Kittie Yang '13
Three fingers sit before me in a cardboard box, dressed in clear plastic and wedged in foam like new parts to a machine. I rip open the wrapping and pop them onto my finger stumps--index, middle, and ring fingers. The prosthetics are clearly modeled after someone who has never worked with his hands. The nails are trimmed and unnaturally symmetrical. The skin is half a shade-lighter than mine. The texture reminds me of a rubber duck. But it's more or less what I can afford to expect.
I ordered them from an amputee supplies catalogue about a month ago. They offer discounted goods from a medical engineering lab in India--$40 per finger instead of $199.99. The high-end designer's market ploy involves gimmicks like ceramic magnet lining that helps you pick up small objects. I laughed when I read that. As if magnets and mechanical joints can replace the fine sensation of finger tips. I used to be able to tell the difference between cedar and aspen by simply running my hand over the rough unpolished planks.
Up until now, I had resisted prosthetics and sported the stumps like a veteran's medals. Still, I got looks from people like they would be more comfortable if I kept them out of sight. Their eyes wandered in every direction but at the hand. If they so much as glanced at it, they averted their eyes and started small talk. But the questions eventually slipped out. "What kind of work do you do?" they asked. "Is there anything you can't do?" "Why don't you just become a lefty?"
You should play with the hand you are dealt, I kept repeating, and if I was feeling generous enough, I gave the bar-goers the gory details. "Never thought I'd see my own bone poking out like that. It was a bloody mess, like a pig had been slaughtered." This I said to the ex-athletes at the bar, who had plenty of injuries to show for themselves, but never a missing body part. I told the retired husbands, "You tend to slip up when you're under stress, rushing six custom orders within a week just to pay off your wife's kid's hospital bill." That sometimes lead to another story. "The blockhead fell off the monkey bars and split his scalp open. Went to the hospital for ten stitches and three years' worth of debt. That's what hospitals do, save your life for the price of your livelihood." But I could only tell the same story so many times. For a while, "woodworking accident" became my response. Now it's tapered off to grunting once for yes to whatever dumb question the new surge of bar hoppers ask. So when I saw the deal in the catalogue, I dug out the credit card from my wallet. It was something to look forward to.
I put the fingers to the test by getting a bottle of cold beer from the fridge. As I drink, I admire my hand's completeness against the condensation on the murky brown glass. I position my hand at different angles. They look good cradling the remote. They look good holding a cigarette. Even better look good counting a wad of dollar bills. Dealing cards is a slight nuisance, but I discovered that disfigurement works well when staring down an opponent across the green felt table, hazy smoke circling around. That's the only time I let anyone stare. They also look good opening a second beer; and a third.
After I lose interest in them and start watching a White Sox game, the kid walks in through the front door, bringing in a gush of cold air behind him, his scraggly black hair blowing over his eyes. He's been wearing one of my old shirts for a week now. His mother tailored it to fit him by snipping a quarter of the fabric from the bottom. He skirts around the TV and heads to the basement doorway before I catch his attention by snapping my fingers (the real ones, mind you.) I get up from the couch and step towards him.
"Check this out," I say, sticking my hand out.
"Fooled you there, didn't I?" I open and close my hand. His eyes follow the stiff dummy motions of the fingers. "One to ten. How real are they?"
He keeps looking at them, dull-eyed.
"Here. Feel it." I extend the open palm. "Just like skin. Doesn't look it, but costs a fortune. It's high-quality stuff."
He nibbles on his bottom lip as I let my fingers dance in front of his face.
"You should feel it for real. Won't bite."
He keeps looking at me slack-jawed like I'm totally shitting him. Having a conversation with this kid is like pulling teeth. I bop his head before he disappears downstairs.
Back on the couch, I slip the prosthetics off one by one and rub the gnarled stumps to ease the itching and tingling.
When my wife Marcia returns home late in the evening, she rests her lumpy purse on the coffee table next to the three fleshy appendages and does a double take.
"Oh, geez." She puts a hand to her chest.
I pop the fingers back on again and put on a show for her--a five-second piano mime. "Ta Daa." I fake applaud.
The only response I get from her is a "Huh," followed by vague nodding.
"What do you think?" I ask.
"I think Beth's boyfriend has one of those," she tells me. "Uses them for magic tricks. He sticks a handkerchief in the thumb and pretends to pull it straight from his fist."
"This isn't some el cheapo prop." I snatch the product package from the floor, waving it at her. "It's top-notch shit."
She picks up the invoice and skims it. The premature wrinkles stretch around her tightened lips when she glances at the subtotal. "Did you. . ."
"Think of it as an investment," I say. "Now I don't have to shake with the wrong hand at interviews."
She sticks the paper back in its box and keeps her lips pursed for a moment before saying, "And the payments?"
"What about them?"
She goes to the bedroom and returns with a few pieces of paper and lays them out on the coffee table--an electricity and water bill and a hospital bill--what we still owe for the brutal surgery, reminding us that the incident is still taking its toll on us. They're due in two days.
I sigh. "Guess I'll return these then. Don't really need fake fingers."
She shakes her head.
"Look, stop worrying. I planned to take care of it tomorrow. I've just had a lot on my plate this week." I reach for her hand to tousle her ponytail. I can't actually feel her hair. I only see the fake fingers combing through the strands.
"I'm gonna shower. I smell like grease." She picks up her purse and disappears into the bedroom.
Forty dollars per finger was a fair compromise, I thought. I used to own a small furniture business where I was in command of my own income and a master of the trade. After I got out of the hospital, I returned to my shop to find dried blood spattered across the workbench, on the floor, dark-red against the sawdust. I saw the ghost of myself in the unfinished furniture that lay in the corner--skeletal frame of a rocking chair, an unsanded board meant for a coffee table. My best pieces of furniture sat behind the glass windows, accumulating dust on their once-gleaming surfaces.
Four months later, after I had sold what was left of my ten-year-old business, we headed to the city with our fortune packed in a U-Haul rental. "This is the best decision," I told them as we drove away, thinking about the city skyline, a change of scenery that was much needed. Marcia agreed with me, glad to have quit her job at the corn mill. But the kid, who's resistant anything remotely unfamiliar, kept his face turned to the window so we couldn't see how red his eyes were. His mother told me that earlier that morning, while staring at the boxes that took us weeks to pack, he asked her if we could not move. He mumbled something about his father, even though he had lit out years ago, and I've stuck around longer than any ordinary man would.
But it turns out that even in the city, convincing potential employers to use my services in exchange for a salary is not a straightforward task, especially during the recession. It takes them one look at the missing fingers before they start having second thoughts. Show us what you can do, they say, and I find myself hesitating, because they're not looking at how I perform, but at how the hand performs. They're waiting for me to slip up again. I seize up over the most basic tasks. Meanwhile, we can barely make the rent of this one-bedroom house, a compromise that seems less and less temporary.
When I close my hand, the three little midgets come together and you can see the path the table saw traveled. The doctor told me that luckily, it only got my fingers--I had been just one second off. What he didn't say was that if I had been more than a second off, I would have qualified for a disability check.