Leah Mueller

Parking Lot Prophet

The usually weak October sun was still warm as I pedaled my bike through the forest preserve. I was content as it was possible to be, given my usual melancholic temperament. The Gilman bike trail was one of the few things I liked about my life in Kane County. I rode almost every day, across the flat roads of entire counties, as rows of yellow and orange maple trees stretched expansively in all directions.

I’d spent the past week agonizing about a hospitalized friend. Noel had experienced a sudden, freakish blood clot, and the doctors decided to amputate one of his legs. Afterward, he slipped into a coma. Three days earlier, an acquaintance and I had hovered above Noel’s hospital bed, peering anxiously at his pale, unresponsive form. Every time Noel’s head twitched on the pillow, the friend demanded shrilly, “Noel? NOEL!  Tell us if you can hear us.” A nurse finally told her to cut it out.

Noel remained unconscious for nearly a week. He stopped breathing entirely on several occasions. A few of the staff members took a liking to him, and held prayer sessions in an adjacent room. Hands clasped, they huddled in clusters and begged the Lord to spare Noel’s life. None of them were disturbed by the fact that he was a Jewish atheist.

Miraculously, Noel emerged from his coma as if he had awakened from a long nap. He wasn’t certain whether divine intervention had played a role, but was careful not to ask too many questions. Though Noel’s condition remained critical, the doctors expected him to survive. No one knew how he would learn to get around with one leg, however.

Only a year beforehand, in rush hour traffic, Noel had leaned the top half of his body out of the passenger window of my Toyota, and helped me steer through the hostile maze of automobiles.  He’d waved his arms around and smiled at everyone, and we seamlessly merged in front of the other cars. I choked up every time I remembered how confident Noel had looked, and how much he’d amused the usually surly Chicago drivers. Limited mobility would be especially difficult for a guy like him.

I was a casual, but seasoned bike rider, and could usually do the twelve mile trek from Aurora to Montgomery and back in one hour. In Montgomery, the trail ended abruptly in a bulb-shaped parking lot. Often, the lot was empty, but today a lone car perched on the asphalt. Both doors splayed open, and a lean, older man reclined in the driver’s seat, long legs dangling in front of him.  As I approached, he smiled.  “Lovely day, huh?” he asked.

Normally, the sight of a solitary gentleman lounging inside a parked automobile would alarm me, but this one was at least seventy, and appeared benevolent. “There won’t be many more warm days,” I said politely, smiling.

The man looked at my bicycle. “I like to park here a couple of times a week, and walk down to the bridge and back,” he said proudly.  “It’s just a couple of miles, but I only have one leg.”

I gaped at him with astonishment, then stole a furtive glance downward.  “It’s the left one,” he explained, reading my mind. He rolled up his pant cuff, showed me the metal bar underneath, and covered his leg again. “Had it removed about three years ago.  Took me a while to relearn how to walk, and of course I can’t go as far as I did before.  But I’ve got a good prosthetic, and that helps a lot.”

“How amazing,” I said.  “My friend Noel had his leg amputated this week. He lapsed into a coma, and we thought he was a goner. Today was the first day the doctors said he would pull through.”

The man studied my face. ‘How’s Noel feeling now?” he asked earnestly.

I shook my head.  “Glad to be alive, of course.  But it’s tough for him.  He’s always been a very mobile guy, so he’s pretty depressed.”

It was closer to the truth to say that I was the one who was depressed. I wasn’t certain how Noel felt, since only one day had passed since his awakening. He’d sounded subdued on the phone, resigned to his inevitable survival. “Helluva second Saturn return,” he said ruefully.

“I remember that,” the gentleman replied.  “It was difficult for quite some time, until I gained more acceptance, and realized I could still get around.  Tell your friend the first year is the hardest, and depression is normal, especially in the beginning.”

He squinted hard at the line of trees on the far side of the parking lot. “I’ve gotten to the point where I love coming here,” he said. “I just walk slowly and enjoy everything.” He shifted his gaze back to me, and smiled. “I think your friend is going to be okay.”

I nodded my agreement.  What other possible reason could there be for our meeting? “I’ll be sure to give him your message,” I assured him.  I climbed back onto my bike, gaped at him with my mouth half-open. “Pretty amazing I met you just now.”

The guy shrugged.  “It’s a good day to be outside,” he said simply.  “Enjoy your bike ride.  I hope your friend is in better shape, next time I see you.” He returned his gaze to the trees, smiled mysteriously. Then he swung his legs back into the car in one swift, coordinated maneuver, as if nothing was the matter.

Stunned, I buckled my helmet strap underneath my chin and pedaled away.  As I rode through the clusters of maple trees and cornfields, I stole a peek at my own legs and made a mental note to pay more attention to everything. It seemed that people could waste their entire lives taking shit for granted.  Next thing they knew, they were completely out of years. But at least Noel was going to live a while longer. The parking lot prophet had spoken, and I could finally get some rest.

Leah Mueller is the author of two chapbooks, Queen of Dorksville and Political Apnea, and books, Allergic to Everything and The Underside of the Snake. Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review,  and many others. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.

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