Nadia Kalman ~ The Optical Illusions Eye Shop

My moth­er was an opti­mist, my father was an optometrist. They opened up the shop at a time in Brooklyn when you did­n’t have to be so seri­ous about a thing like that.  You could have a lit­tle fun, you could put some of your­self into it. That’s how it seems now, any­way, walk­ing past some of those old stores that have some­how hung on: Lotz of Pets, The Uniform Garden. My par­ents prob­a­bly would­n’t have said it was fun. But they did put them­selves into the shop. They did­n’t know any oth­er way.

Optical Illusions was like this: rows of glint­ing glass­es, a smell as if some­one had just spilled ink, posters in the win­dow meant to catch the eye – an Op Art repro­duc­tion and a kit­ten in a teacup. There, on a day long before I’m born, is my moth­er in high-waist­ed poly­ester pants that rip­ple across the hips, try­ing to hang a dis­play cab­i­net. It goes crooked, it’s about to fall, and she shouts for my father.

He runs up from the base­ment , which used to belong to a restau­rant, and “toma­to sauce for days,” as will often be said in my child­hood. (My moth­er will put the sauce out with pret­zels at one of my birth­day parties.)

Anyway, my moth­er shout­ed and now my father is fright­ened, and, as always when fright­ened, very angry. She has­n’t yet learned this. He push­es her aside and grabs the cab­i­net, pulls it from the wall like The Hulk.

The Hulk does­n’t yet have a TV show, only comics. And so, in the next pan­el, two backs, side by side: my five-foot Hulk-dad and my moth­er star­ing at the jagged holes in the wall. In the next pan­el, my moth­er is gone. The door’s slow hinge qui­et­ly closes.

My father regards the dis­play cab­i­net in his arms. They’d picked it out togeth­er, it’s “wood-look.” Several of the nails have clawed-off chunks of plas­ter stick­ing to them.

He turns to the win­dow to see whether any­one walk­ing by has noticed, and is  already reas­sur­ing him­self that no one has when he sees the child. The child is black, or some mix­ture, with a very high fore­head, as if he’s already bald­ing, and for some rea­son my father now remem­bers his dream from the night before: a baby in a cra­dle, impos­si­ble to tell at first that it was lying on its stom­ach because the back of its head looked like a long, blank face. And my father stared and stared, not want­i­ng to pick it up because he was afraid it was already dead.

The real child in this real world looks at my father like he’s seen this before: a man who’s bro­ken some­thing. Although maybe he’s just look­ing at the Escher print. It’s as like­ly as not that this boy has nice par­ents, a nice father, nicer than mine or my father’s.

But what’s cer­tain is this: my father rais­es his arm and shakes his fist. The boy jumps a lit­tle, sur­prised – prob­a­bly no one’s ever raised their hand to him like this, like he’s some pigeon. My father, encour­aged by some­thing actu­al­ly work­ing, moves clos­er to the win­dow. He’s win­ning, for once!

He’s win­ning over what is then being called “the inner city,” a neigh­bor­hood that has both of their fam­i­lies very wor­ried. People who thought they should­n’t set up shop here will shit them­selves when they see how well he does. The boy is walk­ing away, glanc­ing back a time or two, at which my father makes a fear­some face he’ll lat­er recre­ate while telling the sto­ry. In the sto­ry my father tells, the boy will grow old­er and old­er with each rep­e­ti­tion. Eventually, he’ll acquire a knife. Here’s my father’s last line: “I nev­er saw his face around there again after that.”

But where’s my moth­er? Follow that poly­ester! She’s walked over to the water­front, straight down the hill, two long blocks, a fright­en­ing high­way under­pass, and now, for her trou­bles: sharp wind, gray water.

I imag­ine her rest­ing a hand on her stom­ach, but isn’t that just the ego­tism of the child? She prob­a­bly did­n’t know yet that she was preg­nant and if she did – well, let’s just say she was­n’t the touchy type.

It’s cold. She has her hands shoved, not very com­fort­ably, in her tight pants pock­ets. Her knuck­les rub against each oth­er and the wed­ding ring.

She watch­es a tug­boat and smells diesel. It’s the nine­teen sev­en­ties. No ani­mals have come back to these waters as of yet, not even close. People say bod­ies get dumped here. Tanning chem­i­cals def­i­nite­ly do.

Back at what we will call home, the dis­play cab­i­net rests against the wall. It will go back to the base­ment, dwell among toma­to cans for the rest of its days, or at least until we close the shop. My father’s already retelling the sto­ry with the boy in his mind. He’s more than tough enough for this place!

My moth­er … ?

I don’t know what my moth­er is think­ing. She nev­er tried to make her­self a mys­tery, but here we are.

When she lay dying, she made the nurs­es keep my father out of the room. She said to me, “I think I want to keep liv­ing, actu­al­ly.” Maybe this was one of her famous dry jokes – obvi­ous­ly, it was­n’t up to her. But in that moment, she sound­ed like she thought it was. And I think she meant for me to notice that ‘actu­al­ly,’ to under­stand what it meant about how much she had ever got­ten from my father and me.


Nadia Kalman is a for­mer NEA fel­low cur­rent­ly work­ing on her sec­ond nov­el. Her first nov­el, The Cosmopolitans, was pub­lished by Livingston Press. Essays and sto­ries of hers have appeared in such mag­a­zines as Korean Literature Now, PEN America, and Moment. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine and cur­rent­ly lives in Brooklyn.