“You done yet?”
“No. I think it’s going to be a while.”
“I’ve gotta get to my next job by eight. You’ve been on the toilet for forty minutes, and at this rate, we’re going to have to skip your shower again. Shit fast, Constance.”
“I have a muscle disease, dude. I can’t push. Its just got to fall out when it’s ready.”
Constance tried to push, but nothing worked. Her stomach was cramping a little, but not enough to instigate a bowel movement. She looked around the bathroom and settled her gaze on her shower. She hadn’t had a hot shower for two days because of time. There just wasn’t enough time for her to get most of her routines done with just three two-hour shifts per day.
Moving into her new apartment and starting a full-time job had added in new elements of stress. She was more exhausted by the end of the day. Her apartment was accessible enough, but the countertops sat higher than she could reach, and she struggled to do basic things like put on her make-up or brush her teeth. At night, since she didn’t have enough hours to pay for someone to stay with her, she would try to either sleep in her wheelchair or go to bed after her neighbor got home from his bartending job at two in the morning. Greg said he didn’t mind putting her in bed so she could sleep for a few hours before April came in to get her up at six, but sleeping four hours a night was taking a toll on her.
“Can you cut up an apple for me and put it in a zip-lock bag?” Constance asked April, her Personal Care Attendant.
“And when do you suppose that I will be able to do that? I can’t leave you here because last time I did, you fell forward on the toilet and you almost died.”
“Die shmeye. That was because I was trying to brush my teeth and I was leaning forward to rest my elbows on my thighs. I’ll be safe. I promise. I could really use some fiber in my system. Might speed me up.”
April shook her head and rolled her eyes. She put Constance’s bony arm on the sink next to the toilet, so she could steady and keep herself from falling over. Then April headed into the kitchen to find an apple.
“They have those cut-up apples at Whole Foods. You should just get them pre-cut. It will save you time.”
“I think they just stopped pre-cutting food because it’s bad for the environment or something. People were complaining about it.”
“Well, you should write some kind of letter and explain that ‘ain’t nobody got time for cutting apples’. Tell upper management at Whole Foods all about how it takes you an hour and a half to take a shit.”
They both laughed. Finally, Constance felt her body rise to the occasion and her system made a move. She looked at the time on her cell phone. Could she get showered, dressed, and back in her power wheelchair in just an hour? It would be close.
“I’m done!” Constance gleefully sang and April came running in.
“Excellent! Unfortunately, we are going to have to probably skip washing your hair in favor of washing your smelly-ass body. Sorry. No time.”
April put on gloves and grabbed a handful of toilet paper. Constance leaned forward onto April and April reached back and wiped her ass.
“Wow, Constance. What are you eating?”
“I’m not sure Burger Buddy is your friend.”
They laughed again and April flushed the toilet, helped Constance pull off her nightgown, and carried her to the shower bench where they began the second half of their two-hour routine.
Forty minutes later, after Constance was dressed, the two returned to the bathroom to fix her hair. April reached for the dry shampoo and sprayed it through Constance’s long mane of hair, which was generally pretty course and dry, but now its texture had changed to more tangled and oily. She spent about five minutes attempting to comb through the long, curly, frizz, so she could put Constance’s hair in a bun. April didn’t want to tell her, but Constance’s hair also had a foul odor to it. As April raked her scalp and fought to make the bun stay in some kind of orderly place, she resisted telling Constance that her hair, which used to be what Constance said others told her was her best feature, was making her look dirty and unprofessional.
As April wrangled Constance’s hair, Constance spotted some dried dry shampoo dust caked near the top of her ears and asked April to wipe it away. She felt gross even though she had just gotten out of the shower. She thought of her mother almost two thousand miles away, who would spend hours brushing her hair until it looked as shiny and silky as a model’s in a shampoo commercial. She thought of her first boyfriend in high school who always burrowed his nose into it and told her how great she smelled. Over the years, Constance’s hair was something she prided herself for having. It made her feel beautiful and sexual. Though today, and for the last few weeks really, she felt like she was losing this part of herself because she just couldn’t take care of it. When Constance dreamed of living on her own being an adult, she never imagined that she would have to sacrifice so many little parts of herself in order to survive and get basic needs met.
“Okay, all done.” April set the comb on the sink and the two stared into the bathroom mirror together. “I’ve got to go.”
“Thanks for your help. I’ll see you later to pee?”
“Yep. I should make it back here during my dinner break around five. You might want to wait to eat those apples because they hold a lot of water and you’ve got to keep your pee math in check.”
“I won’t eat them until a few hours before I see you again here.”
“But eat something okay? Something decent for you.”
“I think Burger Buddy has salad.”
“Yeah, right!” April laughed.
“Aren’t fries part vegetable?”
April picked up her backpack and pushed a stray hair that escaped Constance’s bun behind her ear. She had been working with Constance for so long that she knew that Constance wouldn’t let her out the door without asking for one more thing, yet she didn’t know her long enough to predict the last thing. Because of this, April tended to move a bit slower right before exiting the apartment as she anticipated this last request.
And there it was.
“Could you help me put my laptop in my backpack behind my wheelchair? I think I’m going to head over to the library and do some dissertation research today.”
“Sure thing. Ya know, it is a Saturday. Research isn’t exactly a relaxing thing to do.”
“It is when you’re a big nerd like me.”
“Right on. Right on.”
After five or so hours at the library, Constance’s stomach growled. She had about four hours before April would meet her back at her apartment to help her pee and figured that if she ate and drank something within the hour, she wouldn’t have to hold her bladder for too long. After twenty-two years, Constance perfected the pee math balance; knowing how much to consume and when to consume in order to predict exactly when she’d have to use the bathroom. While Burger Buddy wasn’t exactly the healthiest food option, it was cheap and she tended to always order the same meal, which allowed Constance to accurately predict how her body would react. Burger Buddy was also the closest eatery to her apartment. Constance could roll on over and not have to worry about the woes of city transportation.
The most challenging part about Burger Buddy though, was getting the food prep and eating assistance. On most days, she could ask a customer to help her fill her drink at the soda station or grab a few packets of ketchup for her. Lately though, since she wasn’t able to sleep much at night, her arms felt heavier and she had more trouble eating because she couldn’t lift her arms enough to bring food to her mouth. Today was one of those days where she found herself struggling to even type on her computer. Weak days were the hardest.
On her way over to Burger Buddy, Constance came up with a plan for today’s meal assistance. She would see if Jett was working. Jett was her favorite cashier. He was always the friendliest to her and helpful in a way that didn’t make her feel like a burden. If he was working and available, her plan was to ask him to cut up her burger for her. Rather than struggle to lift it up to her mouth, she’d just use a fork.
The Burger Buddy was fairly empty, which was a good and bad thing. It was good because that meant that she wouldn’t have to take a busy employee away from their work when he or she was most needed. It was bad because no one was around to open the door to the restaurant. She had to sit outside the double door, like a dog waiting to be let into the house, and wait for someone to come by and pull it open for her. Finally, after about ten minutes, an employee inside Burger Buddy saw her and came running up to the door.
“Hey there! Come on in, Sweetheart!” Constance thanked him and went through the doors. “God bless you, you poor thing.”
Poor thing? Constance rolled her eyes away from the gaze of Dole, the dutiful employee who held the door and spoke in the tone of a kindergarten teacher. Dole had his bright orange Burger Buddy t-shirt tucked in tight. His black pants were hiked up a bit too high for a man that looked to be in his late twenties. After she got in the door, Dole came running over to her and stood in front of her, blocking her view of the ordering counter where Constance frantically looked for Jett, the employee she hoped and planned to see.
“Is Jett here?” Constance asked.
“You always ask for Jett. Jett. Jett. Jett. Unfortunately, Jett’s not here today, but let me help you, Sweetie. Do you want some ice water? It’s pretty hot out there!”
Constance’s face fell flat. While Dole seemed like a great worker, it was obvious that he was an over-helper. Over-helpers tended to get offended by cripples asserting their autonomy and wanting to be treated like adults. Like the fine balance of pee math, Constance recognized the need for balance when it came to serving others with disabilities. People like Dole never picked-up on that balance and passive-aggressively used their ability to help to inflate their egos. Yet, Jett wasn’t there and Constance was close to starving, so she felt she had no choice but to accept Dole’s help.
“Thank you for offering, but no water please. I can’t drink too much, but I can eat, so I think I’ll just go over there and order.” Constance headed in the direction of the counter and Dole, ignoring her refusal, started getting her a big cup of ice water.
As Constance made her usual order of a single patty with onions, ketchup, and mustard only with a small order of fries, Dole busily prepared the table where he had decided was best for her to sit. He had grabbed a handful of napkins, a plastic spoon, knife, and fork, and then started to fill little Dixie cups up with every dipping sauce available. Constance told him there was no need as she waited for her order, but he refused to listen.
“I’m here to help you, Sweetie. This is my job. Just ask, that’s all you need to do, Baby.”
Constance fake smiled and forced herself to not just say she was taking her order to go. The temptation of just going home to her apartment and waiting on April to help her microwave and cut up her burger in four hours battled with her immediate hunger pangs. She decided to just suck it up.
Her order came up and before she could even turn her wheelchair on to drive towards the counter, Dole bolted for the counter. “Now slow down there, Speedy! I got this order. You just head over to that table over there and try not to run anyone’s feet over!”
Dole snickered at his own trite joke that Constance had heard a million times over in her liftetime. As she drove towards the table that he had designated for her, she looked at the table in the back corner near the window where she usually sat. The table that she liked. The table Dole picked out was meant to seat a family of six and every single chair was moved out of the way. While her wheelchair wasn’t something she’d consider petite, it usually could fit easily at a table for two. A minute later, Dole arrived with her tray.
“Here ya are, Sweetheart. Do you need more help? Want me to unwrap this burger for you?”
“I’ll be okay. Thanks, Dole.” Before Constance could reach for the burger, Dole grabbed it and started unwrapping.
“I got it” Constance snapped.
“Look, this is my job. I don’t mind. Okay?” Dole shot back.
Looking at his scary and frantic eyes, Constance had never felt so intimidated by a near stranger before.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“Is there anything else that you’ll need today, Sweets?”
Constance looked at the burger in front of her and the plastic fork next to her. Then she glanced up at Dole. His arms were crossed in front of his chest and his eyes had the look of someone waiting for a slot machine to hit the jackpot.
“Dole, would you mind cutting up my burger for me?”
Ding! Ding! Ding! Dole’s teeth were so huge and yellow when he smiled.
“Of course, Sweetheart! But what’s the magic word?”
Constance’s stomach dropped and humiliation heated her cheeks.
“The magic word! Where are those gold stars when ya need them?”
Dole pulled up a chair and started cutting up her burger. Constance sat in silence and stabbed a fry with her fork while she waited. Suddenly, she lost her grip on the fork and it fell to the ground.
“Damn it!” She said and tears welled up in her eyes. Dropping her fork was probably the worst thing that could have happened at that very moment because it fed Dole’s hunger to assist her.
“Messy baby!” Dole cackled. “Now hold on there for just one second. I’ll go get you another one.”
“No, I’ll get one.” Constance started to back up and Dole grabbed her joystick, which caused her to jolt backwards. Her neck whiplashed.
“Please don’t touch my wheelchair!” she yelped and Dole held his hands up in front of her like she were a cop.
“Well, please don’t try to get that fork! You’ll make more of a mess. Just wait here and let me help you. Gosh!”
Dole stomped over to the counter with all of the condiments and plastic wear. Constance took a deep breath and looked at her trembling hands. She made eye contact with the young teenage girl behind the counter who looked in the direction of Dole and rolled her eyes.
“Here we are!” Dole then stabbed a bite of burger with the fork and held it in front of her mouth. Constance froze and he stood there with one hand on his hip. “Take a bite.”
“I’ll be okay. I can feed myself.”
Dole put the fork on the tray and pulled up a chair to face her. He leaned in, snarled, and violently whispered. “You people are so stubborn. Here I am, going out of my way to help you. You’re obviously not able to feed yourself. I have the time. What’s the problem here?”
Constance sat dumbfounded and shocked. This moment in Burger Buddy had added up to one of the most intimidating and insane encounters of her life. Overcome with indignation, she turned her wheelchair on and looked at him with eyes that said everything for a mouth too intimidated to move itself to words. She drove toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Dole shouted and got up to chase her.
“Fuck you!” Constance said, hitting the door to Burger Buddy as hard as she could to force it open. The glass on the bottom half cracked, but she didn’t slow down. As soon as the door cleared itself open enough for her to go through, she sped off as fast as she could.
The following Sunday, after a week of avoiding Burger Buddy and eating granola bars and apple sauce, Constance was back in the library working on her research when she got an email from an old neighbor from back home.
"OMG! IS THIS YOU??????? YOU’RE SO AMAZING!”
The link below the message was a link to a YouTube video with over 200,000 views titled: “Burger Buddy Employee’s Kindness Caught On Camera”. In the thumbnail was Constance and Dole. He was leaning down and cutting up her burger. She clicked play and before her eyes was a stranger’s skewed view on his camera phone of what happened the week before. Dole’s voice was in the background.
“She comes in here all the time and she just needs so much. Even without her asking, it’s my job to serve. I need to help people like this young woman and other people who can’t take care of themselves. It’s my calling. It’s my calling because I see that she’s not getting a lot of care at home. She puts a smile on her face and she’s stubborn. Boy she’s stubborn! But when you see her dirty hair and clothes, you just know that she needs people like myself to take the time and just be kind. It’s really no big deal for me to get her food and feed her because that’s what Jesus teaches us. We’re just servants.”
The camera showed Dole lifting the plastic fork to Constance’s mouth and then the scene cut to Dole’s face outside of the restaurant being interviewed.
The reporter asked, “So what did you think when you found out you were being recorded?”
“I was truly honored to be recognized for my hard work and ability to serve customers. I see a lot of people every day like this woman, who struggle to do basic things like eat and speak and drive their wheelchairs, and I am thankful that Burger Buddy is here for them. She wasn’t able to communicate much with me, so I never got her name, but I want her to know that Burger Buddy is here to help people with the most special needs. I want to be a voice for those that have no voice or abilities.”
The next shot was of a man in a suit shaking Dole’s hand and giving him a pat on the back. Then he was interviewed.
“Burger Buddy values all it’s customers, even those with special needs. Dole Day is a model example for all of our employees to follow. He goes out of his way to make sure those most in need get the help that they need,” said Burger Buddy’s General Manager.
“Does that mean he’ll get a raise?” the reporter joked.
“Absolutely! And a promotion. How could we not reward a man so generous?”
Constance slammed her laptop shut and closed her eyes. Her stomach somersaulted and she felt the urge to spit. Leaving all of her stuff on the table, she bolted towards the bathroom, shoved the door open with her wheelchair, and went to the sink where she leaned her head forward into the basin to vomit. Sweat seeped through her t-shirt as she dry heaved after throwing up what little was in her stomach. She was so thankful that this counter and sink were the right height for her head to fall forward into. If Constance were at home, she would have gotten sick all over her clothes and would have to wait for the rest of the afternoon for April to change. She didn’t anticipate the vomit getting into some strands of her already dirty hair.
She looked up at herself in the bathroom mirror. Big green eyes pushing big tears out of her eyes. Pale skin. Dirty, frizzy, hair. She didn’t want people to recognize her as the helpless cripple in that viral video. She wanted to disappear. Constance grabbed a paper towel and tried to clean up the vomit in her hair, but she could barely reach it.
An hour later Constance waited outside the door to the nearest cheap hair salon until a stylist inside spotted her looking in. When Margaret got to the door, she recognized Constance from the Nine At Nine news story, but didn’t say anything. The girl looked like she had been crying. Her hair was clumpy and dirty. It broke her heart.
“Hey, come on in, Sweetie!”
“Please don’t call me Sweetie. My name is Constance.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Constance. Got it. How can I help you today?”
“I’d like you to shave my head?”
“Cut as much of it off as possible. I don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
“But it’s so beautiful, Constance. Are you sure?” She reached out and touched the bun that was the size of a baseball on her head.
“Please just shave it off.”
Speechless, Margaret headed over to her station. She pulled the chair out of the way and Constance glided into place. Margaret took the rubber band out of Constance’s bun and her hair cascaded around her in clumps. It smelled ripe and felt sticky. The ends of her hair were frizzy and blond, the top was greasy and three shades darker because it was dirty. Something definitely needed to be done, but shaving this head was not what Margaret would choose.
“Why don’t we just wash it and then maybe trim it?”
Constance shook her head from side to side. Her eyes were closed.
“Get rid of it. It’s disgusting. I’m disgusting.”
“Oh honey, you’re not disgusting.”
“Please just call me Constance and please just listen to me. I’m so sick of people not hearing me.”
Margaret picked up her scissors and took a deep breath.
When she left the salon, Constance felt a chill run up the back of her neck to the top of her head where hardly any hair existed. It was an odd sense of liberation to say goodbye to the most favorite part of herself, but as she headed past Burger Buddy on her way to her apartment, she never wanted to be more invisible. She kept her head down and focused on the cracks in the city sidewalk that she fantasized shrinking herself small enough to fall into.