All Their Pieces
On my first night in the city, I saw an eyeball on the sidewalk. It sat in the small crack where the pavement meets the curb and stared up at the tops of buildings. I didn’t think it was anything then, maybe just a bird turd, or some gummy candy left over from Halloween. I didn’t make a big fuss about it. It was just the city.
Later that night I unpacked all the boxes in my new apartment and completely forgot about the eye. I thought the sooner I got all my things put away, the sooner I’d start to feel more comfortable, more at home. My room was much bigger than what I was used to, and the gaps between the Dinosaur, Jr. posters on my walls extended farther, and seemed to grow apart as I sat still on the bed.
I reread the letter my mom sent me. It arrived a day before I did, and the landlord and I had a lengthy conversation about how he didn’t know what to do with it since I hadn’t made it yet. “I thought about calling the post office!” he blabbed. “I just decided to hold on to it until you got here!”
In the stamp on the corner of the envelope, a small astronaut waved to the little world under him. The letter itself was handwritten on a piece of paper she ripped from a notebook, so the edges still had their frills that rustled every time I pulled it out.
I hope you made it to the city safely, I’ve been so worried these past few days. I’m so proud of all you’ve accomplished! Go and knock them dead at the bank!
Love you bunches,
P.S. You don’t have to write back. Just give me a call when you feel like it.
Two weeks before, I took a train all of 180 miles from my podunk hometown to the interview. Mr. Preston, the Metropolitan Bank President, asked me a total of three questions about my financial experience, and spent the remaining half hour going on about his boats and cars and things. All that mattered to him was that I had a degree, and that I understood what kind of person he was. As I left his office, he stopped me and said, “You play your cards right, pal, and you could end up lookin’ like me,” with a thumb jerked back towards him, his big round nose gleaming. I grinned. “But then again, you may not want to! Har Har!”
That first day was completely unremarkable, as was Albert Brewster, the man who showed me my desk. From his combed hair down to his brown leather shoes, everything about him was forgettable, all except his hands. They were out of place. Even as he greeted me, he daintily shook my hand, like he didn’t want to. His fingers were long and skinny. They didn’t match the gut that edged out over the top of his belt buckle at all.
But just like the eye, I forgot about it. My financial career had begun, and I was too busy interviewing people for loans they wanted or analyzing someone’s retirement portfolio. Somebody was always looking to buy something they couldn’t afford, but we told them they could. We helped them make it happen. That’s what Mr. Preston said at every meeting, like he was God’s gift to mankind. The truth is, it’s hard looking a person in the eye—a newlywed couple with a combined income of less than $30,000 a year, telling them if they just sign here, they can have that house they always wanted—when you know that in two to three years, that same house is going to be foreclosed. Almost forty percent of all divorces are financial related. I suppose I did my part.
At the end of every day, I would take the subway home and hide in my apartment until the next morning. Most nights I ate some kind of meat on some kind of bread, and then I would lounge around, watching whatever sporting event would be on at the time. It would give me some ammo for small talk at the office, to save myself from looking like a complete recluse, some sign that I was a normal human being. I couldn’t ever get into those network shows—the sitcoms and crime dramas. They never stuck with me. They weren’t real.
About a month or two in, an older lady by the name of Mildred Thanks came in to discuss getting a mortgage on a new house. She was mostly mobile, but it took her a while to get into her seat, and the wrinkles in her cheeks weren’t concealed by the pale make up she wore. Her husband had just died, and she was looking to use his life insurance policy as a down payment for a big five-thousand-square foot house she had seen for sale uptown. I asked her why she was so keen on getting an expensive house late in life. “Well, I don’t have any grandkids,” she said, “so I’d like to use this money while I can. The mortgage will outlive me, anyway.” I sent her home with the promise that we’d call her in a few days since it would take approval from someone higher up than me to get her the loan, it being an odd case.
As she shuffled out the doorway, I waved goodbye and then went to the bathroom. Standing off to the side of a urinal was Albert Brewster, seemingly perplexed by his fly. I thought maybe his gut got caught in his zipper or something, but he must have heard me come in because he swiveled his head back around to the doorway where I stood. In those few seconds where he faced me, I glanced down, afraid I’d see something I didn’t want to, but instead Albert Brewster’s right hand was in his left—like—disconnected. It wasn’t attached to his arm. At first, I felt embarrassed, so I stepped back out of the bathroom to figure out what I’d just saw. He didn’t have a prosthetic, did he? I shook his hand, and although it felt feeble, I could’ve sworn that his fingers made an effort to surround my own.
I contemplated the impossibility of such a thing at my desk, looking blankly at all the paperwork spread before me. My eyes started to lose focus, and the inked words seemed to jump across the pages, but instantly took their place as a hand patted my back. It was Brewster.
“Hey, man, hope I didn’t scare you in there, ha ha!”
I wheeled myself around in my chair, but he kept his hand on my shoulder—his left hand. His right was in his pocket. “Oh no, I just uh, figured I didn’t need to go, you know.”
He squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t you just hate it when that happens. I swear, the older I get, the harder it is for me just to take a piss, ha ha! I could use a bladder transplant!”
Brewster turned to leave but then stopped back. “Say, me and some of the other guys are going out for drinks tomorrow night, you in?”
There’s no way I would ever want to socialize with the men at this bank, but before I could decline, Brewster took his right hand from his pocket and pointed out the window.
“It’s a bar just down the street there.”
It was a real hand. It had skin, and under the skin tendons squirmed to life beneath protruding veins. His fingernails were trimmed back to the quick, and I could see a small bloodspot where the skin had been pulled back too far.
“Sure, I’ll go.”
Brewster didn’t lie. The bar, Archie’s, was just a mile from the bank. My coworkers must have been regular customers because the old man behind the bar, presumably Archie, welcomed them with open arms and got their drinks without them ordering. The salty-haired man told me to pick my poison. I asked for a club soda.
I sat at a table by myself. There were plenty of people around me, watching me out of the corner of their eye, but I wasn’t looking for conversation. I just needed to find out what kind of biological terror lay at the end of Albert Brewster’s right arm. After my fourth sip of the glass, Brian Welch, a bank teller who was way too old to be a bank teller, hopped into the seat across from me.
“Hi. I’m Brian Welch. I’m one of the tellers.”
I shook his hand. Much stronger. “Nice to meet you. I’m Rodney.”
“I’ve seen you around Metro. You’ve been here a few months now, haven’t you?” I nodded. “How do you like it so far?
“It’s alright. I’m earning a living, so I’m happy.”
“You got that right. Should’ve went to college, then I’d be making much bigger deposits like you guys,” he chuckled.
“Yeah well, at least you’re not in debt up to your eyeballs.”
“Who says I’m not? Just don’t look at my eyeballs.” He stared at me very blankly before yanking his head back in laughter, and then took a swig from his beer.
I did my best to feign enthusiasm, but I soon found myself glancing around the room for something to distract me, something to end this conversation before it inevitably got awkward. My eyes found Brewster, standing in a triangle of white men in white shirts with their sleeves rolled up to their elbows. He held a glass in his right hand.
“Say, uh, Brian, you know anything about that Brewster guy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, does he have a prosthetic or something? On his right hand?”
“I don’t think so. At least not that I’ve seen. Why’d you ask?”
“The other day I could’ve swore I saw him take his hand off.”
I turned back and saw Brian gazing very sternly at me.
He took another drink. “Nope. Brewster’s got two fully working hands.”
I nodded in agreement, though I wasn’t sure I did.
“But that stuff’s kinda personal, anyways, so don’t you go bothering him about it. Know what I mean?” Brian’s eyes narrowed in on mine, and in the darkness of his pupils I saw a small white light, maybe the reflection of my face.
“Oh sure. I know what you mean.”
“You take care now.” And with that, he rose from the seat and was lost mingling with the other guys.
Alone once again in my corner, I decided it was best for me to leave. That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth, and I needed to pee. The bathroom was behind a narrow hallway in the back, and I looked over my shoulder as I made my way down the corridor.
The urinal still had a puddle of yellow in it, so I flushed it and started to go. My breath caused the dingy eggshell tile on the wall to fog up. I stood staring at that blur when the bathroom door swung open to Albert.
“Say! Rodney my man! How’s it hangin’? Looks pretty good from over here.” I quickly covered myself. Albert was drunk. “Oh, I’m just jokin’ around. You having a good time so far?”
“It’s been alright.”
“Good. I love coming to this place. Helps me relax.” Brewster looked towards the mirror and loosened his tie. As he turned back towards me, he started grabbing at his wrist. “Really helps ease the pain.”
My eyes darted from his hand to his face.
“You know what I mean?” And without a second’s delay, Albert Brewster grabbed his wrist, and yanked his right hand off his arm.
I stopped peeing.
“Yep. I tell ya, this thing hurts like the dickens sometimes.”
I stood silently, zipper in my hand, about to throw up, and about to shove past him to run away—run away from the bank, the city—back to where I grew up, my mom waiting.
“What’s the matter? Never seen anything like this before?”
My fingers twitched as I zipped up my pants, and the opening flap of my underwear got caught. “No. No I don’t think I have.”
“Well, it’s not all that strange. See, look at it.”
Albert lifted the hand to show me, turning it around at all angles. The fingers, stiff like a dead spider’s legs, hung crinkled towards the palm. The wrist was like an open wound, red and pulpy as if it had been cut clean off.
“You want to hold it?”
I tried to find the words to say, but all that came out were short, squeaking breaths.
“You’re not gonna flip out on me are you? Ha ha!”
“How did you,” I stammered.
“Listen, Rodney, it’s not that complicated. I didn’t like the hands I was born with. So, I traded them.”
“Yeah, look here.” Brewster, as simply as he removed it, reattached his hand to his arm and plucked off the other one. “See?”
“Rodney, listen to me.” He walked closer to the urinal. “It’s not scary.”
I felt trapped in my corner, and I backed into the dividing wall between the urinal and the stall next to me. “Whose hands are those?”
“A piano teacher’s. See how long the fingers are? I took lessons a few years back hoping to impress this woman I was seeing. But my fingers were so stubby. I complained all the time. And then one day, the man proposed we trade hands. He never liked his, either. Said his kids thought they were creepy. And he had poor circulation. It was a win-win. I got laid, he got warm hands.”
The dreadful realization that he was being honest washed me in a cold glaze. There’s no way it could’ve been true, but there I was, staring at Albert Brewster’s disconnected hand. I couldn’t look anymore, so I found solace in the dead roaches on the floor.
“Albert, I’m going to leave now.”
“I don’t understand how you’re so afraid—”
“I’m leaving.” And without looking at him or his interchangeable body parts, I walked out of the bathroom and out of the bar, down the street to the subway station, taking the train home, where I laid still on my bed.
A few months passed, and I still hadn’t called my mother. I wouldn’t have known what to say. Before, I could’ve told her I was doing well, I was making deals, signing checks—the stuff she wants to hear. But I couldn’t push that bar bathroom scene out of my mind.
So, I didn’t call her. I didn’t talk to anyone for that matter. Not that I did before, anyway, but now I entirely secluded myself. In meetings at work, I’d stick to the middle right side of the conference table, facing the windows. I couldn’t sit in the front corner, or I’d risk having to bump shoulders with Mr. Preston at his big chair with the keyboard. And the front was the front; everyone would see me. So, hidden amongst the long row of bodies, I would stare across at the lines of light that pushed through the blinds on the windows.
Me and Albert hadn’t spoken or come within ten feet of each other since Archie’s. I suppose he did it out of respect of me still being “new.” Either that or he just wanted me to keep my sanity. Sometimes, very rarely, I would peek out of the corner of my eye to the edge of his desk, just for one second to see if perhaps he took his hand off and laid it on top of some loose papers to hold them down. I never did catch a glimpse. I guess it’s best I didn’t.
Mildred Thanks was supposed to have come in to finalize paperwork for the mortgage on her house, but the closing was postponed for an undisclosed reason, a hospital visit or something. When she did finally come, she looked more gleeful and revitalized. Not that she was decrepit before, but it seemed that she moved more wistfully and at ease. She greeted me with a hug, and I was overwhelmed. It reminded me of Mom. Mildred even asked how work had been these past few months, and though I wanted to tell her that the man twenty feet to her right is able to take his hands off and on as he pleases, I kept the conversation short.
As she signed the last few papers, I watched how quickly she was able to scratch her name down. There was something different about her. The way the creases of her smile didn’t completely fold in on themselves anymore, and even the way she had spoken gave a sense of newness. And though it wasn’t any business of mine to ask what had happened to her these last few months, the small kindness she’d shown me made her almost a friend.
“Forgive me if I overstep my asking, but I can’t help but notice that you seem different, Mrs. Thanks.”
“Different? What do you mean, Rodney?” She stopped signing to look at me.
“You just seem more, I don’t know. Lively, I suppose.”
“Oh, well, thank you for noticing, dear.” She smiled.
“Does it have anything to do with how you weren’t able to close the house these past few months?”
Mildred, continuing with her signatures replied, “Why yes actually it does. I’ve had some work done.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice.” I was slightly embarrassed, and she could tell.
“Ha! You didn’t think I blew all of George’s money on this down payment, did you? Look here.” Mildred rose from her seat and walked around to my side of the desk, pulling up the end of her skirt to expose her feet. “See these. Look brand new, don’t they?”
I looked down to see shiny black leather wedges strapped around her feet. “Wow, you went the extra mile with those shoes, Mrs. Thanks.”
“Oh no, not that, Rodney. My feet. Look at my feet.”
I glanced down again, and I saw the skin exposed from those black wedges didn’t look like skin that would belong to Mrs. Thanks; in fact, it looked like the skin of a woman fifty years younger than her. There were no varicose veins around her ankles, no blisters or sores.
My mouth went dry. “Would you look at that.”
“Can you believe it? I saw this beautiful girl walking down the street one day, so proudly and easily. I hadn’t walked that way without pain in a long while. So, I went up to her and asked her what it would take for me to get her feet.”
My eyes darted up to her face looking down at me in my silly rolly chair. “What is that you said?”
“It didn’t take as much of George’s money as I thought. Here, get a closer look.”
And with the same ease of comfort that Albert Brewster detached his hands, Mildred Thanks plucked off her foot from her ankle and plopped it into my lap. My sight flashed white, and I couldn’t move or say a word. In my stillness, I could’ve sworn I felt the foot bounce ever so slightly as its pulse beat along with Mildred’s.
“That’s not the only thing I was able to pilfer from her. As a matter of fact, I—”
But I wouldn’t take anymore. I jumped and screamed unlike I had ever before, like the whistle of a train plunging head on into traffic. Running was all I could do. I didn’t take the subway to my apartment. I took solace in the fact that I heaved breath into my own lungs, with a scratching pain that clawed up in a throat that was mine, and not someone else’s.
I didn’t go to work the next morning, so my phone rang. It was just a few times that first day. The second day was too many. I was sure it was Mr. Preston, wondering what sort of psychotic episode had caused me to leave and never come back. The truth is, it’s not work I didn’t want to go to. I just didn’t want to leave my apartment.
This was the place that had been my nightly refuge for the past six or seven months, (I had lost count), the place where I could feel totally whole and put together. It was small, nothing compared to my colleague’s dwellings, sure. If they had known how I lived and where I lived, they would have laughed. Not for pity’s sake, but because of how wrong it was for a man like me to live there. The walls that once seemed to stretch lifelessly in front of my eyes were now my comfort. They allowed room for my thoughts to drift wherever they wanted, without fear of bumping to close into reality.
But I couldn’t take the ring any longer. And just as I suspected, it was my boss who had been calling all this time. He explained how he just wanted to talk to me, and that he really wanted to help. I didn’t even have to stay the whole day, he said.
Nobody greeted me as I got back to the bank that morning. No stares, nothing. I felt like a ghost. Mr. Preston’s secretary hardly seemed to notice me, either, and I had to do one of those fake coughs people do in movies to get her attention.
Mr. Preston looked like a scoop of ice cream that had melted and then refroze, perched atop his desk chair. I wasn’t sure what state he would be in. I didn’t really know if he would be angry, if that façade he put on over the phone would carry over or not. As I sat down, he exhaled out of his nose.
“Well,” he said, “what happened there the other day, sport?”
And just like that, all of the images I’d flushed out came pouring back in. The lady that I thought was the only redeeming member of this city—she was no longer a person to me. She was like the rest of them.
“What about it?”
“You kind of made a scene there, didn’t you?”
“Well, what happened?”
I couldn’t stand the aching feeling that I was somehow being insensitive toward the awful things I’d seen, by Brewster, by anyone. I was the one who was normal, not these freaks who treated their bodies like a patch work quilt.
“What happened? What happened? Mr. Preston, a lady took off her foot and set it in my lap.”
“And? What do you mean and? Isn’t that abnormal?”
“Rodney, we at Metropolitan Bank have all types of clients. We can’t just treat someone unusual differently because of something so trivial as a foot. A dollar’s a dollar, after all.”
“But it’s not just Mrs. Thanks! Brewster’s hands aren’t even his!”
“Brewster. Albert Brewster. He sits not far from me, you know?”
“Oh yeah. Think I remember him. So what of it?”
“So what of it?”
At this point the door burst open, and in walked Brian Welch, eyes plucked out, one in each hand, facing towards us as if on display. Completely devoid of emotion, I had lost all sense of preservation and flung myself at him. Maybe somehow in my fried brains I thought I could destroy the image from my head if I destroyed the scene itself, but no. I see it as clear as day when I think about it.
Mr. Preston moved a lot quicker than he looked he could and yanked me off Brian. “Rodney! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Did you not see what he had?”
“Well, of course I did, son. I’m the one that gave them to him!”
I turned to face him and saw Mr. Preston’s eyes, or his new eyes, whomever they belonged to. They were blue.
The scream was there inside me, ready to bound up my throat, but I stopped it. It wouldn’t help me now that I had already seen the terror. I looked down the hallway from the office entrance and saw the entirety of the bank staff was focused on me. I stood up.
“There’s nothing wrong with what we do, Rodney,” Mr. Preston said. “Some of us can’t handle the pressure. You ever see someone with a nice car you want?”
I turned to face him.
“I see someone with eyes nicer than mine, well, you get the drift.”
With that, I carefully stepped over Brian Welch’s arms and legs as he laid on the floor. I walked past the desks of employees, the people I barely knew those past months, all finally noticing me. They looked in contempt, and each of them one by one, began to pluck off arms and legs, fingers and toes, ears and eyes, all showing me their pieces.
I finally called my mom when I got back to my apartment and told her I was coming home. She didn’t ask any questions.
As I walked to the station that night, I glanced around every corner, every nook and cranny of the city. In each person I passed, I realized they had something that wasn’t theirs. A man twiddling his thumbs at a bus stop accidentally popped one off, like a little baby carrot. Two women held up their ears to each other to compare which pair might match better. Nobody here was whole. Nobody here was complete.
I didn’t pay attention to anyone on the train, instead deciding to sleep through the sights of misplaced body parts. Before I knew it, I was in my mother’s doorway, calmly relaxed by her embrace.
She cooked dinner, but I didn’t want to eat. As I listened to the clanking of forks and knives on the ceramic plates, I felt as if I was just obeying a program in my mind, each robotic motion of me cutting and chewing was just a command that wasn’t my own. My mother saw this, and said, “It’s okay if you don’t like it, Rodney.”
I realized just how old she had become, her hair now thoroughly gray since I’d left for the city. She reached over to pat my arm. There was still a softness about her, but only now did I see her skin, marred with freckles and sunspots from years past. Even as we sat down on the couch after the dishes had been washed, I saw a slight twitch in her hand when she turned on the TV. Things weren’t easy for her anymore, but they’d never really been anyway.
I know she wanted to ask me of everything that had happened there. I know she wanted to hear every last detail of every day I spent in that city. But she knew she couldn’t draw that out of me. I had to open up. Where would I start? Would she even believe?
“How did they treat you, Rodney?”
“Well, it’s hard to understand the people over there, Mom.”
“Why’s that? They’re just normal people like you and me, aren’t they? Just because I’ve never been to the city doesn’t mean I wouldn’t understand.”
“They’re not real.”
“The people in the city. They’re not real.”
“Oh, Rodney, I know they probably seemed to act a little different than folks around here, but they were probably just trying to be polite, in some way.”
“No Mom, I mean they weren’t themselves. They were … put together.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They were like, Lego sets—pieced together by the parts of others. I saw it. I saw them take off their hands, their feet.”
“Oh, Rodney,” she said as she took my hand to still me, “none of us are put together from the start.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we pick up the pieces along the way.”
“But these people shared limbs!”
“I know, Rodney.”
“But you’re not like that, Mom.”
“Who’s to say I’m not?”
At this, I stood and backed away from her.
“What’s the matter, Rodney?” The dread had already spread to my fingertips, and I felt every ounce of my blood being sucked to the center of my body.
“None of us are perfect now. Not even your mother. Look.” And with the stillness of a sculptor, my mom took her hand and reached deep inside her chest and pulled out her heart. “See, now, look at that. Perfectly normal.”
The heart beat softly, twitching each second upon the palm of her hand. I stared at the red as it bulged in and out, pumping an unseeable fluid that was her life, a life I had now lost understanding of completely.
“Rodney, what’s wrong?”
Without answering, I rose from the couch and headed towards the door. There was nothing more I wanted, nothing more I could look for, no solace to find in the face of the earth. And with each step I took, I plucked out my eyes, pulled off my ears, yanked off my head, disassembled myself until I was a pile of flesh and blood on her porch, realizing that I could no longer be real.
Biographical Note: Daniel Abramovitz is a senior attending Missouri State University. He will graduate with a BA in Creative Writing with a minor in Screenwriting. He currently works as an Assistant Fiction Editor of Moon City Review, the literary journal of Missouri State.