Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
and Denise Marois-Wolf

Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
“Passion’s Flame”

Photo taken with Nikon Coolpix 4300
Digitally enhanced with GIMP

By Denise Marois

Inspiration piece

Even without eyes, he saw me.

His name was Francois Levant. It was 1956, and he ran the store on Main Street, where penny candy sweated in the bins in summer, and school supplies gathered dust on the shelves in the fall. His eyes were sewn shut like a corpse, with bits of thread in the corner, yet he kept a newspaper spread out on the counter, and we often found him there, leaning on his elbows, his absent gaze on the page, as though he were absorbing the words through osmosis. Lacking sight, his hearing was formidable. He knew who we were by the way our feet moved over the knotted floor boards. He could hear the rustle of a mouse in the corner.

Sometimes at night, he’d put a candle in the window in the room where he lived over the store, alone, and I knew that, though he could not see the flame flicker and dance, he’d put it there for me.

He was only in his 40s, but we thought him old. He had pale skin, a full mouth that broke into an easy smile, and fine straight teeth. He was thin, almost skeletal, but there was something elemental and strong about him, a life current that I’ve never felt in anyone since, and when he spoke his voice was soft in a way that made you listen. I used to watch his hands, the way his fingers played over the keys to the register, or the way he slid them over his suspenders, like he was searching for something hidden there. He moved through the shelves and bins of his tiny store with the grace of a dancer, sensors pulsed in his skin, aware. His smile said he’d been waiting his whole lifetime just for me.

And the summer I turned 17, he became my lover.

I had my license that summer. When I went to him, I told my parents I was seeing my friend, Lucy. I did see Lucy twice, enough to add just the smallest element of truth to ease my conscience.

He said it was the way I smelled that made him love me, a scent of honeysuckle, of the air after rain. That for him I lived in stream of summer, the whisper in the doorway, the sunlight on my skin. He held my scent in his hand, carried me in his arms with each step across the floor, where the boards whimpered under my bare feet.

That summer I went to his store almost every day, sometimes by myself, but most often with my cousin, Albert, who was 18 and had his own car, and my younger sister, Patrice. I bought the stale candy and the musty magazines, but when he gave me my change, it was exactly the amount I’d handed him. I’d look at his face, those silent eyes, feel the warmth of him, and I’d fight the urge to touch him.

Then one day he whispered, “There’ll be a candle. Look for it.”
That night I went to him, my innocence displaced by the need burning coals in my palms. I offered him my innocence, my fear, without regret, and he took them gently.

In the quiet of his room over the store, as we lay on his bed, he told me a cat scratched his eyes when he was a young man. They’d been blue, with gold flecks in the corners, and his mother had wept when the infection set in and they’d taken his eyes at the hospital and sewn his lids shut. They lived in Quebec then, far in the north. Why, I asked, did they take his eyes. It’s just what they did then, he said. It’s what they did.

He stroked my nakedness with long, thin fingers, and taught me to move like a dancer beneath him. In the breathless quiet after, I stroked his eyelids and felt such love I thought I might burst.
He kissed my throat, ran his tongue between my breasts. “This must be our secret,” he said as he cupped my chin in his palm and made me forget he could not even see if I was beautiful or ugly.

He felt guilt, and shame, I think. It’s wrong, he told me, a man of his age. He could not see the youth in my face, but I could see the want in his.

It went like this, and though I knew it was going to end, I let myself imagine what it would be like for me, living there above the store, cooking our dinner on the small stove in the corner. We’d sit at the wooden table under the window, just big enough for two, while light from a candle played over our hands and the summer nights lasted forever. Some nights, I dreamed of our love making, and sometimes there would be babies, so many babies, all with their eyes sewn shut, and I’d wake up touching my eyes and find them full of tears.

I floated in a world of magical visions, where Jacques was everywhere, where colors burst across my eyes, and my body ached in his absence, where it didn’t matter that he could not see, because I saw brighter, deeper, enough for both of us.

One day toward the end of summer, Albert and I went into the store. Jacques was waiting on the mayor, a ball of a man who bobbed his head for emphasis and threw his arms about when he spoke. He was talking about plans to clean up Main Street and replace old buildings with modern new ones, stores with real tile floors and fluorescent lighting. Jacques was smoking a Lucky Strike, and ash fell on the counter. Some of it drifted onto the Mayor’s tie. The Mayor flicked it off with a rough hand.

“And this,” the mayor made a motion that took in the store, “is an eyesore. I mean,” he stuttered, “I didn’t mean.”

“No matter,” Jacques shrugged, handed the mayor two packs of Camels. The mayor grabbed his cigarettes, left the money on the counter and walked out the door with his head jutting forward. Jacques leaned on the counter, his face unreadable.

I reached over and touched his hand.

It was only a moment. One, small, tick of the clock, one brief motion. It lay us naked, exposed.

Albert saw. He looked from me to Jacques, a six pack of soda in his hand. Then, without a word, in a motion so slow I could count it in breaths, he put the six pack on the counter and walked out of the store.

He did not speak to me all the way home.

Later that night, I drove to the store. Jacques was waiting for me. He was nervous. His love was urgent, and when he took me, it hurt. I wanted to stay. He trembled as he held me, but he made me go.
I woke during the night thinking I heard an alarm, but it was far away. I went to my bedroom window and looked onto the empty fields. The stars glittered over a thick black sky. It was peaceful, silent, a perfect night. Inside me, something moved. I slipped into my jeans, threw on a shirt and ran out into the yard. I listened for the alarms, but there was nothing. I smelled something on the wind, wood smoke. I vomited in the grass.

Next day, the store was gone. I cried myself sick for days. They never found Jacques.

Albert would not speak to me, would not tell me what he knew.

My parents spoke about the fire in low voices, about a candle in the window, and wasn’t it odd that a man with no sight would leave a candle burning.

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  1. Posted June 6, 2012 at 9:36 am | #

    denise: this has to be one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching and shattering stories you’ve ever written in “short story” form. I couldn’t stop reading it once I started!!!! and the picture is absolutely perfect for the story! I love you and are proud of you…..get this published where the wider population can read it! love, emmylou

  2. Posted June 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm | #

    Thanks, Emilie, for your kind words. I really enjoyed creating this picture for your sister. Blessings! Linda