(Image, Jan Fyt’s oil on canvas, “Big Dog, Dwarf, and Boy”
When I was fourteen years old and struggling with vision loss, my mother, who was by then a heavy drinker met me at the door of our house. I was returning from junior high school, hoping desperately to find safety after seven hours of bullying. All I wanted was my own room. I could picture in my mind’s eye my cave with its short wave radio. Nowadays I know the mind’s eye is the work of the soul but I didn’t know it then. I only knew retreat.
My mother clutched a burning sofa cushion. “I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “get out of my way!”
She ran across our suburban lawn with the blazing thing held at arm’s length, and for some reason she wouldn’t drop it. She staggered from place to place until flames singed her hair and then she flung the cushion into a neighbor’s hedge where it extinguished itself but continued smoldering, sending up smoke signals.
That wasn’t the day my soul went dormant but it was a gradient point on the arc of withdrawal. As a disabled teen I was learning there were no safe places. We find, by necessity, locations where our souls can retreat, and after practice, we learn to take these guarded, hermetic spaces wherever we go.
In 1969 my job was to endure by stamina. Be blind, but don’t be blind, be something sort of blind, but not really blind blind. Be some kind of defective sighted person, but not really defective, just moderately less broken. Or whatever.
Blindness became a tortoise like affair. My blind soul held its breath in a shell.
My mother was always wasted by mid afternoon. She had several types of drunkenness as most alcoholics do. There was the giddy vaporous intoxication born of desperate merriment—she’d dance alone to music only she could hear, quite literally. Then there was the drunkenness driven by what I came to call her misery gauge—I pictured a glass indicator on a submarine—pressure outside was building. She also partook of vengeful drinking, the kind Richard Nixon did in his last days as President, a mumbling paranoid imbibing. She was brilliant, darkly ingrown, beautiful, and damaged in a hundred ways.
If I was lucky, she’d be asleep by 4 pm, stretched out on the living room sofa with curtains drawn, highball glass on the floor, one shoe off and one shoe on. I’d go straight for my room and my radio, door locked, then strip off my torn shirt—for daily bullying always meant the death of a shirt. I’d lie on the floor and listen to short wave radio. There was a station from Belgium that played Duke Ellington. For some reason, though everyone I knew listened to the Stones or Beatles, something in Ellington felt right to me—complex, buoyant, I didn’t know what to call it, but I could easily luxuriate in it.
Because my father was an academic, and apparently less guarded than my mother, who never talked about my eyes, he told a friend just how little I could see. He came home one night with a cardboard box containing a dozen sealed mason jars—his colleague was a scientist of some kind, and the jars held dark specimens floating in formaldehyde. The idea was that I could hold the jars close to my one good eye and see things.
Alone in my room in a circle of lamp light, I held the first jar close to my face. A white human fetus floated in a viscous brown liquid, trailing its umbilical cord. The jar was so near my left eye my eyelashes brushed the glass, and owing to my unsteady hands the fetus turned gently, that gentleness of the drowned, until its face was straight opposite my cornea. It had grey veins across its temples and a determined frown. I thrust the jar back in the box. I wanted to go downstairs and tell my father to take it away but he was fighting with my mother and I shoved the whole collection into the back of my closet behind a heap of shoes.
After that, alone at night, I’d lie in bed knowing the fetus was in my closet, suspended in its soup with its little face all closed up.
I wanted to grow my hair long like the Beatles guitarist George Harrison. In school I was a mark. Boys stole my glasses, pushed me into walls and lockers, shoved me on the stairs, ripped my clothing, all because I was the blind kid and you know, the deviant is the oldest fair game of all, a thing I could feel all the way down to my spleen. Long hair would save me. Long hair is a feature of the soul but I didn’t know it exactly. I knew it with inexactitude, which was the way I knew everything. Hair would save me. Duke Ellington would save me. Maybe someone from Belgium would save me.
My mother was painfully drunk when I came down from my room after hours alone with the Belgians. Before I knew it, she had me by the hair and was dragging me across the kitchen.
“You look like a fairy,” she said.
“What’s a fairy?” I asked. I had no idea.
“A faggot!” she said.
I didn’t really know what this meant either but she was blowing whiskey vapors and clutching my hair and poking at my skull with scissors.
I pushed her. She fell backwards still waving her shears and fell into a large plastic trash can. Because she was a drunk and hated domesticity she long ago had decided a full sized garbage can was perfect for the kitchen, you didn’t have to empty it daily, and of course it stank and now she was falling into it.
I should say it’s quite possible she’d have fallen into the trash without my help as she was always unsteady on her feet, even when sober, but especially when smashed.
The can tipped over as she fell backwards and the lid popped off and together she and the can had a rendezvous and there she was, covered with mire and ashes and waving the pruning scissors and howling. She’d broken her elbow. I was the inciting factor. In the weeks that followed I was the one who broke her elbow.
It was my soul that did it. Soul clap your hands. Grow your hair. Know the touch of unfriendly hands.
In my room I listened to talking books from the Library of Congress. Those were the days when the books were on long playing records. I had a government issued gramophone, a squat, grey, heavy machine that played the disks at slow speeds.
I played Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that year. I was in love with Bradbury. He is of course a good person to love with you’re 14.
From the gravely recording I heard:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies . . . Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die . . . It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”
After hearing this I thought a great deal about touch and the inner life. Again, I didn’t know what to call it.
What would be like me?
What thing would I touch and impart myself into?
What could I change by my very touch?
One mustn’t think for a moment that teenagers don’t know these things.
If you are lucky you have a dog. I had a golden retriever named Honey who knew me. If you’re lucky you know the dog knows you.
She knew me. I walked her in the unbearable sunlight that hurt my eyes. I called her into my room where she lay beside me as I read my recorded books. She sailed around the world as I read Moby Dick.
She was with me as I read Gulliver’s Travels.
I held her dear face in my hands.
What thing would I touch and impart myself into?
Dogs came to us long ago, and they answered this question long ago. And the soul knew this long ago.
In the Gemäldesammlung in Dresden, Germany, Jan Fyt’s painting “Big Dog, Dwarf, and Boy” stands as time honored testimony to the superior empathy of dogs. The boy in the painting is not crippled. He even looks a little smug. He’s wealthy. He owns the dog. And the dog, who is large both inside and out, has locked eyes with the dwarf.
If you are lucky. Lucky with dogs. They will know. You will also.
I was raised by dogs.
My mother drank herself to death. It took her a long time.
It took her six dogs as I like to say.
I touched every one of them.
And when, as a grown man, I got my first guide dog, I knew just where to put my trembling fingers, in a tiny place, just behind her ear.
Soul meets soul and back again.
Back and back behind the ear.
A softness like no other.