THAT ONE-ARMED GIRL
That one-armed girl who lived next door offered to carry the table for me. For me, a grown man! Old enough to be her grandfather!
No thank you, young lady, I said.
I can, you know, she said.
I said, ‘I can’ and ‘I will’ are two different things.
She stood ten meters from me, safe in her own backyard. Her pink and yellow sundress was frayed at the hem. It flapped around her knees, like the skirt was trying to wing her up through the incoming storm. A shoulder band slouched down and hooked around her stump like strapping tape.
No, I said again.
I should have picked up this picnic table a long time ago. My grandsons left it out here after the last cookout. The cookout that we didn’t know would be the last one. And a huge storm is coming. Right now. Rotating winds, the weatherman says, conditions right for tornado. Got to bring in loose material so it won’t blow off. A table this solid could cause some damage.
The girl nodded. A branch cracked off in the wind and hurtled end over end right between us. Smacked against the vinyl garage siding.
That girl, she won’t leave me alone.
I always told the boys they needed to play nice with her. Said they needed to be patient, on account of her problem. I told them to keep their eyes off of her stump. Especially when the girl’s mother was around. They know, I think—mothers. They can hear your opinions when you look at their own kids. Her stump looks smooth from the back, but from the front you can see knobs and seams, see how it’s pebbled like a creek bed.
The day the boys came, there was nothing in my kitchen but yogurt and coffee. My daughter Danielle called me from the Speedway on Route 37. Wanted to know if she could come home. Temporarily.
Of course, it was okay. I had the room, didn’t I? No, don’t worry about bringing anything. Except maybe some dinner for the boys, for tonight—maybe pick up some hot dogs.
That girl’s mother was friendly towards my Danielle. That was a small mercy. She needed a good neighbor here, someone from her tribe. They drank tea out on the patio. Spooned out their stories. I didn’t know how bad it was till I heard Danielle tell it to the girl’s mother. I was standing at the kitchen sink, window open, their conversation riding on the wind. It’s hard to hear your grown daughter talk. You get troubled by the undertones. You hear her squeaky toddler voice break through, a ghost voice that comes out even when she talks strong and clear on your own patio.
Wish it had been a clean break, she said. Wish I hadn’t even started with him. Wish he never took my boys to the basketball court and showed them how to shoot with one hand propped on the other and their knees pointed to the basket so they had some fresh memory to sink them every time we drive past that damn park.
Least you got a safe place to run home to, that girl’s mother said. Waved her arm all around at the yard, at the bright blooming dogwood. Somewhere to put yourself back together.
Yeah, that’s not how it turned out, Danielle said. He needs a lot. More than I thought.
And then that one-armed girl, she interrupted. Pounded on the screen instead of the doorframe so it creaked.
Go on and find your folks, I told her.
Folk, she said. I just got the one.
You got more folks somewhere, I said. You’ll root them out eventually.
When that one-armed girl talks to me it just makes me miss the boys. I miss the pile of sneakers clumped up in the hallway. I miss watching Charlie climb the tulip tree, trying to hold on tight, his shirt sliding up while his body slipped down. Jake at the bottom, looking up.
Another conversation. Danielle pulling at her hair, a rubber band in her teeth, roping black fluff into a ponytail. The girl’s mother saying, The arm thing’s not so bad.
I’d be freaked out at first. But I can see how you could get used to it.
She hardly remembers having an arm. She was so little bitty when it happened. Sliced clean off in a wreck and then weeks in the hospital, by the time she came out she just about forgot.
Can you ever really forget a thing like that?
It’s easier when it happens to babies, her mother said. They grow up that way, don’t have to relearn how to balance. They’re lopsided from the start.
Danielle edged around it a few times, until a hot May morning when she drove straight in. Thanks for the hospitality, but her time was up. She and the boys were heading out. Maybe once she pulled herself together she could come back and help sort me out. But right now, it was too much.
Would I be okay?
Sure. Been okay so far, before you turned up at the Speedway.
Did she need to arrange some help to come in?
Would it have been easier for the boys if they’d never had a father in the first place? Or easier for me, if I didn’t remember those strong, healthy boys every time I looked at that crippled girl? She’s a poor substitute.
Right before a storm, nature goes dead. Cicadas stop whining, birds stop calling, there’s just rushing wind and deer lying flat in high grass. But people, they get louder before a storm. They turn up their televisions. The weathermen go on and on about funnels and wind shear. Emergency broadcast systems pour from every window. Then the siren wails.
We all open our windows when a big storm is coming – we shouldn’t, but we do. We leave them open until the last possible minute. People like to feel the strangeness in the air. Was that why Danielle came? Did she want to see me one last time before the end, see something electric and new before it all fell apart? Before I fell apart for good.
It’s supposed to be calm before a storm, but the sky out west is quivering like an old woman who can’t sleep.
You should be inside, I told the girl.
She said, Mom sent me to check on you.