I have this skin condition that comes about every now and then, and strangely, each time it appears, it always evokes the memory of someone I scarcely knew from a brief chapter of my past.
The condition is called dyshidrosis and has affected me perhaps for the last three years. It’s a fairly mild thing, nothing to notice, yet the itching drives me to distraction. Just a few tiny pinprick-sized blisters arise, between my fingers, the inside of my wrists or on my palms. It’s sporadic, and steals onto my skin usually in the evening.
Occasionally I’ll get one just under my ring which is so maddening, I lie there in the night, wishing I could cut off the ring, trapped by my first knuckle, to ease the irritation. I have this image of the nippers on the shelf in the garage and think, “Just one snip through this gold strap…”
If I break the blister, I do get relief, but it takes a sweet time coming. While I wait, I think of this kid. Every time.
It must have been 1989 or 1990 and I was working at a Hook’s Drug Store on north Cunningham Avenue in Urbana, Illinois where I was an undergraduate student. It was one of two jobs, but this one was a sort of aberration.
I don’t really remember how I fell into it, but I worked the job at different hours, listening to older people’s health complaints, helping them find cough remedies, hair dye, ringing up their prescriptions, diapers, cigarettes. One large, older woman memorably invited me to put my ear to her soft, crepe-y bosom to hear her irregular heartbeat moderated by a pacemaker.
But I could always count on a conversation with several older folks, chatting about the day, my studies, their families, their litany of medications that added up to several hundred dollars a week.
Only 150 miles south of Chicago, I picked up the phrase, “Can I sack that for you?” an east central Illinois colloquialism I would never had learned had I not worked at Hook’s.
After school hours were always predictable. Hooks had a good variety of candy, and children from the Cunningham Children’s Home would swarm in from across the road for a pick of the day.
The home is still there, and operates as a kind of orphanage/home for troubled kids/foster care facility. In the past two years, it has been the subject of investigation for reported incidences of child abuse and human rights deprivation, and just recently, a former teacher’s assistant has been brought up on charges of long-term sexual misconduct with a minor.
That’s today. Over twenty years ago, you have to wonder at what might have been going on.
It always made my 20-year-old self wonder when I pulled out at the end of a shift and caught glimpses of residents playing on the grounds, but the rag tag children who came in clamoring for their afternoon treats seemed happy at the time, and I enjoyed their visits.
They were often accompanied by an older kid; a boy in his mid-teens with a Members Only jacket or t-shirt in warmer weather, bleached golden hair the color of a brass elephant, and the furrow of a thin mustache laid across his lip.
He wore cologne and an air of credible confidence, like SE Hinton’s Johnny Cade, best friend of Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders, with damaged parents and a damaged life, but wore his heart like a plated hood ornament on his sleeve.
Though this boy was Wham UK crossed with a flashy street tough character, skull ringed and a gold chained, he was a kind of big brother to the band of younger children.
He had a kind heart, and he would help the kids pick out a treat, or add a few of his own coins to make up the difference if a child was a little short on the total.
Then one day, he disappeared. For a couple of weeks, the children came in alone, a little haunted looking, a little feral without their older friend along. An adult came in one day, but no sign of the youth with the brassy hair.
It was late afternoon on a weekday and I looked up to see him ferry in a flurry of children. The day was a little chilly, and everyone was bundled up in colorful scarfs and warm clothes. I was helping an older gentleman at the counter with his purchase, and we stopped to watch the kids come in.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked the boy. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I pulled my finger off,” he said with a cool grin and held up a bandaged hand.
And he had.
Turned out, he was helping a young kid who tossed a ball on the roof of one of the buildings. He climbed a ladder, reached up, got the ball, lost his balance, his ring caught on a nail in the roof, and he fell, leaving the finger behind him.
I think I exclaimed something as he told the story, that had me and the customer rapt.
“Does it still feel like you have the finger?” the older man asked.
“Yeah it does. It’s weird,” the kid said.
“It’s called a phantom finger,” the man said. “A phantom limb, like you got it, but it ain’t there.”
And they had this conversation, the older man talking about a buddy who lost a leg in the war, and this young kid, already grown-up too soon, now even more aged with the loss of a finger.
You could see he was a little scared, a little wounded and every inch of his maybe 15 years through his bravado, but the older man talked to him like an equal, and it boosted the boy.
At the same time, he also seemed, like those younger kids, a wild thing. Flighty, so different than the solid adult who knew about phantoms, but this teen was a phantom himself. A little mysterious, and I imagined him lying in his room with the door closed, and tentatively touching the void where a finger, and a ring, would never be again.
My ring, any ring, is symbolic, or precious. Beneath it we have a finger that is so vulnerable. A bundle of thin bones and sinew, entirely detachable but utterly necessary, and when it’s gone, you feel the loss.
I feel the United States is my own phantom limb. For almost 13 years, at least once a week, I have to answer a questions about where I am from, laugh when the person guesses I’m Irish, or Canadian, so unfamiliar are they with the northern inland accent, because I do not sound like the Americans on television.
And that exchange always makes me feel so far from home, though at the same time, as though I still have one foot on the ground there.
Because I feel desperate to prove, in that brief conversation, I am from another place, more to me than they can know, because they are already home.
Maybe on the Wabash bridge, or North Avenue congestion
turning right onto Fullerton
hot sand beside the cold lake Michigan
driving along a sweep of the Kansas River
passing red barns and dairy farms set along a Wisconsin two-lane
into blinding, whirling snow
lost on New Mexico logging tracks in a spring melt
grilled cheese everywhere
losing my brakes on a hairpin among Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains
spitting toothpaste outside my car window near the Badlands
feeling at home in my own language
curled on the dark back seat, anonymous
blending in sunlight on State Street
seeing the moonrise wallow on the horizon east of Scottsbluff
endless night walks among old Minneapolis warehouses
memories of rejection, no phone, no furniture
pressing my forehead against a train into the city
the people I love
the people I lost
it is my phantom limb,
or phantom mind.
– The featured image at the top is by flash-photography pioneer George Shiras, of three white-tailed deer escaping, Michigan, date unknown.