The Day My Uncle Hank Sat Down to Lunch with Helen Keller in a Café in the Philippines, August 1948

14 Nov

by Paul Hostovsky

it was raining,
but raining so hard that he couldn’t
see what his hands were doing
in front of his own face, so he climbed
carefully down from the truss
of the cantilever bridge he was building
with the Army Corps of Engineers outside
Manila, and made his way into the city under
friends’ umbrellas twirling toward
the brothels mostly, but Uncle Hank
who was always more hungry than horny
headed for Fagayan’s for a bowl of beef stew.
 
Helen was building bridges too, she told him—
“bridges out of Braille dots” (visiting schools
for the blind all over Asia). Then she smiled
and turned to Polly Thomson sitting beside her
(Annie Sullivan dead 10 years already)
and asked her if the young American soldier
sharing their table in the crowded café
with its red-and-white checkered tablecloths,
sounds of Tagalog, Spanish, English mixed
with the clacking curtain of rain filling the doorway—
was smiling at her Braille joke. Yes, he was,
 
but he couldn’t see what her hand was doing—
the fitfully pecking bird of Polly’s hand
fingerspelling into Helen’s palm—to make
the words, his words, almost as fast as he was saying them:
“How do you do that, that, with your hand…how
does she understand?” And so it happened
that my mother’s youngest brother Henry Weiss,
who hadn’t written home in over six
months, learned the American Manual
Alphabet from its most famous reader,
over beef stew, brown bread and beer,
on a rainy day in Manila, and now had something
 
to write home about. Of course he’d heard
of Helen Keller—who hadn’t?—but here
she was, older, stouter, and drinking
a beer, and sitting across from him, holding
his hand now, molding it, arranging his                                                     
fingers and thumb into the shapes of the letters
one by one, teaching him her tactile
ABCs. And her hands were large and strong
for a woman’s hands, and she smelled good too,
and to see his eyes smiling when he told it
to my mother, whose eyes smiled telling it
to me years after, the way her generous
bosom swelled above the checkered table cloth
as she leaned in close to Uncle Hank
and shaped and sculpted and praised,
 
it aroused in him something he never quite
got over. And walking back to the barracks
in the pouring rain, gazing down at his right
hand still practicing the letters, feeding them
to his left, which he cupped like a nest under them,
he must have looked to anyone observing him
like a man bent over his own praying hands;
or a man wringing his hands, for love; or maybe
a man who has just found something small
and glinting, and of great value on the way
to wherever it was he was going, and pausing
in the middle of the road now, he considers
this strange, new, marvelous light it casts
on his hands, on the road, on his whole life.
 

Paul Hostovsky is a sighted Braille instructor in Boston. He is also the author of three books of poetry, Bending the Notes (2008), Dear Truth (2009), and A Little in Love a Lot (2011). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize and been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and Best of the Net 2008 and 2009. To read more of his work, visit his website at www.paulhostovsky.com .

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