My life’s decades are the number of fingers on a well-formed human hand, not including the thumb. We could say the last five years1 have been the thumb, half-a-thumb, anyway. I pretty much finished off the first four fingers and skipped to the next hand to use the index finger then jumped back to the thumb on the first hand as though an afterthought. These last five years have been opposable. Does that work in this context? Opposable? Do I need to explain?2 The details of what make this so are… what they are and don’t matter other than they make up something that is opposable.
One fifth of one hand standing opposite its fellow digits completes each of those digits and is useless without them. I don’t care that you know my age or not, so I’ll leave the math to you just for fun. The other odd finger, the index as we mentioned and the only finger counted on the other hand, makes an easier task of moving a few remaining peas with accompanying gravy onto any clumsily-held fork.
Lately I’ve been noticing more individuals without all their digits. I’m most impressed when they don’t try to hide it, but don’t make a big deal about it. No etiquette exists, officially, and why should it. I’ve shaken many hands, or partial hands, and I’m less shocked or taken aback each time a person presents his or her hand as a greeting. Extended stubs, knobs, gnarled and twisted hands and fingers, often result in warmer communications than from the fully-fingered. The stories they tell without saying a word, are epic. I am fascinated, dare I say, gripped.
I met two older gentlemen brothers. They were well older than I am now. Let’s just say I hadn’t quite finished the decade of my third finger. One of the brothers hands were some of the oddest hands I had shaken, had seen, and at which gestures I marveled. I’ve got pictures of these guys somewhere I’m sure I will never find under whatever papers in whatever boxes I may never unpack again. But the photos are there. A few were published along with the story I was writing that occasioned our meeting. The photos show two men with hands. As far as I remember, the brother with the deformed hands made no effort to conceal this difference. In so doing he exhibited confidence enough to offer no hint that anything was missing. And so, nothing was missing other than our perception of his missing hand.
His accident, I learned, was from chasing coyotes away from livestock, something he’d done most of his life without mangling his hands. That particular time he must have been distracted, probably overconfident. Long and short of it: he held onto the stick of dynamite a half or even a tenth of a second more than he should have before throwing it. I didn’t find out what happened to the pack of coyotes he was after. But by the time we got to this part of his story, it no longer mattered. Neither did it matter what happened to the livestock. Not to me, anyway.3 His thumb vanished into a pink spray, dissolving into what sure must have been a difficult time of life that squeezed him tightly.
An early childhood memory: playing with fire before the age of accountability. The twins who lived in the house behind my family’s house, would meet me at the back fence where our two yards joined. We would bring our plastic soldiers and model cars and whatever supply of flammable liquid (we could get our hands on) and a reasonable supply of matches. This was something we did as naturally and as predictably as the lawns getting mowed and meter readers jumping fence after fence with their clipboards.
The twins brought their older brother this time, and he had a new tool, very cool, very exciting. He pulled out a glass syringe. His father was diabetic. The syringe was an artifact of the day’s technology. The clear-glass syringe yellowed as it filled with gasoline. One of the twins scraped a match head and the brother squeezed the inner plunger stick with his thumb, holding the syringe between his middle and index fingers. The fuel, in its narrow and compressed piss-like stream, passed through the flame on that tiny match head and exploded into a fully formed miniature firestorm that would incinerate the little foxholes we’d set up. Plastic green snipers were still being hidden under the plastic army trucks, carefully being placed with my own two little hands. No procedure was in place for an all clear signal, no “fire in the hole!” shout-out.
I don’t remember seeing the match getting struck. I do remember seeing the brother dip the syringe into the jar of fuel and then pull back and the plunger. I remember thinking that the flame would probably squirt out of there so fast that it would knock over whatever it hit before it burned it. I also remember an unspoken but certain and urgent prompt to move my hands, to pull them toward my chest. And as though for what seemed no reason at all, I jerked my hands toward sternum as fast as I could. I cannot tell you how close the flames came to nearly landed on my hands. I would be interested in a high-speed film recording of that event. It was, terrifying. It was dramatic. The four of us burst out with unison “wow,” or something like that, each remarking how close that was and that we should be careful and all that. But within a minute our young brains had moved on to other distractions, still in need of further exploring, discovering limits we had long passed while looking for things that our two hands could do.