It’s the humming and hissing you hear first — individual air conditioners and lawn mowers, cicadas and the scratch of tall grass. At some point, all this sound joins together, like a New Orleans wake picking up musicians as it winds toward the cemetery. A subdued harmony comes of this, a sort of work noise, a life pitch. A car at 55 per, a John Deere tractor, the panting of dogs and joggers. It is a glorious noise, and — if you listen too long — maddening.
Places like this are responsible for men like Robert Pershing Wadlow, at 8’11” the tallest man in recorded history, and Robert Earl Hughes, a man so fat that he was said to have been buried in a piano case. Genetic lottery winners left holding the ticket. Growing up, I read and reread their stories in my dog-eared Guinness Book of World Records. After a while, a template was visible. Birthed out of poverty, they slipped a cash handshake to the same folks who would have held their heads underwater just 100 years prior. These freaks weren’t born to famous people, or rich folks. They ate biscuits and jam at breakfast, just like everybody else, and had a little mutts named Rex or Ruff and the same old crocheted wall samplers set above the same old rocking chairs in the same old living rooms.
Any man’s biography can be written two ways; the arrivals and the departures. The arrivals: the birth of a child, a big move, a first novel. The departures: divorce, addictions, one’s sanity. All except for the freaks, that is. When you’re a freak, everything’s always up in the air, head up in the clouds, gosh it’s sure hard to breathe. It’s a hell of a feat, really: running away and going nowhere, all at the same time.
I am blind. Usher Syndrome, they call it. When it rains, as it often does here, it is like a black and white movie turned Technicolor. I hear shapes. The doghouse is covered with tin, maybe a bit rusted, and the dog is inside. I can tell you how many cars are in the driveway, just by listening. There’s a creek at the back of our acre, and I can tell you the water level just as good as any person with sight can. The rain just cancels itself out — white noise. I can even tell you when it’s going to stop. Raining to me is like zero gravity to an amputee. It is my sign language, my good friend. It is my eyes.
* * *
I like church — the hummings, the vibrations, the saints and symbols. I sit in the back row, near the door, and I can smell the steel and wood and the pungent aroma of the holy water receptacle. Sometimes when folks bless themselves a little gets on my feet. I know it’s not rain, there’s a different feel.
I like to listen to TV preachers, too, especially when Mama can’t drive me. You can learn a lot, even without the picture. Take cadences. Most TV preachers have a wildly arcing cadence that is as harsh and unrelenting and predictable as the chimes of a clock. A gifted word-prophet, a Martin Luther King, can take those same rhythms, and, through a single-minded melding of message and form, make the Word of God seem less like an admonition and more like a premonition. You can hear this in the voice. A man’s imagination influences his vision, both literally and otherwise.
Mama says she doesn’t trust half of them because they’re “all Hollywood.” Daddy always said the only difference between a preacher and a used car salesman’s how they take your money. I just can’t bear to not watch it if it’s on. I tell Mama I can describe what they look like just by hearing them preach. She was skeptical, but has paid off most every wager we’ve made, whether dollar or doughnut. She knows she can’t lie to me.
Mama has a large plaster crucifix above her bed, painted with the festival reds, yellows and oranges of a Spanish street market. It is one of my earliest memories, seeing that Jesus on the Cross. It is held up by two small loops of braided metal on either side of the T, the whole thing delicately positioned on mammoth drywall screws. It is in need of a dusting. The symbolism isn’t lost on her, this recrucifixion of sorts. To her, if one is picked to suffer, Jesus Christ is as good a head coach as ever lived. To Him, it really was true: it’s not whether you won or lost that’s important, but how you played the game. Mama’s played the game for a while now. Hers are not the records of abundance. Not a whole lot of what you’d call home runs. Her notation is always one of endurance, of games played and survived and swallowed, then suiting up again the next day. Always the next day.
I used to sit in that same room as a boy, right in front of the bay window, and let the big pastel rays of sun light the room while I lost myself in a book: usually the Bible or Mark Twain. Nothing showed me the blueprints for the House of God so much as the Guinness Book, however. All of human existence boiled down to the extremes, to the poles of physical body and metaphysical mind. Squint hard enough, and you’d think it said the Genesis Book. You wouldn’t be far off.
* * *
The rain here is inevitable, a mathematical certainty. It rains with a passion one doesn’t see very often in weather.
After being blind for a while, you tend to forget things, or at least the visual image of them. This is when you realize that objects and their physical representations are all ghosts anyway, that we see them as extensions of ourselves rather than the other way around. Some things I remember through practice, through a constant call-and-dismiss practice. It’s not quite visualization. I’m not trying to see the future. I’m trying to remember the future.
I use these images as a sort of conduit to the imagination. There’s a birdbath outside of my window, and during rain showers I open the window and listen and allow myself the memory of exploring tidepools with my father, the fisherman. This was right before he and mama divorced. Each miniature pond was a revelation to me, and somehow came to represent my idea of perfection, a prism in a drop of water. An entire ecosystem encased in moveable Lucite, a flawless snowglobe of life. Everything seemed itself, pure. Pebbles, plants, plankton. Perfect.
Mama met my father, Lawrence Anthony McMichael, back in 1962, right before he went into the Army. She lived in the same town as her parents and most of her high school friends. Lots of girls back then had boys in the service. I get the sense from talking to mama that she sort of liked it, though, liked the idea of being married and what it gave you — a house, dignity, a name (least back then) — but also liked some of those nights alone more than she’d probably care to admit. My dad would come back, she says, and ask her where she learned to cook like that, Italian food as good as a restaurant. He never had all the trial meals with the gals, pasta al dente and red sauce and two ashtrays filled to overflowing by the end of the night, just talking.
Later on, the idea of a ladies’ club was glamorous — later, when “the boys” were going into Outer Freaking Space instead of Columbia, SC on a weekend furlough. These ladies became moons to their men, shining reflected light in Look or Life magazine. Mama always loved watching the astronauts, I can remember. I was so young, I thought nothing of it. You were born in a new age, she always said, with an equal mix of what I later thought was envy and worry. A man on the moon! You’d think she was watching all Creation unfold.
They developed problems a few years later, however, and me going progressively blind probably didn’t help matters. I never really heard them fuss or fight, but I did hear awkward silence, did hear the screen door slam as my father went out to his garden to think or fume or clear his head. That was his way to do it. Go out there and check for aphids, check for worms in the cabbage. I’m not sure he was repressing it, necessarily, as much as cooling off his head to figure out why he’d gotten so mad in the first place.
My father left my mother right after I finished my junior year of high school. They say it was a trial separation at first. I don’t get the sense my father wanted someone else. Don’t get that sense at all. He dropped out of high school, and went straight into work — then straight into the Army, into marriage, into more work, into a child into a teenager into a blind teenager.
No, I get the sense he wanted no one else.
* * *
One of my favorite smells is when mama plugs in the FryDaddy, her beloved deep fryer. It smells like french fries, golden brown. Makes the house smell like a roller skating rink food court. She’s given to use it at least once a day: okra, potatoes, chicken, you name it. All crispy, all golden brown, a little cornmeal silt at the bottom collected during the whole burbling process. All this fried food probably doesn’t help my waistline any, but I could care less. A mirror is just a piece of glass, transparent.
Tonight, it means company. My father is coming over later, which Mama only told me after I asked why she was taking so long in the kitchen. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sliced tomato.
It has begun to rain like hell. It sounds like a dinosaur has cocked its leg up over our house and has commenced to let fly. It sounds like 10 million BBs dropped from a plane. You can hear the creek, too, roaring. Just as people need to raise their voices to the heavens from time to time, so does nature.
He arrives in a flourish — I hear mama opening the door and then shouting something and then the smell of rain and the sound of splashed water. She holds the door open and he runs in like a dog late for dinner.
“Hey, Jimbo,” he says. He calls me Jimbo when he’s in a good mood. “Jim” is reserved to add gravitas when he wants to impart some wisdom he’s accumulated or break some bad news.
“…Hey.” I never really know what to call him. “Dad” seems awkward, and Lawrence a bit too familial. You’d think I’d have thought this out and settled on something. You’d think. Mostly I guess I don’t worry about it at all, except for the 10 seconds once a month I have to deal with it. Why waste time worrying about 10 seconds?
When he was here, though, we were one of those families: ate popcorn, made pickles, and constructed houses out of kitchen matches. We made two matchstick houses, actually. One we covered in lacquer, and it lived its new life as an objet d’art on top of our television console.
The second we left unvarnished, planning the whole time to set the thing ablaze as a kind of controlled experiment in arson. It burned satisfactorily, popping and igniting into a rolling, roiling blaze like a twist of Chinese firecrackers. The country itself had sort of a short fuse in those days, and I think my father, in some small town, chemistry-set kind of way, just wanted to see what it was like. He wasn’t a big reading man back when I was growing up — he might read the odd mystery or whatever was popular, maybe some books on Repairing Your Chevy Cutlass — but he loved games and making things from kits – model ’57 Chevys and the like. He could play poker, too, and bridge and pinochle and Life and even chess and checkers. This was his Figuring Out, his way of tapping into the Great Mystery without even knowing it. It was a geometry of risk and chance and strategy, and he loved it. Would put down anything to play a game.
Tonight, we play Monopoly (easier than you think, really — only thing better than keeping an eye on your money is keeping a hand on your money). With mama’s help, I arrange the bills from left to right, $500 bills on down. I have to trust what I roll and what I land on — I could finger the dice besides — but my family’s not going to lie to me.
* * *
The six scariest words you’ll ever hear someone say to you? “I have to follow my heart.” If the following of that heart already leads to your own, such a pronouncement is superfluous, of course, a one way street. Once uttered, it isn’t so much of a death sentence as it is a one for life, with little chance for appeal, convicted by a jury of your peers.
Mama brings a fresh basket of popcorn to the table. My father is having coffee, and though he doesn’t come out and say it, a little bourbon too. His breath is, no other way to put it, bittersweet.
“Jimbo, you see that Yankees game the other day?”
Silence, a scratch, both of us laughing. The looser the grip you have on something, the easier it slips.
* * *
It is the kind of deluge that even animals hide from, the kind that makes trees hunch their shoulders like a kid at First Communion. Leaves of red and green and yellow stick unabashedly to windows, crying to be let in, holding on like psychedelic starfish. The creek has grown orange and muddy, the color of a traffic cone. Least that’s the way I imagine it. Cats and dogs.
“Looks like it’s about to lip the bank there,” my father says, snorting a laugh through his Jiffy Pop. “Whole lotta beavers gonna wake up tomorrow a long ways from home.”
My mother, heretofore quiet and serene, probably content to have this little reunion and not think about the past and the future — especially not the future — speaks, a sort of electrical crackle.
“Lawrence, we probably need to make sure the storm windows are latched down.”
It is a statement that comes so suddenly that time seems to almost stutter, spinning its wheels before gaining enough traction to begin again. I had been aware of her presence in the same way one is dimly aware of a faraway friend coming to dinner later that week.
“Jimbo, I get back, we’re gonna have an eating contest. Gherkins?”
“Sure.” Sure Dad.
They were going…they were going, I think, to have sex.
* * *
Thinking about your parents having sex is one of the worst things you can do. There’s the obvious trauma of, you know, thinking about them naked for that initial millisecond. Then you get to thinking how you should probably love the fact that they decided to have a little sex in the first place, selfish bastard, and grow up, will ya?
All of which is different from thinking that your parents probably are having sex, maybe even having sex this very second while you sit here semi-oblivious while a goddamn flood rages outside. I decide not to think about it and make my way over to the couch, lay down for a bit. Rest my eyes.
It happens soon enough: the images shuffle past like time-lapse calendar pages in a silent movie. When you’re blind, your head is always full of images, it’s just that most of them are either a remembrance of your surroundings or a constant updating thereof. This was different, a magical array of colors and textures and lights, more fevered dream than fever dream. Big, mythical images like snakes and wood ships and lightning bolts. I make it a point to travel down this shadow path, neuron-fueled that it may be, and leave my body for a second. I breathe in a cool, measured style. I feel myself slipping away through space, far, far away from my parents having sex right now, in this house — or else maybe I’m going to that exact same place. Like, cosmically speaking.
At some point I come out of my reverie, and the kaleidoscopic founts of color and music and electricity repair to their more familiar plane. I wake as if coming to boil, my eyes bubbling open to a grayish normality.
“I think that’s the last of them,” I hear my mother say, followed by a window-slam exclamation point, my father finishing the job. I shudder.
“Fall asleep, Jimbo? I reckon I might too, I was winning big as you were. You be a tycoon yet.” A snort. “…Got bored with whuppin’ our tails and went to sleep.”
“Sorry,” I said, before wishing it had never left my mouth. What’s to be sorry for?
“S’Ok,” he said. “Your mother and I were just catching up.”
* * *
Again they were off and damn it I don’t even want to think about that. I place the Monopoly box underneath the coffee table, lay back on the couch and lazily finger the crocheted throw my grandmother made me when I was a boy. I remember it as blue and green and garnet, like an undersea gem mine flattened and matte and laid into fabric.
The rain pounds in symphonic gusts and silences, giving no quarter and then a little, keep you off your feet and guessing. Would it ever stop? Rainfall like this usually lasts about 30 minutes, then peters out. You wonder how much a cloud can hold, and decide you don’t want to know.
I hear pounding and a light tapping coming from down the hall. Such cheerful insouciance. Like I wasn’t here! I tuned in a baseball game. Soon, a sock-footed padding down the hall.
A soft-papered slam at my feet.
“Kansas City, 8-3.”
“Who’s playing? Red Sox?
“I just said they were.”
“Brett get a hit?”
“4 for 4.” George Brett was trying to hit .400 for the season, something that hadn’t been done in nearly half a century.
“Keeping his head above water.”
“Something like that.” We both listened to the game buzz and hiss and whine as the rain beat down upon the house, the radio spitting static every after every lightning flash.
“Let’s hope we do too,” he said. “This rain’s a mother…”
“Lawrence!” It was my mother.
“Sorry,” my father muttered in apology, not really meaning so much but using it as a stepping stone to move the conversation forward. “Say, what’s today’s date?”
“Your birthday’s in a week, Jimbo.”
“Was there anything you wanted?”
“I dunno,” I said. “What do you get the kid that’s lost everything?” I spit out a little laugh.
“Jim!” My mother wasn’t so much scolding me as making sure I was kidding, and I knew it. I was mostly kidding. Losing one’s sight just turns out the lights. Everything’s still there, or not there, whatever the case may be. Frankly, I felt like a kind of sage sometimes. I lived in that animated world of the mind, the world that other people only popped into like Alice in Wonderland when they slept or fantasized or daydreamed.
“I dunno, records?” I had always enjoyed a good spoken-word record. I knew some Braille, but it was a substitute, somehow, like subtitles to a foreign movie. Spoken, I had a tour guide to the actual text.
“What else?” This meant no records. I reached for my hat. Someone was using it as a repository for unpopped kernels.
“Guinness Book?” I had heard they made these in Braille now, and figured that it wouldn’t be hard to translate a record. Just list the record and the winner. You could just imagine the detail, color it whatever way you please.
“Well here. Just take it.” A box placed like a bridge across the parallel of my thighs. I’m not sure why they thought I would enjoy ripping off the wrapping paper, since I couldn’t see it anyway. I made a show of it. I began to tear off the paper like a terrier stealing a dishtowel, tossing it to and fro. “Careful how much you thow that paper,” said mama, “else we sit here and watch while you clean it up.” She said it good-naturedly, and I began to wonder if the storm window-slamming shenanigans of earlier weren’t but a ruse to get out of the room and wrap my present, as if I were not blind but eight years old, unable to comprehend that adults might lie to you just like other children do — not in a mean-spirited fashion, just polishing the corner of the truth a bit so you wouldn’t noticed they had dinged it with something they had said or done earlier. I decided they keep the world humming along, such flatteries, and they only become dangerous when done with ill import.
I held the box in my hands. It was glossed with what felt like dry glycerin — I knew it was a mass-market item, probably something mama bought at the Winn’s department store. It was heavy, like a piece of firewood. An iron? Set of wrenches, perhaps, forged of slick, porous steel?
I opened the box and put my hand inside. It felt like a metallic cone, something like you’d find on the back of a cement truck.
“It’s a rock tumbler,” my father said. “I have one at home, used to rather.”
I could sense my mother blanch at hearing “home.”
“I keep a few with me as good luck charms, the rocks that is. Feel these.”
I ran the smooth stones through and around my fingers like a Chinese kung-fu sage preparing to impart some sage wisdom.
“Isn’t it cool?” my mother said. “Thank your father.” A pregnant silence’s water broke.
* * *
The lights blink. Miraculously, the power’s still on. There’s a TV preacher on now, and he’s talking about the End Days, and saying that no matter if it comes as a flood or a heat wave or a horde of locusts, that you better get right with God, and can’t you see it in your heart to send $20?
My father is trying to get some news. He’s now sitting in the kitchen with my mother, and putting batteries into a weather band radio.
“When’s the last time y’all used this?”
“When’s the last time we had a storm?”
“This is shaping up to be more than a storm.”
“More than a storm?”
“‘A storm to remember.'” I said it in the sonorous way a ratings-hungry TV weatherman might, filled with ominous overtones.
“Let’s hope we’re around to remember it, way that damn creek keeps rising.”
My mind began to wonder and I thought of Cary Grant in Houseboat, some urchin kid hanging on the cuff of his suitcoat, the great clotheshorse whinnying, a look of disdain and abject pity on his angular brow.
Martha Hyer: “How you gonna learn to be a father after all these years?”
Cary: “I’ll just get a booklet from the Department of Agriculture.”
* * *
Mama just found a little ring snake in the utility room. Sometimes when you catch a snake in your house, you want to kill him but then decide that would be inhumane so you shoo him and let him out down the road from your house a ways. Why punish the little fellow, a little sentient being trying to warm his chops just like you? Just like you can’t punish him for trying to escape if you attempt to keep him as a pet. This is not opinion. He is a snake. This is just the way it is.
The weather band says it’s going to keep raining, a system moving through the north. Dangerous lightning, and some flooding. And it was: That’s some flooding.
So the figuring is it’s probably past when it’d do any good to try and drive to higher ground, especially try and lead my ass out there, so here we sit, my father and I, at the kitchen table, not so much supping on the milk of human kindness as warming to the wet-nurse security of it.
“The moon looks like a little nail clipping,” mama says to us from the kitchen. “Like God flicked a toenail out into the sky.” She loves giving me little descriptions of things she herself finds interesting. It’s her way of documenting what interests her, I think. Some write. Some paint pictures. Mama describes things to me. My father is listening to the weather report. If that water rises any higher, he says, we’re gonna have to get out of here, get a hotel or something, maybe climb on the roof like in the movies.
Were Robert Wadlow here, he’d have it made.
* * *
Outside, the rain seems to be slowing down. My father just sits, rolling the pebbles over and over each other in his hand like he’s trying to grind them into dust. With the other hand he shovels popcorn into his mouth, causing a hungry Scarlet to careen around under the table searching for stray kernels. Mama keeps the tile waxed something fierce, even though I tell her it’s probably not such a good idea for us sight-challenged folks and dogs with long claws.
For now, we sit, sort through the Zip-loc bag of polished stones. The rock tumbler is an amazing thing. What takes the creek out back hundreds of years is accomplished in just a few days with the rock tumbler. You just pour some grit in there and plug it in and walk away.
Mama finds the outlet, and we place it on top of some newspapers at the kitchen table. It’s an interesting feeling to pick up those stones. They go in jagged and unique, and come out smooth as glass. Even the creek doesn’t get them this perfect. At some point about a month from now, mama will fasten the stones to some gold-tone jewelry settings, and set about handing out the creations to friends and relatives as little gifts.
The TV preacher says even the hardest rocks will lose their edge eventually. I think it’s a good saying. We all wear down, whether through constant friction or by giving ourselves up to the world that rushes ceaselessly around us. We all eventually return to the earth — one way or another — and the whole shebang begins yet again. Some people just like to hurry along the process.
* * *
According to my father, the wading pool mama uses when she babysits the neighbor kids is now bumpercarring its way down the swollen healthiness of the creek. The swingset has toppled too, the soil saturated. Also, I may go first, he says, handing me the jar of gherkins.
“What’s the record?” my father asks.
“Our record or the World Record?”
“118 in five minutes.”
“Shit. We got some catchin’ up to do then, don’t we?”