Issue 9, Summer 1955
People all through the San Gabriel Valley will remember the summer of 1950: heat, smog and humidity made a hell of all these California cities and many deaths were imputed to it. Those who did not have to remain in the streets took cover behind drawn window shades and fanned themselves with palmetto leaves or old newspapers, their free hands rubbing their smog-burnt eyes; and any bird that had strength enough in him picked up his wings and flew away. After the first day or two an empty stillness settled in and you missed the usual, the expected, the livingness of the world: the haggling of policemen with motorists, noisy games of children, strolling old ladies in pink lace hats, the flights of all those deserting birds. The world had been taken over by a race of strange somnambulists to whom you seldom bothered to nod or even say hello.
Such an extreme in the weather brought complaints from nearly everyone. But there was one young man who believed, at the beginning of the crisis, that this might turn out to be the favorite summer of his life. He lived alone on the top floor of an old rooming house behind the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Pasadena had been his home for several years and though he had always been fond of it, its clean shaded streets and the rose gardens everywhere, white buildings and the church-like quiet of the nights, he now found it ideal.
Among the people who knew him, or rather, who were acquainted with him—for no one claimed to know Wesley Stuart—there existed various theories to explain his strangeness. Some guessed he was an artist or a poet who had not yet discovered his powers and that his silences were impregnated with lofty thoughts; while at least one person, his landlady, believed he suffered from some terrible spiritual hunger for which she knew a cure; and there were persons less sympathetic to oddness in others and they considered him either stupid or conceited or believed his remoteness to be an affectation.
Late one afternoon his landlady, Mrs. Kromer, a raw boned giant of a woman, was seated spread-legged behind a broad bamboo screen on her front porch. Her flowered cotton house dress clung damp to her; and her feet, long ones with red-knuckled toes, were bare. A pretty young girl sat next to her in a green silk kimono that was torn under one arm. Her name was Faye Zelger.
Wesley had just returned from work and as he walked up the porch steps, Faye and Mrs. Kromer were squeezing lemon juice into their mouths. The old woman’s face was so large that any movement in it would attract attention anywhere; the jaw is like a great sac of skin stuffed with a thick round cowhone, a lantern jaw, and whenever she sucks her teeth in church children often crane their necks to watch.—Now Wesley paused for a moment to watch her attack on the lemon.
“Somebody claims it’s a help,” Mrs. Kromer said. “Got another’n if you wanta try it.”
The girl winked at Wesley as if inviting him to humor the old woman. “Go ahead, Wes. Get yourself a lemon.” Faye had been brought up in Florida and she spoke with a broad Southern accent. “They work real charms, lemons.”
“No thanks, I feel fine. I like it hot.”
Faye smiled as she searched about in her mind for an answer. But Wesley did not wait for it. When he had gone inside Faye raised her eyebrows superciliously and turned to Mrs. Kromer. “Loves it,” she said. “Thinks it’s just glorious. I suppose if we all drop dead, he’ll—think that’s just glorious, too.” She looked at the lemon and shuddered with disgust, “Mr. Tin God. Lord he gives me a stiff pain right where I sit.”
“That’s puttin it plain enough,” Mrs. Kromer said.
“I’m sorry but I can’t stand people that work s’hard to be different’n everybody else.”
“You worked up a pretty big smile for him, Missie.”
“I admit that. I admit I try to be pleasant to people.”
Mrs. Kromer returned to her lemon. “That’s nice,” she said.
Wesley Stuart had seldom suffered from heat but he had to slow his pace for the third flight of steps and when he entered his room he found it stifling, oppressive.
He removed all of his clothes and since the only other room on the floor had been unrented for several months he walked naked across the hall to the bathroom. He filled the bathtub with cold water and sat down in it. This revived him, he could feel the strength returning to him as if the water in the tub replaced the energy he had lost through his pores. His body was suntanned and he stared at the contrast of his legs with the white of the tub. He flexed the toes of his right foot and watched the ligaments tighten in his ankle and, as he bent his knee, his calf hardened against his thigh. Then he submerged his entire leg and watched the sunbleached hairs float upwards. When he removed his leg from the water these white hairs clung slick to his brown skin and he continued stupidly fascinated with this solitary game of bending and unbending his knee until his back began to ache from it and then he lay down and using his hands as cups poured water all over his head and chest.
When he had dried himself Wesley walked across the hall to his room and lay down on the bed. With the movement of air from the open window and from the skylight in the hall, his room seemed less oppressive to him. Enjoying this comfort, he closed his eyes.
Some minutes later Wesley sat upright in bed and then he heard a shout which must have come from his own throat. Another person was in the room. At the sound of Wesley’s voice the man took several steps backward and now he was standing in the doorway.
Suddenly conscious of his own nakedness, Wesley drew the bedspread about his body. There was no way to account for the presence of someone else, uninvited, in his own room. But he had been lying here for some undeterminable length of time and since twilight had already taken place in the city it seemed possible and even likely that this silhouette against the pale column of gray from the skylight might be a figure dreamed up, imagined.
But now as he stared at it, certain features became more distinct: its thick body erect as a sentry, its head thrown back as if listening, the shadow of a stick extending from its hand to the floor. Then it moved. The stick was raised a few inches from the floor and the man rapped it against the frame of the open door. Wesley called out to him but the visitor did not seem to hear. Then Wesley reached toward the ceiling and pulled the string that turned on the light.
In the moment before his eyes became accustomed to the light he cursed and shouted as the man in the doorway stared into the room. Suddenly Wesley was silent. First he had seen the white cane and when his eyes returned to the man’s face he realized he was dealing with a blind man. Now be saw a fine white cord extending from a black button in the man’s ear. When he could speak, Wesley asked the man what he wanted but the stranger touched the floor with his cane, turned and began to walk slowly down the hall in the direction of the stairs.
Wesley quickly stepped into his trousers and hurried to the door. The man had begun to descend the stairs.
“Hey mister, wait a minute,” Wesley said. Then he shouted, “Hey! Wait a minute, will you?”
The man stopped, turned to face Wesley and said, “Somebody talking to me?”
“Yeah. I am. You just knocked on my door. What d’you want?”
“Would you mind talking into this?” He indicated a small square microphone pinned to his shirt. Wesley saw the cord that disappeared under the shirt, reappeared at the collar and connected with the large black earbutton. “I don’t hear very well, you have to shout.” His voice was low and even, without melody.
Wesley bent down and spoke directly into the microphone: “When you came to my door, I was sleeping. I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. Is there anything I can do?”
“I found this card in my door,” the blind man said, “and I wanted to ask you to read it to me.” Wesley took the card and then he looked at the man’s face. He was young, stocky, probably in his late twenties. His skin was ruddy, healthy looking, but it shone with a kind of waxen glaze that seemed unreal. His nose was straight and well shaped with large tensed nostrils, his jaw square and thick, divided in the center by a deep cleft. He was probably handsome, Wesley thought, but his eyes were disturbing; the almost undefined areas of pale blue faded into the dead whites as if they were the eyes of a badly painted toy doll.
Wesley looked at the card. “It’s from the census taker. He wants you to fill it out and drop it into the mail box. Do you live in this building?”
“Since noon. I live in the room across the hall. My name is Earl.” He thrust his hand forward. Wesley looked at the extended hand, strong and square, and he noticed that the nails were clean, neatly filed; he stared as if he had never seen a hand before, and then he gripped it with his own and said, “I’m Wesley Stuart.”
Then Earl invited him to look at his room. Wesley followed the blind man into the tiny dormer room which he had seen many times before. He knew there was a window at one end, a bed, a dresser and a chair, and nothing more. Earl flipped the light switch but the room remained in darkness. The blind man moved skillfully into the dark and now Wesley could see only his silhouette against the window.
“The bed’s hard but I like it that way, you get better rest. And it’s got a dresser. See?” Earl moved into a black corner and Wesley could no longer see him at all. “I’ve got my toilet articles laid out here so I know just where to find them. And here’s a chair I’ll use to read in. I read quite a bit.” He picked up a large book of perforated cardboard and carried it to the bed. “This is the new Reader’s Digest. I get it every month.”
Wesley, seated on the bed, wondered if he should tell Earl that the light bulb was broken; it seemed strange to be in a room with someone who needed to be told that the light was not burning and even stranger to think that this person’s rooms would always be dark. Then, to try blindness for himself, he closed his eyes.
“Are you still here?” Earl said. Listening with his eyes closed, Wesley thought that for Earl all people must simply be voices without bodies. He cupped his hands over his ears and heard a voice from faraway, “Wesley? Where are you? You still here?” And it occurred to him that if he refused to answer and if all the people in the world were suddenly blind and deaf he might cease to exist, except inside of himself, a ghost in a dark and silent shell.
“I’m still here,” he said. “I’m on the bed.” And now his own voice sounded to his covered ears like the voice of another, a stranger outside of himself, or as if his own ghost were whispering to him.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” Earl said.
Wesley opened his eyes and rose from the bed. “You better tell Mrs. Kromer to put a new light bulb in here.”
“Doesn’t it work?”
“No, it doesn’t. It’s burnt out.” Then he excused himself and returned to his apartment. After his experiment in blindness the light shocked his eyes and everything seemed more clearly defined than before: imperfections in the plaster he had never noticed now seemed shabby, the green of the bedspread and the white of the table were startling, almost gaudy.
He opened the refrigerator and found a plate of canned ham and some leftover potato salad. When he had set his table his thoughts turned again to Earl. Wesley was proud of his room and though he realized that the care and imagination with which he had transformed this attic into a splendid apartment would be lost on a visitor who could not see, he knew that Earl who, like all blind people, must be devoted to order, would appreciate the ingenuity with which he had used his space: since the roof of the house was a gabled one there were three alcoves; one of these he used for sleeping, another for cooking and eating, and a third for reading. He went to the door of the room across the hall.
“I wondered if you’d had your dinner?”
“Is it Wesley?”
“Yeah. Have y’eaten yet?”
Earl appeared smiling in the hall and Wesley led the way to a corner near the window of his large room. He directed Earl to a chair and Earl sat down. Then Wesley went to the cupboard to fetch another plate and more silverware.
He reapportioned the food and sat down. Earl placed his fingers lightly on the food and then he said, “Would you mind cutting the meat for me?” Wesley cut the meat into small pieces. He couldn’t remember having watched a blind man eat before and he was fascinated. Earl’s eyes were directed at Wesley’s mouth and Wesley, embarrassed, turned his gaze to his own plate before he realized again that all the pictures that took shape behind Earl’s eyes were of his own making, and for a moment Wesley looked at the blind man, trying to gather this fact into him, to accustom himself to its strangeness.
Earl stabbed a piece of the ham with his fork and raised it to his mouth. Wesley felt a shiver that started in the back of his head and ran down the length of his entire body. This disturbed him. After a moment Earl’s plate was empty, but Wesley had eaten nothing. He had lost his appetite, the food seemed repulsive to him.
“Would you like more. Earl?”
“Sure, if you’ve got plenty.”
“Got more than I can eat.” Wesley took Earl’s plate away and replaced it with his own. Then he looked at the empty plate in his hand and something terrible happened: the plate sent a strangely soft shock into his hands that travelled through his body; this caused him to drop the plate and it smashed on the floor.
Earl stopped eating for a moment. He sat upright, cocked his head to one side; his large nostrils flared tensely as if they were instruments to hear through. But he said nothing and after a moment continued to eat.
Wesley brought out his broom and while he swept the broken pieces of dimestore pottery into the dustpan he wondered what had caused the dish to fall from his hand. Perhaps some electricity had been conducted from the battery of Earl’s hearing aid; but this seemed improbable. He wondered if be might be squeamish about Earl’s afflictions. If this were the case he must certainly teach himself to get over it.
After the meal the two men smoked several cigarets while Earl, stimulated by questions from Wesley, told of the sickness, pneumonia, which had resulted in his loss of sight and impaired hearing. This had come about when he was seven years old. He told Wesley that his last visual memory was of snow falling on pine trees in the hills near his home in New Hampshire on the night his mother had driven him to the hospital. He spoke pleasantly and without bitterness for more than an hour and Wesley would have listened longer and willingly to this voice that came from a world so strange to him; but Earl rose to leave. He explained that the night was his best time for work. He carried into the streets a box of leather goods made by the blind and sold them in restaurants and cafes, lunch counters and beer halls; he said that in the daytime, especially during this heat spell, few persons were willing even to stop and examine his wares.
He thanked Wesley for the meal and then he went out into the streets.
Now this small offering of a meal to an afflicted person is a usual and every day occurence in the world, but not in the world of Wesley Stuart. The fact that he lived in a city where there were other people should not be interpreted to mean that he lived with them or even among them; for in spite of appearances he had in him all the makings of a hermit and may as well have lived in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Early in his life, in a small city in Central Ohio, Wesley had taken part in a war that was fought day and night in his own home; and in this war the weapons used had been of the most visciously subtle variety known to man: silence, withdrawal, a kind of passive hatred from which emanated death rays that worked more slowly but with a more terrible effectiveness than any imagined by the meanest of scientists: for the victim must go through his life on the surface unharmed, but inside of him, still mechanically pumping blood, lies a tiny poisoned corpse.
The issues at stake had been forgotten long before Wesley’s birth; but as can happen in any war the fighting continued because neither side knew how to stop. Wesley at first had been more a witness than a target to all this quiet commotion and murder, but the circle of fire grew steadily larger until it included him. Harold and Irma Stuart, until their divorce—long after Wesley left home—had taken turns withdrawing: Harold Stuart would spend every second night drinking at a beer garden poker party; on alternate nights Irma Stuart would attend one of her clubs, chair a book discussion or play bridge. Wesley spent one evening with his father and the following with his mother: the first poring over school books and the second at play. For many years he worked at a puppet stage made from a large toilet paper carton in which groceries had been delivered, but his father thought it was a doll house of some sort and when Wesley began suddenly to grow taller, Harold Stuart’s annoyance with this game reached its peak. He stuffed the puppets and the stage into an incinerator and lighted a match to them. That Saturday afternoon while this fire was still burning Wesley listened to a long and dispiteous lecture on the differences between childhood and maturity. His father had apparently given considerable drunken thought to the ways in which a “man” does not behave. He disapproved of each of the few friends Wesley had at one time and another managed to win; the truth was that he did not want them underfoot, they caused in him a peculiar disquiet which increased his unhappiness and so he discouraged or forbade these alliances. Wesley was left to continue in his solitude, but without the puppets; and when the time came he discovered the usual private amusement of which many fathers seem to know nothing.
But undermined by a strong distrust of others, Wesley’s imagination centered more and more in himself and there was a long period, perhaps two years or more, in which every word said to him had to be spoken twice. For it is known that a person’s thoughts can travel no distance greater than the distance to the self; one may think of China, or the moon, and at the same time hear and see all that goes on about him, but when the thoughts are buried deep within the carnival mazes of his own heart, a person may as well be deaf and blind.
Between father and son then the situation was a simple one: they disliked one another with the quiet formality of estranged lovers. But Irma Stuart was another problem altogether. This was a woman whom Wesley alternately hated and loved. At times, early in his life, he had welcomed and even invited her affection, but just as often he had been repelled by it. She seemed boneless. Her face was yellow white. She had soft hysterical eyes. Her hands wiggled and crawled like white wrinkled worms. Except for the times when she laughed, which were too frequent, Irma Stuart smiled continually, but this apparently gay activity was more frightening to Wesley than a frown or a scream might have been. The desperation of a woman who screams is usually a temporary state, but the desperation of a woman who laughs in these haunting depthless tones is probably a permanent condition, a portrait of the soul. Even small children see these portraits and understand them. Each cackle from Irma Stuart’s throat echoed an agony of unfulfillment, bitterness: the nerve show of a dead heart dressed in hysteria.
Often she seemed to pretend that Wesley did not exist, but these periods would be broken by sudden bursts of kindness, loving gestures, unexpected wisdoms. On one such occasion, when Wesley was seventeen, she signed a paper authorizing his enlistment in the Navy.
Wesley believed that with this separation he had won the long war against his father. But now and again in small ways that he understood and in ways too profound to be understood at all, it was clear that the war continued, that Wesley carried the enemy, his father, within himself. Certain words and ideas, tiny acts of destructiveness toward others, would bring about sudden flashes of clarity in which he could see in himself his father’s image. At times even in the mirror the spectacle of that familiar brutality—eyes temporarily shrunken with hatred, mouth withdrawn to a mean bloodless slit—would suck the color from his face and leave him white with dread. But a more dangerous similarity was his inability to cope with others. From any relationship not directly involved with earning his livelihood, he automatically withdrew. And he nurtured this isolation with the loving care of a mother for a child, for within it he was at peace.
This was something Wesley knew nothing of: this strange family of three which waged its endless war on the quiet battleground of his solitude: how like a mother he cooked and kept house and how like a father he thwarted the love that was in him and like an infant lay revelling in the false security of this twisted and solitary crib.
Wesley had learned carpentry in the Navy and now he worked building platforms and sets at a television station in Hollywood. But he did not want to live in that city. Some men might be attracted by the nightlife that is supposed to go on in Hollywood but whenever Wesley remained there even until twilight a certain disquiet arose in him that would sometimes last for several days. Another carpenter named George Dunlap had once asked why Wesley lived in Pasadena. Wesley said he was not sure himself but it seemed to him everybody in Hollywood, even the people on the streets, were somehow hysterical, out of their minds. George said they’d never seemed that way to him and that ended it.
But Wesley had other reasons for preferring to drive back and forth each day. Some of these reasons he understood and others he did not think about. In the first place he liked to use his car. The weather in California is usually decent and you can drive with the top down and get sunshine on your face and arms except during the winter months but even they are mild and pass quickly. And in the second place he liked his apartment and did not want to give it up for new people, strangers, to live in. This room in the made-over attic of Mrs. Kromer’s old frame house was only two blocks from the speedway connecting the two cities (he could drive it in twenty-seven minutes) and he had come to think of it as home.
His life was composed of these four major parts: himself, his apartment, his car and his bankbook. The job was not really a part of this. It merely relieved him of excess energies and allowed him to pay the rent on his apartment and the upkeep on his car and caused the figure in the bankbook to swell at a steady and reassuring rate. If he saved for anything at all, it was for insurance against change. Wesley failed to realize that all the money in the world could not purchase such a policy and the waste involved in hoping for it did not seem to offer any serious threat. He looked upon waste as somewhat less deteriorating than pain; and therefore he looked upon this lonely freedom from experience as a possession like his ear, the apartment or his bankbook, a treasure to be cared for and protected.