A Deformity Story

Kathryn Scanlan


At lunch we were talking of hand deformities and I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it. I wanted to tell the story in a way the others would be glad, or at least not angry, I had told it.

A clerk at a convenience store counter was ringing the register with a hand missing its middle three fingers and half of the pinkie. The thumb was patched on at an odd angle with skin the color of fresh chicken livers. It met the pinkie in the middle. He used his hand like someone who knows how.

It's very strong, he said, and grabbed my wrist. I yanked like I'd been burned, but he held on, and I let my arm go limp. You're right, I said, feeling the flush spread down my neck. His hand was warm and smooth and dry, softer than I would have guessed. His thumb was resting on my pulse. I began to count. It's like a handcuff, I said.

He seemed pleased and released me. It's $4.50, he said.

I looked at my hand, which lay on the counter where he'd left it. It looked moist and pale with many worm-like digits. If I found it on the ground I would feel disgust for it. He looked at it too. We looked together, wondering whether it would move. The store was empty. It was early. I was up not because I had to be anywhere. I was buying a cup of coffee, a newspaper, and a lighter.

I was staying nearby, caring for a man's dog while he was away. The dog was very old with a dowdy, womanish cap of crimped gray hair that hung across her eyes. When she wasn't sleeping she paced stiff-legged from kitchen to bedroom and fell often onto her side, twitching against the smooth floor until I stepped in. Like my grandmother she resented the help, giving a sour cry when I put my arms around her, stumbling away grunting and shaking her head after I righted her. I pressed a hand to her back to steady her when she relieved herself in the sodden, soiled backyard, else she'd tip and tumble into her mess. I stroked her gently then.

I had a very good doctor, the man said. Have you heard of him? A Dr. G____? I couldn't think of any doctors I had heard of. It is not a field I follow. I try to cure my ailments with inexpensive substances within reach. For a time I was washing my head with baking soda. The hair dulled and broke and stood on end, and I sometimes wonder whether I am making similar mistakes with my organs.

My friends were still talking. It seemed the topic would never be exhausted. It was so visible, their reaching. Everyone wants to be the one who's told the best story. Everyone knows something about someone with something wrong with them. I began to feel disgust for my friends, though I continued to bring food to my mouth with my fork.

It wasn't a regular kind of thing. I was flown in a helicopter. I carried my thumb on my knee, he said. I wanted to ask him where the other ones were, and what cut them from him. I wanted to know how it worked, the putting back on. I wondered about before, when something cut from you stayed cut, no two ways about it. What was done with the thing then.

In the afternoons when I felt tired and raw, when the dog's pacing trampled any thought that drifted up, I got on the bus and took it somewhere. Often the jerking lumber of it put me to sleep. Some days people treated one another kindly and with respect, and other days it was live wires in every seat. On a hot live-wire day a fat little girl had her hands on her mother's face, stretching the skin like rough dough, bunching it in flabby wads, revealing the wet redness beneath, the plain bones and hollows. The mother's eyes lay out the window, her hands in her lap. I watched her chest for a rise. It came even and shallow. When the girl turned to look at me, her fists full of flesh, she saw how I wished to strike her. She was not surprised. Her tongue, too-wet and dyed red, budded from her mouth toward me until I looked away. When I stepped off the bus at dusk and let myself into the man's house, his dog lifted her head from where she lay prone. The hair fell away from her face and it was the first look I'd gotten at her eyes. They were milky with a mucous that ran in red and brown down her snout, but she could see who I wasn't, and let her face fall back to the floor.

People heard about Dr. G___ and started coming from all over. They packed their parts up in coolers and broke the speed limit. Dr. G___ did his best putting them back together the way they used to be. He had no time for a family of his own. Into the ground early he went, every piece of him.

Another customer came in, a man in a hurry, and I stepped to the side, searching my pockets for money. People kept arriving then, all of them needing things. I slid a stack of quarters across the counter and took my cup and paper and lighter and looked to the clerk, but his eyes were on the register, his hand dipping into and out of it, and no one seemed to notice anything different. I left and walked slowly down the bright street, loud now with cars moving quickly in either direction.

My friends were rising from their seats, dropping soiled napkins, counting rumpled bills onto the table. I did not stand until one of them touched my shoulder. Where will you go now? she wanted to know. She took my arm in hers and guided me away from the mess we'd made.

I did not want to go back to the man's house, to the false florals of his detergents, the sweet sick smell of his dog, her silver hair clumping on the rug, waiting for me to suck it up. I dawdled on the street, dragging one foot behind me like a club, a dead thing, someone else's. People began to notice. They slowed their cars for a look. They got a good eyeful and turned forward again. I hoped the memory of it would keep them going.