for a blow to the head I had received in Afghanistan. I left with a lifetime of physical therapy and periodic tremors and loss of motor control. My comrades in arms were not so lucky. Thus, it felt right that the job I should take to supplement my pension be one helping others with struggles like mine.

The house on 24 Pine Way was a small one – one story, brick siding, white shutters and a shallow-pitched roof. The doorbell did not appear to activate anything when I pressed it, so I knocked. Evamae Cudgel shouted to her son Gary to get the door but when the door opened he was nowhere to be seen. Evamae herself was rushing down the steps on her cane when I stepped inside. At that time, I reasoned he must prefer not to be seen and have pulled the door behind him and made his escape before I could venture in.

“Come in, come in, Doctor!” Evamae gestured a forceful command to entry with her left arm, the right still on her cane as she finally descended to the bottom step.

“You know me?” I asked, surprised.

“Of course we know you, Doctor Silver. We do read the emails they send us. Come in! Come in! You’re letting the heat in.”

I reddened. I closed the door behind me and waited for Evamae to indicate where I should go next. I opened and shut my hands. It was a nervous tick I had developed intentionally at the recommendation of my occupational therapist. Evamae made her way to the right and I followed her into the living room.

As I came in, I heard a rattling noise of glassware. It was a tink tink tink coming from another room. Probably a dishwasher, or some plates on top of a drier. “Gary,” Evamae uttered a sharp rebuke to the man sitting in an easy chair so motionless I had not even noticed him at first, “stop fidgeting.” Gary Cudgel, balding and obese in an enormous sweater, turned his head and gave his mother an absent look. In another few moments, the sound stopped.

“Gary,” Evamae ordered, jabbing a finger in my direction, “greet Dr. Silver.”

I stepped back and raised my hands, “Really, it’s fine.”

“Dr. Silver, you’re a gentleman, but Gary has to be polite.” Evamae glared at her son, “Gary?”

“Hullo, Dr. Silver,” Gary said in a slow, guileless voice, turning to look at me. Then he gave his head three slow nods, perhaps to confirm to himself that he had completed his task of delivering greeting, as he turned back to his set position in the easy chair.

“Give him some time, Doctor. He’ll open right up. Please take a seat behind the coffee table.”

I had nothing to say, so I just nodded and sat in a cheap plastic folding chair behind a squat table with a red-and-white plaid tablecloth. “I wanted to go over with you the benefits you’ll be receiving under the new rules. Mostly everything has stayed the same, but I’m going to make sure you make the necessary updates to your status so you and your son don’t lose any coverage.”

Evamae smiled.”Thank you dear.” The house creaked, settling into its foundations, and she turned and snapped, “Gary!”

Gary’s face gave no indication Evamae had been heard, but the old woman seemed satisfied. I pulled out my heavy government-issued laptop and pried it open. “Mrs. Cudgel, you are widowed?”

“Yes, Doctor,” said Evamae, “do call me Evamae.”

“Certainly. Please call me Philip, then. ‘Doctor’ is my mother’s name.”

Evamae chuckled obligingly at my joke, “Philip, I reckon you’re gonna ask me if this one still can’t take care of himself?”

I glanced at Gary, wondering if he minded his mother speaking so casually about him within his hearing. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening.

“He can’t,” Evamae answered the question, “the side effects of the medication.” She was right that I needed to ask, of course. I marked it on my form.

“It’s much better than the alternative, of course. Schizophrenia is a terrible business, I assure you he’s much happier this way.” Evamae assured me, “Why don’t I put some tea on?”

I nodded and Evamae stood to go to the kitchen. “Ma,” said Gary, “can I go out?”

“Go on, dear. Only one cigarette. Our friend Philip here is going to have some questions for you soon.”

“Yeah, Ma,” Gary agreed, leaving the room.

“Use your hands, Gary. Come ask me questions in the kitchen, Philip. I suppose you’re wondering if I have a job? Taking care of this one is full time.” She nodded towards the porch.

I checked off the box on my form. The conversation continued in this way, Evamae rattling off a memorized list of the questions on my form and offering her colorful answer to each. My hand was shaking more than I liked, and I tried not to let it worry me. The stress would lead to more shaking and a vicious cycle.

“Many of your benefits are moving to the state plan, Evamae. Are you registered with the state elder care and disability service?” I watched Evamae dump a cup full of sugar into her tea and thought about the diabetes she had listed on her form. I wasn’t here to change this family’s habits, though.

I accepted a mug that said “You Got This” adorned in flowers and birds. Evamae pressed her lips together, “How do I do that?”

I smiled, “I’ll pull up the website. It will only take a few minutes if you have all your information – driver’s license number and all that.”

“Do I need to get my driver’s license? It’s upstairs. Wait here a moment.”

Evamae grabbed her cane and left the room. I basked in the glow of knowing their lives would be better for my visit. It made me feel I could still be useful. I lifted the tea to my lips, but it was much too hot. My hand trembled as I tried to put it down again, and I grit my teeth in pain as the hot tea sloshed out onto my wrist.

Irrationally, my failure to set the tea down properly made me want to assert my mastery over it even more. I took it in my steadier left hand and brought it to my lips to blow on it, when I saw out of the corner of my eye a massive figure standing in the doorway. I startled and let out a gasp. The mug left me entirely, but it’s path downward was not a sensible one. Instead of tipping and spilling its contents, it fell straight down and settled on my leg. I stared at it for a moment before snatching it out of its preternatural balancing act and placing it with utmost care back on the table.

I looked back at Gary, who stank of tobacco and had a smile on his wide, unassuming face for the first time. “Be careful, Doctor.” he intoned.

Then we heard the shriek. “Gary!” Evamae’s shout was not of chastisement but of terror. I leapt from my seat to rush to the stairs, but Gary just stood where he was, his look transformed into one of intense concentration.

By the time I made it to the stairs, Evamae was at the bottom face down, her decrepit arms and legs splayed to all sides. Her white hair covered anything I could see of her face. Her cane was a few steps down from the landing. This was my doing. I sent her up those stairs. Why didn’t I think to help her, or even go up and get the information myself? I just sat like an idiot in the kitchen fighting with a mug of excessively sweet tea. I cursed my own defective, damaged brain. Good lord, I was no help to anyone at all.

“Evamae?” I ventured.

“Could you help me up, Philip? I’m sure I’m a very amusing sight right now, but it really is rude to stare.”

“Oh,” I took a knee and grabbed her hand, helping her get her legs under her and stand up again. “Are you hurt?”

“Do I look hurt, Doctor?” Evamae stood straight and put one arm up behind her head as if she were modeling for me, “give me your professional opinion.” It boggled my mind –  there was not a scratch on her.

“I – well, no.” I stammered, “but this is no laughing matter. You should see someone with more experience in – um – geriatrics.”

“Bah,” Evamae chuckled, “if you think I’m fine that’s all the expert opinion I need,” She patted me on the arm. “I have my driver’s license. Shall we get this done?”

She pressed past me to the kitchen before I could respond. I hurried after her and found her with her arms around her gigantic son, two heads taller than she. “You smell terrible, boy,” she muttered, “I want you to go take a bath as soon as you get a moment.”

“Yes, Ma.” Gary Cudgel mumbled, “Right away.”

A couple hours later, when I let myself out of the house, it hardly surprised me that the door closed and locked behind me seemingly of its own accord. “What an impressive son you have Mrs. Cudgel,” I chuckled as I walked to my car, “you must be so proud.”

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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