Author’s Note: “This might be a story about loss, about acceptance, or about grace. It all depends on the reader. Each person sees what they need to see in a story, or on a street.”
I THINK MY VISION IS GOING. I used to be able to read street signs from three intersections away. Now, I see a narrow green blur with a halo of haze around it, astral, as if seen thru a telescope. Earth to the Milky Way. The streets here are marked by letters. This could be Q Street. Or maybe that’s an O.
From this angle, the sidewalk on the other side of the street seems crowded. I see dark clusters of people huddled together, clots of coats and earmuffs and probably thick hats. I can’t really see them; rather, I assume they are what I am seeing. I am taking a walk, doctor’s orders. I am wearing two coats: the pretty little parka my sister bought me for Christmas years ago, and then my husband’s functional winter parka with the fur hood hanging down my back. I push the button and wait for the light to change, watching the cars fleeting past and kicking up wind that lifts my hair from my scalp.
The cars are slowing. I wait for the little white man to appear in the traffic box before moving my feet. My winter boots are anvils, anchoring me to the earth. The effort to lift each foot is enormous.
On the median ahead of me, a young woman in a full fur coat is pushing a double stroller through the intersection. Closer, I see she is not young. At least fifty, I’d guess. I can’t imagine taking care of a baby at this age, much less two. We cross, nod our acknowledgement. I look into the stroller, assuming twins. I am all the way wrong. The stroller contains a load of mismatched shopping bags and a scruffy small dog who yips at me as we pass.
The light has started to blink its warning, counting down from eight, seven, six. Who calibrates these signals? I refuse to speed myself up. If anything, I feel my legs slowing down. Challenging the god of pedestrian traffic to a duel. Me versus the little orange man blinking relentlessly.
The vagrant who works this corner has a sign that reads: Vet Homeless Blind Please Help. “Ham and cheese?” he asks as my legs move past him.
“Don’t you usually say egg and cheese?” I say.
“That’s for breakfast,” he says. “It’s lunchtime now.”
The sidewalk is completely empty. I see now that the shapes I saw as people are really man-made things: parking meters and bus shelters, an electrical box for the traffic lights. We are alone in space, which is fine with me. I am used to being alone.
An odd light starbursts behind the vagrant, in the windows of the building that used to be a reading room. Christian Science, or maybe LDS. I can’t remember. Whoever is in there now has darkened the street-level windows so you only see yourself in the glass. I am an over-large figure without a hat standing over a mound. Shadowy images, a misrepresentation of size and stature. I might be a tall man or an ogre, he might be defecating or praying.
“Odd fellows,” the vagrant says, pointing low and long at the window.
“Huh?” I follow his finger to the handwritten sign taped to the edge of the glass. Squinting, I move closer. Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
“I thought you were blind,” I say.
“Night blind,” he tells me, stretching out his legs. “What’s it to you?”
“Nothing.” I shouldn’t have said anything.
“You want to say something?” He leans back against the wall of the Odd Fellows building and sets his head on an angle, and I know he is offering not a challenge but an offer.
And so, I tell him. I tell him that I no longer perceive colors, that my world is a watery palette of beige and gray and weak yellows that remind me of diluted urine. I tell him that I still sleep all the way over on my side of the bed and that your towel is still hanging over the shower door. I tell him that the washing machine is making that squeaking sound again, that I can’t find the fly swatter, that I may or may not have forgotten to pay the utility bill. I tell him I have gained eight pounds, mostly around my waist, and that your mother sent a birthday card even though it is no one’s birthday.
He might not even be listening, but I tell him all these things anyway, mainly because there is no one else around and because we are sharing a moment in front of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, whatever that is. I tell him because I need to say these things and he is the only person around to tell.
And then, the door opens and warm air cascades over my face, and I see the man standing in the doorway. He is not wearing a coat. He is talking, but his eyes are on the vagrant and me. I see a cell phone pressed to his head. He holds the door ajar with the toe of his shoe and signals to the vagrant and me, come inside. I am thinking, what a nice gesture, to welcome a homeless person a bit of warmth and shelter. I am thinking there will be hot coffee inside, maybe cookies or sprinkle donuts. I am sure the vagrant will welcome the chance to get off the freezing cold street, if only for a while.
But he is leaving. On his feet and moving into the street. He stops at the median, and I think for a moment he is going to reconsider, turn back and head inside, but instead he bends forward and coughs up a length of mucus that splats on the pavement, and proceeds across the intersection, crossing Q Street, kicking away a random piece of trash that blows against the curb and disappearing around the corner.
Lisa K. Friedman is a writer and essayist from Washington, D.C. Her fiction has been featured in literary journals and anthologies. She is the author of two novels, Nothing to Lose (2000) and Cruise to Retribution (2011). Her nonfiction writing has been published in the New York Times, Smithsonian, and the Huffington Post, where she maintains a humor column. Her story “Odd Fellows” was published in the thirteenth edition of Delmarva Review. Website: www.lisakfriedman.com.
Delmarva Review is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) literary journal publishing evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions. Partial financial support comes from individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available worldwide at Amazon.com and other major online booksellers, and from specialty regional booksellers like Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford. For more information, please see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
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