Techniques of the Blind
by Tom Sheehan
Once, old Jack Derrick’s eyes had been as blue as eggs dipped at Easter. Once, they were deadly remarkable over the sights of a Springfield Ought-Three, shot of shots, sniper of snipers. Now shrunken, middling, brought back to an Earth-clutching sanity where he felt the grab but could never see it. Now he was blind. A Marine gone blind is like his weapon without ammunition, the last shell gone astray, useless, the echo no longer formidable; life itself changes, even for Marines.
In the bedroom, upstairs, front corner, blind amid the toss of linens he had known intimately for seven long years, in touch with passing traffic and summer conversations especially when the windows were open, Jack Derrick lay in the middle of sound, in the middle of darkness.
His left leg, or most of it, set upon by mere diabetes and the minor perfection of the surgeon, was elsewhere; his right hand was stained by nicotine, the index finger and close companion yellowed as shoe leather, and those fingernails bore the tell-tale fragments of that same deep stain.
Gray, thin hair, most of it sported about his ears except for one thatch above his forehead as if an odd bird, at length, might roost there, drooped like fallen stalk. The stubble of his beard appeared as off-white as an old field of corn waiting the last reaper.
Darkness, most of us know, normally has its antecedents: the last sunlight long over the horizon, cutting the world in half; and the day like a lamp being switched off; or a fire snuffed to gray smoke and ashen smell; time eventually giving itself up to a new caretaker. Blindness, though, as with bed-ridden Jack Derrick, is prefaced at times not out of color or the memory of it but eruptions ringing out of a collection of sounds.
Those sounds, for Jack Derrick, are never in order, are as diverse as fragmentation: a grenade bouncing its signals before it blows diversion and reversion apart, a kind of Hell on wheels or rollers or the ease of echoes in late reminders full of night, darkness, distance. . Those echoes can be a voice coming back from a distant tonal island where conversations are mustered, words soft or harsh enough in either case to be cause of memory. Or a yelp or a cry burned into the endless black space of the mind only stars might otherwise occupy, or transient moons.
Ofttimes it may be two or three lines of poetry thought over and said so many times they constantly repeat themselves with undeniable energy. Who will know us in the time to come? Let them say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches. Or His name, once grey in convent writing, neat on themes, cut like erosion of fire the peaks of heaven.
At times it is a miraculous bat sounding on a pitched baseball as if an ammunition round has been fired and the crowd leaps noisier than rockets on the Fourth of July. It is coupled with a father’s gasp frozen in time between that game day and the soft, useless fall of Saigon as he continually sees the ball rocket into centerfield, remembers the fielder cursing loudly in his scrambling uncertainty. Finally, it is his wife’s halting steps on the hall floor late at night, where nothing else sounds, or no one, but someone continually expected to bear the darkness of curse.
In the midst of another reverie, mechanics of the hungry blind taking over, Jack Derrick reached over the side of the bed, felt with the stained hand, found the top record of a set, slid it on his machine, and flipped the switch.
He heard, after mute seconds, a soft, unobtrusive voice: “Your reader is Alexander Scourby, the book is Temujin, by Charles Enright, and is the life story of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror, who lived from about 1162 to 1227.”
Nuzzling his shoulders into the pillow, vaguely remembering his last back rub, the musky oil, the wings of wintergreen, he felt care and comfort slide through in an effortless shift into neutral gear. The man’s voice was comforting though distinctive, but carried little inflection, not trying to steer him.
A car rode by. He thought: Pontiac drive shaft and knew he was right. That ring was unmistakable, he could have identified it if it had been all the way out on the turnpike. His own past words sounded out their judgments, singled themselves out in his ears: Pontiac drive shafts. Chevy tappets. Ford rattles, a recognition system he had put in place far too long ago.
Old Jud Kearney had tried him on ten straight times before he gave up the quest. Ditto with Al Pinkney. On and on he could go. Rugged as a tank, his old Pierce Arrow came from a long way out in the left field of his memory, gave him a burst of sweet humming energy, and a faded picture he couldn’t focus on except for headlights sitting defiantly on the fenders.
Andirons he thought of, turtles, parapets. Nothing worked for him. She’d been a piece of steel through and through. Up the long climb of Passport Hill he heard the hum again, the steady slow swing through the Maritimes, in Nova Scotia the radio keeping cadence count with a military tattoo, crescendo of drums, fifes flirting with his soul, brass beating up his past, the quick-step of bagged air.
“You awake, Jack?” The front door, opened, was closed by a heavy hand. The voice was heavy too. A creak of the first step echoed in wooden framework. “Special delivery from the Perkins Institute. A full bag. Could be a Nobel winner here.” The voice was a diaphragm voice, right up out of a broad chest, not an ounce of sarcasm in it.
His wife had described the mailman to him early in the new assignment. “Name’s Armand Kingsley. A big man with a big smile, brown hair, blue eyes, glasses dark on the rim, steady in his walk no matter how fat his bag is. Never shifts it, like he’s awfully uncomfortable with it. Lives over on Mulvern Road. And the first full load that came, when you thought your reading for the summer came in one fell swoop, well, he wouldn’t let me carry it upstairs. Lugged it himself.”
Jack, as he did when trying to lock a new person into his mind, scratching for a face, an image, went back to the Corps for a proxy, a viable stand-in, a moving faute de mieux. Came leaping to him from out of Nicaragua and Philadelphia and the old Charlestown Navy Yard, tough and leathery and sure as a calendar, John Bateman Yancy, three up and three down, six-foot-two and trouble for you!
He reserved that image in his mind, saving it for the mailman, a former Marine himself, he had found out early in their talks. Semper Fidelis, Nor Heat of Day Nor Gloom of Night, dress blues striding down Germantown Ave. and a whole weekend about to fall at his and Yancy’s feet. The time they were alone in Atlanta, long after midnight, rebels without a cause, came crushing back with its weights, its sounds, the night air cool again on his cheeks, on his brow, coming out of the northeast.
“Awake as I’ll ever be. C’mon up. Rise and stein!”
“You sure you want a beer at this hour?” Jack heard the creak of the second step, a nail losing some of its grip, a good century of clutch tired of the holding on. The first step again, sending out its signature as he pictured Yancy-Kingsley pivoting, shifting his weight, the bag over one shoulder like a hunchback’s extra load. A flash of dress blues, mailman gray, black-visor hat stiff as funerals.
“Just one, if you’ve got a free hand, Armand.”
The mailman-corpsman settled his load on the floor, the bottle top snapped off like a period being popped from the end of a long, long sentence, the cold surface of delight placed against his hand signaling high noon, okaying its high-noonness, high noon and the good elixir. One bubble sometimes was good enough. For a moment there was a joyful vacancy in his mind as if he were lost in some mid-world. It was a delicious moment.
Cushions of the Morris chair exhaled, cloths rubbed each other, wood said in protest it was being employed by significant weight. Floorboards accented a load shift, a center of gravity change, nail-wood talk. The cord about the canvas bag was loosened, sounding like a noose coming off a neck in The Oxbow Incident.
Christ, he vowed to himself, I could watch a Fonda film all day long. Long as he wore a hat and wasn’t shaved.
Jack Derrick, dexterity not lost in him, poured the bottle of beer into a glass mug he’d caught off a hook on the side of a small table. Armand Kingsley watched the amber fluid trace itself across a yellowed fingertip, guiding the way, assuring the way; he wondered how much feeling was left in the finger. Could he phoney it up? Was Jack’s timing impeccable?
“You have time to read the titles?” Jack said, hoisting the full glass, not a drop spilled, to his lips. His question was more suggestion than question.
“Yes, some of them. I told Dorrie I’d be home early today, as early as possible.” He had slid a foot across the floor, putting it under his big frame, as if to rise.
“How she doing?” Jack wet his lips after the first taste of the day, doubling up his taste.
Armand smiled at the licking. Tasted it himself. Made it Guinness, brown bottle, room temperature, from under a bar in Ballyniskallin so many years ago he couldn’t time it.
“I’m never sure, Jack. She hides a lot. We talked about that before. She doesn’t want to drop anything else on me. On top of housework, shopping and cooking just about every night. Don’t get to many games at the park any more. But she’ll be fine, I think. Doc says she’ll live another hundred years. If she has her way!” And in the same breath and with the same stress, continued, “Say! I heard you had some poor soul up here the other night and gave him the old treatment, like back at Paris Island. Herb told me, all his gestures, too. I saw him just this morning. Heard you cutting loose on somebody. What happened?”
“You met my niece Paula?”
“Yah, the one from the West Coast.”
“Staying for a bit with us, looking for a job, seeing old friends. Met one of her old boyfriends. Came by one night real late and three sheets to you know where, made a hell of a racket, woke the neighbors up. Was a real pain in the ass. I got rip. Told Paula when he sobers up he had to come by and apologize.” He took another sip of beer, sure, easy, a method drinker, practice perfect. Armand nodding his appreciation, biting his lip lightly in doing so, still recalling the Guinness he had pulled back from the long ago.
In spite of Jack’s inability to see, Armand felt open, exposed, as if secrets were being given up. Pulling at his jacket, he faked a button check in front of the blind man. He shook his head disbelieving himself.
“So you pulled the old D.I. routine on him?” Armand’s face filled with memory. An outsider could have spaded his way through the recollections, an archeologist down and dirty. It could have been a signpost or a trail marker, the way his lip curved, a half smile moved, a cheek puffed. His head kept nodding appreciation. His jaw was solid, his neck thick, his shoulders wide, giving all the appearance that he was as rugged as a locomotive, as dependable.
Copyright © 2018 by Tom Sheehan