Authors: Walter Mosley
A Division of Random House LLC
A VINTAGE EBOOK ORIGINAL, DECEMBER 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Walter Mosley
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies.
Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Vintage eISBN: 978-0-345-80445-7
Cover design by Elena Giavaldi
Cover image based on a photograph by Kyoungil Jeon/E+/Getty Images
In memory of Jean Bethke Elshtain
“Ouch! Damn!” Sovereign James muttered when he bumped into the unexpected second door to the entrance of the East 86th Street address. It was his first appointment with Dr. Seth Offeran at the building on the north side of the block between Madison and 5th.
“Let me get that for you, sir,” a man said.
Hearing the voice a host of assumptions and physical bearings leapt to Sovereign’s mind.
The speaker was young, probably white, and he worked for the building, most likely a doorman. Sovereign was also pretty sure that the young white man was not in the vestibule. The voice sounded like it came from another room, through a window or something like that.
He heard the click and slide of a lock and the young man, whose voice had come from the left, was now before him saying, “Come on through, sir.”
James took three steps, enough to cross the second threshold and clear the arc of the door in case it opened inward.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Dr. Offeran,” Sovereign James said, turning his head twenty degrees to face the source of the question.
“Easy. Take eight or nine steps forward and you’ll come to a wall. From there you turn left and keep on going. The first door you pass on the right will be the Craigson Group. The buzzer is on the left side of the door, I’d say about chest level for you.”
Holding his left hand out tentatively, Sovereign took eight steps, felt nothing, went half a pace more, and his fingers made contact with the wall. He stopped there and turned to face back the way he had come.
“Excuse me,” he said into space.
“Yes, sir,” the voice replied cheerily. There were a few hard footsteps and then, at closer proximity, “What do you need?”
“You get a lot of blind people in here?”
“No more than anywhere else, I guess.”
Sovereign estimated that the voice came from a height equal to his own: a shade under six feet.
, he thought,
details in the dark
“I was wondering,” James said, “because your directions seemed to be designed for somebody like me.”
“Yeah,” the young man replied. Sovereign imagined that he heard a grin behind the word. “My uncle Toad was blind and he’d tear your head off if you couldn’t explain exactly the place you were in and how to get around in it. He used to say, ‘If I want somebody’s hand on me I’ll hire a girl.’ ”
“I see. Did you like your uncle?”
“Not one bit. But my dad says that just because you don’t like somebody, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from ’em.”
The contraction of
made Sovereign wonder about the young man’s origins.
“Your uncle was looking for independence and some dignity.”
“Yeah.” No grin there. “My dad said that too.”
Sovereign had hit a sour note and the conversation foundered for three or four seconds.
“Well … thank you,” the blind man said. He held out a hand in the general direction the voice had last come from.
“No problem.” A soft, sweaty hand grasped his. From the grip Sovereign thought that the doorman might have been carrying a few extra pounds.
“Let me ask you something,” Sovereign said.
They released each other.
“You say your uncle’s name was Toad?”
“His real name was Theodore. I guess they could’ve called him Tad or Ted or even Teddy but he was so bad tempered that those names didn’t really fit.”
Of late Sovereign enjoyed topics like this. Conversations where there was no visual aid involved, no light or shade or color. He felt a smile cross his face and thought about the warmth of sunlight on his skin.
“Just turn right,” the young man said. “Follow the wall and keep going till the first door you come to.”
Sovereign nodded, turned, and made his way along the barrier, like a sightless bug, he thought, moving forward more by instinct than purpose.
After eleven steps the air around him changed, became closer. Underfoot the hard floor was suddenly carpeted. Sovereign James assumed that he had entered a first-floor hallway. Reaching out he touched the wall to his right. It had no definite texture, neither hard nor very soft. Maybe it was plasterboard or wallpapered wood. He tried to imagine the length of the hall or if it were brightly lit, but these estimations were beyond him.
Five steps after he entered the hallway Sovereign’s fingers trailed over the outer edge of a doorframe. There, at chest level as the doorman had promised, was a small rectangular button that protruded slightly. It was warm to the touch. There was probably a small lightbulb underneath.
Smiling at the secondhand feel of light, Sovereign wished that he had asked the doorman his name. He pressed the button three times—one long, one short, and one long—as he had been instructed to do. Then he stood there patiently as the world around him hummed and murmured, whispered and pinged.
Ninety seconds passed.
“Mr. James?” a man’s voice said.
The door opening made no sound. The hinges must have been well oiled and the doorknob mechanism too—or maybe, Sovereign thought, the lock was not engaged and anyone with the knowledge could just push his way in.
“Dr. Offeran?” James held out his right hand.
A strong, meaty fist grabbed him by the knuckles and then he was being pulled forward, guided by another hand at his elbow. The blind man resisted briefly and then allowed himself to be ushered forth in this manner.
He didn’t resent the help—not exactly. It was just that when people took him physically through new spaces his mind went blank and lost focus. After his benefactors were gone he had no idea of where he was or how to make his way
back to familiar surroundings.
But this was different. Dr. Offeran wasn’t a passerby do-gooder. He’d still be there to show the way out when the appointment was over.
“Right this way, Mr. James. We’re going through the waiting room to my office. Go right ahead.” After three steps, a pause, and then, after four more steps, the hand gripped his elbow and Offeran said, “There’s a couch right in front of you. Make yourself comfortable. Can I take your coat?”
“No, thank you.”
Sovereign felt for the couch with his shins and knees. When he was sure of its height and placement he took off the thin trench coat, folded it with a rolling motion of his forearms, turned, and sat down.
Sitting on a new chair or sofa brought up anxieties for the newly blind Human Resources and employment officer. Even though he told himself that it was irrational, he’d often imagine broken glass or some sharp implement jabbing from the backrest into his kidneys.
“Well,” the modulated, medium-toned doctor said. “It’s good to meet you.”
“I guess,” Sovereign replied. “I don’t even know why I’m here really. I mean, I know why but I don’t see the purpose.”
“You were referred to me by Dr. Katz. Tom knows his business.”
“He couldn’t diagnose me.”
“Would you like to lie down, Mr. James?”
“No. No, thank you.”
“I always have my patients lie down on the couch.”
“You ever get bedbugs?”
“Never. You don’t have to worry about that. Now if you wouldn’t mind.”
“I do mind.”
A siren suddenly blared from outside. Hearing the high-pitched whine Sovereign could tell that there was an open window in the room. Turning his head he became aware of a slight current of air, proving his surmise.
“I’m afraid that I must insist,” Dr. Offeran said. “You know you have to go through this process in order to satisfy the insurance.”
“I can’t lie down, Doctor.”
“Because when I do the room starts spinning. Well, I guess it isn’t the room, because I can’t see it, but I get all dizzy and off-balance. It feels like I’m on my back in a raft that floated out over a whirlpool. After lying down it takes me a while to get back up again. One time I fought it, stood straight up and fell on my butt.”
“How do you manage to sleep at night?”
“Sit on my sofa in the living room and meditate or listen to the radio until I’m out. Then I lie down naturally. I can do it if I’m already out, but if I’m awake … no way.”
Now that he was aware of the window Sovereign could make out the susurration of traffic in the distance. There was also the drone of a motor idling somewhere nearby.
Offeran was silent, considering the information that James presented.
“Do you think that Dr. Katz’s parents were jokers?” the reluctant patient
“Jokers? What do you mean?”
“They’re the ones who named their kid Tom Katz.”
There came a grunt that might have been a laugh.
Sovereign ran his right palm along the rough fabric cushion beneath him.
“I think his mother was Catholic,” Offeran, the doctor without a face, said. “Her father’s name was Thomas and he had just died when Dr. Katz was born.”
“Just one a’ those crazy things,” James said, thinking of the once popular jazz song.
“I suppose we could start the sessions with you sitting up,” Offeran said. “But I’d like to come back to this issue of your dizziness in future sessions.”
“How many of these sessions are there going to be?”
“As many as it takes. The way this works is that you come every weekday afternoon at two. I will use that time to evaluate you and your progress.… Maybe I’ll even be of some help.”
“Doctor, I need to get back to work. I’m tired of goin’ from place to place and having people tell me that they don’t know what’s wrong. I can tell them what’s wrong.”
“And what’s that, Mr. James?”
“I’m blind. Thursday morning, six weeks ago, I woke up and couldn’t see a blessed thing. Nothing. From that day to this I been like a blind bug. They sent me home and then to twenty different doctors, hospitals, clinics, and wherever and they all told me that because they can’t say why I’m blind that I must not be. I wish they had these eyes. All I want is to get back on the job and do what I know. I don’t need to see to do my work.”
“You’re a human resources officer?”
“And the head of employment, yes.”
“Don’t you need to look someone in the eye to understand them?”
“At Techno-Sym we work as teams. There are always two HR officers at an internal interview. Most of what I ever understood was in the voice that speaks and the answers given. If there’s any body language my partner can pick up on that.”
Ellen Saunders came unbidden into Sovereign’s mind at that moment. She was wearing a camel-colored dress that was a bit short, sitting across from him and Myrna Malloy. Ellen’s skin was the same tone but a slightly different color from the dress. Her legs were crossed. Her expression was unpleasant even though it was just a routine yearly evaluation.