I Heard Someone Built History with their Bare Hands: A short story

Baby, child, adolescent, adult, and elder woman on a hand
Ashley Zhang/Staff

Arthur, 91

Tendons shorten and tighten with age, the doctor says, his voice low and exaggerated. The sides of his mouth pull outward with each word, making his cheeks look elastic.

Arthur imagines them snapping.

When he was a boy, Arthur attended the St. Francis School for Boys in West Hollywood. The school was gothic and ugly. The nuns, large and cruel. Across the street was a gentlemen’s club and the deli where Mr. Kosak would say, “If it isn’t Mr. Big Band himself,” then give him pickles and gummy worms, and an abandoned warehouse where Ralph said someone was murdered (sometimes by mobsters, and sometimes, when he felt especially provocative, by Sister Mary). At lunch, Arthur would sneak into the church behind the courtyard and play jazz on the organ. He liked how ominous he could make Duke Ellington sound. Sometimes Ralph would sit in the back with a bored look on his face, periodically screaming out insults. Sometimes Arthur would perform with his eyes closed, the sunlight pulling color from the stained-glass windows so that it seeped fluorescent light on the undersides of his eyelids. His fingers moved without him over the keys.

If you want, I can prescribe you something for the pain, but the process is irreversible.

What? Arthur hears himself say.

Ir-re-vers-ible, the doctor repeats, slower this time.

Arthur thinks briefly about picking up the suture scissors on the table and throwing them at him. He thinks against it.

He looks down at his hands.

Greta, 47

She has been careless. She left the power bill right here, she thought, but she’s picked up the stack of unread New Yorkers and looked under the tea set and even pressed her cheek against the hardwood to peer under the table and still, nothing. And now it has been dark for hours, and Julie will be back soon.

When Greta told her mother she was pregnant at 15, she had slapped her across the face. Whore, she hissed through her teeth. Filthy, ugly whore. Who could ever love you now?

She hadn’t kept it. The baby would be 32 now. Her mother is dead. When she thinks of these things, she feels cold air move through her body, and then she feels nothing.

Julie is graduating high school in June and moving across the country in September. She will be very mad about the power. She will jut her head forward and raise her eyebrows. Julie expects light. Greta is proud of this expectation.

She throws the couch cushion on the ground, and her silver bracelet snags, pulling her back with it. This feels ridiculous. She puts her face in her hands and laughs. When something embarrassing happens alone, she thinks, it becomes a trauma. When something traumatic happens alone, it’s like nothing happened at all.

The incident has caused the bracelet to dig into her wrist and leave an indent, a spot of blood. She pads into the kitchen, twisting off a no-longer-effectual stove-top burner with one hand and reaching toward a paper towel with the other. She dabs the wound — these paper towels really are absorbent. She’ll give the company a good Yelp review later, when she has power.

Lewis, 25

Lewis misses Morris more than he would care to admit. Last February, when Morris had accepted the job in Dublin, they had agreed it would be best for both of them to take a break, to try seeing other people. It had seemed very logical. They had been dating since they were 18, and some people thought that kind of devotion was old-fashioned. Lewis had needed to see if he was one of those people. He found he was not.

This morning, Lewis feels his entire body resist movement; the bed seems to be suctioning him in place. He thinks about what it would be like to actually be suctioned in place. Unpleasant. Oh fuck, maybe this is what Morris thinks of him. Oh no, fuck, oh no.

He finds mornings an excellent time of day to spiral.

He thinks about calling Morris and telling him about the bleak New York Times article he just read. It looks like the polar bears aren’t going to make it, he’d say. Morris would exhale and go into something marginally political. Maybe he’d talk about the futility of the individual effort, how the only solution to large-scale emergency is large-scale action and reform. He’d sound very informed, and by the end of it Lewis would be vaguely turned on.

Lewis drafts Morris a text, deletes it, drafts another one, and deletes it again. He thinks of Morris’ hands, how they look making coffee (beautiful), flipping pages of large books (very beautiful), tearing apart a pomegranate (indescribably beautiful). He thinks about his own hands: objectively very stubby. He rubs them together. Since he was a kid, he’s held a secret belief that by doing this, he’s helping them grow. He wonders if Morris holds any secret beliefs. He wonders how secret they are, how much he believes in them.

Contact Lillian Wollman at [email protected].