The Blindman's Hat

by Bernard Cohen

Two Extracts

blindman's cover
From Chapter 2

My subbing gave [Newspaper] a modesty, an understatedness, a mild sense of retiring inferiority. Readers, unconsciously comparing themselves with the moderately Australian-accented voice of [Newspaper], felt great. This is what I'd remind my employers, anyhow.

In Australia, my problem had been that it felt wrong to take things. Everything had already been taken, and all that remained was to give it back. For me, Australia had no further moral depth, no sense of glut, of available immoral surfeit. Maybe its atmosphere has changed in the last decade or so. Maybe not. To be in New York was a liberation. In NYC, I even stole myself a career.

'Look at this,' I wave the falling-circulation clippings at Dida. 'This is your fault.'

'So, my seduction of you is working,' she laughs. 'Come on, Muffy. Let's take a walk.'

Immediately, Muffy is scratching at the door like a maniac, saying 'Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! Yelp!' while I'm trying to pull on my running shoes and Dida is shouting, 'Okay! Okay! We're going already!'

 

Muffy: What's so tasteful about vents? All this steam returning to its rightful place, up: gases to gases and dust to dust. The city would be better off without them. You can never tell where a vent is going to turn up. Here you are walking along Park Avenue, and suddenly: a vent. There is a slight rise in temperature, but I'd prefer to run into a shop. The condensation happens up there in the sky somewhere, because there's no windscreen over this city, no restriction on the migratory movements of water molecules. I quite like left-over hotdogs. I also like certain sandwiches, provided there's no fish on them. I also like awnings. I like grass of between three and six inches in height. Barking is good.

On our late summer walks, Central Park remains exactly the same in its steady changingness. The trees grow, the grass grows, similar people wander or stride or jog or bicycle along the well-trodden paths and tracks. Dida and I kiss along the smooth, straight parts and feed little bits of ice cream to Muffy, who is trying to run in several directions at once and consequently spins and spins. He will not stop barking today. I give him an extra cone and he runs in circles barking with the cone unchewed in his mouth.

'Be careful. You'll choke on that,' I warn him, but he doesn't care. He finally swallows the cone and decides to urinate on every tree in the park, but not in order. Today, Muffy is a little, fluffy, rubber asteroid.

Dida becomes high energy and says, 'You'll never catch up to me'

and runs off towards the Conservatory Garden, so I chase her and Muffy keeps running in front of my legs so I'm stopping and starting and Dida's turning around and running backwards and shouting, 'Run, Muffy, run', like in some first-grade reading primer, and laughing, and Muffy's barking again and has stopped trying to be a one-dog nitrate factory, and I'm trying to step over him or run around him but he keeps moving much too fast and finally Dida, who's turning around to see if I'm catching up, trips over her leg and collapses and I fall onto the ground next to her, pretending that I'm not wheezing, just a little short of breath, and Muffy races off into some shrubbery and tosses half-rotted leaves between his hind legs for a few seconds. I feel perspiration osmosing to the surface of my skin, and mop at my forehead. Dida rests her head on my chest.

'Your heart's amazing. How can something that size move so quickly?' she gasps. 'Man, we should either exercise more, or else never at all.'

Muffy trots back with something unpleasant-looking in his mouth. It's muddy and slightly damp with dog spittle, but it's clearly Steve's bow tie.

'It's the bow tie,' we tell each other.

'Shit.'

 

Even after this many years, no one thinks I am a local. My accent is moving east, but still mid-Pacific, south of the big island of Hawaii, somewhere near the radioactive Mururoa Atoll. Americans call me 'mate' and make jokes about koalas. Australia is a couple of brandnames and an overfriendly attitude. I try to pour well-known US trademarks into my conversations. I never go to the store -- I go to particular, as-advertised-on-TV well-known marts. My jeans have US marks and so do my shirts and shoes. I try to like basketball and, not having managed to like it, try to pretend to like it. I am practically the same as any New Yorker you could meet. Yet people only ever notice my differences.

'You don't sound American,' I am told almost every day. 'Where y'all from?'

'I sound more American than anything else,' I tell them. 'I'm not from anywhere.'

I'm an alien. I'm an invasive giant bacteria from the language warp.

Well, not exactly ... I'm more categorisable than that by far. Truth is, I'm a mid-sized, irreplaceable language guard. My accent and I epitomise America's mid-Pacific future. I am [Newspaper]'s quantum of Australianness. The foreignness and yet localisation embodied in me co-exist in a mid-Pacific whirl of conflict and potential conflict. There is no point pretending otherwise. I am centrally marginal and marginally central.

I have 'perspective' -- that's what I wrote on the [Newspaper] employment application form all those years ago -- and 'empathy', which I emphasised in the subsequent interview. I could bring your newspaper (or, as I implied in that interview, your 'culture') depth and nonetheless retain its historical uniqueness. With a few simple linguistic twists, I can increase your newspaper's reach without loyal, years-long customers even noticing the influx of other-cultural interests into the reading neighbourhood. If I can sell me to you, I can sell your -- or should I say 'our'? -- newspaper to millions more Americans and new Americans. People will want to immigrate just to have the daily deliveries, I assure you of that. And all on a sub-editor's salary! Amazing. Sure I'm confident, perhaps too confident. But as you may know, confidence is a cultural thing. I'm not yet sure of the appropriate confidence level to project in US employment interviews at major newspapers. On the other hand, you can bet that I'm the only interview subject who even thought it was an issue, let alone one that could add shade to your award-winning news stories, all of which could bring in readers previously put off by their discomfort with current news-confidence projections. Believe me. In fact, I'll give you my personal guarantee. Tell you what, I'll work the first two weeks for half-price. You won't do better than that. My accent might be floating, but it is in very, very warm water.

Or something like that. I didn't show any slides, or play a tape of lapping water, and I can't remember all the exact words. I was offered the job immediately, my Australian references unverified and unverifiable (the newspaper which allegedly employed me over there had folded six months earlier).

 

Now, this feeds straight into Dida's and my discussion about the police. We have a hat (Australian) and a bow tie (distinctly, uniquely, Steve's). The guy is missing, and underdressed. We strongly suspect a crime may have been committed. We have evidence which may be crucial to the location of Steve and any abductor. We have only a few leads to follow (names and phone numbers Bea gave Dida), no resources (like a fingerprint flickbook or flashcards illustrating chin-types) and no expertise in hunting down suspects. We have a lightbulb's chance in space of illuminating the mystery word puzzle in yesterday's [Newspaper], let alone solving a disappearance. We're hopeless. Perhaps, after all, we should let the cops know what we know?

'So,' says Dida, 'you wanna go the police? Just because we've got two pieces of peripheral clothing instead of one?'

'I didn't say I wanted to,' I say. Truth is, I simultaneously want to and want not to. I want Steve to be found and alive, but I don't want to speak to the police. I want no longer to be responsible for the pieces of evidence we have discovered, but I don't want to hand them over to the police to bag and file and, after a statutory period, lose. I want the full resources of the police department to be brought to bear on this particular disappearance, but not on coincidental discoveries related to the contents of my apartment, which is full of equipment engraved with 'This item has been stolen from [Newspaper]. Any information leading to its recovery will be rewarded richly.'

I have a company memo pinned to the company noticeboard above the company computer which sits on the company desk in front of the company chair in my little office in the corner of the room. The memo warns of dire consequences for employees who use company equipment for non-company business. Beside it, I've pinned another letter which says (in part):

Owing to the sudden termination of your employment, you are required to return all [Newspaper] property within forty-eight (48) hours.

My reply is pinned beside it, as a kind of intra-apartmental taunt:

To the Property Manager:

Please note I have never taken any [Newspaper] property outside the company limits.

Yours faithfully,

Vernon Collins

'I've had police experiences too,' Dida tells me. Lots of egg-throwing and tomato-throwing. Incidences of screaming and chaining to mayoral gates. Etc.

The police, we decide with reluctance and relief, can wait a while. They're trained to be patient. I once rewrote a story which said, in part, before I changed its emphasis, 'Specialised police units can hold sieges and continue negotiations for many days or weeks, where necessary.'

After my attentions, the story purported to quote an anonymous high-ranking police officer worrying that, 'Police no longer know how to close an incident'.

Another extract — includes Muffy!

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