Douglas Cole
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Wink from a Blind Man

We were driving down Shattuck in the bright glitter of morning. Light flared off of windows and chrome car doors, the street and people's eyes, and I hid behind a pair of dark glasses, protecting myself really from the onslaught of sunlight. We were on our way to help a friend of Bill's pack up some stuff. I guess Bill's friend was blind and needed a hand with his things. I thought about that. How does a blind man pack? I suppose he can feel his way around and put stuff in boxes as well as anybody can. But he can't move it, can't drive of course. We had all the windows open and the air coming in was hot.

The guy lived up off of Telegraph Avenue, and we went up Bancroft past the university and all those little student bungalows and the community center and the smoke shop and then down Telegraph Avenue to Dwight Street. I used to live on Dwight Street, and I didn't want to remember that. I was just a kid, then, and I didn't even smoke. I was a purist. And I felt it quite indignantly to find bums sleeping on the doorstep of our apartment, and getting hassled as I went past People's Park on my way to school.

We pulled up to the place. It was one of those typical cheap apartments, brown square fourplex back inside a courtyard surrounded by eucalyptus trees and live oaks. As we went in through the courtyard I could smell marijuana smoke. My mouth watered, and I nudged Bill. He grinned and said, "Anthony's got something you'll like."

We went up the cement stairs under the leafy arbor limbs and the pungent smell of mock orange and down the walkway to an open door. Bill rapped the door with the back of his hand as he went in, saying "Hello..." I followed.

The place was a mess of boxes and stuff like clothes and record albums and papers and cassette tapes scattered on the floor. It was more disorganized than I would have expected, thinking a blind guy would have it pretty much meticulously laid out. Bill's friend was in the middle of it, kneeling down. He wore jeans and a tye dye shirt with a bright blast of swirling red colors on it. His long hair was tied back in a pony tail. The way he was sitting made his bare feet stick out behind him, and the soles of his feet were yellow and callused. He was poised with his head tilted to one side as though he were trying to map it all out in his head.

"Hey, Dennis," Bill said. "You getting ready to go to the commune?" Bill's friend turned towards us, not really bringing his face around so much as leading with his ears.

"It's the girls," Dennis said. I wasn't sure if he meant that as a comment on the commune and perhaps his reason for moving into it, or if he were greeting us with a kind of sarcastic cutting remark.

"I brought my buddy, Tom, along to help," Bill said.

"Yeah? Okay," Dennis said, and I could tell he was trying to read me in the dark.

"Hey, there," I said. I wasn't sure if I should go over to him and try to shake his hand or not. He didn't move so I didn't either.

"Hey," he said.

"So what do you want us to do?" Bill asked.

Dennis took a deep breath and rubbed his hands together. "Let's see. Right now, I'm trying to collect up the stuff I'm not going to take with me. I've got these albums, here." He waved his hand in the direction of a couple of stacks of record albums. "I'm not taking any of these. You can have whatever you want. Leave the rest next to the dumpster out back. Now, the tapes..." and he stood up, pushing himself up off the ground. "I just want you to throw those away. I've got some garbage bags here," and he leaned down and felt forward in the air and pointed with his hand at a box of large black garbage bags. He spoke emphatically, stressing his point by extending his hands, fingers spread, as though trying to command something in the dark. "I want those to go straight into the garbage. They've got a lot of personal stuff on them, you know? Some people have notebooks or memo pads. I use tapes. So there are some really personal things recorded on those and I don't want anyone to hear them. Do you understand? Now, I have to trust you to just throw them away. In fact, don't take anything without checking with me first, okay? I just want it to all disappear. Just throw it away."

I could tell he was mainly worried about me, since he didn't know me, so I said, "I won't take anything you don't want me too."

He nodded as though satisfied, at least for the moment, that he could trust me. And I noticed for the first time that he had a scar on his right temple, just below the line of his hair. It was a small, white scar shaped like a star or an astrix.

"I've got most of what I want already packed up. All I really have left is either to give away or throw away. So unless you want it, just put it into a garbage bag and toss it into the dumpster out back. Got it?"

"Got it," Bill said.

I nodded. "Yeah, sure."

"You can also help me do some cleaning, too. I want to get my deposit back if I can. There are some cleansers in the bathroom."

"Why don't you start there, Tom," Bill said to me, and he smiled.

"All right."

"Here, take one of the garbage bags," Dennis said, and he knelt down and felt forward and caught hold of the box of garbage bags and held it out to me. "And check with me if you see something you want. Otherwise, just throw it away."

I stepped over the piles of junk and went to the bathroom, thinking, what would I want to keep from the bathroom?

The bathroom was filthy. It just was. The toilet was brown with mildew and shit residue and stank horribly. The sink had two weepy-eye rust streaks below the hot and cold faucets. The floor was stained. Tiles were missing, leaving black gaps like missing teeth. And along the molding was a nice pile of hair and dust and little balls of terminal moraine from the universe. Ugh, climbing down into the years of decay from another person was not my idea of helping someone to move. It certainly wasn't what I had planned on. But I went with it and took the Ajax cleanser that was sitting on the edge of the sink as though it had come out looking for me, and shook out a healthy coating of blue powder over the sink and toilet. I picked up the toilet brush from out of its little plastic holder and placed it under the faucet and gave it a quick blast of water and used it to clean the sink as best I could. The rust streaks faded out a little, but there would be no getting rid of them. Some marks are indelible. I then turned to the toilet and ran the brush around the bowl, holding the brush with three fingers and trying to keep every other part of my body as far away from contact as possible.

A flush of the toilet and a rinse of the sink, and I thought I had done a pretty good job. There was no broom, so I went back into the living room and said, "Hey, do you have a broom."

"No," said Dennis. He was stuffing a bag full of remains from his life.

I went back into the bathroom, a little relieved that I didn't have to deal with the floor. Then I heard Dennis say, "But there's a mop in the hall closet."

I got the mop and went back into the bathroom. I decided that I was going to do this quickly, so I pulled back the shower curtain, intending to use the bath as a source of water for the mop, and then I saw the horror of the tub. It was black. Black from what? Who knows. But it was black. I dumped out nearly half the bottle of Ajax into the tub and flipped on the shower for a moment to get the powder to turn into a paste. Then, I used the mop and just started shoving it around in there. But the black residue, whatever it was, would not come off. It was like a wax that just sort of smeared and clung to the tub. It was like an enemy, hunkering down, so I decided to leave it for a while, let the Ajax soak in, and clean out the medicine cabinet.

When I opened the medicine cabinet door, it exploded with movement, and I jumped back with that terrible body nerve cringe that goes down to the spine and the center of the gut. Cockroaches dashed around wildly. In a moment, most of them were gone, back through the crevices of the cabinet. A few emissary ones remained for a moment, as though regarding me, then they too slipped back into the walls. I had the feeling that I had not just startled them by opening the cabinet door, but that I had surprised them by not being Dennis. I felt certain that they knew not only who he was but that he was blind. And though I should have respected them in my epiphany for their deep intelligence, I was instead overcome by a deep animal loathing.

"I'm done in here," I said, going back into the living room.

Bill had already made himself a neat little pile of things he was saving for himself: mostly albums and a few lamps and a radio. He said, "Check out the albums. See if there's anything you want."

I knelt down and started thumbing through the albums that were laid out against the wall. On the upper right hand corner of each one was a little plastic tape with raised braille letters on it. I felt them as I looked over the albums, trying to see if there was anything recognizable to me in the symbols, anything that seemed to come from the words I read on the album covers. I couldn't read braille, of course. In fact, I could barely feel the letters enough to distinguish them from each other. How sensitive the touch must become for the blind as well, I thought, and I closed my eyes and tried to feel with my fingers how Dennis must feel to read the letters on the albums.

I picked out a Cat Stevens album and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life (a likely album for a blind man, I suppose), and Joni Mitchell's Blue. I also found a couple of Bob Dylan Albums and some CCR.

"Hey, let's get some of these bags out to the garbage," Bill said.

We gathered the bags together, and Dennis went through each one, making sure that it was tied-off securely. "Where are the tapes, " he said. "I want to make sure the tapes are in, okay."

Bill brought over the bag with the tapes in it and Dennis felt each one by hand, counting them, I think, or reading the braille labels. Then he closed the bag and tied it off himself. "Okay."

Bill and I took the bags, and I followed him down the walkway to the back steps and down into the alleyway. He flipped up the metal cover on the dumpster and we started hauling the bags in. Then he stopped and tore open one of the bags.

"What're you doing?" I said.

"Its just a waste," he said, and he took out a handful of the tapes.

"But he said he didn't want anyone to listen to those."

"I'm not going to. I'm just going to tape over them." And he put them in his back pocket.

We went back upstairs and Dennis was waiting there in the middle of the room. It was mostly empty now. There was no furniture, just a few boxes. "Got that stuff all disposed of?" he said.

"Yeah," Bill said, and he glanced at me with a conspirator's grin. Their voices echoed off the walls of the bare room.

"Well, then. It's time for your reward. Have a seat." And he knelt down and sat on the floor and crossed his legs. I looked over at Bill.

"You'll want to sit down for this," Bill said.

So I did.

Dennis produced a pipe. He handled it very ceremoniously, and asked me, "So, Tom. Ever tried MDMA?"

"I've never even heard of it," I said, and I noticed that he had another scar on the opposite temple, the left one, almost identical to the one on his right temple: a little white astrix.

"Some people call it Businessman's Lunch."

""

"It's a little like acid, although the effects are much shorter in duration."

I glanced over at Bill, who was grinning at me. It's funny how precise, even scientific some drug users can be about their drugs. Then again, for some, drug-use almost becomes a kind of advanced study.

"Breathe in nice and easy, and make sure to hold it."

He passed the pipe to me. I took it and glanced inside and saw a dark pellet that looked a little like hashish. He then lit a match and held it out towards me. I had to lean forward and draw his hand down over the bowl of the pipe so that the match flame would touch the substance inside. I took in a breath. The smoke had a chemical taste to it, and it burned and writhed in my lungs as I tried to hold it in.

"Hold it," he said. "Hold it."

My lungs fought to exhale the smoke, but I held it in, choking back a cough. Then I let it out as slowly as I could.

Instantly I had that light-headed feeling you get when you hyperventilate. Only with each breath I took, it just become stronger, and I felt myself blacking out, the room around me turning gray and grainy like ash. And Dennis and Bill were gone, or as least I was not seeing them even though they were sitting right in front of me. Around the periphery of my vision a black cloud was closing in. Then I was gone.

I don't know how long I was out. It happened so quickly I did not even have time to panic. But as I came back around I heard sounds like voices at an arcade or in a stadium the way they rise and fall in volume and intensity, and then I realized that I was hearing waves and I saw waves before me falling white and blue and glittering in a beautiful way. And then it was as though I were pulling back out of those waves so that I could see them with more clarity, and I saw that they were falling from a great wheel, a huge water wheel which did not draw its water up from some source like an ocean or a lake around it, but generated the water from inside itself, rolling out in beautiful funnels and bright wings.

And gradually, out of this, I beheld Dennis and Bill sitting there before me, and they had a glow around them like light emanating out of them, as though they were smaller versions of the great water wheel itself, only made out of light. And I smiled. And the room was not a small apartment but a vast cathedral.

Bill was speaking, but I was not aware of what he said. I was aware that he was speaking, but the words themselves were muffled and distant and part of a larger crashing of wave sounds.

The pipe came back around, and I took it, and a flame appeared before me and I smoked again. And again I was knocked back out of myself into a great black void out of which I arose, slowly, through a cascade of falling water and light.

I was speaking, now. I was saying that I used to live on Benevenue, just one block up from Telegraph. I was saying that I was just a kid and that I was innocent, then, and that I wore a cross and prayed and went down Dwight street everyday to school past People's park and that I was solicited for drugs and sex and that I kept going, straight down Dwight Street, and I was back on Dwight Street going down to school and along the railroad tracks where the dogs barked and jumped against the lengths of their chains and bed sheets fluttered on wires in gravel lots and where Paris Alexander lay in wait in the abandoned house and appeared with his finger pointing, calling me a trespasser and got me in a headlock and twisted me back on the tracks and my hand hit the rail and grabbed something metal that I brought up and hit him with, over and over, until I felt his blood and backed away and saw in my hand a rusty horseshoe...

Dennis smiled.

Bill smiled.

The pipe came back around. But this time it did not knock me from my body.

Someone came to get Dennis. Someone came to take him to the commune.

Bill and I went out through the courtyard. I put on my sun glasses.

We drove down Bancroft in the afternoon light. We went through the flatlands and down past San Pablo and over to University Avenue. "How did Dennis get those scars on his temples," I asked.

"I don't know," Bill said. "He told me once that he tried to commit suicide."

"How?"

"He never said."

Everything had that dusk glow, with the homes and low stucco buildings and gas stations and Mexican restaurants all casting their long shadows across the ground. We went past the freeway and down to the water where the pier stretches out like a nail into the bay. The sun was going down, sliced in half by the Transamerica building.

We got out of the car. Bill leaned back onto the hood and lit a cigarette. I walked forward to the rocks, silently, my mind ablaze. And I extended my hand over the fire rising up in waves.

 

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