Welcome to Oblivion
K Street stinks like piss and second-hand smoke. I breathe through my mouth as I roll toward 11th, past business-casually dressed people eating lunch at bistros and cafés, the names of which are spelled out in neon lights molded into pseudo-French script. How they can eat, let alone enjoy their meals, with the smell of car exhaust, cigarettes, and urine-soaked concrete is beyond me. I push my wheels faster, the uneven cobblestone sending vibrations through the frame of my chair and into my legs and ass; a massage I didn’t ask for or want. My chair jerks left as one of my front wheels catches a jagged crack in the sidewalk. My hips and ass slide forward on my seat, my center of gravity moving dangerously close to the edge, to the falling point. One or two heads turn toward the noise of hard rubber scraping the ground. No one knows how close I just came to face-planting on the cobblestone. No matter. Adjusting myself back into my chair, I press on, a little more cautious of obstacles in front of me. Oblivion awaits, and I am eager to meet it.
I reach the intersection of 11th and K. Well, “intersection” might not be the right word. It’s more of a glorified crosswalk separating Cathedral Square from the businesses and restaurants that cater to lawyers, lobbyists, security staff, and the throngs of visitors the Capitol building hosts daily. I press the button to cross, waiting while no cars come, even though the green light beckons them to drive on through. Looking left and right, I see no oncoming traffic. Yet I wait to cross the thirty feet to the other side. With my luck, I’d be cited by a bored police officer, becoming the only paraplegic I know to get fined for jaywalking. Oh, the irony.
As I wait, the sounds of the decrepit, but alive, tarnished, yet vibrant city assail my ears. The chirping of nearby birds is drowned out by the sound of an approaching passenger train. A din of traffic mixed with dozens of indistinguishable conversations creates a subtle symphony with its own unique rhythms and hints of melody. To my right, a man plays a slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar while singing gospel songs that all sound the same. Same chords, same progression, same message, blah, blah, blah. Thank merciful God, he stops playing and begins to pack up right before the light changes.
A sign lights up in big white block letters, telling me to “WALK.” I laugh to myself as I push my chair across the intersection. The laughter suddenly stops.
“Fucking train tracks,” I say to no one.
Uninterrupted stretches of silver steel set into interlocked brickwork with two inch gaps on either side run perpendicular to my path. Alone, the tracks would be an imposing obstacle. This section, however, is riddled with potholes. Big chunks have been torn out of the bricks on either side of the tracks in sporadic patterns. A big, heavy powerchair might not make it over such barriers, but rather get stuck on the tracks. The same fate may await my lighter, more nimble manual chair, too. One wrong turn, one over-rotation, and one or both of my front wheels could get wedged in the gap between the steel track and the bricks. But Oblivion calls, summons me forth. So I press on.
I approach the first rail, leaning back as I push forward. My front wheels lift off the ground just enough to clear the track and the gap on either side. They crash on the opposite side of the rail with a muffled metallic thunk as my big back tires easily roll over the miniature-scale steel wall bordered by dry moats. I repeat this three more times, until I’m clear of the tracks, safely on the other side of the intersection.
Safely across, I survey my surroundings, but fail to find my objective.
“It’s supposed to be right here!” A slight sensation of panic and disappointment tingles down my neck and into my chest. “The Google map said it was supposed to be here. Dammit…”
I double-check the map. It hasn’t changed since the last time I triple-checked it. I’ve come this far, rolling up hills, down alleys that reek of garbage and feces, shelling out $5 just to park for an hour. To fall short now…
A large delivery truck’s engine rumbles to life off to my left. The cumbersome mechanical beast brays as it belches black smoke into the sky. Slowly, it moves toward the train tracks, revealing painted glass which reads, “Oblivion: Coffee and Comics.”
Through the front windows I see the coffee bar, two baristas busy preparing caffeinated delights. And back past the bar, I see the first row of shelves, teasing their titles, concealed behind their polyurethane slip covers.
A smile spreads across my face as I roll toward the door, transfixed on the comic books and savoring the strengthening aroma of brewing coffee.
“Oh, shit.” I come to an abrupt stop. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I look down to see my eternal nemesis staring back at me, cold, expressionless, block-faced. Three concrete stairs stand defiant, unyielding to my desire to gain entry to a Sumatra-scented treasure-trove of stories and art. Looking to either side, I see no ramp, no little blue signs with the stationary stick-figure I resemble. I glare down at the stairs, silent in their resolve, but gloating loudly as my aluminum frame bumps and scrapes against them. I try to catch the eye of one of the baristas so that I may plead my case and be granted access…or at least find an ADA compliant entryway. Alas, they are too busy to notice me.
I reflect on my trek here, thinking about the way back and how much I don’t want to return emptyhanded and uncaffinated. I glance one more time at the comics on the shelf, wishing I could give them a good home. My stomach grumbles in protest, pissed that it must remain empty, despite being tempted by vanilla lattes and chocolaty mochas. Utterly defeated, I should begin my retreat back to the 10th Street garage. However, I am simply unable to summon the will to move.
So I sit, gazing through the glass, able to see Heaven, but stuck at the edge of Oblivion.
About the Author: Matthew Johnson is an emerging Sacramento-based writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in English Literature from Mills College in Oakland, CA. His favorite stories are the ones that make you laugh or think. Or both. He is also an aspiring novelist, currently editing his first novel, The Chronicles of the Knights Palladium, which he is looking to publish in the near future.