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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2013 - Vol. 10, Issue 1


written by

Emily Glossner Johnson

You see that fellow over there? That man enjoying a plate of ribs? He's a blind man. You see that he's wearing dark glasses and has one of those skinny white canes, those walking sticks that blind people use.


You don't have to call him visually impaired. He'll tell you not to. Why? Because he's blind, he'll say, as if you're an idiot for asking, though he isn't a rude man, just a man tired of having to explain. If his vision were impaired, he'll tell you, he might be able to see something; maybe there'd even be a chance that he could get his vision repaired from being impaired. But he can't see a thing, not a flat field of white or an endless night of impenetrable black. Nothing.


We'll call him the Blind Man because no one is really sure of his name. There's reason to believe that it might be Burgess, but then there's as much reason to believe that he might answer to the nickname Sputnik. Why Sputnik? I don't know—I don't think anyone does, though someone must have known once, because someone must have given him the nickname.


You'll notice that you can't tell what his ethnicity is. He's got dark skin, a kind of dark coppery color, and his facial features have an exotic look about them as though he might be Arabic, Indian, or Ethiopian. But he himself isn't from a faraway land. No, he's an American; he even sounds as though he's a native of this very city with those flat vowels and nasal tone we all have.


He's got a lot of money. Real wealth, you know? He gives a lot of it away to organizations that help people who have no money, or maybe no place to live, or a disability that makes living difficult-- or perhaps all of the above. He's rich and generous, which can be a rare combination.


He comes here to the diner once a week to eat barbecued ribs. Now there's nothing inherently odd about that because this little hole in the wall has the best barbecued ribs you'll ever taste. It's all about the way he eats the ribs. He orders a full rack of them along with a pitcher of Pepsi, a little bowl of coleslaw, and two good-sized dish towels. Then when he digs into those ribs, he gets barbecue sauce from here to there, all over himself—his hands, his face. His clothing would get it, too, but he uses one of the dish towels as a big bib. The other he uses to clean himself up after he's finished.


I know what you might be thinking—that the Blind Man can't see what he's doing, and ribs are messy for anyone, ergo the rib sauce everywhere. But this isn't so, because you can see from the way he eats the coleslaw that he knows just what he's doing, and can eat as neatly as anyone. He holds the little bowl of coleslaw, dips his fork delicately into it, and puts it successfully into his mouth. I've watched him have a piece of pie with ice cream on top, and he's as neat as can be with that as well. He hardly needs to use a napkin.


Back to those ribs. I think it's just the way he most enjoys them, to be immersed in them, coated like a rib himself. More power to him. Trust me, those ribs are worth a full sensory experience, no matter how messy.


It so happened in October that a Very Important Businessman who was running for a Very Important Political Position started coming into the diner. He was a man with well arranged hair, a bright smile, and expensive suits. If you saw him, you might think, "He seems all right enough. A man as dedicated as many—no more, no less—and so enough to have an interest in the constituents he hopes to serve." Maybe something of this is true, but I've got it on good authority that he steals and eats other peoples' lunches from the break room refrigerator at his company. And I'm told that he's not very kind to Elena, his company's afternoon cleaning woman from El Salvador. He's been divorced twice, and now he's married to a woman half his age. He drives one of those profane sport utility vehicles—one that's so big and grand and shiny that you know he uses it for neither sport nor utility, and never will. He has a tiny American flag pinned to his lapel, and when he shakes your hand in his firm, Very Important Businessman way, he looks you straight in the eye, and his eyes sparkle a little, as though it means something to him that he's having the pleasure of meeting you. But then when he sees you again, he won't remember that he's already met you, even if it's been more than once, or more than three or four times. I've met him twice so far, and the day is coming when I'll meet him again with his handshake and sparkling eyes and faint aroma of expensive cologne. He'll say, "Have we met?" and I'll remember that the sparkle in his eyes isn't a very pleasant sparkle, and that his smile doesn't go all the way up to his eyes.


One day, the Very Important Businessman came in with a younger man, something of a protégé I think, because the younger man had the same sort of well arranged hair and a fairly nice suit, though it appeared to be of a less expensive sort. He followed closely behind the Very Important Businessman, either taking in what the Very Important Businessman had to say, or speaking his own observations and thoughts in a low voice. But when the protégé spotted the Blind Man, he spoke in a voice loud enough for me to hear. He nodded towards the Blind Man and said, "See that fellow there? He's an important man, a significant man. He's on the Board of Directors.”


At that, the Very Important Businessman looked at the Blind Man with a new kind of sparkle. He and his protégé whispered for a while, and then the Very Important Businessman approached the Blind Man.


He grasped the Blind Man's shoulder and said in a loud, cheerful voice, "Say, how are you today, my friend?"


"Do I know you?" the Blind Man said.


The Very Important Businessman introduced himself.


"This is a nice place to get away from the craziness," the Very Important Businessman said.


"What craziness is that?" the Blind Man said.


"Oh, work—I’m swamped with work—and I'm on the campaign trail."


He explained to the Blind Man the Very Important Political Position he was running for, and he put his business card down beside the Blind Man's pitcher of Pepsi, again speaking loudly, "I've just left my card there for you next to your pitcher. Hey, feel free to get in touch anytime, bounce around ideas you might have.”


"Ideas about what?"


"Whatever is on your mind, my friend. I love to hear what the people have to say."


The Blind Man continued eating his ribs.


"You didn't give me your name, friend."


The Blind Man told him. He might have said Burgess, might have said Sputnik, might have said something else altogether—I couldn't quite hear.


"It's been great meeting you, having a chance to talk," the Very Important Businessman said.


"Is that so?" the Blind Man said. "Seems to me we haven't talked much."


The Very Important Businessman laughed loudly and heartily.


"Wow," he said, "it's just that kind of honesty I appreciate. Say, would you care to visit my campaign headquarters sometime?"


The Blind Man bit into a rib.


"Hey, I think I know why you look familiar to me!" the Very Important Businessman said.


"It just came to me."


He proceeded to ask the Blind Man if he was on the Board of Directors.


"Yes, I am," the Blind Man replied.


"Very good, very good. Job well done, sir! Say, I know you've got to be one busy fellow, but how about that visit to my campaign headquarters? Or you could get in touch with my assistant, should you have any questions about the campaign, or—” he grasped the Blind Man's shoulder again and laughed, "should you wish to give us a donation!"


"I'd like to know what you look like," the Blind Man said.


"What I look like? Well, I'm about five foot ten with—”


"No, no. It does me no good for you to describe yourself. I'm going to have to find out with my hands."


The Very Important Businessman glanced around quickly.


"That certainly sounds interesting," he said cheerfully. "I suppose you'll want to wipe off that—”


His words were cut short by the Blind Man's sauce-coated fingers on the Very Important Businessman's eye sockets. His fingers moved around the sockets, over the eyebrows, towards the bridge of the nose.


"Hey, now hold on—” the Very Important Businessman said, still sounding a bit cheerful, or giving a passable attempt at it.


The Blind Man's fingers traveled skillfully down the Very Important Businessman's nose, over and around his mouth, along his jaw, up to his cheekbones.


"Okay, that's enough!" the Very Important Businessman said, no longer attempting anything close to good cheer.


The Blind Man ignored him, frowning in concentration on his task. His sticky hands moved over to the Very Important Businessman's ears, which caused rib sauce to smear over the man's well arranged hair. The Very Important Businessman jerked away, but his sudden move disoriented the Blind Man so that his hands landed flat against the Very Important Businessman's chest. His lapels, crisp shirt, designer tie—all were smeared with rib sauce.


"What the hell have you done?" the Very Important Businessman said. "Look at me! You’ll pay for this suit, I can assure you! Look at this—Jesus, my face and hair!"


The Very Important Businessman's protégé was at his side, attempting to clean him up with several paper napkins.


"Cut that out—” he said to the protégé, "you're just spreading it around, making it worse." He pointed at the Blind Man and said, "You, sir, are a menace! Look at me. Look at this mess!"


"I'm not able to look at you," the Blind Man said mildly.


"Oh, so now you're getting smart with me?"


"I think we should go," the protégé said, attempting to lead the Very Important Businessman away by his arm.


He shook off the protégé’s hand and turned to leave on his own. "You'll be getting a bill for this!" he said to the Blind Man.


"Very well," the Blind Man said.


The Very Important Businessman continued to grumble as he left the diner. The Blind Man cleaned himself off with the second dish towel, removed the towel that served as a bib, and ordered a piece of apple pie topped with pistachio ice cream. When he was finished, he paid his bill at the register and left behind, as usual, a very generous tip.

Emily Glossner Johnson has a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo, and an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport. She has had short stories published in Lynx Eye, The Linnet’s Wings, Dinosaur Bees, and Literary Brushstrokes. She also has short stories published by Musa Publishing in their Erato (GLBT) imprint. She lives in central New York with her family and two cats.

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