When I was 7 or 8 years old, I used to walk every day with my mother from our house to town and back along an empty Louisiana country road holding her right hand with my left. We always walked along the right side of the road, in both directions, and she kept me to her right side, even though we hardly saw any vehicles. I remember one very hot day looking up and squinting into the sun and asking her, “Mama, why does it hurt my eyes when I look at the sun?”
And without any pause and without looking down at me or up at the sun, but keeping her eyes on the road ahead, she said, “Because the sun is the eye of God. And if you look God in the eye too long, you go blind.”
It was the first time I’d had to think of God as something like a person, with eyes and, perhaps, hands. When I’d heard stories about God in church, He always seemed an awfully touchy character, so it made sense at the time that He wouldn’t want us acting above our station.
When I was 18 years old, I found myself wearing a helmet, carrying an M16 in my hands and a heavy pack on my back, sweating under another hard-to-ignore sun in another hot, humid place, crouched in the brush in a huge, swampy, ankle-deep puddle, my ears ringing, my mind trying to work its way through a fog of barbiturates and LSD. There was gunfire, both near me and at a distance in answer. Someone close by was wailing with pain and fear. Someone else, much closer, was yelling at me. We were being shot at and I’d not returned fire. I could smell smoke, sweat, swamp, blood, and, I thought, flowers.
Certain obvious questions had occurred to me well before this point, such as, “Why does God only have one eye when most of God’s creatures seem to have two of everything?” or, “Why does God’s one eye give off light when my own eyes are made to take light in?” I’d understood that what my mother had said wasn’t something she meant literally. Most things people said about God were that way. And yet I’d remained in the habit of looking up into the sun when I asked God any of the more momentous questions that came up, such as, “What the hell am I doing in this place?”
There was another day when I walked on that same hot road under the same Louisiana sun holding my mother’s right hand with my left when we heard a God-awful sound, a roaring coming toward us, louder and louder before it was finally visible, an old, squat, dust-covered pickup truck, the only vehicle on that road for miles, backfiring like it was going to blow itself apart. When it was passing us, it slowed so I could see the driver’s face. He was a young man, barely more than a boy himself, with hair the color of hay and a thin yellow beard on his chin. He had his window rolled down and I remember being very surprised when he shouted sharply at my mother and I, like he was upset, and threw a glass bottle—which missed us both and landed in the grass, without shattering, next to some wild roses at the side of the road—before re-accelerating and continuing on.
We stopped, let go of each other’s hands, and turned to stand and watch him drive off. I may have glanced down once at the unbroken bottle in the grass near the rosebushes, and I may have glanced up at my mother—she was watching the truck moving again into the distance, from one side of the world and past us into the other, its rear spewing dust and noise like a bad wind. And seeing her watch, I watched with her. And so we remained, standing and looking, until we were convinced he wasn’t going come back, at which point we turned yet again, my mother taking my hand, and we continued home.
“What did he say, mama?”
My mother didn’t answer. But she was holding my hand tighter than before.
“Mama, what did he say?”
“Never you mind,” she told me.
I’d been off the plane for two days when, under a full Vietnamese moon, I smoked my first joint. Not long after that, on the morning before my first time being shot at by the Vietcong, the earth was covered in a white fog so thick and low that I could barely see five feet in front of myself, and a sergeant named McKenzie stepped through it and stood in front of me as though we were the last two men on Earth and he tapped, with one finger, a few small yellow pills from a small bottle into the palm of my hand. “It’ll help you stay calm,” McKenzie said. In Louisiana, I’d never had a cigarette, or even a drink. I was doubtful about taking the pills. He must have noticed the look on my face because he flipped one into his own mouth, swallowed it without water, gave me a flat, direct look, turned and disappeared into the fog.
I took McKenzie’s pills. Sometimes there was cough medicine. Or pot. Or little stamps dipped in LSD. Or heroin. And he’d been correct—the days and weeks went by, and a lot happened, but I saw it all like it was happening to someone else. I saw men get shot and die right in front of me. I saw other men get thrown into the air by mortar shells, and come down in more than one piece. Walking through a village with my platoon, we saw a small child with no legs at all, as if it were only half a child. And one day, after an exchange of mortar fire, we saw a Vietcong soldier who’d just lost a leg come out of the bushes hopping toward us with his hands on top of his head, pouring blood and crying, though it sounded almost like laughter.
We knew the local people would sometimes punish those of their own whom they thought worked with the enemy. There was a spot—one of many dark, forested places that seemed quiet and empty—where one day we found a Vietnamese man and woman, both stripped naked, hanged from the same tree branch. The bodies faced each other, suspended in midair, close together as if they were having a private conversation. The tree was so large that the branch didn’t even bend with their weight.
The sun shines on a country road in Louisiana.
I sat with Sergeant McKenzie on two crates at the edge of camp, passing a joint, neither of us looking at the other or ahead, but up at the Vietnamese moon looking back at us.
The sun shines on a glass bottle in the grass by a rosebush.
The lemniscate, from the Latin lemniscatus meaning “decorated with ribbons,” is a rational algebraic curve defined by two points, or foci, which are represented as r2 = 2 a2 cosθ. It resembles a number 8 laid on its side, and is used to represent the mathematical concept of infinity.
I met Hannah, the woman who would become my wife, at the hospital on the Army base in California. She was working as a nurse there when I was treated for symptoms of heroin withdrawal after returning from Vietnam.
The sun shines over a lightless, primordial jungle in which a middle-aged man and woman hang from a tree.
The geometric curve known as the lemniscate of Bernoulli was actually mentioned more or less in the same form around 1680 by one Giovanni Cassini, who believed that the Earth’s orbit around the sun was not circular but, in fact, elliptical, or oval-shaped.
The sun shines on a noisy, dusty pick-up truck on an empty road in Louisiana.
My mother died of a heart attack on the day of my wedding. There’d been no warning, as she had seemed to be in relatively good health for a woman of her age. Our honeymoon was canceled so that Hannah and I could attend her funeral.
The sun’s diameter is 400 times that of the moon, but because the sun is also 400 times farther away, on average, from the earth, they both appear to be of exactly the same size to the human eye.
Sergeant McKenzie, looking up at the moon and passing a joint toward me, asked me whose face it was that I saw in the moon, looking back at us.
After my wife Hannah and I retired, I was still in good health and I thought we could use some extra money. I took a part-time job as a security guard at a big chain electronics and appliances store in a mall. The job was unchallenging, but it was social, and it kept me out of the house, as Hannah liked to say. I enjoyed bantering with the other employees and helping the customers, and it didn’t take much of my time.
After a few months on the job, the manager asked me if I’d be willing to work on Black Friday. She said they would need extra security because sometimes there were large crowds and she warned me that, on occasion, people tended to get rowdy and might even fight over a TV or a game console. I told her I could handle it.
I was asked to arrive at 5 a.m. We would open at 6. When I reached the store, there was already a large crowd camped outside, extending into the parking lot. Inside, we watched through the large glass windows as the crowd grew to a size that was more appropriate for a football stadium or a rock concert. People were pressed against the windows, already fighting, already pounding on the glass and gesturing at us to let them inside. There was yelling, and then there was a huge creaking sound: the doors and the windows, the whole wall, threatening to give way.
At a quarter to 6, the manager gathered the employees to inform us she was not going to open but would instead call the police to have the crowd dispersed. That was when they broke down the doors and rushed in, screaming.
The noise was shocking. People squeezed through the narrow space of the shattered entrance, the sound filling the store like water into a breached ship. There was nowhere to run. I thought to climb the shelves, or flatten my back against them, even as my coworkers, all wearing the same cobalt-blue T-shirts and tan pants, scattered in all directions. I stood where I was, imagined I could brace myself and stay upright, realized I probably couldn’t, watched the people come. I heard a child’s voice from within the mob, pealing in terror. A woman at the front of the crowd moved too slowly and fell. I couldn’t hear her scream, but I saw her eyes go wide as she dropped and disappeared under the oncoming mob of furious shoppers. I tried to move forward, through them, even as the wavefront reached me. I was elbowed, shouldered hard, shouldered again harder, shoved, struck in the chest, struck in the neck. The woman was at my feet, bleeding. I turned to try to shield her, but was bowled over, and fell flat, right next to her. Someone fell, in turn, on top of my back, knees first, and then pushed off me to get back up. Feet walked over the woman’s back, hands, her hair. She cried to me for help. I had managed to get back to my hands and knees, but now someone was trudging past us, against the current, hugging a huge flat-screen TV—a display, unboxed—and trying not to drop it or let anyone take it from him. In attempting to stand, I happened to turn my head just as he wrested the TV to one side. The angle of impact was such that my right eye caught the bottom corner of the screen. The pain was instant and like nothing I’d ever known. It wrapped around my skull, locked my neck and jaw in place, cut off my wind, and went through me down to the soles of my feet. I managed to stand but there was blood all down my blue shirt, on my lips, and dripping from my hands when I touched my face.
The crowd’s fervor now dropped, as if the sight of me, bleeding from the eye, brought them back around. The terrifying, rushing motion of the human wave began to slow. Soon it stopped. I heard someone wailing on the other side of one of the tall shelves, with horror or despair. People were shouting for help, or at each other. I asked for help, too. For a moment, no one came near me. But finally they approached, and someone touched me, and someone else gave me a towel to press to my face. There had been so much madness and damage and there were so many people hurt that it took a while to get me into an ambulance and driven to the hospital. Once I was there, the attendants said they needed to find an eye surgeon, so I had to wait.
The surgery lasted for hours, but the eye couldn’t be saved.
What was left of the eyeball was removed and I was fitted with a glass eye. It felt at first like something wedged painfully into my skull, accompanied by a wide, permanent scoop of darkness occupying half of what should have been my whole field of vision. I have become extraordinarily familiar with the left side of my nose. The glass eye has a way of looking back at me, like it’s someone else’s, when I look at it in the mirror. I usually put a patch over it.
I stopped working after that. I felt I’d done enough. We learned one person had died during the incident. We were told that, had the wait not been so long to get into the hospital and into surgery, the eye might have been saved. I was not certain that was true. People told us sue the hospital, sue the store, sue someone. They still tell us. But I’ve been through too much to waste what time I have left.
Hannah and I sit on the patio outside the house in the southerly warmth of the chosen land of our retirement. I am sixty-six years old and I have only one eye. Hannah has only one breast. She is sixty-eight. She has planted fragrant flowers everywhere, in pots on the patio, in the earth along the side of the house, lilacs, rosebushes. Sometimes one of us will reach and take the other by the hand, and since we always sit each in the same two chairs in the same spot on the patio each time, it is always her left hand that I hold in my right. Sometimes we speak, quietly, patiently, of plans for what time is ahead of us, or memories of the time that’s behind. It’s all very dear to us, the time ahead, the time behind. Sometimes we sit in silence. Sometimes I sleep. And sometimes I stand alone in the heat of the day and close my one good eye and lift my head and let the sun shine on my face.