When he awoke, his hands were numb.
“Alma,” he said, “my hands are asleep.”
He said it with some alarm, but she just grunted.
“You must of slept on ’em.”
Somewhat hypochondriacally, he wondered if the numbness
were a sign of muscular dystrophy, or some other horrible
disease. Hadn’t he just read in the doctor’s newspaper column
that numb hands were a sign of carpel tunnel syndrome? And what
about that disease which begins with flaccidity in the wrists and
ankles? Experimentally, he lifted his hands in front of him, and
began wiggling his fingers.
Alma, heavy in her red flannel nightdress, glanced at him
in the mirror and he caught the “what’s he doing now” expression
reflected back at him.
“They’re stiff,” he said.
“You just slept on them,” she said again. She had nothing
in the medicine cabinet for this imaginary illness. “Take some
She pulled her gown over head, exposing her stumpy body.
Years ago, when she was young, he would have stared hungrily at
her, but both were long past their youth. He looked away. She
dressed without noticing him.
His hands slowly came back. His stiff fingers moved more
easily now, although as he brushed his teeth they still seemed
oddly clumsy. He dropped the cap of the tube when he tried to
replace it. It rattled in the sink bowl, and came to rest upside
down in the drain. He reached to get it, but there was no room.
He looked around for a tool, and seeing a disposable razor,
snapped the handle in half without thinking, and used the jagged
edge as a probe to fish the cap from the drain.
At work, he stood in front of the machine. It spit white
coded squares at him, and he read the codes, and according to
them, shoved the squares back into numbered slots, where they
were whisked away again. All down the hall men stood in heavy
black shoes, in front of similar machines, their coats off, and
the regulation ties with the regulation knots around their necks
like nooses. Behind them walked the supervisors with clipboards,
reading the counters on the machines, and taking down figures on
“You’re behind specs,” said a harsh voice behind him.
“Twenty-minutes behind quota, and you’ve been on shift only an
hour. Speed it up, or I’ll have to mark you down.”
He’d seldom fallen behind before. Fall behind too many
times and you were out on the street.
He stopped a second, remembering, and looked at his
It was then that the memory of his fingers on the razor
shaft popped with a bubble of pleasure into his mind. It was like
no memory he’d ever had before. It was a feeling of muscles
working, of tendons tightening, of bones anchoring, of joints
turning inexorably inward. It was like those memories of youth
made of warmth on muscle. The thick plastic handle had snapped
like it was nothing.
“I didn’t even think about it,” he thought.
“You’d best get busy,” said the foreman.
He reached his hands toward the squares of coded plastic,
forcing them against their new will to faster effort. The foreman
continued to watch, then with a satisfied grunt, walked away. It
was then that he felt a swelling in his forearms. It was so
painful that he glanced hurriedly over his shoulder, and stopped
work for a moment, while the plastic squares gathered in the bin
in front of him. With one hand, he felt his painful arm, probing
with thumb and forefinger the radius and ulna. The muscles
crossing over the bones were hard as steel. Shaking his head and
his arms, the tightness subsided, and a satisfied warmth of
diffusing blood relaxed and warmed the extremities. And he began
dealing the plastic into the proper slots with ease. But not
before that muscled desire beyond thought arose in him. How nice
it would be to snap something else.
At supper, Alma, long past caring, slammed the pan of
canned soup on the table, letting him dish it himself into the
bowl. She ate from the pan, to save a dish, she said. He ate for
a while, the homogenous glop that came now-a-days in the red and
white can, and only half finished, quit, his hands resting in his
lap. How strange they felt. Like they did not belong to him. His
hands, supple, used to dealing thick squares of plastic like
cards, looked strangely knotted and powerful, and the pad of
muscle on the palm below the thumb was suddenly so thick it
raised his whole hand off his knee. Like a guitar player’s
fingers itching to play, or a pool shark’s to hold a cue, they
wanted something. He picked up his dirty spoon, and without
thinking, nestled the bowl of it in his palm, and with the slow
inexorableness of a vice, crushed it. His other hand reached out
and grasped the thick top of his porcelain coffee cup. He
squeezed it, and it broke, cracking like a rifle shot, pieces of
it scattering across the table and the floor.
Alma had seen none of it. She was busy scraping the last of
the glop with her spoon from the corners of the pan. Her face
became contorted in anger. She thought he had dropped the cup.
“You’ll clean that up. I’m not doing your messes anymore.
How did you get it all over the table cloth.”
He was looking at his hand, the one which had crushed the
cup. Gently, he flexed his fingers. It was beautiful. He watched
the cords of his forearm swell as he closed the fingers. Then he
raised both hands, flexing them on either side of his face and
bowed his head between them almost as if her were praying.
“You idiot,” said Alma. “What do you think you are doing.”
He heard her. Her voice came from another world. And he
returned to it, the idea already formed. Quickly, he hid his
hands under the table.
“Still worried about your goddamned hands. I told you, you
only slept on them. Take some Tylenol.”
He looked at her and said with a calm gentleness that
should have warned her. “I’ll get the dustpan and the broom.”
His hands took the objects from the closet and performed the task
of cleaning up the broken cup, and he watched them as they
worked, each movement precise and powerful, as if the hands had
all the time in the world.
That night, while watching television, just for fun, he
pointed the remote at the screen and crushed it, buttons flying
on springs everywhere.
Alma was aghast.
“You know we have to watch that.”
But he was hunched over his clasped hands in the easy chair,
feeling power against power.
“It’ll be alright, Alma. You don’t have to worry,” he said.
“They can’t keep track of everybody all of the time.”
“You fool. What if we have a pop quiz at work?”
He looked at her and said with a sort of patient kindness,
“Don’t worry. Don’t we all know what to say by now?”
“Just the same, I’ll have to report.”
“Do what you have to, Alma.” He smiled.
That night, his hands caught her as she pulled the red gown
over her head. They made no sound at all. The fingers felt her
warm flesh, and his wrists jumped a little when the neck snapped.
Like holding an offering before an altar, he continued for a
moment to hold her slumped body in front of the mirror, watching
it. And then he released her and she fell on the floor. He went
to bed then, and slept without dreams.
At work, he dealt the cards as usual. He no longer had to
concentrate at it. His hands did everything, his thumbs sliding
the slick and warm cards over his fingers, flipping them
nonchalantly into the slots. The machine could disgorge no more.
The harsh foreman paused behind him, raising his eyebrows, as he
flipped the last card upward with no perceptible movement of his
hands into the highest slot.
He turned to the foreman then.
All along the line, the work had stopped.
The clam-backed men retained their positions, but all turned
their heads toward him. The only sound was the cards clattering
into the bin.
“I’ll have to report this,” said the foreman.
But he didn’t move. He seemed to be waiting for something.
He was soon obliged. Strong hands reached out to him. Held
his head between palms. Pushed together until the foreman’s eyes
bulged, and the skull cracked. And like a maestro flourishing,
the hands came apart and the body dropped.
The workers waited without panic or hope as one by one,
strong hands came to them.
He walked out of the door, to the park. He was not allowed
in. He lacked the proper classification, but he ripped the lock
off and just for pleasure, twisted the bars.
Sitting on a bench, the elm trees in spring leaf over him,
he no longer had a concept of himself. Just his big hands resting
in his lap. Vaguely, he may have heard the sirens coming.
Vaguely, he may have seen the startled aristocrats scattering
from the park, tugging children by arms. But he was not worried.
With strong hands, you were free.