He was the only proofreader who wasn’t blind. And the other proofreaders, all five of them, resented him for it. What right did he have, after all, taking this job away from any number of qualified blind applicants, especially with the unemployment rate among blind people hovering around 70 percent? And they didn’t care for his bounciness, the way he glided into work each morning with his coffee and cheery “howdy,” no white cane to fold up, no guide dog to tuck in under his desk, plopping himself down among them as though he were one of them, perusing the dots right alongside them, the dots which had only ever been theirs.
They doubted his credentials and they doubted his motives. But most of all they doubted his speed, which they couldn’t see, of course, though he could see theirs: their fingers flying over the dots, scanning as quickly as eyes, their faces tending to the sides and to the ceiling as they read, corrected, and approved the galley proofs which the transcription department dropped off hourly, the wheels of the Braille Press turning constantly, rapidly, mercilessly.
He had thought they would welcome him, or at least be a little curious about him, a sighted person who could read Braille. But there was a sour, fraught feeling in the air of that tiny proofreading department with its six desks, one window, and 72-volume Braille dictionary stacked to the ceiling like a cord of wood against the north wall. No, they didn’t welcome him. In fact, they shunned him. And the head proofreader, DeMezzo, was downright cruel the way he barked commands and constantly talked down to him. There was nothing for it, finally, but to hunch over the pile of Braille pages on his desk and read, nimbly, silently, doing the job he was hired to do, and doing it well, circling the errors with a thick black pencil wherever he encountered them, and stacking the proofread pages in the right-hand corner of his desk where someone from Transcription came to collect them every hour on the hour. And so the hours passed. And the days passed. And the weeks and months passed.
He couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t know it. He learned it with his ABCs, fingering the raised dots with his tiny hands as he looked at the pictures, sitting in his mother’s lap while she read to him aloud from the illustrated print/Braille children’s books she got from the Perkins Library each month. Having blind parents was as unremarkable as having breakfast in the kitchen, having mail in the mailbox, having rain on rainy days and sun in the summertime. Lending his mother or father his shoulder–his elbow as he grew taller–when they walked together was like offering his arm to the sleeve of his own jacket, like giving his hand to his other hand. He thought nothing of it, didn’t even have a word for it until the day he noticed some older kids whispering and snickering, pointing at him and mimicking his parents in a taunting way. Blind. His parents were blind. That was when he first realized the world saw them differently from how he saw them. And from how they saw themselves.
But the Braille had always been there. Being read to was one of his earliest memories, their hands– and his eyes–following the thread of the story, the pictures coming alive as his mother or father gave voice to the characters, gave life and breath to the words, each story unfolding before him like a road his parents’ fingers walked down as they read aloud: the left hand beginning each line, then passing it off to the right hand halfway across the page, like relay runners in a race, the right hand finishing the line as the left moved down to begin the new line, seamlessly, gracefully, over and over like that, line by line down the page, page by page through the book, book by book through an entire childhood.
The narrow three-story building had six windows facing the street–three floors with two windows in each–like a Braille cell itself. He had noticed this on the morning of his interview, standing out in front of the Braille Press, trying to summon the courage to go inside. He gazed up at the building and took in the configuration of lit windows with amusement: it seemed to contain a message, for him alone. It was eight in the morning and just two of the six windows were lit from within, the left windows on the first and third floors:
It was the Braille letter K; the contraction for the word KNOWLEDGE. And two hours later, toward the end of his interview, when they asked him that standard question about his “strengths and weaknesses”, he decided to tell them about it. He framed it, brilliantly, as a weakness. He took a deep breath like it was going to be hard for him to admit it, or hard for them to hear it. Then he looked around the room, leaned in close, and said in a low, confidential tone: “I have to tell you, I see–I can’t help seeing–Braille, everywhere. It’s kind of a distraction. It’s a little like hearing voices.”
They didn’t understand at first. What do you mean, you see Braille everywhere? Where do you see it? “Well, I see it right now,” he said, looking at the assistant director. “I see the word YOU in the freckles on your forearm here,” and he pointed to a clutch of tiny brown spots near the assistant director’s wrist. “Those five freckles right there, they form the Braille letter Y, the contraction for YOU.” Open-mouthed, the assistant director scanned her wrist like she was checking the time on a watch she didn’t know she was wearing.
“Amazing,” said the executive director.
“I see Braille,” he went on, “in everything that is dotted, spotted, freckled or dappled; in the patterns of bolts on machinery, bolts on the girders of bridges, polka dots on men’s ties and women’s dresses, the arrangement of eggs left in the egg carton, the configurations of lighted windows in a house or building. This building, for example.” He took in the entire Braille Press with a wave of his hand. And that’s when he told them about the word knowledge, how he’d seen it written on the face of the building that very morning. “And don’t you think that’s apropos, maybe even a little propitious?” he said, ending his pitch with a big, winning smile. The executive director, who was not blind, but had a passing knowledge of Braille, asked the assistant director to tell the receptionist to go out and check which lights were on in the building at that very moment. And when the report came back that the lights were now on in all the rooms but one, the bindery–the east room on the first floor–he continued, “You see, it’s as though the Braille Press were talking to us. If all the windows are lit except for the bottom right window, well, that’s the letter Q. Which stands for QUITE.”
“Quite,” said the executive director, looking amused and more than a little impressed. And that’s what cinched it for him–that’s how he got the job. He started the following Monday.
On his first day, word having gotten around already that the Braille Press had chosen a sighted proofreader over two blind finalists, he found a resealable sandwich baggie full of guide-dog shit in the upper left-hand drawer of his proofreading desk. It gave off no odor since it was a sealed resealable baggie, but it did give a message, crystal clear and venomous. Three of the five proofreaders had guide-dogs, including DeMezzo. Two of those dogs were either asleep or pretending to be. The third eyed him sheepishly from beneath DeMezzo’s desk as he held up the bag of shit, bobbed it up and down a couple of times as though estimating its weight or volume, then returned it wordlessly to the drawer.
The next day, he found a second bag of shit, this one waiting for him on his chair. “Hello,” he said, “what do we have here? Will you look at this!”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” said DeMezzo, “we can’t look; we’re blind.” There was a brief silence, then a snicker from one of the other proofreaders, and the click of a Braille watch opening, closing.
He walked over to DeMezzo, who was gently rocking in his chair, head swaying back and forth with a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Oh, that’s right, you’re blind. You can’t see it. Well, here’s a way for you to enjoy it without seeing it.” And he unsealed the baggie and held it up in front of the head proofreader’s nose. The room held its breath. He waited for DeMezzo to react, to pull away or flail his arms in disgust. But there was no reaction. Nothing. No movement at all. Finally, almost inaudibly, DeMezzo said through his teeth: “Get it out of my face. Now. Or you’ll be sorry.” The threat was all the more powerful for being whispered. He threw down the open baggie, like a gauntlet, on DeMezzo’s desk, where it dropped with a heavy, defiant thud.
After that, the taunts stopped. But the proofreaders still refused to talk to him, all except Ed Kochanowski, the junior proofreader from New Jersey with the dark sunglasses and nervous hands, whose desk was in the corner by the wall of dictionaries. He was the only one willing to break the code of silence: one day in the lunchroom, hunting for the hot water button on the coffee machine, holding a cup with a tea bag in it, Ed said, “I love the smell of coffee, but I can’t drink it anymore.” These were the first not-unkind words anyone had spoken to him. “Coffee messes with my stomach,” said Ed. “But I can’t drink the tea either, of course, if I can’t find the damn hot water button. Could have sworn it was around here somewhere. Would you lend a hand?” And he did lend a hand. And they became friends after that, secretly, cautiously, though Ed still wouldn’t talk to him openly in the proofreading department, where DeMezzo reigned. Because Ed was scared of DeMezzo, who’d been equally cruel to him when he first moved up from New Jersey just six months earlier to start work at the Braille Press. DeMezzo had berated Ed, made fun of his Jersey accent and constantly criticized his work until Ed felt sure he’d be fired at the end of his probationary period. But they didn’t fire him. And when they hired the sighted proofreader, Ed felt relieved that DeMezzo’s taunts had finally shifted away from him and were landing on someone else.
But the other proofreaders still wouldn’t speak to him. They wouldn’t even acknowledge his greetings, so he stopped greeting them. They wouldn’t answer his questions, so he stopped asking. There was a heavy, torrid silence in the proofreading department and it might never have broken if it weren’t for the burst water pipe in the ceiling, which helped put things into perspective.
It must have happened during the night. When they arrived in the morning, the smell–like old water in a vase full of dead flowers–hit them before they even crossed the threshold. Once inside, their shoes made squishy noises as they padded across the drenched carpet to their desks, where all the Braille pages were soaked. Soaked and illegible. Trying to read wet Braille is like trying to pass moist, clumpy sand through an hourglass. It won’t go. And there were groans of dismay and consternation when they realized the extent of the damage and how far back this would put the Braille Press in its production schedule. There was one job in particular–the latest Harry Potter novel–which was due out in two days, the same day that the print version was scheduled to hit the bookstores. The Braille Press had gotten special permission to transcribe the Harry Potter books before the print versions came out. They received an electronic file from the publisher well in advance of the frenzied rollout, and the entire staff of the Braille Press was therefore required to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from even mentioning the new book, let alone leaking the contents of the story to anyone. But now the galley proofs were illegible. And there was no way the book would be ready in two days. It was a veritable disaster.
Illegible to the touch, that is. The sodden dots were still visible to the eye, and there was only one person in the proofreading department who could read them, who could help them get the galleys out in time for the book to go to press before the release of the print version. And here he came now, smelling of coffee, his bounciness growing more and more subdued as the sogginess of the situation–and its seriousness–sank in. He understood the gravity of the problem, though not, right away, its solution.
Suddenly everyone was being awfully nice to him. Ed Kochanowski had lost his fear and was talking to him in front of DeMezzo; the other proofreaders were talking to him, too, regaling him like a long-lost friend, inquiring about his needs and desires, his family, health, eyes! Even the guide dogs noticed the change in the air and came over to sniff him. DeMezzo’s fulsome solicitude was almost more than he could stand, but he played along as the head proofreader offered him his own desk to sit at, asked him if he’d like some more coffee, and how did he take his coffee anyway–cream and one sugar, certainly, and was there anything else he would be needing for the time being–time being of the essence now.
He was their salvation. The proofreaders stood around him like liveried servants, like apostles, like page turners for a great concert pianist, waiting on him, turning the wet pages for him when he got to the bottom, sharpening his proofreading pencil, replenishing his coffee, massaging his shoulders while he sat there in the head proofreader’s chair and read–with pleasure, and not a little triumph–The Prisoner of Azkaban from cover to cover. He stayed there reading well into the night, after the secretaries and administrators and transcription department and bindery had all gone home. The Braille Press was dark except for two rooms: the proofreading department and the room directly below it, where the presses were constantly running and rumbling to get the books out in time:
Those two lit windows formed the Braille contraction BE, the Braille just being there on the face of the night for anyone who was able to read it. It was also a semicolon–those same two dots–which one uses when choosing not to end the sentence, but to keep going instead; you choose the semicolon. “Next, next, next,” he called out as he kept going, kept reading the neverending pages, the proofreaders taking turns turning the pages for the great soloist, who was riding this wave, riding this train to glory. He was like a man reading on a train, feeling beneath him the deep, satisfying rumble of the engines, the huge cylinders of the Heidelberg presses turning and turning, shuddering, rotating, trundling toward the finish line, embossing all those Braille dots through the tumbling dark. And Ed Kochanowski sat there like a viceroy with his feet up on his desk now, sipping a cup of tea, calling DeMezzo over and telling him that it hadn’t steeped long enough, and it wasn’t hot enough either, and to go and make another cup for him right now! Hurry up! And with a lot more honey! Oh, how sweet it all was.
About the Author
Paul Hostovsky’s newest collection, DEAF&BLIND, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and the Writer’s Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and a Braille instructor. Website: paulhostovsky.com.