The family gathered at Gramma Judy’s new apartment to meet Nicky. He stood tall and thin, but bowed like a palm tree in the wind. His large head held a healthy mop of dark blond hair, but his sunken eye-sockets instantly made most people look away in embarrassment. His New York accent tripped over words that spilled from his mouth like a broken dam.
“Nicky,” Judy bellowed. “I want you to meet my other daughter.”
“Not Jennifer?” Nicky bobbed his head in her direction.
“This is my daughter Tanya, from California.”
Nicky reached out his hands in front in an awkward invitation. Tanya moved toward him and put her hand in his. He pumped it like a water well.
“And these are my...Chas, where are you?” Judy rolled her head in wide arcs. “Remember Gramma can’t see you.”
“I’m right here, Gramma,” Tanya’s youngest curled his hand in his mother’s.
“These are my grandkids, Sarah and Chas.”
Tanya squared Sarah’s eight-year-old shoulders and guided her to Nicky. With temerity and the beginnings of grace, Sarah took Nicky’s hand and shook it.
“Can I feel your face?” Nicky asked.
Sarah looked at her mom. None of them had known another blind person before Gramma. Tanya gave Sarah the look, then guided Nicky’s hand to her small face.
His hand fluttered like a butterfly. “Ahh, what pretty hair you have and a nice smile, too.”
“Mom, he looks funny,” six-year-old Chas whispered.
“Shh.” Tanya narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s your turn.”
Tanya gave Chas a much sterner look than she’d given Sarah. Chas stood rigid, lips pressed into a grimace, but walked closer and let the blind man puzzle his face by feel.
“Are you only six?” Nicky threw his hands up in mock disbelief. “Let me feel your muscle.”
Chas coiled his tiny bicep. Nicky’s hands flitted down Chas’s shoulder to bent arm. “Strong. I’ll bet you’ll be able to protect your big sister soon.”
“Yeah, I will.” Chas grinned and gave his sister an I told you so look.
“Come on Chas, I want to show you something.” Nicky tapped his cane and guided everyone into his apartment.
They squished into his stuffy living room. A single dilapidated loveseat idled in the small living room. Three walls played host to music making machines, rows of keys looked like hungry mouths. Nicky turned on the keyboard with dramatic flourish. A low hum filled the room. Everyone shushed and paid attention to the blind man at the keys. Thin fingers spidered across a sea of black and white.
Jennifer’s husband agreed to watch the kids so they could go to the last dance of a Swing Dance Event. Nicky and Mom wanted to go too. Tanya was a little nervous. With Nicky in tow, it really was the blind leading the blind. Of course they could come.
Winding their way past rust-colored windblown rocks, they slipped into the backside of Scottsdale. Blue-hairs sipped cocktails and smoked cigarettes at an oblong bar. A New Orleans Jazz band played from a small stage tucked into the corner. A small dance encircled them.
The waitress was quick with drinks, and the spirited liquid slid down throats, laughter abounded. Judy glowed. No one had seen her this happy in years, at least not since the tumor bent her personality in weird angles.
Two hours the food arrived. Judy was three drinks down and thought her food tasted like upscale gourmet. Tanya didn’t know if it did, she was just happy her mom was happy.
“Judy? Is your mother here?” Nicky asked.
“I’m chewing,” Judy said between bites.
“This is good, almost as good as your cooking.” Nicky took another bite.
“Tanya, did you ask them for real butter?” Judy chased a piece of steak.
“Yes mom, it’s on the way, but if it takes as long to get the butter as it did the food, we may have it for dessert.”
They laughed and Judy forgot about the butter. Tanya was grateful. Since the tumors, her mom had laughed less and was easily irritated when she never would've been before.
She’d say,“You don’t understand what it’s like to be blind.” They didn’t. Nor did Tanya understand how to reconcile the idea that this woman who taught her respect, selflessness, and self-reliance could dissolved into self-pity.
“Hey, whaddaya think?” Nicky asked. “Do you think I could sit in with the band?”
“We can ask.” Tanya looked at her sister.
“You know I’m no good at asking favors.” Jen eyed Tanya. “You ask.”
“You know him better than I do.”
“Fine.” Tanya tracked down the band leader’s son, Dabney.
“Sure.” He nodded. “I’ll ask my dad.”
Minutes later, Dabney said it was a go.
Nicky took Tanya’s arm and she helped him to the stage. He situated himself behind the keyboard. The wooden bench scraped the stage like a complaining shrew. He fingered ivories he couldn’t see. Tanya and everyone else held their breath. The amplifier droned hungry and waiting.
Nicky bashed the keys in a mangled chord. Misbegotten notes hung in silent air. Tanya’s heart sank. I wanted this to work for him. Pain pressed behind her eyes, ready to release tears.
Then, BAM! It was on. The beat. The music. The melody. The guitarist picked up her instrument and plucked harmonious notes. The drummer tapped his skins. The trombone slid and the band fell into line. Patrons, dancers, and waiters leaned towards the blind man at the keys. Dreams whispered on enchanted notes.
“Would you like to dance?” Tanya asked Dabney.
“Nah, wanna watch, give the man his due. Wasn’t sure how this was gonna go.”
“Yeah, me either.” She smoothed down her skirt with sweaty palms.
“He’s way better than I thought.”
“Yeah.” Tanya tapped her foot and watched in awe as Nicky’s fingers danced upon the keys. “Whatta jam.”
“I can’t stand still.” Dabney grabbed Tanya’s hand and pulled her onto the floor. “Come on.”
They swished sweet swing to the blind man banging on the eighty-eights. More couples joined the ride. Miraculous music twined around legs and hearts. Tanya took a break, returning to the table.
“Tanya is that you?” Judy called.
“Yeah, stopped back for a drink.”
“Is Nicky having fun?” Judy’s voice wistful like a lost little girl.
“What is it?” Tanya blistered at her mom’s pain.
“I miss dancing.” Judy’s eyes clouded with tears.
“Then, let’s dance.”
“I don’t know if I can do it blind.”
As if on cue, Tanya’s old dance teacher walked in, and she waved him over. “Hi Paul. Remember my mom, Judy?”
“Sure, how are you, Judy?” He thrust out his hand.
“Mom’s blind now.” Tanya clenched her jaw.
“Oh, sorry,” Paul mumbled.
Tanya tilted her head, gesturing for him to ask her mom to dance. Two silent beats passed as he decided. “Judy, would you like to dance?”
Tanya smiled, tears prickled her eyes. She looked up at the ceiling and blinked quickly. Judy and Paul ambled toward the dance floor. Tanya watched him float her mother around the floor. I miss the person she used to be.
Paul escorted Judy back, her face flush and glowing, eyes bright and happy. I want her to stay like this. I want to remember this mom so full of life and love. So when she calls me in tears because she’s spilled a can of beans on the floor and can’t see to clean it, or when she calls to tell me her neighbor stole her Percocet, or how she feels awful she’d never seen my children, when she’s overcome with bitterness and negativity, I can remember her like she is tonight, like she was when I was growing up. Tanya blinked back the tears.
Nicky sprinkled the last song across the piano and put a cork on the night. The end-of-night ritual began much like it started. Everyone collected their purses and took one last sip of their melted drinks. Nicky, Judy and Tanya stepped into the cool night air. The darkness blazed with a new light.