I wrote this story in 1996, one of a series of “American” stories I wrote after visiting the West Coast the previous summer. I’d just started to try and write a number of short stories, partly to share with friends via a photocopied magazine (“Frisky”) I started in March that year, and partly as I was looking to get on a creative writing course. I was reminded of this story, talking to a friend who’d recently taken his (adult) daughters to Disneyland. I’ve always been puzzled by the veneration given to Disney, and something of that puzzlement came out in this story. Its not been published before, other than on my various blogs and in #2 of Frisky.
Living with my Sister in Anaheim
This room is sufficient for my needs. It is at the back of my sister’s house and previously had been where her two children had been nursed; then more recently it had been used by her husband whenever he wanted to watch the game or have some of his friends round for smokes and beers. Thus, I am blessed with a small colour television, a refrigerator and sink; and remarkably, a Betamax Video recorder with a dozen or so tapes still in working order. Naturally they’ve also set me up with a small bed, a child’s bed, with a painfully thin mattress over a sagging wire trellis. I have constant reminders of pain, so minor discomfort is just that, minor. The one window is high up, wider than it is high.
It is not the very least they could do for me, I know that. And furthermore it is eminently the most practical place for me. We are at Earth level, at sidewalk level, at ground and garden level and that is what I now need. I wheel myself around the ample space, easily able to get to the downstairs wash-room or the family kitchen, where we mostly eat when I feel up to the company. I have an old armchair that is for any visitor I might have; just the one, for I move in my own chair now, my life reduced to ground level. The height of that one window sneers at me. I can reach up, stretching to my limit, to open the casement but need help to close it again. I had promised to keep as much out of their way as possible, and it has been easy to do. Their days are almost controlled by a remote, tied in to an atomic clock. Six o’clock in the morning is not my time, but it is theirs. I almost wonder what they do with the children, so quiet is the house for so long; but I know the answer: there is a creche for the younger one where my sister’s husband works and the eldest’s school is on my sister’s route to work. He gets their early, no doubt, but isn’t alone in this. My sister and her family have a lifestyle that is eminently copied and copyable. She and her husband both work in ultra modern occupations: analysing, securing, selling, assisting, directing. This is Los Angeles after all, and work titles are as fashionable and as fashion-derived as health kicks or film names. So today he’s one thing, tomorrow another. The nuts and bolts of their work is irrelevant; enough that they are seen to spend such large swathes of time at the office, on the ‘phone, in front of a screen, carrying papers.
This is Los Angeles after all, but frustratingly not my take on the city, not my definition of the L plus A. There is but one reason why they live here; happy and prosperous, here on Jefferson Street, Anaheim. That reason is a cartoon mouse. Without Disney then Anaheim and Orange County might still have seen the population overspill as all America rushes towards the Pacific and the San Andreas; but without Disney the real estate wouldn’t have been so hermetically sealed around the blueprint of families and lawns and patios and tree-lined avenues. And if neither my sister or her husband work for Disney directly, well it is still the nape at the neck of the area’s consumption; the engine that drives the local economy. When I speak to you of the extent of my horizons, of the areas I now bestride it is different than a year ago. For downtown I now speak of the Santa Rosa shopping mall. When I talk of a day-out I mean going-to-Disney. We have a family pass. And I am, it seems, family. The threat of a visit immediately quells any more mischievous impulses on my part. I remain, you see, a Disney virgin; therefore the equivalent of a celibate in Sodom or a typewriter salesman in Silicon Valley, whichever juxtaposition shocks you the most. Oh, and I am English, as my sister once was too. Only, I’ve not yet lost the habit.
I fear that I have the opposite of vertigo. A fear of the ground felt only by birds, trapeze artists, Superman and high-rise megalomaniacs – oh, and the recently grounded, like myself. I would be described that way by my American friends. That’s far more appealing a description for my crippled condition. No American has called me a cripple; I doubt that any has even thought it, such notions having purged from the everyday vocabulary. Such guilt at mere words. I had to ring my mother to hear the truth, rather than the euphemism.
‘I fell.’ I told her.
‘Is it bad?’ She asked.
‘Are you crippled?’
‘Crippled for life?’
I could have told her all the things that the concerned doctor had told me, in an ill-advised attempt to put a positive spin on my condition. He informed me how I would now be differently-abled, specially-mobiled; but my mother would have problems relaying the reality of such phrases at her club; every Tuesday, sitting in the regular seats for Bingo; walled in by frames and wheelchairs, sticks and callipers. They were old women mainly, having mostly out-lived their unhealthy husbands. They were almost all differently-abled themselves, hip replacements and varicose veins, restructured knees, gout and amputations. Crocked or lame, then; whilst I, such a young man, crippled for life.
Recently grounded by my circumstance; I’m now more than ever down-to-Earth, far and away from the high-rises and the glistening super-structures of the real downtown. My L plus A is elsewhere, too high for me. Here, in the suburbs, they like to be able to see the sky without craning the neck, whereas where I was you don’t care to see the sky at all, except as a backdrop, except as a framing for the highest structures, those glass and steel Cathedrals. I’ve always thought about the reason why we started minding the smog. It was losing the reflection of the sun on all these high rises that rankled with us, rather than the chemical polluting of our children. Towers had to be built even higher, just so the executive’s could get above the grey clouds that their own insatiable consumption and combustion had produced.
So I began my therapy with an empty shampoo bottle. It was a pale blue plastic, so I covered it in silver foil, then covered it again in cellophane. I remembered the contours of a similar building, and etched windows in it’s side. I tried various materials to make them darken in the light and shine in the darkness, then the other way around. Pleased with my handiwork, aware of my empathy, I placed the completed replica down on the floor, in an appropriate place. Then I grubbed around for toilet cleaner, detergent, disinfectant, any bottle with a neck. Moved onto the recycling of empty Gallo bottles and aluminium beer cans. I’d tape three or four of these together to get some height to a structure. At first, my sister hardly noticed. These old bottles stacked up against the far wall, still below the window. I connived at better, higher structures using half a dozen plastic bottles so that then I could add another layer and then another. The silver and cellophane monoliths spiralled upwards, grew higher than the window-sill. My sister noticed now, but didn’t say anything. I even asked her if she minded me using her cellophane and foil. She simply smiled and bought me more. She began to come in to admire how it was going. It became impossible to use household materials as quick as I wanted to use the bottles. I emptied bottles and bottles away. We had the cleanest toilets and drains in Anaheim, some achievement. A new batch from the store would set me planning and I would find I had to demolish some of the older towers; for they were pitifully small now the extent of my vision was more obvious. The first shampoo bottle remained, nostalgically, but I wasn’t sure for how long. After all, the march of progress would always have it’s casualties. Of more concern was the limits that my condition put on my building ability. To facilitate my development I developed a crane system using the curtain hooks, a length of wire and some rollers made from the plastic tops of the detergent bottles. I had to develop complex strategies in order to add a new layer to what was already there – for I was limited to how far I could place my hands above my head. My sister offered, on the one occasion, to do something for me, but I resisted the temptation to accept. She looked amused or saddened, I hardly know which, and afterwards, came in less often to check the rate of growth of my plastic city.
For my birthday I asked for and got given a free-standing anglepoise, and the first night, I sized up the best position for it and switched the normal lighting off. The single bulb dazzled the walls of my city. I slowly turned the podium and watched the lights reflecting off of each rounded wall of each building. Things were coming to a head and politely I asked to be left alone, riding out into the light of the family rooms for forays of food and medication. I realised how close my obsession was to completion and invited the family in one evening.
A slight knock on my door and my sister and her husband, and their two young children, came in. They were obviously staggered by my final days of building. The whole room was now full of my bottle towers, some as high as the ceiling, cramped together like the real city. The pace of development indicated chaos and megalomania rather than careful planning; but despite this the whole was much, much greater than the sum of the parts. My sister and her family could only just inch into the room and at first they couldn’t see me. For there I was, pulled up by my own pulley mechanism, as if I was fully grown, fully able to walk again. The city had grown to new levels of sophistication, so even restored to my full, pre-accident height, I had to look up to crane my neck towards the glorious shimmering skyline. My pulleys and wires moved me like a tram through the streets of this new Los Angeles, now in Lilliput after a lifetime spent in Brobdingnag. Unable to use my legs, they hang limp and ragged, dragging just above the floor as I walked tall through the streets of my creation.
‘So you won’t want to be going to Disneyland with us?’ Said the youngest, at last.
‘No.’ I said smiling. I beckoned the children forward and they walked these streets as I now could, careful to avoid the wires. I showed them where I had used to live, I showed them where I had worked, and looked out at the skyline, thousands of feet above the city. Finally I showed them that first shampoo bottle. Squat and miniature, the time had come for it’s demolition. I scooped my hands down and plucked it from the ground.
‘And this was the window I fell from.’ I told them, pointing at a small second storey indentation. ‘That was the last time I walked.’ The bottle fell from my hands and I started to spontaneously cry. My sister and her husband came over to me, unplucked me from my harness and placed me back in my wheelchair. They wheeled me out of the bottle city, out through the front of the house, carrying me into the back of the family car. They chatted amongst themselves, and I kept my own counsel as we drove carefully the few short miles to Disneyland.
I can’t complain. Some damn mouse came by and shook my hand.