There’s not a color the sky doesn’t turn in the fall evening, if you watch long enough. Paul Alver knew. He never didn’t watch. He couldn’t help watching; he couldn’t move. Dolly, the plump convalescent-care nurse with crimped African hair, rolled his wheelchair onto the old wooden porch right after lunchtime and set the brakes on lock.
“In case an earthquake comes,” she’d say, tipping the ash off the end of her cigarette before she sauntered back in through the doorway, screen banging and white apron swishing side to side with her big woman hips. Paul’d follow her with his eyes until they couldn’t bend around any more, then surrender and return to his normal frontward gaze. He didn’t much like Dolly, especially since she left ashes on the kitchen counters alongside the morning papers and on the sofa armrests, but her company was better than none on the creaking wooden porch. If he could have spoken he’d have begged her to come back out, just to smoke and sit.
There was only one thing Paul truly wished he could have done before he lost all motor function, and that was fall in love. All the running and jumping and yelling he could live without, but who it was to pull him out of bed and onto the porch each day he would have liked to have had a say in. He’d been afraid of heights anyways, and hadn’t put any plans to hang glide or skydive on his bucket list—the worst part of the accident, besides the unstopping and awkward pity it placed between him and anyone not paid by insurance to work with him, had been waking up in the helicopter just as it was lurching downwards towards the hospital’s rooftop landing pad. He would have appreciated a sensible girl, a girl with her feet on the ground. She didn’t have to look like Miss America, didn’t have to be a rodeo queen—even before the wheelchair, he hadn’t been one to be picky about appearances. He didn’t want someone nice to look at, necessarily. He just wanted someone around who he knew wasn’t there just to fill in a timecard.
At least it wasn’t a tragedy, he told himself. At least there wasn’t someone, some beautiful young thing who went down when I did. Paul would have been a generous lover and not a selfish one; he was already the sort who’d rather never have a woman at his side than see her paralyzed alongside him, gleaming wheelchair wheels sinking noiselessly into their own ruts on the softening porch. He held on to this heroism in the midst of the gaping relational distance it left in its wake, indulging himself in the strength of his weakness and shoving what felt like sad away into corners. He’d gone through therapy after the operations, and though the counselors couldn’t know for sure, he’d gleaned much from their slow talking and ended up one of their best-coping patients. He couldn’t be too proud, without muscle function, endorphin rushes, routinely clean hair, and other things that give most people an edge on their egos. But he couldn’t help wishing that instead of Dolly there to clean his bedpans, there was somebody else around, somebody who knew or could guess the size and shape of his soul.
He never felt as gross or stagnant as he should have during the westerly October sunsets. Even if he was sitting in his own waste and Dolly had forgotten, somewhere between Days of Our Lives and the six o’clock news, to bring him in for dinner, Paul reveled quietly in the final daytime rays, unconscious of the goosebumps forming on his arms and neck as the air turned from warmth to ice with every next moment of sun-setting. The breeze always came from behind, from the east, and Paul wished he could feel more than just the sight of the leaning hollyhocks in the yard. But he was patient, and this was every day—Dolly forgetting and, Paul, as he waited, learning the noises of the dusk that no one else hears.
The porch creaked. This was a given. The home was built in the early 1900s from local forestry. You didn’t need a sense-tuning accident to hear this one; you just needed ears. Even the mailman cringed as he climbed the four steps up to the mail slot, grinning gently at Paul who could not grin back. The hollyhocks rustled, and on a blustery-enough day they would scrape louder against the porch banister, but only Paul knew the step of the last June bug on their leaves. Something he could not see would click, and something from across the porch would murmur back. Closer to dusk, Paul watched a robin and its mate float-flutter down from the crippled crabapple tree in the lawn to the corner of the stairs, exchanging twittered safety precautions before scurrying around the baseboards together to the back of the house. So these, his friends, he came to know more by the red-breasted depth of their scamper and not the hue of their plumage.
Any other human being, any other man or woman who is, by nature, conditioned to overly want and whose seeming life has been taken away by the speeding mass of a PG&E truck, would have been jealous of the happy robins. Any other person would have sat in that wheelchair with their cheeks turning the same red in fury that two small basement-dwelling creatures got to tuck snugly together into some home every evening. I should be jealous, Paul thought as he watched them. I should hate those birds. The part inside of him that smiles smiled. But I don’t.
Instead, still as stone and cold as rock as only a sliver of sunlight remained on his unfeeling toes, he warmed from that big heartish part inside so much so that his goosebumps retreated. When Dolly came out, more irritated than sorry that she’d forgotten her charge, Paul’s peaceful glow and unchilled skin quelled her frustrations. It didn’t matter that she was relieved for her own sake and not for his; the both of them ended the day in honest calm before the dark set in.
With early frost came early sunsets, and the colors stayed the same. Dolly didn’t know. She never watched. She could have known; she could have moved, but she kept those big hips glued to the ashy sofa and those deep brown drowsy cow-eyes peeled to the technicolor screen. She didn’t think to layer Paul up with more blankets or scarves, because it was always the same outdoor temperature in the noontime sun and she’d rather have dug up more cigarettes than his winter wear in the back closet. This was also because she, contentedly alone in the seventy-two-degree living room, always wore the same camel-colored duster over her apron and because, at the root of it all, she thought only of herself. Dolly wasn’t mean—she couldn’t be, as a nurse—and she wasn’t irresponsible. She couldn’t be, as a nurse. She was simply ignorant of anything but her own occupational and entertainment needs. Luckily, Paul, as the object of her occupation, fit into some of these needs. Unluckily, as a still and mute invalid, he failed to measure up to the rest of them. But he knew this about her, and he was patient. Even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t do anything to change her. He focused his patience on the cold, and left his growing irritation at her irresponsibility untended in the further-back parts of his working head.
It was really the fault of a normal day that Dolly left Paul on the porch overnight. The community was absent of theft, murder, and scandal, and so the six o’clock news re-ran a segment on local petting zoos, lulling the chain-smoking Dolly into an early slumber. When she jerked awake it was because the petting-zoo segment was beginning again on the eleven o’clock news, and without hesitation she shut the TV and the house lights off, grabbed her bag, and hurriedly traipsed out the self-locking front door, rumpled apron still swishing and screen door again banging to a close as the creaking stairs carried her weight down to the pavement. The robins had long since made their goodnight, and Paul, sitting shivering soundlessly in the wheelchair, could do no more than stare after Dolly as she withdrew into her car across the way.
If asphalt dew was something to leave tracks in, Dolly’s white Oldsmobile would have made deep ones, the vehicle heavy itself with anxious guilt as it motored off into the black starkness. Instead the street was left cold, still, and empty, not unlike the porch on which Paul in his wheelchair still remained. He sat in discomfort but not confusion—he’d seen Dolly leave and understood the simple mistake—or in fear, which was unusual for a man his age. Most middle-aged men awake in the night have possessions or families to guard, and some purpose to distract the ghostly corners of their minds. Even the bachelors have hope for a future or slender Corvettes resting in the garage. Paul, in his inability and wheelchair, had only those to protect, and neither he feared losing. He sat alert not in vigilance or in trepidation, but simply because he felt awake and the cold would not let him sleep. A sliver moon hid behind the house and cast shadow everywhere in view, but Paul’s pupils caught the shades of black and his mind filed them away into its hidden palette. The stars turned and no nightbirds paid visit; no clock showed its face, and at some nameless hour, when the fog rolled in and with its musty strength stopped the wind, the cold relinquished Paul to slumber.
Waking came not in the form of screech or startle, but the familiar creaking of the porch steps. Paul opened his eyes when the figure had already passed his sight’s radius, and warily waited until it appeared again in the front 180° of his periphery. In the moments between, the clink of glass against wood sounded gently against the stale morning air. In the moments after, a white-suited woman’s frame descended the four steps in two bounds, then paused, then pivoted around on one foot to face Paul.
“Good morning,” she waved from the pathway, in the first eye contact Paul’d had with a woman since the post-surgery therapists.
Paul said nothing, as was his forced custom.
The woman in white spun again and made her way to a white van with the word “DAIRY” in black alongside a smiling cow’s face printed on its side. She shifted from neutral to drive, and gassed away into the fog.
Paul blinked, again not in confusion but to reaffirm his location. It was light, but not bright; the fog was just parting on the horizon to reveal the day’s real background. Two things were new to him on this morning: firstly, Dolly was not there to rouse him; secondly, he was outside. He racked his memory for the last time he had been awake and outside in an hour before noon, and shocked himself to realize that he hadn’t experienced this sort of moment since before his father’s death twenty-three years ago, when the two would cast lines into Feather Creek in hopes of trout at dawn. Even then, though, they’d had their backs to the east, focusing on the red-and-white bobbers and quivering nylon instead of brilliant morning skies. So when the fog rolled back all the way and sunlight peeked onto the ridges of the hills in the distance as Paul, doing what he did best, watched, his inner jaw dropped. He’d been wrong about the evening sky.
In the mind of a mute man are the names for the colors of the sunset and sunrise.
In a dairy van down the road a milkmaid approaches a white Oldsmobile wrapped around a telephone pole, still steaming in the rising sun. And this day, too, begins.
Melissa Gutierrez is an artist and writer living and working in Northern California.