On Sunday he woke up struggling with an idea he couldn’t clarify. He felt as if he had been staring at a cloud whose boundaries refused to conform to a comprehensible order. The harder he tried to see something comprehensible, the greater his need to comprehend. The harder he tried, the harder his head hurt. His eyes ached. It was the flu, he thought, feeling a chill. So he pulled the window shades, called down to his mother not to disturb him and stayed in bed the entire day.
He woke Monday morning, feeling much better, though his eyes were sensitive to bright and colorful objects. Not until he was inside the terminal did he realize the intensity of his problem. Michele Essense, a stewardess who usually worked the 0700 flight to Chicago, came bustling through the automatic doors toward the escalator hauling her wheeled suitcase. She knew the wrath of Escalera having once slept with Francis shortly after he met Estelle.
“Hey, you don’t look well, Francis,” she said hurrying by, her voice emanating from chaos.
She turned her head to keep her eyes on him, unable to resist a smile. Only her smile sank into a vortex of whirling flesh which yawned wider and wider like a galaxy whose center no longer held, her makeup flowing toward the circumference of what must have been her hair.
One of Estelle’s friends came in, a heavy-set woman. He couldn’t remember her name. She greeted him cheerily as she passed by. Her appearance was normal. During the next thirty minutes manning the boarding gate waiting area, he realized that only the faces of women he never noticed before remained unchanged. He tried to stem the tide of visual horror with extra cups of coffee from the vendor down the hall. He went into the men’s room several times and washed his face. His own features twisted away like a dish towel being wrung. He gripped the sink and stared at his face hoping to force his cheekbones into conformity, but they continued gyrating, so much so that he became nauseous.
At lunch, terrified he would meet Estelle, he left the North Star concourse and walked over to the US Air terminal where he sat at a bar staring into a coffee cup. At a nearby table behind him, an animated conversation rose above the dominating buzz of air-conditioning. The mention of Lao Tzu caught Francis’s attention. He turned and saw Murphy the intern, sitting among the group, discoursing with great authority in his Irish accent. To his great relief, Murphy’s back was to him. The students underlined their eclectic ancestry by drinking imported brews from bottles with colorful international labels, even as they consumed all American hamburgers with fries. Wearing nondescript sweatshirts and khakis they were immune to the devouring convolutions swallowing all the faces of the fashionably dressed people around them. They had gathered to see off one of their friends who was flying out to the University of Oklahoma.
Murphy and his faction felt that Taoist philosophy advocated keeping people stupid. They favored Confucius who, they believed, wanted to educate the people. The other faction disagreed. A young, unadorned woman everyone called Clio, felt they were repeating the lessons of their pundit in Eastern Studies, who didn’t like Lao Tzu. And why should the teacher like Lao Tzu since a philosophy advocating wisdom over cunning knowledge would cripple the great money-making machinery of the university system, which, after all, pays the professor as well as the college CEOs. Her friend, whose sturdy face resembled an Inca, added that Confucius wanted the people taught so they could become effective bureaucrats. The argument was pursued by both sides with all the vigor of opposing athletic teams.
“Therefore,” quoted the Inca, “the sage manages affairs without action and spreads doctrines without words.”
“Unlike Ophelia’s father, the foolish Polonius,” Clio interjected, her long hair unkempt, “always meddling in everything, like the preachers and the teachers who never see the wholeness of things.”
“Yeah, well you’re a student, just like the rest of us,” hotly contested Murphy. “Without school we’re nothing, no jobs, nada.”
“Probably no job with or without school,” the Inca retorted.
“Naturally,” said Clio, “Dr. Ripple wouldn’t like Lao Tzu because here we have someone saying the way is multiple, observe and learn, but beware of people preaching The One Way which is generally the way into your pocket book.”
“Harvard and Columbia,” added the Inca, “aren’t there to simply enlighten us, they’re big business, they supply big companies with the CEOs.”
“If you’d gotten into Harvard, would you’ve gone? Would you have gone?” ardently repeated one of Murphy’s confederates.
The Taoist student hesitated.
“Provided I could afford it, yeah,” came his reply.
“Yeah right, because you want top billing just like the rest of us, go right to the top. Big companies like GE and Enron hire these guys right at the top, top pay and best of all top decision-making.
For a moment no one spoke. Everyone fiddled with their bottles. Then the young woman piped in.
“OK, so we’re not immune. Still you say decision-making, but like what does that mean?”
“Means,” said the guy bound for Oklahoma, the only one dressed neatly, pressed sweat shirt, freshly washed jeans. “Means. . .”
But he never finished his statement because the young woman pursued her goals with diligence.
“Means nothing unless you’re independent, that’s the heart of the matter. Can you see clearly, independently, or do you see it the way your Harvard profs saw it? If the profs and the CEOs at Enron can’t see the red light ahead then who can?”
“What red light?”
“The warning light,” asserted the Inca. “Lao Tzu is preaching independence. The Tao desires wholeness, whereas an education promoting desire creates opposites.”
Opposites, thought Francis, furtively rising from his stool. Opposites, he repeated over and over as he left the bar without acknowledging Murphy. A mumbled litany of ‘Opposites’ strung out like the beads of a rosary he used to hold on the way to school when he whispered his Hail Marys during exam week.
He went straight home after work, went upstairs to his room and changed his clothes. He left the house telling his mother he was going over to his aunt and uncles’. They lived three blocks east. Large trees lined the street anchoring the brick homes to an air of prosperity. Some of the row houses had originally possessed castle-like turrets with cone roofs. The owners of the other houses, desiring a similar feudal look, had attached crudely fashioned towers, some of them unfinished, to their rectilinear facades. His aunt and uncle had done well, operating a hardware store on Ditmars in Astoria. After his uncle suffered a heart attack, the family sold the business. Their house was midway down the block. The front door, located in one of the original towers, was braced on either side by tall gangly yews. A single rose bush rose from a mound of soil embedded in a cement patio that covered the rest of the yard. He rang the door bell. His Uncle Louis answered the door.
“Francis! Well I’ll be. . . Haven’t seen you in. . . Honey, it’s Francis.”
“Really?” came a voice from the other end of the house followed by rapid footsteps leading to the door.
“Francis!” cried his Aunt Rosa.
She reached up with both hands and kissed him on the forehead as if he were the prodigal son. Once inside the small living room, his aunt turned off the TV. They sat down in the stiffly upholstered chairs. They looked at each other with embarrassment. Finally his uncle asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.
“Your mother has kept us informed, though she worries about you and I ask her why, you know.”
“Yeah I know. That’s what mothers do, right, Aunt Rosa?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling at him. “We worry and then we worry…” she added, watching her husband shuffle into the kitchen.
“I think of Anita and I worry. She got a college education and a great job but then I wonder if she will ever settle…”
“She’s got what she wants,” said Uncle Louis, returning with a bottle of wine and three glasses.
“She’s a writer,” he added, handing a glass to Francis.
“Mom told me she was a media specialist.”
“Exactly,” affirmed his uncle, settling down into his recliner with some effort. “She writes up the papers for the big shot scientists at Rockefeller University. But she also writes…”
“He means she wants to be a…”
“No, she’s a writer. She writes every night, after work.”
“Have you seen any of her writing, smart alec?”
“I don’t have to, she tells me, that’s good enough.”
“That’s a father for you,” said Rosa.
“So what do we drink to?” Louis asked his nephew.
“To this reunion,” answered Rosa, triumphantly.
“Let’s get Anita down here. She’ll be real happy to see you.”
Aunt Rosa went to the stairway by the front door, and called up in a loud voice.
“Anita, Anita, we got a guest, a special guest.”
She’s probably climbing out the window to escape him, he thought. He was ashamed for having come without notice. He heard the footsteps descending the stairs. She entered the room with a tremendous smile. Nothing had changed since graduation, except her smile. Everything about her was as large as he last remembered, her nose, her chin, her entire body, and her face still carried the marks of acne though expertly camouflaged with makeup. But her smile was captivating and her face, despite her nose and chin, was an undisturbed isle of peace. She came over to him and quickly hugged him as he was standing.
“What a surprise,” she laughed, squeezing him with affection.
She sat down spreading out the hem of her dark, pleated dress, which was both serviceable and elegant. When the smile dwindled to a bemused inquisitiveness he saw her differently. She had gained in some inner space a strength and direction he still lacked. She was wearing the pearl necklace she had worn to work as well as two or three silver bracelets. He noted her pierced ears, though she had already removed her ear rings.
“You just got home?” he asked.
“She’s always working.”
“Oh, Mama, you know I was just sitting upstairs reading magazines,” she laughed.
“Sure,” said the old woman skeptically.
“I was just telling Francis about your writing,” intercepted her father like a tennis player responding to his wife’s backhand.
“Oh, Daddy. It pays me well.”
“I didn’t mean that writing. I know you’ve got that under your belt. I meant the other writing.”
“Actually,” quipped Anita, “it’s like that analogy of the falling tree in the forest. If no one has seen what I’m writing, can anyone say I write?”
“See, even she admits it. Besides,” Aunt Rosa added, “what would she be wanting to write about anyway?”
“A falling tree, whatever, why don’t you just say you write on the side!” said her exasperated father. “You kids make life too complicated.”
“So how have you been, Francis?” Anita asked.
“OK.” His confidence stalled, paralyzed by loss of words. “I mean it’s been OK. North Star keeps me busy.”
“And I bet you keep the girls busy.”
He blushed. There was more to her life than he could see. The way she carried herself had erased the effects of her body. Living at home with her parents told only half the story.
“Don’t be shy,” prodded his aunt, after inviting him to diner. They sat down to pasta with broccoli rabe, sautéed in oil with onion and garlic. Breaded chicken cutlets were stacked on a flowery oval plate with a serving fork.
“Take two,” his aunt insisted.
His dad once taught his mom to cook this way but somehow the spaghetti always came out Japanese style. Sometimes it was rice noodles in tomato sauce, other times fettuccini with a white ginger sauce. There was nothing like having good old Italian spaghetti. As the meal came to a close, he looked at his watch and asked Anita if she would like to catch a movie, for old time’s sake.
“What’s playing?” she asked.
“ I don’t know,” he admitted. “Actually I rarely go to the movies anymore. We can call and see.”
“So we are being spontaneous!” she laughed. “That’s just like you, Francis.”
She carried herself, he thought, somewhere beyond vanity’s perimeter, as if she had found something to replace the all too usual fascination in one’s own looks. On the other hand this sounded like the apparent wisdom gleaned from years of isolation, a hermitess on an island, a prisoner in solitary confinement. A painfully earned wisdom!
“Actually it’s not like me,” he injected, realizing he had completely forgotten his eye problem.
“I could use a break,” she said.
“Amen,” added her mother.
At the foot of the stairs, Anita asked him if they should take her car.
“You’ve got a car?” he asked.
“You remember how much I hated driving! But it was taking me too long on Amtrak to go down to Princeton. So I finally gave in.” Seeing his expression, she added, “Sometimes I’ve got to discuss a paper with an author or publisher. And it’s more productive face-to-face, than by phone or e-mail.”
The car stood out the way she did, distinctively, a 15-year-old, maroon Volvo.
“Yeah, I love it,” she said, patting it. “I bought it up in Cambridge, when we were attending a genetics seminar.”
“I’m impressed,” he said. “Let’s head down to Queens College to that place on Kissena and see what old flicks are playing.”
“Sounds good.”
“Anita, I ran into this guy at the airport. He collects dolls.”
“How weird.”
“Yeah, it’s a little weird but I told him about your collection.”
“Mine?” she laughed as she turned onto the Grand Central.
“Yeah, he told me you might be sitting on a gold mine.”
“No,” she said, “I gave mine away.”
They parked the car and walked the half block to the Vintage Cinema where they sat in a half-filled theater, legs up, watching a double feature based upon a common theme: Dark Passage with Bogart, Bacall and Moorehead and Face/Off staring Travolta, Cage and Joan Allen. They bought popcorn with its excess of synthetic butter and two giant wax-coated cups of Coca Cola which the salesgirl called small. He put his arm over the back of her chair and sat that way for nearly a quarter of the film, until his arm fell asleep. During the highly charged moment when the Travolta character realizes he has donned the face of the man he hates, Francis turned to Anita and tried to kiss her. His hand was numb. His arm tingled silly, so he couldn’t hold her. When she saw him reaching toward her she blocked his motion with the popcorn box spilling half the contents on his lap.
“Please,” Anita whispered, “don‘t.”
What had come over him? His own cousin. Anita was practically his sister, the two of them inseparable at childhood until puberty intervened. He withdrew his arm awkwardly, unable to feel his fingers. His limp hand fell to his lap like a bird shot out of the sky. He wanted to shake it awake, but he was so embarrassed by his actions he was afraid of drawing more attention to himself.
“I’m sorry, ‘Nita, I don’t know why I did that.”
They drove home in silence.
“I’ll walk you to your door.”
“That’s okay, Francis, let me drop you off in front of your house. It’s not late.”
They turned onto 31st Avenue and as they topped the incline the Empire State building rose up like a rocket, brightly illuminated on the distant city skyline. It was so prominent he felt the guiding power of its light. She turned the corner and pulled up to the curb. His house stood near the corner next to a small lot enclosed by a chain-link fence. His father rented the lot to several Egyptians who parked their coffee and pastry trailers there. He stared out at the parked cars on the street and, without looking at her again, asked for her forgiveness.
“It was fun seeing you, Francis, after all these years. I’m flattered.”
He looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. Then she stuck out her hand and they shook hands lightly. She smiled at him. He opened the door and got out. As he turned to say goodbye once more, she was already pulling away.
At the end of the block the Volvo turned the corner and disappeared. The peace he had found in her presence, free of the gross distortions initiated in The Hall Of Mirrors, ebbed. As he turned toward the gate in front of his house, a car screeched to a stop, then sped west down the avenue. Something small and white wobbled across the road, then fell in the near lane. Several cars swerved around it. He ran over and found a pregnant cat. She lay on the asphalt, her chest heaving deeply. He saw the lights of approaching cars but was afraid to lift her. He ran back to the fence and grabbed a piece of scrap wood lying against it. Carefully he slid the wounded animal onto the board and dragged it to the side, just as another car passed. She was gasping heavily, trying to get up but no longer able. He touched her head, then gently stroked it, fearing he would hurt her. He didn’t know what to do. Take it to a vet? The teats on her gravid body were fully formed. She leaned her head back as if looking at him, her eyes reflecting the street lights, softening with dullness. She tried to move her hind legs, spasmodically, kicking the air, once, twice, then died. He carried it to the front door and carefully set it down on the pathway near the stoop, placing a garbage lid over it.
His father was asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV and his mother was sitting pensively at her usual place in the dining room.
“Estelle called.”
“Yeah,” he said.
The eyes of the white cat were glowing in the recesses of his mind.
“I saw Anita tonight,” he continued. “Aunt Rosa said she was worried. . .”
“That’s silly. Anita can take care of herself.”
“I guess she worries that she’s lonely.”
“Lonely,” his mother scoffed. “She’s had a scientist boyfriend in Princeton for many years now. They just haven’t married. She lives at home because of her father.”
“I didn’t know that,” he answered.
Death, he ruminated, was loss of vision. If there was an afterworld it drew on that something he had seen in Anita. It wasn’t based on visual standards, but on something she emanated. She must think him a complete asshole. Why didn’t she tell him? Then again it was his assumption she was unattached and deserving his pity. He decided he would bury the white cat in the morning.
How was it, he asked himself, staring into the circulating maelstrom where his face should have been, that he too was plagued by the distortions? Angrily, he washed his face without looking into the mirror. What a pleasure it had been looking at Anita, her features clear and distinct, free of the minute-by-minute changes that were shaping his own, pigment by pigment, pixel by pixel, darkening and brightening like some computer graphics program gone mad. Exhausted, he turned out the light. At least in the peaceful darkness the solid features of his face were free of the critical judgment of the eye. He was afraid he was going crazy.
In the twinkling of an eye he was in the flux, a part of a circular flow twisting into a single point of darkness. He thought of struggling but realized he wasn’t suffering any pain; he was enjoying himself, as he had on those rides at the fair, before his fateful visit to the Hall of Mirrors. Intellectually he wondered whether there was room for him in so narrow a point but no sooner had he thought this than he passed through. He found himself waking from no sleep since he hadn’t fallen asleep, amid an open-air lair of furry animals. Some of them were large, others small. Rolled into this mass of languid contentment were humans, their flesh like his, tantalizing. An arm appeared and then a foot. He sucked on someone’s toes like a baby on a nipple. His mother was somewhere near, he could feel her presence. Rather than find her he simply accepted her proximity. He felt the energy of the group. The group acted as one, moved as one. His mother belonged to everyone. She was everywhere, around all of them and around each of them personally. When he had arrived at the moment of climax, he and all the creatures of the world about him, he actually saw her, his own mother, his alone, her eyes, like great wells leading into subterranean chambers. He could see articulated, without hearing them, these words:
“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty
There arises the recognition of ugliness.”
Upon the last word the spell was broken, he was heaped upon himself, among copies of himself, all entangled in some incestuous motion. And the furry creatures with whom he had been intimately associated were standing apart from him and his kind, with eyes of dumb fear. His own nakedness was hideous so he struggled to hide it. Everyone was embarrassed; everyone struggled to hide themselves. Out of the air he was able to draw gossamer fabric that turned opaque upon touching his skin. When he noticed the mirrored images of himself, his curiosity sharpened with strange pleasure. For the first time he saw some were males, others female. And each coveted what the others were hiding, what he had once taken for granted. What were they hiding? Did she have what he had or something more mysterious? When he shook himself he saw that his mother was no longer a presence larger than life but an ancient sage sitting in the bar at the airport. A linoleum floor had replaced the red earth.
“Francis, Francis.”
His mother was calling through the door.
“I thought you had already left for work. Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s my day off.”
He was confused.
“No,” she said, “it’s Tuesday.”
He got out of bed and found his bathrobe. A cool draft was blowing in through the open window, the first indication of summer’s departure. Even the way the light was striking the curtains was different. He opened the door, where his diminutive mother stood, braced for disaster.
“It’s okay mom. I overslept.”
“You are telling me something I didn’t know? I thought you had already left. Are you going to work?”
“Yes, don’t worry.”
“Estelle called.”
“Did you tell her I was home?”
“No, because I thought you were at work. But she didn’t believe me. What is happening?”
“Nothing, don’t worry.”
“What, you go out to see your cousin, the first time in many years and for the first time in many years you get up so late? Why do you keep blinking so much?”
“Mom, I’m not feeling well. My eyes hurt.”
He realized for the first time that his mother, who was still a beautiful woman, had not been affected by his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors.
“I was right!” she cried, hands to her mouth.
“Nothing bad, Mom, but I think I’ll go downtown to the eye clinic.”
“My eyes hurt.”
“I knew it!”
“Mom, I think I have something in my eyes. That’s all.”
Before leaving he called work and asked to speak with Murphy, the intern.
“Hey,” answered Murphy, “they’re all asking about you, especially Estelle.”
“Yeah, I’m not feeling well. Listen, do you remember something in the Tao. . .”
“Hey, are you into that, too?”
“Not really, but I heard something about beauty and ugliness, from you maybe?”
“Maybe, sure sounds like the stuff. Hey, thanks for putting my book by my locker. Estelle told me you found it by the gate last week.”
“Yeah. . , well, I’m going to the doctor, so I’ll catch you later.”
It was already three in the afternoon by the time he arrived at the Eye, Ear And Nose Clinic on East 14th St. He showed his insurance card then filled out the questionnaire on the clip board. He was staring at the receptionist who was serving him. Her makeup swirled uniformly like a pinwheel powered by a breeze. It was hypnotic. The other receptionist behind the adjacent computer screen looked perfectly calm, her features restful to look upon. It would be his luck to get the beautiful one – of course he couldn’t be sure she was beautiful. He just assumed that since his epiphany in The Hall of Mirrors three nights ago it was only the beautiful people whose features spiraled like galaxies in space. Just what made them “beautiful” in the first place? She was looking over his history.
“So you’re here for a checkup?” she asked. “Or to check me out. You seem real interested.”
He looked away with embarrassment, while the other receptionist laughed.
“No,” he answered in a hoarse voice.
“Excuse me,” she persisted flirtatiously, trying to draw him in. “You don’t have to be shy.”
Her voice emanated from somewhere near the vortex of her facial disturbance. The disturbance reminded him of the satellite images of a hurricane, the awe-inspiring cyclones viewed from the perimeter of Earth’s atmosphere. He struggled with his fascination. This ever changing, all powerful weather pattern, appearing on her face, had become a serious distraction. He had to remind himself not to stare.
“No,” he repeated.
Unable to look her in the face, he held his hand to his eyebrows and looked down at the counter, doodling on a post-it pad lying there. He had no way of judging the affect of his apparent rudeness.
“Okay,” she added in a straightforward manner, no monkey business in her voice. “So what’s the problem?”
“. . . distortions, everything I see is distorted.”
“You mean blurry?”
“Not exactly. I mean distorted.”
She paused as she looked at something on her screen.
“I’m not sure your insurance covers distortions. For now just take a seat.”
“What? You mean I’m not covered? I’ll have to pay out-of-pocket, the co-payment won’t do it?”
“I’m not sure. I’m going to check on it. Please take a seat.”
As he took a seat he remembered the white cat. He walked into the hall and found a public phone.
“Yes,” his mother answered, “your father put it in the garbage.”
“It was pregnant.”
“It was dead.”
He returned to his seat. He had promised her a burial. He might as well have been driving the car that ran her over.
Most of the people in the clinic were retirees. In thirty years he too could sit here on any day he chose. For an hour he read magazines off the rack. Although the captions and texts were unaffected, the faces of the rich and beautiful were affected by the same strange physics initiated by The Hall of Mirrors. In the smallest pictures the faces appeared more like a printing glitch. In the full-page spreads, they looked like distorted tabloid shots. In one large facial shot advertising sunglasses continental shifts in ink around the thick eyebrows and dark mustache revealed a vortex disappearing into the nostrils of a famous actor. In a foldout for dungarees, the whirlpool of glossy pigment streamed down the face of a well-known model into her abundant cleavage partially hidden by a bikini top. It was as if they had all gone to the same beautician and found that the creams they used had become unstable at body temperature. Censorship was taking place on a cosmic level. Rather than the medieval fig leaf covering genitalia, a colorful vortex covered all fashionable faces. He decided he would browse later through a porno magazine to see if entire bodies were affected. Disgusted by his obvious need to follow the lives of the rich and famous, he was shuffling through the magazines with reckless abandonment when he came upon an art journal that had found its way into this heap of popular pulp. His first impression of a review of Francis Bacon, an English artist, was that he too was painting only the beautiful. However, the author’s wordy description contrasted sharply with this impression. The melting features were taking place in these works of art. The writer, in describing Bacon’s torment, had found the right words to describe Salvezza’s misery.
With relief an aide led him down a hall to a seat where an Asian nurse prepared her instruments. She joked with him. Unfortunately he couldn’t concentrate on the punch lines. Her features sank into a black hole, only to spew forth, no, to rupture from another area of the face, first from the ear, then from the eye, the circulating flesh growing outward again before the gravity of matter drew it round and down yet another vortex somewhere else on her face.
“Does the light bother you?”
“Sort of.”
“You didn’t stare into the sun or into the light of an acetylene torch?”
“Not really. It’s like my eyes burn but not really.”
She asked him to rest his head on a chin rest and look through the lens at a small green tree displayed on a picture inside. Then she asked him to look through an optical gadget with multiple lenses at a point of light somewhere ahead.
“What are you looking for?”
“Measuring your eyes. So what’s the trouble?”
Should he say “luminous matter is circling around a dark hungry hole where your face should be?”
“I. . . I seem to be having a problem focusing.”
“Well, just wait in this room, the doctor’ll be with you in a moment.”
A photograph of his eyeballs showed a slight swelling around the iris. So they wanted to test for glaucoma. On another chin rest he stared into a large box where little lights blinked on and off, like bursts of star light. In response to each burst he pressed a button to indicate he saw it.
Afterward she took him to a small cubicle and asked him to wait a moment. She placed his folder in a plastic file holder on the door then walked away. He was relieved to see her go, his eyes exhausted from the effort of trying to focus on her face. He prayed the ophthalmologist was hideous. Dr. Lenz opened the door with a flourish, one hand already pulling his file, the other disappearing beyond the door jam into a space apparently occupied by the Asian nurse, whose voice he could hear. Dr. Lenz was flirting. With a flourish he came in, rather proud of himself, a large smile on his homely face, a bulbous nose and skin with distinct pores like pin holes. He dressed dapperly, a bright orange tie against a light blue shirt. The white coat defined his professional status.
“OK, let’s see here, Mr. . ,” looking at the file, “Salvezza – that’s an Italian name. . .”
“Yes, but my mother is Japanese.”
“Ah, yes, well, let’s see what we find.”
Once again Francis rested his chin on a padded brace while the doctor swung an optical array of lenses in front of his eyes. He asked him to read the lines on a distant screen, first the larger letters followed by the smaller and finally the smallest. Then with rapidity he flipped one lens after another in and out of the provided slots and asked each time if this lens or that allowed him to see the line of random letters more clearly.
“Is this better or is this?”
“This or this?”
“This or this?”
“This or this?”
And so on.
“You appear to have perfect vision, though I will look further with drops.”
“To dilate the iris. Mild these days, nothing like the old days when you walked out half blind for part of a day. Betty tells me you are suffering from distortions.”
The doctor swung yet another optical machine before him and asked him to stare at the pencil he was holding up.
“Everything seems in good shape. What is distorted?”
“I. . . I. . . it’s hard to describe.”
“You see the letters on the wall clearly enough, right?”
“Look at my finger, is it blurry?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. . . I see, I mean only things that are beautiful are distorted.”
Even Dr. Lenz paused a moment considering this.
“Like flowers?”
“No, like faces, mainly faces.”
“Ok, what does my face look like?”
Oh my god, Francis panicked. What was he to tell him? Dr. Lenz your face is unaffected. You are ugly.
“Your face, well your face is swirling, as if the pigments of color have run, the way paint runs when laid too thickly on a wall.”
Dr. Lenz was pleased. He smiled grandly as he sat back to ponder this.
“This is quite unusual. It could be a problem with the rod and cones. The tips of these are made up of a layer of cells which capture an image and deliver it to the brain for interpretation. In that instant they are destroyed and replaced by the next layer of cells which produces the next image and so on, much the way the old movie reels operated, each frame carried rapidly before the light creating a fluid image of motion. Perhaps these rods and cones are misfiring, for lack of a better word. . . Does the light bother you?”
“Yeah, a little. I mean, when I am in a dark room, I can’t see anything so my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. I mean I can touch things and they feel fine. It’s only when I look at them.”
“Did you stumble and fall, bang your head, anything like that?”
“Despite this blurriness you are still able to recognize people?”
“Yeah, I recognize the blobs, I mean I know who they are.”
“I am going to give you these sun glasses. Wear them. They aren’t prescription, that’s not your problem, but they will allow your eyes to rest. Let’s see how these help your eyes adjust. If there isn’t any improvement, we’ll see you in a week, how’s that?”
“That’s great, great. . . Thank you, doctor.”
Wearing his glasses, Francis stopped at the desk. The receptionist he had spoken with earlier was talking on the phone.
“Honey, I have to go,” she said, looking up, “yeah, perfect, see you then.”
She hung up the receiver and looked at Francis. Her face had become a dark spot, like the blackened out face in the old Police Gazettes. The glasses were effective.
“Mr. Salvezza, the insurance will pay. Ten dollars.”

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