“It’s just a floater,” the doc said.
“Well,” I said, “it’s annoying.”
And it was. I could see it then, that bumpy shadow bobbing in the vision of my left eye. It looked like a tiny translucent thread connecting two dark dots. Or a clipped piece of opaque intestine drifting across my eyeball.
Doctor Tom shrugged, and peered down at me from behind a macaw beak nose and a pair of taped-up horn-rim glasses.
“I understand that, Jake” he said. “It’ll fade.”
“I’ve had it for like, two months.”
“They fade. They’re nothing to worry about.”
The eye, the doc said, is filled with fluid. Floaters are shadows of tiny bits of the eye that break off – a gobbet of protein, a clump of dried vitreous gel. At first, I thought it was a piece of lint stuck on my eye. Not lint, the doctor said, and it’s not even on the eye, it’s inside it.
Whenever I looked at a blank wall or a blue sky, I could see it clearly. It swam across the waters of my perception.
It gave me headaches. It was always there.
I wanted it gone.
I dropped a handful of aspirin down my throat, cupped a handful of water from the spigot and washed it all down. I closed the medicine cabinet and looked at my reflection. An old man stared back at me. Older than the age on my driver’s license, to be sure.
In the bedroom, Dawn lay with the cotton sheets tangled around her legs like a snake. Moonlight came in from the window behind the bed and cut across her like a knife.
“You okay, Jake-honey?” she asked, taking a drag from her cigarette.
I winced and rubbed my eye. “Mm-hmm.”
“Yup.” I sat down on the edge of the bed and started to put my pants on. Smoke drifted in the pale light. In it, I saw the floater (that little eye booger) going for a dip in my eye juice. It only made the headache worse.
“You’re leaving.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Got a bunch of jobs tomorrow. Cleaning out some dryer vents in the morning, then some plumbing in the afternoon.” I shimmied my pants up around my hips, then buttoned them. “I need the work. Cash flow’s been pretty bad, bank account’s damn near dead in the water.”
“You never stay.” She came up behind me, silent and soft, and curled herself around me.
I turned to kiss her, and for a second her face didn’t look right. It was a pale rictus, a white orb bloated in the mean light of the moon. Blue lines like varicose veins nested around her eyes, her lips, and under her nose. I rubbed my eyes, and then it was fine, she was okay again, pretty as usual. I leaned in and finished the kiss and I told myself it was just a trick of the light.
Lonnie Johnson’s basement was a testament to his loneliness. It was a game room, a bar, a living room, a lounge. The pool table was pristine. The half-moon couch curled around the big screen TV lacked the well-worn butt-divots characteristic of use. The bar was fully-stocked, each bottle full to the cap as if to mock the poor guy. He reminded me a little of my father. I felt bad for him.
Balanced atop my step-ladder, I reached up into the drop ceiling to fix a leaky pipe. The slow, rusty drip had bled through the tile and was ruining the carpet below. Not that anyone was around to see it. Lonnie stood behind me, hands steepled nervously together.
“You can fix it?” he said.
“Yup.” I wrapped a thin strip of rubber around the leaky part, and fished in my pocket for the hose clamp.
“I hate to have a leak, I just hate it.”
“The guys are coming over for the big game on Sunday.” He offered a pained smile. I knew nobody would show. “You coming?”
My search came up empty. The clamp must’ve been in the tool box. “Sounds nice, Lonnie. Listen, can you look in the toolbox there behind you for a stainless steel hose clamp?”
“Sure, sure. Hey, you want a drink? The bar is stocked.”
I shook my head. “I want to get home, Lonnie, this is the last job of the day and I’m tired. Can you just get me the clamp?”
“What’s it look like?”
“You know what, I’ll get it. No problem.”
Sighing, I let go of the rubber patch. I turned my head upward for only a split second, but it was enough.
A drip of rusty water landed in my left eye.
It shouldn’t have bothered me. It was just water. But it felt like a ton of bricks crashed against my pupil. A mean headache rose up like a storm, all thunder and pounding rain. Everywhere I looked, there it was. The floater. Except, this time was bigger. Like a greasy thumbprint or a shadow on an X-ray. I nearly fell off the ladder, but somehow caught myself.
“Bathroom,” I said, stepping down.
Lonnie pointed the way.
Walking up the stairs, I muttered profanity under my breath. Stupid floater hadn’t bothered me all day, but now I could see it even when I closed my eye, a patch of darkness deeper than the shade of my eyelid.
I tumbled into the bathroom, not sure if I was going to pass out or throw up. Leaning against the sink and trying desperately not to look at the thing in my eye (a difficult task if ever there was one), I opened Lonnie’s medicine cabinet to see what he had in the way of painkillers.
The man was medicated. He damn near had a whole pharmacy, the shelves stocked with prescriptions for everything from depression to irritable bowels. And yet, nothing for pain. No ibuprofen, no Vicodin, no morphine drip I could jam straight into my pupil. I remembered him saying something a while back about having ulcers, and how painkillers bothered his stomach. Shit.
I sat on the edge of the clawfoot tub and took a deep breath.
Then it hit me. A revelation.
I knew what to do, so I did it.
I marched downstairs and headed back to the basement. Lonnie didn’t ask how I was feeling or if I needed anything, he just wanted to tell me about his new television set and how high-definition was like an audio-video gift hand-delivered by God Himself, but I didn’t want to hear any of that. I clamped my big hand over Lonnie’s big mouth (a hard fit for even my large palms) and punched him in the gut. I dragged him up two flights of stairs before tossing him into the bathroom. His head hit hard against the porcelain of the tub. Then I turned on the water, thinking to myself, Eat shit, fatboy, even though I didn’t know what that thought meant because Lonnie wasn’t fat. I let the water get nice and full and ice cold before grabbing the back of Lonnie’s pathetic head and shoving it under the water.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
“Everything all right?”
It was Lonnie’s voice.
I looked around the bathroom.
I was just sitting there. On the edge of the tub.
The empty tub.
“It’s still leaking.” Lonnie again, from the other side of the door. With some hesitation, he added: “I think it’s coming faster than before.”
I swallowed hard and staggered over to the sink. Bracing myself with both hands, I pressed my forehead against the mirror.
In my reflection, I saw something.
A little face looked back at me from where my left eye should’ve been. The face was gray and distorted, with little black eyes all its own. It smiled at me, offering a mouth full of pale green teeth.
“Death is deep,” the face said to me.
Then I puked in the sink.
Lonnie wasn’t happy that I didn’t fix the pipe then and there, but he’d have to get over it. I’d smooth it over some other time. I had bigger problems.
At home, I called Doctor Tom.
“It’s getting worse,” I said. “I need it gone.”
“The floater?” he said. “I told you, it’ll fade –“
“There’s gotta be surgery. There’s surgery for everything.”
“There is, but I don’t recommend it.”
“We’re doing it. Schedule it. Sign me up.”
He paused. And sighed.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ll be honest with you. Surgery like this isn’t cheap. And this is a rather complicated procedure for such a simple thing.”
“So, what you’re saying is –“
“Is that you don’t have the money. Without the health insurance… I don’t know. It’s going to be expensive.”
Doc was right. I didn’t have the money. I barely had enough to cover the last appointment. Eighty dollars for a five minute chat about eye goo. I slammed the phone down. Forget him. Doctors didn’t know anything. Liars and thieves, the whole lot of them.
That night, I dreamt.
In the dream, I sat in a rowboat swaying on a mist-shrouded lake. Reeds whispered against the wooden side of the dinghy as a big fat moon looked down from above.
In my left eye I saw the floater. I knew it was part of my eye, but it looked like it was real, tangible, as if it was something I could grab hold of. It drifted lazily in front of me, gliding along the ribbons of fog.
My eye hurt. I felt pressure from inside of it, like it was packed with sand. I rubbed at it, but it didn’t help. As I rubbed, the pain grew worse, unbearable, like a cigarette burn.
Suddenly the pain reached its peak and I yelped aloud like a kicked dog.
The tip of a finger pushed free from my pupil.
A finger was coming from inside my eye.
It wriggled like a maggot crawling from a puckered wound. The tip became a whole finger sticking out of my eye, but it didn’t stop there. I screamed in pain as one finger became two, then four, then a whole hand. The hand was misshapen and discolored. It reached outward like it was grabbing onto an invisible rope. Soon it pulled free an entire arm, bloated and hairless, the skin just a grotesque casing holding in the rotten musculature. It dripped rusty water. My face felt like it going to pop.
The hand waved at me. Then it grabbed my neck and started to choke me. I grabbed it with my own hands, but it was far stronger than I could’ve imagined. In pitching the fight I toppled overboard and into the waters. It was cold and dark and I felt weeds winding around my ankles, dragging me deeper.
Somehow, the arm was gone. I didn’t feel it go anywhere – it just happened like things do in dreams, sometimes. One minute it’s there, the next it was gone.
It its place, once more, was the floater.
Once more, the floater became a face.
He laughed at me. And then he winked.
I recognized him. He knew it, too. I could see it in his eyes within my eye, that he knew that I’d finally really seen him. That’s when I woke up, slick with cold sweat, one name on my lips.
“Charlie Doyle,” I told her.
Dawn mopped my brow with a cool, damp cloth. We sat on the bed in my house, a chorus of crickets our only backdrop.
“You’re saying this… thing in your eye –“
“The floater is someone named Charlie Doyle?”
I nodded. “It sounds crazy. You can leave if you want to.”
In the dim light of the room, she gave an awkward smile.
“No,” she said. “This is the first time you’ve ever invited me over. I’ll take the good with the weird.” She kissed my temple and it felt nice. I don’t know why I hadn’t been nicer to her. Or any of the women who were kind enough to give a big lunk like me some attention. Dawn was only the latest in a long line, but she was my favorite so far. Maybe I’d do right by her yet. “So, who exactly is Charlie Doyle?”
I told her the story:
Mmy mother had died when I was five from a bad case of the flu. I lived with my father – a good man, if not a particularly wealthy one. The two of us lived together in a ramshackle house a mile north of a little lake.
We didn’t have any close neighbors but one, a mother and her son, Charlie. (Charlie’s father wasn’t dead at the time, but had instead run off with another woman.) Unlike me, my father wasn’t a big man, just a little slip of a fellow with warm eyes overlooking a serious nose, and I knew that sometimes like Lonnie Johnson, my father got lonely.
I didn’t know how my father and this neighbor woman got close, or when, only that I found them together one night giggling and drinking beer out on the dock. Though neither of them ever said as much, I figure they fell at least a little bit in love. He kept it out of sight most times, but you can’t hide that sort of thing forever.
Problem was, Charlie wasn’t quite right in the head. He was as meaner than a copperhead whose tail had been tied in a knot. The older boy didn’t go to school, didn’t do much of anything but set little fires in the forest and torture animals. Somehow, I guess he found out about his mother and my Dad, and he didn’t care for the idea much. Maybe he fancied himself the man of the house and saw my own father as competition. Or maybe he just missed his own Dad, I don’t know. What I do know is that he came to our house one gray, rainy day, and he took to my father like a swarm of flies. He was all over him, hitting and kicking him so that you couldn’t make out one man from the other. As I said, my father wasn’t a big man, and Charlie was six feet tall of tangled meanness just ready to unravel on whosoever got in his way.
I told Dawn how I came in to find Charlie holding my father by the neck, shaking him like a rag doll. I acted without thinking. For a twelve year old boy, I was pretty fat, but muscular, too. I reached for a wrought iron firepoker and came up behind Charlie Doyle. He turned to look at me, and one of his eyes looked upon me just as I slammed the iron rod against his temple. The sharp part stuck. He toppled off my father, twitching and shaking like he was wearing a shirt full of biting chiggers.
All this time, Dawn’s jaw went slack. The look in her eyes, I just couldn’t peg it. Was it horror? Pity? Some ugly mix of revulsion and regret?
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Me and Dad took him down to the lake, bundled up in an old sheet. We weighted him down with rock-filled paint cans, and then…” I drew in a deep breath. “Threw him in.”
“He wasn’t dead, was he?”
“Not then,” I said. “The lake did him in.”
“And you think you’re seeing him now?”
“Not right now. But sometimes.”
She recoiled for a half-second, and that’s when I knew it was over. I knew that I had just lost another thing that was good in my life. Another loss to leave me adrift.
But much to my surprise, she leaned in and hugged me.
“You poor thing,” was all she said.
That’s when I thought about killing her.
It happened like it had with Lonnie. I wasn’t watching it like a movie, something to be seen and heard but not felt. Like with Lonnie, I experienced it. I hugged her back, running my clumsy fingers through that soft brown hair that smelled of soap and strawberries. I picked her up and carried her to the bathroom. She asked me what I was doing, and I answered that I was loving her.
But in my head, I thought, You’re a whore, mother.
I eased her to the tile, letting her rest on her knees. Dawn gave a half-smile, but I could see how she was confused. That confusion didn’t last long.
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself – felt myself – grab the back of her hair and jam her head forward. Her chin hit the edge of the toilet bowl, and I used my knee to push her closer. Then I did it again. This time, her face went into the bowl. She struggled, legs jerking and kicking, like an electric current was running through her. Her little hands balled up and punched at me. I found it cute. It made me press harder, pushing her face further into the bowl.
At some point, she stopped struggling. I don’t recall how long it took, only that in this waking dream, her limbs went slack like someone took the bones right out of them.
Soon I found myself sitting on the bed again, a pair of arms wrapped around me.
Except they were my arms, not hers.
The floater – thick and dark now, like a tick in toilet water, like a picked scab in a puddle – turned and spun lazily across my eyeball.
It became a face, only for a moment. I saw Charlie Doyle’s face gnarled up with mad laughter, a hole in the side of his face dry and puckered and dark. I recognized that as where the firepoker stuck.
“Death is deep,” he said between laughs. “See what I made you do?”
Looking over at the bathroom doorway, I saw a pair of unmoving legs lying akimbo on the floor. It was no distant dream. No waking nightmare. Dawn was dead and I killed her.
Out of my one good eye, I wept.
The drive was long and dark, each road hidden beneath bands of fog. These back ways twisted and turned, mean switchbacks through shadowed hills. Speeding along as fast as I was, it was hard to keep control. Somehow, I managed not to wreck.
Charlie Doyle’s face had gone, but the floater remained. I could barely see out of that awful eye. My head felt like someone had stuck a handful of ice picks through the corner of my eye and into my brain.
I had a job to do, though, and I prayed my determination would get me through.
I made it to the lake a scant few hours before morning.
The old house was still there, nothing more than a hollow skull of plaster and wood. No lights in the windows. Just dark sockets, lifeless and empty.
Mud sucked at my shoes as I walked to the shore. The gray waters lapped at a nearby dock with hungry sounds.
Charlie’s face emerged again. The floater grew, bobbing and weaving in front of me. I could make out his fox-like face with his pinhole eyes.
“Go on,” he hissed through grinning teeth. “Kill yourself. Drown your sorrows, fat boy!”
I shook my head, winced through the migraine.
“Not me,” I said. “You.”
I reached into my left eye and tried to pull it out of my skull. My fingers were thick, tough with calluses, and I couldn’t get them into the socket. Charlie screamed, hollering so loud in my head it damn near curdled my blood, but I wasn’t going to give up. Instead I knelt down and felt on the ground for something – anything – and soon my big hand fell upon a moldering splinter of wood.
That’ll do, I figured, and jammed it under the eye like I was trying to lever a stone free. The pain was immeasurable. I jimmied the stick downward.
The eyeball came free, and plopped into the mud. Charlie’s screams ended abruptly, and my headache was gone as quick as it came, replaced with a whole new misery. I curled the eyeball into my hands and took a look at it, which is a strange thing, staring at your own eyeball. It wasn’t all that gross, not really. My cheeks felt wet. Red drops spattered my forearm as I looked at my own peeper.
Grunting, I tossed it into the lake. It made a sound like when a fish hits a bug on the water.
Back at the car, I took a few minutes to throw up, wipe my brow, and then throw up again. I soaked up some of the blood with a handful of tissues I had in the car.
I popped the trunk. I carried the paint cans down to the edge of the dock and then loaded them up rocks. After that, it was Dawn’s turn. Cradling her body in my arms, I lovingly rested her against the wood, and bundled her up in a dark sheet.
I told her I loved her.
Once she was sufficiently weighed down, I rolled her off and into the water. A weird part of me wished my father was there to see it happen.
The floater came back.
It showed up about a month later. Once again, it began as a translucent speck. It rolled, pitched and dove around my eyeball like a drunken mote of dust.
I decided I had to cut my other eye out. This time, I bought a knife for the job. It was a paring knife from Wal-Mart: short and sharp.
Later, though, as I brought the blade to my eye, the floater again became a face, except there was no headache this time, and the face was not Charlie Doyle’s.
It was Dawn.
She cooed at me and made sweet little kissy noises. She told me, “Love is deep,” and that made me feel a little bit better.