(an excerpt from We Don’t Talk About Things Like That)
February 13, 2012
2010. A stranger approaches me at dusk to tell me the many ways his body has been destroyed. We’re at a neighborhood picnic that’s being held just under a cliff, the boney remains of a clear-cut forest behind us. This is not my neighborhood, (it’s not even my hemisphere) so the last few months have been rolling slow, saturated with novelty. To the stranger, though, this is life at its most generic. He eats fat tomatoes, lamb and pig off a grease-splotched paper plate, while we watch farmers and their families scoot drunkenly around to live country music.
But the stranger is not the dancing type; he’s the talk-to-the-most-out-of-place person type. He asks me what brought me to his country but this is less interesting than his second question—Guess which eye is real?
He is staring brazenly at me with what appears to be two real eyes. I stare back and notice that his face is mostly hairless and wrinkled in strange formations— waves of skin breaking haphazardly across his cheeks and forehead. I make a guess on the fake eye.
Very good, he says, seeming impressed. That’s two thousand dollars right there, courtesy of the of the New Zealand government, implanted into my skull.
The stranger winks his real eye and I ask him how he lost the other.
Well, it was about five years ago… on a night like this night… at a party much like this one… in a place just like this place.
He looks around us as if reliving the exact moment— those last hours he had the ignorable fortune of two real eyes.
A fireworks display didn’t go quite as planned.
He shrugs and then lists the other parts of his body that were engulfed that night, tells me what it smells like when your own body is being seared like a fillet of something. He tells me the doctors were so sure he was lost, but a few days later, he walked out of the hospital—held together by splints and heaps of gauze, but walking—at least he was walking.
And that was nothing compared to the time I was run over by a bus. See that camper van there?
He points. I nod.
Imagine something that big hitting you at you at sixty K.
He watches me imagine it.
Now imagine it bigger.
And I easily can. I can see the grill slamming into my ribcage and hear the thwack of my body against the hood and feel the hot pavement where my body would land. I can see the angry shapes torn in my skin and how my bones would splinter underneath. I’ve imagined this before, and dreamed it often. It started when I was a girl, when I would have nightmares about what was happening to all those bodies in hell, but the images soon moved into my waking life. I wondered what would happen if a car missed a stop sign and met me on my bike. Would I get caught underneath the car— would it be the wheels that crushed me? Or would I go into the air first and then come down to the street to split like a dropped melon? Then I was clipped by a truck outside my house which left my arm and ribs speckled blue. Almost every time I put a foot on a street my blood goes on a fire-drill, adrenalined and ready for some sudden smack.
So, yes, it is easy for me to imagine myself on the wrong side of a bus going at sixty K. I recall it like an old nursery rhyme.
The cycloptic stranger invites me to see his van, his home on wheels, so I grab the friend I came to the picnic with and we follow him down a hill. The stranger limps along, pulling a straightened leg behind him. I don’t know why he wants to show me his van until I see it and realize it is not a winnebago, but his life turned into a moving project, his indestructible body built large. He told me it ad been a milkman’s truck in the nineteen-fifties, but this vehicle seems to have been designed to deliver milk in a war zone, part truck and part tank. The stranger has painted it a charred black, all except the windshield, which lets in a single rectangle of light. Above each of the headlights there is— impossibly, ridiculously— a burning torch. The stranger slaps the hood of the truck and smiles at his home.
Isn’t she beautiful, he says.
She dwarfs the cars around her and makes them look so bright and tiny in the dusk, like abandoned toys. I imagine the stranger driving his massive black machine through a green countryside dotted with sheep, the engine drowning out their bleating. I imagine the shock on a little boy’s face as it passes his parent’s car. Look, the boy would say and his father would let the stranger’s van pass, a little terrified but not letting it show.
The three of us climb inside. I sit sideways in the passenger seat, my friend leans uncertainly against the kitchen counter and the stranger sits on a small couch next to my chair. He tells us he has two hearts. A regular one—four chambers in the usual position—and a smaller, two-chambered one that hovers just under his right lung. It’s about the size of a toddler’s fist.
That’s probably what has kept me alive though all this shit, he says. The big one seizes up and gets ready to die but the little one just keeps at it, like the rest of my body doesn’t have a choice.
He tells me that other organs in his body grew upside-down, that his appendix grew on the wrong side of his body, that his intestines are coiled, somehow, in reverse.
The doctors told my mother I would die quickly.
He holds out his hands and shows me how they’re fleshless, practically made of stone. The bones in there belong to another species; the doctors just scratched their heads when they saw the x- rays. The stranger tells me about more of his accidents and surgeries. He shows me the scars and I keep asking questions.
There is something so familiar about this man, and later I realize it’s because his face is in a painting I saw when I was a child. His image was painted over and over again, a bloodless pale face smoldering in hell— his body forever suffering in the shadow of the God, the father, he had failed. It was a face that had been in my nightmare, the ones I had when I fell asleep worrying about who I hadn’t saved because I was awkward and spastic and not a convincing witness to the power of what Jesus could do for you.
You want to see me take my eye out?
But this isn’t a question; he’s already blinked the glass shell into his palm. The stranger is holding his lids apart to show me the red flesh underneath.
You wouldn’t believe it, but there’s already a new iris growing.
Maybe I would have believed, but I was too afraid to get a closer look.
[Catherine Lacey is a founder of a cooperatively owned bed-and-breakfast called 3B, and has published work with 52 Stories, Cousin Corrinne’s Reminder, Blackbook, Trnsfr, elimae, and elsewhere. www.catherinelacey.com]