Dr. Pendergraph tells me there’s something wonky with my rods and cones. He says this as I stare into his great white machine with the tiny hot air balloons shuttering before my eyes; I always think of picnics. “This may be an early indication of glaucoma,” he says, crumpling the machine’s readout— a ribbon of white paper like an old pharmacy receipt—before tossing it into the trash bin. He’s wearing a white coat with a half Windsor knot struggling to cover the unbuttoned top button of his sky blue shirt, and I wonder what size his neck is and how frustrating it must be for him to buy dress shirts. I have never had trouble with dress shirts.
I take my chin off the machine’s padded rest. Dr. Pendergraph puts his hand on my shoulder. His expression is of ambivalent compassion, as if the concern of his younger years was now eroding or he had never mastered the art of bedside manner. Or he had never cared to learn. Or it simply wasn’t in him and that’s why he became an optometrist in the first place, where looking into a patient’s eyes is clinical rather than a communication between human beings.
I don’t really mind whatever the reason. All I can think about is the hot air balloons. I remember the taste of smoked salmon on my tongue, a crisp white wine, artichokes, capers. “I’ve got a few more tests,” Dr. Pendergraph says.
The deli is empty when I come in. My mother is sitting in our usual booth by the front windows perusing the heavy laminated menu from which she always orders chopped liver on rye. We meet every Wednesday for lunch. Ever since my father passed on to the next-other. Walking in, past the bagel counter, the pickle bar, I tried to imagine what the other patrons made of us: an Asian man age 25-35 and an elderly white woman: I am a paid caregiver or I’m a young lover from the Orient. Her lawyer or her doctor. That I’m her son seems the last assumption.
“How is Kerry?” she starts with.
I say, “Kerry is doing fine.”
Fine means trouble, someone sometime once told me.
“Just fine?” she says.
Kerry, I should say, she’s gone, she’s more states away than I can count.
She says, “Oh, I would just die if you gave me little Asian grandchildren.”
I wish I was in a position to give them to you, I think, I wish, I think.
And then the waitress arrives and she says, “What can I get for you, today?”
“Chopped liver on rye for her and a bowl of matza ball soup for me. With noodles. Please.”
“Very good,” the waitress says.
The placemats are decorated with local advertisements. The TVs set in each corner of the room play sports highlights.
“Oh, look at my hands,” my mother says. “Such thin skin. Look at my veins. Old people hands.”
She raises her arms and lets her fingertips rest on the tabletop. The curded delta of veins in her hands swell and blue.
“Old people hands,” she says.
That is when my vision starts to give out. Blurriness at first then a gradual disintegration like the last few moments before the sun’s afterglow bleeds beneath the horizon.
“Let me see your hands,” my mother says. “These are hands. Look at these hands.”
I search for the words to return her compliment.
“Alright folks, here’s your liver and here’s the matza ball. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“We’re fine. Thank you,” I say, blindly, in the direction of the waitress’s voice.
I wonder if my eyes have clouded, if my gaze has lost its immediacy, and the waitress can tell what’s happening. I wonder what my mother sees.
“OK, Enjoy now,” the waitress says.
I can hear her shoes scrap along the carpet.
“Oh, these hands,” my mother says. “Oh, look at these hands of mine.”
Dr. Pendergraph tips my head back. “You’re mother tells me you’re teaching these days.”
“I’m not singing.”
“My daughter’s in college at _________ now.”
“Good school,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “Just try not to blink now.”
My uncle flips on the windshield wipers. It’s raining bullets. A man on the radio is inconsolable about a late game decision the coach made to punt from last Sunday’s game. The truck’s heater is blaring full tilt. The dank of our wet clothing occupies the cab. I look out the window at the veins of water streaking down the glass and try to guess which clot will break first, which will beat the others down to the rubber.
My uncle stares through the windshield. His one big hand is tight on the wheel. Twelve o’clock. His sweat lined cap is tipped up. He looks nothing like my dad. Much too big, too serious. You wouldn’t believe they were brothers, except that he shed a tear at my father’s funeral and had the tact to wipe it away.
“It’s your father’s Yahrzeit,” my uncle says, not taking his eyes from the road.
“Mom lit a candle,” I say.
“Good,” he says.
When we arrive at the site the rain lets up. I clock in and start to hammer the foundation of the former-former-former publishing company we’re raizing to the ground. My uncle is beside me. He tells me again that I shouldn’t be doing this. That it’s for dummies like him. I shrug, though I believe him and I don’t.
“At least you’re a good worker,” he says. “Fuck me to say otherwise if it’s not the truth.”
“Fuckin’ right,” I say, swinging my sledge hammer back. “Don’t forget it.”
Mid-strike everything goes dark. I almost lose the hammer through my unbelieving hands. The blow dies against the wall with a rasp.
“Yeah, looks like it,” my uncle says.
I laugh and swing again into the cement. The force reverberates down my arms, into shoulders, into my bones. I shake like a giant tuning fork against the force.
I hear my uncle working beside me. Thud. Thud. Thud. The wall breaking piece by piece. Crumbling around our boots, dusting our jean fronts. Each thud followed by the faint susurrus of the head swung back, raised, and brought forward until that righteous blow that sends a block over the edge. In the darkness, it feels like a question whether or not the thing will ever land.
I imagine it’s my father beside me, talking about the Birds, and before long it’s not too hard to believe it true. I remember him picking me up in the old red 4Runner and riding with my face against the window. The man going off on the radio. The beads of rain racing each other through the fog of my breath.
My father had said, “You just try to do your best.”
And I had said, “But I’m so afraid of being average.”
On the day before my 29th birthday Kerry calls at midnight. It’s a Tuesday. She says, “What day is it again?” I can tell she’s been drinking, and more, that she’s attempting to hide it. There’s a genuine treble of enthusiasm in her voice, somewhere below the irony and anger.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve lost count.”
“It’s Tuesday,” she says. “Or is it Wednesday?”
She laughs as if we’re face-to-face, and I can picture her throwing her chin up, which makes me remember some good times and also some bad.
I want to tell her about how my eyesight is going, the sensation of being in total darkness. I want to tell her how it feels to touch flesh with only your fingers and nose and the meat of your tongue. How terrifying it is. I want to share it all with her. I close my eyes and reach out, guide my fingers through her black hair. I try to remember what it felt like.
Dan shows up on Thursday. Twenty-four deep. He says it’s Memorial Day weekend. Time to celebrate. He turns the radio up, flips off his ball cap, a spray of sandy blonde hair following its flight. We shake hands and embrace. We kiss each other. But I know he could care less. I can’t stop kissing him and he doesn’t stop letting me. He stares back indifferently. He says my ex was just a step along the path; he says she was probably the only one who would accept you. By morning I struggle to remember anything more than this. Everything else is blank. Dan is gone by the morning and I’m alone. There’s just the husk of him scattered around my home, splintered shards of green and amber which linger on the floor for days.
My sister texts me: Any chance you could watch Max while we go to the shore?
Of course, I say.
She comes with her kids, armored in business and enthusiasm. You’re really doing us an incredible favor. Max bounds in. She drops her diaper bag then pulls hard on her paper cup of coffee.
We start the dance of me not believing her and she not believing me, she speaking in a too familiar way and me playing along, both of us straining to keep our judgments of one another from manifesting on the surface. She gives me a schedule of when the dog should be fed and walked, and in what manner he should be bedded down at night. She hands me the doggy bowl and a Ziploc full of his kibble.
Her son is crying in the carriage. Her daughter grabs my hands and I twirl her around.
“Thanks so much again for doing this…You’re really doing us a huge favor…Call me if you need anything while we’re away.”
Dr. Pendergraph applies drops to my eyes. Then he asks me to wait in the waiting room with the magazines and TV. I try his frames on. Versions of myself that don’t seem so ridiculous. Sunglasses. People I’m not daring enough to be. People I dislike.
Finally, Dr. Pendergraph calls me back in. He tells me there’s something fishy with my optic nerve. “It’s tilted,” he says. “You’ll have to see a specialist to get more tests.”
The lobby is incandescent when I leave. My car is afire. I squint into the oncoming traffic.
Max is grinning at me, the stripe of hair down his back standing on end. His whole body wags with what I tell myself is joy at the reality of my existence in the world. I kneel and take his head into my arms. I hold him tightly, unafraid of whether he knows how much I need and love him in this moment. After he’s fed, after I’ve cooked my own meal, he lays his head on my lap and looks up at me and my vision goes in the brown of his eyes.
Max says, “The woman speaks about you in her sleep. She says she has regrets and she also says she’s so happy you agree.”
I say, “What do you know, dog.”
And he says, “She tends to turn in her sleep and talk about you and her.”
Max is asleep when my vision returns. He’s pawing at the carpet and growling at what I hope is a fantasy world of squirrels and cotton tail rabbits. I want to ask him more questions, but it seems wrong to wake him. I curl up on the floor beside him, hoping to cipher a dream of chase, the instinct for some inherent purpose.
I wake in the middle of the night unsure if I’ve lost my vision again. I blink and listen. A pair of birds exchange messages and the notion that I should have been something useful like an ornithologist invades my thoughts. My father might have been proud after some getting used to. My mother would have something to talk about on Mondays with her bowling league team. My sister would have an answer for her friends who knew me when I was a kid. I would have an identity: I am an ornithologist, someone worthy of a secondary inquiry, not a profession of white noise.
I want to understand what this pair of birds is communicating. Whether one is warning off the other or begging for her company. In the moment this seems crucial to my wellbeing. Then a car whooshes by, somewhere lost in the first dim light seeping through the window slats, and I know I’m not blind. I see the darkness burning off with the morning fog and the crickets shaking their legs in the wet grass. The leaves welling up around the aphid’s shining ankles, weeping onto the dirt. I imagine where the car is going. Off to the office, the plant, the kitchen, the coast. Off to a job always wakened in the dark. Headed for the West Coast where it’s always sunny and bright.
My mother is staring out the deli’s window when I arrive. Her hair is the same sandy blonde it’s been since she’s started dyeing it. When I slide into the booth across from her she doesn’t acknowledge me. It’s overcast, and the clothed light milks her green eyes as if she were a gypsy oracle.
“Hey there, is everything OK?” I say.
“Oh, I didn’t see you sit down,” she says.
She picks up the menu and puts it close to her face. She runs her eyes over the black lettering, pausing on the large swatches of colored pictures. I reach across the table and grasp her hand. I tell her I’m taking care of Max. I tell her Uncle Mike is doing well and that he’s looking after me and that he lit a candle for Dad. I tell her Kerry and me are doing better than ever and that we want to have a little girl like her, and a little boy like me.
In my mother’s expression I can see a vision of our family both of us have only dared to imagine in moments of weakness, and I am overtaken by a sense of great relief followed by a fear I have never before experienced.
After lunch, I watch her get in the car. She drives away, the time and distance stretching our fantasy into the flagging taffy of her childhood and the childhood she created for me. I stand outside the restaurant, but soon the blindness enfolds me again. I pad my way to the steps and ease down, like a man righting himself on a swinging high wire, hand searching out solid ground, fingertips alighting against concrete, palm testing the solidity of its tiny pebbles. In the darkness, the concrete seems the only sure thing. I hunker down and wait for the light to return. My mother always says I’m waiting.