Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He is a Push Cart Prize nominee for his story “Can You Come Here for Christmas?”
What Old Men See When They Close Their Eyes
Now the only time Amos sees clearly is when he closes his eyes. Macular degeneration has for years diminished daylight vision to a blur around an empty tunnel. Night vision, well that’d gone decades ago. Only after he commands the eyelids to lower as he relaxes in the big chair or on the little hickory bed he’d made sixty years ago for his twelve year old son Robert, only then is clear vision restored. Think about what you see through your closed eyes at three AM; I’m sure you can understand.
With less than ten percent vision left to him after Tilda passed, Amos had had to enter a care facility, a horrible place that paid minimum wages to coarse men and 250 pound women in stretch pants to handle him rough, a place where the food prepared for their meals should have been dumped straight into the toilet as it was already shit before it was served to the sorrowful residents. God bless his stepson Peter, Tilda’s son from her first husband. Peter, a good and popular vet, had his principal business coming from large animal care, yet never refused care to pets -- any dog or cat, from puppies’ and kittens’ vaccinations to their euthenasia, Saint Peter, thought Amos, the soul of compassion and care. He’d offers a place for Amos on his ranch near Wing, California. There is a hook. Peter has fallen into a desperate financial situation by way of a miserable fuck story of a divorce. He is in danger of losing his ranch. Can Amos help? For Amos this is a godsend and he has no qualms about signing the General Power of Attorney. You may think, “Oh no this will go south, sure.” Shunting poor Amos out to humble quarters in Peter’s barn? But such is not the case. Just two slight rooms, all that he requires and Peter fixes these into Amos’s quarters in his barn. Amos chooses to live out in the barn. That’s right, the little apartment in the barn was Amos’s idea. Cozy. Private. The larger room once the tack room; here Amos has his chair, a table, the little sink and microwave. The smaller room is just big enough for the small bed, toilet and shower. Peter has mounted safety rails by the toilet, in the shower, and on the wall from the bed to the chair. Amos is quite at home here. He loves the smells of the barn; the horses, the hay, and that good, rich smell of hemlock saturated with years of horse piss. Amos loves it all, the cozy gemütlich of the small quarters and especially the solitude. On warm mornings he takes his coffee and dozes seated in the painted captain’s chair on sunny side of the little deck under the old carriage shed. Peter ensures that there is safe heating, plumbing, and personal care for his generous stepdad. Each evening Peter brings a hot meal and spends a few minutes visiting, though lately Amos eats very little, his appetite on the wane for some time now. Amos thinks of Peter as compensation against his rotten son Robert.
Two nights earlier Tilda, his wife, now dead for eight years had appeared. The two were on the dock by their cabin in Maine cleaning fish they’d caught that afternoon. Tilda scolded Amos for not thoroughly rinsing out the fishes’ cavities after gutting. The both of them had loved the outdoors, especially fishing, and they loved eating fish, preferring fish to meat, actually. In his reverie Amos smells the freshly caught crappies and bluegills and the hint of gasoline and oil mix from the little five horse boat motor. With the back of her knife Tilda edges the heads and viscera into the lake where musk turtles will assemble to feast.
All of a sudden he’s back on the minesweeper he’d served aboard in Viet Nam. Within sight of a tiny coastal village, just a few shacks under palm trees with a few boats hauled onto the beach, his crew is cutting the fisherman’s net from the dinky little one man craft, tossing dead fish willy-nilly into the South China Sea as the boatswain’s mate and his pal Andy reluctantly heft the young prisoner aboard the minesweeper. The ship patrols the shallow coastal waters, its mission termed “harassment and interdiction,” boarding boat traffic to search for countraband, and to gather intelligence. Amos argues with the Vietnamese liaison officer, a cocky lieutenant named Dai Hui Duc; behind his back the American crew calls him “Duck the Fuck.” “We can tow his little boat in.” But standing orders require us to follow the ARVAN’s direction in matters dealing with prisoners.
“No, no. Sink boat! No identification paper. Cong. He Cong. Sink boat! Now!”
So small is the little round boat that two rounds from the boatswain mate’s sidearm splinter the frail deck, scuttling the young man’s livelihood. There is no countraband, just a few fish. The prisoner is young, maybe seventeen, eighteen, tall for a Viet because he is half French this boy, unwanted, a left behind from the colonial days. That’s why Duc is arresting him; it’s that strong prejudice against miscegenation, a person of mixed race so despised by those bereft of compassion. We take the boy to Tiger Island, the ARVAN prison compound. This boy will be put in a cage, interrogated and tortured. In his tiny village women will weep for him and their rice will have no fish. It’s the same all over, Amos thinks. They told us we were fighting for freedom. What a fuck story. The ARVANs are as cruel as the VC and we, are we any better? At the enlisted club in Cam Ranh Bay he’d seen a Marine Lance Corporal showing off severed ears strung on a pull ring from a grenade. War sours everything it touches including the future. Including Amos’s dreams for decades to come.
Below this vision Amos’s subconscious wants his vision to return to the tranquility with Tilda at the lake but he cannot. He awakens, gets up to pee, then moves from the bed the big chair.
Peter’s hired man Pablo Ochoa who comes to help him bathe and to bring clean clothes leaves a thermos of coffee with his cup on the window sill by the big chair. Some afternoons Pablo comes by just to visit and share a joint or a drink with the old man. For thirty years Pablo had fished in the sardine fleet out of Ensenada. Sea stories bonded the two men. Pablo is retelling the story of the time he lost his net to a stupid Gringo submarine. The men have heard each other’s stories multiple times, but a listen easily and always confirm their validity with an appreiative nod or single syllable as if it were the first time. He respects Amos’s age. Mexicans, Amos thinks, are souls of courtesy.
The old man pours a cup and settles back, hoping for Tilda again. But once again it’s their son Robert. Robert in the back of the police car, the officer telling Amos that his 17 year old son is under arrest for shoplifting a Sony Walkman at Walmart and for possession of a controlled substance, to wit: four marijuana cigarettes and pills. He and Tilda go to the police station where a fat booking sergeant tells them to sit down, pointing to the row of orange plastic chairs against the wall. Before them cops walk back and forth, their hips at eye level, their belts laden with radios, handcuffs, pistols, mace, batons. Amos thinks how uncomfortable it must be, especially for the fat cops, one so fat that Amos notices that his service belt is actually two web belts sewn together. Tilda is so worried. This is the third time for this shit. He tells her that Robert’s had plenty of warning. He can spend time jail. He’s overdue. Maybe the shock will work, because mercy and leniency have sure the hell failed. Both of them stopped liking their son a years ago. He is a shit. He lies, he steals, he is cruel to animals, and he mocks his parents. Tilda, while she dislikes Robert still loves him, as mothers will do. Amos thinks through this late night fog that he would gladly swap his son Robert for the hapa-haoli Viet French prisoner from forty years back. He tells the detective and booking sergeant to go ahead and transfer Robert to the county jail, fuck him, we have grown too tired of dealing with his shit. When’s the court date? Will we be there? Maybe. Tilda wipes tears onto the shoulder of Amos’s Levi jacket.
Amos nightly considers his life in sections: boyhood, his years in the Navy, then the twenty years in the National Park Service, and ultimately retirement,--each compartment with friends and lovers, places, high and low points. Although the people, happenings, and places during his forties through his sixties when he’d worked as a park ranger and supervisor, he seldom sees. No, Tilda, the Navy, old friends and ships he’d served aboard, these were the visitors that mattered and which moved Amos.
Sometimes, though not often, he can see exactly what he wishes, and soon Tilde visits for a second time that night. They’ve known one another but for a short time and still she blushes when Amos says fuck or shit or calls someone an asshole or dipshit or dickhead, the way sailors talk. Within a couple of years, Tilde too will cuss like a sailor but only with the two of them alone. They’ve just finished the six pack and thrown the last can from the cab of the truck into the ditch alongside the road; she’s driving and laughing. They’re headed to an outdoors bluegrass festival where Peter’s little band “Crowbar” is playing. It’s a jolly Friday night and Amos has filled two silver flasks with Jack Black for their enjoyment. It’s okay, they’ll sleep in the camper, then have breakfast at the IHOP in town with Peter and the two old men who play in the band. For Amos and Tilda, drink makes things like this all the sweeter. The band playing just before Peter’s set comes across rough, and when Tilda remarks that that band is one sorry bunch of assholes, they burst into a fit of laughing.
Then things change and Amos himself is on the stage of the Cherry Club in Olongapo in the Philippines. The ship has rented the club for the Christmas Party. Everything has been fun: lots to eat and more to drink, and great entertainment. There is a decent band and variety acts. First a little boy and girl, tumble and juggle, then four young men sing just like the Beach Boys. Then a stripper does a funny dance jerking off a bottle of San Miguel beer which she spews all over the executive officer. But just now everyone is laughing uncontrollably, laughing at him, Amos on stage with the Filipino hypnotist who has convinced Amos to cackle and scratch about like a hen. Andy is laughing, Andy the best friend Amos has ever known, the two of them tight as ticks; they were buds who ran together, laughed together, drank together, sang together, and whored together. Most painful is that Andy Anderson is laughing the loudest and pointing at Amos and imitating him flapping his elbows and kicking his left leg like a chicken. Afterwards Amos comes close to starting a fist fight with Andy over this silly issue, but realizes that his head has been fucked up by the beer and that cocksucker of a hypnotist.
So often with clarity his vision has to parade such embarrassments. It is probably right, Amos thinks, and serves to keep a man modest. The clear images of the Cherry Club fade directly from the crew’s Christmas Party to a working party two mornings later on the rainy docks of the Naval Station in Olongapo. A Seal Team is boarding their minesweeper for passage back to Nam, and the minesweeper’s crew is loading their rubber boats, diving gear, and ammo.. We will take them to the mouth of the Bassac River for some hush--hush mission. As we are loading the last crates of 57mm recoilless rounds, lightning strikes. A fireball explodes on the main deck. There is complete confusion. Amos with several sailors is blown into the drink. By the time these men find a way up from the bay three piers down Amos hears the radios and sees the flashing lights of fire trucks and ambulances. Back at the ship hospital corpsmen are zipping what is left of Gunner’s Mate Second Class Andy Anderson into a black bag. He has no left leg. The blast has blown his dungarees off, burning him crisp over the entire front of his body reminding Amos of the crispy duck he and Andy had eaten from a food stall on Bogey Street in Singapore. He turns away so no one can see his tears. The board of inquiry will later affirm that the crew was lucky to have lost only two men and that the ship was able to meet mission requirements on time.
Amos hears mice scurrying above. Once or twice barn mice had dropped down into his bed, but that bothered him not. He recalled when he and Tilda were rewiring a ceiling fan and a nest of dead rats fell into her hair. Then he remembered being in bed with a hooker in Pusan when a rat fell from the thatched roof straight onto his neck. He’d jumped up and stepped onto the chamber pot spilling piss all over. The hooker laughed and told him rats always came with thatched roofs. Fat rats meant good luck, she said.
When Peter tells Amos he doesn’t like the look of that lump on his neck, Amos chuckles and says he doesn’t care; he’s not dating these days. However Amos knows this lump very well as it has been steadily growing for months. Truly he welcomed Mister Lump, and as there had been no pain, well why worry? But just a few days after Peter’s caution, pain settles in, first as a throbbing stab, then maturing to a constant burning. Since then every night from his chair he smokes a generous pipe of weed, a home grown gift from Pablo, which is an effective palliative with a glass of wine. Whether due to the pot, the wine or the pain, he does not know nor does he care, but Amos begins having vivid recurring visits.
As he dozes Tilda rolls into the crushed oyster shell driveway of the little cabin in Maine. She honks the horn and yells, “C’mon, sailor. Let’s go!” But something delays his getting to the pickup, He can’t find a shoe, or his teeth, or glasses before Tilda drives off. Each night after Tilda drives off Andy Anderson shows up with the Viet/French boy saying that they are starting a fishing lodge up in Maine, can Amos and Tilda come in with them. Yes, but first he has to think it over. “Well,” Andy says, “Don’t take too long, Amos, we’re ready, aren’t we Tuan.” After the fourth or fifth repeat of this dream however, he knows full well that he is indeed ready.
Peter, just as Amos, knew with absolute certainty that the lump would, sooner rather than later, prove fatal. Peter had told Amos it would be easy to prepare the injection, and he would have it ready to spare Amos a wicked final pain. All he was waiting for was a nod from his beloved stepdad. Thus when he found the old man at final peace in the chair he felt grateful to have been spared the merciful task he’d been ready to assume.
At the last visit from the big chair, Amos had no trouble reaching the pickup. Tilda was laughing at the wheel. In the pickup’s bed Andy and the Viet boy were drinking beer and Andy is teaching the boy a sweet slow Beatle’s tune; they’re humming together softly.