“You’re not much of a conversationalist are you, bub?”
The clarity of the sentence came as a shock. In spite of myself, I laughed. It was the “bub” that clinched my amusement more than Stella’s contention that I lacked loquaciousness.
Inside, at the Library Counter, she had been rhapsodizing about a boyfriend, a book on tape, a calico cat, and the theft of her white cane. For the life of me I could not fit the pieces into a cohesive whole. My attention had wandered as her grip on my elbow tightened. Stella didn’t need me to guide her to the bus stop. The tree branch she held in lieu of her white cane was effective, if odd. Even without it she knew the way. But she always asked, and I always complied.
Looking at Stella often robbed me of my ability to speak. Unlike the majority of the blind who fill empty sockets with glass, Stella had only shriveled skin. Her face was grotesque. But it was not her missing eyes that caused revulsion. Stella was an addict. It was the damage done by the substance that made it difficult not to grimace at her face: her sallow skin, rotted teeth, the limp hair that fell out in patches. Though expert at hiding it, Stella was aware of the stares of passersby, she noted each tsk-tsk that was flicked at her.
One of my colleagues at the Braille Institute Library, blind and a recovered addict himself, knew Stella’s story, but would say only that she’d endured much hardship. She lived with her sighted sister, he told us. I wanted more, or thought I did. What if knowing all the terrible things that had been done to her increased my horror? I was already haunted by Stella’s image.
I liked Stella even if sometimes I had to look away. She was more personable than many of the more normal folk that frequented the Library. Over the time I knew her Stella was in and out of rehab. She signed up for free classes at the Institute like cooking and dancing, but I don’t think she attended more than one or two each time. She talked too much. The meth had made her crazy. She was too much of a distraction for the rest of the class.
The Library at the Institute was a gathering place for many of the patrons. It was their safe haven, a place where no one became frustrated with their slower mobility, where no one tripped over their canes, or shouted at them to watch where they were going.
“I wish I could stop,” Stella said to me once. “Stop what, Stella?” I asked, thinking she meant stop talking, or stop smoking crack or maybe both. I never found out. Instead she began to ramble about her neighbor who liked to pet her head like a puppy as she tried and failed to unlock the door to her apartment while shouldering a 5 lb sack of potatoes.
I’d visited a few of my colleagues’ who were blind and lived alone, curious to know how they moved around their living space. In an orderly fashion, I discovered. One, who loved to cook, had all her spices neatly arranged and labeled in Braille.
I didn’t imagine that Stella lived in an orderly fashion. Was the sister also an addict? She must be, we surmised. How else would Stella get drugs? But our colleague who knew Stella’s story reprimanded us. “I didn’t need any sighted help to score,” he insisted, though not unkindly.
A couple of years after I left that job I learned that Stella had overdosed. I wasn’t surprised, but nevertheless was overcome by sadness. Lost in the system and dead at 36, how do you begin to grieve, and for what do you grieve most?
Over the years while watching a movie or reading a book when a character says, “You’re not much of a conversationalist are you?” I think of Stella. I see her disfigured face, and I hear her cigarette-inflected voice add “bub” to the end of the sentence, and I answer as I did that day, “No, Stella, I guess I’m not.”