My arm is missing. Last night I’d been feeling very sick. I’d taken lots of pills. At some point I believe I must’ve passed out in the big red chair, in front of the TV. I woke up sometime around 5am with a jerk, a bag of nacho flavored tortilla chips crumpled on top of my stomach, empty except for the red nacho dust trapped in the corners of the bag. And I remember getting up shortly after that and going upstairs, falling into bed, falling asleep again. When I woke up again it was 2:30pm. It was only when I finally made it to the bathroom sink and made is if to wind the dental floss around my thumb that I noticed. Even then, a delayed reaction. The reaction still on delay. I pick up the phone.
“Oh good, you’re up. What is it…?”
“Ma, my arm is missing,” I say.
“Did you look behind the sofa?” Ma says. I did not. I look behind the sofa. I don’t find it. And it is a little while longer, still, before it even occurs to me to wonder in the first place…what would an arm be doing behind the sofa? What would MY arm be doing behind the sofa? Ridiculous. But, ridiculous or not…it is an arm. It’s the kind of thing you miss. Asking why it’s gone at this point is not the most productive line of questioning, I think. When something as essential as an arm just disappears, or rather, goes missing…the best thing to do is stay calm…and find it.
I need to get to work. The business of showering—getting up a good lather—getting myself dressed—is difficult, and slow going. The obvious thought comes to mind, then: you never miss something like an arm, until it’s gone. Is it that obvious? In any case, my right sleeve hangs limp and empty—unfilled—dangling in the breeze. In the still, stagnant air. There might be a more graceful way of attacking that. But I’m late as it is…so I let it dangle and flap absently behind me, as I walk. Ma did not have very good advice.
So that’s it. My arm is gone…missing, somewhere. Don’t know if I’ll find it, or how; where do you go looking for such a thing? It’s not bleeding, not grisly, just gone. My shoulder perfectly rounded into my torso, like an incomplete mannequin. Smooth, pristine, even somewhat graceful. Some assembly required. Perhaps a bucket of right arms is sitting somewhere, maybe halfway across the world, in a Chinese factory. I’m missing something. You count on all the parts being there in the package when you open it up. There is almost never a misprint. Still, a torso with a missing arm never looked as natural and elegant. So I don’t think to go to the hospital. Instead, I board the train; my valise clutched under my one good arm, my empty sleeve flailing behind me, getting caught in the automatic sliding doors. I tug on it and pull it loose just as the train gets to moving. There’s a middle-aged woman seated in front of me; she notices my futile attempt to hang onto the valise while also gripping onto the strap overhead, trying not to drop my papers and not to tumble over with the momentum of the bus.
“Please…” she says, and stands.
I stop myself before hesitating, and readily accept the seat. “Thank you,” I say, plopping down onto the seat as we change places. “Rough morning.”
“It is cold out,” she says.
I smile politely and gently fold the empty right sleeve into a neat sort of triangle in my lap. I say nothing of it. We barrel down the street in this bus, onto wherever we are going, and not much more is said. She seems very nice.
The train lurches to a stop. She says, “Will you join me”. A distinct absence of a question mark. As she holds out her left hand, I think, and hesitate for a moment.
“Of course.” She simply grabs the slack of my empty right sleeve and pulls me up, towards her. We end up in a coffee shop somewhere.
We sit there for a long time, not talking, not even looking at each other. But the company is mutually appreciated. It’s a while after I order anything…a Coke…that I allow myself to wonder. “So…it’s definitely nicer out now.”
“Nicer than it was before, certainly,” she says, looking just past me.
“I feel like I’m missing something,” I say…completely oblivious in that moment of the obvious. My empty arm, hanging impotently off my shoulder, swaying just slightly in the open air. “I mean, I don’t think I know your name.”
“It is nice out. I thought it would rain all day, like it’s been…” she took a sip of water. “I just couldn’t do it today. I couldn’t go today.”
“Work,” she says. “I feel I’m missing something too. It’s nice to meet a complete stranger sometimes. To not even know names. I feel like I know everything too well. It gets old. I can’t explain it.”
“Things do get old,” I say. “I think I know what you mean. I think we both picked the right train today.”
“Those trains are awful…one of those things you get to know too well. People bump into you…people grope you…guys cop a feel, then pretend they just lost their balance for a moment. And what can you do?”
I don’t know what to say to that. “I do hate crowds.” We sit a while longer, and then we part company. It was nice to sit with someone, and nice not to discuss the arm. Halfway to work, I remember I’ve been fired. Then the memory of last night begins to seep in, drop by drop. Dripping in. I’ve been half-asleep for a week at least, eating pills. I notice the lightness of my valise and remember all it contains: a bottle or two of pills, some saltines…maybe a small bottle of grapefruit juice. Now I remember; I’ve been doing this for weeks…waking up, getting dressed, getting on the bus, carrying this near empty valise, knowing only faintly that the job I’d been going to and passing out at every day for what seems like years had finally let me go. Good enough for government work. But even government work requires you to at least be conscious and somewhat coherent a couple hours out of an eight hour work day. I couldn’t manage that. I reach into my valise with my one hand and grab a bottle, rattle a couple pills out of the bottle, pop them into my mouth and chew. The taste is bitter. I wash it all down with a swig of grapefruit juice…supposedly helps speed up absorption.
“Jesus, you look like shit.” A former colleague says as I’m seated uncomfortably on a stoop, in the doorway of a sad old shoe repair shop. His name escapes me. Youngish guy. Slicked-back hair, too much aftershave. He’s a go-getter…a self-starter…a fast-talker. While his name escapes me, my distaste for him does not.
“Yes,” I say.
“M—, you got to get your shit back together,” he says. Towering over me. “At least quit coming around here…with that damn valise.” Starts to walk away. “Everybody knows all you got in there is pills and crackers, for god’s sake.”
“You too,” I say. And he is gone.
Maybe he’s right. Ought to quit coming around here…with my pill and cracker valise. Clutching it with my one arm, and the other still missing, just a raggedly sleeve flapping in the breeze. And it’s not even so funny that my colleague didn’t even acknowledge it. Maybe it’s the very least of my problems…and the very last thing you’d notice. I think about throwing myself down onto the third rail.
“Maybe you shouldn’t sit in that doorway,” a feminine voice says. We’re on a bad street.
“I was just thinking about throwing myself onto the third rail,” I say.
“You have to get up first.” A well-dressed woman with bangs pulls me to my feet and we stand there for a little while. “Do you even know where the third rail is?” she asks. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. She looks very professional, but young. We start walking, side by side. I check out her ass.
“I’m missing something,” I say, tugging at my sleeve. “And you know, the thing is…I don’t even really care that much.” To this she says nothing. We just start walking, she’s carrying my pill and cracker valise and holding the cuff of my right sleeve as we make our way down the block, into a rundown neighborhood of row houses and liquor stores. I tell her about the pills, the blacking out, the confusion. And to this she says nothing. We’re walking along a one-way street. After some time I ask her something. “What do you do?”
“I live up ahead,” she says, pointing to a loft across the street and a block or two away. “I’m a doctor.”
“Really.” I grab my right sleeve, yanking the cuff from her hand. “Can you take a look at something for me?”
“Not that kind of doctor,” she says.
“I got to the point where I would put a cup up to the wall, put my ear to the cup…listen to what was going on in the apartment next to me. Sharing walls, sharing floors, ceilings, you can’t help but be constantly reminded that you’re not alone. There’s always someone stomping around on top of you, yelling or playing music too loud under you, fighting too loud or fucking too loud on either side of you. I’d listen to it, with a cup up to the wall. My ear to the cup. That’s what I do a lot of the time when I’m at home. Sit and listen. Either wired or downed out, doesn’t matter.
“And even with all that noise…and there’s always noise where I live…and the being reminded you have people around you—on top of you, under you, to either side of you—it’s easy to think of them as ants, in an ant farm. Nothing more than that. Certainly not any kind of human company…not even a reminder that there’s a world out there outside my four walls. Just like ants in an ant farm, I guess…building their little tunnels, hills, whatever. Whatever ants build. So that’s it. I got to that point and I started passing out at my desk. After a while someone noticed and now here I am.”
She only nods, resting her chin in her palm, legs crossed. What good is this? She’s emotionless. And I no longer enjoy her silent company. I need this silence filled. “Well?” I say.
“You’re sure,” I ask. “What kind of doctor are you? Where’s your diploma? Your certificate…”
“I’m not that kind of doctor,” she says.
“What kind of doctor are you? You a chiropractor? You pick one-armed men up off the street often? Isn’t that against your code of ethics…or something?”
“I collect people,” she says.
Fair enough. She doesn’t take my insurance anyway, I’m sure. And I can’t convince myself any doctor worth her salt simply picks up armless men on the street for clientele. None of this is worth questioning. Not worth questioning any more than why an arm is missing, when the most dominant thought in your mind is frying yourself on the third rail instead of finding your missing arm. None of this is worth questioning.
We’re sitting in her loft. I’m on an uncomfortable metal fold-out chair…she’s in a loveseat next to an end table with a potted cactus and a banker’s lamp on top. There’s no other furniture in the place, except for the coffee table between us, and an armoire in the corner by the window. “It’s a start-up practice of course,” she says after a while. “I’m here to help. Now…tell me more about your family life.”
“I have no family,” I say. “I have a mom. That’s about it.” She stares me down and I’m obliged to go on. “I get a call every now and then, it’s a ‘stay on the straight and narrow’ sort of talk we have, and not much more than that. I started working a job after a while…after a while I realized I didn’t really have to work…I just had to show up. Isn’t that a joke?”, I ask. “Someone said that, right? That 80 per cent of success in life is just showing up?” She’s not moved by my aside. I go on, “…Well, that’s what I’ve been doing, basically. For about ten years. Showing up. There’s not much more to tell.”
“Hobbies? Past times?”
“I can’t talk about that,” I say. “Alright, twist my arm why don’t you….I jerk off a lot,” I say. “A lot.” She is perfectly still.
“Don’t know how that’s gonna work now….always been a two-hand job. But that’s just me.” She’s plastic, unmoving. Another piece of furniture. I begin to loathe this woman.
“No, not as such. It’s hard to explain. I didn’t get here overnight. I failed slowly, by doing the same foolish things everyday, over and over. It wasn’t a single cataclysmic event. Before I knew it, here I am.” It’s amazing how much of life is simply masturbation. I don’t say this to her.
“What do you do now?” she asks me.
I think it over for a moment. There seems to be a countless number of ways to answer. A countless number of answers, but I can’t think of one. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe I’ll get a cactus.”
“Start small,” she cautions, the faintest hint of a smile curling her lips. She sits Sphinx-like, eyeballing me with her plastic hint of a smile. “I’m afraid we’re out of time.”
I remember a joke I once heard:
A man goes to a Psychologist and says, “Doc I got a real problem, I can’t stop thinking about sex.”
The Psychologist says, “Well let’s see what we can find out”, and pulls out his ink blots. “What is this a picture of?” he asks.
The man turns the picture upside down then turns it around and states, “That’s a man and a woman on a bed making love.”
The Psychologist says, “very interesting,” and shows the next picture. “And what is this a picture of?”
The man looks and turns it in different directions and says, “That’s a man and a woman on a bed making love.”
The Psychologists tries again with the third ink blot, and asks the same question, “What is this a picture of?”
The patient again turns it in all directions and replies, “That’s a man and a woman on a bed making love.”
The Psychologist states, “Well, yes, you do seem to be obsessed with sex.”
“Me!?” demands the patient. “You’re the one who keeps showing me the dirty pictures!”
My impromptu psychologist having just given me a very polite bum’s rush out of her office loft, I find myself on the street again…her dirty ink blots now a stain on my mind. I haven’t been coherent for weeks, at least. I chew another pill from my valise and chug some grapefruit juice. Alcohol might do the trick ten times faster, but I have to face the possibility that I’m not in fact ready for the third rail…and pills and booze, I’m told, can be a lethal combination. I stick with the grapefruit juice. I stick with bailing water out of a leaky ship, bailing water, staying afloat, but barely…over and over and over again. And all with one arm. Soon I’ll be destitute, evicted—well and truly fucked. But it’s still hard to muster enough energy to care. I ought to see a doctor at least. An arm doesn’t simply disappear overnight. Perhaps more importantly, the owner of that arm doesn’t simply accept its disappearance, without question. The psychologist’s ink blots are well settled into my fabric now.
It’s been a short day, but somehow it’s already getting dark…and after having bared my soul to this stranger, I feel worse than before, by a considerable margin. And I have forgotten completely about the mystery of my missing arm. Instead, I think about the third rail…my valise containing nothing but a couple bottles of pills and saltine crackers…the ant farm I live in, eavesdropping through the walls, through the cup, jerking off to the point of blisters. And before I can even begin to muster the slightest bit of curiosity or urgency in wondering where exactly my arm has gone and how, and why…I have to wonder where I should even begin, and why. And maybe at some point the arm will matter. For the moment, I’ve got nowhere in particular to go, nowhere in particular to go back to, and these stains will almost certainly need to be dry-cleaned out.
“You serve?” a very old-looking young man says to me, slumped over on the corner outside a boarded-up pawnshop façade…a patchy growth of beard, but otherwise (inexplicably perhaps) well-groomed, a black lick of hair hanging down over his eyebrow, the rest slicked back and bound in a small rattail in the back. The pawnshop windows are tinted black and there appears to be nothing inside the place. Much of it is boarded up, the sad little universal pawnshop symbol—three hanging circles—in unlit neon over the front entrance, where he sits slumped over in an opium-smoker’s pose…a cardboard sign propped up against his wooden leg, which is detached from his person, instead sitting upright next to him against the brick of the wall; there’s something written in black marker on the sign…I have a hard time making it out.
“You ain’t shit, boy,” he says, and goes back to staring absently straight ahead. BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, it says…the cardboard sign…not his wooden leg.
“Sorry,” I say, “No…” and I sort of glance down at where my right arm ought to be. “It’s not anything like that.” I feel like a little boy in front of this grizzled young man. He’s sipping what I’d guess is beer or wine from a foam soda cup, through a thin red straw. “No,” I go on, “I’ve never served. Never served anyone.” Or anything. My right sleeve flaps spastically with a sudden breeze.
“At least pin the sleeve up to your shoulder.” He tugs on his beard and gives me a faint grin. “You look like a dope. You live and lie, boy…”
Not sure what he means, but I can’t disagree. “Brother can you spare a dime,” I say aloud, both of us still facing straight ahead, speaking ahead, not quite to—as much as past each other.
“Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?”
…he says, completing the verse. And then finally turns his head, looks up at me from his place on the asphalt. “Once I built a railroad.” He takes the thin red drinking straw from his cup and flings it down, then knocks back what remains in his cup. “What have you built?”
I can’t say anything to this and he knows it. I’ve done nothing with my life. Not that it’s a revelation. “I haven’t built anything,” I confess…”I’ve built nothing.” The pills and crackers in my dog-eared valise suddenly grow heavier. And heavier. “I’m missing something.”
The young old man slouching against the pawnshop window laughs quietly to himself and tugs on his beard again, scratches his neck forcefully and lets out a very nasty sounding cough. “You ain’t missing shit.” For some reason, again, I can’t disagree. “A wise man once told me…” he pauses deliberately, “…that sorrow is a luxury.” He grabs the satchel next to him and begins rummaging through it, eventually pulling out a tin of spam and a switchblade for a fork. “You ain’t missing shit. You didn’t lose shit.” Somehow I know better than to offer him that dime. I nod respectfully and step away.
“Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?”
…he recites cheerfully as I walk away……….cheerfully, he recites this.
I move on down the line, and it is starting to get darker. The lampposts, the electrical poles, street signs, stoplights, all those intricate, dirty little things that are made strictly to function and not to please, a utilitarian forest of corrugated metal and wires….I get lightheaded and have to sit down. Where I am now…I’m not sure…I’ve never been here before. A non-descript city street…ethnic grocery stores, check cashing places, pawnshops and chicken joints. Nowhere to sit, so I ease myself down onto the curb, next to a green fire hydrant. The landscape could be taken as bleak. To me, it is at this moment. But I’ve thought about it before…that all those everyday things, those utilitarian things, made to function, with no consideration whatsoever for aesthetics, are some of the most carefully crafted things you’ll ever see…when you think about it. The sillhoutte of power lines and stop signs and traffic lights in the dim of early evening…while I’m hunched over on the curb, halfway in the gutter, it seems to me that this purely functional horizon is actually something. In just the right light, it almost looks pleasing to the eye. And taking in the view from this unusual vantage point…low on the ground and next to a green fire hydrant, it all feels somewhat new.
I sit there for a long time. I remember a dream I had. A dream I have, often. I wake up in a dark room. It seems to be a room in a very large house, maybe even a mansion. It could be night, but I don’t know that for sure…all I know is that it’s dark. I reach for the lamp on the nightstand beside me, but when I flip the switch, the light doesn’t come on. I get up and start wandering around. I try the floor lamp on the far side of the room. No light. I wander down the hall, flipping switches. No lights come on. I try the same lamps and light fixtures two and three times over, but no light. I know in my dream that it isn’t a power failure, not a blackout, or anything like that. I just know this. So, the whole thing is alarming. Something that should be working isn’t…no explanation. I have no sense of anything outside…I just go on wandering around my big, empty house, trying to turn on the lights. And then I wake up. I don’t know what it’s about, but I relive it nightly.
In time, I get up and walk away.
The streetlamps are slowly brightening, coming to life. I suppose I should be getting home, or otherwise simply being on my way. Prescription bottles now empty, I ditch the valise in a garbage can and make my way into a Korean convenience store around the corner. The old man behind the counter eyeballs me while I’m picking up a newspaper and trying to figure out how to unfold and turn the pages. I get a bad vibe. There’s a haphazard display set up adjacent the checkout counter…potted plants. A sorry looking fern. A sickly, wilting flower I can’t identify. A small cactus.
“9.99,” the old Korean says, pointing his bony finger at the price. “You buy.”
“9.99,” I repeat.
“You buy…water once year…easy,” he says.
“Water once a year.” I think about it. The third rail I don’t even know where to find flashes before me…I see myself fried and molten, disfigured beyond all recognition of something human…flesh and fabric and hair sticking to the track like a human gum being peeled from underneath a school desk. An inhuman casserole of crisp, viscous gum. And the impartial crowd waiting to board once I have been peeled off the tracks.
Then I picture myself watering this convenience store cactus…once a year. With one arm. It’s something to hold onto, I suppose. I suppose you can’t start much smaller. “9.99,” he says.
Easy, he says.