By Hunter Liguore
Billy went on the pretext he was looking for his brother. They only let him in, because he had a scar as long as a horse’s tail. It started from his shoulder, crossing over his spine, to his hipbone. He lied, and said he was born with it—but folks knew it was his par who’d done it, tossed him out the barn window with a tornado force when he was fourteen, just three years ago. The scar was enough to make him one of them, and so on Saturday night the Pine Man’s shed opened for Billy.
A box fan hummed from an empty bookshelf of a crowded room. Billy walked like a ghost, his steps careful not to creak the uneven floorboards. Notes from an antique piano tinged the air, as two children fought to sit on the teetering stool. Billy’s eyes met Courtney’s with fear; a look of what’re you doing here, passed between them. His face burned crimson. Courtney went for the boys, to hush ‘em up; her siblings, though they were more like her own babies, since her mar ran off.
Billy felt those worried eyes follow him to the adjoining room. His hand caught the trim at the threshold, holding him back. He took in Courtney’s paisley dress and worn-tipped shoes, the Pine Man’s book dog-eared under her arm. Billy raised his eyes to meet hers. The look was the same. Don’t go, Billy. Don’t go.
Amber light from a hundred candles washed over a group of folding chairs. A mixed group of men (and a few women) gathered and spoke in whispers. Conversations stopped, when Billy came in. He scratched at the back of his neck, missing his long hair. He noticed all of them had short hair, pleased he’d done the deed.
Awkwardly, he waited between a rusted fire extinguisher and a pedestal with books. He picked one up, pretending to read it, his eyes flashing over the words he’d already committed to memory. Seek you the path toward the way the Creator intended thee.
Billy flipped the pages, his heart raged with quickness. He discretely studied the room, the one he’d heard so little about. It was less impressive than he expected. There was an old bailey bathtub, once used for gin, he guessed, at the head of the pulpit. Heavy metal rings drilled into the floor surrounded it. On the wall a felt tapestry hung: a fingerless hand at the center, surrounded by the words, The New Youth. The emblem was the same on the pamphlet he had hidden in his truck, the one that put the thought in his head to come.
“Billy,” someone called him.
Wading through the crowd, half the height of the men, was Joellen. More man than woman, despite the flattened breasts she tried to hide under a white T-shirt. Her left arm was tattooed solid black from the elbow down. On her right hand, all the fingers were blacked out.
“This is right,” she said, big thick smile. She tugged the front of his shirt, forcing him to stand straight. “Not a lot of new people. So you’ll definitely go tonight.”
“I don’t know that I’m ready.”
“You’ll thank all-that’s-living when you’re in there.”
Billy followed her finger to a locked door, like the front of an old icebox. In black spray paint, above it was written: The White Room of Purity.
“Are you sure he’ll take me?” Billy heard the quaver in his voice. “I really just came to watch is all. I had something to tell my brother,” he lied. He started rambling. “If not, I can come back. I don’t have to do nothing tonight. Maybe someone else needs to go.”
“We’ve all had a turn at the altar. Now it’s yours.”
Joellen led him to a makeshift table made from apple boxes. She didn’t need to introduce him to anyone. Billy recognized most from school or town. He knew the surprise showed on his face each time he met eyes with someone. People he had nothing in common with, or never said a word to his whole life, were warming up to him, a few nods, one arm pat; someone said, it’s the right move, bro.
Billy tried not to stare at everyone’s scars or their missing limbs. Most had a piece gone: a leg, an arm, a foot, a hand, the hack job fingers no longer there. Some boasted new scars and new amputations, and if they didn’t have a limb missing, they had tattoos, like Joellen, to mark the spot.
He sucked down a glass of brown liquor, which scorched his throat and made him hot all over in seconds. He drank more, wanting his eyes to blur, his senses to dull. He needed to feel invincible, but would settle for less than cowardly. Billy kept reminding himself that most everyone in the room had gone through with it. That meant he could too.
The crowd settled into chairs and stood along the back wall. From the other room several men in white robes swept in with chainsaws. The room lit up with excitement and chanting. Shadu, Shadu, Shadu. Billy joined in, even though he didn’t know what it meant. He wanted to ask what the saws were for, but in a few moments, the icebox door opened, and a cart with giant cubes of ice rolled out.
“Give it up,” yelled a white robe, waving to the crowd to move in closer to the pulpit. Whistles and shouts grew to a deafening point, competing with the roar of the chainsaws as they came to life. The ice was slashed into smaller pieces and heaved into the tub.
When the chainsaws went silent, the red robes rolled in on wheelchairs, each decorated with the New Youth emblem. Billy’s brother was the last one in. His face was painted with red stripes, and he hugged an oversized book at arm’s length above his head, which caused hysteria in the room. Some dropped to their knees, others ran to kiss it.
His brother looked so big, so important dressed up, almost worshipped. He was the Pine Man’s number two man. Billy had only ever thought of his big brother as the one in the chair, the one who ruined his life when he ran his car headlong into a wall. But here he was, something else—powerful, he thought.
Billy felt self-conscious when Teddy pointed to him. The crowd parted and quieted.
“Come here, little brother.”
Billy had no choice. He felt his face flush, and bent his shoulders, hands deep in his pockets.
Teddy grabbed him by the neck, dragging him to his chest, kissing his forehead. “This here’s my little brother.” Teddy’s eyes reddened and watered with tears. “I’m so proud of you, bro, so proud. You gonna do it tonight? Do it for me, bro. Make me proud.”
Billy nodded, realizing he was consenting, and that there was no way to back out. The others clapped, some catcalled encouragement. That’s right, Billy. Nothing to be scared of. We’re all made a certain way. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to be ashamed of, Billy.
Teddy moved the book so Billy’s hand was on it. “This book changed my life, Billy. It’s gonna change yours. Proof’s in the fact you’re here.”
Billy nodded again. He felt a surge of tears, a deep love for his brother welled up, something he hadn’t felt in years.
The crowd returned to hysteria and chanting, as Teddy rolled to the pulpit, tipped his chair and forced his way up the small step.
Billy felt dizzy as he squeezed through the hot bodies back toward Joellen, glancing over shoulders as Teddy opened the book on the pedestal. Moments later, a steady foot-stomp met with a single clap started slowly and built bigger and bigger, like a giant heartbeat. Billy joined, first out of time, then concentrating and getting it right.
Shadu, Shadu, Shadu
Entering like a living god was the Pine Man, larger than life with a black robe that glittered with sparkles. His hair was balding; the strips that crisscrossed the top, to cover the bare spot, were greasy. His glasses were dated, thick framed and brown, but his beard looked well groomed. This was the man that Billy’s par raised a shot gun to in broad daylight in front of the Shop N’ Save. This was the man who brought his mar to the bottle; she’d never been sober since. This was the man Billy was about to trust his life to.
As the Pine Man passed, Billy watched his wooden arm swing back and forth like a dead fish hanging there. Everyone dropped to their knees, reaching to the hand to kiss it. Billy lowered himself, keeping his head bowed, like he’d learned to do in church, back when he was a boy and they went, back before Teddy’s accident.
In a flash the Pine Man was on the podium, reading from the book, his voice filling every inch of Billy’s insides with a deep pounding. Billy’s hands shook a bit. He was scared, he realized.
Then the Pine Man scooped up the book, his voice grew more intense, louder, his good hand cutting the air to add emphasis as he shouted the words. He went over to a new guy, placed a hand on him and prayed. He did this to the next two guys, which Billy thought looked calm, not a lick of sweat on their brows.
Billy stayed kneeled as the Pine Man placed his living hand on his head, praying now, the words soothing, though Billy could hardly make sense of it all. The next thing he knew he was weeping, as if the prayer had done some magic on him. Billy reached up to the shiny pine-hand and kissed it.
Through his tears, Billy’s eyes fell to the doorway, where Courtney’s head peeked in. Two big round eyes of compassion telling him it wasn’t too late to leave. She was the Pine Man’s daughter, the one who was supposed to be the most loyal, and yet her body was perfect and unscarred, and all her limbs were intact. It confused Billy. How was it that she wasn’t like the rest of them?
Billy tried to turn his eyes away. He could almost hear her voice in his head, like lilies of the valley, fragranced sweet. Run, Billy, Run while you can.
Then the room shifted. The chairs skidded to the side. Billy in the center. Two men grabbed him by the arms and led him to the pulpit, where he was chained to the floor.
“Brother Billy,” came the Pine Man. “The Creator made you one way. Are you incomplete?”
“Yes.” His voice cracked. He wondered if he’d said anything at all. “Yes, sir,” he grunted with more force.
“Show me. Show me the part of you that don’t belong.”
His back was to the crowd, but he could feel their heat, their warm breath at his neck smelling of brown liquor, eyes wide and restless, he guessed. He turned around, seeing instead eyes of encouragement, eyes that bid him release. Billy buckled against the chains, suddenly wondering how he’d got there.
“Billy.” The Pine Man placed a hand over Billy’s forehead, then his eyes, cradling his head to his warm chest. “Billy.” A few moments. “Billy.”
The effect was the same. Billy washed through with fat tears and sobbed, unable to stop or control it. He felt outside of his body, as he clung to the Pine Man like a father. His cries became whines, in between big gasps of air. He felt embarrassed, but still couldn’t stop.
“Show me, Billy. Show me the place. The place that torments you. Show me. Show your brothers and sisters. Let the Creator grant you peace and wholeness.”
Billy wiped his eyes on his shirt. He knew what he meant. But here with the Pine Man he wasn’t a sick boy. Here had had nothing to feel ashamed of.
“That which doesn’t belong, will prevent you from being whole.” The Pine Man’s voice turned sermon-like. He stepped near the bathtub, signaling the white robes to stir the melting hunks of ice.
“There is no shame, Billy. The world out there won’t understand. But here, you’re among family, family that understands the feelings you have inside. The doubts you have about yourself. Don’t we all know what he’s feeling?”
The group chimed in, each voice competing to be heard, telling Billy it was okay to be here. He was among friends. He had nothing to fear.
Billy’s eyes rested on Teddy up on the podium, and especially his two stumps. Billy’s mind wandered to a blurry hospital room, some three years ago. Teddy was just turned twenty-one, and had just returned from working at a cattle ranch across the state. Billy could see his par’s clenched fist around his baseball cap, the seam starting to rip. His mar, then sober, held Teddy’s hand, sobbing, and then there was Teddy, all upright and proud, telling them over and over, This is how I want it. This is what my body ought to look like. Par only saw it as a sign of weakness. Mar thought it was crazy talk, shock even, but Billy, young as he was, understood exactly what Teddy meant, only he didn’t know it until now.
When the Pine Man asked Billy again to show him the spot that needed reckoning, he held up his left arm. A white robe brought a ribbon, and tied it on a little above the elbow, where Billy marked.
The Pine Man held Billy’s arm up. “See this, brothers, see the profane?”
We see, we see, we feel his pain.
“We’re gonna give him release tonight. Temporal release from his pain.”
Two white robes gathered, each with a different item in hand. The first brought oil, which the Pine Man used to anoint Billy’s arm. The second brought incense, which was burned; the smoke smudged all around him. Then the white robes dropped him to his knees, adjusting the chains tighter, as the Pine Man called, “Freedom. Give the boy Freedom.” When the Pine Man’s hand came down, the white robes thrust Billy’s left arm into the tub of ice. He felt the cold upon his skin like a burn.
The chanting turned to song, one Billy had never heard. He tried to focus on the words, believing he was expected to sing along, but the Pine Man hushed him, leaning to his ear. “Focus on your release, brother.” The Pine Man nodded and the white coats pushed Billy’s whole body closer to the tub, so he was now hanging over it, the tip of his nose hitting the floating ice. His shirt was stripped off, exposing his scar to everyone. He felt hands touching him, stroking it.
A new chain was wrapped around him, and across the tub, preventing him from moving. He bucked and twisted, the cold ice numbing his hand and arm. He felt terror, twisting and bucking, but not crying out. The white robes wrangled him, steadied him.
“Just watch the clock,” one said. “It’ll all be over in a sec.”
Billy’s eyes met the hands of the clock keeping time. When he looked again only ten seconds had gone by. He tried again to free his arm. The ice stung and pricked his flesh. Already he couldn’t feel two fingers. The ones he could feel felt bloated and heavy. Ten more seconds. He burst with a scream. Then the Pine Man’s hand was on his head, an ear, covering his eyes, whispering. “Let the Shadu come into you.”
“I don’t know what the fucking Shadu is,” Billy shouted. He twisted and screamed. “My hand! I can’t feel my hand.”
Behind him a round of applause and cheering. Then the floor stomp and the single clap started. Billy thought he heard the sound of a drum, a rapid beat, and realized it was his heart against the tub, in his ears, the beating, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah…strangling all his senses.
Then all at once he was aware of the Pine Man, whose warm hand squeezed Billy’s neck. “Billy, the Shadu is the one we call upon to make us whole. She comes to you now. Can you see her? She wants to take your pain away. She wants to make your body complete. The way it was intended. If you pray to her, the Shadu will take that arm away from you. Isn’t that what you want? To look upon your body and see it as the Creator intended?”
Billy nodded. Tears dripped off his nose into the water, where his image reflected back. Under the cubes of ice he saw a red log, but he could no longer identify it as his own. Saw it there like a fish under the water. Saw it connected to his arm by the ribbon. But he could no longer feel the arm. It had been made frozen. Made numb. The nerves deadened. He wiggled his upper arm. Saw and felt only the stump. The recognition flooded him. Deep inside he remembered the little boy that used to tie his arm around his back to see what he looked like—liking himself better with only one limb.
“You did it,” Billy whispered. “You did it.” He glanced up to the Pine Man. “I can’t feel it. It’s gone. The arm’s gone.”
The chains came off him. Arms laced over his back, led him to the White Room of Purity. Billy stepped inside, suddenly aware to the stillness, the emptiness. The walls were metal and frosted over. Blocks of ice were piled on one side. His skin pimpled with cold, but he ignored it. The Pine Man led Billy to a group of mirrors, like the kind in a clothing store dressing room. The white robes made a few adjustments to them. Then the Pine Man waved Billy closer.
“See yourself, brother Billy. See yourself pure and cleaned.”
Billy’s eyes started at the top of his reflected image, working its way down. When he got to his left arm, the reflection was covered up, so he couldn’t see from the elbow down. When Billy looked in the mirror he only saw a stump—and what’s more, he could only feel as far as the ribbon, anything below it, was as if it wasn’t there.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” The tears came on their own. “I want to take a picture or something.” Billy turned, marveling from all angles, back and front, astonished that he couldn’t feel the lower part of his arm. All his life he’d lived feeling his body wasn’t complete. In his private thoughts Billy saw himself with one arm. One arm. That’s what made him whole—it was what made him beautiful.
“You’ve been given a taste of what it feels like, Billy, to have your body purified.”
He was alone with the Pine Man. The white robes returning to the main room. The noise and chatter just on the other side of the door.
“I don’t want it to end.”
“No one ever does.”
“When can I do it again?” Billy stood tall, admiring his body, running his hand over his chest, and then to the stump. The more he touched, the more it aroused him. He crimsoned when his pants bulged.
“Don’t be ashamed. You like what you see. You’ve waited a long time to feel like a real man. Your whole life no one’s understood you. Tonight you experience what you’ve always known is true about yourself. Like a straight man accepting he’s gay, you’ve finally come to terms with being an amputee.”
“My head feels so fucked up.”
“First steps, Billy. Tonight is just one step. A big step. You’ve come a long way and you’ll come again because you know the truth and nothing can keep you from it. You have friends here, who will encourage you, and you’ll take the plunge again, and kneel at the altar. I’ll send you home with books to read that will keep you up all night until you finish.”
“But what if I still want more?” Billy’s hand accidently touched the frozen arm. He realized his awareness to the limb was returning. “I don’t want to go back to the way things are.” Billy’s eyes fell to the Pine Man’s swinging arm. “What if I want to be like you?”
“That’s a big step, Billy. A giant step. There’s no going back from something like this. You have time, Billy.”
“I would do it tonight, if you let me. I saw what it did for my brother.” Billy’s thoughts clouded. After the accident his life was ruined. How could he possibly think anything good came of it?”
“Quiet now.” The Pine Man hugged Billy. With one arm, Billy squeezed, not wanting to let him go. “I want you to be alone with this. Look for the Shadu to appear. She might grant you a vision answering all your questions.”
Billy watched the Pine Man’s reflection as he left. He could feel his limb returning, but fought to ignore it, to enjoy the moment. He closed his eyes, his heart calm, his mind clear. He listened into the deep dark, hoping to hear a word from the Shadu, though he couldn’t rest on an image of her. In his mind she was a single black face. He spoke to her in his mind asking her what he should do next, thanking her for bringing him here. He’d kept that brochure in his car for over a year. Drove by the shed every week, never having the courage to go in. Now he was one of them. The feeling filled him with fire, a strength. This was how Teddy felt, he thought. All the years of hating Teddy for busting up the family, he wanted to take back. He’d make it up to him. They would be brothers again.
When the feeling in his arm returned, a feeling of loss crept through Billy. When the next guy was brought in, Billy was led out, the ribbon removed.
He watched the third guy take the plunge from the back of the room, and when the ceremony was over, pizzas were ordered and brown liquor poured. People came up to him, sharing stories, asking him how he felt. Joellen gave him a squeeze and kissed him on the cheek. All the attention made him feel good. He felt part of something, less alone.
Billy went outside and peed in the bushes. His vision was a bit blurry; the moon overhead looked more like water in the sky. He felt strong though, like he could fly up to it and poke it out if he wanted to.
On the porch, he found Courtney reading by flashlight. The two boys were cozy in the corner sleeping. Billy tripped up the steps like a fool. He sat with his back to the pole, a leg on each step, facing her.
“Is that your dad’s book?”
The glow from the moon made one side of Courtney’s face blue, the other was in the dark. Billy saw her nod and said without thinking, “How come you read it, but you don’t, you know, plunge?”
“Maybe it’s not a limb that makes me feel incomplete.”
“So you do,” his voice rose higher, almost excited, “you do have those kind of feelings.”
“Maybe I feel incomplete, because my daddy can’t raise his own children.” Courtney came off the porch in a flash, heading toward the cars parked on the lawn.
Billy followed, running headlong into a fender, banging his knee. “Wait up.” He found her sitting on the tailgate of his truck, legs dangling, shoes kicked off. He jumped up next to her, flushing when he felt the heat of her body against his.
“You never had the same feelings as the rest of us?”
“No,” she said, matter-of-factly. “But I know all about it, Billy. When you’re raised with it, you see and hear it all. You think you’re so special, one in a sea of hundreds. But me, my whole world is filled up with people like you. You’re all the same. You all think my daddy walks on water. The same man that used to hold snakes above his head and drink arsenic, and lived to tell about it. To me he’s a sad old man who treats his own kin like strangers.”
“Then you don’t think nothing’s wrong with me?”
“No, Billy. No, nothing’s wrong with you.” She heaved a sigh.
He reached and took her hand, kissing it.
“We don’t talk our whole lives and now you come here once and we’re best friends.” A slight sarcastic laugh came from her lips.
“I always wanted to.”
“Now you’re Superman? I heard it all before. You aren’t the only one who’s wanted to jump off a roof, and thinks he can, without getting hurt.”
“The moon,” said Billy. “I want to jump up and hit the moon.”
“Course. Don’t make you different though.” She looked him over. “I liked your hair long. Now you look just like them.”
“I’ve been different my whole life. Kind of nice being around someone who don’t think it.”
The party started to breakup, as people filtered out of the house drunk, making their way to the parked cars. Several engines ramped up and drove away. Joellen had her arm strapped around a girl, one Billy didn’t recognize.
“I gotta go.” Courtney’s hand slid out of Billy’s.
He watched her go, feeling sleepy and peaceful, not wanting the night to end. “Can I see you again?”
In the dark shadows, and the amber light spilling out of the shed windows, he thought he saw Courtney smile. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He rolled on his back, staring up at the stars, connecting them one-by-one until he saw the face of Shadu.
It took Billy six weeks to become an ice cutter, and another three to be officially inducted into the white robes. He dropped out of school and spent most of his time at the Pine Man’s shed.
Courtney came and went throughout the day, bringing Billy and her daddy lunch and then supper. Billy always watched for her on the path leading to the main house. Sometimes she’d stay and sit on the porch, while her siblings ran free in the meadow surrounding the shed. Other times, she’d just wander back, like she didn’t have a clear destination.
One afternoon, when Billy stopped to take a break, he found Courtney gazing out at the horizon, not any one particular spot or feature. He knew the look, having it often enough himself.
Billy set his truck keys on the porch railing. “These are for you.”
“Where would I go, Billy? —ain’t nowhere for me to go.”
“Just get in the damn truck and drive. Drive anywhere.” He thought he saw a light flicker in her eyes.
“I can’t. I have the boys to watch.”
“They won’t be no trouble to me. I can work and watch them.”
She resisted. Billy pulled her on her feet, and laced his fingers around hers, brought her to the truck and got her in the cab. “You can drive, can’t you?”
“Course I can.” She smiled now. “Where should I go?”
“Anywhere. Don’t hurry back.”
Courtney leaned through the window and planted a kiss on Billy’s cheek. She drove across the lawn and went opposite the direction of town.
It was nightfall before Courtney returned; she left the keys on the piano, while the Pine Man read from the Book of Shadu to a small group of devotees, Billy included. Courtney peered through the gap in the door, mouthing, thank you, her face flushed and alive, and her smile bigger than he’d ever seen. Anytime, he mouthed back. He listened to her soft steps go out the door. A hot wave filled him, making it hard to concentrate on the prayer.
In the evening, Billy snuck into his bedroom like a shadow, hoping to avoid his par. Since he’d dropped out of school, they hadn’t talked.
Tonight, his par waited for him, sitting in the dark, clutching a baseball bat. “Where you been hiding yourself all day?”
“Nowhere.” Billy skirted off to the corner, to avoid looking at his par.
“Saw your truck out at Creek’s Canyon. Out where your brother had his accident.”
“Really?” It must’ve been when Courtney had his truck.
“I know they got you brainwashed. I’m not as dumb as I look, son. You don’t think it wasn’t the same way with Teddy. One day he was here, checked in, part of the family. Next minute, he’s out of school, skulking around, coming in late.” Par rested the bat on his shoulder, drawing closer to Billy. “Now if I was bound to interfere, like I did with Teddy, I’d send you off to work on a ranch, far away. Do a real man’s work for a change. But your mar said I pushed too much.”
Billy saw the sadness return to his par’s eyes, sadness that said he still blamed himself for Teddy’s accident.
“Tell me the truth, Billy. You wrapped up in this bullshit?” Par came face to face with Billy. There was no liquor on his breath. “You too thick in the head you can’t hear your par trying to talk sense to you?” A moment passed. “What’s that Old Wreck got you doing out on Canyon? I read the papers, Billy. Our town has the most car accidents without a single fatality. You taking a test drive, until you get up the nerve, until that Old Wreck convinces you you’re invincible?”
Billy cowered, raising up his hands to protect his face. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“That my son is a goddamn freak!” The bat went high, then came crashing down on Billy’s shoulder. “You goddamn freak!” He said it every time he swung the bat.
Billy heard the bones in his left arm snap under the weight of the wood. He tried to get away, but following the bat came Par’s fists in his face. The room spun, as Billy went into the wall, and was out cold.
In the morning, Billy woke in a hospital room. His mar sat in a chair. She roused when he moved, but didn’t come any closer. “Your par said to say he was sorry.” She bit her nails, the same way she did the end of a cigarette.
Billy tried to sit up, but felt like his body was in separate parcels, none of them part of the whole. His left arm was in a cast, the pain excruciating. The arm he didn’t want. He felt his face, his swollen eye and lip. A well of anger rose up in him.
“You gonna eat your breakfast?”
Billy shook his head.
His mar took the cup of coffee, setting it on the ledge. From her purse she took out a fake sugar packet, stirred with her finger, then sipped it. “Bitter,” she said, and added half a nip bottle of white liquor. “Better.”
They watched the TV together, a court show, in silence. When the show ended, he said, “I’m moving out.”
Mar fished another nip from her coat pocket. “Where’ll you go? Maybe you’ll go live with Teddy? I could come and visit sometime. We’d be like a family.”
“Teddy’s place is crowded. He’s got no room for me.”
“Then where?” Mar’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“A friend’s place. Maybe I can get a job and get my own place. Then I can have you over. It’ll be nice.” He reached his cast out to her. “You gonna write something on this thing?” She didn’t move, eyes back to the TV.
When Billy returned home, he found the hood of his truck open and the engine in tatters, plugs and hoses and parts strewn all over the ground. But it didn’t stop him. He packed up his gear in the truck and had it towed to Joellen’s, where he’d call home until he found something better.
Courtney came with a houseplant. Billy tried to show her that having one arm didn’t slow him down, that he could function the same, even though his arm was broken.
Over the week, he worked on fixing his truck. He had help from Mick, a white robe. As they worked, they drank cheap beer, the sun overhead roasting their bare backs. Mick had only one good hand, but it didn’t slow him either.
“Was that the part that was incomplete?”
“Nope, this is the part I got cut off by a lawn mower.” Mick chuckled. He raised his pant leg to show Billy the black tattoo. “The knee down. Something never been right about that part of me. I’m getting it taken off.”
“Yep, but I gotta do it, to be right in this world.”
Billy glanced at the cast, now oily from the engine. His par didn’t know it, but he gave Billy exactly what he needed, a trial run. This is what it’d be like full time without the arm. “How do you go about making arrangements?” Billy found himself whispering, though only his drunk mar was at home.
“See the Pine Man. He’ll take care of you.” Mick gave Billy a wink. “He treats you better than a son, so you got nothing to worry about. He’ll have you take a test run, and then set a date. You can back out right up to the day, and he won’t fault you. Better that way, then to go through with it and be disappointed. All the more reason to get this truck on the road.” Mick tried the engine.
Billy’s mind drifted off, back in the past, days before Teddy’s accident. He recalled seeing the inside of Teddy’s car, the ropes and chains, a net. He didn’t understand what they were for, and still didn’t.
It took another day before the truck was back and running. Billy went to see the Pine Man at the big house. He was greeted at the door by one of the boys. Courtney came downstairs shortly after, hair wet, in a pretty sundress.
She reddened seeing him. “Is something wrong?”
“Is your par home?”
She nodded. “He’ll be down for breakfast.”
Billy sat at the table with the boys, as Courtney slapped bowls of colored cereal in front of them. She offered Billy coffee and a roll.
“You’re staring, Billy.”
“Didn’t mean to. Can’t help it, is all.”
Courtney smiled, but didn’t look at him. “I need to go to town and get some eggs. These kids can’t eat cereal three times a day.”
“Truck’s fixed. You can take it.” He placed the keys in her hands, dwelling there, kissing her soft skin, rolling the keys up with her fingers. “Your own set.”
He let go, but she held on this time. It didn’t matter the boys were there, or that they were flicking colored flakes at each other. Billy kissed her, his whole body warming against her. They parted when the Pine Man entered, embarrassed. Billy saw Courtney tuck his keys into her dress pocket. Before long, she excused herself.
As the Pine Man talked about the success of distributing flyers, and the new members it brought, Billy heard the truck engine fire up and drive away.
“Tell me why you’re here son.” The Pine Man sucked the end of a pipe. “It’s about the big step, ain’t it?”
“Yes, sir. See I—”
“Before we get into the why, Billy, I want you to tell me what you’ve done to prepare for it. It’s not as simple as cutting off an arm. According to the law, you’ll be handicapped. You’ll have accommodations to make in your house, your life. You’ll need to learn to button a shirt with one hand. Piss with one hand. Make love with one hand. Have you thought about any of it?”
“No,” he stuttered. “But I thought it through. It’ll be like having the cast on, but permanent. Hell, when I was a boy I could do the monkey bars, one-handed.”
“Son, life ain’t like the monkey bars. It’s hard shit.”
Billy felt stupid. “I want to do this.”
“Or what? You gonna take matters into your own hand, like Teddy? He almost got himself killed.”
“I thought you helped him.”
“No. Did it on his own. I told him he wasn’t ready. Too many come after a week and want to sever. It’s not the end result that matters. It’s living with what you got and getting on with life.”
“Even if you feel incomplete.”
“I had my arm taken from me. It wasn’t my choice. It was Shadu’s. She knew what was best for me. When one of you comes to me and says, ‘it’s time,’ I always stop and ask, whose time? Yours or Shadu’s?”
“But I don’t want to wait months for this to heal, suffering with it, when it don’t belong in the first place.” Billy’s voice grew louder. “Damn it.”
The Pine Man got up from the table, leaned against the open window, staring out. Billy saw how much Courtney resembled her daddy, but he also noticed that they looked towards the horizon in different ways.
It was ten minutes or more before the Pine Man spoke, and when he did, all he said was Saturday.
Billy waited. “What’s Saturday?”
“No practice. No test drive. Think you can handle it? That gives you a full week to prepare.” The Pine Man turned blocking the light. “Now I have to go make arrangement.”
“But what should I do, Saturday?”
“Bring your truck ‘round Friday so we can outfit it,” he said. “On Saturday, have your truck up at Creek’s Canyon, eight o’clock. If you’re not there, then I know you had second thoughts. I won’t fault you. But I also won’t take you serious the next time you come calling.”
Billy went out on the front steps. The boys built mud patties in the dirt. He glanced over the horizon thinking about Courtney, then about his arm, then about his brother. Something inside said he needed Teddy’s permission to do it, to sever.
A couple days later, Billy met Teddy at the Pine Man’s shed. Courtney took his truck to pick up milk and to see a movie. She kissed Billy every time she came and went, each one a little bit deeper and longer. After Saturday, Billy thought, he’d ask her out on a real date.
Teddy was cleaning chainsaws out back. Billy kept an eye on the boys playing with water-pistols nearby.
“Can I help?”
“Sure.” Teddy wheeled his chair around, making room for Billy at the table. He handed Billy a screwdriver, telling him to open the carburetor. “Clean the filter with gas. And get the grime out of there.”
They worked in silence. The noise from the movement of tools made it comfortable.
After a time, Billy set the work aside and said, “I’m planning on doing it.” It was hard for him to say it aloud. “Sever, I mean. Par already disowned me. After this, he’ll just think I’m crazy like you.”
“He blames himself. Thinks he did something to make us like this, but he can’t figure it out. If we were gay, he’d say he treated us like girls. But amputees. What’s he got to go on? There ain’t no reason for it he can see?”
“But you don’t regret what you did?”
“Nope, not a minute.”
He wanted more from Teddy, a blessing, some assurance that what he was doing was right. When Courtney came back, he went to Joellen’s and finished unpacking. In between, he practiced what it would be like with one arm and hand.
By Saturday night, Billy got better at dressing with one hand, but still couldn’t get his jeans on without turning red in the face and falling over. He’d mastered boiling an egg with one hand. Jacking-off with one hand, (never a problem). He practiced cleaning his left ear with his right. Dialing the phone one-handed. Opening a beer with one-handed.
None of it was as easy as he’d thought.
And there were plenty of things he couldn’t do at all. Opening a can of beans. Cutting a tomato. Tying his boots.
The things he could manage overwhelmed him. Like showering. He had no hand to lather a washcloth with or to pump shampoo into. He found it hard to clean certain parts of his body. Shaving with one hand, took almost all his energy. He had no way of holding the skin as he cut, and ended up gashing his face, and needing two stitches.
Courtney had just returned with the truck, and drove him over to the ER. While they were alone, waiting for a doctor, she said to Billy, “I’ve heard lots of stories. Everyone has a reason to sever. What’s yours?”
Billy looked away.
“I kind of like this hand, even if it’s broken.” She took out a pen from her purse and made a heart on the cast. “You can tell how much somebody’s loved by how much writing they got on their cast.”
“Guess that means nobody loves me.”
“Maybe it’s not how many people write, but what it says, that means the most.” She let go of Billy’s hand, and excused herself. Billy glanced at the writing on the cast. In the heart were the words: every part of you is loved.
Billy arrived to find the Pine Man was waiting for him by the shed. Several guys from the group outfitted the cab of his truck with ropes and chains, a whole gizmo, just like Teddy’s car, but better, more sophisticated.
“This here is so we take the arm and nothing else,” said the Pine Man, when it was finished. “You put your hand in here,” he lifted a net, “and wham, when the door buckles on impact it’ll sever the whole arm.”
Billy took notice of Courtney through the windows of he big house. He started to think about their future, maybe married, raising their own kids. The pictures in his head showed him with both arms, he realized. Always two arms holding her, making love to her, touching her. Never one. Never an amputee.
Maybe the Pine Man was right.
It wasn’t until Saturday that the real uncertainty started. The sun was hot and the heat thick, no matter where he waited. Billy sat with Joellen in the kitchen sucking down beers to stay cool. He didn’t tell her when his severing was, so she had no clue why he was so anxious. Only him and the Pine Man knew the day and time. Now that he was thinking about changing his mind, and glad he kept it to himself.
Around six, Mick came over. The three started a game of cards. Billy sobered up, glancing at the clock. “I’m going for a walk,” he said. “Be back later.”
They kept on with the game. Billy could hear their voices and laughter from outside. He looked inside his truck, seeing the contraption. It was now or never.
All his life, Billy wanted to feel whole. When he thought about that, he knew that Courtney made him feel that way. He wasn’t ready for it to change just yet. He had time. Isn’t that what the Pine Man said? You have time, Billy.
Billy popped the hood and took off the distributor cap. He set off walking toward the Pine Man’s shed. When he got there, he’d tell him his truck was busted up, and he’d have to make another date. Then when the time came, he’d postpone, skirt around it, push it off to the future.
Billy walked beneath the tree branches arched over the road, the change in light apparent. It was getting late. He started to run toward the Pine Man’s shed and found the place lit up, crowded. He went inside, noticing the clock on the wall. It was a quarter to eight. He’d made it.
Billy drank down another beer, while searching for the Pine Man, but couldn’t find him. He asked around. He said he’d be right back.
A shot of fear went through him. What if the Pine Man went all the way out there, to the rendezvous, and was waiting? He’d think Billy was a coward and had wasted his time.
But I also won’t take you serious the next time you come calling.
The Pine Man had taken Billy serious. More serious than he did Teddy.
Billy got someone to take him home. It wasn’t too late. He could still go through with it. He was let off at the end of the drive. In the dark, Billy searched for the outline of his truck, exactly where he’d left it. But it was gone. He looked around back, but it wasn’t there, either.
Billy heard voices inside. Joellen and Mick were trashed still playing cards, or pretending to. They tried letting him in on the joke they were laughing about, but Billy cut them off. “Where’s my truck?”
“Oh, that,” said Joellen. “Your girl came by looking for you. She was worried when she saw the hood up. Mick threw it back together.”
“Yeah, piece of cake.”
“But where is it now?”
“She took it and went looking for you.”
“No,” chimed in Mick. “She said you let her take the truck time to time. She looked sad about something.”
Billy’s mind registered what he was hearing—Courtney had his truck.
He shot out of the house, taking Mick’s car and floored it up the mountain toward Creek’s Canyon. It was almost half past eight. He prayed that Courtney hadn’t taken the truck there.
But as he took the last bend, all Billy saw was the glare of red and white emergency lights. In the distance sirens blared.
In the gully, Billy’s truck was toppled and crinkled in two. Smoke sifted from the engine. On the other side of the road, he saw the Pine Man, badly shaken up, the front of a beater car smashed in.
When he saw Billy, a look of anger was in his expression; the Pine Man started for him. Billy ignored him, and broke through the perimeter tape where friends of his on the recue team worked to free Courtney from the cab.
Billy crawled on all fours to reach her. She was still conscious, bleeding. She called out to him. He crawled in, gripping her hand. “I’ve got you.”
“My arm,” Courtney cried. “I can’t feel it, Billy. I can’t feel it.” Her other arm was caught in the net, sandwiched between two pieces of metal.
“It’ll be okay.”
When Courtney was freed, it was Billy who lifted her with both arms and brought her to the ambulance. Both arms to carry her, he thought, just as he’d imagined it, though he’d hoped it was into their first house or to the bed, and not an ambulance.
The Pine Man sat across from Billy on the way to the hospital, Courtney between them, unconscious, her arm nearly severed and a mess; her body no longer perfect.
“All we have to do is wait,” said the Pine Man. “Shadu takes what don’t belong. Takes it in her own sweet time. Ain’t that right, Billy?”
Right then Billy leaned over and grabbed the Pine Man with both hands. He held him with one, and punched him with the other, feeling just fine in his own skin. The ambulance worker pulled Billy back, but Billy was raw and wild, and he had all his fight in him.
Hunter Liguore is an American writer with degrees in history and writing. Her published work has appeared in a variety of publications, including: Orion Magazine, The Writer Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, Writer’s Digest Poetry Market 2017, Mindfulness Bell, among others. She holds peaceful litter-clean-ups and teaches social justice for writers in New England. Visit her at www.hunterliguore.org.
Sami Jankins holds an MFA in Screenwriting from UC-Riverside at Palm Desert and is the founder of The Tiny Tim Literary Review. Previously she was a dating advice columnist for The Good Men Project’s column - Dating in the Digital Age with Sami Jankins as well as the press and social media editor for The Coachella Review. She wrote a blog for a number of years called Chronicles of Cheerful Clotter for HemAware Magazine, where she detailed her life with chronic health conditions. Sami is also an associate producer and press manager for the documentary Invisible: The Film, which focuses on individuals living with chronic pain and invisible illness. She has served on the Board of Directors for the National Hemophilia Foundation, spent time as a Senatorial intern, and was Miss Wisconsin for the ANTSO program. In addition, she has had articles published in Chronicality, Elephant Journal, The Glow (Australia), I.G. Living Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Mighty, National Pain Report, Ravishly, and YourTango. Her interests include ukuleles and sloths. Find her @SamiDan19.