always been a klutz, I say to anyone who witnesses one of
I fall all the time
and know one knows why. I dont mean I fall in love all the time
or that I fall out of grace or into some random luck with frequency.
I actually physically fall, hard, onto the ground. I could be walking
along and even carefully watching where Im going when, suddenly
and without warning, my ankle gives out or my leg buckles or my foot
rolls and, next thing, Im a crumbled Humpty Dumpty, broken and
hurt and usually bleeding.
I dont know how she ever made it down the aisle, Sam
likes to say jokingly to the kids, to friends, to family.
Ive had x-rays, MRIs and cat scans. Ive had neurological
tests and nerve tests where a technician sticks me with pins connected
to an electrical devise thats supposed to measure my pain and
sensate response levels. Ive had physicians shine little laser-like
beams into my eyes and others poke around my spinal disks. Everything
checks out fine and normal. No neurological damage. No detectable muscular
weakness. No thinning of bones or joint degeneration. I have, at various
times, been prescribed orthotics, braces and even good old-fashioned
ace bandages. I still fall.
Ive always been a klutz, I say to anyone who witnesses
one of my crashes. My mother, no Pavlova herself, would agree.
I have fallen so much that I dont even bother to see a doctor
anymore when I get one of my proverbial sprained ankles. I know the
drill. I get myself home somehow and swab peroxide on the cuts and abrasions
on my knees and hands that usually result from the fall. Then I apply
ice to the ankle and affected area of the foot. For the next day or
two, I rest my leg as much as possible and elevate my foot to a point
that is higher than my heart. After a few days, I switch from ice to
warm soaks to ease the pain. Then I watch my foot slowly shrink in size
from its swollen elephantine state as it turns magnificent hues of black,
blue, brown and yellow, a personal earthly aurora borealis. For the
next couple of weeks, I dont dare try to walk anywhere without
supporting my ankle somehow with a wrap or a bandage, protecting my
lower leg like bubble wrap around crystal stemware. Its been years
since Ive worn high heels or sling back shoes. Ive been
known to wear flat, foam-soled shoes under a designer gown to black-tie
Im a really great dancer, I like to boast. I
may look clumsy off the dance floor, but when Im out there, Im
smooth as clotted cream. I have reached a point where falling
hardly interrupts my daily routine. My most recent fall occurred on
a sterling day when the outdoors called to me like a siren. I yearned
for a walk, went in search of the sustenance I could gain from the smells
and near silence of fresh air along a wooded path.
The trail I chose is one I turn to often. Although I have to drive to
it, I favor it because it is safely off the road and paved. But although
it boasts tree-trellised curves and at least two breath-robbing, heart
pounding hills, it is a linear trail which ends abruptly after one marked
mile at a post and rail fence. The only way to get back to your car
is to turn around and retrace your
steps on another mile walk.
I walked that day feeling energized, alert to the world, glad to be
alive. I got all the way to the fence when my foot suddenly rolled and
I toppled like some toy dropped from an upper story window. Both knees
were cut and covered with dirt. A small stone embedded itself into the
fleshy part of my right palm, just below my thumb, where I used my hand
to brace myself against the impact. The abrasions stung. My neck throbbed
from the jolt. Blood already trickled down into my socks. I was a mess.
I was alone, however, and had to get myself back to my car. My ankle
was stiff as I walked back and the swelling began to strain against
the confines of my sneaker, but, amazingly, I felt no pain. I walked,
in fact, with almost no discernible limp. Over the years, the muscles
and ligaments in my ankles have turned into Play Doh. They stretch and
swell and turn color like always, but eventually find their original
state and shape with almost no direct encouragement from me. Quite notably,
it is one area were age and overuse have actually diminished discomfort.
I called Sam when I got home. I fell again, I told him.
You really have to start looking where youre going,
Mom, youre getting old, you know, Jack, our youngest,
told me later.
Stop walking outside where the grounds uneven. Just exercise
down the basement.
Youre out of shape, Sam chimed in.
The next afternoon, I went to an exhibit of impressionist art. I saw
paintings so infused with light the weightlessness of it could fill
countless colorful balloons that would soar skyward forever. Contrarily,
my enlarged limb anchored me to earth. I felt as if my body were straining
to split in half, the upper part wanting to float away while the lower
part remained mired in lead.
Not too long ago, when I was younger, thinner and more in shape, I would
jog along the trails that I now walk. I would wear little jogging shorts
instead of baggy sweats, a long swinging pony tail instead of a discarded
baseball cap. On one of those mornings when I felt I had a firm grip
on the world, I was a lioness loping across the savannah, nostrils flared,
when my foot rolled on a rock and I crumbled as if a hunters arrow
had found my heart. I limped home, severely wounded.
Mom, you just cant be going out there like that, Nicky,
my oldest, scolded as if it were my habit to venture beyond an undefined
boundary into forbidden territory.
When are you gonna start to listen and be more careful,
Once, when I was working for one of the citys largest advertising
agencies, I had an appointment with a client a few blocks away. My boss
and I, Mr. Leland Harrington III, one of the agencys partners,
were going to meet with the senior vice president of First Metropolitan
Bank of Philadelphia to get his reaction to a proposal we had sent ahead.
I was representing the creative team. Mr. Harrington was representing
himself and the rest of the agency.
It was a warm Spring morning. We decided the walk to the bank would
be a great time to talk and to finalize our ideas in anticipation of
our clients critique, so we passed on a cab. Mr. Harrington, as
always, was immaculately dressed in a gun metal gabardine suit, a poppy-tinted
silk tie with matching hanky poking exactly an inch and a half from
his vest pocket. We hadnt planned it, but I matched him perfectly
in a pewter linen skirt and jacket with a white silk blouse. We were
an outstanding-looking team, he and I, walking along as if we owned
the sidewalks when, for some reason, my professionally shod foot slipped
out from under me. Instead of owning the sidewalk, I was suddenly sprawled
upon the sidewalk, dislodged papers from my presentation folder fluttering
around me like injured wings.
Oh, my God, my God, Mr. Harrington wailed as he stood over
me. Dont do this to me, he said. Please! Not
today! he added as he looked around to see how many of the other
business people scurrying along the street had noticed my faux pas.
Im okay, Im okay, I assured him as I picked
myself up, gathered my papers and smoothed my skirt. And it seemed everything
was just fine, because not a hair on Mr. Harringtons distinguished
gray head moved the whole time.
My first job out of college was with a large advertising and public
relations firm where everyone was smart and stylish and clever and hip.
They were everything I wanted to be and I bought clothing and shoes
at John Wanamakers and Bonwit Tellers that might help me
fit in even though my starting salary was more suited to J.C. Penneys
and Lerners. I uttered shit and fuck with sophisticated
abandon at certain pointed moments, never indiscriminately, never slipping
over into gutter-mouth territory. And then one day I fell right in the
hallway of the open Production Department were I was serving my professional
It was not a dainty fall. I crashed with a thud on the carpetless linoleum
floor, caught the entire departments attention as my co-workers
rushed over to recover the shoe that had departed my foot and sailed
off into the open door of our supervisors office and helped me
pull my ripped skirt down over my exposed upper thighs. Despite my embarrassed
protests, the department head insisted I go get checked out at the hospital.
Company rules, he said. We cant take any chances
with our insurance coverage. But Im fine, I
said. It happens a lot. You should see me on the dance floor.
Im as graceful as a swan when I dance. It wasnt as
if it were the first time he had seen me disabled. I interviewed for
the job on crutches. It was the same way I had attended graduation ceremonies.
Me, the first in my immediate family to finish college, could not even
climb the damn stage to receive my diploma. The fall at the close of
my senior year came on a warm Sunday morning when my parents were away
somewhere, that time visiting friends in New Jersey. I was home alone,
on break from classes, studying for the highly dreaded comprehensive
exams, several days of tests covering all four years of courses, the
passage of which was required for graduation at my small liberal arts
That morning, I decided I could use some help. Never an avid Catholic,
I nevertheless felt Sunday Mass under the circumstances would be good,
would maybe provide some divine intervention like from Saint Jude or
the Blessed Virgin who might, in a moment of pity, overlook the fact
that I was a bit tainted in the virgin area. But I still had a lot of
studying ahead of me so I cut out of the church a bit early. I was only
a half-block away, when my cool little sling-back heels turned inward
and I landed on the sidewalk in a very prone position.
Now the funny thing was that, within a very few minutes, Mass ended
and parishioners streamed out toward their homes and cars. They must
have also had tests to study for or big breakfasts on their minds because
they all stepped over me or walked around me as if I had simply decided
to sit down and rest in the middle of the sidewalk in my Jackie Kennedy
A-line dress with demure lace mantilla over my head, de rigueur church
garb of that day, and I wasnt anything they wanted to disturb.
A neighbor finally saw me and helped me into his car but, all in all,
the situation was a poor advertisement for piety.
I dont know what happened, I offered to Frankie, the
kid from our street who had his dads car that morning. Frankie,
the scion of a successful imported cheese and macaroni business his
grandfather had started in South Philadelphia, was someone I hadnt
seen too frequently since he was sent off to Valley Forge Military Academy
and Junior College to straighten out. I just fell
for no reason, I said as I gritted my teeth against the throbbing
of my ankle and the tight swelling already overlapped the straps of
Jeez, said Frankie. You should be more careful cuz
you could really get hurt. Back when I was thirteen I had already
grown breasts and sported a figure that drew whistles and hog calls
from the older, tough boys that hung around outside Robbies Luncheonette
and went to the dances at Holy Cross but who never went inside Holy
Cross to dance. They stayed out in the parking lot and drank from bottles
hidden in trunks and under car seats. They would show up at Chez Vous
Skating Hall on Sunday afternoons, slouch along the sides of the rink
and leer at all the girls gliding round and round like music box figurines.
I was one of those girls, trying to look cool as ice, blocking out as
best as I could their tongue clicks and wet kissing sounds as I skated
by but secretly loving their attention. And then two of the younger
boys on the floor, hot dogging as usual, darted in front of me and our
wheels clanged and our legs got tangled up and the three of us went
down together and a bunch of skaters behind us who couldnt get
out of the way in time piled on top of us. There were a lot of screams
and of course the music never stopped, but it was the laughing that
was loudest. I heard it as if it were just for me even though I told
myself it couldnt be. I couldnt help it. Those kids came
out of nowhere.
Are you okay? It was a guy in a black leather jacket with
slicked back hair but also with soft green eyes and a gentle hand that
was lifting and steadying me while his buddies remained along the side,
I wanted to say sure, Im fine, but I felt shaky and didnt
trust my mouth not to let something really stupid slip past my lips
so I just gave a nod. He let go then, shrugged and turned away and said
something smart to his friends that made them laugh harder, but he left
his scent in my space and his stamp on my flesh.
I was only seven or eight when I conquered my fears and decided that
I wanted to become queen of the playground. The playground where it
happened had no grass or trees, just dancing shadows from the tall,
stark church across the road. It sat in a coal mining town in a rural
part of the state and the swings, seesaws and slides sat crudely on
black dirt and cinder. The kids from my town went there on hot summer
days to get out of their houses where moms were either preoccupied or
absent, on the job at one of the sewing factories nearby or the big
cigar factory just down the block from the playground.
I was a swing junkie. I learned quickly the proper leg-pumping technique
that would let me soar so high that the chains would buckle and the
metal bars clanged and gave a little jerk when you pushed past the barrier
of gravity and interrupted that smooth arc in which the swing traveled.
It was wonderful, but I wanted more.
So one day when the swing was soaring just about as high as it could
go, I moved my grip up on the chains till I was standing on the tiny
seat platform, still pumping my knees till I could hear that satisfying
clang of the bars and feel that thrilling jerk when my body went beyond
that horizontal parallel to the earth and my feet on the board would
actually point upward to the sky. And then on one of those wonderful
back-and-forth U-shaped trips it was suddenly me forming the arc through
the sticky sweet summer air without benefit of my transportation because
I had left the swing behind. For a brief second or two I floated completely
free before landing unceremoniously on the dirt and cinders below. I
was scraped raw and bloody over a large portion of my arms and legs
and I would like to say that I was appropriately recognized for my risk
and injury, but the fact is, hardly anyone noticed. I was just one more
kid who fell off a swing. I picked myself up and went home.
Later that night Mom helped me wash up. She got out a bottle of mercurochrome
and handed me a box of band aids. Why are you always falling?
she asked, as if I could reach into my pocket, pull out the answer and
offer it to her like one of those cellophane-wrapped red and white mints
she sucked on to mask her cigarette breath.
My very first great fall came a few years earlier. I was quite small,
maybe three or four. Mom and Dad had not yet bought their first house
and we were all living in a third floor apartment in a building with
a landlord-operated grocery store at street level. Mom had to walk down
the hall outside our apartment to get to the laundry room on Mondays
when she washed our clothes. I went with her.
But one day when Mom was busy and I was bored I thought it would be
fun to squeeze out on the little ledge that reached out over the staircase
down to the level below. I kind of guessed Mom wouldnt see me.
It wasnt just on Mondays that she was busy. She was always busy.
This meant I could sometimes get away with things when she wasnt
The ledge was very narrow but I didnt take up much space. I could
hear the washing machine motor and feel the vibrations through the wall.
The hand wringer that Mom pushed the wet clothes through squeaked as
she turned the crank. The whole job took all her time and attention.
I was very far out on the ledge when I looked down. I held my breath
for a few seconds and I closed my eyes. Then I fell. Or maybe I jumped.
For sure, I flew through the air for a second or two with wings for
arms and a little bird mouth that chirped Mommy just before
I hit the landing below and went to sleep for a while.
When I woke up, I was on the sofa in our living room and Mom was standing
over me and there was also a very nice man with a black leather bag
and a little light he was shining in my face. He spoke softly and gently
touched my chest with a disk at the end of some tubing stuck in his
ears. Some of the neighbors were there too and I felt happy because
they were all watching me, hovering over, like angels who had come just
to keep me safe.
I waited and watched for angels forever after, but they never came back.
© Judy Radano 2003
that cut crystal ash tray look nice in the living room? she would
a member of the Philidelphia Writers Group
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