I discovered a woman at the Medical Museum, a guard. She was lovely. Pretty. She was graceful and reckless, pointing her eyes high at the domed ceiling. She wasn’t pretty like the girl next door, but pretty like the woman who would cross the street in front of your car.
She was missing an arm—that would’ve been important to some people. But not to me. After all, I was missing some parts. Most of my hair, in fact.
It was such luck to find this lovely lady. I’d been looking for her. Looking for someone like her, for so long. Lovely and graceful and surely not minding my hair. I sort of had my eye on her, her type, for a while. She reminded me of someone. Maybe someone from a dream.
I saw her from across the rotunda, guarding syringes. I crept closer. Stopped. Moved in again. Till her face lost its fuzziness, shimmered out between the tourists. Her empty sleeve floated back and forth with the breathing of the crowd.
What kind of person would pick a tulip, a fiery one, tall and slim, petals so alive they hurt to look at? What kind of man would pluck it, admire it as he walked, and then, fastidiously, pull off the petals, roll them in his fingers, scatter them on the concrete?
I turned for another wing of the museum. The homeopathic wing, this time. Acupuncture. It was needle after needle, sparking sharp reflections, like glitter, like a haze, a shimmer in the air.
I knew what it was to lose something, something that was really a part of me.
She wasn’t jogging when it happened. I didn’t imagine her sweaty. Not laced into running shoes, pressed into sports bra. She carried her purse, I was sure, though she must have dropped it. It must have flung out across the sidewalk, contents scattering, keys-lipstick-cellphone, not too far. The police identified her right away.
I circled back to the woman. Across the crowded rotunda. Of course, she didn’t see me. Didn’t recognize me watching her. Her empty sleeve fluttered. Her hip pointed, then the other one. She reached in front of the display, waved back some children. The tips of her cheekbones glistened, as if reflecting moonlight across a dark street at night.
I didn’t move close, but circled the museum instead. I walked to an anatomy exhibit. Found the women, or maybe one repeated woman, stripped further and further each time. It was my favorite exhibit in the Medical Museum.
Every day, I circled the figures, huge Barbie dolls, I figure-eight-ed between them. At one end, just bones, hardly female unless you looked closely. The next, with organs. Another, veins. Each life-sized, in the middle of the floor. Lit from within. And then, finally, a perfect plastic lady. A mannequin. Hair poufed out, colors painted on her lips and cheeks and eyes. Even red fingernails. She was naked, but, like a Barbie doll, her parts were rounded off for modesty.
The woman, the guard, her arm was rounded off under her uniform shirt, I imagined. For modesty. It came off horribly, I was sure. But I’m sure the doctors took care of that. Made her smooth as a Barbie doll’s breast.
I returned to the guard, the beautiful one-armed woman. She was standing straighter, looking alert. Some middle school boys were approaching, rough and shoving, but still far enough away from the syringes that they couldn’t disrupt anything. Velma eyed them.
I never played with Barbie dolls, just popped the heads and arms and legs off my sister’s. She asked me to do it because they were easier to dress that way.
Under cover of the boys, I crept up from another angle. I could almost smell her. Then she pivoted. I retreated.
Yes, I knew that her name was Velma.
At five o’clock, I walked out the front entrance and around the outside of the building. It only took this woman, Velma, five minutes to do whatever closing duties and leave through the back employee exit. The building was large, so I hurried, cut through some bushes on the lawn, leaped through a bed of tulips, then ducked inside a bus shelter across the street. When she emerged, I walked with her. Side by side, with only the street separating us.
I walked her to the coffee house, waited across the street as she bought a skinny macchiato. Stepped in time with her as she sipped it. She never looked about her as she walked. She always stepped so quickly, swung that arm in vicious slashes.
We walked together, almost ran, to her apartment, but when she went through the front doors, I kept walking. I circled the block and returned to the museum parking lot, where I had left my car. I drove to the car wash and rumbled through the deluxe underbelly scrub.
I knew a little bit about her accident. From the papers, of course. And from what I could guess just looking at her.
I had been watching her for months.
When the head was off, the arm, she’d shimmy a sparkly dress over the smooth, rounded off body. She’d twist the head back on, the arm, ball-and-socket, plunked back in. Then she’d comb the Barbie’s hair. I’d help her search for tiny shoes and purses.
I stopped off at the liquor store, then went home and worked through the evening. Sent off my spreadsheets and fell asleep. When I woke up, I dressed for the museum. It was Velma’s day off, but never mine.
With her gone, I approached the syringes. Plastic tubes, full of something. Needles. Blood or probably fake blood bubbling through a few of them. The weekend guard paid no attention to me. I could have slipped a cool cylinder into my coat pocket.
The museum was strange without Velma, so I didn’t stay long. I walked to Velma’s apartment, then to her mother’s house, then to her mother’s shop, but I couldn’t find her.
They ran a picture in the paper. A smiling face, but shadowed, catching the light in streaks of brightness. Her head swung out from behind a sewing machine. Two arms visible, gripping the table’s edge. Straight hair fell at a jaunty angle, like that sleeve did later. But later her hair was curly.
My sister grew up to have a family. A girl to dress those Barbies, and a boy to rip their heads and arms and legs off. Of course, the kids weren’t old enough for that yet, just 4 and 1. Or maybe they were, I couldn’t remember.
In April, she wore a prosthetic arm, never before then. I didn’t know why. No more flapping sleeve, but creaking arm instead. The color of her flesh. Painted plastic fingernails. And a fabric strap, visible when her shirt slipped sideways.
Sometimes, I followed the woman from her job to a dress shop, or from her apartment to a dress shop.
There was an older woman at the dressmaker’s who looked like my Velma, her mother. My Velma sat on a folding chair and talked with one arm, while the older woman kept her head down, and flipped colored fabric through an off-white sewing machine.
We were all made out of water, supposedly, but that’s not what it looked like. Or blood either. It was like a dirty grease stain, what you saw, when you rubbed a human body against the pavement like a piece of chalk.
She walked recklessly, when she cut through the museum. She was always late, never watching ahead. I thought about placing myself in her path, to be blown over, to be knocked down and smeared across the marble floor of the rotunda.
She couldn’t stitch hair into my scalp. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t hold.
A woman was hit by a car, late at night, crossing the street. They used more words, but that’s most of what the newspapers said. They named the street. It was one that I knew well. It cut through town, swiped by her apartment building, curled out and away. Nobody had any business driving 45 on that street.
They never found the driver, had no leads, no witnesses. The police didn’t even know it was a car, except of course, they did know. They didn’t know the color or the make. They didn’t know the license plate number.
He must have been drunk to have been going so fast, drunk or buzzed or in a hurry. It must have been a he, must have been a man, drawn, inexplicably, to the pretty woman crossing the street.
Velma was at Parkview Hospital for sixteen days. Velma was 28 years old when the hit-and-run driver smooshed her arm from its socket, smeared the grease of her across South Clinton Street. Left her splayed, curled, eyes closed, who knew? It wasn’t something I could think about.
At the hospital, her mother never left her side. So I imagined. Her mother closed their family tailoring business to sit beside her one-armed, pretty daughter, as the wounds healed, the flesh sealed smooth, I hoped, like a Barbie doll’s breast. The bruises around her eyes slunk slowly over her face and then away, like a shadow under the street lights on a dark night in the city. Velma flat in that bed, until she was healed.
While Velma was flat in that bed, her stitching mother at her side, no stranger could talk to her. A stranger walking by, could only walk by, could only casually walk by with his head already turned. Caught only flashes of her mother’s needle, as it worked up and down and up and down.
She always walked, so when I was with her, I walked, too. I left my car in the museum parking lot, or two blocks from her apartment building, so she never saw it. I washed the car before I saw her. Often afterward, as well.
Would the scars stretch and bulge? Would they be ropes twisting, snaking onto her torso? I liked to think that her arm popped like the head of a tulip. A clean, straight hole at the socket. Then a fold, a couple stitches and a smooth, forever smooth surface.
I imagined a cool cylinder in the doctor’s hand, flashing needle, bubbling painkillers into her veins. One arm’s worth of veins, instead of two.
The little boy and little girl, my sister’s children, they knew me as Uncle Alex. I was the man who threw them into the air. I was the man who brought them so much candy they got bellyaches. What a nice man to be.
It’s hard to un-see, once imagined, a shredded twist of bicep meat.
Under the navy blue sleeve of the uniform, the arm didn’t bend. It creaked from the shoulder. The same elbow angle, always. The fingers that poked out at the cuff were stiffened to a gentle curl, tips painted.
Who was I to judge? After all, I wore a hairpiece.
My car was very clean, because I kept it that way. The underside, the guts, the coils, the gears, the tanks, rods and all the inner organs. They were clean, too. Scrubbed.
With the prosthetic, she walked with a hitch. A falter, a twitch in her left hip. She swung the left arm with her whole body, but only needed a few muscles, living muscles, to swing the right. From across the street it was hardly noticeable, just a tiny a dip with every other stride.
I thought about her sometimes, when I sat on my porch, a taste of scotch resting in my glass, on my tongue, cooling down my throat. That night, I imagined, she was not going anywhere special. She was running out for milk, or cigarettes. But of course not cigarettes, she never smoked. She wasn’t dressed for a date or expecting to be seen. She was the pretty woman crossing the street, but wearing a stained t-shirt, I tended to think.
I cut through the tulips, leaped over them, tight to the side of the building, off the path, to beat Velma to the back door. I panted, as quietly as I could manage, and hid within the bus shelter. I was nonchalant. I was waiting for a bus. I was watching for Velma.
There were no witnesses to the accident, no one to see the skin-smeared sidewalk. The wriggled snake of a useless arm, or the closed eyes under the wet strands of hair. No one saw the car peel away. No one noted its color or wrote down the license plate number.
A pale green stem in my hands. I held it and it grew slimy.
With the plastic arm, it was almost too much. She was herself again somehow. And not, of course. Like my hair. It was gone and there at the same time. Synthetic. Plastic. Better than ever maybe.
Finally, I met the woman. Velma. Even up close, eyes open, she was pretty. But not pretty like the girl next door. Pretty like the woman who would cross the street, without looking, in front of your car.
We bumped into each other at the museum. Forcefully. I placed myself and she plowed into me. I gasped and fell to the ground. She tried to help me up, tipped forward, and found herself toppled on top of me. Her flesh hand landed on my neck, her thighs tangled in my legs. I tried not to brush against her breast. I tried.
The smell of plastic from her arm—it slapped my leg—it was intoxicating.
We stood up, shook ourselves off.
“Excuse me. I’m so clumsy.”
“It’s no big deal. Are you all right?”
We laughed about the fall and she didn’t say a word about my fake hair. We decided to drink coffee together, after her shift.
I cut through the tulips, leaped over them, tight to the side of the building, off the path, to beat Velma to the back door. We walked together, on the same side of the street, to the coffee house two blocks from the museum.
This woman, Velma, was lovely and one-armed and so reckless when she walked.
I didn’t want to bring it up over my latte and her skinny macchiato. She sat with me. Those other days she ordered it to go and drank it, across the street, as I walked her home.
The arm. The accident. I could only sit at that tiny coffee shop table and imagine the horrible accident, some drunk driver, blowing her over as she walked, across a wet street, at night.
“Have we met?”
“I don’t think so.”
That driver blowing her over. The street so dark, so wet.
Probably it was raining the night of her accident, I kept thinking. Water smeared over the windshield, too quick for the wipers, splashing beneath the tires. Or maybe just misty. I didn’t know it was night, but surely it was. Or maybe I knew it from the newspapers. Surely, she wore a burgundy coat, over a stained t-shirt, with the hood pulled up around her face, and sleek strands of wet hair wrapping out and around and coiling over her dark eyes.
Were those eyes open or closed?
I hated that driver. He hit and ran away. I could have torn his arms off his body. But he may not have seen her. He may not have been drunk or not that drunk. Or maybe he only woke up the next morning to think it must have been a dream. It must have been a horrible dream.
It must have been horrible to live with just one arm–just one arm meant just one elbow, just one hand. Only four fingers and a thumb. I counted my fingers underneath the table at the coffee shop–twice that.
Under the table, I worried a tulip stem.
Still, I knew what it was to lose something, something really a part of me. After all, I lost more strands of hair than she lost fingers. I knew what she was going through. I understood.
“Your fingernails. They’re so pretty.”
She dropped the stirrer, splayed her fingers. I pulled them, alive, right to my eyes. They matched the others, stiff and curled, but rounded smooth.
And then, he drove away, without even checking on the dark mysterious woman splayed out in the gutter, her arm in tangled shreds. He was scared–he must have been. He didn’t get out of the car. Or else he didn’t even know, not with the real part of his brain, his head was so foggy and wet, that he’d even hit anyone. Maybe a cat. Of course not a person.
I didn’t ask Velma what happened to her arm. She wanted to forget it, I was sure.
“The color of tulips. And the shape.”
“Um, I guess they are.”
But that driver. He couldn’t forget it. Couldn’t ever shake the thought, the fear. The pictures and names in the paper the next day. A shadowed face and two straight arms gripping the table’s edge. He must have panicked. Must have considered turning himself in, but must have thought it was too late.
It was such luck to bump into this woman, Velma was her name, not to run her down, but to be run down and to fall to the marble floor of the museum’s rotunda. I had been looking for her. Looking at her, for so long. Lovely and graceful and not minding my hair. I’d sort of had my eye on her, her type, I mean, for a while. Modestly rounded off like a Barbie doll. She reminded me of someone. Perhaps from a dream.
Allison Wyss’s short story collection, Splendid Anatomies, was published by Veliz Books in 2022. Her stories have also appeared in Water~Stone Review, Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthlycolumn she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes.