Thursday, March 10, 2011
As he reached Broadway the crowds thickened. People were spilling out of night clubs, cabs clogged the streets and sidewalks, drunks staggered on the curbs; wealthy white people from midtown and downtown mingled with the affluent Harlem coloreds and poor street folk. I had lost Father. I stood at the corner of Broadway and 93rd Street bewildered. I had never realized that people remained on the streets so late.
I began a defeated retreat toward home.
Heading north on Broadway at first I thought it must have been another man. Seeing a colored woman on his arm, him holding her with intentions obvious, was an exercise in cognitive dissonance the likes of which I had never experienced again.
As I entered our brownstone I did not immediately return to my bedroom. I peered into Mother’s room. She was sleeping soundly, angelically. The hall grandfather clock was lightly ticking as if its pendulum ball bearings were cushioned by a layer of water.
Mother, you see, was myopic both ocularly and maritally. I’m afraid she passed her lithesome frame, weak and brown eyes to Homer. I received Father’s bulk. Eventually, as Father left, and Mother shrank, Homer became my charge.
He was only mildly short sighted at first. Mother doted on him in the early days. Father took him to specialists in and around the Metropolitan region. But the darkness grew; the tunnel of myopia narrowed. By the time Mother realized Father was not at conferences Homer was nearly blind, Father had decamped, and Mother had cordoned off parts of the house for herself alone.
The Vandemark world grew darker by degrees. The world narrowed. There was a single, dark hallway where I could catch an occasional glimpse of her. She moved with distraction; she appeared to limp. Her hair was in disarray. I stood there with Homer’s hand in mine and watched her maneuver about in her own internal exile.
She had barricaded the windows to keep out the sun. A few servants, disloyal, lazy and thieving scoundrels, ran the house during Father’s increasingly lengthy absences. Dark wood railings, banisters and floors, uncleaned for months, then years, absorbed light. Dry stale air bleached the house of color, and drained the pigments from curtains and tapestries.
The books in the library became brittle; their leaves yellowed and cracked and blew to the floor. The giant central staircase bisecting the front hall, lined with Italian marble, once bright as pearl, was covered in green mold and crisscrossed with deeply etched black fissures. The overhead skylight, which once allowed brilliant beams of sunshine to bake the Turkish carpet at the landing of the stairs, fading its oriental patterns and designs as if it had been wiped by a rude wet hand, was clogged with a black screen of accumulated debris.
Seeing Mother’s small form move from room to room filled me with dread, and the leaching of color from our existence seemed only to hasten Homer’s blindness.
“What do you see?” I would ask him, holding up a porcelain dish.
“I don’t know really,” he replied in his high voice, squinting “something round.”
“What color is it?”
“Pink,” he said.
“No, it doesn’t have a color. It’s white,” I said.
“White’s a color,” he said.
“No, white and black are the absence of color,” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” he said stubbornly, his thin face twisted in frustration. He stood in front of me, slightly disheveled. He was eleven or twelve. His skin was a sickly yellow hue in the gray light of the house. His weak eyes were trying to focus on me.
“Let get some air. It’s stuffy in here,” I said, taking his slim hand in mine and leading him out through the hall, down the steps of the stoop, and to the sidewalk.
“Where are we going?”
“To the park. I wanna see some trees,” I said.
“Ahhh,” he complained, “I don’t wanna go Lang.”
“Too bad, we’re going.”
I pulled him down along the street toward the park. Out in the sunshine he looked less yellow but more pasty. His light curly hair was falling down around his ears. He could not see well even in day light and I felt compelled to constantly test him.
“What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?”
“Ahhh,” he squealed, “leave it alone, Langley. I don’t wanna leave the house.”
“If you want to see things Homer, you’re gonna to have to try. You’re gonna have to practice to strengthen your eyes”
“Its no good, Lang. If I can’t see I can’t see. It’s not something I can help.” I looked at him and saw tears roll down the hummocks of his little cheeks.
I knew he was right. I took hold of his arm and pulled him down on the grass. The murky waters of the Meer lay ahead, reflecting the building behind it darkly. Some children were throwing a baseball in front of us. They were my age, perhaps slightly older. Their ball got loose and rolled in front of Homer’s foot.
“Hey,” the biggest one yelled, “throw that back.” I moved to hurl it toward them. Then another said.
“I don’t want them to touch my ball.” I heard him say a name to characterize us that I had never heard before. I stood up immediately and walked toward them. I thought I heard the name again. I did not wait to hear it a third time.
I was a big boy for my age. All I had to do was to ball up my fist and swing my weight around and hit the biggest boy in the nose. He screamed as blood poured out both his nostrils. Another rushed me with the bat. I took a hit on the left arm. Before he could pivot to swing again I punched him with my blunt fist in the side on the head just below his temple. He fell down on the grass and twitched. Then he slowly staggered up. The third boy had run away by this time. I could see his sprinting figure heading toward the tree line. The other two quickly gained their wits and joined him. I walked back to Homer.
“What happened,” he asked breathlessly, “What did those boys say that made you beat ‘em up so? You did beat ‘em up, didn’t you Lang?”
“Come on Homer. It don’t make no difference,” I said, hoisting him up to his feet, “don’t be so curious”. I stood there looking at him. His yellow curls hung down over his cloudy, searching eyes. I picked up the ball and with all my might hurled it toward the milky sky.