SHORT STORIES

The Prosthetic Arm

When a funeral is poorly attended, it is difficult to remain unassuming. Roger Kaminski stood nervously at the edge of the grave of an eccentric man. Standing on the inside of a semi-circle of people can be awkward. Roger occupied the spot over a man’s grave that should have been reserved for close family.

Roger felt conspicuous in his aging brown suit. Partially since everyone else was wearing black and partially because of his crummy suit. His eyes moved from the grave to his protruding belly and back again. This was the first time he had noticed that the buttons on his shirt were straining to hold his shirt together. He had not had a haircut in weeks. Nor had he any real exercise in months. He began to consider ways he could change his lifestyle for the sake of his health as he thumbed a crinkled package of Brunt Cigarettes in his pants pocket. As his thoughts drifted towards lighting up, he realized his attention had wandered from the funeral. He had a strong urge to turn around and see if anyone had noticed that he was spacing out. He feared that turning his head would be an admission of negligent attention. He was forced to confront his paranoia and keep his interest focused on the casket. Roger felt as though he was standing at the side of the grave with his pants down.

Roger became aware of a tall, dark figure standing on the other side of the gathering. Roger was sure he had seen the man before. His suit was well fitted and obviously of fine quality. He was well groomed and he exuded a level of calm and strength. His was a familiar face that Roger felt an overwhelming need to trust. His haircut was comically straight: short back and sides and a long part to the side that screamed network news. Roger pondered how much the man resembled Sam Breckinridge from the WBC six o’clock news.

Covering funerals was Roger’s least favorite thing to do. He stared blankly into the hole where Hubert Lepsin’s casket would soon be lowered into and mulled over the details of his assignment. Three recklessly folded press clippings and Lepsin’s landlord’s telephone number were crammed in the pocket of his blazer. Roger was struck with an unfortunate disease for a newspaper writer, having a conscience. Reducing a man’s life to style section fodder was distressing, but he wasn’t offered enough regular work at the Washington Courier-Dispatch to turn down the dead. He tried to recall the aspiring journalist he had been when he wrote for his college newspaper. He longed for a chance to become the type of newsman that had inspired him to pursue journalism in the first place. However, he was often in a bad way with the editor and never bothered to argue about the quality of his assignments.

As the funeral concluded, Roger was late to drop a flower into the grave. He began the distasteful task of fishing around the congregation for a quote. The few people in attendance scattered quickly and Roger felt defeated by his own lack of tenacity. He could not find an approachable person in the lot and made a snap decision to pursue the tall man he had seen before. The man was already making his way back across the graveyard toward the parking lot. As Roger gave chase, he wondered if it was actually Sam Breckinridge he was pursuing. His heart raced. If it was actually him, it would save the day. A local celebrity attending a funeral was always good for an easy paragraph or two.

Roger tried to appear casual as he hurried towards the parking lot. Breckinridge was already sliding his keys into the lock of his sedan as Roger jogged toward the car. The man turned just in time to see Roger rush up behind him. He appeared slightly alarmed and his full attention stopped Roger in his tracks. Roger stared for a moment, making the confrontation even more awkward.

“Mr. Breckenridge?” Roger’s inquisitive lilt lacked confidence.

The man stood up straight. He was at least a foot taller than Roger. “Yes. What can I help you with?” He appeared annoyed, and Roger attempted to regroup.

“Sir, I’m doing a newspaper story on Mr. Lepsin and coming up a little short on information. I don’t wish to bother you at his funeral, but I was hoping for ….”

“I understand,” Breckinridge interrupted. He held his car door half open and his attitude became obsequiously friendly as though a newscaster switch had been triggered in his head. Before he was asked, Breckinridge began to make a statement that sounded rehearsed for the evening news.

Roger wrote furiously as Breckinridge flew past the details of his only meeting with Hubert Lepsin. It did not matter that the details of that meeting were not at all interesting. What mattered was that the quote had come from Sam Breckinridge. Filling in the blanks meant that copy could be turned in before lunch. Turning in copy before lunch meant matinee prices at the movies.

 Breckenridge had slid his right foot in the car and began to wrap up his comment. He was already extending the car door wide open as his final words trailed off his tongue.

“Thank you so much, sir. It has been a real…” Roger looked up from his writing just in time to speak to Breckenridge’s back.

Breckenridge turned back to offer a handshake and lost his footing on the sidewalk. He fell hard and fast with his right foot still lodged in the car. Roger offered his arm to steady the fall, but his own foot was not steady and Roger lunged backward awkwardly. Turning halfway, Roger stumbled violently and was able to regain his balance just in time to watch Breckenridge hit the pavement between the car and the curb. Roger winced. The sound of a news anchor hitting the ground was particularly ominous for him. He made a mental note not to expect any favors from the WBC news team for a while.

As he watched Breckenridge struggle off the sidewalk, Roger realized he was still holding something in his hand. He looked down and saw that he was holding Breckinridge’s arm. Roger watched in awe as Breckenridge brushed the dust off of his suit with one hand. Roger was overcome with a gripping embarrassment.

“I lost my arm in the war,” Breckenridge’s tone offered little patience. “I would like to get that one back if you don’t have any further use for it.”

“Sir….” Roger looked at the arm he was holding. He began to offer an apology and decided it would not do much good. The situation had become too difficult to comment on, and Roger blankly handed the arm back.

Breckenridge dropped the arm carelessly into the passenger seat of his car, got in and turned the ignition. It took a few minutes for Roger to fully process what had happened. He was confident that he had exhausted Sam Breckenridge as a resource. Roger produced a piece of paper from his coat with Hubert Lepsin’s landlord’s phone number on it and decided to carry on with his chosen profession of investigative reporting.

Roger read through Lepsin’s press clippings in the car on the way to meet the landlord. The articles were all fluff and offered little insight into Lepsin’s life or personality. One was about Lepsin winning a state science fair when he was in high school that provided him a grant to go to college. More recently, he had been arrested for throwing a mannequin out of the window of his apartment building. Eccentricity has to be carefully worded in these types of articles.

The third clipping was about a puppet show Lepsin had done for the mayor several years back. Roger almost did not recognize the mayor as he was one of DC’s least arrested. Roger lit a long overdue cigarette and read. As the horn of a brown Mercedes let loose, Roger realized the light was green and hit the accelerator.

Lepsin lived in a crummy brick apartment building that smelled as if a turkey had been boiled alive in the hallway. It was the type of place where a stranger with twenty dollars and a flimsy press pass would be let in by the landlord unquestioned.

The only information the landlord offered was that he was not happy to be the one to have to clean out Lepsin’s apartment. He had declared all of the contents of the apartment garbage and urged Roger to take anything he wanted. He left Roger alone and told him to pull the door shut as he left

It was no surprise that the landlord was the one who would have to deal with the apartment. Lepsin apparently had no known family. His earthly remains were only rescued from an unmarked grave thanks to the charity of the local entertainment union and an unnamed source. No one from the union had bothered to go to the funeral as far as Roger could tell.

            Roger poked around the apartment without much interest. Every piece of furniture had been turned into a work island. Bits of cloth and odd metal hung on the walls. Stacks of drawings littered the floor and formed a nearly impenetrable moat around the desk. Puppet faces hung from nails on every wall of the room. Although it was apparent these faces had been cast to entertain children, they looked hideous staring around the room.

Roger sat at Lepsin’s desk for a while taking it all in. He was unsure what direction his article would take. He wanted very badly to do it justice. He wanted to do a good job for the sake of an old eccentric that Roger hoped he himself would not become one day. The way Roger saw it, Lepsin was an artist who received no recognition during his life. A man who took his work seriously, in spite of his monetary failings. However, an empty quote from a news anchor was not going to sell the message. Roger shrugged and started for the door with the intention of filling the article out with the typical “local guy expires” technique he learned from consistently writing about things he was not interested in.

Roger made a closer examination of some of the drawings on the floor on his way out. The drawings reminded him of the covers of science fiction novels that his father had kept from his own childhood. He grabbed an unmarked folder of drawings. Knowing the landlord was about to throw everything away, Roger decided he might try to include some of the drawings with the article. Roger began to lay Lepsin’s drawings across a card table near the door to see what they were. He found strange inspiration in these diagrams and began to lose himself among the finely crafted lines. It was obvious to Roger that Lepsin cared about what he did. Roger spread the pages across the table until he noticed the numbers in the corner of each page were in sequence. The pattern for an arm began to come together as he matched the numbered pages together. He recalled holding Breckinridge’s arm earlier that day and figured Lepsin might have designed prosthetics on the side.

Roger sat and sifted through the pages in the folder. Further examination of the drawings uncovered plans for other types of medical prosthetics. He considered leaving them behind in light of what they were until a set of oval prints caught his interest. The more Roger twisted and rotated the prints, the more he became perplexed. The lines on the pages artfully spelled out a complicated range of movement and purpose. He was certain that he was looking at mechanical blueprints. He became convinced they were blueprints for a prosthetic head. He smiled nervously to himself as a bead of sweat formed between his eyebrows. He collected the folder of blueprints and left by the staircase.

            Roger drove to a nearby coffee shop to ponder his next move. There was no way what he was considering could be reasonable, yet there was no doubt in his mind about the nature of the blueprints. Reaching past the pill bottle in his pocket he pulled out a crinkled package of cigarettes. He lit a crooked cigarette and eyed the barista quickly as though she knew something. He tried to forget about the pill bottle floating in his pocket. After all, it might be the very reason he was thinking the way he was. He tried to recall the last time he had taken his medication, and then pulled out the drawings for another look. Several quiet minutes until the smell of chlorine jolted him out of his thoughts and he turned to find the barista spraying the table behind him.

            “Excuse me.”

            She studied him with the casual suspicion of a young woman who has been approached by too many lonely middle aged coffee shop regulars. “Yeah…”

            Roger thrust the blueprints towards her. “What does this look like to you?”

The sight of the mess of papers caused her to become more cautious. She took a long step back and spoke as though she were humoring him. “A head?”

“Look at it again.” Roger narrowed his eyes.

“Sir, really, I…” The girl took a step back.

“Just take another look at it.” He shoved the papers at her again.

The girl took another step back and held up her middle finger. “Mister, take a look at this.”

Roger’s shuffled the papers excitedly as the girl stormed off. “Thanks.”

Roger phoned the paper and found out that Breckenridge was scheduled to speak at a journalism school convention that evening. The convention was two hours away in Ogdenville, Virginia. After a few failed phone calls to gain access to the convention, Roger was unable to finagle himself onto the guest list. He got in his car and headed west. “Jailbreak” by Thin Lizzy blared from the speakers and the windows were down as he hit I-66 towards Ogdenville. The notion of an evening spent standing in front of the North Ogdenville Convention Center drinking coffee made him feel like a real journalist, ready to get the whole story at any cost. A confrontation was eminent and welcome in spite of the fact that he was sure his theory sounded insane.

Roger parked in front of the convention center. His enthusiasm did not wane during the three hours he waited for Breckinridge to come out. He was giddy at the prospect of smoking out a real story. Years of irrelevant news reporting dissolved as he sat in his car listening to “Jailbreak” over and over for three straight hours. He felt washed clean at the altar of investigative journalism.

As people began to slowly file out of the convention center he searched the crowd of anonymous faces. He stood on his toes against the flow of patrons exiting the building and hummed the chorus of “Jailbreak” under his breath. Soon, Breckinridge made his way out, flanked on both sides with two equally tall men in gray suits. Roger’s pace was determined and confident as he followed Breckenridge out to his car.

“Mr. Breckenridge,” Roger called out.

Breckenridge turned and smiled. He waited until Roger was closer then spoke. “Hello. I’m Sam Breckenridge,” he declared mechanically.

“Yes sir.” Roger’s determination was suddenly deflated.  He began to consider how insane what he was about to say sounded and had to fight the urge to run. “I spoke to you a few hours ago at Hubert Lepsin’s funeral.”

“Oh yeah,” His eyebrows became stern and weary. “Roger, right? The Lepsin funeral. How did you make out with that story? I feel for you doing those local interest pieces. Do you live this far out?”

“Well, actually I don’t. I….”

“Oh, of course.” Breckenridge elevated his attitude to painfully friendly. “You’re here for a seminar?”

“Well….” Roger was slightly put off by the idea that Breckenridge thought he was still in journalism school. “Uh. Actually, I am here to see you, sir.”

“Really?” Breckenridge scanned the parking lot nervously. “What did you want to see me about? Certainly it couldn’t still be about that strange puppeteer’s funeral.”

“Well, not exactly. It’s about your arm.” Roger shifted nervously scratching the back of his neck.

“Oh, think nothing of it,” Breckinridge said dismissively. “I realize you didn’t pull out my arm on purpose. There is no need to apologize about it. It’s all forgotten. If I came off short with you, I didn’t mean to….”

“Well sir, it’s not exactly that. You see, I found these drawings in Lepsin’s apartment today.” Roger produced three drawings from the manila folder under his arm and held them out. “I thought you might have something to say about them.”

Breckenridge crooked his neck to examine them without touching them. “What do you expect me to say about them?”

Roger’s blood ran cold as he recognized Breckinridge was about to lose patience. This was Roger’s last chance to avoid embarrassing himself. He considered walking away, and then as though he had stepped out of himself, he responded. “I thought perhaps they were designs for a head.”

Breckenridge’s tone was barely pleasant. “I don’t understand. You mean a puppet’s head?”

Roger casually slipped his hand into the pocket of his blazer and switched on a small tape recorder, “Well, actually, I thought….”

“Yes?” Breckinridge’s expression dared Roger to speak.

“It’s your head, sir…,” Roger’s words hung in the air. ”Isn’t it?”

Breckinridge stared blankly for several seconds, then shifted to face Roger. He took a long look around the parking lot, then reached over and patted the tape recorder running in Roger’s pocket. He placed both his hands on his temples and turned his head slowly clockwise. The angle of his head became absurd as he continued to turn his head effortlessly on his neck. There was a pop as Breckinridge lifted his own head off his shoulders and handed it over to Roger. Roger accepted the head and adjusted it so he was face to face with it.

“Roger. I am a busy man.” The head continued, “I really don’t have time to stand in a parking lot and discuss your ridiculous theories. Perhaps you have been working too hard. I suggest you get some rest. And I would urge you in the future to think twice before wasting people’s time on such nonsense.”

Breckenridge’s body reached out and motioned for the head with both arms. Vacantly, Roger handed it back. Breckenridge tucked his head neatly under his arm, got in his car, and placed the head carefully on the dashboard. As the car turned out of the dimly lit parking lot, Roger stopped the tape recorder in his jacket and looked around.

 

 


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