Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Hand of Blindness

I ascended into the light from my basement, from the smell of damp cement, as if a river ran through it, into the odor of fog. The sun rose over the actual river, and it hovered with me face-to-face.

At the peak of blinding head pain, I kicked the sun from my head. Now we were together again at the watery curb. I walked a few paces down the brick walk, and the sun exploded over my head. With my hands pressed at my temples, I extinguished it–the light, everything. Darkness plummeted.

“Hello?” I called out. “Somebody help me, please?”

I sensed a presence near me–smelled sweat and tobacco and alcohol–a man without a shower since night. And now it was night again. My body stiffened, which occurs in darkness.

“Do you need help?” His voice hacked roughly.

“I can’t see anything. Can you see anything?” The wind off the river rattled my insides and shook my voice. “Can you help me?”

“You want me to call an ambulance?” he asked. “You on drugs?”

“Migraine drugs.”

He made the call–I heard his rough voice speak. He touched my shoulder, or I assumed he did, because a burning smell crept inside my mind. He was smoking. “What exactly is the matter with you?”

“I can’t see. Thirty seconds ago, the sun was rising, and now everything’s dark.”

He repeated my words. He further interrogated me and again reiterated my no-answers. I reached for him and found his sleeve and plucked at it with my fingers.

“All right,” he said, and he prized my fingers from his shirt. “They’re sending an ambulance. Let’s go sit. I’ll help you to the bench, and we’ll wait together.” He took my hand, and I felt led: sheep to slaughter or back to the flock?

I didn’t belong to a flock. With my hand loose in his palm, I could slip away in a stroke. I clenched his hand, and he must have found comfort in it as so many others did because he moaned at me and told me his story. He had been drinking all night, was still a little drunk, he informed me.

I listened, and that was my place, not part of the flock, but the world’s confessor, even if the circumstances didn’t call for it. Didn’t I need a confessor this time? He was drunk and sad, but I was blind.

The ambulance screamed silently up the street, and I saw it because he articulated the details, the swirling lights, mute sirens. The engine idled nearby. Through the ensuing confusion of questions, I lost the man’s hand and I didn’t know if he was far or near, if he wandered away to nurse his hangover.

No, I wasn’t diabetic, and my sight was perfect less than an hour ago. I suffered migraines, and I swallowed painkillers by the handful, and that was all. They checked my vitals. I was fine, except for blindness. All except for that minor detail, I was perfect. They led me to the ambulance: led again, and surrounded by darkness, and trusting the volley of voices.

I heard a gruff voice, and a conflicting stream of odors surged around my head. “Come with me,” I yelled to my rescuer, and I couldn’t separate him from the others. I didn’t know if he was there, but a hand latched onto mine, and the hand remained in mine during transport. Wheeling through darkness caused seasickness. But I never complained. I swallowed pills.

The man stayed, and his voice softened, and his scent sweetened like cigars. He mingled with me through the signing of paperwork I couldn’t read and the brain scan I couldn’t detect. It was a tumor, he explained, a tumor that pressed against my optic nerve.

Before the others could drug me for surgery, I asked him about God.

“I believe,” he said.

“I don’t.”

“I’m sorry.” His voice was low with grief. A man who obliterated his nights in alcohol grieved for me.

“I only want what everybody wants. Non-attachment,” I whispered, but they drugged me, and I lost touch and slipped away. My words garbled themselves in a tangled knot of nonsense. “I can’t attach–god I can’t attach to. Can’t play.” But I meant pray.

“To the lamb on the throne,” he prayed for me, and the sound waves disappeared with the sun.

Later, when time returned, I opened my eyes halfway, and the light broke through my retinas.

“Oh, you’re awake.” A woman wearing scrubs peered down at me, blocking the intense light source. “How are you feeling?”

“Where’d the man go?” I asked her. Did I really believe he would wait for my recovery? Yes, I did. I believed.

“What man?” she asked.

“The man who brought me here.”

“The EMTs? You can thank them later.”

“No, the man who rode with me and helped me sign the paperwork.”

“I helped you sign the paperwork,” she said.

Her sensical rebuttal stymied me. I searched for words. “The man who prayed with me before surgery.”

“Oh. Maybe I should call for the doctor. I don’t want to take you off the drip, but hallucinations aren’t a good sign.”

My head lolled over the pillows. “The man who held my hand.” My lips sagged strangely, and the words dripped from my mouth.

“There was no man,” she said, nurse-knows-best, and she padded away in her hospital shoes.

When I looked after her, my periphery restored, the light glowed at me, locked deep within the waxen floors. I imagined he stood in the light, the man I couldn’t see.

They’d explained the risks to me, and he’d helped me comprehend their words: permanent nerve damage possible. Permanent damage to optic nerve. But the sight I needed most could be forever damaged by sun, and how had he failed to inform me?

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In the Dollhouse of Modern Fiction

You can’t start until I start, Nancy. You’ll be my sister, and we’ll be best friends, and we’ll play every day after Mom sets us free from dumping the vegetable peels in the garden and gathering the sticks from around the yard and folding the clothes. Don’t worry, I’ll pay close attention to your dresses and shirts. And I promise I won’t lose your shoes or laces.

You don’t understand, do you? You can’t jump floors like that. You have to step each step like a real sister would do. The walls are too short for you, but you can manage the stairs. Don’t fall. You bumped your knee. Dear, dear, what will we do? Don’t think about it hurting because you wouldn’t think that. You would say ow, so say that and don’t think thoughts like, “I feel hurt right now. My knee bumped against the stair.”

You’re a real girl, Nancy, and what would you prefer to wear today? You decide–and speak–because normal people don’t have their sisters speak for them. Oh, yes, did you mention the red ballgown? You wouldn’t talk like that if you were real. You would look at it, and you would spy the red, and you would pull it from its hanger, but then you would put it back because red ballgowns aren’t the correct clothes to wear for playtime. You would spy it, but you wouldn’t say it. You would pull it down, because real people don’t think like that, and then you would hang it up again because real people know the difference between colonial ballgowns and blue jeans with gold stitching and rainbow shawls.

Turn the knob, Nancy. The water will tumble out if you do, and you need to wash your face. Here’s a washcloth. Make sure the water’s warm enough. It takes a while sometimes, but then the water’s warm and you can wash. Otherwise Mom will send you back up the stairs. I wish you weren’t too big for your house, Nancy, and I wish my house wasn’t too big for you, but that’s the way it is. If you want to be my sister, you have to play by the rules. Try not to bump your head against the ceiling.

You’ll have to learn to do these things on your own. I can’t think them out for you. That’s not real, and I can’t see the world through your eyes. You have to see it, but remember you can’t say that you’re seeing it because that would be all wrong. Down to the kitchen now. Don’t forget to take each step. In the big house, Mom makes the breakfast, but you’ll make your own. Open the refrigerator–I wish your hands worked better. I can’t always do everything for you.

Here, lean against the microwave. It won’t hurt you because it’s not real. Real microwaves aren’t made of pink plastic, and the buttons you push on them beep, and then everything inside spins around. Lean against that, and you can make yourself breakfast.

Now let’s play the game for real. If I have to think your thoughts, I can only see what you see and hear what you hear, and that means I’m not here any longer. There, are you leaning and not falling? I’ll scoot around to the kitchen window, and I’ll peek in and see what you see. I see your eye in the window. Don’t scare me like that, Nancy! Your eyelid moved, didn’t it? You turned your eye, too, but I don’t see how you can do that because your eyes are plastic beads. I know–I saw them at the craft store. And I found a book that told how to put dolls together.

First, you take the body and you stuff it, and you glue the leg pieces on, then you snap the legs in the pieces, and you do the same with the arms. You can pick the eyes you like best. I like blue because mine are blue, too. You’re supposed to be my sister. Mom and Dad both have blue eyes, and I have blue eyes, so your eyes are blue, too.

Mom helped me put you together, but now it’s up to me because Mom won’t play with little girls. Mom would rather look at the wall. I don’t know what she sees on the wall. Maybe she sees pictures of little girls who never track dirt in the house, and they’re girls who have stories, except they don’t eat the food or smudge the glass.

What’s that on your wall, Nancy? You don’t know because I glued it there? No, you have to forget about me. You put it there. You’re real, Nancy. You’re my sister. And you glued the Eiffel Tower to cover the spot where James–he’s our brother–colored over the pink with permanent black marker. You were the one who found the Eiffel Tower in the magazine. You cut it out and glued it over the black.

Oh! Did you hear Mom call me to dinner? I have to go. She never calls twice. You can play your own story now. Don’t forget to wrap your shawl around your shoulders so you don’t get chilled. Turn the water off, and the stove, too, and shut the door when you leave. I know, I know. You can’t really fit through the door. It’s your story, so you’ll have to figure it out.

The little girl left the room and Nancy promptly fell over, crashing outside the walls of the dollhouse. The little girl’s puppy, seeing her chance, latched onto the plastic leg, sinking her sharp teeth through until the tips hit air. Puppy yanked and pulled and one leg tore free and then, bored, she dropped Nancy by the laundry hamper, and poor Nancy, who couldn’t figure out her story without the little girl, stared with sightless eyes and tried to describe the empty, cloudy spackle that lay at the top of her world. But she couldn’t find the words.

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I May Be Stupid, But I’m Not Clever

You can’t fool me. The sky is a bowl above me, the earth dry and broken. I sense the world on fingertips, eyes closed, the wind around my index. I touch the sides–I feel them. You can’t tell me the rain has disappeared. It’s outside this globe of sun.

I used to live outside, where the rain beat without end. I used to live at the edge of the sea, where grey water surged and white-edged waves cut into bare skin and rain shot stinging sand against fleeting foot. I lived there, where men dug in and fell under the weight of rain and couldn’t prevent the vines from easing through their open mouths, any more than they could prevent the rain.

They gave this inside place a name, as if that would help: New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. And for many years, we were enchanted–or at least, I was. I gave up my senses to it and felt the heat and heard the cicadas whine at midday, the exact pitch of heat. And I explored the meaning of light that entered through the retinas and penetrated the mind. With the excess of luminosity, the neurotransmitters produced an abundance of serotonin, and my gut moved, and my memory improved. I could remember the names this place threw at me. I could remember more than I wanted to.

I recalled the rain, and I cut off access of sun to my senses, except to my fingertips, where I felt for the truth. The wind obscured the effect. But it was there. I was–am trapped in a sun globe, and I can’t see a way out. Such a dry truth is difficult to swallow.

Some say we’re fish trapped in a bowl of water, floating without reason and staring at the waving photons that break the surface. We, the fish, see the photons as stars–but when I say we, I don’t include myself in that number. I see one star–the sun of this globe called New Mexico. And it’s as dry as shriveled cholla arms in here. The photons light the dust, and the dust waves around us, and the senses call it water, but the senses are often wrong, and this desert is dry.

I’m an alien. I’m a fish gasping in a place without water, and I’m pretending it isn’t so. I’m pretending because I can name things, as I’ve said. I can remember the names that call this place home: family, husband, children, degree, summa cum laude. With highest praise, I call them.

You can’t fool me. I’ve seen it, or I’ve read it in a book, but it’s all true. In that place, the globes were broken. The globes of sanctuary that captured the sun–the rain smashed them. And the rain will smash this one and prove that I’m an alien in this place, and that I belong to the rain.

And then I remember something so primal that it frightens me. I was an alien in that outside world, as well. That was a place with a name, too–Oregon–a place with big ears to detect the sound of rain versus sea, and to detect the sound of outsiders in their midst. And I was that. And so I suspect I don’t belong to the rain, either.

I don’t want to be trapped any longer. But I need a place to call home. Do I have to float, belly up on the air, in order to go home? Do I?

I call this love, that faith because those are the only names that matter any longer. I call this globe home. But I’m no fool. I know what this isn’t.

I may be stupid, but neither am I clever.

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Janet Frame

Janet Frame creates the topology of my mind:

“Well I’m not going to do anymore expressing.

This is my last story.

And I’m going to put three dots with my typewriter, impressively, and then I’m going to begin . . .

I think I must be frozen inside with no heart to speak of. I think I’ve got the wrong way of looking at life” (from My Last Story).

” . . . it would be nice to travel if you knew where you were going and where you would live at the end or do we ever know, do we ever live where we live, we’re always in other places, lost, like sheep, and I cannot understand the leafless cloudy secret and the sun of any day” (from The Day of the Sheep).

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MapWriter 7.0 Error Log, Case Two

Anita stopped at the animal shelter on her way to the mall. She would have liked to adopt another dog, but Danny had put his foot down after she brought home the fourth. Their children were grown–what could it matter? Instead, she spoke softly to the dogs and left a sizaeble donation. Danny, when she spoke to him at all, always put his foot down. She wasn’t sure what the expression meant, but he was the sort of man who had firm feet, and where he planted them, there they remained.

Then she was off to the mall because she needed–she needed nothing. But how else would she occupy herself? She entered the mall and breathed in the fragrance of cinnamon that reassured her that some parts of the world remained stable. What might Danny like? She could buy him a new watch, or a tie, or a new pair of comforting dress shoes. She could buy her way back into his heart, force him to speak to her, acknowledge her existence. And after he noticed she was not merely alive, but also the woman who shared his bed, then she would bake him a venison casserole, his favorite meal–the dinner his mom whipped up after the men of his family brought their game back. They were men with money who hunted for sport.

Danny hunted nothing except money, and that was fine by her. She could buy a venison roast at Heller’s gourmet meat market. And then she could bake it and serve it with a fine red wine, and she could eat it herself. When was the last time he had left work early enough to eat dinner with her?

She bought him a light sports jacket, perfect for a windy day at the beach. She bought him cashmere socks. Everybody needed socks, especially her husband, who, with his firm feet, wore them out in six months. She maxed out one credit card after another with de-crinkling creams, whatever that meant, and expensive wooden toys her grandchildren would never play with. And when she could think of nothing else, she had her hair cut and styled at the Lanstrum’s salon–no appointment necessary.

After the haircut, her head felt light, but not in a good way. Her body buzzed with dizziness, and it was only three o’clock. What could she buy? What, what? As she passed the MapWriter store, the Cartographia, she stumbled slightly, stopped and righted herself, and peered in. What would Danny say if she bought her Life Map? He wouldn’t say anything because he wouldn’t know about it until he saw the credit card bill, and then he would pay the bill as he always did, without question. In his own way, he was a generous man. He never questioned, never yelled. Did this mean he loved her, or that he no longer cared?

She walked in, a little bewildered by the computer pods where others worked to build their Life Maps. She bypassed the stations and stepped lightly to the counter, hesitant, but ready. She must have smelled of money, a fragrance Danny brought home that lingered in his hair and hers, too, because the salesman tried to sell her on the latest model. She declined. Her credit cards had already taken a beating–she would take the 7.0 model, which would give her the option of three life paths, without the extra programmable features.

Half an hour later, she carried away her Life Map in its sleek case. Over a double mocha coffee with extra whipped cream, she unfolded her map and tentatively ran her fingers down the three paths. Her possible major life events lit up: Divorce. Divorce. Divorce. The word obstructed all three paths. All three. She couldn’t help it–she cried. She cried into her stupid high-calorie beverage and then bought herself a package deal of three cookies, fourth one free, and ate all four. Her husband hated her. There was no other explanation. What had she done? She had done everything, sacrificed everything for him. And all her efforts would end in divorce.

She drove home, determined to stuff the $1000 map in the nearest neighborhood recycle bin. But she didn’t because it might still help her, not if, but when Danny left. Her dogs barked at her from the backyard, and she let herself in the front door, swept through with her packages into the dining room, meaning to sit and cry until he arrived to witness her desperation.

He was already there, waiting, a beer sitting in front of him. She paused, shocked, unsure. His hair was so black, but was silver at the temples, as if he’d painted the silver himself. And maybe he had. He turned to look at her.

“God, I’m tired. Where have you been?”

“Shopping.”

“Do I bore you?” he asked. “Is that why you shop every day? Because you’re tired of me?”

“No, I . . .”

“I don’t blame you,” he said. “I’m tired of me, too. Let’s go fishing, Anita. Do you want to hire a boat and go fishing in the bay with me?”

Did Danny enjoy fishing? How would she know? He looked up at her, and the pleading in his dark eyes gave her pause. He needed her. No, no, that wasn’t right. He loved her. That’s what his eyes said.

“I bought you a fishing jacket,” she said, and handed him the bag.

He accepted the jacket with a pleased but surprised smile. Anita left the dining room to change into her cooking clothes. She would stow the map at the back of the closet, in the farthest place possible, and never look at it again.

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