His single working eyeball strained left to meet my gaze, protruding slightly from the taught skin around his eye. Walter the electrician and I stood diagonal to each other, looking through the glass door of my rental house. “I’m here to check the wires,” he said, muffled through the glass. Not long before he showed up I had sent an email to my property manager: “A snow storm is on the way. My kids have no heat or lights in their bedrooms. It’s been three days since I called you with the problem. Three days in winter!”
Walter, I guessed, was somewhere between 28 and 35 years old, and not much taller than the fichus tree in my living room. “Yes, yes. Come in, come in,” I said, twitchy and stunned by the gash on the right side of his face, looking directly into his damaged eye with its lid drawn down to near closing and poised, forever, on a slant. In place of a lens, pupil, and iris (and retina and optic nerve) was a thick fold of swollen, diagonal skin, like a tiny raw chicken belly sutured with cooking thread and leering at me from out of nowhere on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon.
Once inside the house Walter moved through various rooms, then the basement, with determination and efficiency to check and re-check the breaker box. He took the third-floor stairs briskly, two at a time. When he reached my kids’ bedrooms he stepped without complaint over my daughter’s gold shoes, books, and glitter pens, then moved dressers and shelves lined with my son’s geodes, a bobble-headed Chinese dragon, and a baby shark in formaldehyde and glass (a souvenir from Florida) to access to the electrical outlets. The problem, he said, was deep and embedded in more-than-thirty-year-old walls and electrical “code” that needed attention now.
Walter and my husband, Jim, home after an extended out-of-state business trip, exchanged immediate, knowing looks. Electricity became their language, the bridge they used to cross into each other’s lives for an afternoon. And while I made a point of trying to look away from Walter’s broken eye, my husband talked effortlessly, face to face, moving into conversations with Walter as ordinarily as germs mingle in a kitchen sponge.
Their conversation included the excess draw on the house’s electrical circuitry, and lines that were misarranged and spliced as part of a questionable shortcut made years before. Lines that were later weakened by an overload from space heaters, lights, electric rollers, and a bathroom “blower;” an exhaust fan I ran, sometimes all night long, that approximated the sound of crashing waves well enough to transport me from a town house in the suburbs to a boat ride in Saint Croix.
Before his job was over Walter spent hours probing the walls and tinkering with components. After the first afternoon he came back the next morning, on time, focusing his one eye on the problem of fixing our electricity before the snow came.
“Would you like some water or juice, Walter? Tea?” I asked, repeatedly, courteously, in a useless gesture. “No thank you ma‘am,” he replied each time I asked, his politeness stirring my sense of mystery more deeply while I imagined Walter’s date with destiny. I asked him if he wanted something to drink while the assumptions I made about who Walter was, how he felt, who gave birth to him, and who loved him, ran like a wild horse through my mind.
At one point while Walter worked and my husband read on the living room couch I went to my bedroom. A few minutes later my nine-year-old daughter Sophia came in, alone, with worry on her tiny face.
“The poor man,” she said.
“You mean Walter?” I replied.
“Yes, the eyeclops,” Sophia said with no smile or cruelty. “How did it happen?” she asked, giving voice to the question that circled and hung in the open room in my head like a hot air balloon low on the horizon, present and large, but still elusive.
“Maybe he was born that way?” I asked out loud for both of us.
Hearing myself made me wonder all the more about when the accident happened: Walter as a small boy riding illegally in the front seat of his mother’s cigarette smoke-filled car when a crash sent metal into his eye. (I thought about Frida Kahlo and the split seconds when the bus she rode in Mexico in 1925 collided with a streetcar that drove an iron handrail into her uterus.) Or Walter and his wild, Ritalin-deprived cousin who buried a stick in his cornea. Or the unforgivable night when his drunk father came at the young Walter with a broken bottle. Or the electrical accident later in life that took his eye.
The conversation and timing of Walter’s appearance made the fact of his one eye more extraordinary and coincidental because a few weeks earlier I found a piece of paper with pictures Sophia drew—quickly rendered self-portraits done in black pen on lined 8.5×11” paper. The images were of girls with big, round or potato-shaped heads each with a single, over-sized eye, Sophia’s own eyeclops positioned sometimes smack in the middle of a forehead or face, springing out of my daughter’s inner world and adorned with eyelashes, bangs, and a smile.
While Sophia’s one-eyed creations piqued some worry (what does it mean when a girl draws herself with one fewer eye than she was born with?), it took three more weeks before I admitted to myself that Walter, with his real-life missing eye parts, was a threat, a portent from a far off and mythic tribe of deformed creatures. He was the embodiment of tragedy and disfigurement. A bad dream. His impromptu visit and flagrant one-eyed movements through our house for two days opened the cache of tiny explosives that lives in my head, the one stocked and loaded and waiting in the background to detonate and hurt someone I love, someone who could end up like Walter.
A few days before the electrician showed up at our door my daughter asked me another question. “Is life really a dream?” she said. “You know, because of ‘Row, row, row, your boat, gently down the stream…?’” It made me wonder even more about the unknowns in life, the randomness and uncertainty people live with that can make ordinary living illusory. “Yes,” I said. “Life is sometimes like a dream,” hoping I gave my daughter enough truth to cling to.
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