Stephen Dixon’s story The Motor Cart originally appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of MQR dedicated to Disability, Art, and Culture–available in our archives. Dixon was a regular contributor to MQR.
Was it only last week when some guy called and said “Hi, you Mr. Booksomething?” and he said “Yeah, Bookbinder, what can I do for you?” and the man said “Good, I got you. You don’t know me but your wife gave me your number and a quarter and said to say she’s at Broadway and a hundred-eleventh, north corner of the street on the east side of the avenue, that’s what directions she told me to give,” and he said “What’s wrong, she hurt, spill over?” and the man said “No, but she told me to say her motor cart stopped dead while she was riding it and she can’t get it started. I was passing by and she asked would I push her to a phone booth a few feet away, so me and another guy did, but the phone was broken, the whole change part where the coins come down ripped open. And because we couldn’t push her to the nearest booth a block away, or she didn’t want us to—the cart weighs a ton and she said it was too hot for us to do it, and much as I hate to admit it, she was right—we would have died—she told me to say you should come with the wheelchair so she can get off this hot street and home. So I called you and you know where she’s at and you’re coming, right?” and he said “One-eleventh, northeast corner,” and the man said “I guess it’s the northeast—right by the Love drugstore or a few stores away, but downtown from it and that side of Broadway,” and he said “Got it. But you’re sure she isn’t hurt—just the cart that won’t operate?” and the man said “Altogether stalled. This guy and me gave it a hefty push to see if we could turn over its engine like a car’s after she started it, but it wouldn’t because it only runs on batteries, she said, and that she tried every other which way and that she needs the wheelchair. And if you could hurry, she said, that’d be great, and that if I didn’t get you would I come back to tell her. But I got you, right?—you’re her husband,” and he said “Yes, and thanks very much, sir, very kind, for everything,” and the man hung up.
Now they’re in the country, five hundred miles away, it’s sunny and cool, city’s still hot they hear on the radio every day and he was glad to get out of it, for another reason because every time she left the apartment something awful seemed to happen to her. He thought after he spoke to the man “What’s he going to do now? He can’t leave the cart on the sidewalk while he pushes her home in the chair and she can’t get home in the chair on her own.” The cart he can dismantle, as he’s done a couple of times when its lift didn’t work and he had to get it into the rear of the van by hand, batteries disconnected and removed, seat taken off and back and pole separated from it, and so on, and he can get the five or six parts into a taxi and carry them to the apartment from the cab and get someone to fix the cart there. But the cart cost more than two thousand and is still in pretty good shape and not insured, so he doesn’t want to leave it on the street to be stolen. He can wheel her into an air-conditioned store, he thought, then break down the cart, get it to the apartment and come back for her, unless she has to get home immediately for some reason. But some way, he thought, he hasn’t figured it all out yet. Maybe he can drag the cart into a store and say it’s worth five bucks to him if they just keep it there for a half hour or so while he wheels his wife home, though he doesn’t think any store person would accept money for something like that. Then he went downstairs, wanted to run the four blocks and one long street to where she was but it was very hot and sticky out and he ran about two blocks, stopped because he was breathing so hard, and suddenly sweat burst out of it seemed every part of him and he said “Dummy, what’re you doing running in the sun?” and walked quickly in the shade, mopping his head and neck and arms with a handkerchief and when that was soaked, with his T-shirt.
He wants to call his mother today but it’s so cool up here and he knows how hot it is in New York, that he doesn’t want to hear how bad it is for her. The room she stays in in her apartment is air conditioned and he hopes the air conditioner’s working, but she can’t get out, she’s stuck in that room because of the heat and what it does to her breathing and she knows she’ll probably be stuck like that for the next few days, which is how long the radio and newspaper say the heat wave’s going to continue there.
When he got to her she was sitting in the cart with her back to him, holding a quarter between her fingertips and looking at the people on the sidewalk coming toward her. “Sally,” he said and she turned to him and grinned and said “Oh, wonderful, it’s you; I was just looking for someone to phone you. I was beginning to think the man I asked hadn’t done it,” and he said “No, he got me, was very nice and precise—a good choice: followed your orders to a T-shirt—I only say that because mine’s soaked and I want you to know I know it—and repeated your message just the way you gave it, it seemed—Jesus, it’s hot. What the hell is it with this weather? Why would anyone ever want to live here, and for the old Dutch, even settle here?” and she said “But he wouldn’t even wait till I wrote your name and phone number on a paper. Just said he’d remember and would call you from the next street where he knows another public phone is, and if that one’s broken, then the street after that, and took my quarter and flew off.” “Well, he did his job; I’d ask him anytime. Now what’s the problem, other than the thing not moving?” and got on his knees and checked to see all the wires were connected, and she said “We went through that twice, some men here and I. In fact, one of them who said he’s an auto technician, but not of battery-operated vehicles, traced every one of those lines,” and he said “It doesn’t need new batteries; we got these two last winter and they’re supposed to be good for at least two years, and I only recharged them yesterday,” and she said “The day before, but I haven’t used it much since, so that can’t be it.” He pulled out one of the battery containers, unplugged and opened it and she said “Wait, where’s the wheelchair?” and he looked around and said “Oh my gosh, I didn’t bring it. I was in such rush to get here. . . . I’ll run back for it,” and she said “But what am I going to do in the meantime? I have to pee,” and he said “Wait wait wait,” and looked inside the container, everything seemed to be in order, closed it and went around to the other side of the cart and unfastened and unplugged and pulled out that container, opened it and saw a nut was loose, the end of some inside wire barely around the battery rod or whatever it’s called, and he wrapped the wire tightly around the rod, tightened the nut with his fingers, closed both containers and slid them back onto their platforms and fastened them in and replugged the outside wires and said “You might be moving, don’t get startled,” set the speed dial to the lowest number, pushed the starter key all the way in and pressed the right side of the driving lever and the cart moved forward a few feet, pressed the left side and it went into reverse, pulled the key halfway out of the starter so the cart wouldn’t move. “You did it,” she said, “it’s working,” and he said “Really, I hardly knew what I was doing. Just figured that it was maybe like a lamp that isn’t working because of a loose wire, or one that isn’t insulated right—the wire, I mean—and is causing some kind of short,” and she was beaming and said “It’s amazing. Not even the professional auto mechanic could figure it out or even consider that that’s what it could be,” and he said “He didn’t have the vested interest to look deeper. . . . I bet he didn’t even have a vest. Believe me, if it was his own wife—” when a young man said to her “So, you got him,” and she said “And he got it working” and put the key all the way in and pressed the lever and the cart moved backward a foot, and the man said “Fantastic, you didn’t need your wheelchair,” and she said to Gould “This is the gentleman who called you,” and the man said “Hiya,” and then to them both “Well, see ya,” and Gould said “Thanks for calling me; again, that was very kind” and walked beside her as she drove on the sidewalk toward home, thinking she’s got to feel good about what he did, not so much in coming but in figuring out what was wrong and fixing it, when someone tapped his shoulder, it was the young man, who said “Listen, buddy, long as things are working now, I was thinking my call to you’s worth a few bucks, don’t you think that?” and he said “Jeez, I don’t know. . . . I mean, you made a phone call,” and she said “I do, give it to him; he went out of his way,” and he said “But he was heading that way—weren’t you?” to the man and the man said “Sure, but I had to stop, wait for some guy to finish his call; that took me out of the way: in time,” and he said “Well, you should be feeling good just that you did something good like that. Why does it always have to be money?” and she said “Please, Gould, stop arguing and do it. He also helped push me to the broken phone with another man, and in this weather, and he would have pushed me to the next corner if I hadn’t told him not to,” and the man said “The lady’s right, I forgot I wanted to do that,” and he said “Still, who wouldn’t do it for anybody? I’m just saying—” and the man said “Hey, what am I asking for? I go out of my way, work up a fat sweat for her, then ask for a few dollars after, and you’re holding back when your lady says to give?” and she got her wallet out of her belt bag, Gould put his hand over it and said “No, I’ll do it, don’t worry; but I just can’t see why people don’t stop and do these things all the time for people who are in trouble, and never with any thoughts of money in mind,” and the man said “I didn’t for money. It’s something I only thought of asking for now. And it’s fine if you don’t need the cash and do these things, but I’m tight now and a little extra would help,” and he said “Rich, medium income, or poor, even—everyone, if he or she has the strength, should stop. And when you don’t do it for any kind of remuneration—money and stuff: a payback, as my dad liked to say—then you know you’re really doing something good,” and the man said “Oh screw it, man,” and to Sally “This here what you were about to give?”—she was holding a five—and Gould said “Not five bucks, that’s way too much,” and she said “It would have cost us that much to get the cart home in a cab,” and he said “Yes, but a cabby’s got to charge; a Good Samaritan, though . . . well, one can’t be called that if one’s going to ask for money and take,” and the man said “I was what you said then, a ‘Good’ what you said—I know what it is. But now, seeing how it all worked out so nice for you, I thought I could use the money and you’d feel good in giving it because of the way it went,” and Gould said “Boy, does he have a line. Anyway, I give up,” and walked away and stopped, his back to them, and thought she’s probably giving the guy the five; or maybe he’s now saying “Actually, if you have a ten that’d be even better,” and she’d give that too. She gives and gives. Whatever charity or institution or organization sends her an envelope through the mail asking for a donation, for this or that cause except for some blatantly crazy or politically antipathetic one, she writes out a check. “What’s three dollars?” she’s said, or “four” or “five,” and he’s said “Not worth the time to write out the check and for them to cash it. But they put you on their sucker list and other charities and do-gooding and -badding organizations buy those lists and every other month send you requests for dough and you give three to five bucks to them without checking if they’re legit or if ninety percent of the money they collect goes to soliciting that dough. And you also get on those groups’ lists and they’re sold, and so on and so on, till we end up getting six to seven solicitations a day through the mail or over the phone and some so preposterously unethical in the way they ask for money—’urgent’ it’ll say on what looks like an authentic express letter when it’s actually been sent bulk rate—that they ought to be reported to the attorney general of the state,” and she’s said “Now you’re exaggerating,” and he’s said “Maybe, but only by a little,” or “Hardly—I’ve barely touched the tip of the ice pick.” She pulled up to him right after the incident with the man and said “Now that was unnecessary,” and he said “I’ll clue you in as to what was unnecessary,” and she said “Listen, sweetie, he helped me when I needed help the most, and that counts for something,” and he said “He weaseled five to ten bucks out of you for what should have been . . . well, I already said too much about what it should have been for: the good feeling he was supposed to get,” and she said “It could be he not only feels good now that he helped me but also feels a few measly dollars richer. So what’s wrong with that if you’re hard up for cash?” and he said “Ah, you schmuck, you know nothing,” and she said “What!” and he said “Sorry,” and she said “No you’re not; screw you too, you bastard,” and rode off and he walked after her and when she turned the corner at their street he thought “Oh, the hell with her,” and ducked into the bookstore there to look through the literary magazines and he wasn’t in there a minute, holding a new magazine he hadn’t known of but which looked good because of the artwork on its cover, when he thought “Will she make it all right into the elevator? She can do it by herself most times, but sometimes the cart gets stuck, especially when she backs out of the cart into their hallway, and if she has to pee badly she can get flustered opening the apartment door and working the cart into the foyer,” and put the magazine back and left the store and ran down the block and caught up with her at the elevator and the moment he stopped, sweat burst out of him again, even from his legs this time it seemed, and he stood beside her, wiping his face with his wet handkerchief and then with the bottom of his wet shirt, till the elevator came and she drove the cart inside it while he kept his hand over the slot the door comes out of, then he got in and pressed their floor button and they rode up silently, she staring at the wall she faced.