I was at Bob Evans celebrating the throwing of a blood clot and eating candied bacon. The bacon tasted like bacon always has and I wasn’t celebrating throwing the clot so much as celebrating that it hadn’t gone to my brain or heart. It had only blinded me in one eye. I didn’t really think it was an only situation. I wasn’t quite ready to look at it that way. Hell, I was having trouble looking at anything any way and trouble with depth perception and balance and running into every goddamned chair and table leg that ever existed.
My mom was at the end of the table celebrating being alive long enough to celebrate me not dying and there was my brother who looks like me—at least looking at him out of one good eye and squinting—and his good-looking wife, no squinting necessary to get to that conclusion. Lucky bastard. Table full of lucky bastards. Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky.
I kept trying to push the bacon off on everyone else and not saying there wasn’t anything special about it and how let down I was and no one would take any because I was the half-blind man who almost died and had argued against everyone there who said I shouldn’t order it in the first place and then went ahead and did so thinking there was something new on earth that was good and sacred, able to bring me a feeling unlike self-pity. So, I ate the bacon—all six pieces—and eyed the bag sitting in front of my sister-in-law and every time we made two-eye to one-eye contact she looked down at the bag and smiled or blushed. I think there has to be a smile for every blush like you have to close your eye(s) when you sneeze. Physiology makes sense sometimes. Sometimes it fucks you crooked.
I’ve had many unexpected hard-ons in in my years on this earth and many of those many have been preceded by blushes. I had to stop looking at her and stop thinking about what she saw in Jeff and stop thinking about my mother sitting there smiling like crazy because of how lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky we all were. I stared at my fried chicken and thought about how guys fuck food sometimes when they’re young and horny and stupid. Watermelons and loaves of par-baked bread and putting their wieners between skin and meat of raw chickens. These thoughts did not make me want to eat that chicken on my plate but I didn’t dare raise my eyes. I knew if I looked up and my sister-in-law blushed again I’d have to walk out of there to keep from challenging my brother to a duel at twelve paces between family sedans and mini vans in the parking lot.
Instead of looking at Jessi, I turned to Jeff and said, “What’s in the bag?” I meant to sound light as water but my words came out darker, polluted.
He said, “It’s not from me,” and moved his mouth in a smart-ass manner. Maybe it was my tone. Maybe it was the looks I’d given Jessi. Maybe it was the way he always moved his mouth after saying words to me. Maybe it was just how he looked, period.
“What is it, Jessi?” Mom said.
“Hold on, Mom. We’re getting there,” Jeff said. His mouth didn’t do that same thing when he was talking to her.
“Well,” Jessi said and put a hand on each handle of the bag, “I was going to wait until we were eating dessert but you sort of had dessert, right?” I tilted my head like a dog trying to figure out the weird shit people do. “The bacon was candied,” she said. She laughed and Mom laughed and I laughed and Jeff sipped his water.
Jessi slid the bag across the table and I picked it up to see how heavy it was and it wasn’t. My hands dove deep inside bright white tissue paper. I pulled from there a small box. It’s wrapping was that of a black background with yellow smiley faces printed across it. Jessi had drawn an eye patch over each right eye and it was funny coming from her when it wouldn’t have been from so many. It made me feel good and whole and I wonder if Jessi was able to read that on me.
She clapped her hands. “Open it,” she said. I unwrapped the box and there in front of me sat a 100 count package of googly eyes in various sizes. I turned the box over in my hand and Jeff slapped the table and laughed. “They’re googly eyes,” he said. His words were neither funny nor did they add to the conversation, but people, other diners, turned their attention our way. Even the ones too caught up in stuffing roast beef into their mouths seemed to perk up a bit and stay like that. Mom said, “I don’t get it,” and there went that feeling, that good feeling of feeling good that only feeling good can give you. Woosh. Right through the window. I stole a glimpse at Jessi and something on fire was coming behind her.
If Jeff hadn’t told folks it was my birthday damn-near every time we went out to eat growing up, I’d have thought someone got cute with their lighter games in Bob Evans and things had gotten out of hand. But no. There came our waiter in the middle of July when I’m a goddamned Aquarius. Birthday candles aplenty but not adding up to my age. A fireball made of lies. And my blood family did the same thing they did anytime I had a birthday in public that wasn’t real. They joined in with the wait staff, a happy-birthdaying all over me until I was covered in it and blowing out candles. The server got personal and asked what I wished for. I wanted to tell him it was none of his damned business or that wishes don’t come true if you tell them aloud but a man with one eye receiving a stolen birthday cake isn’t quite as bold as he’d hope to be.
I had a hard time eating any of the cake but my brother and mother did not. I watched them put fork to mouth to cake to mouth over and over again until I was almost sick. “Thanks for the cake,” Jeff said. He tipped an imaginary hat at me as his mouth did that thing again. I looked at Jessi as she ate nothing. Her eyes told me she knew that doing as my brother had done was wrong. I could feel it in the air between us, swirling in that smell that candles have when they’re blown out. I love that smell despite everything and I love that Jessi was the one who thought to bring me a present. Hell, it would have been Jessi even if it was Jeff’s name signed to the tag. That is the nature of things. We do not buy presents for one another. We do not do nice deeds. Jeff and I fight and we bicker and we complain and these things had always felt like enough.
Bob Evans may not serve alcohol but I had plenty of it at the after party. The after party pretty much consisted of me drinking sake bombs made with Corona and talking to inanimate objects by name. Lamp and Couch and Carpet and Table and that was confusing because there were plenty of tables and so it became Table Enderson and Table Kitcherson and Table Cofferson. The sake and Corona made it an international gathering and I held court from the first stair, at one point thanking all my world-travelling friends for making it. “From far and wide,” I called from that step. I spread my arms out to insinuate wideness when I spilled and tried to wipe it up with my socked foot. That was when the stairs fell out from under me and I took a bit of a tumble. I was fine but it was too much work not to sleep there, right where I landed. The next morning, I woke to what would have been knocking and not banging if I were feeling generous. I was not.
When I realized what was happening, I got up and flung the door open. I had on both slippers but only one sock. My boxers were open for Jesus and everyone to see. “Put some shorts on,” Jeff said.
Normally, I would have said something clever like, “You could have led with hello,” or “You put shorts on,” but I didn’t have anything at all. I left the door open and retreated inside. I may not have any clever comebacks but I didn’t have to put on extra clothes to make him comfortable. Not in my house.
He shut the door and followed me to the living room. Couch made the gasping noise it always makes when I plop down. “I got you this…” he said and then he noticed my project from the night before. “What in the hell have you done?”
I had, in fact, googly-eyed everything I could think to googly eye. And not everything had two eyes. Some of them had only one. Some had many. We were accepting of all kinds from cyclops to octoclops to whatever goes beyond.
He peeled one of the eyes from the coffee table and looked at it. I wanted to tell him that Table Enderson needed that eye like people need water, like family needs family, but I didn’t say anything. I made eye contact across the room with a cabinet that possessed only one eye.
“Really,” he said. “This is treading somewhere.” He gestured like the one that made me spill the night before and I pulled a move I knew would work. I laughed.
“I got to drinking sake bombs,” I said and let those words sit between us. He carried a look on his face that I could not read. It wasn’t the one he’d shown me the night before. It wasn’t the one that said he was better than me because he went to college and I went to tech school. It was like worry and seeing something approaching that on my brother’s face made me wonder what my life had gone to. If he was worried about me and showing it, how bad was I?
He laughed a fake one and pulled an eye from the wall. “I guess Jess would be happy. She was big on these. Laughed like wild when she bought the pack. Said you’d get it.”
“I did,” I said. I didn’t think he believed me. “I did get it. It was really funny. The eyepatches on the paper too.” I wanted to tell him it really meant something for me to get them from Jessi, that I liked how she treated me, that even if she and I never hardly talked, she made me feel like she wanted me in her life. “What’d you bring me?”
He looked at the white-tissue papered object in his hand like it’d just shown up. “Yeah,” he said. “I got you something too but it didn’t come in the mail until this morning.” He handed it out to me. I took it and immediately knew there was a book inside.
“Did Jessi buy this and make you bring it over?”
There was real hurt in the way his face closed down on itself, in the way his arms snatched each other across his chest. “Just open it,” he said and tissue paper smells like Christmas when it’s torn.
The book’s cover image stared at me. The red border looked me over, asked me if I was going to open it and turn through its pages. I could not answer right away. I couldn’t even make myself try to focus on what the cover was trying to show me beneath the teal, yellow, and black waves enclosed by that red border. It was too early in that it was before noon on the schedule I’d been keeping. I yawned and my left eye teared up and Jeff and the room blurred together.
“It’s a Magic Eye book,” he said from the land of water and mixed up colors. I guess my face spoke my thought because he followed up with, “It says Magic Eye, not Magic Eyes.” I sat the book in my lap. I rubbed my eye and I could see Jeff again.
“You know I can’t do this, right? Can’t see these?” I said.
“Eye,” he said. “Singular.”
I tossed the book at him and he caught it when it ricocheted off his chest. “Close an eye and try it,” I said. “Close your fucking right eye and try it.” I didn’t want to be angry but his thoughtlessness, his insistence on the word “eye” made me so. I didn’t need him in my house telling me to cover up my dick. I didn’t need him in my house judging how I wanted to decorate it. I didn’t need him telling me I could do something when I damn well knew I couldn’t. But I did need something from him. I needed him to close one eye and try it. “Close an eye,” I said like pleading.
“Okay,” he said. “Fine.” He sat the book down on Table Enderson. “Sit in your shit,” he said.
“Try it. That’s all I’m asking.”
But he didn’t try. “Call me when you’re done here,” he said and gestured out to the room. He left. I took an angry nap filled with angry nap dreams. Everything I touched in that world kept turning to fire and there was a tape playing from somewhere with canned laughter on repeat. When I woke, I was sweating and I expected it to be dark but it wasn’t. I sat up and grabbed the book. For a moment I gave Jeff the benefit of the doubt. I opened it to a page near the back.
I stared at the orange image until it completely blurred. I’d done these before. Before something broke off in my body and in my life. I knew how they went. I knew how they worked. I’d never had to follow the directions, never had to put the book to my face and slowly pull the image into focus as I pushed the book further and further from the tip of my nose. But here I was turning back to the beginning, back by the title page, and reading through the instructions I knew by instinct. Here I was trying to cross a single eye, trying to make what remained into a magic eye. And it wasn’t even my good one.
I shut the book on my nose. Slammed it. If my fucking eye couldn’t do what I asked of it, I wanted my nose to pay the price. I wanted my sniffer to be locked up inside those pages, taking in every gasp of leftover library clinging like death or blindness to its pages. That shit didn’t feel too good but it felt exactly like what I needed. “My right eye was my good eye,” I said to no one. I was feeling sorry enough for myself I was contemplating slamming my pecker in the book next. I just needed to hurt. I needed hurt like eyes need pairs to do a Magic Eye. The book stared at me without eyes. I had several dozen eyes left in the box and I took two of the largest googlies from the package and stuck them to the book’s cover. I shook the book and watched them google all over the place. My brother had done what he did for the reason he did it, but Jessi, she knew I’d appreciate her gesture. I kept shaking the book and watching the eyes.
When I returned to my job the following week, they put me on “A” side with the large machines. The larger ones have two people running them, checking the resin levels and consistency, the tension on the fibers coming into the machine, making sure the cuts were happening at the right intervals. I’d been working “B” side operating three or four smaller ones at any time for the last two years. The company trained new folks on the large machines before they set the ones who could cut it loose on the smaller ones. That way, with every part magnified, you could learn easier. I guess they thought losing one eye meant I needing more learning, needed magnification.
At our morning meeting, the production manager made a big show of how much she appreciated me and talked about how they’d missed me and she wasn’t an asshole but I was ready to call her one. I just wanted normal. I wanted to put my earplugs in and work. I wanted to go back to running my machines. That’s how I thought of them, as mine. I never enjoyed imaging the night shift touching them and running them hot and not cleaning them regularly like ought to be done. Then, instead of going back to my machines, they assign me to working with another set of hands. I was paired with Landry but everybody called him Laundry. I know what you’re thinking, but he didn’t smell like fresh. He smelled like piss and tobacco and I let him run the machine for a while as I snuck around sticking googly eyes to hardhats and clipboards, cigarette packs, forklift forks, and lunch pails.
My lunch was a sandwich at the shop around the corner. Buck and Henry insisted on buying it for me and they invited my new partner to come with us. Laundry was twenty-three years old and had two good eyes and kept saying things like, “What’s it look like behind the patch?” and “Had you ever imagined this sort of thing happening?” and “How in the world are you expected to ever do a Magic Eye puzzle, again?” He didn’t really ask that last thing but at one point, he picked up a glass pepper shaker and said, “If I throw this to you, could you even catch it?”
“Try it,” I said and couldn’t help but connecting those words with my brother. He tossed the shaker and I ducked to the side and it went sailing over my shoulder and busted glass all over the floor and the woman behind the counter looked like she was good and finished with mayonnaise and factory workers and cheddar and all the leftover bread she wanted at the end of each shift.
I had some googly eyes in my pocket so I got out two different sized ones and stuck them to the saltshaker. The lady was an age that she either had kids or probably wasn’t going to. I thought about that and how I didn’t ever see anyone wanting to have kids with me, not because they’d fear them being born with only one good eye—that’s stupid—but because my looks used to be my redeeming quality and how I was, I needed all the redeeming qualities I could gather and there I was losing them.
She had the broom and dust pan and was stepping around the counter. I met her before she could get over to the mess I’d caused.
“Let me get that,” I said but she told me no, it was her job. “But it was my fault.”
“Doesn’t matter who’s to blame for things,” she said and I told her I’d trade her.
“I’ve got this right here,” I said and pulled the saltshaker with the googly eyes from behind my back. I sat it out on my left hand with the eyes facing me and slowly turned it toward her until she was staring down a lopsided pair of googlies. I was smiling with something like glee and she said, “Let me do my job.”
She walked past me and I watched her and I turned the saltshaker so that the eyes there watched her too. At that point, I had two options. I could follow her back toward the table or I could hide out in the bathroom for long enough she’d be done with cleaning up by the time I got back. I felt bad taking a public saltshaker in the bathroom with me. It wasn’t the most cowardly thing I’d done, nor was there any sort of pride in it, but that’s what I did. When I came out, the woman stood behind the counter again. The guys were getting out from the booth and putting on their jackets.
I told the woman to have a good day and she asked if I took the saltshaker in the bathroom with me. “I didn’t,” I said but guilt kicked in immediately. “I lied to you just now and I’m sorry about that.” I took the shaker from my pocket and tried to hand it to her.
“Keep it,” she said. She looked more than a little disgusted.
I was ready to tell her it could be washed or that if she was absolutely bent on me taking it I’d pay for it but she disappeared behind a door where I could not follow. It was clearly marked “Authorized Personnel Only” and I was neither authorized nor personnel. I pocketed the saltshaker and was leaving when a shine caught my eye from the floor. She’d missed a shard and I had a mind to pick it up and reduce the danger for children and strangers of all kinds. I bent and reached for it and missed. I reached again and missed. Finally, I stood and left it glaring. Maybe it wouldn’t do any harm. Maybe no one would need salt on their sandwiches, either.
Family dinner hadn’t been a thing since both Jeff and I lived at home and I don’t know how it’s possible for a person to live on this earth for seventy-four years and never pick up how to cook but I know at least one person who found a way. Bob Evans was sitting this one out and I had tried to also but when I pleaded that we didn’t need to do this on my behalf, Mom used those mom skills that included, but were not limited to: guilt, coercion, bribery, and when Jessi called a few minutes after I hung up with Mom, I suspected, but could not prove, collusion.
The dinner happened at the same kitchen table, was cooked in the same burnt orange ovens of my childhood. There was the same pale pink wallpaper. That same poor meal: beef roast, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn bread. The same cinnamon disks sat dusty in the corner cabinet. Behind lead-painted cups we drank from as children. Behind warranty information for a blender that hadn’t been produced in decades. Behind folded maps never used on family vacations. Behind two padlocks that had never been used to keep anything safe. I checked for those disks as soon as I walked in every time I went to Mom’s. It was ritual like eating the food you’re served and only complaining about it behind your mother’s back.
Jeff and I argued over who would set the table and, as I had all those years before, I lost and put out the napkins and silverware. Mom wouldn’t take any help moving food from counter to table, and when we were all seated, she cleared her throat. She looked like she wanted to pray but when she spoke it was not grace that came forth. “Jeff wanted to toss the cinnamon candies,” she said, “before you got here, but I wouldn’t let him.” She stared at my good eye like she was talking to me but her words, like grace, were meant for all of us. It was a declaration of topic so we’d have something to speak on while food was portioned onto plates.
“I did not,” Jeff said because Jeff always denies things that are true and Mom winked at Jessi. I was sure collusion was a mom-trick used against me then and Mom’s idea of a conversation starter went lumpy as the gravy and poor woman. I felt so bad for her I smothered every last thing on my plate in gravy and smiled as I took a bite.
“It’s good,” I said and Jeff and Jessi jumped in with their agreement.
“There’s plenty more,” Mom said and laughed. When she laughed until coughing, Jeff lifted her glass of water to her hand. She finally got to where she could take a sip and she thanked Jeff. She let us eat until our plates were almost completely empty. Hers still held most of her food.
“I know it’s not any good.” She laughed again and I laughed. Jeff smirked and watched us like we were playing at something and Jessi couldn’t stop looking back and forth between me and my mother. I hadn’t a clue what was so funny but laughter’s catching to some folks and I’m one of them.
“And you little shit,” she said and pointed her finger at Jeff. “You did too tell me to throw those candies away and you lied about it when there wasn’t any cause to.”
Now, that was something that struck me as funny for a reason and I laughed and Mom told me to shut up. “Just shut your mouth up. He was lying and I can’t cook and never have been able to and you almost died but you didn’t.”
I didn’t feel much like laughing at that one.
“You didn’t and you feel sorry for yourself and you’re jealous of Jeff cause you think he has it easy and has Jessi and you want a Jessi for yourself.”
Jeff pushed his plate away and leaned forward. I was glad when he spoke and I didn’t have to. “We’re honest people,” he said. He looked at me and I was inclined to agree with him without actually agreeing aloud. I found myself shaking my head. Mom shook hers too but in the negative to my positive.
“Jeff slept at the hospital the first night you were there,” Jessi said. She touched my arm. I fiddled in my pocket with eyes. Jeff didn’t say anything but sat back. “He asked us not to tell you.”
Mom was still shaking her head in the negative. Jessi’s hand was still on my arm. It stayed that way until I looked at it. It was my turn to tell on myself or on someone else and I pulled one of the googly eyes out and peeled at the backing, stuck it to the table. The TV in the living room droned about air filtration systems installed by a man named The Prince of Pure.
I pulled the rest of the googly eyes from my pocket. There were over twenty. I let them fall to the table like sand and at least one ended up in gravy. “Hell, damn it,” I said, “This is my second package of googly eyes since the other night and no matter what anyone says, I’m never going to do a Magic Eye puzzle again and I’m in love with Jessi.” I could tell the exact moment they went from looking at me funny about the googly and Magic Eyes to the moment the funny turned a different kind of funny with them processing how I’d used Jessi’s name in that sentence. “No you don’t,” my mother said but there was too much question in her words to be statement. “No, you don’t,” Jessi said, hers an imploration. “No, you don’t,” Jeff said.
“No, you don’t,” I said to myself, inside.
Mom clicked her tongue against the bridge of her mouth and Jeff’s mouth turned up in a gesture I’d not seen before. I felt like I hadn’t ever seen my brother until the last week. He and I stared at each other and Jessi said, “Don’t you know the line when being honest with family?” My brother pointed at her. “That,” he said. “That.” Mom nodded in the affirmative.
“Okay, I said. “I don’t love her.” I turned to Jessi. “I don’t,” I said.
I took a bite of mashed potatoes and gravy. I don’t know if I made a face or not. I noticed my brother hadn’t ever put his napkin in his lap. We sat in silence and that was the last bite I took of anything.
My brother got up from the table and Jessi followed him outside. Mom watched me. I could feel it without looking up. The TV was trying to sell Time Life’s Faith, Home & Country and as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” played, Mom said, “You’re not that dumb. You finally know for certain your brother cares about you…” She paused and I met her eyes one at a time. “What were you trying to do?”
The best I had was, “People do shit that doesn’t make any sense.”
She went back to nodding. I could hear Jessi and Jeff and so I knew they hadn’t left. Mom must have heard them too because she got up and went to the window. She watched them through the window like she’d watched us when we were kids. I’d done a lot of shit to Jeff and he’d done a lot of shit to me but this felt different. Mom hurried back to her seat. A half-second later, Jessi was at the door. “Jeff wants to talk to you,” she said. I didn’t get up immediately and she added, “Outside.” I’d let him punch me twice in the face, I’d already decided before I stood. Jessi stayed inside when I went out.
I knew our mother was at the window without looking. Jeff knew it too because he turned his back to the house and we stood shoulder to shoulder and looked toward the back fence. “Are you really in love with Jessi?” he said. My shoestrings were still bright white after owning the shoes a full year. I didn’t like that and I didn’t want to talk because I’d already said I did love her and it didn’t matter if I knew it wasn’t true. I’d already said those words aloud.
“Maybe,” I said. “No.”
It was hot enough to be sweating, or, rather, I was sweating anyway whether it was or not, and we stood there doing just that. Or at least I did while I was thinking about how I’d let him punch me three times now and thinking I was too damned old to be thinking thoughts like that and knowing it was me acting like a damn child that had brought us to this place.
“It won’t do any good to kick your ass,” he said. I thought back to my childhood and how many times I’d have liked to have heard those words and I said that to him too and he smiled despite himself. “You can’t be in love with my wife.”
“I’m sorry I said it,” I said. “I don’t know why I said it. I mean, I do know why. She’s beautiful and she’s nicer than you.” I stole a glance and he was looking off to where the blackberry bushes used to be.
Jeff said, “Maybe you do love her, but it’s not that kind of love.” He didn’t wait for me to agree. “When we go back in there, you’ll tell them you do love Jessi. You love her like you should love here. As a sister. You’ll tell them all this losing vision shit has you mixed up. You tell them you’re sorry for confusing everything and everyone. And then you tell them a real truth, something you don’t want to tell them. Something that will make us all forget about this.”
It was better than anything I’d come up with and I didn’t much have a choice. He went inside ahead of me. “Tell them what you told me,” he said, sitting down. I took my place too and they all watched me and I told Jessi exactly what Jeff had told me to say.
“I didn’t mean I love you love you. I just got confused in my words.” My mother’s face bore skepticism. “I’m sorry I confused everything and scared everyone.”
The room was quiet and I knew comforting words were coming from somewhere when the silence broke and if one of those words floated through the air and landed on my skin, I think it would have burned something inside of me in a way I wouldn’t recover from. I couldn’t have that so I looked at the googly stuck to the table and told a truth I never wanted to say in front of my mother. “I was eating that chicken breast the other night at Bob Evans and I couldn’t help but think about how sometimes kids, when their hormones get going and all of that, when they’re young, you know, about how sometimes, they put their penises in food products.” Neither my mother nor Jessi found this the least bit funny, but Jeff broke out laughing like everything in the world had eased and laughter was all that was left anywhere. I could feel the judgment from both sides but I concentrated on being right there present in the moment with Jeff. His laughter caught me and we stayed just like that until three eyes blurred with happy tears and I saw us as children, behaving like the kind brothers we never were.