Lost and Found, Part 3: Conclusion
Did I tell you how I came to gain a phantom limb? It was a teachable moment.
When I was a normal kid with two legs, Dad marched me to the middle of the highway and blindfolded me with a dirty rag he kept stuffed in the trunk to keep the tire jack from rattling. Then he spun me around until I wobbled like a slowing spun coin.
Anxious traffic tormented the still air until it moved. My shirt snapped against my chest, as if was to blame. I guess everything must beat on something.
“Well?” Dad’s voice was distant, as if from the safety of behind the guard rail.
“Well what?” I stuck out my hands as if to feel his words. I found only turbulence.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Your command,” I said.
“You’re expecting a ready-set-go? Maybe run for your life? I haven’t got all day!”
Then it hit me, not cars, trucks or a semi, but the reason for the lesson. It was not about Dad trust. It was about finding courage when it’s absent. It was about taking a life-changing decision when dizzy and blind, in spite of circumstances, not because of them. Most lessons boil down to that.
I looked up as if I could see through the dirty rag, which I couldn’t. “Lord, don’t let me become hard-to-scrape roadkill. Make it be quick and easy, like that chicken that crossed the road for the same reason, amen.”
I stuck out a foot and fully expected faith to drag me to the other side. I stepped into frustrated air, and just like that, it went missing. My leg crossed over at mile marker 72, give or take a foot, gone as sure as the other wasn’t.
Once screeching and bent metal and bent flesh and bone and writhing subsided, Dad screamed at me. I screamed back. I screamed and screamed and screamed. I crawled to the car, careful not to smear blood and torn tissue on his new two-tone leather upholstery. Dad had declined the additional coverage because it seemed like a dealer rip-off.
I held my pointy, fragmented, ragged end like a baby. I don’t remember when I took off the blindfold. “I did it,” I said. “I crossed to the other side.” I tried to make small talk.
“Just like the chicken,” Dad said. The loose jack rattled against the hub of the spare tire the whole trip.
So that’s how I came to gain a phantom limb. Here’s how I came to lose phantom pain…
Seldom has the pain in my missing leg been severe and persistent enough to force laundromat closure, but on one rare memorable night I made customers amscray. I hadn’t screamed like that since my teachable moment.
“Amscray,” I yelled. They all did, except her. She was the only customer who dared to stay behind. She was small in pyhsical stature and had little to wash, but what she had looked mudslide-rescued.
“My clothes are too filthy to leave,” she said. She deposited quarters until the machine groaned. She motioned to the machine like a game show host, as if to confirm in gesture that what her words had claimed.
“Even if I had all clean clothes, I’d stay. It’s settled.” The girl simply refused to obey me. She was made of that kind of non-obey stuff.
“Besides,” she added, “it’s only your fake pain screaming amscray, not you.”
I tried to explain that it was real pain talking, but the real pain stopped me from talking. Pain chewed its way up my missing calf, gnawed my invisible shinbone into splinters and rendered me speechless. My body convulsed.
I pointed at my own shaking pitiful sight as proof of the reality of my pain, but the girl only shrugged and joined me in a full-body convulsions. Her electrocution subsided with mine until we were gasping for precious air.
“That’s the weirdest greeting ritual I’ve ever witnessed. Why shake hands when you can shake everything, right?”
I spoke to explain, maybe apologize, but it came out as an unintelligible gurgle carried by clear foam.
“There, there. We’ve had quite enough of that.” She jumped or climbed or landed in my chair as if we knew each other, or had known, or wished to know, in half-squat, half-plop. Her knees were lodged deep between the wheel chair fabric and my hips, her face inches from mine.
The girl spat in her palms, rubbed them together, and wiped her hands on the front of her shirt between old stains. She reached back and petted where my missing leg was. Her touch traced an invisible contour, as if rubbing an unseen flesh. “There, there,” she said, “there, there.”
I nodded, afraid I’d spray her with flying foam if I spoke.
“Tell me about your lost leg,” she said. “If you could write a letter to it, what would you say?” She waited for my answer and rubbed.
“It can’t read. It’s a leg.” I was surprised that real words came out without foam, not agony turned up to eleven.
“But if it could read?”
“It can’t even retrieve the letter from the mailbox. No matter how high my leg would jump, it has no hands.”
“But if it could jump and reach, what would it read in your letter when it jumped and reached it?” She rubbed. “There, there. Good boy. There, there.”
“Dear Leg,” I said, “I’ve often wondered about you, and if you’re sentient.”
“There, there. Go on.”
“When the phantom pain bites, it shreds my absent limb, shreds you, and you’re just a measly leg. Leg, I’d like to know this: Do you feel the phantom pain from my entire missing body?”
“And what would your leg write back, if it could read and write and lick a stamp and jump and mail? There, there.”
“I’d like to think it would say: Dear phantom body, I don’t feel the weight of a body’s worth of phantom pain. I feel nothing. I’m free from your abuse.”
“That’s a good boy.” She patted my missing limb. “Good boy. There, there.”
The fangy thing released its jaws. Shocks of biting pain became an occasional teeth rake, then nothing. Something new took its place. I’ll call it the absence of pain, something between peace and joy and nothing.
“Who are you,” I asked.
“I’m just me, as always,” she said. “Muddy girl. The girl with the perpetually dirty clothes. That’s why I come here.”
I looked at her smeared shirt. There were so many finger smudges, so many touches she’d performed, so many there theres she’d given. “You have the nicest touch,” I said, “almost magical. I’ve seen how gently you close the washer and dryer lids around here. Yes, your touch is almost magical.”
“Thank you. Maybe with time I’ll say the same about your touch.” She winked. No one had ever winked at me before and meant it.
She caressed what I couldn’t see. She spoke reassuringly, as if my missing leg were a frightened pet. “There, there… That’s a good boy… good boy.”
“I know you’re just you,” I said. “We’ve established that much. I would like to know what to call you, beyond the muddy girl.”
“What do you think about Anodyne,” I asked. “Can I call you that?”
“Dyne. Anodyne. Reliever of pain, Latin, mid-1500s, maybe Greek.” I nodded toward the shelf of encyclopedias behind me.
“I’ve got the same set,” she said. “I read them incessantly. There, there. I must have skipped the pain killer parts. There, there.”
“The S is missing.”
“I know. There, there. I just told you I’ve got the same set. Good boy. Good boy”
“Who knew there were two sets with the same missing letter,” I said, “and that those two peopel would meet.” I touched Anodyne’s face. I brushed her hair from her round cheeks. “There, there,” I said. “Good girl.”
“You’d think fate would have at least completed our alphabet,” Anodyne said.
“You’d think it could do as least that much for us,” I agreed. I started crying but to this day I can’t exactly say why, not even when she asked and tried to guess and I said no and no and no and not that either. All I could do was smile through tears.
“Stay,” I said. “Please stay, double-missing S or not. Stay.” I wiped my tears but Anodyne made me stop.
“I love tears, especially when they are not my own. Let them fall. Then make more.”
I tried but no more came. Anodyne tried to help by whispering sad things – some very sad – but it only made me depressed. Eventually, she stopped trying.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I nodded. Anodyne laid her head on my chest. She had soothed my leg back to existence, or close enough for me. Once I asked her to scratch it. She scratched right where it needed scratched, and could have sworn I felt her touch.
“You seem surprised,” she said. “It’s only physics,” as if that explained everything. Anodyne pressed her small body against mine and whispered something I didn’t expect.
“If you woke up and found a letter from me on your pillow, what would it say?”
I pushed Anodyne back. My eyes explored her, slowly, completely, thoroughly. My gaze was bold and not hidden. She never said stop you’re creeping me out, so I didn’t.
“When your eyes get full of me, meander your gaze back to my face and answer my question.”
“When I’m done,” I said.
She grinned and waited until my eyes rediscovered hers.
“Anodyne,” I asked, “did you know that your eyes are almost translucent?”
“Translucent, like when you hold up a thin fish to the light and try to see through it, and you can’t see through it but you can see into it, and you see that complex network of pink veins and organs? Like that? Because sometimes my eyes are like that.”
“Sort of, but less like fish and more like Australian opals. Is this what phantom joy feels like,” I asked.
“Maybe. Do you ever feel real joy in your still-here parts?”
“Most of the time I feel nothing in the rest of the parts,” I confessed.
“Feeling nothing is worse than phantom pain. Answer my letter question.”
“Hungry? ” I hit the corner of the rusty candy machine and things dropped. “You just need to know where it hit it.”
“It’s like physics,” Anodyne said.
We ate and wondered about unknowable stuff, like what her goodbye letter would say to me. She ripped the candy bar wrapper and spoke between lip smacking chews.
“So, my letter. What would it say?” She swallowed with effort. Chocolate and peanut butter always takes effort without something to wash it down.
“Whatever your name is, do you have anything to drink? Water?”
“No. No.” I chewed and swallowed my bite.
“What would it have said?” She looked around for something.
“What do your good-bye notes usually say?”
She coughed and gagged. She hacked, chewed whatever came up, then swallowed.
“This and that.”
Anodyne pushed nut fragments from between her teeth with her tongue, then she gave up and picked them out with her fingers. She cleared her throat and took a deep breaths.
Finally, I agreed to help her write it. “I’d like to see it say that you were gone only to get the rest of your stuff.”
“I don’t own stuff. Besides, there’s no need for two sets of missing-S encyclopedias in one place.”
“Then you would have written that you love me and had only gone to pee, or something similar, and you’d be back before I wake up. You’d put three exclamation marks at the end, because you’re a three exclamation mark kind of girl.”
“I am that,” Anodyne wiped the corners of her mouth with her palms.
“Honestly, if I were to write a note to you,” Anodyne said, “it would say that I wouldn’t change you,” she wiped her fingers on her shirt, “but if I could, I’d take your obsession with a pain in a place that is no longer there, and I’d replace it with the obsession of feeling real things in your existing places.”
I did what I do best, which was to stare.
“I’d tell you that I think your love for me is a jeweler’s love,” she continued. “If it’s love at all, it’s one that cuts and chisels and hones the rough edges of me. In the letter I’d ask why you prefer to have me encased in prongs and displayed for those to admire your work.”
“Ouch.” I looked beyond Anodyne to the row of lifeless washers.
“Real ouch or fake ouch?”
“And I’d say in my letter that every time you have real pain, that means that real pain doesn’t have you. Since real pain can’t have you, it’s absurd to believe that a phantom pain can, so stop acting like it has you.”
I stared. I opened my mouth then closed it again.
“Then I’d say sincerely, Anodyne, or whoever I am to you after you’ve read this.”
I let this soak in and she let me let it soak. Then I had to know more.
“Would your imaginary letter to me contain a postscript?”
“Yep. Turn it over.”
I pretended to.
“It would say thanks, with three exclamation marks.”
“That’s it?” I fished for more. I imagined examining the borders of the letter and the envelope. “Would you have written a postscript below that one?”
“If I had room.”
“Pretend you do.”
“Then below that postscript would be this one: Can’t you just love me as the found opal I am, unpolished, rough, jagged, filthy, unwashed, random as broken rock and slick as sea glass that’s ground without hands?”
“Can’t you leave your instruments of torture on the jeweler’s bench and just love me for the natural precious stone I am, not the manufactured precious gem you’d make me into?”
“Yes!” She kissed my cheeks and tasted my tears. “Tastes like sweet regret.” Anodyne hugged me. “Finally real pain,” she whispered. “About time.” She swiped her palms against my wet cheeks and wiped them on her filthy shirt.
I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t. “Go,” I said. “Disappear. Vanish. Scram.”
“You mean amscray?”
“But you’re not finished reading my letter,” Anodyne said. “Below that post-postscript would be a post-post-postscript.” Anodyne gripped my face in her tiny hands. “And it would say this: I would have settled for a jeweler’s love, because anything’s better than my phantom life without you in it.”
I sat in my chair like a broken crippled lump, not knowing whether to do a wheelie and dump her off and roll away, or find a way to somehow get closer. Anodyne broke several minutes of silence between us with a question.
“How’s that leg?” She was not big on segues.
“They are both fine. The bite of pain has transitioned to my heart.”
“Good,” she said. “That’s the real thing. We’re making progress.”
“It feels more like another teachable lesson.”
“Let’s call it growth.” Anodyne relaxed her body onto mine.
After more silence, I spoke. “I’m glad the word ‘growth’ doesn’t start with an S. If it did, my research on the subject would be in vain, given my incomplete encyclopedic collection.”
“Yeah. You’d be up Hit Creek.”
“Yes I would, and without a paddle.”
I raised her head from my chest. We stared each other, explored each other for the longest time.
“You’re leaving aren’t you?”
“I don’t want to, but I guess I should honor my imaginary good-bye letter to you.”
“I really like the back of it, especially the post-post subscript. I don’t know a lot of things, Anodyne. I don’t know if my phantom pain is gone for good. I don’t know if I can grow enough to consistently manufacture phantom joy until it becomes real joy.”
“I’d like to think that, thanks to you, my phantom pain is defanged, curled up crying in a corner while my missing leg gives it a swift kick in the crotch, thankful that it has a foot instead of hands. For all I know, it’s at my bedside watching me sleep, pressure indenting the mattress.”
“It’s gone,” she said. “There, there. Some day you’ll catch yourself imagining something good for no apparent reason, like tonight and hopefully tomorrow. All I can tell you is, you’ll learn to turn that little frown upside down.” She pressed the corners of my mouth with her thumbs.
“It’s like physics,” I said.
“Good boy. Good boy!” She kissed me like a chicken pecking at corn. “This is where I tell you goodbye. You no longer need Anodyne, the pain killer.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Maybe you’d like to pillage and plunder the excessive pile of Lost and Found. Take what you want, leave the rest.”
She climbed or jumped or leapt out of my lap, and began digging through the Lost and Found with something approaching violence. She hurt me when she jumped off of me, and the pain felt wonderful.
I watched Anodyne unzip and squirm and slither out of and into mismatched stuff. She tried on and flung and tried on again and made new piles, piles she labeled as, “not sure,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” and, “absolutely positively keepers”.
Other faces watched too. They pressed faces against the front glass windows, but Anodyne seemed oblivious to us all. Once, Anodyne froze in mid try-on, looking like a mannequin caught by an after-hours security guard. Then she asked if I felt okay. Her eyebrows were raised in anticipation of my answer. I smiled and nodded, and petted the contour of my missing leg, just as she had done.
Anodyne had no defined parts. Even unfrozen and moving again, she was mannequin-like. This was good, because, with Anodyne, pain was at a disadvantage. It was required to fight back against the abstract. Even pain must find it difficult to conquer an amorphous opponent. All the more reason to continue to refer to the girl under observation as Anodyne.
My heart ached, not from the imaginings of things lost, but with anticipation of something real and present.
The Lost and Found should hold her for another hour or so, I thought, then I’ll think of something else.
I watched the new pile grow, and the original Lost and Found shrink. “There, there,” I said. I ripped her imaginary letter to shreds.
“Good boy,” she said. Anodyne giggled and returned to her frantic fling and squirm clothes changing marathon.
Think of something else. I need a miracle, something really big! I rubbed both legs until they burned and became red from the friction.
Think, think, think! Think before it’s too late!
I imagined writing Anodyne a letter, one of found love and lost pain, and of found pain and lost love. In it, I would even ask her to give me a name, and to make it permanent.
A few months ago, I started writing you my Lost and Found story. Along the way, I said I’d tell you about such things as I have. Then I promised I’d shut up and go away. This is me keeping that promise.
– The End –