By Phillip Hurst
When they finally saw fit to discharge her, pale and silent, she had these raccoonishly gray rings around her eyes, as if from a long night of boozing. But while she dearly loved her Irish whiskey, her Bushmills and her Red Breast, this was no hangover.
We’d met in Seattle, both of us stirring cocktails at a fancy hotel downtown. I’d been ready for someone like her, someone fresh and full of life, being not long removed from a lonely stint on an obscure Polynesian island. But while we’d clung to each other, I soon dumped the hotel gig in favor of pulling taps at a craft beer hideout near the University District.
So try and picture me there a few months later, melancholy and distracted, on a lazy Sunday during fresh hop season, those drizzly days of late autumn. A handful of locals quietly sip ale and stare forlornly at their iPhones while a Seahawks game plays on the TV sans volume.
Then in walk two middle-aged Asian guys, one of whom is blind. He reads the floor with the tip of his cane—tap, tap, tap, just like the raindrops. After taking stools, they order a round of Chimay. We introduce ourselves, agree that the Seahawks aren't quite as good as last year, and then the conversation takes a strange turn.
“Guess,” says the friend to the blind man, “what our bartender looks like.”
A pair of dark sunglasses rotate my way. The man grins and tips his head back, showing twin horseshoes of small dull teeth. It's the exact pose of Ray Charles at the piano and I wonder about the connection, whether the overpowering nature of sight causes us to genuflect and renounce our human instinct to face the heavens. His fingers grope for the beer goblet. I resist the urge to slide it closer.
“He is very tall,” the blind man says.
His friend laughs and says “yes, yes, he is quite tall.” But the blind compensate via acute hearing, don’t they? He might’ve easily discerned my voice came from higher up than usual.
“And he is not bad looking,” the blind man adds.
A reasonable appearance is guessable, too, considering my role in the service industry. But how might this little act go if I were a female bartender? What was their play?
I think of “Cathedral” by Ray Carver, a story about blindness and booze and different ways of seeing. I don’t mention it, of course, as it’d be rude to compare a man's disability to fiction. Still, the story imbues the moment. But the blind man's Cheshire grin never wavers. He is nonfiction. He rocks slowly to and fro, not to the Mad Season track pounding over the stereo, but to some private melody all his own. His cane falls against an adjacent stool with a gentle thock.
“What else?” says the companion. “What else do you see?”
Intentional or otherwise, they’ve created a pocket of tension. It's like we really are in a Carver story, or like we’re about hear the straight dope from the bodhisattva. Are they brothers? Friends? Con men? A waitress, a busboy, and the pasty and morose couple three stools down all eavesdrop now. There’s something fascinating about the blind. A sense of the oracular. Tiresias and Oedipus, Eli, Jesus spitting and rubbing and laying on hands, and finally the milky eggs lurking behind those darkened shades just across the oak. I try to imagine the terrible freedom that must accompany such a loss, but can’t. Not really.
Finally, the blind man claps his hands. “And the barman,” he says, “is unlucky in love.”
A drink ticket chatters out of the printer just then, breaking the weird spell, and everyone shares an awkward laugh. Everyone except for me, that is. Because I am not seeing dark sunglasses, but rather exhausted gray rings around a pair of soft blue eyes. There’d been a troubling phone call just before midnight followed by a rainslick drive across the city. Then a lightless and half-renovated boarding house, a closed door, a spill of empty prescription bottles on a ratty mauve carpet, and then her familiar body in my arms, weightless as a dove as my clumsy feet pounded down a spiral staircase full of bent nails.
Unlucky in love?
This is why I don’t put much stock in prophecy. Because looking back I do feel lucky—very lucky—to have found her when I did.