© 2003 Quarterly West

Real Men, Ghost Parts
Ava Justine Pawlak

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You are at the deli counter getting baloney and sliced cheese. Trey Hampkin works the counter every afternoon and he has a thing for you. You don't understand why-you're married, have one child but no money to speak of and, worst of all, you're a cripple. Born with nothing past the knee, nothing past the elbow. Lookswise, all you've got to work with is a pretty face, a slim, curvy waist. Trey's tall and skinny, with dark brown hair and a pockmarked face, but he's not ugly. When he smiles he's not bad at all. And he marks all the lunchmeats half price for you. He tells you it's penance. For gawking. He tells you he can't help himself. He's the only honest man you know.

You've found most men are not honest. Women are just as bad. When someone gets to know you well enough, or when they get to thinking they do, they like to ask you about your condition. They aren't honest in the way they ask, pretending to feel something other than curiosity. Which they don't. They sometimes look away, they sometimes look deep into your face in an earnest, forgiving sort of way. Like you did something wrong or bad, or have a dark secret stowed away which will explain everything. Why you look the way you do. But like Trey Hampkin, children are honest. They don't have to know you, especially the real little ones. "What happened to your arms and legs?" they ask.

When you were a little girl you'd turn your face sideways and snarl at them and show your white teeth. Sometimes you would let a line of spittle spin down off your lip and hang suspended. "A big white wolf chewed them off," you'd say, and they would go away somewhere, to some other corner of the playground where they could whisper and grin and not get bit by you. They were afraid deep inside, because you could walk, or at least waddle, on the nobs that were your knees. You could flap the blunt stubs of your arms so that you looked like a penguin balancing on ice.

Now that you are an adult, almost twenty-seven years old, you tell children clever, pretty stories:

"I gave them to a magic rabbit. He promised me beautiful hair in return. He had a golden handsaw with a feather's touch, so that I hardly felt a thing. And look, isn't my hair beautiful? The most beautiful you've seen?"

Or: "I woke up one morning and they were not there. Poof. I looked everywhere. Behind the sofa, under the bed, in the cabinet over the stove. Nothing. Then I found a note on the fridge. It read, 'I'm very sorry, but my children were hungry, and I had nothing for the stew.'"

Or: "A gypsy bandit tied me down to train tracks, because I would not marry him. He pleaded with me to the last second. When the train went over me, it cut my arms and legs away where they were fastened to the rails. I howled and howled, but lived, and when the bandit saw me in this state, he tore his hair out with sadness and disemboweled himself with a lovely gypsy sword which had been in the family for fourteen generations."

Or, when you're in a hurry: "Well, just look at that! They up and run off on me again."

The adults are different. You tell them simply, flatly, "I was born this way."

Except Trey, who you tell a different story every time. He delights in the stories. He smiles at you and you ask for a pickle from the large glass jar, to bring home for your husband, Dwayne.

You stand at a kitchen counter, the one that's custom lowered so that you can use it. The trailer house does not offer many luxuries, but this is one of them. That, and the mountain view, with the river winding below, only a few other trailers obscuring it. You make baloney and cheese sandwiches for your six-year-old son, DJ, to put in his lunch for tomorrow. You can do lots of things with your elbows and sometimes your teeth, things people don't believe you can do, when you tell them. You can open the twist tie on a bag of bread, peel apart layers of baloney, squirt mustard, spread mayo, seal up a Ziploc bag. You are amazing. Dwayne told you so seven years ago, just before he married you. You married him because he said it, and no one else had. Now you see that he is a common redneck with a poor excuse for a mullet. Each day, he comes home from a factory where they make pitchforks, scythes and hoes. Despite all of progress, they still make things like that. Really.

Dwayne comes home from the factory and eats the dinner that takes your handless self twice as long to prepare as it would a regular wife with hands. Dwayne spends most of his money at the Thirsty Whale or at the Silver Bullet, so you make things like hamburger casserole and tuna casserole and bacon casserole and macaroni casserole. On occasion, you make fish sticks with your special tartar sauce and homemade fries on the side, and tonight that's what you are making.

"Vroooom. Vroom, vroom, vroom. Look, Mama." D.J. rolls a miniature monster truck back and forth over the table, crashing it into the saltshaker and bouncing it over the plates and silverware that you've laid out neatly and by no means effortlessly. Dwayne comes in and messes up his son's hair on his way to the fridge, where he pulls out the forty ounce King Cobra he picked up after work. You give him a look and he tells you, "It was on sale. Buck thirty-nine." He opens the freezer and pulls out a frosted mug and fills it with beer.

"Mm-mm, I smell me some fish sticks and taters," he says, and pats your ass, which has a nice shape to it. You are slender, if not long. You can tell Dwayne's been looking at porn on the internet because that's the only time he pats your ass. Right afterwards. Some nights he locks himself in the bedroom for an hour or more, and you stare at the plywood door. You listen to him making noises like he is in pain and humming his way through it, like he just whacked his thumb with a hammer. Mm mm mm mm. Beneath this sound that your husband makes is the steady buzz of the hard drive.

D.J. looks up at you and smiles. "I like fish sticks," he says. He rests his truck on a chair and straightens the silverware, biting down on his lip as he moves from setting to setting. You bring him an ice tray and he fills the glasses with ice.

When you were a little girl you dreamed of hands and feet, of long, lanky limbs. And there were things you dreamed of doing-running in circles around houses, braiding the neighbor girl's pretty red hair, swimming across Grass Lake, painting on white canvas the pieces of fruit your mother would bring home. Bowling, and fishing. Line dancing, playing tennis and soccer, riding bikes and horses through the woods. Macramé, battleship, and baking oatmeal cookies with raisins in them. Pleating friendship bracelets. You marveled at the tiny figurines your classmates molded out of putty and clay, at the baskets they wove for the final art project in Miss Jenny's class.

As you got older, there were other things, too. Putting on a bra, or makeup. Smoking a cigarette. Driving a car, which you would not do for years. Having a boy ask you to the prom. You really wanted to go to the prom. But had someone asked you, you would have turned them down. You would have thought they were kidding, playing some cruddy joke. The heat would have come to your face.

There was a vision you had of yourself. With arms and legs. You stood on a bridge throwing flowers into the water. A skirt whipped against your legs and you leaned bravely into the railing. Men driving over the bridge stared at you simply because you were amazing, for no reason but that you stood there, throwing flowers.

You get in bed and Dwayne climbs on top of you. You have little say as to how sex will go because the leverage thing isn't really a factor. Dwayne doesn't make any funny humming sounds because the sex neither hurts nor is very good. There's none of that lovely pain stuff you see on television or read in trashy novels, or overhear one aisle over at the grocery store. You can't claw Dwayne's back or yank his hair or probe his asshole with an index finger. He pumps away and his ass glows white in the dark of the room. You lift your head to watch his ass and try and get turned on, hot, but instead you see things-a mound of snow, a baby turned stomach down and bounced on a knee, a piece of raw chicken in a bowl.

You started taking the pill a few months back and Dwayne has no clue. Every afternoon, while he is at work, you fish the pink plastic case out of your underwear drawer and pop the tiny pills out with your teeth, just another little skill you've mastered that you can feel good about.

After Dwayne falls asleep, you lie in bed thinking about it. It is not yet something you can put into words-it is too terrible-but you've been toying with it for quite some time. A boy you knew from high school gives it to you, this idea. A memory you have of him. Rex Logan. Okay, you didn't really know him but you think about him a lot and you can close your eyes and still see him. All the girls stop to watch him walk down the hall. He has long hair he tucks behind his ears and a way of running one finger along the lockers, gently, so that the doors rattle like cymbals. He wears jeans with the rectangles of wallets faded into the back left pocket. As you sit alone one day in the cafeteria eating your lunch of potatoes and gravy, holding the bowl up to your face with your elbows, he sits down in front of you. You share a few classes with him, but have never spoken to him directly.

"Want to see something?" Rex asks.

"Sure." You shrug, but you are afraid. Even in high school, kids still like pranks.

"See this cherry stem?" Rex dangles a maraschino cherry inches from your nose. You notice that the stem is translucent red, and flexible. It looks like a tiny tube of blood. Rex tears the cherry off the stem and offers it up to your mouth. You eat it right out of his hand, like a pony eats sugar. You are afraid of disobeying him. You've never had a maraschino cherry, and it's delicious. When Rex does not laugh, does not react at all, you understand that there's no prank, not yet anyhow.

"Now watch." Rex puts the stem in his mouth and you can see by the way his cheek moves that he's wiggling his tongue around in there. When he pulls the stem out it has a knot in it. It is the first bit of magic you've seen in your short life. The possibilities of the mouth, the clamping teeth and expert tongue, loom before you. He sets the stem in front of you and says, "Peggy Sue-Ann-Marie-whatever-your-last-name-is, will you go to the prom with me?"

You don't know what to say, so you tell him your full name, "Peggy Joe Linder." That's all you say.

"Will you go to the prom with me?" Rex repeats.

"Why are you asking me?"

"Because I think you're pretty and you say smart things in class, and I don't think no one else's asked you. I hope, anyway, no one's asked you." He says the last bit like a question, and you feel your face beginning to warm.

"I can't really dance."

"It doesn't matter."

"Isn't that why you go to prom, to dance?"

"Listen, why don't you just say yes and see what happens?"

"You're making a fool of me," you tell him. You stand and hobble out of the cafeteria, leaving your tray at the table with Rex.

The following morning, bright and early, Dwayne's friend Geoff knocks on your front door. You don't know Geoff but you do know that he is a painter and paints lots of ceiling. He owns a pair of stilts, so that he doesn't have to keep moving a ladder around. Geoff walks on the stilts better than a circus clown, so Dwayne has invited him to come teach you. Dwayne thinks you might like it, being tall like everybody else and being able to wear long pants and skirts, especially to church and dinners at the Roasted Nut. Geoff knocks and knocks and you stand there patting down your hair.

"Aren't you going to get that?" Dwayne hollers from behind the closed bedroom door where he pretends to ready himself for work. He's got the computer on, and you know he's looking at porn. You move towards the front door and open it and there he is, this friend of Dwayne's that you don't know. That you don't know him is not, in itself, a surprise. You assume Dwayne met him at the Thirsty Whale, or the Silver Bullet, or any one of those strip joints along the highway.

"Hello," you say, and though he does not say anything when you let him in, Geoff is a friendly looking man with ruddy cheeks and hands. He has blonde tufts of hair that stick out from under a brown camouflage cap that reads across its front: Hunt or Starve. He stands in the entryway, head down and hands folded together as if he were praying to you.

"Hey there, Geoff," Dwayne calls out from the bedroom. "Come in here for a sec and check this out." Geoff nods to you as he walks by, but still doesn't say anything.

Fifteen minutes later Dwayne is off to work and your lesson begins. You practice out in the yard, in the grass, your thighs strapped tight against the cold metal of the stilts. D.J. stands motionless, gripping his truck and watching. Geoff holds you by your hips as you take the first wobbly steps. He says things like "Thatta girl" and "That's it" and "You got it, you got it, you got it." His praise is incessant, so that you wonder how he manages to breathe. It is quite a shock to you, all this talk, after the silent treatment he gave you in the entry hall. After five minutes of walking, you're about ready to yank off one of them stilts and whack him over the head with it.

Then you realize it. Geoff is nervous. Petrified of your limblessness like no other you've ever met.

Ava Justine Pawlak lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches writing and literature at the University of Michigan. She has published stories in Water~Stone and the Evansville Review, and is working on her first novel. She shares her home with two shepherd mixes, Vera May and Hal.