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 sometimes 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 technological 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 anyway.”
“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 because 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 throwing anything, nothing whatsoever, not even hundred dollar bills, from the second 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 girlfriend 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.
“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?”
“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 litter-box 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 dumping 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 expense.”
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 forwards 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 living 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 realize 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 arrive.”
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 cupboard 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 handbag—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, calling 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 going 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 better. 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.”
“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 staring 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 billboards 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 7