Going through old photo albums brings up both sad and pleasant memories, and every once in a while a big surprise. Was that her? Was that me? Then comes a smile. He who laughs last, laughs best.
Below the cut is the first story of the collection under my nom de plume, John Greer Joyce.
The Blind Barber
One afternoon as Brad filled the bird feeder out in the back yard, a noisy mockingbird up in an elm somehow reminded her of the story Dennis began to write but never finished. It was about Gropius, a blind barber. To go to Gropius to have your hair cut was a great leap of faith. Especially if you asked him to give you a shave as well.
Brad also thought about her own story, which was about an X-ray technician who helped solve a murder. The important clues were found in those stiff acetate sheets the doctors put against a glaring light. Blacks and grays against a sterile field of white.
Dr. Tamarkin pointed to that deathly cloud on Dennis’s lung. Three, four months. Terminal. What a word. A train terminal. Both the end and the beginning of a journey. Let’s not talk about it, Dennis had said after that horrid diagnosis. Let’s just live.
X-rays, hospitals, doctors. Brad had a couple decades of experience in that area, and thus would be able to write convincingly about it. But then why bother? The story she outlined was conventional, of a popular genre, of no great significance. Dennis’s, on the other hand, was philosophical, enigmatic. Intriguing.
She knew Dennis picked Gropius because that was the name of the Bauhaus architect who designed buildings no one had ever seen before. Like Gropius, Dennis always had within him feelings that only art could express. Mere thoughts and dreams can easily be described; emotions, well, they were something else altogether.
It was the feeling of walking a long distance through a bad neighborhood, or of steeling himself to face Gropius, that Dennis wished to convey. The fear that always came to him the moment he settled in that blind barber's chair. The clammy sensation that he had made a horrible mistake. That his trust in a sightless man was misplaced, and wholly foolish.
Dennis hated himself for being so stupid. He knew sooner or later he would walk out of that barbershop a seriously wounded man, or perhaps not walk out at all. Gropius surely would stumble as he held the straight razor against his neck. Dennis’s carotid artery would be severed, and he’d bleed to death as Gropius fumbled with the telephone. Or Gropius’ shears with their long narrow blades might by chance pierce his eyeballs. And then Dennis would be blind himself.
Those were the fears he wished to convey.
* * *
At Albertsons Brad got herself a spiral notebook, with a bright red cover. She wrote:
Well, my dear boy, at last my unstructured life is completely unstructured—lacking whatever structure you were able to impose on me. I see the shambles: rafters, pipes, bits of roofing just falling down in all directions, and here I am unable to discern any way to turn. Any direction to take.
Harry phoned me last week and talked maybe 30 minutes. He said such beautiful, heart-warming things about you! I wish I had it in writing. He'd tried twice before to call but he said he got someone’s voice that was not mine. We are mixed up with Mrs. Marchant’s phone again. This time, her phone rings whenever I get a call. She was, Harry said, quite annoyed. Somebody really ought to do something about it. Well, she bought a new phone but the company said she would have to get it adapted or something, but she said she’d have to go way out there off the highway and she wasn’t about to go that far.
What this is, is the man not smoking.
It is me, not crying.
The other morning around nine o’clock a Miss Janet Lindsay of “The Ladies’ Department” of the First National Bank came calling. I was lucky I even had on any clothes. I’m sure there are women who have had no experience with or idea of what their husband’s business was all about & God knows I am having problems enough. So, this is what “The Ladies Department” is all about. Miss Lindsay really loves the sound of her own voice. Also, she can’t answer a simple question. She has to go into her rigmarole about “the laws are, necessarily and generally, for YOUR protection, in case of children, etc., etc., etc.
Our vault box is in both our names, but I was refused entry to it when I went there later. I was, however, permitted to remove your Navy discharge and our marriage certificate, after Miss Lindsay had made Photostats. Anyway, Miss Lindsay sought to console me with all the platitudes, including heavy emphasis on God’s Will, reward in heaven. Where I shall be reunited with you.
Yes, sweetie. In heaven I shall SEE you again!
Happy anniversary, love. Forty-nine years today. I always felt that you never really wanted to get married. (Why do people say GET married, instead of simply marry?) You never realized how darn long you were going to be stuck with me, did you?
I haven’t had a decent bath since you left. Bathing oneself is such a boring business. I take something like a squat bath in the tub. I turn on the water & get in. By the time there is water deep enough I’m getting out! I hope I don’t turn into a stinking unwashed old woman like Aunt Claudia!
Yesterday I think I ate some crackers and cheese and peaches. They say never, never, never eat standing at the sink or cupboard. But eating is too much of a chore. I have stuff, but it isn’t worth the trouble. Well, today I did eat sausage & eggs & toast. I’ve thrown out so much food it makes me sick to think of it. When I looked the other day into the fridge so much stuff had grown whiskers.
You will be delighted (appalled?) to know that I am taking your Valium tablets. Only two and a half mgs. Half a tab, now and then. The main motivation being to help me attend to business in public without weeping all over everybody. Though I can’t say it has really done much good.
Friday is housecleaning day. How you hated it, my love! But how faithfully you drudged through it. So do I hate it.
Dusk. The worst time.
* * *
In Gropius’ barbershop was a table covered with magazines. Playboys. In Braille. Tiny patterned bumps on the surface of the slick pages. His blind customers could feel their way into the sensations that come to a man when he sees a bared breast. Through their fingers, in the darkness of their minds’ eye, could they actually see a woman’s nakedness? Yes? No? Snip! Snip! Snip!
Anyway, on the wall of the shop was a calendar. In Braille. Also a clock with raised bumps for numbers. One day Gropius translated a framed quotation hanging above the sink. He ran his fingers over the bumpy parchment, and recited:
“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”
Dennis’s story raised some important questions. For instance, when Gropius swept the floor at the end of the day, how did he know he got all the clipped hair? More questions: Why was the spinning cylinder of the barber’s pole outside the shop not in Braille? How could Gropius tell a ten dollar bill from a one? If he nicked someone’s chin with the razor, where did he place the septic stick? If someone made an insightful comment, did Gropius say, I see?
Well, why not? Blind people use that phrase all the time, don’t they? I’ll see you later, they say.
* * *
Today may be dishwashing day. I may do what Harry did when he was here a week after your service. He “turned to” & put everything in the dishwasher, including pans & even those throw-away plastic glasses. I thought they’d fly all over the washer, or melt, but amazingly everything came out clean. Of course, all the books say don’t put aluminum pans in because of the darkening reaction of the detergent.
I see that my writing has deteriorated seemingly recently & also I can’t even hit the lines anymore. I feel like hell. Maybe I’ll go shopping. That usually makes me feel better. I want to get something for Nancy & for Willie. I got some beads for Ardis. Earlier I saw a lovely chunky necklace of the type she affects, but it cost a pot. This one only cost three quarters of a pot.
Oh god! Baby how I miss you. How can I pick up my life? What life? From when I was 30 years old? It’s not a picking up, it is starting a new, bumbling beginning—with half of myself gone. Well, the limb is severed but the nerve endings still hurt.
Sweetie, I’m sorry for all the mean things I ever said & did to you. If only I could have understood you—your needs, your apprehensions—maybe I could have been a better mate. If, if, if! If only…This must be one of the worst phases of the death of a loved one, aside from the realization that it is—forever.
I hope you knew, that last night, of the two, three hours I lay with you. I hope you didn’t feel abandoned when I got up & left you to go to the kitchen. Your breathing was so labored & I felt you would strangle on the fluid that you always had to get up to hack out. If, again. It must have been rales, your death breathing, even then when I tried to turn you so you wouldn’t strangle. If only I had known you were dying, I would never have left you, even for those 30 minutes. Oh, darling, I do hope you didn’t know, but I have a feeling that you did know, right up to & after your last breath.
I don’t know why you always denigrated yourself so much. Everyone but you could see your true worth. I always felt that you tried to evaluate yourself by somebody else’s accomplishments.
* * *
Helluva note. I think of all those years, dear heart, when you were up early and I could have been up with you but stayed in bed. And now my sleep pattern has changed. I wake up at 5:00 to pee and here I am up bumbling around, too sleepy to know what I’m doing, disoriented, and yet too wakeful to go back to bed. Oh, darling, of all the times for me to wander off! It grieves me that I left you alone. I didn’t know you were dying. I did not mean to abandon you!
All our friends seem to be concerned that I am about to become a morbid recluse. It isn’t that. It is only that I just want to stay here with you. Your love, your concern & presence enfold me. I am surprised that I don’t miss you more in bed. I stay on my side & think I don’t want to disturb you, to a possibly sleepless night of pain. I know when the weather turns cold I’ll be aware of the absence of your dear, comforting arms. I can’t believe you’ve been gone two weeks and two days. Only yesterday? Or a whole lifetime?
* * *
A blizzard swept in from the north. You know what we in Amarillo always say: "The only thing between us and the North Pole is a barbed wire fence." Snow fell all night and in the morning I looked out the window and saw Mary's front door was covered by a ten-foot drift. Later that afternoon a boy in a bright orange parka came knocking on the door, offering to clear my front porch and sidewalk. When he finished the job I gave him a five dollar bill. That night I stood at the kitchen counter, glass of scotch in my hand. I knew I ought to fix supper, but that was too much of a chore.
* * *
When people say to me, How are you, or, I’m so sorry, I only just heard, etc., I always break up. But I have devised a system. Like telling a really convincing lie. I just say the words & think about something far away. Or maybe I’m like a secretary taking dictation; I let it go into my ears and out my hands but never allow it to touch my brain. The only drawback is that the system hardly ever works.
What is it the Buddha said? Empty your mind. No wonder it took the chubby guru seven effen years to do it! On the other hand I feel that my mind has been pretty much empty all my life. As compared to yours, my dear love, you were always so acutely curious. No one is here to tell me the longest or the shortest day, the vernal equinox, nor the solstices! Harry teased me but he was right. I had to have you to tell me what I wanted to know.
Well, off to my squat bath. No more lying in a tub of luxurious suds while you entertain me with witty comments about people, places, things. Ideas and words! Them days are gone forever. The radio is playing what to me is the dearest love song of all…”I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.”
Time was when I was under stress I could go bake a cake. Or the equivalent thereof. No more. For one thing, who is going to eat it? For another, just thinking through the procedure involved exhausts me. It is a real irony that I always loved to cook, for you, and you didn’t give a damn about food. I read these recipes in magazines and actually get hungry. But then there’s the problem of re-calculating recipes from servings of four to a serving of one. Well, it’s just beyond me. So to hell with it.
What I have to guard against now is becoming a helpless lush. It is so much easier to pour a drink than to chop, peel, slice, cook—or even just to make a gad-damned sandwich! Thank god for chicken livers. I can bring myself to fry up a helluva batch at one time, then I can just grab one or two as I go by the fridge. Lotsa iron. I MUST eat.
* * *
On the radio Brad heard a newscaster say the phrase, “Groping for a solution.” It seemed, suddenly, an extremely odd sounding word. Grope! Was that the way it was actually spelled? Her first impulse was to call out to Dennis. “Please look up the word grope, sweetie! Read me the definition.” She could see him standing in the corner of the living room, at the huge open Webster’s on its stand, eyeglasses perched on his nose, reading in that marvelously resonant voice of his.
She could hear him. “To feel about blindly or uncertainly in search,” he’d say. “To look for something blindly or uncertainly. To feel one’s way. To pass the hands over the person of another for the sake of sexual pleasure.” Her dear man would, of course, playfully emphasize the penultimate word of the sentence.
Perfect. Yes. That dovetails with Gropius, doesn’t it?
The words remained in her mind, they would not go away. Grope. Gropius. She shook her head in impatience, and reached for a volume of the Britannica. There fell out a sheet of paper, on which was Dennis’s handwriting. Preliminary Notes. For a story entitled The Blind Barber. She could feel him in the room. She could smell him. She ran her finger over his precious handwritten words.
Gropius, Walter. The Bauhaus school. He argued against imitation, snobbery, and dogma. The greatness of art, he says, stands before utilitarian considerations. He wore a beret with a business suit. Symbolic of the two worlds he hoped to bridge—the rigid mentality of the businessman, and the imagination of the creative artist. Did the man ever experience the paralysis of fear? Did he ever fear that he would lose his sight? What could he ever hope to become if he was suddenly blind? What is fear’s function?
* * *
My mind is a squirrel run or a hamster wheel, round & round, clackety, clickety, clack—all night long! I’ve got to…this, that, something else. But all I want to do is lie on the bed & cry, or just stare blankly at nothing. And please for god’s sake don’t anyone ring the doorbell! I’ve got to clean the bathroom. I think I can smell it all the way in the living room. But here I am, INERT. Remembering you forcing yourself thru the damn chores. Dragging that damn sweeper when you scarcely had strength to drag your own body.
If only I could stop remembering that last day & night. I don’t mean “forget.” I never will. I mean just to stop remembering. Sometimes I picture you as a dim figure, going away from me in a bleak landscape, lonely, wandering, seeking your Becoming. And I am not sure what this means, even to myself. Then of course I see you waiting through your pain—uncomplaining. And I see you doing things for me, waiting on me, even to almost your last day. You said “You’re crying,” while you were lying on the floor, too weak to get up & I too weak to help you.
* * *
That night in their bed, just a few moments before Brad expelled her last breath, she saw the conclusion of Dennis’s story. It was a denouement of the sharpest clarity and precision. Vividly three-dimensional, perfect in every respect.
Dennis emerges from Gropius’ shop, into the summer sunlight. His hair is trimmed, parted, and combed neatly. His face is freshly, cleanly shaved. Brad's handsome, dear boy’s blue eyes twinkle, and he smiles.
He beckons…and she follows.