(from the collection of stories Tabloid Dreams (Henry Holt & Co. 1996); first appeared in Mississippi Review Web, September 1996)
This is how I found out I could see things in another way: one night Roy and me had a big argument and this wasn’t unusual for us, really, but he was calling me some pretty bad names and one thing and another happened and my glass eye popped out. He never hit me. Not like the husbands and wives I sit in front of to take down their words in the courtroom when they’re on the stand. But Roy can talk pretty rough. So he says, “Loretta, you are one stupid bitch. Like right now. You should see the stupid look on your face. I’ve never seen a stupider face.”
I don’t know what to say about this. I’m real hurt, I know. But for a long moment there’s just silence and there’s nothing inside me. Like the silence in the court when my hands have been going a hundred and seventy words a minute and it’s like they’ve been listening on their own and then they stop. Some woman is on the stand crying and keeping the sound down because it embarrasses her. I just sit and wait and I know she’s crying but I don’t even look up and I’m just empty. So I’m like that in front of Roy right after he says he’s never seen a stupider face than mine, and he’s waiting for me to tell him he’s right, I guess, and then I hit myself. My hand just flies up and punches me in the face. It’s the only logical thing, I guess. He won’t quite do it, so it’s up to me.
And all of a sudden I’m looking at Roy and he’s a little alarmed, but in addition to his face in my head is another sight. A blur of miniblinds and china hutch and then the ceiling and the pink oriental rug and the ceiling and the rug and the ceiling. And then both of these things are in me, both real, both clear as can be: the temples on Roy’s face throbbing and the little red light on the smoke detector flashing. My glass eye has flown out of my face and is lying on the rug about ten feet away and it’s staring at the ceiling and I’m seeing through it.
Roy says, “This is too goddam much, Loretta. You did that on purpose.”
I close my eye--the one in my head--just to check this out and sure enough, I’m still looking at the ceiling. When I open my eye, Roy is gone. I hear his voice trailing out of the room. “Put your glass eye back in, Loretta. You disgust me.”
I’ve come to accept this thing about me, having a glass eye. It’s a very good one. A good match. So I’m not disgusted by this. I go over to where it’s lying on the rug and I look down. And I look up. At the same time. There’s my cornflower blue eye lying there on the pink rug and all I can say is that it looks astonished. Wide eyed, I guess. And in my head is my face staring down, one more cornflower blue eye, and one sunken pucker waiting to be filled.
“Aren’t you pretty,” I say. And that’s as big a surprise to me as the punch.
That night Roy and I have made things up, as we always do. We’re lying in the bed and it’s dark and I’m thinking about all this. I’ve heard the lines before. From him. From the stories of the women on the stand in divorce court. At some point the men start getting angry over little things. And they stop touching you. And then once you suspect them, there’s a brief time they try to be nice. Just for a little while. I think these are the men who have some little bit of a decent thing in them and they know that they loved this woman once, this woman they’re betraying. Roy gave me flowers out of the blue a couple of weeks ago. “Why?” I say to him.
And he says, “Because, you know, because we’re married. And you’re a good woman.”
I’ve heard enough of other peoples’ stories to know those are scary words. I say, “That doesn’t make sense, Roy. You haven’t given me flowers in. . .years.” I almost say fourteen. I know it’s fourteen. But I don’t want him to know I know. It struck me once that a lot of time had gone by since the last gesture like that and I figured out how much and then I waited and counted. It’s pretty sad, really, waiting those years and noticing it all along and you don’t even have it in you to say something.
But I don’t have to tell him the number in order for the mood to change in a big way. He gets real angry real fast. Another sign. “Then to hell with it,” he says and he takes the flowers away from me and throws them across the room.
So I lie in the dark on the night my eye popped out and I could see through it, and I think about Roy and me. He’s building an airplane in the garage. A real airplane, from a kit. He built one before and he flew it around for a couple of weeks and then he sold it. This is the work he has made for himself. The new plane sits out there and he goes to it every day and its bones are exposed, its ribs and its spine, and he puts his hands to it while I go off and take down the words of all the women who waited to speak and then it was too late to save whatever it was they had.
And that makes me think about what I have. I like Roy. This is Roy: he was a pilot when I met him, teaching people to fly Cessnas out at the airport. So on our first date he says, “I want to show you the greater Cedar Rapids area like you’ve never seen it.” And he takes me up and we go a little way out of town and we do figure eights over the corn fields and we fly down low and we chase some steers across a pasture and we swoop up and ruffle the tops of some water oaks and we go and do a lazy ring-around at the grain elevator, and he’s saying, Look at this, look at that, look what there is to see, Loretta. And he makes the Cessna leap and soar and he laughs and touches my hand to make sure I’m noticing all this. And what I’m seeing is this grown up child of a man pedaling real fast on a trike and showing off for his girl, and I like that. I want to reach over and tousle his hair. And he’ll take me out to the garage sometimes and show me what he’s done. Even still. Even a few days ago. Look Loretta. I’m putting her skin on.
But it’s not the plane in the garage I’m jealous of. I wish it was just that. I think about how he still shows me sometimes what he’s done and then I think of the woman he must be seeing and then I think again about him in that Cessna on our first date and he sees something off to his left and he lets out a little cry of delight and he doesn’t say “Look” yet. Instead, he pulls us onto our side and we loop around and we’re flying in the opposite direction and he’s leaning over me and he says “There, Loretta,” and I can see the sun in a thousand flakes on a little pond out in the middle of a pasture. “I’ll always turn us around for you,” he says to me and he means because of my eye. He took the news of my glass eye without a flinch even before he asked me on this date, and he even said it just made him realize how beautiful my other eye was.
But he can talk mean. And he can go to bed with some other woman. This is something I know from all the experience I’ve had with how these things go. And from the fact that he washed the sheets the other day without telling me. From our very own bed. This is a bad sign.
I’m thinking all this and I find my fingers moving faintly under the covers. Taking it all down. It’s a familiar story to them. And then they stop. Because there’s a silence in my head. And tears starting to come. I didn’t tousle his hair when I first had the urge. I waited till the first time we made love, which was on our wedding night, which was the way I wanted it, which was still the way it was pretty much done in our circle in Cedar Rapids, even though it was the early seventies and everywhere else things were pretty loose. And on this night of my eye jumping out, I realize something about those ten or twelve months that I said, No. No, not till we’re married, Roy. I realize that was the last time I really felt I had some control over my life. It was very nice, to tell the truth, those months with Roy before the marriage. Not that I didn’t want to put my hands in his hair and all over him. But the holding on to my life was better.
Now I turn in the bed and he has his back to me and he’s snoring softly and I reach out my hand to his head, but I don’t quite touch him. His hair is the color of those galloping steers. And it’s matted and swirled like them too. And I still want to take the tips of my fingers and furrow them through. Does she do that too? Now I want to furrow through like a plow. Like a sharp, hard plow blade. Somebody’s been in this bed. Maybe that very day. I hold back a cry. I lay flat on my back and I look into the dark above me and I think of my glass eye watching the flash of red. My face burns like it should be setting off all the alarms. My eye. I know from countless cases that marriages can blow up on you from no more than this, some sheets in the washer and some suspicious kindness. I don’t want to do it that way. And suddenly I have a plan.
The next night Roy is in the bathroom with the door closed. He’s hiking his throat and passing wind in plaintive little moos--he has never passed wind in my presence in all the years we’ve been married, a thing I sometimes credit him for and sometimes blame him for. He either respects me or he has no sense of closeness to me. But I can hear him through the door of the master bathroom and I’m ready to act, but first, on an impulse, I pull back the quilt and look closely at the sheets. They haven’t been washed. I bend to them and I sniff and sniff and I’m trying to catch a whiff of her perfume or her sex, but there’s nothing but the second day fade of Tide. Then the sounds end in the bathroom and I straighten and I’ve prepared a glass of water--a simple, clear drinking glass--and I pick it up and wait.
Roy comes out buttoned to the throat in his pajamas and ready for sleep, and he doesn’t look at me right away. He goes to his side of the bed and he pulls back the quilt and he plumps the pillow. Then he realizes I’m not doing the same and he looks up. When I have his attention, though I make it seem I’m oblivious to him, I reach up and press and pluck and out comes my glass eye. I carefully launch it into the surface of the water, and though my face is turned away, Roy and the far side of the room ripple and then clarify and its like he’s rising up but it’s really my eye sinking and Roy rises, gaping, and then I’ve settled at the bottom of the glass and I’m looking at him from there, clear and steady.
“Loretta, what are you doing?”
“I called the doctor. He said to give my socket a little rest at night.”
I don't like the way Roy shrugs, like he's saying it doesn't make any difference anyway. But that's what we've come to, Roy and me. So he climbs into bed and I carefully position my glass of water on the nightstand. I can see the whole bed from there. I've even put a vase of flowers on the stand, as well, to make the glass a little less conspicuous. He has not noticed the flowers.
Then the lights are out and we're lying side by side, and Roy hasn't turned his back to me yet. We're both lying with our faces up and our eyes are closed, and of course I'm seeing all of this. And I don't expect to be so moved by it, but I am. The covers are pulled up to our throats and our two faces float side by side in the dim light, drifting into unconsciousness together, Roy and me, with all we've been through, the flying around over Iowa, the living in a house. And even the fighting, getting all worked up together. There was even some sense of closeness about that. So there we lie, very quiet, in profile, only my good eye showing, and there's a kind of sweet feeling in me about what I'm seeing, and a sudden sad feeling about what I'm doing. I almost fish my eye out of the glass of water and put it back in my head and keep it there. But I don't. I have to know. Things have popped out of their socket and I have to see.
The night was odd. I slept but I didn't sleep. I dreamed but I didn't dream. The only thing in my head, no matter how far deep I went in my sleep, was Roy and me lying beside each other, him putting his back to me pretty quick but turning to me again later in the night and even letting a sleeping arm fall around my quilted waist for a time, a gesture that seemed so natural that I wonder how many of these unconscious embraces there were that I never knew I got.
In the morning I put my eye back in and I went to work and Roy went to his plane and, at some point, to this other woman. Or she came to him. But I wasn't quite ready to deal with that. I had to get Roy used to the eye in the glass. And so it went on like this for a week and then two, and one night I thought I smelled some cheap perfume in my bed and the next day I came home from work and found the sheets washed again, and then I knew it was time.
That night, while Roy was farting in private, I put the glass of water with my eye right in front of the flower vase and arranged the flowers to dangle down over the top of the glass. And in the morning I got up early and whispered to Roy that I had to get to the court to transcribe some notes and I put my sunglasses on and I went out, my glass eye still sitting on the night table.
It wasn't easy driving. I'm glad he just slept for awhile or I might have killed myself on the highway. But it was hard enough just watching him turn on his back, his hair matted and cowlicked. He's still a handsome man. He draped a forearm over his eyes to block the morning sun coming through the cracks in the blinds. And he moved his legs and a horn blared at me and I was drifting into the next lane, drifting toward the movement of Roy's legs. I jerked the car back and looked in the rearview mirror and my face was there, masked by the blank stare of my sunglasses. I knew what was underneath, and the sunglasses wouldn’t do in court.
So I stopped at a drug store a block from the court building. There were some choices to cover my socket: white gauze stick-ons; flesh-colored stick-ons; a cloth patch with a band to go around the head, all in white with tiny pink flowers, like a baby’s pajamas; a black eye patch with a black strap, like from a pirate movie. But I was the audience, not the movie, and though Roy was still sleeping, he was getting restless, his head angled back now and his mouth wide open, his legs slowly swimming under the covers. Roy was the star of this movie and he was ready for his big scene. I grabbed a box of flesh colored stick-ons and took them to the counter and a young woman was there, rather pretty but still struggling with pimples at her juiced up stage of life, and I wondered how old the woman was who would come before my waiting eye. This young?
I pulled out a twenty dollar bill and I shoved it at this poor girl, ready to take out this fear on her, and Roy suddenly snaps awake. “What do you hear?” I say.
“Pardon me?” This from the clerk.
“Nothing,” I say to her and Roy cocks his head. “Is it her?”
“Is it who?”
“What?” I say to the clerk. I don’t know what she’s talking about.
The girl shoots me a funny look and works fast at giving me the change and for a moment this seems suspicious. Like she’s late to go see Roy or something. “You going off duty?” I ask her, even though I’m already letting go of this brief, crazy thought.
But then it’s suddenly clear that the cock of Roy’s head is him taking a crick out of his neck. He’s moving lazy now. “Not yet,” I say. “You bastard.”
There’s money being forced into my hand. “Count the change yourself. And you’re an old bitch.”
I’m moving away from the register and the girl says, “When I do get off, my boyfriend is here waiting.” I’m out the door and Roy is sitting on the side of the bed wiggling his toes. Smug. He’s watching his toes and he’s feeling smug. I want to drive home right now and find something around the kitchen to hit him with. But at least I realize he isn’t the kind to go hang around a drug store to pick up a girl with pimples when she gets off work.
I’m in divorce court today and I go in to check my machine. Roy has been gone for awhile, off in the bathroom, I think. I sit and load the paper and pull out the receiver in the back. We still use an old paper-punch machine and it makes this real soft, squishy sound under my hands. A nice sound. I roll out a few test words and all of a sudden Roy is there naked before me. He’s still damp and it’s been a long time since he just walked into a room with me while he was naked. Especially in the daylight. And even though it’s just my eye and he doesn’t even know it’s there, I feel for a moment like he’s doing this on purpose, just for me. Then something in me jumps the other way and I get hot: he’s doing it for her, she’s about to walk in. Then the juice goes out of me. I realize it’s for neither of us. He looks around much too casually, and then he scratches his butt and heads for his underwear drawer.
I discover that my hands have been at work. I force my attention away from Roy and I pull up the folds of the steno scroll and I translate it back from the little runts of words I’m trained to put there. “He’s naked,” I’ve written. “He’s standing by the bed and it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at that dangly part. You’ve got a sweet dangly part, old Roy. I wish you’d walk like that for me. But she’s just out of sight. I can feel her. And this part is for her. Some woman knows this better than me now, you smug son of a bitch. Go put your boxers on, I don’t give a damn about your body.”
This is a little scary for me. I tear off these words at the next fold and crumple them into my purse. I get up and I stagger down the hallway to the our little clerk lounge, and by the time I get there Roy has thrown his clothes on and gone away. The bed is empty. The room is empty. I’m glad for that, and I pour a cup of coffee and I sit down in a Naugahyde chair. And I drink the coffee fast, so that it burns my mouth. I do that on purpose, I think. And then I think I should pour the coffee on my hands and burn them and it will give me an excuse to go home, and I should hurry there before anything can happen, maybe even before she arrives, and I’d come up the drive honking my horn, just in case she was early, and wait, pretending to fumble with my purse or something, waiting for her to slip, undiscovered, out the back door, and then I should go into the house and get my eye and put it back in my head so that I cannot see.
But I don’t. It’s enough for now that my mouth burns and the bed is empty. I convince myself that this is the way it will be all day long. He will touch only his airplane and I will return home this evening and things will go on just the same. That’s what I want now, I think. Briefly.
They make the first call for the court and I go out of the room and there’s only this empty bed before me. I have not filled this bed either, I realize. I have climbed into this thing and lain, still and passionless, for years. The image of that floats in me with every step I take, every corner I turn in these corridors.
And then I am in my place before my machine and I am ready to think with my hands. There is a soft murmur of voices nearby, from the gallery, and we wait and the bailiff speaks and we all rise, and there is only sunlight creeping in my head. Thin stripes of sun from the blinds, moving slaunchwise across the bed, too slow to follow in the moment, but clear, also, in the longer minutes, like the hand on a clock moving.
I’m in a quicker place. My hands fly now. A woman is fed up. She wants out. She’s sitting on the stand and she has a moon face and puffy eyes and she’s near enough that I can almost reach out and touch her. There are children and she wants complete custody. Roy and me never had children and we never figured out why. By the time it occurred to us that this was so, we weren’t caring anymore.
At the very moment that I think this, there’s a pause for tears on the stand and I feel my hands write, “A sad story,” and it’s about me, I think. Nobody’s said those words in the courtroom. I tell my hands to pay attention. The bed before me is empty. The sun is gone from it. A tissue box passes from the judge to the woman and I’m writing, “You fly in figure eights over sunlight scattered on a pond and then you’re lying on a bed in a dark room and you don’t care to touch and you don’t care that no life at all has come from you.”
I lift my hands and flex them, wring them together. Try to squeeze the distraction out of them. A nose brats softly nearby. Pay attention, I tell myself. I put my hands to the keys. The woman says that she’s ready now.
And Roy and his woman stagger into my sight. They’re in a clinch already and they spin around the room. I gasp. Aloud, I know. The judge has a round face too. It rises over the sidebar and I turn the gasp into a cough and hunch over the keys. My hands are afraid of the judge and they listen to the testimony, but the rest of me sees a woman not even thirty with a long, tangled hairdo like she went to bed wet and slept on her head. And she’s got her arms around my husband and now her legs too and she and Roy fall on the bed.
I’m pressing this eye in my head shut. But it’s my eye in the glass I’m wanting to close. I’ve seen enough. “He won’t leave me alone,” my hands write, the words of the woman on the stand. But then, “They rip at each other’s clothes. I will find the bed full of buttons tonight.” I open my eye and I can’t hear the words in my hands now but I beg them to behave. “Please don’t,” I whisper, very low, and I’m talking to my hands and I’m talking to my husband and there is anger on the stand to drown me out and I whisper it again, “Don’t. Don’t.”
And they are naked and she’s got a butt that spreads more than mine and she’s got something of a pot. “Flab,” I whisper. But listen to me. Have I got a right to criticize? At least her flab is against Roy’s and he wants it that way and she rises over him and he’s on his back. And he’s on my side of the bed. My side. “Move over,” I say aloud.
“What’s that?” the judge says.
“Can I hear that over?” I say.
The judge turns to the witness. “Please repeat your answer for the stenographer to record it.”
Concentrate. I close my good eye again and I listen to my hands and they’re saying something about a husband who won’t listen, who doesn’t care, and maybe I’m writing down this woman’s testimony and maybe I’m just writing down the words in my own head. But I don’t care either, to tell the truth. I stopped listening too, to tell the truth. The woman is thrashing her tangled hair around and her head is thrown back, her face lifted to the ceiling. I look at Roy. From the water glass beside our bed I look at my husband’s face. His face will tell me.
“He doesn’t care.” I’ve said this aloud, I realize. Roy’s face has told me at once. His mouth is set hard. His eyes are dead.
“Have you missed again?” the judge says.
“Yes, your honor. Is it, ‘He doesn’t care?’”
“You’re right,” the woman on the stand says, her face turning to me eagerly. The judge is a man. Her lawyer is a man. Her husband’s lawyer is a man. She turns to me and she is glad to know someone understands. “You’re right,” she says.
The judge says to her, “We want to know what you said. Not if you agree with what the stenographer thinks she heard.”
She’s talking again, repeating, my hands are working. But then they stop. The woman in my bed has lowered her face and turns to look straight at me. Her eyes widen. Her mouth moves. Roy’s face turns to me too.
And the judge says my name. He’s looking at me too, half risen from his chair. “What’s happening? Are you all right?”
The woman climbs off my husband and off the bed and she’s coming to me, I realize. I rise up from my chair. As if I can confront her now, beat the crap out of her.
The judge says to the two lawyers, “Loretta is my very best stenographer.”
The woman bends and her frizzy hair drapes down and she brings her face near to me, her nose bulging from the curve of my glass.
“What is it, Loretta? Your eye is bothering you?”
“Yes,” I say and I’m glad I chose the stick-on patch that looks like a big band-aid.
The woman has big eyes the color of dirty engine oil. I growl from looking at them and I put my hand over my eye, but it’s only the patch.
“Can you continue?” the judge asks.
I think of Roy’s dead face. He might put this woman aside. He might still want me. I say, “I don’t know if I can continue.”
“Do you want to try?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
But then the woman’s hand appears out of nowhere and the water blurs and I can see only darkness and then I am eyeball to eyeball with this woman and then the room whirls around and falls over and I’m steady again, but looking sideways at Roy. His face isn’t dead anymore. His mouth is hanging open and his eyes are wide in amazement and I realize that the woman has stuck my eye in her navel like a belly dancer’s jewel.
“Oh no,” I shout.
“What is it?” the judge says.
My eye is approaching Roy’s frozen face.
“My eye,” I say.
Roy can’t snap out of it and I think he knows I’m watching and I am very near him and his face begins slowly to sink. She is standing before him and pushing him down.
“Stop!” I shout.
“We’ll get a replacement for you, Loretta,” the judge says.
“No!” I cry.
“It’s for your good,” the judge says. “You’re obviously in pain. You don’t have to do this if you’re in pain.”
Roy pops back up and he and the judge are side by side in my head. Then Roy’s face angles up and he smiles at her, a smile warm and full of shit.
“I’m in pain,” I say.
“Then stop, Loretta,” the judge says.
Roy’s hand comes at me, snatches my eye, and I am flying into the bedclothes and darkness.
Now there’s only the judge before me. My hand goes up and it touches the patch on my eye. Touches my face. Very gently. “I can leave,” I say.
“Yes,” he says.
And I do.