THE NOUN THAT VERBS YOUR WORLD
by Amy Letter
I remember the taste, like pennies in my mouth, and copper sunlight angling through my kitchen window. The job interview started my heart—the interview of my life, just a few hours away. And I had been foolish enough to fall asleep like this: slouched across the kitchen counter, perched on a stool, left arm palm-up across the cutting board, an empty bottle of red wine still rested against my nose.
That left arm felt only a dull throb, needles and pins at the fingertips. I pretended they were ghost sensations. It was still tied off just below the shoulder with the strip of elastic I’d torn from my pants. I wondered if it would eventually die, if it would shrivel and fall from my body, if I left it tied like that.
When I stood, the arm slid down the cutting board: I couldn’t feel the wood against the skin, although I could see that it was rubbing. I stepped back and watched the arm slide off the counter, then swing from my shoulder like a dead fish hung from its tail.
The strange light soaked my kitchen, tingeing the knife blades so they looked half-rusted, or dipped in iodine. My entire drawer of knives was overturned onto the counter; some had fallen into the sink. I remembered making the mess—I’d been looking for the butcher knife, the heaviest, sharpest knife I owned. Thanks to the wine, I’d apparently forgotten that it’s in the cabinet over the refrigerator where my daughter, Kylie, can’t reach it. Kylie, I reminded myself, would be home from her father’s that afternoon.
I made a list in my mind: job interview, grocery shopping, clean house, cook supper, put Kylie to bed, put myself to bed. The day was over before it began, drowned by simple, undemanding tasks for an able-bodied woman of thirty-two. That same day, I thought, looking at the limp arm hanging from my left shoulder, would be filled with triumphs and challenges – and accomplishments – for a woman with only one arm.
So I went into my bedroom, pulled out my box of thick flesh-colored bandages, and began to wrap myself. It’s tricky, and takes practice, but I’d done it many times before. You just pull the left arm behind you with your right, then wedge it tight between your body and the mattress. Get one end of the bandage beneath a leg, and it’s a simple matter to wrap your arm tight into the curve of your back, close to your body. With a loose-fitting blouse and jacket, no one can tell it’s in there. And when they see the folded up the left sleeve, a safety pin holding it in place, they don’t look too closely. This is thrilling enough, but what comes next makes me want to sing: I do my hair and makeup, put on my panty-hose and shoes— all with one hand tied behind my back.
I’d done this many times, always at home, alone, when Kylie was at her father’s. I would do it just to look in the mirror—to see the woman I saw when I saw myself in dreams, the woman I was born to be. But this day, this special day, was the first time I would leave the house, to all appearances, an amputee.
When I walked out the door, I was filled with a sense of empowerment and energy. At that moment, had you asked me could I climb Everest, traverse the Arctic, follow the Nile to its source, I would have demanded we set out at once—onward into the unknown!
My first real discovery, however, was how important pockets become when one does not have an extra hand flopping around. Keys in pocket are pulled out, door is locked, keys are immediately returned to pocket to allow for elevator and revolving door operation.
Extraordinary care must be taken to keep balanced when mounting the bus, and as the bus begins to pull away. I grew more and more pleased with each lesson learned, and with the facility with which I learned it. I was a natural from the start, born to be bound.
There was some staring. Most of the people on the bus just averted their eyes a little more than usual, but some could not help themselves. What was a one-armed woman to do? I met their eyes and bullied them back with a broad and confident smile. Each of them crumpled and grinned back, then looked away in shame.
This thrill of power was tempered by an ambivalent discomfort, a vague fear of being discovered as a fraud. No part of me felt at all inadequate for having only one arm—quite the opposite! My only defect was the numb, stubborn presence of that useless appendage hidden in the small of my back.
As I crossed the block to make my transfer, I found that a steady walking pace in high-heels is awkward with only one arm for balance. In those few tens of yards I learned to make minute shifts with my shoulder, timed with my steps, so I could walk as well as anyone. Each step was a greater success for me, and I had it mastered by the time I reached the offices of Patimer and Price, where I would interview for legal librarian.
I’d already run a law library for a decade, but with two arms. When I heard about the opening at Patimer and Price, my mind filled with dreams of starting over, with one. No matter when and how the arm came off, I would have to present myself as an amputee from day one. The last night’s drunken attempt to hack off my own arm would have just landed me in the hospital, and I would have missed my interview, and would have had no chance at all of getting the job of my dreams. This way, I could present myself as I chose and still remove my arm when it was more convenient, perhaps before a three day weekend…
“Three-day-weekend” was the watchword of my marriage. Bruce and I believed we could do anything, given that extra day. For us, Saturdays were tedious and Sundays sleepy, but a nice, fat Friday or Monday placed in line with them changed the whole nature of the weekend: suddenly, we had the time and energy to accomplish all the little things we’d put off for months. In one weekend we could wallpaper the bathroom, organize the storage space, alphabetize the bookshelves, steam-clean the carpets, watch Ben-Hur and Dr. Zhivago back to back, and still have time to take Kylie to the zoo.
Even our marriage ceremony was timed to take advantage of a three day weekend. We were married on a Thursday after work, and by the time we returned on Monday, we’d had a full honeymoon on the west coast of Florida, complete with sightseeing, sailing, fine dining and love-making.
I remember listening to a jazz clarinetist in the hotel bar after visiting the Dali museum. We were drinking champagne and eating conch fritters; Bruce told me why he thought the Hallucinogenic Toreador was the most brilliant painting we saw; the soft armless Venus de Milo painted compulsively again and again, a bullfighter in her shadow, the viciousness of the bulls, the suggestion of blood and conflict, innocence and adoration. That night he tied me to the bedposts and told me I shamed the Venus with my beauty as he kissed the undersides of my knees.
I loved being with Bruce, but it was all just too easy. I need challenge in my life; it’s in my nature. I shook all thought of him and thought instead of lifting heavy volumes of precedents with only my right arm, climbing the sliding step ladder with enviable balance and grace.
I imagined the lawyers who would depend on me. They would regard me with admiration from the doorway, would say to each other, when they met for cocktails after work, “The new librarian is amazing. Have you seen how she handles those books? How she climbs up the ladder with two five-pound volumes stacked in the palm of her hand, and slides them both into place with such delicacy? Such mastery?”
I was early for my interview, but the receptionist did not make me wait. She called into Mr. Price’s office, told him I had arrived, and ushered me past his oaken threshold with a nod.
As I shook his hand, a flush of uncertainty overwhelmed me. I became intensely aware of the presence of the left arm against the flesh of my back. It felt sweaty but cold, a firm dead weight preventing me from resting comfortably in my chair. I realized that my bandages had loosened: an unprecedented event, since I had never subjected my wrappings to such prolonged and strenuous movement. I sat very straight and still, hoping they would loosen no more.
Mr. Price liked me from the start. “We’re very impressed with your résumé, Ms. Dumane,” he began, and smiled wide.
I pushed the thought of my saboteur limb from my mind, and replied, “I’m certainly enthused about the position. It’s my dream to manage a library as complete and as dynamic as yours.”
After a brief discussion of the firm’s collection, during which he almost managed to conceal his interest in my flattened, pinned left sleeve, he carefully ventured, “I’m especially impressed that there was no mention of your physical situation on your résumé.” He paused to measure whether or not he’d crossed the line.
Oh, the rush as the interview became mine to own! I nodded and held my expression, and said, “I believe, Mr. Price, that to seek an advantage through one’s disability is perhaps not immoral, nor is it even ill-advised, but I value my abilities above my disabilities, and hope that others do as well.”
“That is an admirable stance, Ms. Dumane. You’re clearly a person of great ability and accomplishment.”
I left that office with the job as firmly in my right palm as Mr. Price’s handshake. But the left arm had come partly undone. I went to the ladies’ room to rebind and refasten the left arm to my torso, but it was awkward, even in the handicapped stall, and the stubborn fact of its existence remained. It was clear that in the course of a working day, I would have to rebind myself several times. And it would only be a matter of time before someone discovered I had two arms.
Whether or not having one more arm than you’ve claimed is a dismissible offense, it would surely mean the end of my job. I could not continue on there once revealed. I walked a few blocks to the corner with the grocery and hardware stores.
I went grocery shopping first. Kylie would be home in just a few hours, and I didn’t have anything for dinner. I decided I would make her favorite, a tuna casserole with peas. I used a shopping basket, setting it down on the floor at each stop, for the cans of soup and peas and tuna, for the bag of noodles, for the bag of potato chips.
At the last minute I decided to get some strawberries too, to cut up and drench in powdered sugar, as Kylie likes them. I put the shopping basket down on the floor, pulled down a plastic bag, opened it with a deft jerk of my wrist, and leaned it against the slope of the strawberry pile. I began selecting them, choosing large, deeply reddened ones, the sweetest ones I could find. Then I heard the scream.
I turned to see, and slipped on some water on the floor. I lost my footing and swung around, and before I could catch my balance, I’d swung my right arm full force into the neck of a man who was running past me. His feet slid from under him, and his whole body rushed up in an acrobatic sweep that landed him flat on his stomach.
There was a blotch of sickly dark red near his forehead—I was terrified that I’d killed the man—but after a moment I recognized the big ripe strawberry I had in my hand when I struck him. Everyone in the produce section was watching; I’d never been so embarrassed in my life. To make things worse, my bandages had come loose again.
When everyone rushed over, I thought they were running towards him, so I did the same and dropped to my knees. “I’m so sorry!” I yelled. “Are you all right?” But then a gentle arm lifted me up, and I saw that everyone’s eyes were on me.
“Are you okay, Ma’am?” It was the store manager, in a tie and a green apron.
I was frantic. I said, “I didn’t mean to hurt him!”
“He’s a thief,” the manager said, and nudged the unconscious man with the toe of his polished shoe. “He grabbed a woman’s purse off her shopping cart.”
The manager took the man, the owner of the purse, and me into the back room where we waited for the police. The thief looked embarrassed, and sat in his chair with his eyes clamped shut and one hand on his forehead. His victim, a middle-aged woman with an expensive-looking purse, scolded him. “Is this any way to live your life?” she said. “Does your mother know you run around grocery stores stealing purses off shopping carts?”
I leaned my back against the wall and did my best to keep the left arm hidden. “You took him down like a professional wrestler!” the store manager said, and held out his arm, his left arm, oddly enough, and said, “Wham! Clothesline!” and laughed.
I returned him a forced little laugh, then told him, “I really have to go. My daughter will be home soon—I need to be there when she gets home.”
But he made me stay until the police arrived. The police took my statement with as much amusement as the manager. They taunted the thief with it. “You’re not much of a thief, getting taken down by a little woman with only one arm,” one of the cops said to him. “What a sorry excuse for a criminal!”
By the time they were finished with me, the store manager was taking photos. “My son writes for a neighborhood paper,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll want to run a story about this. You’re a hero, Ms. Dumane!”
I smiled for the photos, and when he was done, he told me that my groceries were on the house, bagged them for me, and I left. My bandages were almost completely undone. Nonetheless, I slipped into the hardware store and bought the heaviest axe they had for twenty-six dollars and thirty-two cents, which struck me as a mighty small price for freedom.
When I arrived home, I dropped the groceries and the axe on the floor and checked the time. It was two o’ clock, and I was expecting Bruce to come with Kylie at three. I slowly released the left arm from my waist. After hours of being held against my back, the muscles were sore and tight, but I was glad it hurt. My hatred for that limb was so complete that I was actually pleased that it was uncomfortable. I used it to help me pull out a pot to boil water for Kylie’s noodles. Once the pot was on the heat, I noticed my answering machine flashing, so I played the message.
It was Mr. Price. “We’d like you to start a week from today, if possible,” he said. A wave of relief washed over me. “But, if necessary, we can give you two weeks to make the adjustment and prepare to begin here.”
Relief turned to excitement: two weeks! Two weeks of recovery time! Two weeks, after which no one would ever know I hadn’t been an amputee all along! I called Mr. Price’s office and told him that two weeks would be perfect, and that I would be very interested in going over the previous librarian’s records at home, in the meantime. He promised to have them delivered and we thanked each other. I hung up the phone.
I weighed my options, whether to do it that night, while Kylie was in bed, and leave myself in need of a sitter when the paramedics came. No, I thought, I should call her father and see if he could keep her another night. I looked at the clock; it was nearly three. I called his cell. “Bruce,” I said. “Where are you?”
“I’m in your lobby. What’s up?”
“Can you keep Kylie another night?”
“Why? We’re already here.”
“I think I might need to do something tonight.”
“What? Cut off your left arm?”
“I got the job at Patimer and Price, but they think I’ve only got one arm. What would happen if I showed up with two?”
“Betty,” he said, then sighed. “We’re on our way up.” He hung up. In a moment, he was knocking on the door.
I opened it, and he stepped in right away, but Kylie lingered on the threshold. “Please, Bruce,” I said. “Please, just do this one thing for me.”
His eyes moved directly to the axe on the floor. “You mean it this time, don’t you?”
“I’ve always meant it, but it’s got to be tonight. I start my new job in two weeks. It’s perfect, plenty of time to recover.”
“And in the meantime, I’m taking care of Kylie every day. Is that how it is? You’re in the hospital, slurping lime Jell-O, watching soaps, and I’m taking care of Kylie full time?”
“I’m doing this, Bruce. You can leave her here and she can go to the hospital with me, or you can take her for another night or two and save her and me the trouble.”
“And those are my choices, huh?”
I put my hand on my hip and looked at Kylie. She had her left pinky finger shoved all the way up her nose, but before I could say anything, Bruce grabbed her snotty hand and started pulling her down the hall. “I’m taking Kylie and I’m calling the police. You want to cut your arm off, I’d say you have about fifteen minutes.”
“You wouldn’t!” I said, but before I could say anything else, he had his phone to his ear and was pressing the button for the elevator.
“200 East 90th Street, apartment 4D. A woman’s getting ready to cut off her own arm. Yes, she’s going to do it herself. She’s got an axe, and she’s going to cut it off. 200 East 90th, apartment 4D.” He hung up as the elevator doors opened. “Good luck,” he yelled, and pulled Kylie inside. I watched the doors close. No sooner had I walked back into my apartment than the phone was ringing. I picked it up.
The voice was dull, as though it emanated from a goat instead of a person. “Emergency Medical Response has received a call regarding injury at this location,” it bleated. “Are you all right, ma’am?” I hung up.
The axe still had its black rubber safety guard on. I pulled it off and was pleased to see that the blade was razor-sharp. I laid it down next to the cutting board and found the strip of elastic that had been doing such a poor job of tying off my arm all day, and wound it back around the left arm, just at the armpit.
The phone started ringing again. I listened for the answering machine to pick it up. “This is Emergency Medical Response. We’ve received a call regarding injury at this location. Police and Emergency Medical Services have been dispatched. Hello? Is anyone there?” She was still on the line when my machine hung up on her.
I remember the moment before I dropped the axe very clearly. The phone was ringing again, and the water I had put on some time ago for the noodles was at a hard boil. The boil seemed to be the loudest thing in the room, but I could also hear a high-pitched tone ringing in my ears, and the rush of my own blood coursing past my eardrums.
I had the offending arm laid across the cutting board, palm up. The soft veiny underflesh of my upper arm throbbed fearfully. I marked the impact point by cutting myself gently with the axe, pulling it across that soft skin. Once I saw it bleed, I hefted the axe high above my head, and started to feel light, as though only the weight of the axe were holding me down. I didn’t close my eyes.
It was hot. It felt like I’d burned myself, like I’d poured the boiling water from the pot onto that spot of flesh. There was blood, a lot of blood, but not as much as I’d expected. It splattered on my face and all across the counter, the spots no larger than a dime, but then a river flowed, and after a hesitation, it flowed again, pulsing my blood out onto the counter. The axe had gone through the fat, muscles, and veins, and halfway through the bone. I don’t recall being panicked. Just determined. I tightened the elastic, holding it in my teeth, and dislodged the axe from the bone. I was starting to see spots before my eyes, so I raised the axe to a lower height, so I could control things more clearly, but so I had to use more force. This time the axe nearly severed the bone. I knew it would need only one more stroke.
There was blood everywhere. My vision had become blotted by patches of red and black, and there were yellow spots appearing like daffodils blossoming in mid-air. I’d lost most of the feeling in my legs, and felt dizzy, and sleepy. I lifted the axe the third time—this was the most difficult part—and managed to drop it and guide it well, finally severing that arm from my body.
The long-hoped-for relief, the joy of success, freed me a bit from the fog I was in. I re-tightened the elastic to staunch the blood flow, and moved, leaning on the counter the whole way, towards the pot of boiling water. I held my former left hand in my right, the arm dragging along the counter, leaving a thick streak of blood in its path. That arm was heavy, and I was weak, so it took a great deal of effort to get it up onto the rim of the pot, but I knew I would have to do something to damage the arm, or they’d just sew it back on again.
I dropped it in, severed side first, before I slid to the ground. I was disoriented, and I must have held onto the arm a little too long, because the pot of boiling water came crashing down, splashing my legs. I felt no pain from the water, just a lively tingle.
I didn’t hear them knocking on the door, but I heard the noise as they came in. It sounded like a distant train, an indistinct whirl of sound and motion. Then it was all around me. People were moving me, pinching me, lifting me, and then it felt like someone was embracing me, squeezing me tight.
When I regained consciousness, I kept my eyes shut. I knew I was at the hospital because of that signature smell: alcohol and bodily fluids. Stinging pain rang through what felt like my left arm, similar to the pain from my burnt legs. I told myself I felt only ghost sensations, finally convincing myself to open my eyes. And there it was: clamped to me with a blue foam-rubber and steel contraption, wrapped in blood-stained gauze. It looked bloated and miserable, discolored, half-dead and hideous—and it was sewn back onto my body!
I pressed the call button for a nurse, and when she arrived, she cut off my indignant tirade to tell me that Bruce and Kylie were there to see me. Kylie climbed into my bed and hugged me, and Bruce just laughed at me from his chair beside the door. I was fuming. “I’m just going to pull it off again,” I told him. “The first chance I get.”
“Oh, I know,” he said, overcome with delight. “I just wish I could have seen your face when you woke up and realized they put it back!”
I started work at Patimer and Price two weeks later, right on time. By then, the burns on my legs had healed completely, and my phantom left arm’s pains were starting to subside. When I arrived for my first day, Mr. Price greeted me with a tabloid-style newssheet in his hand. My picture filled half the front page, under the headline: WOMAN FOILS THIEF—SINGLE-HANDED.
“You’re bar-none the most capable librarian we’ve ever hired,” he said. “I can’t tell you how pleased we all are to have you on our team.” In the picture, I could see a little bulge where arm and loosened bandages were, under my blouse and jacket. It made me smile to think those same treacherous fingers, that whole treacherous arm, were all at the bottom of the East River—where I’d hurled the damn thing after I got it home and methodically undid the sutures. I framed the article and hung it high above my desk, climbing up the ladder with poise and grace, reaching up the wall balanced on one, single, powerful, elegantly outstretched leg.
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