My cousin Jeff did prosthetics, and when I was a kid I remember being scared to go and visit him in his workshop in back of the house because there were body parts everywhere. Legs and arms on shelves, and hung from chains from the ceiling so they could be rotated, and held in clamps while different components solidified. There were silicone molds of hands and feet, jars of glass eyes. Posters up on the wall of cross-sectioned bodies. When I had to deliver Jeff a sandwich or a beer, I’d open the door a crack, slide in the plate or the can, and then run like hell before I saw something that would haunt me.
The day I found the box turtle with a leg chewed off down by the creek, everyone I talked to thought that it would be kindest if someone took it away from me and quietly bashed it with a rock somewhere. I could see that look in their eyes as they reached for it, and I snatched it away and ran and hid in the one place that even the adults didn’t like to go. I shut my eyes as I went in the door, which was how Jeff was able to sneak up on me and grab the turtle.
He took it over to the work bench and said, “we’ll need to stitch ‘er up.”
I opened my eyes. He had his first aid kit out, and was treating the turtle’s stump with a bottle of peroxide. The turtle had completely retreated into its shell. I stood by the table and watched.
“We’ll put a hot wheels car on ‘er here,” he said. “Or maybe two baby carriage wheels on an axle, with a pad here and a strap here.” He was already drawing in his head as he pointed at the parts of the turtle. “It’ll be the fastest turtle in the west.”
The turtle didn’t live to the prosthetic stage, but I brought him other animals, and started telling people what he could do. By the time I was twelve, we had a host of bionic animals: a cat with a pistoning paw, a very old dog whose teeth were mostly artificial, a large ornamental koi fish with a cleverly-constructed aluminum and ripstop tail.
Cousin Jeff was not supposed to be a good friend for a girl child; he chain smoked and kept girly magazines around, scattered in between his books of medical illustrations. He read them while he ate his sandwiches and smoked his unfiltered Newports. He subscribed to one that was all pictures of amputee girls in boudoir lingerie, and he’d sometimes show these pictures to his lady clients, women in wheelchairs or on crutches, or with one foreshortened arm clutched protectively to their side. Cajoling them into looking at the pictures, they were first alarmed, and then pleased by what they saw, blushing furiously.
My mother ultimately blamed Cousin Jeff and his girly magazines for making me what I was, but if anything, he made me more interested in men than I think I would otherwise have been. He was tender with animals, unapologetic in his yen for his lady clients. And while he never pressed either his cigarettes or his pornography on me, when I stole them from him he seemed proud, almost brotherly. I thought about him while I looked at the ladies in the pictures, and I stared out at his still-lit workshop when I smoked out of the window at night, with Tripod the Cat kneading my legs with a gentle hissing sound, getting piston grease all over the floral sheets.
Rose Wednesday is an MA student in fiction at the University of Maine. She has been published previously in “The Armchair Aesthete” and was the 2013 winner of Maine’s Grady Award for fiction. She writes in Maine and blogs at rosewednesday.tumblr.com.
See Rose’s list of “5 Things That Are Slowly Killing Me” in our ongoing contributors’ series on Wednesday, June 25.