You wake up a touch early, at three a.m., pre-alarm. It takes you a moment to gather your bearings, to shake off the dream state, to let your mind adjust, your eyes adjust to the darkness. Sour-mouthed, you move to wipe your face only to realize: You can’t. Your arm’s off. Separated at the shoulder and tangled up in the sheets.
You shake it loose from the bedding, reattach it, and then it’s straight downstairs to make some eggs. Not even a breath of sunlight yet, but you eat what you want when you want it. Sleep comes when it comes, four-hour spurts, too often coinciding perfectly with your work schedule, as if you were built to be who you are. Awake for ten, twelve hours, and then another nighttime comes.
What is a day? One cycle of dark and light? Of sleep and wake? How many days have you lived so far this week?
About the arm again: You’re feeling what they call a little deja-vu, as if this should be familiar to you. So you grasp the runaway limb about the wrist and give it a little tug—not too hard—but it stays. That’s it, then. Your arm’s back where it belongs, and it’s time to go to work.
You soldier on through every shift, and it is a simple job you do, very little thought required. Accept cash, make change. Sell lottery tickets, push the lottery tickets, because if they win, we win, says the manager. You hate that he’s younger than you, mostly because he’s making more money. Other than that, you feel something like pity for the man. It took you years longer than him to fall this low. He’s an ass-scratch from thirty and already stuck in the cement; at least you lived a little before accepting your mediocrity. He’s embraced it like a religion.
You tell people at the checkout line who seem to possess a modicum of intelligence that you have another job at the university, and that this job is only for research purposes. For the sociological interest. They believe you, too, because it sounds as good as any reason to be this old, this articulate, and yet still work here. This is a placement job, for ex-cons or retards, and yet here you are. You actually applied for this. “Placement” does not apply to you, which means you’re not an ex-con or a retard, and so, why? What’s the reason?
Well, they were hiring. And you’ve got a son.
Your son sticks his dick in everything that walks, and you have no right to object. You would’ve done the same, or hell, let’s be frank, you tried. But not so many would have you, back in your youth. Really, he fucks everyone. He never tells you about it because he never talks to you, not that he would if he did, but the phone bill serves as evidence enough. A new batch of numbers every month, it seems. He moves on quickly. You’ve stopped trying to keep track. He’s got the place to himself sometimes, depending on your shift. And even when you’re home, you’re asleep for four hours at a time, and even when you’re awake watching cable in the living room they flit about the house like fairy ghosts, drifting through walls, curious with laughter.
He’s fifteen and smoking and you’re almost thankful for that. It’s not like he gets them from you, after all, and if it were just the smell of sex you might not be able to take it. The cigarette smoke provides at least some shield from the sweat and the semen, and that vaginal twang. And the blood, of different varieties, you swear you can smell it too sometimes, evidence of their fornicative ignorance. Didn’t know it would hurt, to start. Didn’t know sometimes the body says stop, wait a week, for Christ’s sake. Oh well. Too late. Here’s a paper towel.
He’s a cute kid, and popular, and that’s enough. People say he looks like you, and you accept that as a compliment, and you can see some similarity in the jaw line, perhaps. But you never got this much attention at fifteen.
You steal most of your groceries from work, if they can be called groceries. Sometimes even while that dick manager is right there, back in the office, combing through security camera footage. There’s a rumor he has access to the live feed at home, too, via the web, watches it over frozen dinners by himself, more to spy on employees than patrons. But you know where the cameras are and where they are not. The eggs here only come in cartons of six. Slim Jims are a staple, as are sunflower seeds and a variety of candy bars. At least one carton of Mavericks gets misplaced a month, which happens to be your brand. Anything you want, really, you just have to throw it away, in a special off-camera trash can only you and the other employees use. The best part of the day is taking the trash out and collecting your stash. You’re always the first to try the latest style of M&Ms.
You have regulars, which makes you sad on a level you can’t quite express, but some poets you’ve come across have touched on this place inside you before. It makes you slightly envy poets, which is ludicrous, so you don’t talk about it with anyone. You just sell the same Super Lotto numbers to the same minuscule black lady, in the same flowered hat, for the same handful of change, everyday. You watch the bums come in during the overnight shift, daring themselves to just take what they want from the cooler and run for it, but they never do. You wish they would. Life is about growth, but here these people are stuck, and if you’re calling them stuck what does that say about you?
You steal condoms and leave them in conspicuous places along your son’s regular flight pattern, on the bathroom sink or his bedside table, and they all disappear, which is not in itself evidence of their use, but the smell is. Hopefully. You curl up on the couch to watch cable and it’s all over the blankets. Some kind of lubricant is in play, certainly.
He walks through the front door, and you notice something’s odd, but it’s not that his hair is now blue and buzzed short, when last you saw it it was bleached, blond and long. No, it’s not that. It takes you a moment, but then it comes to you: You didn’t know he was gone. Not that you thought he was here, either; you had just managed to forget him for a while. Him and everything else.
A moment later, he walks back out the front door with a whole bagel in his mouth, shutting the door and locking it without so much as a word to you, and you can’t be sure: Is he the ghost, or are you? Who’s the one walking through walls? Who’s the one existing outside of time and space?
How many days are in your son’s week, you wonder.
You wake up and your arm’s off your body for a second time in as many days. Other people with an affection for their body as a whole—or health insurance—might react in a flustered sort of way, but you’ve developed an appreciation for the small changes that make the past different from the present. Once is a fluke; twice makes it a part of you, something to be dealt with, not pushed aside. That’s how memories are made to matter, after all. Repetition.
Your son surprised you, once, when you got home from work. He had made spaghetti for the two of you, and you ate that meal together, pleasantly. But that was only one time, and so it is not something that happens. It’s barely worth the memory, neither how he really was then nor how he is now. A fluke occurrence to be pushed aside and forgotten.
But this is twice, your arm, which gives it significance. It requires your attention.
Again the arm is all tangled up, and it won’t shake loose so easily this time, surprisingly heavy and long, sheeted as if destined for burial. With only one good hand at your service, it’s move arm, move sheet, move arm, and by the time the braid is undone you’re ready for a cigarette. The arm is somewhat pliable, but it holds a bend, like Gumby. Before you return it to its rightful place, you clutch the disembodied fingers around a butt, light the other end, and smoke with yourself. You think about doing the same thing with masturbation, but your empty shoulder socket starts to ache, and so you reattach the arm, massage it a little to get sensation back, and then go make some eggs.
When you get to work, your manager is working the cash register, and this makes you smile, probably bigger than you should. Someone must’ve called in, and the glare you get from him as you pass by says this was probably his day off. You clock in and take over the register duties, and smile all day. Not because your manager got the shaft, no. Because you’re falling apart and no one knows it but you.
Mid-shift you take your break and go smoke out back next to the locked cage of five-gallon propane tanks. After a quick glance around, you lift the collar of your maroon-and-teal uniform polo to peer underneath. There’s no visible seam on the shoulder, and you realize you’re not even sure how it comes off. You give a little shimmy, but the arm seems firmly in place. At first this lack of tangible evidence dampens the fun, but by the time you grind the butt out on the blacktop you’ve decided it’s still a secret worthy of your pride.
You get off work and come home and since you’re not feeling immediately tired you make a pot of spaghetti and sauce and some homemade garlic bread out of stolen hot dog buns, opened, buttered, and toasted in the oven, before thinking to locate your son. It all sits out steaming on the kitchen table, ready for consumption. You send him a text. He just had a double cheeseburger, he texts back, which turns this feast back into just a meal, and you almost don’t notice he dodged the question of location. You call, and to your surprise he answers, at the Burger King just up the road. You scold him for wasting money on fast food, and he says it’s okay, she works there and gets it free. They have to get rid of it anyway after a certain amount of time under the hot lamps, so it’s just a matter of waiting. You can’t fault him for playing the system, and you shrug as if he might see the gesture and say, all right, see you later.
You watch cable under smelly blankets until your mind hurts. When it’s dark out, you go to bed. By your watch you’ve been awake sixteen hours, so you expect a nice long sleep to result from this. Instead you jolt awake after only two hours. Your arm’s off again, which pleases you, but this time so are three of your toes. You think of Mr. Potato Head as you snap-snap-snap them back in place. Now you’re wide awake, so instead of lying down again you find yourself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. The poor man’s doctor’s appointment. What else is wrong with me, you think, as you disrobe completely, getting a look at yourself from different angles. The signs of age and gravity tell their tale. Your mouth-hole is tight from stress, lips lined with caffeine-induced wrinkles; your posterior plump, thanks to that sweet tooth of yours; your chest soft and sagging from age, from just, being old. Your cheeks settle south, too, and your prominent potbelly is no small accomplishment, but it’s all logical deterioration—there’s nothing unexplained here.
There’s no explanation, either.
You go make a batch of eggs.
At work you don’t smile but you don’t feel any less happy than you did yesterday. Yesterday was about the novelty of the secret, whereas today it’s a sense of satisfaction, and the difference between novelty and satisfaction is a smile’s lack. You’re resigned to this condition sticking around, and you don’t want to control it so much as watch it and keep it contained, keep it a secret, something for you and you alone. Throughout the day you find yourself clenching your self together, either by tightening your muscles more than you would, or by physically holding your own elbows. It’s your snide manager’s birthday today. You tell him you once did a study at the university on thirtieth birthdays, and the subsequent and inevitable decline in the quality of life immediately following. He accepts this and waits a full hour before telling you to defrost the Tasty-Freeze cooler.
At home your son is on the couch watching The Simpsons with a girl you’ve never seen before. They’re smoking cigarettes, and she immediately slams hers into the ashtray as you walk in the door. It’s okay, he says. Baby it’s okay, he’s cool. As you tuck the quart of milk into the door of the refrigerator, you find yourself disagreeing with his cavalier assessment, and so when she leaves and he comes to you for money to go camping with his friends, you don’t immediately say yes. You say how much.
For a campsite? You could get a hotel room for that much.
We’ll have to buy like firewood and stuff. Come on, it’s not that much.
No, you say.
No. I’ll give you five to chip in for the campsite, but that’s it.
You’re ridiculous, he says, and he’s out the door.
You wake up, and now your leg’s off, up to the knee. Sunlight screams at you through the window glass.
One arm, off at the shoulder, the fingers of which all need replaced. Likewise the toes on the missing leg, which are a lot harder to find. You roll around, squinting, collecting the various digits, but before reenlisting them all into the body politic, you get the urge to document your condition. So you grip the replaced fingers around the severed leg between the ankle and the calf, and, using a couple pizza boxes as a lean-to, prop the collaboration up in the air. But you haven’t lifted a disposable camera in a while, and anyway it seems nicer just to take it in yourself, art of the rarest variety, and for your eyes only. This pleases you. The shadow is the best part. Then your stomach grumbles, and you hop over to take down the sculpture and pull yourself together.
At work you’re tired. You realize the mini-days have been turning into full days, but your nights have not increased to compensate. Sleep is harder to achieve lately, and then upon waking the excitement to see what’s fallen off of you is enough to keep your eyes open.
But understanding why you’re tired doesn’t make the day go any better, any easier. Add to that the now constant chore of consciously holding your body together. You’re not sure you need to, but how embarrassing, to have an arm fall off and smash someone’s travel-size bag of Fritos.
The manager shows up, chipper. You ignore this, until he calls you into his office.
I thought about what you said the other day, he says, grinning. And I know you think you got to me, with that little comment. But then I realized, I myself did a sociological study, you know, back in my days at the university, and you know what my study told me?
Already you’ve had enough of this, and you want to flip him off and walk away from this job, but you feel a slight pop in the joint of your middle finger, so you keep it tucked away in your arm pit.
My study said that right around the age of forty-eight, you forget how to properly follow orders.
At this point you remember: You never did defrost that Tasty-Freeze cooler.
So when Cindy gets here to relieve you in a couple hours, I’ll come up and watch the front so she can show you what exactly I mean when I say I want the cooler defrosted.
You want to open your mouth and respond, but at this moment you can’t be sure your jaw won’t fall right off if you unclench it. You turn to go, but he says, one more thing. Be sure to clock off, when she’s showing you again. You’ve been trained once already, and I won’t have you trained again on my time.
You swallow once, then let out a word: Okay. Your jaw wavers but holds, and you go back up to the register to wait out the longest two hours in recent memory.
You walk up the porch steps to your duplex apartment, slowly, carefully. Every joint in your body, every connection, feels only tenuously attached, and you crave sleep. But you open the door on something that cannot be put off or ignored. He’s fucking two of them, right there on the living room floor. The one sitting on his face is the smoking girl from before, and the one riding his cock you feel like you’ve seen in the past as well, but by this point they’re all starting to look alike. The only light in the room is from the television, a full screen of blue from when they stopped the tape, or when it ran out on its own.
You pause with your hand still on the doorknob while the girls scream and scurry. They finally huddle in the corner beneath the floor lamp with five burnt-out bulbs—you refer to it as the palm tree—and they curl some curtains around their naked forms, quivering like the apocalypse is upon them. Your son takes his time putting his jeans on. You remind your hand to let loose of the doorknob, so as not to pop off at the wrist. On the floor next to your favorite blanket, where, too recently, the action was, sits an open shoe box. It’s almost completely full of condoms, still in the wrappers. You find yourself wishing you’d looked to see if he’d had one on.
I asked to go camping, he says, as if you should’ve expected it to come to this.
Do either of you drive yet? you say, in the general direction of the curtains. One raises a hand, which catches your attention. The curtain drops a couple inches, and before you can look away you see a breast, bared and blue. Your stomach turns over. Get your clothes on, you say, and go home to your parents.
I can’t go home yet! says one. I’m supposed to be at the movies!
Well I’m sixteen years old and I’m allowed to be out as late as—
Get the fuck out of my house! you roar, an unexpected volume booming out of you. You clutch yourself together and slowly take to the stairs, refusing to deal with any of this anymore. By the time you reach the middle landing, you’ve heard furious whispered pledges of devotion despite the circumstances, and an over-aggressive closing of the front door. You risk a glance, and your son stands there, shirtless, back-lit in blue. It makes his hair seem a normal color again.
You’re pathetic, he says.
Yeah, well, you’re turning into me.
I am nothing like you, he says. People like me. People want to be around me.
Congratulations, you say. Just don’t cry to me when your dick falls off.
He shakes his head, thinking you only mean it metaphorically.
You get to your bedroom. You feel twice your age. Three times. It takes a full minute to turn and close the door, which you then lock. You lock your bedroom door to keep your son out. How pathetic is that.
They’ll have to break it down to find you.
You take apart the bed, the pillows, the blankets, then the sheets. A clean canvas, no obstructions. You take off every stitch of clothing. Your sleep is already upon you, you can barely keep them lids open, kid, can you? You’re ancient, exhausted, beat up, worn out, you’re done. You lie down naked on the coolness of the bare mattress. In the morning, not morning by your standards but the type of morning during which things are found out, bodies discovered, they’ll find you in pieces. A complete set, a complete you, but neatly divided at the seams, exactly where they fell off, came undone. You imagine it all going perfectly. A thorough, veritable, unmitigated dismemberment. You’ll be unable to repair yourself, when this climactic and brilliant morning at last comes. But that’s the point, tonight, that’s the difference between this time and the others. You don’t want to be fixed. You don’t want to be whole anymore. You want, you realize, for all this damage to last. This is how memories are made to matter. They stay true. They stay relevant. They stay.
You feel like the act has been willful from the beginning, but you’ve never let yourself believe that until now. That these detached mornings are a result of a choice made at the end of the previous day. Typically, you don’t pause long enough to remember that part.
Tomorrow you will. You’ll have all the time. You’ll have plenty.