“The Arm,” a short story by Henry Giardina

 

I made my choice, and I don’t have no regrets so far. That’s a lot better than some folks in town can say. It’s been about, oh, four years now since they took the arm. Actually took it, I mean. I made the choice for it to go much earlier—I guess I must have been about seven or eight.

 

I remember a game of baseball, and a friend of mine hit one way out of the park. We saw it soaring high—it should have been a fly ball but it wasn’t. It sang through the air, swift and clean, and we saw it come straight down and through the roof of a house. Broke the skull of an old man who ended up dying on contact. I never saw his body, but I heard about it later, how the ball had hit him at the exact most vulnerable spot on his head. The part that’s soft and dented-like when you’re a baby. It splattered his brains across the walls. That’s what happens, I thought, when you hit it out of the park.

The arm was a bold choice, though, even without taking this into account. At least, it seemed that way to a lot of folks. They advised me against it—no they said, don’t go so big, it’s foolish! Take off a toe, or an earlobe, or a finger if necessary, don’t take off a whole limb.

But I had to do what I had to do. I didn’t want to go halfway. And you know, you’d be surprised how few things in this life require both arms.

I never had a good feeling about arms, not since I was a kid. I saw fistfights. Pop hit Mama with great, swinging arms. Other guys around town did the same. Pop never hit me, but I can’t say that’s really a point in his favor. He knew how I hated him. Ever since I made my choice about the arm he’s refused to speak to me. Cutting off an arm, in our family—that’s just about the biggest insult you give.

See where I come from, you have to get rid of something. And it says a lot about you, what you get rid of, and how. They encourage you to start thinking about it pretty young here. Maybe ten or eleven. I don’t think that’s wrong, it’s a big choice after all. Of course you don’t have to make it right away—you’ve got till about thirty I reckon, before folks start looking at your crooked. But you mostly want to get it over with. The pain is harder when you’re older, the body is slower to heal up. I wanted it done just as soon as can be. Some folks really beat themselves up thinking about what they want to lose. It’s a hard choice to make on your own. But nobody else can do it for you, neither.

A lot of the rich folks, they go easy on it. Choose an earlobe or a toe, one of the soft parts of the body that isn’t gonna be missed so much, and they go to a hospital and get all doped up to do it.

The rest of us, we don’t do that. We want to walk around proud. We know if we’re gonna give something up we’re gonna do it right. It says a lot about you, what you give up. Everybody’s gonna know, there’s no hiding it. The people giving you a job, trusting you—they’ll know about it. So it better say something about you.

But even the poor folk, they don’t usually take off a whole limb. Some kid’ll go into the woods and you’ll hear a great howl, and he’ll come back out and you’ll know he’s missing something, but you can’t see what. Maybe later you’ll be at the bar playing pool with him, and he’ll roll up his sleeve and you’ll see it. He’s missing an elbow, maybe, or a fingernail. And you’ll know, depending, just how much you can afford to mess with him.

Now me, I had to go to a hospital. I couldn’t do it by myself. An arm’s too hard to do, too easy to mess up. I went to the doctor and said, take off just as much as you can without making me bleed out. And easy on the anesthetic. And the Doc saw me and figured I was a typical blow-hard, so he gave me the works. Conked me out real good. When I woke up, it was to the cleanest job I’ve ever seen done. He sliced it clean off, beautiful, like I’d been born with it. I felt like I’d been asleep for days. And the pain afterward wasn’t that much. He handed me a bottle of pills with a wink and said, ‘now, don’t be too brave, son.’

That was the last I saw of the Doc. He died of a seizure awhile back. In the middle of an operation, no less. It was a real shame.

I can’t say it’s been any great hardship, having to go around without an arm. Folks in other parts of the world do it every day with no say in the matter. And it wasn’t my pitching arm, I made sure of that. Not that I do much pitching.

 

I work for a small travel agency on the edge of town. People come to me to get advice on where they want to go, if they’re fixing to leave. And I’m honest with them. They know they can trust me, too, because of the arm. Nobody’s gonna distrust a guy with one arm the way they might some guy who shaved off a pinky or a nipple. They look at me and they see a right guy. They know I’m not like my Pop. He never had a good reputation in this town.

It happened that Pop got into some trouble awhile back. He was selling a bad product, real bad, and he knew it. Some kind of liquid in a jar—a paste. Made it so you’d look like you’d gotten rid of something when you hadn’t. Well, you can imagine, people didn’t like that. He was run out of town on a rail—good riddance, I said. The mayor came to me the day after just to make sure I was okay with it. He sat me down, like it was any great thing to me at all, and told me what they were planning to do.

“I know it’s hard on you, son, but you’ve gotta understand,” he said to me, “we just don’t have room for that kind here. Not in our town.”

I told him I understood perfectly. That there wasn’t any love lost between me and the old man.

Of course, you know, Mama cried. She wasn’t happy about it. But she knew he was no good. She knew she’d married a wrong guy, right from the start. He was always trying to cut corners.

Now it’s a lot more peaceful here. I go to the travel agency every day, about eight o’clock. We don’t get many visitors. People browsing, that’s all. They dream of a big vacation, getting away from here, but most of them are afraid to do it. They don’t know what they’ll find out there.

“We need a guy like you around here,” Mr. Minsk said to me. He heads the travel agency—sought me out for the job. “You’re a brave kid.”

Now I don’t like to go blowing my own horn. All I did was take an arm off. But everybody’s gotta go acting like I’m some hero of something. It makes me uncomfortable.

Anyway, the other day a lady comes into the agency. Says she wants to go to the next town over.

“I hear it’s nice there,” she says.

Now I tell her the truth—that there’s nothing over in the other town but a graveyard. She doesn’t care.

“I’d like to pay my respects,” she says.

It seems her old man’s buried there.

Now it might seem funny to you, but people need to get permission to get out of town. That’s why they come to me. I gotta let them know the risks. See nobody leaves our town without having a mighty good reason, and they don’t get permission unless they’ve made a strong case.

So I tell her that should be all right. Visiting her husband and all. Can’t nobody find fault with that. So we give her a furlough for a day’s visit. But then that day passes. And a day after that. And a day after that. Well, we started getting suspicious around the town. We started wondering if maybe that sweet old lady wasn’t exactly telling the truth.

“I can’t think of a worse sin,” said Mrs. Atkins, “than to lie. It’s just awful!”

Mrs. Atkins runs the library, except it’s hard, on account of her missing the very top of her head. She’s pretty vain about it, and wears these big type of hats—the kind you see at the racetrack. So she’s always bumping into everybody, knocking over bookshelves and that. Nobody likes to visit the library for that reason.

“That old woman was never no good,” said Mrs. Stevenson. “I knew it the day she set foot in our town.”

“Now Letty,” said Mrs. Harper, “you know she did no such thing. That woman was born in this town and you know it!” She clucked with disapproval. “Miss Letty Stevenson! Acting like we take in strangers here. The thought of it.”

Now these three ladies are friends, and they spend most of their time at the club, where all the rich folks hang out. When it was their time, they went in together to get their parts taken. Now they sit at the club and talk about other people, and about the great sacrifice they made.

“I hate that I can never go swimming,” said Letty Stevenson. “I’m just too embarrassed.”

“Why Letty Stevenson, you should be proud!” said Mrs. Harper. “It ain’t everybody who can go around getting their bellybutton removed without a scar!”

“There is too a scar,” scowled Mrs. Stevenson. See she’s very sensitive about it. I’d say all the gals are.

 

Now there’s a funny thing that happened earlier, with this lady that went out of town. I don’t know if I should tell you, you being an out-of-towner and all, but I guess there’s no harm in it. See, when the mayor found out she was gone, he kicked up a great fuss. Said it reflected badly on the town and all, to have our folk wandering all about the four counties like it was nothing. It wouldn’t of been so bad, you know, if it weren’t for others. Lots of kids missing lately, wandering over the town line. Imagine, to see some good kids and a respectable old woman living among those heathens in the other towns—now that just wouldn’t do. Well, he sent a search party after her is what he did. He went to that old graveyard town and tried to track her down, and you know what? The funniest thing happened. When they got there they went to her husband’s grave, and you know what they saw? An identical plot right next to his, with her name on it, inscribed and everything, saying she died some years before.

Now you can imagine our mayor, he didn’t like that. That got him all in a tiff. He just didn’t know what to make of it.

So the first thing he did, he came to me.

“John boy,” he said, taking his hat off and resting it on my desk. The mayor’s a mighty worried fella, so he’s always got a kind of a red brim around his head, from where he’s been sweating though his hat. “John boy, I want you to pull out the file on old Mrs. Withers.”

I obliged him.

He flipped through it, breathing heavy as he did, like he’d been running a mile, and then he stopped on a page. “Here,” he shouted. “HERE!”

Well it said the lady in question had died three years back, on the table.

“She was getting both her legs removed. Both!” he said.

“Why, that don’t make sense,” I say.

“It does when you know why,” he said. “Look.”

He showed me the folio. Seems like her husband ran out on her sometime ago. What’s more, he did it before he’d gotten rid of anything. Well, there’s a pretty strict policy on that. You’ve got to give enough for you and your spouse in a case like that. So this woman, she went all out. I guess she figured she might as well give all she’d got. The poor lady, she died on the table, so it said. It was the new doctor who’d done it—the one who replaced old Doc. None of us quite trusted him yet. It wasn’t that he was especially untrustworthy—he wasn’t from out of town or anything like that—but he hadn’t done anything to really gain our trust.

Now the old Doc, he was really a great guy. We were all of us sad to see him go. He was kind of a hard fella to talk to, and he drank a lot. But when he warmed to you, he was the greatest conversationalist there was. He’d tell you stories of way back in the old days of the town, before people had to get rid of things.

“Oh way back, now this is way back, mind you,” he’d say, looking at you kind of under his glasses, “we lived here like those heathens in the other counties. Now that wasn’t no good, and we knew it. We knew we were better than that. Why those folks in those other counties, they got so they’d be usin’ medicine for the wrong things, you know. Like—well, bad things. I can’t tell you what,” he’d say. “Just know that it’s better now. We got values here. And you should be proud of ‘em.”

Well I’ve never had a reason to be less than proud, except maybe when it came to my old man. But the whole town was ashamed of him. He was a bad egg—that’s what Pastor Tom always said. A very bad egg. Everybody thought so.

 

“Now what,” says the Mayor now, “in hell are we gonna do about this, boy?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well you better know!” he said, sweating. “I’m holdin’ you accountable!”

Now I didn’t get all flustered and ask ‘why’—I know how the mayor is. He likes to go around shifting the blame. He’s got a lot on his plate. So I just sit back and take it usually, and I know he’ll come to his senses once the whole thing’s blown over.

“Well listen,” I said, “why don’t I do a little investigative work around town?”

“You’d better,” he said. He took his hat off the desk and wish me a good day. I figured this all means I’d better close up shop for a few days, till I get to the bottom of this mess.

My first stop was the library, to look at the town records.

“Let’s see, let’s see, Withers,” said Mrs. Atkins, running her long-nailed finger along a line of text. “Yes, been in the county for about 110 years. That’s about three generations.” She looked up at me. “Newcomers,” she said. Her eyes narrowed a little.

“I see.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, closing the book.

“Sure, sure—you’ve been a great help, Miss.”

She looked at me kind of cross-eyed.

Miss?” she said. “John Bishop, I’ll remind you I am a married woman.”

Librarians are very particular about this point.

“My mistake, Mrs. Atkins,” I apologized and tipped my hat to her, and she looked at my one arm, and a sort of look of pity run across her face.

“Well … well never mind, son,” she said. “You run along. Good luck to you.”

 

Next thing I did was I saw the Doc. The new one—like I said, the old one’s dead.

“Oh, Stephanie Withers?” he said, looking up at me. “Sure, sure. I remember her. Had two legs taken off. One for her, one for that man of hers who ran out. Shame, really. A man his age runnin’ out on his wife. A real shame. What was he gonna do at his age, find a young doxie? Heh!” The Doc looked back down on the patient he’s operating on. I recognized her—Mrs. Norman Perkins, who lives down on the South Side. Just turned thirty about a week ago. She was having her ankle done.

“Don’t you remember anything else, Doc?” I said.

He looked thoughtful, kind of lifting his head up in the air.

“Why no, son, I don’t,” he said. “Of course if you’d like a look at my files, I’d be happy to oblige.”

 

The Doc’s files tell me that the operation went off without a hitch. Now this puzzles me. If my memory was better, I suppose it wouldn’t. All I remember about her is a sweet old lady in a wheelchair asking about going out of town. I didn’t look to see what she’d got rid of, not wanting to be too rude and all. But it seems to me like the Doc’s story might check out. This means I have to do something I’d rather not do.

 

“I’ve got to go out of town,” I told the mayor next day. He looked at me like he’d just swallowed his own heart.

“Why, what do you mean? Out of town? We can’t have all manner of folks going out of town, not in the wake of this … catastrophe! Besides,” he says, “who’ll vet you?”

I told him I’d vet myself. Since I’m the one who would normally do it anyway.

“Well boy, it’s a half-cocked idea, but I guess these are half-cocked times, ain’t they,” he says. “Go with God, son. And whatever you find,” and he lowered his voice and kind of looked at me with a wild look, “you take care of it, son. Take care of it.”

 

Now I’d never been out of town before. Not once in my life. I’d never so much as had the traveling itch, never mind the travel bug that folks talk about. I like our town just fine, and the thought of leaving it fills me with a kind of apprehension. I don’t like it, but I know it’s gotta be done.

At the train station next day, I got a terrific send-off. Lots of tears, weeping, my mama clinging to me like she wasn’t expecting to see me again this side of heaven. I told her I’d be coming right back, but she didn’t believe me.

“Look John,” she says with tears in her eyes. “Look, you don’t know how it is out there. There’s bad people, there’s—just promise me you’ll come right back, as soon as can be. Promise.”

I looked right at her and stroked her hair and said, “I promise, Mama.”

She was the last thing I saw as the train pulled out. The next thing was great rows of corn, stretching far into the next county. There’s a pretty clear line that separates us from the next town over, but you’d never know it unless you were way up in the air, getting a bird’s eye view. From down here it’s just corn far as the eye can see. When you’re passing by in a train it all blurs together in one dirty yellow streak.

The next town over begins, after the cornfield, with a graveyard. Now the thing that really strikes you about it is how wide it is, how far out it spreads. And the tombstones are identical. Square-shaped stumps rising out of the ground, about squat and wide enough to sit on. You can almost picture as many people as tombstones just sitting down on ‘em to read, or talk to each other. Our town has nothing like that. We don’t bury our dead, we burn ‘em. Pastor Tom says ‘ashes to ashes’ is one part of the Bible that’s meant to be taken literal. Besides, all that good farmland wasted just to hold dead bodies? It ain’t practical. Nobody thinks so. The only part of our town that’s wide enough for it, and isn’t already claimed as farmland, is the baseball field, and nobody’s gonna give that up. Baseball’s just about as important a thing as any in our town—even more so. A kid learns to pitch early in our town, and to pitch good. Really chuck it high, high into clouds, where it belongs. You get a feeling of yourself as something bigger when you’re doing it, like you’re in charge of life and death.

So naturally I’m thinking about this now, looking at this graveyard. And I take my ball out of my bag—the ball that killed that old man—I always keep it with me. My friend, the one who did it, he gave it to me after he gave up the game, saying he didn’t know anybody else brave enough to keep it. And he knew I wouldn’t do any harm with it, me having one arm and all. Walking in the graveyard with everything kind of spooky like, I put my hand around it and feel its weight in my palm, which always helps calm me down. Usually I don’t ever take it out of its hiding place, but I’m in a new place and all and I’m feeling unusual, so what I do, I take this ball and I chuck it way high up, high into the sky, and it comes down slow, and as it does I see the oddest sight: A hand pops straight up from behind one of the tombstones, like the Lady of the damn Lake, and catches it. Just like that. As smooth a thing as you ever saw—like in the big leagues. Or so I imagine.

So naturally I’ve got to go over now, and see what this is all about. In retrospect I guess I should have been scared, but I wasn’t really, just spooked and kind of off-feeling. And before I get there I see the arm—and the body attached to it—rise full up from behind the tombstone, and look at me.

“I had a feeling it’d be you,” he says.

“You’re sure cocky,” I say. “Sure, you know everything.”

Now I ain’t seen Pop in about ten years. Not since I’ve become a man, in the true sense. I don’t know what he sees when he looks at me, but I know he ain’t proud, and I don’t care.

“You finally got out of that little town’s grasp,” he says to me. “Good on ya, boy.”

“I didn’t get out of nothing,” I say, and spit on the ground between us.

He laughs at that.

“Now I know you hate me boy,” he says. “I know you do. That’s your right. Every boy’s gonna grow up hatin’ his Pop. That’s just science.”

“It ain’t,” I say.

“Well, you take it from me,” he says, nodding his head. “You listen to your old man now. There’s a wider world than you know, boy.” He looks around him and spreads his arms out, and smiles so the sun catches on his white teeth. “You’re in it now, boy, you’re in it. And you got two choices. You can run on back to ‘em, and live out your life there, and die havin’ never seen nothin’, or you can run away. You can stay gone. You can become something better.”

“You ain’t got no right to talk about it,” I say. I snatch my ball out of his hand.

“Maybe not, maybe not,” he says. “But if you listen to one thing your old man says, you listen to this.” He looks at me. “That little town is full of hate. They hate you and they’ll wear you down. And they’ll make you get rid of a lot more than the one arm, son.” He points to my stump, where my arm used to be. “You mark your daddy’s words, they will. And it’ll be too late.”

Well about now I’m putting two and two together. I figure this kind of thing is what my Pop’s been doin’ with his spare time. Getting people out of town and faking their death, or something like that, so they won’t have to pay their due to society. Takin’ old people and kids first, and then, pretty soon, everybody.

“You’ve got old lady Withers over here, don’t you,” I say.

He just smiles.

“She wanted to be free to find that man a’ hers,” he says. “You wouldn’t understand it,” he smiles at me, kind of lopsided. “You probably never been with a gal. Probably never even tried anything. It’s a wonder you didn’t get that thing taken off instead of you old arm there.” He laughed then like I imagine the devil laughs, all surrounded by hellfire like in the cartoons.

I got the ball in my one hand now, still in my pocket. Look hard at it, and you can still see bits of blood on it. It’s dried and brown, but if you know where that ball’s been its unmistakable.

“How’d I come from you anyway.”

“What?” he says. “Scum like me? Simple. My daddy was scum. I’m scum. You’ll be scum soon enough, even though you’ll think yourself the most righteous man that ever walked. And if you ever get enough sense in your head to use that thing God gave you, your son’ll be scum too. And he’ll hate you just like you hate me.”

“He won’t.”

“You’ll try everything with him,” he says. “Everything to make him love you. But he just won’t. You know why? Because they ain’t nothing there to love.”

My hand’s around the ball, squeezing it tight.

“You think I loved your mama? You think she loved me? You think anybody in that town cares a mite about you or your little life or your ‘sacrifice?’ You’re a dumb one, that’s for certain. Dumber than I ever thought.”

I turned around to go, still with my hand in my pocket.

“You think they’ll stop at the arm, boy? They won’t.”

I turned my head back.

“You don’t know anything.”

“They’ll want every piece of you, those bible-thumping idiots. Until there’s nothing left but a hank of hair and a blood-stained hanky where you used to be. They’ll eat you right up where you stand. You wait and see.”

“You don’t know nothing,” I said.

“You wait and see boy.”

“You don’t know—”

I try to catch my breath, but my hand is high and the ball clutched inside it, turning my knuckles white.

“Now son,” says Pop now, looking at me. “What are you doin’ son. Son. Put that down. Son …”

 

I’m back in town on the evening train. It’s a beautiful night in the town center, and everybody’s wearing their best. The ladies are in fine attire, summer dresses that cover up the parts they got rid of. The librarian, Mrs. Atkins, is wearing her biggest, prettiest hat.

I don’t feel like celebrating. I feel like being alone. I’ve always been a lonesome kind of guy, really. Everybody says so. It don’t mean they don’t like me, it just means I’m a little different. I keep a distance—everybody says so. They make up reasons for it, too. “Oh, it’s on account of his Pop, the boy practically had no father.” Well, it’s nothing to do with that at all, and I tell ‘em so. Can’t a fella be lonesome?

I go out to the baseball field and stand there awhile. I’ve got the ball still in my hand. I hold it in my hand and look at it. I look it hard in the face, and finger the seams. And I throw it as high as can be—so high that it’s not coming back, and I know it. I never saw it hit the ground. I guess the moon caught it.

 

 

Henry Giardina is a trans/nonbinary writer living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker.com, The New York Times Book Review, the Paris Review Daily, and The Atlantic, among other outlets. He is a 2016 MacDowell Fellow and a 2018 Edward F. Albee Fellow.

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