The One-Eyed Man Is King by Rish Outfield
The car was stolen.
That’s nothing special, really. The watch Trey was wearing, the belt buckle at his waist, the cellphone in his pocket (and three more in a bag underneath the driver’s seat), even the Gucci shoes he had on, were all stolen. It was the way he made his living–stealing a little here, a lot there–and it was something he enjoyed.
But because the car had been swiped from where it was parked in front of a Bed, Bath and Beyond, he didn’t know there was anything wrong with it. Wrong with the gas gauge, to be specific. Trey had driven the car sixty-one miles on the way south to Las Vegas, and the gasometer hadn’t moved. A moment later, the gauge was below the E.
He actually noticed it before the Gas light blinked on. He was in rural farm country mingling with desert, and twelve miles back, he had sped right past an exit with both a Shell station and a Conoco.
Now, though, there was nothing. Nothing but shrubland and hills and the occasional pretty orange rock.
He removed the aforementioned stolen cellphone from his pocket, somehow sure he’d get no signal, and was not proven wrong. He drove on, beginning to worry.
Trey didn’t know the car; he could have forty more miles’ worth in the tank or could already be running on fumes. There were long stretches on the I-15 freeway where there was simply nothing, and he remembered seeing a billboard boasting that it was the last restaurant for thirty miles. How many miles back had that been?
He drove for six more minutes, and approached another exit. Even before he reached it, he saw the little green sign that said “No Services,” trying to warn off anybody in his particular situation.
But Trey took the exit anyway.
A gas gauge dropping off all of a sudden doesn’t simply happen, so he pulled the car over to the side of the freeway, and got out, checking underneath for some sort of leak in the fuel line, or the tank itself.
While he was squatting there, the late morning sun already baking down, the engine began to sputter. There was no leak that he could see, and he raced around the car to get back inside just as the engine died.
It took him several tries to get it going once more.
Once back on the road, he headed east, simply because the trees looked greener there. A sign told him he was nine miles from something called Homer Creek, and three from Stevland Springs, so that’s where he headed.
A mile further down the bumpy, ill-maintained road, the engine began to seize, the car began to lurch, and the engine died a second time. He pulled the car to the side of the road, trying to get it to come back to life, but it was dead this time. As dead as Dillinger.
Trey got out. That town was up the road, just two more miles.
Amazingly, the car had a gas can strapped inside the trunk. He wasn’t lucky enough to find any gas in it, but he’d take what he could get. It was sort of his motto in life.
The stolen shoes started to bother him less than a mile down the road. They’d felt so good when he’d first tried them on, in He saw several ducks in a stream, a jackrabbit, and those little brown animals that live to be run over on country backroads. But no people, and no other vehicles. Maybe he’d have been smarter to stay on the freeway, see if someone would give him a ride to a gas station.
But what was done was done.
Once, in a more naive time, he had wanted to be a musician. As a child, he was able to make up songs that sounded like real tunes you could hear on the radio, and in high school he’d told his guidance counsellor that he was going to write hit songs and woo women with them and make millions. Even today, he’d sometimes hum a tune or sing to himself and someone would ask, “What’s that from?” or “Is that a Dylan song?”
So, without even realizing he was doing it, he was singing about the wind on the grass and fences that need mending, when he came to the first house on the outskirts of a beautiful, green little town.
The house was classic Baby Boom Americana, with white walls and a tan roof and little designs engraved in the wood around the door and porch. There was almost no yard, though, with a picket fence going around it all. At the far side of the house was a little garden, an old man leaning on a cane dampening the plants with a trickling hose.
There was something unusual about the garden, though Trey couldn’t say what it was, exactly It had really widely-spaced rows, and several whittled sticks embedded by the vegetables.
The man stopped what he was doing and turned, a smile on his face.
“You’re running early, Mike.”
“What?” Trey asked.
The man was looking in his direction, but not quite at him. “Is that you? You don’t sound quite right.”
“No, I’m not Mike, I . . .” Trey realized that the man was blind. “I’m just passing through.”
“Ah. Welcome, then,” the man said, washing his right hand off with the hose. He seemed to be about to offer his hand, then left it by his side.
“That’s a nice garden you have there.”
“Is it?” the old man asked. “Kind of hard to tell.”
“What are the little sticks for?”
“Those are markers. To tell me what I planted and when I did the planting.”
That was pretty impressive to Trey. And the garden did appear to be flourishing. He told the old man as much.
The man walked slowly to the edge of his house, coiling the hose as he went. “You want a drink from this thing?” he offered, “Otherwise I’m shutting it off.”
It was a warm day, but Trey was alright. He declined, but asked if the man knows where the gas station was.
“Gas station? Sorry, Stevland Springs doesn’t have a gas station.” He looked genuinely unhappy to be delivering bad news.
“Well, do you know where I could get some gas?” Trey asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do.” The old man told him there was a mechanic in town, just three blocks over. He added that there were twelve guideposts between here and there.
“What number is it?” Trey asked. “What does the house look like?”
A bit of a scowl appeared on the geezer’s face. “Well, I can’t rightly say. You might ask me what color it is too.”
“What’s your name?”
“Matt,” Trey automatically lied. It wasn’t even something he had to think about.
“Well, Matt, if you get lost, ask for directions at any house you pass. They’ll talk you in the right direction.”
Trey mused that most people would say “steer” or “point you in the right direction,” and thanked the old man.
He walked a little ways down. A middle-aged woman was washing clothes in a big tub, by hand. She didn’t look up at him.
Wagons, like larger versions of the red wagon he had as a kid, stood in front of many houses. Some wild grass grew up here and there, but nobody had a lawn.
A dollar bill lay at the bottom of someone’s front lawn. He scooped it up and kept walking, not missing a step.
Two blocks over, he saw some children playing. They were all holding on to a big wheel, like a carousel, and were running around it, laughing.
Trey stopped in his tracks, looking closer. The children were all staring blankly, their heads weaving in an alien, yet familiar way. Holy god, they were all blind too.
“Hello?” he said. They continued playing.
A woman came to the door of her house, a cane in her hand. She didn’t wear dark glasses, but her eyes were closed. “Yes? Mike, is that you?”
“No, I’m a stranger here. I’m looking for the mechanic, somebody who might have gas for my gas can?”
“Oh, that’s Blair Herbert, he’s on the next street. Just three markers over.”
Trey looked back at the railing that went from street to street. In front of every house was a marker, with some sort of block on it.
There were no cars in front of any houses.
“Miss, are you . . . are you also blind?”
She smiled. She looked pleasant, but tired. “Yes. I take it you aren’t.”
“And the kids. They’re blind too.”
“Yes, stranger. We’re pretty much all blind here.”
“In this neighborhood?” he asked, his mind automatically going to how he might work this to his advantage.
“In town. Stevland Springs is a sightless community.”
He couldn’t believe it. He had never heard of such a thing.
“But how do you function? How do you go to work?”
“I’m sure you don’t mean to be insulting, Mister . . .”
“Keller,” he lied, though it was a pretty weak one, and might anger her further.
“Mister Keller, but we live a pretty great life here in our little town. Look around and I hope you see a place that’s clean, people that get along, that are old-fashioned, that care for one another, and are happy.”
He did look around. It looked like a very nice place to live, fifty or sixty years ago. “Sorry,” he said.
“That’s alright. We’ve all been given our lot in life, as well as plenty of gifts, and we make due.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, ma’am–“
“Andrea. I just was curious. I mean, how do you get your houses painted, or your letters mailed, or your garbage taken out?”
“Oh. Well, yes, there are certain tasks that we don’t do for ourselves. We have a garbage truck that picks up once a week, and the postal service comes by every other day. Do you take your trash to the yard, or letters to the post office?”
“No, I guess not.”
“There are sighted people who come to visit or help out, relatives mostly, and we appreciate the things they do.”
“Okay,” he said, tired of the conversation. “I was just asking.”
“I didn’t mean to snap at you, Mister Keller. It’s just that I like it here. My family likes it here. My neighbors too. It’s a good life.”
“Alright,” he said and started to walk on.
“Do I sometimes wish I could see the faces of the voices I hear on television or the radio? Yes. But I imagine
Kevin Costner is even handsomer to me than he is to you.”
Trey considered telling her Costner had lost most of his hair and that nobody watched his movies anymore, but she did seem like a decent person, and actually kind of pretty, in a plain sort of way.
He went down another block, following her directions. Each of the markers had raised bumps on it, apparently telling the townsfolk what they needed to know in Braille.
He was humming a tune to himself when he knocked on the door, something about the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.
A tall, middle-aged man opened the door (which, Trey noticed, had not been locked). “Was that a Cole Porter song?” he asked the air.
“No, just humming,” Trey said. He asked the man if he was the gas-owning mechanic, and how that worked if he was blind.
“My fingers tell me what your eyes tell you, I suppose,” Mr. Herbert said. “I’ve been pretty good at fixing things my whole life.”
“I was told you have gas I could use. For my car.”
“I have gas, sure. It’s going to cost you, though.”
Trey became immediately suspicious. “How so?”
“Five dollars for a gallon,” Mr. Herbert announced.
“Five dollars? What, is this 2008 again?”
The man snorted and said, “In 2008 I would’ve charged you seven.”
Trey grumbled and took out his wallet.
“In ones, please,” the mechanic requested. “Or in the new coins, if you’ve got them.”
“Didn’t you hear, they make silver dollars with braille on them now. We’ve been really excited about it around here. Mayor Robinson ordered a bunch of them. We’ve been thinking of trading with just those from now on.”
Trey paid for his gas, watched as Blair Herbert felt his way through filling the gas can, not missing a drop. There was a four pack of rechargeable batteries sitting on the counter of Mr. Herbert’s workshop. Quickly and silently, they made their way into Trey’s pocket. When the blind man replaced the cap and turned around, his friendly expression hadn’t changed.
There was a lawn mower turned upside down on the workbench, and several tools lined up beside it. Trey couldn’t help asking. “You fixing that lawn mower?”
“Oh, yes,” Mr. Herbert said, as though he’d forgotten about it. “I’d better get on that.” He stepped toward the workbench, stopping right before he would’ve walked into it.
“You mow lawns too?”
The man was reaching for a wrench, but stopped. He half turned in Trey’s direction. “No. I’m blind.”
“Okay, sorry.” He left the man working on the lawn mower, closing the shed door behind him.
Trey could have just gone back to his car, gas in hand, but he didn’t. There was opportunity all around him, practically begging him to indulge, and he’d never looked a gift horse in the mouth.
He knocked on Mr. Herbert’s house door again, just in case there was someone else home. No one
answered. He glanced toward the workshop one more time, then opened the door and went inside.
The house was sparsely furnished, but here and there were objects of interest. Pocketknives, harmonicas, a box of cigars, a vase (maybe expensive), a portable radio, a music box, an awesome coffeemaker, and some spoons that looked like they were made of silver. He even took a can of almonds because, hey, he dug almonds.
In the kitchen, below the telephone, was a transparent cookie jar in the shape of the Buddha. It didn’t have cookies in it, but rather, held several dollar bills and, sure enough, a couple dozen of those dollar coins the man had mentioned before.
It was a silver coin, with some dude Trey had never heard of on the front, and an honest-to-god blind kid on the back. Hopefully, it spent like regular money. He plinked the coin back into the jar and grabbed the whole thing off the counter.
He stealthily carried these objects right through the front door, and placed them in the red wagon inside the gate. He put a towel over the lot of it, then whirled around. Across the street, a big, burly looking man was watching him. Trey’s breath caught in his throat, and a lie began to form on his lips.
Then he stifled it. The burly man was staring in his direction, but he wasn’t focused on anything. At his side, a leashed dog was shitting contentedly into the gutter.
Trey gave the big man the finger, and there was no response.
He considered that his cue to get out of Dodge, so he went back, closed Mr. Herbert’s door, and started back, pulling the overloaded wagon behind him.
He went back the way he came, but couldn’t help looking over his shoulder, and interpreting suspicion in every (usually-blank) face he saw. He reached the outskirts of town again, and was relaxing, almost enough to start humming again.
The old man in the last house (previously the first house), stood from his porch swing. “Is that you, Matt?”
“What?” Trey stopped in front of the house. “Oh, yeah, me.”
The old man slowly descending the stairs, smiling. “You found the gas alright, then?”
“Yeah, how do you know?”
“I can smell it from here.”
“Oh.” Of course he could.
“Do you want a drink of water?”
Well, Trey was lugging fifty or sixty pounds worth of stolen goods, and he’d have another two miles to go after this. The day was only going to get hotter. “Sure.”
The old man went to the side of the house. “Blair said you could take his wagon?”
“Yeah. I told him I’d stick it in my trunk and bring it back here once I get back on the road.”
The old man turned on the hose. “Good, good. If you’d like, you can drop it off here and I’ll make sure he gets it.”
“Thanks.” And for a moment, Trey actually considered just leaving the pilfered merchandise at the old man’s house. Just taking the gas and going.
But he needed it more than they did. That much he knew.
He took a long drink from the hose and washed his hands. He could still smell the gas on himself and was sure the old man could.
He was a foot away from him now, just looking at his face. His eyes were steady, his lids blinking just like any other person. He was clean-shaven, with no spots missing, and no sign of razor cuts. “You been blind all your life, old man?”
“No,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Over twenty years, though.”
“Did your sense of hearing and smell get better, then?”
“Yes, a lot better. Within a month or two.”
Trey took one more drink. “So, does that mean farts bother blind people more than regular people?”
The old man didn’t smile. “You done with the hose?”
The old man turned it off. “You have a safe journey, alright?”
Trey turned to go. The old man went back to his porch. Before Trey got to the sidewalk, the man was holding up a pitcher of water. “Maybe you ought to take this with you,” he said.
Trey approached. The pitcher was half full. It had a couple of shrinking ice cubes in it. It looked good, and he took it from the stranger.
“You think you can bring this back when you return the wagon?”
It took Trey a second to know what he was talking about. Then he nodded. Which, of course, meant nothing to the blind. “Okay, will do. Thanks, old man.”
“‘Welcome, Matt.” He waved his hand in the air, a gesture that would have been lost on anybody else.
It was a long walk back to the car. A lot longer than the walk to the town. Trey spent most of the walk thinking about Stevland Springs, and just how a town like that could possibly function. He had to admit that the people there seemed happy, and maybe they were better off in a village full of blind folk, since they wouldn’t constantly be reminded that they were disadvantaged at best, freaks of nature at worst.
It was a hot day, the sun beating down on Trey and his wagon of ill-gotten gains like a mean-spirited kid with a magnifying glass. He drank down half of the pitcher water, hoping to get an icecube or two, but they had already disappeared.
Not even a mile down the road, and he was feeling ill. Hot and miserable, his eyes were watering and burning.
He’d never had sunstroke before, but this was probably the beginnings of it. He considered leaving the wagon and just running for the car with the gas can, coming back for the stuff later. But up ahead, the sun glinted off something metal on the side of the road and he knew he was almost there.
What if a cop had stopped to investigate and ran the plates? What if they’d already called for back-up and were just waiting for him there?
He swigged the last of the pitcher water and nearly dropped it beside him, but put it in the wagon instead. Not that he seriously considered returning it to the old man, but there was no sense in just tossing it.
Dragging the wagon like a caveman dragging his girlfriend, he was finally close enough to see that his was the only car up ahead, still exactly as he left it. Sunstroke or no sunstroke, he was going to make it.
The gas tank cover was hot to the touch and he had to use his shirt to get it open. His hands fumbled with the gascap, but finally, he got it open, and poured the gas into the tank. He didn’t replace the gascap or even close the little door, he just staggered to the driver’s seat and plonked himself down there, resting his eyes and willing his stomach to settle.
He put the key in the ignition (though he had to try three times to get it in there) and tried to start the car. Eventually, the engine turned over, but he couldn’t feel much relief. He was still sick, and his vision was blurry.
Trey rubbed at his eyes and wondered if maybe the gas might have . . .
He remembered the pitcher of water. It was just at the side of the car, and he staggered over to it and looked inside. He could barely see what was left in it. He took a whiff. There was something there, some kind of smell. It wasn’t gas, but something similar. Some kind of chemical.
He gritted his teeth and threw the pitcher as hard as he could manage. It didn’t even break.
Trey stumbled to the car, slumping in the seat. He wept for a minute, then stopped. By that time, he was completely blind.