Zoetrope: All-Story


Tommy Orange

They referred to Frank as the guy with the hand that came out of his chest. It doesn’t even make sense. Hand that came out of his chest. It didn’t come out. It was just there. The problem is with language, what it reveals about our biological biases. Our clumsiness regarding all things abnormal. Normal is vanilla, nonspecific, flavorless, colorless, your basic blah nothing default white guy, for example—the stick they have everyone measure himself by. His hand no more came out of his chest than our hands come out of our wrists, and our heads out of our necks. The hand was there like his other two hands were there, only in a different place. He had an extra hand, if extra can or should be used here I’m not sure, maybe it’s better just to say Frank had a third hand, and it was on his chest.
     Frank, if you didn’t know about the hand, wasn’t all that weird, except that maybe the hand had made him weird in ways I couldn’t tell, the difference between what he was and what he would have been like had he not had the third hand, for example, but since I knew about the hand from early on, I knew why the look on his face was an ever-wincing mess of discomfort. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t well liked or even paid attention to on account of what you might call my exceptional ugliness. I’m quite possibly even clinically ugly. That’s not self-deprecating. My kind of ugly, it’s the sort people think it’s rude to look at, but they can’t look away, either. Women especially, but for different reasons than because of rudeness. Women think ugly guys are automatically creepy because there’s no way they’re not desperate due to their ugliness and its resultant, inevitable isolation and loneliness-making. Ugliness came out of my face. Protruded. Think of a Native American Bill Murray, with Steve Buscemi eyes. My dad’s where the Native comes from, but he didn’t talk much growing up, and now he’s dead, which is another kind of ugly we hate to talk about but can’t look away from.

Frank is company lore now. No one ever took his desk on account of what can only be assumed was an absurd fear of somehow catching what he had. No one ever should have even seen the hand. Frank was an overly cautious person. The whole thing was an accident. Here’s how it happened: Me and Frank were leaned up against the base of a tree at the company picnic, precariously eating while balancing our paper plates—weighed too heavily on one side by potato salad—as our coworkers, in a sloppy match of drunken volleyball, laughed at themselves failing to successfully volley the ball. It was hot that day. Frank went to take off one of his many layers. He layered to hide the hand, a practice that, even when it wasn’t hot out, generally made him sweaty. But so there we were, me and Frank under the tree, and it was stupid hot, and when Frank went to take off his sweater, he unintentionally pulled all of his layers up. At the moment that all of his layers were up, the volleyball came rolling toward us, and everyone looked over. The hand was limp, and smaller than his other hands, not a like a baby’s hand, just smaller than his others. While he struggled with the sweater, his head was completely covered, so for that awful moment, he had no idea what was happening. Everyone saw the hand. Their mouths hung. I wanted to step between the hand and them, but I couldn’t move, and my mouth was open, too. When Frank eventually got the sweater off, he saw everyone seeing him, he saw that they’d seen. He looked over at me like I had something to do with it, like I’d somehow betrayed him. His face asked: What have you done? My face, frowning, answered: I’m so sorry we’re alive.
     At that point, Frank took off. He ran toward the reservoir, which shone in the hot afternoon sun like gold. I was afraid he might jump in. Drown himself in the water like Kafka’s Georg in “The Judgment,” but he just ran around the thing toward the parking lot and drove away. We’d come together, and I sadly realized I’d have to ask one of our coworkers for a ride.

One evening, about a week after the picnic, when I’d been staring at my computer so long I’d started to involuntarily cry, I looked up, rubbed my eyes, and saw that half the lights in the office were off. Before I left, I went to see if Frank was still there, too. And he was. On the floor. Lying facedown, almost under his desk, like he’d tried to crawl under there to die. No one had noticed him.
     After Frank died, after his heart attacked then stopped forever, I thought it must have been due to what happened, to everyone finding out. Though he’d kept it hidden for so many years. When the thing emerged, it was the end of a deep game Frank had been playing. It’d been the same with my dad when my mom found out about his drinking. The same sequence. The emergence of a secret. Then a heart attack. My dad had confessed to my mom one miserable night in the kitchen, while I listened in through the vent from my room above, that he’d been covertly drinking at least four times the amount she’d seen him drink. He visibly drank plenty. He told her he kept his bottles in the laundry room, behind the mostly empty cleaning supplies she refused to get rid of. A week later, during my high school graduation, my dad had grabbed at his chest, at this heart, when the hats went up. He hadn’t graduated high school, or ever even been to a graduation. He hadn’t expected the hats to go up. All of those hats, they went up like bombs, and by the time they landed, he was dead.

A few days after the company picnic, Frank called and asked if I wanted to go to a movie. We met at the theater, and he smiled a smile at me I knew meant that we were OK, that he knew I hadn’t been a part of what happened. Before we went in, we smoked and walked the circumference of the Grand Lake Theatre, talked about the kinds of things it never occurs to me to remember.
     I got us a big popcorn to share, and sitting there in the dark, I thought about how Frank’s hand would have been perfect for grabbing a fistful, and what a shame it was that it was too strange a thing to make public.
      After the movie, and after we’d walked a mile or so debriefing, we got to his place and he asked if I wanted to come up for coffee before I got back to walking. We were in Uptown, and I lived in a loft near Jack London Square. I agreed that it would be good to take a break and that coffee would be nice, considering I had some work to do when I got home.
     As it turned out, he had an espresso machine, and we each drank a shot—with a tiny bit of sugar—in silence. He offered me a pack of those little hexagonal crackers that sometimes come with soup. I slipped the pack into my pocket.
     “You wanna see it?” he said.
     For a moment, I didn’t know what he meant. But so loaded was the question the moment didn’t last long, and in fact turned seamlessly into a different kind of silence, a silence that indicated I knew exactly what he meant, and that I needed to fill as soon possible.
     “Yeah, I mean, if you’re comfortable bringing it out—”
     “Bringing it out?” Frank asked.
     “Don’t take it the wrong way, I just mean—”
     “I’m fucking with you.”
     I didn’t respond but by laughing a little, then pulling the crackers from my pocket, then opening them.
     He took off all his layers. Beneath everything, he had on a tight, black T-shirt with a hole cut out in the middle where the hand was. The hand wore a black cotton glove. It hadn’t worn anything at the picnic, and I wondered if it had just started doing that because of what happened.
     When he peeled off the glove, I thought of blinking eyes after a blindfold’s been removed. The hand didn’t move, I didn’t think, but I thought of blinking eyes, anyway.
     “It’s hard, you know?” he said.
     “I can’t imagine what it must be like.”
     “You might, though, you might know what it’s like.”
     “Right,” I said, regarding my face.
     He’d first told me about the hand at one of our initial dinners together, when our coworkers indiscreetly went out for drinks and didn’t invite us. We had burritos in Downtown Oakland, then went to a dive bar that let you smoke in the back behind plexiglass. We each got a shot and beer, after a shot and a beer before our burritos at a different bar. We got close that night. Like you can get close only when you drink a little too much and maybe say a little too much. At times, I’d noticed a bulge, possibly even some knuckling, but he’d never brought it up before, so I hadn’t, either.
     “Can I ask you a favor?” Frank said, after an uncomfortable amount of time. “Would you mind shaking it? No one’s ever shaken it before. No one’s ever held it.”
     “Yes,” I said, “of course.”
     It was much paler than the other two. It looked untouched. It had character, though. And seemed somehow more than a hand. I didn’t know if he wanted me to hold it or shake it. I reached toward it with my left hand—since it was left-handed, too—and just let it happen. We shook and then held the shake there for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes and then down at our hands, real natural feeling—not too long but long enough that something went between us, some secret transmission from wherever all that is abnormal strays from the warmth of its fitted pocket in the great and generally uniform chain of being.

At the reception after his funeral, over triangles of club sandwiches and punch, I met Frank’s sister. She was big-featured, tall and blonde, and with big hands I couldn’t help but stare at, which I noticed she noticed—me noticing them. She towered over me, there at the buffet. Her voice was low, sonorous, beautiful.
     “Hallbjorg,” she said, with an accent I couldn’t place. She gave me her hand to shake.
     “Hallbjorg?” I said. Her hand enveloped mine. It was warm and clammy.
     “It’s Icelandic,” she said, with a small smile and some distance in her eyes between where I was and where she must have been, having just lost her brother. “How did you know Freyr?”
     “My brother, how did you know him?”
     “I promise you his name was not Frank,” she said, and laughed a little.
     I rocked on my heels and nodded my head like I was mulling it over. She looked at me askance while eating the corner of a sandwich triangle, then washed it down with punch from a tiny plastic cup.
     “He was never supposed to live beyond the age of one,” she said. “He should have died when he was a baby. He was born with no thumbs on his hands. Thumbs are related to heart health. They used parts of his—the other hand.” She watched me as if to see if I understood.
     I nodded in a knowing way.
      “They used parts of that hand to build two working thumbs.”
      “We were friends through work,” I said.
      Hallbjorg produced a flask.
      “Brennivín?” she said, and raised her eyebrows, then took a pull and tilted the flask toward me. “It’s Icelandic vodka. They call it black death.”
      I nodded again and took a healthy pull.
      “Our mom used to tell him,” she said, “used to tell us, that he would have been considered a shaman, the way things used to be.”
      “Used to be?”
      “For our people, from the Arctic Circle,” she said. “We’re like white-skinned Native Americans, you could say, or like Inuits. I call us white skindians.” I was going to tell her about my dad, but she went on. “We had a song for everything. We made a song for everything we could think of. When Freyr and I were young enough to believe in everything. We used to think that if we practiced our songs enough, if we got good enough at them, put enough into them, we could really make things happen. When our parents died, some years ago, Freyr wrote a song he meant for me to sing to them in private, over their graves. He knew I had the voice for the song he wrote. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, more for him than for them, but I just couldn’t. I was a mess over them dying. It was sudden, you know.”
      “What happened?” I said.
      “Car crash. After I didn’t sing the song, that’s when he started isolating himself from me. But then—and I’m sorry to go on for so long—but then at the end, he sent me the song in an email. He’d made a recording of himself singing it. There were small claps in the song. Little claps. There’d never been claps before in any of the songs we’d made. I wondered what was making the claps. But I think I know.”
      I felt like I needed to sit down. But I didn’t want her to know I needed to sit down. So I pretended I needed to cough, and then turned away and fake-coughed. I looked around the room and noticed the crowd had thinned out. Hallbjorg noticed me look around and looked around herself.
      “These are all our parents’ friends from Utah. There’s a big Icelandic community there, in Spanish Fork. It goes back to the 1800s. I don’t know most of them. They show up at weddings and funerals. Sometimes, randomly for birthdays, or one time, we all got together in San Francisco to celebrate Seaman’s Day on Pier 39.”
      I nodded in acknowledgment of this fact.
      “I’m glad he found a friend,” she said.
      “One time, he told me most of all he just wanted to be normal,” I said.
      “Yes, well, normal, he was not that, but I know he was trying to be that, and maybe dying a normal death like he did, maybe he liked that.”
      “I think the way he tried to be normal had a normality to it, that wasn’t not normal.”
     “I’m going to sing his song now,” she said. She smiled something awful, and walked out into the middle of the room, where she announced that she was going to sing a song, in memory of her brother, Freyr. Someone handed her a microphone, as if this had been expected, and she proceed to sing—with her rich, low tone—something I barely experienced as a song. It was more like an elongated sound that you followed with your ears, stomach, and heart, that you felt sorrow about, but also relief. You went up and down on that sound, oscillating between dread and hope, grief and joy, ever moving beyond a field, through a forest, and then out into the sea.

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