My mother used to flick me in the forehead whenever I pissed her off. She’d cock back her middle finger and make this weird pursed frown before flicking me right between the eyes with an exaggerated flip of her wrist. I’m sure it looked more painful than it really was, but it still hurt. I always wanted revenge for those flicks and I’d always do something new to piss her off as a result. She kept flicking and I kept pissing her off. Frankly, I’m not sure which came first, the flick or the affront, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that one day, not too long ago, I took a bullet in the head. It struck my forehead and it felt exactly like my mother flicking me. The frustrating thing is that they—Detroit’s finest—don’t know where the bullet came from. There were no witnesses and no reports; hell, I don’t even remember hearing a gunshot. I simply remember the pain, just like a flick, and then a blinding darkness that fell over my mind like a suffocating drop-cloth. A short time has passed, but not much has changed. I’m sitting in a bed that goes up and down at the push of a button; it can fold me like a taco. I never let go of the control, because if I did, it’d be lost forever. My mattress is suitably soft and my sheets smell like pungent detergent. I can’t tell you what anything looks like, but the floor has got to be freakishly shiny because the shoes never stop squeaking as nurses come and go. This is a hospital.
I’ve been here for weeks. People come and offer condolences occasionally. I assume that they’re sincere, but I couldn’t tell you because expressions are hidden from me. The police have come and gone, and they’ve done all that they will until they have more to go on. It’s a paradox. My parents both came, at separate times of course, and my mother wasn’t pleased when I told her what the gunshot felt like. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Her silence sounded pissed off, but I was safe from her flicks; I was protected by adulthood and by my gauzy headband. How nice it was.
But now I’m alone. My door is shut. I can feel it because there’s more pressure in my room when I’m cut off from the rest of the hospital. And the cacophony coming from all of the caring people in the corridor outside is muted to a tolerable point. It’s not that I don’t enjoy all of the attention that comes from those caring people, but the nurses I’ve seen, or I guess that I’ve “met,” always seem to get a bit too mawkish when it comes to blind, gunshot invalids. Maybe they like me better than everybody else who’s here because it’s not my fault that I’m abed. It’s not my fault that they have to spend part of their twelve-hour shifts changing my catheter. That’s the worst part of everyone’s day, but at least it’s not my fault. It’s not like I ate donuts like a true American until my blood turned into pudding; these are the people you hear the nurses complain about—people who’re here because of a choice. But I’m one of the poor, unfortunate souls. I get checked on more than the others, or at least I hear my door open and shut more often than some of the others. Maybe the nurses are battling back bad luck by giving me attention; maybe if they care for me more, they’ll be spared a similar karmic fate. Maybe I’m just a cynical ass.
I pass the time by playing peekaboo with the light that I know has got to be everywhere around me. I cover my open eyes with my hands and then take them away suddenly. I hope the shock will wake up my retinas or something. But every time I move my hands, quick and dramatic, it’s just dark. Dark before, dark after, just dark dark and more dark. I’ve come to hate that word. It’s just like any other word that you hear or think repetitively. It starts to sound like a word that isn’t even a word at all, just a random noise, and I should know, because sound is all I’ve got.
Someone knocks three times and then opens my door before I answer.
“Hello! My name is Jack, and I’m your sight coach. How’s it going?” I picture a tanned man with a moustache because this guy sounds exactly like Tom Selleck.
“Good. What’s a sight coach?”
“Well, once upon a time, I’d teach you how to use a folding blind cane, once you were up and about, but we’re just going to jump into the next level stuff.” I hear a muffled sound. It’s moving cloth. A hand in a pocket? I feel Jack press something into my hand. It’s a smooth rectangle of plastic, about the size of a Bic lighter, and it’s warm. I smile, because it was definitely the sound of a hand in a pocket. Why else would this thing warm? I hear Jack stepping away and I hear my door shut.
“Instead of the cane, we’re gunna start with the clicker. Do you feel the button? Press it.”
My thumb finds it for me. There’s a small circular depression on one side of the clicker. I press it. It clicks. I let go. It clicks again, but the tone is slightly lower. It reminds me of those safety caps on Snapple bottles. I used to click those things incessantly, or at least until my mother cocked back her middle finger.
“Look, it’s like this. The doctors tell me that the bullet damaged a nerve, but they said your visual cortex is fine. Hell, your whole brain is fine. You might not agree, but you got lucky because that bullet didn’t go deep. Now the brain is a crazy thing. It adapts. If you try hard enough, you can rewire it. You can turn your visual cortex back on with sound. It’s pretty simple, but it takes time. You just click your clicker, and you listen. The sound will bounce around the room, and eventually, you’ll start to see things in your mind. You’ll see with your ears.”
“Like a bat?”
“Yes! Exactly like a bat! If you think about it, you’ll be able to see in the dark, kind of like a super hero!” I assume Jack is making some pretty crazy gesticulations because his clothing is sounding all sorts of exclamations. “Got any questions for me?”
“What color is it?” I feel my head tilt to the side. Do I always do that now? Since I can’t see the people I’m talking to, have I started pointing my ears at them? Shit. Do I look like a confused puppy during conversations?
“Um, it’s an off-white. Kind of like coffee cream maybe.”
“Alright, I’ll leave you to it. The more you practice, the more you see.” I hear him get up and leave. My door opens and shuts solidly. I guess people don’t shake hands with the blind. I don’t blame them. Awkward.
I start clicking. Click and listen click and listen click and listen. A nurse comes in to remove my catheter. We don’t speak much. At least I don’t have to make eye contact. She says I’m to start using the bathroom. Jack’s orders. She says the door is on the wall opposite from my bed. She sounds like one of those large women you see in southern church choirs. I smile and name her Aretha in my head as she walks out and shuts the door behind her.
The days and nights start to blur together like some sort of weird time soup. I can only tell the difference between the two by the level of activity I hear outside of my door. Jack comes and goes. He starts calling me Batman in his Magnum P.I. voice. And I practice. Walk click listen, walk click listen. Over and over. But now, the black in my mind starts to melt. It’s oil diluted by the thinning agent of sound. The walls and the obstacles and even the moving people around me start to take shape. They pulse in my mind’s eye with each one of my clicks. At first, it’s all greys and muted blacks. But then my brain starts to fill in the blanks. It paints by number. I start to see flesh tones on the moving people and the walls become eggshell white. Running water is a lipid blue, and when I go outside with Jack, the trees turn green under my click and through the wind’s susurration. It’s beautiful. The world starts to open and I feel my eyelids close reflexively because the light is too bright in my cloistered mind. How wonderful they are, these colors and these shapes and these tangible textures that I can feel with a click. How wonderful it is to see.