My neighbor, Max, said he wanted—no he needed—a third arm. The first time I heard him mention it, we were working on his weed-whip. He’d been having trouble keeping it running, and when the thing did manage to hold a spark, the exhaust spewed black smoke. I told him I’d take a look. That’s what I did for a living: I worked on small engines.
Turned out, he was using five-weight engine oil instead of two-stroke and he was mixing it with his gas at the wrong ratio too. Simple solution. I showed him the bottle he should buy and how to properly mix it at 50:1. I also said we should replace the spark plug and clean the intake filter while we were at it. Just in case.
And that’s when he said it, when both of our fingers were wedged in the tiny motor’s many crevices trying to finagle the plug from its threads:
“This is when my third arm will come in handy.”
I thought it was a joke and laughed. But when I looked at him, he was as stoic as Rivera in the ninth.
I left it at that.
A few months later, after the trees lost their blossoms and summer began to corrugate the horizons with its heat, Max and his wife, Reba, travelled to the Philippines. They were gone almost a month. Luckily, Reba was a schoolteacher who had all the time in the world. As for Max, he’d been building up his vacation days at the software company where he worked, saving them for this very trip. It had taken him years.
They asked my wife and I to fetch their mail on occasion. So we did. Their absence affected us little. We sometimes went months without seeing them, and then other times, we spent entire weekends together, sitting by our pool or embarking on some boozy escapade in the city. That’s just how our relationship worked.
I saw Max the day they returned. It was late in the evening. My wife and I had been fighting. I badly wanted a drink but knew better. So I convinced myself I had a sore throat and sipped on a tiny cup of NyQuil.
From our bay window, I watched Max hobble to his front door, draped in a sort of gown as though he’d traveled thirty hours immediately after his procedure. He looked a bit sallow, but I chalked it up to jet-lag. As far as I could see, there was nothing different about him.
We gave them some time to settle back in and then invited them to dinner not long after. Word around the neighborhood was that Max had indeed undergone the procedure, but everyone I spoke to had yet to see his new appendage.
It was an aestival night, warm and cloudless. Cicadas. We ate grilled steaks and asparagus from a local farmers market. Afterwards, we sat poolside and sipped gin leap years. Our pool had yet to be filled. No one brought up Max’s operation, not at first. Maggie, my wife, asked Reba about their “vacation,” as if there had been no other purpose for their long voyage abroad.
“It was an experience,” Reba said. “Our hotel had one of those infinity pools on the rooftop. I’ve always wanted to swim in one.”
“And,” I said, “what did you think?”
“It didn’t live up to its name,” she said, taking a drink.
My wife lit up suddenly. She turned to Max.
“You had quite the trip,” my wife said. “It took some guts to go all the way over there and do what you did, Max!”
“It doesn’t take guts to do something you really want,” he said.
“You’re just being modest,” Maggie said.
She didn’t drink often and when she did, it made her overly forward. Often it irked me—this false pluck that only gin could lend her. But in that moment, I was thankful. Secretly, this was the only reason I’d invited Max and Reba over: to see the arm.
But Max was reticent. He was the only one of us not drinking. The medicine they’d prescribed him did not mix well with booze, or so he said.
“So,” my wife said. “How does it feel?”
“Good,” Max said. “It feels good.”
“I wish I had the guts to do something like that,” Maggie said.
“Something like what?” I asked, a bit too incredulously.
“Max wanted something,” Maggie said. “He wanted something important and he had the guts to go and get it.”
A jet tore through the sky overhead, filling everything with a familiar thrum. We lived near an air force base. At one time, it made our neighborhood an affordable place to build. But somehow it had now become a desirable place to live despite the constant sound of jet planes. The neighborhood offered large yards and a semblance of solitude while still being close to the city. Our house had nearly quadrupled in value over the course of a decade. What else could you want really?
Once the sound abated, my wife turned to Max again.
“So can we see it?” she asked.
“Maggie!” I yelped.
I don’t know why, but the question struck a chord in me, even though this had been my personal desire all along. Coming from her mouth, it sounded vulgar, intrusive even.
“It’s okay,” Max said. “I better get used to it.”
He went to lift his shirt, but Reba stopped him.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?” she asked. “The doctor said to keep it bandaged, remember?”
Max was not the type of man to listen to his wife. He didn’t even grant her a grunt. He merely lifted his shirt and began undoing the complicated bandages ensconcing his abdomen. I wasn’t expecting this to be the location of his new appendage. For some reason, I envisioned it attached to one of his existing arms, or at least in close proximity to them. But here I was, staring at his freshly shaven stomach. As he unwrapped the bandages, I began noticing a slight bulge where his belly button should be. I don’t know if he intentionally hesitated as he went, or my anticipation made the reveal occur in slow motion, but the process seemed to take forever and by the last bit of bandage, I felt queasy. It was like watching explorers unwrap a mummy in an old film.
Max’s arm was a surprisingly muscular appendage, yet it was very small, like that of a Hulk Hogan action figure.
“Where did it come from?” my wife asked.
“They grew it,” Max said. “They grew it in a lab, just for me.”
The arm then moved with the ungainly weakness of a fledgling and in fact when the little fingers reached out, stretching themselves, it looked as though it was waiting to be fed by a much bigger arm. I wanted to vomit. Then, for some reason, I felt like crying. I took a drink of gin.
Maggie, meanwhile, gaped at the thing with child-like infatuation.
“It’s so small,” she said.
“It will grow,” Max promised. “It will be as big as my other arms. Maybe even bigger.”
Complications arose on all fronts.
For starters, autumn never really came. A worrisome heat settled into the neighborhood and though the trees lost their leaves as the days grew shorter, it was much later than usual. Everyone remarked on it. Even me, and I never talked about the weather.
Secondly, rumor had it that Max’s body was understandably rejecting the new appendage. He began taking a strong cocktail of strange medicines just to be able to keep the thing attached to his body. This, he did against doctor’s orders.
Meanwhile, my wife began regarding me with even more disdain than usual. Her eyes grew darker. A shadow formed inside her. When she looked at me, I shivered. Mentioning Max’s arm, I quickly learned, was strictly taboo.
I’d say something like, “I just don’t get it. It’s not natural. It’s not right.”
And she’d say, “What have you ever done with your life?”
I ran a small business fixing small motors—chainsaws, lawnmowers, generators —and I always made a point of this, as if Maggie did not know it.
“Small,” she said. “Key word.”
She sort of laughed through her nose when she said this. It struck me a blow I was not expecting.
I slept on the couch often. Things worsened. Each morning, I awoke early and opened my store before sunup, before anyone in their right mind was thinking about the little motors in their lives. If Maggie stirred before me, I remained on the couch with my eyes clenched shut, feigning sleep until she left. On those mornings, I took my time about the house, making a pot of coffee and staring out the bay window.
One morning, I saw Max in his driveway lifting weights, building up his strength. His third arm could curl 25 pounds nearly thirty times. I know. I counted. I decided the rumors about his ailments were just that: rumors. I wanted the other things to be rumors too: the strange heat that would not abate, my wife’s exasperation, etc. But most importantly, I just wanted to be happy for my neighbor. I really did. I tried.
Then a week came, breezy and light-filled, in which things began looking up. My wife and I made love nearly every night. I don’t know how it happened, what I’d done to regain her admiration. Things got back to normal. A cold front brought frost.
Nothing lasts. This is an important lesson that most people must relearn over and over whether they want to or not.
The shadow returned, stronger than ever. It consumed my wife. She began throwing things at me: lamps, apples, bowls of potpourri.
The basement came next. We had a pool table down there that we never used. I blew up an air mattress and slept beneath it as though it were my only shelter.
Somehow, I found myself standing in a tumbledown hotel room one evening, uncertain of how I got there. I once even had to look out the window to make sure my car was in the lot. I knew I’d said regrettable things to Maggie, screamed them, in fact. But what they were, I could not recall. I could only hear what she’d said to me, the words stirring in my mind over and over. The first time I heard it, I dropped to my knees:
“I fucked Max.”
I did not sleep for a long while, many days in fact. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw that arm of his, its convenient placement in relation to his other parts, all the things it was probably capable of now that it had grown. It made me wonder why he’d done such a thing to begin with. Perhaps he’d never intended to cuckold me, but the mere idea of him undergoing such an absurd operation strictly for sexual purposes made me question humanity as a whole—where we were headed, what it was all about, and what sorts of things a wife is capable of concealing from her husband.
I went to confession. I didn’t know what else to do. It had been many years since I’d gone to mass. I no longer knew the priest. Many had come and gone since my last visit to St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish. Inside the church, I found the bank of confessional booths near the back of the nave—a sight that had been the bane of my childhood. Now, it was nothing but an innocuous row of curtained doorways, only one of which was drawn shut. Much like a man picking a urinal, I could not go into the stalls on either side of the occupied confessional. So I tiptoed to one on the end, walked in, and knelt down. A small window hung halfway up the wall on the left side, and when the door behind it slid open, I saw the clergyman’s silhouette through a screen.
“Hello my son, how long has it been since your last confession?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A long time.”
“Have you examined your conscience?”
There were answers to these questions. I was certain. But I’d forgotten the proper protocol.
“What is it you’d like to confess?”
“What’s the one about your neighbor?” I asked.
The clergyman, a bit confused, coughed.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor?” he said.
“No, not that one. The other one.”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s possessions.”
“Well I’m not the one guilty of that.”
“Perhaps you are jealous then,” the clergyman said. “Envy can certainly lead to sin.”
I looked down to where my belly button was beneath my shirt. Did I want what Max had? I decided I did not. But I felt compelled to explain why I’d come here, even though I didn’t really know.
“Booze,” I decided. “Sometimes I drink too much.”
“The devil can hide in many places, can’t he?” the clergyman said. “God forgives you.”
“Oh and I’ve been having ungodly thoughts,” I said. I didn’t know what that meant. The clergyman, too, seemed flummoxed. He paused.
“Mr. Halverson?” he finally said. “Is that you again? I thought we talked about this.”
He peered through the screen now, only to realize that I was not Mr. Halverson, whoever that might be. Embarrassed, he hastily told me to say ten Our Fathers. Then he left before I could even spot him back out in the light of day.
Out in the parking lot, I watched a man in extremely dirty clothes walking a dog with an extension cord instead of a leash. I did not feel any better, but I did not feel any worse either.
I remained at the hotel for longer than I should have, eating out of the vending machines and drinking little bottles of white wine that I purchased from a gas station. In the interim, when not at work, I searched for one-bedroom apartments downtown but found nothing I could afford.
One night, a call from the front desk threw me from my bed. I’d unintentionally dozed off while watching a documentary about Rudolph Diesel. My phone had not rung once since I checked in, long ago. The woman on the other end sounded chipper, despite the late hour. She told me someone was here to see me.
“Who is it?” I asked.
She held the phone away from her face and asked the mysterious person who they were. I heard the name before she repeated it back to me.
It was Max.
Down in the lobby, I found him standing there with his arms folded. That is, his regular arms were nestled together high up on his breast while his third arm was pinched between the two, pitching his third elbow out before him almost phallically. He looked glum, for lack of a better word. I saw him before he saw me and for a moment I just took the sight of him in. He’d had a special shirt made to accommodate his arm. It contained three sleeves instead of two is all. Max was not the type of man who could merely cut a hole in his shirt and call it good.
A three-armed man had stolen my wife. It almost sounded like the set up for a dumb joke or the bizarre beginning of a logic problem, as though a series of “Yes” or “No” questions might begin to make this seemingly absurd scenario seem more sensical. The hard part about logic problems was knowing the right questions to ask, though. And this was not a logic problem, this was my life, as strange as it had become. Thus, I asked the only question I could think of given the circumstances, “Should we grab a drink?”
So we went to the little bar off the lobby. As we sat at the bar, he used his third arm to drink his seltzer water. It was as though he couldn’t help himself. He had to show the thing off. Despite his pride, he seemed woeful.
“I know I am probably the last person you want to see,” he said. “But I just had to apologize. None of this was supposed to happen.”
“None of what?” I asked.
“Me and Maggie,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to pan out this way.”
I took a drink of beer. After a moment, Max cleared his throat.
“Maggie told me about the problems you were having.”
“Problems?” I said.
Max put his glass on the bar while simultaneously folding his regular arms. A look of concern seemed to crumple his entire face.
“No need to be coy,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you, I am here for you. We are both here for you, me and Maggie, if you need help.”
“Help with what?”
“Well, with your dilemma.”
“And what dilemma is that, exactly?” I asked. “As far as I can tell, I am the only normal person in this whole affair.”
Max furrowed his brow.
“Maggie said you’d probably say something like that. She said it was a mistake to come see you. Maybe she was right. Either way, I just wanted to tell you, we’re here for you, despite all that’s happened. I am sorry for all this. I didn’t mean for it to shake out like this.”
“How did you mean for it to shake out then?”
“I don’t know. How does one ever know?”
“But you’re happy,” I said. “And that’s all that matters.”
“Again, no need to play coy.”
But I wasn’t being coy, not then. Not ever.
That was the last time I saw Max. Though I heard about him often, or as often as anyone might expect to hear about a three-armed man. I lay low for a long while, tending to my store, chatting with costumers. The jail called me and I worked on their backup generator. I liked working for the state. They paid on time and they paid well.
Eventually, I returned to the old neighborhood where Maggie and I had lived. I don’t know why. Our house was for sale. The real estate agency was taking care of the upkeep. Three motivated buyers had expressed interest but my hopes of a bidding war breaking out between them never panned out. As far as I knew, we were back to square one.
Now, it was technically winter but the snow had never arrived. One slow-moving front had dumped a bit of sleet onto the streets a few days back but it all melted fast. Christmas was two weeks away. Inflatable snowmen and jovial Santas waved from green lawns, their smiles somehow sinister.
The wind had toppled the “For Sale” sign in my yard and when I got out of my car to fix it, I saw that there was a sale going on next door, where Max once lived. Though it was not yard-sale season by any means, the weather was certainly right for one, despite it being December. It looked as though the house had spewed all of its belongings. Clothes, tools, bric-a-brac, furniture: it was all strewn down the driveway. People waded through the junk, taking stock. I recognized only one face in the crowd: Reba, Max’s ex-wife. She sat next to the open garage door, counting a stack of money. I hadn’t realized she’d remained in the house, but then again, why should she leave?
Then I saw the handmade sign sitting near her. “Make me an offer. Everything must go. Leaving town soon.”
Reba smiled when she saw me.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“Utter liquidation,” she said. “Everything must go.”
“Including you?” I said.
“Rome,” she said. “Then Naples.”
“They hated milk,” I said. “The Romans did.”
“Is that right?” she asked.
“How much for the weed whip?” I said.
I pointed at the old Stihl that Max and I had worked on. It hung from a hook on the wall behind her.
“For you?” she said. “On the house.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” I said.
She stood up and retrieved it for me.
Weeks later, in the new year, I checked my mail again at the old house. It had finally sold, but for much lower than I was expecting. The jets were a problem again. Who knew?
Amid all the junk mail, I found a postcard with a picture of the Farnese Atlas straining under the weight of the cosmos, his muscles bulging. All Reba had written on the back was, “He could use a third arm.” Yes indeed, though it would not make the load any lighter.
Nick Bertelson’s chapbook “Harvest Widows” (NDSU Press 2019) was the winner of the 2019 Poetry of the Prairie and Plains Prize. His other writing has appeared in The Southampton Review, The Coe Review, Prairie Fire, and The North American Review as a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist.