I walk into the diner, wipe my hands on a sheaf of napkins I pull from the dispenser, and sit at the side of the counter close by the kitchen, just in time to hear this guy to the right of me wearing a cab driver’s cap turn to his partner and say,
“Mama Grandi wants us to move the family to another part of town. It is just getting too dismal in the Lower Sticks.”
His friend nods, pulling a long face. “Yeah, place will make you want to get a habit yourself, just so you’ll have something else to worry about besides the junkies and muggers banging around your apartment building at 2 in the morning. Didn’t some kid get his eyes stabbed out last week by the old church?”
“Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
I cough to get the waitress’s attention. The taxi driver and his friend both eyeball me with cold, unforgiving looks as though it was my sinister purpose to interrupt their lamentations.
“Gotta move the kids out of the Lower Sticks,” says the taxi driver. This time there’s an edge of aggression in his voice. He’s daring me to interrupt him again. I nod pleasantly in his direction while the waitress sloppily sets a coffee in front of me.
A thin man sitting on my other side, face dry and taut, mouth drawn tight as a thread, clears his throat. He could be the grandfather of a herd of healthy mountain children; he could be a recluse with a closet full of human skins. It could go either way. His eyes flicker for a moment when he sees he has our attention, then go dead again. His voice is inflectionless, flat as static, but we listen. He goes:
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
“Down in the Lower Sticks — one, two years ago — I hear of this boy Stephen Donnett, who is wild about two things, junk and cash. He is wild about the cash because it gets him junk and a place to stay for the night and he is wild about the junk because it gives him something to do in between hustling up the cash. That’s what you call a destructive habit, son.” (I am guessing he says this to me as one of his eyes is fixed on my throat. I look down at my coffee guiltily and nod for him to continue.)
“He takes the junk any way he can — snorts it, shoots it up, you know what I’m talking about. Across from him in the same apartment lives another boy, few years younger. This one’s name is William Pray.
“This William, he is no junkie, but he is a sex fiend of the highest order. They say you could start a business with the videotapes and equipment that boy has. Sometimes he brings up girls, but most nights he’s alone and you can hear the sounds of the tapes and that’s it. He is a good-looking kid — not like this Stephen, who has chemicals junking up his veins. Maybe he thinks he is too good for what he’s found on the street so far.”
The guys beside me start to shift in their seats. I glance at them and realize for the first time that they’ve heard this story before, but they are grinning uneasily from ear to ear just the same, shivering with anticipation, and I can actually see the hairs begin to rise on their arms. I am interrupted in my obscene gawping by the man who takes me by the chin with a hand that feels like sandpaper and turns my gaze back to him. His face isn’t reproving; it’s just an eerie blank.
“Now one thing I always forget to mention about Stephen. There is something else that gets him off besides junk and cash, and that is hocus pocus stuff. I mean Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, Simon, and all that crap. He doesn’t actually read the stuff, but he learns what he can from what he catches on the History Channel in motel lobbies or hears downtown palm readers mutter. There is no method or rationale to what he remembers and uses; if it sounds useful or disgusting, it sticks.
“Time comes when his luck starts to run out, however. Cops are starting to recognize him and run him off the street, tell him not to loiter, ask him what his business is everywhere he goes. He is no good at mugging and now that he can no longer snatch purses in stores or stations, he begins to run low on cash. Pretty soon the dealers start to look the other way too. They know he doesn’t have enough to trade for junk and so they have no truck with him any longer.
“He spends days lying in bed with the shakes, listening to the sound of William’s videos from across the hall and biting at his wrist, hoping that the pain will keep the craving at bay. He gets a lot of hallucinations, some of them pretty funny like a monkey hopping and chattering around his bed, and some of them ugly, things he’s seen out of shows, like upside down crosses and butchered lambs. He starts to remember some really weird stuff that he’s heard of, like black masses performed on a naked woman’s body and spells that make milk go sour. One thing, a weird old legend from England, sticks particularly in his head — the tale of the Hand of Glory, a dried hand that thieves in Shakespeare’s time would cut from a hanged man’s body; a hand that can unlock any door, lead you to treasure, and keep everyone in the house asleep while you go about your business. But you can guess how many men the State hangs these days.
“Really whacked out of his mind, Stephen decides to wander out one night, hoping that he can nag some dealer into giving him a supply ‘on credit.’ It’s a ridiculous scheme but he’s not thinking with any part of him that’s rational. It’s his veins, empty of junk, that are thinking for him and it is a wonder that with the buzzing in his ears, he notices how quiet it is in William’s apartment.
“He pauses then for a moment outside the door and listens, not sure that this isn’t another hallucination. Now he does begin to hear something, but it doesn’t sound like the moans or screams that he usually hears. It sounds grey, monochrome, inhuman. He tries the doorknob and it turns. Without thinking, he steps inside.”
“God, what a fucking idiot,” the cabbie groans. He has the expression of a guy who’s heard this routine a million times but always half-hopes that something will change in the billionth retelling of it. “Gotta be another version of this story somewhere,” I think I hear him mumbling. But the half-hearted grin hasn’t left his face.
“So he goes inside and the first thing that hits him is that the lights are all turned off. There isn’t anything shining in that room except the television screen and it’s just shimmering with static. He looks around for some sign of William, but all he sees at first is the dirty rug, the thread-bare couch, the rows of empty glasses on the coffee table. It’s only after a long, stupid minute that he finally looks up and notices what’s on the other side of the room.
“You know those fold-out screens that women sometimes like to hide behind while they undress, the kind you see in those old movies they play late at night on AMC? William has one of those, only his is made of red canvas with Oriental patterns embroidered into it, leaves and flowers. Something stains one of the patterns; a thick streak that looks crimson by the light of the quivering static.
“Slowly Stephen’s gaze travels up the length of the screen to what’s behind it. He sees the back of a head, tilted at a crazy angle; the knotted coil of noose, like a brown jungle snake, around his throat; the length of rope hanging tautly from an overhead beam. None of what he’s seeing makes any sense to him. He’s got the shakes too much to think of calling the police; but he’s too bewildered to go back to his room and dream about junk. Instead, he goes up to the screen and begins to circle it. The tips of William’s shoes are brushing the carpet very gently, in a swaying, circular motion; an upturned chair lies several feet away. A pair of scissors, enormous and silver, are on the floor just beneath him.
“Stephen isn’t thinking about this, though. His junk-addled brain is already distracted by the thought of what an opportunity this is. He couldn’t care less that the guy across the hall killed himself, but if there’s any loose cash or junk stashed under a pillow or in a drawer, Stephen wants to be the first to find out before the police arrive. He searches the place top to bottom, finds a few loose dollars, but they don’t add up to much.
“Sweating, he moves to the bedroom; pulls drawers out, flinging them on the bed, rips open pillowcases, prodding them for hidden junk. Finally, he gets to the closet and that’s where he gets his first shock. On the floor is a pile of nooses and each one is frayed at the end. All of a sudden, he thinks back to the scissors that he found on the floor and begins to shiver. He feels close to arriving at some sort of climax, some kind of epiphany, but his brain feels foggy and the harder he tries to understand, the more incapable he is of understanding. Besides, the adrenaline rush of his search for cash or drugs has him numbed. If he can’t shoot it up or shove it in his pockets, he doesn’t see it.”
The man pauses to take a sip of water. Finally, after giving a wet cough and drawing the back of a hand across his mouth, he says,
“So he heads back to the living room, and all the while this funny idea keeps running through his mind. See, he actually feels pretty pissed at poor, dead William right now — has actually begun to hold him responsible for all his troubles. And he keeps thinking of the hand of glory and how you cut it off a hanged man and he begins to wonder if it’s true and how many times he’ll have a chance like this in the future. He goes into the kitchen and finds a steak knife. For the first time, some weird ray of lucidity must hit him when he sees what he’s holding, because he suddenly drops it so loud that someone passing outside William’s apartment hears the sound and stops by the door, asks if everything’s all right. The door’s still ajar, you remember. Not very steadily, Stephen calls out that everything’s fine. A silence and then footsteps. The intruder is gone.
“And then Stephen notices the second funny thing that evening. Don’t know if I mentioned it before, but when Stephen first came in through the front door, William was hanging from the ceiling with his face turned away and only the back of his head visible. Well, when Stephen steps out of the kitchen, knife in hand, he takes one look at William and is this close to throwing the knife down and running out the door, hand or no hand.
“See, somehow the body twisted itself around and, for the first time, Stephen gets a good look at William’s face. And that’s when he feels his blood actually run cold, like someone has covered his heart with a stone. Because above the crooked tilt of that broken neck, above the knot of rope at his throat, the boy is grinning at him. And he realizes with an awful, sinking feeling that he’ll never forget this look as long as he lives.
“He still goes to William, knife in hand, but he can’t take his eyes off that face. It’s like he’s afraid it’ll come alive if he looks away for even a second. The eyes are livid, reflecting the static from the television; the downward pressure has made his face go white; but his lips are twisted in this fixed, open, agonized smile and Stephen looks at the red screen and sees again that trickle of something thick and white staining it, and he realizes all of a sudden that this isn’t a suicide he’s seeing, this is some kind of horrible accident — this boy’s done this to himself before again and again, this is how he gets off, but something went wrong and he didn’t cut himself down in time, and so he came and died. And in a weird way, the unexpectedness of this makes Stephen nervous again about what he’s doing. Maybe it ought to make him feel better that at least this boy wasn’t so miserable that he wiped himself, that it was all just the result of an accident. But instead, Stephen’s wondering now if this will even work anymore, if this sort of hanging even counts, and now he just wants to get the hell out of William’s place — away from the crackling television and that stiff, suspended body.
“But as the first rush of shock starts to ebb from him, he begins to feel the shakes again — and this time they’re worse than they’ve ever been, so bad that he coughs and retches his sickness out on the carpet and even after he’s finished, he still feels like coughing out his insides. And he knows that if he leaves, there’s nothing waiting for him back in his own apartment — nothing but the hell of wanting and not having. The carving knife is still in his hand and he takes one of William’s hands, the left one, and begins to cut into it. A little blood flows, but not much. It is harder to cut through bone than Stephen thought it would be. He finally somehow manages to dislocate the wrist from the rest of the arm through a combination of sawing and wiggling at it. Finally, it dislodges and falls sloppily into his own hand.
“That night he doesn’t get the usual visions and hallucinations. He sleeps so completely that he doesn’t even hear the police come and go, doesn’t hear his neighbors gossip in the hallways about what they found in William’s apartment, of how the cops would have said it was either suicide or what they call ‘accidental’ asphyxiation if it weren’t for the hacked-off hand. He hears later that they put it down to some sort of ritual murder. There are lots of pretty fucked up cults in the Lower Sticks, and since they don’t have any fingerprints to go on, the cops just dismiss it and move on to the next disaster area.
“Stephen spends that afternoon in the library, writing down notes from every book that he can find on the hand of glory. Finally, come twilight, he heads back to his place. William’s hand is still in the mini-fridge, wrapped in plastic, beside a week-old sandwich and a beer. He stares at it for a long moment before finally getting up the nerve to take it out. It feels like holding a dead animal; road-kill. A load seems to lift from his stomach once he’s dropped the thing onto the sheet of wax paper that he’s spread onto the counter.
“He squeezes the hand until he’s drained as much blood as he can from it. Then he puts it in a dirty casserole dish, sprinkles it with salt and other herbs just like the books said, and then puts it in the cabinet beneath his oven. He ignores the smell and waits two weeks before taking it out again. Then he lays it out on his windowsill, lets it cook in the sun for a day, and says something in Latin over it like a prayer before going to bed.
“At about two in the morning, he starts awake from a dream so awful that he’s shaking worse than he ever did from mere lack of junk. He thinks he sees William Pray, coming to him out of the shadows of his closet. The noose is still tied around his throat, connected to him organically like a ropy umbilical cord; the writhing end of it vanishes into the darkness somewhere above his head. As William moves to the side of Stephen’s bed, there’s this brushing wush-wush sound because his feet are sweeping instead of walking across the floorboards. And he points to Stephen with his right hand, because his left hand is just a bleeding stump, and tries to talk but all that comes out is this fast, hissing intake-outtake of breath. It’s like he’s trying to make articulate speech like a living man, but this is all he can manage — a replay of his last sounds. Tasting bile, Stephen manages to roll over out of bed and when he fumbles for the switch and the lights flicker on, there’s no one in the room but himself.
“After one shock, your whole body is alive to just about anything. It doesn’t take much to set it off. So while he’s sitting there in the dark, trying hard to focus on the sound of traffic out his window, of his neighbors fighting or fucking, all those brutal, ordinary sounds, he hears the soft thud of the hand falling from the kitchen window into the sink and that little noise makes him shriek as if someone set a hot coal between his eyes.
“White and trembling, he gets to his feet and goes to the sink. The hand is just lying there, the faucet dripping on it every few seconds. It is so dry and parched that it no longer looks real anymore — like a piece of gnarled leather, alien replica of a human hand. For a minute, Stephen imagines that he hears that whistling breath behind him, but after a breathless moment, he concludes that it’s just the water pipes. He screws the faucet tighter, shutting off the monotonous drip, and takes the hand out, studies it. It’s like holding the molting of a dead insect or snake — he knows it’s dead, but he’s terrified that he might be wrong and that it will come alive in his own hand. He thinks his heart might stop if it does.
“You know the drill. He takes the hand, takes a lighter, brings them both together and lights the tip of each finger. His own hand is shaking so hard he would not know if William’s dead hand tried to squirm free; he’s dry sobbing so violent, if the ghost screamed in his ear at the kiss of fire, chances are he would not hear.
“Next day, Stephen’s friends catch him with a canary-munching look and ask him what happened to land him in such a good temper. Well, for one thing, you could fly a kite with the amount of junk that’s sailing through his veins. He gives them a grinning look and says he’s got sources, an inside finger as it were. He has found enough cash, enough dope, to keep himself for quite a while. When they ask how he managed this, he does not even bother lying. He tells them the whole hand of glory nonsense, tells them how the hand not only leads him to cash but junk as well. He says it actually burns green when it gets close to a stash of the stuff.
“Well, his friends don’t really believe all this spooky shit, but they believe in the junk and they figure that it seems not right for Stephen to be scoring so richly while they have to go slum for it like the rest of the fiends. They say that if he does not get them some by tonight, they’ll go to the police with his story and tell them how he murdered William for his hand.
“This sobers him up some and he starts to backtrack, contradicts himself, says at one minute that he made the whole thing up, then says that he’s not even sure the hand will help him find junk again. They ask him what makes him think this, that he’s just trying to worm out of his duty to them, and he only says that sometimes it will lead him down alleys, filthy with newspapers and used needles, until he finds himself up against a wall, all messy with centipedes and roaches crawling all over each other, mating. Other times it makes him go into condemned buildings, places where the floors are rotting out and the foundations ready to swallow up anything with a gravity pull, and stands him by a rotted-out window several stories high, showing him the prospect.
“Well, what do you expect from deciding to use the hand of some pervert anyway? Who knows what he did with it before you came along, you dim fool? Ever thought of that?
“Long silence. They get up and leave him, but not before getting him to promise that he’ll bring them something by the end of the day. And he whines and asks them to give him an extra day, because he can never tell what mood he’ll find the hand in this afternoon. Shrugging, they say sure sure and leave him to it.
“Next thing anyone hears of Stephen is when the police get a call from 273 Benway Street, someone reporting a burglary. The guy who answers the door, old man in a dirty bathrobe, says that he don’t know what woke him, but he started awake in the middle of the night and went downstairs and that’s when he noticed that someone had smashed his kitchen window.
“Well, are you actually missing anything, the cops ask. And what’s eating at you anyway? You look like a mess.
“Old man scratches dry, balding head. Funny dreams, he says. And yeah, I checked and a lot of cash I kept hidden around the house is missing.
“Cops go to the window — it’s smashed pretty badly, glass all over the place, potted plants and soil covering the kitchen floor. How the hell you sleep through all this?
“Dunno. Like I say, funny dreams. Like the ones where you fall, only in this one I couldn’t breathe either, like I was drowning or something.
“And your front door was unlocked?
“No, locked like always.
“That strikes them as odd, since if the burglar made an escape, he’d either have had to go out the front door (easiest way) or leave through the window again, probably skinning himself on all that jagged glass on the way out. Something looks off about the whole thing. They decide to search the place, make sure the thief’s actually cleared out.
“Everything looks fine until they notice that the attic trapdoor’s hanging open. They tell the old man to wait while they head up to see what’s going on. Cash papers the floor, cash and junk. The place is green with it. One cop makes a sound of disgust. A severed human hand, fingertips still smoking, lies by his foot. He kicks it out of the way without thinking, until his friend makes noises about tampering with evidence.
“Nothing else is there except an old wardrobe. They guess they better open it, make sure that he’s not hiding. And that’s how they find Stephen Donnett.
“The way I hear it from the papers and the word on the street, he’s hanging by several strands of red sewing thread and barbed wire from a rusted nail. The threads and wire are pulled so taut and vicious that his throat’s raw, bleeding and open; they later find out that between his own weight and the pressure of the wires, his head was cut almost clean off. But the wires probably took so long to cut into him that the poor, dumb fuck hung there for a good minute or even longer before choking on his own blood and dying.
“But that’s not what they’re looking at. They’re looking at the dead junkie’s face and feeling their flesh begin to creep because there’s this grin on it, like something they’ve seen before down in the Lower Sticks on the face of another boy, only what would another one be doing in an old man’s attic wardrobe? Funny place for a suicide, they think. Only it don’t look like a suicide either. Oh well, they say, taking one last long, unhappy look at that face, at that doubly-stiff body. Some folks’ll do anything for a kick.”
The man pushes back his hat, looks at us long and emptily. One of the guys behind me starts to chuckle nervously, whistles, “Hoo-whee. What a climax.”
“How long ago did this happen?” I ask. “And were those really their names? Donnett and Pray?”
The guys smirk at each other before looking to the man, lapping up his reaction.
“Kid,” the man says. “You’re sloppy.” He takes my tie, gloved fingers dry and soft as mortician cloth; pulls it awful tight to my throat. “That’s better.”
We watch him head out, nervous smiles on all our faces, and shut up long enough to fill ourselves with coffee. The cabbie waits for a fresh batch of customers to seat themselves at the counter before telling me with a barely-concealed wink, loud enough for all to hear,
“You know, boys, Mama Grandi thinks we should get out of town. It is just getting too damn dismal in the Lower Sticks.”