American Sign Language
Shortly after my wife Eileen left with only a suitcase, I found the hand in the park near our house, just lying out in the leaves, open as a starfish. It was a right hand, cut clean at the wrist. Without even a fleck of polish the hand immediately struck me as womanly, slender—and yet, here it was, without a woman in sight. Right away we had this in common.
I looked at it for a really long time before I decided to take it home and put it in my freezer. I didn’t want some kids to find it and spend the afternoon making handjob jokes. Nobody respects the dead anymore, even the little parts of them that are left behind. I set the hand on top of a bag of frozen peas so that it stood upright and palm-out, locked in an apathetic wave.
The next day the hand had burnt or something. Dusted in crystal, the skin had gone so white it was purple and it was now pebbled with yawning pores, like raw poultry. Three of the fingers had shut so that only the index and the thumb were extended, forming a right angle, an L. The day after that, the index had withered too, so that all of the fingers were now folded at the middle knuckle. The thumb had curled, squeezing in tight beneath the naked fingertips, covering the palm, and the hand now looked like some creature that was all teeth and bottom lip.
I noticed that Eileen had left two Lean Cuisine entrees in the freezer door. She used to eat them when she was too busy to cook. I used to call them Eileen Cuisines, which she hated. I hated that she ever ate without me. It’s uncivilized to eat alone.
Now I’m no linguist, but I know American Sign Language when I see it. Perhaps the hand was trying to tell me something. I let it thaw in the kitchen sink under the fluorescent tubes, thinking this might expedite things. I put Neil Diamond on the record player and sang along to “Sweet Caroline,” humming through the words I didn’t remember.
For two days the hand sweat pink rivers into the drain, lost its icicle sheen, and slowly reopened, blossoming into the number five. The kitchen began to smell like a butcher’s counter, the air rich with iron.
That night I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, humming the few bars of “Sweet Caroline” that I couldn’t seem to escape, and I stood there in the dark, looking at the hand in the basin beneath the faucet. Rigor or something had set and the flesh felt ossified. Shadows swelled the topography of the palm and the lines seemed to dig deeper, like inhaling ravines.
Hello? I whispered, even though no one was around. Hello?
Online I found this psychic, in Jacksonville, Florida, who performs palm readings from afar. Like if you live in Bumfuck, Alaska, and you don’t have psychic services readily available to you, the Great Clarissa will help you out. How about that? Sometimes it feels like the world is only foreign countries and I’m just a tourist.
There was a picture on the website of a white woman, fortyish, noosed in gaudy costume jewelry, her hair wrapped in a peacock scarf that was pinned in front with a fake ruby set in turquoise just about where her third eye would open on her forehead and blink. She reminded me of Eileen’s best friend, Bethany, who was twice divorced and took belly dancing classes every Friday night in a little room behind a Moroccan restaurant. She was the most unhappy woman I had ever met, or at least I had thought so until recently. The Great Clarissa recommended rinsing my hand with water before recording the image, so I did.
The scanner’s blue light worked over the hand, down to the marbled nub and then back up again. When I picked up the hand I could see the ghost of its print still fogging the scanner glass.
I sent off fifty dollars and the hi-res jpeg, but I didn’t need to wait three days for a reply to know what it was going to say. It would seem automated, compiled by the same confused machine that spits out the fortunes of fortune cookies:
You will ultimately be prosperous, but not without setbacks.
You will live a long life.
You will love again.
Later, after I ate a Lean Cuisine, I rummaged through Eileen’s lingerie drawer to see what was left. Everything, as far as I could tell. Where does a woman go without a change of underwear?
On our bed, I set out a lacy black bra, matching panties, a garter belt, and a pair of stockings. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen these exact items before, but the smell was right: milk-sweet perspiration, lilac, the faint acidity of mothballs. I arranged them on the bed just so—flattening out creases, petting the hems down—until I thought they fit Eileen’s exact proportions. The outfit looked so strange deflated and horizontal. Then I sat in my rocking chair rocking, considering the shape of a woman around and between these garments. I stared as if waiting for a woman to emerge through our bedspread the way a selkie slowly exits the sea inside the fisherman’s net.
I wanted to be rich and famous.
When I opened the freezer the hand had frozen shut again on top of the bag of peas, the thumb now lodged between the index and middle fingers. I try to believe in all things, I do, but I’m dyslexic when I read the stars, unlucky at tarot, and I come out penniless when I confront the I Ch’ing. I can only see fate in hindsight, where my life folds up behind me. I’m no medium. I can’t even receive the messages that are addressed to me. My mail always ends up at my neighbor’s house.
The colors of Eileen’s nail polishes reminded me of fresh welts and fat lips, the hues of raw organs. I picked out a plummy red, the kind you might see in a healthy adult liver. I tried painting each nail carefully, but the hand was cold to the touch and I couldn’t figure out how to not leave brushstrokes. When I was finished it looked like someone had drunkenly raked a little red Zen garden over the lip of each cuticle.
I took the hand back to the park later that night, climbing deep into the fir grove where I had found it. I used to worry about venturing this deep into the park at night, that I would disturb pairs and triptychs of adventurous lovers, or come across a single man looking for the nameless, quick, and evaporating love of a stranger, but now I knew I was alone. I heard it in the cool rustle of the leaves and in the distant engines of cars trolling the avenue. Above me, I couldn’t even find the Big Dipper in the purple sky.
When Eileen and I had first started dating, she grabbed me by the wrist and told me she could read my future.
You’re going to live a long life, she said. You’re going to be rich and famous.
She spit into the folds of my hand.
Look, she said. There’s your swimming pool.
When I was leaving the park that night I met an one-armed woman holding a leash.
Did you lose something? I asked.
Yes, she said. My dog. He’s a Scottie. Name’s Gary.
So I helped her look for her dog, under bushes and down dark trails, hopelessly calling, Gary! into the night. It was useless. We looked for about an hour and the entire time I just kept thinking that Gary was a pretty lousy name for a Scottie. If I had a Scottie I’d name him Mac or Ewan or Biscuit.
When I told her I was leaving, she said, I don’t want to go home without Gary.
She did look pretty sorry standing there in a cone of streetlight with the limp leash in her one hand.
Then she said, I don’t want to go home alone.
Oh, I said. I don’t think that would be a very good idea.
I’m in a compromised emotional state, she said. You could take advantage of that—to a point. Nothing freaky, okay?
I really don’t think that would be a very good idea, I said.
Is it the arm? she said.
No, I said, but I don’t think she believed me.
It’s always the arm, she said, shaking her head.
I wanted to tell her that everything would be all right, that she would love again, that she would live a long life and ultimately be prosperous, but what did I know?
Instead, I watched her walk away into the darkness, towards the heart of the park, where I knew that she would find someone else waiting for her in the shadows, someone who could peel off her underwear and comfort her against the rough bark of a tree trunk without knowing her name.
I spit into my hand.
Look, I said. There’s your swimming pool.
Then I walked home alone.
It really wasn’t the arm. It wasn’t. It’s just that I didn’t want to love again. I wanted to love forever, in an unbreaking line from the base of my palm to the tip of my index finger.
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