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..."
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,"
"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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
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...
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."
"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.