Skip to main content



Homer & Langley

I’m Homer, the blind brother, I didn't lose my sight all
at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out. When I was told
what was happening I was interested to measure it, I was in my late
teens then, keen on everything. What I did this particular winter
was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all
their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn’t see
as a day-by-day thing. The houses over to Central Park West went
first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I
couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose
their shape, and then finally, this was toward the end of the
season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and
all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters
floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that
last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my
sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the
blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though
full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by
the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of
the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut. I would hear
someone going someplace fast, and then the twirl into that long
scurratch as the skater spun to a stop, and then I laughed too for
the joy of that ability of the skater to come to a dead stop all at
once, going along scoot scut and then scurratch.

Of course I was sad too, but it was lucky this happened to me
when I was so young with no idea of being disabled, moving on in my
mind to my other capacities like my exceptional hearing, which I
trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual. Langley
said I had ears like a bat and he tested that proposition, as he
liked to subject everything to review. I was of course familiar
with our house, all four storeys of it, and could navigate every
room and up and down the stairs without hesitation, knowing where
everything was by memory. I knew the drawing room, our
father’s study, our mother’s sitting room, the dining
room with its eighteen chairs and the walnut long table, the
butler’s pantry and the kitchens, the parlor, the bedrooms, I
remembered how many of the carpeted steps there were between the
floors, I didn’t even have to hold on to the railing, you
could watch me and if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t
know my eyes were dead. But Langley said the true test of my
hearing capacity would come when no memory was involved, so he
shifted things around a bit, taking me into the music room, where
he had earlier rolled the grand piano around to a different corner
and had put the Japanese folding screen with the herons in water in
the middle of the room, and for good measure twirled me around in
the doorway till my entire sense of direction was obliterated, and
I had to laugh because don’t you know I walked right around
that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew
where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to
Langley, A blind bat whistles, that’s the way he does it, but
I didn’t have to whistle, did I? He was truly amazed, Langley
is the older of us by two years, and I have always liked to impress
him in whatever way I could. At this time he was already a college
student in his first year at Columbia. How do you do it? he said.
This is of scientific interest. I said: I feel shapes as they push
the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around
till I’m dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled
in with something solid.

And there were other compensations as well. I had tutors for my
education and then, of course, I was comfortably enrolled in the
West End Conservatory of Music, where I had been a student since my
sighted years. My skill as a pianist rendered my blindness
acceptable in the social world. As I grew older, people spoke of my
gallantry, and the girls certainly liked me. In our New York
society of those days, one parental means of ensuring a
daughter’s marriage to a suitable husband was to warn her,
from birth it seemed, to watch out for men and to not quite trust
them. This was well before the Great War, when the days of the
flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in
the unimaginable future. So a handsome young blind man of reputable
family was particularly attractive insofar as he could not, even in
secret, do anything untoward. His helplessness was very alluring to
a woman trained since birth, herself, to be helpless. It made her
feel strong, in command, it could bring out her sense of pity, it
could do lots of things, my sightlessness. She could express
herself, give herself to her pent-up feelings, as she could not
safely do with a normal fellow. I dressed very well, I could shave
myself with my straight razor and never nick the skin, and at my
instructions the barber kept my hair a bit longer than it was being
worn in that day, so that when at some gathering I sat at the piano
and played the Appassionata, for instance, or the Revolutionary
Étude, my hair would fly about—I had a lot of it then, a
good thick mop of brown hair parted in the middle and coming down
each side of my head. Franz Lisztian hair is what it was. And if we
were sitting on a sofa and no one was about, a young lady friend
might kiss me, touch my face and kiss me, and I, being blind, could
put my hand on her thigh without seeming to have that intention,
and so she might gasp, but would leave it there for fear of
embarrassing me.

I should say that as a man who never married I have been
particularly sensitive to women, very appreciative in fact, and let
me admit right off that I had a sexual experience or two in this
time I am describing, this time of my blind city life as a handsome
young fellow not yet twenty, when our parents were still alive and
had many soirees, and entertained the very best people of the city
in our home, a monumental tribute to late Victorian design that
would be bypassed by modernity—as for instance the interior
fashions of our family friend Elsie de Wolfe, who, after my father
wouldn’t allow her to revamp the entire place, never again
set foot in our manse—and which I always found comfortable,
solid, dependable, with its big upholstered pieces, or tufted
Empire side chairs, or heavy drapes over the curtains on the
ceiling-to-floor windows, or medieval tapestries hung from gilt
poles, and bow-windowed bookcases, thick Persian rugs, and standing
lamps with tasseled shades and matching chinois amphora that you
could almost step into…it was all very eclectic, being a
record of sorts of our parents’ travels, and cluttered it
might have seemed to outsiders, but it seemed normal and right to
us and it was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of
living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around

Our parents went abroad for a month every year, sailing away on
one ocean liner or another, waving from the railing of some great
three- or four-stacker—the Carmania, the Mauretania, the
Neuresthania—as she pulled away from the dock. They looked so
small up there, as small as I felt with my hand in the tight hand
of my nurse, and the ship’s horn sounding in my feet and the
gulls flying about as if in celebration, as if something really
fine was going on. I used to wonder what would happen to my
father’s patients while he was away, for he was a prominent
women’s doctor and I worried that they would get sick and
maybe die, waiting for him to return.

Even as my parents were running around England, or Italy, or
Greece or Egypt, or wherever they were, their return was presaged
by things in crates delivered to the back door by the Railway
Express Company: ancient Islamic tiles, or rare books, or a marble
water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears,
or antique armoires with their fecal smell.

And then, finally, with great huzzahs, there, after I’d
almost forgotten all about them, would be Mother and Father
themselves stepping out of the cab in front of our house, and
carrying in their arms such treasures as hadn’t preceded
them. They were not entirely thoughtless parents for there were
always presents for Langley and me, things to really excite a boy,
like an antique toy train that was too delicate to play with, or a
gold-plated hairbrush.

we did some traveling as well, my brother and I, being habitual
summer campers in our youth. Our camp was in Maine on a coastal
plateau of woods and fields, a good place to appreciate Nature. The
more our country lay under blankets of factory smoke, the more the
coal came rattling up from the mines, the more our massive
locomotives thundered through the night and big harvesting machines
sliced their way through the crops and black cars filled the
streets, blowing their horns and crashing into one another, the
more the American people worshipped Nature. Most often this
devotion was relegated to the children. So there we were living in
primitive cabins in Maine, boys and girls in adjoining camps.

I was in the fullness of my senses, then. My legs were limber
and my arms strong and sinewy and I could see the world with all
the unconscious happiness of a fourteen-year-old. Not far from the
camps, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, was a meadow profuse with
wild blackberry bushes, and one afternoon numbers of us were there
plucking the ripe blackberries and biting into their wet warm
pericarped pulp, competing with flights of bumblebees, as we raced
them from one bush to another and stuffed the berries into our
mouths till the juice dripped down our chins. The air was thickened
with floating communities of gnats that rose and fell, expanding
and contracting, like astronomical events. And the sun shone on our
heads, and behind us at the foot of the cliff were the black and
silver rocks patiently taking and breaking apart the waves and,
beyond that, the glittering sea radiant with shards of sun, and all
of it in my clear eyes as I turned in triumph to this one girl with
whom I had bonded, Eleanor was her name, and stretched my arms wide
and bowed as the magician who had made it for her. And somehow when
the others moved on we lingered conspiratorially behind a thicket
of blackberry bushes until the sound of them was gone and we were
there unattended, having broken camp rules, and so self-defined as
more grown-up than anyone believed, though we grew reflective
walking back, holding hands without even realizing it.

Is there any love purer than this, when you don’t even
know what it is? She had a moist warm hand, and dark eyes and hair,
this Eleanor. Neither of us was embarrassed by the fact that she
was a good head taller than me. I remember her lisp, the way her
tongue tip was caught between her teeth when she pronounced her
S’s. She was not one of the socially self-assured ones who
abounded in the girls’ side of the camp. She wore the uniform
green shirt and gray bloomers they all wore but she was something
of a loner, and in my eyes she seemed distinguished, fetching,
thoughtful, and in some state of longing analogous to my
own—for what, neither of us could have said. This was my
first declared affection and so serious that even Langley, who
lived in another cabin with his age group, did not tease me. I wove
a lanyard for Eleanor and cut and stitched a model birch bark canoe
for her.

Oh, but this is a sad tale I have wandered into. The boys’
and girls’ camps were separated by a stand of woods through
the length of which was a tall wire fence of the kind to keep
animals out and so it was a major escapade at night for the older
boys to climb over or dig under this fence and challenge authority
by running through the girls’ camp shouting and dodging
pursuing counselors, and banging on cabin doors so as to elicit
delighted shrieks. But Eleanor and I breached the fence to meet
after everyone was asleep and to wander about under the stars and
talk philosophically about life. And that’s how it happened
that on one warm August night we found ourselves down the road a
mile or so at a lodge dedicated like our camp to getting back to
nature. But it was for adults, for parents. Attracted by a
flickering light in the otherwise dark manse we tiptoed up on the
porch and through the window saw a shocking thing, what in later
time would be called a blue movie. Its licentious demonstration was
taking place on a portable screen something like a large window
shade. In the reflected light we could see in silhouette an
audience of attentive adults leaning forward in their chairs and
sofas. I remember the sound of the projector not that far from the
open window, the whirring sound it made, like a field of cicadas.
The woman on the screen, naked but for a pair of high-heeled shoes,
lay on her back on a table and the man, also naked, stood holding
her legs under the knees so that she was proffered to receive his
organ, of which he made sure first to exhibit its enormity to his
audience. He was an ugly bald skinny man with just that one
disproportionate feature to distinguish him. As he shoved himself
again and again into the woman she was given to pulling her hair
while her legs kicked up convulsively, each shoe tip jabbing the
air in rapid succession, as if she’d been jolted with an
electric current. I was rapt—horrified, but also thrilled to
a level of unnatural feeling that was akin to nausea. I do not
wonder now that with the invention of moving pictures, their
pornographic possibilities were immediately understood.

Did my friend gasp, did she tug at my hand to pull me away? If
she did I would not have noticed. But when I was sufficiently
recovered in my senses I turned and she was nowhere to be seen. I
ran back the way we had come, and on this moonlit night, a night as
black and white as the film, I could see no one on the road ahead
of me. The summer had some weeks to go but my friend Eleanor never
spoke to me again, or even looked my way, a decision I accepted as
an accomplice, by gender, of the male performer. She was right to
run from me, for on that night romance was unseated in my mind and
in its place was enthroned the idea that sex was something you did
to them, to all of them including poor shy tall Eleanor. It is a
puerile illusion, hardly worthy of a fourteen-year-old mind, yet it
persists among grown men even as they meet women more avidly
copulative than they.

Excerpted from HOMER & LANGLEY © Copyright 2011 by E.L.
Doctorow. Reprinted with permission by Random House Trade
Paperbacks. All rights reserved.

Homer & Langley
by by E. L. Doctorow

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812975634
  • ISBN-13: 9780812975635