Wandering Green Eyes

Wandering Green Eyes

6/24/08

Kenneth Burchfiel


He remembered exactly when he first saw those little brown eyes.

On the glass kitchen table sat a folded newspaper, destined for the parrot cage, that had an inconspicuous advertisement on the bottom. He balanced himself on the mahogany to take a better look and saw a child’s face—an expressionless face—with only two little eyes to look at.

His mother walked over to pick him off of the chair, and he pointed to the picture. She merely looked at the words and shook her head, causing two diamond earrings to twinkle in the chandelier light.

The face left him for a few years before returning on a December evening, squeezed in between his Christmas wish list and . He could read by that point—picture book fare, but enough to let him connect the little red words on the ad to the little brown eyes.

He asked his mother about one of the words he saw, a word they hadn’t learned at Greenwood Academy.

“Poverty?” she said. “Poverty… is when you don’t have enough money.”

He didn’t quite understand what that meant. Not with his father’s sports car pulling into the driveway; not with the hundred-gallon aquarium casting teal reflections on the steel refrigerator. It seemed that those eyes held a story that he had never been told. He pushed the newspaper aside and went back to the Christmas list.

Maybe life would have turned out differently if that face had simply left him alone, disappeared from the newspaper like any self-respecting ad. Perhaps it would have followed the course of those five years that followed that December evening: five years in which no picture would distract him from what was billowing into a dream existence.

He was a stranger to those little brown eyes by the time they returned. It was the same ad, the same part of the newspaper, but the face looked markedly different. He couldn’t explain the change.

With his picture book days long passed, the copy was not hard at all to read. The child in the photo did not have a mother or a father; apparently, he was also “mal-nourished.”

Again, his mother was in the room; again, he asked her just what this meant.

“The poor thing,” she said, turning for the washing machine.

“Can we help him?” he asked.

His mother laughed so hard that a sock fell from the laundry basket in her arms. “Help it?” she said. “Why, that’s in Africa. It’s thousands of miles away!”

That seemed to settle it. If he couldn’t get to Africa, how could he help the face in the picture? The recycling man arrived a few hours later, and those little brown eyes were whisked away from under his. It was almost a relief to see the face go.

Much as he tried to resist it, though, that square of newspaper made a permanent imprint on his mind. His parents tried to wash it away with video games and vacations, but the pesky topic of human rights didn’t seem to go away.

Mrs. Lorres, his 6th grade teacher, told his class that anyone who bought in a newspaper article and gave a speech on it could win an ice cream coupon. The next day, he waited for an hour as everyone presented their stories. Avery talked about rising chocolate prices; Julia had a funny story about a stolen toilet; Erin had a sad story about his favorite baseball team’s 10th inning defeat. The huddled crowd of polo shirts and monochromatic ties clapped after each one.

When it was his turn, he stepped onto the Sharing Carpet and cleared his throat.

“My story is on the mass killings and starvation in Bosnia.”
The class went dead silent; only the clock dared to make any noise. He started to talk about the checkpoint murders and food poisoning, but Mrs. Lorres cut in.

“Erin? Erin, may I have a word with you?”

A mass of blue eyes watched him exit the classroom.

“Erin, you know that’s not school appropriate.”

He tilted his head in confusion. “The story… I saw the story on the front page of the Albeit Globe.”

“Erin, those things aren’t for little eyes to see. You wouldn’t want anyone to cry, would you?”

He certainly didn’t want anyone to cry. But the little brown eyes had seen more than that, he figured, and the advertisement always showed a tear running down the child’s face.

One day, he came home from school to find his father sitting on the couch with a newspaper. His dad wore a white-striped suit, the same one that he left for work in every day, and had a happy look on his face.

“Come over here, son.”

He shuffled onto the couch next to Pop.

“Do you see that?” he asked, pointing to a headline:

Carter and Browne sees Greatest Profit Margin in a Decade

“Your father’s company has been doing very well,” Pop said. “Do you know what the good news is? Someday soon, when your father gets old and wise enough, he’s going to give his business to you. That way, you can have just as much success.”

He smiled wide, just like his father wanted him to. But his grin was tempered somewhat by a black-bordered ad at the corner of the Business section. His eyes gravitated to the bottom of the page, where two little brown eyes stared back.

“Erin?”

He blinked. “Y-yeah?”

“You’d like to have this company, wouldn’t you?”

He nodded, still looking at the picture.

Rarely would he mention this taboo interest with his friends. They were far more inclined to discuss the trips they took on their parents’ yachts or debate whose summer home was the most exotic. If he said something about Africa, they would look at him a little funny and keep on talking.

His private school, nestled in between Champlain Estates and the Chestnut Reserves, had a proud history of “helping young men and women climb their way to the company ladder.” They learned all about staff management, foreign networking and—more than anything else—how to knock the other person off said company ladder. His teacher would watch students eying one another’s papers with a sense of pride.

He felt as if he were getting further and further away from those little brown eyes—even if he saw the advertisement every other Thursday. His parents would only shrug when asked about genocide; then, to change the subject, they’d talk about the value of self-reliance and the ability to think independently. When he asked a teacher about community service, she replied that his business education would be the best service “the community” could ask for.

And yet, it always seemed as if some thread of fate were linking his innocent eyes to a pair that had seen too much. Some force that caused him to mistype a URL and end up at the Genocide Prevention Group. Something in the air that pulled him to the stories of starvation and disease, even when his dad preferred him to read the Business section.


Junior year begun with clear goals in mind: 4.0 for a GPA. 2300 or better on the SAT. At least two high-profile internships with national bankers. It was to be his year, and his year alone.

The plan looked airtight from the outside. His grades were the envy of his peers; his SAT class, a breeze that complemented the autumn wind. For a few happy months, he was at the center of the world again—with no competing interests in sight.

Third quarter was when it began to unravel. The distractions were minor at first: he would see the little brown eyes appear during a math test or a physics lab, but only for a second or two. By March, however, he couldn’t go an hour without seeing the face. By April, the pull of those eyes was enough to derail his train of thoughts, a vehicle poised so firmly on the tracks of inheritance and success.

It all came crashing down in May. There sat an innocent essay prompt on his desk: “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” As much as he tried to conjure up his father’s vision of a cushy office chair and a sports car, no words came onto the page. All he saw were those little brown eyes—not just two, this time, but thousands.

He saw a bleak desert that had only tears for water; he saw mosquitoes; he saw coffin after coffin after coffin, many of which rested on the open sand. His classmates wrote happy drivel about Fortune 500 positions, but all he saw was a crowd of 500 with no fortune at all.

He knew he wasn’t supposed to take seriously those poorly designed charity ads in the paper. He simply couldn’t help it. There had come a flashpoint in his life where all the friction those brown eyes created had ignited a fire within his conscience.

A funny thing happened after that failed essay. Suddenly, he paid no more attention to the sports car in his driveway or the internships on his calendar. Even his GPA seemed a worthless pursuit. His parents offered reward after reward to rein him in, but their bait failed to impress.

By August, things seemed to have settled down. His dad commented on his son’s newfound exuberance; the kid looked passionate again, spirited. He would never guess the source.

Two weeks after senior graduation, Erin handed a one-way ticket to a boarding agent. She looked him up and down with narrowed eyebrows and wove him through.

His baggage consisted of two duffel bags and a tote; all the rest of it remained at the house, where he hoped it would stay forever. All he packed for a carry-on was a poorly cut advertisement showing a child’s face with green text on the bottom. The nonprofit’s logo matched the graphic on his business card.

His parents would ask him why, no doubt. Erin would explain the gist of it in four words: he could not turn away. Yachting trips and fundraisers had their appeal, but that face carried a simple plea that pulled him away from it all.

On the first day of the job, they showed him to a food bank that rested brazenly on the knife-sharp desert rock. The sun had not yet risen, but already, a crowd of 50 or 60 was lined up with baskets and bags.
Malnourished
. In poverty.

A pair of little brown eyes watched him step up to the warehouse’s entrance. Erin felt as if this child had spoken to him for the last fifteen years.

He finally had a way to reply.

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