Photo by Kelley Bozarth

Idle Hands

The day Dr. Barnaby escorted Todd to the front gate of the Iowa Mental Health Institute was the day Todd was sure the devil had come to live in his hands.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” Dr. Barnaby said many times each day for the past 20-some years. “Keep busy; keep pure.”

So Todd, along with about 50 other “crazies, feebs or droolers” (as the orderlies would say when alone with their charges), would sand down or varnish old chairs, restoring them to like-new condition for sale by the cash-strapped state. Some of the more skilled were allowed to tighten screws using a power drill, or even use a nail gun. For this work therapy, the patients of the IMHI would recieve $1.50 per hour. Of course, Dr. Barnaby actually recieved the $1.50 per hour, through some trick of legal mumbo-jumbo that made Todd’s head hurt to try and decipher.

But on Oct. 19, Todd’s Idle Hands became Painful Hands, too painful to handle tools. Luckily for Todd, Dr. Barnaby said he had been cured of his “anti-social tendencies and non-specific aggression” on the day the pain became too much to even hold a varnish brush.

“As I’ve always said, Todd, idle hands are the devil’s playground, and you’ve spent 20 years denying Satan his fun, haven’t you?” Barnaby smoothed back his silver hair, chuckling to himself. “Well, no more shots, no more therapy and no more alone time in the box. What do you think of that?”

“I think your hands haven’t been idle, either, Doctor,” Todd said as he read his bus ticket that would take him from Riverside to Des Moines, where his sister lived. Where Todd was pretty sure she lived. (Ol’ sis hadn’t visited in a few years, if Todd’s often-faulty memory served him correctly).

“Ha! Good one, my boy! The bus is a-comin’, so I’ll let you go.”

The gates to the Iowa Mental Health Institute slammed shut.

Todd stared blankly at the gate as the diesel roar behind him grew louder. That’s when he noticed his left hand, tugging on his left ear. How had that happened? He didn’t remember telling his hand to do that.

“Idle Hands,” Todd muttered, willing his arthritic hand down to his side. “Gotta keep ’em busy.”

He was startled out of his reverie by a loud sound. He jumped. Only the horn on the bus. Todd boarded with his ticket, sat in the front seat and fell asleep within seconds.


“Bmph Desmond..”

“What? Huh?”

“I said, ‘buddy, Des Moines. This is your stop.’” The bus driver impatiently waved Todd toward the open door of the bus and the outside beyond, the oily night sky seeping into alleys, under benches and over darkened windows. How long had it been since Todd had been outdoors at night? He couldn’t remember.

“You gotta get off!” The bus driver was impatient now.

“Okay, do you know where my sister lives?” Todd asked. He noticed his left hand tugging on his earlobe again. (DOWN Idle Hand!).

“What? Look, pal, this ain’t my last stop and everyone is waiting. GO!”

If two decades of servitude at the Iowa Mental Health Institute had taught Todd anything, it had taught him to obey anyone using The Voice. The Voice could be followed by a shot, or by time in the Box. The Voice meant, “do it, or else.”

Todd’s second-hand shoes (a blessing, the Doctor would say) scuffled along the somewhat sticky rubber runner in the center of the bus as he moved foward. Suddenly, he lost his balance and fell forward, his arms automatically reaching forward for purchase. His left hand struck the driver on the back of his head, pulling a few hairs out as it grasped for a way to keep himself upright.


Todd flew down the three steps and into the chilly night and the bus pulled away.

He looked pensively up and down the street, wondering how he would find his sister. He hadn’t thought to ask Dr. Barnaby, and the Doctor hadn’t offered. His hand pulled at his ear again. (AGAIN?!)

Todd lowered his hand and looked at it. It was acting on its own again. Perhaps feeling IDLE. Now that he considered it, what had caused him to lose his balance? Todd’s hands might be failing him, but at 50 years old, he knew he was still spry enough to walk.

“Did you…didja PULL me?” Todd whispered to his hand. “Are you full of the Devil?”

Todd imagined the hand turning over of its own volition, palm up, with a single stern eye glaring unforgivingly at him.

“C’mon Todd. Even Idle Hands can’t grow eyes.”

But he wasn’t sure. What if that accusing eye came rushing at his face and he was unable to stop his hand?

Todd continued to fearfully watch his left hand, wondering how long he had to find work before he fully developed an Idle Hand and the devil would take over his life. He scratched his chin with his other hand, ruminating.

“Wait a minute! I didn’t tell you to do that!”

Todd now held BOTH hands in front of him and walked toward the Greyhound terminal. A few passers-by were looking at him strangely, but Todd considered that perhaps they thought he was a surgeon, like Dr. Meaney, who had worked with Dr. Barnaby on other patients. Worked inside their heads.

Todd reached the Greyhound building and put his back against the clapboard siding, his knees giving away as he looked at the Idle Hands.

“Just do what I tell you to do,” he pleaded.

Left hand quivered in response.

“STOP IT!” he screamed, and Right Hand clenched in a fist.

How to stop the Idle Hands without using the hands? Todd was sure that anything he tried to grab would be used against him.


Todd’s incisors bit into his left wrist (the most Idle of the two hands, as it showed a life of its own first.) Blood spurted, impossibly bright even in the somewhat muted incadescence coming through the Greyhound windows. It ran down his arm and dripped off his elbow to the dusty concrete below, gore and dust comingling.

Todd gasped with the pain — blinding, nauseating pain. But he knew he couldn’t quit. What was the word the orderlies sometimes used?Incapacitated. He must incapacitate his Idle Hand.

Todd savaged his wrist again, this time feeling Left Hand pull away from the grinding and crushing of his teeth. He felt sinew and tendon begin to fray between his teeth, even felt a bit of gristle go down his throat.

“IIIDLE aaaaands…” he growled over his feast.


“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Dr. Barnaby. Sometimes these crazies can be tricky,” Smith said.

“Now, Smith. An orderly must respect his patients. Imagine the will power Todd displayed.” Barnaby gestured to the man secured to the table with wide leather straps. “He nearly got through both bones below his wrist!”

Smith left and Barnaby looked down at Todd.

“Well, Todd, I suppose even though you can’t work, you can continue helping me with my experiments,” Barnaby smiled. “You remember the shots, right?”

Barnaby reached forward with the syringe, full of a bright orange substance.

Todd writhed wildly, trying to pull his right hand or the stump of his left out of the restraints. He DID remember the shots. In fact, he remembered thinking much more clearly BEFORE the shots began, about a decade ago.

After the substance was injected, Barnaby left the room with the patient still strapped to the table. He stripped off the gloves, never noticing the small puncture where the needle grazed his hands during Todd’s frantic struggle.

Much later, as he was immersed in writing the day’s log, Barnaby noticed his hand twitch.

“Hmm….This bears watching,” he muttered to himself as he eyed the Stranger on his wrist. “Idle hands….I wonder if Dr. Meaney left his surgical kit…”