DO TO ME WHAT I CAN DO TO YOU

Joe Baumann


 

I. Inside and Out

On a bright spring Saturday, Ricky woke up minus his left hand.  Padraic was still snoring, which was unusual because the clock read after nine; he was an early riser, regularly yanking Ricky from sleep as he slid out from beneath the top sheet to make coffee, whose gurgling percolation would pull Ricky into consciousness.  They’d stayed up late at a dinner party, dragging themselves home after midnight, Ricky dry-mouthed from one too many IPAs and Padraic blitzy-eyed from wearing his contact lenses for too long. They’d downed glasses of water and made out in the kitchen before tumbling into bed, too exhausted for anything more than mild groping.

When Ricky rolled over to nudge Padraic that morning, he found himself staring at a blank space where his fingers, knuckles, and wormy raised veins should have been.  Instead of losing his mind with terror, he stared at the stump of his wrist, smooth and pale like a mallet missing its head.  He thought he might be dreaming, but the sunbeams squeezing through the venetian blinds felt real and warm, and when he bit his cheek he felt the hot pressure of his molars and even the slight, squeaky rupture of skin, a buggy drizzle of blood gathering on his tongue.  When he tried to wriggle his nonexistent fingers, he felt the twitch of his forearm and even the flutter of phalanges, even though they were nowhere to be seen.

Ricky decided to experiment.  Rather than waking Padraic—who would surely screech and run around in a weed-hangover blur as if he was the one who’d lost an appendage—Ricky set the stump against Padraic’s bare chest, in the small trough between his pecs, right on the ridge of his sternum, as though placing a Ming vase on a pedestal.  The sensation was sharp and immediate and jolting: Ricky could feel the hard line of Padraic’s ribs and the soft, tight muscle of his slow-beating heart.  It felt like a ball of flower petals, all mashed together and slicked with some kind of lacquer and thumping against his invisible fingers.  He could sense the thrum of Padraic’s pulse, blood race-tracking through his cardiovascular system like millions of cars on a speedway.  The buzzing moved through Ricky’s phantom fingers and up into his wrist.  His own blood circulated in concert with Padraic’s, their heartbeats curling into synchronization.  He felt hypnotized.  

Carefully, Ricky moved atop him, thighs spread so each knee was gently placed next to Padraic’s hips.  Then he lowered the stump to Padraic’s stomach.  He felt around.  Acid slipped over his nowhere fingers.  Padraic’s abdominals compressed around his palm, spongy and strong.  Ricky felt the snaky belly dance of Padraic’s intestines. He moved down to Padraic’s thighs, with their thick cords of quad muscle, then the rocks of his calves, and finally the delicate lattice of his feet.  They’d met nearly ten years ago, and Ricky knew, it seemed, as much as there could possibly be to know about Padraic.  His habits were like Ricky’s habits, like his need to floss twice a day, and work on a sudoku puzzle right before bed, and go running every Monday evening.  Ricky’s tics—how he swept a hand through his hair when he was nervous, bounced a leg if he sat still for too long, had to chew gum after eating Mexican food—had become Padraic’s.  And yet this was a new discovery, a new height, a new something.  

Padraic stirred, his slow, shallow breathing hitching with consciousness. Ricky moved his arm back up to Padraic’s chest, felt the rise of his heart-rate and the squishy expansion of his lungs.  When Padraic’s eyes opened, they were droopy with the fug of sleep.  He blinked twice, glanced at Ricky’s face, then looked down at his own naked torso, where Ricky’s arm was planted like a flesh-and-bone obelisk. 

“Um,” Padraic said.

“My hand,” Ricky said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s disappeared.  Or it might be invisible.  Can you feel this?”

“Like a feather duster’s been stuffed down my throat?  Yes.”

Ricky withdrew his arm.  “Better?”

“Oddly colder.”

“I can’t really feel my fingers.”  Ricky laid the stump against the bedspread.  “Huh.”

“What?”  Padraic stared down at the blank space where Ricky’s hand should have lain.

“Well, when I touched you I could feel inside you, but now I can’t feel anything with that hand.”

“That non-hand.”

“Right.”  Ricky lifted his arm and stamped the stump to his own chest.  “Nothing.  Nada.” He pressed it against Padraic’s side.

“This is disturbing,” Padraic said, wriggling.  “I could feel you in there, like you were probing my liver.”

“That’s because I was.  Felt kind of like a sushi roll.”

“This seems unfair.”

“How so?”

“You, able to do something to me I can’t do to you.”

“Yeah, but you still have both hands.”  Ricky held up his stump.  “I’m not sure I can even write anymore.  Typing is out.”  An edge curled into his voice, like he’d just been punched in the stomach but was working to hide the nausea and pain.  “I can’t work out or cook or anything.” Padraic saw tears crowd the corners of Ricky’s eyes, glossing the chocolatey irises.

“Hey.”  He laid his hands on Ricky’s hips.  “We’ll figure it out.  In the meantime,” he said, guiding Ricky’s stump back to his chest, “at least you have this.”  He pressed Ricky’s nub to his skin.  They laid in silence, their breathing falling into a steady syncopation, Ricky inhaling as Padraic exhaled.  Ricky let his phantom fingers dangle through Padraic’s bone and muscle and aorta, the warm pulse of life pushing into his own heartbeat.  Padraic, his eyes closed, felt touched in a way he never had before: deep down, electric, the peak of radiant summit.

 

II. Outside and In

On a bright spring Saturday, Ricky slipped from bed while Padraic slept in, letting out atypical wet snores, perhaps a carryover from smoking weed the night before, for the first time in a dozen years, at the tail-end of a dinner party. Ricky didn’t mind; it gave him the perfect opportunity to unearth the spyglass he’d found for three dollars at a yard sale weeks ago, intending to give it to Padraic for his birthday but deciding it served better as one of those random gestures of giving that, Ricky thought, couples needed to keep the energy up.

When he woke Padraic, he first offered him a glass of tap water, which he slucked down in half a dozen quick, loud gulps.  He flailed back on the bed, arms thwacking on the pillows.  

 “I feel like I’ve been whacked by a semi-truck.  No more weed for me.”

 “You only took, like, one hit.”

 “I’m out of practice, I guess.  I had this wild dream where you didn’t have a left hand.”

 “Strange.” Ricky set the glass down on the nightstand and pulled the spyglass from behind his back.  “Here.”

Padraic scooched up.  “What’s this?”

“Just a little something.”

 “For what? What’s the occasion?”

Ricky shrugged.  “It’s Saturday.”

“I don’t have a gift for you.”

Ricky lobbed himself over Padraic and slipped beneath the sheets.  “There’s no scorecard.  Try it out.”

“What would I look at?”

 “Anything.” Ricky gestured to the window, where sunlight was squelching in through the old venetian blinds.  “There’s a whole world out there, Padraic.”

Padraic took the spyglass, but instead of leaping up and pointing it out the window, he turned it toward Ricky.

“Whoa,” he said.

“What?”

Padraic lowered the spyglass and scanned it.  “Where’d you say you got this?”

“Yard sale.  Why?”

He scanned Ricky again.  “I can see you.”

“I’m lying right here.”

“I mean inside you.”

“Inside me?”

Padraic described the marrow of Ricky’s bones, yellow and alien, the coursing of his blood, the goopy blips of fat along his arms and hips (“Okay, okay,” Ricky said, swatting the air).

 “I can see your heart.”  Padraic aimed the spyglass at Ricky’s center and leaned up.  “It’s like a cancer-filled fist.”

“Please do not use the word cancer to describe my heart.  It’s disturbing.  Let me see that thing.”  Ricky snatched the spyglass from Padraic and turned it on him.  “Well, that’s not fair.  All I see is a smeary pile of peach shit.”

Padraic slapped at Ricky’s thigh and rabbit-punched him along the kidneys. Ricky prodded at Padraic’s ribs with his free hand.  He held the spyglass up in the air, like a precious electronic he was keeping out of water.

They laughed and jostled and the smacking and punching subsided into gentle prods.  Ricky rolled onto his back.  They both inhaled deep and hard.  Padraic took the spyglass.

“Your eyeballs,” he said.  “I can see them rolling around in there.  And your teeth.  Your tongue is huge.  It looks like you’re trying to swallow a salamander or something.  Your temples are twitching.  And your brain.  Textbooks have nothing on this thing.”

“Please stop it,” Ricky said.

“Your whole head does stuff when you talk!  Say something else.”

“This is disconcerting to me.”

“Good.  Something else.”

Ricky rolled his head toward the spyglass, lay still, and then jerked forward with a growling yell.  Padraic shuddered and leaned back, lowering the spyglass.

 “Jesus. What was that for?”

“I felt like a biology experiment.  Something on a microscope slide.”

“Sorry.”  Padraic set the spyglass on his nightstand.  “It was just kind of neat to see.  Last time I saw inside something like that, it was when we dissected frogs in tenth grade biology.  This guy that sat behind me broke his frog’s jaw and made it sing and dance like it was in a cabaret.”

“I held a human brain once,” Ricky said.  “I was in seventh grade.  I can’t remember why, but some woman brought an actual human brain to science class. I got to hold it.”

“Eew.”

Ricky shrugged.  “I was wearing latex gloves.  I can’t remember if it was heavier or lighter than I thought it would be.  The brain stem looked a little bit like a really long artichoke heart.  More gray, though.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know.  What does my brain look like?”

Padraic picked up the spyglass again.  “It looks like a brain, hard at work.”

“That’s a terrible answer.”

“What would be a good answer?”

“I don’t know.”

“I like seeing you this way.  It’s a nice gift.”

“I meant for you to look at the stars.  Maybe our weird neighbors from time to time.  Not me.”

Padraic lowered the spyglass.  “But you’re way more interesting than them.”  He scanned Ricky’s abdomen.  “Contract those,” he said, poking at Ricky’s stomach.  “I can see all your little muscle fibers.”

“This makes me uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“You can do to me something I can’t do to you.”

Padraic chewed his lip.  “Okay. Here’s an idea.”  He presented Ricky with the spyglass.  “You go over there.”  He pointed to the far side of the bedroom.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Ricky went.

“Now look.”

He held up the spyglass and aimed it at Padraic. 

“I’m too close,” Ricky said, shaking his head.  “You’re still just a blur.”

“Well, okay, just look at me the normal way then.”

Ricky lowered the spyglass and snorted.  Padraic had pulled off his underwear and was lying naked, spread eagle on the bed.  He’d brought his hands together, held up high, fingers curled into the shape of a heart.

“Lovely view,” Ricky said.

“You don’t need to see inside me to know what’s in there.”

Ricky crept to the bed.

    “I’ll always tell you,” Padraic said. He lowered his arms.

    Ricky left the spyglass on the nightstand.

    “Any time you ask,” Padraic said.

    Ricky leaned over him.

    “Any time at all.”


Joe possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Eleven Eleven, Zone 3, ellipsis…, and many others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism.