By Vincent Yu
At first there was horror. Then relief, acceptance, love. When he was old enough to go to school his parents assured him he was normal and handsome and if anyone were to say anything hurtful about his thing then he should go to the teacher straight away. But the first girl to whom he’d extended a tepid hand ran away screaming, and he wasn’t sure if that counted. The second boy had flinched and asked,
“My hand,” he’d said.
“It looks funny.”
“Yeah, it’s how I was born.”
It became more or less this same conversation each time. Then he got to middle school, and the comments turned meaner. They called him Claws, they asked him how he jerked off with that thing, they sniggered at him during the unit on Johnny Tremain. But there was a fat boy in his class, too, whom they called Pudge. And a girl with a unibrow and hairy legs who had BO. And an Asian boy with glasses who put so much gel in his hair that in the sunlight it shined like a beetle’s wing. It was the great saving grace of middle school that he could be as mean to anyone as he wanted: everyone else was, everything was fair game.
The town he grew up in was small and prosperous enough to have a magnet school whose entry was determined by a lottery system that kids from neighboring, lower-tax-bracketed cities could enter. Most houses had two-car garages for the minivan and the sportscar. In a friend’s basement his junior year of high school, he had his first beer.
“Make sure you don’t pierce through the aluminum, Claws.” A round of drunk chuckles made its way through the circle. He smiled; it was all kind of affectionate by now.
His right hand-the claw- was a stump covered in fleshy nubs. The index, middle, and ring finger barely protruded past his knuckles. His thumb and pinky were a bit more fully formed- about half the length of normal fingers, with putative nail beds that curved inward towards the palm. His left hand was a normal hand.
The beer was difficult to open but not so difficult as bottles, which he had to press firmly against his chest with his claw and vigorously twist with his good hand. To be safe, he wedged the can between his thighs, then hooked his thumb beneath the tab and pushed up until he felt the spritzing crack. When he looked up everyone was staring at him. “Dude, that was impressive,” his friend said.
He was impressive. Some people even called him inspirational when they saw the kinds of normal things he could do with his 1.5 hands (violin, assorted magic tricks, watercolors, etc). They lumped him with the inner city kids when topics like “triumph over adversity” rose in conversation.
But he still preferred cold weather because it gave him an excuse to hide his claw in the pockets of hoodies or thick jackets. On warmer days, when short sleeves were the only option, he felt so exposed he could’ve been naked. He hated washing his hands, guiding the perfectly normal fingers of his left over and in between the knobs of his right. His handwriting was chronically bad. His typing was slow and sputtery. He was bad at most sports except long distance running.
By the time he landed in college he was tall and stringy and fairly handsome. He had a sharp nose and thick, pork chop lips. His body broadened out at the shoulders; his throat bulged with virility. His eyes contracted into a singular smirk which he’d developed in response to most awkward hand-related interactions.
He had relationships with girls who consciously praised themselves for their openness and ability to see past physical flaws. He had a fling with some kind of kinktress who was sexually fixated on certain acts involving his claw and her mouth. He went to class and sometimes drank, he experimented with recreational drugs and made a few close friends.
But college was big- far bigger than his home town. People back home might remember him as “the guy with the hand,” but at least he could be dependably that, and as soon as most people sized up the basic gist of who you seemed to be, they could get to the deeper, messier business of understanding who you really were. It never quite reached that point now. Every day he walked past people whom he’d never met, for whom it seemed like a waste of time and effort to reveal this abnormal part of himself, since he would never meet them again. Who wanted to be a freak just for the sake of identifying as such? He got to wearing his hoodie more and more frequently.
A cold afternoon in November. The skeletal radiator in his dorm room was puffing up steam at a worrisome pitch that he was used to. Outside his window, campus was shivering with dull frost and the bare rankling fingers of deciduous trees. In the distance he could see the shaggy-sparse jacket of firs creeping up the New England mountains.
His room was in an isolated corner of the 3rd floor of a brutalist student housing complex overlooking the science quad and a portion of the gothic-style freshman housing units. It was a marvelous place in which to recede on cold, silent days of autumn laziness. He was wrapped in such a warm blanket of content that the sudden knock on his door almost threw him off his chair.
Another thing they never told you about having a claw- that you would be forever off-kilter. The tiny neural sensors all over- the ones that registered the outside world to the inside you- were flung down your body in all sorts of subtle asymmetries. Most times it was barely noticeable, like feeling for the minute indentations on a stretch of scoured pan, but put the body under enough sudden stress and you saw how very tenuous your balance truly was.
“That hoodie needs to go soon, bro. It’s looking awfully ratty.” His hallmate Conrad extended a hand, his left.
“Not to look at.”
Conrad strode into the room and landed ass first on his bed. “How you ever get pussy is, frankly, beyond me.”
“Fuck you,” he laughed.
“Big news from our friends on the fourth floor,” Conrad said carelessly. “Some kid is getting expelled on account of bad grades.”
“Oh yeah?” he flipped through an old math textbook. “I didn’t think that was possible, to be honest. Isn’t there a ton of grade inflation?”
“I’ve seen him around. Dude’s a freak.”
“-You say as you talk to the guy with a claw for a hand.”
“Nah, don’t take it personally, man. There’re people who are different and then there are people who are truly freakish, you know? It’s not as if you chose to have a gimpy hand. But acting like a nutjob and snarling at people who walk past you? That’s a choice and that makes him a freak.”
“You’re quite the humanist.”
“I’m sure if you saw him you’d recognize him. Hard to miss, really. Just gives off the wrong kind of vibe. Scares off all the girls.”
“Not my current forte either,” he said into the glum sheen of the book.
“You’ll be fine as long you stop wearing that fucking hoodie.”
So later that night he pulled on a buttoned down shirt, and when he and Conrad found seats at the bar, he even brought his claw out from the shell of his sleeve and used its nub to trace figure eights on the condensation forming on his beer glass.
“My sister has the same thing,” a woman said suddenly. She’d sat down beside him when he wasn’t looking.
“Same what?” Defensiveness was a gut reaction.
“Thing with the hand-” she pointed- “what you have.”
“Jesus, what a way to start a conversation.”
Conrad, on his other side, jabbed him hard in the ribs.
“Well I just wanted to get it out of the way, first. Sorry if I offended you or anything- I mean, I was just stating a fact.”
He blinked and coerced his mouth into a smile. He took a sip of his beer, paying extra mind not to leave any traces of foamy mustache. “Ok, well now that it’s out of the way, uh, so, what’s next?”
In the corner of his eye he saw the flesh-colored outline of Conrad’s face sink into his hands.
“What you say next is your name,” she smirked.
“Good,” she laughed trillingly. “I’m Olivia. Next you offer to buy me a drink- although I think that’s a bit old fashioned. Maybe instead you could ask me what I wanted, order it, and then let me pay for it myself.”
He nodded. “Ok, sure. So what’ll you have?”
“A Coca-Cola, please. Oh, and you forgot to shake my hand when you introduced yourself.” She smiled; the bar rang with the clink of glasses, a constant low burble of laughter.
“Right, right, my bad,” he said, extending.
“Other hand, please. I’m a righty.”
He grunted. “Fine. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Same.” She took his claw in both of hers and shook firmly, holding it for a few extra beats. Her hands were warm and understanding. Her fingers pressed in and collapsed the space around his barely-there knuckles, feeling around the way a blind person would read braille.
“My sister tells me that it’s super annoying when people put a conscious effort into making it seem like not a big deal, as if talking around it makes it any less noticeable.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That can get annoying.”
“And the worst is when people flinch at it, right? Like how it can get so alienating? No one wants to feel as if he has some kind of deformity.”
“Your sister has the right idea about all this.”
“I was bullshitting, I don’t actually have a sister.”
Beer went out his nose. The low tint of the bar swam in hazy threads before his eyes.
“I have this theory, see, that people aren’t willing to open up to other people unless they feel as if they’re on a level playing field, or they at least have something in common.”
“I’m not too sure I follow.”
“Well your hand- see?” She picked it up and laughed when he immediately recoiled. “We hate ugly things and we hate them even more when they’re attached to us and the worst part of all is that once we address a thing as ugly, there’s no way for us to change our minds about it. Even if most other people don’t find it ugly.”
He was a tiny bit offended but couldn’t locate precisely why just yet.
“All I’m saying is that I don’t think you would’ve taken me seriously if I’d just approached you without context.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s the patriarchy, bro.”
“Well then, why did you approach me?”
“That is something I don’t know how to answer- claw hand or not.”
“Well give it a shot?” he asked, feeling desperate.
“I guess you seemed very spiritual,” she giggled, and leaned in.
They say that when you get to college, you have the chance to remake yourself. What they don’t say is that there are only a few new versions of you that people will actually accept, no matter where you go to school, no matter where you wind up afterwards.
Mom was always telling me that the majority of people out there are dumbasses. That realizing this made me one of the smart but cursed few, and that’s how I ended up here, you know. College. She told me that it was proudest she’d ever been. And then she died- right there on the bed we’d made for her, surrounded by the buckets filled with her sick and the few family members who weren’t sick themselves or locked up for selling dope or something.
I won’t pretend like that didn’t hurt- like I didn’t push past the screen door and rush into the dirty, gutted, back of our house and cry into the dried up dandelion stems I was planning to light on fire later that night. Sometimes I thought I could still feel her- I know, I know, it’s got Oedipus written all over it, but it’s tough when you grow up in the middle of bumblefuck, south of nowhere, and sometimes you feel so alone you have to take the ring and middle fingers of each hand and walk them like a pair of feet, with the pinky and pointer extended as arms, and pretend like you and your two hands are old buddies.
A few days after mom died I landed here. Thought I’d be excited but more than anything I was terrified. You don’t quite become aware of your insecurities until you try to approach a pretty girl at a loud party. The only females I ever saw growing up were my mom and my cousins: ugly folk. Muffin-topped, flabby breasted hunchbacks with volcanic acne and overcompensating hair. College was like a conference of pretty girls; it made me wish fairly urgently that my mom were still with me to give me advice, which I realize is extremely pathetic.
What do you talk about when you’re a guy like me? Two good shirts, only one with buttons. Never had the money for acne treatment or braces or good haircuts. Same pair of shoes for the better part of a decade. An old hoodie as the only protection against a New England winter more cutting than a knife.
If you were from the middle of some hot, deserted nowhere, where only a portion of your family was literate, where your father was shivved to death in the jail shower for being at the bottom of the hierarchy, where the freedom of your mother’s death was the reason why you could attend college at all, you never really got to understand the kinds of campus issues that everyone else got so riled up about- the animal rights and the social justice and the microscopic forms of racial aggression. If you were me, all you wanted was a fucking friend. Preferably someone who could understand that a hungry thing is a hungry thing, and that at the end we’re all just hungry, lonely things.
He woke up having to piss like never before, but her cheek was resting on his right bicep, his claw sitting on her waist. There in bed, his bladder set to burst, the evening’s events unspooled and rushed in like a high tide of memory- how she’d laughed at the musty old hoodie he’d insisted on putting on because it was freezing, how she’d known better and coaxed the claw from its hiding place, how she’d wrapped her whole hand around it as they giggle-walked back to his place, then coaxed his body from his clothes.
There was a second, more intense kind of sweetness that came with the first recollections of a pleasant moment- a leisurely thickness which gave you purchase to zoom in and savor all its tiny felicities, like how the starlike freckle on her cheek collapsed inward when she smiled and how that lovely, moon-flushed face glowed and sparkled with jouncing stars the whole night long.
Then, if you liked, you could zoom back out and take a deep breath and realize in the warmth of its aftermath that it had truly all happened, that perhaps everything was liable to change starting from this moment on.
He managed to sidle out from under her without eliciting more than a light snore, snatched up his underwear and pants and made it halfway to the bathroom before a violent buzzing suddenly erupted in his pocket. He reached in and felt his phone,
Alert: ARMED GUNMAN ON CAMPUS: Please immediately find shelter. POLICE ARE ON THEIR WAY.
“Holy fuck,” he whispered into the empty hall. Conrad’s head emerged suddenly from his room.
“Dude-” he said, eyes peeled open with terror, “Dude, get the fuck inside!”
It’s been three years and I still haven’t found a girlfriend. Not even a regular friend- and you know it’s not for lack of trying. I’m not some kind of snob; I don’t make an effort to push people away. But I guess when you go to one of these fancy private colleges full of private clubs and invite-only events and buildings that have your parents’ names carved onto their transoms, the only way that some people can have social currency is by denying it to others.
The thing about being outside an established group is that you’re more than just alienated; you’re actively disliked. You can feel it as you walk by everyone else- they avoid you like a swarm of minnows forming the cautionary bubble around a shark. People look at me and they flinch- as if it’s my fault that my acne scars never healed, or it’s my fault that all my clothes are a few sizes too big, or it’s my fault that my nose came in crooked because my pops got me so bad with the wrench one time that not even he could hide it from CPS, or it’s my fault that my hair goes back in a ponytail because that’s the only way I can cut it, or it’s my fault that just- just fuck. Fuck.
People here think that being poor is just the state of poverty, like it’s something so simple as the lack of money! No, no, being poor means that your strongest memories of your pops are when he had you ass out and bent forward, the wrench bouncing off the cheeks so hard you could feel it touch the bone and you knew you wouldn’t be able to sit for weeks but what you didn’t know was why. Being poor is having to sell shit on the sidewalks of the nearest city- laying the soft, mite-filled mittens and scarves that your mother spent her useless waking hours knitting on top of the dirty blue tarp- and watching passerby sneer down at you and say things like, “oh he’s from that freak Ewing family from up there in the country,” and, “look, you can see the inbreeding in him,” and, “I’ll be damned if that whole family weren’t just a bunch of dirty welfare hicks.”
Being my kind of poor means more than beating the odds of getting into a school like this, it means circumventing chance all-fucking-together. No one cares about white trash; it’s not in vogue. There’s nothing about white trash poverty that can be parlayed into some kind of hip urban cache. There’s nothing about being so poor that your parents hate you for your hunger that’s inspirational or redeemable. No. If you’re my type of poor, you’d best erase it entirely from the you that people see- you have to talk all proper and write well and shower daily and eat with knife and fork. Around here you’re allowed to be poor in name only.
“Fuck,” he rushed back into the room. She was sitting plumb upright, phone shaking in her hands, eyes protuberant. “Howie,” she hissed, “we have to hide.”
“I think we’ll be fine as long as we stay here in this room, right?”
She put a finger urgently to his lips. “What if he’s in this building?”
There was a sharp crack from outside the window; the sound of a small firework popping and fizzling in the cold autumn smoke. Somewhere in the building they heard a shriek.
“Oh shit,” she said, making her way to the window, “Oh shit oh shit.”
“No-” He lunged and grabbed her forearm with his left hand. “No- you don’t want him to see us if he’s out there.”
“We need to hide, then. We definitely need to hide.”
They made their way inside his cramped and sweat-smelling closet, crouching painfully on top of some long-discarded socks, and as their heads brushed against the cluttered clothes hangers and they looked through the forest of his shirts for any sign of intrusion, the dull ache in his stomach became suddenly pronounced. He’d forgotten to piss.
Outside his door, down the hall and up the old stairwell, the puddle of steps echoed. She grabbed his claw and squeezed tight; her palm felt clammy and her fingers desperate. He had inconceivable things on his mind: Last words? Last moments? Funerals? Death? The steps were getting louder. Distant things were getting closer.
“Fuck,” she wheezed, squeezing his claw harder. “Fuck, I’m scared.”
“It’ll be ok,” he whispered, although he had no idea whether or not it would be truly ok. Funny, he thought, how even in this life or death situation he was still projecting. In the face of total annihilation he was still trying to make himself to her. The pain in his claw was diverting necessary attention away from his bladder. The steps were getting louder.
And then another crack- like the sound of a giant rubber band snapping in half. She winced beside him and started, very silently, to cry.
“Shh,” he said meaninglessly. “Shh, we’ll be ok.” His knees were bent into each other, his ankles knotted, the pain in his claw was becoming unbearable.
As he thought how, thankfully, the gunman had four whole floors with probably 10 rooms each in which to wreak his havoc. Their chances of getting their brains blown out were relatively low- plus- the individual pops of the gun made him think he wasn’t equipped with anything heavier than a semi-automatic. With any luck this was some kind of pinpointed vendetta, not a slaughter.
“Why are the steps so slow?” she whispered. “Do you think he’s carrying a bag or something?”
He shook his head.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t,” he said.
“I just- I just really, really, don’t want to die.”
And then- the unmistakable clanging of their hallway door opening.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck oh fuck.” A wildfire series of explosions; an endless concussion of metallic pangs whizzing outside the door.
He was squinting and squeezing his whole face into as pruny and tight a shape as possible. The sound of all that chaos and hot metal clinking and ricocheting until it was more than sound- it was the smell of smoke and the hot, violent feeling of splintering all around him and in his stomach. His lower stomach. There was a shattering release and a sudden warmth spilling down him.
“Oh my God!” she screamed. “Oh my God, have you been shot? Oh my God help, please!”
Yes, he’d been shot. He was shot. This was it. There was no one nearby to save him. He would bleed out in his closet, next to this girl he’d had a one night stand with. He’d collapse in this bloody, wet heap of his clothes.
But the warmth was cooling rapidly, and he was remarkably clear-headed, despite the shock. The white-hot pain you expected with these kinds of things had yet to settle in.
Now my mother- my mother was an angel but she was also one of those psycho rednecks who had no faith in the government outside of their welfare checks. If my mother knew anything about the kinds of arguments that the people in D.C. were having about guns she would’ve blown her top and waddled right on over there with her grandfather’s ancient sawed-off shotgun, found her way into the chamber where they held the meetings, and pointed it at each of those congress people without pulling the trigger to prove her point. “Thar!” she’d say. “Thar, see?! I git a gun, but I ain’t gunna shoot and that’s why we don’t need none of yer laws!”
My mother, who was ignorant in just about every realm of child-rearing, was prudent about one thing only. Dying in bed, each breath a heaving labor, she pressed a shitty old .22 caliber revolver into my hand and said to me, “for protection,” as if she had it in her head that New England was all bears and wilderness. Well right after she did that she caught a violent cough and all around her my cousins and siblings were suddenly scrambling with old pots and pans because this green-brown slime was coming out of her mouth. It was spraying with each cough until it eventually became blood.
You can dress yourself all pretty and act all high society but I wonder how many people know that when you die, your bowels evacuate. Whatever was churning in there gets released. Every person- rich or poor- dies in a puddle of his own shit. There’s a metaphor for you. That’ll teach you all to be so fucking snooty.
My mother died on a Tuesday. On a Thursday that same week I took a 14 hour bus ride to school with the gun in my bag. On a Saturday my freshman year I showed the gun to as close a person as I’d ever gotten to be my friend, and saw his eyes widen then bulge and his lip tremble, as if he were afraid I’d shoot him right in the face with it or something, before he muttered something about needing to go and scrambled out of my room. On a Wednesday the next week my room was searched by campus police who didn’t find shit because I’d hidden it beneath the loose heating grate. On a Friday the next month word had spread across campus that I was some sort of a psycho.
The school started doing all sorts of bullshit to try to kick me out- making me see some lousy campus psychiatrist who barely cared enough to learn my siblings’ names, holding bullshit disciplinary hearings, putting me on academic probation. Apparently being quiet means you’re potentially violent. Same if you wear hoodies and baggy clothes or if you’re from a place no one else is from.
On a Thursday last week I was expelled.
And for the first time in an incredibly long time, I thought about my mom. Sloshing there in her wheelchair like a human puddle, many-chinned and half blind. The only thing that stayed nimble through her life were her fingers, always knitting as she hummed some indeterminate melody. I have this nagging feeling that mom would’ve been disappointed by me- not that her opinion mattered, not that she had any stake in my education. But on a Friday the week before she died, when she was hardly herself anymore– just a shapeless, witless, snoring half-corpse– my mom had asked for me. All my cousins and siblings pushed aside as if I were Moses or something to let me near her and do you know what she said? I was leaning in and smelling the damp sourness of her skin and her slimy halitosis when she said, in barely a whisper, “don’t forget your gun.”
Campus today feels chilly. Chilly and quiet; good for thinking.
Sometimes I get flashbacks to the moment, but they’re blurry and vague, and feeling my way through them is like trying to sprint on hot tar- the details never stay still enough for me to get a proper footing. But the basic jist of it is that he’s coming back towards me with a wrench. He’s walking all lopsidedly and his fingers are so loose around the thing that it looks liable to drop and clang onto the floor at any moment. I’m confident that I can slip away from him, right through his legs and out the screen door before he can make any contact, but then she’s there. She’s standing between the two of us in a threadbare slip so I can see her back fat folding over the straps of her old bra and her legs which are basically being colonized by liver spots shaking but at least she’s standing up.
“Enough,” she says. Voice shaking too. Gun wobbling in her hands. But she breathes in deep and says it again. “Enough.”
You expect these moments to culminate in some kind of an explosion. She’s gonna shoot, right? But she just held it, shaking, and when he saw the short-lipped barrel pointing straight down the line at him his eyes widened and he backed off. I think that was when Pops realized he couldn’t quite fuck around with us anymore. He just turned around and left. A few days later he’d landed himself in jail, and we never saw him again.
That was what the gun was for her- the last high hill. It was what she was willing to do to get my Pops to lay off. No one else understood what she whispered to me but she and I did.
Campus is cold and my hands are shoved in the front pocket of my hoodie. In my hand is the gun that my mother gave me. The grip is tiny; my pinky finger doesn’t even have anything to wrap around. But I squeeze it with all my strength because I miss having a mom who’d blow a guy’s brains clean out at point blank range if that’s what it took to keep me doing ok. I miss a person’s eyes smiling at me, letting me know that I can do things. If I squeeze it I can get closer. Squeeze my whole hand into it- because it gets so lonely sometimes.
My hand is a gun. I take it out and observe, turning it, letting the light bend and fracture off its curves and recesses. I’m walking towards my dorm hall. My hand is a gun. I’m sorry, mom.
The story was that an isolated, severely unstable third year student who was failing his classes had had a mental breakdown and walked around campus for 45 minutes carrying a fully loaded 0.22 caliber revolver and 12 spare cartridges.
After firing a few warning shots outdoors near the science quad, he’d made his way into his dorm building and climbed the stairs, firing several rounds down the main hallway of each floor. Damage was sparse. Because of a series of warnings from the University Emergency Notification System, all students were in their rooms and no one was harmed.
At 9:45 AM, the perpetrator made his way into his room on the fourth floor of the building and committed suicide.
Hiding in the closet, he’d heard the dull, dragging footsteps recede from the hallway and back up the stairwell. For a few seconds or hours there was no noise save for the occasional shifting rattle of their bodies or the light patter whenever one of them had to adjust a foot in the wetness. Then a loud crack, which made them both shutter.
Some time later someone came pounding at their door- “Campus police! It’s alright, you’re safe.”
Neither of them mentioned that he’d pissed himself.
Back in the hallway he saw Conrad staring down at the floor. He walked up closer before noticing the tear marks on his shirt.
“Hey-” a claw on his shoulder.
“Dude, did you not recognize him?” Conrad looked up, red around the eyes, snot flowing.
“I didn’t see him.”
“He was the one from the 4th floor I was telling you about. The one who got- who was- who got-” before he trailed off and collapsed against the wall.
He asked her to dinner a few weeks later.
“How’ve you been holding up?”
“Fine,” she said.
The dining hall was serving pork chops; he managed to clip his knife securely between his thumb and the first nub of his right claw while steadying the fork in his left hand. He noticed her eyes avoiding it.
“I was squeezing your hand so hard that morning.”
“Oh, it’s alright.”
“I’m sorry for doing that. I’m sorry that on top of all the other shit that was happening you had to deal with how hard I was squeezing your hand.”
“Hey-” he put down the knife and made for her shoulder but she recoiled.
“I- I can’t stop thinking about your hand. I’m sorry,” her eyes were watering, her mouth had fallen into a grimace.
“My hand? This one?” he lifted his claw and saw her flinch.
“I’m sorry, it just- I can’t stop associating it with what happened. And you know I’m not blaming you- like I know you can’t physically change your hand, but, I just can’t stop connecting you and it with the whole situation and I’m just so sorry.”
He nodded and said it was ok. They made formal and awkward goodbyes.
Then put on his hoodie, fell into the cold, brittle evening, and walked back to him room.
About the Author:
Vincent Yu is an employee at W.W. Norton and a reader/copy editor at a small press called 7.13 Books. He graduated from Yale University, where he was a staff member of the Yale Literary Magazine. He is working on a novel manuscript.