Hands — Wendell Mayo
I first noticed him in my interpersonal communication course. Unlike my students in typical autumn attire, he wore, devotedly, a charcoal three-piece suit with dark pinstripes running throughout that made him seem, in the bright fluorescent light of my lecture hall, a cage holding in night. Even then I noticed his small hands, wholly incongruous with his large, rigid-set jaw, eyes above slightly squinting, somewhere between weariness of one’s job and trying to concentrate on my lectures. He was older, had a day-job somewhere around Public Square.
Last evening class that semester, there was no mob at my podium, no final exam to tie students to me. But while students raced out, he paced behind the first row of desks, nervously petting his lavender necktie with his miniature hands.
When we were alone, he approached, said, “I was interested in your lecture on disconfirmation.” He added, “If I asked you out, you wouldn’t disconfirm me, would you?”
I glanced at his hands clutching at his pants pockets like little larcenous raccoon paws, then stared down at my notes, gathering them.
“No,” I said, “but I might confirm that you’ve little chance of a date.”
“I’ll take that little chance, if you will,” he said. “Dinner? I tell a mean story.”
“By mean,” I said, “do you mean a good story or an unkind one?”
“Date?” he said.
When I surrendered my phone number, he probably thought I wanted to hear what he meant by his mean story. But it was his hands that attracted me most, so small, almost divine, childlike, the way you see baby Christ clutching at his mother’s neck in Renaissance paintings.
When he pulled up that Friday night, I met him at the main entrance of my building, Winton Place, a high-rise condo overlooking Lake Erie. He was in his same dark pin-striped suit, and a Soul, the one mice drive in ads, a car perfectly sized for mice. When I slid in beside him, my faux fox collar touched his ear. The whole ten seconds in transit across the parking lot to Pier W, he kept brushing faux hairs away from his ear canal, worth the price of the cramped car ride since it afforded me a chance to look closely at his lovely hands, his slim fingers, the sort I imagined clutching, not clenching, pink, oval fingernails, cuticles like small white moons, nail ends slivers of opalescence, expertly filed.
I wondered why he’d chosen Pier W, a restaurant only a minute’s walk across the parking lot from Winton Place. I supposed it was easy enough for him to google me, my condo. I’d gotten the down payment for it with help from my parents. They understood when I told them I needed a place on a high floor, twenty-six stories up. I had this fear of looking up, like vertigo in reverse. I needed to look down, though so high above things, and alone, I felt a little like Rapunzel without the witch Dame Gothel for company. After a while the condo was a source of amusement for my mother. She’d call me “Zel” and I called her “Dame.” I felt the words made us closer. I was an only child, and it’d been difficult for us both when I moved away from home.
“We’re here,” I laughed, expecting him to be surprised by the absurdly short ride, but he wasn’t.
“Safe and sound,” he said, like he knew all along where I lived in relation to the restaurant.
Pier W sat atop a raw concrete pedestal, the restaurant itself cantilevered high over Lake Erie, looking back on downtown Cleveland, building shaped like the head of The Extra-Terrestrial in Spielberg’s film. The sun had set by the time we were seated. Out our window, I watched the city, its skyscrapers not nearly as threatening as walking downtown to my regular PR job at WJW–TV. The Key Tower, Terminal Tower, and Tower on Public Square each appeared a mountain of light hovering in the dark, without foothills, floating above its own liquid reflection in the rippling lake water. My Zel-self wondered why Cleveland’s tallest buildings came to be known as towers.
By the time the waiter brought the wine list, I was searching for an ice-breaker, though my date appeared not to be. Only his hands showed holding the list at his face, rude, I thought, but less so because of his fascinating hands, though after a time I grew so annoyed I nearly asked him outright why his hands were so small. Was he an anomaly of aging, betrayed only by his hands, in fact so young he may not be old enough to drink wine? I studied my own hands, slender, fingers perhaps a little long, yet still larger than his. In the pinkie of my left hand I’d developed a trigger finger. Mornings, when I tried to bend it, there was this little hitch I had to press through before I could curl my pinkie fully. Because of it, my left pinkie leaned out a little from other fingers, like a poorly executed live-long-and-prosper sign made by Mr. Spock. I dreaded my errant little digit, something I felt inherited from my mother, whose arthritic hands had begun to curl and look like lobster claws. I googled my willful finger one wine-spirited evening, high in my Rapunzel’s nest, finding that a leaning pinkie meant one resented her mother, though I could not think why, until the web page, I suppose as web pages do, also said the owner of a leaning pinkie would not be aware of such maternal resentment. I poured another glass of wine to celebrate the epiphany.
Other than being tiny, my date’s hands seemed perfect. I’d dated men with huge hands, stubby-fat-finger hands, hands with nails bitten down to nubs, hands seeming without knuckles, hands with large knotty knuckles. Each I was certain meant some infirmity, some defect of personality, each no second date, each a dead end. But his hands were different, so small and surreal they seemed to exaggerate everything around them. Our white starched tablecloth seemed an expanse of the Arctic, his drinking glass not a goblet but a lapis-blue vat, silverware resting each side of his plate gleaming shovels and pitchforks. City lights through our window seemed to intensify each second he studied the wine list in silence. When I could no longer bear the Alice-in-Wonderland effect of all, I reluctantly spoke first.
“What’s this mean story you mentioned telling?”
“Cabernet?” he asked.
“Fine—but about that story.”
He set the wine list aside, said, “How about a bottle of Poetry by Cliff Lede from the Stag’s Leap District?”
I consulted my wine list.
“That’s three-hundred dollars a bottle,” I said.
“Oh, well, since you insist.”
When the waiter arrived, he ordered instead the four-ninety-five-a-glass cabernet, Private Reserve, though I couldn’t imagine how private or reserved it could be since a majority of diners had glasses of it sitting at their tables.
We waited for the cheap wine.
“Oh,” he said suddenly, “that story.”
He leaned forward. His shirt cuffs drew up into his dark, cavernous coat sleeves, exposing his wrists.
I knew it. A story of the Jesus-baby’s mother.
Our glasses of wine arrived. I smiled as he told me what a lovely woman his mother was. Short, with close-cropped carmine-colored hair. “Like wine,” he said, took the huge blue goblet lightly in the palm of one hand, swirled the cabernet, then set it back without drinking.
I started to settle in for a long date. A man and his mother. I fought hard to not enter the disconfirmation zone. I looked back at the lake. I liked being high above the water. Then I noticed there were chains strung outside the large windows, festooned stanchion to stanchion, not looped high but low through iron eyelets, more decorative than anything, and I couldn’t help wonder if the chains were to keep someone out, or in.
He said his mother was widowed. He lived with her in Toledo before coming to Cleveland.
My date brought the rim of the glass to his nose, like there was a point to ascertaining the bouquet of the Private Reserve, then lifted it to his lips and sipped—well, more like suckled—at the rim. He set the glass down, and settled back into his chair, his willow-thin wrists disappearing back into the caves of his coat sleeves.
I sipped my Private Reserve.
The waiter arrived at my elbow.
I said, “That’s nice. I don’t mean the wine, I mean your mother.” I turned to the waiter. “Oh, the wine’s nice, too.”
He waited until the waiter left. Then he leaned forward, placing and exposing his hand and wrist on the tablecloth.
“That,” he said, “was before my mother broke down and became schizophrenic. Before she shredded all my best suits, like the one I’m wearing, shouting, ‘It’s too damn dark in here all the time!’ and took after me with a pair of shears.”
I took a good pull on my wine, watched his hand dropping to his lap, out of sight. He settled back, as if he could sink so far he might melt into the chair.
Newly wrenched from the disconfirmation zone, I said, “That is a mean story. I mean, a sad story.”
“But after a while,” he added, “we got my mother help, meds and therapy at the Ruth Ide Center. Of course, after she attacked me, I moved out, got an apartment nearby, and checked in on her every so often.”
Our waiter arrived again. I was glad to see him. I was a little rattled by my date’s dinner conversation so far. I wanted the waiter to stay awhile, so I took my time, finally ordering the Grilled Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna. I folded my menu and handed it to the waiter.
“I hope it truly has big eyes,” my date said.
“Oh, sir, it does!” the waiter said, wide-eyed himself.
“In that case…I’ll have the walleye,” my date said. He lifted his eyes from his menu to look at me. “Looks like the eyes have it tonight.”
Corn. Usually a turnoff, if it had not been for the comic relief it presented in counterpoint to his mother’s schizophrenia. I knew I was naïve about the world. But the shock of his disclosure about his mother didn’t surprise me as much as his disclosing it to me. After all I’d taught him in class about the limits of self-disclosure, why would he make such a confession on a first date? Why would he follow with, “Speaking of my mother’s needing more light, did you know the walleye has a special membrane behind its eyes to help it see in low light?”
Another moment of relief washed over me. He was simply that guy, the one who wanted to impress me with his encyclopedic knowledge. That guy I knew. That guy I could handle.
“It was at the Ruth Ide Center,” he said, “that my mother met Truman.”
It was then my date interlocked his tiny hands behind his head. I said nothing, annoyed that he’d secreted his hands away from me. I nodded. I smiled. I shifted in my seat. Sipped wine. Ran a hand through my hair. Tried everything to get him to unlock his hands and place them back on the table.
Finally, I said, “Well, go on.”
He removed his Wonderland hands from behind his head, set them on the Arctic expanse of tablecloth.
Truman, it turned out, was a man severely brain damaged when, due to heart failure, he hadn’t breathed for twelve minutes. He was a resident at the Ruth Ide Center indefinitely, and needed close care. My date’s mother had befriended him in group therapy and, after checking with the staff, invited Truman to her house for Thanksgiving Day. My date said he was so proud of his mother for such a kind gesture.
He said he went to pick up Truman at the Center, a balding man, formerly a top-selling real estate agent, maybe fifty years old before his devastating heart attack. He wore a burnt-orange shirt and too-long dark slacks that caught at his heels. His necktie was wrenched to one side and flopped outside his plaid jacket. He had glassy eyes that wandered upward a lot, but when my date called Truman by name, Truman was perfectly polite and attentive, only his words hesitant:
‘I’m. Very. Pleased. To meet you.’
When Truman and my date arrived at his mother’s house, she greeted them just inside the door.
‘Doesn’t Truman look handsome in his suit?’ his mother said. ‘He’s bursting with fall colors.’
Truman beamed with a kind of light my date admitted he did not quite grasp. He explained, Truman’s look was not quite pride, but a kind of joyful clarity and relief my date had never seen before.
‘I brought. A pumpkin pie,’ Truman said. ‘Frozen. I’ll cook it.’
And while my date and his mother fussed with setting their Thanksgiving table, Truman kept exclusive watch on his pie, an entire hour, until the buzzer sounded and he reached in the oven with bare hands, instantly burned them, and poured the unset filling down his front, luckily more landing on his shoes than scalding him through his jacket and shirt.
“Such a thing,” my date said, “I’d expected. Anyway, we bandaged Truman’s hands, cleaned him up, and proceeded to give thanks.”
“That is a sad story, too,” I said, fairly gawking at my date’s exquisite fingertips, “but touching.”
My date sunk back into his chair, concealing his delicate wrists once more. But his fingertips remained on the edge of the table. He was about to say something, make some new confidence, I was sure. There was something different about his hands. They’d become paw-like as he arched them at the precipice of white cloth, and I was almost frightened of his suit, those black stripes containing that strange charcoal night.
But then came our food. His Walleye. My Big Eye. I swear he waited until I nearly placed the first bite of Big Eye in my mouth to say:
“There’s more to the story.”
He hadn’t touched his Walleye, and I was determined to ingest at least a couple forkfuls of my Big Eye, and I did in anticipatory silence, all the while glancing out our window at bluish sedimentary layers of rock carved out by waves, a pile of eroded rubble below, half submerged, lapped by dark waters.
All around, the chatter from other tables grew. Their voices echoed sharply from windowpanes. One was saying it was hard to find upscale restaurants right on the water anymore. Another was talking about this sauce or another on this entrée or another. The woman closest to me was arguing about substituting sliced tomatoes for the collard greens, nonplussed by the two-dollar upcharge.
When I relented at last, said to my date, “Go on,” his fingers advanced across the arctic white like two delicate cat paws, then stopped short of his blue goblet.
“We were halfway through our Thanksgiving dinner,” my date said, “when my mother leaned to one side, kissed Truman on the mouth, and said to me, “‘I love Truman and want to marry him.’”
I looked up from my Big Eye and set my fork aside.
My date went on to say his mother’d only met Truman twice, and one of those times was at the very dinner they were eating. How could two such maimed people ever function together? He said he immediately ushered Truman out to his car, packed him inside, complete with pumpkin-stained suit coat, blistered and bandaged hands, all the while his mother called through the front door screen:
‘Don’t take him away. I get so lonely. Please, let him stay!’
And Truman in chorus:
‘Oh. Sorry. I spilled the pie. I ruined everything!’
It was then I realized I’d never had occasion to use the restroom at Pier W. This was the time. I excused myself, found the restrooms, but before I went in spotted an ancient diving suit on display, just outside, the entire visage leaning forward as if about to topple. The breastplate below the helmet read, “United States Navy Diving Helmet, Mark V.” The bronze helmet had oxidized to deep brown and hung, pitched downward, at a sharp angle, staring at flat-toed lead boots, as if the diver were somehow penitent. Patches of tan cloth had fallen free from the rubber, and rubber-backed material was entirely gone from the sleeves and hands, as if jaggedly and cruelly amputated by time and wear. I’d never before imagined anything could be worse than staring up at a dizzying skyscraper. When I left the Rapid Transit trains and walked to work, I kept my gaze straight ahead, sometimes down. Now, seeing the bedraggled and forgotten diving suit, I imagined myself at the bottom of Lake Erie, tethered to life by a slim hose, weighted by lead boots, so alone, looking up from below to feeble shafts of light. Looking upward! I blamed my date. His story of his mother and Truman had deep-sixed me. Why had he chosen me to tell it to? I felt like tearing for the surface and racing out the restaurant. I wanted climb back into my tower and phone Dame, whom I’d not seen or spoken with in several months. I needed to tell her the story of Truman and his ill-fated bride, relieving me of its responsibility, ridding me of its drowning sorrows.
I washed up, and when I returned to our table, my date was into his walleye, saying how mild and flavorful it was.
“You were right,” I said. “That is a sad story.”
We ate in silence then. I halfheartedly dispatched my Big Eye. He went about his walleye methodically, running the knife along the dorsal fin and teasing the meat out with a single tine of his fork. I started to think about after dinner, awkward stuff, to kiss or not, to suggest another date or not.
While he finished his walleye, I watched the city lights, their upside down, distorted reflection on the lake water. Image and reflection each seemed half of a peculiar Rorschach shape, one luminous and clear, the other rippling and dark, each different, but an indivisible part of the other. Should the two ever be separated, the loneliness of a thing reflected and its shivering reflection seemed unimaginable.
His poor mother! Poor Truman!
He set his fork aside, and again suckled at his wine glass, its stem pinched in his fragile fingers.
“That’s not all,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
This time he crossed his arms over his chest, hiding his hands entirely.
“All right,” I relented. “Tell me.”
He leaned forward, laid one hand on the other in front of him, this time like two miniature nesting doves.
“Most of the way back to the Center,” he said, “Truman kept saying he was sorry. I told him he couldn’t possibly marry my mother. Truman said, ‘I know,’ and kept saying it even after I’d listed the many reasons why matrimony would be impractical for them.”
As my date spoke, he was looking at the Lake and brilliant bifurcated light, as if trying to see the same thing I’d seen in his story. Tragic loneliness. That’s what I wanted to believe.
My date went on: he got Truman signed back in at the Center, said of course he felt awful, and so followed Truman to his room on the third floor for final departing condolences.
“I followed him, all the way to the door of his room,” my date said, “awkwardly put my hand out to shake his gauze-wrapped paw, when a mournful howl arose the other side of his door, so sorrowful that Truman flung open the door, rushed to the bedside of his roommate, and fell to his knees, next to a man, a quadriplegic who strained his torso to right himself, as if to throw invisible hands about Truman’s neck in a desperate, everlasting hug:
“‘I’m sorry,’ Truman said.
“‘Oh, please, don’t ever leave me again!’ his roommate pleaded.
“‘I promise,’ Truman said and pulled the door closed.”
The last thing my date heard through the door was Truman lying down on his bed.
At this point the waiter came by, uttered his obligatory, “Will there be anything else?”
I wanted to say, “How could there be!”
When the waiter left, I propped my fist under my chin.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “That is the saddest story.”
He blotted his lips with his napkin in his tiny hands and looked at the check. When he reached for his wallet, his Wonderland hands again disappeared.
“How on Earth can there be more?”
“Because it’s only the saddest story I tell.”
“Meaning there are others you don’t tell? Because?”
“Because,” he said and smiled, first I’d seen since meeting him, “I wouldn’t want to self-disclose too much on a first date. How about a second one?”
What sort of man tells a story like that? What made him think I’d fall for such a thing? A sadder story he never tells. Did he expect me to go out with him again, to beg him to hear it? I should have failed him in my class. I resolved to never see him or his Wonderland hands again.
Still, his ulterior motives aside, it was the sort of story that brought me out of my tower and across town that same weekend to see my parents in Shaker Heights, a surprise visit from their Zel.
It was early evening when I pulled into their drive, cold, and when I got out of my car I pulled my faux fox tight about my neck. I was quick to rush to their front door before they could look out the picture window and see it was me. I pushed the door open, stood in the entryway, and beheld Dame, her threadbare blue terrycloth robe, descending the stairs, hair slightly mussed on one side, yawning. I wanted desperately to run to her, fling my arms about her, take hold of her neck with my hands, bury my face in her mother-scent, hug her madly like I might the Madonna, my pinkie trigger finger stuck outward, quivering, pointing to some darker part of the house. I wanted her lobster hands, one claw supporting the nape of my neck, the other tapping at the small of my back.
But when she reached the foot of the stairs, she quickly stuffed her hands deep into the pockets of her robe. It stopped me. I got silent a few seconds, too long I was sure, the kind of silence I thought she might have felt was conspiratorial in some way.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“Out,” she replied.
“How should I know?” she said. “I see you’ve come down from your tower. What’s up, Zel?”
I should have asked how her hands were, how she need not keep them from me, especially after my long and anticipatory ride clear across town for reassurance that there was a place I could always come to, if—well, just if.
I said, “Nothing,” then, “oh, well, this guy I dated told me a really sad story.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Well, try,” she said, smiling, yet standing stiff, almost as if she was challenging me instead of inviting me inside the rest of the way.
“You know how someone tells a story a certain way, how no one can tell it the same way, and how after you hear a story like that you can never see anything the same way again?”
“What is this sad story?” she demanded, no longer smiling. “Just tell me.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “I think he wanted another date in exchange for an even sadder story.”
She looked at me skeptically a moment.
“Something sadder?” she said.
She shook her head, then without a word turned, walked upstairs, and left me alone in the doorway. I heard her bedsprings complain only a little as she lay back down. Above, I watched light from her bedroom slant into the hallway, until I could no longer bear to look up there.
Wendell Mayo’s chapbook of four stories, When the Moon Was Ours for the Taking, is runner-up in Cutbank’s 2016 competition and will be published in 2017. He’s also author of four full-length story collections, recently The Cucumber King of Kedainiai, winner of the Subito Press Award for Innovative Fiction. His other collections are Centaur of the North; B. Horror and Other Stories; and a novel-in-stories, In Lithuanian Wood. He’s recipient of a the Premio Aztlán, an NEA fellowship, and a Fulbright to Lithuania. Over one-hundred of his short stories have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Masque & Spectacle, Yale Review, Harvard Review, New Letters, Missouri Review, Prism International, and others.