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The kids at school make jokes about my hand. It’s because of the single glove. Some days it’s white, some days silver, some days multi-coloured. It depends on my mood. The jokes don’t bother me. They don’t understand. People joke about things they don’t understand.
Take my sister for instance. She calls me Frankenstein as she smears on eye shadow in florescent colours that must have been developed aboard the Space Station. When our parents tell her to be more sensitive, she says that I was a freak long before the alligator bit my hand off.
I overhear my Aunt Susan tell my mom that I appear ungrateful for the heroic efforts of the Sheriff and doctors who saved my hand. Why haven’t I personally thanked them, she wants to know?
My mom sighs. A sigh I have heard and felt numerous times during the past year. When she inhales she sucks all the air out of the house and I feel weightless, floating in the rafters. She exhales and I crash to the floor under the thick cloth of gravity.
I know, my mom says. I know. The therapist says it takes time, my mom offers weakly.
It’s been over a year, Aunt Susan says. My behaviour is not right, she says. It doesn’t look good. Aunt Susan worries a lot about how things look.
I overhear this conversation when I am supposed to be asleep. Instead I am on the Internet in the Alligator Enthusiasts chat room with a zookeeper in Mexico City discussing his depressed 8-footer.
The alligator that bit my hand off was an 8-footer. He wasn’t depressed. He’s dead now. Sheriff Cleeson killed him and cut my hand out of his stomach. He brought it triumphantly to the emergency room in his red and white Lunchmate ice chest. The one where he keeps his diet cokes and ham and cheese sandwiches.
He has a new one now. It’s blue and white and has ‘We Thank Our Hero — the Daniels family’ or something like that printed on it. My parents gave it to him shortly after the incident. Sheriff Cleeson calls it the incident. My parents wanted me to give it to him personally and say thanks. I said I didn’t feel like it. My dad said that was okay, I would say thank you when I was ready. I’m still not ready.
I often think about the red and white ice chest sitting next to Sheriff Cleeson on the car seat that day last year. I picture him reaching into it for a diet coke or a sandwich or whatever else. I imagine him luring the alligator out of the pond with a slab of beef he picked up at the supermarket after he got the call. What cut was it? What did the alligator think about fresh meat being dumped on the shore? Why did he fall for it? What else was in his stomach?
Then I picture Sheriff Cleeson emptying the food out of his red and white ice chest — or was it already empty at one in the afternoon — and placing my hand, in one of the discarded zip-lock sandwich bags, on top of the ice, maybe next to the remaining diet coke. I picture him driving across town with my hand sitting next to him. Glowing with self-confidence and frenzied emotion. Buoyed in the notion that he had done the right thing and saved the day. Something was stolen and he got it back. That’s what he is supposed to do, isn’t it? If he lost his hand he would want it back. Wouldn’t anybody? These thoughts make me feel embarrassed. Sad. Inconsolable.
My sister tells me to get over all this because I am freaking everyone out. She likes words with the root ‘freak’. She uses them a lot. It is Saturday afternoon and I am helping her apply highlights to her hair. I don’t go out much so I am usually around when she embarks on these beautification sprees. I used to stare, observing her every move like a field biologist. I was amazed at the creams, potions, lotions, balms, conditioners, implements and machines she amassed to transform herself. She wants so desperately to look like the pictures from the teen beauty magazines she has taped to her bedroom mirror.
Finally one day she snapped. Don’t just sit there freakin’ staring at me you freak, she said and taught me how to highlight hair. I bought a special neon green glove to use.
I’m okay, I tell her as I pull a strand of her hair through the plastic cap. My gloved hand sits like a rock on her head holding the cap in place. It’s good at weighing things down.
I don’t have any friends, she reminds me. I am fifteen, she says. I should be hanging out at the mall with the other kids. That’s what she did when she was my age, she says like it is ancient history. It was only two years ago.
Things aren’t cool, she says. I should try to patch things up with Sherman.
Sherman is my next-door neighbour. He was my best friend. He saw the alligator bite my hand off. We haven’t really talked since. He visited me a few times in the hospital after they reattached my hand. But then he stopped.
Our parents talk. They seem satisfied with the therapist’s theory that it is posttraumatic shock syndrome and it has to run its course. Except my mom. She is losing patience. My dad says we’ll talk when we’re ready. Dad is a firm believer that people will do things when they are ready. We’re not ready.
Sherman doesn’t want to see me, I say to my sister.
Maybe if you acted less freaky, she says.
Maybe, I reply. Although, I know this is not the reason.
Try to be more normal, she says. Maybe at least stop wearing the single glove.
I can’t, I say.
It’s doesn’t look bad, she says. Sure some people may stare at first because you use it different than the other hand, but they’ll get over it. They won’t stare anymore than they do at the glove. Probably less, she adds.
I imagine the amount of creams and potions my sister would need if this were her hand. Does she have a lotion to make everything right?
I think about the dead alligator and it makes me sad. Despite what everyone thinks this isn’t just about my hand. It’s more than that. But I don’t know how to explain it. Not that anyone would understand.
It’s not that, I say.
Then what is it, she asks?
I lay a strand of her brown hair in my glove-covered hand and use my other one to brush it with blonde dye. I then cover it with a small piece of tin foil.
It’s nothing, I say.
I have this way of making people uncomfortable. Today, the school psychologist — she is not the guidance counsellor she reminds me pointing to the alphabet soup that follows her name on her office door — called me out of honours biology to discuss my choice of projects. It seems, she tells me, that my teachers and some fellow students are concerned. She opens a folder and begins to read as she flips through a series of photocopied pages. I recognize them as my project proposals for various classes. Honours Biology: “Nature Bites Back: Urban Encroachment on Alligator Habitat”, Honours Economics: “The Impact of Illegal Alligator and Crocodile Trafficking In the World Economy”. She pauses and glances down at my gloved hand resting on my thigh. I’m wearing a dark camouflage glove my dad bought me at Home Depot yesterday when I went with him to pick up mulch for his flowerbeds. I am always looking for unusual gloves. I try not to wear the same one twice in a week. She returns to her recitation. Honours English: “Alligators in American Literature”. She raises her eyes from the page and gives me a sympathetic look.
I know, I say, it may be too broad. I am trying to narrow it.
She purses her lips as if sucking on a lemon. This goes on and on, she tells me. With the exception of Algebra, every project in every class is about alligators.
I like alligators, I tell her.
I see, she says. Can I understand, she asks me in a soothing tone she no doubt practices in the mirror in the mornings, how some might find it peculiar that I would like alligators so much, considering the incident.
No, I say. I don’t understand. I am half lying. I do understand, but it makes little sense to me for reasons even I can’t explain. I want to say, yes I understand and will change, but that would be a whole lie. A half lie is better than a whole one, isn’t it?
She tries again in a more deliberate tone. This obsession with alligators doesn’t strike me as morbid considering my circumstances, she asks?
She points out that I listed “alligator whisperer” as my future occupation on the career day questionnaire.
She has no idea what that is, she says.
It’s like in The Horse Whisperer, I explain.
She doesn’t go to the movies, she says. She won’t admit it, but I know she’s read the book. Anyway, she says, it is not a real career.
I nod. I should have put zoologist, or herpetologist, I say. But I wanted to be specific.
She puts her arms on her desk and leans in like she is about to pray. I am making everyone uncomfortable, she says. Everyone knows what happened to me, and the fact that I wear flamboyant gloves over my hand doesn’t help. It seems abnormal to people that someone who has been through what I’ve been through would want to keep dwelling on it.
Is this a cry for help, she asks?
No, I say. I’m not upset about my hand.
But you are unhappy, she says. Is she telling me or asking me?
I guess, I say. I’m not sure what that means.
The school psychologist leans back in her chair. It bumps against the wall of her small office. I am a very bright and sensitive young man, she tells me.
People say that a lot. It doesn’t make me feel better. I’m not sure if it’s even meant as a complement.
I remember when my mom got the letter from school saying that I was gifted and talented. She turned ghost pale and said to me: that’s great. Good for you. Then she went to her room and closed the door. But I could still hear the sobbing.
The school psychologist says she’s not insinuating anything or blaming or accusing me, which means she is or she wouldn’t need to justify it so much, but it is not uncommon for victims of tragic accidents, who receive a lot of attention to get accustomed to that attention and do things to maintain that level of attention as it wanes and life returns to normal. She continues to talk in long breathless sentences, as if she is afraid to stop. Like an exorcist delivering an incantation, worried that I will say something before she has said everything she has to say and the spell will be broken. She seems elated as she espouses theories and uses words that she has probably waited a lifetime to find a practical use for.
I notice the bookshelf abutting her desk and see many of the books she no doubt poured through the night before trying to figure me out. Below the bookshelf on top of a small grey scratched and dented filing cabinet, I see a few pictures. One of her in a graduation robe, another of her and a wormy looking man with a pencil thin moustache and one of a big floppy-eared basset hound wearing a tee shirt with the name ‘Fred’ printed on it.
I look into her eyes and see her whole life story. I see her at home curled up on her sofa petting Fred as she reads about the psychology of those who lose limbs. She wears her disappointments like a sack of bricks. Her shoulders slump. I feel sad. I want to hear about her college days, about the dog, about the wormy man. Is he her husband? Brother? It makes me sadder that I probably already know the answers.
I am sorry, I say to her. And I say it because I am. If I could keep everyone from being uncomfortable I would. But no matter what the school psychologist, my sister or anyone else says, I can’t. Can anyone?
I still go to the nature preserve near my house and watch the alligators. Sometimes Sherman is standing in the window when I walk past his house. He looks at me and then closes the blinds. I am not supposed to go to the preserve, but I have to. I know people think I should be afraid of them, but I’m not. In fact, I feel more at peace there than anywhere else. I think they are beautiful creatures: graceful examples of prehistoric nature’s handiwork. I feel they have something to teach me. I know it sounds crazy, but we understand each other. I didn’t put alligator whisperer on my career form to be a smart-ass. It’s what I aspire to be. A zookeeper does just that. He keeps the animals. I am not interested in that.
I don’t blame the alligator for biting my hand off that day. I should not have allowed Sherman to join me while I meditated with the alligators. It put things off balance. It’s not Sherman’s fault, he was taught to fear alligators. Alligators prey on fear. I got caught in the middle. We learn from our mistakes don’t we?
Every night before bed, I go in the bathroom, lock the door, fill the tub and lay my eyes at water level. I have to tilt my head in order to keep my nostrils above the surface. It would be much easier if my nostrils were level with my eyes. I examine the hand. My mom and sister say it looks like the other one except for the scar running around my wrist and some slight discoloration that comes and goes. My mom says it looks amazing considering what it has been through. Easy for them to say. It’s not sitting at the end of their arm. It doesn’t look or feel like my hand; it’s more like a paddle or clamp, not a hand.
My mom walks into my room as I am climbing into bed. The school guidance counsellor called today, she says.
I correct her: You mean school psychologist.
Whatever, my mom says. She looks tired. Grey highlights dance in her long black hair. She didn’t need a cap and dye to get those.
Mom mentions my class projects. She wants to know if I think this is funny.
No I don’t, I say.
This can’t go on, mom says. You are ruining your life. And you are breaking my heart.
I look away.
Tell me what is going on in your head, my mom pleads. You are lucky to be alive. Do something with that, she says.
I am, I say.
Alligator whisperer, my mom asks incredulously?
Please, my mom says. Please get better. She just wants things to be normal again, she says. Stop tearing the family apart. She leaves, closing the door behind her.
That night I dream the alligator kept my hand and I got a bionic one. I can do all sorts of special things with it. I make everyone happy by using my magic hand. I go and visit the alligator and wave to it with my new hand. It swims peacefully away. But then I wake and see instead this clump of flesh that the doctors found at the bottom of the red and white ice chest. No one asked if I wanted it back.
Maybe my dad is right. Maybe one day, I’ll be ready and suddenly know how to make everyone comfortable. Sherman and I will sit down and talk again. We will talk about the great ironies of life neither of us understand but relentlessly haunt us. Why, for example, making something whole does not always make it complete.