I'm Terribly Sorry, Mr. Hartzburger

Fiction

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Hartzburger.”

Stewart could swear he saw sweat glistening from the vellus hair on her earlobe.

For all the Adonis figures Stewart had drawn, all the rippling pectorals of warriors and contoured abs of maidens, he loved the rare opportunities he had to draw ears.

“It’s okay, Sandra, it’s not your fault.”

Gloria Hartzburger expected her husband to be calm and polite, but his voice didn’t really sound like him.

Gloria raised her right leg and placed her stiletto heel against the wall of the old theater. She felt like donkey kicking it, but the snafu certainly wasn’t the building’s fault, nor the fault of the people who had recently renovated it.

“You’re sure you won’t allow some of our staff to lift you onto the stage?”

Gloria sucked angry air through her teeth.

“ No, thank you, Sandra, Stewart said. “My wife will walk up and accept the award on my behalf. I’m sure we can pose for pictures in the lobby.”

Sandra, the stage manager for the awards show, exhaled in relief far too much for Gloria Hartzburger’s liking.

“My husband is being accommodating, Sandra, but the Port Kowalski Arts Council is not out of the woods on this one. It’s an outrage. Let your people know that.”

Sandra gave a nervous little bow, her event walkie talkie crackled and she ran up the five stairs to the stage and disappeared behind the curtain.

Stewart swung his wheelchair to face his wife.

“As pissed as I am, Glory, she seems really overworked on this thing. They have that Flint City Choir performing. That’s like 80 kids.”

“You’re the Lifetime Achievement Award winner and they didn’t make the gawddamn stage accessible, Stewart. And, oh, your wife is standing right here, maybe you should ask her if she wants to walk out in front of 250 people and sweetly accept your award.”

Stewart spun the chair like he was sixteen, with a huge, I-just-caught-a-trophy-fish smile on his face.

“I didn’t ask you, darling, because I’m not going to ask you. You most certainly are welcome to accept the award for me, I don’t mind. But I just said that to the young woman. That’s not what I have in mind at all.”

Gloria was still frothing.

“All the nerds bought tickets to this event because of you, Stewart. You illustrated all their favorite book covers. You think anyone gives a squirrel’s balls about the Glass Blower of the Year or Miss Papier Mache? No, Stewart, the whole damn theater is full of nineteen-year-old sword and elf dorks here to see Stewart Fucking Hartzburger.”

Stewart’s smile didn’t wane. If anything, it grew.

“They’re gonna see me.”

Gloria knelt. She was loathe to kneel in front of her husband under most circumstances, but as she bent in Stewart knew she was doing it so she could whisper.

What came from her mouth, next to Stewart’s head was far more growl than whisper. The sound would have been at home in the throat of one of the demonic mythical beasts in the books for which Stewart did front and back cover illustrations.

“My darling, you are not going to call DaVaughn and have him arrange a portable chair lift on your dime. No. No. No. Tell these thoughtless assholes that they can spring for one.

Stewart reached through his wife’s hair and nuzzled into her ear.

“Nothing like that, luscious. I promise. Please trust me.”

Gloria stood. Her husband had dispensed with the smile and looked serious. Not nearly as enraged as she felt, but serious.

“We both know that ADA enforcement is less predictable than the candy that bursts from a pinata,” Stewart said. 

Gloria smoothed her dress.

Her mind played a scene in which her husband penned an open letter about the lack of accessibility in buildings, the grandfather loopholes in restroom facilities, all the failures in compliance that had routinely occurred for decades, posted it to social media, then they refused his award and left the theater, making the Arts Council and the town look foolish.

Stewart didn’t have his phone out. He did little bouncing half wheelies in his high-performance chair. He still seemed too calm for the circumstance.

Some more Arts Council people stopped by, offered stammered apologies and weak, band-aid fixes.

Gloria chewed her lower lip as her husband pleasantly dealt with all of it. She snapped and unsnapped her clutch, calming herself as the ceremony got underway.

Some Arts Council toadie brought her a comfortable-looking antique upholstered chair that might have been a building original. She refused to sit in it.

Stewart applauded politely for the awards, laughed out loud at the Textile Artist of the Year’s acceptance speech, and ate a shrimp cocktail that a bow-tied server brought him.

He’s just too calm, his wife thought.

She relaxed her folded arms and allowed herself to smile.

Sandra came back and informed Gloria and Stewart that Phillippe would be giving a five-minute speech of introduction, then Gloria could proceed up the steps and to the podium to accept the award.

As Sandra bounded off, Stewart shook his head side to side.

Gloria knew the look very well.

No. I got this.

“Feel like going live?”He asked.

Gloria pulled her phone from her clutch and effortlessly started a video.

Stewart stage whispered, “I’m about to be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Port Kowalski Arts Council.”

Phillipe was talking about Stewart’s humble beginnings. Cliches cascaded from the speakers.

When Gloria heard the words “overcoming obstacles” she felt chorizo backfire in her esophagus.

Phillippe for all his cliches, was building to a nice dramatic crescendo.

Stewart looked back at his wife’s camera.

“Many disabled people around the globe can’t do what I’m about to do. I don’t want to do this. But I want everyone to remember this night, so next time anyone is invited to the stage at the Historic Ruzzin Theater, no one is put in the position I have been put in tonight.”

Stewart swung the chair back to face the stairs.

Gloria heard Phillippe say “Honored guests, it is my distinct pleasure to present to you the Port Kowalski Art’s Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient, Mr. Stewart Hartzburger.”

Stewart grabbed the lip of the third step, pulled himself from the chair, up the two remaining steps, and with his legs motionless behind him, began to drag himself across the stage.

Gloria held the camera aloft and filmed, commenting #ADA and #compliancenow on her own video.

Phillippe stood on the stage, his face the maroon of the theater curtain.

Stewart, whose forearms rivaled the forearms of the men he illustrated on the cover of epic fantasies, was making pretty good time across the stage as the crowd stood, gawked, and applauded.

With all eyes on her husband, Gloria stepped back and put her stilettoed foot through the wall of the theater.

It will be a good place, she thought, for them to start installing a ramp.

***

Photo by Randall Honold on Unsplash