Fiction - Winter 2013

Wait and See

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By Edith Pearlman


 

I

Lyle stares at a lemon.

How does the lemon appear to Lyle? The rough skin is what he has been taught to call yellow, and he knows many modifiers of that word—pale, bright, dull; he knows also metaphoric substitutes—gold, butter, dandelion, even lemon. What he sees in the humble fruit, though, and what he knows by now other kids don’t see, is a tangle of hundreds of shades, ribbons of sunlight crushed into an egg.

And baby oil? His mother, Pansy, works baby oil into her pale satin face and neck before going to bed, and a drop inevitably spills from her fingertip: transparent, translucent, colorless, or so anybody else would say. To Lyle, however, the drop is a rosy viscous sphere. The shade of his skin—caramel or butterscotch or café-au-lait according to foodies, mulatto to those interested in mixed races—incorporates movement too: on his forearm writhe all the hues in Pansy’s drawer of muddled lingerie.

And the neon sign projecting from the exercise center on the second floor of a building in Godolphin Square? Neon plasma has the most intense light discharge of all the noble gases. To a normal human eye it is red-orange; it also contains a strong green line hidden unless you’ve got a spectroscope. Lyle sees the green line unaided, the flowing molecules of it. It is as if the sign, Get Fit, has given him a gift.

But then, Lyle has been given many gifts, including Pansy’s love. Bathed in that love, Lyle in turn is gentle with other kids, especially with kids uneasy under their bragging, kids really as frightened as rabbits when a hawk darkens their world. Lyle’s underweight presence steadies them, and he is sought after—but not exactly as a friend. He is more like Anansi, the helpful spider of his favorite tales—a quiet ally who prefers his own company but skitters over to join you when you need him.

Yet another gift is money. These days money resides in electronic bits; Pansy has plenty of bits inherited from her Alabama grandfather. And there is, or was once, the gift of a small amount of yellowish fluid containing enzymes, acids, and lipids. Semen, not to put too fine a point on it.

The unknown bestower of the semen had been living on the edge. He’d come from Africa in a troupe of Lost Boys—not the famous ones from Sudan but less famous, less numerous ones from elsewhere. But the situation was similar: civil war, carnage, a few boys running from their ruined villages all the way to the United States.

One particular Lost Boy ended up in Massachusetts, lived in a house with other Lost Boys, got through high school, and at the time of his gift was employed in a lab in the area. But he was poor. And so he did what many people in his situation did: sold his blood. He thought about selling his sperm too, but he considered it too valuable to be made a commodity—he was proud and he was free and he wanted freely to sire a thousand American sons. So he gave his sperm to a bank—really a hospital roomlet provided with facilitating magazines.

II

And then there’s a submicroscopic gift, the consequence of a genetic mutation that has passed mostly unexpressed through the millennia. It was bestowed by evolution not directly on Lyle but on a primate who was his remote ancestor. The gift was a mischievous gene, which, if it meets its twin, can affect vision.

“Primate vision unadulterated is trichromatic,” said Dr. Marcus Paul. “Tri means three, and chroma means color.”

“Yes?” encouraged Pansy from the other side of the desk.

“Well, Mrs. Spaulding …” “Miss.” “Miss …” “Or Ms., if you want to be correct.” She grinned. “Ms., then,” said the flustered man, and took refuge in a disquisition. “You know the retina, at the back of the eye, the thing that captures light and color and ships them to the brain. The retina uses only three types of light-absorbing pigments for color vision. Trichromacy, see?”

“See,” she agreed, still grinning.

“Well, almost all nonprimate mammals are dichromatic, with just two kinds of visual pigments. A few nocturnal mammals have only one pigment. But some birds, fish, and reptiles, they have four.”

“They see more colors than we do? Dammitall.”

“They probably do. And some butterflies are even pentachromatic. Pigeons also. And there is one twig on the Homo sapiens tree whose members—a small fraction of them—are believed to be pentachromatic too: the Himba tribe. Himbas endure their usually short lives in Namibia … Lyle seems to be of mixed race.”

“Yes. I asked the sperm bank for a black donor. I believe miscegenation is an answer to the world’s ills. All people one color: tan.”

“Oh,” said the doctor, whose skin was the shade of eggplant. “Your donor was African?”

She shrugged her slender shoulders. “I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell.”

“Well, I think Lyle’s a pentachromat. Those colors he reports.”

She nodded. She was all at once serious. “Yes. No wonder he has headaches, my poor boy.” Then she paused, partly to let this young Jamaican take a frank look at her, as he was clearly eager to do—at her inky curls, at her small straight nose that angled upward a degree more than is usual, robbing her of beauty and instead making her irresistible—physiognomy’s gift to Pansy, you might say. The doctor could see also her wide mouth, her dimples, her long neck and long hands. Her long legs were hidden from him by his desk, but he must have noticed them earlier. She hoped so. Oh yes, and when she parted her lips, out flashed the bright white of her perfect incisors. Men often remarked on that … She continued now: “What’s it like to be a pentachromat?” Though she knew, or had an idea; Lyle had told her of the numerous dots of color he could detect on a plain manila envelope. She had taught him a new word: pointillism. “Doctor?”

What’s it like to have a face like yours?  He said: “Neither we nor they have the words to describe this sort of thing. How would you describe color to someone who was colorblind? What we do know is that tetrachromats and pentachromats make distinctions between shades that seem identical to the rest of us. For example, I read about a woman in California, she’s dead now—”

“From hyperchromaticity?”

“From old age. She was a seamstress, the article said. She could look at three samples of taupe fabric cut from the same bolt and detect a gold undertone in one, a hint of green in another, a smidgen of gray in the third. She could look at a river and distinguish relative depth and amounts of silt in different areas of the water based on differences in shading that no one else was aware of … So it’s probably safe to say that tetrachromats and pentachromats have a richer visual experience of the world than the rest of us.” But my own experience has become richer in the past 15 minutes because of this woman sitting in front of my normal, trichromatic eyes. I hope she likes my dreadlocks.

III

Lyle had been an unfretful baby, though for a while he confused day with night. Pansy slept through the days along with him. Gave him breakfast at twilight and took him for a walk, sometimes across the river to Boston but usually around Godolphin. Lyle lay angled on a pillow in his old-fashioned perambulator, facing her or staring upward at the dark green of trees, the charcoal sky. He turned his head to notice glossy books in the window of the bookstore, always open late. There was a full-length mirror embedded in the door of the pedicure place. Sometimes, again turning his head, he stared at mother and child, and she did the same. There she was, in black leather pants and a glistening white poncho; there he was, a baby whose skin had not yet begun to darken. Her skin had never darkened, though her southern ancestors had no doubt mingled with their slaves and then admitted the lighter progeny into the mansion. A gene for a dusky epidermis might lie embedded in each of her cells. In his early childhood Lyle went from phase to expected phase—resisted the occasional babysitter, considered the toilet fine for other people, couldn’t bear carrots. He played with blocks in a bored way. Idly he mentioned headaches. The pediatrician found no cause for them.

He continued his habit of staring at everything. He himself was odd to look at—the skinny arms, the thin beige face, the unsmiling gaze. When they took a walk together, he put one hand in his mother’s, like collateral, while his mind wandered somewhere she couldn’t follow, and she had to relinquish the treasured notion that mother and child were one.

He didn’t like picture books—all those primary colors, he wouldn’t look at them. It made her wonder.

The psychologist she took him to said no, he wasn’t on any spectrum. “He’s not interested in those little board books, so what. He’s intrigued by the wider world. Wants to wait and see what catches his fancy.”

She thanked him and stood up, a vision in her striped black-and-white sundress and her black cartwheel. She walked toward the door.

“You, too,” called the psychologist. “Wait and see.”

She’d waited several years. One day irregular blurred lines appeared on the wall of her bedroom. Their interiors filled in; now they were splotches. Then they turned into continents. The plumber found the leaks that were their source, and fixed them. Pansy hired a painter and brought home a color wheel. It was a collection of about 300 long slender cards of thick laminated paper, each with a hole at one end, allowing them all to depend from a metal ring, to be held in the hand at once, or fanned out into a circle. Each card bore seven contiguous squares of similar hues, with names, about 2,000 colors in all. She dropped the device with idle grace beside Lyle, prone on the floor. He abandoned his book—he was reading adventure stories now, aping his classmates, though he frequently returned to those old trickster tales.

He inspected this new toy. He knew what he had before him—paint samples. He guessed that these thousands of colors were about as many as human beings could create—in their labs, their paint factories, their electronic workshops. He had endured years of feeling different, of possessing something that was a secret to others and also to him. Now the color wheel enlightened him … People gave hues such hopeful names. There was a square called Orange Froth and next to it Orange Blossom and next to that Florida Orange; and Lyle could see the Froth globules deepen to a color that almost matched Orange Blossom but didn’t, and the Orange Blossom itself acquire a gloss as it approached but did not attain Florida Orange. “Mom,” he called.

“Yes, darling?” from the other room.

“I have …” he said, and paused. In the Anansi tales, secrets were meant to be stuffed into the heart and never pulled out; there could be unfore- seen results.

She walked in. “ … something to tell me?” “Well…”

And then came the visit to Dr. Marcus Paul; and then came the tentative diagnosis of a condition, though not an ailment, unknown to most scientists probably because of its weak grant potential. And then came romance. Love at first sight? It can happen. There’s often a lot of palaver. “I love you not only because you’re beautiful,” Marcus told Pansy a few weeks after they met. “I love you because of your admirable politics, your wish that the world’s population become one color. Because you mop floors in a soup kitchen. Because you cook like a four-star chef.”

She kissed him then, and she caressed his hip with her knee, a gesture that cannot be achieved unless both parties are lying on their sides facing each other. They happened to be lying on their sides facing each other—Lyle was at school—and so the caress impossible under other circum- stances was now possible, probable, necessary, unavoidable, though who would want to avoid the deep shudder each felt as joint saluted joint. Then Marcus entered his lovely woman.

Afterward she took over the colloquy. “I love you because of your single-mindedness,” she said. “Your voice. Your dreadlocks. I love you because our coupling feels like destiny.” “Arranged by Anansi.” “Anansi? Lyle reads stories about him …” “He’s a powerful spider who used to make his home in Africa, now lives in Jamaica. But he gets around.”

“Please thank him if you see him … And I love you because together we belong to Lyle.”

“And Lyle belongs to us,” said Marcus. In a state of postcoital clarity he realized that he had found his life’s love and his life’s work in a single ophthalmologic interview. “We are Lyle’s caretakers, guardians, keepers of his secret.”

“It’s like the housemaid marrying the butler,” said Pansy.

“If you say so.” He felt like a stable boy marrying the princess.

There was a brief three-person honeymoon. They visited Italy, where plump lemons offered even more yellows than the ones Lyle knew. They went to Iberia, where the tiles of Lisbon and the airport in Madrid presented a chromatic joy, many colors new and glorious to Marcus and Pansy and about 12 times that many to Lyle.

Marcus’s clinical practice was easy to transfer to a colleague. He’d been mostly engaged in research anyway. After returning from the colorful honeymoon, he built a lab behind Pansy’s spacious house and invited his cousin David to join him. The reclusive David, an optician, was interested in the changes to vision that curved or beveled glass, glass within glass, prismatic lenses, all those things, could make when placed in front of the eye. The two cousins had already designed a number of spectacles that helped people with eye diseases see better.

Their little optical laboratory—incorporated, after a while—produced many improved devices. Telescopic eyeglasses for everyday use. Microscope lenses, and surgical snakes with tiny cameras in their heads, and smoky instruments for astronomers. These tools became much in demand.

The company flourished, and Pansy’s return on her investment was substantial. She was proud of the men’s success. Still, when Marcus and David entered their laboratory day after day, she liked to imagine that, in addition to their other products, they were working on a superinvention that would grant Lyle’s vision to everyone. Performance enhancing, you might say. When perfected, it would encounter regulations; when produced, it would inspire inferior imitations. Even so, it would be a vehicle for public good.

But after four years it had not yet appeared. So one day the patient Pansy inquired.

“I don’t think we can do it,” Marcus admitted. “We’ve tried; it was one of our original purposes. But we cannot duplicate work that nature took millions of years to accomplish. We cannot invent an external instrument which will produce an internal variant. The butterfly has a genome, the pigeon too. But where does the pentachromatic gene lurk? We cannot tell. And if we could tell, and could extract it, and could transfer it to a human cell, would the cell survive? And if yes, yes, yes, yes … for what purpose? To give people headaches?” “It would be only a carnival attraction,” Pansy slowly acknowledged. “A rich man’s plaything. But oh, Marcus. No one else can ever become like Lyle. He’s stuck being unique.”

IV

And what of the unique Lyle during these years? Well, he had things to occupy him: school, cello, baseball, walks at night with Marcus or David or Pansy. Music was blessedly colorless. In center field the sky showed him its myriad blues and the field its hundreds of greens but none of that distracted him from the flight of the sphere, a headless wingless bird, a ball white and off-white and off-off white. Nothing distracted him from the task of predicting the bird’s destination and putting himself beneath it, mitt at the ready.

He played in the school orchestra. Once in a while he went to a party and talked to whoever seemed left out—talked awkwardly but soothingly, or maybe soothingly because awkwardly.

He thought about someday becoming a doctor. He liked looking at anatomy plates, vivid to begin with, garish under his inspection. He wondered whether his vision, trained, might develop an X-ray component. Marcus doubted it. They discussed diseases of organs other than the eye—diagnosis, treatment, treatment failure.

But despite the error-free fielding record and despite the mild friendships with his peers and despite the comfort of nocturnal darkness in the company of one of the three people he loved, Lyle, heavy with his secret, often felt sorrowfully alone.

When he was 16, he began to spend Sunday mornings with last year’s biology teacher. They drove to a nature preserve and then hiked its trails. And then one Sunday, during a forbidding rainstorm, she invited him to forget nature for a day. She was 40, the ideal age to relieve a sensitive boy of his virginity and to satisfy his curiosity too. He noted that her areolae were not sepia, as novels said, but pulsing pink rose mauve … This dear woman would be fired without a hearing if her generosity became known—he knew that, and he realized how uncalibrated were the rules that claim to protect us from one another. But Lyle was used to keeping things to himself, and anyway he would never betray Ms. Lapidus. Their Sunday morning explorations continued—in the nature preserve if the day was bright, in bed if otherwise.

He shared his secret with her—she would not betray him, either.

“But, wow!” she said, turning to look at him, her head on her palm, her elbow on the mattress.

“Wow? It’s an affliction.”

“Really? By me it’s an opportunity. Think of the things you could do with those special eyes. Detect art forgeries.”

He blinked at her. “You could tell the difference between Rembrandt’s paint and pseudo-Rembrandt’s paint,” she explained. And on another occasion she said, “You could identify altered substances. Traces of banned pesticides.”

“Or find the fault lines in a rock,” he unenthusiastically contributed.

“Or see a smear of make-up on a man’s tweed shoulder.”

“Huh?” She told him that adulterers usually tried to keep their activities hidden, and that their wronged spouses often hired detectives at a substantial fee. And on yet another rainy Sunday she suggested that he could identify fish misnamed by dishonest restaurants. “And sometimes they serve brains masquerading as sweetbreads, or maybe it’s the other way around. You could bring miscreants to court.”

He didn’t answer. He was again looking at her breasts. The areolae were mauve, yes, but mostly by contrast to what he now noticed as yellowish skin; and when he raised his eyes he saw that her sclera were curdling. To foresee the coming of disaster—that was not how he wanted to use his gift.

“Would you do something for me?” he managed. “Just about anything,” she confessed. “Would you have your doctor do an MRI of your abdomen?” “What? I feel fine.” “And a pancreatic biopsy,” he said, and began to cry.

V

Another year. And then, one August afternoon, Marcus emerged from the lab and found Lyle practicing hoop shots by himself. “I have a story to tell you,” Marcus said.

“Okay.” When he read, the black letters sometimes shuddered on the page. But when he listened, his closed eyes found a sort of repose behind the patchwork cerise of his lids.

“It’s a Jamaican tale,” said Marcus. “Oh, then about Anansi.” “Anansi plays a part. But it’s about a young man.”

They sat on the ground, their arms around their knees and their backs against the trunk of a beech, as if they were in a Caribbean village leaning against a guango.

Marcus began:

“Once upon a time there lived a youth who was never happy unless he was prying into things other people knew nothing about. Especially things that happened at night. He wanted secrets to be laid bare to him. He wandered from wizard to wizard, begging them in vain to open his eyes, but found none to help him. Finally he reached Anansi. After listening to the youth, the spider warned:

“‘My son, most discoveries bring not happiness but misery. Much is properly hidden from the eyes of men. Too much knowledge kills joy. Therefore think well what you are doing, or someday you will repent. But if you will not take my advice, I can show you the secrets you crave.’

“‘Please!’

“‘Tomorrow night you must go to the place where, once in seven years, the serpent-king summons his court. I will tell you where it is. But remember what I say: blindness is man’s highest good.’

“That night the young man set out for the wide, lonely moor belonging to the serpent-king. He saw a multitude of small hillocks motionless under the moonlight. He crouched behind a bush. Suddenly a luminous glow arose in the middle of the moor. At the same moment all the hillocks began to squirm and to crawl, and from each one came thousands of serpents making straight for the glow. The youth saw a multitude of snakes, big and little and of every color, gathering together in one great cluster around a huge serpent. Light and colors sprang from its head. The young man saw brilliance usually denied to mortal eyes. He saw iridescence bioluminescence adularescence opalescence. Then the scene vanished. He went home.

“The next day he counted the minutes till night, when he might return to the forest. But when he reached the special place, he found an empty moor: gray, gray, and gray. He went back many nights but did not see the colors. He would have to wait another seven years.

“He thought about the colors night and day. He ceased to care about anything else in the world. He sickened for what he could not have. And he died before the seven years was out, knowing at the end that Anansi had spoken truly when he said, ‘Blindness is man’s highest good.’ ”

After a while Lyle said, “But, Dad, not complete blindness …”

“No. Fables are not literal. Freedom from supervision … supravision … overvision … hypervision …”

“Freedom from second sight,” added Lyle. “I can have that freedom?” He turned toward Marcus. His remarkable eyes, an unremarkable brown, seemed to swell a little—tears had entered from the ducts.

Marcus put his arm around the boy’s shoulders, scraping his elbow grievously on the back of the tree. “I think so.”

The next week, Marcus appeared at dinner with a pair of spectacles—rimless, with wire earpieces. The lenses were constructed of hundreds of miniature polyhedrons.

“Prisms,” said Pansy, and went on dishing out lapin aux pruneaux.

“Involuted prisms,” refined David, who now lived with the family. He had become comfort- able at last with his celibacy and inwardness; he was sometimes even talkative.

Marcus turned to Lyle. “These are for you,” he said, and he handed the eyeglasses to the boy.

“Put them on whenever you like.” “They will give you a different kind of vision,” said David. “And, Lyle—it’s all right if you don’t like the spectacles.”

Lyle did not put them on inside. He went out onto the lawn with its commanding beech tree and its flowering bushes. He looked around at the normal thousand-color summer scene—normal to him, at any rate, though he understood it to be his alone. Now maybe he’d know a competing normal. He put on the glasses.

It was as if someone had turned out the lights or a thick cloud had passed in front of the sun. Most creatures see things less brilliantly in the dark, he knew that. He was seeing things less brilliantly. The house, made of flat stones, was gray. Perhaps the gray contained some gold. On the laboratory’s green siding, each slat cast a slightly darker green on the one beneath it. The beech tree was a combination of brown and red. The geraniums were a shade of magenta—one shade of magenta. He looked at his skin. Plain tan. He looked at the sky. Blue, slowly deepening—it was dusk now. Dark blue.

He went inside. “I like the glasses.” “And the colors?” asked Marcus. “Duller. Many fewer. Motionless. Perspective is less noticeable. Things seem to have only a touch of a third dimension. I’m glad for the … diminishment. Now I have two ways to see. Thank you, Dad. Thank you, David. You’ve given me a wonderful present.”

“We have given you a choice,” said Marcus. “Always an ambiguous gift.”

Lyle said suddenly, “Spiders—what’s their vision like?”

David said, “Spiders usually have eight eyes placed in two rows on the front of the carapace. The eyes have a silvery appearance. The retinas have relatively coarse-grained mosaics of receptor cells, and their resolution of images is …”

“Poor,” said Marcus, finishing David’s lecture and answering Lyle’s question at the same time.

Lyle wore his gift every day, all day, except when he went to bed—and then he did not take them off until he’d turned out the light. His classmates were incurious about the new glasses—they were teenagers, after all, not interested in much outside themselves. But Lyle’s new and commonplace vision gave him new and commonplace manners—he no longer stared into space, his conversation became less effortful. Girls phoned him. He got included in more activities. Marcus and David made sunglasses for him, and swimming goggles, biking goggles, wrap-arounds for chemistry lab. They made him a pair of pince-nez, which he wore to a Halloween party, along with a stiff collar and a frock coat and a false beard. “Chekhov,” he explained. He joined the chess club. The club met Sunday mornings. His Sunday mornings were free. Ms. Lapidus had recently died.

In the lab Marcus and David were now constructing wide-angle micro-optical lenses. The lenses could be implanted—and were, after the proper trials—in a sufferer’s eye. They made new tools for photography and tomography. They made corneal inlays. Pansy was running the business side of the enterprise—she was managing a staff of five. Having learned so much about the tricks of the eye-brain double-play, Pansy became expert at standard optical illusions, and then invented some of her own, with which she beguiled the twin sons who had been born to her and Marcus. (“Their complexion is Unglazed Bisque,” Lyle said of his brothers, remembering the old paint wheel.) Pansy began a side enterprise sell- ing games of her own design. Some elaborate inventions she used at the twins’ birthday parties, held in a newly built room off the lab. The kids’ friends entered an illusory universe for half an hour, then gobbled up Pansy’s sweet-potato ice cream, which was real.

VI

At 18 Lyle was accepted at St. John’s. He was looking forward to reading Greats. The day before he was to leave for Baltimore, a thick autumn mist enveloped Godolphin and Godolphin alone—the sun was out in Boston. A graduation gift from Anansi, Lyle thought. He walked down to the river. There the mist rested, soft and colorless. Slowly, deliberately, he took off his glasses.

Mist. Still mist. Then, gradually, colors returned, filled the scattered bits of moisture. According to the laws of physics, each drop should have contained a rainbow—but no, on this eve of departure the drops, directed by the spider, were breaking the laws, each producing a singular shade for his pleasure, all together producing a universe of colors. Purple deeper than iris, laced with yolky lines. Bronze striped with brass. He saw the indigo of infected flesh, he saw the glistening fuchsia of attacking bacteria, he saw the orange of old-age crinkles that wait invisibly on every smooth young arm. Yes, all colors, in all their headachy variations, colors as they had once been.

His man-made glasses, his trickster specs, had made life less sorrowful, but at a cost. They had deprived him of this sheen of blue blue blue violet seeping into blue blue violet violet pressing itself into blue violet violet violet that yearns to become shadow. Vanilla hectored its neighbor papyrus. There was moss concealing like a mother its multigreened offspring. There were squirming nacreous snakes, slightly nauseating. Much is properly hidden from the eyes of men, Anansi had said … Chartreuse slashed like lightning across his vision from upper left to lower right and also from upper right to lower left, both slants remaining on his retina that was so cursed, so blessed. Where one diagonal intersected the other in this chartreuse chiasma rested an oval, deep within the intersection, for of course the mist in which these shapes and colors shudderingly resided was three-dimensional or maybe three-and-a-half, and it was in motion, too, the color drops assaulting each other in a chromatic orgy. The oval within the chartreuse X was scaled with overlapping hexagons of nearly transparent turquoise—there must have been hundreds of turquoises, each different from the other by so little, so little, yet by that little, different. What’s your favorite color, people used to ask, as they always ask children. Red, he would answer, divining even then that they had no idea how many reds there were: a cloud at sunset, a cloud at sunrise, blood from a scratch, blood from a nose, a run-over cat; the dappled skin of a tomato, with all reds swimming upon it … He wondered, not for the first time, who his original father was.

He put his glasses back on. Mist returned to mist, ordinary mist, mist in whose every drop curved what people called the spectrum, such a paltry number of colors. This sight was no truer a reality than the glory of a few minutes ago; no less true either. Truth had nothing to do with the witness of the eyes. What he saw now was simply what other people saw. He chose their limited vision; he meant to live in this world as an ordinary man. He would not remove his glasses again.

Edith Pearlman is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award and the author of four short-story collections: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How to Fall, and Binocular Vision, which was nominated for a National Book Award this year. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.


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