CCW 2009 Writing Contest Winner, Fiction
I lost my left eye in a fishing accident. My dad swung back his fishing rod a little half-assed and the hook popped through the cornea. He made a nice cast though, dunking my eyeball into Lake Munson where it attracted the trout.
I didn’t really blame my dad for the accident, since an accident is just that: a whoop-shit. Plus, by that point I was already so bored from the fishing I was ready to poke an eye out or something like that myself. And it meant we got to go home, after a trip to the hospital so they could insert a conformer, which would help heal the socket and keep the eyelid from caving in and looking sickening.
The insurance paid out good, and I could still see well enough to drive, according to the state, so my only worries afterward were that I couldn’t do my trick where I move my eyes independently of one another, and that wearing an eye patch didn’t fit my style, even though it did look a bit cool. The insurance company would’ve paid for a glass eye but, hating to follow expectations, I declined.
Still, an empty socket would freak people out, probably scare little kids, which wouldn’t help with my substitute teaching. Kids always stare at things, especially an eye patch. I couldn’t have them staring instead of concentrating on my last-minute lesson plan, or worse, asking me to lift it up and getting the willies when I reluctantly complied.
I was doing a long stint at Fancher Elementary during flu season, which is not something I would do given the choice. I like to move around between schools, not become well-known or remembered at any one in particular. In some places I’ve become known as Mr. Patch, a nickname I’m trying to avoid, but the worst part about a streak at one particular school is that it becomes abundantly clear to the children and the other teachers, even the other subs, that I know very little about teaching. I’m not particularly good at math, nor am I well read; I have a working knowledge of grammar and history but don’t ask me to explain what a gerund is or why the electoral college was invented.
It was one of those days that an overly-freckled ginger kid, the kind who for no inherent reason reminds you of all those grade-school assholes you knew growing up, was distracting the other students with a small magic 8-ball. The handout I’d sent around the room, with only a meager fifteen arithmetic problems, sat untouched on his desk. He didn’t even bother to put his name on it. By this time, most of his classmates had turned theirs in; they were chatting quietly to each other, enjoying the rest of the period, which is fine by me. If only he’d take a few minutes to finish, we could all go on with our lives.
“Put it away and do your work,” I said in the commanding tone a sub has to use. The kid pretended he didn’t hear, but he glanced quickly in my direction. “Put it away or I’m going to take it away,” I added, trying to assert dominance.
The kid, he deserves some credit, because he just kept shaking the thing, mouthing questions I wasn’t privy to. “This is your last warning,” I said, walking over.
“Go away,” he said. “I’m doing it.”
Lying little shit. “Listen, I’m either going to take the toy, and you can have it back at the end of class, or I’m taking your work, and you get a zero for the day.”
Now he took me seriously, looking at my patch. He put the 8-ball on the desk and picked up his pencil. I figured the kid sufficiently cowed, so I started to return to the teacher’s desk, but as soon as my back was turned, the kid shook the ball and asked, “What’s the answer to question 1?”
I’d had enough. I gracefully pivoted on my foot mid-stride, depth perception be damned, and held my hand out, palm up, and curtly said, “Give it.”
Instead, he put it down and took up his pencil again but I stood still, waiting for him to put it in my hand. If I tried reaching for it and missed I wouldn’t look very smart. “Give it,” I repeated. He gave me a look, the kind a jewel thief gives a copper right before he jumps onto the roof of a moving train, his score in tow.
The hell with this. I reached to grab the 8-ball, and I would’ve had it if the kid hadn’t tried to take it too. Our hands brushed past each other as the ball spun away from us both. For a protracted second we watched it fall and then it smashed, thin black plastic shearing under the weight of the blue liquid. The twelve-sided die with the answers clattered away, under another student’s desk. The kid looked at me like it was my fault.
“That was mine!” he said. “You have to get me another!”
I picked up the die and showed him a side. “Don’t count on it,” it read.
“Give me that!” he said.
I turned the piece to the side that read, “Ask again later,” and verbally added, “Now do your work.” The kid fumed, but he started the assignment.
Pocketing the piece, I buzzed the office intercom and called for a janitor.
The period ended and the children flew out as soon as the bell rang, none of them giving me a second look, the kid not even stopping to retrieve his dodecahedron of destiny. I forgot about it too, and didn’t see it again until I was home, emptying my pockets’ contents onto the kitchen table.
I held it up to my eye, turning it around, looking at the twelve responses in their blue triangles. Most likely. Without a doubt. My sources say no. Reply unclear, try again. The piece wasn’t as big as one would expect because the kid’s 8-ball was child-sized, about as big as a billiard ball, smaller than the real toy.
I had an idea. It was strange, but feasible. I found the paperwork from my fishing accident and dialed my insurance agent with a special request.
* * *
I couldn’t believe it, but they covered it, my new glass eye. I guess to them a prosthetic is a prosthetic is a prosthetic if it costs about the same.
“I haven’t had this job long, but this is as unorthodox a thing as I could imagine,” my agent told me. He was a young guy, not yet burnt out on sob stories and claim denials, and it was clear I’d made his week; he gave me the number of an ophthalmologist. She was distressed by my idea, never having fulfilled a request like it before, but even she joked, “Ocularists don’t put this in their brochures, that’s for sure.” She referred me to one she knew in Pittsburgh who dabbled in specialty prostheses.
It didn’t take much of a pitch to convince the ocularist. He’d grown tired making yellow Data and violet Elizabeth Taylor imitations and was ready for something new.
He took the magic 8-ball piece and molded acrylic around it, shaping it to the size of my right eye from a mold made of the socket. He put me under for surgery to attach the eye muscles to the implanted replacement. Normally an ocularist would have to make a convincing replica, duplicating the iris from the other eye, making it all look realistic, but I saved him the trouble. After a month, my magic 8-eyeball was ready.
“I have to warn you,” he said to me, showing me his work in a mirror. “Sometimes patients regret getting an abnormal prosthetic; others react adversely when they see something this weird, and it might wear on you after a while. Really getting used to it won’t be that easy. Take my card in case you reconsider and decide to have a regular eye made. In my experience, people start wanting one long before they know it.”
Of course, when I was subbing, I’d hide it under the patch. The kids would want me to lift it up and I always refused—who knew what kind of trouble I could get in? The school boards frowned on visible tattoos; two dozen kids screaming about my eye wouldn’t help me any. Whenever they were persistent I would make some ludicrous challenge, like a logarithm; I figure if they’re intelligent and mature enough to solve one of those, well, they’re mature enough to see my eye.
Every once in a while I’d be riding a bus or browsing in a store and somebody would ask me about how I lost the eye.
If they asked, “You have some kind of accident or something?” or “Can you see outta that thing?” I couldn’t help but be sarcastic.
“No, I was born this way,” or, “Would you believe it sees the future?”
If they were polite, “I don’t mean to pry, but I can’t help but be curious about . . . you know,” I’d tell them the truth.
If they asked, “Why didn’t you get a glass eye?” I’d tell them that actually, I did.
“It just isn’t in quite right, it always rolls up like I’m having a seizure.” This isn’t really true—the rectus muscles of my left eye were surgically attached to the implant, allowing it to move in sync with the right. My ability to move my eyes independently was hurt by the surgery, but with practice I got good at it again. I could pick what response my magic 8-eyeball would give.
Pleasantries and polite inquiry aside, if people ask to see it, I say:
“You have to ask me a question first.”
“What do you mean?” they say.
“A yes or no question. Can be about anything.”
They’d come up with one. “Is it going to rain this weekend?” “Am I going to get that promotion?” “Are the Yankees going to win the Series?”
I give my head a good shake, feeling the thing jostle around in there a bit, look left or right or up or down, face the person and lift up the patch. “Cannot predict now.”
One in ten respond, “Hey, wow! That’s so cool!” One in ten, tops. The rest grimace or shout or take a step back. “What the fuck is that, dude?” “Oh, my!” “Whoa, holy shit!” “Ugh! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Once I got drunk at a bar. For my money an eye-patch is better than a cool scar or tattoo; the women I meet are way more impressed.
“Oh, come on, don’t be a sis—sissy,” said a tipsy girl I was talking up one time.
“You know, I really shouldn’t.” I whispered in her ear, “It might scare you.”
“Scare me? Nuh-uh. Come on, show me. Don’t you want to get lucky tonight?”
Well, that was a yes or no question. I shook my head good and thorough, like a baseball bobblehead. I lifted up the patch and plain as day it said, “Without a doubt.”
She shrieked, really loud. Somebody dropped a beer, the shattering mug the sound of a shot in the sudden silence. In moments the girl ran away and I was surrounded by husky white-knight-wannabes. I tried to explain I didn’t touch her, that my eye had freaked her out is all. They tossed me out, literally and unceremoniously.
I sat on the curb a moment and put the patch back in place. My head was swimming and my butt hurt from landing on it. Two legs walked up in front of me; I looked up and saw they belonged to a cop. Maybe somebody called him, maybe he heard the commotion, I don’t know. “Evening, officer,” I said, trying to not to slur.
“Care to explain what that was all about?” he replied.
“I tried, but they wouldn’t listen. I just have a weird eye, scared some drunk girl.”
“Let me see.” I lifted up the patch. Outlook good. “That’s bizarre,” he said. “Why the hell’dya do that?”
“I don’t know—just thought it would be neat. Unique. Far as I know, I’m the first person ever to do this. Plus, my insurance covered it.”
“Really?” he asked. “Who’s your provider?”
* * *
After a few weeks, another call came from Fancher Elementary. On the phone they said it was allergies, a bad case. But, since allergies can’t be contagious, the teacher probably took a personal day instead of a sick day, if I had to guess. It was a Friday.
“Hey, Mr. Patch is back!” said a boy. That’s fantastic: the nickname started in a district where I don’t work anymore but it made its way to Fancher.
“All right, all right. I’ve got your worksheet for the day, then you can have fun.” I looked around while I passed the assignment to the kids. The ginger kid was there, not looking at me. He didn’t have out a pencil. I gave him his sheet without a word.
The class was quiet for ten minutes; thirty-five to go. The ginger kid had borrowed a pencil and was doing his work, which gave me a little satisfied sigh. It took him a bit longer than the rest, but eventually he came up to my desk and handed it in.
“Where’s my 8-ball?” he asked.
“It broke, don’t you remember?”
“The triangle piece. I want it back now. Mrs. Miller says she doesn’t have it.”
“You forgot to get it after class. You can’t have it now,” I said, keeping my voice level, hoping he wouldn’t throw a tantrum.
“Did you throw it away?”
“So you still have it?” he asked excitedly.
“I suppose I do.” I didn’t want to lie. They get enough of that from their real teachers.
“Then can I have it back?” He wasn’t getting red in the face or yelling.
“Well, no, I’m sorry, you can’t.”
“What? Why not?”
I wish he would get angry and mouth off so I could tell him to be quiet, force him back to his seat. “I’m… using it right now,” I said. Even if I wanted to give it to him I couldn’t just pop it out of the socket right there. “I’m sorry, I just can’t give it back. You shouldn’t have brought a toy to class in the first place.”
His eyes were starting to bat away a few tears but he didn’t say anything. He sat down. I wondered what Mrs. Miller said to him—the same thing, perhaps?
“I’m sorry,” I said to him. I meant it, though not out of sympathy. It was because I didn’t want to give it back. Those one in ten that get a kick out of my eye, almost all of them end up asking, “So why’d you do that?” like the cop did that night. The answer I gave him—that I thought it would be cool—I know how weak that sounds, but it’s the only answer I could ever give. That’s why my new eye is so great: I get asked questions I can’t answer all the time, as a sub or otherwise; my eye lets me always have an answer. If anything good came from the fishing accident, it was this: I don’t have to feel intimidated by guys who have thirteen different piercings or crazies on the busses and trains; one glance at my eye shuts them up. And it was unique, I was sure of it. I’d searched the web and skimmed issues of The Journal of Ophthalmic Prosthetics and nowhere could I find anybody with a magic 8-eyeball. I had something all the anti-conformists would envy. I was a pioneer: anybody else who got one was imitating.
The period ended and the kids left; I put the completed and graded worksheets in a folder for Mrs. Miller, paper-clipped to a note that read “Seventh period.” The last group of kids, period eight, would be along in a few minutes. I had time to make a quick run to the bathroom.
* * *
Access to the teachers’ facilities at Fancher was off-limits to substitutes; maybe the teachers would warm up to some subs and slip them a key, but not Mr. Patch.
The boy’s room was empty. I never got used to the sinks and urinals at Fancher Elementary, which were so low to the floor. The stall doors were all open; inside each there is no writing. No numbers of loose women or hate slogans or tags of any kind—only in an elementary school.
I listened for a moment; the din from the halls was decreasing; the bell would ring soon. I pulled a tissue from my pocket and lifted up my eye patch. I could see in the mirror “Outlook good,” though it was in reverse. I dabbed the implant a little, then the sweat from the skin covered by the patch.
He came in so quietly; there must have been nobody left in the halls. The ginger kid stood behind me. He surprised me, and I turned around without putting the patch back in place. He stared at the eye; for a moment he was shocked but then fascinated.
“Pretty neat, huh?” I said, smiling, hoping he wouldn’t scream.
“Wow, that is neat! I guess you can keep it.”
“Thanks. Here.” I pulled ten dollars out of my wallet and gave it to him. “Go to the store and get a new magic 8-ball. They make them bigger than the one you had.”
“Thanks, Mr. Patch!”
“Could you call me Mr. Horowitz?” I asked him. “That’s my name.”
“Okay, I guess. Hey, if you have that, can I have your old eye?”
I laughed. “If you can find it, it’s yours. It’s in the belly of a fish in Lake Munson.”
“Cooooooool,” he said. “I’ll let you know if I find it.”
The bell rang. “Better get to your next class,” I said.
“Okay, Mr. Horowitz.”
“Hey, sorry I gave you a hard time . . . Jason, right? Have a nice weekend.”
“Yup! You too!” he replied, already trotting out the door and into a brisk walk. There’s no running in the halls.
I replaced my patch thinking that that kid isn’t so bad. He, by far, had the best reaction to my eye. It made my day on a day I never expected to get made.
Monday I arrived at Fancher Elementary again; students and faculty were both staring at me, far more than normal. Inside Mrs. Miller’s room, at her desk sat Fancher’s principal, Dominic Snyder. He was tall and old and completely bald. He had big teeth and very red lips. His bones cracked as he stood up and I could see his black suit’s creases were all perfectly straight. I addressed him, “Principal Snyder,” in a voice so sparse I don’t know if he heard. The children turned to me and started asking questions.
“Am I getting an A?” “Did a fish really eat your eye?” “Will Mrs. Miller be back soon?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “Can we take a field trip to Lake Munson?” “Does your eye always tell the truth?” “Can we talk outside, Mr. Horowitz?” Those were the ones I could discern. The last came from the principal.
I was tempted to lift my patch and show him “Yes,” but instead said, “All right.”
Snyder admonished the kids to stay seated and to be quiet, then shut the door. “Let me see it,” he said.
I did. He looked at it for a moment, a small grin breaking. “Well?” I asked.
“There were a lot of weird rumors, but it’s what I expected,” he replied.
“I didn’t mean for the kids to know about it.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t work here. The parents won’t stand for it. We’ve been taking calls from them all morning. You’ll scare some of the kids. You’re going to have to find a new district.”
Son of a bitch, I thought. “What am I supposed to do? Move?”
“If you want to teach, yes. Why don’t you join the circus? They move a lot.”
“Fuck you, Snyder.”
“Nice, Horowitz. Now get out.”
“Fine. By the way, the kids all think you’re a vampire.”
I unbuttoned the collar of my shirt as I walked back to my car. My keys grated across the forest green door, missing the lock. I moved my wrist slowly, lining up the key correctly, and inserted it. I balled up a fist and slammed it down, aiming for the rim of the steering wheel, but hitting the horn instead. The honk startled me, but then I pounded the horn again, screaming “Fuck!” until I ran out of steam. Then I seethed, looking at my oh-so splendiferous magic 8-eyeball in the rearview mirror. I tried reading the backward words, but I had to concentrate to keep my left eye still to keep the words steady while looking right with my good eye, and with all my attention devoted to that, I couldn’t really read. I tried harder, getting my eyes to cross for seconds at a time, getting glimpses of a few of the words at a time while the rest were hidden by the curvature of the acrylic. After a few minutes, aggravated beyond my breaking point, I gave up.
I got out of the car and slammed the door. I marched back into the school and directly to the cafeteria. I weaved around the kids waiting on line for mac and cheese with a side of green beans and grabbed a spork from the utensil bin. I tore away the plastic around it while I stalked the halls back to Mrs. Miller’s class. I barged in; Snyder stood at the blackboard, filling out a multiplication table while the bored kids languidly copied it into their notebooks.
“You can’t stop me from working at the other schools in the district, can you?”
Snyder frowned and put down his chalk. “With that abomination of yours, I can.”
“Fine then,” I replied. “I’ll get a normal glass eye.” I took off the patch and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I jammed the spork into the socket sideways and levered out the magic 8-eyeball; with a small twinge of pain it separated from the muscles, as I’d been told it could, and dropped to the floor with hardly a trace of viscera upon it. The kids shrieked and even Snyder looked a little green as I put the patch back on. I picked it up off the floor, wiped it off on my shirt, and put it on the ginger kid’s desk, “Outlook Good” facing up. “Thanks for letting me borrow this, Jason.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Horowitz.”