Fiction / Poetry
I Met a Large Toad
by Laurel Ives
Hi. Haven’t looked at any emails for a whole week! This past week, with a car, no responsibilities, has felt like a month. So much fun. Travelling all over the place. I got to sit on a balcony, in the dark, right next to Boston Harbor, and stare into space. I visited a castle, and had lunch bought for me by a woman I had just met. I saw spring-fed pools of cold water running down from the Catskill Mountains. I heard a wafer-thin visceral performance artist articulating the angst and freedom associated with prostitution, in the semi-dark. I saw the Dale Chihuly exhibition, again. I met some young entrepreneurs about to launch a bee-centric honey business. I looked at fabric with computers and fabric with coke cans on it, printed in Africa. I met a large toad on the sidewalk as I entered a motel room that I stayed in, by myself. I hugged both of my daughters. I sang happy birthday to Sally. I ate cake with Mang, Bob and Jonathan, and David Turner. I picked out Daylilies to be dug up and planted. I crossed Boston Gardens, by the swan boats, and then Boston Common. I bought a tape measure. I steered a motor boat out into the ocean. I witnessed an orange glowing dot fall from the ceiling, held by wisps of dust, which then completely vanished. I discovered that the Boston Custom House is now a Marriot Hotel. I saw three ancient oil boilers covered in white plaster, side by side, in an old dusty basement. I heard a young woman with tattoos in a red dress, tell how and why to keep bees in the city, her speech dotted with laughing profanity. Nice.
Now I’m back in my cubicle. It occurs to me that I’m in a jail of sorts. But I’m supposed to be happy I even have a job.
A White Horse
by Thom Jones
Ad Magic had one of his epileptic premonitions a split second before the collision, and managed to approximate a tuck-and-roll position just as the truck smashed into the back of the mini tour bus. He was seated in the center of the back row enduring the most horrendous hangover of his life when the crash projected him halfway down the center aisle like a human cannonball. There was a moment of stillness after the accident, and then the bus lurched over to the side of the road. A group of five men and a woman from Bahrain sitting in the center of the bus, themselves somewhat discombobulated but unhurt, got out of their seats to help the peculiar American to his feet.
Ad Magic had a jawbreaker-size horehound lozenge in his cheek when the wreck occurred, and now it was caught at the back of his throat. He attempted to swallow the candy discreetly, lodging it farther into his throat, and when he realized it was too large to swallow he tried to cough it up. He panicked as he began to run out of air, however, and dropped to one knee and choked out a cartoonish series of coughs — “Kaff, kaff, kaff.”
He could feel a heat wave beneath his breastbone which radiated up to his face and ears, burning like wildfire as he turned to the Bahrainis with furious gesticulations, indicating that he needed someone to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him. The Bahrainis soon got the gist of his problem and began slapping Ad Magic’s back, while he clutched his throat like a man being hanged.
At last one of the Bahrainis socked him mightily on the spine with the side of his fist, and, KA-ZEEM!, the lozenge shot out of Ad Magic’s mouth, bounced off the windshield of the bus, and fell into the driver’s lap. As Ad Magic began to breathe again, a great laugh exploded among the Bahrainis, who were at once relieved and amused by the absurdity of the entire scene. Ad Magic had spent the better part of a day with these people, and while he was grateful to be breathing he felt that their laughter was tinged with ridicule and hostility, as had been their whole repertoire of Jerry Lewis hilarity. When they cried mocking insults at the enormous statue of a serene, meditating Buddha in the caves of Elephanta, for instance, they stirred up a thousand and one bats, which came shrieking past Ad Magic in such a profusion that he was buffeted by their wings and their surprisingly hefty bodies. He slipped in bat guano in an attempt to duck under the flock, falling on his knee and hand. The guano was an inch deep and felt like a cold pudding. Fortunately, one of the Bahrainis had a package of Handi Wipes, and he was able to clean the worst of it off, although the stench persisted, and he could still smell it whenever his hand was in proximity to his face.
The bus, with a blown tire, wheeled onto the shoulder of Marine Drive, one of Bombay’s busiest streets. Ad Magic straight-armed the side emergency-exit door and staggered outside. He could breathe well enough, but his throat felt bruised. He shucked off his teal-green cashmere V-neck sweater. It had been madness wearing that. The air outside the bus was humid and suffocating. Ad Magic recognized Chowpatty beach and realized he was on a peninsula that extended into the Arabian Sea like a finger. He knew that Bombay consisted of a series of islands off the coast of India, and that from this point he was less than a few miles from the Gateway of India, where the tour had originated.
A small boy, about eight or ten (it was hard to tell, partly because he had a shaved head) approached Ad Magic, carrying a rhesus monkey on his shoulder. The monkey, dressed in a dirty red uniform with epaulets, gold piping, and a tiny bellman’s cap, began an incomprehensible performance in the art of mime. When it was over, the monkey approached the American and presented its upturned hat to him as a collection cup. Ad Magic began to cough again as he fished in his pockets. He placed a half-dozen rupees in the monkey’s cap and tossed his expensive sweater to the boy. “Go ahead,” he said, “take it. It’s all yours.”
The Bahraini woman had seen the monkey’s performance, and emitted a shrill, trilling cry. One of the men, who could speak a little English, said facetiously, “Bravo. Excellent monkey.”
The tour guide climbed out of the bus and callously questioned the American about his condition. Ad Magic said he was all right, and then she chastised him for giving so much money to the boy. “Not is good,” she said with a sneer. Ad Magic walked away from the guide and the Bahrainis, wanting nothing more to do with them. He moved from the road onto the sand of Chowpatty Beach, and when he felt sufficiently separated from them he turned and watched as the guide skillfully led the party of Bahrainis across the whizzing four-lane traffic of Marine Drive and into a decrepit establishment called the New Zealand Café.
There were billboards on either side of the grimy, stuccoed building. One, in English, advertised Gabriel shock absorbers. The other, featuring an apparently famous Indian leading man, who had sort of a Rudolph Valentino look, was in Hindi. It was an advertisement for mens’ hairdressing. Beyond the café, through the filter of buzzing traffic and the haze of diesel fuel, Ad Magic spotted a cardboard shantytown. The settlement was centered around a crescent-shaped drainage ditch, and people could be seen squatting there, shamelessly relieving themselves, while at the other end of the obscene ditch, women were washing laundry.
Looking into the restaurant, Ad Magic could see one of the Bahrainis clutching his throat and pretending to choke while the rest of the party laughed. Their mouths were opened wide, revealing an abundance of golden inlays. They waved to him and cheered heartily. He wondered why they were so jolly. Why couldn’t he be like that?
Out front, the bus driver was quarreling with the driver of the truck that had rear-ended the tour bus. Ad Magic turned away again and walked toward the Arabian Sea, out of the envelope of diesel exhaust into a small, pleasantly pungent pocket of gardenia, and then back into a zone of truly ghastly odor. The tuna cannery in American Samoa had been bad, but it was nothing compared with these little pockets of smell that were all over Bombay, and what was worse was that you had to be nonchalant about it with your fellow travelers and not complain, for no one else seemed to notice it. Ad Magic was suddenly overcome by a sense of unreality, he wondered if he had been to American Samoa at all, or if it had been a dream and, indeed, if the Bombay of the here and now was a dream.
He surveyed the long, deserted stretch of beach, and spotted a small white horse standing forlornly in the surf. As he moved closer to the horse he saw that it was old and swaybacked, covered with oozing sores, and so shrunken that its ribs protruded and its teeth seemed overly large. The horse was having a hard time staying on its feet, and Ad Magic watched it reel. There were plenty of scenes of poverty and desolation in India, but this was the most abject and miserable sight he had ever laid eyes on. Clearly, the horse was going to die, possibly within the hour. Had it been meant to die so completely alone, abandoned? It occurred to Ad Magic that it was the suffering of a horse that had finally driven Friedrich Nietzsche into an irretrievable insanity in the month of January 1889.
Good God! He had done it again. He had abandoned his seizure meds, flipped out, and somehow gotten on a plane, this time bound for India. He frantically searched his pockets for a passport. There was none. He had no wallet either — only an enormous fat roll of American hundred-dollar bills, some loose smaller bills mixed with Indian currency, and a ball of heavy change that caused his pocket to bulge. He didn’t even know his own name; he knew only “Ad Magic,” but as he sorted out the loose cash he discovered a room key from the Taj Inter-Continental. “Suite 7” was imprinted on the tag, and Ad Magic knew that the secret to his identity would be found there, although he was in no particular hurry to return to the hotel. Somehow he felt that it would be better not to know, at least not yet.
His throat continued to bother him. As he riffled through his pockets, he found a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a beautiful gold lighter. He extracted a cigarette and lit it. The boy with the monkey appeared at his side and bummed a smoke. Ad Magic lit it for him, and watched the boy pass the cigarette to the monkey, who held it in the fashion of an aristocratic SS officer in an old black-and-white Second World War movie. The monkey smoked as though he had a real yen for nicotine, and after this demonstration he presented his little bellman’s cap for another tip. Ad Magic gave him a five-dollar bill and then sat down on a small, rusting Ferris wheel, looking out at the horse again. He took a drag off his cigarette, and on his wrist he noticed a stainless steel Med-Alert bracelet and a solid gold Rolex. He examined them both with curiosity, as if he had never seen them before. The little bracelet was inscribed with the word “Epilepsy.”
Epilepsy. Ad Magic did not have epilepsy in the classic sense, with full-blown, convulsive seizures. He was a temporal-lobe epileptic. He remembered this now. He had suffered an epileptic fugue. He still wasn’t sure what his name was, where he lived, whether he was married, whether he had children, or much else, but he did know himself to be an advertising man. That, and an epileptic.
He quite clearly remembered the voice of his doctor, the large, high-ceilinged consulting room trimmed in dark oak, a door with a frosted-glass window, and a hands-clasped-in-prayer statue on the doctor’s desk. Ad Magic remembered spending hours from early adolescence into maturity in that room. He remembered majestic oak trees, crisp autumn afternoons, the smell of burning leaves, and the palatial brownstone estates of a Midwestern city, but he could not identify the city, could not picture the doctor or remember his name.
He did not know the man had been more than a doctor to him; he had been a good friend as well, a man whom Ad Magic loved very much. He suspected that the doctor was now dead, but he distinctly remembered something the doctor had told him about his condition. “These spells you have, where you go gadding about the world — they could be a form of epileptic fugue, or you could be suffering from the classical form of global amnesia, which is so often depicted on television soap operas. They are very common in television melodrama but almost unheard of in real life. But so, too, are psychomotor fugues, which are a kind of status epilepticus of the left temporal lobe.”
Ad Magic didn’t know who he was or how he had come to India. He only knew that there were times when he became so depressed and irritable and finally so raving mad that he had to throw his medications away, bolt out, and intoxicate himself or in some way extinguish his consciousness. He felt this way now. He felt loathing for everything on the face of the earth, including himself; but the suffering of this white horse was something he could not abide. It was a relief, suddenly, to have something other than himself and his hangover on which to fix his attention.
He summoned the boy, who was now proudly wearing the cashmere sweater, and took him and the monkey across the road to the New Zealand Café. The air inside was laden with cooking grease and cigarette smoke, but a pair of ceiling fans beat through the haze like inverted helicopters. A waiter in a dingy white jacket was serving tea and a plate of sticky cookies to the Bahrainis. From the kitchen, a radio blared a tinny version of “Limehouse Blues.” Ad Magic pulled a chair up next to the tour guide and said, “Ask the boy who that horse on the beach belongs to.”
The guide was a good-looking woman in her late thirties, who fluctuated mercurially between obsequiousness and sullen aggression. She wore an orange sari that seemed immaculately clean. Ad Magic wondered how she managed that, after the boat trip to Elephanta and the long Bombay city tour. He watched her interrogate the boy. Then she turned to Ad Magic and said, “Horse belongs to circus man, and cannot work anymore. Wandering horse now. Free to come and go.”
Ad Magic asked the guide whether she could make a phone call and summon a veterinarian.
“Veterianaria?” she said, reacting to the word bitterly, as if he had made an indecent request.
“You’re right. That’s silly, isn’t it? There must not be any veterinarians, or, if any, relatively few on call, even in such a sophisticated city as Bombay, and you’ve been through a long day, and now the bus has been wrecked. Forgive me. I’m not feeling very well today. Let me ask you. Can you tell me at which hotel I am staying?”
“The Taj,” she said.
“Right, the Taj. That’s what I thought.” Ad Magic placed a half-dozen American ten-dollar bills on the table. “Please accept this little gratuity. You’ve been marvelous. Now, I wonder if you can call a real doctor. Tell him I will make it truly worth his while. The boy and I will wait for him across the road, on the beach. I’ll get back to the hotel on my own. It is the Taj, isn’t it?” The woman nodded.
Ad Magic and the boy, with the monkey on his shoulder, crossed the road again and sat on a pair of broken merry-go-round horses that were detached from an abandoned carousel. Next to the carousel was the small Ferris wheel, contrived to be powered by a horse or mule rather than a motor. Nearby was a ticket kiosk decorated with elephant-men and monkey-men painted in brilliant, bubblegum colors. The carnival was defunct and depressing. Ad Magic remembered bright lights, a carnival of his childhood, before he had picked up on the tawdriness of carnivals and saw only the enchanting splendor of them. He couldn’t have been more than four. He was sitting in a red miniature car when he saw one of a different color — yellow — that he liked better. Impulsively, he scrambled for the better car. Just as he unbuckled his seat belt and was halfway out of the red one, the ride began and he fell, catching his arm under the car, wrenching and skinning his elbow, and bashing his face against the little vehicle’s fake door. Suddenly he was plucked free by a man in a felt hat and a raincoat, who smelled pleasantly of after-shave. His father? A stranger? He wasn’t sure; there was no face, as there had been no face on the doctor.
He searched his pockets for his cigarettes and discovered a small, flat, green-and-black tin of Powell’s Headache Tablets. He took two of these, dry-swallowed them, and then lit up another cigarette. He spotted an empty tour bus pulling up alongside the damaged bus he had arrived in, and from his seat on the rusting pony Ad Magic watched his party emerge from the New Zealand Café, board the new bus, and take off. There was no goodbye wave, even from the friendly Bahrainis. Again he tried to recover his name and city of origin, but is was hopeless. At least he had come to Bombay rather than Lusaka, or Lima, or Rangoon, or Zanzibar. He remembered coming into Zanzibar on a steamer, seasick — the odor of the spices was so powerful he could smell it twenty miles offshore. He remembered feeling instantly well when the boat reached the harbor, and how the inhabitants of the city were outside — it was midnight — marveling at the recently installed streetlights. An Australian tourist told him that Zanzibar was the last place in the world to get streetlights and that when the bulbs burned out the streetlights would never glow again unless Swiss workers were imported to come in and change them. “The bloody buggers can’t even change a light bulb,’ the Australian said, “It isn’t in their makeup.” Ad Magic’s recollection of Zanzibar was like an Alice In Wonderland hallucination. It seemed that he had remained stranded there for weeks, almost penniless, living on bread and oranges.
A faded light-green Mercedes with a broken rear spring came bouncing too fast across the beach and skidded, sliding sideways as it stopped near the carousel. An elderly European man wearing a white coat over a dirty tropical suit stepped out of the car and stretched. He had a head of unkempt, wiry white hair in the style of Albert Einstein. He brushed it back with his hand and opened the back door of the car. A magnificent boxer dog hopped out and followed the old man over to Ad Magic and the boy.
“Are you a doctor?”
“I am a doctor, yes. You were in a car accident, jah?”
“I was, but it’s nothing. I called about the horse. I wondered if you could do something about the horse. What is wrong with that animal?”
The doctor looked out at the sea, lifting his hands to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun. “Probably he has been drinking salt water in desperation. He will die, very soon.”
Ad Magic said, “I will give you five hundred American dollars if you can save that horse.”
The doctor said, “I can send him to seventh heaven with one shot. Haff him dragged away. Fifty dollars for the whole shebang.”
“Look, I don’t want to wrangle. If you can save the horse, I will pay you a thousand dollars.”
The doctor opened the trunk of the Mercedes and removed a piece of rope. He sent the boy down to the edge of the water and had him lead the horse up onto the dry sand while he backed the car another fifty feet down the beach, where the sand became too loose and he had to stop. Then he got out of the car and removed his medical bag from the back, setting it on the hood. He quickly looked the horse over. “Malnutrition, dehydration, fever,” He opened the horse’s lips. “Ah! He has infected tooth. This is very bad.”
“What about all the sores? Why does he have so many sores?”
“Quick,” the doctor said. “In my trunk I have glucose und water. We haff to getting in fluids.”
Ad Magic carried two pint-sized bottles of glucose and sterile-water solution over to the horse and then stood holding them as the doctor ran drip lines into large veins in the horse’s neck. Ad Magic watched the bottles slowly begin to drain as the doctor put on a pair of rubber gloves and began to scrub the sores on the horse’s body with a stiff brush and a kind of iodine solution, making a rough, sandpaper sound.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Animals don’t experience pain in the same fashion humans,” the doctor said, with some irritation. Pain for humans is memories, anticipation, imagination”
“I don’t care about that. What you’re doing has got to hurt.”
The doctor came around from behind the horse. “How much does he weigh? Unless the liver is bad, I will give him morphine. I am not Superman. I haff not got X-ray vision. Maybe the liver is bad. Parasites. Who knows?”
The doctor dug in his bag and removed a large hypodermic syringe. He filled it with morphine and injected it into the horse’s shoulder. Then he took the same syringe, and filled it with antibiotics and injected these into the horse. After this, he picked up the brush and again began working on the large, putrescent sores on the horse’s skin. Ad Magic’s arms began to hurt from holding the bottles of liquid.
The doctor looked at him. “You are an American? Jah?Who was scratched your face und black eye?”
“Huh? Oh, that,” Ad Magic said. “I forgot that. Last night I gave some money to this street person. A woman with eleven kids. I gave her some money as they were laying
Down a cloth to sleep on the street”
“Well, after I gave her the money, these men had seen me pass it to her, and they took it away from her. Slapped her around. I hit one of them, knocked him down, but there were so many of them. I just couldn’t fight them all. They tried to steal my watch. I got drunk — or I was drunk. I can’t remember exactly.” Ad Magic leaned over and looked at his face in the side mirror of the Mercedes. He did have an incredible black eye. No wonder the tour party found him peculiar.
The doctor took the glucose bottles from Ad Magic and propped them on the inside of the rear door, rolling up the window until they were upright and secure. “In my bag is green bottle. Take two und lie down in the back seat.” As Ad Magic rummaged in the bag, the doctor came up alongside him and grabbed his wrist. He examined the little stainless-steel bracelet.
“Epilepsy,” the doctor said. “Mmm.” He presented Ad Magic with a little flask of gin. “Swallow this und lie down,” he said. “Horse will take time.”
It was dark when Ad Magic came to. The boxer dog was standing over him, sniffing his face. Ad Magic rolled over and abruptly jerked himself upright. A number of oily torches had been lit, and there were fires in metal barrels as well as driftwood fires burning all up and down the shore, which was now teeming with activity. There were hundreds of people roaming the beach, and a brisk breeze blowing off the watered offered a variety of smells: the smell of sewage was replaced by the pleasant aroma of gardenia, followed by the odor of bitter orange, of vanilla, of cooked curry, of charcoal, of diesel, and then again of sewage or salt water, or of the ancient leather seats of the Mercedes. The boxer, open mouthed, panted in Ad Magic’s face, and from her mouth there was no odor at all.
Ad Magic pulled himself out of the care and took in the scene. The sights and smells and noises were uncommonly rich. There were roving bands of musicians, dancers, acrobats, food vendors, boys selling hashish. There were holy people, fakirs, snake charmers, more boys with trained monkeys. Ad Magic’s own monkey boy watched him leaning against the Mercedes, his eyes roving back and forth between the Rolex and the doctor.
“I can’t believe how wonderful I feel,” Ad Magic said. “What was that pill you gave me?”
“Just a little something,” the doctor said, crouching in the sand as he looked through his black doctor’s bag. Lined up by the horse’s feet there were a dozen empty glucose bottles and an enormous black tooth — a molar — in addition to several lesser teeth, long yellow ones.
“Abscess tooth! Very bad,” the doctor said. “Pus all over everything when I pull it out. Horse falling down, goes into shock. I’m having to give him epinephrine. All better now. Then sand in the sores. Clean them all over twice times.”
“Is the horse going to be okay?”
“He is looking much better, don’t you think?”
“Yes, much better. Much, much better.”
“Maybe he will live. It’s touch and go.”
The boxer dog presented Ad Magic with a piece of driftwood and began a game of tug-of-war. Soon the two were running around the beach and down to the sea. As the small breakers washed over Ad Magic’s feet, he noticed human excrement in the water and quickly backed away. He looked out at the sea and took in the sight of fishing dhows, back lit by the moon and glowing with tiny amber lights of their own. The boats were making their way, where?
The dog tugged at his pant leg, ragging him, and soon she and Ad Magic were roughhousing, chasing each other, rolling in the sand, wrestling. Then Ad Magic was on his feet, jogging down the beach with the dog beside him. Faster and faster they ran until he was running as fast as he could for the sheer joy of it; he had never felt so good, he ran without getting tired, and it seemed that he never would get tired. Wait a minute. He was a smoker. Or was he?
He was running effortlessly, like a trained runner, until at last he did begin to tire a little and sweat. So he and the dog plunged into the sea; he disregarded the filth of it and began to swim out into the surf, and the dog swam with him until they were very far out in the warm water. Then they let the waves carry them back in. Ad Magic walked easily in the sand back to the car and the horse, and when he got to the horse he embraced it and rubbed his face against his neck. “Oh God, thank you,” he said.
“You are okay now?” the doctor said.
“Yes,” Ad Magic said. “I think so.”
“What is ad magic? You were saying ad magic. What is that?”
“Oh, that. I am an ad writer, and sometimes I feel magic, I tap into a kind of magic. It’s hard to explain.”
Ad Magic reached into his pocket and peeled off ten hundred-dollar bills. The roll was so tight that only the outer bills were wet. He handed the money to the doctor. He felt for his cigarettes and found them ruined. His tin of Powell’s Headache Tablets was also contaminated with sea water. Ad Magic studied the container for a moment. He said, “Listen to this. Ad magic: It was a hot day in tough California traffic when a Los Angeles red light made time stand still and gave me a headache like there was no tomorrow. I took a couple of Powell’s Headache Tablets and just like that — beep, beep, toot, toot. I was ready to roll again. Fifty words. That’s my magic. It’s not that good right now. I’m just getting a little. Just a little is getting through.”
“I see, advertising writer.”
“How’s this? Second class passage in a Third World railroad car, hotter than the Black Hole of Calcutta, gave me a first class headache. I traded my Swiss Army Knife for two of Powell’s Headache Tablets. Home or halfway around the globe, Powell’s is my first choice for headache relief. It’s not that hot, but that’s how they come, from out of nowhere.”
“H’okay; you are a hausfrau shopping at Christmas and very busy, und a bik hurry — Powell’s Tablets. Fifty words.”
” The day, Christmas Eve; the time, fifteen minutes to midnight; the place, Fox Valley Shopping Center, Aurora, Illinois; the headache, a procrastination special, on a scale of ten, ten. The solution: Powell’s Tablets. The happy ending, gaily wrapped presents under a festive tree, a jolly ho ho, and a merry Christmas to all”
“Ad Magic. Making money for this?”
“Yes. Making money. I think so. Will the horse live? You see, if the horse lives, then I have my magic. That is God’s promise to me. I can do even better for Powell’s Tablets. I can do much better, and if the horse lives I will have my magic. How old is the horse?”
“At first I am thinking he is older. Maybe he is twenty years”
“How long can this horse live? Given the best care?”
“With good care, a long life. Thirty-five years.”
Ad Magic peeled five hundred-dollar bills off his roll. “I want you to send this horse on a vacation. I want him to have the best food. If he wants other horses to play with, get them for him. I want this horse to have a grassy field. Do horses like music? I heard that once. Get a radio that plays music. I want the horse to have good accommodations. I want you to be the doctor for this horse and get the best people to take care of this horse. What were those pills you gave me? I FEEL FANTASTIC! Is there some way we can ship this horse back to the States? I’ll look into it. Can you drive me to the Taj? This is so crazy, I don’t even know my name, but I’ve got a room key. Tell the boy to watch the horse until I get back. Do you have a business card? Here’s what we’ll do. I’ve got it. I’ve got it now. You stay with the horse. I’ll take your car. I’ve been here before. I know Bombay. I’ll take the car back. I don’t want you to leave the horse. I don’t want anything to happen to this horse. When I get home, you send me a picture of the horse. Stand next to the horse with a copy of the International Herald Tribune. When I see that the horse is okay, that his health is flourishing, and I see that the date on the paper is correct, I will send you six hundred dollars every month. Will that be enough? Like if this horse needs an air-conditioned stall, I want him to have it. Whatever, TV, rock videos, a pool, anything his little horsey heart desires.”
“It can be done.”
“Excellent. Look, where did you get this great dog? Will you sell me this dog?”
“For no money.” the doctor said.
“C’mon, doctor, I love this dog.”
“Anyhow, you cannot take her to America.”
“Okay,” Ad Magic said. “It was just a thought. You’re looking at me funny. I know what you’re thinking. You don’t trust me with the car. Send the boy to flag a cab. I’ve got to get back to the States. You know those harnesses those Seeing Eye Dogs wear? I could wear sunglasses and take the dog back. A white cane. Just let me borrow the dog for awhile.”
“Mr. Man. She is my best friend. I’m not selling. Not borrowing.”
“Okay, okay then. But take care of the horse. I’ll send the money. It’s a generous amount.” Ad Magic reached into his pocket and withdrew his wad of cash, peeling off a few more bills. “See that this kid gets taken care of, okay? Send him to school. C’mon, doctor, don’t look at me like that, it’s only advertising money. I don’t have to work for it”
Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, Come! And I saw and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
When a black-and-yellow Ambassador taxi honked from Marine Drive, Ad Magic gave the horse a final embrace. “Heigh-o, Silver, and adios amigos,” he said as he hopped into the cab, brandishing a handful of cash, telling the driver to step on it.
Ad Magic gave the driver a hundred dollars for an eighty-cent cab ride and rushed through the lobby of the Taj Inter-Continental, up to his grand suite in the old part of the hotel. He showered, and after toweling himself off he saw his wallet and passport on the bureau. He cautiously opened the wallet, assiduously avoiding his driver’s license. The wallet was heavy with credit cards and cash. In it he saw a picture of an attractive blond woman and two children. At that moment he knew his name, knew his wife of fifteen years, knew his children, and knew himself. He threw the wallet down, and began scribbling on a yellow legal pad. There was so much to get down and his mind was racing out of control. The magic was getting through. He was developing advertising concepts, enough for a year. He phoned the desk and had a porter send up a bottle of scotch and a plate of rice curry.
The scotch calmed him some and by dawn he had most of it written down. He dialed the switchboard and placed a call to his wife in Los Angeles.
from We Didn’t
[N.B.: narrator has just dropped a condom in the sand]: “In a panic, I groped for it, found it, tried to dust it off, tried, as Burt Lancaster never had to do, to slip it on without breaking the mood, felt the grains of sand inside it, a throb of lightning, and the Great Lake behind us became, for all practical purposes, the Pacific and your skin tasted of salt and to the insistent question that my hips were asking, your body answered yes, your thighs opened like wings from my waist as we surfaced panting from a kiss that left you pleading oh Christ yes, a yes gasped sharply as a cry of pain so that for a moment I thought that we were already doing it and that somehow I had missed the instant when I entered you, entered you in the bloodless way in which a young man discards his own virginity, entered you as if passing through a gateway into the rest of my life, into a life as I wanted it to be lived yes but O then I realized that we were still floundering unconnected in the slick between us and there was sand in the Trojan as we slammed together still feeling for that perfect fit, still in the Here groping for an Eternity that was only a fine adjustment away, just a millimeter to the left or a fraction of an inch further south though with all the adjusting the sandy Trojan was slipping off and then it was gone but yes you kept repeating although your head was shaking no-not-quite-almost and our hearts were going like mad and you said yes Yes wait…Stop!” (“We Didn’t,” by Stuart Dybek)
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
That summer in Seattle she had needed a job. She didn’t have any money. The man she was going to marry at the end of the summer was in officers’ training school. He didn’t have any money, either. But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc. She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot. She worked with this blind man all summer. She read stuff to him, case studies, reports, that sort of thing. She helped him organize his little office in the county social-service department. They’d become good friends, my wife and the blind man. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.
When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem. In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face. In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Maybe I just don’t understand poetry. I admit it’s not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read.
Anyway, this man who’d first enjoyed her favors, this officer-to-be, he’d been her childhood sweetheart. So okay. I’m saying that at the end of the summer she let the blind man run his hands over her face, said good-bye to him, married her childhood etc., who was now a commissioned officer, and she moved away from Seattle. But they’d keep in touch, she and the blind man. She made the first contact after a year or so. She called him up one night from an Air Force base in Alabama. She wanted to talk. They talked. He asked her to send him a tape and tell him about her life. She did this. She sent the tape. On the tape, she told the blind man she loved her husband but she didn’t like it where they lived and she didn’t like it that he was a part of the military-industrial thing. She told the blind man she’d written a poem and he was in it. She told him that she was writing a poem about what it was like to be an Air Force officer’s wife. The poem wasn’t finished yet. She was still writing it. The blind man made a tape. He sent her the tape. She made a tape. This went on for years. My wife’s officer was posted to one base and then another. She sent tapes from Moody AFB, McGuire, McConnell, and finally Travis, near Sacramento, where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out.
But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance. In time, she put it all on tape and sent the tape to the blind man. Over the years, she put all kinds of stuff on tapes and sent the tapes off lickety-split. Next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation. On one tape, she told the blind man she’d decided to live away from her officer for a time. On another tape, she told him about her divorce. She and I began going out, and of course she told her blind man about it. She told him everything, or so it seemed to me. Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man. This was a year ago. I was on the tape, she said. So I said okay, I’d listen to it. I got us drinks and we settled down in the living room. We made ready to listen. First she inserted the tape into the player and adjusted a couple of dials. Then she pushed a lever. The tape squeaked and someone began to talk in this loud voice. She lowered the volume. After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know! And then this: “From all you’ve said about him, I can only conclude—“ But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn’t ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to.
Now this same blind man was coming over to sleep in my house.
“Maybe I could take him bowling,” I said to my wife. She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes. She put down the knife she was using and turned around.
“If you love me,” she said, “you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I’d make him feel comfortable.” She wiped her hands with the dish towel.
“I don’t have any blind friends,” I said.
“You don’t have any friends,” she said. “Period. Besides,” she said, “goddamn it, his wife’s just died! Don’t you understand that? The man’s lost his wife!”
I didn’t answer. She’d told me a little about the blind man’s wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman.
“Was his wife a Negro?” I asked.
“Are you crazy?” my wife said. “Have you just flipped or something?” She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Are you drunk?”
“I’m just asking,” I said.
Right then my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know. I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen. Pieces of the story began to fall into place.
Beaulah had gone to work for the blind man the summer after my wife had stopped working for him. Pretty soon Beulah and the blind man had themselves a church wedding. It was a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?—just the two of them, plus the minister and the minister’s wife. But it was a church wedding just the same. It was what Beulah had wanted, he’d said. But even then Beulah must have been carrying the cancer in her glands. After they had been inseparable for eight years—my wife’s word, inseparable—Beulah’s health went into a rapid decline. She died in a Seattle hospital room, the blind man sitting beside the bed and holding on to her hand. They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together—had sex, sure—and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. Hearing this, I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better. Someone who could wear makeup or not—what difference to him? She could if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks, and purple shoes, no matter. And then to slip off into death, the blind man’s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I’m imagining now—her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave. Robert was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic.
So when the time rolled around, my wife went to the depot to pick him up. With nothing to do but wait—sure, I blamed him for that—I was having a drink and watching the TV when I heard the car pull into the drive. I got up from the sofa with my drink and went to the window to have a look.
I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out of the car and shut the door. She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing. She went around to the other side of the car to where the blind man was already starting to get out. This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say. The blind man reached into the backseat and dragged out a suitcase. My wife took his arm, shut the car door, and, talking all the way, moved him down the drive and then up the steps to the front porch. I turned off the TV. I finished my drink, rinsed the glass, dried my hands. Then I went to the door.
My wife said, “I want you to meet Robert. Robert, this is my husband. I’ve told you all about him.” She was beaming. She had this blind man by his coat sleeve.
The blind man let go of his suitcase and up came his hand.
I took it. He squeezed hard, held my hand, and then he let it go.
“I feel like we’ve already met,” he boomed.
“Likewise,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, “Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you.” We began to move then, a little group, from the porch into the living room, my wife guiding him by the arm. The blind man was carrying his suitcase in his other hand. My wife said things like, “To your left here, Robert. That’s right. Now watch it, there’s a chair. That’s it. Sit down right here. This is the sofa. We just bought this sofa two weeks ago.”
I started to say something about the old sofa. I’d liked that old sofa. But I didn’t say anything. Then I wanted to say something else, small-talk, about the scenic ride along the Hudson. How going to New York, you should sit on the right-hand side of the train, and coming from New York, the left-hand side.
“Did you have a good train ride?” I said. “Which side of the train did you sit on, by the way?”
“What a question, which side!” my wife said. “What’s it matter which side?” she said.
“I just asked,” I said.
“Right side,” the blind man said. “I hadn’t been on a train in nearly forty years. Not since I was a kid. With my folks. That’s been a long time. I’d nearly forgotten the sensation. I have winter in my beard now, “ he said. “So I’ve been told, anyway. Do I look distinguished, my dear?” the blind man said to my wife.
“You look distinguished, Robert,” she said. “Robert,” she said. “Robert, it’s just so good to see you.”
My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn’t like what she saw. I shrugged.
I’ve never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind. This blind man was late forties, a heavy-set, balding man with stooped shoulders, as if he carried a great weight there. He wore brown slacks, brown shoes, a light-brown shirt, a tie, a sports coat. Spiffy. He also had this full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind. Fact was, I wish he had a pair. At first glance, his eyes looked like anyone else’s eyes. But if you looked close, there was something different about them. Too much white in the iris, for one thing, and the pupils seemed to move around in the sockets without his knowing it or being able to stop it. Creepy. As I stared at his face, I saw the left pupil turn in toward his nose while the other made an effort to keep in one place. But it was only an effort, for that one eye was on the roam without his knowing it or wanting it to be.
I said, “Let me get you a drink. What’s your pleasure? We have a little bit of everything. It’s one of our pastimes.”
“Bub, I’m a Scotch man myself,” he said fast enough in this big voice.
“Right,” I said. Bub! “Sure you are. I knew it.”
He let his fingers touch his suitcase, which was sitting alongside the sofa. He was taking his bearings. I didn’t blame him for that.
“I’ll move that up to your room,” my wife said.
“No, that’s fine,” the blind man said loudly. “It can go up when I go up.”
“A little water with the Scotch?” I said.
“Very little,” he said.
“I knew it, “ I said.
He said, “Just a tad. The Irish actor, Barry Fitzgerald? I’m like that fellow. When I drink water, Fitzgerald said, I drink water. When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey.” My wife laughed. The blind man brought his hand up under his beard. He lifted his beard slowly and let it drop.
I did the drinks, three big glasses of Scotch with a splash of water in each. Then we made ourselves comfortable and talked about Robert’s travels. First the long flight from the West Coast to Connecticut, we covered that. Then from Connecticut up here by train. We had another drink concerning that leg of the trip.
I remembered having read somewhere that the blind didn’t smoke because, as speculation had it, they couldn’t see the smoke they exhaled. I though I knew that much and that much only about blind people. But this blind man smoked his cigarette down to the nubbin and then lit another one. This blind man filled his ashtray and my wife emptied it.
When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. M wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans. I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, “Here’s bread and butter for you.” I swallowed some of my drink. “Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.
We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. He’d cut two pieces of the meat, fork the meat into his mouth, and then go all out for the scalloped potatoes, the beans next, and then he’d tear off a hunk of buttered bread and eat that. He’d follow this up with a big drink of milk. It didn’t seem to bother him to use his fingers once in a while, either.
We finished everything, including half a strawberry pie. For a few moments, we sat as if stunned. Swear beaded on our faces. Finally, we got up from the table and left the dirty plates. We didn’t look back. We took ourselves into the living room and sank into our places again. Robert and my wife sat on the sofa. I took the big chair. We had us two or three more drinks while they talked about the major things that had come to pass for them in the past ten years. For the most part, I just listened. Now and then I joined in. I didn’t want him to think I’d left the room, and I didn’t want her to think I was feeling left out. They talked of things that had happened to them—to them!—these past ten years. I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife’s sweet lips: “And then my dear husband came into my life”—something like that. But I heard nothing of the sort. More talk of Robert. Robert had done a little of everything, it seemed, a regular blind jack-of-all-trades. But most recently he and his wife had had an Amway distributorship, from which, I gathered, they’d earned a living, such as it was. The blind man was also a ham radio operator. He talked in his loud voice about conversations he’d had with fellow operators in Guam, in the Philippines, in Alaska, and even in Tahiti. He said he’d have a lot of friends there if her ever wanted to go visit those places. From time to time, he’d turn his blind face toward me, put his hand under his beard, ask me something. How long had I been in my present position? (Three years.) Did I like my work? (I didn’t.) Was I going to stay with it? (What were the options?) Finally, when I thought he was beginning to run down, I got up and turned on the TV.
My wife looked at me with irritation. She was heading toward a boil. Then she looked at the blind man and said, “Robert, do you have a TV?”
The blind man said, “My dear, I have two TVs. I have a color set and a black-and-white thing, an old relic. It’s funny, but if I turn the TV on, and I’m always turning it on, I turn on the color set. It’s funny, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I had absolutely nothing to say to that. No opinion. So I watched the news program and tried to listen to what the announcer was saying.
“This is a color TV,” the blind man said. “Don’t ask me how, but I can tell.”
“We traded up a while ago,” I said.
The blind man had another taste of his drink. He lifted his beard, sniffed it, and let it fall. He leaned forward on the sofa. He positioned his ashtray on the coffee table, then put the lighter to his cigarette. He leaned back on the sofa and crossed his legs at the ankles.
My wife covered her mouth, and then she yawned. She stretched. She said, “I think I’ll go upstairs and put on my robe. I think I’ll change into something else. Robert, you make yourself comfortable,” she said.
“I’m comfortable,” the blind man said.
“I want you to feel comfortable in this house,” she said.
“I am comfortable,” the blind man said.
After she’d left the room, he and I listened to the weather report and then to the sports roundup. By that time, she’d been gone so long I didn’t know if she was going to come back. I thought she might have gone to bed. I wished she’d come back downstairs. I didn’t want to be left alone with a blind man. I asked him if he wanted another drink, and he said sure. Then I asked if he wanted to smoke some dope with me. I said I’d just rolled a number. I hadn’t, but I planned to do so in about two shakes.
“I’ll try some with you,” he said.
“Damn right,” I said. “That’s the stuff.”
I got our drinks and sat down on the sofa with him. Then I rolled us two fat numbers. I lit one and passed it. I brought it to his fingers. He took it and inhaled.
“Hold it as long as you can,” I said. I could tell he didn’t know the first thing.
My wife came back downstairs wearing her pink robe and her pink slippers.
“What do I smell?” she said.
“We thought we’d have us some cannabis,” I said.
My wife gave me a savage look. Then she looked at the blind man and said, “Robert, I didn’t know you smoked.”
He said, “I do now, my dear. There’s a first time for everything. But I don’t feel anything yet.”
“This stuff is pretty mellow,” I said. “This stuff is mild. It’s dope you can reason with,” I said. “It doesn’t mess you up.”
“Not much it doesn’t, bub,” he said, and laughed.
My wife sat on the sofa between the blind man and me. I passed her the number. She took it and toked and then passed it back to me. “Which way is this going?” she said. Then she said, “I shouldn’t be smoking this. I can hardly keep my eyes open as it is. That dinner did me in. I shouldn’t have eaten so much.”
“It was the strawberry pie,” the blind man said. “That’s what did it,” he said, and he laughed his big laugh. Then he shook his head.
“There’s more strawberry pie,” I said.
“Do you want some more, Robert?” my wife said.
“Maybe in a little while,” he said.
We gave our attention to the TV. My wife yawned again. She said, “Your bed is made up when you feel like going to bed, Robert. I know you must have had a long day. When you’re ready to go to bed, say so.”
She pulled his arm. “Robert?”
He came to and said, “I’ve had a real nice time. This beats tapes, doesn’t it?”
I said, “Coming at you,” and I put the number between his fingers. He inhaled, held the smoke, and then let it go. It was like he’d been doing this since he was nine years old.
“Thanks, bub,” he said. “But I think this is all for me. I think I’m beginning to feel it,” he said. He held the burning roach out for my wife.
“Same here,” she said. “Ditto. Me, too.” She took the roach and passed it to me. “I may just sit here for a while between you two guys with my eyes closed. But don’t let me bother you, okay? Either one of you. If it bothers you, say so. Otherwise, I may just sit here with my eyes closed until you’re ready to go to bed,” she said. “Your bed’s made up, Robert, when you’re ready. It’s right next to our room at the top of the stairs. We’ll show you up when you’re ready. You wake me up now, you guys, if I fall asleep.” She said that and then she closed her eyes and went to sleep.
The news program ended. I got up and changed the channel. I sat back down on the sofa. I wished my wife hadn’t pooped out. Her head lay across the back of the sofa, her mouth open. She’d turned so that he robe had slipped away from her legs, exposing a juicy thigh. I reached to draw her robe back over her, and it was then that I glanced at the blind man. What the hell! I flipped the robe open again.
“You say you when you want some strawberry pie,” I said.
“I will,” he said.
I said, “Are you tired? Do you want me to take you up to your bed? Are you ready to hit the hay?”
“Not yet,” he said. “No, I’ll stay up with you, bub. If that’s all right. I’ll stay up until you’re ready to turn in. We haven’t had a chance to talk. Know what I mean? I feel like me and her monopolized the evening. “ He lifted his beard and he let it fall. He picked up his cigarettes and his lighter.
“That’s all right,” I said. Then I said, “I’m glad for the company.”
And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams. Sometimes I’d wake up from one of them, my heart going crazy.
Something about the church and the Middle Ages was on the TV. Not your run-of-the-mill TV fare. I wanted to watch something else. I turned to the other channels. But there was nothing on them, either. So I turned back to the first channel and apologized.
“Bub, it’s all right,” the blind man said. “It’s fine with me. Whatever you want to watch is okay. I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears,” he said.
We didn’t say anything for a time. He was leaning forward with his head turned at me, his right ear aimed in the direction of the set. Very disconcerting. Now and then his eyelids drooped and then they snapped open again. Now and then he put his fingers into his beard and tugged, like he was thinking about something he was hearing on the television.
On the screen, a group of men wearing cowls was being set upon and tormented by men dressed in skeleton costumes and men dressed as devils. The men dressed as devils wore devil masks, horns, and long tails. This pageant was part of a procession. The Englishman who was narrating the thing said it took place in Spain once a year. I tried to explain to the blind man what was happening.
“Skeletons,” he said. “I know about skeletons,” he said, and he nodded.
The TV showed this one cathedral. Then there was a long, slow look at another one. Finally, the picture switched to the famous one in Paris, with its flying buttresses and its spires reaching up to the clouds. The camera pulled away to show the whole of the cathedral rising above the skyline.
There were times when the Englishman who was telling the thing would shut up, would simply let the camera move around over the cathedrals. Or else the camera would tour the countryside, men in fields walking behind oxen. I waited as long as I could. Then I felt I had to say something. I said, “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now. Gargoyles. Little statues carved to look like monsters. Now I guess they’re in Italy. Yeah, they’re in Italy. There’s paintings on the walls of this one church.”
“Are those fresco painting, bub?” he asked, and he sipped from his drink.
I reached for my glass. But it was empty. I tried to remember what I could remember. “You’re asking me are those frescoes?” I said. “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
The camera moved to a cathedral outside Lisbon. The difference in the Portugese cathedral compared with the French and Italian were not that great. But they were there. Mostly the interior stuff. Then something occurred to me, and I said, “Something has occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about? Do you the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?”
He let the smoke dribble from his mouth. “I know they took hundreds of workers fifty or a hundred years to build,” he said. “I just heard the man say that, of course. I know generations of the same families worked on a cathedral. I heard him say that, too. The men who began their life’s work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they’re no different from the rest of us, right?” He laughed. Then his eyelids drooped again. His head nodded. He seemed to be snoozing. Maybe he was imagining himself in Portugal. The TV was showing another cathedral now. This one was in Germany. The Englishman’s voice droned on. “Cathedrals,” the blind man said. He sat up and rolled his head back and forth. “If you want the truth, bub, that’s about all I know. What I just said. What I heard him say. But maybe you could describe one to me? I wish you’d do it. I’d like that. If you want to know, I really don’t have a good idea.”
I stared hard at the shot of the cathedral on the TV. How could I even begin to describe it? But say my life depended on it. Say my life was being threatened by an insane guy who said I had to do it or else.
I stared some more at the cathedral before the picture flipped off into the countryside. There was no use. I turned to the blind man and said, “To begin with, they’re very tall.” I was looking around the room for clues. “They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky. They’re so big, some of them, they have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses. They remind of viaducts, for some reason. But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either? Sometimes the cathedrals have devils and such carved into the front. Sometimes lords and ladies. Don’t ask me why this is,” I said.
He was nodding. The whole upper part of his body seemed to be moving back and forth.
“I’m not doing so good, am I?” I said.
He stopped nodding and leaned forward on the edge of the sofa. As he listened to me, he was running his fingers through his beard. I wasn’t getting through to him, I could see that. But he waited for me to go on just the same. He nodded, like he was trying to encourage me. I tried to think what else to say. “They’re really big,” I said. They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”
“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?”
I shook my head. He couldn’t see that, though. A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”
“Sure, I do,” he said.
“Right,” I said.
The Englishman was still holding forth. My wife sighed in her sleep. She drew a long breath and went on with her sleeping.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said. “But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done.”
The blind man sat very still, his head down, as he listened to me.
I said, “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.”
It was then that the blind man cleared his throat. He brought something up. He took a handkerchief from his back pocket. Then he said, “I get it, bub. It’s okay. It happens. Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Hey, listen to me. Will you do me a favor? I got an idea. Why don’t you find us some heavy paper? And a pen. We’ll do something. We’ll draw one together. Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff,” he said.
So I went upstairs. My legs felt like they didn’t have any strength in them. They felt like they did after I’d done some running. In my wife’s room, I looked around. I found some ballpoints in a little basket on her table. And then I tried to think where to look for the kind of paper he was talking about.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, I found a shopping bag with onion skins in the bottom of the bag. I emptied the bag and shook it. I brought it into the living room and sat down with it near his legs. I moved some things, smoothed the wrinkles from the bag, spread it out on the coffee table.
The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.
He ran his fingers over the paper. He went up and down the sides of the paper. The edges, even the edges. He fingered the corners.
“All right,” he said. “All right, let’s do her.”
He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. “Go ahead, bub, draw,” he said. “Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,” the blind man said.
So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a hose. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy.
“Swell,” he said. “Terrific. You’re doing fine,” he said. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up.”
I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off the air. I put down the pen and closed and opened my fingers. The blind man felt around over the paper. He moved the tips of the fingers over the paper, all over what I had drawn, and he nodded.
“Doing fine,” the blind man said.
I took up the pen again, and he found my hand. I kept at it. I’m no artist. But I kept drawing just the same.
My wife opened up her eyes and gazed at us. She sat up on the sofa, her robe hanging open. She said, “What are you doing? Tell me, I want to know.”
I didn’t answer her.
The blind man said, “We’re drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it. Press hard,” he said to me. “That’s right. That’s good,” he said. “Sure. You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now. You know what I’m saying? We’re going to really have us something here in a minute. How’s the old arm?” he said. “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?”
My wife said, “What’s going on? Robert, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
“It’s all right,” he said to her. “Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.