Tommy Toes had arms. He just didn't use them. The townsfolk had grown accustomed. This being Joplin, Missouri, they had plenty of odd ducks. There were the Milford Twins who couldn't stand the sight of each other, refusing to be in the same room, to "breathe the same air," as they put it. They spent so little time together some people began to question if there were still two of them. Then there was Agnes Lerouix, a ninety-five year old woman, rumored to have eaten her dying cat, Jo-Jo, with the hope their souls would stay together in heaven. But of all the peculiars in Joplin, no one was as well known as Tommy. Didn't matter if you were six or sixty, Tommy Toes was a household name.
It'd been nineteen years since Tommy had lifted a finger, elbow or wrist. He'd lifted his toes, knees and ankles, for sure. Tommy's feet could do just about everything. They drove his car, stirred his famous spaghetti sauce, polished the figurines his grandmother left him in her will, and when Mr. Littleton's kitchen caught fire from a botched batch of french fries, Tommy's feet held the hose, along with the other volunteers of Station 2.
Most of the year, Tommy wore flip-flops so he could easily get to a doorknob or peel an orange. And it was damn near breathtaking the first time you saw Tommy holding a toothbrush, scrubbing away on those pearly whites. So the townsfolk didn't blink twice when Tommy signed a check at the bank or gave a "thumbs up" with his big toe.
Tommy had a big heart and an even bigger smile. It didn't matter that he never hugged back, except when he was sitting and could wrap those lean muscular legs around your waist. Tommy had the voice of B-level angel, too, not quite up to snuff for God's choir, but more than spectacular for the Feather Valley Presbyterian Church. Sally Jonas would hold the hymnal so they could share, but no one could share the stage with Tommy, especially when he belted out "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" on Christmas Eve.
The town loved Tommy, but this hadn't always been the case. Tommy stopped using his arms when he was ten, and at first, people assumed he was just being weird. Some hoped it was just a phase. But when Tommy entered high school, those arms still hung there uselessly like withered sausages. It's not hard to imagine how teenagers treated him. Natural selection flourishes in high school, where the weak and odd are quickly separated from the herd, relegated to the corner table in the lunchroom, or as in Tommy's case, to the last stall in the boy's bathroom.
Tommy used the isolation to perfect his feet-skills in privacy. He could peel the crust off his tuna fish sandwich in two long strips by the end of his freshmen year. By senior year, he could shell a hard-boiled egg and play John Lennon's "Imagine" on the guitar. Tommy still wasn't allowed to sit with the others, but Tanik Belavusavich, a Ukrainian immigrant whose parents shipped him to America to live with cousins after a fire destroyed their home, became his regular lunch date under the gymnasium bleachers.
Tanik and Tommy were inseparable. Tommy helped Tanik with his homework and taught him chords on the guitar, and Tanik helped Tommy attempt whatever it was Tommy felt like attempting. There were dance lessons, bowling lessons, and even one afternoon of fast-pitch softball. Tommy had to hold the bat under his chin and twist his whole body to make contact, but after a foul tip, Tommy dropped the bat and ran home. That little nick nearly fractured his jawbone.
After graduation, Tanik went down to Maven's Grove and signed up for the Marines. Tommy was right there with him, but the recruiters took one look at those atrophied arms and told him, "No." Tanik had already filled out the forms, so he didn't have a choice. He and Tommy stayed in contact through letters until Tanik was shipped off to war. For six months Tommy didn't hear anything from his friend. Then he received a postcard from the Ukraine. Tanik had died honorably in battle. "Honorably," that's what Tanik's mother had been told by the U.S. government, but she wrote back saying she didn't see anything honorable about dying so young.
Tommy didn't allow himself to grieve. He blamed himself for Tanik's death. If he'd used his arms like a normal person, he would've been in the thick of it with Tanik. He could have taken the bullet or blasted the sniper up on the rooftop.
Tommy's mother Mabel said, "If you'd have been using your arms you never would have been friends with Tanik in the first place." Tommy said that wasn't true, that they would have been best friends no matter what, but deep down he knew she was right. Tanik was 5'2, balding and had a temperamental gag reflex, which made him chew his food twice. Even the most kind-hearted people didn't pay him more than a minute's attention.
After Tanik's death, Tommy started sleeping at the foot of his mother's bed. He slept there until he could no longer fit. Tommy wasn't growing. He was nineteen, maxed out at 5'9. Mabel, though, was expanding.
She'd always been a big woman, sturdy, rosy cheeked. But with Tommy around, she lost interest in doing things for herself. She was always sending him on missions for sweets. By the time Tommy was twenty-five, Mabel had ballooned to 557 pounds, which is where she stayed for the next five years, give or take 50 pounds.
Tommy didn't mind helping out, and even though he openly worried about her health, he privately reveled in having someone depend on him so completely. Mabel's size made the simplest tasks impossible, like getting up and going to the bathroom, which is why Tommy wrapped the mattress in plastic. He reinforced the bed frame with steel crossbeams. He personally welded them, and since he used his feet to solder he didn't have to wear the welder's mask.
Mabel loved Tommy more than music. When he was younger, she'd tried to get him to use his arms by throwing a golf ball at his face, but Tommy just got better at ducking. She hated seeing her son intentionally choosing to be different. Ridicule is the great destroyer. She knew this as much as anyone, having been called "Elephant" and "The Blob" for most of her life.
Tommy's father had been the first person who actually lusted for her weight. It turned him on to watch the ripples as they made love. Still, she was much smaller when he died; even Wayne would've found her less desirable at 557. Mabel knew it and it killed her, which is why she ate more, which is why she hated herself more. The snake that swallows its own tail. Wayne and Mabel married just out of high school. They had Tommy two years after that. And while Wayne loved Mabel, he always looked at Tommy with a hint of distrust. Tommy was smaller than the other kids, and it bothered Wayne, who'd served in the Marines and received a Purple Heart for rescuing his platoon. Wayne never spoke about the war. Like most soldiers of his generation the perception of strength was paramount. It's why he had a hard time with Tommy. The kid had the biceps of a broom handle. Wayne was always forcing him to eat more and to work out with him in the basement. He even bought Tommy a speed bag in the hopes that maybe his son was destined to be fast, not big. Tommy stood up on a chair and took his first whack. The bag came back and smacked Tommy in the nose, sent him flying onto the ground, his head splitting on the radiator. Sixteen stitches later, Wayne gave up on his son.
Tommy remembers the very moment. The doctor had just snipped the last stitch and told him he was a brave little boy. But Wayne's eyes said he wasn't. Tommy never should have fallen. He was an embarrassment. And that was that.
Two months later, Wayne hit a pothole and bent the right front axel on the Buick. After a wobbly ride home, Wayne jacked up the beast in the driveway and crawled underneath. Mabel was at the grocery store. Tommy was in the yard, too nervous to ask if he could help. His father's legs were the only things Tommy could see. Wayne had already popped off the tire so he could tinker on a machine Tommy would never understand, both technically and philosophically. Tommy always believed that anywhere worth going could be traveled on foot, or bicycle if absolutely necessary.
When Tommy heard, "Pass me the wrench," he scurried over and handed his dad the hammer. Wayne said, "The wrench." Tommy quickly switched them out. Wayne said thanks and Tommy stood there waiting for his next instruction, trying to anticipate what his father might need. The Allen, a Phillips, a clamp? He began inching the toolbox towards his father, not wanting any delay between request and delivery. Wayne's hand shot out and smacked into the toolbox.
"Goddamnit, Tommy! What the hell is the damn..."
"Just...hand me a flathead."
Tommy's fingers searched through the pile as he silently berated himself more than Wayne ever would. He passed the screwdriver to his dad.
"Now go stand over there," Wayne said with a finger point. Tommy backed up and accidentally bumped the car. A creaking sound followed. And Tommy saw the jack buckling.
"Dad!" The car came down like a metal fist. The right rotor carved into Wayne's chest. Under the full weight of the Buick, Tommy's father couldn't even scream, but he managed, "Lift it...son...You gotta lift...it."
Tommy yanked on that bumper until his whole face turned red, a blood vessel popping in his right eye, leaving a jagged red line that would never heal. Tommy grunted and strained, but not even adrenaline could make up for his weak, worthless arms. Wayne died there in the driveway. And Tommy never used his arms again.
Years have a way of sanding down the edges. People wake up, move around, meet new people, share conversations, fall asleep a little easier; then they wake up and sand it down some more.
On the day Tommy turned 30, his mother told him she had a big surprise, but first he needed to pick up his birthday cake. She'd pay for it, and whatever he chose was fine. But secretly, she hoped for double chocolate with extra icing.
The display case at the Piggly Wiggly didn't have much of a selection. Tommy had two choices: one with a Barbie action figure, and the other with a miniature version of the Piggly Wiggly. It even had a little shopping cart parked out front, but Tommy thought it was just too strange buying a miniature store inside the real store.
Kelly, the checkout girl, placed his cake inside the personal bag Tommy carried around his neck. Kelly and Tommy had been in one class together every year since 8th grade. He was thankful he was wearing sleeves and gloves.
"Happy Birthday, Tommy," Kelly said as she slipped the correct change inside his bag. "Did you get anything good?" Tommy leaned forward. A flash of gold. Kelly gently tugged the gold chain around Tommy's neck. A small crucifix dangled from the end and sparkled under the fluorescents of the Piggly Wiggly. "That's nice. Your mom get it for you?"
"Yeah, on Home Shopping."
"My mom likes that show, too." Kelly slipped in the receipt. "How's work?"
"It's good." Tommy worked at the local dinner theater as an usher. The audience had to tear their own tickets, which was fine. A hell of a lot better than sticking them into Tommy's mouth and watching him rip them like a dog.
"Well, you tell her I said hi, and that I miss her." She slipped the tiny Jesus back into Tommy's shirt, her finger brushing his skin. Tommy closed his eyes and told his brain never to forget this moment.
When he got back, Tommy walked into the kitchen and picked up two paper plates with his teeth. He nudged two forks off the counter with his nose and started up the stairs. He heard a terrible groan. It was Mabel. Tommy's feet flew up the stairs like the wind, and he burst into the room.
Mabel was where she always was, on the bed. But there was definitely something different. "Well?" she asked.
It took moment for Tommy to spot it. "How'd you do that?!"
"It wasn't easy." His mother had changed her muumuu. He'd left her in pink. And now here she was, looking radiant in purple. He saw a long metal pole with a hook on the end. She must have reached out, pulled the gown from her closet, and somehow put it on. The pink muumuu was torn and crumpled on the floor.
"You could have hurt yourself, Momma."
"I'm fine. It's my son's birthday."
"Well, you look beautiful."
"Yeah?" Tommy nodded. Mabel looked down in shame. "I couldn't get the back zipped up."
"So what'd you get?!"
Tommy bent forward and Mabel took off his bag. Pulled out the cake.
"There something you want to tell me?"
Tommy realized she meant the Barbie action figure. "Oh, they didn't hardly have anything."
"Damn it, I knew I should have called in the order." Mabel forked a bite directly from the cake and slid it between her lips.
"How is it?"
"It's good," Mabel said with a smile, suppressing disappointment. It wasn't chocolate.
"Kelly said hi. She noticed the cross. She liked it."
"Did you ask her out?"
"I'm...getting to it."
"You said that last week."
"Yeah, well, you said you were going to try and move around last year." Tommy saw Mabel stop chewing, the cake sitting in her mouth like it'd spoiled. "I'm sorry, Momma, I didn't mean that."
"It's okay. But since you brought it up." Mabel licked the fork and set it on the cake. Her hand pressed firmly onto the mattress. Plastic crinkling under the sheets.
"Momma, what are you doing?"
Mabel's eyes stayed focused on the wall. There was a small tear in the wallpaper, and her eyes never left it. She'd been staring at it every day for a month. Visualization was the word. The infomercial had told her, "If you can see it, you can believe it, and if you believe it, you can do anything." Mabel was definitely doing something. Her whole head and arms were shaking, her eyes bulging, almost willing themselves to the wallpaper. At first, Tommy couldn't move. It was like watching a dead person crawl out of a grave.
"Get behind me!" she yelled. Tommy crawled onto the bed, wedged himself in between his mom and the headboard. "Now push." Tommy tired to keep his shoes from digging into his mother's back, still exposed from the undone zipper. Mabel slid her feet over the side of the bed and onto the floor. Tommy started to extend his legs, but only saw bad possibilities.
"Momma, I don't know about""
"Just do it!"
As hard as he could, Tommy pushed the massive weight up and out. His neck vertebrae smashed into the headboard, bruising the skin down to the bone. Mabel's legs wobbled as her heft transferred off the mattress and onto her feet. For five years she'd been in this bed, and by God, it was time to get up. Her arms shot out and made little circles to keep her balance. A little forward, adjust back, a little right, adjust left...
Finally, she found her equilibrium. She was standing on her own two feet.
"You seeing this?"
"Oh, I'm seeing it."
"I was thinking about turning around, but I don't know..."
"Here." Tommy rushed over and stood in front of his mother. He'd forgotten she was almost his height. Neither said a word. Some things are better quiet. Mabel smiled, and Tommy's eyes got all wet. Finally, after what seemed like years...
"Do you like your gift, Tommy?"
"More than anything."
"It's not done." She placed her right hand on his hip and raised her left hand, palm open. Tommy knew what she wanted.
"Momma, please don't do this."
"Hey, I just did something I thought I'd never do. Ever. The least you can do is dance with me." Tommy looked down at his right glove. His arm felt plastic, as useless as that doll on his cake. But he'd just witnessed a miracle, and an attempt wasn't too much too ask. So Tommy sent thoughts and signals and neurons and whatever he had to that arm, but it wasn't moving. It just hung there stiff and dead. He bumped his hip into it, but it only came back like an empty swing.
Tommy looked into his mother's eyes. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, baby." She took his right hand and lifted it gently. Her fingers slipped under his glove, and for the first time in a long time, he felt skin against his palm. Mabel began to hum and sing, "Da-da-de-de-da..." And she took a step. And Tommy took a step. And they were dancing.
"Your father and I did this on our first date."
"Where was that?"
"He'd just gotten back from the war, and I was working as a cocktail waitress at The McGovern. It closed before you were born. The place was empty that night, and he came in and said, 'I want a whisky and a dance.' I thought he meant with one of the other waitresses, but when I brought him a glass, he shot it down and pulled me onto the floor..."
As Mabel closed her eyes and drifted back to that night, Tommy stared at his right arm. He couldn't remember the last time it was so high in the air. "We danced forever that night. He spun me so much I thought I'd die." Mabel, still with her eyes shut, began twirling under Tommy's glove. Halfway around, Tommy knew something was wrong. He saw the shift in her weight, that wobble that couldn't be stopped. Mabel was hurtling toward the wall. Tommy didn't even have time to scream, neither did Mabel. The house shook and rumbled as she crashed into the wall. All that weight sent shockwaves through Tommy and the foundation of their home. Mabel didn't fall though, her body just sort of pressed up against where the wallpaper was torn. She places her hands on the wall, hoping to right herself. Her breaths came in clumps. And that's when Tommy heard the creak. Wood was bending, then splintering, then breaking. Nails and glue ripped away like tape covered in hair. Sunlight slipped through the crevices, and Mabel's eyes grew wide. "Tommy!"
The wall broke away from the house, both stories, in one giant piece. It fell like an aging prizefighter. Mabel threw herself towards Tommy, reached out and grabbed his arms. She pulled on those things, trying to keep from falling out of her home.
The mailman happened to be passing by at that exact moment, and from the street it looked like a dollhouse, one wall missing, the contents exposed.
"Pull me back in, Tommy," Mabel pleaded to her son, who had his feet sideways, his legs bent, driving away from the drop-off. Lift with the legs! repeated in his head. He screamed like a warrior, and Mabel pulled harder. Snap.
That was the sound of the first tendon in Tommy's shoulder. The other tendons followed. The frequency came faster and faster like popcorn in a microwave. His shirtsleeves had been completely ripped off and his mother's fingers clawed over his dried muscles, digging into the waxy skin. Tommy didn't feel it. He could only listen and watch as his arms tore away from his body. Mabel plummeted two stories, still gripping onto her son's severed arms. She died three seconds after her seismic landing. Enough time to whisper, "Wayne, I hope you're where I'm going."
Tommy sat down on the floor, his feet dangling over the edge. He stared down at his mother, and for some reason he thought about the first Halloween after his father had died. The kids at school had been razzing Tommy pretty hard and he didn't want to go Trick or Treating, so Mabel sewed him two sets of arms, stuffed them with newspaper and gauze, and strapped them to his sides, transforming him into a human spider. No one could tell which arms were his.
Tommy was losing blood. It poured from his arm sockets and pooled around the seat of his pants. His eyelids were getting heavy. But Tommy found the strength to sing one more song. "Da-da-de-de-da..." That beautiful voice caught a gust of wind and carried over the trees and roads of Joplin. The hospital was only two miles away, and the mailman was offering to drive him from down below. But Tommy refused to stand-up.