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Contested Colors

Contested Colors

Cammie Finch

I can see the newspaper headlines now. Magnifi-tint!!! Colorblind man paints the town red after his miraculous win at the Mensa Color Bee. With the ease of a metal detector through El Dorado, I speed through the exercise with flying colors. Pun very much intended for a guy who sees in black and white. Each block of colors on the grid projected on the wall has a distinct chord to my ears. Within seconds, I find the correct harmonious pattern. The puzzle is complete. The three judges gape at me, as if I have a third eye. Which technically I do. But my speed and accuracy is surely what does them in, more than the shock of my appearance.

The judge in the center eyes me with a squint that could pierce a balloon. Her face is a solid A-flat, a shameful Sherwin Williams 298-Golden Peach. You’d say she was beautiful, but to me, she’s all of the wrong colors in a mundane orchestra piece. It’s like her tonal pitches were sewn together in the dark by a slipshod quilt-maker. She’s blatantly staring at my sensor, but I’ve grown accustomed to rudeness. The slender electronic antenna that dangles on my forehead and opens my eyes to the world’s brilliance is a lure for unwanted attention. Still, I impatiently wait for my score, which I know should be three perfect tens. It is one of the great abilities of humans to be able to know when we have achieved greatness. Even more spectacular is the feeling when we have rightfully received the acknowledgement deserved. One ten, two tens. The center judge is taking her time.

“Minerva, what’s taking so long? Just give him a ten!” Miss Beehive whispers. “He obviously has passed to the next round.”

But this Minerva character insists on complicating this simple task. Her paper blinds me with its blankness.

“I’m just not convinced that the registration let you through with that curious contraption. As a nationally-acclaimed Mensa Judge, my opinion matters. I wouldn’t want to be accused of allowing any unfair advantages,” she says with a dramatically raised eyebrow.

I tell them that I had provided my medical card at registration.

“As long as your headgear doesn’t interfere with your brain power,” Miss Beehive jokes, amicably.

“I can assure you, this headgear in no way affects my intelligence.” If it could only cure ignorance, I would gladly hand over my contraption to “Minerva.” Free of charge.

“This isn’t the first time Mensa has made exceptions. Remember in ’08, when extra time was given to the girl with epilepsy?” Beehive reminds the disgruntled judge.

“Well, of course we gave her more time! She had a seizure in the middle of the round! This is completely different.” The judge sighs and looks at her watch. She knows she needs to make a decision, and she knows that it has to be a ten. She scribbles an illegible one and a zero.

“There, Mr. Gilliam. Have your ten,” she says, in a flattened chord of A-sharp and C.

I take my score and prepare for a long day of fighting. But I know I have nothing to worry about. I have a doctor’s note after all. And if anyone asked, I’d tell them the truth. I’m colorblind, not a criminal.

As I move to the next round, the other contestants gawk at my swinging headgear with raised eyebrows. But their nerves and my confident stride convince them to continue their warmup exercises. They offer to time each other, perhaps toss a token of good luck to a particularly stressed contestant. Yet I can see through their mesh of manners. It is quite apparent that my competitors have mastered the art of keeping the enemy close, like a cat kneading for a human’s weak spots.

“How fast can you recite the thirty colors of the synthesized color wheel?”

They elevate the stakes. “Backwards or forwards?”

“The edition with or without Arctic Blue?” Never underestimate the exceptions.

Look at them all stuffing their brains with careless facts. Pity for them because I can’t help but feel like I have an advantage. Not because of my sensor, but because memorizing color hues has become an essential part of my everyday life.

C flat? Martha Stewart 18-Pinking Up Daisies. Bizarre how a gorgeous A major disguises the hideous mustard yellow of American Cheese. E natural could electrocute you with its sour Tequila Lime Green. The sounds of the rainbow could be experienced in my own paint chip library. A bright silver binder ring fused the inanimate colors into a choir of vivid characters. The stack was about an inch thick and took me ten minutes to get through. My stack was a haphazard amalgam of Martha Stewart, Benjamin Moore, and Sherwin Williams’ finest. Although my eyes perceived my stack to progress from a blank Icy Mist to a voided Space Black with various shades of gray sandwiched between, my ears told me much differently. My flipbook was a symphony. Back in high school, I would take it on the school bus with me. While other kids had headphones blasting the latest tunes, I had my flipbook. Once I memorized a pattern of color frequencies, I would shuffle them around and compose a new song.

I hear a buzzer ring out in a Red Velvet D minor, signaling the speedy elimination of an overconfident contestant. The redness of the tone transports me to the night that I lost color. It is the exact shade of the flashing ambulance lights, the last blink of color before my world faded to gray. The impact to my temple hadleft the rainbow splattered abstractly on the basketball court, along with some sweat and blood and pride. A mural dedicating my own childish egotism. I had always been too confident in my younger years. Bragging is a clumsy sport.

* * *

            My subsequent diagnosis of absolute colorblindness at age seven had led me to Dr. Whitman, an experimental physician who elected me as his subject for his new invention. I agreed right away. Dr. Whitman never guaranteed on ease, but he promised I would experience color in a new way.

To the back of my head, he inserted a chip with a slim cybernetic device protruding out of it.  It arcs over my head and swings hypnotically, like the swaying fuzzy dice on your dashboard. My electronic eye picks up the color frequency of the world in front of me and sends a corresponding signal through bone conduction to the installed chip. Dr. Whitman prescribed the paint chips to associate each tone with an exact hue. Even with my eyes tuned to a vintage monochrome broadcast, my color sensor allows me to distinguish Steel Wool Gray from Dolphin’s Fin from Stormy Sky. I can even do it with my eyes shut. With the dedication to my flipbook of vivid melodies,my electronic software and my brain have finally united. They have grasped fibers at the synapse and have embarked on a musical journey in technicolor. How dull, I realize, to see colors in their fixed states. Imagination lives in the space between color and grayness.

* * *

            “He’s weak,” I hear them whisper, as if I’m deaf and not colorblind. “He’ll never make it to the final round. Why is he here anyway?”

My sensor picks up their stinging whispers. They seep into my brain with the poisonous tone of Lead or Alive. But my thoughts counteract their venom. Cash prizes weren’t discriminatory. Only a millionaire might turn down a lowly hundred thousand. And I, a twenty-two year old handicap and struggling artist, was far from the label of a millionaire. What a phony question anyway. Why is anyone here? No one was pathetic enough to give up a Saturday afternoon to play a bunch of color games, just because there was nothing good on TV. It was the money. Money is not a reusable resource, after all. But not only was this contest riddled with colorific sounds that I had never heard on the radio. I had a point to prove. I could do anything normal people could do. If not at the same level, then I would do better.

* * *

            After a few more rounds of questions, we congregate back in the open air atrium for a mandatory “rest period.” The judges suspect that the stuffing of punch and cookies down our throats will revive any brain exhaustion or loss of color-deducting skills. We are supposed to “mingle,” code-word for ‘fraternize with the enemy.’ But I’m content in watching the gaggle of girls standing against the wall. They spread a contagion of royally uninterested purple yawns in my direction.

But there’s a flint of attraction sparked in their eyes as they gaze at my hardware. What can I say? Chicks dig a wired man. They would call me “their little cyborg” or “robo-Rob.” It’s true; I luxuriate in the fact that I have a visual disability. Girls flock to a man who sees sound and hears color, like I’m a wizard of the senses. As if my sensor is a magician’s wand, composing portraits with their vibrant bodies instead of paints. But my sensor isn’t an inventory of sounds and color. It’s an archival reminder that I’m anything but normal.

The girls’ sludgy Coffee Ground logorrhea is feeding my craving for caffeine. And the cookies over on the table have the captivating nasal mysticism of a vibrating sitar. Unfortunately, robotics require a fairly different sort of nourishment. I sense my cyborg radar losing steam. Its signals are a watercolor bay of crossed currents and fused pigments. Ten minutes until our break is over and the next round of color tests will begin.

The world is quickly losing its vibrancy. I find a plug in the wall and begin to unlatch my sensor. The girls stare in an atonal Icicle. “I’m colorblind,” I explain, hoping to melt their confused looks. They turn away, yet the words “…an excuse for an advantage,” hang densely in the air above me. An anticipatory anvil. I connect my robotics to its feeding tube to avert their ear-splitting leers.

I lay it on the floor with a thump. Its key signature is unidentifiable. The silent film returns to my eyes. That prison where a thump is just a thump. Where everyone is the same sallow grey. Shadows drift behind me. They stop and stare at the strange boy charging his focal lens. The strange boy blind to the possibilities of color. I feel the presence of someone behind me, even though I’m not looking. Paranoia, perhaps. I turn around, but all I see is the swish of a gray ghost. The gauzy figure fades into the voided splotch which begins to consume my darkening thoughts.

* * *

            Give up, Rob, while you still have the chance. (SW7655-Stamped Concrete). Why wait for the world to sing? You will never see the red of a rose. The confetti splash of a firework. What good is it to hear a G-sharp at the sight of an orange, if you can’t experience the juicy splendor of its ripened hue? No matter how many sounds your sensor creates, you will always be blind to color. (SW7019-Gauntlet Gray). The judges think you’re a cheat. Are you? Life has cheated me of the beauty of color. Isn’t that some sort of birthright? This contest won’t change a thing for you. Give up, Rob (SW7062-Rock Bottom) …

* * *

            Ding! With its tinkling sparks of Lemon Zest, my electronic eye is ready for battle. Its belly is full with a juicy current. I return the crown to its nest and the world turns into a song again. I am revived from my jabbering inner cynic. Approaching footsteps blossom in a fuchsia D chord. I can hear that she is beautiful even before I see her. Perception isn’t just a state of knowing; it is a sense of feeling. As she draws closer, my body perceives that she is the shadowy figure I had felt before. This girl is a totally new experience for me. Her face sounds like a steamy waterfall, a bowling ball claiming a strike, a crackling fire – all at the same time. She is an incredible bouquet of blues and purples, teals and yellows. She blurs the limits Crayola places on the world. Is there one color to describe this girl?

Scarlett, her name tag reads. What an apt name. I know that I have to meet her. She hovers by the wall, alone, perhaps reciting the spectrum between Navy and Teal. We have a few minutes still before the final mystery round. I start towards Scarlett. The cookie plate’s stockpile is still quite ample. I pick up two chocolate fudge cookies (ringing in a yummy F natural pitch) and offer one to her.

Her Crystal Water eyes snag my attention. I see fizzy bubbles in her speckled irises. Maybe that’s just her confusion when she notices “my eye of extended senses.” I wonder how I would react if I saw a fellow human, disguised as an angler fish; drowning in the void of a colorless world.

“C-cook-cookie? They sound wonderful-I mean, smell great.” Smooth. I forget that normal people can’t hear the hidden sound properties of ordinary objects like I can.

But Scarlett takes the cookie anyway, breaks a piece off, and smells it. “You’re right, they do. I bet it’s all a trick to distract us from the competition. Mensa prides themselves on creating ‘impossible’ puzzles.”

“Really? It seems a little too possible to me.” Realizing my haughtiness, I soften with, “Congratulations on getting to the final round.”

Scarlett is cool as Bathwater, and says, “You too. I can’t believe there are only five of us left. What do you think the final puzzle will be?”

I think for a second, but not long enough to filter my sarcasm. “It’s sure to be colorful.”

Scarlett’s expression falls flat. I avoid eye contact and wonder if I have made a mistake. Damn Mensa and their distracting cookies.

“Rob, is it?” Her voice is the same crooning red of a cello. “You think you are pretty smart, don’t you?”

She’s still staring at my sensor. “I’d believe it. With that thing on your head?” she continues. “It’s like glasses. They allow you to wear a false sense of intelligence. People think you’re something you’re not.”

“Oh, this?” I wiggle my sensor around. “It only allows me to sense colors. It doesn’t enhance intelligence. Trust me, I wish it did.”

Scarlett looks harmoniously confused. “But electronics aren’t allowed. How did you get by registration?”

I tell her that I have absolute colorblindness and only see shades of gray.

“Oh, gosh. I’m so sorry. What an awful way to live.” She averts her eyes and becomes fascinated with the cookie in her hand.

I realize she has nothing to be sorry about. “It’s actually not so bad.”

What would my world be like if I couldn’t hear color and see sounds? In fact, I feel pity for her that she hasn’t the extraordinary gift that sits aloft my head. I tell her about my accident, my surgery, and Dr. Whitman’s sound-to-color system.

Scarlett flashes a lyrical grin.“Wow, it’s almost like man-made synesthesia! Are you sure there isn’t a place where I can buy one of those? Imagine the abstract paintings I could create!” she laughs.

“You’re an artist?”

“Well…” Scarlett goes on to say she graduated from art school, but has been working menial jobs to pay the rent. “Winning this contest would really help me out. But, it should really go to you. After all you’ve been through.”

She thinks I’m weak.

“It’s just that people these days have a thing against disabled folks. Even if I deserved it, I don’t think they want me to compete.”

“Well, that’s just wrong,” Scarlett argues. “I mean, look at the Olympics. Would you deny a paraplegic from running just because he had fake legs?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Exactly,” she smiles. “It’s so brave of you to get out here and prove that there isn’t one correct way to see life in color.”

Our conversation is interrupted. It is time for the final round.

“Good luck, Robbie. Mensa’s got nothing on you,” Scarlett says, as she finishes the cookie’s other half. “And thanks for the cookie. I can see how they must sound spectacular to you.”

Not as spectacular as you, I smile to myself.

* * *

            We hop in line to await the last round. The dapper fellow in front of me with the too-tight blazer and the Rolex watch (that says the wrong time, mind you) taps his shoe in a worried pitch of Mystical Cloud. The announcement we are all waiting for is finally made. The Stroop Test is the final puzzle. If you could survive the Stroop, you could conquer the world. I hum a reverie shrouded in Jitterbug Jade.

Rolex’s anxious shoes disappear inside. I stare at the closed door in front of me. I’m not nervous. Just a bit uneasy. Like when you swallow a bit of toothpaste and wonder if that was enough to poison you. But I’m not sure why. I have my trusty cyborg to guide me through the colorful jungle. Look around, buddy. No one else has the secret weapon of tonal perfection that you have. But yet, they all have the ability to see color naturally. They’re armed with the most useful gadget of all: normalcy.

Within one minute, the door opens again. The fear in Rolex’s shoes has vanished. Strange. The hard part for him has just begun. Waiting.

I step forward, but peek over my shoulder to get a last glimpse of Scarlett.

“Keep all ears, Rob. You got this.” She gives two thumbs up. Her unique blend of all the world’s most wonderful colors is inspiration enough. I smile and pass Rolex, who wears a smug smirk.

He has overheard Scarlett’s advice and remarks, “Ears are the last thing he needs to help him with the Stroop.” He laughs and slumps down on a couch.

The last thing I hear is Scarlett murmur, “You have no idea.”

I gain a yarn of confidence. And then, the door slams shut. The three judges from earlier, including the discordant Minerva, sit facing me.

“I see you’re back, Mr. Gilliam. Obviously, the other judges are blind to your enhancements,” she snarls.

Maybe these tests are too easy, I think.

“Minerva, perhaps he has prepared himself extremely well for this competition,” Miss Beehive defends me again. It’s comforting to have some sort of common sense padding these walls.

“The clock is ticking, ladies. We go live on the air at three sharp, whether we have a winner or not,” the quiet male judge plays the role as timekeeper.

Finally, the judges give me the instructions and I see the timer turn a B natural shade of crimson. I have one minute. “Begin.”

The blank wall in front of me becomes a monochrome disco floor of words.

Green RedBluePurpleBlue PurpleRedYellow Blue Orange

Although my lenses are fogged, I know that the color is alive. My disability is not a hindrance. My sensor picks up note after note. It’s practically second nature. This moment is what I’ve been training for, whether I knew it or not. All of those hours of paintchip memorization. Look Ma, no eyes. I enter into complete darkness. Yet my mind is a jukebox as I wave my sensor over each word, relying solely on my ears. The trick is that people get caught reading the words that differ from the color they are written in. Just like life. You always lose when you focus on the differences, and don’t go along with the flow. A life in disagreement will get you nowhere.

And then…the minute is over. I’ve run out of words. I walk out of the room. A silence drifts behind me. The judges sit stunned at my mastery. I know I have won. Not even color can beat me now.

Scarlett takes her turn and then joins Rolex and me in the waiting area.

“How’d it go?” I ask her.

“Let’s just say, I’ll have to marry rich. There is no way I’m even placing third runner-up,” she shakes her head.

The competitive Rolex perks up. “Aww, that’s too bad. I only missed one. There’s always next year.”

Little does Rolex know that missing one is just not sadly good enough.

“And you, Robot? How did you do?” Rolex sneers.

“It’s Robert,” Scarlett interjects.

Just then, the judges emerge from the testing room. “Would the five final contestants please follow us into the Grand Hall? We go live on the air in ten.”

* * *

            The Grand Hall is a gilded concert stage that exudes an operatic B sharp in a majestic veil of periwinkle. Television screens and microphones populate the orchestra pit, while a gossiping crowd engulfs the rows of theater seats. We take our seats on the stage. I sit down on one end. Scarlett is on the other, with Rolex smack in between. She’s so far away, and yet I can hear her melody from here. Suddenly, a wayward soprano G deafens the room with a toxic Agent Orange.

“Good afternoon and welcome to the 21st Annual Mensa Color Bee! After an exciting day of challenging color puzzles, these five intelligent contestants have survived. Their results were judged carefully, based on speed and accuracy. After much tallying and deliberation, we have a winner! Ladies and gentlemen…” Miss Beehive waits for silence. “This year’s winner is….Robert Gilliam! Robert, congratulations!”

This is no surprise. I’m confident that I am the first person in the history of the Bee to have scored perfectly on every puzzle. I stand up and wave at the applauding crowd. I turn to face the other contestants. Three clap with genuine sportsmanship. Rolex Boy’s face howls a carnivorous shade of BeetBox, and he trembles as if about to burst. Still, I give them all a nod, but my eyes lock with Scarlett. She taps her ears and mouths the words, ‘You listened!’

“As the winner of the Mensa Color Bee, Robert has won $100,000!”

Beehive puts the envelope with the check in my hands. I can smell success; the buttery scent of triumph. Because now, I was at the top. And once at the top, there was no way to get any better.

“But that’s not all. Robert is a special winner. He is the first disabled contestant to not only compete in the final round, but to go on and win! Robert, tell us a little about the challenges of your condition.”

A microphone is shoved in to my face, and I hear myself explain how I can’t really see color. I reveal the logistics behind my cyber device. “No, it’s not just the latest fashion trend. Though I hear Milan already has received an order,” I humor the crowd. I desire their acceptance, not pity.

After much applause, the contest is over, but the cameras are still rolling. The crowds begin to find the exits. It’s time for me, the winner, to return to the world a shade brighter, a note more in tune. I am a changed man. But Rolex jumps out of his chair, his shoes produce an echoing squeak, and he screams out, “He’s cheated! Stop! He’s a cheat!”

Minerva, with the piercing eyes and the flapping blouse, waddles down the aisle and stomps on stage.

“That’s quite the bold statement, Mr. Campbell,” her raspy voice honks at Rolex Boy. “Do you have evidence to justify your accusations?” It must take all of her energy not to agree with him at once. Rolling cameras have that rare ability to change a person’s character, if for a moment.

Rolex Campbell reeks of arrogance, and pronounces with a poof of pomposity, “It says in the rules that no devices are allowed. I don’t care if he’s colorblind. I don’t care if he can’t see the door in front of him. I don’t care how hard it is for him. He has latched a mechanical device onto his person and has enhanced his ability to perform these tasks. Robert Gilliam has cheated with illegal equipment and has gained a win with an unfair advantage over those blessed with natural eyesight.”

His ridiculous words blast at me like a surge of paintballs in a conical vortex. Fury builds in my gut.

“Thank you, Mr. Campbell. We honor your concern and shall review the official rules immediately. From there, we will discuss how to proceed.”The money is temporarily snatched from my hands. I was not a stranger to the feeling of loss. How easily life’s gifts can be stolen away from you.

Scarlett’s face is aghast. She looks at me sympathetically. My blood boils at the sight of Rolex; his watch ticks a macabre executioner’s drumbeat. A cameraman invades my space. Its transparent eye stares deep into my own cyborg sensor. My sensor screeches in an intolerably high frequency. We all cover our ears.

“How do you feel to be caught cheating? Tell us how you thought you could get away with it,” the interviewer demands. I explode with colorful language, then march over to the cluster of judges. My electronic eye bobs up and down, demanding a second chance.

“How dare you accuse me of cheating! My diagnosis is legal! I told you I have proof.” My voice bounces off the grand walls with a flash of turquoise. The echoes dance a waltz in D. I provide my medical card for them to peruse. The scientific term for my disability, “achromatopsia,” is printed underneath a mug shot of me, complete with my headgear.

“So you have a doctor’s note. Did the doctor give you permission to cheat as well?” the orange judge attacks.

“Minerva, that is quite inappropriate,” Beehive snaps.

Then Beehive spins her behemoth hair towards me, and says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gilliam, but if a contestant feels as if an act of dishonesty or deception has occurred, we are obligated to address the problem. I regret to inform you, but…Mr. Campbell is quite in the right.”

“Now please allow us to resume the deliberation. Or need we call security?” the evil one cracks her face into an ugly grimace and waves her hand limply towards the door.

I begin to turn my back. But I see Rolex, leaning against the wall, smug as can be. I see Scarlett. I can’t look weak in front of her. I feel invincible for a moment. With my back still turned to the judges, I mutter, “No.”

“Excuse me?” I can hear Minerva’s face ripen into a blistering G sharp.

Scarlett squeals with delight. Rolex sighs with disappointment and bangs the back of his head against the wall.

“You heard me. No.” I smile proudly.

“Mr. Gilliam, I don’t know what you think you are doing. This is not how we do things here at the Mensa Color Bee.”

A voice from the undiscovered depths of my inner self emerges. I remember that the cameras are on my side. I stare directly at the black hole of the camera screen, and affect an official voice. Really milk it for the audience, Rob. Play the disabled victim. How would an Olympian stand up for himself?

“I refuse to back down, ma’am. You said yourself that colorblindness was a legitimate excuse! On behalf of myself and all other disabled contestants, I won’t let you suppress our ability to compete using the very tools without which we cannot see color!” My mouth is moving faster than my brain. The colors are all mixed up in my head. “I used my own brain to compete tonight. It was my own determination that won this stupid contest. Nobody told me which words to say or which colors to choose. Winning should not be limited to those who have the natural tools to perform.”

The sour Minerva laughs in a repugnant Slimy Lagoon. “Oh really? And tell me, Mr. Gilliam, where should we, here at the Mensa Color Bee, draw the line between “legal” and “illegal” human enhancement technologies? Hmm? What’s next? A device that can auto-correct answers? Telepathy? Access to the Internet? As the Executive Chair of the Mensa Color Bee and Outstanding Judge of the Year, I would be ashamed to not uphold these laws.” She is trying outrageously hard to be convincing.

“Give it up, Robot. That prize is mine,” threatens Rolex.

Scarlett surprises me and steps out of the crowd. “He’s not a robot. His name is Robert, and he happens to possess a prize that you and I will never get, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many competitions we enter. This prize has no monetary value.” She winks at me and signals to her ears. “So, Mr. Campbell, in the end, you will always have lost.”

The truth is, I’m not a victim and Scarlett knows it. But in a way, Rolex and the judges are right. I have cheated. Cheated life from its state of dullness. I could have argued with the judges for another hour. I could have fought for the rights of the colorblind all across the world. I could have relayed my paint chip flipbook exercises. But it’s all a bunch of nonsense really. The fame, the money, the stupid little brain teasers, the necessity to prove…prove what? I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. Dr. Whitman had crowned me the champion years ago, albeit with quite an unconventional crown. I had already won the best prize of all-the ability to view the world as a psychedelic symphony.


Cammie Finch loves tea and hula-hooping. She is a sophomore at the University of Michigan, studying Creative Writing and English. Her favorite ice-cream is vanilla drizzled with maple syrup, and her favorite poets are Pablo Neruda and Sylvia Plath. Her favorite book is always the one she is currently reading. Her three favorite words include betwixt, akimbo, and kerfuffle. After graduation, Cammie hopes to contribute to/work for a literary magazine or publishing company,  spend a summer on a Dutch houseboat, attend an Indian wedding, and increase the world’s love for audiobook-on-tapes, one expressive voice at a time.

This work was published as one of the winners of our 2014 “Ways of Seeing” Contest.