Total Eclipse of the Smart

For those of us in Ajijic, the August 21 solar eclipse was rather anticlimactic. We knew we were going to experience a mere 25% of the eclipse because we are so far south, but a smattering of us ventured to the waterfront malecón anyway to experience the rare passing of the moon in front of the sun.

Most probably went anticipating looking at the astronomical phenomenon safely through an appropriate viewer. I, however, only wanted to see how dark it would get because 1:00 is about the time I take my first nap of the day. It, however, didn’t get noticeably darker and I was disappointed to the point I swore I wouldn’t attend another solar eclipse until April 8, 2024.

But what did happen was quite surprising and almost as rare as an eclipse. And what I am about to tell you is 100% true. 100%! I met a blind woman, Laura Nell Heller, from Tuscumbia, Alabama. She asked me to call her L.N. Yes, she goes by the name L.N. Heller. She was there with her oddly-named service dog Nancy Eloise Mulligan, or as L.N. calls her, N.E. Mulligan. But why, one might ask, would a blind woman want to attend a solar eclipse?

She had watched the 1979 eclipse from Winnipeg, Manitoba, L.N. explained, and had made the life-changing and tragic mistake of looking directly at the sun right when the moon crowded in front of Old Sol.

“But didn’t you know that was terribly dangerous?” I asked.

“Of course I had been told that. But on my way to Winnipeg I met a charming young East Coast businessman, whose name was Donald Trump, and he told me it was OK to stare at the sun during an eclipse. He said ‘Trust me.’” As a result of this entrepreneurial Svengali’s advice, L.N. Heller lost her sight. “Nevertheless,” she said, “eclipses still fascinate me and I attend all of those that appear in North America.”

Soon after losing her vision, L.N. Heller was paired with her first service dog, an Irish Terrier named Nedra Emily Houlihan, who also answered to the name N.E.  She served Heller until 1992 when, in her old age, an ailing disoriented N.E. dashed in front of a Yellow Cab driven by a wheat-blond cabbie named Sol R. Eaklipps. Heller decided at that point she would not replace her precious dog and would try to navigate the world alone. But many years later, after countless tragic events involving stairwells, curbs, and sink holes, Heller learned her lesson and returned to using a service dog. It was 2007 and the new assistant dog was N.E. Mulligan. She was a young hybrid mutt, a rare non-Irish combination of St. Bernard and Chihuahua.

As the elderly L.N. was telling me her tragic tale, I noticed N.E. staring at the sun. Before I had a chance to stop the dog from gawking at Helios, she let out a screech similar to the sound of the worn-out brakes of the Yellow Cab that had killed her predecessor.  N.E., ironically, was blinded in the same manner her owner had been rendered sightless decades earlier and the Bernahuahua began to scramble aimlessly around the malecón, pulling a startled L.N. with her. I tried to catch the dog, to stop her, but her powerful St. Bernard legs supporting such a tiny, light body, was too fast for me.

N.E. towed L.N. over the edge of the malecón to the lakeshore below. The woman landed on top of the dog, crushing the canine and hitting her own head on an apparently runaway Mitsubishi Eclipse hubcap. As Lake Chapala’s waves lapped at her head, L.N.’s last word was “Waauhh.”

I stared as an ambulance took L.N. away. I wept as N.E. was cut in half so her bulky legs could be flown to the Swiss Alps for burial and her tiny torso and head delivered to the city of Chihuahua where they could be processed into Alpo flavored SunChips.

How, I thought, could all of this happened?  Why did L.N. listen to that lying sack of shit and look directly at the 1979 solar eclipse? Why, I then asked, was L.N.’s first service dog working well beyond the Canine Labor Code’s required retirement age? In addition, I wondered why L.N. had returned, in essence, to the scene of the 1979 tragedy. Couldn’t she see what she was doing? I also pondered why N.E. Mulligan hadn’t been supplied with solar eclipse-proof sunglasses? But the final question I asked was the most revealing and painful: Why was I still telling Helen Keller jokes nearly 60 years after elementary school? Surely I had matured beyond that. Certainly I knew making fun of the visually impaired was insensitive.

It was then I realized that the answers to all these questions were the result of a total eclipse of the smart.

If the name L.N. Heller sounds familiar, it is because she is one of Alabama’s most beloved natives. She is the author of several detective mysteries featuring blind private eye Isadore C. Nutting, known as I.C. Nutting. Three of Heller’s best-selling novels are Sight Unseen, The Eyes of the Beholder, and Tell a Vision. All are available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and Braille.

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