The Phantom of Disability: A REview
By Ray Greenblatt
These stories will be dealing with significant and challenging themes. Not your typical teenager growing pains or lovers’ angst, nor old people knowing their time is limited. If it is that kind of topic, it is compounded by also living with a disability.
The settings in this collection are myriad - running from a winter cabin in Minnesota to a Southwestern desert; from South Africa to Europe in 1912; from Outer Space to homes just like yours and mine.
The forms in which these stories are told vary widely as well. CENSUS employs sections I, II, II; FOR THE LOVE OF HIM Monday through Sunday; TWINNING January, February, March. You might expect an epistolary style as in LETTER TO JOHN BERRYMAN or THE RIGHT WAY TO BE CRIPPLED & NAKED; but how about parts of postcards in HOLDING ZENO’S SUITCASE IN KANSAS, FLOWERING. THE SWIMMING LESSON is told in the alternations of forty “laps.” Three connected stories viewing the same characters comprise WHAT LAY AHEAD. PLEASE, THANK YOU even eschews capitalization to give the reader the feelings of a paralyzed man learning to type; and to stress how inconsequential he feels.
Can humor frolic through stories of disability? Of course! We observe it in a panoply of characters. In BOMBSHELL NOEL the diabetic Doomgirl has a radio show called Bomb Shelter Radio. The wheelchair-bound girl in SOLO IN SPOTLIGHT has a zany view of life: “Joe, my husband, he said what I do is art, so I became an artist. We’re all some kind of artist. Mother crocheted, John the Gambler whittled, and Joe’s art is fixing toasters. He put a motor on my chair, rigged it with a stick so I can drive it with my teeth. My chariot. I get around on my own now, I do my sculptures, and I play music. With my tongue, of course. On the Boardwalk come summertime, me with my red-glitter electric keyboard, I’m practically famous.”
Maggie in FOR LOVE OF HIM, despite a bizarre family, can joke. “Maggie’s mom with her new love and my mom with her new grief, which came as bottomless as a basket of fries at the North Forty. All-you-can-eat grief, three meals a day, good for growing girls”. Maggie frees a possum from a trap and tries to nurse it back to health with jocular results.
The dynamic man with a deformed leg in THE RIGHT WAY TO BE CRIPPLED & NAKED describes his unique life: “I have spent drastically more of my life naked than most people. At the age of twenty I embraced the baths as my life’s work. I’ve hardly missed a week in the twenty years since. When I was young and broke, I even worked at the baths, two nights a week, so I could get in the other nights for free. I used to dream I had my mail delivered to the baths. It is no exaggeration to say that I am a benchmark in the history of promiscuity, the standard by which sluts are measured . . . I think it would be really nice if, when I am dead, somebody puts up a plaque there, in my memory, the same way old birdwatching ladies are given plaques on benches in parks, in memoriam.”
Imagery is often powerful in these stories. In PLATO, AGAIN a woman combating cancer is being squeezed out of her job: “He was telling her they’d taken her job away while she was undergoing surgery. She was being demoted. The words were rolling across the floor like beads from a broken necklace. She wanted to reach down and gather them up.” Those she thought her friends watch her leave: “She’d walked out the door then. She saw Lori Gustafson standing with the clipboard and she could see two or three other women holding in place like shaded figures standing back from the mouth of a cave.”
In HOSPITAL CORNERS a woman in an institution knows the system: “Food was a common obsession. Filling out the menu card was an all-important event. It was one of the few areas in hospital life she had control over. The promise of plates to be uncovered two or three days down the road was like the anticipation of planning a trip abroad and of arriving at each future destination.” “Art Therapy was enjoyable. This is what she liked: the greasy feel of pastels, munching through thick paper with scissors to create a collage, painting wooden boxes, and producing watercolors in which the paper puckered up and formed lakes in different places.” She contrasts the real world to where she is: “It must count as real life, even though there was no sense of time passing—no past, present, future—within the walls. Real life is something like a still life set in motion, the apples and pears and lemons ricocheting in all different direction like billiard balls. Hospital life is a painting set in a frame.
Emma of HOLDING ZENO’S SUITCASE IN KANSA, FLOWERING, left to care for her elderly parents, feels terribly stressed. She envies her sister Carolyn-- “with her blond hair loose on the wind, her hands outstretched, her voice thick and rusty as the color of the canyons”—who ran away. Emma becomes obsessed with the lines on the highway, her way out: “This paper, this old manila school paper, should make it easier for Emma to write to her sister, as if the green lines were obligated to show her where to go in her letter. Emma’s handwriting is fair, and she should be able to stay on the line.” “Even the yellow dashes on the highway begin to look like butter to a person who is thinking about butter. Emma would like to tell her mother that all the butter a family can eat in a lifetime is lining the highway.” This reminds her of home that she will never leave: “Emma looks up, away from the highway, as she often does such nights as these. She looks at the stars in the sky. She knows all those pinpricks of light have names, are supposed to form pictures, but to her, this night more than any other, each and every star looks like a hole, a hole in fabric, small pinpricked patches where the cloth is wearing thin. “
Two stories that greatly moved me can be paired together by the sensibilities of an artist. In the first STILL LIFE IN THE ART ROOM Dalila has endured the murder of her father embroiled in African politics and her mother’s death from cancer. Art can channel her anger and sadness. She imagines the world around her as uncannily alive. When the story opens, Dalila is depressed:
“The scissors grumble on the shelf. ‘Why don’t these children call their teacher ma’am?’
‘She’s probably dieting,’ says a girl.
‘These children show no respect,’ murmurs a charcoal drawing-stick.
‘Go awaaay!’ cries a loerie in the tree outside the classroom, startling Dalila.
‘Silence,’ she says.”
This is the anniversary of her mother’s death. Nothing seems to cheer her: “That evening, she had tried to paint her mother’s hand holding hers, but all she had to show hours later was a blank sheet of paper. That night, and every night since then, her paint box remained still silent. Nothing else let up: the chatter of desks, the prattle of chairs, the mumbling of the classroom blinds. Even the kiln in the corner sighed periodically.”
As the story concludes, she seems to find a direction, using her mother’s oxygen mask as a model: “’What next?’ asks the pearls.
‘Who can tell?’ answers a stripe.
Very softly, the kikoi starts to hum, ‘Harambee . . .’
Dalila’s ears are finally clear. The loerie in the tree outside calls ‘Go awaaay.’”
The portraitist in THE SITTING has a different challenge. Her sensibility is intact: “The falling evening smells of their bitter mint, and wood mulch, and the scent of wild brush rolling in from the Laguna Hills that overlook the sea.” However, she had encountered difficult customers: “During the portrait hand-off, their smiles pucker, their noses crinkle, and they say, airily, ‘Thank you,’ with the same gratitude they’d show a family pet that left a dead animal on their doorstep.”
Then when she is working at a fair, a man named Joey and his daughter enter her booth. “This man is made of human patchwork. His appears not to be a single face, but several: one person’s borrowed ear, another’s borrowed cheek, each parcel of skin varied slightly in color and crumpled at the seams into a roadmap of half-hearted scars. Whatever fire had ambushed him razed the topography of his features, flattening them into a glazed mask the color and texture of chewing gum. He has no nose. No lips. No eyelids.”
The daughter has been face-painted: “Where I expected fair skin, a milky white to match the first I spotted on the stair well, hers is a deep and vivid cerulean. Her forehead ripples with layers of what appear to be clouds. A pale crescent moon encircles her right eye. An intricate black lattice, snagged with four-pronged stars and smattered galaxies, climbs up to her left. The illustration covers even her lips and eyelids, so that when she blinks, her face dissolves into a portal opening directly into the darkening sky above.”
At first she does not know how to artistically approach these anomalies in the one hour she has. She wrestles physically and emotionally: “Exploded veins branch beneath his scalp. His scars glisten like a running liquid where they catch the light. The pores were melted clear from his nose and cheeks, and in their place, the skin is impossibly smooth, less chewing gum pink and more the delicate, hidden pink of a tear duct. Beside this man’s face, with its exquisite and inscrutable complexity, the young girl’s painted galaxies fall flat.”
By the conclusion we can feel what an artist –whether a composer or a poet—experiences in the process of creating something: “Try as I might to contain the spread of oil, my sitters’ hues always inevitably invade my own, through never as vibrantly. All over, my skin is a palette of blue and pink. . . . I sit back, angling my head this way and that, measuring the completed portrait against the models before me. And then, there’s that sudden rush of calm—the extinguishment of some creative spark into smoke.”
Finally, I want to pair two other stories for very different reasons except for their equal power. I was very impressed by how the male characters were delineated. In TWINNING the brother and sister are very close. They have been through so much together—mother dead young, a disappearing father, bipolarity, suicidal thoughts, drugs. But in his young life the brother has gained skills as a logger, a tree-trimmer, an EMT. He knows about opiates: “When I get back with two small yogurt containers, I chop six 30 mg time-release Oxycodone pills into grit with a razor blade and then go over the pile with a rolling pin. I figure sixty for me and ninety for her, since my tolerance dips during the weeks I’m away.”
He sees the difference between the two of them: “She’s of the sea and I’m of the desert. I need craggy mountains and ego-zapping space. I need to be surrounded by other intensely self-protective life forms: cacti, horned lizards, rattlesnakes and vinegaroons. Above all I need sun. The ocean is therapy of a different kind for her, dissolving her barriers like water lapping against caked sand. It’s moody and cool but mostly I think it’s the salt air that helps her—lithium without the toxicity.” Months later she overdoses. She had lost her son to suicide nine years before. She also lost her mare and the foal that was then being born. She could no longer cope, but her brother saves her. Although he doesn’t know it and is too humble to think so, he is a man to be greatly admired.
WINTER EYES concerns a photographer who loves her work but is going blind. However, her husband Paul, a silent outdoorsman, is lovingly supportive. He loved her unconditionally:“’You’re way smarter than me anyways,’ he always said with a smile. I had two college degrees; he never went to college.” They had difficulties: “His sperm count was too low. He fell under a dark cloud, and not even the prospect of another hunting season cheered him up. He stared off into space even when I suggested that we adopt a baby.” However Paul adjusts. His insight is fine tuned:” He was the first to say, ‘What’s going on?’
I tried to focus on him in the dimness.
‘You can’t see me, can you?’
He stepped into the glow that came from the fireplace and held me.”
When they get the final diagnosis that her blindness is irremediable: “Paul, who was sitting next to me, didn’t say anything, but I heard his sharp intake of breath, which meant he was trying not to cry, and he never cried.” “Each time I saw Paul’s face in bits and pieces, he looked sadder and older. Wisps of white stuck out like twigs from his beard. He didn’t say much . . . He tried to smile. He didn’t do a good job of it, but I understood.” Despite all, they get through this storm too with mutual love: “When he drove me to appointments, I asked him to describe what he saw while driving. He wasn’t shy with his bawdy opinions, so he made me laugh. Listening to him gave me a great deal of comfort. It meant I hadn’t lost my way.” “I ached to see his beard in all its gnarliness and his unabashed beams of teeth whenever he broke out in laughter. But he touched me far more than he had since the early days of our courtship. Depending on the pressure and location of our fingers, we developed a shorthand code of touch.”
When I taught high school English, I discovered a book that immediately became part of my “Top Ten”: Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto (see PLATO, AGAIN), a man who could not admit he was blind until his mid-thirties. Although writing a memoir, the author was a poet so the book sang. My students were intrigued and inspired to write very powerful essays about relatives and friends with disabilities. Topics that remain with me are: A.D.D., stuttering, nystagmus, dwarfism, Mongolism, autism, C.F., polio. If my students had developed into professional authors—a rare few did—they could have contributed to this book!