Whispers From Heaven, Vol. 3, No. 13. February 2001. p. 18-23.

 

"The Airplane"

by William R. Stimson

 

I was walking to work like I do late every afternoon carrying the same small battered brown paper shopping bag I always do.   It was Fifth Avenue I happened to be heading up that afternoon and I got one of those looks from someone smartly-dressed and successful, like sometimes I get.   It makes me feel small, like a man who hasn't made much of himself in life.   I hold down a part-time evening job in a midtown firm and so at work nobody cares how I dress.   My shoes are badly worn.   My pants have been washed a few too many times, as have my shirts.  

When the traffic light changed, as it did that splendid Fall day, I was stopped in the close cluster of people gathered at the curb waiting.  

"I need help crossing the street," someone was repeating, "Could someone help me across the street..."   I turned and looked.   It was a blind man.   Dumpy, unkempt, disgusting-looking, he repulsed me.   Squat and flabby, he looked more like a boy grown old than a man.

The light changed.   Figuring someone else would tend to the guy, I hurried on.   Behind me, I could hear him repeating the same plea over and over.   I was almost across the street when some note in his voice caused me to stop in my tracks and turn around.   I watched person after person do exactly as I had done.   The blind man stood pathetically in the same spot, repeating the same words.   A pretty blond in a business suit whisked by him to get out of the way.   Another attractive young woman, an office worker, did the same.   Something in the scene nailed me to the spot.   The light changed.   I had to get out of the street.

I dashed back across to where the man was standing.   "I'll help you," I announced.   Even as I said this I was repulsed by him.   I stood there with him, a little off to one side, waiting for the light to change again -- uncomfortable.  

"I need help crossing the street," the man repeated, not sure I was still there.  

"I'm right here," I assured him,   "I am going to help you across."  

He reached out then, and put his hand on my coat sleeve.   I couldn't help recoiling in aversion.   The light changed.   I led him across the street.  

"There" I announced when we reached the far curb.  

"I need to go to 38th Street" he now informed me, "and then I have to turn off and go one block west."

"I'm on my way to work," I protested.  

He was silent, helpless.

"I can take you as far as 38th Street" I relented and began walking again.

"You don't know how to walk with a blind person, do you?" he blurted after a few steps.   I looked up at his face, into his vacant eyes.   "What did this man want from me?"   He was making me uncomfortable.   The way he was dressed was dowdy.   His overcoat was stained.   He wasn't the kind of person I wanted to be close to.   There didn't seem to be anything redeeming in his character.

"How are you supposed to walk with a blind person?" I asked, at the end of my rope with this guy.

"You're supposed to hold their hand."

With the definite feeling this guy was going a little too far and half-wishing I hadn't gone back to help him, I did as he bade.   It was so uncomfortable for me to walk up Fifth Avenue holding this man's hand that we walked for almost a block without uttering a word.   I didn't speak.   He didn't speak.   He had nothing to say, or so I felt at first.   All of a sudden, though, I realized the two of us were talking all along -- through our hands.   He could tell, I was suddenly convinced, from the way my hand held his, that I was repulsed by him.   There was no shadow of a doubt he could feel my unwillingness.   Certainly, what was lacking in my touch screamed out at him.   He seemed hurt, made small, by a message I hadn't even been aware I was sending him.   At that moment, I saw him not as undesirable but as deprived.   Without thinking, I started speaking.

"It's a splendid Fall day and there's a good mood on the street," I began, looking around and describing whatever presented itself.   "All around us people are coming and going.   They're all very well dressed and look happy.   It seems like they're all shopping.   They're going in and out of the stores. carrying shopping bags loaded with the things they've bought."

"The store windows all up and down the street are decked-up and pretty," I continued.   "We're walking by a store now that sells men's clothes.   Across the street there's a big store that sells nothing but computers and computer stuff.   Down the way you can see Lord & Taylors, with the row of American flags hanging out in front."   The traffic is heavy today -- cars and trucks.   A red double-decker bus full of sightseers is passing us now, on its way down to the Empire State Building."

He was silent.   He said nothing.   He gave no indication whatsoever that he even heard me.   I continued, "The sun is getting low in the sky and beginning to reflect off the tall buildings up by 42nd Street.   The windows look like they're on fire.   There is not a single cloud in the sky.   It's a perfect pure blue sky."

Still, the man beside me didn't speak.   "And," I added, almost in the way of an afterthought, "way, way up high there's a single airplane going overhead.   It's so high up that you can't even hear its noise.   Now the sun's reflection is flashing off it."

I fell silent.   The two of us walked along hand in hand as before.   I had no way of knowing if my words had made any difference -- to him, that is.   I knew they made a difference to me.   I was trying to somehow fathom what had happened when I noticed that the touch of the man's hand wasn't repulsive to me anymore.  

All of a sudden, the blind man spoke.

"There's an airplane up there?" he inquired with the eager voice of a five year old.

"Well, it's not in sight anymore," I qualified.   "It flew by.   There's just a slice of blue sky we can see, because of the tall buildings on each side of the street.   It disappeared behind the buildings."

"What kind of plane?" he pressed me urgently, like the whole picture was hanging on that one thread, dangling by the concreteness of that single detail.  

I was at a loss.   I don't know the first thing about airplanes.   "It was a passenger plane," I hazarded vaguely, "the kind airlines use."

"A passenger plane?" he urged.

"It seems to have been a passenger plane -- you know -- the kind that have a row of windows along each side and a lot of seats inside" I replied, "I really didn't get a close look at it.   It was there one minute and then it was gone.   It was so high up."

"How big was it?" he pleaded, as if the plane itself held up the whole huge blue sky and put it in place above his head for the first time so that he walked now in a world made much bigger than before.

No matter how inept my fumbling answers, he shot out one question after another about that tiny little speck of a plane up in the sky that I only caught a glimpse of for a fleeting second.   He couldn't stop inquiring about it -- until which point we were standing on the corner of 38th Street.   I stopped and stood there with him at the curb as people rushed by in various directions.   "This is where you turn off," I announced.  

I shook his hand.   "It's been a real pleasure walking with you," I told him with my whole heart.   I know he knew I meant it.   I know he could feel that in my hand and in my voice.   And then I singled out a stunning young lady about to cross the street, "Excuse me," I addressed her, "This man needs help getting where he is going.   It's only one block west."  

Maybe because I didn't see him as disgusting anymore, she didn't either.   "I'm going that way" she said gladly.  

"Here's a beautiful woman," I said to him, "who's going to take you where you're going."   I took his hand off mine and put it in hers.  

I stood a moment, before proceeding on to work, and watched the two of them disappear into the crowd crossing the street.