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The Only One-Armed Man I Ever Knew

By Corey Mesler

The only one-armed man I ever knew was a housepainter named Les. This may sound like the beginning of a joke, but, don’t laugh. The story of Les is a tragedy. Or so it seems to me.

I met Les when he joined our driveway basketball games. He was, I believe, a friend of Bobby’s. Les was pleasant and affable and a surprisingly good shot. I was a bit cowed by him. I didn’t speak to him for a long time. I was afraid of the fierceness with which he played sports and I was afraid of his lost limb. I was the kind of youngster who was self-conscious around people who had disabilities, the disenfranchised of the world. It was almost Tourettes. I was afraid of saying something horribly inappropriate, something just plain horrible. This is, in itself, perhaps, horrible.

Later, Les became a friend. He and his wife came to dinner often. She was willowy, what we used to call a real dish. She had silky, black hair that made her look slightly Asian. She also had a mouth like a drunken sailor. Her name was Ann.

Les and Ann looked good together. Les had a way of standing which made his impairment disappear, if you can picture an absence disappearing. Ann quickly became Shelley's best friend. Shelley was my wife.

Shelley and I married in a hurry, a bushwhack pregnancy, perhaps attained on our very first date. Shelley was 100 pounds of raw sexuality and self-centeredness. Shelley was dangerous. I knew it right away and it frightened me. When we married I put on a brave face. It was the face I was to wear for the next five years. The child we made died before we even named her. At the funeral Shelley turned to me and said, “Grace. I want to name her Grace.”

Shelley and Ann made a formidable pair. They were so sexy that men were naturally attracted to them and approached them even if Les and I were present. This, for the most part, we took good-naturedly. Sometimes, if Les had had too much to drink, or if he’d had a bad day, he exhibited a quick trigger and a furious and reckless physicality that frightened the suitors away. Only once, in my presence, did Les actually hit a man. It was in a dark bar. The man, a tall Swede, who had said something untoward to Ann, took one quick punch to the mouth and then, as he gathered his own fists, realized Les only had one arm. You could see the air go out of him. He practically let Les beat his face red, only putting up token defensive arms, and apologizing even as Less fists drove him backwards.

It didn’t help when Les’s business started failing. Independent contractors were still a pretty good commodity in our town, and Les, given a more even temperament, probably would have continued to flourish. But, the drinking, the fights, and eventually the wife he couldn’t keep at home, fashioned a tragic figure. Les began to diminish.

I could only stand on the sidelines and watch. I was no help. Although an adult, I was still that self-conscious youngster awkward with the world’s uglier manifestations. I didn’t know how to handle a friend who was both alcoholic and disabled. Truth be told, had Shelley and Ann not connected in the way they did, Les and I would not have stayed friends. And, when the women began to move away from us simultaneously, instead of being thrown together, Les and I drifted apart. There was no longer a point at which our lives touched, even tangentially.

When Shelley left me, and Ann Les, the world seemed a place of defeat and deprivation, a planet off beam. I couldn’t turn to the bottle like Les because I had a bad gut. So, I took pills. Prescribed medicines for back ache or pleurisy which I abused quickly, so quickly that I had to change doctors three times.

The last I heard from Les he was in prison. Another fight, this time putting a guy in the hospital with a split pate. Les wrote me one short letter. It was pitiful: the scrawl of a child and the syntax of a slow sixth grader. It made me tear up. He said he needed to talk or he was going to go crazy; he needed to feel connected somehow to his past.

I tried to find Bobby, someone who would help. I tried to pass the buck. I didn’t deserve the onus that was Les. I didn’t even like him that much. He wouldn’t let me pity him, for he was stronger than I was. He had a fighter’s strength; a battler, Les was. Which made his plea unseemly somehow. I never got in touch with Bobby and I never received another letter from Les. Eventually, I forgot about him and ceased to feel guilty about it. God knows where Ann is. I didn’t even try to find her.

I heard from Shelley, once, also. She wrote from London where she was living with a potter. She wanted to know if I could find the antique broach my mother had given her as a wedding gift. I had sold the thing the week Shelley left me. I never answered her either.

 

Corey Mesler has published prose and/or poetry in numerous literary journals, and has work in the anthologies Full Court: A LiteraryAnthology of Basketball (Breakaway Books), Intimate Kisses: The Poetry of Sexual Pleasure (New World Press) and others. He has been nominated many times for the Pushcart Prize. One of his short stories was chosen for the 2002 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, edited by Shannon Ravenel.

Corey has four poetry chapbooks available and five more due in 2006: Short Story and Other Short Stories, from Parallel Press, The Hole in Sleep from Wood Works, The Heart isOpen from The Rooftop Series, The Agoraphobe’s Pandiculations from Little Poem Press, and Following Richard Brautigan from Plan B Press.

His novel-in-dialogue, Talk, was published by Livingston Press in 2002. His forthcoming novel, We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon, is also from Livingston Press. He has been a book reviewer, fiction editor, university press sales rep, grant committee judge, father and son. With his wife he owns Burke’s Book Store, one of the country’s oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores.

Photo "Basketball Hoop 3" courtesy of Thomas Bush, Beaver Falls, PA.

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