Can you put me on tilt? my leaning son asks. He can’t help this leaning, even though he’s seat-belted and secure in this wheelchair he’s been sitting in living in declining in the past dozen years. He can’t grip the chair’s controls he can’t control his grip he doesn’t have a grip not anymore. His muscles are wasting away, he’s losing strength, he needs someone to put the chair-back back. He needs someone to put him on tilt. Tilting relieves the pressure on his neck his spine his back his butt he’s got no padding there no padding anywhere not on this young man my son who’s wasting away. Tilt makes me dizzy but it’s better sometimes, he says. So I put him on tilt and he’s ok for a moment — suspended, he’s at peace or looks like he is, like the dream is over, like the worst has passed, like a decision’s been made. I make a joke like I do, it’s a joke he usually laughs at, it’s a thing we do, the two of us, a thing we have, the two of us, but he doesn’t laugh at this joke he doesn’t smile he doesn’t respond. Not while he’s on tilt. And I feel this flash this bolt it’s more like a shiver — the dream that ended, the worst that’s over, the decision made: He’s giving up, I think, and I have no reason to think this no reason not really not now not yet where’s this coming from so I bite my tongue or my lip or my left arm or is it shame I chomp down on — I chomp down on it hard as in hard without holstering. But it is here in this moment, with trapdoors and trapezes, among horsemen and hangmen, that I know what I know, that I’m not what I thought that I’m not what I believed that I’m not what I hoped. This kid who doesn’t complain never about pain not once not ever this young man of a kid who never feels sorry for himself not once not ever this darling young one the strongest one I know — the one I lean on, I lean on his strength — he takes a moment for himself he takes a moment to regroup he goes on tilt and he found him some peace yet here I shiver and I simper and I dizzily posit if-thens: If he’s giving up, how am I going to lean on him, lean on his strength? If I can’t lean on his strength, how am I going to be strong, strong enough to be there for him? I mean he’s tilting. I mean how can you lean on a guy who’s tilting? I mean he’ll fall. I don’t understand what I’m positing I don’t understand what I’m saying to myself but I fear the worst a worst that’s not over a weak moment that isn’t a moment but a river of them a river that says Uncle a river that says Quittin’ time a mirror of a river that says Look hard look hard look real hard whose face do you see? I look at my tilting son’s face that darling young face he looks so peaceful I mean peace like a real river and I remember something he’d say after I’d tell a joke he didn’t get Why do I have to understand what you’re saying all the time? he’d say and I hear that river the peaceful one the river that turns tables on unsuspecting levees the one that turns cartwheels at crunch time. Can you put me on tilt? I say to my son Are you just kidding? he asks I don’t know I say and I picture a pinball heart riding shotgun on the peaceful river the one that’s leaning the one that’s lurching the one that’s letting go I’ll try I say in words neither one of us understands.
The story behind the story:
On June 11, 2018, I was in a Kathy Fish FastFlash workshop. The day’s exercise: the breathless paragraph. I was home with my son Cory, watching Cory be Cory. Watching Cory be his beautiful self. He had been getting weaker, muscular dystrophy was doing what it does, and Cory had been hanging in, hanging in the way he always had, hanging in the way he always would, but there was something about that day the light I think it listed his breathing I think it rivered my heart I think it quivered and I felt myself slipping I felt he was slipping I felt I was losing him right then and there. I was scared for feeling it and ashamed for thinking it. Tilt came out of me in about 20 minutes. Cory died from complications from muscular dystrophy on January 3, 2019.
Pat Foran is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His stories and CNF have been published in various journals. His work was selected for the Best Small Fictions 2021 and Best Microfiction 2021 anthologies, and for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2022. He also received the 2021 Mythic Picnic Prize in Fiction. Find him at neutralspaces.co/patforan/ and on Twitter at @pdforan.
“Tilt” was first published in Anti-Heroin Chic and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.