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Out of Focus

By Paula Younger

Memoir

Two years after my wedding I stood behind bulletproof glass searching evidence tables piled with pictures of smiling brides and grooms.  Jenny, the police officer assigned to photo viewing day, led me to the Misc. box, a cardboard beast overflowing with pictures and negatives.  She warned, “This might take a while.”  A blond woman flanked by her husband and her parents said, “Can you believe we have to do this?”  She rifled through boxes for a glimpse of the dress she had so carefully picked out, her husband’s smile, photos of friends and family.  I was looking for those things too.  But I was also looking for something else.  In that police basement I was searching for the last pictures ever taken of my mother and me.

Blindsight is a really strange story. How would you describe it when people would ask what you were writing about?

I teach a writing class, and I tell my students that at some point in the writing process, they should be able to synopsize any project in a sentence or two. Sure, you’ll lose the texture and the nuance and all that, I say, but summarizing means you’ve got your material under control. With Blindsight, it was hard to follow my own advice. The story took so many twists and turns, and resisted clear resolution at so many points — it wasn’t till the end that I really understood what it was all about.

Still, when people put guns to my head, I’d say this was the tale of a Hollywood producer who, in the ’80s and early ’90s was making a name for himself with not entirely deep films — C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the CHUD and Look Who’s Talking for instance. One night he and his wife were driving to dinner when a hit-and-run van screamed through a stop sign and broadsided their car at 75 miles per hour. Lewis’s wife was killed instantly, and he was thought to be dead, too. Instead he fell into a deep coma and spent the next decade-and-a-half recovering, something of a Rip Van Winkle in a remove from the world.

 

That’s it?

No, that’s what I thought it was going to be when we first talked, in 2010. But that day Lewis told me something I found sort of crazy: He wanted to make movies again.

To my mind he’d become a Hollywood story himself — though it wasn’t at all clear Hollywood would be interested. For his part, Lewis wasn’t naive, and he certainly still understood the realities of the industry. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history,” he told me. “Step out for more than a dozen years and, well, I don’t even know what you are.”

But he was undeterred. Nor was he interested in making just any movies — certainly not C.H.U.D. 2 or Look Who’s Talking. He wanted to create films that understand life on a whole different level, wildly strange new pictures like nobody has ever seen.

 

Well, sure. He lost his wife, had more than a passing brush with mortality. I’d probably have a different artistic sensibility, too.

But that’s the thing. The explanation for his new vision was actually medical. He has a different brain. The accident caused a third of his right hemisphere to be destroyed. Simon Lewis has entirely different hardware than he once did.

 

So did he go on to make those new movies?

That’s where things got complicated. I thought I was writing one type of story and it turned out to be another, over the months I spent with Lewis. I don’t want to give it away, but partway through the piece, it appeared that another Simon Lewis was out there, in a manner of speaking. Then things got really interesting.

 

What’s blindsight, by the way?

Blindsight is a fictional-sounding but totally real condition in which a person is simultaneously blind and not blind. Severe damage to the primary visual cortex leaves the patient either fully or partially blind — but, weirdly, able to see through the blindness nevertheless. In Simon’s case, the blind area was on his left side; his mother took him to the doctor after he walked into a tree. Indeed, the doctor confirmed the destruction of his visual field — but also discovered that Simon was seeing even when he thought he wasn’t. Hold up some colored paper in his blind area and he’ll tell you he has no idea you’re doing so. Ask him to name the color and he’ll get it right.

To Lewis, it would feel like he’s guessing. What researchers know about blindsight is that a little-known alternate pathway from the retina to the extrastriate cortex is being utilized in these cases: a detour. One of the most interesting aspects, of course, is the patient not being conscious of the visual information coming in. As Lewis’s doctor told him, the visual world bypasses his conscious mind and goes directly to his subconscious. What that means for a filmmaker could be fascinating, I think.

 

What’s it like interviewing someone with a different kind of brain than the rest of us have?

There’s a tendency these days to be fascinated by people with damaged or abnormally functioning brains, to imbue their thinking with beauty and metaphor. I haven’t decided how I feel about that — a different brain *is* fascinating, and indeed can seem to shine a light on something larger than itself.

But when it comes to actually hanging out with someone with, say, a third of his right hemisphere destroyed, you can’t lose sight of what that means on a day-to-day basis. Lewis is an astonishingly decent, almost angelic, human being. He says he’s the happiest person in the world. But life certainly hasn’t been easy for him, or his family.

 

How did you learn about Lewis in the first place?

In 2009 I wrote an article for the New York Times about legally blind visual artists. Some of those artists had sustained traumatic brain injuries, and it turns out there’s something of a traumatic brain injury community. After the article ran, one woman I’d interviewed suggested I get in touch with this British fellow she knew, who’d been in a mind-bendingly horrific accident, and whose life had taken some remarkable turns afterwards. I promised I’d look him up, but didn’t really jump on it immediately. The first time I called Lewis, I figured it’d be a ten-minute introductory phone call. Instead we talked until my battery died.

 

Why write this for the Atavist instead of a traditional book publisher, or a magazine?

If Lewis’s life had gone differently, I would have. The first half of Blindsight follows a dramatic but fairly formulaic arc, and looks like it could indeed be the kind of story you’d see in a general interest magazine, or a book about overcoming odds. But when things started getting complicated — which is to say lifelike — I realized it would require a publisher that was open to complex narratives, and long ones. I also just really wanted to work with the folks at the Atavist. If all publications had editors and designers and fact-checkers like that, I dunno, I can’t even picture that world.

 

Are eBooks going to replace regular books?

Actually what’s going to happen is humanity will lock itself in a basement and curl up in a weepy ball, because it’s so tired of reading about the future of books. It is also tired of looking up discreet vs discrete. Shouldn’t there be a mnemonic device for remembering which is which?

 

While I have you here, have you ever invented a harness thing that you strap onto your face, and which lets you eat a sandwich hands-free, while walking down the sidewalk?

Yes.

 

Do you think Perry and Cain and Gingrich are an unconscious conspiracy to make Romney look downright plausible by comparison?

Yes.

 

You’re sort of abusing this self-interview thing.

Sorry. After working as a writer for a dozen years, I’ve noticed that asking other people about their lives becomes a habit. Carries over to parties and dinners and walks with friends and stuff. Lately I’ve been feeling like it’s only fair I should cough up more of my own information. So far that mostly pertains to politics and eating devices, but I’ll work on it. People who write about other people for a living — it’d be good, I suspect, if the lens flipped sometimes. It’s a strange thing, attempting to write sensitively about a fellow human’s life. You have to be candid and entertaining and responsible and, in a way, loving all at the same time. My sense is that Lewis has been pretty happy about Blindsight. But I know it’s never easy having your three-dimensions squished into two. I’m always grateful for the people who agree to let it happen.

 

[This story is broken up into two parts. Part II will appear nearing January’s end. A couple of names were changed to conceal identities.]

An unclad young woman stared at me from across the room. A straight line ran from her pointed breasts to my line of vision. I took a sip from my beer. Topless, unabashed, she positioned herself against the wall in a rather somber pose, half sobering considering the atmosphere. I took a drag from my cigarette, another sip from my beer. I wiped the froth from my lip. She had yet to blink, kept looking in my direction. Some specimen she was, I thought silently.

I exhaled a cloud of smoke and it hung heavy overhead like empty time. I walked her way. As I approached, she titled forward falling. I caught her, stood her back on the wall, and secured the loose piece of scotch tape that kept her shoulders square, her posture in perfect alignment.

Her name was Amanda. She was a sucker for the shy type. She was a late bloomer, she said.

She straddled a Harley Davidson motorcycle and wore a pair of black leather assless chaps. Amanda was one of various nude women, which served as wallpaper in my cousin Gary’s home.

He was a bachelor.

He drank whiskey.

He wore a leather beret.

He listened to Willie Nelson.

He once traded hats with Willie Nelson after a Willie Nelson concert.

They didn’t smoke marijuana together afterward.


It was getting late. The wee hours of the night tugged at my eyelids. My nostrils widened. Blood shot and dry, irritated by the cigarette smoke lingering in the air, my burning eyes did their best to water. I brought my hand to my mouth and let out a deep yawn. Jeremiah looked my way. His eyes closed. His nostrils widened. His mouth opened and springing from the pit of his stomach a deep yawn arose.

“I guess…. it’s like…. they say—” I said to him, finishing my yawn.

“Contagious is right,” he responded.

I dropped my hands to my side.

Wu Tang entered the speakers. The RZA, the GZA, Raekwon, and the rest of the Clan verbally assaulted us spitting more heat than a woodstove in winter….

You can’t party your life away
Drink your life away
Smoke your life away…

One by one, drunken teenagers and young twenty-somethings saturated in wildly wandering hormonal distress stood in a single file line down the hallway guzzling cheap American beer. With all their shouting, grunting, and vocal might they attempted to revive the once vibrant game of Waterfall that had so consumed them an hour earlier.

Their calls were moot at this conjecture in the night. Cal Adams stood tipsy on the tips of his toes, chugging a beer.

One cold can after the next, participants dropped like flies—beer foam all the while dripping from their lips and chins, giving them the impression of rabid raccoons rocking steady to the beat across the room.

I looked in Jeremiah’s direction and noticed him wobbling. His head bobbed from side to side. His hips swayed. His bones danced a jiggly, gelatinous dance. His body swayed like a drunken vessel….

He belched.

He opened the front door. We both trailed out, lit our respective cigarettes, and surveyed the scene.

Numerous friends of ours lay before us in Gary’s front yard. Some were curled up in the fetal position. Others were slumped over the rail on the stoop blowing chunks of Natty Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon from their jowls.

In spit-filled slurs slung sideways, they promised empty promises: “I’ll never drink this much again,” only to drink that much and more the following Friday down in the boonies of southern Virginia.

Phenix.

Drakes Branch.

Red Oak.

Red House.

Aspen.

Keysville.

Charlotte Court House.

We all were born and raised in a county without a single stoplight. We celebrated our boredom the same way every weekend. We had no music venues. We had no bars. No clubs. No movie theater save the drive-in.

We celebrated our existence, our invincibility at Gary’s on Scott Rd.

“This is the famous Budweiser beer,” I said flicking my cigarette, walking back into the house. “We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. Our exclusive beechwood aging produces a taste, smoothness, and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.”

“Get this bumbling idiot some water,” Gary said.

“Who me?”

“Yes, you. And tell your buddy, what’s his name—” He pointed in the direction of my friend Derek who was passed out on the couch with a cigarette still in his mouth. It had burned its way down to the filter.

“Derek?”

“Yes, Derek. Derek Smith. Tell him not to come over to my house again unless he’s wearing a shirt. Do I need to post a sign on my front door that reads, ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service;’ huh, do I?”


Derek rarely wore a shirt anywhere. He wasn’t some macho asshole. He just didn’t like to wear a shirt. Half the time he didn’t wear pants. That night at Gary’s he had on pants: camouflage cargo pants. Derek had signed up for the National Guard. He was due to leave for boot camp in a few weeks.

Derek used to sit in the parking lot at B&D Mart in our hometown of Phenix, Virginia, in the broad daylight in his tighty-whitey boxer-briefs with a Camel unfiltered hanging off his bottom lip, shaving his face with the Norelco electric razor his parents had given him. He shaved his face everyday with that razor. He kept it charged in the A/C adapter, this all despite having minimal facial hair at the time. The type of facial hair you have when you’re in high-school.

Unless you were Dwayne Davis.

Or Jimmy Lovelace. Also known as Paco. Or Mustapha. Whether he looked Mexican or Arab depended on the season.

If it was summer or fall, Jimmy looked Arab. If it was winter or spring then Mexican.


Jimmy got the nickname Paco when the two of us enrolled in summer school after 9th grade. We both had flunked Algebra II.

There was a kid named Deron that used to always ask him for lunch money. He hassled Jimmy a lot. Gave him a lot of shit.

Then one day Deron walks up to Jimmy, sort of nudges him. They were serving tacos that day.

“Yo Paco. Let me hold a dollar. I need a Taco, Paco.”

It’s been fifteen years. I still call Jimmy, Paco. He passed Algebra II that summer. I didn’t. I took it once again in 10th grade. Third time’s a charm.

The year before, we pleaded with Jimmy for nearly an entire semester in 8th grade to shave the Superman logo in his chest hair.

“My mom would kill me.”

“How the fuck is your mom going to know,” I asked him. I was pissed. Jimmy used to do anything I’d tell him like bark for a piece of chewing gum in 7th grade. Now he protested.

“Bark for a piece of gum and I’ll give you a piece. It’s Teaberry. Teaberry is fucking awesome,” I said chewing. “Man, this is some good ass gum.”

“I’m not barking for a piece of gum,” Jimmy whispered back. Our teacher had her back to us.

“Guess you won’t be getting any gum then. By the way, your breath smells like dog shit. Did you eat a turd for lunch?”

A few minutes passed. I had swallowed my gum by that point. I used to always swallow my gum despite my mom telling me it would take seven years to come out the other end.

That was bullshit. I remember seeing chewing gum in my shit when I was six years old.

“Ruff!”

“What was that,” Mrs. Clark said.

When Jimmy barked, I had switched over to Sugar Babies and had crammed my mouth with a handful of the caramel and chocolate treats developed in 1935 by the James O. Welch Co.

I began choking on my own saliva.

The saliva was thick and sugary.

It tickled my throat.

“Who just barked,” Mrs. Clark demanded.

I started to laugh. My eyes watered. I had too many Sugar Babies in my mouth.

Jimmy was shaking with laughter. I was shaking with laughter.

Old, fat women in bikinis, I thought to myself. I was trying to think of something not funny. It wasn’t working. I could hear Jimmy barking over and over in my head.

I started to cough. I thought my eyes were going to burst out my head.

Then I threw up on my desk. It looked like cat shit, kind of. I thought Jimmy was going to throw up too. Jimmy used to always throw up when other people threw up. I used to always throw up when other people threw up too. I remember once in 1st grade when Larry Wade poured milk over his tuna ball that sat on top a piece of lettuce in his lunch tray. Someone had dared Larry an orange push-up he wouldn’t eat the milk, lettuce, and tuna mixture.

Larry did.

This overweight kid I used to call Skipper threw up watching Larry eat. He called me Little Buddy. His mom worked at a chocolate factory. Every Valentine’s Day she would come to our class for Show and Tell. The Skipper’s real name was Chad.

When Chad threw up, I threw up. Then other kids started throwing up all the way down the table. My cousin Brandon threw up. He was in the middle of an argument telling all the other kids that Santa Claus didn’t exist when he stopped to throw up. He had a rat-tail. So did Erik Ragsdale. I’m not sure if Erik threw up.


Jimmy’s mom knew everything her children did. He was terrified to go against her or do anything he thought would upset her in the slightest. His older sister would later become pregnant out-of-wedlock, carry the baby the entire length of the pregnancy having never been to the doctor for a single check-up, and go into labor one day at the high school. She was a teacher.

She had graduated college, had a salary job, and was still terrified of her mother.

Jimmy would later tell me about the situation. He prefaced it by saying, “Man you aren’t going to believe this shit.” The conversation went sort of like this.

JIMMY: By the time I get off work, get to my locker, and check my phone I have like ten missed calls from my mom. One missed call after the next. One new voicemail.

“Jimmy,” my mom said. “Please call me when you get this. Call me as soon as you get this.”

She was extremely upset.

Crying. Fucking delirious sounding, man.

Naturally, I’m thinking someone has died. Somebody has definitely died. I start to panic a little. I’m almost scared to call her back. What if something happened to my dad or sister? I’m a little fidgety, antsy about returning the call. I’m going to do it. I just need to calm down first. I light a cigarette. I’m shaking. I’m hot-boxing that bitch. Then my phone rings. I look down at caller ID. It’s my mom.

She’s sucking back snot.

“What’s the matter I ask her? Mom, what’s the matter?”

“Melissa had a baby,” she says.

(Jimmy pauses, looks at me, eyes big as saucers, and laughs)

ME: Yeah man, that shit came through the grapevine. I heard about it all the way in Charlottesville. I didn’t even know she was pregnant.

JIMMY: Neither did I.

ME: What did you say?

JIMMY: The first thing that came to mind: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

That triggers my mom to bawl more.

“When the hell did she get pregnant,” I asked her.

I was floored. Dude I was fucking floored. My sister had a baby. Do you believe that shit? She was fucking pregnant for nine months and never told anybody. I mean shit. How do you pull that shit off? Thing is, you couldn’t even tell she was pregnant. You know my sister. She doesn’t exactly win the gold medal for most physically fit but still—pregnant? Nine months? Had a baby? Fuck!

(laughs)

Suddenly me dating a black chick isn’t the worst thing in the world for my parents.

(laughs)

ME: How’s that situation going?

JIMMY: Same ole, same ole. Don’t come home unless you’re single or got a white girl on your arm.

(He pulls on a cigarette)

ME: Your folks need to be more understanding. Do they realize you don’t even look white? You look like you’re from the United Arab Emirates. And you’re balding prematurely.

JIMMMY: Hey, fuck you.


Finally, the owner of B&D confronted Derek about his lack of outerwear. He was shirtless and had on no pants. He wore army boots and white boxer briefs. He had been polishing his boots since we got off from school.

He was standing at the Coca-Cola machine, trying to straighten a dollar bill on the side of the machine. I sat at the picnic table with some other friends: Rick, Ricky, and Brian.

Brian had a stuttering problem. If we were all having a down day, we used to get Brian to sing “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive for kicks.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet
Here’s something that you never gonna forget
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet

Brenda, the co-owner of B&D Mart (the “B” stood for “Brenda”), knocked hard with her knuckles against the drive-up window that was duct-taped shut. Derek looked her way. I looked her way. She had a mean snarl on her face and pointed at Derek.

“You stay right there,” she said. You couldn’t hear her but you could read her lips. She was fuming. Then she proceeded out the front door and began berating Derek.

She finished, turned around, walked back inside. She stood at the window looking outside at us.

Derek looked at me and said, “Shit. What’s her problem?”

“You don’t have on pants,” I said.


Gary turned his attention back to the fizzled out game of Waterfall. Then Jeremiah stumbled back into the picture, wobbling across the carpet like a pregnant woman, her water about to burst.

He squinted.

“Are you alright,” I asked Jeremiah.

No response.

He narrowed his eyes even more trying to fix his pupils on one of the three of me he saw. Assuming he was staring into the image of me located in the middle of the other two blurred images of my form, he asked if I was ready to leave.

“Are you ready to leave,” he asked.

I was.


To read Part II, please click here