“The Eye Man” by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala)
Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93) will be one of the five published writers to lead panel discussions at the September RPCV Writing Workshop in Maryland. Read his Peace Corps short story below. — John Coyne
The Eye Man
by Mark Brazaitis
The eye man came to town with doctors and nurses who carried suitcases full of medicine and Bibles. They were accompanied by boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs and sang religious songs in English in the park. The eye man wasn’t a doctor or nurse. And neither the doctors nor the nurses nor the boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs knew, or would tell me, what he was. He was simply “the eye man.” He made eyes.
I translated for the group of doctors and nurses during their two-day clinic in the Church of God, one of several Evangelical churches in Santa Cruz Verapaz, Guatemala, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I didn’t much care for these clinics. A few months earlier, I had translated for a Catholic medical group from the United States; during the half day they were in town, the three doctors and five nurses saw perhaps three hundred patients, and their diagnoses were, because of the limited time, based only on what the patients told them. There were, of course, no follow-ups.
I’d agreed to translate for the Evangelical group because Rosemary, the secretary in El Instituto Básico, where I taught English, had asked me to, and I liked her. Also, I enjoyed the challenge, the quick reconfiguring of words from one language into words from another.
The Evangelical group was more overtly religious than the Catholic. Patients were asked their religion, and if they responded anything but Evangelical, the nurses drew a frowning face on their prescriptions. Evangelical patients received a smiling face. Whatever their religion, they had to pray before receiving their medicine. A trio of Guatemalan ministers led the prayers in front of the “pharmacy” the group had set up on the right side of the church.
I worked with a nurse named Dolly, a blonde who wore bright pink lipstick. Dolly decided that all the stomach problems the patients had were due either to ulcers—she’d read that Guatemalans drank too much coffee, and thus were susceptible—or worms. For the latter, she prescribed the appropriate medicine along with a thirty-day supply of vitamins. Other problems—bad skin, headaches, dizziness—Dolly chalked up to poor nutrition, and people with these ailments received a double supply of vitamins. Dolly was pretty and affable, cooing effusively when women brought their children in with ripped pants and bare, dirty feet. “How adorable!” she’d say and then ask me to translate this to the mother. After three hours of prescribing vitamins and drawing faces on prescription slips, Dolly burst into tears. “I can’t take this anymore,” she said. “They’re all so sad!” She joined the worshippers waiting at the “pharmacy,” her prayers broken on occasion by a rush of tears.
The other doctors and nurses either had translators—two Evangelical missionaries doing time in Guatemala had come to assist—or spoke Spanish. One of the doctors was a Guatemalan from the capital, and he no doubt had a better understanding of the people’s problems than Dolly, but he did as much cheerleading as work. Every few minutes, he would pause during his examination of a patient and ask in a loud, earnest voice: “Who loves me?” And the others in the group would respond: “Jesus loves you!”
The eye man worked at a desk on a stage at the back of the church. He had long, shaggy black hair, and he sat hunched over his work like a monk over the Bible. When Dolly abandoned her post, I went to observe him. The eye man didn’t speak Spanish, but he evidently didn’t need a translator. He’d already seen a dozen patients, and he wasn’t expecting more; everyone needing an artificial eye had been told to come before noon.
Spread in front of him on the desk were several sheets with small, black dots at their centers. As I spoke with him, he painted one of the dots with a small brush. Beside him on the table was a palette, sprinkled with various shades of brown. His other equipment included a three-burner electric stovetop, three pots, and what looked like two halves of a gold jewelry box filled with a sort of putty. When I asked him to explain how he made the eyes, he winked and said, “Secrets of the trade.” The process, he said, took a long time, so people had to return the next day to pick up their new eyes.
That evening, the Evangelical group held a service in the Church of God, which I watched while standing in the church entrance, unwilling to submit to an hour or more in a hard pew. The Guatemalan doctor, whose own dark brown eyes seemed to wander randomly in their sockets, began the service by speaking about his love of Jesus. Then he smiled, big and handsome, and asked the audience, in Spanish, “Who loves me?”
Not having been trained to answer correctly, everyone sat silently until Doña Alejandra, a widow who sold boh, the local moonshine, out of her two-room wood house, pointed to herself and shouted, “I do!” The doctor blushed, and everyone laughed.
The doctor was followed on stage by twenty-seven boys and girls dressed as daisies and frogs. They sang a song called “Jesus in the Garden” while dancing and hopping around.
To thank me for my translating work, the group invited me to dinner at their hotel, located on the far side of town. Built within the last five years, the Hotel Mundo wouldn’t have been out of place in the United States. The dining room’s varnished wood interior reminded me of a Swiss chalet. I sat beside the eye man. We ate broiled chicken and mashed potatoes—good American fare—and he said nothing until dessert arrived. He stuck a spoon in his jello and said, “I wonder what’s living in there.”
“Nothing,” I said. “This is a good hotel. They use only agua pura.”
“What?” he asked.
“Agua pura. Pure water. No bacteria, no amoebas. Nothing. Safe as can be.”
“Oh,” he said, turning to look at me. “I didn’t mean that. As a kid, I always imagined men were trapped inside the blocks of jello. Kind of like padded cells for the insane.”
“I see,” I said, smiling.
“I thought the same of ice cubes, only they were for girls who’d gone to the beach and had brought back too nice a tan.”
I laughed charitably, but he didn’t join me or even smile. Not a hint that he was joking.
He looked around the dining room at the people finishing up their meals. “Has someone introduced you to Jesus?” he asked.
I thought for a second he might be referring to someone from the group, some doctor whose hand I hadn’t shaken. “Jesus Christ?” I asked.
“Well, no. I’m not really…well, I’m not a religious person. Spiritual, yes, but not religious.”
“Jesus loves you.”
“He really does. He loves me, too, although sometimes I forget.” He leaned over and whispered, “Sometimes I do things only the devil would admire.”
He pulled away, looked around, then dipped his head again to my ear. “Sometimes when I’m riding my motorcycle, I imagine a girl sitting behind me and stroking my…you know.”
“You see, one time it happened. Her name was Sally. We were riding down a back road. Countryside. She reached around and started rubbing my…you know. I got so excited I crashed. Broke one of my legs and both of Sally’s.” He looked at me as if trying to read my reaction. “I was very sad for a long time. But the next time I got on my motorcycle, I didn’t think about the crash. I thought about her hand. It had felt so good.”
“I bet.” I’d heard about Jesus lovers with suspect pasts. Evangelism, it seemed, could be a sort of AA for the perverse.
“Jesus doesn’t like it when I think like that.”
“But I love Jesus as much as anyone in this room does. And Jesus loves me. But he loves me the same as he loves everyone else. Jesus is like that. Fair.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Otherwise people would get jealous.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
The next morning, Dolly was still in a state and wanted to worship all day with the preachers, so the Guatemalan doctor asked me if I would work with the eye man; the people he had seen the day before were scheduled to come pick up their artificial eyes and they might have questions. After our conversation of the night before, I was reluctant, but I consented and found him in the back of the church. On the desk in front of him was an old Monopoly box.
“Do you want to see?” he asked.
I was about to tell him I knew what Monopoly looked like, but before I could speak he opened the box. Inside, surrounded by azure silk, were a dozen eyes.
“Wow,” I said.
The eyes, shell-shaped and with brown pupils, stared as if out of a celestial closet.
Don Hector, a wrinkled man of about sixty who sold tomatoes and onions in the market, was the first to come into the church for his eye. It was a surprisingly simple matter to place the eye in the empty socket; the eye man attached a small suction cup to the artificial eye, inserted it in the socket, secured it by placing the upper and lower flaps of skin from the socket over it, then removed the suction cup. With his new eye, Don Hector looked young enough to chase señoritas in the park.
When Don Hector gazed at himself in the eye man’s mirror, he smiled broadly, revealing a mouth significantly short of teeth. “Next time,” the eye man said, “I’ll make you some dentures.”
I translated and Don Hector smiled again. He thanked “el doctor” and walked out of the church. Perhaps I imagined it, but he seemed to be skipping.
Next came Doña Blanca, and she and the eye man had a conversation, with me as translator, about the Second Coming. The eye man said Jesus had already come but would reveal himself only when we recognized him. “Where is he?” Doña Blanca wanted to know. “In the United States?”
“He’s here,” the eye man said, patting his chest. He pointed to Doña Blanca’s heart. “And there.”
It was five o’clock when the last of the eye man’s patients, the bus driver Don Victor Hernandez, arrived, panting and covered with grease. He said his bus had broken down during its last run of the day, and he’d had to repair it, then run to keep his appointment.
“I used to own a school bus,” said the eye man. “I lived in it for three years.”
When he’d fitted Don Victor with the new eye, the eye man said, “Just remember: keep at least one eye on the road.”
I translated, and Don Victor laughed.
“Well,” said the eye man as the last of the patients was ushered from the church and the doors were closed, “it’s over.” The Guatemalan doctor was slumped in a pew. After a few moments, he began to snore.
“Where are you going next?” I asked.
“Honduras, I think,” the eye man said. “Or maybe El Salvador. Mexico? I don’t know.”
There was a loud bang on the church door. It woke the Guatemalan doctor, who leapt to his feet as if he’d heard shots. “Qué pasó?” he shouted. Then, apparently remembering where he was, he sighed. “I’ll get it.”
He opened the door. I heard a woman’s voice babbling in Pokomchí, the local Maya language. Then a boy’s voice said, in Spanish, “My mother wants me to have eyes.”
“I’m sorry,” said the Guatemalan doctor, shaking his head. “I’m very sorry, but the clinic is closed.”
The boy translated this for his mother, who spoke more urgently.
“My mother says I need eyes,” the boy said. “Look, I have no eyes.”
The Guatemalan doctor said nothing.
“What do they want?” the eye man asked.
“The boy’s blind,” I said. “He wants eyes.”
The mother talked rapidly, then began to cry.
The doctor turned around and threw up his hands. “No, no, no, I’m very sorry,” he said, although softly, and began walking toward the back of the church. The mother followed, pulling her son behind her.
“Bring them up here,” said the eye man.
“But you’re leaving early tomorrow morning,” I said. “You won’t have time to make eyes.”
The Guatemalan doctor said, “You’ll do it?”
The eye man smiled and waved for them to come up on stage.
As they approached, I realized I knew the boy. He lived in the village of Najquitob and was probably eight years old. He didn’t attend the village’s elementary school, but at lunchtime when the schoolboys played soccer, he was always standing under the pine trees beside the field, as if watching. Where he should have had eyes, there was nothing but dark slits.
I worked with farmers in Najquitob every Wednesday, and when there wasn’t much to do in the fields, I’d play soccer with the boys. I’d once asked them what had happened to the blind boy. One boy said he’d been born like that. Another said that guerrillas had poked his eyes out when his father refused to give them money. A third said soldiers had poked his eyes out when they came looking for his father.
I gave up my seat to the señora. The boy stood next to her. The señora said something and the boy translated into Spanish. I then translated for the eye man: “She says she wants her son to see again, and she heard you make eyes.”
The eye man whistled. “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. I’m not a miracle worker, just a sinner trying to please Jesus. Tell her I’ll give her son eyes but they won’t help him see.”
I translated, and the boy translated, and his mother began to cry, then shouted something fierce.
I told the eye man that the mother didn’t believe him.
She cried, her body heaving. Then she calmed somewhat and wiped her nose with her corte. Then she cried all over again.
“Darn,” said the eye man. “Darn.” He ran a hand through his long, black hair. He shook his head. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay, okay. Here it is, right? Here it is: I can’t make eyes that will help her son see. No, I can’t do that. But I will make him eyes that will help everyone else see.” He smiled. “Right.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” said the eye man, biting his lip, then grinning. “You’ll see. Just tell her what I told you.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“Just tell her.”
“You want me to tell them that you’ll make eyes that will help everyone else see?”
“Exactly. Tell them.”
I turned to the boy and conveyed the eye man’s message as best I could.
“Cómo?” the boy asked.
I explained again, and the boy told his mother what I’d said. She responded in Pokomchí, and the boy said to me, “She doesn’t understand.”
“I don’t either,” I said. I told all this to the eye man.
“Tell them I’ll have them done in seven hours,” the eye man said. “They can come back.”
I explained this to the boy and he to his mother. The boy said they didn’t want to walk back to their village—it would take them two hours—so they would wait. I decided I would come back to see the result. And I did. At midnight the eye man was still huddled over his desk, working in the dim church light.
“Almost done?” I asked him, stepping onto the stage.
He covered up his work with his chest. “Almost,” he said. “Don’t look until they’re finished.”
The señora was sitting in the first pew. Her son was asleep with his head on her lap.
“You’ve waited here a long time,” I said to her. Then, remembering she didn’t speak Spanish, I said, “C’alen,” hello, one of the few words in Pokomchí I knew.
“C’alen,” she responded.
I sat in the pew behind hers. I flipped through one of the hymnals. I put it back. I stood up and walked to the window. The street was empty. I looked at the eye man. He was working with some sort of fork or knife. I sat down again.
“It’s very late,” I mumbled to no one. I closed my eyes. I opened them a few seconds later. “It’s very late,” I repeated.
I lay down on the pew and stared at the ceiling. Paint was flaking from it. A rare, blue cushion was in arm’s reach, and I pulled it to me. I rolled onto my side, brought the cushion under my head, and closed my eyes.
I woke to the sound of a bus roaring past. I sat up. The church was empty, the light gray. I looked at my watch; it was almost seven in the morning. The eye man was gone. I wondered what he’d made for the blind boy. I figured that, whatever it was, his mother was probably disappointed. In general, I found, Guatemalans had unreasonable ideas about the United States. And here was a mother who’d expected her son to be given new eyes. Real eyes.
The next week, I was in the village of Najquitob, working with a group of farmers in their communal cornfield. When I finished around noon, a chipi-chipi was falling. I walked to the soccer field and found it covered in a thick mist. At first, I could see only a lone boy standing in front of the near goal. Then I heard a shout, and a soccer ball emerged from the mist, followed by a boy chasing it, then a pack of boys charging like young bulls, laughing. The lead boy kicked the ball hard, but the goalie moved left and trapped it between his feet, then kicked it up the right sideline.
“Play with us!” one of the boys shouted before disappearing up the field.
Glad for the invitation, I took off my work boots and socks. It was nice to feel the cool, damp grass on my feet after I’d worked all morning in the heat. I jogged into the mist, where it was hard to see. Then I heard a rumbling sound and saw a pack of boys coming toward me. The ball was well ahead of them, and when it reached me, I kicked it to the right and raced after it. I heard the boys reverse direction.
Seconds later, I was close enough to the goal to shoot. But as I drew back my leg to kick, I noticed the goalie. He was the blind boy. He crouched, as if ready to make a play.
As I stood there, a boy with curly hair came from behind me and kicked the ball out of bounds.
“Qué pasó?” the curly haired boy asked me.
“The boy,” I whispered, pointing to the goalie.
“Sí,” the boy said. He took my arm and led me over to the blind boy.
“Hombre,” I said, “you have eyes.”
The blind boy smiled. “Sí, pues,” he said.
I was close enough now to see his new eyes clearly, but I couldn’t believe what I saw: for irises, the eye man had drawn twin portraits of Jesus, each with long brown hair, golden skin, and a contented half smile, as if he had just told a joke or performed a miracle.
“Increíble,” I said.
“Sí, incredible,” said the boys, who had by now gathered around me.
“Increíble,” I said again.
“Sí, increíble,” the boys said.
There was a pause while all of us gazed at the blind boy’s eyes.
“Juguemos,” said the curly-haired boy. “Let’s play.”
“Juguemos,” the other boys echoed.
“Juguemos,” said the blind boy.
As I jogged with the curly-haired boy toward the ball, I inquired if his eyes were the reason the blind boy had been allowed to play soccer. No, the curly-haired boy said. The blind boy had been allowed to play because he’d asked.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, The Rink Girl: Stories, won the 2018 Prize Americana (Hollywood Books). He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?
Brazaitis’ writing has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show and the Leonard Lopate Show as well as on public radio in Cleveland, Iowa City, New York City, and Pittsburgh. He is a professor of English at West Virginia University.
To learn more about him, visit his Web site: markbrazaitis.com
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Gifted! Another Hemingway … .