Accommodation: A Story
Holding the dorm’s door open in one last moment of ambivalence, I took a tentative step outside. With side-to-side taps of my white cane, I confirmed the college’s maintenance staff had cleared the way after the season’s first heavy snowfall.
“Wait, Paul, I’ll help you there,” came a voice I recognized from down the hall inside.
I called back, “Morning, Ed. I’ll be fine.”
“There’s a ton of snow out there,” he persisted, as I let the door ease shut.
The cold grasping at me from outside was fierce. Needing to hear from all directions, I kept my woolen hat away from my ears, so that the sharp wind attacked them as well as my face. But I had an appointment at the library, and a blast of winter weather wasn’t going to stop me.
On a normal day, I’d tap my cane back and forth in an arc from the curving path’s asphalt on one side to the grass on the other. Both taps on grass signaled I was about to wander off the asphalt, while both on asphalt meant I was veering to the path’s middle, at risk of bumping into people or causing them to get out of my way and leaving me feeling like a blundering rhino. But the wall of compacted snow at the side, defining the path’s border, made the task easier. Or rather, the maintenance crew’s work made it easier. Had I walked out onto an undifferentiated blanket of snow, Ed’s concern would have been warranted.
Otherwise, snow did make walking harder. I had to work my cane mostly at a low arc so that it could pick up clumps of snow and patches of ice. Such caution called for a slower pace, not my usual confident stride. Confidence meant I did all the little things right without thinking, freeing me to react to the unexpected.
I reached the path running alongside the road bordering the quad, a major thoroughfare in the college’s miniature city. Each time a fellow student came toward me, I nudged closer to the right snowbank to give them room to pass.
“Snow” and “muffled” went together in my head, but that morning sounds carried far. Here and there were the sounds of shovels at work. From the quad’s other side came the voices of students calling to each other and laughing, and boots crunching on snow told me they were playing on the uncleared lawn. I pictured the white terrain of snow around me and tree branches and rooftops lined with snow under a hard-blue sky. Thanks to remembered images, Christmas cards and movie scenes from a childhood with vision, I had the archetypes, if not the details.
Imagining that lawn took me back to my dorm neighbor Ed’s offer of help because I’d first encountered him last spring after I’d stupidly tried to take a shortcut to my next class in the science building by walking straight over another of the campus’s broad stretches of grass. I’d thought the noise of student chatter ahead of me would give me the direction I needed. But once on the grass, a confusion of voices came at me from all points of the compass.
I’d taken maybe ten steps before realizing my folly, and I panicked. It’s fine to say to oneself, walk straight, but “straight” in relation to what? People with sight are unconsciously guided by a point of reference ahead of them. Without that advantage, I need a physical boundary, such as a grass verge or wall, or a line of traffic running parallel to me to help keep me on the straight and narrow. That day on the lawn, with sound diffused all around me, I veered and overcompensated this way and that, zigzagging in a frantic effort to reach a path—any path at all—let alone the science building.
The man who was about to introduce himself as Ed saw my predicament. How could he not have? Except dozens of other students must also have seen me. Did they think I was doing some weird dance? Having some kind of neural event?
“Hey there,” he shouted as he approached, “do you know where you’re going?”
His shouting surely called the world’s attention to my incompetence, but I could hardly show annoyance to a savior. I gladly accepted the arm he offered. But then he insisted on guiding me all the way to the science building.
This past September, chance had assigned us rooms on the same floor of my new dorm. But he only ever spoke to me when offering a hand, his good intentions communicated in a flat tone. Hardly a foundation for friendship. Relationships where the indebtedness is all mine depress and eventually annoy me. If that sounds harsh, at least I know it about myself.
I kept walking, back straight like my idea of a matador, cane tapping the asphalt on my left, then the snowbank on my right. The library was two hundred yards or so away, at the other end of the quad. The trickiest part would be locating the spot where I had to cross the quad road for the path leading to the library’s steps.
When I’d moved into my current dorm at the beginning of senior year, I’d had to figure out new routes to various campus buildings. A friend had walked with me so I could ask him for features that could mark my location on each phase of the journey. For the crossing to the library, there was no indication curbside at my right, but he noted a pole planted in the grass on the path’s left side a yard or so before it. That pole had become my landmark telling me when to make the turn. Many trips since had given me an instinct for how far to walk before extending my cane with an exaggerated arc to the left to pick it up.
But this morning the snow, even on a mostly cleared path, threw off my timing. When I had perhaps as much as fifty yards to go, way too soon, I grew anxious about missing the pole and began testing for it. In addition to arcing the cane a yard to the left, the snowbank forced me also to lift it by a yard. I tapped my cane as I normally did on the right side before heaving it high and far in the other direction. Besides slowing me down even more, the extremity of the left-hand arc meant I risked missing snow and ice underfoot. And with such dramatic swings of my cane, I must look—what?—theatrical? Ridiculous? Crazed?
Boots clumped up behind me. Their owner coughed.
How is it that we can identify someone even by their cough? A cough travels through the vocal cords, sure, but still…
“Paul, let me help there.”
Yes, it was Ed, a big guy, lumbering to catch up with me.
I called back, “Don’t worry, Ed.” My voice came out as cheerful, making me aware I was kind of enjoying my winter wonderland trek.
Trailing behind me, Ed repeated the question he’d asked that spring day on the lawn: “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Really, Ed,” I called back, “I can handle this.”
“Just trying to help.”
I put on a smile, half-turned and raised my free arm in acknowledgement.
He reached my side. I bunched up to make room on the snow-narrowed path.
“Listen, here’s my arm. Where are you going? I’ll take you.”
“Really, Ed, I’m okay.”
At that moment, I detected a break in the snowbank at the curb, though my cane hadn’t touched the left-side pole. Was it the spot where I crossed to the library? I wished Ed hadn’t interrupted my concentration.
I turned and went back, running the cane along the pole side, now at my right. But as I edged behind Ed, two things happened at once: My cane clanged against the pole, and I tripped on some snow that must have broken away from the wall. I fell.
I had the presence of mind to twist toward the snowbank to soften the impact and bend my arm before me. But before I landed, Ed’s arm pushed up against my chest.
“Whoa there,” he called out.
Ed supporting me, I sank to my knees into the snow.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m okay,” I gasped. “You can let go.” I hauled myself up from the snowbank. Brushing off my coat and pants, I repeated, “I’m okay.”
“I didn’t see how you could manage on your own in this snow.”
Au contraire, I thought. I’d handled the snow just fine. I’d found the pole and the crossing point, and from here reaching the library was a cinch. If it hadn’t been for Ed, all would have gone well.
He insisted on accompanying me to the library entrance. Like that day when he’d taken me all the way to class, I felt that to refuse would have been to reject his better impulses. I couldn’t do it, even as a voice inside me insinuated that so long as he lived, he’d be telling people how he’d saved that blind college classmate’s ass not once, but twice.
We climbed the library’s front steps together, and at the door, stamping my feet to shake off snow, I thanked him.
A year later, Ed wrote in a letter to the alumni rag that he’d “bumped into” me on Philadelphia’s Market Street. He added something to the effect that I told him I felt great about my job. I remembered that morning, a rare moment when I’d felt blissfully calm in a sea of dashing fellow office flunkeys and early shoppers. Ed had told me he was feeling good about his work, too. Our words were formal, but our encounter had the warmth of budding college nostalgia.
That year following graduation was a time of transition. The “real world,” a cliché that was proving more predictive than ironic, was making itself felt. Take care about what you say in emails. Tow the company line. Wear clothes appropriate to the occasion. But one tenent of the college ethos was still alive in me: Never say anything formulaic or predictable.
I replied via the alumni rag: “I’ve recovered from bumping into Ed. It didn’t hurt too much.”
Did I go on to say anything even slightly more gracious? I don’t remember, and my copy of that issue has long since been recycled into someone else’s paper.
I’d meant my retort to be humorous. In time I worried it might have been hurtful. It definitely wasn’t funny. I wondered if my resentment at the way Ed had imposed his help on me showed through my comment. Not the reason for it, which at least might have served some useful purpose, but the resentment.
Even if it had been funny, I should have remembered Ed lacked a sense of humor. I’d speculated it had been why we couldn’t communicate: why he couldn’t hear me and why I couldn’t get my feelings across to him.
I didn’t encounter Ed again until our fifth reunion. It was an evening in late May, the spring warmth making any memory of snow feel like chilling fiction. I was sitting outside at the pretentiously-named banquet table when he came and stood next to my chair. I was glad when he greeted me.
Then he said, “Hey, Paul, you haven’t written any letters lately to the alumni magazine. No one else been bumping into you?”
Something in his voice put me on guard, but turning in my chair and looking up to face him, I said, “I’m glad you saw I meant it as a joke.”
One of the catering staff asked me if I wanted lobster. Leaning back to make room for him to serve me, I used the interruption to think through my answer.
“Of course. How else could I have meant it?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Ed, it sounds like I caused offense. I know my jokes don’t always come off.”
“So, we’re fine?”
He pressed my shoulder and moved on.
Since then, I’ve had no contact with him, although I see him from time to time in political discussions on CNN, where he comes across as a knowledgeable and sensible, though still humorless, guest. I’ve long felt bad about that reunion exchange of ours. The unhappiness he’d revealed suggested a friction between us that for me at least, despite our words of reassurance, didn’t feel resolved.
I recall thinking he’d be forever telling people how he’d saved my ass not once, but twice. Now I imagine that if he tells that story at all, he adds, “But that guy, Paul, he turned out to be incredibly ungrateful. I know I shouldn’t, but now I hold back from helping people. It always seems to backfire.”
I hope I’m wrong. I hope Ed has figured out that help needs to be offered but not imposed. I hope he has some sense that the people he helps are equals, not “others”; that one or two might even become friends.
For my part, I still aim to be polite when people offer help, whether or not I need it. I’d really like to be a good guy, a nice guy moved by a similar generosity of spirit that motivates those who offer me assistance. But I’ve never outgrown my dislike of the formulaic and predictable. If anything, it’s gone deeper.
The other day, as I was leaving the subway station near my home on one of those early summer evenings when all seems right with the world, a woman came to my side and asked, “Can I help?” I could tell just from the way she said those three words that I’d like her.
Even so, I heard myself reply, “I don’t know. What qualification do you have?”
She said, “Okay, have a nice day,” and sped off.
About the Author
After earning a B.A., summa cum laude in English, from Amherst College and a J.D. from Harvard, Adrian Spratt practiced law, primarily in consumer protection. His essays and stories have appeared in Wordgathering, David R. Godine anthologies by the artist and writer, Bascove, and Disabilities Studies Quarterly. Spratt lost his vision at the age of thirteen. He and his wife, Laura Rosen, live in Brooklyn.