Once a month, on Saturday afternoons, Craig wrote letters for Bill Nelson, who was blind from untreated glaucoma. Nelson’s white cane always lay within arm’s reach, but when he dictated his sentences, he gripped that cane and pulled his chair so close that Craig imagined him somehow reading over his shoulder.
Bill Nelson wrote to women he’d known as a high school student 600 miles west of where he lived now in North Carolina. Which was how he remembered them, never imagining going blind at forty. “She was a beauty,” he said for each one. And nothing else. Nelson didn’t have any photographs from his high school days. He didn’t even own a yearbook, so Craig imagined what they looked like by using their names. Shelly was blonde and talkative. Virginia was dark-haired and quiet. Nancy had freckles. Beth was the prettiest of all but shy. Craig pictured them as he read aloud the letters that came in return, the lines scratched out in pencil or blue ball-point ink.
This is Craig writing, Nelson had him say at the beginning of each letter, and often, when those women, who were now about the same age as Craig’s mother, wrote back, they added postscripts that began for your eyes only as if Craig would read their words aloud if they didn’t remind him. You’re a dear, Nancy repeated. God bless you. Virginia added. We should all be lucky enough to know such a generous boy. When Beth had her daughter write to Craig, she folded that page inside her letter so Bill Nelson, holding the envelope, smiled and said, “It’s a good one, two pages.”
“Just barely,” Craig said, making up a paragraph to add before the Yours in Affection Beth had signed off with. He held both pages in his hand while he read what her daughter Melody had to say, how her mother wanted her to meet him, that the slope of his letters and his way of crossing t’s showed he was a boy to be trusted in the fast-approaching 21st Century.
Only Shelly never wrote p.s. Her letters, after the first one, grew so short that Craig made up an anecdote to lengthen them, how she had left her husband and remarried. How she’d never had children. Had never even wanted them, but here she was living with a man who had five of them, but all full grown because he was eight years older than she was, a detail that made Nelson shake his head as if he was making up a story filled with better choices.
Nelson paid one dollar and fifty cents a letter, about three dollars an hour, half what Craig’s sister made babysitting. Think of it as your gift, his mother had said. But soon, Nelson, stopping to tell old stories about the women as girls, went on for more than half an hour before he said, “Yours truly” and paused to pay Craig in nickels, dimes, and quarters from a fat change purse open on the table, measuring every coin by touch, always leaving it open like a test.
For months, Craig passed that exam, not stealing, but some nights, he woke and saw nothing as if his now-recurring dream had come true, the one where he made change in the dark, handling each coin in his black purse, unable to tell which ones were proper. The one where the number and size of those coins never satisfied someone he could not see.
At last, after six months, Beth included two one-dollar bills post-scripted for him. Bill Nelson touched each one, then let them lie quietly and thin on the table as Craig read, “The ten dollars are for your young friend,” giving himself a raise.
Bill Nelson smiled in such a wistful way that Craig thought he was jealous rather than pleased. He wanted Bill Nelson to reconsider the size and heft of his coins, ask for a roll of half-dollars from the bank and hand them over like quarters. Craig waited, fixed on Bill Nelson’s clouded, sightless eyes. He wouldn’t steal from the blind, but he was ready to take what a good and thoughtful boy deserved.