Mourners by Joe Baumann

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others.  He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks.  He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.  He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.


Marcia, Tobias, and Amanda eat at La Bodega every August twelfth, calling in their reservation months in advance even though it’s never busy as most people don’t seem to want to commemorate the day that everyone lost something.  But Marcia, the ringleader, who makes sure the hostess on the other end of the line knows they need a table, not a booth, in order to accommodate her wheelchair (she’s not taken the plunge to prostheses yet like Amanda has), wants to remember.  She isn’t wallowing, she assures Amanda and Tobias, but recollecting.  

Since the day her feet disappeared she’s wanted to remember the buzzy feeling of her toes squishing through shag carpet in her bedroom, the sting of hot asphalt on her tender heels when she dashed across the parking lot to the beach and the ribbony feeling of sand cooling her skin.  She even pines for the nauseating blur of the charley horses that used to curl into her falling arches when she ran more than three miles.  So, although there’s nothing to fill them, she dons a pair of clogs every morning, resting the nubs of smooth flesh, hard like the bottoms of canned beans below her ankles, against the curved scoop of each shoe.  The clogs, traditional and bought online from a store in Holland, are real peach-colored wood, sanded and lacquered on the outside with black squares painted on the toes.  They rest against the unfurled metal footrests of her chair.

Amanda usually arrives first.  They believe, inwardly, that it’s because she’s the one whose mobility has been least hampered by her loss; she can still navigate the landscape of her former life with the most ease.  But outwardly, they agree that it’s because she lives closest, in a studio loft nestled above a bar whose soft jazz music thumps beneath her bed at night.  The blue glow from its neon sign seeps in and stains her entire apartment so she feels like she lives in an aquarium, the incandescent thrum imbuing her sheets and coffee mugs and stovetop with soft cyan.  

When she and Tobias aren’t sleeping with other people they hook up at her place (she picks him up or he calls a cab from a company that caters specifically to the blind), and she loves the way the dark light illuminates his muscles.  He rues that he can no longer see the curve of her breasts and hips, how her areolas look heavenly in the blue hum that cascades over her body, and Amanda in turn regrets that she can no longer run her fingers along the curl of his spine, the little shark fins of bone that jut out between his muscles.  

The first time they had sex after the disappearances—eighteen months later; it took that long for them to trust themselves with the other—they stumbled out of their clothes, Tobias still lacking confidence in his ability to unbutton and unzip, fearful that his lips would press against her chin instead of her mouth, or that he might accidentally crush their teeth together.  Amanda, once they were stripped and lying next to each other, hesitated to reach out her prosthetic fingers, only allowing herself to touch him when he insisted that it was fine, that the tickle of the rubbery fake tips against his back was better than nothing at all; he didn’t want to feel like he was floating there next to a dead body, fucking a corpse.  She cringed, not at the language but at the muted anger in his voice, a rage that hadn’t existed before his eyes vanished.

Even inside La Bodega, where the lighting is low anyway, green, red, and yellow hurricane lamps stuffed in the corners and sconces like crystal balls lighting each table, Tobias wears his Ray-Bans.  He never takes them off, and his face is permanently discolored from the time he spends in the sun, lying on the beach on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and listening to the whoosh of waves and the splashing of children, so that, when he does peel them off—only ever at home, and even then, only in the shower and when he’s in bed—the flesh around and in his sunken eye sockets is pale and tender-looking. Amanda said, once, that he looked like a raccoon that had been turned inside out.  

Over the years since he woke up without eyes, his other senses have tuned up to the world around him as if a part of him was frozen and suddenly began to thaw; he can identify the Wham-Bam Tex-Mex Shrimp when a waiter delivers it, steaming and screaming hot, to a nearby table; when Marcia orders shots, he knows with a single whiff whether she’s gone for the cheap stuff or the Patron Silver.  Amanda has tried to make a game out of sneaking up on him, but his sense of hearing has sharpened, and he spins and catches her shoulders before she can clap her rubbery hands over his sunglasses.

He knows he isn’t alone in his adjusting; everyone else has made such changes in the wake of their losses, some bigger than others.  An Olympic swimmer’s fingers and toes vanished, so he quit the freestyle and enrolled at USC to study neurology; a famous singer whose vocal cords waltzed off took up pen and paper and wrote a novel that won the Pulitzer.  On a smaller scale, Amanda has taught her feet to be more dexterous, and she can change the channels on the television and work her cell phone with her big toe, and on days she’s feeling especially limber she sits on a barstool in her kitchenette and will give sauté pans a shake with her foot so the broccolini don’t burn.

Their waitress, dressed in a freshly-ironed white Oxford (Tobias can smell the aerosol starch spray when she leans down to hand him his margarita, the salt briny like the ocean), is missing both of her nostrils, so her voice comes out in a raspy hush, words competing with air, her lips chapped from the constant flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide coming in and out.  He takes in the odor of her breath, minty and peachy from the gum she has hidden against her molars (he can hear the slight bubbling of her voice, tongue obstructed by the sugary mass).  They order their usual dishes, none of them deviating from routine: he, the carnitas; Marcia, three vegetarian enchiladas with no sour cream; Amanda, the el toriado, a platter of shrimp, chicken, beef, and bacon smashed between Mexican rice and thick cheese sauce, along with a side of guacamole.  The first time she chose it, Tobias turned to her, mouth pursed.  When pressed, she said it sounded way easier to eat—all she’d need was a fork to gouge into the thick, greased mess of proteins—than trying to pluck up a taco with her then-unsteady, faux-fingers.

They say little while they eat, the noise of the half-dozen other occupied tables filling the space between them.  From above and behind Tobias shrieks a television, the dull thrum of a full soccer stadium in Mexico pulsing like a wave.  He listens to the chatter of the announcers, their rapid Spanish like the coughed-up bullets of an automatic hammering at his ears, and he knows a breakaway is on when the crowd’s roar grows in volume.  Tobias once played soccer—in college, somehow on a scholarship, convinced he’d pulled the wool over some scout’s eyes because his ball handling skills were mediocre at best, but he could sprint up and down the field with a speed that left his teammates and opponents guffawing and chuffing for air in his wake—and he likes to picture the flexion in the players’ legs, flashes of brown skin between shin-guard-concealing knee socks and white checked shorts, thick quadriceps ending in tear drops at the knees.  He still runs, only on a treadmill, his body trapped on the whirring machine, his hammies and glutes wishing for the freedom of the field, the wide unfurling possibilities of trails and tracks.

Like everyone else, they have their lists of things they miss.  Marcia, despite the crumbling structure of her feet, misses aerobics classes and running along the pier, her feet thumping across wooden boardwalks while smells of fried batter and sea spray mingle in her nose.  Amanda used to knit while she watched movies, and she had begun her own food and style blog right before the day of the losses, priding herself in the efficacy of her typing, the rhythmic click of the keys on her laptop a kind of frenetic, bounding music.  She also played the guitar, which she has tried only once with her prosthetic hands; she could still strum with a steady beat but fingering the chords was a nightmare.  She had loved the buzz of the strings against her fingers, digging into the whorls of her fingerprints, and trying to play with rubber and not flesh was mechanical, cold.

When their waitress clears their plates they order a second round of margaritas at Marcia’s behest; she is the one who presses their get-togethers late into the night even though she has the earliest time set on her alarm clock.  Her husband—Tobias’ former roommate—left her shortly after she lost her feet, unable to adjust to her new set of needs even though she claimed she could handle living with, loving, and kissing someone whose lips had vanished.  She had gotten more out of the divorce, spousal support and their house, bought before property values rocketed, but she has admitted more than once, with enough tequila swimming in her veins, that she still misses him, the lilt of his voice (which she knows she’d be without even if he had stayed), the sound of him lumbering around the kitchen, the squeak of their water bed when he thumped his weight down on it, the vibrations making her feel like she was afloat on a steady, warm ocean.

“He’s such a bastard,” Marcia says every time, squeezing her lime wedge between her teeth and licking salt from the rim of her glass before taking a long swig.  “But he was my bastard, you know?”

Amanda and Tobias nod and glance at one another.  They were both single when the disappearances happened and had, in fact, slept together the night before in Amanda’s blue-washed apartment.  When she woke she tried to reach out and press her hand against his shoulders, her favorite part of his body, the muscles thick like cuts of steak rounded over the ball of bone.  But nothing happened, her arms suddenly dead, leaden weight and somehow airy at the same time.  When she looked down and saw blank space where both arms should be she shrieked, waking Tobias, whose face was blank, his eyelids drawn in toward his skull like two deflated balloons.  He rubbed at his face, and although they look back on that moment with comic sadness and laughter, it was, Amanda and Tobias have both admitted, the most terrifying moment of their lives, and they are grateful to have had each other to cling to.  Tobias had turned on the television and Amanda told him what the footage on the various news stations looked like, the coverage immediate and thorough, doctors and world leaders commenting on the repercussions of the sudden blight of physical disability that had hit the entire globe; philosophers crowed that mother earth was striking back.

Marcia was lying in bed, too, startled awake when she couldn’t feel the plush, slippery sleekness of her silk sheets against her toes, and when she threw them off she shrieked, her voice one of millions, billions maybe, caterwauling at the startling sensation of seeing a piece of her gone, blank space where flesh and bone and muscle ought to have been.  Looking back, she thinks that blood and gore would have been better, that although she’d have been sick at the viscera, tendons and marrow dripping into her Beauty Rest mattress, that queasiness would have been manageable, her pain and despair recognizable in contrast to the inexplicable feeling brought on by the nonsense of nothing being where there should have been something.

Once they’ve paid and sloughed back the dregs of their margaritas, the trio walks through the tumid evening, humidity simmering from the ocean.  Tobias pushes Marcia, she directing him when the sidewalk becomes crowded.  Amanda marches next to them, prosthetic arms swaying.  They wander aimlessly, refusing to head in the direction of any of their homes, heads swimming with tequila and stomachs bloated with salsa verde.  They say little, letting the sounds of passing cars, runners’ feet slapping on concrete, and gulls honking above hot dog stands wash over them.  How strange, they each think, that the world seems so familiar and so different at the same time, as if its insides have been pulled out and then restored, scars and stitching fading with time.  Faces no longer betray loss, adaptation clicking into place after four years of adjustment: flashes of metal where flesh was, blank peach replacing red and black and brown orifices, electronic machines where human voices have vanished, colostomy bags and dialysis machines substituted for missing organs.  

That first anniversary, one year after everyone lost something, they were solemn.  Even Marcia, verbose and loud most of the time, found her voice sucking itself into her chest, like someone had installed a vacuum between her ribs.  She could hardly look at Amanda, whom she helped eat, because she was still clumsy with fork and knife, and she hadn’t yet been fitted for her replacement hands and didn’t want to look like a pig, bending down and snarfling at her warm plate of rice and cheese and meat, slopping her chin and nose like a toddler.  Marcia tried not to cry as she took a bite of her own food before forking a helping to Amanda, then repeating the process with their drinks, made particularly strong by the bartender gone deaf when his ears vanished.  With each bite and slurp the pallor hardened like a shell around them, and their server, a young man whose teeth were gone, replaced by slippy-sliding dentures (“Lucky fucker,” Amanda had said after they ordered), noticed the glumness surrounding them like a weather system and offered them free dessert, a plate of sopaipillas caked it cinnamon and brown sugar, which only made things worse when Marcia accidentally dropped one in Tobias’ lap.

But they’ve endured.  Three anniversaries later they don’t feel the weight of impossibility, the uncertainty of the future that journalists and sociologists blathered on about in the days and weeks following the disappearances.  The entrepreneurs of the world, emboldened by the hurdles rising up, have invented and invested, researchers throwing themselves into innovation and discovery.  The world hasn’t gone anywhere except forward.

Eventually, Marcia declares herself ready for bed, so they veer in the direction of her house.  Amanda and Tobias make no move to follow her inside, Tobias releasing his grip on the handles of her chair when they crest the familiar bump of Marcia’s driveway.  The smell of the callery pear trees, their seminal, tart funk, fills his nose as he and Amanda stand waiting to hear the chunk of the raspy garage door as it whines up.  Marcia never asks for help getting in anymore, even though, as Amanda has told Tobias, she struggles up the home-made ramp that takes up half of the garage space, a thudding particle board and two-by-four contraption set at a harsh, steep angle.  Just as Tobias doesn’t let himself be led to the elevator and insists on rolling his fingers over the Braille on the buttons until he finds his floor, just as Amanda won’t let anyone tie her shoes or open the door at the bank or her office, Marcia refuses.  They all pretend as much as they can.

Their bodies, after all, are still theirs.  They still breathe, eat, talk, fuck, shit.  They do the things they’ve always done.

“You tired too?” Amanda says.  Tobias raises an eyebrow at the trill of her voice.  He still has those.  He can still do that.  He strains, making sure she can see it, the caterpillar of hair stretching over his sunglasses in a lazy, stretched horseshoe.

“Not really,” he says.

“Okay then.”  She wraps her prosthetic arm through his, not to guide him.  No, neither takes the lead as they saunter away from Marcia’s, the garage door munching down, cloaking the rusting, unused gardening tools and stoic trashcans in darkness.  They do not lead one another but move together, prepared for the mile and a half walk to Amanda’s, where, bathed in the blue angelic light, they will touch and kiss and whisper, letting their bodies sink together, mourning their losses but counting their pleasures.

END