Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The eye man came to town with a group of doctors and nurses who carried suitcases filled with medicine and Bibles. They were accompanied by a troupe of boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs and sang religious songs in English. The eye man wasn’t a doctor himself. And neither the doctors and 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 acted as translator for the doctors and nurses during their two-day clinic in Santa Cruz Verapaz, Guatemala, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I didn’t much care for such clinics. A few months earlier, I’d translated for a Catholic medical group from the United States that performed assembly-line medicine; during the half day they’d been in town, the three doctors and five nurses had seen perhaps three hundred patients. Because of the limited time, they’d based their diagnoses only on what the patients told them, and, needless to say, there had been no follow-ups.
I’d agreed to translate for this latest group, which was Evangelical, because Rosemary, the secretary in the junior high school where I taught English, had asked me to, and I liked her. Also, I enjoyed the challenge.
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, the patients had to pray before receiving their medicine. A trio of Guatemalan ministers led prayers in front of the “pharmacy” the group had set up on the right side of the Church of God, one of several Evangelical churches in town.
I worked with a nurse named Dolly, a blonde who wore bright pink lipstick. Dolly decided that all stomach problems were due either to ulcers — she’d read that Guatemalans drank too much coffee, and were thus susceptible — or to worms. For the latter, she prescribed a thirty-day supply of vitamins along with the appropriate medicine. Other problems — bad skin, headaches, dizziness — Dolly chalked up to poor nutrition, and people with these ailments received a double dose of vitamins. Dolly was pretty and affable, and cooed effusively when mothers brought in children with ripped pants and bare, dirty feet. “How adorable!” she’d say, and then ask me to translate this for 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 worshipers at the “pharmacy,” her prayers punctuated by sobs.
The other doctors and nurses either brought their own translators — Evangelical missionaries doing time in Guatemala — or spoke Spanish themselves. One of the doctors was Guatemalan and no doubt had a better understanding of people’s problems than Dolly, but he seemed insistent on being a cheerleader. Every few minutes during an examination, he would pause 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 hunched over his work like a monk over the Bible. When Dolly abandoned her post, I went to observe him. The eye man spoke no Spanish, but his work evidently didn’t require a translator. He’d already seen a dozen patients and wasn’t expecting any 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 was painting one of these dots with a small brush. Beside him on the table was a palette sprinkled with various shades of brown. His other equipment was nearby: a three-burner electric stove, three pots, and what looked like two halves of a gold jewelry box filled with putty. When I asked him how he made the eyes, he winked and said, “Secrets of the trade.” The process, he added, 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. I watched from the church’s entrance, unwilling to submit to an hour or more in a hard pew. The Guatemalan doctor, whose dark brown eyes seemed to wander randomly in their sockets, began the service by speaking about his own love of Jesus. Then he flashed a big, handsome smile, and asked the audience, “Quién me ama?” (“Who loves me?”) Not having been trained to answer correctly, everyone sat silently until doña Alejandra, a widow who sold moonshine out of her two-room house, pointed to herself and shouted, “Yo! Yo te amo!” (“Me! I love you!”) The doctor blushed, and everyone laughed.
The doctor was followed by the boys and girls dressed as daisies and frogs — twenty-seven of them. They sang a song called “Jesus in the Garden” while dancing and hopping around.
Because I had translated for them, the group invited me to dinner at the Hotel Mundo, where they were staying, over on the far side of town. The hotel, built within the last five years, 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 was quiet 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.”
“Agua pura — pure water. No bacteria, no amoebas. Nothing. Safe as can be.”
“Oh,” he said, looking back at the jello. “I didn’t mean that. As a kid, I always imagined there were men trapped inside blocks of jello, like padded cells for the insane.”
“I see,” I said, smiling.
“I thought the same thing about ice cubes, only they were for girls who’d gone to the beach and brought back too nice a tan.”
I laughed charitably, but he didn’t join me or even offer a hint that he was joking.
He looked around at the people finishing up their meals. “Has someone introduced you to Jesus?”
It sounded for a second as if he might be referring to a member of the group, some doctor whose hand I hadn’t shaken. “Jesus Christ?” I asked.
“Well, no. I’m not really . . . I’m not a religious person. Spiritual, yes, but not religious.”
“Jesus loves you.”
“I’m glad,” I said, not knowing how else to respond.
“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 looked around, then brought 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,” he continued in a hushed tone, “one time it really happened. Her name was Sally. We were riding down a back road, and she reached around and started rubbing my . . . and I got so excited I crashed. Broke one of my legs and both of Sally’s.” He paused, as if trying to gauge 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’ll bet.” I knew 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. And Jesus loves me the same as he does everyone else. Jesus is like that: fair.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Otherwise people would get jealous.”
“You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
The next morning, Dolly was still in an agitated 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 today and might have questions. After our conversation the night before, I was a bit reluctant, but I consented and found him again on the stage 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.
Shell-shaped with brown pupils, the eyes stared out as if from a celestial closet.
Don Hector, a wrinkled man of about sixty who sold tomatoes and onions in the market, was the first to come 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 into the socket, secured it by placing the upper and lower lids over it, then removed the suction cup. With his new eye, don Hector looked young enough to chase señoritas in the park. When he gazed at himself in the eye man’s mirror, he smiled broadly, revealing a mouth significantly short on 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, almost skipping.
Next came doña Blanca, and she and the eye man got into a conversation (with me translating) 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. Then 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 get here.
“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; 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, remembering where he was, he sighed. “I’ll get it.”
He opened the door, and I heard a woman babbling in Pokomchi, the indigenous language spoken in the villages around Santa Cruz. Then a boy’s voice said, in Spanish, “My mother wants for me to get eyes.”
“I’m sorry,” said the Guatemalan doctor, shaking his head, “but the clinic is closed.”
The boy translated this for his mother, who spoke again, more urgently.
“My mother say I need eyes,” the boy said. “Look, señor, I have no eyes.”
The Guatemalan doctor said nothing.
“What do they want?” the eye man asked.
I translated: “The boy’s blind. He wants eyes.”
The mother talked rapidly, then began to cry.
The Guatemalan doctor turned around and threw up his hands. “No, no, no, I’m very sorry,” he said 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.
“I thought you were leaving early tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Whatever,” the eye man said and waved for them to come up on stage.
As they approached, I realized that I knew the boy. He lived in the village of Najquitob and was probably eight years old. He didn’t attend the elementary school, but at lunch time, when the schoolboys played soccer, he always stood under the trees beside the field. Where he should have had eyes, there was nothing but slits. I worked with farmers in Najquitob every Wednesday, and, when there wasn’t much to do, I’d play soccer with the boys. Once, I asked them what had happened to the blind boy. One boy said he’d been born like that. Another said 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.
Now the boy stood next to his mother and translated her words into Spanish, which 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 some eyes, but they won’t help him see.”
I translated, and the boy translated, and his mother began to cry, then shouted something fierce.
“What did your mother say?” I asked the boy.
“She says that you are liars. She says she’s sure you can make real eyes.”
I told the eye man that the mother didn’t believe him.
She cried, her breasts heaving up and down. Then she calmed somewhat and wiped her nose. Then she cried all over again.
“Darn,” said the eye man. “Darn.” He ran a hand through his long black hair and shook his head. “OK,” he finally said. “OK, OK, OK. 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.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Just tell her what I told you,” said the eye man, biting his lip.
“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. His mother responded, and the boy said to me, “She doesn’t understand.”
“Me neither,” I said. I told all of this to the eye man.
“Tell them I’ll have them done in seven hours. They can come back.”
I explained this, and the boy said they’d wait. I, however, went home.
I came back at midnight to see the result. 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. I started to say something to her; then, remembering she didn’t speak Spanish, I said, “C’alen” (“Hello”), one of the few Pokomchi words I knew.
“C’alen,” she responded.
I sat in the pew behind hers and flipped through one of the hymnals. Then I lay down on the pew and stared at the ceiling. Paint was flaking from it. I rolled onto my side, brought my right elbow under my head, and closed my eyes.
I woke to the sound of a bus roaring past. 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 surely disappointed. She’d wanted 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 fine rain was falling. I walked to the soccer field and found it covered in a thick, damp 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, but the goalie trapped it and kicked it back up the right sideline.
“Juegue usted!” (“Come and play!”) 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 having worked all morning in the heat. I jogged into the mist, where it was hard to see anything. 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. The boys reversed direction and gave chase, but, with my long strides, I was faster, and I pushed the ball in front of me.
In seconds, I was close enough to the goal to shoot, but as I drew back my leg to kick I noticed the goalie: it was the blind boy. He was crouching, as if ready to make the 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 over there,” 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,” 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 and golden skin and a contented half smile, as if he had just told a joke or performed a miracle.
“Incréible,” I said.
“Sí, incréible,” said the boys, who had by now gathered around me.
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.
Later, I asked if his eyes were the reason why the blind boy had been allowed to play soccer. No, the curly haired boy answered: the blind boy had been allowed to play because he’d asked.