The year following my father's death on an island whose name sounded to me as if it must be spelled backward, Mother needed money, and first found work as a seamstress in a department store. But it was wartime, and the pay was so poor that Mother had to sell off some of our fine old furniture: the applewood safe, the dropleaf table from the hall, Grandmother's massive walnut fourposter; the rooms in the house grew larger. I remember the day they came and took away the carved wood and brocade "conversation chair"—a great heavy elegant piece that I had played recklessly over and on and behind all my life, and now it turned out to be one of a kind, and extremely valuable, so my mother sold it for a thousand dollars and told me we'd be all right now. This chair (Empire, my mother called it) had three seats; from the balcony at the top of the stairs in my grandmother's house, it looked rather like a dark trilium, with three petals, between which were carved swirls of heavy wood, topped by an absurdly delicate rail, with intricate three-inch spooled railings connecting the lighter top turned rail to the piece itself. If three people were to sit in the chair, which I never saw happen, each one of them would have had one graceful arm swirled around his or her back, and could converse comfortably, almost facing but not quite, the other two. On the day it was sold, it was for a few moments in the moving process upended, and rested on its side against a wall; in that position it resembled an enormous wagon wheel. Treacherously heavy, it took four grunting red-faced men several tries to urge it on to the truck. I watched snow fall onto its rosy brocade seatcushions and padded low backs, and disappear. Mama stood by me at the window and tried not to cry. "It's so ugly," she said, "and so big." "It takes up an entire room," she said. "I'm glad to be rid of it." But she meant none of it. By then my grandmother was senile, and living in another lady's house, and about her mother said, "Thank goodness she can't know it's gone."
Soon after this my mother got what she thought was a wonderful offer: she would be a housemother at the school for the blind. The job required living in an apartment at the school; we could take our meals in the school dining room.
Mama closed up Grandmother's house, worrying that people would think it was too soon after Father's death, and what right had she to drape the huddled furniture in sheets and abandon the house, its windows all as blank as blind eyes? She worried about me, too, but reasoned that I would still be in regular school with my friends during the day. I had never even known a blind person. But now we could put away the money we still had left, and we would not have to worry.
The last day at Grandmother's, I came upon Mother in the bathroom after supper, running my bath and crying. I knew it was not so much for the house as for my father. "Don't," I said, and she snuffled and blew her nose into one of the lacy hankies she ironed so carefully. "We'll have our own place now."
She nodded and dried her eyes. "Sure," she said. "And we'll be brave. We're not the only ones in this boat," she said.
I hadn't thought of that, that there must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of other mothers and daughters in the world like us, robbed of the reassurance of fathers, forced to acknowledge their losses with unreal military funerals with no coffins, no bodies, just flags folded to small triangles, and left compact in widows' hands. I should explain that I never knew Father in a way that his death mattered greatly to me—he had been away four years, since I was six. It was sad because Mother was so sad, and I loved her very much. But the insight that we were not alone sustained me.
* * * *
It was strange, the way the blind children looked at me but at the same time did not look at me. It was more like they looked toward me. Or that they looked through me, as though I were bodiless, a spirit. Either way, I felt for a while that to them I did not exist. They wanted to get to know me by running their hands over my face—the girls and the boys alike. It made me very nervous, but I stood still and tried not to breathe, and let them. They were astonishingly agile in the dark corridors. There were painted dots on the floors to inform the maids where exactly to reput the furniture after they cleaned. I felt like myself only in the outside world, the world of daylight and paintings and books, the world where people looked at you with expressions that meant they saw you.
One boy, Donald, thin and bloodless, with hair that was almost white it was so blond, white eyebrows and lashes, would not come near me. He had not been there long. Donald, refusing to abide by the school's sensible rule of counting—how many steps up, how many steps to the end of the corridor, how many steps to the bathroom, always clung to the wall, face out, his hands feeling along the wall behind him, as he scuttled along like a crab. Often he ran into others, and there would be terrific rows. Refusing to conform, he also refused to welcome mother and me. He was not liked. He whined. In passing I would hear him mutter, "If I didn't have these fingers I could feel more of the walls. Oh, how I wish I didn't have any fingers." I awoke one night to my mother's voice in the darkness saying, "Sit down here on the edge of the bed. You'll be all right."
Donald had come in the middle of the night to our apartment, and in, totally without sound or guide, and was in fact standing between our beds, definitely frightened of something. I felt that if I had awakened to his hands on my face I would have died right then and there. I was also indignant that he was in our private room. I pulled the covers up to my neck so that he could not see me in my nightclothes, then remembered. He stayed a long time, and though I went to sleep hearing him and Mother whispering, I could not make out what they were talking about.
With the death of Father, I lost Mother's laughter and her lightness, but after we moved to the blind school, I lost even more important things. Her smell, for instance, because the school's smells overwhelmed hers. I noticed it most when I came in from school—things didn't smell like ours anymore. Her cooking was dearer to me than I had known before I lost it. I craved food not cooked by strangers, and at my Aunt Harriet's I ate until my stomach ached, her food was so good. I lost Mama's music (no radios or victrolas after bedtime, which was when she and I would listen to Oklahoma! or Peter and the Wolf or The Firebird Suite, or any other music we liked). And I even lost the sense of her soft fingers pinning and tucking, plucking and overlapping, tugging and draping, as she made a pinafore or dress for me. She didn't have time any longer. I had to make do with Cousin Isabelle's hand-me-downs, always too big, but made of wonderful things like satin, and cashmere.
Getting used to our new society was wearying. At first, forgetting, I would say to one of them, "Well, look here, I'll show you—" and hear belatedly my use of words I must no longer say, along with things like, "See here. You just bumped me," or "Can't you see what I mean?" They for the most part overlooked my gaucheries, but by the end of each day, I was exhausted, falling into deep slumberous naps on the sofa after supper, clothes wrinkled, homework undone. When she found me, Mama would silently help me undress, walking me to the bathroom to brush my teeth, whispering to me to use the toilet so I wouldn't have to get up later.
But then, roused, I would lie open-eyed and frightened in the absolute blackness of night (for the blind need no night-lights, and none were allowed on after bedtime, to save electricity), and know that this instant, this terrifying and total lack of color, depth, shape, of faces and sunsets, was what life would be like if I were like them.
And they were strange beyond not seeing. Blindness makes, I think, for a kind of paranoia. They hated being left out of conversations, and mumbling or inarticulate speech of any sort drove them crazy. I often whispered things to Mother, and felt I had the right to do so. "What? What did you say? Speak out!" Denise would demand, or Haven. Denise, outspoken arid scary, was especially hard on Donald. Donald kept his distance, often muttering in my hearing about fingers and hands, so that I, along with Denise, felt him to be even stranger than the rest. Yet I noted that their paranoia was towards each other too, not just me, and that helped. "Donald, for Heaven sakes, stop muttering!" Mary Belle would say. Some of them counted softly to themselves, only to be corrected by the ones who had learned to count silently.
Occasionally they used my eyes for things, so that I began not to feel so different, so separate. "Can you see my sweater?" Mary Belle might ask, to save time, though they were taught always to put things in the same places. "What kind of dessert tonight?" Haven would want to know, as only I could see over to the counter where the dishes of banana pudding or brown betty sat in trays.
They all walked with their heads tipped back at an angle subtle but odd; even today so many years later I recognize from that posture that someone blind is in the room, or coming toward me on a sidewalk, or walking out in front of me across a mall. That particular tilt may somehow favor hearing, I don't know.
One night I was awakened by a horrible metallic harangue. I sat up in bed, in a drenching sweat, and looked down at my bluish hands in front of me, saw the big full moon outside our window, and identified the stunning clang as signalling some kind of a disaster. Mother, already awake, said softly, "Honey, it's only the fire alarm. It's like air raid drills. Come on."
I was used to those, hiding under the big dining room table at Grandmother's with old blankets draped over it, and a flashlight to read with, but this was not the same at all.
No lights, but fortunately the moon was bright, and I could, barely, see in the hallway from space to space as the moonlight through the windows created light wells. The blind children came in quiet and orderly procession out of their rooms, walking the halls they knew with confidence, skirting the furniture flawlessly; I thought in the colorless blues of the hall they looked almost normal. Not like they were at table, where their hands hovered, then touched lightly, each kind of food at the beginning of a meal, and even if after that they ate with almost regular manners, there remained the memory of that first odd flutter of fingers like butterflies above the plates, or spells cast upon the food.
I had no idea where we were going. Nobody had told me about fire drills. With Mother urging me on, I was able to grab my bathrobe and feel my way into the hall where already I could see the children moving, falling into well-practiced positions. "Leslie?" one would say. "Over here," would come the calm reply. Mother began checking names, rooms, her voice clear above the murmur. "Robes and coats, everyone," she said. "Tina." "Present," Tina replied.
At a waist-high door that I had guessed went to the plumbing, Cameron stopped, then reached out and soon had his hand on the bar that opened the door. It came to with a rusty clang, and, to my horror, Cameron got down on his hands and knees and crawled feet-first into the dark hole of that wall. I could not believe my eyes watching Denise sit down at the entrance, and scoot her blue self in blue pajamas and robe into the infinity of that darkness.
"Where does it go?" I asked Mary Belle, who was next to me.
"Down a chute to the outside," was her reply.
I shrank back, as Mary Belle too disappeared into the hole. I was able to back up farther and hug the side of the wall, slide myself around to the stairs, and run down them, cross the platform, down some more, across another platform, and so on. The stairwell had a small high window on every level that let in enough of the bright moonlight to see by.
At the bottom, I slipped outside, and in the blue moonlight found quickly the milling crowd of children, just around the corner of the building. If the moonlight had not been so bright, those slick stairs could have been treacherous. What did the blind need with windows?
Mother, in checking on her charges, had forgotten about me, and when I turned up at the bottom, she assumed I had gone down that chute with the rest of them, but from that time on, I had a private fear. I envisioned the chute as a straight drop from the fourth floor to the ground, exceedingly steep, so that descent was one shooting decline down a rabbit hole just as long and scary as the one Alice tumbled down. It was the first time I had ever knowingly kept anything from Mother, but I let her think that I had gone down the chute with the rest of them. At the end of the roll call, Haven said, "Where is Carrington? She ought to be here. Where is she?"
I answered, breathless and defensive, "I'm here. Can't you see?"
"No," Haven answered rudely, "I can't see."
"What is the chute like?" I wanted to ask, but then I knew that if I did it would be known that I had not gone down it. I tried to bring it up subtlely. "I think this building is so efficient," 1 said to Denise one day, having thought out just the way to say it.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Oh, the fire chute and all," I said.
"I suppose," she said. End of conversation. "Move to the middle if you want to stop. It's clear there," she said. We were skating at the time, round and round the big rink at the edge of town. The blind skate well, learn quickly the exact dimensions of their ability, better than the seeing, so they never overshoot the boundaries like seeing people do, crashing headlong into the walls. Denise told me they do it by ear, that the rink walls echo the sounds of many people skating, so they can tell when they are close to the walls. I tried to get up the nerve to skate with my eyes closed, and listen for the echo, but I would always open them an instant later, sure I was going to crash into someone. But they taught me to skate, to not fall, even to waltz, to cross the outside foot over the inside one at the end of the oval so as to turn smoothly and avoid colliding with the wall.
I dreaded the next fire drill. I grew obsessed with thinking of ways to avoid going down the chute, and covering my traces so that my cowardice would not be known. Without lights or brakes, I imagined myself flung violently out onto the ground, breaking everything, or even worse, falling on to another's body and squashing it the way I squashed insects when I didn't watch where I was going. One day while we were having a picnic on the grounds, I made an excuse to return to our apartment for a sweater, and cautiously pulled open the reluctant iron door. A smell like mold and closed air—a death, or carnival, smell—rose from the gap in the world that opened in front of my light-blinded eyes like a cliff edge, and I reeled back to the opposite wall, where I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. I could hardly bring myself to go close the door again. I felt in that moment a sickening knowledge that I really would, someday, die.
One day I saw another low door like that one, on an errand to the second floor, but on a different side of the stairwell. Though I was supposed to stick to the fourth floor, I went looking and found yet another small door in another spot on the third floor. After that it was even worse; I envisioned simultaneous plunges to a common hell, the three chutes coming together in a funneled mash, something like cooked fruit in my mother's ricer, only of blood and bones, and in utter darkness. I knew where I had found that quiet group of children in the darkness on the night of the drill, but I couldn't connect that spot with the bottom of the chute. In the nearby wall there were only the same repeating basement windows, long since painted on the inside of the panes, like blind eyes themselves. I must have walked around the building a hundred times trying to see. Sawdust was heaped in several places, but I couldn't find any openings.
Of course I knew it wasn't really like that, because everyone else lived through the experience and seemed unscathed by it, brushing themselves off nonchalantly when I approached, whispering, even laughing. Blind children are on the whole quieter than normal children. It came to me that maybe the chute ended in something like Grandmother's chair, but I could not think of going down it anymore than I could have thought of jumping off her balcony on to it 20 feet below.
Donald continued to come every few nights to sit on Mother's bed, invited, it turned out when I mentioned it, while my irritable resentment of his mumbling weirdness grew. "Honey, I have a job to do, and there are things that aren't appropriate for you to know. He can come when he needs to, and that's all there is to it." Still I resented the intimacy of Mother's voice speaking to him in the tones lovers in movies used, even though all I ever heard her say was, "Donald. It will be all right. Donald, you don't have to be afraid," and other things like that, but mostly it was things I couldn't hear. I didn't think he should be in our bedroom. I could smell him in the absolute dark, or sense his presence somehow. He smelled like Boy in Pajamas, which was very different from Mama, who up close still smelled like toast, or me. My own smell was mushroomy.
I began to read aloud some to the blind children, and found a niche for myself in that. At first only Denise and Mary Belle came, but then others did, and we soon outgrew the small parlor in Mother's and my apartment. Braille was difficult, slow, and they were for the most part pleased to come to the sitting room on the first floor three nights a week after supper to hear my rendition of Treasure Island, Green Mansions, Shadow Castle, Lost Horizons. If I looked up, I could see a dozen pairs of blind eyes, half-open, wide open, closed, fluttering, all staring at their own version of the book I was reading. Since most of them had never seen anything, I could not imagine what the books must have looked like to them.
I eventually sort of became friends with Denise, though warily, for she was moody and sharp, and not popular with the others. I still stayed away until dark most nights, and after supper or reading did my fourth-grade homework by the dim lamp that Mother rigged up on the little entrance table just inside the door of our apartment. Denise had the kind of awkwardness and lack of presence that told you that, blind or otherwise, she was destined for a life on the outskirts. Never, if she lived to be 80, would she ever be part of the secure, policy-making core group. But she befriended me, which I knew was a leap of faith and a triumph over envy for her. The others were often nicer to me, but didn't take me in as an equal.
But whether at school or at home among the blind, I carried with me that fear of the chute, which I saw as a challenge that would prove I was worthwhile. I could not bear to be a bigger sissy than children who could not see. I couldn't discuss it with anyone, not even Mother. To my friends at school I wished to appear absolutely normal, so I avoided any reference to the blind school, or the fact that we lived there. The blind in those days were lumped with the palsied, the dwarfed, the misshapen, the deaf, the idiotic, and moronic, and I knew any sane person avoided all of those. So I just worried silently.
What I admired about Denise (in addition to her ability to go down the chute with such calm nonchalance) was her great musical talent, and I loved listening while she practiced. I didn't mind sitting for hours while the rich chords cascaded in rainbows of sound. Occasionally she would call out, in the emptiness at the end of a piece, "Carrington?"
"I'm here," I'd call, amazed at the plaintive, forlorn sound of my name in that moment, and she would nod, begin another song. Denise often entertained at school events. She prided herself on being able to rise from her seat, make her way without hesitation up the steps to the stage, sit down at the piano, and play, then return unaided, that was the thing, across the stage and down those six open stairs with no railings, and back to her seat.
Additionally, I liked Denise because she shared my dislike of Donald. "Here's Donald playing the piano," she'd say, and crash all ten of her fingers at once down on the keyboard, presenting a huge dashingly ugly flower of sound that vindicated me, somehow.
Denise enlisted my help for the Harvest Home chapel service which would culminate in a dinner to which families were invited, and for which she would play a piece. She asked me to roll her hair, and put together an outfit that would show her off best to the visitors. She had heard that vaseline on the lips and eyelids was attractive. I chose a yellow sweater, and a navy and white plaid skirt, "They don't go together," she said. "Of course they do," I insisted. But she had been taught to wear only one thing with one other thing, and the yellow sweater went with the yellow dress, and the skirt went with the navy sweater, and so that plan did not work. She would not trust my eyes, and wore the navy outfit just the way she always did on Sundays.
She told me, with a terrifying lack of emotion, that she was blind because her father got syphilis from the Negro maid, then passed it on to her mother, who handed it on to Denise in the form of blindness. To Denise's way of thinking, only Claude, her older brother, was innocent in this story, and only Claude would she love.
I really wanted to ingratiate myself to her, she was so fierce, so I thought if I turned the piano around a little, just a bit more to the left, she could be seen more by the audience, which would include her wonderful brother Claude.
I pushed and tugged the heavy piano into a new position the morning of the service, even found a bittersweet vine on the grounds that I could snap a few curling branches from to make an arrangement in a water glass for the piano, orange berries bright against Denise in her navy blue.
At the service, from the front row next to Denise, I watched her rise, walk confidently towards the stage, up the stairs, and make her way towards the piano. The small gasps that rose throughout the seeing portions of the audience were not loud enough for her to hear, but I heard, leaped to my feet to help, only to be restrained by Mama, sitting by me—while Denise crashed forcefully into the piano, which I had moved six feet nearer the front of the stage. Her collision with the keyboard made a cacophonous riff. The bittersweet lurched onto its side, sloshing water, and the glass rolled to the edge of the piano, and fell off. Once on the floor, it continued its dismal trip to the edge of the platform where a low wooden rim caught and held its flight. Denise, undone, recovered enough to find the bench, the keyboard, and to sit down. But not well enough to recall her piece well. She made mistakes, and each time, correcting one, she seemed bound to make another. "Maple Leaf Rag" tumbled off the keyboard in confusion. Never had she played it so badly, not even when she was first picking it out, months before, her eyes fluttering wildly, far away, her fingers finding their own way to lift the music she had memorized by listening to, out of her head and onto the keys. Twice her hands came to rest on the entire wrong set of piano keys. Like Donald playing. And there was that accusing glass on its side in the center of the stage. When Denise stumbled white-faced back to her seat, Mrs. Dillworth, the head mistress, leaned towards her from her seat behind me on the second row, and said kindly, "Very nice, Denise," and I saw her face crumple into silent tears that ran down her cheeks and fell onto the backs of her hands just like normal tears.
I had, of course, forgotten the school rule of never moving any piece of furniture.
"Denise!" I whispered, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean—" But she blinked those blind eyes with the shiny lids and stared at some blank I could not even imagine, and bit her vaselined bottom lip. "I hate you," she mouthed coldly, wiping at her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
Afterward: she wrung her hands in the circle of her distracted family, nervous clumsy patting mother, handsome faithless father glancing around wanting to leave, handsome blond brother Claude. I wanted to go up to them, to explain myself, to make them see me as I was, not as she must have been explaining me to them. I was much taken with Claude, who had the same dashing looks as his father, while Denise had inherited the akimbo nervousness and shapeless legs of her mother. But in the years to come, I imagined, Denise would forgive me, I would marry Claude, and we would take care of Denise and live in a certain kind of reckless splendor, for already I sensed that the worst kinds of men were often also the most charming, and Claude was a deadringer for his wicked father.
A scant hour later, the harvest feast, basically Thanksgiving dinner, was over, they were gone, and it was another graypurple raw autumn afternoon, me rehearsing how I would justify my mistake to Claude. I went looking for Denise with a new shyness born of my crush on her brother, but she had signed out to walk downtown with a girl named Tina, who was overweight and silly, who flapped her hands in the air and giggled as she spoke. I felt wrongdone and indignant, and planned to spill my anger to my best friend at school. Usually I felt, perhaps superstitiously, that the blind children were off limits for criticism.
Tina. I knew Denise couldn't stand Tina. Her silly voice and nervous laugh grated on me too. I hated that Denise had gone out with Tina, and was angry that she had refused to accept my apology. I left Denises room to encounter Donald, who was finally in self-defense beginning to figure out how many steps from his room to the bathroom. I didn't speak, but the blind know who you are. Donald, sensing my approach, suddenly stared in my direction and said, "Why didn't you go down the chute with us? Were you afraid?"
My first impulse was to lie. "No!" I said quickly. "I—we— thought we should leave the chute for you all—you know, because you couldn't see the stairs." Implicating my innocent Mother, I wanted to take it back and couldn't.
"You were scared," Donald said.
"Oh, I was not," I said.
"Let's go down it now," Donald said. "I want to know what it looks like. You be my eyes."
I heard my own voice, as though it belonged to someone else. "Oh, no—I have on my church clothes. You know it's against the rules—I mean, it's just for fires. Or drills, I mean." It seemed I could go on inventing a hundred, a million, reasons if necessary. It was what I felt then, and still feel about skydiving, hang-gliding, cliff-scaling; though some come out alive, also some do not, and these things seem, upon sober contemplation, usually not worth the risk. I did not then know the sexual thrill of dangerous pastimes. "No," I said.
Donald said, "What would they do to you? They can't kick you out. They could kick me out. Then my father would have to take me back."
"Take you back?" I couldn't understand a father that had given away a son.
"Yes. My mother died when I was born, and he blamed me." No! "I said, protesting that it could not be true.
But Donald did not stop."He threw Drano in my eyes when I was four because I said I couldn't see the bottle of whiskey he told me to bring to him. He was lying on the couch. I didn't want to take it to him, because he always hurt me when he was drunk. He said— "Donald swallowed,"he said he'd teach me to pretend I couldn't see.
"When I wouldn't stop screaming, and wouldn't take my hands away from my eyes, he stuck them in a pot of boiling water. If I didn't have any fingers, he could never do that again."
I put my hands over my ears, but Donald couldn't see me, and I couldn't keep out the words. "Now he hates me because I'm blind."
I closed my mouth, which I realized had dropped open at some point. Donald was still looking right through me. Then I imagined that I had to do whatever he asked of me. Mixed up in it was the need to be brave for Claude. It did not change anything that logic told me that the chute was no big deal, and that all Claude knew of me was venom from his sister's mouth.
"Donald—" I began, looking at his hands, which I now saw had tight, thin skin over the backs. Scarred, burned skin.
"I just want to know what it looks like in the chute," he said.
My heart thudded in my chest, my fingers were weak and numb, and I felt that awful liquification of the intestines that signals terror. But I took a deep breath while Donald pulled open the door, took another while it ground and complained on its hinges.
Took another. The dark was again before me, solid as a wall. "What's it look like?" Donald asked, by my side. I tried to imagine how he must feel, between a monstrous father and a life of never seeing anything. I saw why he came to my mother's side at night. I could smell him close by me.
"It's just dark," I said, feeling my mouth dry. "I can't see anything at all."
"Be my eyes," Donald commanded. "You go first."
I did. I sat, or squatted, and slid my legs into that black hole. Expecting to fall, I was surprised to find myself only an inch lower than the door to my left, on a gentle slope. No plunge straight towards the bottom where lay Grandmother's sofa, each chute spilling onto one of its springy sections—or onto the sharp carved railing around the top. I heard Donald say, above me, "No fingers here. Whoosh. Go." Even with the floor was a gentle decline, down which I rode feetfirst, a sort of metal sling, rather like a long hammock. I could not see a thing, could only smell that musty closed-up odor that somehow reminded me of fortune-tellers and circuses. "What's it look like?" Donald called, his voice oddly echoing from somewhere above me. The sling was turning gently to the right, the square of light gone now from above.
Where I was going, I did not know. "It looks like a whale's throat," I called up. "Dark. Like in Jonah." I began to actually enjoy the cool embrace of that firm scooped swing that led not down but around, in a sensible descent. "It's like a carnival ride!" I shouted back up into the dark. "You can't see a thing!"
"It feels like a bed!" Donald called.
"It's like a train in a tunnel," I called back.
"But what can you see?" he asked again. I noticed how our voices had an odd hollow quality in that dark that cradled me on the secure slide until my hands around my knees in front of me encountered matt or curtain, or something between them in resistance.
"Nothing. Nothing at all," I said, as a dim light appeared.
The barrier gave way easily, light and cold burst before me together, and I was deposited easily into a chilly sawdust pile in air that smelled of winter and outdoors and evening. Then I got up to make way for Donald.
In a moment he landed beside me. "Tell me where we are."
I started to say, "It's just a winter afternoon—" but then I began to look around. "Well, we're just outside the basement," I said. "The windows are all painted over. That's why you can't see where the chute ends. There's really nothing to see," I said.
"Nothing to see," echoed Donald, getting up and brushing off sawdust. I heard the irony.
"Well, the window is hinged at the top. You'd never notice it. Other than that, it's just the lawn," I said.
"Just the lawn?" Donald echoed.
"Yes. Just yellow-brown, with some little islands of snow left from yesterday, all the trees with black arms like scribbles." Donald didn't say anything. I went on. "No leaves. There's a sunset, but it's not too great, just a couple of purple-pink streaks over there down by the mountains."
"Purple-pink?" he asked. "Sunsets aren't purple-pink, are they?"
"Yes," I said, beginning to enjoy the game, "and the sky is purple-blue."
"I remember colors," Donald said slowly. "I learned them all, from my babysitter. You mean; fuschia."
"Not really," I said. "Let's go sit on a bench. I mean lighter than fuschia. Paler."
"Churches smell fuschia," Donald said. "I don't much like the color. This is bench 12, right? The air out here smells aqua."
I closed my eyes and sniffed. "You're right," I agreed.
"I thought sunsets were red-orange. My babysitter's name was Natalie, and she used to hold up the crayons, and I'd tell her the colors. Red-orange was just that, no other name."
"You know what I love best about crayons?" I said, trying vainly to cover my cold long legs with my short skirt. Looking down, I saw them sticking out between my hem and my socks, pale and plucked.
"The smell," I said. Donald nodded, and I could tell he was listening carefully, so I went on. "Sunday afternoons smell like crayons. I used to color all the dress ads in the Sunday paper." My legs were white now and full of goosebumps. "My legs look like a raw turkey," I added.
I hate the smell of raw chickens," Donald said, and we both laughed. Suddenly he lifted his head, turned to one side, cocked his head, and said, "Who's coming? I hear voices."
He was right. Between the trees and the wall, deep in dusk now, were moving figures. I watched, but could not hear anything.
"Two people," I said.
Just then a high giggle rang out, and instantly Donald said, "Tina. And somebody else."
"Denise," I said.
I watched them as they came closer, shivering now without my coat. I saw both of them sense us at the same time. "Who's there?" Denise asked sharply, her eyes fluttering, her head tipped.
"Donald and me," I said.
"What are you doing out here?" Tina asked, her eyes wavering in our direction.
Though I was not technically subject to the school rules, I certainly couldn't go around breaking them either. But before I could invent an evasive answer, Donald answered, "We went down the chute."
"Not her," Denise said scornfully. "She's scared to."
"No she isn't," Donald said. "We both did. Carrington went first. I wanted to know what it looked like."
I watched pale Donald, unlikely friend, unlikelier hero. He had a defiant tilt to his head, and I was surprised that he would stand up to Denise.
"We better go in," Tina said. "We might miss supper."
Denise ignored her, turned in my direction. "What did the chute look like?" Since you're so brave, she meant.
"Like nothing," I said. "It's just dark, but it smells like a circus."
"I know that," said Denise. "Come on, Tina. Let's go in."
I watched them go with a heavy heart, for how was I to get to Claude without her?
Suddenly, Donald said, "Denise is fuschia. Dark fuschia."
"Really?" I had never thought in terms like this before. "What color am I?" Denise and Tina were already around the corner.
"Well, you're almost the same color as your mother. She's pale blue, and you're—just a little darker," he said. "Natalie—was the same color as your mother."
"What happened to her?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "After the accident I was in the hospital, then I came here. She came once in the hospital."
I didn't know what to say, but he went on.
"I like it here better since you came," he said.
I felt suddenly, deliriously, happy. I had gone down the chute, but something else was different, too, though I couldn't have said what, though it seemed to have to do with Denise's being fuschia. "Donald, look! There's a star out already. Right there, like it's caught in the web of the trees," I said. "Even before dark."
"Well, thanks, Carrington," he said. "I remember stars."
That is the best memory of the blind school that I have. Donald and I went down the chute some after that, or maybe it was just once more. I still dream about chutes. Mother and I left the school at Christmas, because she was already planning to marry Ed, the shop teacher there.
When I grew up, I became an artist, which is how I came to see Donald once more. I do a good deal of lecturing at the opening of my shows, which are usually in college art galleries.
When Mother and I left the blind school after Christmas, we meant to return—intended to visit—but we never did. I fled to the light as though demons were behind me. For years I nearly always had a sun in my paintings and etchings.
It was at one of these lectures that I encountered Donald. I realized he was a blind man from the way he held his head halfway back in the audience; only later, as my eyes kept returning to him, did I identify Donald, one of my own blind, balding but still himself. I sought him after the lecture, going against the current of people coming to speak or shake my hand. Quiet and pale still, he waited, the way the blind do among the seeing, and I knew to speak before I touched him.
He turned out to be a professor of psychology, and a student counselor. In the lobby where there was a reception, he told me he had been read to all the way through school, and had married a nurse who saw to it that his shirt matched his tie, that his socks were the same color on the same day. He looked serene and well-kept, "My Eye," he called his wife, smiling at the gentle pun on her name, which was Inez. As I watched his tight shiny hand move gently in the air over the coffee I handed him, to test if it was cool enough to drink, he said, "I've always wondered if I was right about you. If I hadn't formed such an attachment to your mother, and therefore been jealous—well, that kept me from liking you as much as I might have." Donald's eyes fluttered in that aimless way I remembered, when he leaned forward and asked, "Your mother isn't still living?"
"Oh, no," I said, recalling that he could not see me shake my head. "She married Ed Bridgeman, remember him? Did you ever take shop at the school? She died the next year of a brain tumor, which they didn't find until the last few days of her life. I moved to Lakewood and lived with my aunt Harriet—her sister—and my uncle and cousin, until it was time to go to college."
"I'm sorry she's dead. She was wonderful," he said. "She was so kind to me. Actually, both of you were. She would have made a great therapist. Did you know she sent me money from time to time after you left? For about a year, I guess."
I hadn't known. We had never had any money until she married Ed. I wanted to say I was so glad Donald's life, begun so tragically, had turned out so well. I wanted to tell him my vision of the three chutes ending up on grandmother's Empire conversation chair, and to ask him what that meant. I wanted to know what my mother had said to him in the dark. I wanted him to know how my mother had married a blind man who held her head in his lap while she died, and how, even now, Ed tapped his frail forgetful way through my house with a white-tipped cane, tapping, tapping, guaranteeing a crashed easel if I should forget and leave it up, silently daring any of us to move so much as a chair.
But there was no chance for that; here came the woman who was surely his wife: round-faced, pleasant, assured, she approached fast and laid her gloved hand firmly on his shoulder. He leaned his cheek over to touch her hand where it lay, in acknowledgment. Someone, a worried student reporter with dandruff and a shiny face, asked me something. They went together, his head in that odd tilt that caught full light, his blind eyes taking in nothing, taking in everything, one scarred hand atop her khaki-gloved one. His other hand held the coffee steady. My own cup jittered in my hands.
"Carrington's an old friend from Denton," he explained, as people surged around us, between us. "I've told you about her—
Trying to concentrate on the reporter's anxious question, I saw the tide of people wash them farther away. "Oh, —of course," I heard Inez say, "the girl who was afraid of the dark."
Donald turned his face once more in my direction and smiled slightly, as if he were enjoying the sun's warmth. "Ah, the dark," he said, before he disappeared in that sea of people.