(Note; This is the first of the Chris McSweeney Carlson mysteries.)
Sighted Guide by Glynda Shaw
“Alright,” Bethany said, “You’re next.”
I stepped forward, touching the counter with my left hand “Hello,” I said. “I would like a round trip ticket to Seattle please?” I took particular care with the is and Rs which can set the vocal cords vibrating in the lower register, and pitched the end of my request high like a question.
“Twenty-four dollars even,” the guy behind the counter told me. I slid over a half-folded twenty and a quarter-folded ten. The ticket printer chattered. He put an envelope in my hand. “You helping her on board?” he asked Beth.
“Yes,” my sister answered but made it sound like he’d asked the wrong question.
“Okay,” the clerk said, not noticing or maybe just not bothering. “Good trip.”
“Thank you?” I said, making certain to smile. I turned and took Beth’s arm.
“And just don’t look so damned smart,” she hissed.
I didn’t know I was, but I did feel pretty pleased with myself. The ticket man had asked a pronoun specific question, not just asked if I needed help, and we seemed not to be attracting attention,
“I’m not,” I hissed back. Whispering is no problem.
“You don’t know what you look like,” she shot back. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“Positive,” I told her. “No point turning back now.”
She made a growl sigh in her throat like she always does when she’s pissed.
“Okay.” Beth shoved open the exit door to the boarding gates.
Tucking my cane under my arm, I caught the door on the back-swing.
“Here’s the end of the line. Do you want me to wait with you?”
“Would you mind?”
Beth didn’t say anything, but stuck in place.
We had a long line that day so it would likely be a full bus. We stood together silently, inching toward the driver.
I extended my envelope.
The driver made a ripping sound and handed back my return. “Front seat on either side’s open,” he said. “Wide open.”
Sometimes bus drivers think that “Disability Accommodation” means “Disability Mandate.” I don’t like to sit that far forward in a bus coach. Today, as part of my purpose for being here I wanted a seat-mate. In the handicapped seats, nobody sits with you unless they’re considered handicapped too or there’s nowhere else.
I held my cane diagonally across my body, hitting each step riser, then turned left. With Beth following, I made my way down the cramped aisle. All the seats seemed to be already double-occupied.
“Here,” Beth said. “Both seats are empty. I’ll put your cane up above.”
Turning around, I ran a hand down the back of my skirt. (If you ‘re going to do that -why can ‘(you at least wear slacks/?) Leaning slightly forward then, I slid into the window seat.
Beth patted my arm. “Okay, goodbye then. You get into trouble, call me?” \
“Gawd,” she muttered, her voice retreating. “I hope Mom never gets wind of this!”
Alone now, I could listen to the subdued conversations around me, hearing luggage thud into the cargo hold below, the driver’s shouted response to last minute questions.
The door whooshed shut The driver’s seat announced with a subsidence of springs and the engine rumbled. As we began to move I felt a body slip into the aisle seat next to me, smelted perfume and heard ragged breathing as if perhaps she’d run to squeeze on at the last minute. I turned in that direction, smiled, but kept silent during the maneuverings out of the depot and the driver’s terse recitation of rules and schedules. Soon we picked up speed and were on the freeway.
So far my companion hadn’t said anything either. I usually don’t initiate convers’ns in case the other person wants peace and quiet This trip was a little different though. “Hi,” I said, giving it a bit of an upward lilt, but keeping my voice down so as to maintain good vocal control. There was a long pause, then”Hi.”
I couldn’t tell what age she was. Women are often hard to judge by sound alone.
“Where are you going?”
“Seattle,” I told her.
“Me too,” she said, sounding relieved I thought. By now I figured her for a girl no older than me. “Do you travel by yourself very often?’ she wanted to know.
“Quite a bit. I’ve got family down in Seattle and I go to school at Western.”
“Oh,” she said and was quiet for a couple of minutes. “I hope it’s okay that I took this seat?”
(Careful, don Y be care-taking.) “Of course,” I said. “I’m glad (watch the L) of the company.”
So far things were going pretty well. I had a female traveling companion and a good two hours to try out my conversational and social skills. Some might disagree but I think females are harder to pass with. I recalled the scenes in Huckleberry Finn when Huck was dressed as a girl and Mrs. Loftis told him he wouldn’t fool a woman anyhow, but with men he might just possibly succeed. Now I recalled a dream from when I was seven or eight. I was wearing a dress at my aunt’s house. My mom and aunt knew about this and were happy about it For years I’d puzzled over that dream. What deeply-seated part of my psyche should have suggested it? Not until I was in grad school did I realize that it had come from Huck, the first time I think I’d ever heard of a boy putting on girl’s clothes.
“What are you thinking about?” my acquaintance asked, jarring me back to the present.
“Oh,” I said, trying to cover my embarrassment. “Just thinking about a dream I had once.”
“Oh,” and she showed a smile in her question. “What dream?’
My mind raced for an answer which would pass and wouldn’t be too much of a lie. “Oh, I dreamed when I was very little, mat I was with my mother and my aunt and for some reason I had on a very long dress that reached clear down to the floor, like a pioneer girl—? The thing was, I’d never seen a pioneer girl, at least none I could remember. I could see until I was five, but I can’t remember seeing women dressed like that?’ I shut up in order to avoid saying too much or too little.
Some seconds of silence, then “How did it happen?”
I explained how I’d been born premature and had lost one eye at birth, then had accidentally been kicked in the eye by a playmate when I was halfway through kindergarten.
“That’s really sad,” she said predictably. Then, “dreams are strange, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “What sort of dreams do you have?’
“Oh—” she sounded almost as if she’d cry just now, “my dreams scare me sometimes. Let’s don’t talk about them just now—on such a beautiful day?’ She leant over me. “The sun is so bright today. You can feel it, can’t you?”
“Did you say you were going to Seattle to visit your family?’
(What had I told her? Yes, I ‘d said family, nothing more or less.) “Yeah, my parents live in Seattle.”
“So you’re going to stay with them for a while?’
“No,” I said, “not exactly. In fact (I lowered my voice to a murmur), they don’t even know I’m coming today.”
“A surprise visit?’
“Hmm, not exactly.” Somehow, saying that felt kind of mean-spirited. “I’ve got a conference in the morning” I hurried to explain. “It starts pretty early and—well, I wanted to have some free time this evening. You know how moms are. I’ll pop in on her after the conference.”
“Is this something for school?’ she asked then. “You said you go to college?”
“Yes, I’m a graduate student in Psychology and I’m going to a conference on sex and gender.”
“Wow,” she said, not sounding all that impressed. Then, “I miss my Mom.” We were both quiet and I felt about an inch tall!
Finally she said “I’m Norma.”
I hoped that meant she wasn’t mad at me. “Hi, Norma.” My hand went out automatically. I remembered too late mat girls don’t shake hands as reflexively as guys.
“Stephanie,” I said, as we briefly clasped. It was the name I’d chosen some time before, rather than Christine, derived from my first name, which would have been too obvious. My sister, who’d thought the whole thing was damned ridiculous, had hated the name.
“It’s stupid, Chris. Your second name is Steven, not Stephen!””I’m glad we met, Stephanie,” Norma said, sounding like she meant it. “You’re a nice person.”
“Thanks, you too.”
The idea had started back in my Junior year at Western. I was a Psych major and aimed at doing counseling even back there. The university had three different Sex and Gender courses, in Psych, Soc, and Anthro. I took all three and some Women’s Studies courses as well. One of my term projects was to take on an alternate-gender role or experience. I got permission to job-shadow a house-parent in the adolescent girls’ Cottage at the State School for the Blind, in Vancouver. I spent a weekend, closely chaperoned, with the girls (making no attempt to disguise my identity), sitting in on dispute arbitrations, sharing meals, watching TV, listening to records, even attending a Saturday fitness class in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy gym.
My paper went over well and gave me a direction for Grad School. When I was accepted into the Counseling Maker’s, I set about designing a Gender Concentration, to help people who are considering or in process of sexual reassignments. I didn’t then consider myself to be transgendered as such, nor do I now, but I had a strong affinity with women and the gender reassignment stuff was fascinating. Yes, I’d experimented with girl’s clothing, especially skirts and underwear from the time I was ten or so, but I’d never tried passing as a female.
There wasn’t all that much available, even at the graduate level, on sex and gender issues so a field project must furnish the crucial material I needed to flesh out my specialization.
I started going down to the Ingersoll Gender Clinic in Seattle, where I sat in on support group meetings for transvestites and transsexuals. (Easy differentiation, transvestites tend to switch between male and female roles while transsexuals generally don’t TS’s may not have surgery, but still consider themselves to be other-gendered and TVs are about more than just wearing clothes. I knew I was essentially male and though I like women’s clothing, they aren’t the huge turn-on for me that some guys feel.
At Ingersoll it became clear I’d be better accepted if I showed up in a dress from time to time. Posing it as just a lark, I had my sister Beth (four years older than me) dress and make me up for a graduate Halloween party. Everybody was so shit-faced though, I doubt half of them noticed I was a girl. Beth was okay with that, and even with my dressing up for Ingersoll because at bottom, I think she appreciated my quite earnest desire to understand what women experience.
Then Barbara, my graduate advisor took me behind closed doors during one of my Field Project interviews and inquired if I’d yet settled on a topic. I’d kicked around a number of ideas, most of them having to do with this or that psychohistorical study on groups of transgendered persons, probably drawn from the Ingersoll population.
“I’ve been thinking,” Barbara said The whole subject of blindness and transgenderism appears to be a wide-open field. I’ve taken a brief look at the literature” she continued, “though not a fleeting one, and I’ve turned up nothing whatever about blindness and little enough about disabilities generally.”
“It may be that there aren’t many blind transsexuals around,” I wondered aloud. “Blind people are only about one half of one percent of the US population and transsexuals are supposed to be something like one out of every hundred-thousand people. Call it a thousand nationwide (though the number did seem low). The intersection just isn’t going to be that big.”
“Not big,” Barbara agreed, “but not zero. Even if there was only a handful of blind transsexuals, even one or two, any data that could be collected on that group would be groundbreaking.”
“If,” I said, my stomach nagging me that I was two hours late for lunch, “we could find—any.”
“Or,” Barbara countered, “If we could infer anything about how the ambient sighted population treats or reacts to someone behaving as a transsexual.” She proceeded to sketch out her idea
“In class,” she said, “you’ve often told us how sighted people sometimes offer unwanted assistance, treat you as incapable. You’ve inferred that blind people generally are treated in much the same way as women are. We have a lot of baseline data on social attitudes about women and I’m sure we could find information on how blind people on average, perceive the behavior of sighted people toward them. While it may be difficult to find certifiable transsexuals who are blind, there may be blind crossdressing males for instance, or what we might call effeminate homosexuals whom you could interview and study how the issue of blindness might mask or reinforce perceived gender differences. Do sighted people react as negatively to a blind crossdresser as to a sighted one, or is it perhaps easier for a blind crossdresser to pass than a sighted one?”
The idea developed quickly in broad brush, but details took most of a year. I don’t know to this day what Barbara thought of the basic plan that evolved. She strictly confined herself to comments onexperimental design as such. Having given the first breath of life to her monster, so to speak, she mostly sat back and watched it—me—take shape.
There was a great deal I needed to learn. Spending a couple of hours in a dress at a Safe location where everyone knew who I was and why I was there, couldn’t count as truly venturing out into the General Public. Now I needed to truly pass.
Lisa Denkey, a drama student at Western and a classmate in the Anthropology Gender Class, heard about my project and offered her assistance. Lisa took me through the walking, standing, sitting stuff and taught me what she could of hand gestures. She started me off with some speaking techniques, modifying the way I said things, what I said and how to avoid some easy giveaways. One weekend we drove together down to Seattle to meet with Cassandra Evans, a speech expert interested in transsexual makeovers. Dr. Evans would show her subjects oscilloscope traces—visual sound patter of a word or phrase as a woman would say it—then show how it compared with one’s own. Of course I couldn’t see the patterns on the screen, but with her and Lisa describing where the mismatches occurred, then with me listening to practice exercises and using my own ears to critique, I got along reasonably well. As Barbara had said though, “You don’t have to become a woman. Some agendericity should be expected and might even help you gather data.”
“Where will you be staying tonight?”
Norma jarred me out of my reverie, almost causing me to break character. “Oh, I thought I’d get a motel room near City Center,” I said “I can catch a bus out to the University of Washington in the morning.”
“I’ve got a room,” she said. “In a rooming house, near the foot of Capitol Hill. If you just need a place to crash, there’s a couch and we could talk and toast marshmaUows on the hotplate and you know…”
I was about to say thanks and refuse gently, since my plan involved making my way through public facilities, including the intricacy of transport, motel, restaurant etc.
“I’d really appreciate some company,” she said.
My plan modified all of a sudden. Wasn’t what I was after, some genuine life experiences from a female perspective and a catalog of reactions from sighted people with whom I came in contact? Well, here I’d made a friend, who’d invited me for a sleep-over. What could be more genuine than that?
“Are you sure you have room?” I inquired. “I mean, the couch is just fine and I’ve got some food along too, but are you really sure?”
“Oh yes,” Norma said. “It’ll be great fun. In the morning,” she said with finality, “you just get on the number four Montlake and that’ll take you all the way to campus!”
I can’t recall what all we talked about the rest of the way to Seattle. I couldn’t have told you the next day. I can tell you though, it was one of those conversations that while being about nothing very much in particular, ate up about an hour and a half with no trouble whatsoever. We hardly noticed the stops and it was a bit of a surprise when…
“Seattle! Those transferring to connecting buses to Tacoma, please go to Gate Six, those going East; Ellensburg, Moses Lake, Spokane, Billings, Montana, Gate Two! Thanks for riding Greyhound. Please wait until the coach comes to a complete stop!”
Norma and I stayed where we were until most of the other passengers had debarked. Then as she slid out of the aisle seat, I extricated myself and my skirt from the close confines of the bus seat and, feeling for the luggage rack, eased my pack down, sliding my shoulders into the straps. Sensing Norma behind me, I slid my way along the broken fence of arm rests to the railing of the exit stairs.
“Just a minute!” The driver’s voice came from the bottom of the boarding stairs. “Don’t fell.”
I stepped nimbly down the steps, remembering a little too late that to avoid drawing attention to myself I probably shouldn’t act too independent.
“Where do you need to go?” the driver’s voice inquired as I allowed him to take my arm for the final step to the pavement.
“I’ll be getting a bus,” I told him.
“You need somebody to help you?” He made it sound more like a statement.
“I’ve got somebody with me,” I said. “Are you there?” I directed this back over my left shoulder.
“I’m right here,” the driver said.
(I felt Norma brush my arm. My hand contacted her angora sweater.) “My seatmate from the bus I mean,” I told him, wondering why Norma wasn’t talking.”Here,” the driver grasped my wrist. “I’d better get you into the depot. Somebody can help you in there.”
“We’re fine.” I nearly forgot any attempt at passing.
“I’m just trying,” he said, leaning down toward me now and sounding as if I were about four years old, “to assure your safety.”
“We’re fine,” I said again, hoping to match his level of condescension, bitchy as well. I felt for Norma’s arm and directed us toward the terminal door. I’d been here plenty of times and could tell pretty much from the pattern of foot traffic where we were, even if I hadn’t a sighted companion.
We went unchallenged through the depot and out the other side to the Eighth and Stewart corner where I knew I could catch any one of several buses going in the right direction. I felt in my coin purse, counting out enough for two fares. Feeling Norma now close by my side, I put my hand on her elbow. Using my cane to keep from stepping off the curb, I followed it closely to the bus zone.
“Number Ten will be coming here pretty soon I think,” Norma said. I kind of wondered at that I thought it had been quite a while since that bus had stopped at this particular zone. Still, changes occurred all the time.
By the sound, we seemed to be alone here and on a Friday night, that was a bit strange but not unheard of. “What time does it say the next bus is due?’ I asked, opening the unisex Braille wrist watch I wore and holding it up so Norma could see it too. Before she could answer though, I felt the whoosh of displaced air, heard the almost simultaneous squeak of air brakes and the noise of the bus door opening.
“Seventy-two Montlake!” a cheerful voice announced.
“Do you go to Capital Hill?’ I inquired.
“You ride long enough, we get there,” said the driver. “Seat across from me, by the door’s opea”
(Didn ‘t he figure Norma could see that?) I hesitated for a moment to let Norma board ahead of me, but hell, we were both girls and I was paying! I stepped briskly up the stairs, felt along the rail to my right, dropped the double fare into the coin box.
“You’ve paid me too much, Ma’am,” the driver said, not unkindly, but it pissed me off. Bus drivers always assume blind people have special bus passes which allow them to ride for a quarter or something and if they don’t, they should.
“I don’t even live in Seattle,” I told him as if it was any of his business why I shouldn’t be expected to carry a bus card.
“Beautiful city,” he said breezily. “Fare’s eighty cents except at rush hour.”
I ignored him, settling down in the seat indicated, and proceeded to sulk. At least he’d called me Ma’am. That was something… I felt Norma slide into the seat next to me. She said nothing.
I usually sleep on Greyhound trips and my postponed nap was catching up with me. I’m afraid I drifted off, my head against the cool glass of the window behind me.
At some indefinite time later, the driver said “Where did you want to get off, Miss?’
“Ninth and Denny,” I told him, reminding myself in mid-sentence to pitch the Denny up at the end like a question.
“Good thing I said something,” he chuckled. “We’ll be there in about four blocks. This is the last bus on mis run tonight.”
Reflexively I felt to make sure Norma was still there, smiled at her. She said nothing and I had the clear feeling she’d just felt like being quiet
“Next stop Denny,” the driver called, mostly for my benefit but carrying to the rest of the bus.
I touched Norma. “Are you awake?” 1 asked.
“What?’ the driver inquired.
“I asked if she was ready,” I told him, a little snappishly. He said nothing. I rose, one hand behind my skirt the other on my cane, as the bus hissed to a stop. Norma seemed to have slipped past me, so I climbed down the steps to the ground before the diver could fully kneel the bus.
“Watch your step,” he said as I hit pavement then he seemed to pause there for a few moments, as if to see whether we’d have some idea where to go.
“That guy’s a little weird,” I said to my friend, feeling a flush of sisterly connection.
“Lots of weird people in Seattle I’m afraid,” she agreed. “Here, we need to go this way.” The sidewalk steepened as she led us up Denny Way toward a destination which might as well have been on the other side of the state for all of my ability to locate it.We must’ve walked a half dozen blocks, Norma confirming my suspicions about traffic-light changes, before we came to the scent of garbage cans emptied none too frequently and the sound of late birds serenading themselves toward a nighttime of slumber.
“Usually the door’s unlocked down here,” Norma told me. I heard her rattle the knob. “Maybe it’s stuck. Not sure I have my key.”
In spite of the advice I’d taken against rescuing (hell, I was stuck out here too!), I took over the door knob and managed to turn it. This let us both into a musty entrance-way and a flight of carpeted stairs, switchbacking to a third floor landing.
“I don’t ever lock up here,” Norma said. “Probably I should. Here,” and she gave me her elbow. “Glad you can’t see the mess.”
Part of me was just as glad I couldn’t either. The entire building smelted none too fresh, but Norma’s apartment had the air (quite literally) of being ignored for some time. I could taste the dust in the room. The echoey quality of the space in which we stood said there wasn’t much here. I wondered how long Norma’d been vacationing, or whatever, up North. “I’m here to visit you, dear, not your house!” I grinned, hoping Norma’s mother had said the same kinds of things mine had, and she’d get the joke.
Norma giggled. “Good thing! Well, let’s see what we can put together.”
I heard a rattle of pans from the side of the room opposite from where I stood and a rather timid trickle of water.
“I thought I had some tea around—” Norma said uncertainly.
“Don’t worry,” I offered. “I’ve got some bags with me.” I felt my way with my cane, to a couch and sat down—further than I expected and opened my case on my lap. Along with two blouses and two changes of undies I’d packed two sandwiches, some cookies, a package of Rye Krisp, a baggie of dried fruit and another baggie with tea, honey packets and a little plastic lemon. Enough for a couple of complete meals for one or a party for two.
“Here we are,” I said, laying out the tea and fixings. “Have you eaten dinner yet?”
“No,” Norma admitted. “I was thinking about what we should do about that”
“I’ve got peanut-butter, and cheese with tomato and lettuce,” I told her, laying out the sandwiches. We halved the sandwiches and spread out the other things on some napkins Norma found. Just now the water was whistling in the kettle.
Norma placed a metal cup in my hand, handle first. It felt rather the worse for wear, scored rough in places, maybe a bit rust-spotted. A sip of the tea suggested that the pipes in the building might be overdue for replacement, but I drink my tea strong and it can cover up a lot of funny tastes.
“Sony it’s so messy in here,” Norma said again.
“Looks okay to me,” I told her.
“What?” She laughed a IMe then. “You know, I do believe I’ve found a bag of marshmallows!” There was the rather sharp odor of a hotplate element, long un-used and brought up to red heat again. Norma began rummaging in the silverware drawer, at least that’s what I assumed. “Do you like yours well done or just slightly?”
“Well,” I said. “So, how long have you been gone?”
“Hunhr she asked.
“While you were in Bellingham I mean,” I said. “Have you been gone for long?”
“Oh—” she sounded vague, “a while I guess. Sometimes I sort of get in the mood and just need to be someplace else. Here,” she said, putting the handle of a fork in my hand. “Careful. It’s hot”
I can’t say the marshmallow was exactly soft in the center, but I’d never seen anyone toast one on a hotplate before.
“Sandwiches okay?” I asked.
“Of course,” Norma said, though I’d heard no signs of her chewing since I’d divided my food.
“Say, if you want to show me your phone I could call out for pizza. I’ve got some money with me.”
“No phone,” Norma told me. “Cost money whether you’re there or not. Besides—who you gonna call?”
“Godfathers?” I offered.
“No,” she said, “we’ll be just fine. Want another mallow?”
Sitting here on the edge of a frayed couch, hoping my skirt was still covering me, it struck me that I was doing precisely the things I’d always been warned not to do. Here I was in the home of a stranger really, in a place I’d never been before and nobody the wiser as to where I was! It felt deliciouslyliberating and it was safer to be with another girl—wasn’t it? But as my sister’d pointed out, Mom would have a fit—about a lot of things.
“Does your mom live in Bellingham then?” I asked, feeling like an interrogator, but Norma’d said nothing so far which could really be nailed down.
“No,” Norma said, “she lives right here in Seattle.”
I lifted my cup, took a swallow of the iron-tasting tea and asked in a tone I hoped was casual, “do you see her very often?”
“No,” Norma stated flatly.
“She’s okay though?” I’d kept getting the idea there was something wrong with the lady!
“Yeah,” she said, “sort of.” This evidently wasn’t a good topic.
“I remember the summer before my senior year,” Norma remarked suddenly in an almost discordantly bright tone. “I went to Ingram High and I was pretty popular. I was pretty upset to have to leave my friends and go up to Bellingham for the summer. Daddy was teaching that summer at Whatcom Community College, some kind of a class on ecology or something. Daddy was a Marine Biologist. We borrowed a little cottage on one of those little bays that kind of branch off the big one—Bellingham Bay? A cute little ferry running out to an island with only a couple hundred people on it I could go walk on the beach any time I wanted, swim, have picnics—but I did get lonely.”
“You came back to Seattle though,” I asked. “Next year?”
“Oh sure,” Norma affirmed. “Daddy didn’t” Her voice caught “Oh, for a while, but that was the last year Mom and Dad were together. Dad got a full time job at Western, where you go—and he married the instructor who got him that summer job. Mom came back to Seattle.”
“Did you go to college, Norma?”
“No…” She sighed, wistfully I thought “I guess by then I’d had enough of colleges and professors. I went to work at a little cafe not all that far from here, and sometimes I still go back.”
“Go back?” I asked. To the cafe, you mean?’
“Oh” I said, since I thought I understood perfectly. Last happy summer, bitterness against Dad, maybe both parents. No wonder she was estranged “Well,” I said, hoping I sounded comforting rather than flippant, “you never know what time can accomplish if you just wait on things and let them heal.”
“Sometimes,” she said.
We shared another cup of tea and the rest of my goodies. After a while I found that the toilet seemed to flush, though not very completely. The basin provided a trickle of water and I didn’t want to be rude enough to try the tub faucet I’d hoped for a shower in the morning, but might have to make do with a sponge bath.
I think it was about ten-thirty when she yawned and said “I’m sorry Steph, but I’m having trouble keeping awake. Can I help you fix up a bed, then you can just stay up as late as you want?’
I tend to be a night owl but Mother drummed good manners into me with her breast milk, I think, and I wasn’t about to be a poor houseguest.
“Great,” I said “I’m needing to turn in also. If you’ve got a blanket or something, I’ll just spread it out here.”
I heard her voice muffled and perhaps a little sniffly, in a closet or some other kind of space partitioned off from the rest of the apartment. “Here’s a sheet and here’s a blanket and here’s a pillow!” She emerged then and proceeded to make up my erstwhile seat as a sleeping place.
“I’ve got a spare nightie that’s clean,” she said. “Didn’t look like you had a lot of stuff in your bag, nothing much to sleep in.”
While usually I sleep in a pair of briefs or less, I didn’t know what etiquette a situation like this demanded. Maybe Norma would think it was indecent for me to sleep on her couch almost naked. To be sure, I knew I’d probably better not, at least until the lights were out!
“Well, if you’re sure,” I complied. “That would be nice.”
More rummaging and Norma came up with something which felt essentially like a T-shirt, but nearly ankle length.
“There, that should fit”
“Thanks—for this, and—for everything!”
“What did I do?’ she wanted to know, sounding a little self-conscious I thought.
“You’ve just been a—friend,” I said
“I need a friend.”When she was busying herself with her own bed, or so I assumed, I slipped into the bathroom, took off my blouse and put the gown over my head. Then I divested myself of skirt, shoes and hose. I’d been wearing a scarf over my own rather long hair, which Beth had helped me fix (not without contumely) this morning. I decided to risk taking the scarf off but to get quickly under the covers.
“When you need to leave tomorrow” Norma said, “I mean if I oversleep or something, just go out my door, take a left, find your way to the stairs there at the end of the hall, follow the stairs down to the front door. When you step out of the building, turn left, follow Denny three blocks to the bus stop you need.”
I laughed a little. My seminar didn’t start till noon. There’d be plenty of time, I thought, for both of us to wake up. “Okay,” I said. “If I can’t manage to wake you up in the morning, I’ll find my way just fine.”
I heard slippered feet approaching the couch. I smelled her perfume, something with irises? in it, I thought. I felt lips against my ear, one quick peck. “You’ll find your way out just fine,” she said. And that was the last thing she said to me—save one.
Now I lay there with my own memories. My family, Mom, Beth, other people I’d known. Going to school, getting into Western, choosing a major, how I’d come to be here. I recalled how in order to help me with a story about a boy masquerading as a girl to hide from enemy aliens, Mom had let me wear a skirt around the house for an hour or so, and what was more, had kept the secret. I re-ran little confidences, bits of childhood lore Beth and I shared, huddled together in her bed or out in our backyard pup tent. Later memories, anxieties about sex, relationships, what we knew about human biology, what we wished to know—even the trust still maintained, though not without misgivings, today, this morning, now.
I took some time going to sleep and once or twice even contemplated getting up to sit and read from the Our Special Magazine I’d brought along with me, possibly to take a turn up and down the hall outside. Norma’s very regular breathing, then hardly any sound whatsoever, constrained me to keep up my own silence however and eventually I must have slept.
Something—an irritant, an anger-provoking something! I shoved against it. My dream-arm was like lead. Suddenly something fell on me, crushing me deeply into the fetid cushions on which I lay. A loathsome mountain of flesh, crushing, unyielding, demanding. I screamed out but my voice was stopped. Hands clutched at my nightgown, fabric ripped. Something warm, wet, putrid, a mouth, pressed against mine—sandpaper cheek against mine.
(Norma?) But no Norma Strange, unfamiliar sensations between my legs; wetness, pain, something sharp into my breast, hot, wet flowing. Fully awake now, I knew this for no dream. No dream I’d ever known before. This time I bit the lips as they impacted, teeth baring, against my mouth. An oath, and the face withdrew, releasing my own scream. Frightening me but demanding release. A stinging slap on my face. I wrenched my hands free. Once I’d heard on TV a blind man, training to fight, refusing to learn the art of gouging eyes. I felt no such compunction. I raked with nails unfamiliarty long, clawed with cat’s frenzy, felt pulp, warm, satisfying. The mass atop me shifted violently, a hideous cry. I wrenched my body free, a tail of my gown ripping, trapping beneath the floundering furious pain at my bedside. Sobbing, panting, thrashing desperately I dove headfirst over the couch arm, across the Irving room—blind instinct propelling me to the door. I scrabbled the door open and without cane or any clear map of where I was going, pelted barefooted, blood-soaked, praying for breath, down the hallway.
An echo warned me of the hall’s blank end, but not quick enough. I slammed into plasterboard, rebounded, fell—I think I must have been unconscious for a moment, perhaps longer. I believe I’d have lain there on the greasy linoleum all night if I could, but something beyond reason drove me to rise, my head pounding, hurting in all my places, crawling up the wall. Leaning now I listened, at first hearing nothing, then a series of thuds and now an outcry, deep and masculine.
Yes, I did think of Norma and for a moment considered whether I should go back there, but what could I do? I had no way of taking this—monster? in an apartment where he could at any time, probably had, flip on a light and attack me in any number of hideous ways. If I could perhaps lead him away, perhaps to pass me by and what? leave, fall, be apprehended?
I heard nothing, but rather felt A presence, a knowing? A direction. Somehow I knew there was another stairway leading upward from where I was now. My tender feet rebelled at the corrugated runners, but I forged on, the guiding presence at my elbow. Up, around, up again. Now I groped along a wall, like the one below; now hearing footsteps, the tread of feet at the bottom of the stairs. Moving as rapidly as I could, but desperate to make no sound, I touched a door, froze for a second, but hearing the footsteps turnto the second course of stairs, I tried the knob, praying, and it gave. I prized it open as far as I dared and squeezed inside, my heart stopping as the door clanged shut.
“I’m going to kill you, bitch!”
I’d come, or been led? to what appeared to be a utility closet. Remembered smells of grease, soilworn metal, with dust and things more astringent assailed me as I rummaged my environs, contacting tool handles, old sacks, things less recognizable.
“You hear me, whore?!”
In one comer was a clutch of garden implements, from the feel of the handles, shovels and the like. Bending in the cramping detritus I located a tool head with three promising-looking forward-pointing tines. That should do more damage, if I could upend it to bring the cultivating head closer to vital parts of my attacker.
The closet was too small for me to turn the handle end for end, but I moved it to a position behind me and to the right, so that when the door was opened, I might be able to bring it up and into action. Time wasn’t enough, though.
“You hear me, bitch!”
On a shelf at the back of the closet and a little overhead, I found an array of smaller things. An old rotted padlock, a pair of pliers, a small glass jar, sandpaper, rags, a knife! Likely a refugee of some woman’s kitchen drawer. It was dulled and felt as if it might be covered with old paint, but it had a sharp point still and might, I thought with a gut-churning quaver, serve as a last resort. I stuck the knife through my underwear in back where I might be able to grab it with either hand.
“Get out here you bitch!” The voice was pain-maddened and all the more deadly. “I’ll find you!”
The footsteps passed my hideout. By the shuffling sounds he made I assumed there was no lighting on up here, but I had no idea if there might be a moon or perhaps light from the street
He seemed not to be blundering about entirely. The footsteps stopped then and I could hear him making his way back along the wall toward me. This time he punctuated his progress at every step or two with a solid blow on the wall, probably with a closed fist I thought, and how long until it would crash into my face or body?
Ajar just to the left, then a solid smash right in front of me. Wood splintered, men the knob was turning.
I had no time to think Perhaps it was reflex, perhaps I had guidance. I shoved the knob hard from my side, throwing the door out and open, felt mass on the other side, heard a thud against the opposite wall. The next second found the cultivating fork head-upward and in my hands. I lunged from the closet, sweeping the tool in an arc to the right, hoping I’d guessed the width of the corridor. Steel zinged on wall surfaces and a meaty impact as tines struck flesh.
I must’ve done some damage and he made what I might call an astonished oink noise. Aiming on that sound, I threw everything near at hand—the lock, the jar, the pliers, a paint can, more garden tools, anything to hold him at bay.
The torrent of oaths and groans which accompanied a few lucky hits, stopped suddenly. Part of me clamored to connect with him, use the knife, end this, but my stock of heroism seemed to be just about depleted. Taking a broomstick in Ueu of a cane, I found myself running down the hallway, in the direction from which I’d come just a few minutes ago. I caught the top step before tumbling down the staircase (going downstairs is always much more dangerous for a blind person in a hurry than running up). Riding the railing, I switchbacked as rapidly as I dared, and half fell to a stop at the bottom on Norma’s floor.
“Norma, Normal” I cried, skidding down the bare hallway floor, groping for doorways, tapping climsiry, erratically with the end of my improvised broom cane.
Tap-tap, tap-tap! The mocking sounds drew nearer but only by gradual horrid inches at a time.
“Norma.” A falsetto, mimicking voice. “Norma!”
I judged us to be perhaps twenty feet apart and I was pretty sure there was light down here. If I could get to the apartment door, perhaps I could lock myself in and barricade, but something told me that wouldn’t save me either. I’m not a fighter, but it isn’t as if I haven’t thought of defending myself. A broom’s handle is a good deal more dangerous than the straws. When I figured there was more like eight or ten feet between us, and I had a good idea where he was, I crammed the business end of the broom against my bare shoulder, grasping the wire wrappings with one hand, the stick with the other. I charged! I caught him solidly somewhere. He swore and went down hard. Hysterically I flailed at him with the stick I got in perhaps five licks, three of them caught him I think Then he seized my broom cane and itwrenched out of my hand. Now I was getting the broom’s straw end across my body, my face, over my head. He was obviously not in much of a hurry to kill me—yet.
I dropped to my knees, covering my face, then tried lying flat on the floor. Remembering the knife, I rolled somewhat onto my right hip.
“That’s more like it,” the voice said, and a callused hand slapped me over onto my back. I managed to get my hand down the back of my pants and around the handle before the horrid weight was on me once more.
He hurt me and I knew I had to take it for a while before I could get a chance. I’d read about women waiting until a guy comes, then stabbing him with a hairpin or some improbable thing but I didn’t think I was going to fool him that long. At last it was panic I guess. I felt his hand, hook-fingered, gouging along my cheek toward my own eyes—they don’t work at all, but I don’t wish to be disfigured. I’m slight, can get into a size twelve, but a dozen years in gymnastics did some good. I wrenched loose my pinioned arm and drove the paint knife into his groin. I believed, in time—he must have bled to death.
I didn’t figure this out until later, but the front stairway up which I’d come with Norma early this evening, must’ve extended up to the third floor. As I was making my way down the rearward stairs, after the confrontation near the utility closet, he was making his down the front to trap me from the other end of the hall. This is, if what I am recounting actually occurred at all—or in this world. Just now I was again trailing my right hand along the corridor wall, again bereft of anything to check the floor in front of me, so I held the left ahead of me and across my body.
I located a door, then another, both locked. The thud knob seemed to stick, but turned when in desperation I wrenched at it As the door swung open I caught again a whiff of iris blossoms—and all hell seemed to break loose. Not from within, but from all over the building. Voices, shouts, cursing, obscene demands over what was going on, who was breaking up the goddamn house!
“Somebody called the friggin1 cops!”
I slammed Norma’s door behind me but it wouldn’t seem to latch properly. I spoke her name aloud several times, but only halfheartedly. It was very clear Norma was not there. This fact could almost have escaped me though because of something even more strange.
The gown I was wearing had been soaked with blood, both mine and his, presumably. It was now dry, though smelling somehow corrupt, and I wondered how I’d made myself put it on in the first place. I whipped what was left of it over my head and threw it in the direction of the couch-bed. The voices outside were even louder now. Capital Hill is an area of town where police are never very far away and already I could hear sirens coming up the hill. I must get dressed, ready to do—what?
Then I realized that I did not appear to be injured. I’d been savaged at least three times, must have been bleeding in a dozen places, covered with bruises, scratches, vileness I wasn’t—except within—where it wouldn’t show right away.
I rummaged around in the studio and found my travel case, got out my clean blouse. I desperately wanted a shower but there’d be no time. I got a clean pair of nylons out, and was into my skirt and shoes before knocking began at the door. Then the door burst inward
“Will you step out into the hall please?’ a baritone voice inquired, kindly enough.
“Here, may I give you my arm?” A second officer outside the door took my arm, whether he thought I’d run or perhaps fall down, I’m not certain.
“Can you tell me how you came to be here tonight?” the first officer inquired. “You don’t live here?”
“(Think fast!) I was looking for my friend,” I told them.
“Whose name is?”
“No-Norma,” I said (For heaven’s sake, I’ve no idea of her last name!” “Norma Madison,” I said, just picking a name out of the air, “I think”
“Norma Madison,” the cop repeated. “And your name?”
“Would you have some ID, Chris Carleton?”
“Urn, yes, in my bag over mere.” I gestured toward the side of the room where I’d been sleeping—how long ago?
“Have you been here long?’ The second officer said “Good God, I’d be hard put to describe what I’m looking at right now.”
“A while,” I said. “I was waiting for Norma. She said she’d leave the door unlocked She told me how to find her apartment—I guess she hasn’t showed up yet.””Nor is she likely to any time soon,” Cop Number One observed dryly. “Have you looked around here, I mean (embarrassedly) reft your way around here?’
“On, I found a chair and maybe went to the bathroom a couple of times, otherwise I pretty much just waited.”
“Yeah?” Number One said noncommittally.
I heard radio static and Number One made a call to the Precinct Station and was it to be Harbomew Hospital? Something about a Special Situation.
“Somebody from Sex Crimes will be here soon,” he said, perhaps to me, perhaps to his partner.
“Were you eating in here?” Cop Number Two inquired then.
“I had a sandwich with me,” I admitted. “Some crackers and dried fruit, that kind of thing. I’m down here from Bellingham, for a conference in the morning.” No-one said anything.
“Looks like you didn’t finish up,” said Number One after a rather long pause. “Here’s part of a peanut-butter sandwich and another that looks like maybe tuna. Here’s a cup of tea? Good grief, what’s mis here?”
“What?” I couldn’t help asking.
“I guess it’s a bag of marshmallows,” Number One said. “Looks like it’s about twenty years old.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about a woman’s nightgown, would you?” Number Two asked gently.
“I think I may have touched something like that on my way to the bathroom?’
“I hoped you washed your hands after,” he told me. “It looks older than the marshmallows, but whoever it belonged to in the first place, obviously bled all over it.”
“I don’t know what instructions somebody gave you,” Officer Number One said, “but you sure as God came to the wrong place. Wow,” he added a little shakily, “it gives me the creeps just thinking about someone who can’t see wandering in a place like this.”
“No offense,” Number Two told me, as if reading it off a clipboard,
I smelted perfume, one of those scents that makes you think of offices and leather briefcases and high-quality vellum parchment.
“ID” Officer One said, passing something through the air in front of me. Silence a moment
“Chris,” I said.
“Chris, I am Officer Carol Anderson with Special Investigations, and this,” her voice drifted as if nodding toward someone, “is Joanne Tolliver, a social worker with Harbomew Mental Health Services.”
“Hello, Chris.” A lotioned hand in mine with long, rather intrusive nails. “You are a male person?’
“Ah, presently,” I said I remembered crossdressers talking about when being stopped by the police, it was best to tell them you were undergoing a sex change process.
“But, you are uncomfortable hi a male social role,”
More of a statement than a question, but, “Yes.”
“Are you hurt?’ Officer Anderson now.
“Not—no…” I still was not clear on that point “I’m okay.”
“Let’s walk along to the patrol car,” Officer Anderson said.
“Here is my elbow? That’s the best way, isn’t it?” Social Worker Tolliver placed a cashmered elbow in my hand. “Do you have a cane, or a dog?”
My cane was restored to me. I’d get the rest of my possessions later.
Tlie three of us made inane small talk on the drive over to the hospital. Where did I live? DidI live alone? (Yes.) What had brought me to Seattle? Small talk which I was sure, would end up in a case report
“I’m supposed to be able to make a phone call, aren’t I?” That sounded just too television, but so far I had no idea why I was being detained. That is, I could guess several reasons but wasn’t sure which.
“You aren’t under arrest,” said Officer Carol Anderson, driving.
“You seem to have had an upsetting experience,” said Social worker Tolnver, understandingly. “We want to assure your safety.”
“What about the phone call?” I retried.
“Well,” Officer Anderson said, “there’s no particular obligation on the part of the Seattle Police Department at present to provide other than emergency services, but may I ask who you want to call?”I told her. Both women were silent for a few seconds.
“Well,” Officer Anderson said finally, “I don’t believe there’s need for an attorney at this point—
“Let’s chat,” I said, “just betwixt us girls. I can tell you right now that already I’ve listed about five things that I could turn into ADA cases. Americans with Disabilities Act” I told them, in case they weren’t sure. “Besides, if uninjured and without any consent on my part, I’m being hustled off to a mental facility, I have a right to have someone present who understands my special situation—other than being blind.”
More silence, then Officer Carol Anderson asked “are you a lawyer, a law student?”
“A psychologist,” I told her.
Late that night I woke Deanna Nichols, Counselor at Law, Post-Op. Transsexual.
“Oh, Steph, what have you gotten yourself into!” I heard Dee making lighting-up and dragging noises on the other end of the phone. “Give me twenty minutes, honey. I’ll throw on a car coat and come over. Where are they keeping you?’
I had to ask, and to their credit, they told her.
Deanna walked in while I was undergoing a cursory physical exam and was with me while I was debriefed (not interrogated). I never made my conference and it was three days before I was really allowed to go anywhere without an escort.
I wasn’t in jail or anything, not really. It was more like a motel room. I had everything I needed, was visited frequently, but the door didn’t open on my side of it. After going through the story so many times I lost count, they decided what I’d been saying all along was so. I’d somehow let myself into an unoccupied apartment in a soon to be condemned building, on the same evening that residents heard strange noises, things being thrown, shouts, screams, heavy thuds in the hallway. I was released in the company of my friend Deanna, who drove me to her apartment over near the north end of Volunteer Park where mansions still stand and old Seattle money still lives.
“I’ve done some checking,” Dee said as we sat in her parlor, sipping iced coffee and nibbling tea biscuits. “The police were entirely fuddled, still are. Some things just didn’t fit” She lit a cigarette. “Sometimes,” she exhaled, “an apartment or hotel room or even a house—will acquire a reputation, especially among what one might call—the Great Unwashed? A young woman named Norma Jensen lived in the apartment where you were found Friday evening, and she died there too. This must’ve been about three years ago, according to a PI friend of mine. A man named Donald Weaver was suspected of killing Ms. Jensen, but as these things so often go, not enough evidence could be found to hold him. The same night residents of the Calhoune, a kind of fleabag hotel really, called to report a disturbance in their building. Mr. Weaver was found dead later that night, not more than three blocks away from that locatioa” Dee leaned back in her recliner, exhaled in a studied dramatic fashion. “Here’s the goddamnawful creepy part,” she said. “I mean the whole thing is creepy, but hold onto your panties, this you won’t believe!” A pause for effect.
“Apparently Mr. Weaver was struck by a car, smashed right down in the intersection of Bleith and Harvard. When paramedics got to him, Ms eye appeared to have been gouged out and mere was a paint knife buried to the handle in his groin. Darling—even after my surgeries, that still gives me sympathetic crotch distress, not that I suppose we need waste much time grieving over that low-life!”
Thank you, a voice from an unexpected direction.
” What?’ I asked, angling my head mat way.
“I didn’t say anything,” Deanna replied.
“Oh…” I felt someone of whom I was not fully aware until this moment, slip away, task accomplished.
“Now you grab hold of yours,” I said. I don’t smoke but I drained my coffee cup, holding it out for more. “I’ve got a story you won’t believe.”
That’s about all there is to tell, meaning there’s volumes really but they are other stories which do not fit well here. I spent the night with Dee, made a support group meeting that evening, which I really needed. Next morning I met with Erica Parsons, Dee’s Private Investigator friend. Erica is a paranormal investigator as well as a licensed private detective. She’s the son of person real cops treat with ridicule or bored indulgence if they deal with her at all. Well, I probably would have dismissed her just as handily, until I met Norma.I never finished that thesis project, electing to take the comprehensive exams instead and I got certified to teach. I eventually landed a job at the same community college where Norma’s dad first went astray and I know him and his new wife. Know them quite well, but never talk to them if I can avoid it. I make enough to get by, but teaching is neither my life nor my real work.
I started going out with Erica on some of her assignments, and I’ve found that I’m a person that dead victims, women mostly, talk to. My passage into that other time, other world, other plane, whatever you’d call it, seems to have left a mark of some kind on me, something easy to spot. Often I go enfemme, as they say. Symbols appear to be important to spirits.
“At least you’re going out with a woman,” my sister Beth said when she caught me making up for an assignment
Mom figures I’m writing the Great American Feminist Novel. My former thesis advisor is sure I’m immersed in denial. (But I’m not) Whenever I doubt myself however, I have only to remember a bus ride one sunny Northwest afternoon, girl talk over Lipton’s, and twenty-year old marshmallows.