by G. K. Wuori
Lenny Posh knew his way around all the old curses – the Poet in the Attic, the Four-Toed Woman, Blood in the Ear – and knew as well they meant nothing in this new land of his, that Americans did not believe in curses, except for the occasional pea or bean in this complicated melting pot, superstitious types who didn’t see the value of an efficient and well-placed curse, who saw only mayhem, perhaps terror. Religious miscreants could be annoying in the matter as well, though few, truly, took any of it seriously – always a problem in this America. Nor did anyone care that when the moon was full he always put one peppercorn in each shoe, or that on any February twenty-ninth you called in sick not only to your boss, but your wife, your children, the entirety of your country, and even your God.
“It’s part of your education where I come from,” he’d told one of his fellows at Labor Ready™, the day labor place that kept him in sausages and potato chips (still hard to remember). The fellow Lenny made the comment to had little education so he only mumbled “huh,” a not very Cartesian response. Still, it was always good to hold on to those old things even if a new place made them seem like old furniture in need of repair. After all, Americans (he was told) were always only one bestseller away from deep changes in beliefs. Should they ever evolve into such things as Shake the Brandy or Pinch the Baby – he would have the expertise and he would share it.
Which brought Lenny back into the present and this fire scene – as it was called on the Work Order – this smelly, sticky, charred, dusty remainder of a dwelling that had been home to wife, husband, children, dogs, cats, fish, and a purple bird, none of whom or which had survived because not enough in these American houses burned quickly anymore – very different from his old country.
They didn’t burn because they smoldered, a slow dance to a love song of noxious particles that filled the lungs and made the liver look like nicely aged tripe. Eventually, in this house, the attic fell to the second floor and the second floor fell to the first, and there’d been good fire then, something for the firemen to do. Of course, the family was gone by that point, probably not even anything very painful.
Now it was up to Lenny, his slightly speech-bound compatriot, and a rotund foreman wearing a leather apron to clear the residue of these past lives away. He supposed that at some point the land would be sold and that another house would be built here. Perhaps stories would be told, certain things having to do with sacred ground. In the end, though, most Americans liked to pay their respects to the past by moving on into the future.
Lenny had a strong back for this kind of work, much of it a result of his training as an orthopedic surgeon back home. His mind, too, was still agile, a good mind that could find dark rooms within itself or sunny meadows if the occasion called for it – places to hide from things that no one ought ever to see. He liked the work better when they had to paint something or undo old construction. Asbestos removal, where they had to wear the liners and suits and masks, was his favorite. He’d heard a manager one time bemoan “the curse of asbestos in America,” but Lenny knew that was not a real curse. There was a difference between a problem and a curse. Yes, sir.
All the investigations into the burned house had been completed, the bodies found and removed, and certain intact valuables retrieved by an old uncle and a grandfather who’d argued tearfully for three days over who should get what. The curse of The Third Hand arose because the Americans didn’t bring the pigs in. You always cleaned a fire scene, preventing unpredictable decay and rot, by bringing the pigs in to root out the bad food and the edible curtains and anything else that could blight or taint under good temperatures and in the presence of opportunistic bacteria. Of course, everyone back home knew what that “anything else” meant, and certainly the pigs did – food and sadness, an old story.
Lenny was told to climb down into the basement, into which nearly everything had fallen. The beams and joists and paneled or papered or painted wallboards had made unexpected cavings and hollows that might have meant salvation from flame or heat had that invisible, gassy menace not been everywhere. Lenny knew he should have an air mask on since there would still be pockets of fume, particles of a diverse nature, but he was only at $5.50 an hour (4.9 in Euros back home), and they wouldn’t even give him thick leather gloves at that level. He’d learned that in this new country you had to earn your way up to safety.
In minutes, about ten, he thought, he was thoroughly blackened, though still a pale shadow of his father coming home from the mine each day, his father’s butt permanently imprinted on the bench near their back door where he took off his shoes and pants and coat, sometimes in weather so cold the coal dust fell from him in thin sheets. Lenny could never remember his father as being anything less than slightly damp, always that, a wet father.
So Lenny’s own hand was black when he encountered the human hand down there in the La-Z-Boy trash and the microwave trash, and the paint cans, lawnmower; well, all of it, clothing, too, women’s clothes although, from what he’d been told, there’d been only one woman, the mother and wife. She was said to have been in her late thirties, a red-haired woman and an expert in art paintings from the American colonial time. Lenny didn’t think he’d ever seen such work, though he couldn’t imagine the early Americans as giving anything less to art than they’d given to the fishing trade or oil or the spread of money around the world. Lenny thought some rare knowledge might have been lost in this woman’s passing.
At least none of them, however – this family – had lost each other since they’d all died together, unlike Philiana, his own wife, who died alone and young in the village jail, accused of treason by village officials who had no right to make such accusations, the jail itself, good God, a mere closet in the village hall.
Lenny knew you could beat people until they sob truth or sorrow, but the metabolism would continue on. Life with its healing graces would prevail until justice had time to shake off its dusty robes, clear its throat, and meditate on things true and good and worthy of repetition. But, Jesus Lord, you have to feed them even if you’re beating them, feed them even if, one by one, you’re breaking bones or pulling out swatches of hair. Philiana had told him one time these people – the officials, both the official ones and those who were not very official, not registered for salaries, that sort of thing – were deranged with fear, crazed by terror, driven to frenzy by forces that seemed to gather and then disappear, leaving barely noticeable gaps in the staff or even the general populace. She went on to tell him that the very least any government ought to do was to see to it that the citizenry didn’t simply disappear. Good heavens, she’d argued, we put stones in cemeteries for that very purpose, and erect monuments to people no one even remembers anymore.
Feisty, upbeat, a good Philiana, although she had ended that conversation with a very simple, “I’m really quite hungry, darling.”
She had died weighing hardly more than sixty American pounds, a problem of conflict and evil, certainly that, an expected thing when war sat like drowsy oxen atop your day, your town, and all your plans. He’d sat for two weeks after her death, blank-faced and filthy in the apartment that had – he must have known how it happened, though he couldn’t remember it – one whole wall missing. Someone said they could see him sitting alone up there, his appearance like that of some minor royalty awaiting supplicants.
He’d felt his soul wrenched from its pilings as he thought of hatred and where he stood on hatred (Philiana had said one time: “I wonder where I stand on genocide?”), what his position on it was and if that position was an arguable one, if it was indeed possible to affirm a spite taken out to its most acrid limits. His learning, his diligence, his thoughtful demeanor began to feel like a rusty knife blade slicing away at his brain. When he realized that several of Philiana’s killers had, in a very short time, been themselves overthrown, judged politically presumptive or tainted, Lenny couldn’t figure out who was to be hated or who ought to be sacrificed in the dark of night so that the loss of Philiana would seem like less of a loss. Within another two weeks, though, he had a label hanging from his chest and he was flying on a military plane to a place called the Florida.
Anyway, Lenny (they called him Lenny since his native Ltzit was nearly unpronounceable, his own proffered “Zit’s okay,” being rejected by the foreman) was already beginning to spit ash from his mouth when he saw it down there, white as if porcelain, unmarred, fingernails brightly painted, and there, oh boy (Lenny thought), a wedding ring. Here was the mother of dead sons, the wife of a dead husband, posed as though there was still one last remaining task to be completed, the wrist severance so clean as to have been surgical. Lenny, not yet a stranger to his surgical skills in spite of the passage of time, still felt capable of making such judgments, even though, as the weeks went on, he sometimes felt as though he were losing touch with sickness, with the subtle signs especially of pallor or tremor or an excess of heat coming off of someone standing close. He hardly thought it a fair trade, but he felt more accustomed now to the things people threw away, the discards of the flesh’s implements, though this was the first time he’d encountered the flesh itself.
The valuable trinkets and jewels and watches, appliances clearly not badly broken, clothing not only wearable but fashionable, good books, packaged food, could give, however briefly, a daily cash man the merest touch of history: victory seen in certain discards; loss and failure glimpsed in a wrinkle. Regularly, in the shop, they were told they were not smart enough to influence history so keep your goddamn hands empty at the end of the day. The injunction was widely-ignored by new workers, for a week or two. Gradually, though, the importance of all things thrown away diminished – a human hand as good as a bisque figurine: once tossed, forever nothing. It was how the species made its clearest judgments.
Lenny climbed out of the hole and walked over to the Dumpster hauler where his lunchbox sat in a tool cabinet. He removed his sandwich from the plastic freezer bag, went back to the hole and bagged the hand, then put it back into his lunchbox. Firemen, inspectors, grandfathers, uncles, even those few homeless people who had slept here when the place was still warm, Lenny faulted none of them. They had all seen, had all borne, as much as could be tolerated, and they had known the carrion chain had not yet reached its final link, not for them, not until Lenny.
Back in his room at the end of the day, Lenny wrote to Philiana as he often did, a conversation not built on any reality, only the fondness that his love had now become – snatches of music, whispers, old memories (so little there, so little left; he’d been able to carry her casket by himself, and remembered with shame how “good” he’d felt that at least she was having a proper burial). He’d been testy with two of his old friends who’d wanted to help carry Philiana, but later, when they were all drunk, he’d explained it to them, that he’d wanted her final walk to be so filled with his desperate love that he’d even thought about carrying her corpse naked.
Philiana had worked in a Hilton cleaning rooms while Lenny was in medical school. They’d had one good year in his first practice, the mean redness of Philiana’s hands, the calluses, flowing slowly back into an unblemished tenderness, the hands, she kept saying, of a teacher, a classroom teacher, or there was always her piano and no lack of students for that. But her heart, she often said, was in the professionalism of the formal school, the profession, as she told him, to profess as in using her words as hooks to draw all that malleable wisdom out of children. Quietly, she phrased it as a calling, not anything all that far from a priesthood.
“Would you call me priest?” she’d asked him one time.
“I’d call you teacher,” he’d said, “and find no lack of the sacred in doing so.”
Playfully, for she had been playful, light on her feet, energetic, she would dance her hands over his face and shoulders and private parts and tell him that her hands could weave the keys of a computer with an embroiderer’s magic. Yes, she’d said, there is much we can do – futures to be selected the way you view fine watches in a jeweler’s case. What she couldn’t do, it seemed, was to stop complaining about certain things, to stop calling attention to the inequities of happiness or the ways in which certain imbalances of wealth were like a thundercloud to some, a light, misty rain to others. All she wanted, Lenny remembered, was a world of fair dealings.
Lenny reminded Philiana of all these things in his letters to her while she, in turn, hung just over his shoulder correcting him, warning him about certain spellings, and letting him know that what he was doing in the writing of these letters – an activity many would put on a scale with maudlin at one end and psychotic at the other – this nearly masturbatory communion with her even though she wasn’t, well, simply wasn’t: it was all right. It was a fine thing to do. He could almost hear her telling him not to underestimate the truth, don’t denigrate it or view it as flimsy. The truth was always so strong it could be stretched and stretched without breaking so that, yes, the snow, indeed, had always been waist-high and deliciously worth burrowing into; and the daisies, yes, flowers the size of an elephant’s ears (and pollen to cover your body with); the berries, too – black, red, green – had to be carried home by the kilo, and never once had they feared drinking directly from the icy mountain streams. To us was granted freshets of purity, rivulets of eternal glee. We made love, you know (she would remind him) under bushes, atop pine needles, made love on the surface of anything not yet too burdened with either grief or failure. “Us, especially,” she would say, “we were neither of those, were we?”
Lenny always mailed the letters and never once had one been returned. So he wrote to her about the hand and about what he should do with it. By the curse, of course, he should feed it to a pig, or at least leave it somewhere for a vulture to find. *It’s truly beautiful, he wrote, though I know too well how long that beauty will last. I believe it must have been coated in sugary syrup. Perhaps the source of the fire was in some sweet madness – the smoldering sweet detritus of candy making, clearly the devil’s finest work.
On the way home he’d stopped at a convenience store and filled his lunchbox with ice, the hand now chilled into stability. All the bodies had been cremated, the ashes buried in a single grave. Most likely, if he gave it to the mortuary, they’d simply include it in the next available firing. Respect would be appropriately paid, but leave it to the gods to explain the story of that extra hand in someone’s urn.
Lenny finished his letter and sat down on his bed with the chilled hand in his lap. Someday, when he was in an American medical school (“there are programs,” he’d been told, learning quickly that that was a favorite American word; he had hoped there would merely be examinations because he had no doubt of his mastery of the necessary medical standards. In truth, he’d accumulated nearly all the money he needed to take the course for U. S. licensure, but he was reluctant to spend it. Sometimes he worried that he was enjoying this peasant work.) he would tell this story. He would say some things are all about compassion and some are not.
“I was not ghoulish, you know.” A necessary point there. “At least that was not my intention. Death by fire is so horrid; I simply wanted to be not horrid.”
For a time he was tempted to dissect it, a good, smart, use there, decent practice. He wanted to be practical, after all, to be as American as he could about it. No use pretending that there was some sort of mysterious essence – heart, soul, a captured djin – yet remaining from this woman’s persona. She was gone, poor thing. Exhausted, however, Lenny simply caressed the hand and spoke to it until he fell asleep, then re-chilled it the next morning and talked to it again after work. He was quite unsure as to why the deterioration wasn’t more marked, though he had touched the tip of his tongue to it once and it was very, very sweet.
Following the evening meal – a courtesy of the old woman who owned the house; there were no other boarders – he put the hand into a canvas bag and took a long walk with it. He spoke to it as he walked, trying not to move his lips so that people wouldn’t think him strange.
“A good funeral,” he said softly, recounting the service he’d read about in the newspaper. “You were described as a loving, community-minded family, a churchgoing family. Even the schoolmates of your children were offered special counseling in school, so great was their sadness. Your house, you know, was thought of as lovely and well-kept, the yard always tended, the bushes trimmed. One of your neighbors was quoted as saying, ‘They was real people, good people with not a bad word for no one.’”
What more, Lenny thought, could be asked for in assessing a life? You were clean and you were not hated. You had done no harm.
“That’s not how it was with you, was it, Phili, my love?” he said the one morning when he finally placed the hand in a small hole out in the old woman’s back yard and buried it. He thought the pigs would have to fend for themselves, though in truth he had not seen a pig since coming to America and had no idea where one might be found. Good enough, he decided, to let some curses disappear.