Old man hands

The old man stood at the kitchen sink and turned on the faucet with his elbow. He felt the water with his mud-caked hand — too cold yet to wash. He nudged the faucet to the right with his elbow and waited. A pale beam of morning light shone through the windowsill upon his hands, and he examined them. They trembled slightly as he held them in the light. He took a deep breath, focused and they held still.

They were delicate hands, long and slender with knobby joints and thick veins that popped out like swollen tributaries when he worked with them. They had a wrinkled look to them, too, like he had just soaked them. Wet mud caked in every crack, crevice and fingernail. He used to hate dirty hands, but now it felt good to feel the rich soil cling to his hands as he planted yellow daisies in the garden. It felt like a warm embrace from a long-lost friend. That’s what she tried to tell him years before, but he didn’t understand. At the time, he couldn’t see the point of digging in the dirt under the hot sun, pulling weeds and getting your hands dirty. It seemed monotonous. It was a pleasure that took him late into life to understand.

He touched the water again, warm now, he squirted orange-scented dish soap into his hands and scrubbed. He took his time, methodically moving each hand back and forth, then over each knuckle and joint, first on the left hand then the right. He took special care over the cut across his right knuckle, his papery skin cut easier these days. Satisfied, he rinsed away the muddy suds, turned the faucet off and dried his hands on a kitchen towel. Then he poured a mug of coffee. The machine hissed and then hushed when placed back on the hot plate. He reached for the mug.

Ah, shit, he thought. He jerked his hand back, then grabbed the handle of the steaming mug and sat down. He took a sip of the bitter black brew and held onto the mug. Coffee’s magic is as much in the tactile as it is the taste, same as tea, he reflected. It’s the process. After a moment, he set the mug down and examined his hands again.

On his palm, lines crossed in such abundance and chaos, a fortune teller once in Korea told him she couldn’t find his luck line. “No luck,” she said. She’d never seen anything like it. Neither had the kids he taught that one year in Korea when he was in his 20s. He smiled as he thought about how they’d beg for him to hold up his hand, but as soon as they saw the thatch of lines across his palm, they’d squeal and giggle as if they just saw something grotesque. But the fortune teller was right, he never did have any luck, at least of the good kind.

Well, he reflected, tracing the lines on his palm as if reading the story of his own life. That’s not true.

He lived a good life, and besides, good luck was boring. It was bad luck that bred character. He examined the faded swirls and loops on his finger tips. It’s amazing, he thought, how each person had a unique print. He remained someone telling him looping fingerprints meant intelligence. Who was that? He searched his mind, but it drifted away and another took its place.

These faded prints, how did they get that way? Ah, he remembered and chuckled. He was eight and at a church sleepover where they were making taffy from scratch. He stuck his fingers into boiling liquid sugar thinking that was how it was made. For a moment, nothing happened, then came a searing pain of the likes he had never known. Memory of the pain crossed time and pricked his right index finger.

I can’t believe I thought I was going to lose my hands. How silly, how foolish, how innocent I was then.

On the back of his right hand, between his index finger and middle knuckle he noticed a tiny scar the size of a fingernail. Another memory sprang to mind. He was alone then, searching for some lost part of himself he foolishly believed others already had. On his journey, he traveled across Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and then through Europe. In Hungary, he worked on a house out in the countryside for a street performer in exchange for room and board. It was there it happened.

His hands were softer then, plush and clean. He didn’t know how good dirt could feel on his hands then. There he worked with four other travelers leveling dirt floors, knocking down walls and moving mountains of dirt and rock to renovate the old home. Calluses formed, blisters popped and dirt embedded in his nails. Then at night, bodies sore and aching, he’d climb the hill to his home and drink the host’s homemade wine and watch the sun fade over the open pastures and tidy vineyards below. Then one day, in a moment of absentmindedness while holding a plank, a rusty nail sliced his knuckle sending blood spewing everywhere and ending his stay. No matter, he met his wife at the hospital there in Hungary.

He reached for the coffee mug for another draft of coffee. His hands shook, sloshing coffee down the side. He took a deep breath, steadied his hand again, and slurped.

He never had the steadiest hands. They always seemed to betray him when it came to nerves. They sweated profusely on his wedding day as nerves and excitement coursed through him. His best man had the idea to cake them in talcum powder moments before the ceremony to dry them, but the powder got everywhere, even on his navy suit pants. So with powder all over him, he watched his wife, Marina, glide down the aisle. She carried yellow daisies, her favorite. She laughed at his folly, then took his hands in hers. Instantly, they grew calm.

Her hands were always steady, he liked that about her. They were soft and supple, with callouses and a little dirt in her fingernails from working outside.

When she went into labor with their first child, he could barely grip the steering wheel his hands shook so much. Marina, somehow calm as ever in between contractions, reached across the dashboard and took his right hand in hers and gently squeezed it. Instantly, his hands grew still. She had that effect on him. But later, when they found out she had a miscarriage, he reached across the wires and tubes and held hers as they both cried. He remembered how they were so clammy and weak then.

The old man sighed, and took another draft from the lukewarm coffee.

They were like that 30 years later when she was dying of stage 4 Leukemia. He stayed strong for her then, he’d learned that from her. She could barely speak, so he enveloped her hands with his old man hands. They were brittle and weak, but calm. She squeezed his hand gently and he squeezed hers, back and forth they communicated this way for hours. They were little signals, a gentle reassurance, an affirmation that all would be ok. Then one time she didn’t return an answer and he knew.

His hands shook more often after that. His doctor suspected Parkinson’s, but he knew it was something else. Something shook loose inside him that day, he lost his foundation, his bearings, his steadying force. He buried her with yellow daisies, her favorite.

The coffee had grown cold now. He swigged it and set it down in the sink. A golden light washed over him as he opened the back door and walked to the garden. His old man hands trembled slightly. He plucked a seed from a packet, lowered his hands into the cool, moist dirt and placed the seed. He imagined the life that would soon sprout from this tiny seed, a beautiful yellow daisy basking in the sun full of life, and as he pictured, his hands deep in the soil, shook less and less, until they grew still.