She tried to help with the dishes, although she soon tired and had to retreat to the bed. When he had finished and sat in the straight-backed chair beside her, she said, "What do you do?"
"For a living, I mean."
He thought of his hands, wondered how he possibly could have told her about them even if he had been able to talk. He shrugged as if to say, Nothing much.
She looked around the shabby room. "Panhandling" When he did not respond, she decided that she'd hit on it. "How long can I stay here?"
By gesture, expression, and pantomime, Ollie made her understand that she could stay as long as she liked.
When this was clear, she studied him a long moment and finally said, "Could we have less light?"
He got up and switched off two of the three lamps. When he turned to her again, she was lying nude on top of the covers, her legs slightly spread to receive him.
"Look," she said, "I figure you didn't bring me here and nurse me back to health for nothing. You know? You expect a ... reward. And you have a right to expect one."
Confused, frustrated, he got clean sheets from a stack in the corner and, ignoring her offer, proceeded to change the bed under her without once touching her. She stared at him in disbelief, and when he was done, she said that she didn't want to sleep. He insisted. He touched her and put her out for the night.
In the morning, she ate breakfast with the greedy efficiency that she had shown at dinner the night before, wasting nothing, then asked if she could take a bath. He washed dishes while her sweet voice came through the bathroom door, singing a lovely melodic song that he had never heard before.
She came out of her bath with clean hair as dark as burnt honey, stood nude at the foot of the bed, and beckoned to him. Already she seemed sleeker, healthier than when he had found her, though she was still leaner than she needed to be.
She said, "I was so stupid last night. My hair was a dirty mess and my body odor would've turned off a bull. Now I'm soapy-smelling."
Ollie turned away from her and stared at the few dishes that he still had to dry.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
He had no reply.
"You don't want me?"
He shook his head—No.
She drew a sudden deep breath.
Something struck him painfully on the hip. Turning, he saw that the girl was wielding a heavy glass ashtray. Drawing her lips back from her teeth, she hissed at him as though she were an angry cat. She pounded his shoulders with the ashtray, struck him repeatedly with one tiny balled fist, kicked, and screeched. Then she lost her grip on the ashtray and sagged against him, exhausted, crying.
He put his arm around her to comfort her, but she had enough energy to twist violently away. She turned, tried to reach the bed, stumbled, fell, and passed out.
He lifted her and put her to bed.
He pulled the covers around her, tucked her in, and sat down in his chair to wait for her to regain consciousness.
When she awakened half an hour later, she was trembling and dizzy. He soothed her, smoothing her hair away from her face, wiping her teary eyes, placing cold compresses on her brow.
In time, when she could speak, she asked, "Are you impotent or something?"
He shook his head.
"Then why? I wanted to repay you. That's how I repay men. I don't have anything else to give."
He touched her. Held her. With his expression and with his clumsy pantomime he tried to make her understand that she had a great deal to give. She was giving just by being here. Just by being here.
That afternoon, he went out to buy her pajamas, street clothes, and a newspaper. She was amused by his chaste choice of pajamas: full-sleeved, long-legged flannels. She put them on, then read the newspaper to him—comics and human-interest stories. She seemed to think that he couldn't read, and he was willing to play along with the misconception, since his illiteracy tended to reinforce his cover: Winos didn't collect books.
Besides, he liked to listen to her read. Her voice was sweet.
The following morning, Annie dressed in her new blue jeans and sweater to accompany Ollie to the corner grocery store, although he tried to dissuade her. At the register, when he handed a nonexistent twenty-dollar bill to the cashier and collected change, he thought that Annie was looking elsewhere.
Outside, however, as they walked home, she said, "How'd you do that?"
He feigned perplexity. Do what?
"Don't try to fool Annie," she said. "I almost croaked when he grabbed a handful of air and gave change."
He said nothing.
"Hypnotism?" she pressed.
Relieved, he nodded—Yes.
"You'll have to teach me."
He didn't reply.
But she was not going to be put off. "You have to teach me how you conned that guy. With that little trick I wouldn't need to hustle my body any more, you know? Christ, he smiled at that handful of air! How? How? Teach me! You've got to!"
Finally, at home, unable to tolerate her persistent pleading any longer, afraid that he would be foolish enough to tell her about his hands, Ollie shoved her away from him. The back of her knees caught the bed, and she sat down hard, surprised by his sudden anger.
She said no more, and their relationship returned to an easier pitch. But everything had changed.
Since she couldn't nag him about learning the con game, she had time to think. Late in the evening, she said, "I had my last fix days ago, but I don't feel any need for drugs. I haven't been this long without the crap in at least five years."
Ollie held his guilty hands out to his sides to indicate his own puzzlement.
"Did you throw away my tools, the skag?"
A while later, she said, "The reason I don't need dope ... is it you, something you did? Did you hypnotize me and make me not want it?" When he nodded, she said, "The same way you made the clerk see the twenty-dollar bill?"
He agreed, using his fingers and eyes to do a comic imitation of a stage hypnotist hamming it up for an audience.
"Not hypnotism at all," she said, fixing him with her piercing eyes, seeing through his facade as no one had done in years. "ESP?"
What's that? he asked with gestures.
"You know," Annie said. "You know."
She was a more observant girl, a much brighter girl than he had thought.
She began to nag again, but not about the con game any longer. "Come on! Really, what's it like? How long have you had it, this power, this gift? Don't be ashamed of it! It's wonderful! You should be proud! You have the world on a string!"
And so on.
Sometime during the long night—later, Ollie could never recall the precise moment or understand what single telling argument she used to finally break him down—he agreed to show her what he could do. He was nervous, wiping his magical hands on his shirt. He was excited about showing her his abilities, felt like a young boy trying to impress his first date—but he also feared the consequences.
First he handed her a nonexistent twenty-dollar bill, made her see it, and then made it disappear. Then, with a dramatic wave of his hand, he levitated a coffee cup (empty), a coffee cup (filled), the straight-backed chair, a lamp, the bed (empty), the bed (with Annie in it), and finally himself, floating off the floor as though he were an Indian fakir. The girl whooped and hollered with delight. She persuaded him to give her a ride around the room on a broomstick of air. She hugged him, kissed him, asked for more tricks. He turned on the water in the sink without touching the faucet, divided the stream into two streams that fell on both sides of the drain. He let her throw a cup of water at him and diverted it in a hundred different sprays, keeping himself dry.
"Hey," she said, more flushed and excited than he had ever seen her, "no one is going to tramp on us again, not ever. No one!" She stood on her toes and hugged him. He was grinning so hard that his jaws ached. She said, "You're fabulous!"
He knew, with sweet anticipation and awful dread, that one day soon they would be ready to share a bed. Soon. From that moment his life would be changed. She still did not fully understand what his talent meant, what a wall between them his hands might soon become.
She said, "I still don't understand why you hide your—talent."
Eager that she understand, he forced himself to confront hideous memories of childhood that he had long suppressed. He tried to tell her, first with words that wouldn't come and then with gestures, why he hid his abilities.
Somehow she got the gist of it. "They hurt you."
He nodded. Yes. Very much.
The talent came upon him without warning when he was twelve, as if it were a secondary sex characteristic accompanying puberty, manifested in modest ways at first, then increasingly strong and demanding. It was the sort of thing a boy knew must be concealed from adults. For months he even hid it from other children, from his friends, confused and frightened by his own hands, in which the power seemed to be focused. Slowly, however, he revealed himself, did tricks for his friends, performed, became their secret from the grown-up world. But it wasn't long until they rejected him—subtly at first, then with increasing vigor until they beat and kicked him, knocked him in the mud, forced him to drink filthy water, all because of his talent. He could have used his power to protect himself from one of them, perhaps from two, but even he could not protect himself from a gang. For a time he hid his powers again, even from himself. But as the years passed, he learned that he could not conceal and deny the talent without causing himself physical and psychological damage. The urge to use the power was a need stronger than the need for food, for sex, for the breath of life itself. To refuse it was to refuse to live; he lost weight, grew nervous and ill. He was forced to use the power then, but refrained from exhibiting it in front of others. He began to understand that he would always be alone as long as he had the power—not from choice, from necessity. Like athletic agility or a cleverness with words, it could not be successfully hidden in company: It flowered unexpectedly, startling friends. And whenever he was found out, friends were lost, and the consequences were more dangerous than he cared to face. The only sensible life for him was that of a hermit. In the city he naturally gravitated to the life of a vagrant, one of the invisible men of the concrete jungle—unnoticed, friendless, safe.
"I can understand people being jealous or afraid of you," she said. "Some of them ... but not everyone. I think you're great."
With gestures, he explained what little he could. Twice he grunted, trying words, without success.
"You read their minds," she interpreted. "So? I guess everyone has secrets. But to hurt you for it ..." She shook her head sadly. "Well, you don't have to run away from it any longer. Together, we can turn it into a blessing. Us against the world."
He nodded. But he was deeply sorry to have misled her, for at that moment the mesh occurred. Just like that: Flick! And he knew that this time would be no different from others. When she learned about the mesh, she would panic.
In the past it had happened only when a relationship had progressed to intimacy. But Annie was special, and this time the mesh occurred even before they made love.
The next day, Annie spent hours making plans for their future, while he listened. All day he enjoyed planning with her, for he knew that soon there would be no more joy to share, none at all, nothing. The mesh made joy impossible.
After dinner, as they lay on the bed holding hands, the trouble began just as he had known it would. She was quiet, thinking, and then she said, "Have you been reading my mind today?"
It was useless to lie. He nodded.
She said, "You know everything before I say it."
He waited—cold and frightened.
"Have you been reading my mind all day long?"
She frowned and spoke firmly this time: "I want you to stop it. Have you stopped?"
She sat up, let go of his hand, and looked closely at him. "But you haven't. I can almost feel you inside there, watching me."
He dared not respond.
She took his hand again. "Don't you understand? I feel silly, rambling on about things you've already seen in my head. I feel like an idiot hanging out with a genius."
He tried to calm her and to change the subject. He croaked at her like a magic frog with pretensions to princeship but then resorted again to gestures.
She said, "If we both had the gift ... But this one-way thing makes me feel ... inadequate. Worse than that. I don't much like it." She waited. Then: "Have you stopped?"
"You're lying, aren't you? I feel ... yeah ... I'm sure I can feel you ... ." Then the terrible realization came to her, and she drew away from him. "Can you stop reading my mind?"
He couldn't explain the mesh: how, when he had come to care for her deeply enough, their minds had blended in some mystical fashion. He didn't fully understand it himself—though it had happened to him before. He couldn't explain that she was now almost an extension of him, forever a part of him. He could only nod in acknowledgment of the dreadful truth: I can't stop reading your mind, Annie. It comer to me like air into my lungs.
Thoughtfully, she said, "No secrets, surprises, nothing I can keep from you."
Then she said, "Do you begin to run my life, make my decisions, push me this way or that, without me knowing? Or have you already begun to do that?"
Such control was beyond his power, although she would never be convinced of that. Breathing rapidly, she succumbed to that na*ed fear that he'd seen often before in others.
She said, "I'll leave right now ... if you'll let me."
Sadly, he put one trembling hand to her head and gave her deep but temporary darkness.
That night, while she slept, he sensed into her mind and erased certain memories. He kept the wine jug at his feet and drank while he worked. Before dawn, he was done.
The streets were bleak and empty when he carried her back to the alley where he'd found her, put her down, and placed her purse beneath her. She was still purged of all desire for drugs, and in possession of a new self-confidence and a profound sense of her value as a person that might help her make a new life. His gifts to her.
Ollie returned home without taking a last look at her clear, perfect face.
He opened a jug of wine. Hours later, drunk, he unaccountably remembered what a childhood "friend" had said when he first displayed his power: "Ollie, you can rule the world! You're a superman!"