Piece by Piece

Paul was a tall man in his 60s, I was a short boy in my 4s, and we lived a few wheels down from one another in a trailer court in Punxsutawney, PA. My parents liked Paul. He was a big, kind man without a right thumb. The reason Paul didn‘t have that thumb is because he had “sugar,” which was our slang for diabetes. So when I asked about Paul, what I got was, “He lost his thumb to sugar.” And that’s where I left it, at 4 years of age, vaguely understanding that there was a sugar -- not necessarily pure-cane -- that could eat away extremities. A sugar that resulted in the smooth nub where Paul‘s hitchhiker should be. Darwin might argue, but the absence of a thumb didn’t even strike me as a handicap. It was just a part of Paul, like his work cap or his clean overalls or his big voice. Not having known Paul when he possessed a right thumb made this doubly true.

A few years later, they cut off Paul‘s legs. Sugar. Unlike his long-gone thumb, his legs had a lot to do with who Paul was to me. Those legs accounted for his stature and the direction of his voice. They carried him, and sometimes me, across the grass and dirt of the trailer park. Although I know I’ve seen it, I can‘t picture Paul sitting -- always standing, tall on those legs.

Not too long after that, what was left of Paul died. Sugar.

Ten fingers, ten toes.

My cheap lawnmower -- like most nowadays -- has a handle that, if you let go, will stall the engine. It also has an ingenious little plastic flappy on the back that prevents daydreaming boneheads like me from slipping underneath and making toeburgers. The mower I used as a kid -- like most back then -- had neither of these features. I’ll bet my friend Janice‘s mower didn’t have them either. Janice slipped under her mower as a girl and lost half of her toes, give or take a piggy. She‘d run and play with the best of ’em. You‘d never suspect, until summertime, when boots were traded for flip-flops. It was summer the first time I actually noticed Janice’s slight deformity. Trying not to stare, I studied her tan, shoeless feet against the green turf. Her toes were like teeth in an old bum‘s mouth, one here, one there. In between, just blades of grass poking up around smooth scars. The paucity of digits betrayed -- more than a whole foot might -- the ridiculousness of toes. Damned silly appendages.

Linda’s toes, on the other hand, were just fine. At least on her remaining leg. When I met her in seventh grade, she wore a prosthesis that started at her thigh. She could walk fine, but only with the aid of arm-brace crutches. Her dad, so the story goes, ran over her with a riding mower (blades spinning) when she was a child. I don‘t know who was traumatized more by the event, Linda or her pop. That’s not a hollow sentiment. The guy was a redneck with a bit of an alcohol problem; he kept a nice house and a neat lawn; and he‘d torn his little girl’s leg off with a riding mower. Reliving that day for the rest of your life, watching your daughter grow into a woman -- all but that leg. What did they do with that leg, anyway? Do they bury limbs after accidents or amputations, or are they treated like a rotten tooth or a swollen appendix and tossed in the trash? Whatever, wherever, the leg -- nothing but bones, probably -- is still the size of a child‘s. An artifact of a life and a body, interred alongside hopscotch and jump rope, track meets and prom dances. You’d drink a little, too.

In most other aspects Linda was a typical adolescent. If there‘s a gland that stores teen angst, humor and spite, it’s not in your right leg, ‘cause she seemed to have plenty of each. It was funny and a little disquieting to hear her brothers tease Linda about her leg the way you might pick on someone’s freckles or eyeglasses. Without a pause, she‘d let go her own snipe about their weight or effeminate behavior (“fags,” she probably called them). Kids are such naturals at going for the jugular.

Back to my mower: I was pushing the noisy thing the other day when I hit a cast-iron sprinkler head. Loud crunch. Soft smoke. God-fucking-dammit. Metal chunks hit the house. Sprinkler gone. All from a little three-and-a-half-horsepower Briggs & Stratton.

Cutting both ways.

A winter memory: Standing in a basement. Not a carpeted-game-room-with-wet-bar basement, but an exposed-cinderblock-wood-burning-stove-sawdust-on-the-floor basement. A half-dozen men in winter coats chewing tobacco, whittling, talking, spitting. Outside, pressed into a foot of hard snow like beer cans in a bucket of ice, are carcasses -- whitetail deer.

I’d gone hunting with my granddad that morning. Before dawn the two of us, rifles and Thermoses in hand, tramped up the hill of a neighbor‘s farm. By noon the two of us, dragging my first deer and probably his 50th, came tramping and sliding back down. Nearing 70 hadn’t slowed Granddad any. Hunting, farming, carpentry -- physical work occupied most of his time, and it kept him alive. In a couple of years, he‘d be condemned to a wheelchair. He’d be a hemiplegic, his right half dead from a stroke. The same stroke would also take his ability to speak. A couple of years after that he‘d be moved to a nursing home. But none of that mattered in the basement, looking at the deer.

Some still had hide on. I’d taken care of mine earlier, peeling the skin off with the aid of a sharp knife. No muscle on a deer below the knees, so we‘d remove the lower legs, breaking off the front ones and sawing off the back ones. The dogs always loved these scraps if they could get ahold of them. Taking a hacksaw, we’d cut through the skinny midsection of the animal and carry the front and back halves into the cellar. There was a band saw set up, and that‘s where my uncle took over, splitting the halves down the spine and cutting the quarters into cookable pieces. He worked the saw like an expert seamstress, filling box after box. When it came to the doe I shot, my uncle stopped cutting, dug into the meat and said, “You might want this.” He dropped a mushroomed slug into my hand.

I’d keep that slug. And after 15 years of paralysis, when gangrene would spread in Granddad‘s foot, when he’d refuse amputation, hoping that the infection would kill him, when he gave in to the pain and finally let them take his leg, I‘d have that souvenir to send me back.

I rolled the bullet in my palm. The copper jacket had splayed, revealing the lead core. It looked like a water droplet caught in midsplash. The distinctive smell of raw flesh and cut bone mixed with that of cold, damp concrete as a small pile of meat dust formed beneath the saw.#


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