Summer, 2002 / No. 8
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

I walked everywhere in those days. I had a car, but I couldn’t always afford gas. Sometimes at night, I went up to the windows of houses and looked inside. In the dark, you can stand right on the other side of the glass and no one ever knows you’re there. From the street these places always seem like the kind of homes you see in magazine ads—all red walls and leather furniture. Close up, though, it’s mostly just people watching television or doing the dishes. Although, once I saw a woman feeding soup to a man with two broken legs. There was nothing wrong with his arms, but she fed him soup anyway, kneeling beside him on the couch and carefully lifting the spoon to his lips.

Another time I saw a man putting on eyeliner. I was standing deep in a driveway between houses and looking into a bedroom. I could see him through the cracks between the blinds. He was sitting at a vanity with lights around the mirror. When he was done with the eyeliner he put on eye shadow and lipstick. Then he cleaned his face with a Kleenex and blew himself a kiss. After that, he walked out of the room and didn’t come back. I wondered whose makeup it was. His wife’s? His roommate’s?

And once I came across another man doing the same thing as me. I started down a driveway and saw him kneeling on the ground at the other end, his face shining from the light of the basement window in front of him. He never looked away from it, not even when I went back up the driveway. I don’t think he ever knew I was there. I never went back to that house again.

I was twenty-three or twenty-four at the time, I can’t really remember anymore. I hadn’t worked in months. My divorce papers had just come through. Sometimes, I would wake up with shooting pains in my stomach, like someone had stabbed me while I slept. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with me.

On one of these walks I met a blind man. It was around five or six in the evening. I could tell he was blind because he wore those dark glasses and he was tapping around the base of a telephone pole with a long white cane. When I tried to walk around him he swung the cane into my legs. It bent like it was made of rubber. I had to stop because he kept the cane in front of me. I couldn’t move without jumping over it.

“I’m a little lost,” he said, as if I’d asked him how he was. “There’s not a newspaper box around here, is there? ”

“No, there’s nothing but the telephone pole,” I told him.

“There’s supposed to be a newspaper box,” he said, “but I guess my counting got thrown off somewhere.”

“Yes, that’s most likely it,” I agreed, even though I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I waited for him to move the cane, but he didn’t.

“I was walking to the school,” he went on. “But I should have come across it by now. You don’t see a school anywhere, do you? ”

I looked around. We were standing in front of an old Victorian house with vines growing up the front of it. A young girl in white pajamas stood in the front window, watching us. There weren’t any lights on behind her. She was just a white silhouette against the darkness.

“No,” I said, “there’s nothing but houses around here.”

“Wow,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m really messed up.”

The girl didn’t move at all, didn’t even seem to blink. I wondered where her parents were.

“I could really use some help here,” the blind man said.

The blind man kept his free hand on my arm while we walked, like he was afraid I would run away if he didn’t. All the way down the street he tapped the ground in front of us with his cane and counted under his breath. Now that I was taking him back the way he had come, he seemed to know exactly where we were at all times. Every intersection we took he guided me in a different direction. Soon I was the one who was lost.

“I have it all memorized,” he told me as we went along. “I go for the same walk, to the school and back, every night. Turn left out the door, two hundred and seventeen steps to the first right, four hundred and eight from there…” He went on like that for some time and then ended with, “And that box has always been there before, a hundred and one steps from the intersection after the second left turn. Always. I don’t understand it.”

“How do you know when you’re actually at the school? ” I wanted to know. “I mean, even if you take the proper amount of steps, how do you know it’s the school and not something else, like a bank or a high-rise? ” I pictured him tapping his way around a building, trying to figure out what it was just by its size and shape. Maybe counting taps like he did steps.

“I can hear the kids,” he told me. “There are always kids in the playground, even in the middle of the night. It’s like they don’t know where else to go.”

Later, he said, “You’re probably wondering why I go to the school every day.”

“No, not really.”

“I’m no Humbert Humbert, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t.”

He led me to a large house with a fence around the front yard. The fence was taller than me and had trees all around the inside of it. The address was printed on the door in red paint. It looked like a child had done it.

“Here we are,” he said.

“Why do you have such a big fence? ” I asked. None of the other houses on the street had fences around their front yards.

“It’s so no one can see us,” he said. “I think the neighbours complained or something.”

“‘Us’? ” I asked.

“It’s kind of like a group home,” he said. “For people like me.”

I pictured a whole houseful of blind men, bumping around the halls and asking each other for help just to get out the door.

“Would you like to come in? ” he asked. “For a coffee or something? ”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Maybe something to eat,” he said. “I can make you a sandwich.”

“No, I’ve really got places to be,” I told him.

“I have drugs.”

We entered through the front door, which wasn’t locked. As soon as he opened the door I heard a woman scream, then the sound of gunshots. I was ready to run away, or maybe hide behind one of the trees, but he walked in like this was normal, so I followed him.

Just inside the entranceway was a large living room, and this was where all the noise was coming from. Two men were sitting on a couch underneath the window, watching a big-screen Sony across the room. On the television, some cops in black body armor were standing around a man lying on the ground. He was wearing nothing but shorts, and blood was running out of several bullet holes in his upper body. A woman was standing on the porch of a nearby house, and she was the one who was screaming. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I thought I might have seen this before.

The two men on the couch turned to look at us when we came in, but they didn’t say anything. One of them raised a beer can to his lips. “Hello,” I said. They still didn’t say anything.

“Don’t mind them,” the blind man said. “They’re deaf.”

They looked back at the television when the scene changed to an outdoor shot. Now a bear was mauling someone on the other side of a parked car. Someone had videotaped the whole thing rather than help. The deaf men started laughing, making noises like barking dogs.

“It’s just down this way,” the blind man said, leading me deeper into the house.

For a while during these days I dated a woman who had a metal arm. It was the first woman I’d been with since my ex-wife. She’d lost her real arm in a car accident. She talked about the accident like it didn’t mean anything to her. “We were going too fast around a corner and the car rolled. That was it, just one of those stupid one-car accidents.” She never said who the other person was, or which one of them was driving. “Silly me, I had my arm hanging out the window and it got torn off when the car rolled over it.” Silly me. She really said that.

She didn’t mind having a metal arm at all. Not that it looked metal. When you put it beside her real arm, you could barely tell them apart. But when you touched this fake arm, it was cold and hard.

And it would move on its own. She would take it off and lay it on her dresser, but the fingers would twitch for hours afterward, and sometimes the elbow would even bend. “It’s just going to sleep,” she told me. But one night she was moving around and whimpering with some dream and the arm matched all her movements. It jerked and shook on the dresser, and the fingers balled up into a fist, and then the whole thing fell on the floor. I wouldn’t get out of bed the next morning until she’d picked it up and put it back on.

She lived in a basement apartment with only one window. We had to leave the bedroom door open while we slept for fear we’d suffocate. She couldn’t afford anything else because all she had was some sort of disability pension. She wanted to be an actress, but she hadn’t worked as anything but an extra in years. Who would hire a woman with only one arm?

We liked to tour condos that were for sale. Only the new ones, though. Never anything that had already been lived in. We’d walk through them and make notes in a little notebook we’d bought, talk about the view, look in the cupboards. The salespeople acted like they believed we could actually afford these places. They were a hundred, a hundred and fifty thousand each.

One woman opened a bottle of wine for us while we were there. She gave it to us in little plastic glasses. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, “but would you believe someone actually stole our real wineglasses? ” It was the best wine I’d ever had.

When the woman asked us what we did, I told her I was a marketer for I.B.M. and my girlfriend said she was a nurse.

This woman showed us around the model suite. When she brought us to the living room, the sun was just setting, as if she’d cued it. The entire place filled with a golden light and I held my girlfriend’s hand—the real one—until it passed.

“Now there’s a Kodak moment if I’ve ever seen one,” the saleswoman said.

My girlfriend stood in the middle of the smaller bedroom and looked around. It was a young boy’s room, with blue walls and a bed in the shape of a race car. “We’d want to paint, of course,” she said. “When we have the children.”

“Are you expecting? ” the saleswoman asked.

“Oh no,” my girlfriend said. “But someday.” She looked at me and laughed.

“Cheers then,” the saleswoman said and refilled our glasses.

She brought us into the kitchen last and sat us down around a glass-topped table. There was an espresso maker on the counter and the fridge had an icemaker.

“Does the place come with all the appliances? ” I asked.

“Oh yes,” the woman said. “And there’s a pool and a sauna in the building.”

“A pool and a sauna,” I repeated.

“That’s right.”

“And we don’t have to pay for that? ” my girlfriend asked. “We can just use it like everyone else? ”

At the end of it all, the woman gave us a blank contract to look at and a pamphlet full of measurements and costs. I looked at all the numbers and said, “I don’t know. I think it’s a bit more than we wanted to pay.”

“It always is,” she said, still smiling.

“I mean, I don’t know if we can afford a place like this,” I said.

“But if we could,” my girlfriend said, and shook her head.

The saleswoman poured the last of the wine into our glasses. “The question you need to ask yourself,” she said, “is how can you afford not to have a place like this? ”

My girlfriend eventually left me for a man with an artificial leg, someone she’d met in her amputee support group. They’d been having an affair for months, pretty much the whole time I’d been dating her. She told me over breakfast one afternoon.

“What are we going to do now? ” I asked, unbelieving.

“I don’t know what you’re going to do,” she said, watching the fingers of her fake hand flex on the table, “but I know what I’m going to do.”

“His cancer is going to come back, you know,” I told her, starting in on my cereal again. “It’s just growing somewhere else in his body right now.”

“Well, if my mind wasn’t made up about you before,” she said.

“One day he’s going to start having seizures because of a brain tumour or something. Where will you be then? ”

Her hand spread itself out flat on the table and was still. She looked at me. “I won’t be sitting here having this conversation with you,” she said.

After that, I began spending all my spare time in movie theaters. There was one—a Cineplex Odeon with eight screens and Starbucks coffee—that I went back to over and over. It had air conditioning and, by the time I left, my nose would be running, like I had a cold. Whenever one movie ended, I’d get up and go to the next one. Sometimes I’d come in halfway through it, sometimes it would be just beginning.

Once a man in dress pants and a golf shirt sat right beside me. He held a bag of popcorn between his legs and asked me if I wanted any. I moved up several rows and he didn’t follow me.

Another time, an usher woke me by shining a flashlight into my eyes. “You’ve been here all day,” he said.

“I paid, I paid,” I told him. I looked at the screen but it was blank, the curtain drawn. There was no one else in the theatre.

“You paid for one show,” he said. “You’ve been here all day.” He was young, a teenager, with slicked-back hair and a thin mustache.

“I fell asleep.”

“You have to leave before the next movie starts.” He kept shining the flashlight in my eyes, even though the house lights were on.

“The place is empty,” I said. “What difference does it make? ”

“The difference is that you only paid for one show.”

“Come on,” I said. “Help a man out.”

“Do you really want me to get the manager? ” he asked.

But I have to tell you about what happened in the blind man’s room.

We smoked a joint that tasted like cinnamon. He told me it was laced with a mild hallucinogen. “It’s the only way I can see these days,” he said.

We were sitting on his bed and he’d taken his glasses off. He was staring at a spot two inches over my head. Now that I looked at him close, I could see his eyes were all scarred and the skin of his face pocked, like someone had taken a small knife to him. I was fully expecting him to make a pass at me, but he never did.

At some point in the night I asked him, “What kind of home is this? ”

“What do you mean? ”

“I mean, is everyone who lives here blind or deaf or something? ”

“Oh yeah. But none of us was born this way. We were all normal once. You can’t get in here unless you’ve been in an accident or something. Like the deaf guys. One of them blew his own eardrums out when he shot himself in the head.”

“He shot himself in the head and he didn’t die? ”

“Yeah, the bullet hit his skull and travelled around, went out the back. Never even touched his brain. But it made him deaf for some reason. The doctors couldn’t explain it.”

“What about the other one? ” I asked.

“I don’t know. It was some disease or something.”

“Jesus,” I said. “I had no idea there were places like this.”

“You should see the people upstairs,” he said. “Some of them can’t even walk. They just lie in their rooms all day, watching television and talking to God, if they can even do that.”

“I don’t think I could live like that,” I told him.

“Maybe not,” he said, “but what else can you do? ”

There were no lamps in his room, but I could still see because there was light coming in through the window from somewhere close. I got up and opened the blinds. The neighbouring house was only five or six feet away. I was looking into someone’s kitchen. It was a big room, with an island in the centre and stainless steel pots hanging everywhere. It looked like an Ikea display. There was a woman sitting on the island, in between a wooden dish rack and a stack of magazines. Her skirt was pulled up around her hips and a man was kneeling in front of her, his head and one of his hands between her thighs. She was looking right at me. I wasn’t sure if they were really there or if I was just imagining them. Looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure I imagined them. But back then, I just didn’t know.

“I think your neighbours are fucking,” I told the blind man.

“You can see my neighbours? ” He stood and came over to the window, turned his head from side to side.

The woman kept looking out her window but didn’t seem to notice either one of us. She leaned back on one hand and ran the other through the man’s hair. He had a bald spot at the back of his head.

“You can really see them? ” he asked. “Where are they? ”

“They’re in the kitchen. They’re fucking right there on the counter.”

“Tell me what they look like,” the blind man said. He had his hand on my arm again.

“She looks like Meryl Streep,” I said. “I don’t know about him. I can’t see his face because he’s going down on her.”

“Really? ” He leaned forward, until his nose touched the glass.

“She’s got her legs wrapped around his shoulders and everything,” I told him.

“Wow. What are her tits like? Are they big? ”

“I don’t know. She’s still dressed. She’s just pulled up her skirt.”

“But what do they look like? Do they look big? ”

“They’re all right, I guess.”

“What about her panties? ”

“I don’t know. I can’t see them. Maybe she wasn’t wearing any.”

“And her skirt? ”

“It’s a red floral thing. And a white shirt. Some sort of silk material.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I can see it.”

The two of us stood there in silence for a moment, me watching this couple having sex, the blind guy staring in their direction and not seeing anything, or maybe seeing something only he could see, and the woman staring back at us. If she was even there at all.

She closed her eyes when she came. From this close, I could see the flush of her skin. The man stood up and grabbed a dishtowel from the counter, wiped his face with it. She hit him lightly on the shoulder and laughed as she hopped down off the counter. They went out of the kitchen and didn’t come back again. I never did see the man’s face.

“Tell me what they’re doing now,” the blind man said when they were gone.