Five Rooms

By Christine Sneed

Featured Image: Farralones Islands, Pacific Ocean by Albert Bierstadt 1872

Two questions you don’t ask a blind person: Aren’t black-and-white movies

boring? Is that cop car following me? Another thing you have to keep in mind

when you’re with a blind person is that if you move anything like the paper

towels and the soap that usually sit to the right of the kitchen sink, you can

bet you’re going to get chewed out for it later. No matter that you are some-

times an idiot and didn’t mean anything by it at all—you’re still going to get in trouble.

What I don’t like about making a mistake is that no one gives you the

chance to explain yourself. You’re supposed to sit there and let everyone yell

at you, even Mr. Rasmussen who, when he’s annoyed, looks like he’s staring at

a spot above my head, which I don’t think he knows he’s doing. Sometimes he

wears sunglasses, but mostly he doesn’t. His eyes look like a person’s who can

see, which is a little strange because I start to wonder if he’s faking it, but if he

is, I doubt he’d want me hanging around his house messing things up.

Wednesdays, we go grocery shopping. Thursdays, I do his laundry so that

I’ll learn to be a good person. Supposedly I don’t know what that means, like

most kids of my “ingrate generation” who would trample a nun if one got in

the way on our headlong dash to the store to buy the latest piece of technologi-

cal garbage.

Something my mom probably wouldn’t like is that Mr. Rasmussen pays

me a little for helping him. For the first month or so I tried to give him back the

money, but he wouldn’t let me. He’d shake his head and smile toward the floor

when I tried to hand it back. I know that some people would say it should be

easy not to take his money because I could leave fast and he wouldn’t be able

to catch me, but I wouldn’t want to slam the door in his face, or worse, slam it

on his foot and make him fall over if he tried to go after me without his cane.

When he pays me, he always gives me five singles. Every Thursday, it’s the same

thing, five of them folded over into a little wad, and I wonder how he knows

for sure they’re singles, not twenties, which I wish they were even if this makes

me greedy. If he did pull out some twenties, I’d give them back, all but one of

them, because that last one would be my reward for not keeping a hundred

dollars when he only meant to give me five.

He used to work with my mom at the school where she’s the principal’s

secretary. He took care of the computers there, including the ones with all of

the grades and IQ scores, but then his eyesight got so bad that he had to quit

and go on disability. He told me once that he knew for months that he was

going blind and it was like knowing someone you loved more than anything

was going to die very soon but there was nothing in the world you could do to

stop it. The doctors had told him it would happen, but he had hoped someone

would be able to cure him. He went blind nine years ago, when I was seven,

but I didn’t meet him until last year because before then, Mom hadn’t yet had

the great idea that I needed to be a compassionate dork.

During this whole time he hasn’t been able to see, he’s been doing things

that are a little strange for a guy—like learning how to knit and taking piano

lessons and carving sheep and dogs and cows out of bars of soap, and selling

them at a Christmas craft fair that the Catholic church on Fir Street holds the

weekend after Thanksgiving. I’m not sure how the piano lessons work because

he has to learn everything by ear and by feel, but when he practices while I’m

over, it sounds like he knows exactly what he’s doing. The pieces he plays are

long and soft and remind me of someone turning slow cartwheels. I suppose

it’s kind of impressive that he isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself and

turning into a grouchy old man. Technically he isn’t that old, being only fifty-

something, and he has a girlfriend named Sophie who lives in another state,

which is pretty damn convenient for her. From what I can tell, when she breezes

into town once or twice a month, all they do is eat and get naked, which I don’t

really want to think about, but like the piano lessons, I suppose that having sex

with Sophie keeps him from turning into a crab. She’s a professor at a college

two hundred and sixty miles away in Minneapolis and teaches political science,

which means that she is obsessed with things that are mostly pointless—no

matter which person gets elected, nothing changes, at least not in my town.

Since I was a little kid, there have always been the same unemployed weirdos

standing around the same corners laughing and talking with their friends at the

top of their voices about nothing.

Mr. Rasmussen’s name is Forest, a name no one else I know has. He once

had a son named Apollo (he swears this is true) who died when he was fourteen

because he fell out of a big tree at a summer camp. I know this must make Mr.

Rasmussen very sad and probably angry too but we don’t talk about it. My

mom is the one who told me. His son died a few years before he went blind

, but Mr. Rasmussen and the boy’s mother had been divorced for a while before

any of these things happened. If he gets mad at me because I moved something

in the kitchen, I try to remember that he has had it pretty bad—if I couldn’t see

and had a dead kid too, I’d probably be a lot more moody than he is.

I’ve been helping him out for about five and a half months when Sophie

calls and dumps him. She does it when I’m over on a Thursday afternoon doing

the laundry and I’m sure she’s done it this way on purpose—she has to know

my schedule as well as her own, because she seems like the type of person who

keeps track. The two times I’ve seen her, she’s looked me up and down like I’m

the competition or something, which is so ridiculous because for one, I’m not

interested in Mr. Rasmussen and never would be, and two, it wouldn’t matter if

I looked like a supermodel or a drooling troll because Mr. Rasmussen is friggin’

blind. He and I don’t flirt, and we definitely don’t touch, except when I take his

elbow to help him through the door or down the stairs or he takes my elbow

for the same reason.

After he gets off the phone with her, his face raw as a smashed egg, he tells

me I can go. I’ve only been there an hour and a half, but he wants me to leave.

He says he’ll put the second load of clothes in the dryer. He’ll fold them and

put them away himself this week. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out

some money and hands me a ten.

“That’s okay, Mr. Rasmussen. I really don’t need it. Ten is too much any-

way.”

“Take it,” he says, mad. “Just take it, Josephine.”

I still don’t want to. It feels too strange, like he’s bribing me not to tell

anyone that I saw him so upset, which I wouldn’t do anyway. I know what his

conversation was about because from the other room where I was watching

Jeopardy! and waiting for the dryer to stop, I heard him begging her, “Can’t

we talk about this in person?” “Are you sure you really feel that way?” “Can’t

you come down here this weekend so I can at least see you one more time?”

She knew what he meant, because obviously he isn’t going to see her or anyone

else ever again unless there’s a miracle, but he still says things like this all the

time: “I’ll see about that . . .” or “I’d like to see you here at four o’clock, not

four-thirty.” Talking to her, he sounded so hurt and beaten down that I got a

little choked up for him. If I hadn’t had the laundry to worry about, I would

have sneaked out before he could remember I was there.

“I really don’t need it, Mr. Rasmussen, honestly.”

“Take the fucking money, Josephine. I don’t want to discuss this right

now.”

I take the ten and get my book bag and go. His face is all red and his wavy

gray-black hair is a mess, like he was trying to pull it out while he was on the

phone getting his heart stomped on. I walk out to my car (which is really my

mom’s car but she lets me use it when I help Mr. Rasmussen) and the air is filled

with an enormous lilac smell. It is a beautiful day, but for Mr. Rasmussen, it is

shit on the bottom of his shoe, tracked through the whole house.

The reason why my mom thinks I need to learn compassion is because

my friend Gina and I used to go to the Lakeside Mall and drop pennies on old

people from the second floor. It wasn’t because we were mean; it was only be-

cause we were bored and it was the funniest thing we had ever seen. Whenever

a penny would land in front of an old guy, he would start wildly looking all

over the place, as if someone had thrown a rotten tomato at him instead of a

little penny. He’d open his mouth and lean his head back as far as it would go

and it just looked so funny we nearly peed our pants every time.

But then we got busted by a security guard on break at the Starbucks and

that was the end of our fun. He took our names and called our parents and

they bitched us out and it was so dumb. It’s not like we were stealing or hurting

anyone but we still got in trouble because no one was supposed to be throw-

ing anything, nothing whatsoever, not even hundred dollar bills, from the sec-

ond floor down to the first. We could have injured babies—had we thought of

that? Or we might have blinded one of the old people if the penny had landed

on their eye, which seemed pretty impossible to me, especially with the huge

glasses some of them wear, but no one had asked my opinion. When I told Mr.

Rasmussen why my mom had made me help him, he started laughing and said

that he had done a lot worse when he was a teenaged punk, but girls weren’t

supposed to be interested in practical jokes, so he suspected the guard had

come down on us extra hard because he was sexist. That was the first time I’d

ever heard a guy accuse another guy of being sexist. I liked it.

When I get home an hour early from Mr. Rasmussen’s, Mom gives me a

funny look. “Laundry takes three hours, unless he didn’t want you to dry his

clothes, but I’m sure he did.”

“He wanted me to leave.”

Her face gets that bunched-up look which means she’s about to yell at me.

“What did you—”

“I didn’t do anything. He got a call from Sophie and then he told me he’d

finish the laundry himself.”

Mom is quiet after this, and I start down the hall to my bedroom, which,

incidentally, is “an abominable pigsty” according to Mom, who is the foremost

authority on any and all things I am supposed to be doing with my life.

“Hold on, Josie. Is he all right? You didn’t leave him in a state, did you?”

“No, I did not leave him in a state. Sophie left him in a state, and he didn’t

want me in any part of it.”

“Did she break up with him?”

I feel like I shouldn’t tell on him, but I don’t want to lie. It’s not something I

usually do, even if I’m guilty of doing other boneheaded things sometimes. “I’m

not sure. He didn’t lie down on the couch and ask me to get out my notepad so

he could bare his soul to me.”

“You’re not so grown up that I won’t slap your face if you keep talking

smart to me.”

I look at her. Her lipstick is chewed to a thin ring and her eyeliner is a

smear under her lower lashes, but she is still pretty, prettier than I am and we

both know it.

I sigh noisily. “Sorry.”

“I’m not convinced you mean it.”

“Sorry, Mom. Really.”

The thing I’m not going to tell her is that Mr. Rasmussen looked like he

was crying when I left. I didn’t hear the lock turn in the front door either, not

like I usually do when I leave because he knows that a blind guy is not exactly

the hardest person to rob, and plenty of people in town, the rejects and the

morons included, know about him, how he lives alone because his parents are

both dead and his son is dead too. He has one brother who lives in Oregon or

somewhere way out west who I guess once asked him to come live with him,

but Mr. Rasmussen didn’t want to leave Cedar Lake because it’s where he’s

lived for the past thirty years. No matter that he can’t see it anymore—it’s still

his home. “It has its own smell,” he said once, “and that’s one of the things I

know I couldn’t live without.”

“What does it smell like?” I had to ask him. There have never been any

good smells here, except in the spring with the flowers blooming everywhere,

like the lilacs are right now. Usually it’s just dead fish stench from the lake and

exhaust fumes from the diesel trucks that load up at the industrial bakery a

block from my house every night around ten o’clock.

“Sometimes it’s a cold smell like snow, other times it’s hot green plants.

Once in a while, it’s like a mountain—all minerals and wild grass.”

I have never smelled a mountain in Cedar Lake. It’s pretty flat around here.

And whatever kind of grass he meant, I can only guess. He doesn’t act like a

hippie but maybe he and Sophie smoke together. She could have been his girl-

friend and his pot dealer for all I know.

That night after dinner, Mom comes in and tells me it looks to her like

I’ve lost a few pounds and she’s proud of me and if I keep at it, before I know

it, I’ll probably be prom queen. I roll my eyes, but she can’t see it because my

face is behind a dirty romance novel, The Pirate Lord’s Mistress, a book that’s

hiding inside my world history textbook. “I haven’t lost any weight, Mom.

Nice try.”

“Josie,” she says. “What.”

“Put that book down when I’m talking to you.”

I stuff the books under the comforter. I probably don’t have to hide the

trashy one, but it seems best not to give her another reason to be pissed at me.

“Do you think I should go over and check on Forest?” “Forest?”

“Mr. Rasmussen.”

“I know who you mean. No, I don’t think so. He’s probably fine. Maybe

he’s even back together with Sophie by now.”

“What’s so sad is that he can’t get in a car and drive himself up to

Minneapolis. He’d have to hire a cab and that would cost him a fortune.

Maybe you could drive him up there after school tomorrow if I offer to have

you take him?”

This is basically the last way, aside from cleaning out every litterbox in

town, that I want to spend my Friday night. Mr. Rasmussen is fine for a few

hours a week, but it wouldn’t be my idea of a good time to drive him up to his

skanky girlfriend’s house and try not to watch him beg her to take him back

and then have to wait if she invited him inside for one last boink before dump-

ing him again. “Why don’t you offer to drive him?” I say. “Why do I have to do it?”

“I have another obligation tomorrow night.”

“You mean you have a date with Ron.”

She just barely blinks, which is enough for me to know I’ve hit the right

nerve. “Yes, I have a date with Ron.”

“Oh great, that dickweed.”

“He is not a dickweed. And I don’t want to hear you use that word ever

again in this house.”

“Who’s going to pay for the gas? For my time? For the wear and tear on

the car?”

This last bit is her favorite excuse whenever I ask to borrow the car and she

doesn’t want me to. I’ve only had my license for seven months and she barely

lets me drive down the street, let alone to another state. But I know what she’s

up to—she wants to have Ron over and screw him in her bed, instead of in his

nasty waterbed that upsets her stomach if she does too much sloshing around

on it with him. She has never said why she gets upset stomachs after seeing

him, but I think that must be the reason. I’ve been on a waterbed myself, with

Brent Bolangia, who is not my boyfriend, but for two weeks right before tenth

grade, when I was fifteen pounds skinnier and had used a lot of Sun-in on my

hair that summer, he was.

“This would be a good deed,” she says. “I’m not worried about the ex-

pense.”

What I could say is, You just want me out of the house so you can get laid

by that slimeball Ron Dilworth who would screw a knothole in a tree if it were

greased up enough.

But all I say is, “He’ll be mad if you ask him because he’ll know you know

about Sophie.”

“Then you ask him. Tell him you’ll check with me but you think it’ll be

fine. Once you offer, I’m sure he’ll want to do it.”

“He’ll think I’m nosy. I can’t call him and say I know his girlfriend dumped

him.”

“Yes, you can. Because I know this is the right thing to do.”

She’s using the voice that means I have to do whatever she says or she’ll

pout all weekend and not talk to me and not let me borrow the car to go out to

the movies or wherever with Gina. It’s the voice that probably drove Dad out

of the house when I was ten and now he only sets foot in it once a year because

he lives in Arizona with a different wife. He calls me once a month, on the last

Sunday night, and sends me emails sometimes, but mostly they are lame for-

wards with prayers that I delete without reading. He is religious because of his

second wife June who is a born-again dipshit, and basically, Dad is so far away

now that it’s almost like he’s dead. Mom won’t let me go down to Arizona to

visit him; she says it’s too far for me to travel by myself, especially on a plane.

She’ll let me drive up to Minneapolis with a blind guy, but no way will she let

me fly to Arizona to see my own damn father.

I don’t hate her though. I never have. I’ve seen her cry too many times,

her eyes so swollen and red that I can’t help but feel sorry for her. I do hate

Ron Dilworth, but to be honest, she has dated worse guys. Five years ago, it

was the government teacher from the high school, Mr. White, who didn’t even

try to talk to me because I know he thought I was ugly. Then there was Frank

Sarcobi, who owns the pizza parlor on Tripp Avenue, and used to sit in the liv-

ing room and stare at the TV and crack his knuckles while he waited for Mom

to come out in her tight blouses and huge, hopeful smiles that I couldn’t look at

without feeling sick to my stomach. Then for a year or so, there was no guy at

all, and I thought I’d like this much better, but every weekend she would sit in

front of the TV with a big jar of dill gherkins and a smaller jar of green olives

and a bag of Ruffles and eat them slowly in the same order—first a pickle, then

an olive, then a potato chip. She would drink a 2-liter bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper

and get up to pee every hour because she drank so much to ward off the salt in

these nasty snacks.

Despite the crap she eats and keeps in the house, she probably isn’t the

reason I’m not skinny. I’ve always been kind of big. Dad is big, six foot three

and two-hundred-some pounds, and I got his bones, so he’s the one I blame.

There are bigger girls at school, and I’m not really that ugly, even if I feel like

it sometimes. Gina tells me once in a while that I have the prettiest face and if I

could get from a size 14 down to a 4, I could have any guy I wanted. Yeah right,

but I doubt I’ll ever find out. I’m not going to puke, and I’m not even close to

understanding how some idiots can turn anorexic. Food, air, sleep, water—

there’s a reason why they say you can’t live without these things.

It’s a little after nine o’clock when I call Mr. Rasmussen, after Mom has stopped

nagging me and gone back to the living room. He answers before the second

ring. But then it’s a little hard for me to spit out why I’ll take him up to Sophie’s

without first making it clear that I know he got dumped. After he hears me

say we can go to Minneapolis if he wants, there’s only silence. I wonder if he’s

hung up on me, but then I hear him breathe out and it’s a sound like a balloon

going dead.

“Are you sure you’re willing to do that? Will your mom let you? You real-

ize that it’ll probably take us close to four hours to get up there.”

“I know. That’s okay. I’m sure my mom will say it’s fine.”

“If you really are sure, I could pay for you to stay in your own motel

room for the night. Driving there and back in the same day is too much for

anyone.”

A motel room all to myself. I’ve never slept anywhere alone before, and it

actually sounds kind of exciting, but if Mom lets me, she’s more of a wackjob

than usual to think this trip is a good idea. “Are you going to stay with

Sophie?”

“I hope to, but with my luck, she might not even be there when we ar-

rive.”

Great, I think. Just great. Four hundred miles roundtrip with a sad blind

man, for nothing, just some crappy highway food no one in their right mind

should ever eat. I have no idea if Mom realized that I’d probably have to stay

the night up there. I suppose she must have and is already planning to have Ron

sleep over without me on the other side of the bedroom wall trying not to hear

their disgusting moans.

“We can give it a shot if you want to,” I say, so compassionate I’d probably

make Gandhi throw up if he were still alive.

“I’d really appreciate it. Before you called, I was thinking of getting on a bus.”

Why do you like that ho? I want to ask. Is it because she’s the only woman

who’s bothered since you went blind? This isn’t the first time I’ve thought of

questions like these—I once made the mistake of asking Mom why she was

going out with potbellied, knuckle-cracking Frank Sarcobi, and she slapped

my face.

I tell him I’ll stop by at 3:30 tomorrow and his voice is already happier. He

suggests that to save time, I fill up the car before picking him up, and he’ll pay

me back. If I do the driving, he’ll cover all of the expenses.

He says one other thing before I hang up: “You can probably imagine that

this is a little embarrassing for me. Normally I wouldn’t dream of making you

drive me up there, but the two friends here who could do it wouldn’t want to,

for reasons I won’t go into.”

I want to ask him to tell me why, but I don’t. I can guess. “It’s okay, Mr.

Rasmussen. At least you have someone to chase after. I’m not even blind and I

still can’t get someone to go out with me.”

Shit. Stupid comment of the year.

But he doesn’t seem mad. “Boys your age are usually idiots. Give them a

little more time. Things will improve soon enough, and then you’ll have the rest

of your life to wish you were still single.”

Ha! I almost shout. As if that will ever happen!

Even so, a sneaky little part of me wants to believe him.

At school the next day, Gina can’t believe I’m taking Mr. Rasmussen on a

booty call. “That’s what you’re doing,” she practically screams. “You realize

that, don’t you? Can I come?”

It would probably take the pressure off if she did come. It’s not like Mr.

Rasmussen and I are going to tell jokes and play slug-bug or I Spy the whole

time. “Okay, but I’ll have to check with him first.”

“You have to ask him? Can’t you just tell him? Say your mom wants me to

go in case you need someone to help with the driving.”

“I don’t think you’re the one she’d pick if she did.” Gina has only had

her license a month longer than me, and she’s already gotten into an accident

because she hit a patch of ice and drove into a parked car.

She scrunches up her face. “Wait, I can’t go anyway. I have to babysit

Sean. My parents are going to a party tonight and there’s no way they’ll hire

  a sitter.”

“I suppose I wouldn’t want to pay someone either if I were them, but that

sucks.”

She rolls her big brown eyes at me. She’s wearing fake eyelashes and they

look a little like spider legs, but she’s still cute. I tried to wear them once but

screwed up the glue and ripped out half my lashes and it took a month for

them to grow back. “Yeah, they have me, their slave. You’re so lucky you’re

an only child.”

I’m ten minutes late picking him up because halfway to his house, I had to

turn around and go back for my inhaler in case my asthma acts up, which it

hasn’t done in a long time, but I don’t want to risk it. It’s 3:40 when I get to his

house and he’s standing outside the front door, a red duffel bag in one hand.

He looks like a great big advertisement for the burglars in the neighborhood:

Guess what! Now it’ll be even easier to rob me! I’ve wondered how he would

know what was missing if he ever did get robbed. He’s very good at finding

things with his hands because I’ve watched him take the cereal out of the cup-

board and the milk out of the fridge and pour a bowl without a splash hitting

the counter, but how would he know if someone sneaked in and stole some of

his CDs or a few of the shirts in the back of his closet? If the burglar didn’t

get too greedy, it could be months before Mr. Rasmussen figured out anything

was missing. It might seem like I’ve spent a little too much time thinking about

this—maybe it seems like I want to rob him myself, but it’s just a puzzle for

me, one I doubt I’ll ever make sense of. When I try to keep my eyes shut for

two minutes to see what it’s like for him, I can’t do it. After thirty seconds, I’m

already cheating, afraid of whacking my shins on the edge of the coffee table or

knocking some of Mom’s ceramic raccoons and giraffes off the bookshelf. How

he puts up with it all after being able to see for the first forty-five or so years of

his life, I can’t even imagine. It makes me want to yell or maybe cry.

“I was wondering if you’d changed your mind,” he says as soon as I’ve got

him settled in the front seat.

I tell him about the inhaler. “I did get gas though.”

“Good.” He reaches into a green cloth bag he pulled out of the duffel

before I put it in the back seat. Out comes a handful of CDs. My heart takes a

dive. “I brought some of my favorites,” he says. “If you don’t object, we could

switch off. You play something of yours, then we play one of mine.”

Maybe he needs to get pumped up for the big confrontation, but it’s still

a pain in the ass to have to listen to his music. I look over to see what he’s got

and it’s not as bad as I thought—two Rolling Stones, one Pink Floyd, two Bob

Dylans. He can keep them straight because they have little Braille sticky tags on

them, which is something he learned to read when he was going blind. He took

classes from a guy at the community college in Whitefield so he would know

Braille after he realized the doctors weren’t going to find a way to make him

see again. He has a bunch of huge books on his bookcase now. I hadn’t realized

before I met him that books for blind people were so thick because the pages

have all those little raised dots on them.

After I put Sticky Fingers in the CD player, he fumbles something else out

of the bag, a little white box that turns out to be the home of a soap turtle so

insanely cute that I want it for myself. I can tell by the scent that he’s carved it

out of Irish Spring, my favorite guy soap.

“It’s for Sophie,” he says. “He’s my newest little critter. Do you think she’ll

like him?”

“If she doesn’t, then she doesn’t deserve him.”

“You’re right,” he says. “You’re absolutely right.” He turns toward me

and looks almost happy, as if he really thinks I know what I’m talking about.

His face is clean-shaven except for some whiskers in the chin crease, which

is pretty normal, but I’m surprised he hasn’t done anything about them this time.

“Haven’t you given her any of your other animals?”

“No. This will be the first. I’m not really sure if she likes them. She says she

does but they’re probably not her style.”

“If she has half a heart, she’ll love him.”

He laughs a little but says nothing. His face is turned toward the window

and I hope he’s not getting weepy. It’s good that I have to keep my eyes on the

road because I really don’t want to know.

I drive us to the highway and he hums along with “Brown Sugar,” and

then the next song, which I don’t recognize but it’s mellow and sounds pretty

good. I mapped out the route from Cedar Lake to Shoreview, the suburb where

Sophie lives, with Gina helping me during lunch because I knew I couldn’t ask

Mr. Rasmussen to navigate. This is the first time I’ve gone on such a long drive

with him. The first time I’ve gone on a long drive period. It makes me wonder

what kind of perverted shit Mom is up to with Ron if she’s letting me take her

precious VW Golf to Minnesota. It makes my stomach turn to think about it.

When we get on 94, I ask, “How did you meet Sophie?” Before now, we’ve

never talked about anything too personal, at least not on his side.

“Her mother was my piano teacher. She died two years ago, and I met

Sophie when she came down for the funeral.”

“You’ve been dating her that long?”

“No, just since last year. But let’s not talk about her. I’m starting to wonder

if this is a stupid idea.”

It’s about time! I want to say, but I’m not a jerk.

“I’m sure it’ll go fine,” I say, not believing it for one second. The dread

stays with me the whole way up there too, when we stop for food at Burger

King, when we stop at the rest area near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and

he asks me to make sure he doesn’t have any food on his face or in his teeth

or down the front of his shirt and pants. He looks nice, actually. His hair is

combed down and he’s wearing a blue button-down shirt, and if Sophie kicks

him out she’s a heartless bitch.

But the feeling of doom is not going anywhere. I’m pretty sure that this trip

is a bad idea. Even though I think Mr. Rasmussen is a nice person, with some

cool skills like the soap-carving and piano-playing, I know that it can’t be easy

to have a blind guy for a boyfriend, especially one who lives four hours away.

You’d always have to be the one to drive, you’d always be worrying that he’s

fallen down the stairs and is dying at the bottom in a pool of his own blood.

You’d worry about him pulling out the twenties instead of the singles and

getting shafted by greedy people. You’d also wish that he could see your new

hairstyle or dress once in a while, but there’s no way.

When we’re about to cross the Mississippi, he knows it. He can smell it

coming. The window is down a few inches and he says he smells the muddy

water, which turns out to be a grayish brown, not even close to the blue-green

like the ocean that I had thought it would be. He breathes in and holds it before

exhaling in a long gust. “I love that smell,” he sighs. “I haven’t smelled it in

more than twenty years. Not since Apollo was a little boy.”

For a few seconds we’re quiet, hearing the tires go over the metal bridge,

the sound telling us that we’re doing something important, that we’re like other

people going happily about their lives—ones who have no real problems and

aren’t fat or blind or worried that no one likes them enough, if at all.

“Don’t be mad, Mr. Rasmussen, but I’ve been wondering why you named him Apollo.”

He laughs, a great big explosion that is all nerves and hot air. “His mother

was responsible. She studied the classics in college and always wanted to name

her children after Greek gods and goddesses. If Apollo had been a girl, he

would have been called Athena.”

“That’s nice. She’s probably my favorite goddess.”

“His mother was a romantic,” he says. “To her detriment and mine, as it

turned out.” He unrolls his window all the way and sticks his face in the wind.

“That smells marvelous. Heaven must smell like this, if it exists.”

“It probably does,” I say, but I don’t think I believe it. 

“We’ll all find out some day. That’s one thing I don’t doubt.”

“What does it look like?” he asks when I tell him a little later that we’ve

pulled onto Sophie’s street, after I got us lost coming off the highway and had

to stop at a gas station to ask directions. “Can you describe her house for me

too? She’s told me about her neighborhood, but I wonder how someone else

would see it. For all I know, she’s made it sound much nicer than it actually

is.”

I say that it’s not a very long street and the houses are small, some brick,

most with postage-stamp front yards and military-style hedges, all stiff and

proper. The cars in the driveways aren’t flashy either—just Oldsmobiles, Fords,

a couple of Toyotas. Sophie’s car is an Audi, but she probably keeps it in the

garage. It’s definitely not in the driveway when we pull in, though it’s sunset

and the lights in her front room are on and my gut plunges and I know we have

to go through with this, after driving all this way on a Friday night, when Gina

and I could have been hanging out at Culver’s eating strawberry sundaes and

fried shrimp baskets.

“Her house has white aluminum siding,” I say. “It’s just one story, with

green shutters. She’s got flowers in the front, some little rosebushes by the door

that are pink and red and white, none of those uptight hedges. Her yard looks

pretty good, Mr. Rasmussen. The grass is green and it must have been cut a

day or two ago.”

“So it is a one-story house. I thought maybe she had a second floor but

didn’t want me going up there the few times I’ve been here.”

“She was telling the truth.”

He breathes out and clenches his hands in his lap. “I don’t know if I should

do this. Do you think I should? Am I being a fool?”

He’s sweating. I can smell it, but for some reason, it smells more like wet

dirt than b.o.

Yes you are! I want to shout, but all I say is, “If you don’t go knock on

her door, you’ll probably feel worse about chickening out. I can go with you

if you want.”

How I got so damn compassionate is one of the world’s great mysteries,

but despite what my mom thinks, I’ve always been like this. At least I think I have,

except for the pennies and the old people.

He doesn’t say anything.

“Do you want me to go with you?” I say again. “I don’t mind.”

“Maybe you could walk me up but go back to the car before I ring the

doorbell.”

We get out of the car and I go over to his side and put my hand on his

elbow when he and his cane are ready. I’m looking hard at the curtains in the

front window, wondering if Sophie is standing behind them, watching us, but

everything is so still, it doesn’t seem like she’s even home.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I say once we’re standing at the door. He has

his cane in his right hand and is standing so stiffly that he looks like a soldier,

which he never has been because he told me once that he went to Canada to

avoid the draft for Vietnam. I’m not sure if this is true, but if it is, I don’t blame

him one bit for not wanting to go and get his ass shot off in the jungle with a

bunch of other scared people on both sides. “Everyone’s scared,” my history

teacher said to us when we were talking about a bunch of wars last fall. “Don’t

think that the so-called enemy isn’t scared too.”

“I’m all right,” he said. “You can go.”

I run back to the car and get inside and he rings the doorbell and waits.

Then he rings it a second time and waits some more. I’m about to go up to get

him but then the door opens and it’s Sophie in a pink bathrobe, even though

it’s only eight o’clock. She looks annoyed, but also sad. Her hair is in two

long braids, like she’s trying to be Pocahontas, and I don’t think she’s wearing

any makeup, but Mr. Rasmussen wouldn’t know if she looked crappy anyway.

Then the door shuts and he’s inside and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

He hasn’t rented me a motel room yet and didn’t tell me if I should go hang out

at McDonald’s or somewhere while he talks to her. I have my pirate lord book

but don’t feel like reading. It’s too dark now to do it without turning on the

light and that would drain the car battery and then we’d be really stuck.

After an hour of sitting there and calling Gina and a couple of other friends

on my cell, none of them bothering to pick up, Mr. Rasmussen is still inside and

I have to pee. It’s gotten to the point where I either have to squat by the side of

the house or knock on the door and ask Sophie if I can use her bathroom, but I

don’t feel like it because a) she’s a wench, and b) they might be doing it.

Things are getting pretty rough after fifteen more minutes, so I get out of

the car and go to the back of the house, but there are lights from the neighbors’

backyards on all three sides, and if I tried to pee by the little vegetable garden

Sophie has growing back there, I’d probably get spotted by some goody two-

shoes who would call the cops and then I’d get arrested for indecent exposure

or peeing on someone’s lawn without permission. It’s now past the point where

I could drive somewhere and find a bathroom, which means I have to knock on

the damn front door. I’m starting to get really mad at Mr. Rasmussen too—he

could have thought to check on me instead of leaving me in some kind of shitty

limbo in his girlfriend’s driveway while he begs her to take his blind ass back.

Sophie answers the door and this time she isn’t so slow about it. “Can I use

your bathroom?” I say, not bothering with hello. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Yes, of course, Josephine. Think nothing of it.” She opens the door wider.

“It’s down the hall on the right.”

Her house smells like chocolate brownies and my stomach growls, loud

enough for half of Minnesota to hear, but we both pretend to ignore it. I don’t

see Mr. Rasmussen anywhere, and Sophie is still wearing the pink bathrobe but

her braids look messier, like someone’s been pulling the hairs loose.

The bathroom is painted a light purple and has loads of matching hand

towels in a basket on the toilet tank. There are about sixty-five million little

bottles of hand cream in a second basket, and I put three of them in my hand-

bag—lemon meringue, cranberry, and ginger. When I come out, she’s waiting

for me. I wonder if she has all of the lotions marked and will know later that I

swiped some, but her expression is friendlier than usual. She doesn’t look like

a crazy woman on a soap opera anymore, the kind who sizes up the new girl

because she plans to stab her in the back with her extra-long fake nails.

“I’m sorry you’ve been sitting out there by yourself this whole time,” she

says. “Why don’t you go into the living room and watch TV? I don’t think

Forest and I will be too much longer.”

This is good news for me, cruddy news for him.

“Thanks,” I say. “But I’ll just wait in the car.” If they’re going to be doing

any yelling or crying, I don’t want to hear it.

It’s forty more minutes before he comes out. I’ve been sitting there, call-

ing Gina every five minutes and bitching to her voicemail for not picking up.

Sometimes she doesn’t answer because she’s playing online Scrabble like a total

dork or else has her headphones on, listening to crappy Avril Lavigne and go-

ing deaf.

The look on Mr. Rasmussen’s face when he walks out of Sophie’s front

door makes it pretty clear that there isn’t going to be a room of my own at the

Holiday Inn tonight. I wonder if I should call Mom and warn her that she and

Ron had better not be having an orgy in the living room when I get there, or

else I’m going to call his ex-wife who I think is actually still his wife but I don’t

know for sure. Mom says he isn’t married anymore, but I think he’s probably

lying to her.

Mr. Rasmussen has something in his hands that he passes to me before I

help him into the car. You’d think Sophie would have helped him this one last

time, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Or maybe he told her not to do it. “These

are for our ride back,” he says. “You can have all of them.”

I look down and see that she’s packed us a bag of brownies. They’re still

warm, and she’s left the bag unsealed so they won’t get soggy. It’s so sad, one of

the saddest things I’ve ever seen. She’s cut the brownies in such perfect squares

for a guy who doesn’t want them at all because he just got dumped a second

time. Mr. Rasmussen is so gloomy and closed up right now, it’s like he’s covered

over every single window with bricks.

After we get on the highway, I say I’m sorry. He doesn’t say anything.

We cross the Mississippi for the second time that night, the window down

on my side but not on his. It does smell good, and it’s weird how it makes me

feel hopeful, despite how depressing the night has been. “Should I drive us all

the way home?” I ask when we’re a mile or so past the bridge.

“If you think you can,” he says.

I’m not that tired but I’m starving, and I can’t help it—I have to reach into

the bag and grab one of Sophie’s break-up brownies. Then I eat it so fast I’m

almost dizzy. It is the most insanely delicious piece of junk I’ve ever had. She’s

added chocolate chips and the walnuts are big and meaty and it’s better than

anything I can imagine right then aside from being home in my bed reading and

this night never happening. If Mr. Rasmussen were to eat one, he might feel bet-

ter. He’s said that tastes are more intense now than when he could see. Sounds

are louder too, and textures are smoother and harder or softer and slipperier.

But he’s told me that he lives in four rooms now instead of five—the fifth room,

his sight, is like a forbidden chamber at the top of the stairs that he’ll never

  be able to go into again, unless some sort of miracle happens, like the princess

getting her enchanted kiss, but his would come from a doctor in the form of a

new pair of eyeballs.

I’m dying to know what happened with Sophie but I don’t have the guts to

ask. He’s put in one of the Dylan CDs, and when I look over at Mr. Rasmussen,

his eyes are shut but he must sense me looking at him because he opens them

and says, “She’s got someone else. That’s all there is to it. He lives nearby, he’s

not blind, he’s got more money too, I’m sure. There’s no way I can compete.

No way in hell.”

“You have to compete, Mr. Rasmussen. Write her love poems. Send her

soap flowers every day for a month. I’m sure she still loves you.”

He shakes his head. “She wants a guy who won’t trip over a seam in the

linoleum when he’s trying to walk from the kitchen to the bathroom. She wants

someone who can drive a car and isn’t as needy as an infant.”

“You’re not like that.”

“I’m not? That’s news to me.”

“You’re not, Mr. Rasmussen. You can do so many things that other people

can’t. Did you give her the turtle?”

“That stupid fucking turtle. I’m such a fucking idiot.”

“No, you’re not.”

He snorts. “You’re not.”

“I’m sorry I made you drive all this way for nothing.”

“It wasn’t for nothing. I think it’s good that you came up here to see her. 

I bet she’ll change her mind. Tomorrow she’ll call you and tell you she made  a mistake.”

“Nope. Won’t happen.” He laughs, an angry sound, and reaches out a

hand to grope the buttons on the stereo, turning it up loud enough that I know

I’m going to get a headache pretty soon, but I don’t say anything.

We stop only once, for gas and the bathroom, a few miles past the Dells. By

now it’s past midnight and I’m exhausted, but we don’t have that much farther

to go. Mr. Rasmussen takes a long time to come out of the men’s room and I

have to stand outside the door and wait for him, like some gas-station hooker

hoping to snag a trick. When he finally appears, he has streaks of soap lather

on his face. I tell him, and he asks if I can rub them off. I feel strange touching

him in a way that I’ve never touched any guy before, but I do it, and when I’m

done, he puts his arms around me and hugs me hard. Then he’s crying onto the

top of my head, and no one, thank God, is there to see us. I feel bad for him,

but weird too and pull away after a few seconds and take him back to the car.

When we’re turning onto the highway, I tell him we’ll be home soon, that he’s

just tired and will feel better in the morning.

“That’s not true,” he says. “But I realize you don’t know what else to say

to me.”

I look over at him but he’s facing the window. His hands are gripping his

knees so hard that I can feel my own hands start to cramp up. He keeps star-

ing out at the road, but I know he doesn’t see anything, not even in his head.

There’s not much out there anyway, only other speeding cars and faded bill-

boards that advertise $3.99 breakfasts and high-stakes bingo every Wednesday

afternoon. I want to tell him he’s not missing a thing, that soon he’s going to

forget about tonight, but I know he doesn’t want to hear another lie.


Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, the most recent of which is The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, Ploughshares, and New York Times. She was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and has received the Grace Paley Prize, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, Society of Midland Authors’ Award, among others. She lives in Pasadena, CA, and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s MFA programs. Her website can be reached at http://www.christinesneed.com. Her twitter account can be reached at @ChristineSneed.

Originally published in NOR Spring 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s