The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 3

The Arms and Legs of the Lake

by Mary Gaitskill

Jim Smith was riding the train to Syracuse, New York, to see his foster mother for Mother's Day. He felt good and he did not feel good. Near Penn Station he'd gone to a bar with a green shamrock on it for good luck. Inside it was dark and smelled like beer and rotten meat in a freezer—nasty but also good because of the closed-door feeling; Jim liked the closed-door feeling. A big, white bartender slapped the bar with a rag and talked to a blobby-looking white customer with a wide, red mouth. A television showed girl after girl. When Jim said he'd just gotten back from Iraq, the bartender poured him a free whiskey. "For your service," he said.
     Jim looked out the train window at the water going by and thought about his white foster father, the good one. "You never hurt a little animal," said his good foster. "That is the lowest, most chicken thing anybody can do, to hurt a little animal who can't fight back. If you do that, if you hurt a little animal, no one will ever respect you or even like you." There had been green grass all around, and a big tree with a striped cat in it. Down the street, ducks walked through the wet grass. Jim had thrown some rocks at them, and his foster had gotten mad.
     "For your service," said the bartender, and poured another one, dark and golden in its glass. Then he went down to the other end and talked to the blob with the red mouth, leaving Jim alone with the TV girls and their TV light flashing on the bar in staccato bursts. Sudden flashing on darkness: Time to tune that out, thought Jim. Time to tune in to humanity. He looked at Red Mouth Blob.
     "He's a gentle guy," said Blob. "Measured. Not the kind who flies off the handle. But when it comes down, he will get down. He will get down there and he will bump with you. He will bump with you and, if need be, he will bump on you." The bartender laughed and hit the bar with his rag.
     Bump on you. Bumpety-bump. The truck bumped along the road. Jim was sitting next to Paulie, a young blondie from Minnesota who wasn't wearing his old Vietnam vest. Between low, sand-colored buildings, white-hot sky swam in the sweat dripping from Jim's eyelashes. There was the smell of garbage and shit. A river of sewage flowed in the street, and kids were jumping around in it. A woman looked up at him from the street, and he could feel the authority of her eyes as far down as he could feel—in an eyeless, faceless place inside him where her look was the touch of an omnipotent hand. "Did you see that woman?" he said to Paulie. "She look like she should be wearing jewels and riding down the Tigris in a gold boat." "That one?" said Paulie. "Her? She's just hajji with pussy." And then the explosion threw them out of the truck. There was Paulie sitting up with blood geysering out his neck until he fell over backward with no head on him. Then darkness came, pouring over everything.
     The bartender hit the bar with his rag and came back to pour him another drink.
     He looked around the car of the train. Right across from him was a man with thin lips and white, finicky hands drinking soda from a can. Just beyond that was a thick-bodied woman, gray like somebody drew her with a pencil, reading a book. Behind him was blond hair and a feminine forehead with fine eyebrows and half-ovals of eyeglass visible over the frayed seat. Beyond that, more foreheads moved in postures of eating or typing or staring out the window. Out the window was the shining water, with trees and mountains gently stirring in it. She had looked at them and they had blown up. Where was she now?
     "Excuse me." The man with thin lips was talking to him. "Excuse me," he said again.

"Excuse me," said Bill Groffman. "You just got back from Iraq?"
     "How did you know?" the guy answered.
     "I got back myself six months ago. I saw your jacket and shoes."
     "All right," said the guy, as if to express excitement, but with his voice flat and the punctuation wrong. He got up to shake Bill's hand, then got confused and went for a high five that he messed up. He was a little guy, tiny really, with the voice of a woman. Old, maybe forty, and obviously a total fuck-up—who could mess up a high five?
     "Where were you?" asked Bill.
     "Baghdad," said the guy, blatting the word out. "Where they pulled down Saddam Hussein. They pulled—"
     "What'd you do there?"
     "Supply. Stocking the shelves, doing the orders, you know. Went out on some convoys, be sure everything get where it supposed to go. You there?"
     "Name it. Ramadi, Nasiriyah, Baghdad."
     "They pulled down the statue . . . pulled it down. Everybody saw it on TV. Tell me, brother, can you . . . what is this body of water out the window here?"
     "This is the Hudson River."
     "It is? I thought it was the Great Lakes."
     "No, my man. The Great Lakes is Michigan and Illinois. Unless you're in Canada."
     "But see, I thought we were in Illinois." He weaved his head back and forth, back and forth. "But I was not good in geography. I was good in math." He blatted out math like it was the same as Baghdad.

But he was not thinking about Baghdad now. He was tuned in to the blond forehead behind him, and it was tuned in to him; it was focused on him. Jim could feel it very clearly, though its focus was confused. He looked at its reflection in the window. The forehead was attached to a small, pointy face with a tiny mouth and eyeglass eyes, a narrow chest with tits on it and long hands that were turning a piece of paper like a page. She was looking down and turning the pages of something, but still her blond forehead was coming at him. It did not have authority; it was looking to him for authority. It was harmless, vaguely interesting, nervous, and cute.

While Bill was gone he'd realized that nobody at home would understand what was happening. He realized it, and he accepted it. You talk to a little boy in broken English and Arabic, make a joke about the chicken or the egg, you light up a car screaming through a checkpoint and blow out a little girl's brains. You saw it as a threat at the time—and maybe the next time it would be. People could understand this fact—but this was not a fact. What was it? The guy who put a gun in his mouth and shot himself in the portable shitter, buddies who lost hands and legs, little kids dancing around cars with rotting corpses inside, shouting, "Bush! God is great! Bush!"—anybody could understand these events as information. But these events were not information. What were they? He tried to think what they were and felt like a small thing with a big thing inside it, about to break the thing that held it. He looked out the window for relief. There was a marsh going by—soft, green plants growing out of black water—and a pink house showing between some trees. House stood for home, but home was no relief. Or not enough. When he came home, his wife told him that the dog he'd had since he was sixteen was missing—had been for weeks and she hadn't told him. On at least six occasions during that time, when they'd been on the phone and he'd asked, "How's Jack?" she'd said, "He's good."
     "Hey," said the little guy. "You sure this a river?"
     Positive. She said she didn't tell him about Jack because Bill had only a few weeks left and she wanted him to stay positive. Which was right. They both agreed it was important to stay positive. And so she'd said, "He's good," and she'd said it convincingly, naturally. He hadn't known she was such a good liar.
     "The reason I'm asking is it looks too big to be a river. A lake is always going to be bigger than a river. I remember that from school. The river leads to the lake; the river is the arms and legs of the lake. Only thing bigger than the lake is the ocean. Like it says in the Bible, you know what I'm saying?"
     Bill didn't answer because the smell of shit and garbage was up in his nose. The feel of sand was on his skin, and he had to try not to scratch it or rub it in public like this crazy ass would surely do. Funny: The crazy ass, he should have some idea of what it was like, even if he was just supply. But if he did, Bill didn't want to discuss it with him—all the joy you felt to be going home, how once you got home you couldn't feel it anymore. Like his buddy whose forearm had been blown off, who still felt his missing arm twitch—except it was the reverse of that. The joy was there, almost like he could see it. But he couldn't feel it all the way. He could make love to his wife, but only if he turned her over. He could tell it bothered her, and he didn't know how to explain why it had to be that way. Even when they lay down to sleep, he could relax only if she turned with her back to him and stayed like that all night.
     "But that don't look like the arm or the leg. That look like the lake. Know what I'm saying?"
     Bill looked out the window and put on his headset. It was Ghostface Killah and he turned up the volume, not to hear better, but to get his mind away from the smell and the feel of sand.

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