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.
Jim grumbled and shifted in his sleep. I flattened myself, thinking I was trapped. Just as I readied to rush back and chicken out, the arm slipped from the hammock and fell to the ground. I stared at it. It reminded me of the little model in the art room at school, the faceless beige puppet that was supposed to inspire life-like drawing. The hook was dull and scratched. At the other end lay straps and cords, sprawled out like a dead jellyfish.
“Grab it!” came a hiss. I did. That’s when the sisters came home.
I didn’t see the car. I only heard it approaching. The thing was ancient- one of those massive battleships of a sedan that was older than I was. I could hear it pulling up the drive. I ran for the fence.
“Throw it to me!” said Eliot. For a second I thought to just drop it and fling myself over the fence. Instead, I flung the arm over the fence and proceeded to fall into the fence. In a furious and awkward flurry, I threw myself over. All four of us ran, jumping over fences for blocks until we were sure that we were safe. It took forever to catch my breath. It was only then that I realized I was actually trapped- caught in the iron grip of the hideous theft.
“What do we do now?” Mikey panted.
“I don’t know,” Eliot said. “Here.” He threw me the arm.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“It’s yours now, man.”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re the one who wanted me to snag it.”
“I just dared you to. But you’re the one that took it. Finders, keepers.”
“Merry Christmas!” said Donovan.
“Let’s put it back.” Mikey’s voice was firm.
“That’s nuts,” Eliot said. “We’d get busted. They’re probably looking around the yard for that thing. Maybe they saw us running. They might be calling the cops right now. We should just split up and go home.”
“What about the arm?” I said.
“Lose it,” Donovan said. “Throw it in the river or something. Or burn it. See ya.” Eliot and Donovan walked off. I quickly stuffed the arm in my duffel bag and covered it with my Tae Kwon Do uniform. I wondered, could I light a man’s arm on fire? Or just chuck a man’s arm into the river?”
“You can’t just chuck the man’s arm in the river,” said Michael. “You have to give it back.”
“I will,” I said. “Tonight.”
“Yeah. I’ll slip out in the middle of the night and throw it in their back yard. If we go back now we might get busted. They’re right about that.”
Michael shook his head but didn’t protest. He seemed calm in knowing that the arm would make its way back. He said goodbye and went on his way. I hustled home and stashed the stolen limb in the only place I knew was safe: my box spring.
Being a soon-to-be-twelve-year-old boy, I had a place to hide things. Money. Wooden stakes for possible vampire infestations. The ladies’ underwear sections of old catalogs. So on and so forth. I had noticed, some time ago, that the fabric was coming off the wooden frame in one bottom corner of the box spring. Thus was born my secret vault. It would be years until I would come home to find all my ladies’ underwear catalogs stacked on the floor of my room, my father demanding to know if I was interested in the ladies or the underwear.
I hurried to my room. After determining that the coast was clear, I quietly slid my bed out so I could access the hole. I crammed the arm into the box spring and fell on the bed as soon as I slid it back into place. I thought I would feel safe, in the clear once I had the arm hidden. Instead I felt the grip even tighter. I didn’t move for ages, convinced that the longer I stayed, the more covered-up the crime would keep. Eventually hunger drove me to the kitchen. My mother was there.