Charlotte was not long out of college, a plain woman and cheerfully ascetic. She nodded amiably in lectures. She could have been cast as a nun in an old Bing Crosby movie, the one who trailed the heroine and only came in on the chorus. Charlotte was a person who seemed to have no childhood, whom you could not imagine as younger than she was at the moment you met her.
She had become a nurse, taken by the idea of the single and dedicated professional woman. She was not a natural leader, had no raw talent for nurturing people — but, nursing being the immature discipline it is, these weren’t obstacles for someone like Charlotte. She depended on abstract theory, and, in theory at least, felt genuine concern for the people in her charge. She imagined a greater depth and complexity in their feelings for her than actually existed.
Charlotte still took pains to read a new patient’s chart. She believed that she could create a relationship with another person simply by following the guidelines in her textbooks. She found this was not the case, but it didn’t change her belief; that reality had failed her so far went without saying. “Reality shock,” too, had been covered in class, and her private disappointments seemed merely to conform to the ideal.
Charlotte worked in the long-term wing of a small city hospital, surrounded by the old and dying and confused. The occasional middle-aged patient, victims of accidents, strokes, misfortunes, passed through. Every six weeks her rotation changed, and she was assigned to a new group of patients identical to the last, except for one rotation, her next, which held a “challenging patient” — nurse’s euphemism for a difficult person, a frustration. She waited impatiently for the task of proving to her peers that she could succeed where they failed.
She was ill, too, heavy and burdensome with the guilt of not being in pain. She believed herself capable of making a difference, and this is a dangerous thing. She imagined that a niche still waited here, a corner where she could make heads turn, change lives. She invented pain for herself to explain the itch in her dreary days. These kind of dreams never burst, but deflate slowly from many tiny unseen punctures, turning in upon themselves.
She could tell by the sudden motion of his head, his whole head with no subtle flick of eyes, that he was blind, and had heard her enter the room. Her uniform scratched against the door as she slid it almost shut behind her, and looked at him with a clinical eye.
His long neck, topped with a long face, gave him the appearance of a turtle. His chin receded sharply, as though bone had been removed; his nose was long, straight, and jutting. As his head turned on the pillow, black hair fell in clumps across his face.
His clothes hung loosely, without shape, on his bony body. His arms were bent at the elbows and wrists, cocked, so that the forearms rose from the bed and his hands tucked toward his wrists like a cat’s paws in sleep. His fingers twisted over each other. She moved toward his bed and he dropped his jaw in a sort of smile.
She reached for his hand and took the cool, rough fingers in her own. “Let the blind patient know you are there by a gentle touch,” she recited in her mind.
“Hello,” she said out loud. “I’m Charlotte, and I’ll be your regular nurse on the day shift for the next six weeks.” She pulled a chair toward the high, narrow bed. “I thought maybe we could talk a while.”
His mouth widened and deep in the recesses of his chest a sound occurred, a gasping unh-unh-unh. He shook his head ponderously side to side. His black eyes showed a bright blue.
She caught her breath. He seemed like a mortally wounded animal, dying at the side of the highway. “Okay, Adam,” she agreed. “I know you can’t talk, but you can communicate. And that’s what we’ll do.” Charlotte’s back straightened and she turned to the bedside table, looking for the machine she’d been told about. A box sat on top of the table, a cord running from it to the outlet behind the bed. This was a morse code translator, designed for the elite club of malfunctioning humans of which Adam was an elected member. A long metal stick, like a flattened clothespin, could be tapped between fingers, toes, teeth — or parts more imaginative — as a person’s abilities allowed, and the small computer turned the sound to letters, red and angular, like a digital clock spelling the time. Charlotte flipped a switch on the side, and red dots flashed across the screen and disappeared.
“This must be your morse code machine, this box here. Right?” She turned to him and his eyelids fluttered. “Shall we try it?” She heard a small distant grunt. His mouth opened and she carefully placed one end of the stick between his teeth. He gently bit down, tonguing the instrument until it set the way he wanted, and then, letter by letter, he began talking.
The small clicks formed a rhythmic percussion, the volume of a human voice and like human fingers tapping. Charlotte watched the screen, reading the words and wondering.
“H-o-w-a-r-e-y-o-u” she saw, and smiled. He waited.
“Oh,” she said, and patted his hand where it lay still across the bed. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Well, you’re skinny;” she replied with a quick laugh. “And your hair is too long. Hasn’t anyone told you?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, pleased with the insight. “I think you ask everyone that.”
He grinned broadly and the stick fell from his mouth. She returned it silently, careful to position it as before.
“D-o-s-i-t-d-o-w-n,” he tapped, and his hand rose slightly to describe a slow circle in the air.
She saw how he leaned a little toward her, his back propped by pillows. “I’m going to scoot you over a little first, okay?” she asked, and didn’t wait for an answer.
She quickly reached under his hips and grasped his thin bottom on both palms, and in a smooth motion pulled him over and flat. She glanced up in time to see his face contract, his lips pull down in a wince. How much pain? she wondered. Leaning over him, she reached under his shoulders and brought him in line with the dead legs, and stepped back.
“So,” she said with a quick release of breath. “What shall we talk about?”
Adam had been an ordinary man. He was still very young and only partly formed when the accident came clamping down on him, trapping unfinished parts of him like air bubbles under sheets of ice, where they shifted and reformed but could never escape. Caught between the metal of two cars brought suddenly together, mindless and unthinking and subject only to physical laws — he dreamed it still, two years later. He thought about the forces of momentum and inertia, friction, kinetic energy and gravity, and idly wished he’d listened closer during physics lectures, never knowing then he’d be the unknown in an equation.
He was left blind, paralyzed in his legs and with little control of his arms and hands. The surgery bluntly performed in the emergency room to keep him breathing had left him speechless. Silent, motionless, blind, and otherwise young and healthy.
The iron chains that delineate human beings one from the other became for Adam a wall of thick bars. How many months can the animal inside the cage rant against his imprisonment? Do zoo-kept lions plot against the keeper who brings them raw meat, assuming them responsible? Adam would reach through his bars and grab his visitors by the shirtcollars, thrusting them hard against the cold steel he lived within and pressing his face into theirs. He would not let them turn away or pretend. Look at me, he clicked, when he learned to use the machine, l-o-o-k-a-t-m-e faster and faster. His mother, sister, friends, his broken father, came gradually to leave him alone, imagine him dead. And Adam himself, poorly prepared for a long jail sentence, unaccompanied, grew an odd acceptance like a lizard’s tail. He seemed to consent, finally. He understood the permanence, his hard labor, how grotesque it would be to pretend his new life resembled his old.
Adam learned to funnel his attention. Blind, blackened, vulnerable as a baby exposed to wolves, he could hear anything, hear creaking doors down the hall, whispered conversations outside his room, the soft rush of socks being dropped in his dresser drawer. He heard things no one else heard, saw things no one else had ever seen, visions in black and grey. He begged for color and could not remember it.
Even in this madness, Adam wanted company. His silent, witty, cynical charm was enough to get his physical needs attended — enough to get cared for and then left alone. He had decided, not long before, to go hunting. He wanted a partner, someone loyal to his cause, someone who would be sorry for the sad brute and sneak food past the guards. A lover, a wife. He scrutinized each voice and body that came to stand beside his bed, waiting for the prize. At night he floated in his bed like an isolation tank, hearing echoes and considering strategy.
Charlotte leaned over his bed to adjust his legs, her quiet voice filled his sensitive ears like orchestra music, stirring, her fresh smell awakened him. He held still, sensing prey. Color, suddenly violet and golden and deep dark red sprung full-blown and wet across his mind’s eye. She would come to the bars of her own accord. She would think him plucky, and brave. He smiled, imagining her over his dimmed face, thinking her hair thick and yellow around blue eyes. She would, Adam thought, think she could understand.
Charlotte sat in the empty staff room, after the shifts had changed and her colleagues had gone home.
Why is he different, she kept thinking, why have I waited so impatiently for this assignment? She drained her cup and set it lightly down on the formica. Could she bend the bars, just a little? Isn’t that what the caring profession was all about? I have six weeks, she thought, drawing circles in the condensed steam on the table. She watched the long shadows in the driveway outside and saw instead the black hair falling across a spare cheek, softening the sharp line.
I have to get home, she told herself. The laundry. She leaned close to the dirty window, her own short-cropped brown hair brushing her face, and thought: I can understand him. I know how to do it, how to start. Where no one else has succeeded, I will.
“Bath time, Adam,” Charlotte said as she entered the room. “I’m busy this morning, so let’s get started and I’ll be back as soon as I can. We’ll read more later, okay?”
He turned his head, nodding. Here she is, Adam, here she is, he thought. Our little nursie. He could hear the water splashing into the plastic basin, he could hear her humming quietly, yellow sunshine on both their faces.
After pulling the curtains round the bed, enclosing them together in a careful space, Charlotte pulled the bedcovers off him and quickly rolled him toward her.
“Top off,” she mumbled, pulling the green pajamas over his head. His head flopped forward on his chest. She could count his ribs, one by one. The washcloths slopped pleasantly in the soapy water and Adam reached a crooked clumsy hand up to Charlotte’s cheek. She paused to feel the fingers brush her skin, then began to bathe him.
He was as docile as a sleepy kitten in its mother’s rough lapping. She rubbed and washed and dried him, sprinkled powder under his arms, rubbed lotion across his chest. She washed each toe, patting the fragile skin. With a fresh, warm cloth, she moved his genitals from side to side, lifting the limp sac and letting it gently fall, clean. His penis briefly stiffened, she said nothing.
Charlotte bent to gather the dirty towels and clothes, saying, “All done, back as soon as I can.” She rose to see his sightless face focused on her, and was suddenly guilty, briefly aware without understanding it that he could make the universal immediate for her. In his presence she could take the concept of suffering and put it into a specific body.
“I’m sorry, I hate to bustle around like this,” was what she said.
Oh, Charlotte, he thought, stretching out her name. Charlotte, pretty lady, have you fallen in love with this ugly cripple yet? This poor, helpless boy? He smiled out the window.
How can I dream except beyond this life? Can I outleap the sea — The edge of all the land, the final sea?
In the corner of the eye which she kept always turned toward him, Charlotte saw Adam motion with his bent hand. She closed the book. The sun had tapered off by slow degrees while she read, leaving the room finally dark, the outlines pale.
She gazed at his face as one gazes at an infant, without shame, full of wonder. What manner of being was this? In three weeks she’d learned to read him by inflection and tone, by his slight mocking movements of hands, eyelids, eyes, mouth. She was catching the secrets of Morse code, jumping on his words as he tapped them out, second-guessing his intent. This was all as Adam wished it. She heard far more than he said, on this he counted. He was courting her with all the deceptions of the determined suitor, letting her see him as she wanted to see him, and had the incalcuable advantage of her intimate knowledge of his physical needs.
He turned his left hand palm-up, slowly. His deliberate movements seemed full of pain. She could see the bones in his wrist twist round each other. He was asking for the machine, to talk.
Charlotte leaned to switch on the bedside lamp.
Mouthpiece in place, Adam asked, “What’s wrong?” meaning, tell me your secrets.
She smiled, a small, satisfying sadness creeping over her. She turned an eye much kinder than Adam’s on the nature of pain, the random, inappropriate appearance of misery. She was, in truth, pitifully ignorant of suffering — only this ignorance allowed her to mull over questions of its purpose and meaning. The pain made flesh on the bed before her must have a reason, thought Charlotte; her own gentle life, safe and lucky, gave her permission to imagine that she suffered in kind.
She turned her head, watching her hair move in the window’s reflection. She saw him laid out before her, and behind him her hands neatly in her lap. The small pool of light lent importance to detail, made her an etching.
He motioned for the tappet again, his hand waving like a weed under slow-moving water.
“I-m-i-s-s-s-e-e-i-n-g’ he said, and paused.
“I-m-i-s-s-c-o-l-o-r” he added. “Y-o-u-r-l-i-k-e-c-o-l-o-r.”
She followed the heartbeat, the tinny clicking, leap-frogging his phrases.
“Glory be to God,”she whispered, “for dappled things.”
Charlotte’s steps clicked rapidly down the tiled floor, and died suddenly as she reached a corner. She’d caught sight of two aides in the door of the staff lounge a few yards away. One stood holding a coffee cup, laughing. The other, a small, dark-haired girl, waved her arms in front of her face, her mouth hanging open, like a fish gulping water. Her wrists were bent inward. “Tap-tap,” she said in a bass voice. “Click-click. A regular percussion section. Martian rock-and-roll.”
Then the taller woman glanced up and saw Charlotte, still, one hand against the wall and watching. Her eyes widened and she motioned to her friend. The dark girl dropped her arms and turned; seeing Charlotte, she smiled slowly. Her eyes gleamed, Charlotte felt suddenly afraid. They stared at each other a moment, then Charlotte turned away.
She lay restless under the covers, hearing no sound but the ticking of the clock and the seashell roar of her ear against the pillow. Charlotte’s life was ripe, ready to pick, as sweet as it could get before staying too long on the vine. The time had come to create something greater and brighter than what actually was. Now here was Adam, ridiculed. He needed her, needed her more than a nurse. He lingered close to death, she guessed, beckoning it, giving way. At night the whole world grew as dark and blind as he was; she was afraid he would leave her and she would be left — for the first time, aware of being alone.
She sought a name for this feeling from her own impoverished vocabulary of feeling, a name to use in public, to justify the aching chest, the weakness, the fears. First it is called duty, then pity, then love.
“Let me,” she whispered to an empty room. She pulled the sheet to her chin, seeing him in her mind turn toward her, nodding. Yes, he smiled, yes.
She arrived breathless, though she hadn’t run. She wore street clothes, feeling obvious, illicit. She nodded to the nurse behind the desk, chatting to pause a moment while her lungs slowed.
The halls, silent and echoing at this hour, the lights low and shadows long, seemed to stretch far into the distance, waving to her. A few late visitors ambled toward her. She could hear snoring, and, in the distance, a long, drawn whimper.
He was awake. He turned his head and smiled, unsurprised. He lifted toward her confused motion in the doorway.
Hesitating, she almost turned to go, rocked back on her heels, held, and turned to his dresser instead. Quickly, closing half-open drawers, she said, “I don’t know why they can’t finish cleaning up.” A small sound, silly, and lost in the growing depths of the room.
He slowly waved his hand in invitation.
Moving to the bed, rapidly now, she took his hand. She separated the fingers one by one, stroking.
Painfully his arms lifted toward her, where he knew her to be, like a golem, like a baby.
Each movement had been concluded before it began. She lay on the narrow bed beside him, her fingers fluttering over his pale pink skin. Adam moaned, long and low like a cat, and she fell forward against his neck and rubbed her face in his great thick hair.
Something in the way her supervisor bore down on the last syllable gave Charlotte warning. She turned from Adam’s door, pulling it closed behind her. The morning activity seemed to surprise her, she blinked like a nocturnal animal thrust into daylight.
“Yes?” she said.
“Shall we?” said the older woman as she gestured to the staff room.
They sat on two sides of the pink formica table. Charlotte’s fingers drummed a moment on the hard surface, beat-beat, then came guiltily to rest.
“Why do you always shut his door?”
She looked up, looked blankly at the other nurse’s face.
“He prefers it that way.”
Her supervisor sighed. “Charlotte.” She rose and crossed to the percolator in the corner, and chose a cup from the litter of styrofoam. “You’re not the only one who takes care of him, you know.” She turned, cup in hand. “You’re so . . . so possessive with him. And defensive. It’s getting serious. I hoped to see you pull back on your own, see how messy this is getting. I don’t want you to jeopardize your position here.” Charlotte didn’t answer, knowing how little the woman actually knew. She was immune.
“The aides are talking about you, you know.”
“I don’t care,” she said quickly, almost petulant. “They’re cruel to him. They ignore him when he needs something.” She dropped her sharp glance.
Both women were quiet a moment.
“I’m changing your assignment, immediately.” She lifted her hand for silence when Charlotte began to speak. “You’re too involved, you don’t even see it. I expect you to stay completely away from him for a while.” Her face softened. “Charlotte, he’ll survive. He’s a tragedy, heart-breaking, but he’ll survive. He’s vulnerable, too — what if he ended up falling in love with you? Our desire to help people can end up hurting a few. Do you understand?”
Charlotte watched her lap. Her hands, knuckles white, lay there still, her throat was hot and swollen.
“Well, that’s all for now,” said her superior. “We’ll talk more later.” She tossed her untouched coffee into the waste can and left the room.
Charlotte quietly rose and steadied herself, both hands flat against the window. What now? What matters now? I only wanted to be good.
His face was turned fully to the window, where the sun shone hot through its dusty surface, when he heard her light step behind him. He moved his head in welcome, a whole turning. She revolved slowly where she stood in the center of the room. All was neat, all cared for. She had already done everything he’d wanted, there was nothing left to do but go or stay.
His arm brushed her leg, tentative, his empty face rose to interrogate. Something had changed. She reached a hand to brush away that rude bit of hair falling in his eyes. “Here I am,” she breathed. “Everything will be all right.”