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Authors: Peter Blauner

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled

Slipping Into Darkness (5 page)

BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
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This was a sorrow beyond dreams. Hoolian found himself seething between his teeth and furiously wiping away tears.
Goddamn you, you little
maricón
. Why’re you crying now?
He slammed his fist on the bench beside him, remembering how the warden up in Attica denied him permission to go to Papi’s wake. Motherfuckers never let him be, never gave him one fucking break. He punched the bench again and bit down hard on his lip, knowing such fine-tipped anguish would either lose its edge over time or eventually tear him apart.

 

The Hasid and his family stared at him gravely.

 

“
What the fuck are you looking at?
” he said.

 

At the next stop, they moved to another car.

 

He folded his arms across his chest and tucked in his chin, not looking up until the train emerged from the long tunnel and rose over the rooftops of Borough Park. So this was how everybody else had been living; clothes on a tenement line, an American flag draped over a balcony, Hollywood Tans next to Manzari Furs, a lone runner on a late-night gym treadmill, and an old couple watching television on a couch. He felt like Charlton Heston at the end of
Planet of the Apes,
seeing the Statue of Liberty half buried in sand and realizing that the world he once knew was dead.

 

It was after one in the morning by the time he finally reached Stillwell Avenue, the last stop in the city. The Terminal Hotel was boarded up across the street. He descended the steps and crossed Surf Avenue, looking for a pay phone to call Jessica again. All the Broke-Down Midnight People were out in front of Nathan’s and Popeyes Chicken; the No Particular Place to Be People, the Runaways, the Won’t Go Fars, the Overmedicated and Undermedicated, the Bottom Feeders and the people who hung around them just to have someone to look down on. And, of course, the Moonwalkers like himself: men moving down the sidewalk gingerly, trying not to bump into anyone, apologizing too quickly and looking up at the sky, trying to judge time and distance, and still not quite believing they were finally
out.

 

He felt a breeze coming off the ocean and vaguely recalled there’d been a booth on the boardwalk years ago.

 

The moon burned an ash-white hole in the black sky. The Wonder Wheel flicked off, spoke by spoke. He walked toward the beach and found it strangely calm and faded gold in the dim lights from Steeplechase Pier. A volleyball net sagged, as if waiting for players to show up. The ocean rolled on—immense, eternal, and indifferent—the thin lip of the tide curling as it reached the shore.

 

He stood at the railing, trying to figure out where the horizon was, remembering how he walked backward into the waves with his father on that last St. John the Baptist Day. Almost twenty years since he’d seen the ocean. He’d forgotten how small and unimportant it could make him feel, like he was just an infinitesimal mote floating across the surface of some great all-seeing eyeball. How very little this moment of freedom mattered in the scheme of things. He used to try to delude himself that God had a game plan for him, a design that would gradually reveal itself and somehow justify everything he’d been through. But here was a reminder that God was busy. God was probably numbering the waves and naming the clouds. God was thinking just as much about a rock crab in the Atlantic or a soap bubble in Cairo. God was thinking about bacterial infections in Peru and dung beetles in Africa, about weather patterns over the Pacific Rim and tire treads coming off beside the Taconic Parkway. God didn’t have time to worry about inmate number 01H5446 in the New York State correctional system.

 

And so Hoolian screamed into the wind. A bitter shout-out that said,
I’m still here,
to the moon, the stars, the Wonder Wheel, the foaming surf, the Terminal Hotel, the Hasids on the subway, the empty cell he left behind upstate, the screws, the lifers, the hacks and he-shes, the highest courts, the lowest snakes, the shades of his mother and his father, the unborn children of his wasted seed, and, yes, the Great Clockwinder himself. By all rights, a sound like that should have pushed back the waves and left dead kelp all up and down the shoreline.

 

But when it was done, the ocean was still there, gathering up stones and scattering them back randomly, making a sound like tepid applause.

 

 

3

 

 

 

JUST BEFORE LABOR DAY rolled around, Francis realized it was taking twice as long as it should have to find his car keys. So Tuesday morning, he finally broke down and made it to the doctor’s appointment he’d been putting off since before Christmas last year.

 

He stepped into the little white room, took off the baseball cap with the X on the front—a souvenir from that Spike Lee movie he’d worked security on years ago—and rested his chin on a metal ledge. He found himself staring through a right eye lens into something that looked like a hollowed-out TV set but somehow under the circumstances felt more like a confessional. On a concave wall at the rear, four tiny white lights appeared in diamond formation under a glaring yellow beacon.

 

The technician, a young mirthless Russian blonde with a big jaw, put a clicker in his hand. “There will be flashes of light around the target, bright and dim,” she said with an accent that made him want to call Amnesty International. “Every time you see one, you squeeze the trigger. Try to keep your eye steady.”

 

“No problem.”

 

But as soon as the visual field test began, he found himself tensing up and getting all sweaty-palmed. Some of the flashes were as clear as muzzle fire in a black alley. Others were just faint ghostly wisps, so far off to the side that he had to ask himself twice if he’d actually seen them.

 

“Don’t just squeeze the trigger,” she commanded. “Concentrate.”

 

He tried to bear down. It had been more than a year since he’d qualified for his gun, and his reflexes weren’t what they used to be. The firearms people were calling every few weeks now, wondering when he was going to make it back up to the range at Rodman’s Neck. Light sparked and danced in the far upper-right corner of his eye. He squeezed the trigger a half-second late, and knew that in an actual gunfight he would have been dead by now.

 

“
Horasho,
the doctor will speak with you.” The tech pushed a button to print out the results. It sounded like she’d said, “Horror show,” but then he remembered that it was the Russian word for
good.

 

“Well, you scored very well on fixation levels,” Dr. Friedan said as he walked into the examination room a few minutes later with the chart, a balding chubby man in his fifties, with thick black-rimmed glasses, rapidly blinking eyes, and, most noticeably to Francis, a few obvious tufty places he’d missed shaving halfway down his throat.

 

“You’re very good at keeping your eye steady. The technician said you didn’t blink much. Most people have to or they’ll get dry.”

 

“Dryness definitely isn’t my problem.” Francis swiveled on his stool, waiting.

 

“Your false positives and negatives are another story, though.”

 

“How’s that?” Tiny dots and afterflashes from the test were still popping up and disappearing before his eyes.

 

“You clicked on the target three times when there was nothing there. And you missed six percent of the flashes that
were
there.”

 

Francis rubbed his lids and shrugged, as if this were of no great importance. “What else?”

 

“And your gray zone threshold is . . . not great either.”

 

“So, what does that mean?”

 

The doctor knuckled the underside of his jaw and handed over the computer readout.

 

“See for yourself.”

 

At first, it looked as harmless as a seventh-grade math worksheet. A series of pie-shaped dots, each with a dark ring shading the perimeter.
What percentage of the graph is filled in, children?
But the more Francis stared at it, the more words he saw like
borderline, pattern deviation,
and most ominously
blind spot.
He started to notice how the shaded-in figures looked less like geometry problems and more like a series of solar eclipses. And deep within his joints and muscles, he began to feel a slight chill.

 

“What is this?” He handed back the sheet.

 

“It’s your ability to distinguish subtle gradations between light and dark. You told me you’ve been having problems seeing at night for some time now.”

 

“It’s taking a little longer for my eyes to adjust,” Francis allowed.

 

“Do you want my diagnosis or not?”

 

“That’s what I’m here for.”

 

“You’ve got retinitis pigmentosa.”

 

“Okay.”

 

The doctor gave him a searching look, waiting to see if he’d understood. “It’s a genetic disease that affects the retina at the back of your eye. . . .”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“It cripples the photoreceptor cells along the outer edge. . . .”

 

Francis nodded along, making the appropriate “hmms” and “aahs,” signaling interest and surprise at the right moments, even as the dots and afterflashes before his eyes kept going off like private fireworks.

 

“Your central vision should hold for a while. . . .”

 

“Okay.”

 

“But your peripheral vision is going to progressively narrow down like a tunnel.” The doctor’s voice became a faraway drone, heard from the end of a long corridor. “Your night vision is also going to become worse. . . .”

 

“And then?”

 

The doctor’s face seemed to loom up, as if Francis were seeing him through a fish-eye lens. “I’m afraid we don’t have any real treatment.”

 

“So I’m going to go blind,” he heard himself say matter-of-factly, pretending he wasn’t having an out-of-body experience at this very moment.

 

“Well, legally blind,” the doctor corrected him. “Most people can still see something, even if it’s just shadows.”

 

Everything in the room suddenly pulled back from him, the E at the top of the eye chart shrinking down to E.

 

“I assume you’ve seen other specialists about this over the years,” the doctor said, not unkindly.

 

“I suspected something might be up,” Francis admitted, trying to fight the sensation of motion sickness. “But I always thought it would just sort of go away.”

 

Only the second part was a lie. In his heart, he always
knew
something like this would happen, even before he’d started bumping into things the past couple of years. He’d sensed darkness hovering around him since he was a small boy, sneaking in at the edges, taking a little bit off the corner here and there. He’d tried to ignore it, telling himself he’d already made it through his share of close calls and near-blackouts. But in his heart, he knew it had never really gone away. The darkness was always bulging and pressing against the other side of the door, trying to get through.

 

“So how long’s it going to take?”

 

“It depends on how it’s been inherited.” Dr. Friedan held Francis’s lid open as he shined a penlight into his eye. “Some people can keep functioning for years. The majority need a cane by the time they’re forty. Could be nothing’s going to happen right away.”

 

“I had an uncle was a deputy inspector who needed a Seeing Eye dog by the time he was sixty.”

 

“A police officer?”
The doctor pushed the lid open wider.

 

“My mother’s brother.”

 

“Well, that may be how you got it.”

 

Francis felt his eye muscles straining to shut as the light focused on the rim of his cornea, a dazzling laser whiteness growing more and more intense until it felt like a finger pushing deep into the socket.

 

“All right, that’s enough.”

 

He panicked and pulled away, not able to see anything for a few seconds. This was what it was going to be like. He was being taken from the ranks of healthy, normal, independent people and told to go stand somewhere else. They were going to put a label on him; they were going to relegate him to special sections for the handicapped at ball games and on buses; they were going to help him find his seat and maybe give him headphones at the movie theaters; they were going to give him pamphlets to read and tapes to listen to that would help him with “the period of adjustment”; they were going to make his life more and more circumscribed until he couldn’t function on his own anymore.

 

“Can I ask what it is you do for a living, Mr. Loughlin?” The doctor checked his file. “I don’t seem to have your insurance information right in front of me.”

 

“I’m in telemarketing,” he said automatically.

 

“Really?” The doctor peered over the top of his glasses. “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

 

“I can be very persuasive.”

 

“Well, it’s a good thing you don’t drive a truck for a living.”

 

“Why?”

 

“The loss of night vision can sneak up on you. It can go very slowly or very quickly. You’re going to have to monitor it carefully.”

 

“You saying I’m going to have to stop driving?”

 

“I’m saying you’ll have to use your judgment.” The doctor propped Francis’s left eye open for a more thorough check. “Some days you’ll see better than others. But I’m sure you don’t want to be in a position of endangering anybody or having an accident because of your situation.”

 

“No. Of course not.”

 

Francis squeezed his eyes shut. All his life, he’d been the Go-To Guy. The first man you’d want into the room on a drug raid or testifying at a homicide trial.
Let Francis do it. He’s an adrenaline junkie.
But now his other senses were diminishing in sympathy. His fingertips going numb, his tongue feeling dull, his hearing going tinny for a few seconds, like an old transistor losing its signal.

BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
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