Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Missing Pieces by Mitchell Waldman

A low-life petty crook wakes up on the morning after a botched hold-up to find his left hand missing; by Mitchell Waldman

It was on an otherwise ordinary morning in July that Tom Morton woke up to find his left hand missing. No, not really missing. He could still pinch it and feel it, but it was invisible, had disappeared from sight.

This is how it happened. He opened his eyes, yawned, and reached to scratch an itch on his cheek with his left hand - he was left-handed - only to realize a moment after the scratch that he was scratching with an absent appendage. He shook like a blender set on pulverize, until he closed his eyes and said out loud, like some kind of mantra: "This is only a dream, this is only a dream, this is only a dream." Then he counted to ten and opened his eyes. The hand was still missing. He screamed out loud, lifting the arm which now seemed to end at the wrist. The funny thing about it, though, was that his hand was, somehow, still there. He could feel it. He just couldn't see it. Maybe, he thought, maybe there was a rational explanation for this. Maybe his eyesight had gone wacky. Or his brain. Or, or... he didn't know what. He hadn't had too much to drink the night before, after the job. It couldn't be that. He'd been bleary-eyed for sure last night, but it had never overlapped into morning, at least not to the extent of losing sight of a whole appendage.

He threw the covers off himself and started pacing, into the living room, into the kitchenette, trying to remember the details, every single event of the night before. He remembered driving to Rudy's (with both hands still visible - he remembered seeing them on the wheel - well, where else would they be?), getting to Rudy's, getting the piece, loading it in the back seat as they went to pick up Lou, then going to the job.

He stopped pacing. The job. Did it have something to do with that? He went to the living room and reached for the phone on the end table next to the couch. He reached at first with his left, out of habit, and grabbed the phone, but screamed and dropped it when it seemed to rise up in the air all by itself. Was he part ghost now or something? What the hell was going on? He bent down to the floor again, using his right hand this time, cradled the receiver between his head and shoulder and with the right again dialed Lou's number. After the third ring he heard the rough voice.

"Yeah?"

"Lou?"

"Huh."

"Tom."

"Yeah? What?"

"We did do that job last night, right, Lou?" There was a moment of silence at the other end.

"What's this, Tom, a gag? Been smokin' that funny herb again? Little early for that, don'tcha think?"

"No, no, Lou, you don't get it, I'm not smokin' nothin'. Something really weird has happened. You wouldn't believe it if..."

"What is it, Tom? Cut to the chase, willya, cut to the chase. Got about three hours shut-eye last night. Botched jobs don't help me sleep none."

"It's..." He looked at his hand, or where his hand used to be, still was, but... he couldn't tell Lou. Lou'd think he was crazy. And the man would probably be right.

"Oh, it's nothing, Lou, nothing. Maybe I just drank too much last night. Feeling a little queasy, that's all."

"That's what you called to wake me up for? To tell me your li'l tummy aches?"

"No, no. Forget it. What time we gonna make the cut, eleven?"

"Yeah, eleven. At Rude's. Be there. Now let me get back to sleep, asshole."

"Okay, okay, Lou, you're right..." The line clicked off.

After sucking down a couple beers he relaxed some, raised his arm and wrist and missing hand and started laughing from the bottom of his belly, until he fell down on the floor. In a few minutes he got up, got himself back together (as much as possible, anyway) and went searching in his closet for his driving gloves. Then, finding one, he carefully pulled the thin brown leather over the invisible fingers, feeling for them with his visible hand as he went. And then, like new, it looked like there was a hand under there, like there was really nothing wrong with him at all.



Rudy was standing at his kitchen table counting the bills. "Guilt, what you got guilt about? And what's with that flaky glove? What are you, fuckin' Michael Jackson?"

"No, if you really wanna know I'm not fucking no one right now. And guilt, yeah, I got guilt after what happened last night."

"Christ, Tom. It's like this. We do a job. It don't always go the way we planned. We do the best we can, right, Lou?"

Lou sat at the table, pot belly forward, nodding, behind a bluish puff of cigar smoke that headed right in Tom's direction, made him choke and cough.

"Okay," he said, "we screwed up a little. Didn't think he'd have the nerve, that little weasel, that little shit, to go for the button."

"He twirled his cigar in his mouth and gave Tom a smile. "So things ain't going so hot with you and Gloria, huh?"

Rudy rubber-banded some bills and tossed them across the table to Tom. "Here's your take."

Tom pulled the rubber band off the bills and counted. They were mostly singles. "Sixty-five fucking bucks? That's my take?"

"Hey, hey, Tommy boy. It was a convenience store, remember. You don't get much from them anymore, not with them goddamn drop boxes. Stay cool, relax. We'll try something more ambitious next time."

"A bank?"

Rudy scratched his balding dome. "What are you, crazy? With you? You're not ready for that yet. Is he, Lou?"

"No, not ready. We gotta start slow and easy. You gotta learn the trade, Tommy, work up to it. Me and Rudy been doin' this for a while, in between stays in them government hotels. You, you're just a baby. Ya need to learn to walk before you try to fly, ain't I right, Rudy?"

"Right, right, Lou. We gotta go slow, Tom, nice and easy. Especially after last night. Gunfire is not something we need to keep our profiles low, if you know what I mean."

"I'm sorry about that guys. I just got jumpy."

"Jumpy is no good in this business," Lou said. "Cool is where it's at if you want to make it. Dig?"

"Yeah, sure. Cool."

"Okay, now go home and relax. And lose that faggy glove, too. We don't need none of that around us. Might rub off, y'know?"

He didn't say anything.

"All right, kid," he said, smiling a tired smile. "See you tomorrow, then. Two o'clock sharp here. Got it?"

"Yeah, Two sharp. Got it." Tom shoved the bills in his pocket and headed for the door.

Sixty-five lousy dollars. That's what he got for risking his neck, shooting a goddamned kid in the hand. What a fucking crock! He fit the key in the lock and heaved open the door. "Meowww!" His cat, which he'd named "Cat," had been winged by the door. "Out of my fucking way, Cat!" he said and, before he even thought about it, caught Cat with his left boot, by the back legs, and sent him flying against the wall. The feline lay there for a second, then got up on shaky legs. "Oh, baby, I'm sorry, my little Catty. Come to Papa. Papa's sorry." She arched her orange back and darted out of Tom's reach, sliding into the dark, into the unreachable spaces of nothingness.

The alarm went off the next morning at eight. Tom couldn't open his eyes. He was groggy from the lack of sleep and the six-pack he'd wound up drinking the night before. Gloria was supposed to come by, but she'd made up some excuse before he'd accused of her of sleeping with her boss, she'd called him an asshole, he'd called her a bitch, and so it went. Another fucked up night in the life of Tom Morton, which he wound up spending in front of the tube, drinking too much (what else was new), switching from channel to channel, watching dumb shows like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and "Survivor," making his mind go blank, and getting totally lubed.

He scratched his nose with his gloved left hand, and yawned. Then he blinked, trying to keep his eyes open, and stretched, looking at the brown glove rising above his head. Funny how you could get used to anything, the weirdest things, so fast.

He kicked off the covers, sat still at the edge of the bed, looking down at the floor for a second.

Oh no! This couldn't be happening again! This time it was his left foot. He felt it, but it wasn't there. He shook it, wiggled his toes, but it was no use. The leg ended at his ankle and just... ended. What the hell was happening here? Was he in some sort of nightmare that he might never wake up from?

He reached down and grabbed it, felt the foot where it should have been, but couldn't see a thing. Maybe it was his eyes. Maybe they were going bad, playing tricks on him. He shut them, then opened them up again quick, but it was no use. The damned foot was still missing in action. AWOL. He pulled the glove off his left hand. Nothing. It was as absent as the foot. He sat there, at the edge of the bed, staring down at the place on the mattress where he should have been seeing the back of his hand and on the floor where he should have been seeing the top of his foot. Never a pretty foot, he would have to say that, but still, a foot.

Suddenly, he heard a noise in the bedroom and jumped. He'd never believed in ghosts, spirits, Ouija boards, that sort of thing, until he'd gone out with this waitress named Sheila, who'd spend hours in dazes talking to no one - dead people she'd told him later. He'd said, "Oh," at first, thinking, what kind of shit was this, until one time, this one time, she'd gotten out of one of her dazes to tell him stuff about his cousin, Freddie, the one who got run over by the train, that no one, no one in the world would know. (He'd never told her nothing about Freddie, not even his name.) And after that he'd thought about stuff he'd never even bothered thinking about. Heaven, hell, shadows of once living people flitting around behind window shades, sweeping around corners, in attics. Crazy, but there seemed to be something to it. And look at the shape he was in now. There was definitely something weird going on here, today, now.

He stood absolutely still, not even bothering to breathe. He heard it again, a sharp noise. He sat still for a second, then leaned forward carefully, putting his weight on the tips of his toes, then stood up. He moved slowly, not looking down at his left, mysteriously missing foot - they were demons maybe that had come and put a spell on him, or something like that - then moved carefully into the doorway, his heart thump thump thumping inside his chest. He paused at the doorway, hiding behind it when he heard a crash. He ran into the room only to find Cat streaking out, having flipped the dish of spaghetti and meatballs he'd left on the TV tray the night before onto the brown shag carpeting.



He was sitting in his mother's kitchen, sopping up runny eggs with a piece of burnt toast, and sweeping it all into his mouth.

"What's the matter with you, Tommy? You look like you haven't eaten in a week. Isn't your cousin Rudy looking after you? Feeding you at that warehouse of his?"

"Oh, yeah, Ma. Of course." The warehouse. She still thought Rudy ran a warehouse. She had seen it exactly once, about five years before, when Rudy had conned a friend of his, who owned a small magazine distribution operation, to let him use the warehouse for part of an afternoon to convince Tom's mother that he was the owner of the operation. It helped, too, that this friend of Rudy's owed Rudy a couple K for a gambling loan. All this Tom had learned soon after he'd started working jobs with his cousin and Lou.

"So, what's up with you and Gloria these days?"

"Huh?" he said, staring down at his plate, avoiding the eyes which he knew were trained on him then - she always put the bead on him when she was asking about relationships. She wanted desperately to be a grandmother, she'd always said, before she was too old to be able to enjoy it. "Nothin'. Nothin's up with Gloria and me," he said, chewing on the piece of toast. "In fact, lately I've been thinkin' that maybe she ain't the one for me. She's too demanding or somethin'. Always wants her way."

"Ha," his mother said, and he looked up at her. She had a little patronizing smile on her face. "You and her had another fight. Din't ya?"

"Naw, naw. Why you say that?"

"Come on, Tommy. Give me the goods. I know these things."

He laughed a short burst of a laugh, then started mopping some more slippery yolk off his plate with the remaining piece of toast. "You know. How d'you know? You psychic or somethin'?"

"No, Tommy, I'm not psychic. I'm your mother. That's how I know."

He was chewing, his mouth open a little, staring at the refrigerator.

"So?" she said. "What's up?"

He looked at her for a second, feeling drained, tired all of a sudden, then looked away again. His mother. How did he live up to his mother? "Nothin's up. That's the problem. We ain't been gettin' along so good lately. I don't know what it is exactly." He was talking to himself more than his mother. "She don't like my chosen profession, I don't think."

"The warehouse? Hey, it's as good a job as any, right? It's not dishonest work, is it? What is she, the Queen of Sheba, that kind of work ain't good enough for her, when her father's chopping up slabs of steer all day long with blood on his apron? Where does she come off!"

He gazed back at his mother then with a feeling, a warm feeling, something like pride, love, whatever. She was actually fuming because of the way Gloria had been treating him for... well, what she thought Gloria was treating him bad for. Warehouse job. Yeah, right. But seeing her face all scrunched up like that, her eyes tight, talking about Gloria made him think about what he hadn't thought about in a long time, had taken for granted, in fact. His mother loved him, she really loved him.



He'd had trouble sleeping that afternoon, thinking about the job that night, watched some soaps - they made him relax somehow, all these people, unlike any people he associated with, with their professions, their constant disasters, their money, their phony lives. What a laugh! It was all a game, life, with the fucking shit you had to deal with every day. It was all a game, a fucking game.

Twenty-two years old and sitting outside Rudy's house at ten to two in the morning, the motor off, freezing his ass off. For what? What kind of life was this? No education, sure, but he could still do better than this, couldn't he? Well, maybe not. His old gig at the grocery hadn't worked out too well. He'd had a problem with the neatness thing, the making everything look just right. Pulling boxes and cans to the front of the shelf. And that thing about the customer was always right, that's what had really gotten him in trouble. Listening to old ladies complain about this or that all day. It got to him one time and he blew up. Mouthed off. That was the last he'd seen of that place, got his notice that very afternoon. "Mrs. Fliegelhorn is one of our best customers," Mr. Flynn told him. "Been shopping here for twenty-five years. Do you know what that means? And you've been here, how long Tom? Two months. I can't have it. We just can't have it."

Then there'd been other jobs, of course. He'd been all sorts of things - delivery boy, bus boy, janitor, car hop, warehouse worker. None of them had panned out, had seemed to suit his skills and desires. And there was a thrill about the business he was in now that couldn't be beat. Like stock car racing must be to those drivers. Not that crime was the best way to go maybe. He didn't want to end up doing time like his uncle, like Lou, but maybe if he was extremely careful, if he was lucky...

There was a rapping on the glass of his window. Lou's big mug was in the glass. Tom rolled down the window.

"Come on, quit daydreamin', we gotta get goin'. Rudy's waitin'."

Tom stepped out of the car, and followed Lou into the back of Rudy's gray van. There the two of them put on their masks - lightweight black nylon masks - and checked their tools, after which Lou attached them to his belt.

The job went like a dream. The house was in an isolated area, next to a wooded area. They parked the van behind some trees, Lou cut through the screen window with his wire cutters and, with a heavy flashlight wrapped in a towel to muffle the sound, smashed the window, after which the two of them slid right into the house. Tom followed Lou in, while Rudy waited outside to keep watch. Lou had the job carefully cased, knew a guy who knew the owner (not that you wanted to know too many guys knowing too many things in this business, Lou had pointed out), had been over to his house socially, gotten one drink too many into him and had started going on about how wonderful it was living in Longdale, how low the crime rate was in the area, how nobody ever got broken into there, had said in answer to the question about alarm systems that he didn't believe in them, who needed them, the sign in the front of the house saying that he had one was enough, had even boasted about the fact that his wife kept her tiara in her top dresser drawer. Not that information like that was easy to buy. It had cost Lou a good bottle of bourbon. It paid to know the right guys, but you had to really know them. And even your best friends would turn you in if they were implicated. That was the way of thieves. There were damn few that could be trusted and even they couldn't be trusted. It was a game of survival, and the only one you could really trust was yourself.

So, they got into the house, walked right up to the bedroom by flashlight and snatched the tiara, then walked right out the back door and back to the van. It took all of ten minutes. And Lou with a ten thousand dollar tiara in his pocket, which would net three hot if he was lucky. Which meant one G each, but not bad for a night's work.

"The secret is awareness," Lou lectured as he pulled off his mask, and they drove home. "Be aware of all your surroundings. Take notes. Know as many people as you can, but don't let them know too much about you. Listen to conversations other people have. At the barbershop, at the deli. Pay attention. And then do your research."

There was much more to it then Tom had thought. It wasn't just smash a window, jump in and look for treasure. There could be an alarm, a dog, someone sleeping there that you didn't even know about. "That's why planning is the most important thing."

When he got back to his apartment, he fell into his bed, exhausted. Then he fell into a death-like sleep.

He didn't wake up until about one o'clock in the afternoon, when the phone rang. It was Gloria. Apologizing about the night before, about not showing up. She didn't want to fight with him anymore. She loved him. Missed him. Wanted to see him. Asked if they could get together that night.

He picked her up at seven in front of her apartment building, beeping his horn twice. He got out of the car and leaned against the front bumper. There was a swish of her curtains briefly and a flash of Gloria's face, and in moments she appeared through the glass door of the veranda, walking past the rows of copper-colored mailboxes, and walked quickly toward him down the sidewalk. He stood with his arms spread like wings on the hood of his Camaro, a wide grin on his face as she walked to the door and stopped abruptly - chewing the gum she incessantly chewed - and frowned at him.

"Aren't you gonna at least open the door for me?"

"What?"

"Tommy?"

He sighed, and brought the wings of his arms down. "The door, sure. No problem. What was I thinkin'?" Then he pushed himself up and walked around to the passenger side of the car to open the door for her.

She wanted to go out for a meal, but he was tired, he said, and wouldn't it be nice to have a nice meal there at his place, just the two of them, have a little wine, get cozy together? Truth was, he wanted her, needed her, it had been almost a week, way too long for him; he couldn't remember the last time he and Gloria had gone this long since he'd starting seeing her the summer before. He was a man, goddamnit, a man. She said it was all right, although she really wanted to go out, but being with him, she said, that was nice enough.

They ordered Chinese food - she loved, just adored Chinese food ("Chink" food, he called it; he really could have gone for a good steak, thought she might be able to cook one up for him, but went along with her because hey, where was the romance in that, and he would never get lucky like that, not with her willing anyway).

They were sitting on the couch, in front of the TV, watching Jeopardy - Gloria was crazy about game shows, and that Alex Trevek - having just finished off their Moo Shu Gai Pan and him his Pork on a Stick, or whatever the hell the Chink name for it was, and he was pouring her more of the Chablis - not something foreign, but good old American-made, New York Chablis - in one of his actual wine glasses, one of the two he had, a piece that had caught his eye in a job about a month before. He held the glass out to her.

"Here you are my sweet lady." Her eyes moved away from the TV then toward him and she smiled, the dimples in the valleys of her cheeks appearing. She was wearing a skirt tonight, something different, and those fishnet stockings that drove him absolutely out of his mind. He couldn't keep his eyes off those legs of hers. She definitely had the best legs in town. He lifted his beer bottle - he hated wine - to her glass, and clinked it. "Here's to a long hard night tonight, baby," he said, and the smile on her face evaporated. She put the glass down on the coffee table - it was really a rustic old relic of a table that had probably been left in the apartment from the fifties; not much had changed in the decor since then, not the curtains, the sink, even the refrigerator; it was like living in a time warp, in a time even before he was born - and looked at him sternly.

"So, that's all it is tonight, huh? About getting laid?"

"No, baby, not only about that. But that's nice, too, huh? Don't say you don't like it."

She looked down, played with the seam of her black skirt against the stockings.

"I never said that. It's just that sometimes a woman needs a little more. And, I don't see much progression in our relationship. I don't see any growth..."

He burst out laughing. Her eyes narrowed even more.

"I'm sorry, baby. It's just, if you want to see some growth, let's go to the bedroom and I'll show you some growth."

Her back straightened, and she grabbed for her purse.

"Come on, baby, what's the matter? We like to have fun, you like to have fun, don't ya? What's wrong with that? Not everything has to be serious all the time."

She was standing up now with her purse in hand, pretending he wasn't there, that he was invisible, it seemed.

"Come on, Gloria," he said, standing up and grabbing her from behind, spinning her around to face him, her face only inches from his now. He cupped her cheek with his right hand. She still wasn't looking at him, was looking past him, though her breath was hot on his right cheek and tears were streaming down her own cheeks onto his hand.

"Do we have to be serious all the time, Glory?"

She turned her eyes to his then, an incredulous look on her face. "No, not all the time, Tommy, but some of the time. A girl needs it. A girl needs to know..."

"I'll tell you what a girl needs and a girl needs to know," he said, grabbing her shoulder hard, and pulling her body against his.

"Ouch, Tommy, stop. You're hurting me." But he didn't hear her now. His body heard only his need.

"A girl needs this," he said, kissing her hard on the lips, as she tried to say something, tried to pull away from him.

"Don't, Tommy," she said, managing to twist away from him for a second, but only a second before he had her back against him, his mouth hot on hers, the urgency below his belt growing, pressing hard against her.

"Stop, Tommy, stop!" she said.

"No, baby, no, you know you want it, you know it."

"No, Tommy, not like this."

He had her down on the couch now, was pulling up the skirt, pulling down the fishnet stockings, rubbing his good hand up and down the warm smooth skin of her thighs, then pulling the blouse up, pulling the bra off of her ample breasts, as she pleaded with him and cried, his mind a blank, on automatic, his mouth working on its own, his lips, his tongue, traveling over her belly, her full wide breasts and nipples, holding her arms down at her sides as she twisted from side to side, as he managed to pull his pants and underwear down and then her underwear, and then he was in her and pushing deeper and deeper, the difficulty of his penetration fueling his anger until his mouth was saying words he didn't even know, and he slapped her once across the face, her screams to no avail, her teeth not even hurting as they dug into the invisible flesh beneath the leather of the hand that once had been.



The next morning he woke up in a blur of alcoholic remembrance, his brain throbbing against the inside of his skull. What the hell had happened? He'd lost control, he remembered that much. Lost his temper. And then there was the little game with Gloria. Acting like she didn't want it. Fighting him, actually banging him with her fist (while he was banging her, of course). Then she'd stormed out and... his head hurt too damned much to think about it.

He threw the covers off himself and tried to keep his eyes open. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the floor between his legs. It was a funny view. Something was wrong. It was missing! His penis, his balls, the whole shebang, what the hell! He stood up and howled to the ceiling, then ran to the door, pulled it open, and ran out into the courtyard, his brain a swirl of lava, screaming, raging to the black clouds in the sky above.



They were escorting him into the mental health center. He was wearing a robe they'd thrown on him and was talking like a... well, lunatic, babbling on about Gloria, penis, and his arm and foot and God and Jesus Christ. And there were other words, cancer, jewels, guns. It was all garbled together and he was the original batty babbling brook. Randall couldn't make hide nor hair of it.

Randall sighed as they got to the front desk. It was just another day in the life of an EMT. He had hold of the guy's left shoulder, and Bert had him by the right shoulder as they got him to the front desk.

"Hey, Martha, what's happening?" he said to the night nurse. "Long time no see."

"Yeah, like an hour and forty-five minutes. Yes, been a long time. What you got here?"

"This here is an unidentified white male, as they say in the biz. Caught him streaking through the streets with nothing on but a sock and this here glove. Don't know what the hell that's all about, but I'm sure he does."

The three of them looked at the incoming casualty, halfway expecting an answer. His eyes were glazed over and a thread of drool was dripping off his front lip. He was staring right at Randall. "My hand!" he said.

"What? What about your hand, fella? You want your glove off, is that what it is?"

The man backed away, his eyes widening with fear as Randall grabbed hold of the glove and ripped it off, after which he screamed a scream of horror-show proportions.

"Goddamn it, man, it's just a goddamned glove. Here, you want it, take it back!" He slapped the glove in the man's hand. He had never quite gotten used to the whack route. Carving people out of cars, giving them CPR, hell that was nothing. It was the loony run that always gave him the willies. The man was hopping around like mad, staring at the glove in his hand, then put his other hand over it, and screamed again.

Just then, two orderlies showed up, one big black man named Darrell, who didn't put up with any guff, and a shorter white guy that Randall didn't know.

"Just in time, Captain Darrell. This one's just flipped out totally. Caught him running through the streets stark naked. Mumbled in the truck about missing body parts and shit. Don't know what the hell happened to him. Then he just started screaming like a hawk. Real frightened looking. A sorry case, I'd say. Better check him in, before you gotta check me in."

"No problem, Randall," Darrell said, smiling, a toothpick in the corner of his grin. "We'll take it from here. Send you back on your way to save the rest of the world."

"Much obliged, pardner. You take it easy now, Slim, y'hear?" he said, patting the patient on his shoulder very lightly, afraid anything more would set him off again.

3 comments:

  1. Nice work up of tension and characterization in this one. The visuals are good.

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  2. Interesting story. Unexpected ending. Well done.

    ReplyDelete