Joyland

New York |

The Open Palm of Desire

by Brian Gresko

edited by Emily Schultz

My son found a severed hand in the sandbox. Dug it up, along with half a lime green crayon and the nub of a baby carrot. “Daddy, look,” Stevie said, holding onto the appendage as if crossing the street. “I’m being nice.”

It was ten-thirty in the morning, too early for this macabre kind of shit. I’d yet to finish my second cup of coffee. And then there was the thing itself, flesh shriveled and plum purple, a mat of curly hairs running to the first knuckles, which were encrusted with sand. A sharp bit of bone jutted from the brown stub of wrist—brown like old rust, a color I remember from the nastiest of Maureen’s panties, what she called her “B-listers.” And wouldn’t you know it? I left the house so fast I forgot the damn Purell.

 “Jesus Christ!” I said. “Put that down.”

Instead, Stevie considered his new toy with a pre-schooler’s seriousness. He nodded at it, then gave me that look, lips set against one another, jaw hard—he was his mother’s boy through and through, expert at pushing my buttons. “Cheesus Christ,” he said, referring to the hand, naming it in a voice I’d heard him use many times with his toy bears.

I cast about for witnesses. The Imagination Playground sits in an alley of sorts down by Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. Mimicking the big boats across the street, the playground resembles the deck of a ship. A wood paneled ramp runs around it like a poop deck, looking down on dun-colored pits of sand where, on an ocean liner, sharp blue pools of water might lie. Cool, except it’s right next to the FDR Drive, and the noise—my God. Maybe it’s that constant drone, or the tight press of buildings that keep the place in shadow most of the day, but even the kids tend to turn inward, leaning close, forming isolated units in public, a microcosm of New York City’s lonely crush. So no one seemed to have noticed the boy with the severed hand. Besides, on a Tuesday morning in October hardly anyone was hanging around anyway—except, of course, the reason I schlepped over here in the first place, Clarissa, just then striding my way on those long legs of hers.

That decided it—we would walk away. Let some other dad deal with the fallout of their kid digging up evidence of, what? A murder, maybe? A ritual dismemberment? The Mob torturing some poor fool before sending him to sleep with the fishes in the East River? My mind reeled at the possibilities. Whatever the case, getting involved was the last thing we needed, especially with me battling Mo for custody. I could see the headline in The Post: LET’S GIVE THE BOY A HAND! Her lawyer would have a field day.

“Drop it,” I told Stevie. “Let’s go.”           

The boy had manipulated the stiff digits into an okay sign. Cheesus’s nails needed cutting, big time. “I want to dig another foot,” he said. “Maybe two foots.”

I inhaled deep through my nostrils, trying to keep my voice from climbing into a yell. So much of parenting lies in the tone, I think. Appearing calm in the face of the irrational. “You’ve dug enough for the day, Stevie. Now, please, give that to Daddy.”

I took the hand by its limp, chilly fingers, and deep in the mottled flesh felt a pulsing of warmth, a tickle of movement that, if I considered it at all later, I attributed to Stevie pulling on it from the other direction. Freaked, I let go, and he won the prize.

“Hey, Paul,” Clarissa said, not far off now.

She’s way to young for me, let me admit that up front. In her early twenties, just shy of my height, with the perfect amount of piercings and tattoos, enough to seem interesting and intentional, as if each one holds some secret meaning. Clarissa and I had had a great rapport all summer—she was the first person I told about Maureen running out on us, which really made it real, telling someone, you know? And instead of Clarissa retreating, thinking me damaged goods, my opening up had her coming on even stronger, getting all touchy, talking about how we should get together some time, have drinks, chat about our burgeoning art careers. Like me, childcare was only her day job.

I crouched down to Stevie’s level. The sand under my knee felt comfortably warm from the autumn sun. It didn’t jive: the beautiful day, my little boy, a human appendage. But Stevie didn’t seem bothered, he was smiling to himself, counting the thing’s fingers. (At least they were all there.) So I followed the path of least resistance and just went with it.

“Put Cheesus in the stroller with your bucket and shovel straight away, okay?” I told him. “We’ll go home and have hotdogs.”

“Cheesus wants mustard. The spicy kind, like Daddy likes.”

“Okay, okay,” I said to him. And then, standing, “Hey ’Rissa.”

Stevie rocketed passed her too fast for her to tell what he had. Otherwise she wouldn’t have hugged me so warmly, bringing me into the orbit of her lovely lavender-menthol scent.

“My Friday night plans just fell through,” she said. “Free?”

“Of course! I mean, shit, I have Stevie, though.”

The enthusiasm leached from her eyes. This could be my only chance, and here I was, dampening things with the responsible dad routine.

“Fuck it. I can get a sitter,” I said. With what money, I had no idea. Wasn’t like Maureen was sending me alimony checks—not yet, anyway. “I’ll, uh, text you later with details.”

“I can’t wait,” she said.

“Look, Daddy!” Stevie yelled from his stroller across the playground. “Cheesus is waving at you!”

Clarissa raised a pencil-thin eyebrow. “Cheesus?”

I played the role I had perfected the past year or so: the pleasant, befuddled dad. No trauma here! Nothing to hide at all. Just a typical day out at the playground for our well-adjusted heroes. “Kids!” I said, then bolted.

Later, as the wiener water bubbled away on the stovetop , I considered calling 311, but they’d just connect me with the police, I was sure. I thought about leaving the hand in a trashcan somewhere, but what if they traced it back to me somehow? It would seem fishy that I hadn’t called the cops straightway. Sorry, officer, I didn’t want to gross out my crush. I could imagine how that would play.

When I brought the dogs out I found Stevie had lined a shoebox with one of his old baby blankets, and affixed Caillou stickers to the side. The hand rested inside, looking kind of sweet actually, the fingertips not quite as disgustingly off-colored as they’d first appeared. Almost rose tinted, in fact. He had wrapped the fingers around a tiny stuffed Paddington Bear. “To keep him company while he sleeps,” the boy explained. 

The building didn’t allow pets, and I’d read online that having something to care for can help a kid cope with new family arrangements. You know—separation, abandonment, death. Couldn’t hurt to let him keep the thing for a little while. In a couple of days it’d either start to smell or he’d lose interest, right? And then I’d figure out some way to ditch it in the night.

***

We took our meals to the coffee table, dining rooms in downtown apartments being scarce. It was there over breakfast the next day that Stevie made his big announcement. “Look what Cheesus can do!”

He lay the hand beside his bowl of oatmeal, palm up. The fingers, splayed at various angles, stiff with rigor mortis, twitched. And then, in a movement led by the thumb, the hand flipped itself over onto Stevie’s Count with The Count placemat. With a sort of grace it spidered up Stevie’s arm.

Shock registered second to seeing my son’s face brighten with a legitimate, unguarded smile—the first since his mother left almost a month ago. “Ain’t he great,” Stevie cooed. He nuzzled the hand, and it stroked his blonde hair with an index finger. Their affection for one another was plain.

All parents, I think, have worried at least once that something might be psychologically wrong with their child: you know, biting when they should be sharing, sociopathic toddler shit. This was probably the first time, though, that I worried my son might be the Antichrist.

I put aside my spoon like this was an ordinary thing, and spoke slow and even. “When did Cheesus start walking around like that?”

“Last night, after stories. I told him how much I’d like to play with him. I told him other things too. And then we were friends!”

“Have you, uh, resurrected things before?”

“What’s reser-pectin’ things?”

Cheesus curled three fingers at me, questioningly.

Now this, definitely, was nothing I could go to the police with. I imagined a scene like the one in E.T.—G-men in hazmat suits, plastic bubbles, quarantine. Hadn’t we been through enough? Sure, the thought that the demonic hand might strangle Stevie crossed my mind, but I put it aside. I had to trust his instincts.

“Forget it,” I told them. “I’m glad you guys made friends.”

Atop a stack of comic books, my phone vibrated: my soon-to-be ex-wife. I let it go. Cheesus and I took turns tapping Stevie on the shoulder, the other party tickling him when he turned around. The kid’s face was a study in joy. Once, the hand walked up my arm to pat my shoulder, and its touch was gentle and careful, soft as a lover’s, reassuring as a mother’s.

Leaving the two to play trains, I listened to Mo’s voicemail in the kitchen. Though she kept her shrill voice flat, I could hear the fury in her clipped rhythm as she asked if I’d gotten the letter her lawyer delivered to mine the week before, an official demand to see Stevie. I had no obligation to give her access to our son until a hearing. She was the aggressor, the abandoner, the one whose late nights at the office had turned out to be dates with her boss at Morgan Stanley, Mr. Career-First, Family-Last, Grab-That-Ass. Damn one-percenters, taking everyone else’s shit.

Once upon a time Mo had liked the idea of marrying a man like me, an artist, an illustrator, a cartoonist—juvenile, silly pursuits, in the eyes of her parents. But then her eyes opened too, when my near-nothing income became an impediment to affording the finest private schools and a spacious penthouse with a playground on the roof. I became, in her eyes, another mouth she had to feed. Why wouldn’t I take on design work, ad work, photo processing work, any kind of work? She deserved better, she argued, insisted, finally screamed. Stevie deserved better. Never mind that I stayed home with him, cared for him, played with him for hour upon monotonous hour, rocked him down to sleep for naps and at bedtime—those tasks didn’t require skill. We could farm Stevie out to a round-the-clock nanny, preferably one from China so the boy could learn Mandarin.

Hearing Stevie giggle as Cheesus rode Thomas the Tank Engine down the track like a skateboard lightened my mood after Mo’s cranky message. Worrying about this weird walking hand seemed silly. There were far worse monsters in the world.

***

Quickly, Cheesus became an integral part of the family. The living room not only acted as dining room, but also my studio—I perched at a drafting table in front of our twelfth floor window. During the day, Cheesus played without flagging at my feet while I put the finishing touches on my latest graphic memoir, Daddy Knows Nothing. At night, after stroking Stevie’s hair till he fell asleep, Cheesus would slink out to rub my neck and shoulders while I streamed Louie on my laptop, and I got, in my loneliness, to talking to him. “What happened to you? What was your life like, back when you had a body?”

With the help of the Internet, I tried teaching him sign language, but no go. Cheesus turned out to be an apt name for the hand, who had come to us as if by divine providence, another warm, helpful male presence in the household.

Though unable to speak, he gave off every indication of listening, doling out squeezes of assurance, drumming his digits when annoyed with my moping. In response to his attention, I went on at length about my dreams and anxieties. It felt good to unburden myself, to have an ear, so to speak. I don’t think I realized how lonely I had gotten. Problem was, what to do about Cheesus come Friday night? Could I trust him to stay out of the sitter’s sight?

I sat my two guys down on our worn Ikea sofa. After lecturing them on the situation for a minute or two, Cheesus waved away my fears. “We need to take this seriously,” I told him, wagging a finger. I found myself using my hands more when talking to him.

Cheesus brought his digits together like a beak and mimicked me running on. Stevie laughed. “We’ll be fine, Dad!’”

What could I do? Stevie promised to stow Cheesus in his box under the bed when the sitter came. After lights out, Cheesus could sneak up to cuddle with Stevie, having pinky-swore that he’d stay under the covers.

Honestly, I had other things on my mind. It had been about seven years since I last went on a date, and man, was I nervous.

“You’re going out with Clarissa, Olive’s nanny?” Stevie asked me several times as I dressed. I had, for the first time in months, opened Mo’s closet so I could use her full-length mirror. A shelf still held a stack of cashmere sweaters, and a few of the tight black skirts she favored for work hung from the rack; the air in there even smelled like her. It made me feel light headed. I examined my reflection then shut the door to look for a pair of jeans that might make me seem younger, cooler, and maybe a little thinner than a thirty-eight-year-old dad on the verge of divorce.

“Are you going to the playground?” Stevie asked.

“Naw, we’re going out to have a grown-up drink and talk.”

Stevie processed this for a minute, thin lips tight. He was sitting cross-legged on my bed while Cheesus buttoned his baby blue pajama top. The last button done, the hand balanced on its thumb to flick a graham cracker crumb from Stevie’s chubby right cheek. The boy had sunk so deep into meditation he didn’t even register this, a nitpick that would have drawn consternation had I done it.

Stevie finally worked out a question: “Is Clarissa going to be my new mommy?”

I tightened my belt and put an arm around him. He climbed into my lap, and Cheesus draped himself across both of our thighs. “No! God, no, Stevie. Your mommy will always be your mommy.”

“But you said mommy’s not coming back. That she has a new apartment now.”

“That’s true.”           

“So can Clarissa live with us like mommy?”

What could I say—that might be nice?

“Me and Cheesus would like another mommy around here.”

“Well, me too. And maybe someday, we’ll have one. Someday.”

I hugged my two little guys tight, taking as much comfort, I’m sure, as I was giving.

***

Once I met Clarissa at the bar, it only took a pint before I started gushing about the situation—the divorce, I mean. “It’s like Stevie satisfied this thing in me, but ripped a hole in Mo. And she was the one who had to push me into parenthood! I didn’t even think I was ready.”

“What’s that lyric?” Clarissa asked. “Got what she wanted, lost what she had. Who said that? Keith Richards?”

Eventually things lightened up, and we talked about our love of Gerhard Richter’s blur paintings, and Alison Bechdel’s memoirs. Clarissa dug design, I liked comics; we had ambitions. She dreamed of retiring her nanny duties so she could paint, hoped to move further downtown, and wanted to fall in love, of course. We connected so well that, when it came time to relieve the sitter, Clarissa followed me home for a nightcap. “I’d love to see your place,” she said. “Check out your stuff.”

Seemed obvious where this was going. And while I worried, what if Stevie woke up and found her there? Another part of me couldn’t say no.

At the apartment she slipped her shoes off, settling on the couch with an icy glass of vodka. She had a small asterisk tattooed about half an inch above the big toe on her right foot, and this started a catalog of her body art, the tree limbs branching from her shoulder blades, leaves dripping rain drops “or maybe tears,” she said with a half-smile. Her face opened toward me, and I kissed her. For a few minutes we made out, and I thought of nothing but the feel of her lips, thinner and somehow sharper than Mo’s, and her grip on my arm. It had been a long time since I had felt wanted. But I didn’t find myself responding as strongly as I would have imagined.

“Nice,” she moaned in my ear. “You didn’t mention anything about being a masseuse. My shoulders are really tight.”

This gave me pause. I had one hand on her upper thigh, while the other lay on the back of the couch, near, but not touching her shoulders. “Cheesus Christ,” I said, glancing over Clarissa’s head. The hand patted my arm reassuringly, and then shot me a “thumbs up” before returning to his task.

Clarissa’s eyes were shut, her body nestling into me, relaxed. “Oh, Paul,” she murmured.

“You need another!” I said, swooping up her glass. Then, in a gesture that came across more fatherly than I intended, I planted a smooch on her forehead while reaching around to give her arm a pat, whacking Cheesus to the floorboards in the process. “Be right back.”

In the kitchen, I clinked some bottles together as Cheesus came strutting in, obviously proud of his powers of seduction. “The hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded. “She’ll freak out if she sees you!”

He brushed my worries aside, and climbed the drawer handles to the counter, where he used Stevie’s plastic sippy cup to demonstrate what I should do to Clarissa. “Listen, hornball. You’re rushing things. Everyone is,” I said.

But Cheesus was at my shoulder, patting and then prodding me back out to the living room. “Stop it,” I said.

He flicked my ear.

“Fucker!”

I tried bucking him off, but he clamped down hard. In the past few days, the thing had gained agility and strength along with a warmer, more life-like color, moving and looking like that possessed hand in Evil Dead. I didn’t want a violent situation, not with Stevie sleeping and Clarissa expecting me back with a refill—but still, I needed him off my back, literally. I groped about, reaching over my shoulders in a paroxysm of spastic movement; imagine John Travolta—old John Travolta—having a seizure on the dance floor. Where’d he go? Through my too-tight jeans, I felt him rappelling down the hem, and flicked him onto the floor. Finally, I had him, my two hands to his one, and tossed him into the freezer. “You’re on time out!” I hissed, trapping him there.

“Everything okay?” Clarissa asked.

God, she was lovely, leaning against the doorframe, svelte and lanky. But there was an air of sad desperation about her, I realized now. Maybe she saw me as a man to save, or hoped I might save her. Either way, too high a cost to pay for a good lay, even if that was all I might want. Plus, what would Cheesus do? I hated to think he might lend his hand.

She refilled our vodkas, and then nearly gave me a heart attack, opening the freezer to retrieve a couple of ice cubes. But she closed the door with no sign of Cheesus. Wasn’t till she turned around that I spotted him, hanging from her cardigan by a couple of fingers. He dropped next to her bare feet and flipped me the bird.

I kicked him under the counter and took Clarissa by the shoulder. “You’re a great girl,” I said. “But...”

She tilted her head and kissed my cheek. “I get it,” she whispered. “Too much too soon, right?”

We downed our drinks, still standing, and I didn’t see Cheesus till I escorted her to the door. He was moping beneath the couch, batting dust bunnies in boredom. “Text me tomorrow, okay?” Clarissa said. “Or in a few days. Whatever you want.”

With her gone, I flopped onto the couch. Cheesus rounded the top of the coffee table, slow and sheepish. “Come here,” I told him. He approached, creeping finger by finger. I plopped him in my lap like a baby, cuddling him as I had Stevie back in his infancy days, during long afternoon naps while Mo—overwhelmed—took to bed rest in what I realized was a type of depression she never really recovered from.

“We’re going to be okay,” I told the hand. “You, me, Stevie. What more do we need?”

 Cheesus curled his fingers toward mine, and we dozed off, hand in hand, until Stevie woke us with the sun.