They’re cutting it off, my uncle Randy barks over the phone. First his ball, then his lung. Now his goddamned leg. The poor bastard.
The poor bastard, I say. Not that I feel all that bad about my old man’s dying leg or his missing ball, but it seems like the right thing to say.
We’re having a going away party for it at the hospital, he says. The night before they lop the miserable thing off. Clear up to his goddamned hip. You should be there.
Which one? I ask.
St. Mary’s, what the hell other hospital is there?
No, which leg?
Randy thinks it might be his left, he can’t be sure, but I should drop by. Make things right, whatever that means.
Things already feel pretty all right to me. I don’t talk to my old man, he doesn’t talk to me and my sponsor more or less tolerates my little soft-shoe routine in and out of the community centre’s Twelve-Step Program whenever I’m not too busy pretending to be too busy.
Sometimes I prefer to moonwalk my steps, I once told him, but he’s one of those ex-hippie types who cleaned himself up in the ’80s, smells like shit from drinking too much coffee and has never even heard of breakdancing. How is something like that possible, I’ve thought to myself on far too many occasions.
When I finally show up, my aunt and uncles are standing around my dad’s bed, drinking from wilting Dixie cups. Half-drained bottles of Crown Royal and red wine rest in a bedpan on the side table.
My thirty-five-year-old retarded cousin Freddy is also there, sitting by the window playing some sort of electronic game that sounds how I imagine robots having sex would sound. My aunt Shelley won’t even let Freddy drink. Apart from the pubes, bald spot and belly, he’s apparently an eight-year-old in every other way. I don’t see what the big deal is.
Once I ran into Freddy outside the library where he’d been photocopying Soap Opera Digest. For some reason he watches all the soaps and can tell you about any character or storyline from the last twenty years.
Victor’s up to his usual tricks, he said to me, copy card still in hand, sounding both worried and disappointed.
I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but convinced him to go to the peeler bar with me and buy a couple pitchers of beer with his comic book money before taking the city bus home. I figured watching a titty show with your retarded cousin was at least better than watching one alone.
Freddy seemed confused by the whole thing, though, especially when I got one of the dancers to come over and rest her boobs on top of his head for a photo. I have to go home, he said all panicky, All My Children, All My Children.
I stuck around and finished the rest of the beer, wondering if I stood a chance with the dancer who’d rested her boobs on Freddy’s head since she probably figured anyone willing to hang out with a retard in public couldn’t be half bad.
For a second I thought you might be retarded too, she told me later on. Then we did some shooters and played pool and a bouncer wearing faggy cologne rammed my head through the door for grabbing Miss Boob-Rest’s ass without her explicit consent.
When I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from my aunt Shelley. Her smoker’s voice didn’t sound nearly as sexy as it normally did. I’m not impressed, it said. I’m not fucking impressed.
At the hospital, my uncle Randy raises his drink in the air and everyone except me and Freddy shuffles closer to Gimpy’s bed. To Jimmy’s goddamned leg, Randy says. No more toes to stub. No more nails to clip. No more dog shit to step in. We should all be lucky enough to lose a leg or two.
Everyone laughs hard and loud like it’s the funniest joke they’ve heard in their entire lives and toasts my father’s doomed limb. He just lies there with his eyes closed, smiling.
I walk up behind my aunt Shelley and whisper, What have they got him on?
She whispers back, Something good.
She then pats me on the shoulder with her drink hand, spilling red wine down the front of my shirt like I’ve been stabbed in the chest. It’s a good look.
Shelley tells me she’s glad I’m here and she understands how difficult it must be considering everything that’s happened.
I’m just here for the free swabs, I tell her.
I look over at the bed. The blankets are drawn back, and my dad’s crinkly sick-person gown is pushed aside, revealing both his legs. One pale and normal, the other shaved and pinkish and covered in words written in black felt marker and ballpoint pen.
Tough break, someone has scrawled. I’m gonna have to return those leg warmers I bought you, someone else has written. Cut above the dotted line.
You should write something—we all have, Shelley says. She hands me a magic marker, her clicky fingernails done up in tiger stripes.
Even my cousin Freddy has written something across my dad’s vandalized shin—a drawing of a falcon with what looks like a kitten in its talons.
There’s hardly any room, I say, pocketing the pen.
Don’t be silly, she says. It’s good for the soul.
I don’t know if my soul can take any more goodness, I tell her.
My uncle Randy turns around. Stop being such a pussy, he says. Write something on your old man’s leg. Or are you afraid you’ll catch what he has?
I look up and pretend to start counting the perforations on the ceiling tiles. So much too say, so little thigh.
Bahhhhh, says Randy, refilling his drink.
My dad’s youngest brother Martin, who’s a high school French teacher and always smells like B.O. due to some sort of medical condition, makes a big show of shaking my hand as if I’m a business associate. Good to see you my boy, he says. How’s the telemarketing racket?
It’s not telemarketing, I tell him. It’s a call centre, handling calls from customers needing assistance. They contact us.
Martin snorts, The last time I had to call someone for assistance all they told me was to turn my computer on and off and call back if it didn’t work, which of course it didn’t.
We’re supposed to keep our calls to under a minute, I say. Anything longer and we’re costing the company money.
Just dreadful, Martin says, but I guess it’s better than pawning off your mother’s jewellery after she died.
Under normal circumstances I would have said something about The Stink’s jewellery comment, but this week I’m working on what my shit-breath sponsor calls Foible Forgiving. Instead I tell Martin I have to go to the can before I piss my pants.
Charming, he says.
I walk over to Shelley and kiss her on the cheek. She smells of cigarettes and lilacs. Back in a minute, I say to no one in particular.
The soles of my runners chirp like baby birds as I speed walk down the hallway. Past the janitor’s closet, past the vending machines, past the smells of chicken noodle soup and disinfectant, past a room full of old men with portable IV bags who are watching an infomercial on TV for hot, lonely women who like to party while talking on the phone at all hours of the night.
What are you waiting for? says one of the horned-out women looking right at me.
Outside I light a smoke and kick at some chewed up bubblegum that’s been flattened into the pavement and looks like a piece of skin.
The only person I’ve known who’s had a piece of himself chopped off was this guy in my high school who lost his hand while working at a butcher shop for work experience. The Phantom, we called him. He was one of the toughest kids at our school, always getting into fights, and after the accident it was no different. Except that when you lose a part of your body, like your hand or leg or what have you, for a time—sometimes weeks, sometimes years, sometimes forever—it feels like it’s still there. Sometimes you even feel pain or an itch where the missing limb would have been, but of course you can never get at it, which makes it worse. So whenever this guy threw a punch, more times than not, he would miss by a few inches, his phantom fist blowing clear through the person’s jaw like an empty wind. So he took up kickboxing.
After dislodging the gum with the toe of my shoe, I make sure no one’s looking and unleash a devastating windmill kick to a hydrangea bush.
I light another smoke.
My clothes smell like they’re dying. Either that or my sponsor’s been breathing on me a little too closely. Not even my cigarettes can mask it.
Back inside there’s a commotion in one of the hospital’s waiting rooms. A woman police officer with a notepad is talking to three crying girls in cheerleading uniforms, while a guy wearing a chicken costume and a neck brace is down the hallway on a stretcher, his chicken head by his side with its beak smashed in.
Can one of you girls tell me why your friend was driving the car? the police officer asks, making the cheerleaders cry even more.
Your parents are on their way, so we’re going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another. So once again, why exactly was the chicken driving the car?
I stop for a second to chime in, Because getting to the other side was too damn hard.
The police officer looks at me more disappointed than annoyed. Sir, this is not helping the situation. Don’t you have some place you’re supposed to be?
Always, I tell her.
The hallway no longer smells like soup and disinfectant but wet dog and disinfectant and the TV area has emptied out, though the Sirens of Loneliness infomercial is still playing in a continuous loop of late-night desperation.
Don’t keep us waiting, a voice echoes after me, what have you got to lose?
Everyone’s gone when I get back. The room smells of something artificial that’s supposed to smell like lilacs. I look over at the trashcan and see the two empty bottles, along with some pieces of loose-leaf paper Freddy was using to practise drawing birds, one of which has been able to defy nature and play electric guitar.
I walk over to the side of my dad’s bed and poke his shoulder.
Goddamn stupid . . . heater, he mumbles.
He absently scratches at his nose, lets out a sigh and mumbles some more. Get your motor running.
The bed sheets are still pulled back so his old man legs can feel the open air one more night. Boney, mean looking legs that always looked wrong in shorts, at odds with the rest of his puffy body.
I take the magic marker out of my pocket, pull the cap off, think about getting high once I get home.
All the little hairs make it difficult to write, so I have to press down twice as hard for anything to show up. The ink is running out. Most of the letters have to be retraced a few times.
Wrong one, I carefully print out along the leg that hasn’t been written on. Wrong one. »
From issue #60
[The Phantom was selected as the Fiction category winner in our 2011 Lush Triumphant Literary Awards competition.]