posted by Chris Braak
My name is David Speed. I was born blind. It’s a congenital birth defect. It’s tough, sometimes, but there are people that have it worse. I think it’d be worse to have been born with sight and lose it. But I make out okay, mostly. There are some things that are confusing for me. I don’t really understand mirrors. Or what candles do.
I mean, I know what a mirror does. You use it to see yourself, right? But that doesn’t mean anything to me. I have no frame of reference. To me, a mirror’s just flat and smooth and quiet.
I kind of understand what candles do. They make light, and then you can see in the dark. I can say that, people have told me that, but it doesn’t mean anything. The closest I can get is, like, it’s hard to understand what people are saying if it’s really noisy out. But if you could make everything else quiet, it’d be easier to pick out a person’s voice. A candle is like a…a little beacon of quiet for sighted people.
When I was little, before…before I came to the home, I lived in a house with my parents. There were fish tanks everywhere. Aquariums. I don’t remember exactly why. Maybe my mother or my father made aquariums? Maybe they were marine biologists? They had a lot of fish though.
When I was little, I didn’t really understand about fish, either. My parents wouldn’t let me put my hands in the water, so I could only touch the outside of the tanks. They felt like mirrors. Hard and flat and smooth. The only way I knew there were fish in there was that if you put your fingers against the tank, the fish would bump up against the wall, and you could feel it.
Until I was sixteen, I thought that’s what fish were. Little pulses under your fingers when you touched a mirror.
My parents died when I was ten. I didn’t know about it, right away. I thought they were sleeping. Because I was blind, they never let me out of the house. I didn’t go to school. I woke up one morning, and I called out to my mom and dad, and they didn’t answer. I thought they were asleep, so I just waited for them to wake up. To make breakfast. They didn’t. I waited all day.
I finally went into their room. I tried to wake them up. I called out to them, but they didn’t answer. I went over to the bed, to shake my father awake. He always slept on the left side. Left hand is the opposite of the cane hand. I put my left hand down on the bed. I touched something wet and sticky. I didn’t know what it was. I’m still not sure.
I’d never been outside the house, so I wouldn’t have known where to go if I’d left. To be honest, I’m not sure at ten that I even understood that there was an outside of the house. I knew how to call 911, though. My parents taught me that much. I called 911. The police came, an ambulance came. Social Services came, and I was moved to a special care home for the blind.
No one ever told me what happened to my mom and dad. I remember asking, and I remember trying not to think about it. I remember not understanding.
I still try not to think about it.
The first home I went to was in Brooklyn. It’s called the Industrial Home for the Blind, and it’s on Schermerhorn street. The man in charge there was a man we called Mr. Joe. He had a deep, soothing voice, which I guess is why they put him in charge of a home for the blind.
“David,” he said. “I hope you’ll feel at home here.”
He took me to the room with my bed. He helped me count the steps to the common room first, and then the steps to the bathroom. He helped me find all the doors from the main hall, and had me feel the doorknobs. Each doorknob in the home was different. Some were round, some were square. Some were ribbed. The doorknob for the common room was a sphere made out of brass. The door to my bedroom was a handle that was carved out of wood. They did this on purpose; if I got lost, I could always find the right room by checking the doorknob.
Mr. Joe took me to one door at the end of the hall. Sixty-one steps from the door to the common room. It had a cold doorknob. It was round, but not spherical like the door to the bathroom. Mr. Joe told me about that door.
“I have to show it to you, David, because I don’t want you to go in by accident. This is the door that leads to the basement. You must promise me that you’ll never go down there by yourself. Promise me that you won’t even open this door unless there’s someone with you.”
I put my hand against the door. I could feel a faint thrumming through the wood. If I listened closely, I could hear the sound of machines, thumping and clattering and whirling very far away. Once you’d heard them once, you could hear the machines no matter where in the home you went. They ran all the time. No one ever said what they were for.
“I promise,” I told Mr. Joe.
Being in a new place is scary. For grown ups, for kids, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s a little scared when they go somewhere new. I missed my parents. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes so much that I couldn’t….sometimes I missed them a lot.
But I was young. I was scared, but I adapted. I made friends. Kevin was a few years older than me. He had…a kind of a neurological disorder, I think. Something like Down’s Syndrome. He was…he had a hard time understanding things, sometimes. And he had trouble focusing. He couldn’t really hear you if he wasn’t touching you, so when he talked, he always put his hand on your shoulder.
I met an old man named Vassily. He was diabetic. He’d lost three of his toes and four of his fingers, so his hand felt weirdly skinny when you shook it. Mr. Vassily didn’t like to do the test to check his insulin, and sometimes his blood sugar dropped. You’d talk to him, and suddenly his words would get slow and sluggish, and he’d just stop responding. You had to call Mr. Joe, or one of the nurses if there was one on duty. They gave him orange juice.
I met Kelly, too. She was my age. She had a sweet voice, like a little bell, and she told the stupidest jokes you ever heard.
“Two ham sandwiches walked into a bar. ‘I’m sorry,’ the bartender says. ‘We don’t serve food here.’
“Two ions were walking down the street. ‘Why are you so sad,’ one asked the other. ‘I think I lost an electron.’ ‘Are you sure?’ “I’m positive.””
“What’s an electron?” I asked her. She didn’t know. It was still funny. And listening to her tell jokes was better than listening to the television. Mr. Vassily usually controlled the television, and he only ever wanted to listen to old John Wayne war movies. Sometimes Mrs. Fondacaro would have the television. She was an old Italian woman who I think didn’t have any teeth. She liked to listen to All My Children.
One day, Kelly said to me, “Let’s go into the basement.” We’d both promised Mr. Joe we’d never go down there. But Kelly was determined.
“I want to know what it’s like,” she said. “Come on. We’ll be back before anyone knows.”
We sat and listened in the common room. Jenny was the nurse on duty. I could tell it was her because of the sound of her shoes. She wore tall heels and they went clock clock clock when she walked down the hall. We listened and waited until we were sure she’d left the room. Then we snuck out, and found the door to the basement.
The stairs down the basement were very narrow, and there was no railing. When I took my cane and reached out to the side, it never touched a wall. It’s hard to get a sense of space if you can’t touch anything. It felt like there was nothing out there, off to our sides. Just huge, empty nothing, stretching out forever.
As we descended, the machines got louder and louder.
Clattering clanking thrumming humming machines. We got to the bottom of the stairs. The floor was solid like stone. The machines…I was afraid to try and touch them. I didn’t know what they did, what would happen to my hand if I touched one.
“What do you think they do?” I asked Kelly.
She didn’t say anything.
The machines got louder. They started banging, so that I could hardly hear anything.
“I think we should go back now.
“Kelly. I think we should go back. Kelly!
She didn’t say anything. I reached out to try and touch her back, but I couldn’t find her. I reached out with my cane. I felt it tap against metal, I could feel the machines thrumming through it. But no Kelly.
That’s how they found me, in the basement, screaming and screaming.
After that, Mr. Joe told me he’d keep the door to the basement locked. He told me I could have gotten hurt down there. He wouldn’t tell me what happened to Kelly. He said that he didn’t know who I was talking about. That there was no Kelly. I’d made her up. He kept saying it over and over, until I told him I believed him. I told him I thought he was right, that I’d made her up.
But I didn’t believe him. Not really.
I asked him about the machines.
He told me, “David. In order for us to take care of you and everyone here at the home, we have to do certain things. It’s very complicated, David, and I’m not sure you’d understand it.”
“Is it a big secret?”
“Yes, David. It’s a secret.”
I never forgot about Kelly, even though I pretended to. I did other things, because Mr. Joe wanted me to, but I never forgot about Kelly. During the day, I learned Braille. I learned how to play the piano.
At night, I told Kelly’s jokes to myself.
“A three-legged dog walks into a bar. He says ‘I’m looking for the man that shot my paw.’”
Then, things started happening. One night, I woke up, but I couldn’t move. It’s like my mind was awake, but my body wasn’t. And I was sure, sure that there was someone in the room with me. A presence. There was something in my room.
And then, I heard it breathing. Not softly, like a person usually breathes. But slow, sharp, angry breaths.
I lay there for…I don’t know how long. Minutes? Hours? When my body could move again, I sat straight up in bed.
“Who is it? Who’s there?”
No one answered. I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I sat huddled up in the bed, with my back against the wall. I must have dozed off, though. When I woke up, I thought I’d had a bad dream. I went to lessons the next day. Braille. The piano. I talked to Mr. Arkady, and sat with Mrs. Fondacaro while she listened to All My Children.
It happened again that night. I woke up, and couldn’t move.
Sighted people sometimes say how they’re afraid of the dark. I’ve never been sure, but I think I know what that’s like. It’s not dark, for me. I’m afraid of quiet. Sound is how I know who’s there, how I know where things are. When it’s quiet…
I woke up, and couldn’t move, and the machines had stopped. It was quiet. And then the breathing started again.
And then. I heard…I heard it move.
It was moving towards me. I couldn’t scream, or cry, or anything. I couldn’t do anything. I just lay there, like I was dead. All the while, the breathing came closer to me. And closer.
And suddenly, I could move. I sat straight up. I was ready to shout. But…I was scared. What if it heard me?
I tried to call out, but quietly. My voice was almost a whisper. “Help. Someone, help. Please.” No one could hear me, but I was afraid to shout any louder. I waited for the breathing to come closer, but it had stopped. If I listened hard, I could just make out the sounds of the machines. And then…
Someone was playing the piano. I wanted…I needed to be near someone. I found my cane. I got out of bed and practically ran into the common room. I thought it must be Mr. Joe at the piano, but when I called out to him, he didn’t answer. I put my hand on the piano. I could hear the music in my ears, but I couldn’t feel it vibrating in the piano. I should have been able to feel it.
The piano was wet and sticky. Like someone had spilled something on it.
Mr. Joe found me. He hugged me and told me everything would be all right. But I couldn’t stop screaming. The next morning, I asked Kevin if he’d heard the piano last night. Kevin had to be touching you in order to hear you.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Every time, every time I touch the walls. It’s all…it’s sticky.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s sticky. And it smells. Like the time I bit my tongue. It smells like that. It’s sticky.”
Kevin couldn’t tell me anything more. That day was…strange. I was…I think we were all used to keeping track of who came and went in the room, of how many people there were. We could tell them by their footsteps, by the way they opened the door. I heard Ms. Jenny come and go half a dozen times. I heard Mr. Joe’s confident leather-soled shoes tap tap tap on the linoleum floor.
I knew exactly how many people were in the room. Five people. Five distinct sets of footsteps. Except sometimes… sometimes I thought I heard a faint sixth set of steps. Small quick quiet little feet. Patpatpatpatpat.
I talked to Mr. Arkady about it.
“Feh,” he said, “Is nothing.”
“You hear it?”
“Sometimes, sure. Always. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Is nothing.”
“People…when they come here, sometimes are sick. Like me, I am sick. Not everyone is healthy as you. Sick people, sometime they are dying. Is not bad but…is nature. Is God. I think…”
Here Mr. Arkady leaned in close, as though to tell me a desperate secret.
“I think this: when he dies, all the good parts of him go to Heaven. But always, the bad parts, they are left behind. Sometimes, they are left behind with us.”
“Do you think that’s what happened to Kelly?”
“Who is Kelly?”
That night, I woke up to the quiet again. And that awful breathing. And it…it spoke to me. I couldn’t hear it…I can’t…I can’t remember what it said…
I tried. I tried so hard. I knew…I knew it was her, I wanted to hear her, I really wanted to but…panic welled up inside me, and I screamed. “What…what’s happening? Someone…can anyone hear me?”
I heard the door to my room open. Someone was stumbling in, making these strange sounds. I screamed at him to go away. “Get out!” I said, “Get out!” I was sobbing and screaming at him.
I found out later it was Kevin. He…died on the floor of my room. Mr. Arkady told me…somehow he’d taken a washcloth and pushed it…
He’d choked on it. Ten feet away from me, and I didn’t even…I didn’t even realize it was him.
Mr. Joe came to me, my last night at the Industrial Home for the Blind. The next day, Social Services would come again, and take me to a hospice in Trappe county. But that night…
“David. Are you awake? I need you to help me with something.” Mr. Joe held my hand as we left my room and walked down the hall. He opened a door, sixty-one steps from the common room. The door to the basement.
Mr. Joe held my hand as we descended. The machines had stopped. It was so quiet. The quiet was heavy on my ears and shoulders, like I was carrying it. It got worse the farther down we went.
“The machines have to run, David. We have to keep them running.”
I heard the sound of a match and smelled sulfur. Mr. Joe had lit a candle, and he gave it to me to hold. I heard the sound of a small bell, and the rustling of pages in a book.
“Mr. Joe, what’s happening?”
“David, you have to be quiet, now.”
Mr. Joe said a prayer, a kind of prayer I’d never heard. “Our Father, who art in darkness, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in light as it is in shadow…”
I promised Mr. Joe I’d never tell anyone what happened after that.