My job is simple. I place the eyeballs in the skull, I screw them in the skull, then I insert the tear ducts to hide the screws. This is very simple. Although it took some getting accustomed to. That is, at first I was too slow because, as my manager told me, I was taking it all too seriously, taking the world on my shoulders and being a sook. This is not a word I immediately understood, although my English is of a very good level. Far superior than many of my fellow workers who came here with no English at all, although I am not always good at idioms. David, whose job is involving the belly button, and making sure these belly buttons are to the description that the documentation dictates. He is not good at idioms. However, he has come to understand the difference between an ‘inny’ and an ‘outty’, and has become good at his job.
When I did come to understand what this world ‘sook’ meant, I was confused. This is because considering my circumstances, it was, I think, understandable that I was being a sook. I told my manager that perhaps, if I were able to converse with my family, I would be less likely to be a sook, and become, as he liked to say, More Efficient. Little Miss, he said, shut your mouth or this month you will not be able to talk to your family at all, you are currently Slowing Down The Line Of Production. I thought how he could go and insert one of the phalluses Marjorie assembles up his rectum.
This job takes a certain talent. ‘A knack’, as the manager calls it. It takes a knack to insert the eyes correctly so they do not appear wall- or cross-eyed. Unless, of course, the documentation stipulates that the commissioner would like them that way. Then you have to be very particular to align them at the angle that the documentation says they are to be.
At the time of me assembling the eyes in their sockets they do not yet have eyelashes. The head is also detached from its body so when the belt mechanism moves the head in front of me it is much like looking at a scared decapitated head. The eyes poke out of their sockets in horror or like the man in the video I saw as a child. In the video the man drank a glass of milk and then, looking directly at the camera he bulged his eyes. Like he was poking them out of his sockets and a stream of milk squirted from his eyes. Sometimes when I am putting the eye in I think that I will squirt myself with milk. Sometimes. But mainly I think of the man on the harness with me, even though the harness could not hold him and me and my father, and we had been given specific instructions from the aircraft above us to wait calmly and that there would be enough harnesses for everyone. The man did not wait. Instead, after the harness had begun to lift me and my father up, he jumped on top of me and tried to push me out of the harness so that he could take my place. The whole time his eyes bulging like he had not yet been assembled eyelashes, yelling as we were lifted slowly into the air, him on top of me pushing down on my face and body until my father hit him over the head many times and he fell, his eyes bulging the whole way down. If this man had remained calm he would have had his own harness, but by the time my father managed to get him off me we were very high up. His bugling eyes-face disappeared into the blue-black water, which then began to effervesce. I did not see him reemerge. Yes, this is what I mainly think of.
It was difficult at first to align the eyes. But I have a good way of doing it now. First I put them in. You have to really push them very hard so you hear a slight popping noise to know they are properly in their socket. Then I lower my head in line with the fake head. Then I start to move the irises, the left one first, then the right. I make these tiny adjustments like this, left, right, until I feel that I am staring ‘into’ its eyes. I know when I am looking ‘into’ its eyes because I will get a shudder down my spine. This is how I align them correctly.
However, when the documentation states that they are, for instance, to be wall-eyed at fourteen degrees on the left and five degrees on the right I must use the protractor they have given me. When I am done I do not get a shudder down my spine. I merely look at them and move them on. I am often left with the sensation of incompletion.
Then there is the other factor. Their colour. I am not in charge of making the eyeballs. They are made down on the other side of the factory, in a workshop, and then are put in little tubes, which suck up the balls and deliver them to me. When I am working these eyeballs whizz down the clear pipes and into the drawer under my workbench. Looking at the whizzing balls will often give me vertigo. But I will sometimes look up anyway, so I can look at Grace on the opposite side of the belt. She is in charge of putting the hair on the heads—then the belt moves around the factory, getting eyebrows and lips and a nose and etcetera, and eventually comes to me.
I am in charge of picking the right eyeballs. I was reprimanded just yesterday for choosing balls too bluish in hue. It is easy enough, for most of the documentation states clearly either brown or green or hazel or blue. But then sometimes the documentation is much more specific and instead states one should be ‘hazel-ish with a speck of blue, and an inner rim of green’. In some cases, when the head does not resemble a human but a cartoon, it will say red or purple or pink. Orange rarely comes up. I have some odd-balls spare, but most of them are specially made. I do my job to the best of my ability, picking from my drawer the correct colour. The balls are lined up in tubes of brown and green and hazel and blue. Then there is a fifth tube that aligns with the fifth slot in my draw. In this is the array of odd-balls. Sometimes these are mistakes, or creative feats. Other times they are specially made. I have become quite good at picking out ones that best fit the description on the documentation. Not as good as I am at aligning them straight, but fairly good. However, I must admit to once not putting in the right colours. I did this intentionally, even though I did not wish to jeapordise my privilege of screen-chatting with my family. Although I am grateful for this privilege I am only allowed to talk to my papa. I am not allowed to talk to my maman. In my country she was a lawyer. She has proven ‘problematic’ in the centre and is no longer allowed to talk on the screen. But she is in good health my papa says. Good enough, healthy. She does not weep like many of the other mothers separated from their daughters and sons and husbands. She is just happy that I can work. That I made it here to work in the first place.
I know that by putting in the wrong eyes I was putting my privilege at risk but I could not put in the correct eyes. I could not do it because of the man who had come and held my face with his big clumsy meat hands.
The man had come in to the department with my manager’s boss, and my managers’ boss’s boss. It seemed that he was an important man. My manager’s boss and my manager’s boss’s boss were laughing with their whole bodies when he said not funny jokes. He was walking down the line across the factory where the ladies gossip (although they are careful not to gossip around our bosses) and cut the hair on the heads. One of the ladies, Kiera, says she likes this job very much. It reminds her of playing with dolls as a child. Even while she was a business owner previously, she is just glad she does not have to work on the other side of the factory where they work assembling the groin region with fleshy flaps. There is a woman in my dorm who works down there — she used to work in the hand department but was, after she lost it at the manager, moved to the department where she must arrange the flaps to resemble the preferred look as specified by the documentation. She is no longer allowed to contact her family. When I did not know about the incident of her ranting at the boss, I thought she was mute. Until one night she woke up yelling. Now she often hits her head on the bunk above hers. When she does this she will wake up the dorm and then other girls will throw various items at her and tell her to shut it, which is a phrase even those among us who spoke no English coming here know very well. I do not throw things at her.
The men in suits were walking down the line.
The important man was impressed with our work. He said: ‘This is impressive.’
‘Thank you, Paul.’ said my manager’s boss. They stopped near the knee joints and inspected the process.
I popped a mauve eye into a very young looking head.
They walked up right up near the eyelashes, in the work bench to the left of me.
The meaty man twisted a ring around his finger. ‘And the eyes? They look real, move around and blink and whathaveyou?’
‘Incredibly convincing, I can assure you. Beyond me to explain it. You’ll just have to see for yourself, won’t you?’
‘Haha, alright. You’ve twisted my leg.’ All three men found this very funny.
And that is when he saw me. This Paul man. I had forgotten my work and was holding an eyeball in my hand. I looked back at my work so that my manager would not see me looking, but it was too late.
‘Jenny,’ my manager said, ‘No privileges this week.’ He turned to his boss and Paul. ‘I’m so sorry about that.’
That is when he came for me. The fat Paul man. He came right up beside me and grabbed my face. His rings were cold on my cheeks. I was horrified but I did not cry. I would not let myself. I looked at him with a hate-stare. And that is when he said it.
‘Such beautiful eyes.’
He still did not let me go and I clenched my jaw. I could feel water gathering in my eyes. Then before I could cry he let go.
He walked back to the two other men. But I did not hear what he said. My ears were fuzzy and I was taking large breaths. They were whispering. Then in a minute my manager came over to me and I thought for sure this would be it. I would never see my papa’s face again. ‘Good work,’ he said. And the three men walked off.
Half a week later something horrible happened. This is when I intentionally did the wrong job, and I am now worried.
I was doing my work. Inserting the right colour eyes. Aligning them. Putting in the tear ducts, moving on the heads. I looked up to the screen. The documentation stipulated that I should put in green-hazel eyes. ‘Speckled’ it said. With a specific dot of yellow on the right eye. And you might think me stupid to not realise straight away what I was doing. And I admit I did for a second feel a wave of familiarity cross over me as I read this, a ‘twirl in my stomach’, so to speak. But I did not think too deeply about this as it was four o’clock in the afternoon and I had been at my job for hours already. I began looking in my drawer for the correct eyeballs. I knew that I could find the left eye quite easily in the the green compartment, but the right one would have to be specially made. Sure enough, as I found an appropriate left eye – It was speckled with brown dots, like the night sky is with stars – the right eye rolled down the fifth compartment. I plucked it out. Then the head jolted to a stop in front of me. It wobbled a little bit but did not fall over, as they never do.
Even then, I did not really recognise the loose curls on its head, or the curve of its nose. So I popped in the eyeballs with my thumbs. Then I lowered my head and began to align. First left then right then left. In little increments I worked and then I removed my thumbs and stared into its eyes and shuddered. But the shudder did not stop at my spine. It went through my body, my spleen, my Adam’s apple, my knuckles, my fingers. Nothing was left unshuddered.
I sat in horror looking at my own head. Looking into my own eyes. My double’s mouth gaping. Ready for its intended function. Eyes popping. Like that, we must have been quite the sight for I too had my mouth gaping. But in shock. And my eyes must have been popping out also. Like I too had not yet been assembled eyelashes. For a moment I was frozen, unable to yell out. But then I stopped — stopped being frozen and I did what had to be done. I un-popped the eyes. This was difficult. The eyes are designed so they cannot be accidentally dislodged while the doll is in use. I had to use the screwdriver to pivot the eyes out. It took me a while, and when I was done each eye had a deep scrape perpendicular to the iris. I knew I was holding up production. I knew that my manager would be down soon to see what was holding up production.
When I got the eyes out I looked around frantic for different eyes. For eyes that would not make this doll my own. I found some grey ones. They were blank. Lifeless. I popped and aligned as quickly as I knew how. I heard my manager’s footsteps down the factory line.
‘What’s going on?’
I put the tear ducts in and moved the head along. The next head was coming, and the documentation above me changed. He would not see what I had done. His footsteps were almost upon me when I looked down and saw my own eyes. Scratched and rolling on my workbench in front of me. I grabbed a third eye, a dark brown one, and leant over. I stuffed the two damaged eyes into my socks. It looked as if I had oddly bony ankles.
‘Jenny, what are you doing down there?’
I straightened myself up. ‘I am very sorry sir. I lost an eye, and had to look around a while to find it.’ I presented the brown eye on my palm.
He paused and looked down at the eye. He leaned over and peered under the bench. I did not cross my ankles. ‘All right then,’ he said, and left.
I prayed he would not glance at the head one to my right in front the eyelash station. My prayer was answered: there was a commotion at the toenail line, and he was gone.
I keep my eyes in my socks. Every night I take them out and hold them. Stare into them as they stare into me. My right eye with its yellow dot looks just like my real one, but my left eye is different. On my left eye, the scratch of the screw driver goes all the way to the iris, cracks the surface, and splinters the eye colour with hundreds of hairline cracks that meet in little white dots, like stars. I used to think the iris of the ball was made of glass, but the way it has shattered underneath the surface, like there is a constellation right there in my left eye, I am not so sure.
Image: Julian Burgess / Flickr
If you enjoyed this special edition, subscribe and receive a year’s worth of print issues, the online magazine, special editions and discounted entry to our literary competitions