Dead Leg by Jo Gatford

Paul Jacobsen used to give me a dead leg in Sunday school and I used to bite my tongue so hard to stop from crying that I swear there’s still a dent left on the tip from my two front teeth. Then he got his leg blown off in Korea – his right leg, which made me think something was odd because it was my right that he used to knuckle numb each week, since he always sat on that side of me – and a part of me wondered if it wasn’t some sort of divine retribution.

[private]He got a prosthetic – this stinking rubber appendage he covered in bumper stickers because really he was young enough to still be the idiot child he had been in Sunday school. Not a person you would have wanted next to you in a battle, so perhaps it was best that he got sent home.

I was leaning against the counter watching a kid spit at its mother and kick her in the chest like some feral while she tried to shove shiny Mary Janes onto its feet for the new school year. Mr Hall was perusing the slippers because Laila the sausage-dog had gnawed up another pair and half-dug them into the manure pile outside the riding centre. Paul conked his false leg onto the measuring stool and grinned like we were exchanging peeks at each others’ bits when we were six and didn’t know any more than it meant we peed in different ways.

He was used to sympathy but I didn’t give him none. He said he didn’t care for the pity – he never felt the leg get blown off ‘cause he was fast knocked out anyway, and then when he woke it was gone. He thought his peg-leg was cool besides – got him chicks for being a war hero and meant he spent a quarter less time in the shower.

He needed a size ten for his left and a nine for his right, because they didn’t take into account such things when they screwed it on your stump – you got what you were given. I said, why don’t you just stuff the other shoe with tissue or a sock? but apparently it always slipped off no matter how well stuffed. How about tape? I said. You think I want to tape up my goddamn shoe every time I want to leave the house? he said, not angrily – he just had enough extra to do with one less leg to be fucking about with how he put his shoes on.

I got him some Converse and laced them but he didn’t even try them on after all that, just put the mismatched pair into the box and told me to ring them up. And then said, did I want to go for lunch on my lunchbreak? I almost said that’s usually what I do on my lunchbreak but I knew what he meant and though I wasn’t one of his sycophantic little eggshell-steppers I thought, what the hey.

Since he was paying, I ordered some dessert pie. He only had coffee because he told me he wasn’t all that keen on sleeping any more since he couldn’t stop dreaming about things he wished he’d never seen in Korea. I ate more than I talked and tried not to feel bad that I was leading on a one-legged war vet, but really he seemed to be doing pretty good. I said, do you remember Sunday school? He said, that’s kinda what it’s like – a dead leg – like, you know it’s there but you can’t feel it. Can’t make it do what you want it to. It tingled in the middle of the night and itched in the bath and ached in the rain but there was nothing there. Sometimes he thought it might be growing back but the stump was all healed over, just scar tissue wrapped up like the end of a Christmas cracker.

He nearly died of gangrene in the hospital, he said. Under the bandages the smell was like a corpse’s armpit but it had come on so quick they hadn’t noticed it between changing the dressings. He could have lost the whole thigh too. Or died of course. He said it smiling, like he knew he was a lucky bastard and happy about it too. Even when he was thumping me in the knee while we worried about Jesus, he’d done it with an affable smile.

Could he come walk me home later? Sure. Hop me home. Haha. I liked him better with one leg, I thought. We went the long way back but like everyone else I found it suddenly impossible to tell him he was wrong about anything. His way took us past his place where he told me we could have ice cream in the hammock and so of course I said, ‘kay.

He was living back at his Ma’s but they’d moved him down to the back room where the piano was. Stairs were not his friend, said his Ma. She was glad he had an old friend like me since all the rest were off at college or ‘over there’ fighting or moved away to where there were drug dealers and stabbings in the city. She was glad I never made nothing of myself, stayed in this shitheap town selling shoes or getting my ass pinched for tips in the hotel bar or cleaning out apartments after another old dear moved on to Jesus’s arms.

The hammock was padded with crispy leaves and we creaked and we crunched as we swirled up the melting ice cream, till it was puree, like we’d done every dinnertime for a forever’s worth of summers. We rocked with our three feet and he took off his fake one to show me the stickers from each road trip his daddy had ever made. Paul had stashed them all alongside his other collections of holiday napkins and buttons with stupid catchphrases on them and then later the multicoloured caps that he never wore but just sat on his shelf like victory scalps. It was his dad’s idea to decorate the leg and Paul’s idea to use the stickers and now when he wore shorts it told people that his other car was a motorbike and if you can read this I’ve lost my trailer and that he was boldly going nowhere and don’t worry be happy and Jesus loves you and Jesus saves and Jesus was his homeboy.

It smelt of old Bunsen burner tubes. I smoothed down some corners of the stickers that were refusing to lie flat. And I’d always thought shaving my legs was inconvenient upkeep. He swung it in the darkness like a baseball bat and made the noise to go with it for an echoing pow into the bleachers. His Ma called out, were we all right out there and did we need more ice cream or a beer or some’n?

We yelled no but she brought out some beers anyway and stared for a moment too long at her son, and though we couldn’t see her face that clear in the evening light we saw the flash of water in her eyes, then the flash of her teeth in a covering smile and she went back in the house wiping her face with the backs of her hands.

She’s not crying about my leg, Paul said, but about my twin, I think. I didn’t know he had a twin and I told him so. He said it wasn’t ever born. Maybe wasn’t meant to be born. Gave up its chance at the world to let him keep growing and have more space to stretch his legs, haha. Mrs Jacobsen miscarried his brother or sister when he was eleven weeks old in her belly and she’d only told him when he came home from the war. He said he’d wondered why he felt like he always wanted to talk aloud to someone who wasn’t there. Like he should have had company this whole time – someone who didn’t need him to articulate beyond what he found easy to say because they’d just get it, just understand.

His Ma felt guilty that Paul had nearly died without knowing. He said that finding out about his twin made whatever he should probably be feeling about his leg disappear. Hell – he was here when he could have been the one to bleed out of his mother back then. It had been a fifty-fifty chance and he was here, so why should he be sad except for missing the sibling that never was?

They’d taken him on vacation to recuperate and to get used to his prosthetic without making a fool of himself, tripping his way around his home town in front of all those sorry faces. They went to Key Largo and swam and swam and swam because it was good for his atrophied muscle and blissful to take the weight off his tired left leg and ease the blisters on his palms from the crutches. He bought a snorkel and dived until he learnt to hold his breath for a whole two minutes. In amongst the coral he saw Jesus drowning and drank down a snorkelful of saltwater. When he’d stopped choking, he went under again and drifted in circles around a sunken statue of Our Saviour with his arms up, outstretched to the surface and heaven beyond.

There’s nowhere quieter than under the ocean, he told me. Under the water with Jesus by your side, though he didn’t half look sad down there. When the sun caught a wave, it shone in razor-straight shafts and landed in each of His hands – one for Paul and one for his twin. Jesus told him that one was a gift but two was just lucky. Sometimes, one is the most He could give, and that should be good enough. Paul said it was. Said that’s what his Ma had always said. One was enough for anybody.[/private]

Jo Gatford wants to live on your bookshelf. She has had short works published in Metazen, Underground Voices, Short, Fast and Deadly, and was a finalist in this year’s Aesthetica Creative Works competition. She lives in Brighton and is currently editing her second novel.

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