This poem was inspired by some wretched Valentine's Day cultural stuff, more crummy urban fantasy, and some considerably better conversations with readers about Brenda and the guys in her life. It has been selected in an audience poll as the free epic for the April 2, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl reaching the $200 threshold. This poem belongs to the series P.I.E, which you can explore further via the Serial Poetry page.
Warning: This poem contains examples of ableism, sexism, and crude language. There's also a fairly wild sequence of wilderness adventure and some awkward cultural issues. Consider your tastes and sensitivities before clicking through.
The problem with Valentine's Day
was that it gave men ideas.
So far, Nate had already sent her
a box of imported Belgian chocolates.
Brenda wondered with some trepidation
what awaited from the other men in her life.
When she reached her office, she saw
that the electrician had come and gone,
leaving an envelope taped to the door at eye level.
For a standing person.
Brenda sighed, looked both ways
to ensure that nobody was watching,
and heaved herself out of her wheelchair.
She ignored the warning twinge in her right shin
and the tingly quiver of her left thigh
just long enough to snatch the envelope.
"Brenda? You can walk?"
yelped Rick from behind her.
She had been concentrating
so hard on getting the envelope
that she hadn't heard Rick approach.
Brenda sat back in her wheelchair and
tucked the envelope into her blouse pocket.
"If you can walk on your own,
why not do it all the time?
Why use that awful chair?" Rick asked.
He was openly staring at her now,
bouquet of roses forgotten in his hand.
Brenda opened her door.
"To avoid remarks like that,"
she said evenly,
locking the door behind her.
Instead of going away, Rick stayed in the hall,
calling plaintive questions through the closed door.
Brenda rolled to her desk and set down the envelope.
She noted the time so that if the bone-deep ache
in her legs didn't go away in a few minutes,
she'd know to take some ibuprofen.
Then Brenda opened the envelope and paid the bill.
Another knock sounded on the door.
She rolled her eyes. Now what?
"Brenda, it's Darrel.
Can I come in, or is now a bad time?"
She rolled back to the door and opened it.
"You may as well come in," she said.
Darrel wasn't holding chocolates or flowers,
just a colorful piece of paper
that he flicked behind his back.
"Um, how come Rick is hovering by your door?"
Brenda scowled. "Because the stupid electrician
taped the bill so high, I had to stand up to reach it,
and Rick saw me," she said. She rarely told people
that she could stand, but she and Darrel
had fought side-by-side. It was time he knew.
"I'm not getting why that's a problem,"
"When I smashed my legs,
there was a lot of damage,"
Brenda said. "So I can stand up,
even walk a few steps, but the more I do,
the worse my control gets and the more it hurts."
She tapped the canted wheel of her everyday chair.
"This is safer and more comfortable."
"That makes sense," Darrel said.
"Not to Rick," Brenda said.
"Well, it's none of his business, is it?"
Brenda sighed. "A lot of people
are just weird about those of us
who have partial or erratic mobility,"
she said. "Able-bodied people tend to think
that we should walk as much as we can.
People with disabilities tend to think
we're exaggerating our problems.
We don't fit perfectly with either group.
It's hard living on the edges like that."
From the look of consternation on Darrel's face,
he had gone away somewhere in his head
near the beginning of that explanation.
Well, that wasn't new, just annoying.
"So you hid something you could do,
rather than have people hassle you about it,"
Darrel said slowly. "How common is that?
Because I have this horrible feeling --
have I done anything to make you uncomfortable?"
All right, that was new.
Brenda shook her head.
"No, you rarely act like a jerk," she said.
"If you do, I can just tell you and you'll quit."
"And what about my old partner, John?"
Darrel went on. "Wouldn't be the same for him,
since he lost his legs, but for all I know,
maybe there's something else he doesn't mention.
If I'm doing something wrong, I'd like to know.
I can't just come out and ask him --
cops don't talk about things like that."
"Tell him what happened with me,"
Brenda suggested, "and let him know
that if you screw up, you'd like to hear about it.
That way, you're not nosing into his business,
but he still knows that you care."
Rick's voice came through the door again.
"Brenda? You let Darrel in, can I come in?"
"GO AWAY," Brenda said.
Darrel headed for the door.
"Sit down, I'm handling this," she said.
"No, there are some conversations
that a guy really needs to have with other guys,"
Darrel said firmly, "and this is one of them."
He opened the door and said to Rick,
"You do not treat women like this.
She asked you to leave; that means leave.
Go back to your own office,
and quit embarrassing half the human race!"
Then he shut the door again.
"I hate it when men do things like that,"
he explained. "I refuse to be the guy
who just stands there and says nothing
while other guys act stupid.
It makes all of us look bad."
"I guess I can't argue with that,"
Brenda said with a quirk of her lips.
"So what brings you here?"
"You told me once that you live for summers,"
Darrel said. "Well ... it's summer in Chile."
He slid a travel brochure across her desk.
"I thought it would be fun to go kayaking together."
Brenda raised her eyebrows.
"Weren't you saving for an Alaskan vacation?"
Darrel shrugged. "Yeah, but then I met you.
I always thought kayaking sounded cool,
but I never got around to trying it."
He flipped open the brochure and
pointed out the different rivers near Pucón.
"See, the Liucura has Class II-III rapids,
which should be safe for me to learn on,"
Darrel said. "Then the Maichín is IV-V,
so you wouldn't get bored."
"I can't imagine getting bored with you around,"
Brenda said, and that was true.
"Sure, let's go to Chile."
So they did.
Darrel took a three-day class
in beginning kayak skills.
He navigated the tame little riffles
while Brenda paddled lazily beside him.
The instructor had been thrilled to acquire
what amounted to an extra supervisor.
Then they moved to a more challenging section
of the Liucura, with rapids in high irregular waves
and a few narrow passages that required
precise maneuvering to get through.
The instructor warned them to take care
because there had been some recent incidents
of boats tipping where they really shouldn't.
They had no trouble the first day,
but on the second,
something chased them.
"What the fuck was that?"
Darrel yelled when it bumped his kayak.
"I don't know!" Brenda said.
It was the size of an elephant seal
but had the head of a pig,
with curling tusks like a wild boar.
The beast crowded both of them
into the worst part of a channel,
surging between their kayaks
so they couldn't assist each other.
Brenda ducked under the branches of a tree
and saw Darrel bounce off a rock.
She ignored the stinging pain in her face
and paddled briskly after Darrel.
He'd lost his paddle somewhere
and had one arm cradled across his chest.
With great skill, Brenda maneuvered her kayak
to crowd his into an eddy on the shore.
"Think I broke something," Darrel said tightly.
"Okay, we're getting out right here," she said.
Then she triggered the emergency beacons
that the resort had provided.
Later it turned out that Darrel's wrist
was only sprained, not broken.
Brenda's face turned purple on one cheek,
topped with red and black scrapes,
where she'd glanced off the dead tree.
"You have a wildlife problem,"
she announced to the kayaking instructor.
"Something knocked us around in the water."
The instructor looked away.
"Yeah, it's been an issue ever since
the Mapuche man who started this resort
got bought out by a white guy," he said.
"You won't hear much more
unless you speak Spanish, though."
"Sorry, I took Japanese," Brenda said.
"Hablo español muy bien," said Darrel.
With Darrel down to one good hand,
he couldn't go kayaking, but they still
had time left in their vacation,
so they dug into local legends.
"Cuchivilu," he said, pointing to
an old engraving of a creature
that looked half-pig, half-snake.
"They used to rob fish traps,
and they hate having people around.
They can cast curses."
"That looks like what we saw,"
Brenda agreed. Poring over maps,
she found that the new owner
had opened up additional channels of river.
"If we can get people to re-close those,"
Darrel said, "we should be able to use
this chepu ceremony to lift any curses
and discourage the cuchivilu
from bothering people in the main river."
Finally they found someone
who knew the chepu,
and they managed to convince
the resort owner to close the parts
of the river where the cuchivilu lived.
They wrapped up the mystery
just in time to catch their plane.
"I'm sorry our vacation wasn't very romantic,"
Brenda said as they settled into their seats.
"If I wanted hearts and flowers," Darrel said,
"I could've stayed home and dated a waitress.
Instead I got chased down the rapids by a pig-snake,
literally stranded up a river without a paddle,
and then rescued by a beautiful woman.
I have no complaints."
When they went back to Brenda's office
so that Darrel could install one of the souvenirs --
a gorgeous map of the rivers around Pucón --
they found Rick in the parking lot
trying to jumpstart a customer's stalled car.
"My God, what did you two
get into a fight with this time?"
Rick exclaimed, looking at
Brenda's battered face
and Darrel's bandaged wrist.
"Tree branch," Brenda said.
"Big damn rock," Darrel said.
They did not mention the cuchivilu.
"You should be more careful,"
Rick scolded them.
"Nah," Darrel said.
"What's the fun in life
if you're not living on the edges?
I'm a cop. My friends are cops
and private investigators and firefighters.
Any of us could die tomorrow.
Hell, you could get run over by a bus.
If I'm gonna die, I want it to be after
I've done stuff like ride whitewater in Chile."
"What he said," she concluded.