BY ANDREW J. DOLSON
Doctor Amsler flicked off the dazzling blue light. Joel lifted his chin out of the testing equipment and sat back in the examination chair. The doctor exhaled a bit too loudly into the silent room and scribbled on his chart. That told Joel all he needed to know, confirmed his dark suspicion. He was going blind.
“The difficulty you’re experiencing, Joel, is called macular degeneration. The central region of the retina, the part responsible for sharp, straightforward vision, is becoming overgrown with new blood vessels. These excess vessels leak blood and other fluids, which damage the light-gathering cells. We don’t know the cause of the condition.”
“What happens now?”
“We don’t yet have a cure, but there are some treatments which may slow the progression of the disease.”
“So . . . I’ll be blind. How much longer?”
“First, Joel, you won’t become completely blind. Macular degeneration damages central vision, but peripheral vision is unaffected, so you’ll still be able to see out at the edges of your eyes. On the other hand, while there’s no way to accurately predict how fast the condition will progress, the form of degeneration you are exhibiting is unfortunately known for its rapid onset. I’m very sorry. I’m going to arrange for you to meet with a specialist next week, Dr. Rubin, an eye surgeon at the medical college. She’s working on some stem cell treatments that may be promising . . .”
Joel had stopped listening. He couldn’t say he’d been shocked by the news. He’d already guessed it was serious. His fast clouding sight had frightened him, prodded him to make a rare appearance in a doctor’s office in the first place. And at one level, it was something of a relief. He’d been half-convinced that he was simply losing his mind. For weeks, he’d been catching unnerving glimpses out of the corner if his eyes, substantial shapes that evaporated when he turned fully towards them.
Joel parked the car in the deep shade on Strawberry Street. “Won’t be driving that much longer, I guess” he thought to himself. He grabbed the big pile of brochures Dr. Amsler had pressed upon him—did he even want to know this much—and walked around the corner to his row house on Floyd Avenue. He pushed open the short, wrought-iron garden gate with his knee and, as he started up the walk to the porch, caught sight of a woman kneeling in the far corner of his postage-stamp front yard. She was almost lost in the hydrangea and the early evening twilight.
“Can I help you, miss,” Joel addressed her, more politely than he really felt was necessary under the circumstances. The woman turned to face him, but she didn’t otherwise respond. “Miss,” he repeated after an uncomfortable silence, “can I help you somehow?”
“You can see me,” she stated flatly, a declaration rather than an answer.
Joel reflected momentarily that when he looked straight on, he actually couldn’t see her, at least not precisely. Turning his head slightly, though, allowed him to take in her general features. Small-boned, pale, blond-gray hair pulled straight back and tied.
“Yes, of course I can see you,” Joel responded. “Who are you? What are you doing there?”
“Well”— she hesitated— “I’m Diana.” “I take care of things on this street,” she said, motioning up and down the row of houses.
“Take care of things— what do you mean you ‘take care of things?’” Joel asked. She turned back to the shrubs edging the lawn, fiddling with leaves, not answering at first.
“When I first went away and came back, I stayed right around my old house, that white one there, two down from yours. Well, it was plain brick when I was . . . before. But after a long while, I began venturing outside the yard, and I found that there were others nearby, like me.”
Joel had no idea what she was talking about, but after being so reticent, now the words were spilling out of her.
“One of my friends from . . . here . . . kept an eye on an older woman, a widow in this same block over on Hanover, who seemed nice, kindly. But he watched her hands knotting up with arthritis, her slowing step, noticed she couldn’t keep up with her garden. He started helping out, yanking little weeds, flicking Japanese beetles off the rose of sharon, that kind of thing. Just seemed like a good idea to me. So, I sort of adopted my old street, and now I do things I can. I deadhead the flowers, clear out old brown blossoms on the azaleas, brush the gumballs from the big sweetgums— like your two there— to the gutter, so no one will slip.”
“So, wait, do I have this right, you don’t live here anymore, but you do come and secretly garden at my house?”
“Oh, not just your house, all these houses, on this block and the next. Well, except for the house second-to-last on that side; I don’t think much of those people—tried to rat poison the squirrels one time. I clear their gumballs, because I don’t want anyone else to get hurt, but that’s it for them.”
“Miss, are you homeless or something? I’m sorry, really, but I can’t just let you come on my property while I’m gone. You’re going to have to go somewhere else.”
Again, she didn’t answer him. “How can you see me,” she asked instead.
“What do you mean? You’re standing there right in front of my eyes,” he replied, which was very nearly true.
“Most people can’t see us—nobody’s ever seen me before.”
“Yeah, well, I’d just as soon not see you here tomorrow, OK, so move along, please.” Joel turned up the porch steps, fumbled with the lock and pressed inside. He felt certain she had no intention of heeding his demand. When he finally peered out through parlor window, though, it was nearly dark, and even if she was there, he could no longer see her, see much of anything. “‘Others nearby, like me,’ what the heck was she talking about,” Joel asked himself later that night. He turned her words over in his mind until he fell off to sleep.
Diana wasn’t there the next morning, which was a relief. Joel had half expected to find her sitting on his front steps. Walking to the corner, though, on his way over to Grove to catch the bus he decided he’d better start taking, he spied her fixed Indian-style on the neighbors’ grass, a scrawny black and white cat swishing circles around her.
“You know,” he startled her, “those people work downtown, but I doubt they’d be happy having you sit around their yard all day. Can’t you just go hang out somewhere else?”
“Their cat is lonesome,” she replied, composure regained. “She’s happy being outside—they used to keep her locked in the house all day— but still, she wants company. She likes me, and I keep that big orange tabby from bullying her.”
Joel hadn’t noticed the approach just then of a young woman, another neighbor, whose name he didn’t know, pushing her toddler in a stroller. Hearing her footfall close by, he cocked his head and saw her out of the corner of his eye. She met his sidelong glance briefly, averted her eyes, and then hurried past down the block.
“She can’t see me, you know,” Diana giggled, “so she thinks you’re crazy, talking to the cat.”
Joel would ordinarily have bristled at the teasing, but his mind was elsewhere, retrieving. “People can’t see you; used to live here; went away and came back,” he turned the puzzle pieces over out loud. “You’re not alive, are you? You’re not really here.”
No hesitation now, Diana met his questions head on. “I don’t think I’m alive anymore. I died. But I am really here; right here’s where I always am.”
“But how did you get here? What, I mean, what are you?”
“Joel,” it was the first time she’d spoken his name, “I’m happy that you can see me and that you’re not scared. My friends tell me that usually the ones who see us are afraid and won’t talk to us.”
It hadn’t occurred to Joel to be frightened, which was pretty odd, considering. “Should I be scared? Are you going to do something? And . . . there are others?”
“Don’t fret— I wouldn’t hurt anybody. And most other folks here seem alright, really. There’s a bad egg once in a while, but you can just give them wide berth. Not hard to spot; you’ll see them. They mutter, shuffle along, kick at stuff, like that.”
Joel didn’t know what more to say or ask. An extended silence passed between them. Diana broke it. “You should talk to Jesseniah. He stays around Byrd Park, ‘cause he likes the water. He’s been around here the longest of any of us.”
Hopping on the bus down to work no longer made much sense to Joel. He reached for his cellphone, dialed his office, told his secretary he’d be out sick for the day. Then, he set out on foot for the park.
Jesseniah wasn’t tough to spot. The park was mostly empty at the early hour, but a morning jogger whipped so close past an older man standing on the path along Shields Lake that Joel was sure there’d be a collision. There wasn’t. “Never saw him,” Joel said to himself, “that’d be him, I’m guessing.”
Jesseniah wasn’t hard to draw out either. He answered questions before Joel even asked them.
“For a real long time, I just watched and sat. Didn’t have much interest in helping people out, like some others here. Even if we want to, cain’t do really big things, carry a child out of a burning house, shove a stalled truck off the train tracks. Not strong in the world, we’re not. I was always partial to animals, though—looked after the Dooley’s horses at Maymont House when I was alive— and I seen that they see us. Got you a dog, mister? Probably seen him staring off at nothing. Most likely watching one of us. Anyway, favored critters more’n people, so I took to shooin’ ’em out a traffic for, well, for a lot a years now. Just wave my arms and spook ’em. That’s a joke, son. Works real good with squirrels, cats, dogs. Not possums; they’se just that stupid, waddle right into the road. What can you do?”
“Well, let’s see. Mrs. Dooley died in 1925, but I’d stopped working for the family ‘bout three years before. The gout got in my hands and knees to where I couldn’t do chores no more. See my fingers? Still all swoll up, even though they don’t hurt me no more. Anyway, Depression come, and I lost all my savings. Should’ve had my money in the Penny Savings with Mrs. Walker— only colored bank that made it through, ya know. Got sick, no money for doctor nor hospital, and I died in the winter of ’30.”
“I come into the world April 2, 1865, round about midnight, my mamma told me. Know that date, young fella?” Joel didn’t. “You need to learn your history,” Jesseniah scolded. “Richmond burnt that night. Lee’s army marched south across the James and put flame to the tobacco warehouses as they left. Wind whipped up, and near the whole city catched fire. I come three weeks early, and I was a tiny pup, but I done alright.”
“Oh, bein’ here ain’t that bad. When I’se alive, I never learnt to read—even free colored children weren’t allowed no school. But young Mr. Johnson, who was a teacher at the John F. Kennedy High School before he died, started me with readin’ and writin’ in 1972—taught some of the others since, too.”
“No, no, we ain’t forever. All move along sooner or later. I’m beginnin’ to fade myself; cain’t you see that?” Joel couldn’t. “Sometime, my hand’ll sweep right through somethin’, dog’s collar or tree branch. I ‘spect before long my time’ll be done. You goin’ blind, ain’t ya?” Jesseniah asked him.
“Yes,” Joel answered, “how did you know?”
“Seen you lookin’ edgewise. And sometimes folks losing their sight can catch sight of us. Are you fretful, Joel? Scared a becomin’ blind?” Joel knew he was, afraid of the dark, afraid of the loss of freedom. “You be awright, son. Diana’ll look after you, if you let her. She’s a sweet-natured one. Others likely help, too. They can, you know. Keep you outa traffic, find things you laid down somewheres, tell you which bus is comin’ down the road. Just ask ’em, you’ll see.”
Joel realized he was being gently dismissed. He said his thanks and goodbyes and set off for home. A few steps down the path, though, he turned and asked, “Jesseniah, what if I don’t go blind, what if my eyes get better?”
“Happened one time to me,” he answered, “fella with the catarack. Doctors fixed him up, and he couldn’t see me no more, couldn’t even hear me.”
The following days passed quickly. Joel spent all the time he could spare outside the office talking with Diana. And, since he couldn’t just stand by while she worked, he found himself tending the flower beds he’d never even taken much notice of in his own yard. With introductions from Diana, he made the acquaintance of some of his other new neighbors. They were a quirky collection, some timid as marsh deer, others cocksure and proud. Not every block had a caretaker, but Joel got to where he could tell instantly which ones did. They were just tidier, brighter somehow.
On the 15th of July, a month since he’d meet with Dr. Amsler and since he’d first caught sight of Diana, Joel called in sick to the office. “A mental health day,” he told his secretary. Earlier in the week, Diana, her brow furrowed with concern, had catalogued all the chores in the garden that should already have been done by Independence Day. They were kneeling side-by-side, pinching back the mums one last time, when the phone rang inside. Joel headed up the porch steps and caught the phone just inside the screen door on its last ring.
“Joel, it’s Dr. Amsler. Dr. Rubin’s office called this morning to let me know they hadn’t heard from you yet. Is everything alright, Joel? If there’s a problem with insurance, maybe we can help.” Diana, he saw, was sitting very still—odd for her—perched atop a stone Japanese lantern.
“No, sir,” Joel answered, “it’s not that. I’m fine, everything’s just fine.” At the edge of his vision, he could see something flash in the sunlight—a hummingbird, hovering before her.
“These experimental treatments need to begin before degeneration has progressed too far, so it’s important you be seen as soon as possible.”
“Joel,” Diana stage whispered, “can you see him? He’s beautiful, and fierce.”
“I’ll call and set up an appointment, I promise,” Joel spoke into the phone, “first thing next week.” He stood the phone back in its cradle and stepped back outside.
The hummingbird darted off at his approach. Diana turned, beaming, “Don’t you just love those little ones? Who was on the phone?”
“Oh,” Joel hesitated, “no one, really—my office, nothing important.”
“OK, then,” she continued with a conspiratorial gleam, “go fetch the shovel. We’re going to separate out some of these daylilies and sneak them into Mrs. Andrews’ back garden while she’s away visiting her daughter. It’s a little early to unearth them, but it’ll be such a nice surprise come spring.” Joel retrieved the spade from the tool house and plunged it into the center of the clump of lilies where Diana pointed. He enjoyed the midsummer sun on his cheeks, the cry of the cicadas, the smell of damp, dark earth. He was not at all sure life could be better than this.