Tuesday, August 18
You know you live in a rough neighborhood when somebody honks at a blind man in the crosswalk. The blonde in the Hummer laid on her horn, and the guy with the cane lost control of his flimsy plastic grocery bag. It ripped open and cans of tomatoes went bouncing and rolling all over the street. In about ten seconds, traffic in both directions ground to a big honking standstill, and the blind man stood frozen in the middle of it all.
Tough town, Cleveland.
I was sitting in the bus stop on Lake Shore across from Joe’s Super Market, waiting for the Number 30, so I ran out in front of the Hummer and pitched the driver a carefully calibrated look of outrage while I helped the guy gather up his tomatoes, his pound of ground chuck, some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, a packet of McCormick’s Tex-Mex Chili Seasoning, and his MondoMegaJackpot ticket.
“Thanks!” he shouted. “I thought I was a dead man.”
“Happy to help!” I tried to sound as reassuring as I could over the din. “It’s going to be okay in about a minute. I’ll take your stuff. Grab onto my arm.”
By the time I got us sitting down in the RTA shelter, more traffic had piled up behind Little Ms. Hummer. Drivers everywhere were honking their brains out at her, and the light had turned red. Twice. I had plenty of time to catch her reluctant eye and read her lips. She was muttering “BITCH” at me as she drove off. Boiling. Ha!
All in all, it was a gratifying experience. I was enjoying the buzz of doing good while I sat there with the guy, his name being, as it turned out, Thomas Bennington III, so I let the Number 30 go by. For one thing, on closer inspection, he was cute.
After our brief exchange in the middle of the road, Thomas Bennington III had been silent. He was looking pretty composed, though, for a man who’d just escaped from the Valley of the Shadow of Joe’s. Since he was blind, I could take the opportunity to stare, and I seized it. Carpe stare, I say.
Right off the bat, I had to admit that he was way more than cute. Handsome was more like it. And young—early-thirty-ish, by my calculation—a bonus. Plus tall, tan, lean, and fit. He was clean, too, which I appreciated, given the general quality of grooming one often encounters at the bus stop. He smelled like good soap.
I nudged myself. Say something to this guy, Allie. Go on. Talk.
“Well, that sure was scary, Thomas. Are you okay? Was it okay for me to grab you like that? I didn’t want to alarm you. Everything was so loud. You must have been terribly disoriented—”
Oh, no. Shut up!
When I encouraged myself to speak, I should have warned myself not to babble. I took a deep breath and closed my mouth.
He smiled. There was a dimple. Oh, yeah.
“No, no. And it’s Tom. You were great. Seriously. That was— no kidding, I am happy to be alive.” Those were the first words beyond mere pleasantries he ever spoke to me. His voice was deep and chocolaty, with a dollop of Southern drawl. About eighty proof.
“Let’s just sit here,” he continued in that intoxicating voice, “and savor the moment. I need to count my arms and legs, okay?”
“Okay, Tom.” I was hoping he couldn’t hear my state of mind. “Let’s.”
It was a moment worth savoring. A cool breeze was flowing off the Very Great Lake Erie, located behind the subsidized housing across the street from Joe’s. On its way to our bus stop, this breeze had passed over the roof of a McDonald’s, adding the slightest watery tang of lake and algae to the rich bouquet of grilled meat and French fries. Top that off with Tom’s soapy goodness and I judged it to be about the most perfect smell ever. I inhaled, trying to be present whilst also trying to ignore a certain, almost unfamiliar, tingle.
“Oh, yeah,” Tom agreed. “The world is smelling both good and interesting. You, especially. What’s that fragrance?”
“Jo Malone, Wild Fig & Cassis. I got it in the divorce settlement.”
“Good deal. But…” He paused, considering…“the cologne, not the car? This is the bus shelter you’ve rescued me into.”
I zoomed away from the car question. “Yes. The bus shelter. I thought you might need a minute to regroup. And I do have a car. It’s…ah…being worked on right now.”
This was kind of a lie. Well, technically, a total lie. My salsa red VW bug convertible, which was one of the handful of things I had salvaged from my sojourn among the affluent, needed a big, fancy, upscale repair job. I was saving to get it worked on. I figured this was going to take about two years of bus time.
I’m not sure why I was embarrassed enough to lie, since at that moment I still believed this Tom the Third was living in public housing and wouldn’t be shocked by my car-deprived situation. I felt off-kilter, like he was somebody I didn’t want to disappoint with my ordinary self. I mean, anyhow, who was I these days? Plus again, he was way above average in the hot department.
But he saw right through me.
“Could be it’s you working on it? Saving up for repairs, maybe?” There was that dimple again. In his wonderful, smooth-shaven cheek. God.
“Yeah. You got me.” I felt my ears warming. “You’re rather insightful—” I stopped myself.
“For a blind man? Oh, let’s not worry about the sight metaphors. There are about a billion. And I don’t want all the apologies and awkwardness to get in the way of our being friends. You can’t hurt my feelings about this, I swear. Okay?”
“Sure.” I added another Mmm Mmm to myself on the “our being friends.” He was handsome. He used impeccable grammar. He thought we could be friends. The trifecta.
What was I doing? I’d known him for maybe ten minutes. Two of which I’d spent rescuing cans and getting badmouthed via lip-synch. Where had my five years of total monogamy and the two ensuing years of absolute celibacy gone, that I could so easily start scoping out this guy’s dazzling white tee-shirt, his nice, tanned, well-defined arms? The way his dark glasses made him look stealthy like a sexy spy. How nice he smelled…?
What the heck?
I made up my mind not to go overboard with the brakes. First of all, how many blind serial killers did I think there were in Cleveland? And, second, wasn’t it non-monogamous behavior on the part of Mr. Tall, Dark & Unfaithful, Esquire that had landed me here at this bus stop in the first place? Six flavors of Jo Malone, a small but lovable red car, and a ridiculously insignificant amount of cash wasn’t much compensation for half a decade of Big Mistake. The universe owed me something, for goodness sake. How much could it hurt to ask?
“You were going to make chili?”
He shifted the torn bag he was now cradling on his knees. His hands played over the contents and he frowned. “I was. But apparently some tomatoes got away.”
I glanced out onto Lake Shore. Sure enough, there was a flattened Red Pack can, bleeding onto the pavement. “Oh, there’s a can out there that can’t be saved, I’m afraid. But listen…” I focused myself on sounding casual. “…why don’t you ride the bus with me to my house? I’ll throw in some of my tomatoes and you can share your chili stuff. I have Coronas and limes, too. If that works. And I can borrow a car from a friend to drive you home—”
I was struck by the audaciousness of inviting this man to come home with a voice he’d never heard before. I knew me, and I could see him, but what did he have to go on besides the odds against meeting a female serial killer at the bus stop? I backpedaled. “Or I could run into Joe’s and get you another can.”
He needed to decide. The next Number 30 was an ugly gray square in the distance.
“I’ll go with the bus, the tomatoes, and the sharing.” He operated the dimple again. “But I can’t go home with you unless you tell me your name.”
“Oh, sorry. Of course not. How did I skip over that? ” I hesitated a beat. “Al…exis. Alexis Harper.”
He turned his handsome face to me. Quizzical. “You don’t sound like an Alexis to me. You sound more like an…Alice.”
So he reads minds? This could be a big complication.
“I hate Alice. Don’t I deserve a fresh name after living under the cloud of Alice all these years? My friends call me Allie. Is that better? Are you psychic? Or what?”
He grinned. “I may be blind, but I’ve got an excellent fib detector. Also my blind-guy spidey sense. Which…hmm…tells me you might not be too dangerous. I will go with you, Allie-not-Alice, and commingle my chili with your tomatoes and beer. It’s a much better plan than the one I had when I started across the street. I believe I hear the bus.”
Hallelujah. This day was turning out so great.
Be cool, Alice.
“Don’t get too thrilled with yourself,” I answered him. “I can hear it, too. It’s only half a block away.”
I’m going to go on record here that this particular evening—of this unadorned, shaping-up-to-be-predictably-ordinary Tuesday in August—was the best evening of my life. Not the best midnight nor the best wee hours of the morning, but for the part between, oh, say, 4 p.m. and 11:05? This is the evening that rules them all.
And what did we do? Nothing much. I showed him my house. Which is to say I told him some things about it. How it was vulnerable, perched as it was on the brink of the big lake. How it was run-down, and not at all posh, but deliciously all mine. Except for the part about being rented, of course.
Then he told me how it was for him. The fragrance of my scrubby little garden, the murmuring voices of the water, the way the sound and feel of a room could describe its size and shape to him. His words made it flower for me, as though I’d overlooked half the things there were to love about it.
I guided Tom and his battered Joe’s Super Market bag into my kitchen and cleared off a bar stool so he could sit. He took off his dark glasses, planted his elbows on my ugly ocher counter, and settled in, listening to me make chili while enjoying his beer.
I was adding his seasoning packet and two of the chipotles when Margo, my landlady and best friend in the current world, stuck her head around the door and called “Al? You here?” and then, “Oops. Sorry. I’ll come back later.”
She was using her moment of retreat to scope out poor, unsuspecting Tom. She shot me an approving glance and kept backing out. I stopped her. “Come on in, Margo. Say hello. I met this guy on my way home from work. And stop fussing with your hair. He’s blind. Pay me ten bucks and I’ll tell him you’re blond, five-six, and a hundred and ten pounds.”
Margo Gallucci would be more accurately described as none of the above. Black hair, dark eyes, a complexion rosy enough to inspire a Tintoretto. She’s a short, round Italian Buddha. A woman of indeterminate, but ample, age. Her temperament is a fascinating and sometimes appalling swing from Zen serenity to Italian pyrotechnics. And back. Margo’s Alternating Current, I call it.
Margo was now giving Tom her full signature onceover. I could see her checking off the long leanness, ravishing tee-shirt, brown, unfocused, eyes. Check. Check. Check.
“I’d like to shake your hand, but the way I see it—oops, sorry. I bet that’s a never-ending problem. Let’s agree to bulldoze over that one—you’re going to have to lead off. Otherwise it’s awkward.”
He crinkled his eyes in his irresistible smile and presented her with the dimple as he offered his hand. “Thomas Bennington.”
“The Third,” I added.
“The pleasure-is-all-mine-Thomas-Bennington-the-Third-may-I-call-you-Tom?” She turned to me and added the word “babe” with almost silent lips.
Margo. My own little matchmaker.
“Margo, his hearing is acute. You might as well tell him straight up you think I might have somehow missed that he is a babe.”
He was nodding in time to my words. “Tom is plenty, Margo. I use the rest of it to put women at ease after they save my life at the bus stop. She’s right. Sound is my secret weapon. Thanks for putting in the babe recommendation with—did you call her Al?”
“I did. She doesn’t like the name her mom and dad gave her which is—” She shot me her evilest glint. “Al…exis.”
“He’s also got a fine-tuned lie detector, Margo. Get over yourself. We’ve agreed on Allie.”
“Well,” Margo shrugged, “it certainly beats Alice Jane. Now, I’d love to stay and hear all about how our Al saved your life at the bus stop, Tom, but I truly was passing by. We’ll talk later.” She gave me a meaningful, but soundless glance. “Day after tomorrow maybe? Wonderful to meet you, Thomas Bennington the Third. I hope I see you—oh, sorry. Oh, screw that—again soon.”
Margo. Over and out.
● ● ● ● ●
I pulled some odds and ends from the fridge and converted them into a simple salad. While the chili simmered, we ate that. He knew how to be quiet and enjoy his food. I like that in a man.
“Your Margo is good. Tell me what she really looks like. To me she sounds fifty-ish, about five two and a hundred-seventy. Do not tell her I said that. She’d never forgive me if it’s not true and she’d kill me if it is.”
I was staring at him, stunned silent by the accuracy of his guesses. After a second, I ventured, “What about me? Do you have one of those magic mental pictures for me?”
He winced. “That’s so tricky. Okay, I’ll try. Remember I took your arm when you helped me across the street? I estimate you’re five-ten, a couple inches shorter than me, and…hmmm… one-thirty-five?”
I waited for the rest of me.
He shook his head and mumbled, “Don’t be a dope, Tom….” But he sighed and forged on. “You sound maybe late twenties. Brown hair. Brown eyes—that’s a dead guess. And pretty,” he added, hastily. “Very pretty.”
His eyes were a fantastic brown, that was for sure. They followed the sounds he was listening to, though not the way vision tracks sight. When he smiled, the smiling warmed them even warmer. He seemed comfortable with his face. I like that in a man.
All in all, he was close to right on, although I chalked those “pretties” up to self-defense. I could see his blindness was not going to give me the glamour boost I’d been counting on and, what with the human lie detector thing, I wasn’t going to press my luck. I went ahead and signed off on the whole package. And added, “Very-early-thirties.” For honesty’s sake.
“Early-mid-thirties, for me,” he returned. “As long as we’re telling the truth here.”
“You haven’t been blind forever.”
“No. I had a stroke. The doctors called it a ‘bizarre anomaly.’ When I was twenty-five. Almost done with grad school. All ready to get married and start my life. For a long time they thought I’d be able to see again. The other effects wore off. But my sight never came back.”
“That must have been—”
“Yes. It was. All that. I was angry. Bitter. Hard to be around. The girl dumped me. Not because I was blind but because I was a terminal pain in the ass. And then, oddly enough, I started to cheer up. She was beautiful, this girl, but not a lot of fun. I think I maybe drove her away on purpose because I’d realized, down deep, she wasn’t the woman for a blind man.”
“You’re from somewhere in the South. Even I can hear that.”
“How did you end up here? In this neighborhood, of all places? And what do you do? You went to grad school? Do you have a PhD? I could call you Dr. Bennington, III? I went to grad school, too. You can call me Allie Harper, M.A. Or maybe Master Allie….”
He exhaled a chuckle. “Stop with the ‘Doctor,’ Master Allie. Let me answer your questions—which are numerous, I’d like to point out—in order.”
“Sorry. I’m interested, is all.”
“And I’m looking forward to grilling you when it’s my turn. Let’s see.” He ticked off a question on one finger. “I ended up here because my family wouldn’t let me be independent.”
Something about the shape of his hand compelled me to stare at it, and I was glad that he couldn’t see me watching. It was slender and sinewy, his fingers tapered and graceful. I closed my eyes, breathed in the soapy guy smell of him, and listened to his voice, telling himself to me.
“I needed to be someplace people would let me fall down and not pick me up.”
My eyes popped back open. “Well, you sure chose the right place for that.”
“True. You’d have to say it’s a pretty tough neighborhood when someone would honk at a blind man with a cane in a crosswalk.”
“I had the same thought. Go on.”
“But you picked me up.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Don’t get all weird about it. I was grateful. That was a bad moment. All those horns. I had no idea what was happening.”
“A lot of them were honking at the woman in the Hummer. Because of what she’d done to you.”
“God. It was a Hummer? I’m lucky to be alive. And a woman. That’s cold.”
“We’re currently at the question about what do you do?”
“I had always planned to teach. Even before the stroke. And us blind associate professors?” The dimple flashed. “We’re everywhere. A campus can be a contained, manageable space. And now there’s incredible technology for reading and writing. Apps for everything…I love teaching. My students are great.”
“What do you teach?”
“English Lit. At CWRU.” He named the university maybe more famous for its science and engineering than its liberal arts.
“Isn’t literature a stepchild there?”
“Not anymore. And anyway, those smart, ambitious young scientists need to get their heads in contact with their hearts. That’s my specialty.” He paused, listening, I knew, to the sound of me breathing. Maybe he could even hear the thud of my own disconnected little heart.
We were sitting at the counter with our salad plates pushed back and the beers empty. I could smell the chili cooking down. I should jump up and fill our bowls and get us new beers. But I sat still, looking at him, meeting his gentle unseeing eyes with my own. It felt unnervingly intimate, how he opened his face to me, a woman he’d never seen. My heart thudded faster. What was this? Hadn’t he been a stranger in a crosswalk? Hadn’t we barely met?
“I’m not all head. That’s for sure—” I faltered, trying to ease the moment back to solid ground. But he leaned toward me and with one, unerring motion, captured my face in those beautiful hands. Now he knew exactly where my mouth was. I closed my eyes.