20060310

Own Your Own Hands


The guard went down under the balls of Jimmy’s steel Nubs like a marionette with cut strings. The brisket of her neck rose up in two welts like interlocking spheres, like planets conjoining atop the newly twisted nerve in her skull that now rendered her unconscious, useless, and perhaps permanently damaged.

There were precisely five other things you could do well with a Utility Nubbin:

1) Play drums
2) Stir cake batter
3) Hit a baseball
4) Grind corn, or pills
5) Stuff a turkey

Every teenager tried using their Nubs at least once for sex, but the shape was intentionally designed to make this difficult and unsatisfying. As soon as you penetrated an orifice (any orifice) you discovered that the ball was too cold and heavy to really provide much positive stimulation, and that pumping it in order to create friction was quite an ordeal. If you did it really fast – sex fast – you were bound to hurt somebody. It would get stuck; it would catch on a pelvic bone or on the lip of a spine. You could spend all day twisting and grunting to avoid an embarrassing and expensive hospital visit.

Sure, there were fetishists. But then again, there were people who liked to put hooks in their back and hang themselves from the ceiling like model airplanes while feverish children beat them with sticks and screamed for blood and candy. There were people who bred blind dogs with especially sleek heads, long noses, and wayward, congenial personalities. You could find weirdos everywhere, really.

No, your Utility Nubbins were good for nothing. They were designed that way. They were designed to be clumsy, unpleasant, and freakish -- manacles without chains. You were punished without even getting to commit a crime, which was about as erotic as iced tea and plane accidents. Call me spoiled -- decadent even -- but there was something horrible about not even having the memory of a single day spent outside of the law before the law took away your ability to break free.

I guess I’m just no good.

The absolute hardest thing to do with a Utility Nubbin was to hold a gun straight. Even though it was a rifle and I had a string clenched between my teeth with the other end tied to the trigger, the gun kept slipping wayward on the scrambling balls of steel that pooched out from under my shirtsleeves. Keeping the weapon steady was so difficult that I forgot to make my demands, and the county clerk just sat there with his hands above his head looking confused.

Luckily, I was not alone. Tooterman slapped his Nubs down on the wooden counter and busted the county clerk’s keyboard into pieces. Keys flew in all directions like teeth from a cow skull pulverized beneath the big wheel of a tractor. Good old Tooterman. He was crazy, but that made him tough and handy. People get scared of crazies, but crazies are only trouble when they suddenly go sane and remember what made them crazy in the first place.

There was no chance of that with Tooterman. He was crazy in his blood. If he got bit by a mosquito, the mosquito would go crazy. The bug would land on his nose and start pulling its own legs off – chucking them like footballs into Tooterman’s eyelashes, where they would hang like coat-hangers from the blonde wisps above his baby blues. Like true virtue, Tooterman’s crazy was a cause of crazy in others.

“We want our hands!” said Tooterman. “This here’s a revolution!”

The clerk didn’t know what to say. I jabbed the business end of the rifle in his direction as best I could, trying to show that we were serious. Of course, I had to be careful. I didn’t want to drop the thing. It was antique. The gun was sufficiently scary for our purposes, provided I didn’t crack it in two on the hardwood floor and discharge a bullet into my knee.

Jimmy Ear-Beard held his steel Nub underneath the nose of the crumpled security guard he had cold-cocked, making sure the old girl was still breathing. She hadn’t seen Jimmy’s blow coming and went down soft as you please. We were all afraid she had a heart attack, but cloudy vapor materialized in twin jets from the woman’s warty nose on the balls of Jimmy’s steel, and Jimmy Ear-Beard pumped his Nubs happily in the air out of relief. We didn’t really want to kill anyone if we didn’t have to.

The guard was down, and from here on out, it was all improvisation. Jimmy Ear-Beard got up off his Nubs and knees and made sure the door was locked. He looked at me and I nodded. He joined me and Tooterman at the counter and swallowed deep, which meant that he was about to speak.

“Weeee…www..wwweee…weee want our h-h-h-h-h-…”

“Hands?” asked the clerk.

“Shut up and let him finish!” said Tooterman.

Jimmy just blushed and nodded. “Hands,” he said, scrunching his eyes and squeezing his Nubs between his thighs.

“Hands,” he said again more softly.

“You guys are too old to be in school,” said the clerk. “You know we don’t have any hands for you. Your hands got burned. You know that goddamn right and well.”

“Any old hands will do,” said Tooterman, punching a hole in the wall with a Nub and ripping out a chunk of sheet rock. He picked out flecks of chalk from his stringy blonde beard and chewed on the tidbits that snowflaked into his mouth.

“Maybe YOUR hands!” he shouted, spinning around to face the clerk again.

“We know you’ve got spares,” I said through my clenched teeth. “Dead hands. From accidents. We will take three pairs of dead hands, if you don’t mind.”

“This isn’t a bakery,” said the clerk. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be mental defectives?”

“Between the three of us, we make up one pretty canny fellow,” I said. “Of course, there are holes. Tooterman’s got no restraint, and Jimmy’s got no reason.”

“What about you?” asked the clerk.

“I’ve got no TIME,” I said. “Now take us to the hands before you get a hole of your own. The kind you can’t plug up with pals.”

“Yyyyy…you…yyyyyyou….tell…him…tell him. You tell him,” said Jimmy Ear-Beard.

The clerk rolled his eyes and pointed to a door between the men’s and women’s restrooms. The copper plate on the front of the door had a picture of two blue severed hands, crossed like a knife and fork. “Citizens Only,” it said in cursive.

Tooterman put his Nubs together and spun on one heel. The balls of his Nubs crashed into the back of the clerk’s head and sent him gagging down at my feet. He made a noise like a popping champagne cork, and then he curled into a gurgling fetal sleep. I set the rifle down beside him, glad to be rid of it.

“It’s gonna be cold, guys,” I said. “They keep the hands on ice. Stay together so nobody gets frostbite.”

The three of us looked at one another, and then Tooterman charged through the portal, followed by Jimmy, who slunk along as if he were slipping out the back door of a glove shop or a ring store – one of those places Jimmy always went to sit and stare until the manager made him leave.

Tooterman was the kind of guy who just appeared from nowhere in a blaze of glory, but Jimmy and I had gone to the same school together and I knew him like he was my brother. We were both in the classes for stupid kids, but even still, Jimmy wouldn’t have made it out alive if it hadn’t been for me. I didn’t listen very well and I had a problem with starting fights, but Jimmy was so slow that he never did find out where Spot was going and why Dick and Jane gave a shit. I finally taught him the trick of answering every question with “blowjobs” and that shut the teachers up and made them leave him alone.

Everybody called him Jimmy Ear-Beard on account of the wax that was always leaking down his neck. It was pretty disgusting until you got used to it, and then it was just another reason to love the guy. You should have heard him scream on his Severing Day when he turned ten. We could even hear him down in the cafeteria. The poor bastard didn’t know what was happening, and you can bet his parents didn’t bother to tell him.

So he screamed and cried like a baby. But who could blame him? Everybody cries on Severing Day.

I remember my own Severing Day well. Whenever I replay the recording (they give you the tape), I usually end up screaming right there along with my ten-year old ghost, my heart beating faster and my eggs sucking up into my belly like anemones retracting into coral. They say that the day they return your hands to you is the best day of your life. But if you are like me, and you never pass your tests, you never get Citizen Day. You only get the day when your elementary school guidance counselor marches you down to the Government shack in the middle of every playground and takes away your God-given right to feel. Your God-given right to grab, and hold, and punch, and point, and pinch. You only get Severing Day.

For ten years, your hands are kept on ice in the county courthouse, waiting there for you to learn your lessons. You can go and visit them, if you are so inclined. I never did, but I heard stories. You show your ID, and a clerk takes you down in the basement where they have the hands of all of the children in the county growing in translucent deposit boxes along the walls of an enormous dingy deep freeze. Behind the glass, they are more precious than jewels: brown, black, red, white, and yellow candles of tallow flesh.

The hands grow according to your DNA and not your lifestyle choices, so there is an incentive to check on them and make sure you aren’t getting too fat or too thin. You put your Nub against the glass and compare wrists to see how you match up. There is nothing more horrifying than a person whose hands are too big or too small for their bodies when they are returned, and more than a few potential citizens have died starving themselves to fit into their hands for their 20th birthday party.

It goes the other way, too. Our remedial civics teacher in junior high was determined to be a cross-country runner when he was young, despite his big-boned frame. When he got his citizenship, his hands were three times the size of his arm. Eventually he got his digits down to size, but the dangly flesh that drooped in the webbing of his fingers like wet worms turned him into a terrifying object lesson on the futility of fighting against encoded nature.

Still, I’d rather have monster hands than Nubs.

The Nubs don’t just replace your hands. They are bound to snaking adamant tubes that tunnel down through the meat and bone, bend at the elbow, and wrap around your heart. That way, the Nubs can never be removed except by an expert surgeon or by somebody that knows their specific key-code. An expert surgeon would have to own his own hands, which means he would have to be a citizen, which means he would never agree to any back-alley surgery to take the Nubs off. And the key-codes were encrypted tighter than the twisted key of a can of sardines. It was something to do with electrical pulses. Anyway, I never had the guts to stick my Nub in a light socket, and I didn’t have the heart to let Jimmy Ear-Beard try it either.

So what the hell were we going to do with our hands once we got them? To be honest, we hadn’t thought that far ahead. Maybe we would wear them on chains around our necks with pictures of our sweethearts curled in the palms. It didn’t matter. Once you had hands, you were somebody special. You could get a job, shop in stores, have your opinions count for something. Eventually the hands would rot away if we couldn’t attach them, but ten minutes with hands, anybody’s hands, was better than a lifetime with Nubs and ashes in your mouth. If you had hands, you didn’t have to work at a convenience store cash register, punching in numbers on a Big Pad – or at a Laundromat, fluffing people’s underwear. Fuck that. We wanted hands, and it was time to get them.

“I will smash you, glass! I will smash you good and mighty!” said Tooterman. The glowing stacks of hands behind the glass cases sent him into one of his rages. I had to hook my arm around his neck and stick a Nub into the small of his back to settle him down.

“We don’t want to hurt other people’s hands, Tooterman,” I said. “We just want dead hands. We want hands that don’t belong to anybody anymore. THOSE hands belong to people. How would you feel if somebody smashed your hands all to pieces?”

Tooterman struggled, but I had him in a pretty good pincer hold.

“I would feel bad, always bad, and then I would smash that person with the fury of the hungry bear!” said Tooterman reluctantly.

“Remember when they burned your hands? Remember your Citizenship Test?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Tooterman. “We will only take dead hands. It is the right thing.”

I let him go.

The Citizenship Test happened on the day you turned twenty. They pulled you out of class for the second time and marched you down to the Government shed for one more go. They carried your hands with them in a swirling nitrogen-cooled terrarium the size and shape of a briefcase. The overworked hand technician and the district Government functionary strapped you down into a leather recliner and plugged your Utility Nubbins into twin ports that sprang out of the armrests.

They read from a script so that every test was exactly the same. I knew I had no chance of passing the exam. I hadn’t been prepped. I hadn’t been warned. I didn’t know the first thing about anything, except how to make people mad and how to get in trouble.

“Are you comfortable?” asked the Government functionary, Miss Lilly. She had twenty wrinkles right across her face that were evenly spaced like notebook paper. What kind of lifestyle would make a face pucker like that? Her face bunched and twisted like an accordion when she spoke.

“No, I’m not comfortable,” I said. “I’m strapped to a chair.”

She read further down her script in its three-ring binder, ignoring me.

“Good,” she said. “Then let’s begin. We’ll start with easy questions to determine a baseline intelligence.” She pronounced baseline like you or I would pronounce vaseline. Baazeleen.

“What’s your name?”

I told her.

“What year is it?”

“1910.”

“Can you tell me what country you live in?”

“Does it matter?”

She made a mark without answering.

“And what’s your birthday?” she asked.

“Today, as you damn well know,” I said.

“Hmmm,” said Miss Lilly, after a pause. “That is correct. Our record has you filed as an imbecile, but you seem slightly brainier than that to me. I guess maybe our educational system has succeeded in raising you up to a high-grade moron. With luck and a lifetime of hard work, you could die feebleminded.”

“Fuck yeah,” I said.

“We shall continue now with the real meat of the citizenship test. It says in your file that you have been taking remedial classes, so I assume that you have never participated in an Electrogalvanizing Assessment before.”

“A what?” I asked. Miss Lilly sighed.

“It will all become clear shortly,” she said. “It really is unfair, the way they treat you people. How are you ever supposed to grow and expand your minds if you are not offered the same opportunities as your fellows? Since they do not prepare you, why even perform these perfunctory tests, when a negative outcome is all but inevitable?”

“It keeps things organized, I suppose,” I said.

Miss Lilly looked over at the bored, chain smoking hand technician who was sitting on the chilly briefcase that held my inert fingers and palms. He was rocking back on the case and then sliding forward again and catching himself with dissociative grace. The technician hadn’t actually been paying attention and so he merely shrugged with good-natured resignation under Miss Lilly’s questioning gaze.

“It IS all about organization, isn’t it?” said Miss Lilly, turning back around to face me. “All the numbers adding up, all the little lines moving down the page in smooth, parallel strokes.”

Strokes like her face. Like all the wrinkles in lines.

She hung her head momentarily and then seemed to compose herself.

“Anyway,” she said, “let’s begin. Whether or not you are retarded, it is my job to administer this test and that is what I will do.”

“I’m not retarded,” I said.

“We’ll see about that,” said Miss Lilly, stretching out a terminal that was attached to my chair by a wire umbilicus and hooking an index finger around the terminal’s red trigger. “Question number one. Give me the quadratic equation, and you may use any letters you like for the dependent variables.”

I stared at her. I looked at my hands in the briefcase, and then at my Utility Nubbins locked into the metal ports of the recliner. I reclined back and let the built-in ottoman cradle my suspended feet.

“I don’t know that one, I’m afraid,” I said.

“It’s basic algebra,” she said. “Don’t you even want to take a guess?”

“Blowjobs,” I said.

Miss Lilly winced and screwed up her face. She squeezed the trigger on the terminal, and I felt two jets of electric pain shoot from my Nubs into my chest, filling my head with blue fire and sizzling all of the pubic hair out of my armpits, which fell in swatches from my sleeves like smoking black dryer lint.

“Gzzzzzactch!” I said.

“I know,” said Miss Lilly, “I don’t like it either. The Electrogalvinization will make you really rack your brain for the answer to the next question, but your problem isn’t recall. You never learned how to think in the first place.”

“My arms are numb,” I said. “I think I’m going to puke.” I dry heaved a little bit, but only the taste and froth of bile made it to my shivering lips.

“It’s awful,” said Miss Lilly. “Just pure torture. We’ve got to come up with a better system. Next question.”

The spoonful of vomit in my mouth went dry like pizza crust flour powder.

“How many people signed the Declaration of Independence?”

I thought about this question. Deeply. I thought so long that Miss Lilly’s finger tensed around the trigger as she began to suspect I was stalling.

“Thirteen!” I blurted. “Thirteen colonies, thirteen signatures. It has to be thirteen.”

Miss Lilly looked at me sadly.

“The answer is fifty-six, I’m afraid,” she said. “I bet you have never even seen a copy of the Declaration of Independence, poor little dear.”

“I have!” I shouted. “John Hancock! Please don’t shock me again.”

Miss Lilly squeezed the trigger. My head rocked back against the leather as fresh screams wracked my chest, leaving behind a stream of dribble that coated my chin like jellyfish semen.

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much more about the exam. Miss Lilly wanted to end it as soon as possible, and so she went as fast as she could, breezing through whole sections and tapping the trigger after every mistake like a sewer worker beating out code on pipe with a wrench for his cohorts down the line. Eventually the test ended, and I was read my failing grade by the technician in a snappy monotone.

The briefcase with my hands was opened, and the technician held up my palms for me to inspect. I was too frazzled to speak or fight. The technician started a small fire in a chafing dish with six or seven cans of liquid flame, and then he tossed my hands inside and brought the dish closer for my inspection, holding it out for my approval like a waiter at a fancy restaurant. At first, the fire merely licked at the frozen flesh and caused condensation to trickle off of my wrists like bracelets of steam. Then the skin caught and started to crackle and warp. The hands burned clean and quickly, and the stench of burning marrow lingered in my clothes and in my nostrils for weeks afterward.

They let me loose from my restraints and then they sent me to sleep in the nurse’s office for the rest of the week. Laying there on a sheet of sticky wax paper, curled underneath a grey surplus blanket, I thought about fire.

My life burned through my mind. The houses, the people, the books, the school, the trees and flowers, the sun, the moon, time, and tomorrow. All I could see were my burning hands, hands like matches, matches touched to fuses, fuses that led to powder-kegs, powder-kegs leaned against lode-bearing pillars that led all the way from the planet’s stone core to the stars.

“Hands!” screamed Tooterman, cracking open a frozen block belonging to William Duffy, a black child who had evidently died of a brain embolism at the age of fifteen. His hands had kept growing, and they were a beautiful brown color that reminded me of fresh coffee.

I selected a pair of ivory pianist’s hands, long and tapered and sleek-looking. The placard on their case said they came from a woman, but it didn’t matter to me. They were beautiful hands, and I was proud to make them mine.

Jimmy Ear-Beard went hairy. He found a pair with the biggest knuckles and the gnarliest curls. The look on his face was worth it all. He held them up in the cold of the storage room, blowing on them with his hot breath to unthaw the curled fingers. He laughed, grunting, hopping up and down.

“Hhhh-hhhhh-hhhhhhhands!” he shouted. Slipping the flesh of each wrist over our Nubs like popsicles into your mouth, we touched our hands together with the tips of the fingers and danced around in a circle, cheering and laughing.

Suddenly, Jimmy frowned and became very grave, almost dour.

“But…but…but now what?” he said.

Now what?

“Now we march!” said Tooterman. “We march and we sing!”

It was a better idea than I could think of.

Up we went out of the storage room, and then out through the doors of the courthouse. We went down the steps in single file, and Tooterman started to sing in a great, gravelly baritone.

“Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands beat the bands! Every plan needs a hand, and that’s why we demand! Our hands! Hands! Hands!”

We marched down Main Street, and held our hands high as the flesh and blood began to melt down the sides of our arms in the summer sun. People came out of the cafes and shops to stare, and cars piled up on sidewalks as their horrified passengers hit the brakes to watch our suicidal demonstration.

We marched single file down past the bakery, and past the statues on the greensward that circled the courthouse. We marched through the town fountain, splashing water high with our heels and giggling as foam and coins churned up around our knees and soaked the legs of our blue corduroy work pants.

“They are going to shoot us, you know,” said Tooterman.

I nodded.

“I ddddon…t….want to geeeeet—gg-gget shot,” said Jimmy Ear-Beard.

“It won’t hurt,” said Tooterman. “These guys are professionals, no joke. You won’t even feel it, I promise. You’ll just be looking at the clouds and then you’ll be someplace else. Like the mighty dog gets hit by the bus and wakes up as a wolf in the snow!”

“Or wakes up nowhere at all,” I said. “Like the unicorn.”

On and on we marched into the burning sunlit day, down past the video store, down past the pet shop, down past the bordello, and the fire station. We could hear police sirens in the distance and the chest-chop of a helicopter. Tooterman marched in front singing his song, and Jimmy Ear-Beard followed. I brought up the rear, waving to the firemen who stared at us from their bay window, sipping coffee, shaking their heads.

I’d never waved before. It looked silly with Nubs.

The noise of the helicopter grew louder and louder, drowning out Tooterman’s voice. A flower pot exploded on a window sill in front of the barber. Shards skittered across the path in front of us. We stopped, and Jimmy put his heavy, hairy hands on his cheeks, like he was thinking.

“Funny,” I said --

1 comment:

b. hubble-Z said...

I like the line "He was crazy, but that made him tough and handy." Direct and visceral, a no-nonsense succinct description. It's like a line of poetry really.

Brilliant. What a brilliant story.