I Thought I Saw a Hand
By John Eidswick
The white fingers moved over the paper, making small folds. When Greeley finished the airplane, he ran his palm over its upper edge as though testing the sharpness of a blade. He took it between his thumb and forefinger and poised it in the air. He closed one eye and put his cheek against the end. The tail bent slightly against the pressure of his face.
He let go. The plane sailed smoothly. It took a long time to move through the room. With its meticulous little angles and clean white body, it didn’t belong in that dirty place. It was a weightless specter sleepwalking across a valley of Spiderman comics and filthy sneakers. Farrah Fawcett Majors and KISS posters grinned and stuck out their tongues from the dirty orange wall behind. It might have sailed along forever but it tapped against the side of his yellow wastepaper basket, paused in mid-air like a startled angel, and floated to the carpet.
Greeley flew across the bedroom himself then, striking out wildly with his feet at the basket, denting it. He took it in his hands, hurled it at the wall. He pulled a pair of scissors from under his bed, chiseled a hole in the plastic side and used his fingers to tear it to shreds. I sat on a chair in the shadows watching him. We were twelve years old.
When I got the call about Greeley, I was in the dorm, studying. I had three mid-terms the next day. Although I’d probably get A’s on them, I wanted to spend the evening doing some finishing touches. Someone tapped on the door. A voice called out. “Doug? You got a call.”
Markus, from across the hall, was out there, fidgeting. He pointed toward the hall phone. He had a fresh haircut, parted on the side. A couple of pencils stuck out of the pocket of his shirt. “Some guy calling from the Mantis.” The way he said it made me know already what it was about. “Greeley again.” He waved his hand toward the bank of phones near the bathrooms like he was brushing away a fly.
Greeley’d burned several students in the dorm already, mostly for cash, one for a girl. I picked up the dangling receiver of one of the phones. A man slurred that Greeley asked me to come now. “You should get here soon, chief.” The man hung up before I could ask any questions.
I didn’t curse Greeley’s name until I buckled myself behind the wheel of my car, put on a Led Zeppelin tape and cranked it. My dad gave me the Trans Am for my birthday, because of my grades. Greeley. Why didn’t I just dump him? He’d all but stopped going to classes. He was an inch from being thrown out of school. When that happened, where would he go? His parents weren’t speaking to him. I was close to not caring anymore. I pressed on the gas and turned up the music.
In the shroud of smoke that made up the air at the Green Mantis, Greeley was whooping it up at a table in a corner. Empty beer bottles were scattered in front of him. He was waving his hands around and cackling. He bowed his head as though falling asleep, but the hands kept going. Greeley’s hands had a life of their own. They looked like birds gone insane, flapping at the disheveled hair on his head, dive-bombing the bottles, doing dances on the table.
I forced myself to grin and sat down next to him. I punched his arm. “What’s up, Wings?” It’s what I called him when we were kids.
He didn’t look up at me, but his hands faltered in their flights. They paused and the tips of his fingers stretched themselves outward toward me. Then they nose-dived to the table with a thud.
I let out a deep breath. “So, Greeley.” I looked at my watch. “What’s happening?”
He muttered something, then jumped from his seat. Greeley’s hair was gold-brown. Some tangles were appearing at the ends. It took him only a few seconds to move to the door. Before I could stand up, the green wooden door slammed shut behind him. I was midway across the room when the bartender growled at me about the bill. I paid it, dropping bills on the floor in my haste to catch Greeley before he could kill himself out there.
I found him in the parking lot. He was bent over, next to a large white metal trash bin. Behind him was an alley with a wall alongside it. Houses rose on the other side. Naked branches of mesquite trees poked over the top. The lights from the parking lot changed them to bony fingers clawing at the sky. I sucked in air as I approached him. “Hey Greeley.” He crouched beside the trash bin and traced his finger on the asphalt in long, slow lines. I bent toward him.
He punched me. When his knuckles struck my jaw, I was inverted. An unseen hand grabbed the ground and yanked it away like a rug. My head clattered in my ear when it hit the asphalt. Hot liquid surged in my cheek. Across the darkness separating me from the upside-down trash bin—or was it on its side?—a molten line formed in front of my eyes. It was like one of those distorted patterns of light that linger in the retina after a flashbulb bursts, a glowing comet’s tail that chopped Greeley in half. He crumpled against the bin, crying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He jumped up. His fingers curled into fists, he attacked the bin with punches that clanged the night air. His blows were so furious that I thought his hands might actually burst through the metal and fly out the other side. The big bin scraped against the asphalt. When Greeley collapsed next to me, it had moved an inch.
I hobbled across the parking lot, rubbing my cheek. There was almost no pain now, no sensation at all. Before I opened the heavy door of the car, I couldn’t stop myself from taking one more glance. He was in the same position. His tears came in gasps. He grunted words I couldn’t understand. His face was directed at the Earth. His hands were raised over his head, fingers stretched to the sky.
There wasn’t any traffic on the street on a Sunday morning. All the houses—identical, sober green walls, pink ceramic shingles, the two stories divided by a single plank of fine, light cedarwood that looked from a distance like the blade of a sword chopping the home neatly in two—were silent. I stood on the porch after picking up the newspaper. The air was warm for January.
Some sparrows twittered in the lemon tree on my lawn. When Barbara and I moved to Simi Valley and bought the place a year before, I loved the lemon tree most of all. Each house had two citrus trees, arranged in neat pairs near the street. A lemon tree and an orange tree. I counted them off as I looked up the street. An orange, a lemon, orange, lemon.
A dog appeared. It was lanky, with pale yellow fur and a tongue that hung out stupidly. There was a brown blob near the curb. The dog went straight for it, took it into its mouth and began to trot off. A great screeching burst from the orange tree. Birds exploded out of it and formed a crazy, raging cloud above the dog’s head. The dog glanced up with big eyes, mouth still clamped around his prize. A few birds darted down to peck at him. The dog hurried away, pulling the flock along. The battle vanished between two houses.
When I looked back to my yard, Greeley was there. He wore a crewcut and a tank-top, with a beach-art rendition of a fiery sunset. He smiled. “Hey, Mutt.”
I hadn’t seen or spoken a word to him since that night in the parking lot. Long after he vanished from the campus, I heard through the grapevine that he’d enlisted in the Air Force.
Him calling me by that old name, swollen with superman’s biceps and grin, his head shaved nearly bald, was the strangest thing I’d seen in years. By the time my wife came to the door to find out what was wrong, I was bent over, laughing, my hand gripping the mailbox for support. I held the mailbox so hard I left a dent in it.
Barbara brought him coffee and toast. We sat around the kitchen table, like a little family. Greeley gave us the news. “I’m getting married.”
Barbara and I yipped happily. “Congratulations!” We said it in unison. We were like that back then, a merry couple from a sitcom.
“Tell us about her.” My wife leaned forward in her chair, her face eager, restraining her hands by holding them palm to palm. She made me think of a member of a crazy religious group I’d seen in a magazine once, her hands like two trembling white wings, her face in the midst of an ecstatic prayer.
He’d met his fiancé before enlisting. She was pretty, thin, and blonde, he told us, “like a kitten.” He didn’t have any pictures.
They wrote each other every day. Now that they’d spent a year apart while he was in the service, they couldn’t stand it anymore. “As soon as I get settled in, I’m going to meet up with her in Nebraska.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms in front of him.
“You still have some time left in the service, right?” When Barbara asked the question, she was still surrounded by that enthusiastic light.
A cloud moved over Greeley’s face. He contemplated the wooden surface of the table. “Doug. I have to tell you something,” he said after looking up. He spread his fingers out and gripped his coffee cup. “I’m AWOL.”
“AWOL?” I started up from my seat and glanced out the window. I thought I’d see police cars skidding up to my front porch. I looked at my wife. She gawked at my oldest friend with her mouth open so wide I could see her tongue.
In bed, we fought with the lights off. Greeley slept on the couch downstairs. His snores moved through the door. I whispered, “he just needs a place to stay for awhile. Everyone needs help like that sometime.”
It was harder for Barbara to whisper. “I never did.” Her hands twitched under the sheets.
I rolled over. The moon moved fingers of cool orange light through the blinders over the window. I was still a little drunk. The longer I stared, the brighter the orange became. The slats became bars, pure white, which protected us from a fire raging outside. I blinked. “Why do you keep allowing him back, Doug?” Barbara sounded almost tender.
I sighed. “He saved my life once, you know.” My wife propped herself up on her elbow. “Really?”
“Yeah, kind of. When we were kids. I fell into a rain-ditch during this big storm and almost drowned, but Greeley ran up and just reached down into the water and pulled me out. I was so scared, I was looking up and then there was this big hand there to save me.”
“Wow.” Barbara leaned closer to me. “How old were you guys?”
“He pulled you out of a ditch? When he was only five?”
“He was a big kid. He’s always been bigger than me.”
She lay down again. She sat back up and whispered, “still, Doug, he’s just using you.” She pressed her lips next to my ear and hissed. “And the police are looking for him. I want him out.”
Why did I tell her that stuff? Greeley’d never saved my life. He saved my dog once from a flooded drainage ditch, though, but that was no big deal. I had a golden retriever back then named Max. A big August monsoon crashed down on Phoenix. The ditch next to my house was running furiously. Max liked to race down that ditch. I guess he was so used to it being dry that he didn’t notice the water and got trapped. He paddled hard, his nose just above the water, his eyes big and determined. I only stood near the edge of the ditch, scared to death to look into it, shivering and hugging myself in the cold rain and the blasts of thunder rattling everything. Greeley saw me and sprinted from his house across the street. He knelt and tried to reach my dog, but his arm wasn’t long enough. He jumped up the side of a tree on the bank, climbed onto an overhanging branch, reached his hand down to the surface of the water and grabbed my dog by the collar. He lifted Maxie into the air and tossed him at me.
After dinner, Greeley and I had gone out. At the Green Arrow, Greeley’s head bowed toward the brown surface of the bar. In the huge mirror across from us, his face looked terribly old. He’d been through so much. The way they treated him, the brutal men learning to kill everyday on their endless marches, boots tromping. It was stupid for him to join. He wasn’t so big. He got his ass kicked a few times.
Now, he just wanted a second start. His eyes grew bright, and his head lifted. He talked to me through the mirror, smiling at his dream. He pressed his hands together. His bride and he would live quietly in Omaha. They wanted to buy a pet store from a friend there. He needed money.
I decided to give him a large loan. I didn’t tell Barbara. In that bedroom soaked with frigid orange light and ribbed with shadows, we sniped at each other in whispers. As with all our fights, there was no winner. I listened as Barbara’s breaths finally deepened. I could withdraw money from my personal account tomorrow. She didn’t check my records often. If I reduced the deficit gradually with tiny, fictional expenditures, I’d never need to tell her. I fell asleep finally to the sound of his snores.
The next day, as he prepared to leave, when Barbara was in the next room, Greeley thanked me for the loan. He promised to call within a week, to invite me to his wedding.
I didn’t speak to him again for more than ten years.
My wife filed the divorce papers on our daughter’s eleventh birthday. I didn’t know her anymore. I’d shared the deepest intimacies and produced a child with this woman. At the divorce court, it was like being attacked in an alleyway by a stranger.
Barbara and Fawn moved to a new house in Santa Barbara, which was just far away enough for us both. What had once been a large house for three was now a gargantuan house for one. The second and first floors were connected in the center, so that the arched ceiling hovered, like an open mouth, above the living room two stories above my head. From the long white sofa, I could look up into a vast space, surrounded by ribbed wooden banisters. Huge rectangular windows filled the cavern with a warm glow during the day. When I looked up there long enough, I felt dizzy. I thought the whole structure might come crashing down on me.
I developed in my solitude the habit of staring in the mirror before leaving for work. A bald spot was widening on my scalp like the winking eye of death. I moved mechanically through my duties at work. I was never more productive. I made sales record of the month. My manager announced it to everyone at a staff meeting, and everyone applauded. I got a raise. Every night after work, I trotted straight home to an empty house.
A letter arrived. The name on the return address was “Dr. Win and Mary Greeley”. Greeley’s dad and mom.
From flowery handwriting that I figured was Mrs. Greeley’s, I learned that Greeley was religious, “crazy” religious, was how she described it. “We are heartbroken,” the handwriting told me. Greeley’d joined some group called the Guardians of the White Path. I wasn’t surprised. I thought about answering the letter, laid it on a table, and forgot about it.
One evening, drinking my third beer, I watched the TV news. A man, believing he was a superhero, and wearing wings he’d built himself, jumped from a building downtown. His body was missing.
The phone rang. The answering machine picked it up. After the beep, a voice gasped, “Doug? This here’s Win Greeley, Adam’s dad. Listen, did you” and I picked up the receiver.
During our conversation, Mr. Greeley needed to stop for breath a lot.
He was sadder than anyone I’d ever known. When we were kids, people talked a lot about the Surgeon General’s report on tobacco. Mr. Greeley, a friendly doctor whose patients included many of the families on our block, was also a two-pack-a-day smoker. His response to the government report was uttered in a voice calm with authority. “They say now that smoking kills.” He’d taken a puff from a Pall Mall, exhaled, and continued. The sides of his fingers were yellowed. “A few years back, people said that blueberries caused cancer. Just about everyone believed that one too.”
“You know I’m dying.” Mr. Greeley hacked horribly and spit. His lungs raged in my ear. “He’s my boy, and he won’t say a word to me. He won’t come to me.” Another attack struck him. When he returned, he spoke so softly that I could barely hear him. “Please,” he whispered, “help me find my boy.”
It was a long time before I could say anything. “Mr. Greeley, I don’t think I can do anything. I’m really sorry, but I haven’t talked to your son in years. I don’t know what” and his wife was on the phone, crying. “Douglas, do you remember me? I’m Adam’s mother, do you remember? You used to come to my house to eat cookies.” Despair and age had broken her voice, but I still recognized it. I peeled my hand from the receiver and moved it to my other ear. “You had a little dog, you used to bring it by and I gave it snacks.” Mr. Greeley hacked in the background. “Remember me?”
I told Greeley’s parents I’d try to help. After hanging up, I broke the phone.
Finding Greeley took only a few easy movements of my fingers on the keyboard. The website for the Guardians of the White Light was choked with lengthy texts. At the entry screen, against a peaceful orange background, a benevolent hand reached for a pixilated star. The words announced, in language heavy with obscure religious terminology, the glorious prospects of the reader to acquire immortality by practicing certain kinds of meditation and prayer. The specifics of the practice were available by ordering literature from the group. I wrote a letter to the email address that I thought couldn’t possibly bring a response:
Your parents are worried about you. I am not. Trying to get through to you in the past was like bashing my head against a brick wall, hoping to get through to the other side. I doubt this most recent attempt will bring anything but a head injury.
The response came nonetheless, the next day:
Doug, you are troubled and afraid. This is understandable, because you’ve always loved life the way a dog loves his collar.
You’ve stood on your little feet and gathered slivers of immortality like a shelf gathers dust. That’s how people do it in America.
For me, who shed the yoke you worship years ago, such considerations have no meaning. I have also shed another collar, that of those creatures who were accidentally my parents.
Do you know what earthly yokes do, Doug? They make it impossible to fly. There is a galaxy hidden behind every wink, every handshake, every rock and flower, behind the heavy breath of life and the white bones of death. Most people these days are blind to this galaxy. Another thing collars do to people: rip the eyes out of their heads.
You want your money. In light of the fact that we were friends so long ago, I propose that we meet together for a short time. I will come to your city tomorrow. Downtown, in front of the American Building, there is a grove of olive trees. They have no leaves at this time of year. Meet me under those trees at noon tomorrow, Sunday, the day God sleeps.
Put Your Hands Together and Pray,
Your oldest friend,
My stomach was jittery. Two hours after reading the note, I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was as though each word didn’t signify what it actually said, but was a mask hiding some deeper meaning. After reading it many more times, though, I couldn’t find any underlying messages in the writing, unless it was one proclaiming Greeley was insane.
At two o’ clock, I threw on my robe. I brought up my email and printed out Greeley’s letter. I read it over and over. At four, I groaned, tossed the letter on the floor, stepped on it and returned to bed.
Clean, straight beams of yellow light shot through the slats and turned my room into a lemon-colored cell.
The clock above the coffeepot said 10:00. I sat at the kitchen table. I rubbed my forehead. My fingers were freezing. I looked yet again at Greeley’s letter. My pencil remained on top of it, in the same position where I tossed it ten minutes before, cutting it in half. Should I go? A man in a suit and tie, with stiff red hair parted on the side, spoke from the TV. A balding man fidgeted next to him. Around his neck was a thick, white brace. The redheaded man smiled. “Have you been injured in an accident?”
The lawn in front of the American building was brown, with knobs of weak green, like the surface of a decaying wall being overtaken by lichens. New threads of grass crept out of the earth in hesitant bundles.
People scuttled around me. Thousands of shoes clacked dumbly on the pavement. I watched carefully for Greeley. What would he look like? Would he be bald, like me? Fat? In my imagination, Greeley was a pristine mountain man in a television drama, in perfect health, his mind twisted by lunatic religion back to Eden. I searched the crowd for someone with a beard, long hair, and a grin that transcended all earthly cares.
My watch said 12:00. The crowd continued to dribble in and out of itself. A thousand faces avoided each other. Then a few slowed, turning upward. A woman with neat brown hair and a green office outfit stopped, her chin tilted and eyes wide. She pulled a little boy close to her. The boy pointed above and cried out. Shouts, then screams, and I followed their gazes upward, where the smooth silver face of the American Building divided the blue sky in half. A high engine shriek fell gently down.
The plane struck the building at an angle and burst through the other side in a blinding finger of flame. The sidewalk jerked, like a carpet yanked from underneath. I collapsed. A shadow moved across the earth.
Maybe it was because I was inverted, or perhaps got confused when my head cracked against the asphalt, but when I stared into the growling mouth of pulverized stone bearing down on me, I thought I saw a hand.
John Eidswick can be reached at email@example.com