One thing I don’t like about people is how they assume things they have no way of knowing. It’s a little like being trapped in the dark and just a little afraid I guess, just so that you’re unable to know the perimeter of a room, with shadows shrouding the peripheries of your small frame in a larger one. Uncertainty is scary and to cope with this, you begin to think you know what’s where. Reach out a hand as you convince yourself you know the lamp is just there-there-there feeling its presence before finger tips fall on the pilling, gauze lampshade which is by now more dust than fabric, but of course, you tell yourself, you knew even that in your mind, expected it before encountering it; the weight of wear on all the things around you, as if that too can be felt, as if you too feel the eclipses pressed into glossed wood tables by ceramic cups of hot tea, as if you know the warm glow of a bulb shining inside you, through iridescent, incandescent white skin like it shines through that worn out lampshade when your finger finally falls on the switch.

Clif Reeder
Illustration by John Oquist

I’m not about to blame people for making those assumptions. I’m not trying to blame anyone. After all, there are all these facts: I was in Vietnam, I did leave due to injury, I didn’t ever talk much about what happened, but despite all this, it still gets me when people think they can stitch these facts together and end up with a story that isn’t even worth asking about since the constellation of explanatory details they just created shines so bright in their minds. I can’t, after all, refute those facts and I can’t expect and maybe wouldn’t want all these people who’ve been milling around the edge of acquaintanceship to have to ask me how and when I lost my arm before crossing some border into friendship, understanding. But most people never address my arm or rather its absence – because if there’s one thing I know with any certainty, it’s that absence is a thing too.

I was only confronted about this whole thing once, and maybe even I wasn’t equipped to deal with it when it happened. It was after mass on Easter Sunday a few years ago at St. Joseph’s, which is this mini-cathedral across the street from where I went to elementary school. Right as I started to get up to go, this girl comes up to me, she must’ve noticed me during the service and made up her mind about talking to me, because she came right up to me when I was still scooching myself out of the pew, and said sort of abruptly if not kind of awkwardly, “That must’ve really hurt.”

I looked at her for a second, brows furrowed to close in on what she meant, “Being crucified?”

“No, not being crucified. Well that too. I bet that hurt too, like hell.” A nervous little laugh sputters out of her, then, “But I meant about your arm. Did it hurt a lot? Did it feel funny after?”

Of course I didn’t know what to say except just yeah. It did hurt. I pierced my ear one night before I had to go and register for the draft. I was young and stupid and I think I thought this would pin me as some rebel they wouldn’t want to serve their cause, but of course that wasn’t true. They took just about any body that was offered up, and they liked us young and stupid, if not a bit wild. This wasn’t like old wars of discipline and lines, but rather a wandering, bleeding, sweltering kind of thing. They took me, and I soon found that I was better at killing than I was at most other things. I realized how easy it was, how very simple after all.

“Yeah, it hurt.”

“Well, that’s an easy answer.”

“It’s the truth, what did you expect me to say? Of course it hurt.”

“I don’t know. I’ve just never met anyone who’s lost a limb. I think about it a lot though. I don’t know why. I just think it would be so strange to lose something that’s a part of you in that way. I broke my leg once and I felt like I was born again with a new one when the doctors cut apart the cast. It’d been right there the whole time, but I felt like my leg was a stranger after that. An imposter, all pale and shriveled and unused and I hated it like I didn’t want it back after all that. Anyway, I don’t know what I’m getting at.” She became flustered then all of a sudden, as if her own strangeness had caught up with her, tapped her on the shoulder, startling her like a stranger in the night. “I guess I’ll leave you alone now.”

“No, I mean, it’s OK. It’s an OK thing to talk about.”

She laughed a mean laugh, her eyes drawn taught as though she was trying to humiliate herself for her own behavior, “That’s nice of you to say, but I know this must be weird. I’m sorry.” She turned to go.

She goes, and as she does I want her not to feel so bad. I feel bad for making her feel bad. I try to reach for her, but I’m stuck scrambling to reach for her with the desperate, overworked arm I’ve got as well as the one I don’t have. I want to pull her back to hold her shoulder tight, to tell her it’s all right. I call out to her, “Hey, hey come back. It’s OK.” But she just keeps walking, and I’m still trying to get up and out of the damn pew.

When I get outside, she’s gone like winter. There is sun but it’s sad, clouded by all my many thoughts of the wrongs of dead hands. The sun rises, the sun shall rise again, dead but burning, fueled forever by the reversal of things, their voids. I know what she felt then. I too wanted to feel the void. I too wanted to see my arm detached from me, distanced from my body, torn to shreds like all the bodies torn to shreds by my hand. I wanted to make the loss real, so I had to force myself to give up a real part, cut off that consuming guilt with a serrated kitchen knife until the hospital finished the task I’d so aptly ruined. All this, just to keep moving, living, breathing. It’s always all those little things.

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