The window in the corner of the room framed pedestrians walking below on brick sidewalks as Star Langley bobbed and weaved in her wheelchair. Her creamy brown fingers, wrapped in white tape and clenched in a fist, punched a red punching bag with splotches of wan yellow that was hung adjacent to the window. This had been part of Star’s morning routine for years. Left glut, right glut, left glut, right glut: she shadowboxed because a physical therapist had once told her that shifting her weight back and forth was good for her core strength, would help with her posture in the wheelchair. The therapist had also told her that adding more muscle would help prevent the thick Savannah swullocking from sapping the energy out of her. Sometimes when Star, wearing only a sports bra and a short pair of gym shorts, cocked her arm back or leaned too much one way she would shiver because her wheelchair’s steel felt like it had been left outside in a Michigan winter.
This was because the central air in Star’s posh house in the historic district was constantly on for a reprieve, but the sudden temperature change often hit people like an arctic blast from a butcher’s freezer. Not gainfully employed, or at least not earning a substantial paycheck, Star worked from ten AM to two PM at Savannah’s Historic Society near her house—she thought it was important to preserve Savannah’s Southern charm. However, Star was often upset with the historic district’s inaccessibility, sighting the sidewalks’ bricks as being too loose or not packed tight enough together, creating gaps that her own wheelchair’s tires had got caught in. She also noted that the sidewalks were woefully uneven because of the tree roots under the bricks, making them hard to navigate, dizzying, and raucous on wheelchair-users’ bodies. This clash between Star, who wanted to marginally update Savannah’s landscape, and the other members of the Historic Society who were determined to keep Savannah exactly as it was, resulted in frequent shouting matches and occasional petty office politics but when the smoke cleared everyone kept their friendships in tact—in fact, many members of the Historic Society were so close that they spent the holidays together, meaning Star always had a family to celebrate with.
Star was a throwback. She would buy solid, bright-colored dresses on West Broughton St. that looked like they were plucked out of a 1950‘s catalogue: an opaque marigold number down to her knees, an airy sundress with lilac designs, and Star’s favorite, a lime green dress that showed off her arms and shoulders, the material slanting inwards beginning at her breasts and ending at the dress’s collar. Farther down Broughton St., Star would roll into the black, wooden façade of the Goorin Bros. hat shop and pick up something to complement her dresses like a peach cloche for her royal blue dress, a floppy-brimmed hat with shades of turquoise to add some color to her clandestine white dress that beamed off her milk chocolate-y skin. Star liked dressing up, and she felt as though she was representing those in wheelchairs, so she took it upon herself to look as professional and attractive as possible. Even on her off days from the Historic Society when Star wore a plain Panama hat to go with a white T–shirt and jet black suspenders clipped to a rolled up pair of jean shorts snug near her belly button, Star somehow seemed inexplicably fresh, like her aura had been dried out on a clothesline in the Georgia sun.
Star not only looked the part of a Southern Bell but talked it too; using terms of endearment for everyone, having a smile so inviting it could lure the city’s ghosts, and embodying a maternal presence that would envelop a person as soon as s/he entered the room. Some years ago when Star was reading a book by a bench in Chippewa Park across the street from her house, a lanky, older gentleman with silky white hair and wrinkles and freckles behind his bifocals sat on the bench next to Star’s wheelchair.
“Do you mind if I sit down, Ms.?” He asked Star.
Star looked up from her book: “Not at all. Come on down, suga’.”
“How are you doing today?” the gentleman asked, resting his elbows on his thighs.
“Mighty fine, mighty fine.” Star looked into the distance with a grin, “Can’t complain when you’re on this side of the dirt. How you doin’ today, darlin’?”
“I’m doing good. I need to break from walking. The sun is strong today.” He turned towards Star and stuck out his weathered hand, “I’m sorry I should have introduced myself. I’m Thomas.”
“Star.” She shook the man’s hand, intertwining their skin like a chocolate and vanilla soft serve from Leopold’s.
“I’m a tour guide for Old Town Trollies. I see you reading here a lot when I drive the trolley by, or when you’re reading in front of Flannery O’Connor’s house.”
“Flannery’s my bitch, suga’.”
“Your bitch, really?” They both laughed.
“Oh, yes, sir. Flannery’s a baaaaad bitch.” Star pointed and smiled: “That’s my house over there. That’s why I’m at this park all the time.”
“Wow, that’s a nice house. Did you grow up around here?”
“Mhmm.” Star nodded. “Went to grammar school just down the street here. Then I went to Beach High, and stayed right here and earned my degree in art history from SCAD.”
“You’re a Savannahian through and through, huh?” Tom smiled.
“Certain as the Sun risin’, honey.” Star tapped the man on the knee. “Right out of SCAD I got accepted to a Ph.D. program in Athens, and although I’m glad I earned my degree, it showed me that Savannah will forever hold my heart.”
“It is a pretty enchanted place, this city of ours.” The man looked around at the intricate lush-work of Live Oak trees draped with spindly, pallid green Spanish moss. “A girl like you in that house, you must have good parents.”
“Actually, Tom, my mom left when I was born, and my father, well he passed away when I was a sophomore in high school. So I live in that house by myself”
“My word, Star, I’m sorry for bringing the subject up.”
“Don’t be, darlin’. You didn’t know.” Star appeared to look at her feet, but focused on her wheelchair’s frame. “My daddy and I were in a blue carriage on a Ferris wheel. Our carriage was all the way out on the side, you know? So there was no carriage below us. The hook holding the carriage rusted out and we plummeted to the ground. He died; I broke my C-8 vertebrae.”
Tom, flabbergasted, unsure of what to say, muttered, “Jeez, you just never know, I guess.”
Star corrected him: “Everyone says that, but we all know what we gon’ get.”
“I should get going.”
“Okay, suga’. I hope I didn’t scare you off.”
“No, no, of course not,” Tom said, standing up.
“You feel free now to say hello when you drive by in your trolley, ya’ hear?”
That’s how everybody got to know Star. That is, everybody who didn’t know her already. A lot of people had seen her in the parks—she was hard to miss in her wheelchair and vibrant outfits, gravitating towards the style while in graduate school—and as a lifelong resident and alumna of SCAD, she had relationships with the younger locals. But when Tom started calling Star over the microphone of his trolley during tours, and she responded by waving and showing off that charming smile: “Hi, y’all. Welcome to Savannah.” People finally felt comfortable approaching Star, her life story and temperament demystified. Little did people know that any inquiry was all it took for Star to open up like an azalea in bloom.
Star told herself that she deserved to have fun, and although she would never say it out loud, she was convinced, factoring in her disability and everything she had been through, that she maybe even deserved to have more fun than the people around her. This personal belief led Star to multiple late nights with SCAD students in City Market or at bars on Oglethorpe St. City Market late at night or in the early morning hours had a convivial atmosphere where people wore outlandish outfits or costumes while imbibing the alcohol in their To-Go cups. This meant that Star’s somewhat unorthodox attire was rather apropos in the youthful crowd, and on special occasions Star would even call on the help of her SCAD classmates to make cardboard or papier-mâché frames of classic cars that she would attach to her wheelchair—on nights like these, often under the dreamy marquis of Savannah’s fireworks, Star’s extrovert came out and usually involved her leaning over and shimmying with folded arms amongst a coronation surrounding her.
Star had earned a reputation: since she was not one to deny herself pleasure, combined with the proximity of her house, Star would take home co-eds from SCAD or whoever was around and have sexual relations. She didn’t care if the person was male or female, or if it was with one person or multiple. Star would wear a strap-on dildo, writhe her body and lips against the other person’s, or laid on her back while the other person held her gelatin-like calves in the air and endlessly thrust upon her: Star took immense gratification in committing whatever act to please the other person(s). The warmth of Savannah allowed Star to have these forays under her veranda on a floral design-covered couch. Star’s veranda was her favorite part of her house with its olive wood floor and railings and lone, giant ceiling fan spinning over the fogged glass of a table adorned with gray wicker chairs—Star would sip on a glass of sweet tea as the Southern Sun set—but she did not allow anyone on the second floor of her house (aka the main floor, depending how you looked at it). Star’s bedroom and living room were on the lower level where it was coolest, right off the courtyard. She had an elevator to the upstairs where she had a library, work out room, kitchen, and computer room.
The veranda acted as an overlay that blocked any viewing through neighbors’ windows, and a ten-foot high concrete wall on the perimeter of Star’s courtyard kept everything private. Like a dollop of Van Gogh’s paint in the sky, the moon lit the courtyard, and the dissonant chrr-ing of cicadas in the Spanish moss drowned out any noises. In the truest sense of the word, Star knew what sultry meant: these scenes would take place outside because Star liked feeling sweat on people’s and her own body—it felt more primal to her—and after the debauchery, everyone involved could fall asleep in the night’s hospitality and wake up to the Savannah dawn.
Every now and then Star would attend fancy functions for the Historic Society, but most of her nights would begin at six when she would start performing managerial duties at a small diner squeezed into the colonial cityscape. The owner was Star’s best friend Lucy graduated from SCAD with a degree in production design, so the diner’s decor was done quite tastefully with retro doors, a bar with old stools and a lowered section at the end for someone in a wheelchair, kitty-cornered booths with plush, cherry red leather and a cut-out at the end of the table for someone to pull into, and plain standing tables with silver legs and a shiny napkin dispenser and condiment holder. From the walls hung multiple Norman Rockwell-style paintings depicting the modern family as well as ‘Nighthawks’-emulated paintings exhibiting scenes from Savannah and Tybee Island—all the paintings were done by Star and Lucy’s classmates.
Star, who had given Lucy money to get her project off the ground, volunteered at the diner, seating people and checking in on patrons to make sure they had a positive experience. This was another way people could familiarize themselves with Star: she knew it was unfair that the onus was on her to show people that she was ‘normal’, but she still chatted with them and made herself available, regulars giving her the nickname ‘Doc Star’. Star made sure everyone knew that she had earned her Ph.D., and whenever a family from the North stopped by, Star made it a point to note that Union soldiers desecrated Confederate graves in the town’s cemetery.
Lucy had to attend a funeral in South Carolina on the last day of Restaurant Week in July, and the person she trusted most to count the day’s earnings was Star, so she asked Star to stay until two AM and close the diner on that particular day. Star gladly obliged.
The night stared off as usual: slow at six, increasing in volume at seven, hitting its high point between eight and nine—of course, there were more customers and tourists because of the deals during Restaurant Week. Star wore a sleeveless, electric blue dress down to her shins and a fish net hairpiece with a dab of blue orchid. Early in the night, Star rolled over to a family she had recognized. After a while, the family’s five-year-old daughter asked, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” The mother’s child had a mortified expression on her face, embarrassed by her daughter’s brashness, but Star appreciated the girl’s inquisitiveness and laughed. “Now, baby girl, come here and sit on my lap.” The little girl, scared, looked to her parents for approval. “Come on now. I ain’t gonna’ bite.” Star flashed that welcoming smile and waved the girl over. On the end seat of the booth, the little girl swung her legs out from under the table, walked to Star, and crawled up in her lap. Star put an arm around the girl and looked down into her tender eyes: “Well, baby, I was in an accident a long time ago where I took a pretty big fall and broke a bone in my back, but I have a good life now and I don’t think about that anymore.”
“Was it a long fall?”
“She just said she doesn’t like to think about it,” the mother said, chastising her daughter.
Star briefly closed her eyes and put a hand out to signify that she could handle it: “It’s okay, dear. This is how she’ll learn.” Star directed her attention back to the little girl, and pointed to a building outside the window. “You see that building?”
“I fell from a Ferris wheel as high as the tippity-top of it.”
“That’s really high.”
“Yeah it is, but it almost never happens so you don’t have to worry about it.”
“But why did it happen to you?”
Star paused and tried to smile as she pursed her lips; forlornness washed over her eyes. “I couldn’t tell ya’, baby. I just know that’s why it’s important to have fun every day and make those days count.”
Even the young girl was awe-struck by Star’s honesty, and got on her knees to hug Star. Star rubbed the girl’s back.
That night, after the diner had closed, Star counted money at the cash register. She felt the steel of a gun’s barrel press against her head. “Just give me the money and I’ll go.“
“You think I ain’t seen you sizin’ this place up for the last week? Honey, I see everythin’ that goes on in here.”
“All right, all right.” Star put her hands up. “You see that button over there?” She nodded to a white button on the underside of the bar. “That’s to alert the police—I ain’t reachin’ for it.” Star felt the barrel’s pressure ease. “Now, I’m bettin’ you’ve heard some things about me, but, child please, I wasn’t in no accident. My daddy didn’t leave me no money. His brother runs a chain of banks and felt bad for me because he knew my daddy was an asshole.”
“Hurry up,” the robber said slower, more serious, reapplying the barrel’s pressure to Star’s head.
“My daddy, drunk of course, picked me up and threw me across the kitchen and into a pole because I was askin’ him about my mama. Can you believe that? Anyways, while I was on the floor wincin’ I grabbed a stray knife and lunged it right through his foot. Then he reached for me with his hand and, with tears in my eyes, I took the knife out of the foot and put it through his hand. That’s when I passed out. Police found me a few days later in a pool of his blood.”
Star could sense the robber’s urgency to flee the scene: “Money, now.”
As the robber pushed the gun’s barrel Star bobbed her head like she was shadow boxing. She yanked the robber’s arm down over her shoulder, bending it the wrong way, breaking it, and causing the gun to drop. She pumped her wheelchair backwards, jolting the robber against a wall. Star spun herself around, simultaneously grabbing the knife she had killed her father with—which she had fashioned to look like the wheelchair’s brake—and precisely sliced down, up, down across the robber’s torso. Then Star sliced horizontally along the abdomen, gutting the robber. The robber fell to floor and bled out.
“Fuck, y’all…Now I gotta’ scrub my tires.”