High School Years
Between forkfuls of twirled spaghetti, Ralph asks, “You hear about Nassau Daddy?”
“You mean Virgil Bayless?” I answer from across the table.
His chewing stops long enough to give me a hint as to what’s going on with Virgil. “Yeah, he got his eye tore up real bad.”
My brother continues, “Virgil was hanging around in the Boyston’s backyard out in the West End with a bunch of guys looking for some fine, gorgeous girl they all liked and hoped to see that night. Then all of a sudden one of the dudes saw a man poking his head out the back door so they yelled ‘let’s go!’ While they were racing to get out of the yard, Virgil ran smack dab into the clothesline.”
“That’s awful. How do you know?”
Ralph scoops the last few morsels of food with his fork in one hand and a saltine in the other. “Uh, I don’t know, just heard it around.”
Everybody knows Virgil Bayless. He’s not shy, not afraid to start a conversation, to laugh, joke, or brag. I see him on Seventh Street, in the hallways at school, at Carver Center and the Skate Away. Like his dad, he stands over six feet. His tall frame leans at an angle as he glides around the rink dancing on skates to songs like Ooh Pooh Pa Doo. Now and then, he’ll come by the house to play a game of bid whist keeping things lively with his blustery talk.
When we were younger, Virgil would sometimes walk up the alley next to our house on his way to the store or uptown. Since no young person walking by her house could escape Squenchy and her marble shooting, he’d stop to play a game with her, lose his marbles, and go on his way.
The ripped-eye story circulates through our neighborhoods and floats through perked ears eager to hear gossipy versions of the story. Yesterday one of my neighbors said she heard through the South End grapevine that Virgil was out late one night window peeping, ran into a backyard clothesline, and split his eye wide open.
As the story about Virgil travels from person to person, another friend, Marland Thomas, relays yet another twist to the tale about Virgil’s eye. “Virgil and some boys was stealing apples and peaches and some man caught ‘em and hollered, ‘stop or I’m gonna call the cops’. I don’t know who the man was but he chased ‘em and then Virgil got his eye snagged on a clothesline.”
Weeks pass and the saliva of gossip about Virgil dribbles slowly away. One afternoon while I’m outside, I notice a streak of sunlight streaming through a thick layer of clouds. It’s been raining and a tiny bit of glistening sunshine captures my attention. I glance up at the clouds, and as I turn my head, I spot Virgil striding down Seventh Street sporting an eye shield slung crosswise over his forehead. The patch covers his eye, protecting it while it heals. The guys around town call him Captain Blind because they say the patch gives him the look of a pirate.
“Hey there, Margaret Ann.”
“Hi Virgil. How’s your eye?”
“Aw, it’s gettin’ better. I’ll be taking this here patch off pretty soon.”
Virgil keeps walking toward Paint Street and I go inside to write a paper for my English class, not thinking anymore about his eye or how he got hurt.
Fifty Years Later – Virgil’s living room, sitting with him and his wife Chris
The Gossip Wasn’t True – Is it Ever?
“What was the story about your eye? You want me to write a couple of pages about it?” I ask.
“Aw, Margaret Ann, I don’t talk about it no more.”
“Ok, that’s fine. I’ll put my computer away.”
“Uh, well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt none. Ok, ok, I’ll tell you. For one thing, people always gettin’ stuff wrong. It happened during lunch. I went over to the drugstore to get some cigarettes. Then I was in a rush to get to Cooper’s to shoot the jive with the guys, so I took a shortcut through the Boydston’s backyard. All of a sudden, a big dog leaped out at me. Lucky for me that chain around his neck held him back.”
The story keeps rolling along….
Barking and yelping like crazy, the backyard watchdog was trying to get free of his chain so he could protect his territory. Looking sideways over his shoulder, Virgil saw four legs and menacing teeth lurching at him. When he turned back around to get out of the yard, he ran right into the clothesline and hooked his eye on the exact spot where two lines of wire were twisted and joined together.
Blood spurted. Blood gushed. Blood soaked. He reached into his pants pocket to retrieve a handkerchief so he could put pressure on his wound just like he had learned in Boy Scouts. Holding a small square of white cloth on a geyser of red fluid, Virgil staggered into Cooper’s where he was supposed to get his lunch.
“Hey Miz. Cooper, you got a Band-Aid?”
The sight of Virgil’s eyeball protruding out of its socket and blood gushing everywhere shocked Miz. Cooper. She yelled out, “Oh Lord, Have Mercy!”
In a tizzy of nerves, she threw her hands up, shoved a couple of the boys out of the way and hollered for John Stone to get Virgil to the hospital down the block.
As soon as they walked in the side door of the Emergency Room, someone dressed in white appeared, pulled off his bloody shirt, took off his pants and put him in one of those speckled blue cotton gowns that tie in the back.
Dr. Berno, a well-known Chillicothe surgeon who Virgil’s mother worked for, came after a few minutes, injected him with a combination of strong drugs that knocked him out, wheeled him to the operating room and put two hundred and fifty-eight stitches inside and out. The doctor sewed stitches under his eye all the way up to the corner.
“After I went back to school with my patch on, I used it to my advantage. I didn’t have no time to study, you know, I had a messed-up eye and all. I was in bookkeeping and I needed to know the answers to a test so I asked some girl I know to show me her paper. Well, she said no. I told her to look at this, and I flipped my patch up so she could see my torn-up eye. She let me look at her paper in a hurry.”
“Well Margaret Ann, that’s the whole story. You hearing it right. I wasn’t in nobody’s yard at night window peeping or trying to see no girl. That’s Chillicothe folks gossiping. Anybody who says different, you can tell ‘em to ask me.”
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