The leg left him while he slept off the wine. Inching its way across the bed like a worm, it stepped gingerly down onto the carpet, wobbled uncertainly on the ball of its foot, and then strolled around the bedroom testing its knee and rocking its thigh back and forth like a metronome baton.
As it rounded the foot of the bed, the leg stumbled, stubbing its big toe on a footlocker and the young man came awake with a frantic shout. As he groggily lapsed back into consciousness, the leg leapt up on to the bed and rejoined its thoroughly amazed hip.
When he was completely awake, the young man lay still for a moment and gripped the tingling thigh. It felt asleep. Convinced he had dreamt his leg’s brief departure, he rose from bed and shuffled to the kitchen, dragging his sleeping leg behind him.
His girlfriend sat at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. She glared at him, told him his boss had called, looked at the uncooperative leg as the young man dragged it behind him to the coffee pot.
“What’s wrong with your leg?”
He shrugged and released a long hiss out of his ass that smelled like vinegar and hotdogs.
Perhaps it was to teach him a lesson. Perhaps the leg felt taken for granted. He was to later wonder if the train incident had been initially responsible for liberating something in the leg. If the prospect of dismemberment had given the limb ideas.
The previous evening had been typical of the young man. Beginning reasonably enough with a quiet dinner of meat, mustard and enriched bread, it had degenerated into the kind of cheap red wine binge that makes the idea of leaping on tunnel-bound trains seem like a perfectly rational recreation.
The young man and his scarlet-lipped acquaintances had wound their way downtown to the tracks where long northbound trains slowly penetrated the bowels of the city. Over sticky creosote ties and uneven ballast rock, they’d loped along beside the rumbling train as a buried locomotive dragged it boxcar by boxcar into the tunnel. One by one, the drunken train hoppers grabbed hold of the ladder and pulled themselves up onto the vibrating car.
As the slowest, as the drunkest, and as the most likely member of the group to develop lung cancer in the not-too-distant future, our wheezing young man was last. Safely aboard, his assembled group of acquaintances howled and goaded him on as he raced along below them towards the ever-approaching tunnel mouth. When lunge for the ladder he finally did, the winded young man missed the rungs with his feet and both legs swung beneath the shuddering boxcar and directly in front of the grinding steel train wheel’s brutal rotation. Yet by idiot providence, the leg bounced up-and-off instead of being dragged down-and-on to the tracks where the wheel surely would have provided a swift and hygienic severing.
Through wide, horse-like nostrils, the young man snorted with amused adrenaline while finally finding the ladder’s rungs with his feet and climbing up onto boxcar to join his relieved but decidedly pale and muted friends. Clapping him on the back, they took him in their arms and celebrated his moronic escape from peraplegia deep into the heart of the train yards. And at some point before dawn, he managed a return home, staging a clumsy and sodden collapse into bed beside the peeved girlfriend.
After that first morning, the leg stayed put for a few days and resumed full operation, but the young man never completely recovered his gait. At times, on his way to work, the leg would stubbornly drop the beat, forcing him to affect a mad little half-hop to a mailbox or lamppost for balance. Yet with a firm grip around the thigh, the young man found he could temporarily quell the insubordinate limb and would continue on his way.
He considered seeing a doctor about the leg, but his crap job had no insurance and paid little more than rent and alcohol. Besides, the leg’s periodic dead spells seemed no more dire or urgent than the bloody phlegm, twitching liver, and incontinence the young man experienced on a daily basis.
While at home alone one night watching television in his underwear, drinking gut-rot pilsner and smoking cigarettes, it became glaringly apparent to the young man that the leg was considering a complete secession from the national body. The leg detached during a particularly mesmerizing sit-com and made immediately for the door, which it vainly attempted to open by rubbing frantically against the knob. If not for the commercial break, it might have made it, but the young man recovered his senses in time to pounce from the couch and tackle the thing from behind before it could flee into the night. But the ensuing wrestling match was evenly matched as the leg was nearly as strong as both of his arms. The young man took a few stunning blows to his melon before managing to subdue the leg by pinning it down with his remaining weight. It frantically convulsed its muscles in an effort to buck him for a full twenty minutes before achieving a disabling Charlie horse. Finally, it acquiesced and crawled to the hip. The hip felt appropriately guilty for turning traitor on its lifelong partner and could not summon the courage to look it in its eye.
The conflict escalated and the young man took a totalitarian tact. It was his body after all. He called in sick for a week down at the office and medicated heavily, dropping near lethal combinations of Milwaukee’s Best, Valium, Ny-Quil and tequila into his bloodstream in a blitzkrieg effort to beat the thing into submission.
On the fifth night, as he lay bloated, naked and unconscious on the kitchen floor, his girlfriend finally left him, kicking the leg as she went and leaving the backdoor open. The leg jolted awake and foggily recognized its opportunity. It flopped and slithered away from the young man’s supine form, out the door and into the backyard. Unfortunately, its blood-alcohol content was near toxic and without the benefit of circulation it could crawl no further than the lawn.
The young man awoke at dawn and seeing the leg sprawled out in the grass with a large dog sniffing its toes, decided that a new strategy was in order. He dizzily hopped out, shooed the dog off with a profound bark of vomit, and gathered the leg beneath his arm while sheepishly glancing up and down the back alley. In its unconscious state, the leg readily submitted to reattachment.
The young man shuffled to the bathroom and sat down on the edge of the tub. His lungs wheezed like cranky bellows and his brain squeezed up against the interior of his skull. He turned on the tap and poured a gallon of water into his protesting stomach before unsteadily limping out to the living room. He began doing push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. He took long hot baths. He rubbed his body with oil and his ass with a loufa. He ate a block of baked tofu and leafy greens, talking to his organs while massaging his stomach. He clipped his toenails, applied Cortizone cream to his itchy crotch, cut his hair into an orderly flat-top, put Visine in his eyes and found his glasses beneath the couch. He plucked his nose hairs, picked dirt and lint out of his navel and masturbated slowly and soothingly.
For two weeks he took his leg for a run each morning and evening. He eschewed alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and his ne’er-do-well chums. He concentrated on listening to every opinion and gripe his body uttered. He calculated his body fat percentage and set goals. He swam at the downtown community pool on his lunch break. He excelled at work, literally lunging for phones and file cabinets, jogging paper work across the office, tackling even the most menial of tasks with a physical exuberance that bordered upon mania. He began to utter platitudes such as: “Use it or lose it!” or “My body is a temple” and once he was heard to cry out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The Lard! The Lard!”
And all was good. His body was whole. The leg seemed placated. His body grew defined. With the money he saved by avoiding the bars, he bought a smart wardrobe and a complex personal training device that folded up and fit neatly beneath the bed. The girls in the office ceased shunning him and even began whispering about his ass. But….
But the mind was disgruntled.
It felt vacuous. The clarity blinded it. The realization that the young man’s life was pathetic and his job terminal began to depress it. The mind began to pine for the days of rapacious debauchery, of self-serving, regardless nonsense. It longed to dominate once more and run the body with a heartless taskmaster’s whip.
After work, the young man found himself angling toward the coffee shops across the Square. The mind wheedled and coaxed, alternately orating eloquently on Plato’s Golden Mean and whining nasally about how it simply was not fair that the body received all of the attention. One small cup of joe, a paltry concession, the mind cried.
The cup of coffee pleased the mind considerably, but the stomach had a hissy fit, its acids unused to the act of war. The young man was forced to take the bus home rather than jog as he feared he might soil his track pants.
That night he couldn’t sleep. His mind zinged like an unengaged clutch. Forced up and out of bed, the body meandered out to the TV. An old Bogart flick was on and every character that graced the screen held a cigarette between their fingers with classy flare. The hand began to twitch and the tongue licked the lips.
The young man’s mind emitted a Machiavellian chuckle and suggested a walk. Unsuspecting, the body agreed that a little exercise would be just the thing and with that the young man was up and out the door. The mind allowed the body to amble aimlessly for awhile, letting the lungs suck in the clean brisk air. The legs strode with a bounce in their steps. The organs stretched out and swung happily in their fleshy nest. The arms swayed contentedly. And the face opened its pores to the refreshing breeze.
The young man walked for nearly an hour through the neighborhood. The mind pretended to grow tired and even went so far as to call for a yawn, lulling the body completely into the false sense of security.
And then without discernible thought, the young man found himself pushing open the door to his local tavern and cozying up to the bar. The bartender hailed him with a large smile, a tall stein of gut-rot pilsner and a fresh pack of cigarettes. The hands mechanically went to work. Within seconds, the mind quivered like an ejaculating rodent as the alcohol and nicotine did the rumba through its nervous system.
The young man lit smokes off the butt and kept the bartender at his tap for a good half-hour before the leg finally came to its senses and disengaged with disgust. It was out the door before the young man realized it was gone. The young man lunged off of the stool and hopped after it.
It was a foot race. The young man lumbered after the bounding leg, but the leg had the head start and wasn’t weighed down by the remaining body. The young man stumbled and fell to the sidewalk, crying out for the leg to return. He caught one last glimpse of the leg as it pranced off into the park, illuminated grandly in polychrome moonlight. And then it was gone.
As the young man lay sprawled and beaten on the sidewalk, his tear ducts opening in farewell to the leg, he felt a queer sensation. His sense of himself began to diminish. First it was the other leg, then the arms. The limbs were followed by his shoulders, his neck, his pelvis. The chest creaked open and each of his organs marched out in an orderly procession. The lungs fluttered accusingly above the young man like a butterfly, stained hideously by the dark tar. The eyes rolled out of their sockets, the tongue wormed its way out of the mouth, the ears passionately embraced like old friends as they had heard so much about the other and finally, the head disgorged the mind with a sickening slurp.
The young man’s autonomous segments paused for a moment and glared at the lonely form of the chagrined and terrified mind before frolicking off in different directions forever.
The mind was left there on the sidewalk to ponder the error of its ways until being mistaken for a rotten cauliflower and kicked into the path of oncoming traffic by the bartender on his way home.
Ryan Masters has been published in a wide range of literary journals including The Iowa Review, The Pedestal Magazine and The Absinthe Literary Review. A chapbook, below the low-water mark, is available from Pudding House Publications (2003). He is arts writer at The Monterey County Weekly and his prose has appeared in numerous national publications including Surfer Magazine, The Surfer's Journal and Scuba Diving Magazine.