I turned twelve years old the summer I took Jim Kelly’s right arm. It’s the one thing I’ve done in my life that I can’t shake. I’m not a bad guy. I guess I’ve done some bad things- selfish things and foolish things at the least. Most all of them as a much younger man. But amidst the hurt I have caused and the hearts I have broken- by accident or by design- I can accept my squishy human imperfection. Except the arm. I am ashamed of what I did.
Jim Kelly was a veteran of the Korean War. It was the war that took the arm, really. I just swiped his fake one for a little while. Jim was six feet tall, with a face like a stubbed toe. He lived with his two sisters, Doris and Faye, in a tiny house, not much more than a cottage. Jim was a big man. I was always afraid of him. My mother always told me to be nice to Mister Kelly. He had been shell-shocked in the war. He had given up an arm for his country. He deserved respect. My father sometimes said the Kelly siblings had a weird set up. I didn’t know what he was insinuating until I was older.
I stole the arm in the afternoon. I was walking home from a Tae Kwon Do lesson. The school held daytime lessons in the summer. I was with some of the other kids. Donovan and Eliot were a year older than me. I idolized Eliot, and I was secretly in love with Donovan’s sister. And there was Michael. Little Michael. He was a year younger than me. Like me, Michael was a martial artist all week long and an altar boy on Sundays. He wanted to be my friend the same way I wanted to belong with the older boys. He was so tiny, though. He looked sickly and always seemed to have a runny nose.
I can’t remember who suggested we cut through people’s yards to walk home. Either Eliot or Donovan thought it would be cool to trespass the twelve blocks from the strip mall where we practiced roundhouse kicks. My memory blurs the two boys together. Even their features melt into each other’s in my mind’s eye, becoming these dirty blonde twins with hyena smiles. I wanted them to like me so that I would be like them. Better at things. Tae Kwon Do. Basketball. Talking to girls. Whatever they thought was cool had to be cool. Even if, deep down, I knew better.
Little Michael had no desire to cut through people’s yards. “We could get in trouble,” he said.
“For what? Walking?”
“Being where we are not supposed to be.”
I completely agreed with Michael (internally) and proceeded to mock him.
“Bah-Being where we be, blah-blah,” I said. Donovan laughed. I felt so powerful. Michael looked at me with his perpetually watery gaze. I felt like a heel. “C’mon, Mikey. Don’t you want to see what other people’s yards look like?”
“Guess so,” he said. I wasn’t sure I wanted to either, but I couldn’t think of a better reason to trudge through strangers’ property. It would be an epic investigation of bird-feeders, bird-baths, and bird-houses. Perhaps we might even discover the yards of a few people who couldn’t care less about birds.
“There might be something we can smash along the way,” said Donovan. That too. Donovan liked to talk about being a tough guy. At the time, I thought that made him tough. I don’t remember him ever smashing anything. Once he talked Eliot into throwing a rock through the window of an abandoned house.
“What about our bags?” Michael asked with sudden urgency. We each had a duffel bag with our martial arts uniforms. Mikey was clutching at anything.
“What about them?” asked Eliot.
“How are we supposed to hop fences if we’re carrying our bags?”
“You throw the bag over, then hop the fence.”
We started on our odyssey. It was surprising how easy it was to wander into someone else’s space without them knowing. This was so long ago. Before automatic lights and web-cams. It was the middle of the day. Kids were out of school but most grown-ups were at work. Here and there we would stumble across some folks in a pool or just sitting in the shade. When we did, we would cut around, staying low and out of sight. I kept imagining us as commandos behind enemy lines, or ninjas on a deadly mission. We were nearly to my house when we came to Jim Kelly’s back yard. He was shirtless, laying in a hammock.
“There’s Weird Jim!” Donovan rasped as we peered over the hedges along the Kellys’ fence line. I winced at the nickname. And I agreed with it, too.
“Ah lost mah ahrm,” bellowed Eliot through cupped hands. We all ducked behind the bushes. Jim said that all the time. He worked at the supermarket, sacking and stocking. Sometimes his prosthetic was more of a hindrance than a help. Sorry, he would say, his voice gravelly and deep. I lost my arm. Crouched down between Michael and Eliot, I tried my hardest to stifle my laughter. I was a beet red fit of spittle, snot and tears. Donovan and Eliot couldn’t control themselves. They were in fits laughing at my ridiculous display.
“What is wrong with you?”
“I can’t help it,” I wheezed. I laughed at the wrong things and at the wrong times. A priest once dragged me off the altar because I couldn’t stop snickering in mass.
“You guys, stop it!” Mikey hissed.
“Ah lost mah ahrm,” Eliot called out again. It was less funny that time, and I found myself instead bracing to run.
“I think he’s asleep,” Donovan said. We all looked again and saw him laying motionless. We threw our bags into his yard and climbed over the fence as quietly as we could. The sisters were out. The car wasn’t in the driveway. As we made it to the other side of the yard, Donovan waved us into a huddle.
“Hey, you guys know about that thing where you put a person’s hand in a bucket of warm water? How they piss themselves?”
“His real hand or his fake hand?” asked Eliot.
“His real hand, idiot.” Donovan was named after some English singer that his mother loved growing up. His father was a hockey dad who was ashamed that his only son didn’t like hockey. “Why would he piss himself if his fake hand was in a bucket of water?”
“Dunno. Why would he piss himself when his real hand was in a bucket of water?”
“It’s like a reaction kind of thing. Your brain does it even if it knows it isn’t supposed to.”
“We don’t have a bucket anyhow,” I said. I was starting to feel the way Michael must have. “Let’s go play video games.”
“Hey,” Eliot said to me, squinting. He had this way of squinting his eyes when he was having a bad idea. His bad ideas usually involved people getting in trouble. People other than himself. “I dare you to take the arm!” he snapped. I froze.
“Yes!” hissed Donovan.
“NO!” shouteded Mikey. We all crouched lower, expecting Jim to wake up. He didn’t.
“I don’t think that’s cool,” I said, keeping my voice low.
“It’s SO cool,” said Donovan. He started to snicker. “Then when he gets up, he’ll say, ‘Ah lost mah ahrm, ‘ and everyone will be going, ‘yeah, yeah, we know.’” Eliot doubled over laughing. I, confess, I did too. At the joke, not at the thought of actually taking it.
“C’mon,” said Eliot. “Do it.”
“Yeah, do it.” Donovan was wide-eyed. “I dare you, too.”
“Okay,” fell out of my mouth. My feet were adhered to the ground. Michael just stared at me in horror.
“We’ll keep a lookout,” said Eliot. “Go, before the sisters get back.”
“Okay,” I said again. I was terrified. I didn’t want my friends to laugh at me. I sure as hell didn’t want to sneak up on a sleeping man and steal his fake arm. I’ve since gotten into conversations about peer pressure. Other people talk about underage drinking or smoking pot. I never chimed in with limb thievery. I’ve never told anyone until now.
I couldn’t hop the fence at first. My arms were shaking too much to prop me up for more than a second. Donovan and Eliot snickered. On the next try, I swung a wobbly leg up and planted a shaky foot atop the crowns of chain-link. I was a bit chubby for most of my childhood, and never very good at hopping fences to begin with. It was almost impossible when I was being watched. My nerves certainly weren’t helping. I pushed myself as hard as I could and fell in a heap on Jim’s side of the fence.
They all broke out in barely-stifled laughter. Even Mikey. My first thought was Jim- that he would be awakened by their howling. I looked fearfully toward the hammock. He slumbered, still motionless. I shot my gaze back at my friends.
“Shut up!” I whispered. “You want to do this?” They all shook their heads.
“I don’t want you to do this,” said Michael, softly.
“Shut up!” Eliot and Donovan hissed in unison. I turned toward the hammock. My heart was pounding at the base of my tongue. I crept on all fours toward my prey. I decided that I would get to close to Jim and then turn back. I would tell them that the arm was too intricate and impossible to get off without waking him. When I was within a few feet, I turned to look back at my friends, hoping they would be waving me back. Only Mikey did. I kept on until I was under the hammock.
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