Better to Lose an Eye
The envelope Lindsey pulled from the mailbox was an oversized, yellow square. It was addressed in handwritten calligraphy: Lindsey Montgomery (and Parents). Standing in the driveway, the hot gravel stinging her bare feet, Lindsey tore it open. The invitation inside was a giant sun with words printed over its smiling mouth. Lindsey hopped from foot to foot while she read.
Saturday, August 12, 5–8 p.m.
Madeline Seyler’s house (call for directions)
Wear your swimsuit and bring a towel
Parents welcome to attend!
Lindsey tore the invitation and envelope into tiny squares, then buried the pieces beneath an egg carton in the outside trash can. She went inside and, using the polite language Nona taught her, left a message on the Seyler’s voicemail. “Thank you for the kind invitation. We will be unable to attend.”
The next day Mrs. Seyler called. When Lindsey answered, she asked to speak to Lindsey’s grandmother. Lindsey brought the phone to Nona.
Nona listened. She said, “No, I hadn’t heard.” She said, “Thank you, we will,” and put the phone down.
She looked at Lindsey. “Why didn’t you tell me about the pool party?”
“I told Mama,” Lindsey lied, looking at her mother, who was asleep in her wheelchair in front of the TV. She was wearing an orange skullcap pulled low over her ears. Lindsey could hear the heavy, low rasp of her breathing.
“Well, we’re going,” Nona said. “All three of us.”
They drove to the party in the new van. Nona liked driving it. She said the van was a smooth ride, and it was a blessing never to have to worry about parking.
Next to Nona, Lindsey’s mother sat in her wheelchair, which locked into place with clamps built into the van’s floor. She was wearing her red cowboy hat.
In the back seat, Lindsey sat with her legs crossed underneath her terry-cloth cover-up. Her stomach felt like it might take off. None of the other kids had seen Mama the way she was now: the swath of scar and hollow dent at the base of her neck, the round bag of urine, the inward sag of her feet in their hot-pink Converse high-tops. Lindsey knew that before the party was over she’d have to say the words “tracheotomy” and “quadriplegic.” She’d have to say things like “Nona dresses her,” “it goes into her bladder bag,” “shot in the throat.” And she’d have to say the thing she hated more than anything else to say: “She’ll always be that way.”
Madeline’s house was white stucco with orange tiles on the roof and giant palm trees in pots on either side of the front door. Nona parked the van in the driveway and Lindsey stepped out onto the asphalt.
“Go on in and find Mrs. Seyler,” Nona said, handing her a tray with carrot and celery sticks arranged in a circle. “Make sure she knows we brought this.” Good—now she wouldn’t have to walk into the backyard alongside Mama. Lindsey hurried toward the side gate, onto which someone had taped a hot pink sign: Scottsdale Christian School 4th graders—Come On In! She balanced the tray so the ranch dip in the center didn’t spill over.
But Mama, her chair lowering from the van onto the driveway, said, “Give the tray to me.”
Lindsey was startled by the choke in her own throat. These little bullet-bursts of rage toward her mother always startled her, and she hated herself for them. Mama couldn’t help what had happened to her. At night, when Nona lifted Mama onto the hospital bed they’d set up in the laundry room downstairs and Lindsey lay curled at her feet, listening to the scrape of her breathing—then she felt sorry for her, so sorry she would cry, crawl up the mattress, and stroke her mother’s long, blond hair. One night Mama said she wished someone would paint clouds on the ceiling, and Lindsey promised she would do it when she turned ten, because then she’d be old enough; Nona would let her stand up on the tall ladder. At night, with Mama lying asleep in bed like anyone else’s mother, Lindsey knew she would do more than paint ceilings for her, more than stroke her hair. If she could—if someone asked her to, if someone put a pillow over her face and held a gun to her head the way Marcus had done to Mama—she felt she would die for her.
But now, hearing the whir of the wheelchair coming up the driveway, she felt the heavy drag in her stomach, the disgust. Not for her mother, really, but for parts of her, the things that were changed: the pasty skin, the crazy hats she wore, the latest tattoo, a flaming sword that reached from her right shoulder blade (“I can’t feel the needle,” she’d said, “I might as well”) to the snarled curve of her upturned fingers. Lindsey had seen a dead crab once on the beach in San Diego, its belly bared and bleached pinkish-white in the wet sand. While she watched, a wave came in and pushed it and made the claws move, only a little, but enough to suggest life, enough to make Lindsey walk over and toe the belly with the tip of her sandal. But it was long dead and the shell had cracked into fragments and there was nothing inside, only sand and seaweed and a few threads of what looked like stringy gray snot. It was sickening. The pieces lay there in the sand, the curled claws scattered; it was only the waves that moved them, and that’s how it was, now, with her mother’s hands whenever Lindsey moved them for her, helped her raise the spoon attachment to her mouth or wrap her fingers around the stick control of her chair. When Mama reached the top of the driveway, Lindsey took her mother’s hand off the stick and placed it in her lap, watching it curl back into its familiar ruined shape. She set the tray on top of the hands, loathing them.
Nona came up the driveway with the pool tote in which Lindsey had packed her towel and goggles. “Here,” she said, handing her the bag. “I’ll push.” Lindsey opened the gate and held it while Nona helped guide her mother inside, then followed them down a flagstone path. Nona walked fast; Lindsey jogged a bit to keep up. Nona was a retired hippie. She’d had Mama when she was only eighteen, with a mistake-of-a-boy. And then, she said, came her three Rs: she repented, got reborn, and retired her old ways. But she kept the look; she wore long skirts and didn’t cut her hair until a month after Mama’s accident, when she came home with it sculpted into little, spiked arrows pointing toward her face. Nona showed Lindsey her long, brown braid, rubber-banded and sealed in a Ziploc, which she slid into a padded envelope addressed to Locks of Love. In her bedroom that night, Lindsey cried when she thought about the braid, curled up in the baggie like a severed tail. She cried for the little girls with cancer who would have to wear wigs made of Nona’s hair, cried because what Nona had done was beautiful, because of how tall and startled Nona looked in short hair.
“Look at this place,” Nona said now, in the chipper way she talked to Mama. “Can you believe it? Think where you were a year ago, shut up in that laundry room, no way to get anywhere. And now that blessed van . . . God is faithful. He is Jehovah-Jireh.” She stopped pushing for a minute to raise her hands, palms toward the sky.
Nona was convinced the van was an answer to her prayer for Mama’s trapped essence to come uncorked. “I’ve had this vision,” she’d told Lindsey the day they brought Mama home from the care center. “Your Mama’s trapped in an ugly bottle. And the essence inside is beautiful, full of swirling, rainbow colors. We’ve just got to get the cork out.”
But for the next year Lindsey’s mother couldn’t go anywhere unless Nona called Dial-a-Ride, which came late or didn’t come at all. And Mama refused to talk to anybody but Lindsey and Nona—not even the nurses who circled in and out of the house in their white coats and soft shoes like figures on a carousel. “I hate my voice now,” she told Lindsey. She wouldn’t listen to the taped police interview during Marcus’s trial, and she made Nona throw out all her karaoke CDs. Lindsey had loved when her mother sang karaoke, the mic in one hand and a beer in the other. Her hair hung to her waist and had pink and blue streaks running through it. Sometimes she stopped singing midsong, with the words still scrolling up through the screen; she closed her eyes and moved her hips to the music. She taught Lindsey to swear and let her do it in the car, in the apartment, any time she wanted, as long as Nona wasn’t around.
But Nona said, “You’re ruining that child.” She said it right in front of Lindsey. “Dying her hair blue, leaving her alone with Marcus. There comes a time”—she was on her knees, cleaning the tub in the small bathroom Lindsey shared with her mother in their old apartment—“when the generational cycle has got to be broken.”
Lindsey had liked Marcus—he played Xbox with her and drew fake tattoos on her kneecaps. But Nona had been right about him. And she was convinced she was right about the van being the answer to her prayer for the uncorking. It would begin today, she’d said at breakfast, pointing her fork toward some invisible evidence behind and to the right of Lindsey’s head. It would begin at the pool party. The other parents, the compassionate parents who’d helped raise the money for the van and for Lindsey’s tuition, would ask questions; they would all want to talk to her, hear her story. She would be forced out of her shell. “No one can ignore that toxic green wheelchair,” Nona had said.
But that wasn’t really the color, Lindsey thought now, looking at Mama’s chair resting half on and half off a rectangular slab of flagstone. It was more of a neon green. “The mountain’s so close,” Mama said, her body listing sideways. “I want to see.” Nona took off Mama’s hat so she could get a better look at Camelback. Lindsey looked, too; the red rock mountain she’d seen only from a distance when they took the freeway to school now loomed, rugged and bare. It was all scrub brush and creosote, not the pale fur Lindsey had once imagined would cover the peak in soft tufts.
“There’s the Praying Monk,” Lindsey said, pointing to the rock formation that looked like a hooded figure kneeling to face the camel. Mama once told her the legend—how the monk was the first Spanish missionary to arrive in Phoenix. How he and his camel (and here she explained that, of course, there hadn’t been camels in Arizona; it was just a story they made up because of the shape of the mountain) walked for days through the desert until they ran out of water. Still they trudged on, until the camel fell to its knees. And the monk, dying of thirst himself, did the only thing he could—he bowed down in front of his camel and prayed for a miracle. And God heard, but even He couldn’t make water spring from desert rocks. Instead, out of mercy, he answered the monk’s prayer and turned them both into stone, to save them and put an end to their suffering.
The Seylers’s backyard was bigger than any yard Lindsey had ever seen. They followed the path past a tennis court and a two-story Victorian playhouse (Lindsey caught a glimpse of a flat screen TV through the window) and into a grassy courtyard with a fountain made of sculptured fish. And then Lindsey could see, from the way Nona stopped abruptly in front of the fountain, that something was wrong.
The swimming pool was not on ground level. It was up a flight of marble stairs—six steps, a landing, then six more. The kids and parents were all up there. Mr. Seyler was grilling; kids were lining up at the diving board. Justin Bieber was playing on the stereo.
“Lindsey.” Nona’s voice was sharp. “Take the vegetables up there.” Lindsey took the tray from her mother’s lap, trying not to look at her face or at the hands, but focusing on her mother’s tank top. I’m in it for the parking, the shirt said. Mama was braless; her breasts lay in flattened heaps beneath the ribbed fabric. Lindsey turned and ran up the stairs.
“Linds!” Madeline’s blue goggles peered over the edge of the pool, “Come swim with us!”
Lindsey thought she might raise her own palms in gratitude. She would go back and kiss each marble step. The stairs were her salvation. Mama would have to stay down in the courtyard, corked in her bottle.
Inside the poolhouse, a ceiling fan blew air-conditioned currents around the room. Lindsey tried not to think about her mother, down there in the sun. Her skin would blister if she was out for too long; her body couldn’t regulate temperature anymore.
“Hi, honey,” said a lady with glasses and freckled skin, “just set those anywhere. You must be Valerie’s daughter?” Lindsey nodded. “I’m Mrs. Seyler. Was your mother able to make it?”
“She’s down with my grandma.”
“Oh my God,” said Mrs. Seyler, “why didn’t I think . . . Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.”
Lindsey set the vegetable tray on a table and went outside. The pool was dark blue with pearly pink swordfish tiled into the steps. Fountains ran down into the deep end from the Jacuzzi; kids were jumping off the ledge in-between. Lindsey took off her cover-up and dipped a foot in. She should just jump. But she noticed Mrs. Seyler talking to Mr. Seyler, who set down his spatula and took off his big, silver glove. And now they were going down the stairs, down to where Mama and Nona were hunched in the thin shade of a mesquite tree.
“Lindsey, come on!” Madeline’s face floated beneath her. “Jump!”
Lindsey hesitated, then plugged her nose and stepped off the edge. She sank fast and hard; it was easy to sit on the bottom. She stayed underwater for as long as she could, watching tiny bubbles float to the surface. It was warm underwater—too warm—and the chlorine stung her eyes. But it was quiet, and she was hidden. She sat there until her chest burned for air. This is what it feels like to suffocate. This is what it’s like.
She pushed off the bottom and shot to the surface.
Madeline, Keri Johnson, and a boy she didn’t recognize were hanging onto the edge of the pool.
“Geez,” said the boy, “how’d you hold your breath that long?”
Lindsey grabbed onto the side next to Madeline.
“Hey, Lindsey,” Keri said, swimming around to Lindsey’s other side, “it’s cool we’re in class together again. Mrs. Collins gives out Funny Bucks if you do extra credit stuff.”
“What’s Funny Bucks?” Lindsey asked. Last year Keri had whispered things about Lindsey’s mama to some of the other girls: She does drugs. Had a fight with her boyfriend.
“It’s fake money,” Keri said. “You get to buy candy and stuff at the end of the year.”
The boy grabbed a yellow foam noodle off the deck and tucked it under his arms. He floated around in front of Lindsey and raised his goggles. “You’re that girl with the mom who got shot in the neck.” He swam closer. His eyes were huge, surrounded by dented red circles. “Did an ambulance come and get her?”
“Cooool. Did it just, like, land in your backyard?”
“It was an apartment.
“Leave her alone, Brendan,” Madeline said.
Brendan started to push the surface with his palm, making ripples and waves, never taking his eyes off Lindsey. “Did you see her, after? I mean, when she was, you know, all bloody?” Madeline and Keri hung from the side, goggles fixed on Lindsey’s face.
“I was asleep.”
“But didn’t you, like, hear it?”
Lindsey didn’t answer.
“So can her wheelchair stand up?” Brendan asked. “I saw this guy at the store once, he just pushed a button, and he could get stuff off the top shelf.”
“She can’t get stuff off a shelf,” Lindsey said. “She’s a quadriplegic.”
“Want to go off the diving board?” Madeline said.
“Yeah, let’s go.” Keri was now on her side. They swam to the ladder in the deep end and climbed out. Keri had on the two-piece swimsuit Lindsey had wanted at Old Navy, with a palm tree and setting sun and the word Malibu on the butt. Nona made her buy a one-piece. It was plain blue, and the only cute thing about it was a row of rainbow-colored beads strung onto the left shoulder tie.
“Hey Keri—what’s your Dad doing down there?” Madeline was leaning over the marble rail, pointing down into the courtyard. Keri’s father was standing with Mr. Seyler next to Mama’s wheelchair. Other dads were down there too—they were talking with Mr. Seyler and gesturing. Lindsey saw Nona shake her head, saw her mother’s cowboy hat bob.
“My mom can’t get up the stairs,” Lindsey said.
“Well, do you still want to dive with us?”
“I’m just going to get a tube,” Lindsey said. She headed toward a blow-up ring near the shallow end; when the girls weren’t looking, she grabbed her towel and ran down the steps.
“ . . . God’s mighty arms,” she heard Nona say when she reached the mesquite tree. “His people do for the weak what they can’t do for themselves.” Lindsey came up and took Nona’s hand, and Nona leaned down and whispered, “Didn’t I tell you? It starts today!” From where she stood, Lindsey couldn’t see her mother’s face. Her head was bowed beneath her hat.
“I think four of us,” Mr. Seyler said, “two to a side, should do it. Let’s give it a try.”
They lifted. Nona hid her eyes, but Lindsey watched, motionless. She knew the wheelchair was heavy—three hundred pounds, with Mama in it. But they got it up off the grass, a good two feet. She could see the muscles ripple in Mr. Seyler’s back, faces turning red, veins popping. When they set her back down, Mama’s body shimmied with the impact.
“All right, let’s push her to the staircase.”
“Let me go on ahead,” Nona said. “I can’t bear to watch.” She put a hand on Mama’s shoulder. “Jesus, lift this child up. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.” Lindsey watched her hurry away across the grass, light as air, lovely, her Keds flashing white beneath her long skirt.
Lindsey stayed next to the chair as the men pushed it toward the stairs. “Mama?” she whispered. “Are you sure this is safe? What if they drop you?”
“Yeah, might break my neck, wind up paralyzed,” Mama whispered back. She paused to breathe. “Go up with Nona.”
Lindsey stayed where she was. Who else would catch Mama if she fell? She watched the men lift, watched the chair tilt with every step, the round bag of urine in its black, zippered case swinging like a pendulum. The dads set Mama down on the landing and rolled their shoulders. On the second flight, a front wheel bumped one of the steps. The jolt knocked Mama’s cowboy hat off, leaving the roots of her hair exposed, dark and flecked with dandruff.
When they reached the top, a few people applauded. The men smiled at each other, shaking out their arms. Madeline’s dad patted Mama’s lower arm while Lindsey trudged up the steps, stopping to pick up the hat. “Let’s get you into the shade, hon,” Nona said. “Let’s get your water bottle refilled. We can’t have a dry throat today.” Nona put Mama’s hand on the control stick so she could drive, then led the way.
“Wait,” Lindsey said, following them. “She needs her hat.”
Everybody started filing through the poolhouse, loading plates with food: hot dogs, hamburgers; salads topped with candied walnuts, dried currants, strawberries, and feta cheese.
A row of Fat-Free!, Light!, and No Oil! salad dressings, potstickers, fruit trays, risotto, deviled eggs sprinkled with parsley, organic blue corn chips, homemade guacamole. Nona’s carrot-and-celery tray with its plastic tub of Hidden Valley ranch dip sat untouched.
When Lindsey came out of the poolhouse, she saw that Nona had parked Mama under a covered portico at the far end of the pool and surrounded her with a circle of chairs. The chairs were empty.
Lindsey felt her cheeks grow hot. It was one thing to ignore Mama when she was down in the courtyard; it was another thing to ignore her now. She found Nona sitting with a group of women in jeweled flip-flops and capri pants. “The first time I truly identified with Mary the mother of Christ,” Nona was saying, “was looking at those crumpled hands. It was like I wanted to throw my mantle over my face and go hide in a cave. Now where did that vision come from?” The women listened politely, placing small forkfuls of salad in their mouths. Among these women, Nona looked even younger. She could have been one of them, mother of a fourth grader.
Lindsey tugged on Nona’s sleeve. “No one is sitting with Mama.”
Nona wrapped her arm around Lindsey’s waist and pulled her close. She went on talking, plate balanced on her lap, food untouched. “I asked the doctor that day,” she said, “‘Doctor, is she going to be this way for the rest of her life?’ and the doctor said—” Nona paused, looking around the circle—“he said, ‘Yes. And for the rest of yours.’”
“Bless your heart,” said Mrs. Seyler, her eyes tearing up. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.”
“Nona,” Lindsey said, “Mama is alone.”
Nona gave her a squeeze. “Why don’t you go sit with her, hon?” she said. “I’ll be over in a minute.” She picked up her fork, and Lindsey saw Nona’s hand was shaking. When she tried to take a bite of her salad, she knocked the plate of food off her lap.
Nona hardly ever left the house. Now she was the one coming uncorked.
“Let me get that,” one of the mothers said.
“It’s fine,” Nona said, bending over to pick up the plate; when she sat up, her eyes were wet.
Mrs. Seyler looked over at Lindsey.“That’s a cute swimsuit,” she said. “I like the beads.”
“I’ll tell you what, though,” Nona said. “I’ll take Valerie this way over the way she was before. The drugs and alcohol, boys, constant partying. Thank God Lindsey was asleep when Marcus . . . ”
“Nona,” Lindsey said. She stepped away from the circle. “Let’s go sit with Mama now.”
Nona stood up. “There’s that verse,” she said, setting her plate on the chair, “and it’s the truth: Better to lose an eye than to have the whole body thrown into Hell.”
Lindsey couldn’t stand it any longer. “That’s bullshit!” She heard her own voice explode above her head somewhere. “It’s not her eye; it’s her whole fucking body!”
Nona covered her mouth with her hand.
The mothers looked down at their plates; some of them looked away. Mrs. Seyler stood and tried to put an arm around Lindsey, but she ran before anyone could touch her. She ran past the pool, past Madeline and Keri. She ran past Brendan and some other boys who sat on their towels eating. She ran to the portico, to the empty chairs, to Mama. She loved her, loved her desperately; she would sit with her, facing her, her back to the party, to the world. She would hold Mama’s crumpled hands; she would kiss them; she didn’t care who saw.
They would sit there together, facing each other, just the two of them with only the blue sky and clouds drifting overhead. They would sit there until God had mercy and turned them both to stone.