Another Little Piece
by Kevin Wilson
followed by Q&A
My mother sent me a flyer for a self-help group. I’d come back from work, the dense, chemical tang of bug spray in my hair and on my clothes, and there was a small note attached to the flyer that said, “Give this a chance, Oscar. You can meet lots of people who work just as good as you, who do without and deserve to be happy.” I put it in the drawer of my desk and sat on the couch and tried to forget about it for a little while, though I knew I’d end up going. I was getting desperate.
The group was called Missing Ourselves, and it met every week at the community center in Birmingham, two and a half hours south of where I was living. The group was for people who had lost pieces of themselves, arms or legs or even just a finger, and were trying to cope with this as best as they could. It sounded like AA for amputees, but I memorized the address, time, and room number, and spent the next few days spraying houses for termites and trying not to get too excited.
When I was in junior high, I got hit by a drunk driver while I was standing in the crosswalk at school. I lost my left ear, my left arm up to the elbow, most of my left foot, and I broke a whole bunch of things inside of me. After that, a tangle of scars across my body and face, I walked kind of side-to-side without getting very far, and people in high school called me Duck-Boy, so it’s not hard to understand why I didn’t get laid one single time. I’d been working odd jobs since I had dropped out of college earlier that year and I still hadn’t slept with anyone and I was lonely as hell. At night, I dreamed about my amputated parts, a voice on the other end of the phone, calling me late at night and saying, “You probably don’t believe this, but I miss you just as much as you miss me.”
Before the first meeting, I had prepared myself for disappointment, for a room filled with sad, weepy people saying dumb things like “half the man I used to be.” The meeting was at the community center, and, down the hall, I could hear the yells and grunts of the Tae Kwon Do class that shared the building on Wednesday nights. The door of the meeting room had a sign with a drawing of a man on crutches and missing his right leg and a woman with an eye patch. Both of them had bright red hearts in the middle of their bodies. I walked inside the room and there were people missing their legs, lots of stumps where hands should be, and a whole lot of people who seemed less like a person and more like what is left of a person when things go real wrong. I thought about going back to my car and driving home, but a man who was missing the lower part of his face waved me over to a seat beside him. And for a second, I felt that kind of quick joy of being invited to something, anything, and it was enough to keep me there in that room.
We went around the circle, each person saying their name and how they came to be there. It sounded like “I’m Jeff and I got my right arm bit off by a shark on my honeymoon” or “My name is Vickie and I was driving and I got tired and when I came to, both my legs were gone” or “Charlie…just born this way.” And then it got to a woman that I hadn’t noticed until right then, but she had long, wavy brown hair and deep green eyes and her mouth was curled up on one side, like she thought something was real funny but no one else would understand. She was tapping her right foot on the floor, even and steady, like she was keeping time with her heartbeat. Just a few feet away from me, she seemed so beautiful, with so many perfect things about her, that when I finally noticed that her arms were missing, it seemed like nit-picking, looking hard for imperfection.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Betty and I got this arm,” she gestured to her right side with her chin, “torn off in a car accident.” She didn’t say anything for a while, and it seemed as if she was finished talking until she blinked rapidly and sat up straight. “Oh, and I got depressed after I got out of the hospital and I drank too much and lay down on some train tracks and did this,” she said, gesturing to her other missing arm. She thought for a second, looking up at the ceiling and finally she said, “And I’m glad to be here today.”
During the break, we all drank coffee out of paper cups and ate cookies as best as we could with the things we had left. Betty was still sitting, smiling at people who came by to talk. I waddled over to her just as an old woman with a glass eye was saying to her, “Honey, you could be a model. I’m serious; you are that pretty.” Betty looked away and said, “No, I couldn’t. I tried to get into modeling before all of this happened and they said I didn’t have it, that I lacked something essential. So I’m sure I lack even more of that now.”
The woman touched Betty’s shoulder, shook her head, and walked off. Now it was just Betty and me and three cookies balanced on my upturned palm. I held them out for her and she smiled, leaned forward and took one between her teeth. She threw her head back and started chewing, a few crumbs scattering across her shirt. “In a pinch, I can eat with my feet,” she said, “if I really want to impress people. But I don’t think it would get much attention here.”
She nodded at the empty seat beside her and I sat down. I brought my hand up awkwardly to my face and ate the second cookie. I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I just stared down at the last cookie, powdered sugar dusting the lines of my palm.
“So you were pretty young when all that happened?” she asked me.
“I wonder if that’s easier or not,” she said.
“Than what?” I asked.
“Than losing something as an adult. It seems like if you’re a kid, you still have time to relearn skills. I mean, I was twenty-nine when this happened and it’s taken five years just to get to this.”
“It was easy enough for me, I guess,” I said. “I figured it out for the most part and they made me take a lot of physical therapy. But it was hard in school, you know. Got teased a lot.”
“Oh, right. I forgot about other kids. But you’re handsome. You’ve got nice blue eyes and a strong jaw line.”
“But no ear,” I said, gesturing to my missing left ear.
“You don’t want a perfect face. Where’s the fun in that?”
I took a bite from the last cookie and then offered her the other half. She opened her mouth and I fed her the piece.
“It’s not always like this,” she said. “I have a prosthesis. I just didn’t want to wear it here, felt like I shouldn’t. Normally, I can feed myself.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
A few other people came over and sat with us, a woman who’d had a mastectomy and an older man, a farmer who’d gotten his hand caught in a thresher. There seemed to be as many farm equipment accidents as car accidents when people told their stories. At the end of the meeting, we all sat back in the circle of chairs for the final words. The founder of the group, a woman in her late-forties who’d lost her right leg trying to climb Mt. Everest, asked us to make a bond with the people on either side of us, however we could to ensure contact. I placed my hand on the farmer’s shoulder and looked over at Betty. She brought her face close to mine and we stood cheek to cheek. Then the founder said, “We are not the things we have lost. We are still the people we have always been, only stronger.”
I couldn’t hear the rest, couldn’t focus on anything but Betty’s skin touching mine. Her hair smelled of coconut and I could feel her eyelashes occasionally flutter against my face. When the founder had finished, a few people started clapping in whatever way they could, and we all smiled. Betty pulled away from me and I tried to act as if this did not matter.
Outside the community center, I asked Betty how she was going to get home.
“Oh, I took the bus,” she said. “I’ve got my pass attached to my belt.”
“I can drive you home if you’d like,” I told her. “I drive okay.”
“Well, I trust you,” she said, smiling. “I bet you can drive just fine.”
Inside the car, we talked about how the meeting had gone, the various degrees of the other members. “This sounds terrible,” she said to me, “but a mastectomy isn’t the same thing. There should be a group for those with visible amputations and those without. Let the people with missing toes and whatnot have their own meeting.” I laughed and then felt ashamed for it, turned my face from her.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” she said. “People like us get to laugh at anything we want. It’s a rule.”
I pulled into the driveway of the duplex where she lived. I got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side and opened her door. As she stepped out, she whispered, “I had a good time tonight, though I hadn’t planned on it.”
“I did too,” I said.
“I’d ask you come in, but my husband is probably waiting for me.”
I tried not to look surprised, but my voice cracked softly, a slight hitch, when I said, “You’re married?”
“Yeah,” she said, “but he has all his parts accounted for.”
“Will you come next week?” I asked her.
“Will you?” she replied.
She leaned against me and I could feel the weight of her body resting on mine, which almost made me lose my balance, forced me to put most of my weight on my good foot. She kissed me quickly and then shrugged away from my touch and started walking towards the front door. When she got to the steps of the porch, she turned around and said, “I don’t go around kissing people.”
“I don’t either,” I said.
“Well, let’s keep it that way. See you next week.”
I drove the two and a half hours back to my apartment too fast, speeding along the near-empty highway, the stump of my left arm hanging out the window, cutting through the air, forcing its way past anything that would deny it entry into the place that it wanted to be.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009). His fiction has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. He lives in Sewanee, TN.
Q&A with Kevin Wilson
Tell us something about “Another Little Piece.”
I find stories and poems about amputees to sometimes be too metaphorically overwrought, and I think this story probably suffers from those same problems, but I was inspired to try after reading a story by Nelson Algren, “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” where the main character, Railroad Shorty, a man missing both of his legs, serves as this vibrating, violent force that no other character in the story can contain.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
Fried Bologna Sandwich. I would be this type of food because 95% of my actual diet is made up of this single food. I am pretty much made of bologna as it is.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Fairyland Caverns at Rock City in Lookout Mountain, GA. Nursery rhyme dioramas painted in fluorescent colors and lit by ultaviolet lights. It is beautiful and terrifying and my favorite place in the entire world.
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
I have read almost nothing of the Russian greats. I've read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. That's about it. The only Russian writer I've read a lot of is Gogol, who I love. I have managed to go most of my adult life pretending to have read the Russian greats while actually reading comic books almost exclusively.