by Shane Steven Smith aug 2004
"He'll be alright, you know. Don't you worry about that." Uncle Sam said quietly, without looking at him at all, just staring off into the traffic.
"How can you be so sure?"
"I just know." He took a sip of his Dunkin' Donuts, sighed a big sigh the way fat men do, and went on saying nothing again.
That was pretty much the way it had been going too. The two of them alone in the car with just the whip whoosh of the wipers to break the silence. It was drizzling out, not really raining yet, but you never could be too careful. That's what Sam had always said. Somedays it seemed, Sam said it more than once, even though he could see the way the boy was squirming.
If he only knew, Sam thought. But that was rediculous. No one should ever have to know something like that. I wish I didn't know.
The seventeen year old had taken off his earphones and was now just looking out the window, watching the passing cars go by. He wondered what the boy was thinking about, had no clue really, but he was sure of one thing. He thinks I'm talking down to him. Then: Well, what would you call it?
And it wasn't an age thing. Not in the least bit. Afterall, Alex was even older than he had been when he'd found out. It was just that it was something that liked to live in the back of his mind, way back in the dark corners, and Sam liked that just fine. Out of sight, out of mind, right Sam?
Not in the least. It was hard to keep it there. Especially with all the accidents. "Do you know what happened?"
"Yeah," the boy said. Then he turned towards him, "he stucking his hand in a wood chipper."
He put so flattly, it kind of shocked Sam. So matter-a-factly, almost kike he didn't care.
Or he expected it.
It had been labeled a construction accident. Joshua Hardig and the crew had been doing a little landscaping on Adam's County Graveyard. It was a sweet job, and even though it looked like it might rain a bit later, it was still a gravy shift. Anything really was better than what they had been working on: paving out on I-91, the kind of work where you sweat your ass off and the zipping cars throw dirt in your face. Yes indeed, this was better than that.
That's the way it had been going anyway, any one of his co-workers will tell you that. Then, the foreman blew the whistle that meant Break! and that's when one of them saw Josh pull his hand out of the wood chipper.
"It was a fucking mess." Joe had said, he remembered. Everybody always wanted to know how bad it was. Like seeing a car wreck, he guessed, although he had never really understood that frase. What kind of sicko likes to see a friggin' car wreck, anyways? And every one had asked him because he had been closest. Most, if not all, of the men that worked on Joe and Josh's crew would say that he had saved Joshes life. Then, came the question, "What happened?" But not until after they had found out how bad it was. First things first.
"I dunno. All I saw is him pull it out, and oh man, the blood. There was friggin' blood everywhere, coming fast to, and all I could remember was this show I'd seen on TV. Probably ER, or some shit. I remembered them saying to squeeze down hard, with a whole lot of pressure. So I grabbed his wrist and squeezed like a motherfucker, I mean hard, and told Benny to call the 911. They got here quick, thank God."
"Yes, thank God," his foreman would say.
After a ten minute ambulance ride-- "Hey! You don't need to drive like a maniac!-- they arrived at Athol Memorial, where they were promptly told, "I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do for him here." They called Boston Med who flew down a chopper. They wheeled him on the stretcher across the damp grass and tucked him into the helicopter. Within moments, Joshua could look down and see hazy clouds and blueish grey sky below him. "Is this Heaven?" he asked, though he wouldn't remember it until later.
"No Josh, this isn't Heaven. This is Boston."
And so that's how they had ended up here, on this rainy morning, shooting down I-495 waiting to see signs for the turnpike. Sam had stopped to pick up Josh's son, went to a drive through DD's and got a dozen donuts of which the boy ate none of.
Sam reached around in his jeans pocket while the boy was turned away for the moment. Ahh, there she was. In one sweaty palm he pulled out a brandy nip, twisted the cap, and emptied the small bottle into his steaming coffee. Took a sip. When he looked up, the boy was staring at him, wide eyed. Don't look at me like that, he almost said but didn't. Instead he said nothing and took another sip. Nearing forty, maybe he shouldn't feel the seventeen year old's eyes judging him, but he did. Hell, he judged himself.
"It's afternoon, you know," he said.
"It's ten after eleven."
He looked down at his Chevy's dimming clock. It was, exactly that actually, but he didn't care. He gulped the last three sips in one and felt the heat of the brandy wash over him. It was a feeling that he knew all to well.
"I'm just wondering what happened to Mister Careful, that's all?"
"I threw him out the window." He said, trying not to laugh. He was driving after all.
But the boy did laugh, but it came out loud. Maybe louder than it would've normaly. Like a nervious laugh. Or one that's scarily close to weeping. "Can I have some?"
"Not a chance."
The boy didn't push him, just went back to staring out the window. Slowly, he found himself twisting a second bottle's cap off, after he unearthed it from his collection. He poured about a quarter of the amber liquid into the boys paper cup-- he had only gotten a small, you know-- and the rest into his own. Why are you doing that? Sam! He's seventeen for christ's sake!
But he knew why. The answer was way back there in the corners of his mind, like most things were these days, just peeking out a little. He was going to tell him. And if that was the case, it wouldn't matter that the kid was seventeen; that kind of thing'll age you in a hurry.
"Now Alex, I want you to listen to me. I know you're thinking lecture, and I've done plenty of that, but that ain't what this is. You hear me?" he asked, for the first time, turning directly to face him when he spoke. "You think you know what happened to your father, but you don't."
"He put his hand--"
"Yes, I know, a wood chipper. Thank you for that." He took another slug from his cup, but the coffee had long since been all gone. Now it was just brandy, and it stung his eyes a little. He coughed. "I want you just to listen," he said it very slowly.
Alex had never seen Uncle Sam talk like that. Usually he was pretty much, pretty easy going. Not like this, and it kind of scared him. It definitley blew all thoughts of giving Sam a hard time aside: he was Serious, with a capital 'S.'
"It happened when I was fifteen and you father was, well, your father was your age. We were playing squirt gun's, you know, shooting each other and shit. It was sunny out.." The rim off the coffee-cup touched his chapped lips.
Alex realized that Uncle Sam was crying. He didn't know what to do, never seen an adult cry. It was kind of unnerving because Uncle Sam was such a big man.
"That was the day your father lost his whole hand, way up to the wrist, in the lawn mower."
"My father has both his hands!"
"Not always he didn't." Sam said quietly. "Not always he didn't."
No one ever thinks of New England when they think of hot, humid weather, but that Saturday, that's just what it was. The sun pounded on your back, and the boy's shirts had long since come off, thrown to the ground hours ago.
"Hey! Pick up these goddamn shirts!" a women in a blue house dress screamed. But that was just Mom, and yelling was faily common in the Hardig Household. Common enough, anyway, that it didn't even affect their mood. Besides, Mom was already picking up the t-shirts anyway. She grabbed the second one, bending down to the grass, and then went back inside. Probably doing laundry. Always something; Mom was old-school, and old-school women keep a tight ship, after all.
"I'm gonna get you, you fucker!" Josh screamed, laughing the whole time. He was running down the sloping lawn now, gaining on Sammy. Of course I'm winning. I AM two years older, you know. Then why are you still playing with squirt guns? the other voice asked. Aren't you a little old?
But he knew why he was playing: Because it was good for Sammy. He could see him, now really only like fifteen or twenty feet away, and he had that smile on his face when he was really having fun. Both barefoot and in their shorts-- Sammy was wearing a pair exactly lile Josh's, Sam always had to have what Josh had-- they were really tooling it now. Cruising down the hill. There was the Johnson's barn on the left, and Sammy darted behind one of it's faded walls.
"Hey!" Josh shouted. He made it around the corner. Looked.
He was gone.
And then he saw him, realized that he had made his way deep into the neighbor's yard. The Johnson's wouldn't mind though. Josh knew they liked the boys. He also knew they hated their Mom. "Where'd you go!" he shouted, not really asking but just yelling because he already knew. He just wanted to make him stop. It worked: Sammy stopped, turned around a little even, as if to say: Look, here I am! And Josh was going to wail him-- because he was still running, still gaining-- with the squirt gun, but didn't.
Josh didn't even see the lawn-mower, a big old riding LawnBoy, with red paint on the sides and green trim, when he ran right into it.
"Oh shit!" he heard a voice call out, but it wasn't his own. Turned out, it happened to be the voice of a startled Mr. Johnson, who had decided that today would be a perfect day to cut along the edges of the flower bed. Mary liked to keep her perrinial beds nice and square, so he had grabbed a beer, and parked his can on the leather seat, and chip chopped. Later, he would wish that he had picked any day, other than that day, to mow the lawn. Fuck Mary's flowerbeds.
The boy went over the hood of the mower real quick, like a somersalt. In a blur of motion to quick to really even remember exactly, he went over and onto the ground. He thought the kid might've broke his neck, if he hadn't started to get up, laughing. Few!! he thought, sweating bullets now, and that was the last thought Peter Johnson, Pete to his friends, had before he heard a sound he will never forget for the rest of his life. A sound that still, many years later, startles him awake out of a restless sleep, more nights than not. Kind of like a snap, surrounding by a rumbling. Or growling.
It was the sound of his LawnBoy's teeth, crunching loudly into that young boy's bones.
"They amputated all the way up to Dad's wrist? Are you serious? How can that be?"
"They had to, they said, to save the rest of his arm. Something about nerve endings I think they said, but honestly I don't remember Alex. All I remember is walking into I.C.U, that's Intens--"
"I know. Intensive care unit. I watch TV."
"Right. But all I remember is seeing him there, his right arm all strung up-- for elevation, the Doctor's had said-- and not seeing anything at all except gauze.. and alot of blood."
Alex realized the car was slowing, and he looked out to find that they all were. They had finally hit the toll for the Mass Pike. That meant they were almost there, Alex knew. He had been to Boston before, after all. Sam rolled down the Chevy's window, handed the guy two bucks, waited for his change, and took off. He merged into traffic, the left lane, rolling the window with his left hand.
Alex could feel the heat still in his throught brought on by the brandy, but it didn't seem to warm him any. He didn't realize it until he saw it, but he was shaking.
"You alright, kid?" Sam asked, but he knew. Of course not. And it's going to get worse, too boy, alot worse. He cranked the heat from mostly blue to mostly red and turned on the fan. Soon, hot air came pouring out the noizy vents.
"Which hand was it, uncle?"
Ahh. He's getting it, I think. Well, maybe a little of it. anyway. "His, right hand, Alex. He lost his whole right hand, all the way up to the wrist. All you could see was a little nubb on the end, and I think that was from the stitches."
"Then how--" the boy began, but Sam didn't think he knew how to finish. How do you formulate a question like that, really? He could see the thoughts, by the millions probably, washing over him. His face turned pale, paler than it was anyway. White like seeing a ghost, Sam suspected. He'd seen that very same look on himself. "Then how--" he began again but it was a lost attempt. What? Then how does your father play piano? I dunno. You tell me. How does your father pick you up over his head, with BOTH hands, like he used to when you were younger? I dunno. But I DO know one thing. Oh yes, I got one thing real clear.
"It grew back, didn't it? The doctors chopped it off and it grew back."
After a pause, Uncle Sam nodded and started to sob.
Then, the real question: "How?"
"I don't know." he said, and then told him:
"'Things will go back to normal,' Mom had said, the first day home from the hospital, repeated it to us a couple times even. But things never did. And a week after we were home, you father called me up into the attic. It was the place where he hung, you know. He said he wanted to show me something, and he was really excited. I hadn't seen him like that since the accident, you know? Almost happy. So I followed him up there, and closed the trap behind us. The doctors had told him to keep his arm elevated, so he was still walking around with his hand in the air and doing everything with one hand. Then we sat down in the dark, using the single, small attic window up there for light, and he started to unwind the gauze."
"What did you see?"
A pause. Alex almost thought he wasn't going to tell him.
"Two small fingers, no more than an inch long."
It would be years before Alex heard the rest of that story, about how Mom had demanded to see underneath all that gauze-- And why is there so fucking MUCH of it!-- and when Mom wanted something, Mom got her way. After all, Mom was old school, and old school broads run a tight ship. So when she was told "No," one night at the dinner table by a child, she was positive she would have her way. Grabbing the child, she had thrown him against the wall, and unwound the mesh.
And it would be never before he heard about the way Mom's eyes had rolled back into her head, and she fell on the floor. It would be never before he heard the thump as her skull crashed mercilessly onto the tils floor. Alex would never hear how Sam, during the summer when he was fifteen, had seen his mother sink to her death right before his eyes. And even closer, Joshua.
Sam could still see the way her tongue had been hanging out of her limp head, sagging and expressionless. Heart attack, they had called it, but Sam knew better.
She had died of fright. He was certain.
Yes, Alex might not know all of that, but Sam thought he knew enough to understand. Even now, watching the boy as they walked under the sign that read: Brigham's Memorial Hospital, he could see that he wasn't even looking around at anything. Just going through the motions, it seemed. Perhaps that was just as well.
Sam could imagine the questions going through the child's mind, as they were led through the doors into I.C.U. The thoughts he must be having. All of the accidents his father had had, over his seventeen years, all of the mishaps and misfortunes. Nothing can kill my Dad, he used to joke around, and maybe that made the trips out to Boston easier. And the boy did think about all that, about the time Dad had cut his hand cooking, and nearly lost his index and middle fingers. Thank God they had been able to reattach them. And there was another he had thought, even longer ago, where his hand had gotten caught in the car door. His right hand. It seemed that maybe, it was always his right hand. A hand that, even though it was there, he had never really used it, unless he had to. And yes, Alex was thinking about all of this, and had it on his mind right up to the end.
But when he walked through the final doors, his uncle ushing him in and he could see his Dad on the bed, he was thinking only one thought. And it was still there even when Alex was hugging his old man, squeezing him hard-- Yeah, boy. Squeeze down HARD, with a lot of pressure, like on E.R.!-- just one thought.
He was thinking about cutting himself. Just a little. You know, just to see what would happen. "I'll be alright," his father was saying.