Carter is jammed against the wall at the first floor landing, twisted and almost fallen. Coiled tightly, and straining, like some kind of spring. His big left hand clutches simultaneously his mesh shopping bag — and one of his crutches. The other crutch is jammed beneath his arm, and he dangles from it, semi-cruciform, his head buried beneath his other arm, which he has curled over his face protectively.
The first thing the student on his way down the stairs notices in spite of everything is the grace of the crutch, and the oily shine of its dark mahogany finish, and the elegance of the black leather padding at its arm rest and its hand spindle. "Are you all right?" he says as Carter maintains his catatonia.
"I'll be just a minute," says Carter as if he's disappeared into a closet looking for something he lost. His covering arm muffles his voice, which sounds as though it's trying to apologize.
Carter is a jagged, bony man — old a long time — and his skin pasty, as if he lives in a closet. His hair is almost gone from his head, and the clothes he wears are from a different time. Suspenders suspending shapeless trousers and a dress shirt that has gained its tatters from being cared for too well and too often.
"Boy-oh-boy," says Carter at last, rising and untwisting and positioning himself to swing from between the crutches. "That was a big one." Smiling at the student. Carter's face is red, veins in his forehead still bulging from the strain he's just been under.
"What was it?" says the student.
"Just the pains," says Carter, as if they can be dismissed that easily. "They come and they go." And then he says, "Don't worry. I'm used to this. You go on ahead. You've got things to do. I'll be awhile."
Carter flicks the light switch inside the door to his room. The overhead bulb comes on, and the wire that suspends it swings back and forth. It swings all the time even though nobody touches it. He lowers himself into the single kitchen chair that wedges into the space between the tiny table and the door. He props the crutches against the door molding. Being in the room always makes him feel as though he lives in a bottle or a milk carton because the ceiling is so much farther away than the walls. And always dark with only the dim light, even at the height of day, from the window that opens into the air space between buildings.
After the next pain Carter will eat his dinner and take his pills. Cottage cheese that he's carried in the mesh bag up from the Jewel Market will be his dessert. He would like it to be grapefruit. He has dreamed of grapefruit, and he picks one up and rolls it in his hand every time he goes to the market. But his stomach will not tolerate the acid of its juices, not even with the digestion pills he has to take with every meal.
Later, Carter will wash at the sink. Painstaking and thorough. He hasn't been into a bathtub in thirty years. That would be out of the question.
In the evening, when Carter makes his way back down to the studio, it will be silent, with only the smell of the chemicals and the dim glow of the safe-lite. And the tiny work light beneath the translucent screen that sits on the narrow board in the closet his boss Ashby Slabaugh calls the "retouching lab" to try to make Carter feel important.
It will be silent in the studio, and Carter will be able to leave the door open as he works, so that it won't be necessary to pivot the braces and bend and fold his useless legs into the space beneath the working board. And it will only be the light and the acetate faces, black tones where the whites should be, that with Carter's touch will become the portraits that preserve Ashby Slabaugh's fame as the finest photographer on the Gold Coast. The studio will be silent, and Carter will work all night. Perhaps even sleep in the chair. That will avoid the stairs.
Ashby Slabaugh is there when Carter arrives. Angry. "I told you not to work so late, Carter!" Muttering something about the insurance and telling Carter he worries about him. "You're not as young as you used to be, you know. All of us are getting old, Carter. Don't you understand that?"
"I'll just be a little while," Carter says to Ashby Slabaugh, because he has to rest and he doesn't want his next seizure to be on the stairs like this afternoon. Also because he relishes Ashby Slabaugh's discomfort. Carter knows that the girl Ashby Slabaugh sees must have been able to wangle an excuse to escape her husband tonight too. "Just a little while." He swings down into his chair, and Ashby Slabaugh hovers outside, finding things to complain about.
On his way up the stairs again, Carter imagines the wringing of Ashby Slabaugh's neck. His hands would be strong enough to do it, if only he could grab him and hold him.
Before he lowers himself onto the cot, Carter stands at the dresser. Three photographs framed in dimestore gold are arranged on the dresser scarf, together with the brush and the comb Carter hardly needs anymore. He lingers a moment over the one of his mother, standing before the front porch of the house in Cincinnati, stern and sad, hair braided tight on her head. The surface tones are faded now, confirming that indeed she has become a part of the ages. But he is always certain he can see beyond the surface and the braids and the sadness. The next snapshot, of the Kentucky girl in the fox collar she said made her look glamorous — young and wild, with coal black eyes that have seen it all and still search for more, sneering a challenge of some sort through the pretty mouth painted tiny like girls used to do, the mouth that could drive you wild just touching with your fingers. As he does every night, he passes over the snapshot of the Kentucky girl without studying it. He knows he should put it away, out of sight, but he never does.
The picture he gazes at longest is the one of himself. It is from this one that the good dreams come. Carter, young and tough and lean and standing in his overcoat — it was new then, deep wool and the dark blue dye was still un-faded. Smoking a cigarette and knowing everything there was to be known about anything important enough to think about, with his foot propped on the running board of his roadster. Casual. Chrysler 70 Roadster, bought with the money he'd saved from his job welding. You had to be smart, and quick, and if you were, then nothing could stop you. That was the way he thought back then, and when he looks at his own steely eyes in the snapshot, so certain of everything, he can see it all again like that, and he's certain of everything again. "Speed" Carter was what he encouraged people to call him then, because the car he drove was faster than anything on the roads of Southern Ohio, even the shining, quiet cars that carried the bootleggers.
In the snapshot, a hat is pulled down over Carter's left eye as if a part of him wants to be Dillinger. Daring. Devilish. Fearless. Speed Carter is a fast driver, sure, but that's all right. He knows what he's doing. As he says, when you're driving a car, the risks are all ahead of you where you can see them, even around the bends in the road, if you're good enough, and you're a damned fool if you let anything surprise you.
Carter sets the old snapshot back on the dresser beside the picture of the girl and lies down on the cot. There's a blanket beside him if he needs it. He doesn't undress; it is too difficult and he has already washed for this day.
The pains are less frequent during the night. Thank God for that. There'll be at least one seizure that comes in his sleep and wakes him — there always is, but until then, he'll dream the bright dream.
In his dream, Carter isn't welding or driving or making love to the Kentucky girl in the snapshot. He's going dancing. There are roadhouses out in the country and just down the line that you drive to with the top folded down even in winter, so that the wind blows over him as he crouches down and makes everything a little more thrilling. Spitting seeds over his shoulder out into the dark rush of air, from the grapefruit wedges the coal-eyed girl beside him has pushed into his mouth. And always somebody shouting out from the rumble seat behind: "Watch out, Speed, you almost ran down that mailbox!" or something like that. That makes him smile, knowing the people have no choice but to rely on his skill, knowing they laugh to cover their fear.
It is always Carter who first sees the loom of the roadhouse lights before anybody else sees them, the bright loom that brings with it the moist laughter and the music, always the music, with gin you can buy in plain bottles, or Scotch sometimes.
And every roadhouse has its own band, local boys mostly, but sometimes even one of the big bands from out of Chicago or Cleveland. Nobody dances to juke boxes, not where Speed Carter drives them. Big bands and little ones, always with open tom-toms and blaring saxophones and sometimes a sophisticated clarinet. The big bands can overcome you with their brass, so that whirling over the slick wood slat floors of the roadhouses, floors that have been saw-dusted to give your feet the chance to really fly, whirling and dipping and sliding on those floors to the brass that comes when the whole back row of trumpets and trombones stands and swings to finish off a number, whirling and dancing like that makes you certain there can be nothing else, certainly not death or even darkness. Only the light and the music and the bright faces of the girls, the one you dance with and the ones who watch, and the smiling face of the girl whose mouth can drive you crazy just to touch it with your fingers.
Speed Carter loves to dance.
The onset of the pain brings the dream of the dance to a halt and shuts off the lights. Suddenly the musicians are gone. The onset of the pain causes Carter's brain to shift to the dark dream and the reliving of what it was that got him to the end of the dancing.
It is a bullet that stops Carter in his tracks, not the screeching crash of a car on a lonely road. A bullet from the robbing of a bank.
"Get in the car and drive," the robber says to Speed Carter who has come to the bank to deposit his pay, and Carter says "Okay, okay. Only just don't shoot me," and even then he's not really afraid. Driving is what he does best after all.
But the robber shoots him anyway. "I guess I didn't move fast enough for him," Carter will have to explain again and again for the rest of his life, but as he dreams it every night it is always the first time and things come to him as if they're new and somehow retractable and he'll be able to do something different the next time.
The robber is right there beside him and Carter can see how frightened he is and how young. Every time.
The bullet has blasted through Carter's new overcoat and torn away at the better part of Carter's spinal cord so that while he sits there and smells the smell of the burnt powder from the gunblast in the air of the roadster and hears the ringing in his ears, he begins at first to worry only that the ringing will interfere with the sounds of the standing brass when he dances.
Finally, Carter realizes he cannot make his feet move, that he cannot press the clutch or hold the brakes even if he wants to drive the getaway for the young and frightened bank robber.
Always the nightmare comes at the onset of the night seizure, so that it is a blessing in fact that the pain in its greater intensity is what wakes Carter from his sleep.