In the bedroom, upstairs, front corner, blind amid the toss of linens he had known intimately for seven long years, in touch with passing traffic and summer conversations when the windows were open, Jack Derrick lay in the middle of sound, in the middle of darkness. His left leg, or most of it, set upon by diabetes and the perfection of the surgeon, was elsewhere; his right hand was stained by nicotine, the index finger and close companion yellowed as shoe leather, and those fingernails bore fragments of that same deep stain. Gray, thin hair, most of it about his ears except for one thatch above his forehead as if an odd bird, at length, would roost there, drooped like fallen stalk. The stubble of his beard sprouted as off-white as an old field of corn waiting the last reaper.
Once, Jack Derrick’s eyes were as blue as eggs dipped at Easter, the day quiet even if smoldering, the wind out of the east. Once, those eyes were deadly remarkable over the sights of a down-range Springfield Ought-Three, shot of shots, sniper of snipers, now shrunken, middling, brought back to an Earth-clutching sanity where he felt the grab but could never see it.
Darkness, most of us know, normally has its antecedents…they could be the last of sunlight long over the horizon cutting the world in half, and the day, like a lamp being switched off or a fire snuffed to gray smoke and the carry of an ashen smell, time eventually giving itself up to a new caretaker. Blindness, though, as with bed-ridden Jack Derrick, is prefaced at times not out of color, or the simple memory of it, but erupts ringing out of a collection of sounds, the bing and the bang, the cling and the clang.
Those sounds, for Jack Derrick, are never in order, are as diverse as fragmentation of forgotten grenades a jungle keeps to itself, an atoll long slid into a watery grave, a cave unseen for half a century where bones have gone salted white or powdery as a new talcum.
They can be a voice coming back from a distant tonal island where conversations are mustered, words soft or harsh enough in either case to be cause or inclination of memory. Or a yelp or a cry burned into the endless black space of the mind only stars might otherwise occupy, or transient moons a stellar heaven might provide. Oft times it may be two or three lines of poetry or a quatrain thought over and over and said so many times they constantly repeat themselves with undeniable energy...'Who will know us in the time to come? Let them say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches.' or 'His name, once grey in convent writing, neat on themes, cut like erosion of fire the peaks of heaven.' At times it is a miraculous souvenir bat sounding on a pitched baseball as if an ammunition round has been fired and the crowd leaps noisier than rockets on the Fourth of July. It is coupled with a father’s gasp frozen in time between that game day and the later and believably soft, useless fall of Saigon as he continually sees the ball rocket into dead centerfield, remembers the fielder cursing loudly in his scrambling uncertainly. Finally, it is his wife’s halting steps on the hall floor late at night, where nothing else sounds, or no one else.
In the midst of another reverie, mechanics of the hungry blind taking over, Jack Derrick reached over the side of the bed, felt with the stained hand, found the top record of a set, slid it somewhat tenderly on his record player, and flipped the switch toward magic, delivered in plastic and a mailman's leather bag.
He heard, after mute seconds, a soft, unobtrusive voice: "Your reader is Alexander Scourby, the book is TEMUJIN, by Charles Enright, and is the life story of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror, who lived from about 1162 to 1227."
Nuzzling his shoulders into the pillow, vaguely remembering his last back rub, the musky oil, the silken wings of wintergreen, he felt care and comfort slide through his prone body in an effortless shift into neutral gear. The man’s voice was comforting though distinctive, but carried little of self inflection, not trying to steer him, not by a long shot. A car rode by. His mind leaped for recognition, identification: Pontiac drive shaft and knew he was right. That ring was unmistakable; he could have identified it if it had been all the way out on the Turnpike. His own past words sounded out their judgments, singled themselves out in his ears: Pontiac drive shafts. Chevy tappets. Ford rattles, a recognition system he had put in place far too long ago. Old Jud Kearney had once tried him on ten straight times before he gave up the quest. Ditto with Al Pinkney, the town barber who'd guide him to a seat with the gentlest hands, hellos bouncing all around the shop. On and on he could go. Rugged as a tank, his old Pierce Arrow came from a long way out in the left field of his memory, gave him a burst of sweet humming energy, and a faded picture he couldn’t focus on except for headlights sitting defiantly on the fenders. Andirons he thought of, turtles, parapets. Nothing worked for him. She’d been a piece of steel through and through. Up the long climb of Passport Hill he heard the hum again, the steady slow swing through the Maritimes, in Nova Scotia the radio keeping cadence count with a military tattoo, crescendo of drums, fifes flirting with his soul, brass beating up his past, the quick-step of bagged air.