Saturday, October 10, 2015

Behind Blue Eyes - by Terry Barr

             I’m on Broad Street, only a half-mile from campus. I see him one street over. He’s just a figure walking. I shouldn’t have noticed him. People walk by all the time and I hardly glance up. There’s nothing in their gaze, their movement, their condition to attract me.
            However, I can’t help noticing him. The quality of his walk, the slightly stooped posture freeze me. Even at the distance of a lengthy block, I can tell that he’s no longer on the sidewalk proper. He’s veering up and down a bank, negotiating terrain too hazardous for a man of his age and stature.
            I know it’s him.
            I’ve heard stories. At gatherings of other retired professors, he shows up unannounced. He shanghaies whatever subject they’re discussing, and directs them in song after song.
He orchestrates the a cappella singing of “The Old Rugged Cross,” “The Church in the Wildwood,” and even “Jesus Loves Me.” He asks no one’s preference. He simply says, “Remember this one?” Then he launches in as heartily as if he were still a boy trying to impress his choirmaster or his mother.
            The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that he’s scoffed at religion ever since I’ve known him: the past twenty-eight years. He hasn’t attended any church in that time, and I’m not certain of his denomination. I’m not certain if he claims one at all any longer. He was raised as something, though. Yet he allowed his students to believe he was a Marxist. Was. Not Marxist enough, however, to disavow or distance himself from our college’s policy of admitting only faculty who are Christian into its tenured ranks. To me directly, he’s professed that, “At least we know the kind of person the candidate is, if he’s a Christian.” I didn’t know what to say to that statement; that amazingly misguided notion.
            He knew I was half-Jewish, after all. He knew that I had all-but-renounced my Christian identity after I received tenure.
            “But it was what you were raised with,” he says, something I can’t argue with. So I don’t; instead I work diligently to help get that policy changed.
            I’ve heard also that in the past few months since his retirement, he’s begun wandering into stranger’s homes. He thinks he’s entering a campus building, late for some meeting that exists only in his head. He hasn’t been shot or arrested, I suppose, because it’s such a small town. People are talking about him, though.
            And now, everybody knows.
            I’ve been told, too, that upon meeting faculty from other departments, he hasn’t remembered their names. Yet these faculty members weren’t in his department, I reasoned, so maybe it’s just the wearing of time. So many colleagues; so much confusion.
            My reasoning, though, met the void one day when he was back on our floor, helping to choose the winner of the scholarship that bears his family name. He passed right by me on his way out, and then recognized, at least, that he was supposed to know me:
            “Boy, that was really tough deciding the winner this year. They were all so good.”
            Only I hadn’t been in the meeting.
            As I looked into his eyes that day, the familiar ones still set behind his horned-rimmed glasses, I recognized that there is no recognition in them.
            “I bet it was hard,” I say.
            “Yes, well I have to get back to Ramona.” His wife, the woman he’s been nursing ever since I met him. Her multiple sclerosis confined her to a wheel chair ever since she was forty. He flashes the V-sign then--for victory or for peace?--and then he’s gone.
            It’s that V-sign, I think, that catches my attention now; that makes me notice him walking down this side street. He’s waving it to any car that passes, whether it’s passing him, or somewhere else in the late fall distance. It’s too cold for him to be walking anyway, so I turn toward him.
And now I see clearly that he’s waving to empty air.
I pull up alongside him, and he approaches the passenger side of my car.
“Can you give me a ride,” he asks.
“Yes, Jim, get in.”
He does so, his eyes glancing at me as he buckles his belt.
“I just dropped my car at Cooper’s, “ he says. “They’re fixing my brakes. I live just up the road here.”
“I know where you live, Jim, and I’m glad to drive you.”
He and Ramona moved from their former house, just a block from campus, and have an apartment in the Presbyterian retirement community now. It has an assisted living wing, and more intensive care for those who need it. Or will soon need it.
“And where do you live,” he asks me.
“I’m in Greenville, like I’ve always been,” I say.
“Oh. That’s a nice town. Kinda far away though.”
The drive to his place is short enough from here, though we do have to cross the state highway leading out of town. He shouldn’t be walking alone. Worse, he shouldn’t be driving, though he still seems to know where he’s going.
He just doesn’t know who I am.
He doesn’t remember that I’m the half-Jewish man he advocated hiring back in the winter of 1987; the one who co-taught a Media and Society course with him for over twenty years each fall. The one who gathered with him at department meetings, Christmas parties for our majors, spring retreats, and even at an Atlanta Braves’ game, which he graciously treated me to.
I remember when he called to congratulate me on the birth of each of our daughters, and also on that fall Saturday when my favorite college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, upset Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators in “The Swamp.”
“You must be so excited, Terry,” he said that day.
More than anything else, though, it’s his hands I remember. Finely clipped nails, firm fingers grasping his pen. They always reminded me of my father’s fingers. The stern control of my father’s hands as they used to be, when he wrote so precisely with a flourish to his script. A few weeks after my father died from Parkinson’s related dementia, Jim stopped me in the hall:
“Are you OK, Terry? You don’t seem to be doing too well.”
For him to notice and ask might not seem like much to an insensitive person. But it was.
“Are you all right Jim,” I ask now.
“Oh yes, thank you. Ramona is waiting on me for lunch. Listen, can I give you anything for your trouble?”
“No Jim, it’s my pleasure.”
“OK. Take care now,” and he shuts the car door and strides off to the remaining life awaiting him.
I head over to campus and report the incident to a colleague who knows Jim too.
“That’s not good,” my colleague says.
“I know. He just climbed on in. I could have been anybody.”
“Well, I’m going to call his son.”
It wasn’t long after that Jim was retired to a room of his own, his keys and outside privileges taken from him. I hear he still sings hymns. He doesn’t know anyone in his ‘home,” now. Not his son and not even Ramona.
I’ve heard his clear blue eyes go glassy quite often, that he’s ballooned in size because he’ll eat anything he’s served. Just like my Dad who ate fried fish in his last days and macaroni and cheese. But Dad always hated fish, and he claimed cheese was “binding.”
And the last time I saw him awake, on the second floor of a facility that until that day I hadn’t known existed, his eyes looked lost and wandering. I don’t know what he was seeing then, but it definitely wasn’t me.
On some days as I drive into work, I look over to that street, anticipating that Jim will be there, walking. I know that’s impossible. I know he’s gone. Yet sometimes I have to blink several times before I’m sure that’s it’s just an image I see and not a passenger in need of a lift.

Terry Barr's essays have appeared in Red Truck Review, The Bitter Southerner, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, and will soon appear in South Writ Large. His essay collection, Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, will be published in 2016 by Red Dirt Press. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

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