PHANTOM LIMB IN LIMBO
Note: This collection of short essays, originally published in January 2016, included a fifth part, which was part four. I have since removed it because the story could have been misconstrued as a sort of passive-aggressive jab at an innocent person, which wasn’t my intention, but hey: it’s gone. The rest, for good or ill, is untouched. Were I to subtitle ‘PHANTOM LIMB IN LIMBO’, which is just about the best title I ever gave anything, I guess I would say something about it being a series of quiet tragedies and miseries.
• • •
I had a sad friend in Los Angeles. She was sad and she made me sad too. She made me sad because I didn’t want her to be sad. She was smart and pretty. She was funny. I liked her a whole lot.
She didn’t like herself. She said was hopeless and futureless. She didn’t want to be alive anymore. She didn’t see the point.
We made a suicide pact. I don’t know if it was a joke. It was the tenth or eleventh suicide pact I’d entered into in my life. I didn’t know if those were jokes either.
She asked me how we’d do it and I told her I’d heard the garden hose in the tailpipe method is the way to go. My father had seen a lot of suicides like that at work. He said it looked like they had just gone to sleep.
Months later I was in Los Angeles for a writing assignment. My friend invited me over. She was housesitting in Echo Park. When I got there she was wearing a kimono. We drank two bottles of wine in the kitchen and smoked a lot of cigarettes out back.
At three in the morning we were smoking on the patio. She was sitting on a bench and I was standing in front of her. She looked at me in a certain way and I looked at her the same way. I asked her if I could kiss her and she said yes. She grabbed my shirt and pulled me towards her.
We went inside. It was a long night. She had a beautiful body. Her skin was very soft. I felt vaporous and ghostlike in comparison.
In the morning I had to go write about something for some people who were paying me to write it. I didn’t care what I was writing about. I was broke. They were paying me and that was good enough for me. They never ended up paying me.
I told my friend I was leaving Los Angeles that night. I didn’t want to leave. I had to leave. She was upset that I was leaving. She thought that maybe I was leaving because of her. I don’t know why she thought that. I told her I would rather stay with her than leave. I wasn’t lying. She didn’t believe me.
She stopped talking to me after that. I wrote her a few letters and told her I wanted to see her again. She didn’t write me back for six months.
• • •
I got a job at a bar. I was the doorman. I am not tall or physically imposing. They hired me anyway. They liked me. I was funny and I didn’t complain. I think that’s why they liked me.
I liked my job a lot. I sat outside the door on a stool. I read a lot of books there. I checked IDs. Sometimes people would joke and ask to see my ID instead. They told me I looked too young to decide who could drink alcohol.
Other times total strangers would spit on me or yell at me as they walked by. The bar was on a long stretch of road that connected all of Oakland. At night a lot of lonely people with nowhere to go walked up and down that road. They were mad about everything. They saw that I was human-shaped and alone. They took their anger out on me because I was the only other thing alive.
Trivia night was every Tuesday. I liked working Tuesdays the best. The bar was always crowded then. Most of the people who showed up lived in my neighborhood. They were very friendly to me. We made good money those nights.
There was a woman who always showed up on Tuesdays. She was very pretty. She was nice to me. She would come outside and smoke and talk to me. She would ask me about the book I was reading. She would tell me about the books she was reading.
Toward the end of the night she would be very drunk. Her face would turn red and she would laugh a lot. Sometimes she would come outside and hug me for a long time. I hugged her back. Sometimes when she was hugging me she would tell me she was sad. I asked her why she was sad and she told me she was lonely.
Once, on a Friday night, I went into the bar even though I wasn’t working. I didn’t do this very often. I sat down at the bar and the bartender gave me a beer. I drank one and then four more. The bartender didn’t ask me for any money. I gave her some money anyway.
I saw the woman from trivia night. She was drinking at a table with her friends. She stood up and walked over to me. She gave me a hug. I hugged her back. I was a little drunk. She was a lot more drunk than I was. She talked to me for a few minutes. She said she had to get back to her friends. She hugged me again. I hugged her back again.
I was alone. I took a pen out of my jacket and wrote down my phone number on a napkin. I wrote a little message beneath it. I said that I thought she was all right, and if she thought I was all right too, then she could do whatever she wanted with my phone number. I signed my name.
I got up and approached her table. She was laughing about something. I handed her the napkin. She took it from me. I walked away before I could see her reaction.
I went outside and talked to the other doorman for awhile. He was very nice to me. He offered me a joint but I declined. I told him it made me feel rotten as hell. I told him all the good parts about it had been stripped away. I told him all that was left were the bad parts. He told me I should try a different strain. I pretended that wasn’t the hundredth time someone had said that to me.
A small crowd exited the bar. The woman from trivia night was with them. I was standing away from the door. She didn’t see me. They piled into a car and drove away.
I went back into the bar to say good-night to the bartender. She was upset because her ex-girlfriend had shown up and flirted with a regular right in front of her. After a few hours they went into the women’s restroom together and had sex. She had left without saying good-bye. I said a few things about it. I don’t know if it helped. I wasn’t sure what you’re supposed to say to someone in that particular situation.
The table where the woman from trivia night had been was a total wreck. The table was soaked with beer and rings of water. There were bottles all over the floor. Beneath one of the bottles was a crumpled napkin. I picked the napkin up and carefully flattened it on my palm. It had my phone number written on it.
• • •
Seven months after my cousin and I moved to the Bay Area we bought a decommissioned police car from a crummy dealership in Daly City. I had seen it in an ad.
Every day for a week I took a train from Oakland across the bridge to San Francisco and down towards Daly City to test drive it. It was black and had white doors. The spotlights were still attached. It was very fast.
We signed the paperwork and took it home. People on the highway were afraid of us. They thought we were really the police. When we got back to Oakland people screamed at us. They thought we were the police too. They didn’t like the police so much. I didn’t blame them.
We had a lot of fun with the car. We named it the Doomsmobile. A friend gave us a deer skull and I put in the back window. The car looked sinister after that.
I was pulled over twice in Emeryville for having white doors. The police officer told me both times that I had to paint them some other color. He said it looked too much like a police car. We painted the doors with black spray paint. It looked terrible.
The Doomsmible went everywhere. A few times we took it down to Los Angeles. We took it up north to Stinson Beach and to Muir Woods too. We even slept in it when we had no place else to go.
It was stolen a block from our house a few months later. We got it back five days later. Someone had left it in the parking lot of an old folks’ home. The windows were down and the ignition had been shredded with a power drill. They had stolen everything out of the trunk. I tried to remember what had been back there. A traffic cone and a plunger were all I could remember. They took the deer skull out of the back window too.
I had the car towed to a shop near the highway. It cost me three hundred dollars to have the ignition repaired. When I went to pick up the car, the mechanic told me it had been a major pain in the ass. He said he had to carve a new ignition from scratch.
For a month I hid the car in my friend’s driveway. He lived behind a house in an in-law unit. His driveway was hidden from the street. The car was safe there. No one could see it.
One night I took the car to my house so I could drop off some boxes. I was going to use the boxes to move my things. My lease was ending and I was leaving my house to live in a better neighborhood.
I was away from the car for twenty minutes. When I returned it was gone. It was three in the morning. I didn’t know what else to do so I laughed.
The police found it three days later. It was eight miles away in East Oakland. A scanner mounted on top of a police car had automatically read the plate as the officer drove by. The car came up as stolen.
I was at work when the police called. They told me I had twenty minutes to pick the car up or they were going to tow it to an impound lot. I said I couldn’t make it because I was at work. I didn’t have a car to get there anyway.
The police towed the car. My cousin picked it up later that day. The towing company charged him two hundred and seventy-five dollars to tow it three miles away.
My cousin dropped it off in my friend’s driveway. It was safe once again.
After work I biked over to my friend’s house and inspected the car. It was full of trash. There were six large black suitcases in the back seat. I emptied the car and sorted through the suitcases. They were overflowing with thigh-high leather boots and women’s clothing. The car smelled like cigarettes.
I found fifteen different driver’s licenses belonging to fifteen different people. I found birth certificates and death certificates. I found a computer. I found a phone as well.
I found a letter written by someone who said they were in jail. The letter was completely insane. At the top of the letter was a message. The message said to deliver the letter to a woman he knew. He had written down her name. Her phone number was written above her name.
I called the number. A woman picked up. I asked her if she was missing six suitcases filled with clothing and thigh-high leather boots. She told me the suitcases were hers. She told me she had been robbed. She got hysterical and thanked me over and over. She asked if I had found her computer and her phone. I told her I was looking right at them.
She asked to come collect her things the next day. I told her I would meet her somewhere. She insisted on coming to my house. I told her I didn’t want to do that. She said she would call me back when she could borrow a friend’s car.
I took a stack of papers inside and went through them. I found a thick police report with a long narrative spanning fifteen pages. The police report said that a methamphetamine lab had been raided in a neighborhood called the Lower Bottoms. The police officers arrested several people and had collected some paraphernalia as evidence. Towards the end it said the police officers had found a young woman and her daughter living there. I read her name. It was the same woman I had just spoken to on the phone.
I went outside and stared at the heap of garbage I had taken out of the car. The sun was going down. I noticed the roof of the car had been spray painted black. It had been white before. The paint job was terrible.
I hauled six nicotine-soaked suitcases and three garbage bags full of boots to a nearby street. I stacked them neatly beside a fence. I called the woman back. She didn’t pick up. I left her a message telling her where she could collect her things.
I went back to my friend’s house and got in the car. I drove it around for a few minutes. The thieves had destroyed the steering column when they hot-wired it. The power steering was shot. It was very difficult to get the wheels to turn.
Next day I took it to a shop five blocks away. The shop was a straight line from my friend’s house. I didn’t have to do much steering. The mechanic said he didn’t know what was wrong with it. He said he would check a few things. I left the car with him. He called me two weeks later. He told me he still had no idea what they had done to it. He said the entire steering column needed to be replaced. He quoted me four hundred dollars. I picked it up a week later. It cost almost eight hundred dollars.
I hated the car after that. I never wanted to look at it again. I tried to sell the car but no one wanted it. I didn’t blame them.
Weeks later I moved the car to my new street. I parked it right outside my house. It was well lit there. My street was quiet. There were flowers growing everywhere.
I took the fuse to the fuel pump out of the engine so the ignition wouldn’t turn over. I bought a metal club to lock the steering wheel. The car sat there for months. The only time I ever drove it was to avoid the street sweeper.
Two weeks before I left California for good I noticed someone had ripped the grill off the front of the car. The grill was missing. Someone had taken it with them. There were pieces of broken plastic on the street.
I gave the car to my friend three days before I left Oakland. I bought him a new grill. He placed it in the back seat of the car. I warned him that the car was cursed.
To register the car in his name he needed to get a smog test. He took it to a shop. It failed the smog test. The mechanic told him the computer had been wiped because the steering column had been replaced. He told him to drive the car for eighty miles so the computer could record new data for the smog test.
The car had dead plates. It was illegal for my friend to drive it on the street. He couldn’t get new plates until he registered the car in his name. He couldn’t register the car in his name until the car passed a smog test. He couldn’t pass the smog test until he had driven the car for eighty miles.
My friend called me a few days later. He told me the car had been stolen off his street.
He got it back a day later. It was less than a mile away. It smelled like cigarettes. The thieves had glued the grill to the front of the car. They had stolen the metal club I had bought to lock the steering wheel.
He picked the car up from an impound lot in Oakland. He parked it in a lot next to his apartment complex. I told him to remove the fuse to the fuel pump so the ignition wouldn’t turn over.
A few days later he flew to Indiana for Christmas. I asked him if he had remembered to remove the fuse. He told me he had forgotten to remove the fuse. When he returned to California a week later the car was gone.
He reported the car as stolen. The police informed him it was already impounded in Walnut Creek, twenty miles northeast of Oakland.
Next morning he drove his other car to an impound lot in Walnut Creek. The police told him the car had been involved in a high-speed pursuit from Concord to Walnut Creek. The driver didn’t have a license or the registration to the car. The driver had told the police that the car belonged to a friend. The police escorted him and the car to the impound lot and then locked him up for evading arrest.
The police and the owner of the impound lot didn’t realize the car had been stolen until my friend told them so. My friend told them he didn’t know the guy at all. The police told my friend the car was now evidence in a much bigger case. They released it to him anyway. Before he left, the owner of the impound lot told him that any police car can be opened with any set of police car keys.
My friend got the car back to Oakland. He told me the trunk was filled with a hundred pounds of wet carpets and bathmats and clothes. He said the car smelled like cigarettes.
He parked it in the lot next to his apartment complex. I told him over the phone which fuse controlled the fuel pump and he removed it.
• • •
One morning two years ago my grandmother blacked out in her kitchen. She fell and hit her head. She was taken to the hospital across the street in an ambulance. She was treated and released. She moved in with my mother for a few weeks. Then she moved into an apartment in an assisted living facility a half mile from her house.
I was living in California when my grandmother fell. I didn’t see her until a few months after her accident. I was too poor to buy a plane ticket. I worked a lot and saved up some money and finally bought a plane ticket.
The last time I had seen her she was the same person she had always been. She was very intelligent and friendly and humble. She was energetic and optimistic. She was very fancy.
She was much smaller now. She had almost no energy. She was very sad. She didn’t want to be alive anymore. Her hearing was bad because she had hit her head. I had to raise my voice for her to hear me. I didn’t know I could raise my voice like that. I had never had to raise my voice before.
My grandmother was born in Austria. She grew up during World War II. As a child she and her family spent a lot of time in hiding. She didn’t have much to eat. She lost her teeth. She didn’t have a normal life again until the Russians liberated Vienna.
Her father had a little Jewish ancestry in him. He was not a practicing Jew. He tried to escape Europe but was captured. He was executed by the Nazis.
My grandmother met my grandfather while she was still in Europe. He was an American. He was a journalist and was in the Air Force. They dated for some time. She wanted to marry him. He wanted to marry her too. He hesitated because he felt he was too sad to marry her.
My grandmother left Austria and flew to San Francisco. She was eighteen years old. She taught herself English. She married someone else. She married him because he didn’t hesitate to ask her to marry him.
This made my grandfather very sad. He went to my great-grandmother in Innsbruck and asked for my grandmother’s address. She was sympathetic. She liked my grandfather a lot. She gave him my grandmother’s address in the United States.
He wrote my grandmother dozens of love letters. He told her he had been a fool. He told her he had made a huge mistake.
My grandmother received his letters. She decided she didn’t love her husband as much as she still loved my grandfather. She wasn’t married long. She got divorced. She married my grandfather instead.
My grandparents traveled the world together. They lived in Austria and Germany and Argentina. They lived in Baltimore and New York City. They had four children. My grandfather became a journalist for the New York Times and wrote about train travel. His clippings from a voyage on the Trans-Siberian Railway are framed and hung in the hallway of my grandmother’s house.
I never met my grandfather. He died of a heart attack five years before I was born. My grandmother and my mother and my uncle have told me that he was a very kind and intelligent man. He was soft-spoken and melancholy and liked to be alone.
My grandmother moved into a condo a few miles from the house where she and my grandfather had lived. Her condo was across the street from the hospital where my sister and I were born. She decorated it with things she had collected from her travels with my grandfather. My grandfather had hundreds of books. My grandmother kept them. They fill an entire wall in the living room.
My grandmother lived in this house for thirty years. I have been coming here for twenty-seven of them. My grandmother’s house has never changed. It is very nice and comforting. There are beautiful paintings on the walls. There are pictures of her adventures. By the door is a picture from six years ago of her standing near the pyramids in Egypt. On the adjacent wall is a picture of her river rafting when she was well into her sixties.
Her coffee table is wrapped in a thin layer of leather. There are intricate markings carved into the leather. She told me she had it made in Peru many decades ago. Across from the coffee table is a fireplace. The carpet is very soft. It is the only carpet I have ever liked walking on.
My grandmother told me that when I was a little baby she brought me over to her house. It was the first time I had ever been to her house. She told me she held me in her arms. She said I had soft eyes. She said my grandfather had soft eyes too.
Twenty-seven years later I left New Orleans feeling rotten as hell. I came north to my home in Virginia. I had nowhere to go. I moved into my grandmother’s house. I had not been there in two years. No one had lived there in all that time. My grandmother has not been back since the day she was taken away in an ambulance.
My mother is in the process of moving to New York. She has been storing her furniture at my grandmother’s house. When I arrived every room was filled with tables and chairs and dressers. There were dozens of cardboard boxes on the floor. It made me sad to see my grandmother’s house look like that.
My sister and I collected every foreign object and stacked them in my grandmother’s bedroom. After an hour the room was filled. We turned off the light and shut the door. We made the rest of the house look the same way it had looked for all the many years we had been coming there. We put up Christmas decorations too.
After Christmas my sister went back to Tennessee. My mother flew to New York. Now I am alone in my grandmother’s house with my cat. I am alone in a town that feels like a small constellation of haunted houses that are inside an abandoned amusement park.
Today I left the house for the first time in a week. I had not seen another human being in just as long. If I did not talk to my cat I would not have heard my own voice either. Outside the sun was setting. It was very cold. The wind sailed through my clothes. It made my bones ache. My face went numb.
I drove a half mile to the assisted living facility where my grandmother lives. She is eighty-nine years old. I had to knock loudly for her to hear me. She answered the door smiling. She was leaning on a walker. She opened her arms and hugged me. I hugged her back.
We sat on her couch and talked for a long time. I had to raise my voice so she could hear me. I don’t like hearing myself talk like that. I have to talk like that or else my grandmother and I can’t talk anymore.
She told me she was glad that I was taking care of her house. She said it made her sad that it had been empty for so long. She asked me how I filled my hours. I told her I was reading my grandfather’s old books. I told her I took a lot of baths.
She looked at the clock and told me she had to be downstairs for dinner. Before we left she asked me to unscrew the caps to all the water bottles in her refrigerator, and then gently close them again. She said her hands were too weak to do that anymore. I helped her turn off all her lights. We took the elevator downstairs.
We stopped outside the dining hall. My grandmother rubbed my shoulder and patted my back. She asked me to bring stamps with me when I came to see her next. She said she had some letters to write. She said she can’t write letters as well as she used to because her hands are too weak. She said she would try anyway. She hugged me. I hugged her back.
“And please keep writing me those letters,” she said. “You and your sister are the only reason I’m alive.”