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Short Story

(1994)

FROM THE BREAKFAST BUFFET, Aurora slipped an apple and a banana into the pockets of her apron before opening the doors of the Seneca Hotel café. She looked around for the two skinny, towheaded schoolboys who often sidled up to accept her secret handouts. She never gave them donuts or sugary drinks, but always fruit or yogurt or whole-wheat muffins, foods that a real mother might give them. They were brothers, she had learned, the older one eight and in third grade, the younger one five, just beginning kindergarten. They lived in a trailer park in the hills outside of Ithaca and rode into town each morning with their mother, who cleaned rooms in the hotel. Although they sometimes appeared hungry, the boys were always neatly dressed in the white shirts and navy-blue shorts of Immaculate Conception School, an outfit not so different from Aurora’s own waitress uniform of white shirt and black slacks.

But on this Monday morning in September, the only person waiting outside the café when she opened the doors was a blind man. She could tell he was blind not merely from his white walking stick and wraparound dark glasses, but also from the way his face betrayed no expression until she wished him good morning, and then he gave a cautious smile. His teeth gleamed in contrast with skin as dark as the lenses in his sunglasses, making Aurora feel, by comparison, washed out and pale.

“A table for one,” the man said, in a voice that sounded raspy from sleep, or maybe from solitude. “And a little guidance, if you don’t mind.”

He bent an arm and held it out from his side. After a moment’s hesitation, Aurora grasped the arm above the elbow, where the muscle swelled toward the bicep, and she was surprised at how thick it felt through the sleek blue fabric of his shirt. He was about her height, five foot nine or so, but much broader, a husky man, and he was more sharply dressed than the usual businessmen who passed through the hotel, from burgundy tie to shined cordovan wingtip shoes. As she led him to a table, with his other arm he swung the walking stick from side to side before him, the tip whispering over the carpet.

“Here we are,” she said, pulling out a chair.

The man eased himself down, leaned the stick against his chest, and sat there expectantly.

“Coffee?” Aurora asked.

“Hot tea, please. Chamomile, if you have it. Otherwise, anything herbal.”

“Chamomile it is. And to eat?” She drew a leatherette folder from her apron, then caught herself before offering it to him. “Would you like me to read the menu? Actually, I could recite it in my sleep.”

His smile brightened. “I’m guessing you have oatmeal.”

“We sure do. Made from oats organically grown by bachelor farmers.”

He laughed at this, a warm rumble that surprised her. “Oatmeal, then, with brown sugar, raisins, and a little cream. And an English muffin with orange marmalade.”

He sounded like one of those broadcasters on NPR, not like any black man she’d ever met. Close your eyes, and you’d never guess his color. “Coming right up,” she said.

Aurora pushed open the swinging door into the kitchen with the same hand she had used to grip the blind man’s arm, and she could still feel against her palm the swell and hardness of his bicep.

When she carried the tray into the dining room, he was hunched over his table, talking into a little silvery gadget in a voice so low she could hear barely a murmur as she set the food and tea before him. He straightened up and said, “Ah, wonderful.”

“From the farm to you,” she said. “Anything else just now, sir?”

“There is one thing.” His sunglasses reflected her face, pale as skim milk. “Would you mind saying a little something into my recorder?” He lifted the silvery gadget, which was about the size and shape of a bar of soap.

In a dozen years of waitressing, counting from when she’d begun clearing tables in her parents’ tavern at age ten, this was a first. “Is it for the radio?”

“No, no. Just research. I’m the only one who’ll ever hear it.”

Amused to think of a blind man listening to her voice inside his dark world, she asked, “What would you like me to say?”

“These few words, if you please.” He pulled a card from his pocket.

Taking the card, she skimmed the list of words: creek, route, house, tomato, aunt, neighbor, and several more. Weird, she thought. But since there were no other customers, she licked her lips and read the words aloud, bending close to the recorder, close enough to smell his aftershave, like cinnamon and rum.

When she had finished, he accepted the card and said, “A million thanks.”

“You bet.” She backed away, studying him, free for once to stare at a customer who interested her. The blind man set the recorder aside, tucked his necktie into the pocket of his sky-blue shirt, no doubt to keep it out of the oatmeal, and then he ran his fingers over the bowl, cup, teapot, cream pitcher, and silverware, before he began to eat. She couldn’t help noticing his wedding band; the noticing was an old habit, and a pointless one. She wasn’t in the market for a man, least of all a blind man. The handle of the walking stick jutted above his head; except for the white shaft, it was like the metal staffs she had seen hikers using on trails along the Ithaca gorges. His hair was cropped short, still jet black, leading her to guess he was in his twenties or early thirties. It was hard to tell, since the wraparound glasses hid his eyes, but the skin of his face and on the backs of his hands was as smooth as chocolate.

Aurora thrust her own chapped hands into the pockets of her apron. Just as the blind man’s dark skin made her feel sunless and pale, so his muscular bulk, hunched there over his breakfast, made her feel all the more scrawny. Her landlady, her co-workers, and her friends sometimes asked if she was ill, and she assured them that she was perfectly healthy; she simply could not put any flesh on her bones.

Thinking of the underfed schoolboys, with their knobby knees and stick legs, Aurora checked once more outside the door of the café to see if they had come for their secret snack, but there was no sign of them, and she felt let down.

As the flow of morning customers picked up—a flight crew, salesmen shuffling papers, women dressed for jogging, rumpled professors going over lecture notes—Aurora had to quit watching the blind man. Yet she managed to see when he raised an index finger, as though he were testing the wind, and she quickly brought him the bowl of fruit he requested, and she noticed again when he wanted a fresh tea bag and a refill of hot water, and again when he was ready to leave. As she approached with the check, unsure how to present it, he relieved her uncertainty by asking for the amount, and when she told him, he asked her to add a five-dollar tip, insert his room number, print his name—Eugene Baker—and then to loan him a pen and guide his hand to the spot where he needed to sign. Under her slim fingers his felt massive, like the limbs of a slow but powerful animal, a starfish maybe. She let go, touched her throat, and watched him scrawl a jerky signature.

“Can I show you out?” Aurora asked.

“No, thanks.” He pushed back from the table and stood. “Once I’ve walked somewhere, I can usually find my way again.”

“Well, then, enjoy your time in Ithaca, sir.”

“I hope to, miss.” He paused, standing there with a fist wrapped around the handle of his walking stick. “If I’m going to eat breakfast here for the next few days, I can’t keep calling you miss. You know my name. Isn’t it fair that I should know yours?”

She was startled, so used to being anonymous in her white shirt and black slacks, her ginger-colored hair drawn back into a ponytail, a plain, skinny woman of twenty-two whom nobody looked at twice. “It’s Aurora,” she answered. “Aurora Eliza Ames.”

“You’re not from upstate New York, are you?”

“No, sir.”

“From Ohio, I’d say.”

“You guessed it. A buckeye, born and bred.”

“Northern Ohio. Cleveland, perhaps?”

She laughed. “Right downtown. Euclid Avenue. How did you know?”

He smiled broadly. “I’m a student of speech.”

“Well, that’s amazing,” Aurora said. She would have said more, would have asked what sounded like Cleveland in her speech, but she was aware of unattended desires building up across the dining room, customers wanting more coffee or pats of butter or checks. And so she muttered, “I’d better go earn my big bucks.”

“Of course, of course,” Eugene Baker said. Wearing that cautious smile, he turned and began skittering the stick across the carpet ahead of him as he walked away.

§

Although Aurora had always been scrawny, she had not always been plain. There was a spell around age thirteen when the men at the Iron Ore Tavern began to notice her, following her with their eyes as she lugged trays among the tables, or sliding a hand under her skirt when she leaned over to set down pitchers of beer. So long as she didn’t cut school, she could work at that age because her parents owned the tavern, and she could dress like a tramp, as her mother often remarked, because her father knew what was good for business. When her tight blouse began to show the nubbins of breasts and her short skirt began to reveal a curving rump, the men took an interest. Neither rump nor breasts ever got much bigger, however, and what had seemed cute in a girl became disappointing in a woman, so that now, ten years beyond puberty, Aurora caught no man’s eyes. Most of the time this neglect was fine with her, because the early, fleeting rush of male attention had led only to grief.

When she was a girl, the men who frequented the Iron Ore Tavern, just off Euclid Avenue in an area of Cleveland that had fallen on hard times, worked, if they worked at all, on Great Lakes freighters, in warehouses and tire shops; they drove squad cars and taxis; they tarred roofs, bagged groceries, welded steel. They often showed up straight from work, in sweat-stained shirts bearing the names of their employers across the back and their own names stitched over the breast pockets. Pete, Sammy, Carlos, Tony, Will. White, black, red, and brown, all buddies in booze, or at least willing to ignore the colors of skin while drinking. Some of them, Aurora figured, were drinking up the rent money. Some were hiding out from bill-collectors or nagging wives. When they fought, as they occasionally did, her father charged out from behind the bar and collared the one who’d started it and threw him into the street. After a few beatings from her father when she was little, Aurora had never dared to make him mad. She read his moods with the life-or-death attention a Great Lakes sailor gave to the weather.

Honey, the men called her, or Sweet Cheeks, Little Bird, Princess, Doll. When they traced her new curves with bloodshot eyes and rough hands, she never took them seriously, for they were mostly older, graying and balding, smelling of grease and cigarette smoke, wearing sideburns or scrubby moustaches, their bellies sagging. The leering and fondling bothered her but also flattered her, as if, after years of invisibility, she had become a solid presence in the world, with her own gravity and radiance. Merely by crossing the room, she could stir these gruff men, and this newfound power pleased as well as frightened her. Their faces and voices assured her that it was all in good fun. As they made over her they often winked at her father, who winked back from his post at the bar. Yet she sensed, behind their teasing and laughing, a danger that made her cautious, and so she played along just far enough to gather tips.

Then one Saturday night in March when Aurora was sixteen, and she felt her allure beginning to fade, a guy came into the tavern off a freighter with a driver’s license showing him to be twenty-one, but she guessed he was younger, and she would find out later that he was only eighteen. Her father didn’t check IDs too closely, because several cops from the local precinct were regulars at the bar when off-duty, and they appreciated the free drinks he set before them now and again. “Nightcaps for cops,” he called these wet bribes. The boy who claimed to be twenty-one sat on a stool at the bar, where her father served him a frosty mug of beer and a plate of onion rings, one of her mother’s specialties. As Aurora delivered orders and cleared tables, the boy swiveled on his stool to give her the eye. She looked his way often enough to see that he was stocky, his broad shoulders filling out a yellow slicker and his thighs stretching the fabric of his jeans. Even without his midnight hair drawn back into a braid, his high cheekbones and sun-browned skin would have made her guess he was part Indian.

His freighter, it turned out, was docked in Cleveland for a week, and he spent all seven nights in the Iron Ore Tavern. After the first night, he always sat at a table, where Aurora could serve him, and by the second night he was calling her by name and asking her to call him Raven, and they were exchanging life stories. She didn’t have much to tell, but Raven, it seemed, had gone everywhere and done everything. Later on she would discover that much of his story, like his ID and his name, was phony, made up to intrigue her. But at the time his fanciful talk did intrigue her, drawing her to his table each night for longer and longer spells, until her father grumped from behind the bar that there were other customers to serve.

§

Six years later and two states away, Aurora was still serving customers, although the clientele in the Seneca Hotel café hung out quite a few rungs higher on the money ladder than the men she’d served in her parents’ bar. The tips were larger here, the clothes fancier, the voices more refined, and nobody traced her scant curves with hands or eyes. In fact, since that week of basking in Raven’s attention, a week that began in joy and ended in sorrow, she had come to feel all but invisible.

When Eugene Baker showed up for breakfast again, on Tuesday, it occurred to her that she was literally invisible to him, a disembodied voice. He arrived just as Aurora was giving cups of yogurt to the two schoolboys. She put a finger to her lips and raised her eyebrows at the boys, who tiptoed away, keeping their handouts secret from the blind man. A few steps down the hall, the younger one glanced back with a grin, two front teething missing, and it was all Aurora could do to keep from rushing after him and squeezing him to her chest.

“Good morning, Mr. Baker,” she said.

“And to you, Miss Aurora Eliza Ames,” he said with a little bow.

The sound of her name in his radio voice made her laugh. After delivering him an order of waffles to go with his tea, she checked on him occasionally as the dining room filled. Once when she brought extra syrup, he asked her to describe the view through the café windows. She told him the only windows opened onto the hallway, where you could see a woman vacuuming. Then he wanted to know if there was art on the walls. There were photographs, she told him, the size of bath towels. They’d been put up a few days earlier, to advertise an exhibit at the History Center.

“Photographs of what?” he asked.

“Old timey Ithaca,” she said. “One shows two boys lugging cartons of empty pop bottles—Canada Dry—to a corner store. Another shows a pile of boys in a schoolyard, some wearing baseball mitts, all of them mugging for the camera. There’s one of a little boy in shorts squatting down to watch an egg fry on a sidewalk. And there’s one of boys skating on Cayuga Lake holding little triangular sails to push them along over the ice.”

“Nothing but boys?” Eugene Baker asked.

“Well, there’s one that shows a girl in a frilly dress, with a necklace and square bangs, opening a purse to buy a treat at a bake sale. But even that one’s got a small boy—maybe her brother—crowding up to point out the cookie he wants.”

Aurora excused herself to wait on other customers, but really she wanted to quit thinking about those little boys, with their skinny arms and gap-toothed grins and their skulls so exposed beneath burr haircuts. Not just the photographs, but the streets of Ithaca seemed to be tilted toward boys. From the loading dock behind the hotel, where she went during breaks to catch a breath of air, she could see toddlers playing across the street in DeWitt Park, and she always counted more boys than girls. Most days, when she walked home to her attic room in a house a few blocks west of the hotel on Buffalo Street, she passed by Immaculate Conception as school was letting out, and of the children holding onto a mother’s or father’s hands, or climbing into the backseats of cars, or taking a last few swings in the playground, way more than half, she calculated, were boys. Once or twice a week she saw the two brothers whom she secretly fed, the kindergartener and third-grader, trudging from school to the hotel to meet up with their mother. Aurora didn’t trust herself to speak with any of these children, for fear the crossing guard or school cop or some parent would think she was trying to kidnap them.

The blind man made no surprising requests this time when she brought his check. He went through the same routine as he had the day before, leading up to her guiding his hand to the spot for the signature, a hand nearly as big, she imagined, as a baseball mitt.

§

During that week with Raven, back when she was sixteen, Aurora played along farther than she ever had before with any boy at school, let alone with any of the rough men at the Iron Ore Tavern. Night by night, in the alleyway out back or in the stairway leading up to her family’s apartment above the bar, she let his hands roam over her body, first on top of her clothes and then beneath them. Her father must have noticed the two of them slipping out, but so long as she returned in time to clear tables and refill pitchers, he didn’t bark at her.

On Raven’s last night in port, convinced that he loved her, afraid nobody else ever would, she let him into her room above the bar, let him undress her, let him inside her. Intent on giving him pleasure, she felt her own pain only after he withdrew and stood up to retrieve his clothes from a chair. Streetlight through the window outlined his muscular body. Older girls had told her there would be pain, but she had not imagined it would be so sharp. As Raven turned to pull on his jeans, she could dimly see on his left shoulder blade, next to his black braid, the shape of a swastika, as large as a spread hand.

“What’s that?” she asked, startled.

“What’s what?” he said.

“On your back.”

He jerked around to face her. “A tattoo.”

“Yes, but what’s it of?”

“A raven. For my clan.”

“It looked like—”

“It’s a raven, I tell you.” He quickly buttoned his shirt, stepped into his boots.

Aurora lay there aching, filling herself with the sight of him, fending off the sense that he was lying, as he had lied about his age. “Can’t you stay awhile?”

“I’ve got to board the ship or they’ll can my ass.”

“When will you be back?”

“Oh, six weeks, two months.” He zipped the yellow slicker. “Depends on what we’re hauling and where it’s bound. No later than June, for sure.”

“Raven—”

He waited with a hand on the doorknob. “What now?”

She wanted to ask if he loved her, if he found her beautiful, but his hard cheekbones and taut lips, licked by streetlight, made her say instead, “Be quiet, so you don’t wake my folks.”

“Sure thing.” He blew her a kiss, and that was the last she ever saw of him.

§

The last she ever heard of Raven came the following February, two months after the birth of her son, who entered the world with a swatch of hair as black as his father’s. The baby was sleeping behind the bar and Aurora was waiting tables one night when in rolled a burly, red-bearded man whom she remembered as a shipmate of Raven’s. For a while she was too nervous to approach the man, talking instead with a few of the regulars who asked about baby Harlan. Her standard answer was that all he did was eat, sleep, cry, and fill his diapers. None of them seemed to think it strange that she was a mother at seventeen, with no husband in sight, that she had dropped out of school, that she had zero prospects for any job paying more than minimum wage. She gathered they had sisters, daughters, or nieces who’d been in the same fix.

When she could no longer ignore the red-bearded man, she approached his table warily, took his order, and was just turning away when he said, “Shame about Tommy.”

“Tommy?”

“Tommy Two Bears,” the man said. “Called himself Raven when he was in port. Part of his Indian thing the girls went for. He was mighty sweet on you, I remember.”

“What about him?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“Hear what, for God’s sake?”

He raked fingers through his wiry beard, avoiding her eyes. She waited, hands on hips, head cocked. At last, with an air of reluctance, the man told her that a pilot from their ship had spent an evening in the tavern last summer, figured out from looking at her that she was in a family way, found out from asking around who the father was, and then went back and told Tommy he’d better go to Cleveland and do right by her. But instead Tommy had joined the navy, sailed aboard an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, and died there when a jet overshot the flight deck and spun out of control. “Only nineteen,” the man concluded. “He’s buried in Arlington Cemetery. You could go see.”

Aurora swayed and would have fallen, had the man not lurched from his chair to catch her. She came to in the kitchen, stretched out on the counter next to the grill. Her mother was flipping hamburgers with one hand, pressing an icepack to Aurora’s forehead with the other.

Raven’s shipmate stood there looking on nervously. “You okay?”

“I’m just tired, is all,” Aurora said. She took the icepack from her mother and sat up, still woozy. “I haven’t slept three hours at a stretch since the baby was born.”

“I just wanted to say I was sorry about Tommy.” The man rocked heavily from foot to foot. “I didn’t mean to bring bad news.”

“Tell me,” Aurora said. “Was he really from Chicago?”

“No. He was from Marquette, in the UP, right on Lake Superior. I met his mom once when we docked there, a real quiet Chippewa woman. She had diabetes so bad she couldn’t work. She lived off the checks Tommy sent her. Now I guess she’ll get some kind of veteran’s payout.”

“If you’re feeling good enough to chat,” her mother said, sliding a hamburger and fries onto a plate, “you’d better get back to work.”

“Just one more thing,” Aurora said. “Did you ever see him with his shirt off?”

“Plenty of times. It gets hot as blazes below deck.”

“You saw the tattoo on his back?”

“The swastika?”

“He told me it was a raven.”

The man grunted. “He would. More of his Indian thing. But it was a swastika. If anybody asked him about it, he’d just glare back with his jaw set, and so we let it go. A ship is a snug place. If a man has a secret, you let him keep it.”

Just then her father stuck his head through the kitchen doorway. “Hey, when you get finished with your little drama, we’ve got a bar to run.”

Over his voice and the hubbub of men, Aurora could hear the baby’s piercing cry.

§

No sign of the schoolboys on Wednesday, but Eugene Baker showed up early in another silk tie and impeccable shirt, eyes hidden behind those dark shades, his face wearing that expectant smile, as if he counted on kindness. Aurora knew better than to count on kindness, although every once in a great while someone, like this blind man, surprised her.

When he was settled at his table with tea and omelet and toast, he asked again if he could record her voice, and then asked her to describe Ithaca and the surrounding landscape. She didn’t know what to say, nor did she have the time to say it amid the breakfast rush, so she proposed that during her morning break, around ten-thirty, they could ride the elevator to a lounge on top of the Seneca Hotel, ten floors up, and she could describe the view from there.

“Ah, marvelous,” he said, as if her offer were another serving of food.

At ten-thirty they met in the lobby and rode alone in the elevator, the air smelling of his spicy cologne. For this morning’s outing, he told her, he had postponed his daily trip to Cornell, where he was helping to develop software that would enable visually impaired students to hear class notes and books read aloud by computers, instead of having to decipher everything through Braille. Aurora wondered if Eugene Baker thought of himself as “visually impaired.” Did a fancy name make it less of a loss?

In the tenth-floor lounge—where the mother of the schoolboys, a bedraggled woman with crooked teeth and bowed legs, was emptying ash trays—Aurora led this dapper, beaming, husky man from window to window, telling him what could be seen in each direction. Speaking into the recorder, she explained that Ithaca lay in a sort of bowl, with hills on every side except the north, which opened onto the long blue finger of Cayuga Lake. The towers of Cornell rose above trees on a ridge to the northeast, and the towers of Ithaca College loomed from a ridge to the southwest. Now, in September, with maples beginning to flame orange and red, the town seemed to be cradled by the encircling hills and lake, but in winter, frozen beneath layer upon layer of snow, the place could feel cut off from all promise of greenness or warmth. The houses in town were mainly wood, the stores and banks mainly brick, and the churches mainly stone. She counted seven steeples within a few blocks of the hotel, the tallest of them narrow and sharp with crosses at the top, like rockets aiming at heaven.

“You’d think we’d be holy and smart,” Aurora said, “surrounded by colleges and churches. But you couldn’t prove it by me.”

“You don’t go to church?”

“Never got into the habit. My folks were allergic to religion.” She told him then about her parents sleeping in on Sundays, their only morning free of toiling in the Iron Ore Tavern, and about how she waited tables beginning in fifth grade, about the sailors and railroaders and cops, the fights, the puke on the floor, the struggle to do schoolwork at the bar during lulls, her father’s temper, her mother’s broken spirit, the sad sound of freighters bleating in the fog out on Lake Erie. She even told him about falling for a liar who called himself Raven, told everything that mattered about her growing up except the one thing that mattered most, the one unspeakable thing. By the end of her headlong tale they had arrived back in the hotel lobby, where she handed him the recorder, apologized for rattling on, and hurried into the café.

§

On Thursday morning the younger of the two schoolboys was standing in the hallway alone when Aurora opened the café doors. “Where’s your brother?” she asked.

The boy shrugged, but said nothing. In the few times she had spoken to the boys, only the older one had answered, and even he would never tell their names.

“Is he sick?” she asked. “Did he stay home?” The boy nodded. “But your mommy’s at work?” Another nod. “Is somebody at home with him? Your daddy?” The boy shook his head so hard his entire body twisted. “Your grandma?” Now he nodded again, lower lip thrust out.

Aurora wanted to hear his voice, so she kept asking questions. “How do you like kindergarten? Do you have a nice teacher? Are you learning to read?” The boy stared at his shoes, brown leather ones, which were run over at the heels but carefully polished so the scuffs barely showed. She wanted to kiss his bare, bony knees. Only hunger kept him standing there, she realized, and so she drew two muffins from her apron and the boy took them and darted away, a purple backpack thumping against his thin shoulders.

When she turned from the scampering boy, she found Eugene Baker standing behind her at the entrance of the café. “Who’s your friend?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said, “just a little boy. His mother works in the hotel, and sometimes I give him a treat from the breakfast bar. Don’t tell my boss.”

“I can keep a secret.” His face broke into that trusting smile.

Eugene Baker’s smile was the last one she saw that morning, as the other diners seemed to be in a foul mood, perhaps because the weather was dreary. Today’s background music didn’t help, as one song after another moaned about a lover who’d done the singer wrong. Blues, blues, and more blues. In one song, which played every twenty minutes or so as the tape repeated, a man kept wailing, “I want my baby back.” Aurora knew that the “baby” here was the man’s two-timing girlfriend, but she kept imagining a real baby, an infant, too young even to crawl. If you’d lost a baby, wouldn’t you want it back more than you’d want any sexy gal or guy?

As he signed his tab for breakfast, Eugene Baker asked if she would be working today after four or so. When she told him no, she’d be in class, he asked what she was studying, and she told him court reporting.

“How interesting.” He rose from the chair and gripped his white stick. “And what led you to choose that unusual profession?”

His curiosity disarmed her, and so she explained. “I used to wait for the bus to school out front of the Academy of Court Reporting on Euclid Avenue. They always had signs in the windows telling how much you could earn. Way more than a waitress makes. I’m hoping once I finish my training I can get a job with the court and move out of my landlady’s attic and buy a trailer in the hills. Maybe even a house. Who knows?”

He nodded, as if he had dreams of his own. “Have you seen many trials?”

“Only on TV. When I’d come into the bar after school, my dad would be watching this old lawyer show. Perry Mason was the guy’s name. He won every case. I liked the way there was always a clear verdict, guilty or innocent, nothing in between.”

“Why not study law?”

She let loose a scoffing breath. “Fat chance. It took me four years after moving to Ithaca to get my GED. There’s no way I’ll ever go to college.”

“I see,” Eugene Baker said, which sounded odd coming from a blind man.

“If I can sit there in the courtroom tapping keys, taking down what the lawyers and witnesses and judges say, I’ll be thrilled.”

“Do you also have classes tomorrow afternoon?” He rested both hands on top of the walking stick and leaned toward her.

“Not on Fridays.”

“Then I wonder if you’d consider doing me a great kindness.”

Aurora studied the skin of his face, which was like brown silk, shot through with light. “What sort of kindness?”

“Would you take me to one of the famous Ithaca gorges? I leave early Saturday, so tomorrow’s my last chance.”

“I don’t have a car,” she said, and then quickly added, “but there’s a waterfall we can walk to.” Then just as quickly a pang of fear prompted her to say, “I’m sure folks from Cornell could tell you a whole lot more than me, about geology and stuff.”

“I’d prefer you as a guide,” he said. “No recorder this time. Just a pleasant outing. What do you say?”

His confident voice and smile, his broad shoulders squared back, everything about him announced that he expected her to say yes. And that is what she said.

§

They set off from the hotel the next afternoon as children from Immaculate Conception School were streaming down the sidewalks, the younger ones clutching the hands of parents or nannies. But one little tyke waited alone at the corner of Buffalo and Tioga for the light to change, his white shirt untucked from the blue shorts, his backpack dangling from a single strap, and Aurora, waiting on the opposite side of the street with Eugene Baker, saw that it was the kindergartener, still without his brother. He looked tired. She would have waved at him, but she imagined him dashing into traffic, a thought that made her shudder.

When the light changed, Aurora guided Eugene Baker down from the curb while gripping his elbow. As the boy passed them she called out, “Hey there, munchkin,” and patted his blond mop of hair, the first time she had ever touched him. He glanced up at her and blurted out, “Hey,” and scurried on toward the hotel.

“Was that your ravenous young friend?” Eugene Baker asked.

“How did you know?”

“I heard the same flutter in your voice yesterday morning outside the café.”

The blind man kept noticing sounds as they headed north along Tioga Street. Tapping his stick, he could tell when they moved from sections of sidewalk made of concrete to sections made of slate. He heard the trickle of Cascadilla Creek a block before they crossed over it. He identified the clatter of children riding scooters, the singing of robins and wrens, the scrape of a spade against stone, the whining fan belt in a truck, the crunch of leaves underfoot. He asked if the shade trees were maples, and she told him yes, they were lighting up like torches all along the street.

Then he asked her what flowers were still blooming in the yards. She didn’t know their names, but from her descriptions, and from bending down to smell or touch the blossoms, he identified impatiens, chrysanthemums, geraniums, petunias, sunflowers, marigolds, red cannas, zinnias, roses, and fading Queen Anne’s lace.

“There weren’t any flowers in my part of Cleveland,” she explained, “so I never learned what they were called. But I could name you thirty kinds of beer.”

“And what’s the best beer in Cleveland?”

“I hate them all. I hate every drink my daddy sold.”

“Your folks don’t run the tavern anymore?”

“Oh, probably. It’s all they know how to do.”

“You never get back home?”

“Home is here,” she insisted.

“You don’t talk with them on the phone? Don’t write letters?”

“Not since I left.”

“And how long is that?”

“Five years.”

They walked on a few paces in silence, and Aurora felt he was waiting for her, giving her a chance to explain, and she found herself wanting to confide in this man who would get on a plane the next day and fly away.

“I cut myself off from them,” she said, “because I’m ashamed. I did something terrible. Something unforgivable.”

He stopped, and she thought he was going to ask what she had done, but instead he pointed off to the right and murmured, “The falls.”

She couldn’t hear them yet, but she could lead him there, two blocks east and then north on Lake Street to the bridge, and down the footpath into the gorge of Fall Creek, her hand tightening on his arm lest he stumble on the loose stones. She described for him the deep, layered walls of the gorge—slabs of old seafloor, she’d heard, although it was hard to imagine the sea ever reaching here—and she described the trees high above tilting over the rim, the vines hanging down, the stream flowing over a flat stony bed, and along the path a swirl of white moths alighting on flowers.

Again he stopped, his arm flexing where she grasped it. A smile stole over his face. “A violin,” he whispered. “Playing Vivaldi.”

Although she could hear nothing except the purr of water, Aurora trusted the blind man’s ears. Such a thing could happen in Ithaca. And sure enough, as they rounded a bend she could see, well back from the waterfall, a woman sitting in a blue lawn chair, wearing a straw hat, and playing a violin. Now that Aurora saw the instrument, the bow moving over the strings, she could hear it, but just barely.

She guided Eugene Baker past the violin player to a mossy ledge near the base of the falls, and there they sat, enveloped in the roar and mist.

“It’s like milk pouring down a giant staircase,” she told him, bending close to his ear, “all white and frothy. I don’t know what to say. It’s beautiful. It gives me shivers.”

He turned toward her, his sunglasses damp from the spray, his face gleaming. “Nothing is unforgivable,” he said.

She let go of his arm and squeezed her hands between her thighs. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew what I did.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

She looked down at her legs, so thin in the black slacks. She had thought of changing from her waitress outfit into a dress before their walk, but it didn’t matter how she looked. She existed for him only as a voice and as a touch on his arm or hand. “I ran away from my parents,” she began, and then her throat clenched.

“Lots of kids do that.”

“I ran away because I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was scared. I was smothering from sadness. The only man I’d ever trusted filled me up with a baby and sailed off over the edge of the world. I thought if I stayed I’d just drop dead on the stinking floor of that bar.” She looked away, back toward the violinist, who was still fingering the strings and sliding the bow, but Aurora could not hear any music over the thrum of water. Before her nerve failed, she told him the rest of it. “And I wrapped my baby in a towel and left him on the bar with a note saying I’ve got to go or I’ll die. He was too little even to sit up, and I left him to be raised in the same place and by the same parents who’d made me miserable. The towel was for Pabst Blue Ribbon, the beer my one and only lover drank. I rode the Greyhound to Ithaca and I’ve stayed here ever since, too ashamed to call and see how he’s doing, let alone go back and look him in the eye.”

“Five years,” Eugene Baker said. “He’d be starting kindergarten.”

“Most likely. If he’s healthy. If he’s been looked after.” Aurora wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of a wrist. “I’ve never told anybody else.”

“That’s a heavy load to carry,” he said. “But even that you can lay down.”

“I don’t see how.”

“You can lay it down because you’re forgiven.”

“Says who?” When he did not answer, she turned to him, trembling, and said, “I trusted you with something. Now trust me with something.”

“What do you want?”

“Let me see your eyes.”

His lips tightened into a solemn line. Slowly he removed the dark glasses and presented his face to her, revealing eyes like chalky moons, like planets wrapped in clouds, like twin knots of foam in the milky tumble of Ithaca Falls.


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