Gawk


by Garrett Socol

"Don't be surprised if the kids at school or even strangers on the street stare at you," Craig Ballard warned his five-year-old son Lucas. "You were born different. Not better, not worse. Just different."

"Why?" the boy asked. His huge brown eyes seemed even more vulnerable than his sweet, innocent voice.

"There's no explanation," his mother Barbara replied. "It's just plain unusual to have an extra finger in the palm of your hand."

"I hide it behind my back if I don't want people to scream."

"I know," Barbara said. "But look at it this way—in the future, an extra finger might come in handy. If you want to point at something, you'll be able to point with emphasis."

"Do you know what emphasis means?" Craig asked.

"Yep. It's the first letter of Michelle's name."

"Oh, M for sis," Craig said with a smile. "Very clever, but that's not what it means. It means giving extra stress or power to a word or action."

Lucas tried his best to keep his extra finger a secret, but it was impossible to hide it every minute of the day. The kids at Brevity Elementary School mocked and ridiculed him. "The only job you'll get is in the circus," some smart aleck would say. Occasionally, small groups would deliberately bump into him, causing his books to fly to the floor and his hands to reach out and grab them. One of the girls would inadvertently shriek when she saw the mutant finger jut out from the hand like it had a life of its own.

The young boy taught himself to eat with his right hand. (At the dinner table, his left was made into a tight fist.) Though it was his natural inclination to grab a pen with his left hand, he forced himself to write with his right. In order to make him feel more comfortable, his sister Michelle copied him; she ate with her right hand and chose to write with her right even though her natural inclination, like her brother's, was left.

Their parents were committed right-handers, but the grandfathers on both sides of the family were radical leftists at a time when left-handed people were thought to have been cursed by the devil.

Lucas felt like a freak, a bizarre object of derision, and wondered why he was chosen, out of everyone on the planet, to cope with such a distressing, embarrassing deformity. Sometimes at night, he prayed extra hard to wake up with ten fingers instead of eleven. Sometimes he prayed not to wake up at all. He wondered if death would be easier than putting up with the pain and humiliation of a disturbing deformity.

When Lucas was eight, Barbara walked into the downstairs bathroom and came upon a shocking portrait in red. "Oh Lucas," she cried. Her son was sitting on the floor, blood all over his hands and lap, blood on the bathtub and on the hanging hand towels. He held a kitchen knife in his right hand. After cleaning and bandaging him, Barbara explained, "You can't just lop off your finger, honey. It's part of your body. The medical term is polydactylism. Other people suffer from it, too."

"Other people have an extra finger?" he asked with a flash of excitement. Lucas knew he wanted to meet them.

"People have all sorts of deformities," Barbara assured him. "Someday you might be able to have reconstructive surgery, but so far we haven't found a doctor willing to perform that particular kind of operation."

"We might find somebody someday?"

"Oh yes. Someday."

Lucas became expert at hiding his extra index finger. Wearing winter gloves began in the autumn of each year and didn't end until spring had officially arrived, no matter how warm the weather had become. If he had to hold hands with someone (like during a fire drill), he made sure it was his right that was offered. And if someone asked him to play patty cake, he categorically refused.

Lucas's best friend Joey couldn't have cared less about the extra digit. "My cousin Howard has three nipples and my other cousin Sarah has two lungs."

"We're supposed to have two lungs," Lucas told him.

"Oh, then maybe she has only one. Or three."

When he turned fourteen, Lucas shot up an entire ten inches, his voice deepened and he began to show signs of facial hair. No one took more notice than Priscilla Cassidy. "Do you want to be my boyfriend?" she asked one morning in the school yard. Slinky and copper-haired with delicate features, Priscilla was undoubtedly the prettiest girl in Lucas's class.

"Sure," he replied.

"Do you know why I like you? Because all the kids think you're grotesque, but you still show up every single day. That shows confidence, and I like confident men." This was the first time anyone ever referred to Lucas as a man, and he felt a powerful surge of pride. For the rest of the day, he strolled down the school hallways with his shoulders back and chin held high.

"Why are you walking so weird today?" Joey asked.

"Stiff neck," Lucas replied.

An outstanding student, Lucas excelled in science, math and art. (In first grade, he'd been a wizard at finger painting.) He thought education was the greatest thing ever invented, with the possible exception of sex. Lucas was pretty sure he understood the machinations of making love, but he was desperate to experience it. Unfortunately, kissing Priscilla Cassidy was as far as she would let him go. "I cannot take the slightest chance of becoming pregnant," she told him one lazy afternoon. "That would tie me down for the next ten years, and I need that decade to make a name for myself in the fashion industry."

"I'm sure a lot of people in the fashion industry have sex," Lucas said.

"Yes, but I cannot risk getting pregnant."

Lucas understood that nothing of a truly sexual nature would take place with Priscilla until they were both in their middle twenties.

Though it frightened most people, Lucas's eleventh finger fascinated a few. One of those it fascinated was Felicia Jonagold, a blowsy forty-year-old blonde who paid Lucas generously to mow her lawn twice a month.

One cloudy Saturday morning, Lucas finished mowing Felicia's front lawn. Despite being sweaty and exhausted, he was invited in for breakfast. Expecting to enter a haven of edible delights—eggs scrambling, bacon sizzling, bread toasting—he was taken aback to see nothing on the stove and not a morsel of food on the table. He thought the lady of the house was slightly overdressed in a sheer pink blouse and black skirt. On her feet were fluffy pink slippers. "Come to the couch," Felicia said. "Make yourself comfy."

After sitting in silence for a good fifteen seconds, Lucas smiled nervously. "Is Mr. Jonagold around? Or the twins?"

"Mr. Jonagold is meeting with an attorney in West Mineral, just outside Wichita," Felicia explained nonchalantly, crossing her chunky left leg over her chunky right with the help of her two hands. She tipped the scale at two hundred, the most she ever weighed. "Bonnie and Blair are spending the weekend with their twin cousins Piper and Travis in Elk Palms. They have a ping pong table."

"Oh, cool."

"Twins run in the family, you see. Giving birth to them is unimaginable hell."

"I can imagine," he said, instantly realizing his poor choice of word.

"Really?" she asked. "You can imagine two human heads trying to emerge from a keyhole stretched to its limit?"

"No, I really can't imagine, I guess."

"It might not be the most painful experience in life," she conceded. "Lugging a 500-pound Sumo wrestler on your back across the Mojave Desert might be just as bad."

"Probably."

"Twins are the work of the devil, I assure you, Lucas. Forget about triplets. If I was pregnant with triplets, I'd drink one bottle of bourbon after the next until I exploded. Seriously, I'd kill myself. Give me your hand, angel." Lucas instinctively lifted his right hand. "No silly," Felicia said, "the one with the finger."

Hesitantly, Lucas lifted his left hand and Felicia clutched it. "I hope you're proud of this extra pointer, Lucas. It sets you apart from every goon in this godforsaken town. So what if Mayor Foley thinks you're a freak? I don't care that Jane Poole throws fish at you when you walk past her market. I think you're a boy wonder. That big finger allows you to manipulate certain things, jostle them if you will. Will you?" she coyly inquired.

"Will I what?"

"Do a bit of jostling for me?"

"What do you want me to jostle?" he asked, trembling slightly.

Felicia uncrossed her legs slowly and arched her back suggestively, causing Lucas to be bombarded by one gigantic sensation comprised of five smaller ones: excitement, nerves, discomfort, fear and disgust. He understood what was happening and it thrilled

him, but he wasn't sure he wanted to lose his virginity with this hefty, empty-headed woman who reeked of raw hamburger patties. The smell reminded Lucas of his mother toiling in the kitchen, not the most seductive of scents.

"Let's not beat around the bush, baby doll. You'd like to thrust that finger of yours inside me. Am I right or am I right?"

"You're right," Lucas said, smiling uncertainly, turning as pink as the lipstick on Felicia's front teeth. He lifted his hand and shoved his aberrant finger into Felicia's mouth. The moment it touched her tongue, he pulled out. "Listen," he said, voice quivering, "I have to work on my science project. I'm trying to win the fair." With that, he rose from the sofa and zoomed out of the Jonagold house, never to return.

* * *

Lucas's romance with Priscilla was progressing smoothly, so Lucas thought. Then a startling rumor surfaced. "She's doing it with Miles Tanza," Joey announced. Miles Tanza was a swarthy football player with muscular shoulders and a cleft in his chin. Most of the girls became woozy when he merely looked at them.

"She would have told me," Lucas said.

"You really think so? That's so doubtful, bro."

"But she doesn't want to become pregnant. She made a vow to keep her clothes on at all times."

"Maybe she meant all times except when she's in the shower or in Miles's bed."

"No, she would do anything to avoid getting pregnant," he said.

"Maybe to avoid getting pregnant by you, bro."

That shock of truth was like a meteor to the head. Joey was right. Why would Priscilla want to risk having a mutant baby with eleven fingers? Why would any girl want to risk that?

Lucas stopped calling Priscilla, and Priscilla made no effort to contact Lucas. The rumor turned out to be true. Priscilla and Miles became a hot item. The kids at school even came up with a nickname for them: Piles.

* * *

Soon after his eighteenth birthday, Lucas found himself thumbing through a local newspaper. An article about an organization called People With Deformities appeared on page ten. Interviewed was a young woman who happened to be born with webbed hands and feet. "I was horrified by the way I looked for the first fifteen years of my life," Olive said. "But then one day, I noticed a cloud in the sky that was shaped like my hand, and I began to think of my body as a sculpture, a very strange, avant-garde sculpture."

The organization's annual conference was being held at a hotel in New Hampshire's capital city. There was no doubt that Lucas had to attend. He checked the train schedule and decided to catch the nine o'clock to Concord.

As soon as Lucas stepped into the lobby of the old-fashioned hotel, he was struck by the gold carpet that seemed to be growing for miles, like grass. Off to one side of the lobby was an elegant little restaurant serving food to a predominantly white-haired clientele. The other side of the lobby consisted of a bank of elevators and a bank of desks: registration, concierge, information, valet. Each desk, made of dark cherry wood, was terribly intimidating either by its size or the no-nonsense employee manning it.

Lucas had no idea where to go. Deciding that the information desk was probably his best bet, he proceeded. "Excuse me," Lucas said.

The man behind the sturdy desk took five full seconds before looking up from a tabloid magazine. "May I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, uh...I'm looking for...well, I think it's a group of people."

"Could you perhaps narrow it down for me?" he asked in a condescending tone.

"Sure. There's a meeting taking place in the hotel at twelve o'clock."

"Why don't you check our schedule of events? It's posted right there." He pointed to a glass-enclosed sign hanging on the wall next to the elevators.

"Oh, great," Lucas said, using his left hand to confirm the sign's location and spook the stern employee at the same time. "Thanks." He rushed over and saw that the meeting was being held in the Mesopotamian Room on the mezzanine level. Instead of waiting for the elevator, Lucas ran up the gold carpeted steps, two at a time.

When he entered the room, Lucas was nearly blinded by smiles, a half dozen of them shining from strangers standing near the entrance. He wandered around under the fluorescent lights, nodding at the nice people who acknowledged him. The age range was eighteen to eighty. The deformities appeared on all parts of the body.

Lucas expected the speakers to discuss their personal situations with courage and insight. They did just that, but they also discussed certain unexpected adversities. An almost eight-foot-tall man suffering from gigantism talked about his former drug addiction. "We all had shaky starts," he began. "Then some of us went downhill fast." A bowlegged woman with vitiligo admitted to being a former prostitute. "I became a Diane Arbus photograph," she said, clutching the side of the podium. A middle-aged man with a misshapen chest due to pectus excavatum confessed to being a recovering alcoholic. "I had to do something to take my mind off my deformity," he said, "and drinking was a lot easier than learning Chinese." These were no angels, no martyrs; they were real people coping with challenging, confounding situations. Every one of them refused to be called a victim. Every one of them, eventually, managed to incorporate his or her anomaly into a productive life.

Following the final speaker, the attendees (except those with severe foot deformities) milled about the large room, sipping sodas and munching on snacks. From a few feet away, Lucas recognized a familiar face. Heart pounding, he walked over and introduced himself to the attractive young woman with webbed hands and feet. "You were interviewed in the newspaper," he said nervously, as if she were a celebrity. "Portsmouth Herald."

She laughed, a hearty, slightly forced chortle to convey her absolute amazement.

"Right!" she exclaimed. "You read it?'

"That's why I'm here. Your name is Olive." She was almost as tall as Lucas and slim as a fashion model, with big, soulful eyes and a mouth that appeared lavender pink without a touch of lipstick.

"You remembered my name," she said with wonder.

"Mine's Lucas Ballard," he said, instinctively offering his right hand, momentarily forgetting his new acquaintance had no fingers.

She gently shook his hand and smiled widely, showing off a set of perfect, snow white teeth. The feel of her hand was foreign, unfamiliar, like that of the wing of a bird or the gill of a fish. Lucas didn't dare look down; he held Olive's gaze which happened to be intense.

"So tell me something about yourself," Lucas said.

"Sorry to disappoint you, but unlike the people who spoke at the podium, I'm not a heroin addict or a hooker. I lead a very boring life - go to school and still live with my parents at age twenty. Pathetic, right?"

Lucas and Olive continued chatting at the hotel bar, discussing every subject relating to their lives except their deformities. That particular topic never came up.

The bar ran out of cranberry juice just after Lucas ordered his sixth glass. They were fine on Olive's wine, but she exceeded her self-imposed limit. "Are you hungry?" Lucas asked. "Can I take you to dinner?"

"Yes and yes," she responded. "Let's go forage for food. I refuse to eat at a hotel restaurant and pay thirty bucks for a burger."

"I'm with you," Lucas exclaimed.

A bright full moon hung in the sky and looked so beautifully artificial that it seemed to be held up by a pair of hands hidden by clouds. As he accompanied Olive down the chilly, bustling street, Lucas was surprised that she made no attempt to hide her webbed hands. This buoyed him; his body throbbed with adrenaline. Without thinking, he found himself walking with his shoulders back and chin held high.

"Delayed luck, that's what I call it," Olive said.

"Call what?" Lucas asked.

"When kids have rotten childhoods, their luck doesn't start till they hit adulthood. Then they get the nominal luck coming to them normally but they also get the residual luck they accrued during those abysmal years, like interest at the bank."

"Wow," Lucas said. "I better brace myself. I'm due for a windfall."

They found a small, dimly-lit French cafe two blocks south of the hotel. The wispy hostess led them to a cozy table that seemed to be waiting for them. She handed them menus, then floated away.

"What I have is called polydactylism," Lucas told Olive.

"I've heard of that," she said matter-of-factly while perusing the menu. "I have syndactyly. Type 4, which is rare. Do you know what you want to eat?"

"I think I'll have the spinach and mushroom crepes, and for dessert the souffle au chocolat. That means chocolate souffle."

"You must've taken years of French to know that!"

"Three and a half. What about you?" He wondered if she would order something that didn't necessitate the use of both hands.

"I'm in the mood for a burger with fries," she said. "We're in a French restaurant, might as well order French fries, right?"

"Go for it," he told her. "I'm curious. Does anyone else in your family have a deformity?"

"Everyone," Olive stated. "My sister's is her strange personality. My father's is his warped sense of humor. My mother's is her addiction to daytime soaps." She flashed him a wide, warm smile.

"You know what?" he said. "I think my delayed luck is starting to come in."


BIO: Garrett Socol's fiction has been published in more than thirty literary journals. His debut collection of short stories, Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn, will be published by Ampersand Books in 2011. His plays have been produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse. He created and produced several television series including Talk Soup and The Gossip Show for E! Entertainment Television and the Style Network.