Hot shower water filled the entire bathroom
with healing steam that went straight to his bones and chased away the penetrating cold of his earlier drenching. James Wilson leaned his arms against the smooth tile walls beside the chrome grab-rails that Gregg needed
in order to maintain balance in the enclosure.
Jim’s thoughts were confused
and in turmoil. What, exactly, had House meant by that last parting comment?
As the hot water soaked Wilson’s
auburn hair and ran in rivulets across his face, he surveyed the plethora of handicap accouterments that House had added reluctantly
to keep himself from going flat on his face in the shower. Grab bars on all three
walls were at a height to accommodate a tall man, and their rough texture assured that soap-slippery hands would not lose
their grip. Above his head, a sling chair hung from the ceiling on heavy bolts,
now pulled flat against a corner with a strong chain. If ever House was in enough
pain that he became weakened by it and could not stand for any length of time, the chair would accommodate his weight and
allow him to soak in the hot water anyway.
Wilson’s thoughts were chaotic as
he stood beneath the strong stream from the large shower head. Did House’s
words of a few minutes before confirm that his confession of brotherly love was being reciprocated? Or had it been something else entirely? James could
The floor of the shower was like standing
on medium-grain sandpaper. Even if liquid soap got spilled on it, there was no
way Gregg’s feet would slip and throw him, with perhaps disastrous results, on his ass.
Wilson’s eyes lost their focus
as House’s soft “me too” reverberated in his head. What had
Gregg been trying to say? House was not one for platitudes, and Wilson knew with
certainty that if pressed for answers, House would surely clam up. The moment
had come and gone and was now over. He had to accept that.
The shower curtain was heavy with a rough
texture that fastened loosely at the bottom as well as the top. Gregg did not
have to fumble to push aside a shower door. One flick of his hand would propel
the curtain aside. The floor drain was wide and covered with an iron grate. There was never an accumulation of water on the floor because the lip for stepping
in and out was very low, and the floor outside the shower stall was at least as rough as the one inside.
Wilson closed his unfocused eyes
and let the moment of Gregg’s unguarded words surround him with warmth, real or imagined. Something long unspoken between them for as long as they had known one another was finally beginning to
push toward the surface. He could feel it, but he did not dare speak further
of it. He would let it go, acknowledging that once a sliver of thought began
to wiggle around inside that formidable brain, Gregg could not help himself, but would continue to worry it and worry it until
it finally burst forth full-blown. All Wilson had to do was wait.
He stood in the therapeutic steam and let
his body luxuriate for a long time. When the water temperature finally began
to cool, he pushed the shutoff valves closed and flipped the curtain back. He
felt like a limp rag, and it was so good. He had a momentary feeling of rebirth. He
sat on the rough-textured toilet lid and toweled himself leisurely before turning on the exhaust fan to rid the room of steam. He’d already shaved when he got up that morning, so he didn’t do it again. Nor did he brush his teeth. Same reason.
Wilson dressed himself in Gregg’s
clothing, and was surprised to see that everything fit well enough to be convincing.
The puke-green tee-shirt had what looked like a line drawing of a toothpaste tube on the front of it, and he had no
idea if it was supposed to represent anything or not. The underwear and socks
fit fine, but he had to take a deep breath and draw in his already flat belly to get the button buttoned. Gregory House was so-o-o slim!
And he had to roll up the bottom hems twice so the jeans wouldn’t drag on the floor. There! The shoes were another story. He had to slip his still-soggy French loafers back on.
socks with French loafers! Woo!*
Gregg’s shoes were the size
of canal barges and he would probably look like a three-year-old in his father’s shoes if he tried to wear them. Somewhere in his mind he wondered about the old adage that suggested the size of a
man’s feet determined the size of his ….
*No! Don’t go there!*
Smiling faintly to himself, Wilson picked
up his damp clothing and damp towel and dumped them in the tall black hamper in the corner.
Other than the few patches of condensation on the mirror above the sink, the bathroom looked pretty much the way he
had found it. His hair was still wet and shaggy.
He’d comb it later. Maybe.
He placed his soiled dress pants over an arm, belt still in the loops, wallet, keys and change still in the pockets,
and turned off the light. He walked back down the hallway, into the living room
to the couch and put the pants in a heap on the backrest where his suit jacket and tie already lay. Wilson sank down into its comfortable leather depths. There
were a couple of phone calls he had to make. Right now, he felt a little loopy,
a little giddy. There was a silly smile plastered across his face.
It felt funny. Good.
The first call was easy. He found that he was learning to create artistic falsehoods in a manner that almost rivaled his friend’s. Cuddy answered on the first ring, and James found himself affecting a voice almost
as pained as House’s had been a few hours before.
“Dr. Cuddy? This is Wilson.”
“Dr. Wilson? How are you? House told me you hurt your back.”
Wilson sighed, getting into it now. “I did. But I slept awhile and
it’s eased up some. Still hurts when I turn to the right though. I took a long shower, and that helped. I’m going back
and lie down again, but I wanted to call you first and tell you that we’ll both be in tomorrow morning, probably by
There was a slight pause on the other end
of the line, then Cuddy’s voice resumed. “I’m glad you’re all right. At first I thought House was
feeding me a line … you know how he is … but now that you’ve called, I guess he was telling me the truth. I’m very relieved to know you haven’t hurt yourself seriously. Are you still at House’s place? Where is he?”
Wilson sighed again. He had to perpetuate the lie a little further. “Yeah,
I’m still here. I need to
call the garage and have them pick up my car. It just died on me on my way in
this morning. Sorry about causing House to miss work also, but he’s not
fit to drive in this weather, and I wouldn’t let him leave. He sat up with
me for a couple hours, making sure I was okay. Then his leg began giving him
trouble and I ‘suggested’ he go to his room and lie down. That’s
where he is right now.”
“Is House all right?” Wilson recognized an edge of worry in Lisa Cuddy’s voice. Although the two of them were constantly on each others’ nerves, he knew they held a deep and abiding
respect for one another.
“Yeah, he’ll be fine. He usually experiences some trouble with his leg when the weather gets like this. It happens every year. When the weather
warms up, he’ll be a little less lame.” Wilson needed to end the
conversation before he got himself in too deep. “Listen, Dr. Cuddy, I’ve
got to go now. I’m starting to stiffen up and I need to stretch out again
… plus call the garage. We’ll both see you tomorrow, all right?”
“Of course. I hope you’re both feeling better … and I’ll see you then, Dr. Wilson. Good bye.”
“’Bye …” Wilson hung up, his conscience tugging in an annoying fashion.
Now he had to remember to walk a little
stiffly when he went to work in the morning. His stomach hurt a little, a twinge at his belt line and extending back to a point just below his rib cage. He needed to have his head examined for not keeping an umbrella in the car. What next? He got up from the couch and grabbed his wet suit
pants. His stomach muscles knotted and he grunted.
damn it!” Hissed between his teeth.
He coughed a few times. It hurt.
Wilson removed the belt from his slacks
and threaded it through House’s jeans. He removed his car keys and the
change from the front pockets and then fished out his wallet, which hadn’t suffered much from the rain, but still felt
a little damp. He pulled a slip of paper from the bill compartment and checked
a phone number written there. He picked up the phone again, punched up a number
and listened to it ring. He sank slowly back down onto the couch, concentrating
as the phone rang once … twice …
“Crane’s Chrysler … this
is Vince.” A familiar voice grumbled into the receiver.
“Vince Crane, you old dog,” Wilson began. “Surprised
you even came to work on a day like this …”
There was a momentary pause, the man on
the other end of the line wracking his brain trying to identify the caller. He
tried a tactic which might offer more clues while Wilson enjoyed his upper hand. “Well, I’ll tellya, Buddy, it’s
days like this that drop the dimes in the coffers, if ya know what I mean.”
“I do indeed.” James was grinning into the phone. “And … ‘old
Buddy’ … I’ve got a few dimes to drop into your coffer if you
want to come out to Gregg House’s neighborhood and pick up a certain baby blue Toyota Avalon which took a crap on me
on my way to work this morning. You got a Roll-Back available?”
There was sudden laughter ringing in his
ear as Vincent Crane picked up on all the clues at once. “Jimmy Wilson! Oh my God, Jimmy! How are you? It’s been way on the south side of too damn long! How’s
“I’m great, Vince. And Gregg is about as good as he’ll ever be. Your name
came up in conversation not long ago, and we even talked about dropping in on you sometime.
But then we were hip deep in sick people, and the right time slipped by again.”
“Know what ya mean, Jimmy. Real life kinda sticks its nose in while you’re trying to have fun.
So. What can I do for ya? You
say the Avalon left ya sit?”
“It sure did. Corner of East Side Drive and Piedmont.
It sits on the yellow line on the west side. I’m going to get a
ticket if it’s not out of there soon. And Vince … could you pick
me up at Gregg’s place on the way through? I’ve been thinking about
trading the Avalon anyway. I kind of like the new Pacificas.”
“Well hell, you’re in luck. There’s one in the show room and four on the lot right now. You can take yer
pick. Give ya a good price. I’ll
give Ricky a shout to fire up the roll-back, and he’ll be out there to get your car in … say an hour, give or
take. Gregg still live at the Gateway?”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Good. Rick will stop out front and lay on the horn. You can ride
on in with him. I got enough liability insurance to cover ya if ya get hit by
a tractor trailer or somethin’ …”
Wilson laughed. “Well thanks!” He said sarcastically.
The Roll-Back truck with the Avalon chained
in place on the deck beeped its horn out front an hour and ten minutes later.
Wilson had checked on House right
after hanging up the phone. Gregg was sleeping fitfully, and Wilson could see
the restless muscle tics in his thigh. Wilson closed his eyes in empathy and
had to look away. He cringed every time he witnessed this phenomenon. Although he knew there was nothing to be done to stop the involuntary movements which Gregg often said
felt like worms beneath his skin, James’ heart went out to his friend and the condition he had to live with for the
remainder of his life. Wilson’s hands went to the foot of the bed and unfolded
a light blanket, drew it gently over House’s long, skinny body. He pulled
the edge over his waist where the slender hands lay across his abdomen, and up over his shoulders to a point just below the
Wilson straightened, still gazing down
at the man who had been his best friend for nearly twelve years. Gregg was a
former athlete: runner, gymnast, ball player of considerable talent, a former
many things. Now he was a mere shadow of what had once dwelt within that still
powerful-looking frame. House’s entire life had narrowed down to the practice
of medicine. That was all that defined him these days. He was known as the Genius Diagnostician. The Brilliant Jerk. The Total Ass. His own definition of
himself, however, was more than harsh: he called himself The Cripple.
Wilson reached down and touched House’s
cheek with a feather caress. “Sleep well, my friend,” he whispered
tenderly. “I’ll see you later.”
He turned and left silently.
Behind him in the darkened room, the blue
eyes cracked open a mere slit as Gregory House watched the other man walk softly away.
Momentarily, a telltale path of wetness tracked its way down the sides of his face to soak into the pillow. House reached from beneath the blanket to the night table close to his bed, found the bottle with his fingers
and extracted another Vicodin.
In the living room, James Wilson sat in
dim silence, waiting for the roll-back to stop out front. He coughed deeply,
clasped his arms tightly about his chest.
He signed on the bottom line for the Navy
blue Pacifica at the stroke of noon. He’d seen the car when he walked in
At the time he’d entered Crane Chrysler
headquarters, Vince had burst from his office across the expanse of the crowded showroom floor and met him with open arms. They hugged briefly and then stood back to look at each other.
“Jumpin’ Jesus!” The short redhead exclaimed with a raised eyebrow at Wilson’s borrowed
outfit. You look like you an’ Gregg are into the ‘Olsen Twins’
thing big time! You better watch it, pal, or people will start to talk …”
Wilson rolled his eyes and grimaced. “Knock it off, Vince! I got drowned
this morning when the damned Toyota took a crap. I had to run two blocks in a
freaking monsoon to get to Gregg’s place, and by that time I was soaked to the skin.
I didn’t dare let him drive the way his leg’s been this winter … so I ended up in his bedroom, in
his shower, in his drawers and in his pants … in that order!” He
waited, watching Crane’s face while all that sank in.
Vince wrinkled his nose after a moment’s
hesitation. “Ewww!” Then they both laughed.
Vince Crane hadn’t changed much from
their younger days when he and Wilson and House and Billy Travis used to fool around with old cars, watch Penn State Football
and eat Francie O’Neill’s pasta. Vince still looked a lot like Mickey
Rooney in his prime, except with bright red hair. He still smoked Rigoletto Cigars
and walked like a miniature John Wayne: bowlegged and tight-assed.
They spent an hour sitting in Vince’s
cluttered office talking about the old days, about Billy’s recent promotion to Night Nursing Supervisor at the hospital,
and the sad condition of Gregory House’s damaged leg. After that, there
wasn’t much more to add. Wilson knew about Vince’s phobia of being
around Gregg and his chronic pain. His revulsion, born of horror and pity, made
things awkward. It had been the main reason the friends had begun drifting apart. Vince regretted it, but he could not help himself.
He cared very much for Gregg House, but the sorrow he felt for the man’s altered physical condition turned him
into a quaking coward whenever he had to be near him for more than a very short length of time. Wilson had been angry with it for almost a year after Gregg’s infarction, but now he understood,
and knew Vince was that way with everyone he knew who had a disability. Even
Gregg had come to understand Vince’s hang-up as something akin to his own lingering bouts of anger and bitterness.
Wilson’s eyes had grounded on the
dark blue Pacifica right away. It was as “loaded” as a new car could
possibly be. It was all-wheel drive, had a fancy Mopar Navigation System and
automatic transmission. The deep leather seats were heated and reclined fully
and would nicely accommodate House’s requirements with his leg when he needed to ride in it. Wilson sat behind the wheel and adjusted the seats and other accouterments at the touch of a button. He was “sold” without a sales pitch which, coming from the mouth of Vince
Crane to his ears, he would only have laughed at anyway.
“Write me up,” he said when
he climbed out. He took the keys for the ailing Toyota from his pocket and handed
them over, exchanging them for the ones to the Pacifica. “I’ll take
whatever you decide to offer on the Avalon,” he said nastily. “If
I’d have maintained it better, it wouldn’t have let me sit. But it
was Julie’s car and I really need to get rid of it.”
“Like you really needed to get rid
of her, huh?” Vince suggested softly.
“Yeah,” Wilson admitted. “Something like that.”
Then they were back in the office doing
the reams of paperwork, signing his name dozens of times, swearing that he was an American citizen, had a good job, a good
credit rating; had a Sterling reputation, a Protestant mother-in-law, a Jewish uncle and a Cocker Spaniel with a litter of
nine pups. He had no serious diseases, no outstanding arrest warrants, no unpaid
speeding tickets, no children now, and no children in the foreseeable future. You-
Are-Now-Cleared-For-Takeoff- Sign-Here! He wrote out a check for the full amount
and handed it over. No fanfare. Just
Vince handed back a pile of legal papers
that would have choked a mule, along with Wilson’s vanity license plate which read:
“ONK DOK”, a silly gift from House when he’d been promoted to department head. Vince grabbed a handy screw driver and quickly attached it. He
then clamped down on his cigar and grinned. Wilson looked slightly overwhelmed,
but the car was his. He shook hands with Vince Crane, transferred his brief case, golf clubs, jumper cables and tool box to
the Pacifica’s rear deck and drove his sweet new car out of the showroom through the back door. He beeped a farewell, waved his hand out the window and pulled onto the street, knowing the second the
tires hit the pavement, the thing would depreciate at least $3,000!
It was 1:30 in the afternoon and he needed
to get back to check on Gregg. He turned right, speeding away from the center
of town and headed toward East Side Drive. The rain had quit, but the wind hadn’t,
and the car was lightly buffeted as he drove along. Its response was smooth and
quick. He put the window up, fiddled with the seat controls, the tilt steering
wheel and the heater until they were just right. The heated seat felt good on
his ass, but it made him feel as though he had to pee, so he flicked the control to the “off” position, and the
sensation went away somewhat. It would take some getting used to. The Mopar Navigation screen glowed, already calibrated,
on the dashboard right in front of the steering wheel, and it showed that he was headed precisely in the direction he wanted
to go. He smiled lightly at the sophisticated toys that manufacturers were incorporating
into new cars these days. He chose one of his Bonnie Raitt CDs from the pile of papers and junk on the passenger seat and slipped it into the stereo. Music surrounded Wilson like a cocoon as he drove along, and he could not resist keeping time with his
fingers on the steering wheel.
Wilson pulled into the space beside Gregg’s
“HANDICAP” stall in Gateway’s underground garage fifteen minutes later.
The big burgundy Envoy beside him didn’t make this car look as small as it had with the Avalon. The Pacifica was no slouch, and it would give the Envoy a run for its money. Wilson smiled to himself as he got out and walked around his new toy.
Not bad, if he had to say so himself. It was a class act!
Wilson rode to ground level in the elevator
and let himself back into Gregg’s apartment. It was quiet and dark. House must still be in his bed resting. He
tiptoed down the hallway and stuck his head into the bedroom. Gregg was there,
in the bed, blanket pooled about his waist, propped up at the head end with the television on, watching something on the National
Geographic Channel. He must have showered, because there was a wet towel on the
floor, along with the clothing he’d been wearing that morning, but he was now barefoot, attired in a gray sweat suit
and looked fairly comfortable. His leg, however, was again propped on the bed
pillow. He did not speak as Wilson walked over to the bed and perched on the
“Are you getting hungry yet?”
House pulled his attention from the TV
and looked up. “Yeah, a little, but I was waiting for you. The kid brought the groceries awhile ago and I put ‘em away, but I don’t feel like cooking. Figured you wouldn’t either. Not with a ‘bad back’ … Thought
we could order a pizza.”
Wilson rolled his eyes, but didn’t
comment on the “bad-back” crap that House was unwilling to let go of.
“Sounds good. Vince Crane has the Toyota. He’s keeping it.”
It took a moment for the words to sink
in. Then House turned to him with wrinkled nose.
“Keep it? Why? Is it
shot, or what?”
It’ll make a nice car for someone. I bought another one.”
“Bought another car. Chrysler Pacifica. It’s downstairs.”
“What’s a Chrysler Pacifica? Sounds like the name of a cruise ship.”
“Fancy station wagon. You’ll get to ride in it when we go to work tomorrow.”
“Oh. Okay. Like I said: a
ship. You sure you can go to work tomorrow?
… your ‘hurt back’ and all …”
Wilson narrowed his eyes and glared. “Will you stop that already?” But
he knew House had gotten the reaction he’d been looking for.
The conversation died at that moment as
though it had never happened. House pointed to the TV screen and laughed. “Look, Wilson! Meerkats! Aren’t they great? That one looks like Cuddy. And that big dark one over there looks a lot like Foreman.”
Wilson frowned again for a moment,
but finally he could not hide the smile that crept across his features. “You’re
incorrigible!” He went around the bed and climbed on top of the covers. He scooted across as close as he could get to the other man and stretched out leisurely
near his friend’s left side, drawing a corner of the blanket across his legs.
House looked down at him with an expression
of disdain for a moment, then reached over and combed his fingers through Wilson’s wind-blown hair. “Comfortable?”
“Yeah,” Wilson said.
“Well, tough!” House grumbled sarcastically. “It’s your turn
to call for the pizza!”
Wilson sighed, threw off the blanket
and rolled out of bed. “It’s always
my turn!” He muttered. He coughed again, muffled it with both hands over
his mouth. *Damn!*
Wilson called Dominoes from the living
room phone. The kid at the other end told him the pizza and bread sticks would
be there in about three quarters of an hour. Wilson hung up and returned to the
bedroom. House had turned off the TV and now sat on the edge of the bed, cane
in hand, staring down at the floor where his shoes still lay haphazardly where Wilson had dropped them earlier.
Wilson realized instantly that House’s
leg was too sore to allow him to lean down far enough to pick them up. “Hurt?” He asked simply.
“Like a bitch,” House replied,
for once offering an honest answer to an honest question.
“You’ve got three options,”
Wilson theorized. “Stay in here and we’ll smear pizza sauce and crumbs
all over your bed … or … let me help you put your shoes on so you can walk out into the living room … or
… let me help you out there so your foot doesn’t turn, and you won’t have to put them on at all. Your choice! But I won’t let you walk out there in your
bare feet with just the cane. You’d go on your ass.”
The look he was getting told Wilson that
House wasn’t particularly happy about any of those choices. He waited,
allowing Gregg to figure out the logic of the situation on his own. Finally,
a deep sigh from the bed heralded a decision. “Help me out to the living
room. I don’t feel like fooling with the shoes … and I’m not
too keen on sleeping in a bed smeared with beer and pizza sauce.”
“Good choice,” Wilson said
with a touch of sarcasm. He walked over to where House sat awkwardly, cane rooted
at his right side with the leg stretched in front of him as far as he could stand it.
“Put the cane in your other hand.” House did. “Ready?” A nod.
Wilson placed his strong left hand beneath House’s armpit and eased him up slowly, gently. When Gregg was on his feet, Wilson brought his friend’s right arm around until it was anchored across
his shoulders. They navigated the hallway together and emerged into the living
room. Wilson led him directly to the lounge chair, eased him into it, then worked
the palms of both hands beneath the calf of the leg and lifted it gently onto the ottoman.
House looked up to meet the concerned
dark eyes. “That was easier than I thought it would be.” He leaned back and let the cane slip out of his left hand to bounce lightly on the floor at his side. “I’m hungry.” It was
a tactical maneuver, designed to take the emphasis off his weakness.
Wilson recognized it and never missed a
beat. “Me too! They should
be here with the pizza shortly. You ready for a beer?”
“Oh yeah. Bring it on!”
Wilson made for the kitchen and came back
with two cans of Coors Light, one of which he snapped open and handed across to House.
Their eyes met across the intervening space, and from Gregg’s scrunched expression, Wilson anticipated the inevitable
pissy comment. He was not disappointed.
“I must look too damn decrepit to even open my own beer can!”
Wilson nipped what might have become an
extended snark-filled dialogue in the bud. “Yeah, you do. Shut the fuck up and drink it!”
House’s eyebrows rose. Whatever he might have said, however, was precluded by a knock on the door.
“Pizza time!” he said instead, pointing plaintively to his leg. “Wilson,
would you be so kind?” From wounded hero to pathetic cripple in a heartbeat!
shook his head and rose to answer it with an eye roll which was not lost for a moment on House.
“Jerk!” Wilson mumbled under his breath. His
cough reflex triggered. He repressed it.