11 March 2015
Saturday in the rain, with heavy sluices of water running off my feet and the tired clop of four sodden shoes squishing along the sidewalk. Grandfather silent. Grandfather bundled inside his squeaking raincoat, bent under a brown cloth cap. Grandfather’s hand tucked inside my arm. Mottled skin and thin curling hairs along the knuckle where he grips, firm and trusting. Even in the rain he wears the sunglasses.
Squish, slop, squish, slop. Up another set of steps, onto the watersoaked welcome mat, ring the bell and wait. Smiling. Fixed, tight smiles. Me to say hello ma’am or hello is the lady of the house at home. Grandfather to start the pitch.
In the rain no one asks us in.
My box grows heavy. Cardboard wettening even under wraps and seeping like an infection down into the tight-packed goods. Christmas wrapping already in August. Some buy early, says Grandfather. Some wait just for me.
Down the steps, along the boulevard. Squish, slop, squish. My arm going numb. Baseball hat dripping rain off the bill and tightening along my forehead. Grandfather tall, but stooping. Faint smell of cheese clinging to his shirt, but covered now under the raincoat and the soft hiss of water sliding over the grass.
Gutters run with waste and leaves. A car splashes past. Up another set of steps. Ring the bell. Smiling.
Is the lady of the house at home?
Two dish cloths and a pot holder.
Are you really blind? she says.
Down the steps, along the street. Grandfather calculating in his head. Soft mutters and faint sucking of teeth. Turning the corner into a slash of wind. My eyes sting with rain. Grandfather grunts.
I think of him at night in the speckled brown chair worn smooth on the arms, with his feet up in tired slippers and the talking book on the phonograph. White hair in thinning strands. Shoulders slumped. Me crouching behind the sofa soft-tuning the radio to forbidden rock ‘n’ roll. Dead nights in Swedish parlors, with the clock ticking and Mormor in the kitchen. For treats, a glass of egg nog.
Mormor reading out evening news and sharing the parlor silence. Mormor packing the cardboard boxes and toting up the day’s receipts. Driving the Chevrolet—perched up high and peering so she can see out over the hood. A tiny woman, stooped and hunched with age and aggravated injuries.
Grandfather silent. Sucking on his teeth. Dreaming back the years before the darkness fell.
Me vowing never to go blind. Never to tramp the streets of an indifferent city, begging the attention of gaping strangers. Never to sell or have to try to sell. Vowing aloofness. Vowing a better way.
The smell of Swedish meatballs and cooking potatoes hanging over the kitchen.
The clock ticking.
But now it is Saturday in the rain and my shoes squish on the grassy verge.
Up the steps, ring the bell. Smiling.
Down the steps, up the next. Smiling.
A box of birthday cards. A decorative spoon.
Down the steps. . . .
Grandfather stumbling and coming aright. Grandfather leaning heavy on my shoulder as I see him on his days alone, cane tapping along the sidewalk like a metronome beating out a rhythm of need.
Down the steps.
Up another. No thank you.
Down the steps. . . .
How do I know you’re blind? she says.
Grandfather silent, but holding the smile.
Streets repeat. The wind shifts. Rain at our back pushing us forward. Grandfather’s hand tucked inside my arm. Mottled skin and thin curling hairs along the knuckle where he grips, tight, with a firmness that bonds like glue.
The box at my side is dragging. Evening is miles away. Grandfather sighs.
Up . . . down . . . smiling. Make the pitch. Never pressure.
Afterwards, in the car on the way home, Grandfather sucks on his teeth and counts the money. Does the calculations in his head, muttering softly as he counts, and then at the end, with every penny accounted for, he leans back to where I sit in the back seat and stretches his hand out toward mine.
Eighty-five, he says. Shows his teeth in that tight, fixed smile. Like something remembered from a distant past.
I take the coins held between his thumb and forefinger. Three quarters and a dime.
Then I sit way back on the old cloth seat and send my mind off on its fancies, willing it away from the gutter-slick streets. Away from the plain black Chevrolet. Away from Mormor, my tiny Swedish grandmother, perched on pillows so she can see out over the top of the steering wheel. Away from the repeating avenues of bungalows and back alleys. Away to wherever I can find to jump. . . .
Originally published in Studio (Australia), Issue 72, Spring 1998, and (as “The Country of the Blind”) in Wellspring, Summer/Fall 1993. This story will also appear in my forthcoming short story collection, Wrestling with Angels, to be released by New Rivers Press, Fall 2015.