An Open Letter to the Elderly Man Pushing an Empty Wheelchair Across Prospect Park

Who was the person who was sitting in that wheelchair last? Who was in it before you were pushing it, empty, down the middle of the Long Meadow in Prospect Park?

 

An empty wheelchair raises a lot of questions. I was helping this girl I’ve been seeing study for a comparative literature master’s exam when you passed in front of the knoll we were studying on. I pointed you out and we agreed that somebody was recently in that wheelchair, that nobody brings a wheelchair to the park just in case.

 

What happened to them?

 

Was it you? Were you pushing your own wheelchair?

 

Because I admit if I was to imagine you at rest, standing or sitting, I wouldn’t think it out of the realm of possibility that you might require a wheelchair to get around Brooklyn or anywhere else. You looked old and you were slightly hunched, dressed in grey and browns, corduroyed and capped. But you were pushing that wheelchair, a nice one, automatic-looking, right through a game of cricket being played by some small brown children.

 

I got to say, you were kind of moving.

 

I was forty or fifty feet away. I could see the edges of your white hair. You were pushing it like some sort of wheelbarrow, out in front of you, its emptiness signaling some sort of purpose, but what could it be? You looked weak, I’ll admit, the wheelchair shaking your arms and the meadow and its rolling topography making every step a struggle. But you didn’t stop. You plowed straight ahead through a game of Frisbee, the personal space of a kite flyer, the flight path of a football (I almost yelled) and finally the space between some bocce balls before I lost sight of you as you rolled toward Grand Army Plaza.

 

Was it your wheelchair? I can’t imagine, unless I was witnessing the aftermath of a miracle, something that the nearby Hispanic families with their tables full of food and anchored balloons would attest to in some sort of beatification hearing. But what else would drive you, steadfast, head perfectly straight, down the middle of the lawn, away from the many paved walkways and paths on either side of it, unless you were finally free from that wheelchair?

 

It seemed like a celebration, a victory lap. Were you on your way to burn it?

 

The other, much darker, possibility is that your hustle, determination, and avoidance of main thoroughfares was not a celebration of newly operational legs, but an attempt to get away from the scene of a crime.

 

I’ll just ask: did you dump a para- or quadriplegic person somewhere in Prospect Park? Will I be reading about this tomorrow? Or worse, did you murder the person before bringing them to the park? Was the journey into the park with a body in a wheelchair a “Weekend at Bernie’s” thing?  Did you hide the body well, well enough that I won’t be reading about it tomorrow, but maybe six months from now, maybe years, when a skeleton is found with no identifying marks in a drainage system somewhere?

 

Was that our one chance to catch you? Was the march down the center of the meadow the one conspicuous thing you did, and we all either ignored it or just thought it was cute or peculiar? Am I a culpable witness to a 21st century Kitty Genovese case?

 

Who was it? A gambling buddy down at the American Legion Hall who refused to pay his cribbage debt? A lover that left you for a younger man? Was it just some vaguely Arab-looking neighbor that your senility had convinced you was up to something nefarious?

 

Was it a mercy killing? Or was the person already dead, a wife of half a century who wanted here final resting place to be Prospect Park, the place where you met and asked her to the movies? Maybe you didn’t have the money for a cremation, so you brought the body in a wheelchair and buried her between some trees, lovingly, tenderly, but with a harrowed sense of purpose.

 

The woman I am helping study tells me she likes this option the best. It’s romantic and macabre. The miracle seems unlikely, she says. If you had just gotten back use of your legs you’d be dancing, not pushing your damn wheelchair through the park. You’d just ditch the wheelchair, she says.

 

But I know the thriftiness of the greatest generation better than she does. I know that if you grew up in the Depression you do not just throw away a perfectly good wheelchair.

 

The other possibility, and it’s by far my least favorite, is that you just looked like an old man. That you were some especially heinous type of hipster, one that not only dresses like an old man, but accessorizes with wheelchairs.

 

I’d rather you have murdered someone than this be the case. I’d rather you brought miracles or death than more ironic showpieces.

 

Although, even if that’s what you were, you were determined, and you made me think about miracles on a beautiful day in the park, struggling to define “baroque” with a new lover and a dog-eared text book under kites and sunshine.

 

I just really hope it wasn’t the Arab neighbor option.

 

Yours,

 

Another Beer Salesman

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