“Miss?” His hand closes on my forearm. “You got time to help an old man?”
It takes me a second to see it—his eyes are useless.
How can he tell I’m not a missus, a ma’am? Can they smell that deep?
He gives my arm a squeeze. “Hey.”
“Sure,” I say, a little too loudly. “Sure thing.”
The IGA is nothing special. The produce section is better than some—the local Greek widows see to that, shaking bunches of rapini, squeezing garlic bulbs in their fists. The place is Greek-run, but the staff is pretty much a mixed bag. The women behind the deli counter all sound like they come from Russia, or else one of those countries it swallowed and spat back out. They’re mostly older, but there’s one about my age, a skinny brunette whose name tag reads Tatiana. Her face makes me think of the Virgin. Not the dough-faced blonde, the black-haired Madonna with the mouth. When she holds up a slice of ham for my okay, I nod no matter what.
“This your usual spot?” the blind man asks.
“I go to the Loblaws, know where everything is over there. I was out this way for the doctor, though. Figured I could use a change of scene.”
He loosens his grip, sliding an inch or two closer to my wrist. The sound he lets out is minor, but I know he’s felt the marks everybody else can see. I brace myself for a show of concern.
“We near the walnuts?” he says.
“In the shell. You know, bulk. They round here somewhere?”
I’ve never bought walnuts in my life. I could take or leave nuts in general, especially when they’re bitter and shaped like little brains.
“The boy said they were here,” he adds.
And so they are, in a row of clear bins on the far side of the potatoes and onions. “I see them,” I say. “This way.”
We make an awkward pair—me over-careful, shuffling like a pensioner, him loose and easy, as though somebody’s leading him to the dance floor. He keeps hold of me while I tear off a bag, lift the lid and fish out the silver scoop.
“How many do you want?”
“You do a couple of scoops, then let me hold them, let me see.”
One aisle over, the stockboy’s fifty if he’s a day. You can tell he’s got a hate on for the carts.
They make a surprising racket—a wooden sound, but lighter, dryer. When he holds out his hands I place the bag there gently, like I’m settling it on the scales.
“Huh,” he says, looking through me, “another half-scoop.”
I do as he says.
“No broken ones in there, I hope?”
He holds the bag in one hand, reaches in and rubs a shell with his thumb. “That’s fine.” He ties off the bag and stuffs it in the straw basket on his arm. “Next stop, pickled onions.”
At least one of the stockboys is slow. They don’t wear name tags, but I’ve heard the manager call him Billy. He talks to himself—sometimes even giggles—while he straightens soup cans or drags old cracker boxes forward and shoves fresh ones in behind. He’s only ever spoken to me once, and then he couldn’t seem to stop. It was all about some neighbourhood dog, how he was always bringing it scraps, even after it bit him through the fence. I thought I’d never get away.
One aisle over, the stockboy’s fifty if he’s a day. You can tell he’s got a hate on for the carts. He’s always kneeling down with his dust rag or stacking up boxes so they can’t get by. His shelves are something, though. Perfect rows of tea and cocoa, cornflakes, canned peaches, jam. Never a hole where the quick oats or the Coffee Mate ought to be.
Pet food, toilet paper and cleaning products belong to a tall, tongue-tied guy with bad skin. He’s forever dogging women with his eyes. Not just the young ones, either—wide-load mothers bending for boxes of Tide, one time a tanned grandmother holding tissue boxes to the light. Who knows, he might even turn his head after a washed-out bone rack like me.
Pickled onions are something else I’ve never bought. I know where the pickles are, though—not far down the slow boy’s aisle.
On our way there, the blind man lets his hand shift like a sleeve against my skin. It doesn’t hurt or anything—most of the scratches don’t even go deep enough to scar. I do my best to keep them clean, but you’re bound to get an infection now and then. No such thing as a spotless claw.
Louanne’s another story—nobody would ever call her good-looking. Her skin has a yellowish, slippery look.
“Okay,” I tell him, “here we are.”
“What brands they got?”
“McLaren’s and Bicks.”
“That all? Okay, McLaren’s. Those Bicks might as well be marbles.”
I add a jar to his basket.
“Good.” His pale eyes search the space between us. “Sardines.”
I should’ve guessed. I can’t even stomach the smell.
It’s hard to say which cashier is my favourite. Tia’s the beauty—all those shiny braids hanging down around her shoulders—but there’s more to her than looks. She smiles like she recognizes me, and not just from the last time I was in. Like she really knows me. Maybe one day I’ll get up the guts to ask her where she’s from.
Louanne’s another story—nobody would ever call her good-looking. Her skin has a yellowish, slippery look. It must be her organs, kidneys or liver or something. When she meets your eyes it’s like some poor animal staring up from where it’s fallen down a well. And she’s so careful. Always two rubber bands around the eggs, always a separate bag for any kind of soap.
In the end, though, I’d have to go with Giannoula. Not that she’s an original choice. People line up three and four deep at her checkout when the others are free and clear.
Busy today, Giannoula?
Oh, you know, honey, off and on, off and on. They come and they go. You need a bag, baby-girl?
Thirty-odd years on the job and she’s still got that crazy spring in her voice. You want to laugh when she talks to you, and not like a grownup at some stupid joke. Like a know-nothing little kid.
The sardines aren’t far, same aisle, further down. We pass by Billy stacking garbanzos, talking in his private way. “Says he never, says he never . . .”
“Never what, I wonder,” says the blind man.
He wants Brunswick brand in mustard, but they’ve only got them in tomato sauce, with hot peppers or in soya oil.
“Oh, go on and give me the peppers. I’ll pay for it, but what the hell.”
I reach down three flat cans. “Okay, now what?”
The blind man clears his throat. He relaxes his hand, lifts a long finger and waves it like the feeler on an ant. Slowly, thoughtfully, he traces the scabbed pattern on my arm. I hold my breath. He’s silent for a time. Then, turning his eyes up at me, he says, “Birds?”
I don’t know why I’m surprised—if he can smell married from unmarried, chances are he can pick up on bird shit. I clean the cages at least twice a week, but that doesn’t stop them going all day long. Maybe he can smell the good side, too. The seed eaters give off something like fresh oatmeal cookies. If they eat bugs too it’s sharper, not a stink or anything, just something you have to get used to. Meat eaters smell the strongest, but even that you can learn to love.
It’s something I used to worry about, the house taking on their smell. There was even a dream I had, where Mama woke up from her grave and came flying at me down the narrow front hall, cursing and holding her nose. I used to pack my clean clothes in garbage bags, wash my hair before going out, even chew gum in case the air of the place had somehow fouled my breath. I don’t bother so much anymore.
I walked on cat’s feet in my bedroom, and waited till I could hear Mama washing dishes or saying the rosary before I dragged the box out for a peek.
“You guessed it,” I tell the blind man. “Birds.” Next he’ll ask me what kind—budgies? parakeets?—and I’ll have to try and explain. Or else I’ll have to lie.
“Let’s see now,” he says. “Eggs. Half a dozen, the brown kind if they got ’em.”
I can’t help but smile. Finally, something we both like.
I’ve never kept a healthy bird—the second they’re better, I let them go. It’s not as though I go looking for the hurt ones, either. It’s always been them coming to me.
My first was a house sparrow. I was little, maybe six, walking back from mass with Mama, when it bounced off a neighbour’s porch window and landed on the sidewalk at our feet. I crouched to pick it up, but Mama hauled me back up by the wrist.
It was as much as my life was worth to open the side gate and leave our yard, but I had a brave streak back then, and I was just tall enough to reach the latch. The sparrow was seven houses away—I’d counted on my fingers to be sure. It didn’t move, but I could tell living from dead the second I laid a finger to its throat.
That bird turned me furtive. I stole a shoebox from Mama’s closet, ripped up turf in the yard’s back corner, even raided the next-door bird feeder like a greedy jay. I walked on cat’s feet in my bedroom, and waited till I could hear Mama washing dishes or saying the rosary before I dragged the box out for a peek. Three whole days passed before the sparrow was strong enough to beat its wings against the cardboard lid. I might’ve been young, but I knew there was only one thing to do.
They’ve been finding me ever since—herring gulls dragging lures, pigeons with broken beaks, mangled or missing feet. Poisoned jays and grackles, dozens of stunned starlings, even the odd eastern bluebird. One time, a clutch of great horned owlets. One time, believe it or not, a red-tailed hawk.
Not all of them get to me in time. Crossing Gough Street last week, I came within an inch of stepping on a pigeon. It must’ve taken the wheel head on, because its insides were squished out around its feet. Rock dove, I remember thinking, the most variable plumage of any bird. This one was speckled grey and white around its flattened shoulders, its twisted neck. Its open wings were charcoal, except for the flight feathers, a pair of snow-white blades.
We get the eggs, then a bottle of Rogers golden syrup, then it’s back to the produce section for a couple of pears.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m pushing you round like a lawn mower.”
“It’s okay, I’m not in a rush.”
The truth is I can’t even remember what I came in for. Not that it matters. If you walk the aisles there’s always something—a box of J-Cloths, a new toothbrush, that popcorn you make in the microwave.
He wants the pears with a hint of red in them, so the colour must be something you can taste. I pick out one on the soft side, the other a little harder. “Perfect,” he says, feeling them. I know for sure now he lives alone. “I do believe we’re done.”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”
Suddenly I don’t feel so good. It’s in my throat, that feeling you get when a cold might be starting there. Or when you’ve been keeping something to yourself for too long.
There are things I could say to the blind man. I could tell him about the sparrow I saved, or the pigeon I couldn’t, or even about the crow I’m nursing now. I doubt her wing will ever come good—it hangs from her shoulder like a dirty old coat. I don’t know if she hopped up onto my porch from the road or dropped out of the elm tree, but she was waiting for me like a package when I got home.
I could tell him everything. The way Mama always seemed to come at me in the hallway, alive or dead. The way the floorboards there still cry. I could go on and on like Billy the stockboy, until he has no choice but to nod and smile and begin backing away. Instead I lead him to Giannoula’s checkout. Lineup or no, it’s the best choice for a man with no eyes. I want her to call him honey. I want him to hear that voice.