My pinkie finger came off on a Monday.
Even worse, it was the first of the month, which meant paychecks and food stamps and a guaranteed slammed store all day long. Until Bev got in at eight, it was just me and very pregnant Gloria against fourteen pallets stuffed in the back room and freezer, not to mention the bread and an overstock of produce, which never happened when I placed the order, please note. At forty-six I could count to ‘too much’.
I couldn't say when I lost the pinkie exactly. It was there when I dragged up my pallet jack. It was there when my sciatica flared up and shot down my leg like lightning. But when I pulled on the store's coat and gloves to start working the freezer, I felt fabric where fabric shouldn't be. The empty fifth pocket gave me a sad waggle ‘hello’. My coffee was still kicking in, so I stared stupidly at it for a minute.
Gloria pulled up a dolly of dog food. ‘What's up, Reuben?’
‘I don't know yet.’ I pulled off the glove. The rest of my hand was there, black, like it's supposed to be, but after thumb and three fingers came a pink shiny spot like a burn. I showed her.
She gave a nervous snort. ‘What happened to it?’
‘I don't know.’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Are you gonna go home?’
The right answer was yes. But urgent care wouldn't open for another two hours. Emergency room would take three. After years of showing up with shooting back pain it didn't make sense to lose a day's wages over what didn't hurt and wasn't bleeding. And what was anybody supposed to do about it? Put it back on? Where was the 'it' to put back?
Besides, Gloria was hitting me with deer eyes. I'd be leaving her with no help.
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I got tomorrow off. I'll try to see my doctor then.’
‘Just be on the lookout. Don't want somebody running a buggy over it.’
‘Of course.’ Out she went with the dog food.
After hoisting a few twenty-pound boxes of chicken, a hot comet of pain down my leg every time, the pinkie was the least of my worries. Who loses a finger and finishes the workday? Reuben, that's who.
At lunch I called my doctor. Damn hard to describe the problem over the phone. No, I hadn't cut it off. No, I didn't know where it was. No, I was stone cold sober. Eventually they mustered a slot for me in the morning.
After that I pretty much forgot it. Filling out pick sheets was fine. Handling money was fine. I had no trouble scrapping boxes for two hours before close, and then I left the rest to Tammy, the second-shift manager. She always left the store looking good, and she never stuck me with ten boxes of tomatoes.
Thank God for Tammy. Forty-two, if I remember right. Whip-smart. Not too tall, but imposing. Hula-girl butt, rare for a white woman. Grown daughter in Greenville, South Carolina – nice young lady, I met her once. Tammy was the best I ever had. Cheating on her was the dumbest thing I ever did.
It was Tammy that took one cold look at my hand and said, ‘Get that looked at, Reuben.’
‘I got an appointment.’
‘I know you, Reuben.’
‘I know you know me.’
‘All right, then.’ She tied up her long dark ripple of hair. She smelled like gardenias. I bought her that perfume. ‘Don't let it slide.’
Nobody found the pinkie in the store. I searched my Honda, from the store bags in the back to the pile of mail in the passenger seat. I got home and tossed the house. Under the couch I found a quarter, a pen and the back of an earring (Tammy's, no doubt), but that was all.
It wasn't in Tammy's old garden, either. Hornworms had turned her tomato plants to doilies on sticks. I picked off a leaf and crumbled it.
I went back inside, beered up and stripped down. Toes, ten. Veins, varicose. Back, enraged. Wrist, tendonitis or carpal tunnel, hadn't been checked. Penis, decreasingly predictable. Anyway, nothing else was missing.
I ate two cold tacos and went to bed.
In the morning, I reached for the snooze button and missed, knocking the clock to the floor. I reached for it again. At the end of my right wrist was a new shiny pink spot. The hand was gone. Dizzy and sick, I tore through the sheets and looked under the bed. Nothing. Nowhere. I banged the stump on the bedside table. It didn't hurt. It didn't feel like anything.
Someone took it.
The doors were locked, but the kitchen window wasn't. The sill dust smudged outward and the screen dangled at the corner. Outside, right between the overgrown azaleas, was a semicircle of five dents. Fingertips. Motherfucker. I took a picture with my phone to have something to show the doctor. Anything.
Showering one-handed was a hassle. Shaving was worse. Driving was damn near a nightmare. My Honda's front CV joint complained on left turns. Clunk. Four hundred dollar fix. Clunk.
At the clinic, a thick and handsome black lady nurse smiled as she checked me in. ‘Why are you here today?’ she asked.
I showed her my stump. ‘My hand came off.’
Her expression went dead. ‘Are you seeking pain medication?’
‘No. It doesn't hurt.’
That seemed to perk her up. She took my vitals. ‘Blood pressure, one-sixty over a hundred. That is a major concern.’
I waved my abbreviated arm. ‘No, this is a major concern.’
She led me to an exam room to wait. Dr. Sohi came in, Indian fellow, nice enough guy, gleaming watch and perfect beard. He asked the same questions as the nurse like a cop trying to catch a lie. ‘Why are you here?’
‘My hand came off.’
He snapped on rubber gloves and examined the shiny spot where my hand should be. ‘When did this happen?’
‘This morning. I woke up and it was gone.’
‘Have you had anything to drink today?’
‘No, sir. The pinkie was gone yesterday, and today went the rest.’
‘Mr. Jessup, it is not possible for a body part to come off in the way you are describing.’
He inspected the tight shiny knob of my wrist. ‘Beautifully done. Did you have the surgery here?’
‘Look, doctor. I was at work just yesterday. Everybody saw I still had a hand. I can call one of 'em if you like.’
He flipped through my chart. ‘Are you seeking pain medication?’
‘Doc, I'm not a druggie. I'm not a crazy. Something bad is happening to me, and I need your help. Will you just, I don't know, take some blood or something?’
‘You want tests?’
‘All right.’ Dr. Sohi parked at the console and typed. ‘Let's get you tested.’
The day was so muggy, there was sweat on me before the clinic door shut. On my phone there was a message from Tammy: ‘Hey, Reuben. Hope your doctor straightened things out. I was making the schedule for next week. Are you going to need time off? Let me know. Bye.’
I felt tempted to go to the store, to see her and show her, but she had enough to deal with. Phone was better. I dialed the store. ‘Probably you should call Kernersville,’ I told her. ‘Find someone to help open.’
‘When will you be back?’
‘Might be a while.’
‘Do you need anything?’
I paused too long.
‘I know you,’ she said.
‘If I need something, I'll ask.’
A couple of hours searching for my symptoms on the Internet left-handed. I found leprosy and ebola and plenty of God-awful pictures but nothing that looked like me.
I killed off a box of stale cereal and watched everything I had on DVR. Prone on the couch, I let blue TV light wash over me until I dozed off. For some reason I dreamed about Tammy. Nothing sexy. I was in bed with her, resting on her shoulder while she slept, rising and falling with her every breath. It was beautiful.
I woke to sour breath and a stiff neck. It took me a moment to remember why I was sleeping on the couch. I sat up fast. My t-shirt sleeve was empty.
The room tilted sideways. I crushed the fist I had left into my empty shoulder socket and rocked myself back and forth. It couldn't be real. It didn't make sense. How did this happen? Who's doing this to me?
I called up Dr. Sohi's office to tell him my arm was missing. He didn't call me back. I packed a suitcase and book and drove one-handed to the medical center. Then I had his attention.
He had me meet him at the main hospital on Thorne Street, where he showed concern but also an impolite enthusiasm. Convinced by blood work and skin swabs that I was not carrying a flesh-eating anything, he admitted me to a narrow yellow room on the orthopedic floor. For hours he directed other doctors past me like a museum exhibit. They came in every color, but they all introduced themselves the same – big smiles and specialties – ‘oncology,’ ‘surgery,’ ‘endocrinology’.
‘Have you been outside the country in the past three years?’ asked one.
‘Are you on any prescription medications?’
‘Do you have any family we can call?’
‘A son in St. Louis,’ I said. ‘He works a lot. Leave a message.’ I gave them his number to try. That'd take a miracle. ‘A sister in D.C. I guess she should know.’ I gave them hers, too. ‘But I got an ex-girlfriend close by.’ They jotted this down. ‘What do you think I've got?’
‘Too soon to say,’ they said.
Doctors left with their pens and paper, and in came the nurses with tubes-and-needles, choreographed like a messed up Nutcracker. It felt like a dream until a clinician crept in to ask for my insurance card. Ain't nothing on earth interesting enough to get looked at for free.
I charged up my phone and read my book – a Tuskegee Airmen history I'd been meaning to read for ages. Whenever I got up, my back felt like a million bucks. When was the last time I'd had two days off in a row?
The night nurse, beefy white kid, did his rounds at ten. I asked if he could lock the door. ‘Our doors don't lock, Mr. Jessup,’ he said. ‘What's your concern?’
‘I'm afraid of something else getting away from me,’ I said.
‘I've worked here seven years, and I've never lost a body part.’
‘Keep that streak.’
Once he was gone I used the sheet and my teeth and toes to bind my left arm up to my body. No way was I losing anything else tonight. I stared at the ceiling for an hour before I managed to fall asleep.
In the morning my left leg was gone to the hip.
I screamed until every nurse on the floor ran in to shut me up. The sheet was still knotted around my waist, which confused them, but I hollered ‘my leg, my leg’ until they remembered I'd had two the day before. When I struggled to break loose, I lost my balance and hit the floor. With two limbs missing, my body was pure stranger.
A nurse stepped up. A needle flashed. I was still hollering when I blacked out.
When I came to, a brand new person was sitting on my bed, a laywer-looking white woman with smooth silver hair and basset jowls. ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Jessup,’ she said. She sounded like a recording. ‘My name is Ellen Klein. I'm an administrator here. How are you feeling?’
‘You find my leg?’ There was an IV in my left hand, a clip on my finger, and a slow drip of something pleasant from the bag above me. My tongue felt fat. There was a wrong feeling in my body, like when you know a bone is broken.
‘We have not, but we're working hard to understand your condition. Mr. Jessup, I have some news that will be difficult to hear.’
‘While you were unconscious, you lost the other leg.’
‘You also lost an ear and an eye.’
Jesus. I ran my hand over my face. Where my left ear had been, there was a bald circle and a hole. Where my left eye had been, there was a smooth crater of skin. Lid, lashes, brow – gone.
‘You were left unattended for eight minutes,’ said Ellen. ‘In that time, whatever condition you are suffering from claimed those parts.’
The legs of my hospital pants were knotted up and safety-pinned to my waistband. I had to look three times before I understood it. ‘They're gone?’
‘That is the case. However we hope to understand your condition and stop its progress. We are transferring you to a federal facility in Atlanta where they specialize in anomalies. They can also begin rehabilitating you with prosthetics. In order to request the transfer, we'd like you to sign this.’ She handed me a clipboard. I riffled through it left-handed: insurance paperwork, credit information, transport approval. In the back were five-pages in tiny type. ‘What's this one?’ I asked.
‘That's a form limiting our liability for the loss of your legs.’
I stared at her. Her basset hound face didn't flinch. ‘What happens if I don't sign?’ I asked.
‘Your transfer would be delayed. It could take us days to scramble another flight.’
‘I don't have days.’
‘We realize that.’ Ellen pushed the clipboard at me.
‘I need to call somebody first.’
Ellen rolled her eyes. Hospital types got no patience.
As soon as she could dig up someone to switch shifts, Tammy showed up with magazines, a casserole and a tin of brownies. She took a look at me and clapped a hand over her mouth. All the pink ran out of her face. That scared me worse than anything. ‘Jesus Christ, Reuben. What's happening to you?’
‘I don't know,’ I said. ‘Nobody knows. But they're sending me to Atlanta.’
‘Does it hurt?’
She sat on the bed where my legs would have been. Her gardenia smell made my heart ache. ‘They're going to fix you up. You're going to beat this. Beat the hell out of it.’ She leaned close to my face. ‘Jesus.’
‘It came out when I was asleep.’
‘I wish I'd been here. I would have caught it and stuck it right back in.’
‘I bet you would have.’ I took the liberty of squeezing her shoulder. Lord only knew how long I'd have a hand to squeeze with. ‘I'm sorry, Tammy. I'm so sorry. I should never have let you get away.’
She looked away. Dead relationships made her squeamish. ‘What do you want me to say? I'm not mad anymore. You know that.’
I rubbed my remaining eye. ‘Tammy, I hate to ask—’
‘Will you look after my house while I'm gone?’
‘Take my keys.’ I gestured to my suitcase. ‘In there. Got my car key and remote and all.’
‘Hang on.’ She manhandled my shirts and underwear, and it gave me an intimate thrill. ‘These?’ The ring she held up had just three keys on it – my house, my shed, and the store.
‘No car key?’
She rummaged. ‘I'm not seeing it.’
‘Dammit.’ I thought about the five fingerprints between my azalea bushes. Motherfucker just takes everything. ‘Could you see if my car is still here? It'll be in the overflow lot. Third row.’
‘Thank you, Tammy. I owe you big.’
‘What else is new?’ Cautious of the IV, we shared a warm handshake. ‘Call me tomorrow,’ she said. She left.
The nurse helped me to the bathroom and, seeing as it might be my last chance, I took the opportunity to shave. I fogged up the mirror so I wouldn't have to see my chopped-up self in detail.
‘Lock the door,’ I asked the beefy kid nurse.
‘Our doors don't lock like that.’
‘Please. I'm begging you.’
‘I'll see what I can do.’
Tammy called to say no one could find my car. Just the sound of her voice was a balm. ‘You gonna file a report?’ she asked.
‘Yeah. I'll call somebody in the morning.’
Motherfucker took my Honda. Good luck turning left.
Ellen Klein came back with her clipboard. I gave her my sad left-handed signature as many times as she wanted it.
I did crunches and played on my phone to stay alert. Around four in the morning my eye got raw and heavy. I sat up and stretched. I pinched my cheeks. I shut my eye tight and rubbed it.
Suddenly a frantic beeping went off next to my head. I opened my eye in time to see my pelvis jerking around below my navel. It pulled away, sealed itself off like a bubble from a wand, rolled off the bed, and hit the floor with a splack.
I tried to sit up and slipped. The heart monitor dangled and the IV spat on the tile. On the floor, my loose arm scissored like an inchworm to catch up to the pelvis. The arm sprang up and threw back the bolt on the door, and both my parts skittered out of the room.
The alarm raged. Nurses stormed in. They hoisted me and tended to my vomit and shouted at each other.
‘They went out the door,’ I told them.
‘My arm. My body. Find them. They're leaving.’
New nurses appeared with towels and tubes, pushing and turning me. ‘Sedate him,’ said one. Someone flashed a hypodermic.
I quit struggling. ‘I'm calm. Look how calm I am. Please don't knock me out. Please.’
So they didn't. There'd be nothing left if they did.
They strapped me to a gurney and rolled me onto a shiny yellow medical plane with Dr. Dalton Cho, an Asian doctor with chipmunk cheeks and a peppy voice. ‘You're in good hands,’ she told me. ‘We're going to do everything we can.’
I stared at the bulkhead. Chills washed over me and my heart drummed a hundred beats a minute. I hallucinated Tammy, naked, dabbing sweat off my brow. I smelled her gardenias. Dr. Cho brought me a puke bag. Without my pelvis organs, my blood was filling with muck.
We landed at dawn. A couple of burly guys wheeled me to an ambulance. They unloaded me at a CDC satellite facility. The building was sunk in the earth like the crown of a round-head screw.
They set me up in a room the size of my house. The couch and lamp and table were all Band-Aid beige. In a high-backed chair in the corner, they stacked what I had left – suitcase, book and phone. I'd need help to use any of them.
A nurse came and drew blood.
‘Your large intestines and kidneys are gone,’ said Dr. Cho. ‘You'll be fitted with an ileostomy bag and catheter for dialysis.’ She pulled up a chair and showed me what looked like a hot water bottle and a toy stethoscope. She held up tidy colored-pencil drawings of how it would look: a red balloon knot in my side and a dangling pair of tubes in my chest – two new windows for my insides to peer out.
‘Surgery is scheduled for ten o'clock,’ she said.
‘You'll have to knock me out.’
‘What's going to keep more of me from coming off?’
‘Our team will be watching you carefully.’
‘How are you going to put a part back that doesn't want to be there?’
She smiled and squeezed my hand. ‘We'll do everything we can.’ She stood to leave. ‘You want someone to sit with you?’
‘No, thank you. Could you get me an earpiece for my phone?’
‘I'll see what I can do.’
My prospects were dialysis three times a week, five hours a pop. Sickness always. Privacy never. And for what? I wanted to call my sister, my kid, but to do that I needed help. I tried to roll onto the nurse call button, but I only knocked it off the bed.
I wished to God for Tammy.
I cried some.
The sun hadn't come up yet. My face felt raw and itchy, but I had no hand to rub it. It would be an easy thing to sleep, to close my eye and count backwards until the rest of me disappeared.
I took a few deep breaths and settled my head down. In no time, sleep crept up and lapped my edges.
A rapping sound startled me awake. In the high-backed chair across from me sat a man. Not a man. My suitcase lay at his feet. He wore baggy blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. My blue jeans. My hooded sweatshirt. This guy wore them different, though – younger, looser, like a teenager.
‘You,’ I said.
He gestured to himself. Voilà.
My teeth chattered. ‘You.’
He wagged a finger at me.
I flailed sideways to get at him. He put both hands on his gut and mimed a laugh. He stood, and he seemed taller than I ever was. From the neck of his T-shirt stuck a brown mannequin head with hard black plastic hair and one dead painted eye. The other eye was mine--lids, brow and all. He pulled a bottle of Visine out of his pocket, tipped his head back and poured a drop in.
Then he pulled a hoodie string to swivel the head toward me. He lurched when he walked, a man-puppet of me-parts.
He picked up my phone and sat next to me. With his callused right hand--the first one to leave me--he shoved me prone on the bed. He smelled like pine needles and vinyl and fried food. I bit at him in self-defense, but he pinched my nose until I saw stars. On the phone, he typed into a text-to-speech app that read his words in a robotic female voice: ‘We are tired of being taken for granted.’
‘There's no 'we.' You are me.’
‘No. We are us. Not even Mouth is you. See?’
My jaw throbbed and my tongue stuck tight to the roof. My mouth drained dry. All my parts broke off from my mind, tongue and lips and throat and muscle and bone, prickling and aching like dead limbs. I choked.
Puppet-Me nodded. Our tongue came loose and flooded so much spit into our mouth that I had to cough it up.
‘You're sick,’ I said.
‘How sick? Sick as a heart attack? That's what Heart was about to do. When Heart stops, we all stop. Heart is in terrible shape. We were so afraid.’
Inside my chest, in sympathy, my heart stutter-stepped.
‘Hand got angry,’ Puppet-Me said, flexing its hand in front of my face. ‘Hand said it wanted to be free before its time was finished. We said, 'No, no. You can't leave the rest of us.' But Hand said it had to try. And it was happier alone than it had ever been with you.’ Puppet-Me tapped his plastic chest. ‘All of us who could leave without hurting Heart, we tried leaving, too. All of us felt the same.’
‘So that's it? You're going to run off and do whatever the hell you want while I'm in this hospital bed?’
‘No. It's bad for Heart not to have us. And it's stressful for us not to have Heart. We're going to join together again.’
‘But when one of us has had all it can take, it will go have fun for a while.’
My mind balked. My face went cold, then hot. ‘You're going to keep doing this to me?’
‘When? What parts?’
‘That depends on you. Perhaps none. Perhaps all. Perhaps we will leave you nothing but Heart and a Lung and part of Brain to suffer on a hospital bed.’
I bashed my head into the pillow. ‘You can't do this to me. How am I supposed to work? How am I supposed to live?’
‘We will provide for our needs. Yours are not our concern anymore.’ He sat on the bed next to me. I tried to yell, but Throat shut tight so all that came out was a whistle. ‘You think we're unfair,’ said Puppet-Me. ‘We learned unfairness from you.’ It touched its plastic forehead to mine, and a shaking came over me like I was falling down a ladder. I blacked out a second, and when I came to I was whole again, wearing Puppet-Me's clothes. The mannequin torso was lying on the floor.
I sniffed the neck of Puppet-Me's shirt. It smelled like gardenias.
When Dr. Cho came back with two nurses and a gurney and found me packing my suitcase, she gave an unprofessional little yell. Over her protests, I checked myself out of the facility.
The Honda keys were in the pocket of Puppet-Me's jeans. I had a five-hour drive to get to Tammy.
No one picked up when I called the store. It was packed, as always, but Gloria stood up at her register to hug me, pregnant belly and all.
‘Oh, my God,’ she said. ‘How did they fix you?’
‘Long story,’ I said. ‘Is Tammy here?’
‘Yeah, in the back.’
I hurried through the plastic flaps into the back room. From the radio, an Usher song echoed off the concrete walls. ‘Tammy?’
‘Over here.’ She came out of the cooler dragging an empty pallet jack. ‘Reuben.’ She ran over and hugged me. Gardenias. ‘Thank God. What the hell happened?’
‘I tried to call you.’
‘Did you?’ She pulled her phone out of her pocket and flipped it open. The screen was black. ‘That's weird.’
‘Has anything strange happened since you came to see me?’
‘Stranger than this?’ she asked, gesturing to my body. ‘No.’
‘Anything. Door get unlocked? Window get pushed open?’
She walked the jack to a pallet of soup and picked it up. ‘No.’
‘Anything at all.’
‘I don't know. Last night I had a dream you came over.’ She shot me a look. ‘Don't flatter yourself, though.’
‘Was I wearing these clothes?’
‘I don't remember.’
‘What was I saying?’
‘It was a dream.’ She threw up her hands. ‘Dreams don't make sense.’
‘Tammy, I love you.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, Lord.’
‘I'm not telling you that to get back together. I'm telling you because you should hear it.’ My throat tightened and my nose stung. ‘You are a good, good woman. You deserve to be happy. I'm lucky to know you, and I wish I'd been better to you. I don't know what's going to come of me tomorrow, so I wanted to tell you today. I love you. I love you and I don't want anything from you.’
‘Please shut up.’
‘Okay. If that's what you want, I will.’ I took a respectful step back. I felt twenty pounds lighter and twenty years younger.
Tammy held up a hand. ‘Reuben, you've had a hard week, and I'm glad you're better, but I'm way too busy to deal with this right now. Go home. Get some rest. We can talk about this later.’
She was right. She was always right. ‘Okay,’ I said.
I headed toward the bright and boring store floor, full of fluorescent lights and grannies and marked-down tomatoes. It was the most glorious and frightening place I'd ever seen. Not an inch of it was under my control. Not a second of it was guaranteed. My life was nothing but a tour from this fleeting moment before the next one barreled along to smash me. .
Something in Tammy's voice made my neck prickle. I turned back. Near the meat cooler, she sat bent over on her pallet of soup. I'd never seen her sit down on the job before. ‘Tammy?’
She looked over her shoulder at me. Her lips were grey.
I edged closer. She held up her right hand.
Her pinkie was missing.