Bartolo Spinelli rode a small yellow school bus to La Guardia Airport and boarded a plane. Allowed to pre-board before all the other passengers, he was assisted into his seat by a pretty woman whose name tag said "Cheri." Pre-boarding was not as great as it sounded, for it meant that Bartolo had to spend more time on the plane than the other passengers. It wasn't that he was particularly uncomfortable, especially after he got Cheri to readjust his leg, which she accidentally folded under him as she lowered him into his seat, but he found the plane somewhat claustrophobic.
The Association couldn't put him on a direct flight because it had strict rules about spending money on the lowest available fares, so Bartolo flew to Los Angeles first. He was met by an airline employee, rode in an electric golf cart to another gate, and sat for an hour and a half in an airline wheelchair, his own specially fitted chair having been sent on to Las Vegas directly. Then he was pre-boarded again for the flight east into Vegas. Each time he landed, in Los Angeles and in Las Vegas, he had to wait to be the last one off the plane.
Despite all the time on planes, Bartolo was happy. He had won the trip by writing -- well, dictating actually, since his atrophied fingers could no longer grip a pen -- an essay. Each state in the nation had a winner, and Bartolo was proud to represent New York. He felt sorry for the winner from Nevada, and thought himself lucky that he lived so far away. That made the prize more valuable, more special. In his essay, he talked about his parents, who had died within six weeks of each other. His father was the first to go, having been the victim of food poisoning. It started with bad stomach cramps, and then severe diarrhea, but Mr. Spinelli was a proud man, and did not believe in doctors.
It was the doctors, Mr. Spinelli believed, that made Bartolo sick. "They must have cut off the oxygen to his brain when he was being born," Mr. Spinelli would say, despite the literature he received in the mail describing the defective gene that caused Muscular Disease. Deep inside, Bartolo knew that his father blamed himself, because the gene had come from him after all, but the doctors were an easier target. So, when Mr. Spinelli eventually got so weak that Mrs. Spinelli called an ambulance, it was too late. He died, and Bartolo, like his father, blamed himself. Perhaps, he thought, if he didn't have MD, his father would not have hated doctors so much, and maybe his father would still be alive.
When Bartolo finally got picked up in Las Vegas, he fell asleep in the mini-van on the way to the hotel. He hadn't slept the night before. Near bedtime, Jack, Bartolo's favorite aide in the group home he lived in, visited his room with a small handheld electronic game. Jack showed Bartolo how it worked, standing behind his wheelchair, extending his arms and holding the game in front of Bartolo's face. The game was a football game, where little red lights moved horizontally and vertically around the screen. "You are the brightest blip," Jack explained, "and you have to go past these duller ones until you get a touchdown."
Jack's huge thumbs pressed the buttons so fast. Bartolo could almost see the bright red light turn into a player, a halfback, running down the field faster and faster, the click-click-click of the buttons his footsteps, each move up and down the screen a head fake, a swivel of the hips.
"Do it again," Bartolo asked each time a game was over, partly because he loved the game, and partly because he liked feeling Jack's leg leaning against the back of the wheelchair. Jack was strong. He could lift the wheelchair with Bartolo in it and carry him up a flight of stairs without having to set Bartolo down on the floor.
They played game after game before Jack finally said, "That's it. I need to sit down." Bartolo wanted to beg him, to cry out as he'd seen some of the other kids do. "Please, just one more game," he wanted to say, but he didn't. Instead he sat quietly.
"C'mon, Bart, time for bed," and in a swift sweep, Jack scooped him up and lay him down. "You have a big day tomorrow and you need your rest."
Bartolo closed his eyes, but he knew he was not going to go to sleep. He could see those red dots of light, moving, dancing, running down the field. He realized that he could control them by thinking about them, that if he wanted to see the bright red blip, the running back, go up, he could make it do it. He could make it run across the field and go for a touchdown. Lying there in his bed, waiting to go to sleep, Bartolo played the game, just like Jack had. He became that red blip, faster and brighter than anyone else. He heard the crowd cheering, clapping for him just like they would clap for him in Las Vegas. Mr. Loomis would tell them to clap harder and louder, and their clapping would give him strength, bring him back to life, just like Tinkerbell, and Mr. Loomis would tell Bartolo to stand, to get up out of his chair, and take a bow, and Bartolo would.
When Bartolo arrived at the hotel, he was wheeled into a poorly lit room. Sitting on a table were an open can of sardines, some crackers, some cheese, a basket of oranges (which Bartolo knew were impossible for him to peel) and a plate of Chips Ahoy cookies. He had barely eaten in the last 12 hours. On the plane, Cheri tried to feed him, but he didn't want her to, afraid he'd choke on the Salisbury Steak she'd cut up in pieces that were too large. She probably wasn't trained in clearing his windpipe if necessary, Bartolo thought, so he decided to wait to eat. Finally, the door to the room opened, and an elderly man in a blue blazer wheeled in another child, about Bartolo's age. The man put him near Bartolo, and as the man wheeled him in, Bartolo saw the word "Arizona" on a banner draped across the back of his chair. The old man left, not saying a word. Bartolo was happy to have company. "Hi," he said, but the boy could barely answer. His throat muscles were nearly gone. This will happen to me one day, Bartolo thought. Bartolo wondered how the boy had written his essay. It could have been written before his voice was affected, or maybe someone, his mother perhaps, understood what the boy said. Soon another child, a tiny girl in a pink dress, was wheeled in. Then another kid, and another, and even more were deposited in the small room. Some could talk, some could even use their arms to wheel themselves around. These kids helped the others, getting the cookies off the table and passing them around. Bartolo wanted one, but the cookies were all gone before he had a chance to get one.
When the room was full with kids, the man in the blue blazer came back. He announced, "We are going to move backstage. It's almost time to go on." Bartolo was so excited that he thought he would have thrown up if he had food in his stomach. The man said in a louder, angrier voice, over the sound of the excited children, "You must all keep very quiet from now on. We will be in a backstage area. Does everyone understand that?"
Those that could nodded their heads yes, and the noise immediately stopped. Bartolo thought about how good the kids all were. The old man in the blue blazer left, but the kids stayed silent. Bartolo looked around. Everyone was dressed in their best clothes. The kids were almost all smiling. These kids are the cream of the crop, Bartolo thought. We all won, we all represent our states. Bartolo felt proud to be one of this special group. It's not their fault they are sick, he thought. Maybe they are sick because they are so good, because only they could handle it. I am one of them, a special good kid who can handle what God sent down.
Then, a few men came into the room, and quickly and silently began to move the special good kids out of the room. One by one Bartolo watched them roll off, watched the banners on the backs of the chairs, counted off the states in his head. Texas, Florida, Vermont. There goes West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona. Bartolo played a little game, trying to guess which state would be next. He rooted for South Dakota, the tiniest, most shriveled up kid he had seen. Poor special good South Dakota. She is pretty, he thought, in her yellow dress and her yellow hair. Even if her limbs were kind of twisted and her mouth was kind of contorted, she still had pretty blue eyes. Bartolo hoped they wheeled her off soon. Bartolo didn't like the idea of her worrying when she would be taken.
After they took Connecticut, Georgia, and Wyoming, off went South Dakota. Bartolo was relieved, and next it was his turn. Bartolo's chair jerked for a second and his head snapped back. "The brake," Bartolo said quietly, not wanting to make too much noise. Jack sometimes forgot too, so Bartolo understood. Sometimes people forget things. The man released the brake, and off they went.
The man wheeled Bartolo out into the hallway. He was at the back of a small processional of kids being pushed, three in a row, down a long gray corridor with cement walls. He saw the back of the man in front of him as he pushed the little girl from South Dakota.
The man looked strong. He wore a black tee shirt and jeans. A walkie-talkie was clipped to his belt. Bartolo wanted the man to show him how it worked, let him talk into it, but he knew there probably was no time for that. The men had to get all fifty-one kids together, and there were still many left back in the room. Bartolo was pushed quickly into what he realized was the backstage area. People scurried around, carrying cables, talking into headphones. Some men in suits stood around a table piled high with food. It reminded Bartolo how hungry he was. He wanted to ask for something, but he knew he was supposed to be quiet. Besides, none of the other special good kids were asking for a thing. What if I ask, and then everyone wants some, Bartolo thought. The men don't have time to feed us all. What if one of the kids starts to choke?
Bartolo got parked near a bunch of the other kids. To take his mind off of his hunger, he thought about how he was going to be on TV. He closed his eyes, and pictured himself on the telethon. Who would see him? Jack would. He wished his Papa could, and his Mama too, but then he thought, they are looking down from Heaven. He closed his eyes and imagined the two of them, sitting on a couch made out of a cloud, watching a TV screen. Bartolo started to feel nervous and then he wasn't hungry at all. His stomach churned.
He opened his eyes again, watching the next three kids get pushed into the waiting area. He could only see the back of one chair: Nebraska. Bartolo wondered what it was like in Nebraska. They have corn, he thought, because the football team from Nebraska is called the Cornhuskers. They were always good every year, Jack told him while they watched on Saturday afternoons.
"Always bet on Nebraska, no matter how crazy the spread seems," Jack said. "Even if it's 47 points, chances are they'll cover."
Bartolo leaned his head back in the chair. He was tired. He was going to close his eyes when he noticed a TV set above him. If he tilted his head back, he realized, he could see the screen. There was Mr. Johnny Loomis himself, his bow tie loosened and hanging at the side of his neck. A representative from the Southland Corporation was presenting Mr. Loomis with an oversized check for $30,000. The two men shook hands. Mr. Loomis looked tired, and Bartolo admired his strength, his ability to stay up all night and all day to help his kids. Bartolo watched the telethon every year. He loved the entertainment, the comedians, the singers, the chorus lines, but he loved even more the profiles of people suffering from the various diseases falling under the MD umbrella. His favorite was the man with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. He couldn't move any part of his body besides his eyes, but through the help of the Muscular Disease Association he had a special device which he used to communicate by looking at letters on a screen. He could spell out words and talk to his family by resting his sight upon the letters.
Next on the TV monitor, they showed a big orchestra playing and then the screen was filled with a little drawing of Mr. Loomis and the full title, "The Johnny Loomis Telethon." Bartolo knew that this was what they showed as they cut away to one of the local breaks. The drawing stayed on the screen as more and more kids got wheeled backstage. Eventually, all the kids were crammed together, a mass of distorted flesh, fifty-one special good children. Bartolo saw the boy from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, Bartolo knew. He wondered why no one was there from Guam or American Samoa or any territory or possession. Maybe there just wasn't enough room.
The ones in the middle were pinned in, with no way to move their chairs, the sound of metal against metal occasionally rising from the otherwise silent children. They worked so hard to be quiet, but Bartolo noticed many other people walking around, making noise, holding clipboards, rushing guests in and out. Bartolo saw the man he'd seen on the monitor from the Southland Corporation laughing loudly as he walked by with Mr. Corey Ketchum. It looked like Mr. Ketchum said something funny, whispered it, just as the two men had passed the boys, but Bartolo couldn't hear what he said.
Bartolo was on the outer fringes of the group, closest to the stage, and was the first one to see Mr. Johnny Loomis himself walk off the stage, right near them. Bartolo's heart beat faster than he could ever remember it beating. He felt it in the center of his body, pumping blood. Mr. Loomis looked over at all the kids and smiled and waved. Things moved almost in slow motion, like a dream. Then Bartolo heard Mr. Loomis ask the old man in the blue blazer, "Which one is the Italian kid?" The old man pointed, and Bartolo realized the man was pointing at him. Before he knew it, Mr. Loomis was at eye level, his face close to Bartolo's, smiling, with his hand on the side of the arm of Bartolo's chair.
Mr. Loomis spoke softly. "Hello there, umm . . ." Mr. Loomis looked up toward the old man, and barked, "Help me out here, already, will ya? What's the kid's name again, for cryin' out loud?"
"His name's Bartolo Spinelli, Mr. Loomis."
Mr. Loomis turned back to Bartolo, smiling broadly once again, the angry look instantly gone from his face, showing his big white teeth. "Hi, Bartolo, how are you feeling today?"
Bartolo was nervous, but said in the clearest, strongest voice he could summon up, "I'm good, Mr. Loomis. How are you?"
Mr. Loomis threw his head back, laughing, his mouth open wide, pointed straight up to the ceiling. "Check out this kid, he's beautiful." Mr. Loomis' face changed again, and he got a misty look in his eye. He leaned over, put one hand on each side of Bartolo's face and kissed him on the forehead, making a loud "Mwah!" sound. "Don't worry about me, Bart, I'm doing great. This is what I live for."
And then he did a face, a real live Johnny Loomis face – jutted out jaw, mouth open, teeth out, eyes wide -- the Johnny Loomis goofy face, just like the caricature used on the backdrop for the telethon. Bartolo had seen the face on TV many times, but this time Mr. Loomis was making it for him. Bartolo smiled back at Mr. Loomis, feeling so happy, so loved by this man who had devoted so much time and energy to helping children like him. "You are a good kid, Bartolo," Mr. Loomis said. "You are very special."
Bartolo didn't know what to say, besides, "Thank you, Mr. Loomis." Bartolo felt comfortable, cared for, a feeling he remembered from when he was younger. His father used to put him into his bed, pull the covers up, and scratch his head. Bartolo heard the scritch-scritch-scritch sound inside him. Papa sometimes sang in Italian, made up songs about Bartolo the sailor, Bartolo the pirate. Papa also told Bartolo stories, tales of losing three of his eight brothers in the war, of the large family gatherings, stories of children running around, of large pots boiling over. When Bartolo was all tucked in, falling asleep to the sound of his father's voice, he felt like he was a kid like all other kids, like when he woke up, he wouldn't be sick anymore.
Mr. Loomis lit up in a big grin. "You're welcome, Bartolo."
Bartolo felt proud that out of all the kids there, all fifty-one of them, Mr. Loomis was talking to him, just him, no one else. It was even better than being Bartolo the sailor or Bartolo the pirate, Bartolo realized, because it was real, not a song, not a dream, but a real moment. Bartolo wished that Mr. Loomis was his father and was immediately struck by a sense of guilt, felt that he was betraying his Papa. It wasn't that he didn't love Papa, but Papa was gone, so was Mama, and Bartolo had no one, nothing.
"Son, do you know what we are soon going to do?"
Son, he called me son, Bartolo thought. "What?"
"You and I are going to go out there," Mr. Loomis pointed out to the stage, "and I am going to show the world what a sweet, beautiful, perfect child you are. Everyone will love you, just like I do." Mr. Loomis leaned down and kissed Bartolo on the forehead, between the eyes. Bartolo couldn't stop the tears now, his frail arm unable to wipe them away, and as Mr. Loomis walked off, Bartolo didn't want the tears wiped from his face. They were a gift from Mr. Loomis. Bartolo wanted to feel the trail, the warm flow, taste the salt on his lips.
Bartolo sat there for a long time, no longer aware of the chaos around him, the kids near him in their chairs, the stagehands busy and the executives with name tags on their suits. He just sat, and felt the tears stream down, and when he stopped crying, his eyes were red, his face was wet, and he was changed. He was happy, light as a feather, his body not a dead weight anymore. It was like he had no body, just a head, a mouth to taste the tears, a nose to sniffle with, bleary eyes to look and see with, eyelashes to blink until things cleared up, and he had ears and muscles and inside it all there was a brain. Bartolo didn't feel sick anymore, because it was his body that had been sick before. Now there was no malfunctioning body, just a head that worked perfectly.
Bartolo realized that whenever a part would get sick, if his facial muscles weakened, if his mouth could barely speak, he could get rid of that part, that he could dismiss the illness, and it would be gone. He would do this, he decided, until there were no parts left at all, and then he would not be dead, he would just be all better, nothing left to be sick.
The break ended, and Mr. McManus stood in front of a large tote board. Bartolo watched on the monitor as Mr. Loomis called out, "Show me!" and the band played "What the world needs now is love, sweet, love." The tote turned up to just over 17 million dollars as the song played.
Bartolo heard the words to the song in his head. "No, not just for some, but for everyone." He thought, that means me too, not just love for the kids who can walk, but for kids like me who can't. That's why Mr. Johnny Loomis has them play that song, to tell the world to love me, and kids like me. The love is for everyone.
A singer came on, and some men started moving kids out onto the stage. Bartolo watched the crush of kids get smaller, and after about 20 others were taken out, so was Bartolo. A man rolled him to a darkened area not too far from where Mr. Loomis stood drinking a glass of water at his podium. The water looked good. Being on a stage made Bartolo's throat and mouth feel dry. He looked out at the cameras and the audience. Soon his view was blocked by another row of kids placed in front of him. Two men moved through the rows of kids, carrying handfuls of little flags, looking on the backs of the chairs and then placing a flag on each chair. Bartolo saw a man coming towards him, and recognized the bear on the flag of the State of New York as the man laid the flag across the arms of the chair. Bartolo liked his flag and hoped he could keep it when he went home, a souvenir of his time on the show, his time meeting Mr. Loomis.
I can show it to Mama and Papa, he thought, simultaneously remembering that they were dead. Then he thought, I can show it to Jack. He will think it's cool. Bartolo knew where he would have Jack hang the flag, at the foot of his bed, so everyone could see that he had been the representative from the State of New York.
The singer finished and everyone clapped. The lights got a little brighter around the kids and the two men went through the rows of children quickly, pointing fingers and mouthing a quiet count, like roll call. Bartolo looked around him. All he could see were rows and rows of wheelchairs. Bartolo tilted his head back, looked up, and saw Mr. Loomis on the monitor, shaking hands with the singer, a man in a maroon velvet suit and ruffled shirt.
"Just a little while more, kids," one of the men said, "and then your families will see you on TV."
Bartolo felt the excitement in the other kids, could feel it on his face, a tingling wave washing over his cheeks. The lights dimmed again, and Bartolo saw Mr. Loomis at his podium, holding a microphone, talking. Bartolo couldn't quite hear what he was saying. Mr. Loomis started moving back, and Bartolo realized that he was heading toward the children. The lights were all off, except for a spotlight on Mr. Loomis, and now, over the top of all the other kids, Bartolo could see Mr. Loomis headed toward them. Bartolo's eyes moved back and forth, from the monitor back down to the stage, where Mr. Loomis stood in front of the group.
The lights on the kids got brighter, and Mr. Loomis started walking through the rows of kids, smiling at them and talking. "Each of these kids has a dream, ladies and gentlemen. I don't know what you dream about, maybe winning the lottery, or finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, or getting a promotion, or whatever you dream out there as you sit on your couches, on a holiday weekend, watching TV. But these kids, my kids, don't have that luxury."
Mr. Loomis walked through the rows as he spoke, smiling at each of the children as he passed by. "I can't make your dream come true," he continued. "I can't tell your boss to promote you, I can't knock a couple of strokes off your golf game, and if I knew the winning lottery number, you think I'd tell you?" He made a face, bugged his eyes out, stuck out his tongue. Then he faced a shriveled little girl, put his hands out, clapped them together, and made a barking sound like a seal. The girl laughed, and so did Bartolo.
"But seriously," Mr. Loomis continued, his face now earnest, sincere. "It eats me up inside knowing that maybe I can't make these kids' dreams of someday walking again come true." His voice almost cracked, as if he might cry, and Bartolo was upset to see Mr. Loomis get upset. "But I can, and you can, sure as hell try. What do I have to do, beg you?" Mr. Loomis got down on his knees, next to the kid from Minnesota, a blond boy with a big nervous smile. Mr. Loomis winked at the boy, and continued talking. "Okay, I am begging now, on behalf of these kids who can't get down on their knees to beg for themselves. Just pick up your phones. Some of these kids can't even use their arms and hands to pick up a damn phone. Think about that in your homes with your wall-to-wall carpeting, your big screen TVs."
Mr. Loomis got up and made his way through the children, smiling at each one. He knelt down beside a little black girl. Bartolo watched her smile, as Mr. Loomis said, "Hello, sweetheart."
"Hi," she answered, her words hard to understand. She had trouble using her tongue, Bartolo figured.
"What's your name, honey?"
"Virginia," she said slowly, leaning her chin forward to speak into the microphone Mr. Loomis had put in front of her.
"Virginia?" Mr. Loomis laughed. "And where are you from?"
"Virginia," she answered.
Mr. Loomis did a double take, slapped his hand across his face, as if to say, now, wait a minute. Bartolo laughed as he watched Virginia laugh.
"Virginia from Virginia?" Mr. Loomis cracked up, no longer able to act professional. "So, Virginia from Virginia, tell me, what's your favorite kind of ham?"
He put the mike back under chin. She leaned forward again and with a broad smile, said, "Virginia."
Mr. Loomis beamed. "If you were around, Virginia, when I started out, maybe I would have been the straight man, instead of that Italian fella from Stuebenville, Ohio." Virginia just smiled back at him. "You have no idea what I am talking about, do you dear?"
She leaned forward again. "No."
Mr. Loomis' face got really serious, and he asked Virginia another question. "Why are you here today, Virginia?"
"I have PLMD," she managed to sputter out.
"God bless you, honey," Mr. Loomis said, and he kissed her forehead. He stood up, and looked straight into the camera. Watching on the monitor, Bartolo felt like Mr. Loomis was staring straight at him.
"She's a beautiful little girl, folks. And unless we beat this thing, she will never walk." Sweat ran down the side of his face, and his eyes got watery. His voice wavered slightly as he spoke, like he would cry at any time.
"Virginia, and all the kids here on the stage are winners. They are sick, monstrously, terribly sick, but still they are winners. Fifty-one kids, one for each state, plus Puerto Rico, all who were awarded a trip here, to meet all of you."
Mr. Loomis walked through the rows as he spoke, reaching Bartolo's row, coming closer and closer. Bartolo could barely listen to what Mr. Loomis was saying. He just kept thinking, he's coming to talk to me, he's going to talk to me, and Bartolo's heart beat faster in his chest, and it was hard to breathe from the excitement of it all.
"Ladies and gentlemen, all these kids are special," Mr. Loomis was saying, and now he was right next to Bartolo. "Here's one of them." He knelt down, his face next to Bartolo's, so close. "Hi, Bartolo," Mr. Loomis said, and feeling Mr. Loomis near him, feeling his love, made Bartolo forget all about the cameras and the audience.
"Hi, Mr. Loomis."
"You, like the rest of these kids, wrote something, didn't you, Bartolo?" His voice was so soothing, so gentle, so loving. It relaxed Bartolo.
"What was it?" Mr. Loomis put the mike back next to Bartolo's mouth.
"An essay called 'What I Would Do If I Could Walk,' " Bartolo said, loudly and clearly.
"Did you all hear that, ladies and gentlemen?" Mr. Loomis said as he turned his head back toward the camera. Bartolo leaned back and looked up at the monitor. He saw himself, on TV, with Mr. Johnny Loomis right next to him.
Mr. Loomis continued. " 'What I Would Do If I Could Walk.' Not 'What I Want For Christmas,' or 'How I Spent My Summer Vacation.' " He spoke slowly and seriously now. "Let me say it again." He paused between each word. "What I would do if I could walk. Let's take a moment and think about what it would be like to be a 10-year-old child and have to write those words."
He stood there silently for a moment, head bowed in reflection. Then he looked straight into the camera again, and Bartolo saw shiny tears forming in Mr. Loomis' eyes. Bartolo peeked up at the monitor and saw himself next to Mr. Loomis, who took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket. "I have young Bartolo's essay here in my hand." He turned and leaned toward Bartolo. "Is it okay with you if I read it for the nice people, Bartolo?"
Bartolo was thrilled. Mr. Johnny Loomis was going to read his essay for everyone. That must have meant he liked it. The mike was again near Bartolo's mouth, and he leaned forward and said, "Yeah!" loudly, his excitement showing with the big smile across his face.
Mr. Loomis patted the top of Bartolo's head and said, "Thank you, Bartolo." Bartolo watched as the camera moved in for a close-up shot. All the lights got very dark except the one on Mr. Loomis' face. He put on a pair of reading glasses, cleared his throat and began to read.
"What I Would Do If I Could Walk, by Bartolo Spinelli." Bartolo smiled, embarrassed at the sound of his name being said on national television.
Mr. Loomis continued. "My Papa, before he died last year, used to talk about the bread he ate when he was a young boy, like me, in Padua. The bakery had no name, but everyone called it Mrs. Nina's, after the woman who started it years before Papa was born. Papa always told me that one day, when I got better, I'd walk with him and Mama down the main street of Padua, and go to Mrs. Nina's for a loaf of bread so flaky on the inside, so crunchy on the outside, so good that we could eat a loaf with some olive oil for dinner, and be satisfied." Mr. Loomis paused for a moment, and looked up at the audience, then back down at the page.
"When Papa died, Mama stood up at the wake and gave a speech. She was crying a lot, so no one understood her, and halfway through, she threw herself on Papa's body in the open casket, so no one heard the whole speech. But she practiced it the night before, and I listened to her, from the hallway. She talked about how she and I were going to Padua one day and eat some bread for Papa." Bartolo was struck by how sad his essay sounded coming out of Mr. Loomis' mouth. He closed his eyes and heard his mother's voice, her accent, as she practiced the speech.
Mr. Loomis kept reading. "For six weeks, Mama cried. When she went to the store, she cried. When she talked to neighbors, she cried. When each day she took me out of my chair, put me into the tub, washed me, dried me, dressed me, and put me back into my chair, she cried. While she turned the pages of my school books for me to read, and when she wrote down my homework for me, she cried. And one day, six weeks after Papa died, Mama was crying while eating dessert, and she started choking. It was late, and all my aunts were gone. I watched her turn red and gasp for air and I couldn't do anything." They showed Bartolo on the monitor, and he watched himself listening to Mr. Loomis read his essay. "Mama died and that's why now I live in a group care facility funded by the MDA." Now Mr. Loomis' voice started to waver a bit, and Bartolo could see the tears forming in his eyes again. This made Bartolo's eyes wet too.
Mr. Loomis' voice got louder, and more crackly at the same time. "If I could walk, I would do two things. The first would be to take a trip to Padua, to walk down the main street, go into Mrs. Nina's, and eat every loaf of bread they had. I wouldn't care if I got a stomach ache. I would do it for Papa, and for Mama. The second would be to learn how to do the Heimlich maneuver, and then become a teacher of the Heimlich to little kids, so no child will ever have to watch his Mama or Papa choke to death." Mr. Loomis paused, for a moment, took off his glasses and wiped a tear from his eyes. He looked into the camera. "Isn't this incredible folks? But it's not quite done. Here comes the part that you should really listen to."
He put his glasses back on and looked down at the paper. "I know that one day they will find a cure and beat this thing. I know Mr. Johnny Loomis will not stop until they do, and that the people of what Papa said is the greatest country on Earth ever will pitch in and do whatever they can to help kids like me. Because I want to get up out of my wheelchair and walk down the streets of Padua just like Papa and Mama wanted me to."
The lights got brighter as Mr. Loomis took off his glasses. Tears streamed down his face. He knelt down again next to Bartolo and gave him a big hug. He felt Mr. Loomis' wet face on his and now Bartolo 's tears came down too. Bartolo looked up at the monitor and saw Mr. Loomis' back as he held on to Bartolo. Then the shot changed, and he saw the entire audience, standing up, clapping their hands.
A voice, Mr. Joe McManus' voice, Bartolo realized, came over the loudspeaker. "Excuse me, Johnny," Mr. MaManus said. "I have something you'd like to see."
Mr. Loomis looked like he was in shock. "No, you're kidding."
"No, Johnny, we are not kidding at all."
Mr. Loomis put the mike in between his mouth and Bartolo's. "Let's watch," he said, and he pointed up at the monitor. Bartolo looked again and saw their two faces close together, smiling as their tears continued to flow.
"Show me!" Mr. Loomis yelled into the mike, and Mr. McManus appeared on the monitor.
"Tympani, please," Mr. McManus said. The music played and the tote board came on the screen. It read $17,804,237.
"Yes," Mr. Loomis yelled. "Show me!"
Bartolo leaned over and screamed as hard as he could into the mike. "Show me too!" he yelled. "Show me!" The numbers on the board turned over 18 million dollars, and Mr. Loomis screamed, "Yes!" and Bartolo screamed, "Yes!" The song played, but the numbers didn't stop turning, they kept going up and up, past 19 million dollars, and Mr. Loomis really screamed hard, and so did Bartolo. The numbers kept turning, past 20 million now, and Bartolo started repeating, "Go! Go! Go!" and all the kids joined in, then the audience and Mr. Loomis joined in, everyone yelling until the numbers finally stopped at $21,487,329.
Mr. Loomis looked at Bartolo and hugged him tight. He kissed his cheek, moved his mouth by his ear and whispered, "You're a superstar, kid, a superstar."
For the entire hour he sat in the plane to Los Angeles, where he was to switch for the 6 hour flight back to New York, Bartolo thought, "I'm a superstar." The whole time, he looked proudly down at the flag of the State of New York resting across his lap. When, upon landing, he had to wait for all the passengers to get off ahead of him he thought, "It doesn't matter, I'm a superstar." When the airline porter came on, and picked him up out of his seat and carried him to a waiting wheelchair, Bartolo thought, "I'm a superstar."
When the porter said that they had to hurry because the connection was boarding already, Bartolo didn't worry. He laughed and said, "We can run there." So the porter pushed his chair and Bartolo screamed, "Go! Go! Go!" The porter ran through the airport and the wheels turned. Bartolo closed his eyes, felt his hair blowing, and heard the air whooshing past his ears. With his eyes shut, he was just a head zooming through the airport of its own accord. He didn't notice the flag go flying off his lap, landing on the terminal floor. He forgot all about the flag until he got on the plane headed back to New York, but by then it was too late. When he realized it was missing, Bartolo thought, "It doesn't matter. I'm a superstar."
Aaron Zimmerman's debut novel, By The Time You Finish This Book You Might Be Dead (www.greebee.com), was selected as a new and notable book by Poets & Writers magazine. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines and he holds an MA in Creative Writing from City College. Zimmerman is the founder and executive director of NY Writers Coalition (www.nywriterscoalition.org). Zimmerman, who lives in Brooklyn, was named one of the "Top 100 New Yorkers of 2003" by New York Resident newspaper for his work with NY Writers Coalition.
Copyright 2004, Aaron Zimmerman. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.