But for a Measuring Rod by Tim Conley

An optometrist goes to see another optometrist. I have judged over two hundred patients legally blind in the past month, he explains, and that startling figure either signifies some kind of a phenomenon or necessitates that I get my own vision checked. You’re too hard on yourself, always have been, laughs his compeer. He draws the blinds, points to the chart, and says, You know what to do. The troubled optometrist, let us call him Alpha, tells the examining optometrist, let us call him Not-Alpha, that the chart is too familiar to him, all the standard-issue charts their offices use are too familiar to serve as a reliable test for him, who could recite them without knowing for sure whether he saw each letter clearly or not. You’re right, Not-Alpha agrees, a touch grudgingly because he himself never remembers the charts, even though he’s seen them and heard them read to him literally thousands of times.

So this second optometrist takes the first to a strip club on the outskirts of town, and asks him if he notices anything unusual there. The drinks are kind of pricey, says Alpha. Not what I had in mind and irrelevant to the question at hand, Not-Alpha retorts and gestures to one of the performers onstage. Have you noticed her? His companion cranes his head and studies a swaying woman in her early twenties, if he is any judge of age, though in truth he is not. Says optometrist Non-Alpha in his ear, Read to me what’s written across her belly, and he sees that yes indeed there is as it were cuneiform script gently striping her there. Her bobs and undulations naturally shape the rhythm of his reading aloud the following:

Created at twilight, before the Sabbath, it was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Chanoch, who gave it to Metushelach; he in turn passed it on to Noach. Noach bequeathed it to his son Shem, who transmitted it to Avraham. From Avraham to Yitzchak, and then to Yaaqov, who took it with him to Egypt. Ya’aqov gave it to Yosef; upon Yosef’s death all his possessions were removed to Pharaoh’s place. Yitro one of Pharaoh’s advisors desired it, whereupon he took it and stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midian. From then on no one could pull out the staff until Moshe came. He read the Hebrew letters on the staff, and pulled it out readily.

Not-Alpha claps him on the shoulder: Your eyes seem fine to me. But that’s an extraordinary tattoo, says Alpha, still staring, and no sooner has he uttered these words than a third man promptly sits down with them and introduces himself as a dermatologist. I couldn’t help noticing your attention to Mitzi, he says, hooking a thumb at the stage which the remarkable woman now exits. If I’m not mistaken, you’re admiring the writing on her skin, and that is to say that you recognize those markings for what they are, writing, and there seem to be few enough among the patrons who manage to do so. It’s an extraordinary tattoo, repeats the first optometrist, who introduces himself and his associate. Not to diminish your feat of reading quite accurately those tiny letters in lighting and from a distance and within an environment not at all conducive to such concentration, chuckles the dermatologist, your senses deceive you somewhat. The dermatologist’s chuckle is irritating, and though neither of the optometrists says anything about it he can see plainly enough it has irritated them, and knows from a lifetime of ill-advised chuckles that the sound he thus emits is irritating for almost everyone, save his wife, who may very well be lying about it.

The dermatologist diplomatically leads the optometrists from the noisy strip club down the night street smeared with garish lights to a coffee shop where they can talk. Alpha and Not-Alpha exchange a look that says, We’re both curious, though we probably shouldn’t be, about this Mitzi, but the air of secrecy to this man’s conversation is hard to fathom and besides, his chuckle is irritating, but notwithstanding this expressive shared look they join him at a booth and order coffees from a waitress who coughs rather than speaks. That tattoo, says Alpha the optometrist the moment the waitress has left them with their steaming cups, what is all that about? I mean I read it, but to be blunt with you, it’s been a long time since my bar mitzvah, you see what I’m saying. Not-Alpha nods vigorously and wants to know what kind of girl so religious as to imprint her body with it takes up that kind of work. And isn’t that, well, kind of tameh, I guess is the expression? The dermatologist blows on his coffee to cut off the urge to chuckle again. It’s amazing how many of you have been trickling into that place in the past three or four weeks to get an eyeful of her, he says. What do you mean, how many of us? Us what? Not-Alpha asks. Optometrists, replies the dermatologist, and I must correct you from the start: it’s not a tattoo. It is an undiagnosed skin condition.

In the few moments of silence that follows this pronouncement all three men stare into their respective coffees. In his coffee, optometrist Alpha sees the rippling letters and words he has read only a short while ago, dancing on that perfect dancing body, and feels himself absorbed by this image, while Not-Alpha finds in his coffee an unconsoling blackness that somehow testifies to his inability to recollect those standard eye charts or even the text of Mitzi, to which he had brought this other man, who sees further and retains better, even as he is falling into this blinding blackness. The dermatologist is unsurprised to see his wife’s face in his coffee looking up at him. She is always telling him he should drink less coffee. When next he speaks, it is as though he was addressing someone not at the table.

Mitzi Messer was, he revealed, by all accounts a good girl from a home never broken nor even threatened with breakage, went to a school with no more than the usual and perhaps prerequisite number of bullies, dunces, and mortally bored teachers, where she did respectably well and had no serious upsets to her equilibrium until one day in the swimming pool changeroom she discovered this strange outbreak across her midsection. Her parents brought the doctor, the doctor brought more confusion, accusing them of mocking him and, he added, as he really got going, all of medical science. The family’s respect for this professional all too quickly became terrified efforts at deference, but he would have none of it and hastened his querulous march towards retirement without so much as a glance behind, never mind a referral. Mitzi’s mother had a cousin in medical school who agreed to stop in one weekend, and that turned out to be a weekend none of them would forget. The cousin, up till then a pretty stable sort with a good wife of three years and a nice career ahead of him, called his wife the first night and told her it was over, he was in love with another woman, his cousin’s daughter all right but it wasn’t like that, and she should never expect to hear from him again, may the heavens bless her, and all of this in the most pseudo-Talmudic jargon about purity and transformation and whatever else. And after may the heavens bless you he hung up. He had talked, his wife later said, as though he had turned into a blend of throbbing adolescent and stentorian rabbi. The very next night he packed in a hurry, fled the house without goodbyes to his cousin, and drove home to sob for forgiveness. Mitzi by all accounts was almost traumatically upset, but totally withdrawn, wouldn’t discuss what had happened with anyone, and within the week she had moved out herself without a word to anybody.

She went to New Jersey first, says the dermatologist, his face all unmistakable wonderment as to why anyone would do that. She told me that, one of the few details of her life I have directly from her. It was nearly a year ago that I first met her, but it wasn’t in that place she’s working in now. Not my usual sort of hangout, or at least I would have said so back then, but to be frank I find myself there two or three nights a week now, sometimes more. What I tell everyone, myself included, is that I’m spending my nights doing research, which is true from a certain point of view, especially if research is searching for something of which you vaguely suspect you once had an understanding.

Not-Alpha waves a hand: It’s not that I don’t believe you. What is it exactly that you deny not believing? the dermatologist asks the waving hand. His trained eye can see that the optometrist once suffered the effects of poison ivy. Is it New Jersey you don’t believe? I don’t see why she would lie about it. There could be a connection, interjects the first optometrist, Alpha, between all those people losing their sight and this skin condition. I mean, there could be, right? You said that that particular club fills up with optometrists. And dermatologists, answered the dermatologist sadly, and psychologists and speech therapists. I once met a chiropractor in one of the dives she used to work in and I no longer view that as a coincidence. Non-Alpha’s hand repeats its dance more vigorously: It’s not that I don’t believe you. But he says nothing more. He is thinking about how it was his bright idea to bring his friend to this club and look at this dancer, let’s be honest, this stripper, and whatever had possessed him to do a thing like that?

The brief silence is interrupted by the waitress, who is still brandishing a pot of coffee. Laconically chewing gum, she says scornfully, You guys seem so depressed, you know, it’s depressing just looking at you guys. The dermatologist shrugs and says something about how they are more actually confused than depressed, and the waitress shifts the pot to her left hand and puts the right in a fist against her hip. Naw, you’re depressed, it’s written all over you, you know. I can read people. We’ve just been talking about reading people, chirps Non-Alpha, who is almost always stirred to a defensive cheeriness of manner when he is accused of being depressed. The waitress makes a short toot of a laugh and her gum-chewing speed increases just slightly. Is that a fact? Let me tell you, all right, we used to get this customer in here all the time, guy who was really depressed all the time, you know, and the funny thing was he used to tell me he was confused. He was in here all the time, always down in the dumps, and him and me used to talk about it, and at first he said there was something like a miracle he’d witnessed, you know, that was what he said. She chews a few times for emphasis and the three men try not to be obvious about their exchange of looks and thereby each is left unsure exactly what the looks from the other two are supposed to mean. She anticipates a question.

What miracle? asks the first optometrist. This appears to be the wrong question for the waitress frowns and reverses the arrangement of hands and coffee pot but does not slow the chewing. Like I’m going to ask about that, she says flatly. But it doesn’t matter because after a while, after he’s been in here a few times, in fact at about this time of night, and him and me would get talking, and it turned out, you know, that he’s depressed behind being confused, if you see what I mean, and then we get right down to it and he tells me, not all at once of course, that his prostate is all filled up with cancer and his kid hasn’t called him in almost ten years and he’s worried his new landlord is going to evict him, and I tell him, you know, of course you’re confused and depressed, of course you’re seeing miracles, you want to see miracles, you don’t want to see what’s right in front of you, you know, like the writing’s on the wall. She nods and drifts away to other tables where coffees await freshening.

So there they are, these three wise men, thinking about what one doesn’t see and about scratches that can’t be itched, and even though those are, when you come to think of it, optometrical and dermatological concerns, none of them is comforted by the fact. Each one is wondering: will I be here tomorrow night, after taking in the show? What about the night after that? Is this coffee going to keep me up all night tonight, never mind the thoughts in my head, what I have seen and heard this night?

Wise men! Life is tough. Take the guy the waitress mentioned, Danny Sachs, all-around mensch with just fifty-one years on his back, this same night in terrible, terminal pain in a sub-par hospital on the other side of town, shrieking down the halls: So pull it out, already!


Tim Conley is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011).