When I was sixteen I had a great body. Thin, malleable, compliant. I could drink all night, at backyard parties, with friends, all of us gathered around a fire, and not feel a thing the next morning. Now, fifty-four years later, everything aches, every mistake tabulated and accounted for. I find myself waking to memories that may or may not be mine. I was sixteen, with a group of friends at a backyard party. The boy who lived at the house with his parents did not like me. I feel he thought I was silly. He was a senior and I was a sophomore. As the night bled into oranges and reds the fire at the center of the group got larger. I was filled with bourbon and decided to show off. Jimmy, watch this, I said, my friend shaking his head no, a warning I should’ve heeded. I backed away from the crowd and ran as fast as I could toward the fire, jumping over it, the flames tonguing the seat of my pants as I landed in the grass. Oh you’re brave, you crazy fool, Steven said, taking a rebar poker from the fire and taunting me with it, the end of the rebar close to my face. Get that away from me, not thinking about it as people laughed. I pushed the poker from my face. Steven, heavyset, without a neck, just a great big head the size of a pumpkin on his chest, exploded in laughter as I dropped to the grass in pain, Jimmy coming up behind me, get up. I spent the rest of the party soaking my hand under the spigot at the end of the house, near the dormant garden, drinking from a bottle Jimmy filched from a cabinet in the kitchen, alone, not a single girl paying me any mind.
You alright, Steven asked. My dad, he doesn’t like this kind of thing. Where Steven’s neck should have been was a roll of fat, a jawline and chin buried somewhere under all that flesh, a few bumps under his chin where ingrown hairs threatened to make an appearance. Where’s your bathroom? Through the kitchen, down the hall, second door on your left. I stumbled through the hall, my left hand aflame, shadows on the wall, an old doorbell enclosure painted several times over, family portraits, a crucifix at the end of the hall, Jesus hanging on the cross, preoccupied with saving the world, one sinner at a time. Inside the bathroom I unbuttoned and began pissing in the toilet, my hand ruined. The pain was unbearable. Would I be scarred? The bubbles in the toilet would not answer my question. A soft phlegmatic cough came from somewhere to my right, a bedroom? I turned my head and saw a leg with a sock and a shoe attached to it hanging from the wall. Horrified, nearly missing the bowl, it took a moment to deduce it was an artificial leg hanging from a peg, an old postman’s shoe secured to the foot. I flushed and made my way back to the party, the fire in the center of the group calmer, nearly dead, the cold sting of late October puncturing the air. I nonchalantly joined the group, and nobody noticed me. Jimmy kept a safe distance. Once again I became human.
My hand was forgotten. Steven near the fire, holding court, telling crude jokes, my friend Jimmy laughing with a beer in his hand. I approached Steven, terrified. Hey man. I tried pulling him aside, not wanting to scare the guests, but he was steadfast, solid as an old bull. There’s a leg hanging in your bathroom, man! Steven was neither shocked nor moved. That’s my dad’s leg, you idiot. The guests laughed at my stupidity, Steven laughed at my stupidity, the grass conspiring against me, threatening to color my angular, pimpled face with chlorophyll, the world spinning off its axis as I ran toward a girl in a white dress and vomited on her shoes, all the bourbon in the world spewing from my small and insignificant body, the girl’s hatred fingering its way through my guts. Jimmy ignored me the rest of the night, the clown in the soured shirt. Somehow I managed to make my way home, stumbling through the front door at four in the morning. My father was not pleased, reminding me of my part-time job. You’re going to work in the morning, boy. But dad! You’d better catch a few hours of sleep before you go. You’re on your way to becoming a full-time drunk. You’re killing your mother.
Old age fills your head with cotton and your eyes with smoke. The days become yellower, darker, until finally only the smallest pinpoint of light guides you along a path that ends in fire and darkness, the crematorium worker tamping your skull until nothing remains, only a name on a receipt.
James Nulick is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. His new novel The Moon Down to Earth will be published by Expat Press in December 2020. Claws is from his forthcoming short story collection lowercase visuals, which will be published by Expat Press in Summer 2021.