That Night In The River

I closed my eyes because I thought it would teach me what it was like to be blind. Never could I have known that it would teach me how to see.

We walked down Frenchmen St. beneath the chorus of New Orleans's midnight choir: street performers, drunks, tourists, beer cans, and laughter. I heard playful voices rolling down the street from behind me.

I felt someone wrap their elbow in the crook of mine.

"What's wrong with your friend?" She asked.

"He's blind," James said.

I smiled and kept my eyelids closed as her fingers reached up and tried to peel them apart, "He's not blind!"

James laughed and said, "You're right."

"Why are you closing your eyes then?"

"I'm writing a book where the main character goes blind from staring at the sun." I said.

"That's crazy! Can I read it?"

"Sure." I replied, "When it's done."

My new escort led me up the curb onto the sidewalk where a street poet perched his typewriter on top of plastic milk crates. He called out, "For you girls! A free poem. What's the topic?"

"Love!" One of the girls called out.

The poet began to murmur words aloud under the bounce and click of his typewriter's keys. James laughed as the girls surrounded the typewriter poet.

Suddenly a voice called out from the ground, "GIVE ME THAT KNIFE I'M GONNA SLIT MY THROAT!"

"Why would you want to do that?" James replied.

"I'VE HAD IT. This is my LAST NIGHT. I can't take it anymore. I ain't got no family, ain't got no money—I HATE my job. I can't do this. This is it. This is my last night." The man screamed.

The girls must have turned their attention away from the poet because the man on the ground cried out "ALL YA'LL LAUGHING AT ME? I'm 'a ask this blind man here to tell me what to do. He'll know! Blind man—tell me what to do..."

I knelt down and a quiet voice came out of my mouth, "Where's your family?"

"I ain't seen my family in 18 years. Kicked out of school when I was 12-years old. Been running from the law all the way from Detroit. Took me 8 years to get down this far south but I've done it. I ain't seen my momma 'n sister in 18 years." He stole a breath, "My whole life people call me stupid 'cause I can't read and write, but I spell my own name right! 'O-T-H-A Spikes', Otha Spikes."

"Nice to meet you Otha. My name is John. This is my buddy James." I reached out to shake his hand. Calluses rubbed against the smooth palm of my hand.

"Can I pray for you?" I asked.

I felt my body fall slowly into a seated position and heard rustling clothes of several others around me. I put my hand on his shoulder and my consciousness lifted above the crowd. I could see a circle of people. There were five girls, James, and me surrounded around Otha Spikes. Words came out of my mouth and I felt the bellow of a grown man's cry. The shudder of tears next to me ran down the sides of my neck and arms. I felt someone's hand gripping mine and heard the poet's voice break into my mind: "What the hell is going on?"

The next thing I knew we were up and walking: the girls, James, Otha and me. Our walk turned into a joyful march—a dance even. I felt another elbow come intwined with mine and ask me, "What just happened?"

Before I could even answer she continued, "I've always wanted to feel God. My entire life I never really knew if He existed but I wanted to know. I wanted to feel it. And in that moment I knew with all my heart that God was there with us. As soon as you started praying for that man I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't stop crying because of his story, because of the pain in his voice—but I couldn't stop crying because I could feel him being set free."

James walked with Otha up ahead as she spoke. I could hear James and Otha's voices calling back and forth as if they were old friends reunited after an incredible baseball game where their team had won against all odds.

The girls turned to me and said they had to go. I fought the urge to open my eyes so I could see their faces. Maybe I would be able to see them again, maybe they would join our circle of friends, but something in me held my eyes closed and gave embraces to people whose faces I would never know.

Then suddenly I realized I was standing alone. My eyes were closed but I could feel the streetlight above me creeping into my vision.

I opened my eyes and saw a five-foot four black man with no shirt walking beside my best friend. I sprinted down the street and called his name.

"OTHA!"

He turned around and looked at me—the blind mind with his eyes open running down the street. He jumped into my arms and kissed me on my face—over and over again he kissed me.

He was older than I imagined. Grey hair speckled his beard. The whites of his eyes were swollen red and he stunk of alcohol.

"Where we goin boys?" He asked.

James looked over at me, "I think we're going to the river."

I nodded and we walked beside Otha Spikes, the man who couldn't read and write but could spell is own name right. He turned to us and asked if he was dreaming. He told us to pinch his cheeks. We walked under an awning with public bathrooms on either side and he stopped us, serious this time.

"I mean it! For real! Punch me in the face—I must be dreaming! Why would this happen? Why would you two white boys stop for me? You had those pretty girls around you. GO back to them! YOU DON'T WANT ME. This isn't happening..."

Otha dropped his eyes to the ground. Suddenly a realization flashed through his mind, "YOU ARE GONNA TRY AND KILL ME AIN'T YOU?"

He looked at us in horror and started to back away from us.

James and I smiled and put our arms around him as we carried down the boardwalk.

"You gonna take me to the river so you can throw away my body never to be found, isn't it?"

"No man. We love you. Why would we do that?"

"I must be dreaming... I must be dreaming..." He said as he shook his head in his hands.

We got to a rocky outcrop along the boardwalk and saw Otha gravitating towards the water.

"We gonna get in?" He asked, looking across the rocky horizon.

I looked to James and he said, "I don't know why not."

We balanced ourselves from rock to rock and came halfway to the shoreline before we set down our things. James and I set down our phone and our wallet. A flash came through me to hide my wallet so Otha wouldn't steal anything.

I looked up and Otha was struggling to get the last of his jeans unloosed from his ankles. He lost balance and nearly fell over but his foot finally released and he was on his way to the river.

We chuckled at the silhouette of his naked body. "I guess it's only appropriate." James smiled.

"I guess so."

The full moon shone across the dark rippling waves of the Mississippi.

Otha cried out to us, "What's your names?"

"John."

"James."

"YOU KIDDIN ME? IT'S LIKE THE BIBLE! John and James! Who am I? Otha ain't in the Bible. I need a new name!"

Before we could say anything Otha replied, "PETER. The rock. That's my name. Peter."

We walked to the edge of the water and saw the outline of Otha's body standing knee deep in the water with his arms outstretched to the bright white moon that shone down on him.

"I know God when I see it!" He screamed, "I CAN'T READ AND WRITE but I know God when I see it dammit!"

Otha fell to his hands and knees. "FORGIVE ME! FORGIVE ME FATHER FOR ALL THE EVIL I'VE DONE!"

"Forgive me."

James and I drew closer, cupped our hands to the river and began splashing the water of the Mississippi over Otha's body as he cried out to the stars and poured out his heart. The black sorrow of a man resorting to suicide drained out and echoed against the silent New Orleans sky.


On the ride home Otha sat on the front seat and told us where he wanted to go. He wouldn't say where he lived, but wanted us to drop him at a friends house. He pointed out the car garage where he worked along the way.

Several weeks later James and I decided to go visit Otha at work. We came to the car garage and were greeted by a huge white man in tan suspenders, "Can I help you?"

"Yeah. We're looking for Otha Spikes."

"Otha? What you want with him? Does he owe you money?"

"No no. He's our friend."

The mechanic smirked, "Alright..." and called out across the garage "OTHA! You're friends are here."

We saw his face come through the garage into the office. He stopped and looked at us before he opened the screen door.

He stepped slowly down the stairs and stood a few feet away from us. He looked up and pulled his hands out of his pockets.

James asked him, "You remember us?"

He nodded.

"How's it goin man? You doin alright? Been staying off the liquor and drugs?"

"Yes sir." Otha replied.

"What happened?" James asked.

"That night in the river boys. That night in the river..."