“Morning, Mr. Alexander.” Johnny said as he passed Stuart’s office on the way to the firm’s law library.
“Morning,” Stuart grumbled through clenched teeth. Johnny was a good fellow and Stuart knew what he felt was wrong, but handicapped people had it so easy in life. For a cripple, it’s enough just to live a normal life.
Not being handicapped meant you had to accomplish something.
A junior partner in his law firm, it sickened Stuart to feel jealous of a paralegal. How could he not be in awe of a man who’d lost his leg at the hip, yet Johnny still led such an active life? During the few conversations Stuart had with the man, he’d quickly learned of Johnny’s love of rock climbing, boxing, and skin-diving.
Stuart had two perfectly good legs and was winded walking to his car.
The respect Stuart had sought all his life had simply been handed to this cripple who’d been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
”I’m glad you could grab a drink with me, Pete.” Stuart shifted his stool at the bar to give his friend more room.
“Stu, I’ve always got time for you.” Pete took a long sip of the scotch waiting for him. “You never forget my brand.”
“We spent too many nights drinking the cheap stuff and daydreaming about the law.” Stuart took a long pull from his own glass and motioned the bartender over for refills.
“So, what do you want to talk about?”
“Am I that transparent?”
“I’ve known you long enough to know when something’s bugging you.”
“Yeah,” Stuart said before taking another hit from his glass. “You know that we hired a paralegal who used to work for your firm?”
“Hicks, good man.” Pete finished his scotch and pushed it aside to avoid a refill. “We hated to lose him, but he was looking for a change.”
“He was well-liked by everyone? No problems?”
“Not that I know of,” Pete said. “Is there something wrong?”
“No, he gets along fine with everyone. For being handicapped, the guy gets a lot out of life.”
“Funny thing about that,” Pete said. “Hicks was pretty much a mouse before his accident.”
“What kind of accident?” Stuart sensed he was finally on to something.
“No one knows and he never talked about it. He just went on vacation last year with both legs and returned nine weeks later with just one.”
“No shit.” Pete thought better of his earlier decision and signaled the bartender for his third scotch. “His personality just bloomed after that and he became the life of the party.”
“I guess Johnny just really made the best of a bad situation.”
“Yeah, but the weird thing is that HR said he never filed a claim with his health insurance.”
Stuart asked Johnny to stay late to research a legal brief and waited for the office to empty for the day. When the last of clerical left, Stuart paged the paralegal.
“Would you come to my office please?” Stuart felt a touch of anxiety and knew this could blow up in his face, but he had a strong feeling that there was something important here.
“You called for me, Mr. Alexander?” Johnny asked as he entered the office.
“Call me Stu and take a seat.”
“Have I done something wrong … Stu?” Johnny took a moment to lower himself into the offered chair. Stuart twitched a little, but managed not to show his displeasure.
“I’ve got a few questions for you and I’d like it if they could stay between the two of us.”
“Okay,” Johnny replied nervously.
“I’d like to talk about your accident.” Johnny said nothing, but his eyes never left Stuart. “Johnny, I’d like to know how it happened.”
“All due respect, sir, but I don’t like to talk about the accident.”
“I’ve learned that you didn’t file any medical claim forms.” Stuart smiled as Johnny’s façade slipped, revealing his shock. “How did you pay your medical bills? I’d guess the full hit would be over $60,000.”
“You’ve been snooping into my medical history?” Johnny was angry and indignant, but there was an appraising curiosity as well. “My finances are my own business, nothing is your concern unless it interferes with my job.”
“Please, we’re not discussing your job performance. I’m concerned that you may have something in your outside life that would reflect poorly on the firm.” Stuart knew this was going south quickly and he needed to end it. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“You sound a little jealous.” This time it was Stuart’s turn to lose his poker face.
“I … I … no, no I’m not jealous. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Stu, what I think is that I have a case for harassment here. I don’t like anyone looking into my personal life just because they’re curious.” Johnny took great effort to lift himself from his seat and adjust his crutch. “However, we’re going to pretend that this conversation never happened.”
“Never happened,” Stuart repeated, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“We’ll never bring it up again and everyone will get along famously.” Johnny smiled before hobbling off toward the elevators. Stuart sat quietly as he considered what an idiot move the last 20 minutes had been.
The following week was tense as Stuart worried that Johnny might still pursue the issue of harassment, and was more concerned when a text beeped on his phone.
Lets meet 2 tlk. We cld b friends. I know place. J.
It was after eight when Stuart pulled into the parking lot of the One-Eyed Jack bar. He noticed that the lot was packed with vans and big pickups. A closer look revealed numerous handicapped stickers on the license plates and handicapped placards hanging from rear-view mirrors.
Stuart pushed open the door to the bar and scanned the crowd. He didn’t see Johnny, but the whole place was filled with gimps and amputees. Stuart’s eyes grew wide as he stared out at the sea of damaged human beings. He’d heard of places like this, but never had the nerve to find one.
He gingerly wove a narrow path between the wheelchairs and crutches to a vacate stool at the end of the bar. Stuart waved over the bartender and slid a twenty onto the bar top.
“What can I do for you?
“Single malt scotch, neat.” The bill was replaced with change.
“I’ve never seen you in here, we usually just get our regulars.” The bartender set the drink in front of Stuart. “Sometimes we get gawkers, but they never last.”
“A friend is meeting me, I think he might be one of your regulars.” Stuart said. “Your clientele appears to be quite specialized.”
“Yes,” The bartender smiled before moving on to his next drink order. Stuart turned slightly in his seat so he could get a better look at the crowd. Not everyone in the bar was handicapped, but they certainly outnumbered the straights.
The diversity was amazing.
In one booth a beautiful blond missing her left arm sat with an elderly man missing both legs and a serious number of teeth.
A redhead quadriplegic caught him staring and flashed a warm smile. Embarrassed, Stuart turned away and sipped his drink. The redhead reminded him of his short relationship with Caroline Wilson a few years back.
Caroline had lost her leg in an auto accident and his firm was representing her in her suit against the negligent driver. Stuart was handling her case and was soon handling her.
Stuart had been fascinated by her injuries and Caroline was desperately in need of reassurance that she was still attractive.
Her wounds had healed over time, but the scars were still an angry red against her pale white skin. For hours while Caroline slept, he would trace the scars with his fingers from beginning to end over and over. He would tuck her leg between his two good ones and pretend the stump was his own.
Caroline moved on after they’d won her case, but Stuart was left with many unanswered questions.
“Hey there,” Johnny said as he pulled up a stool beside Stuart. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No problem. I already got started.” Stuart emptied his glass and set it back on the bar.
“Glad to hear it, I like a man who wets his whistle.” Johnny caught the bartender’s attention, “I’d like a whiskey sour and my friend will have another one of these.”
“Thanks.” Stuart tasted his fresh drink before looking Johnny in the eye. “Not to be rude, but why’d you invite me here tonight?”
“Quite a place, huh?”
“Yeah, I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.”
“But you’ve always wanted to, haven’t you?”
“What are you getting at?” Stuart started to feel nervous again.
“I’ve noticed how you stare at my stump whenever I’m around.”
“Don’t be stupid!” Stuart raised his voice as he tried to cover his embarrassment. Several bar patrons turned to look before resuming their personal conversations.
“Relax,” Johnny put his hand on Stuart’s shoulder and pushed him back into his seat. “I don’t care if you stare, that’s one of the reasons I had it done.”
“What did you say?”
“That conversation about my accident in your office showed me there was more to your curiosity than I thought.”
Now Stuart was really scared. He sat in a cripple bar where a paralegal was laying bare the lawyer’s ugliest secrets. Stuart threw back the rest of his drink when Johnny leaned in and whispered. “You want to be an amputee.”
Stuart slouched down in his seat and realized the real truth. “Yes.”
“That’s all I had to hear.” Johnny smiled back without a hint of judgment. He finished his drink and lifted himself from his stool. “I’ll clear the way and you’ll get a call in a few days when the arrangements have been made.”
Johnny turned back, spread his arms wide, and smiled. “From the person who helped all of us.”
With a great deal to think about, Stuart stayed behind another hour after Johnny left. Was this what he really wanted? If it was, he would need a cover story and vacation time.
He was still considering all the pros and cons as he left the building.
By the time Stuart’s car left the parking lot he knew he would do it. He was so excited, he could barely contain himself. Stuart drummed his fists on the steering wheel anxiously. He was unsure which limb to choose. So many choices with so many opportunities. Most likely, he would have his right leg below the knee removed.
That was the best and most flexible choice.
Stuart was so wrapped up in his unmitigated joy that the headlights filling his windshield came as a complete surprise. The crash came quickly and everything turned black.
Stuart opened his eyes slowly, but his vision was so blurry that he might as well not bothered. He tried to move, but nothing responded. He could have been buried in cement for all he could feel, but at least there wasn’t any pain.
“Hey Stu, how you doing?” A large shadow blocked out some of the light, but he recognized Johnny’s voice.
“What happened?” Was all he could croak out.
“Wow, there’s so much to tell you.” Johnny said as another figure came into view.
“Mr. Alexander, I’m Doctor Max Edward.”
“He likes to be called ‘Stu,’” Johnny said.
“Well then, there’s no reason to be formal. Stu, how are you feeling?”
“I don’t feel … anything.” Stuart tried moving again and still could not.
“The accident was a severe one, but I’m certain you’ll fully recover from its effects.”
“What hospital am I in?”
“You’re not in a hospital, Stu, and I’m not a licensed physician.” Edward said as he checked Stuart’s IV line. “I graduated with honors from medical school, but I was disbarred for … unorthodox surgical practices.”
“You’re not a real doctor?” Stuart was horrified.
“I’m what’s called a ‘crime doctor.’ I fix the bullet or stab wounds that my local underground clients collect when going about their business. Every once in a while I get a challenge and I give a boss a new face, I really only do the amputations as a hobby.” Edward said as he injected a yellow fluid into the IV. “Your head will clear shortly.”
“You … you won’t get away with this.”
“Stu, I scrubbed everything,” Johnny said as he leaned into Stuart’s clearing field of vision. “Your car was found smashed up in the river. Everyone believes you floated away. They hope that maybe your body might turn up someday in a storm drain or something. As far as the police are concerned, you were at the bar, drank too much, and crashed your car while drunk.”
Stuart tried to lift his hands and wrap them around Johnny’s neck. He wanted to blot out what the cripple was saying, but he couldn’t move a muscle.
“You have no family, no lovers, and you barely have any friends.” Johnny leaned in and whispered. “No one cares that you’re gone.”
“I care,” Stuart whispered back.
“You were so concerned with how I paid for such an expensive operation,” Johnny said. “Well, you’re made my payment in full.”
Tears streamed down Stuart’s burning checks and he knew everything they said was true. The lawyer screamed for help, but Edward injected a sedative into the IV and Stuart’s screams tapered off.
“Shit, you’re really doing it.” Johnny said staring at Edward’s work. “I’m almost envious.”
“I’ll sue you,” Stuart whispered. “You’ve killed me.”
“Don’t be silly Stuart,” Edward said. “I’ve merely removed your legs.” Stuart wanted to scream again, but the drugs were draining the last of the anger away.
“I’ve always wanted to do a masterpiece. I’ve always wanted to take my work to its logical conclusion.”
Stuart shut his eyes as the drug finally took effect.
“You and I have a lot of work ahead of us Stu, those limbs aren’t going to remove themselves.”
“It’s been months since I saw you last.” Edward said as he welcomed Johnny into the clinic.
“Did you finish?”
“Oh yes, and the work is glorious. I’m thinking I may sell the piece to a collector. I have many who are interested in such a special work such as this.”
“May I see?”
“Down the hallway. Afterwards, we can discuss some business.”
“Certainly.” Johnny turned and hobbled down the hall toward a large red velvet curtain. Behind the material, a soft purring could be heard from running machines. Johnny reached out, hesitantly, then pulled the drapes aside. He quickly drew in his breath in awe.
Edward had continued to remove every extremity from his “canvas.” Every inch of this canvas was covered with the angry healing scars of surgery.
Michelangelo said that he did not carve a rock into a sculpture, but freed the existing art from the extra rock. Edward had done the same with his work.
Watery eyes stared at Johnny from the clean holes where the lids had been cut away. The tip of a pink tongue ran across the white exposed teeth—exposed since the lips had been neatly trimmed off. Edward had let nothing go to waste and he had used the excised parts to construct new ornamentation for his piece.
Severed fingers had been joined to vertebra and moved whenever the muscles twitched. Thick muscles from the lost legs fanned open and closed to display the inner torso to entice the observer with almost puckish delight. Veins, arteries, and even the skin itself had been moved around to highlight the rich colors of blue, red, yellow, purple, and white.
The work sat quivering and moist in a small chair on a pedestal. The pulsating mass of flesh no longer looked very human, but Johnny loved it so very much.
“You look magnificent.”
The remnants of the work’s cheeks raised slightly in what Johnny knew was a smile. He turned when he heard the doctor behind him and could barely get the words out:
“Do me next.”