Life and Limb

My brother Tommy had always been twitchy. He was born wound tight, and growing up in our house hadn’t done the kid any favors.

But when Tommy stumbled into Momma’s kitchen that day, pale faced and clutching the crumbled paper bag under one arm, the look in his eyes told me something was seriously wrong this time.

Tommy hesitated in the doorway when he saw me. His eyes darted from me to Momma, but the old woman wasn’t going to be any help. I’d been sitting in her kitchen for going on half an hour now, and she’d only said a handful of words to me. Even now she kept her back to us, washing dishes in the sink, the scalding water turning her arms a bright, angry red.

“Hey, bro,” Tommy finally said. His voice had a slight tremble in it, like he was fighting to keep it under control.

“You coming in or not?” I asked.

Tommy looked toward Momma again, but she was still deep in her own world of crazy. With a look of resignation, he closed the door and joined me at the table.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” he said.

“I kind of noticed.” I nodded my chin toward the sack he was holding. “So what’s with the bag? You get me a gift I don’t know about?”

Tommy didn’t answer. Instead, he tried to put in on the floor beside him (out of sight, out of mind, I guess), but he fumbled it at the last moment. There was a loud clunk as something heavy thudded against the aging, cracked linoleum.

Tommy shot me a look that was equal parts desperation and sadness.

What did you do? I thought.

I tried to play off the moment. I smiled, trying to put him at ease, but I was really curious about the bag. “Sorry, Tommy boy. But now I’ve got to know.”

I bent under the table to have a look when Momma spoke.

“You run into any trouble, Tommy?” she asked.

The sound of her voice, always loud and strident and hateful, startled me and almost made me hit my god-damned head on the table. I turned to face her, but she still had her back to us.

“No, Momma,” Tommy answered. His voice sounded child-like, and I hated her anew for the way she controlled us.

“Did he put up much fuss?” Momma asked.

I looked at Tommy. “Who are we talking about here?”

He didn’t answer either one of us, but I was fine with waiting Tommy out. I knew he’d get around to telling me. Momma, on the other hand, was not the patient type.

“Tommy,” she said forcefully.

Tommy lowered his head and spoke softly. “He wasn’t none too happy, Momma.”

“But he gave it to you anyway, didn’t he?” she asked.

Tommy hesitated before answering. “Eventually.”

“Well that’s just fine now, isn’t it?” Momma stacked another dish in the drying rack, and the scrape of ceramic against ceramic made me grit my teeth.

Everything about this place set me on edge. I’d grown up here, living my life on constant high alert, wondering when the next fit of rage would be leveled at me or one of my brothers. It was an environment I’d been all too eager to escape, but as an adult, I found myself drawn back time and time again, as if collective misery was my own personal black hole.

I studied my brother, wondering how much worse it was for the ones who never did manage to make it out.

“Tommy,” I said gently. “What happened?”

Momma didn’t allow him to answer. “Show your brother what you brought your momma.”

Tommy stared at his lap, either unwilling or unable to comply.

“Go on now, son,” Momma said. “Go on and show him. You made your momma proud today.”

Tommy’s hands shook as he reached into the bag on the floor. He didn’t meet my eyes as he placed the thing on the table.

I sat back in my chair, unsure how to process what I was seeing. A man’s artificial leg lay between us. It wore a brown loafer and a blue dress sock, and there was a smear of blood near the appendage’s calf.

For the first time since I’d arrived, Momma turned away from the sink. She glanced over her shoulder at the leg, and a bitter smile graced her lips.

“Now don’t that just look fine right there,” she said.

I pushed back from the table. “Tommy, what’d you do?”

Tommy’s entire body began to tremble and tears welled up in his eyes.

“Tommy, boy. What the hell happened?” I tried hard to keep my own voice calm. I don’t know if I succeeded. I can’t quite remember.

“I—,” he began.

“He stood up for his family is what he did,” Momma said. “Just like his Momma told him. My beautiful, brave little man.”

I ignored her, that hateful, small woman who was the dark sun around which all of our lives revolved. I focused on Tommy instead. He was sweating and his skin had turned an ashen gray, and I wondered if this was going to be one of the last few memories I ever had of my baby brother.

“Is that Reverend Wilson’s leg?” I asked him.

Momma spun toward us, and it was such an unexpected, aggressive move that we both jumped. Her crimson face was tear streaked and twisted into a hateful knot, and when she spoke, spittle flew from her mouth.

“It’s my leg!” she said. “It belongs to me now. That old snake handler can get himself a new one if he wants, but I’ll probably go and take that one too.”

I felt that old, familiar rage begin to boil. I hated this woman and the way she made me feel, but at the same time, I felt a sick sort of comfort about being on familiar ground. My mother’s fury had a twin, and it lived inside of me, and I would not kowtow to this woman.

“But you didn’t take this one,” I said. “You made him do it. You always make him do your dirt work. Even when he doesn’t want to. I just want to know what the hell got into your head this time.”

Momma drew back as if I had slapped her, but she recovered quickly. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that. Don’t you dare. I am your Momma, and it is not your place to question me on anything.”

“I think we’ve gone with that plan long enough,” I said. “It doesn’t seem to be working out for us anymore. Not that it ever really did. And it certainly hasn’t done Tommy any favors.”

I glanced over at my brother, but he wasn’t looking at either of us. I recognized the defeated look about him, and I knew that he would have rather been anywhere else other than at that table right then.

“Talk to me, Tommy,” I said. “What’d she make you do?”

Tommy took a deep breath and then looked up at me. I saw resignation on his face, but something else as well.

“It wasn’t for her,” Tommy said. His voice had a husky quality, like he was swallowing grief. “I did it for Frank.”

The way Tommy said our brother’s name sent a chill through me. “Reverend Wilson is Frank’s friend. He’s gonna be pissed when he finds out you took the man’s leg.”

Somehow I knew that wasn’t going to be true, but I ignored that feeling.

“That man is nobody’s friend,” Momma said.

I turned on her, looking for a way to exorcise my own growing unease. “What would you know about it? You were never good for any of us. Does Frank know what you did? Does he know why? Because I sure as hell don’t.”

Momma set her jaw and leveled me with a gaze that said she wished I’d died in the crib. (This isn’t speculation on my part. She’s told me as much, on more than one occasion.)

“Frank knows plenty,” she said.

“Really? ‘Cause I’d love it if he weighed in on this little powwow we’ve got going here. Let’s get all three brothers together so we can discuss all the ways you continue to fuck up our lives.”

I stood up from the table and walked toward the short hallway that led to Tommy and Frank’s rooms. “Frank! You here, man? Come out. We’ve got to talk.”

I glanced toward Momma and she gave me a disgusted, hateful look.

“Listen to the mouth on you,” she said. “Talking to your momma that way. You were never any good. Just like your father. He couldn’t wait to run out on his family either.”

It was an old song, and I knew the lyrics by heart. There was no need for a response on my part.

“Why don’t you just get out?” she said. “We don’t want you here.”

“I think I’m done doing what you tell me to do,” I said. “Now where’s Frank?”

She waited a moment before answering. “He’s gone.”

“Where’d he go?”

Again, she didn’t answer, and I could tell that no amount of waiting was going to change that.

“Tommy, let me help you here,” I said. “We can fix this, no matter how bad it is. I’ll take care of it. I promise.”

Tommy shook his head. “You can’t. It’s done already.”

I sat back at the table and leaned toward my brother. It was hard ignoring the leg lying between us, but I managed to keep my attention focused on Tommy.

“Listen to me,” I said. “We’ll make it right. We’ll give back the leg. Do whatever we have to do. Reverend Wilson is Frank’s friend. We’ll work it out.”

“But he’s not,” Tommy said. His voice broke on the last word and I watched him struggle to regain his composure. When he finally did, he looked me in the eyes, and I didn’t like what I saw.

“You’re not here anymore,” Tommy said. “So you don’t understand.”

“He never was here,” Momma said. “Not for any of us.”

For once, Tommy seemed to be able to shut her out, and he kept his gaze leveled on me. “You don’t know what goes on.”

“Then tell me,” I said.

“Reverend Wilson lied to Frank,” Tommy said. “He hurt him, worse than I’d ever seen him hurt before.”

I waited for more.

“He told Frank he could make him walk again,” Tommy said.

Some of the hate and fury had drained out of me, and those dark, empty places filled up with dread. I turned toward the woman who had been both an enemy and an ally for most of my life. “What happened, Momma?”

“Oh, now he wants to talk,” she said.

“Please tell me,” I whispered.

She made me wait, but not too long.

“That Pentecost son of a bitch!” she said. “He worked a number on your brother. Had him up at the church two, three times a week. Prayin’, wavin’ his hands in the air, tryin’ desperately to make himself talk in tongues. He’d stay up half the night practicing.”

“Frank did this?” I asked.

Momma sneered. “Didn’t know that about your brother, did you? As far as you were concerned, Momma just didn’t like the reverend bringing God between she and her damaged little boy. Isn’t that right?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t have to.

“You think we don’t know how you see us,” Momma said.

I felt a sense of urgency that I couldn’t quite explain, so I tried to steer Momma back on track. “Did he really tell Frank he could make him walk again?”

“Only if he had enough faith,” Momma said. She spat the last word out like it had left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Every last shred of anger left my body, and I felt pity for my brother. It was something he never would have wanted. Most likely it would have offended him, but that didn’t stop me from feeling it.

“That’s how they always turn it around on you,” Momma said. “Pray hard enough. Believe hard enough. Be deserving enough. Then maybe if you catch God on a good day he might throw a little grace your way.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t work out so well.”

Momma face softened for a moment, and that, more than anything else, told me how bad it really was.

“That son of a bitch took your brother on a weekend retreat,” she said. “Most of the congregation went too, and you know what their sole purpose was?”

I did.

“To pray the life back into your brother’s legs,” she said. “That’s how they put it. And when Sunday night came and went, you know what happened?”

“Nothing,” I said.

Momma nodded. “That damned God squad didn’t hear so much as a busy signal from the Almighty. And whose fault do you think that was?”

“Franks,” I said.

“Franks. Because he didn’t believe enough. Or maybe because God didn’t believe enough in him. Either way, it was damn shitty draw.”

“He never said anything,” I said. “He never called.”

“He didn’t call no one,” Momma said. “He stayed in bed for a week after that retreat. He only ate because I brought food to his room.”

“He doesn’t even answer the door when I knock,” Tommy said. It was the first time he’d spoken since Momma began her story, and I’d almost forgotten he was sitting there.

Momma graced Tommy with a gentle look. “He doesn’t answer for anybody, sweetie. For a long time, I would just let myself in.”

“So how is he now?” I asked.

“He’s come to terms with it,” she said. “In his own way.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I was sure Momma’s response to the whole thing wasn’t going to help. I nodded toward the wooden leg on the table.

“Do you think this makes things any better?” I asked. “What happens if the reverend calls the police on Tommy?”

“He can call whoever he likes,” Momma said. The anger was quickly returning to her voice. “What kind of one-legged hypocrite has the nerve to tell my son that God’ll heal him if he believes it enough? Am I the only one who has questions about Reverend Wilson’s faith? That man needed a lesson in humility, and I taught it to him.”

As my mother’s temper flared, my own emotions responded in kind. As ever it was, as ever it so shall be.

“First off, you didn’t teach anybody anything,” I said. “You just turned trouble for one son into trouble for all of us. And secondly, there’s no way Frank’s going to be okay with this. No matter what he feels right now, he’s going to eventually come to the realization that this wasn’t right. And then what will you do?”

Momma tensed at my words and then turned back toward the sink and continued cleaning the dishes.

“Momma?” I asked.

“Frank doesn’t feel anything anymore,” she said. “He’s dead.”

The news hit me like a tangible thing. It felt like someone had punched me in the chest, and I was having trouble breathing. I slumped back into my chair as a secret voice in my brain whispered that Momma was a filthy fucking liar and this was just the sort of sick shit that she would make up.

Tommy had no trouble believing it. “Momma, what happened?” He sounded every bit the lost child now.

Momma drew in a long, ragged breath. “The poor boy took his life the night before last. He dragged himself to the bathroom, turned on the tab, and climbed in.”

Ever since he’d ended up in the chair, Frank had never had the balance to keep his head above water. He was deathly afraid of baths. Until he wasn’t.

“Let the Reverend Wilson explain that to the police,” Momma said. “That’s a conversation I’m ready to have.”

Tommy lost it then. He began to sob uncontrollably. I wanted to reach out to him and lay a hand on his shoulder and tell him it’d be okay. But it wouldn’t. And I didn’t have the strength in me anyway.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.

Momma didn’t answer.

“Where is he?” I asked. “Is he still in there?”

Momma shook her head. “I cleaned him up already. He’s dressed and lying in bed. My perfect, sweet little angel. That’s why he didn’t answer when Tommy knocked.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I thought Frank’d keep for a day while we taught the reverend a lesson,” she said. “After Tommy brought me the leg, I planned on calling the man. I want him to perform Frank’s service. And I’m burying Frank with the leg.”

I stared at Momma’s back as she continued with the dishes. I felt like I was watching some strange, savage animal that I would never in my life come to understand. The best I could do was give her a wide berth and vow to never again draw attention to myself.

Beside me, Tommy’s sobs had subsided and I heard him sniffling as he regained control of himself.

“He can’t do it, Momma,” Tommy said. “The reverend won’t be at Frank’s funeral.”

“He’ll do whatever I tell him to, son,” she said. “He and that flock of idiots he calls a congregation.”

“He’s dead, Momma.”

“Oh, God,” I said.

“He wouldn’t give me the leg, Momma,” Tommy said. He sounded panicked. “So I knocked him down and took it from him. Because I told you I’d get it. And I did, didn’t I, Momma?”

“Oh, Tommy,” she said.

“He kept fighting me for the leg,” Tommy said. “Even when I told him I needed it. So I hit him with it. It was loud, Momma, and I was so scared, and I thought surely he’d stop then, but he didn’t. So I hit him again. I kept hitting him until he didn’t fight back no more.”

Momma’s shoulders slumped as she lowered her head, but she said nothing.

“When it was over, I could tell he wasn’t breathing, so I carried him out to my car and put him in the trunk,” Tommy said.

Momma began to shake, and this time I did reach out and put a hand on my brother’s shoulder. But I didn’t tell him it would be okay.

“What do we do, Momma?” Tommy asked. His voice was frantic and pleading.

“She can’t fix this, Tommy,” I said.

He ignored me. “Momma?”

I let go of his shoulder, leaned back in my chair, and closed my eyes.

“She killed you both, Tommy.”

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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