This story was obviously inspired by Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." If you haven't read it, do so.
But this story is also inspired by all the pop culture we absorb throughout our lives, for good and ill, until it becomes part of our memories and discourse. Read more about it...
A belch of organ music comes from the television. It sounds like the beginning of a Christmas special.
“They’re showing the front of a cathedral,” my brother-in law says. “It’s a tall granite building with huge spires. Those sounds you hear are the bells. At the top of spires.”
I was 20 when I lost my eyesight, plenty of time to have seen a cathedral, a Christmas pageant, and the giant freakish floats shaped like Underdog or Bullwinkle. My brother-in-law knows that, but he still describes things to me as though I’m a displaced Klingon with a learning disability. That fucker once asked me if I knew what green is.
“That voice is the announcer. He’s in a red and white suit, but he’s not Santa Claus.”
I shouldn’t curse. I make him nervous. If he can, he sneaks out of a room when I come in. He’s not a bad guy. He has short brown hair, tanned skin even though he doesn’t spend any time in the sun, and he is tall, about six feet, if I remember correctly – and I might not. When I first met him, when I could see, I never hid my disinterest. He bored me. I had hoped my sister would marry one of those exotic boyfriends she used to bring home, guys who would be rock stars, filmmakers, stuntmen, someone with the key to a fantastic life and who could carry me along. But she married a manager for a call center, a man in charge of a giant warehouse full of people wanting to tell you about their latest balance transfer offers or help connect your cable service. I always thought she could have done better for me, but they seem to have made it work. They have a kid and everything.
“They’ve started the parade,” my brother-in-law says. “Bart Simpson is in the front.”
I walk out of the room to give him some relief. I can still recall the floor plan of my sister’s house. I visited her lots of times when I was still in high school. She lives in Salmon Flats, 40 miles from our parents’ house, and I would make the drive every Friday night to go to Ginty’s, a bar five miles down the road where the bartenders never check ID and all the women thought I was older, or at least old enough. On the times I did return to my sister’s house, I would stumble through the front door and crash in her extra bedroom, the bed pitching like a surfboard and my memory of the night disassembling like a wet newspaper.
My Ginty’s trips stopped years ago. Their first and only son Cody was born, and he took my guest room. I wasn’t upset, though. I was almost done with high school, almost out of my parents’ house, almost on my own, waiting for the world to open up, to show me something. I never thought I would be over 21 and still living with my parents.
I wonder sometimes, does anyone from Ginty’s remember me, the girls who asked for cigarettes, the guys who beat me at pool, do they notice I don’t come around anymore. The last few visits, the bartender was calling me by name. He had a drink waiting for me at the bar. I think he had … black curly hair and big glasses. What I remember most about those nights is the drive, the mile markers ticking down the distance to my sister’s house, the windows sealed and the tape deck blaring songs like Rusty Cage or Stardog Champion, the white stripes of the road matching the beat as they zipped past. My ears would be ringing by the time I arrived. Everyone, my parents, my sister, my counselor, said I would lose my hearing. At thirty I would fall into a tinny deafness, the persistent and lonely echo of too-loud guitars and bass. I guess that still could happen. Blind and deaf. Twice as useless.
My sister complained about my visits, about the late nights, about my driving, but she never kicked me out. She talks a lot without thinking. Mom told me, when the family first heard I was blinded, sis figured I had smashed the car and said, “I hope he didn’t kill anyone.” Mom likes to tell that story when she wants sis to feel rotten, but I can’t blame her for thinking the worst. I was a bad houseguest, a bad brother, even if I didn’t cause any car wrecks.
My mind made a short film of that talk, and it plays sometimes when I hear sis’s voice. I’d say it was trying to teach me something, but my head is full of that stuff, patchworks of scenes and senses stitched together, old stuff my mind has tried to make new. I am amazed at all the memories still in there, the pictures of people and places, the physical sensations imprinted on a second mind that lets me walk through the past like I’m stepping into the paintings at a museum. As I enter the kitchen from the television room, I know where the sink is, the cabinets, where they keep the breakfast cereal. I can feel my right hand is too close to the table edge, as if I’m walking near a hot stove.
I can replay some movies in my mind, from start to finish, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, The Terminator, Superman, the first movie, the one with Christopher Reeve. Movies I had watched over and over again as a kid, and even now, I'll put in the tape of one of these movies and let it play, listening to the audio as the visuals run through my head. But it occurred to me, how do I know if I remember correctly, if the recombined images in my head match those on the screen. I had the Superman VHS playing the other day, at the point where he rescues Lois Lane. My brother-in-law was watching with me, and when Superman caught the helicopter, he said, “Looks like Reeve almost snapped his elbow.” That’s not how I remember it. I thought Superman grabbed it from below, but my brother-in-law said he snatched it on the side, by one of the skid supports. At first I thought he was lying, but it’s not in his nature.
I’m more confident in my memory of the next scene, with Superman and Lois Lane on top of the Daily Planet. Superman has revealed his presence to the world – a world that’s already cheering him on, as if they had been reading the comics in preparation for his arrival. As if they already knew everything about him.
Except Lois Lane. She faints. But not before Superman gets a joke in there. You know the line – “I certainly hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying, miss. Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Superman was never one of my favorite characters. He’s simple. He’s uptight. He is a god, and he does Good. Not a lot can happen with that character. But here he is, on top of a building, telling a joke. That’s more character than I credited to him. But we wouldn’t know it’s a joke, except for the grin that peeks through as he’s turning away from Lois. We hear the joke, sure, but no one in his world sees the smile, not Lois, not Jimmy Olsen, not Perry White, not Lex Luthor. I guess that is the tragedy of Superman. He can reveal himself only when no one else is looking.
My sister is in the kitchen. She’s washing dishes. I sit at the kitchen table. After a minute, I hear here suck in a breath of air. She didn’t know I was in the room. She says, “Dammit! I should put a bell around your neck!”
“Watch the swears,” I say. “Cody will pick up your bad habits.”
“Nothing worse than what he gets from you.”
“Nah, we’re buds. Right Cody?”
“He’s not here. He’s up in his room. He’s upset.”
“Nothing. He lost a toy, a little wax cat statue. We got it at Brookfield yesterday, and he lost it.”
“Did you check the car? Under the seat.”
“Yes.” The jingle of her tossing silverware into the drying rack. “That’s part of being a parent. You buy toys, and they disappear. You check the car. Then you spend your afternoon washing dishes.”
Sis and I, we get along sometimes, usually when there are other people in the room. Cleaning dishes always puts her in a bad mood. Their dishwasher has been broken for a year now, and they haven’t put aside the money to replace it. Since she’s the one who doesn’t work, it’s her job to do the dishes. I’d help with the washing, but she says I do a lousy job. At least that’s one advantage of being blind.
“How long are you staying?” she asks.
“I can go home any time.”
“Mom and dad need a break. It’s not like you can go anywhere else.”
Here is a common discussion that I want to avoid, at least today, so I say, “What was this statue that Cody lost?”
“It was a cheap wax toy. Shaped like a cougar, I think.”
“I could buy him a replacement.”
“It’s his own fault. The kid doesn’t watch out for his things. So he loses them. He’ll get used to it.”
“He’s upset ‘cause he likes animals. Wants to be a vet.”
“Yeah but every four-year-old wants to be a vet. You did, until you found out how much school was required.”
“It was the blood. Couldn’t stand the sight of it.”
“Sure. I’m gonna watch some TV. Do you need anything?”
I hear her leave the kitchen but not the snap of the switch. She left the light on. I can picture myself sitting alone in the kitchen, head tilted down, light all around and I can’t use any of it. I would laugh, but I don’t want them to notice, to look back and see me sitting in a well-lit room, laughing at a wall or a toaster or a rack of oven mitts. Sis doesn’t think about the light switch. Not yet. She still has that habit – you don’t turn the light off if there’s someone still in the room – and I don’t want her to start thinking about it. I want her to leave that light on, if just for a little while longer.
The TV changes channels in the other room. Sounds like a cooking show. The kitchen connects the living room to the main hallway. From the main hallway you can access the front door or the stairs to the second floor. This layout helped during my Ginty’s days. I could stumble through the front door and start my crawl up to the guest room. Now, it means my brother-in-law will pass through here soon. He has to get ready for the evening shift – they have to tell people about low interest rates, credit protection offers, new landscaping services. I don’t want him to see me in here, sitting alone, head down. He might try to sneak past unnoticed, but he will turn off the light. It’s in his nature. He is a practical guy.
I leave the kitchen and go to the stairs. I walk up to the second floor, turn left, go past a closet door on the left (always closed) and a bathroom door on the right (always open). Cody’s room is at the end of this hallway. Like I said, I found it many times when I was drunk and on my knees. I can find it sober and blind no problem.
I knock then open the door. “Are you in here?” I say.
“Yeah.” His voice is thick and wet.
“I heard you lost your panther statue.”
The room is small with a sloping ceiling and a window that has a wide view of the open lot next door. If they ever put a house next door, it is the perfect window where Cody could witness the neighbor murder his wife, share a striptease with the neighbor’s daughter, or discover, late one night cramming for a chemistry test, that the neighbor is a vampire. He could do all that while sitting at the desk in the corner, which doubles as a nightstand for the narrow twin bed.
I sit in the stiff wooden desk chair, next to Cody’s bed. I saw him once, as a baby. He was about two months old. I remember the pudgy face, the slobber, the big eyes. I can’t picture him walking or talking or going to the zoo. When I hear his voice, I see the kid from The Shining, complete with the bad bowl haircut.
“Do you remember what it looked like?” I ask.
“Tell you what. I don’t know if your mom told you, but I’m a pretty good artist. Give me some paper and a pen.”
I hold out my hands. My sister coached Cody to be polite and considerate to his poor, blind uncle, to where he might have stepped off a bridge if I’d asked. There is a crash of pencils on the desk, and then he puts a pad and pencil in my hands.
“So I can write on this? ‘Cause you’re gonna wanna keep this one.”
“Now, describe it to me.”
“Your panther. Spare no detail.”
And he does, slow at first, then he starts filling in random details down to the number of whiskers. I follow his descriptions as best I can. I send the pencil off the edge of the sheet a few times, which I punctuate with a “Whoops!”
When he finishes, I hold up the sheet, showing him what was probably a scribbled mess, with lines disconnected and going off the page. Not that I could have done much better when I could see. “Is this it?”
“Uhm, sort of?”
“You don’t sound convinced.” I pull the sheet off and put the lead tip on the next page. “Let’s do it again.”
And he does it again, the description more fluid this time, starting at the head and ending with the slight curl of its tail. I show him my second attempt.
“Uhm, it’s better than the first.”
“I’m not doing too well, am I?” I smile.
I laugh. He laughs too.
“Do you want to do another one?” I ask.
“Yeah, I do.” He is smiling. I can hear the smile on his face. He describes the panther again, now really keen on the details, and I try to draw it again, getting lost in the image he has put in my mind.