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Authors: Ken Pisani

Amp'd

BOOK: Amp'd
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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For Amanda, my best thing

 

MOMENTS

If this were a book you'd know that the guy you meet on page 1, shattered and mutilated and staring into the abyss, would by the end of the story transcend his terrible circumstances to become a better man. But this isn't a book, this is just me talking … and I'm not the guy who beats the odds and overcomes adversity; I'm the guy who wakes up in the hospital to find out his arm has been amputated and says,
Fuck me.

*   *   *

This is that moment,
I realized as the doctor confirmed my sudden asymmetry,
the second moment that follows the first.
The first moment was the one that changed everything, when the SUV plowed into the midsized car I'd bought without driver's-side air bags. This second moment is the one when men stronger than I resolve to overcome this giant random hurdle, to rise above its indiscriminate awfulness. If I've ever been sure of anything it's that I wasn't strong enough in the second moment to overcome the first. And then I couldn't hear the doctor anymore, his words lost to a deafening tinnitus. (This would recur.)

In the weeks of rehabilitation that followed I was reminded to
Look at the bright side,
which did little to dim the glare of my own anger. I also had to endure
You're lucky to be alive,
that smallest of consolations, and
It could have been so much worse,
intended, I imagined, to provoke giddy joy that I wasn't left a human torso by the accident. And being right-handed I was supposed to take comfort in “only” losing my left arm, the one I've seen other drivers dangle with impunity outside car doors as if their vehicles were too small to contain such poor judgment. Yes, I suppose I should have been grateful that it wasn't my right arm, the one I use to sign my name and click my mouse and throw the ball to my dog, back when I had one (before the divorce), and reach across the car seat to clutch my wife's leg, back when I had one (a wife). But it's hard to feel grateful when you're rendered a quarter less than you once were in the limb department, and physical therapy hurts so fucking much.

When my mind wandered during rehab I tried to remember the accident, which still only comes in flashes—probably false memories, including an imagined traffic alert cautioning other drivers to detour around my inconvenient, mangled self, heard on my car radio as EMTs pulled me from the wreckage with
the jaws of (my now ruined) life
.

And then I'm sent home—not the home I had managed to toggle together after my marriage collapsed (an apartment slightly less crappy than the one I'd imagined would be mine should my marriage ever collapse) but to the home of my boyhood in eastern Illinois where my father, also recently divorced, offered to let me stay until I “got back on my feet,” a tauntingly inaccurate metaphor.

 

THINGS YOU CAN'T DO WITH ONE ARM

Clap

Floss

Juggle

Climb a ladder

Button a shirt

Tie shoelaces

Wear mittens

Open a jar

Shuck corn

Butter toast

Toss a salad

Cut a steak

Rope cattle

Count money

Fold laundry

Put a shirt on a hanger

Bench press

Drive a stick

Pet two dogs

Cover your ears

Use a bow and arrow

Monkey bars!

Push a wheelbarrow

Pump a fireplace bellows

Build a snow fort

Make meatballs

Open one of those grocery produce bags

Scratch that spot just in the wrong side of the middle of your back

Play an instrument
*

*
Yes, there are instruments you can play with one hand—minor ones like bugle and harmonica and tam-tam. But even an instrument as useless as the triangle requires one hand to hold it while the other strikes it. And anyway, you're not making the philharmonic with one arm. It would disturb subscribers. (And before anyone brings up the drummer from Def Leppard: sure, Thunder God gets to keep his job with the band after his accident, but he sure doesn't
start
playing drums after losing an arm. That would be stupid.)

 

PARIS

I used to like telling people I grew up in Paris. Which was true, only it was Paris, Illinois. Eventually I figured out that this hilarious “joke” was on me: setting up a false, fascinating childhood only to deliver the punch line that it was in reality painfully mundane is as self-defeating as showing up at your divorce hearing visibly drunk. As time went on I grew content with being inherently uninteresting until now, as a one-armed man, I have a permanent, unavoidable topic of conversation.

Except with Dad, who refuses to mention it.

After driving three hundred miles to pick me up at the Illinois Treatment Center Hospital, even as I struggled, one-armed, to dress and pack (long since realizing that everything would be a one-armed struggle from now on), Dad never once mentioned the accident, acknowledged my struggling, or admitted my missing arm. Nor did he do so when he had visited twice before, once at the hospital immediately following the accident and again about a month into rehab at ITCH. Not when I couldn't cut my food or shrieked at a sudden stabbing pain, or stared blankly at the place my arm used to be. He didn't mention
why
we might have agreed, just a couple of days ago, that I should move back home for a while; and for six hours in the car and now, having arrived in Paris, he still hasn't mentioned it. Nor will he, I believe, up to and including the day he dies.

*   *   *

“Aaron…” Dad has found it necessary to begin most of his sentences addressing me by name, three times—the first, lost like a rock down a well; the second, heard but failing to register, as if the name belonged to someone else; the third, a memory jolt of who I used to be. “We're here,” he announces as unnecessarily as a masked gunman declaring
This is a stickup!
This is after all the house I grew up in, and eventually escaped from, and I recognize it: from the crooked carport that threatened imminent collapse upon our every departure and return and somehow remains erect, to the peeling shutters framing the upstairs window from which I dropped into Mom's zinnias, slipping into the night to commit random acts of juvenile delinquency.

The gravel crunches as Dad slows to a stop, turns off the car, and leaps from the vehicle like a stuntman on fire, unable to stand the heat of sitting adjacent to my stump for another second. He pulls my bag from the trunk with one hand and slams it shut with the other, proving this stooped, faded father is twice the man his son is. I follow as he trudges up the walkway, pants clinging to bony hips as if desperate not to fall. I recall all the thousands of times I followed this man into this house, thousands of moments jump-cut together and ending with this one that finds us both diminished. Dad pauses a moment, his hair darting in all directions like a flock of feeding geese suddenly startled, and then swings the door open without a key.

“You still don't lock the door? You were away overnight.”

“What are they gonna steal, my Victrola?”

“Don't be cute, Dad. You own lots of valuable things. Or they could just be meth-addled psychopaths, lying in wait to bludgeon us to death with your toaster.”

“Toaster oven,” Dad corrects me, stepping through the doorway ready to face an even more formidable weapon than I'd imagined.

Inside, the house is just as I remember it, a funny thing to notice; certainly it would be more remarkable if it had somehow become completely unfamiliar—say, clean and orderly and not smelling of cigars. Mom and Dad lived like the Collyer brothers, saving things not because they thought they might someday want them but because it was easier to shove them into a dark corner rather than arrange for their removal … or, in the case of stacks and stacks of magazines, that they'd “get to” them someday, despite the fact that
Money
magazines from the nineties weren't likely to be worth getting to. It only got worse after Mom left. You might think one Collyer brother couldn't do the work of two, but Dad would prove you wrong.

I trail Dad past rows of family photos on walls paneled with knotty pine and then upstairs, as if he were a bellhop and I needed help finding my room, which I don't … until he continues past my room and tugs the rope unfolding the attic stairs, and I realize,
I do
. I stare back at the doorway to my room and suddenly know exactly what lies within. Unlike other children's rooms turned into home offices, sewing rooms, or preserved as childhood shrines after their departure to adulthood, my old bedroom is packed floor to ceiling with the flotsam of decades lived and a marriage gone bad. I twist the doorknob and the door swings inward about six inches before thunking against a landfill of old furniture, boxes, magazines, books and records, clothes, luggage, blankets, artwork, drapes, broken televisions, and other no-longer-transmitting electronics—discards that one at a time didn't seem to matter much until they piled up on one another like years; all stacked and filling every inch of the twelve-by-fourteen-by-eight-foot expanse that was once the domain of a boy and later prison to a teen, until his release to attend college in a city far away. Only now to return, recidivism imposed by injury. And forced up to the attic, the difficulty of which offers further evidence of a father's denial.

“It seemed preferable to the basement. No windows down there, and it kind of stinks. Can you make it okay?” he asks about the attic stairs, and I seize the opportunity to force him to acknowledge my missing limb.

BOOK: Amp'd
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