The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I didn’t want to go, but my fiancée, Cora, insisted it would be good for me. She and I hadn’t been apart for more than a few hours at a time since I’d left the hospital, where my left arm had been removed after a car accident. Now I was to spend the weekend at a crippled-children’s camp. At nineteen I would be one of the oldest ones there, and I wondered why they were still calling me a “child.” But that’s not why I was reluctant to go. I simply didn’t want to be away from Cora for two days. That’s all.
Dust stirred high in the air as Cora’s blue Fairlane sped down the dirt road of the camp, which was specifically for children who were missing limbs. Admittedly it was a beautiful place: rolling hills, still ponds, a stone bridge over a stream, pheasants and peacocks sunning themselves in the cool March air. It was hard to believe we were only twenty minutes from the suburban nightmare of Slidell, Louisiana.
One reason I’d agreed to attend the camp was because Tulane University in New Orleans had asked me to go. Some people there had gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture me a ten-thousand-dollar prosthetic arm, but I had rejected the prosthesis — not medically, but on a much deeper level: I didn’t like the idea of being half man, half machine. Besides that, it was just plain clumsy to use, like having an elephant trunk strapped to my left shoulder. The plastic arm made me feel like more of a freak than having no arm at all, so I decided just to let my left sleeve blow empty and get on with life.
And before I’m condemned for being ungrateful, let me say that I’m quite appreciative that anyone bothered to lift a finger for me at all. I didn’t know these people at Tulane, and yet they went to all this trouble to help me get back to normal. What they couldn’t possibly have guessed is that I’m too stupid to learn anything that isn’t me. In many ways I’m too stupid to be a cripple, for it takes great intelligence to be maimed — that is, incredible willpower and impossible mental endurance, attributes that I lack. Fate, or God, or chance, or whatever it is that controls our lives certainly made a wrong choice when he/she/it decided to mark me for radical amputation.
There were about fifty children at the camp and a dozen or so assistants, therapists, and counselors. I tried very hard to fit in — well, not very hard, but I did try. I could not compete with the other campers’ optimism and sheer glee for life. The longer I stayed away from home — that is, away from Cora — the worse it got, because I knew that beautiful, long-haired Cora was roaming all over town with God knows whom, doing Christ knows what.
I was on a basketball team for about five minutes. One of the assistants witlessly pitted the legless against the armless on the court. My age and height made me stand out, but I had sucked at basketball even when I’d been a whole person, so I just walked off. No one said anything to me. I headed toward the woods and crossed the stone bridge. It was so beautiful it almost made me cry, knowing that my life from then on was going to be hard, hard, hard. Too bad the bridge wasn’t high enough to throw myself from.
I know you want me to describe the amputated children in detail at this point, but I really don’t feel up to it. And I’m not sure I believe in exploiting people for my own literary purposes. What’s important is that I didn’t feel connected to them in any way. My whole life had been one big mess up to that point, and I had never fit in with any social group. I spent most of my time at the camp roaming the forest by myself, while the other cripples were apparently following the camp’s program step by step. At the end of the weekend they were going to leave rejuvenated and ready to face life’s challenges with a new bag of survival tactics. Because I’m ignorant, I rebelled against the whole concept of rehabilitation. I’d had enough of people telling me what to do: at home, in school, in hospitals. Besides, I couldn’t get my mind off Cora’s sweet naked body — nor off one of the blond assistants; I’d never slept with a blonde and was obsessed with finding out what it would be like.
I continued to spend time alone in the woods, walking, masturbating, and looking at birds. I tried to fish, but I hadn’t yet learned to tie a fishing knot with one hand. I still can’t, not even with a vise grip to hold the hook in place. Certainly someone at the camp could have taught me, if I’d taken the time to ask.
I do remember talking to two other cripples. One was a heavyset, freckle-faced eleven-year-old boy who’d lost his left arm when he’d grabbed a live electrical line lying across his backyard after a tornado. I noted how goddamn smart he was for an eleven-year-old. Perhaps it wasn’t intelligence he had so much as wisdom, a dark wisdom. It wasn’t anything he said in particular, just a sense of knowingness in his voice, an eerie resignation, a fatalism, if you will. It was like hearing someone in his fifties or sixties speak from this little kid’s body. His maturity was undercut at moments by a rotten cynicism that offended even me. We talked for over an hour, and I swear by my own personal Jesus that he ended every other sentence with “Yeah, but who cares. Nothing at all matters in the long run. We’d all be better off dead.”
I also talked to a fourteen-year-old boy who didn’t have any arms. His head was enormous in proportion to his shriveled-up body, and his legs were extremely thin, the thinnest legs I’ve ever seen on anyone. They reminded me of an eagle’s talons. But his toes were as dexterous as fingers, and I once watched him dress himself from head to foot. It dumbfounded me to see him do that. I could never learn to do that and wouldn’t want to, even if I didn’t have any choice. I long ago vowed that if anything ever happened to my good arm, I would gas myself.
The armless boy said he wanted to go to the university and study to be a psychologist. “I probably have a keener insight into life than most people,” he explained, “because I’m constantly aware of myself every second I’m awake. If you don’t have arms, how can you fail to understand the mind?”
Sixteen years later I still don’t quite know what he meant.
Almost done, dear reader. I’ll just finish up by explaining the subtitle of my essay: Several New Orleans television stations sent reporters to the camp at the weekend’s conclusion. I guess the news crews needed to fill their feel-good-story quotas so they could get back to reporting the more sordid details of life. I was wearing a maroon T-shirt cut just below my chest (my stomach was still hard and flat), faded bluejeans, and cheap red tennis shoes. Right before everyone began packing to go home, there was one last activity: the Great Egg Race. Every camper held a plastic spoon in his or her mouth, and then an assistant placed an egg in the spoon. We all lined up side by side and were told to run as fast as we could without dropping the egg. I remember saying to one of the therapists that I felt like some kind of duck without wings, but he encouraged me to do it anyway.
Later that night Cora and I watched the footage of the Great Egg Race on the ten o’clock local news. To be precise, we were watching WWL Channel 4 out of New Orleans. We sat with our mouths agape as we saw me run across the screen with the spoon sticking out of my mouth and the egg barely keeping its place. It was the longest thirty seconds of my life. I crossed the finish line first with dozens of amputees of all races, ages, and sizes behind me.
I was the winner of the race, and it almost destroyed me.
A week later Cora packed her things and left me.
One should say, “Good,” to everything.
“Two Days” is reprinted from The Gar Diaries, by Louis E. Bourgeois. © 2008 by Louis E. Bourgeois and Community Press, www.communitypresshome.com.
Louis E. Bourgeois