April 9, 2019

“Eye Contact” by Ann Davis

“Eye Contact” by Ann Davis

Editor’s note: We met Ann Davis at a writers conference in December, 2018. She wanted to know more about the Fictional Cafe and then told us the writer’s lament: her hard drive had crashed and she’d lost all her writing.

Well, a year passes and we’re back at the same writing conference again when Ann walks up to the Fictional Cafe booth with a two-inch stack of printout in her hands. She had recovered her work! We told her we were entertaining manuscripts that were a little, ah, different for 2019, and she tugged this one out from her stack. We read it, liked it, and accepted it. Of course it had to go through the submissions process as a Word file, but here it is. We’re calling it “experimental fiction.”

Due to its length it’s practically a novella, which only adds to its cachet. The story becomes more and more mesmerizing as it unfolds. We’re publishing Part I today and Part II tomorrow. We think you’ll see it’s quite, ah, eye-catching.

“Eye Contact,” Part I

“Would you like anything else today, sir?”

“Well I’d like a fresh pair of eyes, but I don’t suppose you stock those anyplace!”

“But of course we do, sir! Installation facilities too! Just follow me to the back!”

The sardonic grin and chuckle on Morris’s face stuttered to a halt mid-motion, an expression more comical than the attempted joke. The grin and chuckle didn’t dissolve completely, but they weren’t as firmly there either, not sure if they were supposed to go, or what they should be replaced with if they did. His legs were quicker on the uptake and obeyed a social cue they were used to, following the too-helpful salesclerk who seemed to know what he was doing, even if Morris didn’t.

He’d only been making a self-deprecating crack about a silly question he’d asked earlier: if they sold cough drops, which were sitting innocuously on the counter in front of him. Morris had not been expecting a serious response to that question either, but here he was, being led towards the back of the shop.

Morris’s face jumped forward a few seconds and caught up, the rest of his body following. Mouth, the aforementioned eyes, hands, arms, and the entire upper body joined in, hunching inwards. It was his compulsory response for unknown situations, anxiety at not knowing what was going on that left him unable to ask or do anything but follow unless something really strange happened.

This was the strangest rebuttal to a joke of his that he’d ever encountered (some people with very little humor had leveled their eyes at him) and the first time he’d been treated like he was asking a real question. The customary response was to ignore it, and sometimes laugh. One superbly rare case had the sales representative commenting that they’d sold their last pair to a nearsighted old lady not five minutes before he reached the till, and if he ran out, he might catch her. The joke had gone back and forth for another five (it was a slow day) about when would the next shipment be, and could he reserve a pair, and different colors and sizes and potential specials. At this some customers behind him in line had started laughing. The memory always gave him a warm feeling; it was a real coup for the socially stunted Morris to feel he’d delighted somebody. This was . . . an unsettling amount of follow-through for a joke.

The straight shoulder lines of the sales clerk he was following said he was not the least bit discomfited with acting entirely out of character for a joke. He didn’t seem to be holding in any laughter. This was the appropriate sales mode response to a serious question from a customer in need of help, not the general “paying-customers-should-be-humored-and-have-a-good-day” reaction that should be happening. Maybe the man was unusually good at holding in his composure and was readying himself to thrust a jar of cat’s eye marbles at him. 

Or maybe, and this thought let Morris sag with relief (and scold himself for being an overreacting idiot), the salesclerk thought he wanted new eyeglasses and was taking him to a display he hadn’t seen, the same as missing the cough drops.

No, that idea was summarily rejected as the salesperson unerringly led him through an employee’s door which he was certain he shouldn’t be seeing the other side of unless he were an inspector (he wasn’t) or being offered a job here. Surely he wasn’t meant to go through there and he stopped to wait and worry outside. The salesclerk held open the door and stood aside, adding a semi-theatrical sweeping bow for good measure, making it no mistake that Morris was meant to go through. This time the clerk was in the right position to see Morris’s second stop-stall-start combo, but reflected the courtesy of his role by taking no notice except to say it was “quite all right, sir” when Morris came to himself enough to splutter an apology. Perhaps flustered customers weren’t that unusual in the salesclerk’s experience, but this was certainly a long way to go for a joke. Or stepping into something more serious than a joke. But Morris wasn’t quite sure how to stop it.

Then he did. With full-blown, jaw-hanging, faulty-eyes-blown-to-saucer-sized-proportions shock. Perhaps, he hoped faintly they really were faulty, far more so than he’d joked comfortably in the shop several wonderful minutes ago, in which case he was going to be very embarrassed shortly. Because these couldn’t be actual eyes in all these glass jars the salesclerk was ushering him to with a perfectly ordinary demeanor.

Morris had never appreciated how many different kinds of eyes there were in the world until his mind started frantically rushing through the other kinds he knew of, to formulate an explanation of what these eyes were other than what they appeared to be. Craft eyes, cat eyes, statuette eyes, figurine eyes. Nope. Nope. Nope. Marbles fashioned out of eyes, not marble fashioned to look like eyes for a joke; he felt perilously like laughing. Taxidermy eyes, but what sort of stitched-up creature would require eyes that looked like, like, like . . . they would fit in his face?!

While he was eyeballing the eyeballs (the one mercy in his current situation was they hadn’t all rolled to fixate on him), a hearty chuckle was smothered just to his left. Followed shortly by “Oh, Nathan! You brought in another one without fully explaining things again! If it weren’t such a lark seeing how many startled expressions people can make, I’d have reported you to the manager by now! Thanks for not running back out the door screaming by the way. You’re tough stuff.”

“Thank you,” Morris replied faintly, gathering this last statement was meant for him. He was not quite ready to give up his staring contest with the nearest jar to ensure they weren’t going to move if he turned around, or to face whatever further lunacy was waiting for him. Perhaps a mad doctor and the eyeballs he wasn’t staring at hadn’t turned to look at him after all; he was certain there were jars behind him too.

When Morris finally gathered up his courage to look, he was glad to find it was no mad doctor he was facing. The man seemed a perfectly ordinary and friendly sort, flat brown hair, parted in a sweep down the left side, caramel brown eyes, large round wire-rimmed glasses, slightly overlarge front teeth in his smile. Standing next to him, the salesclerk was still snickering a bit behind his hand, having dropped his composed demeanor, and managed to say in a slightly high voice from suppressed laughter that he thought “visual aids” would be better.

Belatedly, Morris realized he had walked into a joke after all, introduced to this backroom in such a way that he was incredibly startled at what, to them, was perfectly normal everyday business.

Getting control of himself, the salesclerk started in on his pitch. “Make no mistake, all of these eyes are of high-quality, 20-20 vision or so close to it glasses would barely make a difference. Not like those faulty numbers in your head that you were complaining about, eh?” he ribbed with a conspiratorial grin.

It was rather a flub of sales etiquette to make a comment like that, but Morris did no more than register it. He was still too blown away for much talk. The salesclerk took the silence for a cue to muster a recovery.

“We have a broad variety of colors and sizes. Your choice of color might be slightly restricted by the size of your sockets, but rest assured, you’ll still have a very wide selection. If there’s a color you just adore, we can have you on notice for when a new pair comes in, or adjust the sockets ourselves if we already have it, with a minor size difference.  We do the measuring ourselves to ensure a perfect fit. From eyeballing them, I estimate yours to be about 24.4 mm.” There was a rather bad laugh and chuckle at that, a surreal equivalent to his own bad eyeball joke at the counter several blissful minutes ago.

“We take pains to make sure all our stock is ethically harvested. The donor is approached personally; no one is allowed to serve as a prospective seller or intermediary for another person, not even a close relation. Everyone is compensated generously and in the extremely rare event of trouble – post removal or insertion in your case – we cover all resulting medical expenses.” The normal, matter-of-fact way all this was being talked about was making Morris feel faint, and the spiel was not finished yet.

“All our eyes have a lifetime guarantee; they will be the longest lasting part of you.” Morris flashed on a mental image of a perfectly clean, round pair of eyes staring vacantly as worms feasted on the rest of him. He was starting to feel like running again. Fortunately, the sales pitch was wrapping up. What was he going to do then?

“Best of all, the whole package, the new selection and the replacement process, can be had at the nominal sum of 400 pounds. Payment can be made all at once, or over a period of months in installments with no interest whatsoever,” the clerk finished with a flourish.

Throughout the presentation Morris had not let up his stare, though he transferred it to the salesclerk and doctor from the eyes in jars. Hearing the price finally jolted him out of the modus of polite customer he’d been frozen into since his first sight of the backroom’s contents.

That the eyes were affordable from purchase to placement – expensive certainly, but within his actual savings – was so astonishing as to knock him back on his rump. Upon hearing of the “generous compensation” offered, Morris had expected the price to be outlandish. It was about the price of a new sofa where he worked, and not at all extreme for the scope of the service.

The salesman continued rambling on about a “same-day operation” so swift and painless it could be accomplished without anesthetic, tossing in a few more bad eye jokes about “seeing” that this was an ideal service and he would “look back” at this as the best decision of his life for good measure. In the midst of it the doctor came back in, interrupting the enthusiastic diatribe to verbally box his ears about the poor humor and apologize to Morris with a slightly worried look.

“I say, we didn’t actually offend you did we, sir? Please, don’t mind the poor humor, or lack thereof, it’s actually part of the pitch, though these new amateur salesclerks don’t know when it’s unwise to veer off script,” the doctor stated tartly, with a severe look to the side. “Lots of people are shocked when they’re brought back here; the joking acts as an icebreaker and snaps most people right back up into normalcy.”

“Actually, the price did it for me. So little is charged for what it’s honestly worth these days that I was quite taken aback,” Morris replied with a game attempt at a chuckle. Both his listeners relaxed. They’d looked so anxious, thinking they had possibly offended him, that he could say little else. He’d slipped back into the role of polite customer all right, albeit one with beads of sweat popping up on his face and on the ragged edge of screaming.

Promptly they started agreeing with him, relieved to slip into the “yes, yes, customer is always right,” mode after fearing they were about to lose a sale. “It’s such a credit to hear you say that, just wonderful, so many think we assign our prices from thin air. All decent places are given a bad reputation by others that sell products at ridiculous prices just because of who came up with the idea for them. Here we have a commitment to fair business practices, from the suppliers to those who create demand.”

“Speaking of ridiculous,” Morris interjected before they could start again, “All of this was such a surprise to me, it feels rather absurd. Is there some prankster holiday I’m forgetting? Or is there some announcement about this posted on your window that I missed? Perhaps I really am in dire need of new eyes!” Well now he’d done it, he admitted the whole presentation felt like a long joke. Not the best opportunity but he’d seized it. It was his one last chance to get out of this, though his mental state was slowly transitioning from terrified to intrigued.

“Right-o, there is indeed some more subtle kidding around, two jokes in fact. Despite Nathan’s lauding of my skills, of course we use anesthetic during the insertion, otherwise you patients scream like biddy hens! And there’s enough screaming at our second joke; no post-operation monthly payments allowed! Either lay-away or pay all at once. In advance! We certainly aren’t so uncouth that we install them if there is any chance we have to take them back out! That’s valuable merchandise you’d be wandering off with!” It was said clerk’s turn to glare at his coworker for his less than settling pronouncement in front of a customer. He delivered it with an additional elbow for good measure.

“Heh heh, so-o, have you seen any pair in particular that you’d like? That is to say, is there any specific coloration that tickles your fancy? Take all the time in the world to look around – or if you don’t see anything, not that your present eyes are so terrible you understand, you can come back another time, oh dear!” Clearly the cockiness was jostled out of him. Without it, he was as jittery as a coffee bean.

Actually, their show of nerves was calming him down, and he was quite honestly curious. Morris set himself to examining the nearest jar. He noted the eyes were perfectly straight, not cross-eyed like his. Could stare right into a boss’s face with these, maybe even ask for better hours or a raise. And a new color too, a more usual and favorable one. Just in time too, travel restrictions were coming in, making his current eye color reason enough for people to stare, even if everything else looked proper. However he’d stumbled onto it, Morris had done enough dreading and questioning of his strange luck and decided to take advantage.

“Excuse me, what about this pair, right here? Would they be the right size?” Morris pointed at a set at the bottom of the nearest jar. Faintly, he was relieved they did not swivel to stare at his fingertip.

“Ah yes, excellent choice, sir! Looks like a good fit, and a new color too! Daring, aren’t you? They’ll go well with your general complexion. Now are you paying up front or -” 

“I can afford to get them now.” The way his luck worked, Morris would never get another chance. “Is there time to get have them . . . ahem . . . installed now, or do I need to schedule an appointment for it?”

“Oh no, right now is not a problem for us, same day insertion just like I was talking about,” the doctor eagerly reassured. Morris noted he’d taken over most of the talking since the salesclerk’s script had run out. “Just so long as you answer a few questions for us, and fill out this paper saying that you did, and put the same answers on it as you give us.” A clipboard with paper and pencil was brandished at him. “Now, have you had any caffeine in the past six hours? Any alcohol in the past twenty-four? You’ve done anything like that, we can schedule an appointment for another time. We can hold the eyes for you so long as there’s a definitive return date. And of course there’s the disclaimer, honestly an unnecessary bit of paper if I ever saw one! That’s what the sales’ pitch ought to say, ‘so good a surgeon we don’t need a disclaimer,’ but that really does tend to scare people away . . ..”

The doctor rambled on for the better part of an hour. Morris was assaulted with a battery of questions, hardly given the chance to write down the answers before another was upon him. Eventually it was determined he could have the surgery right away. Fortunate, or he might not have remembered to come back. Morris hated paperwork.

While the doctor’s speech was effusive, at least he didn’t stint on information. He answered a few questions Morris forgot to ask and ones he didn’t know he should. He was only bothered once, when the question of repairs came up, informing in a tone of gravely offended dignity that “Sir, we sell entirely new sets of eyes in prime condition! This is certainly not a repair shop! Our products never break down, so we never need one!” Morris was little inclined to believe that, but he couldn’t very well back out now. He asked for clarification on some issues he wasn’t sure he understood, but wasn’t quite confident enough to vocalize everything, certain some of it was silly. He hoped all the important questions, at least, were addressed, and the doctor’s skill level matched his level of conviction!

Once the inquisition was ended, Morris was led over to a padded chair the salesclerk had dragged in while the doctor was talking and made to lie back in it. A cloth with some foul-smelling stuff was placed over his nose and mouth. He was swiftly made very sleepy.

End Part I. Watch for Part II tomorrow.

***

Ann Davis majored in creative writing in Roger Williams University, and received a Masters in library and information studies from the University of Rhode Island. She’s a book addict, chiefly of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from those sources and the idiosyncrasies of life in general. Currently a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Her website is under construction, Eye Contact is her first story to be published. 

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