One minute I’m trying to take care of a dry spot at the side of the house, the next I’m staring at fallen hands. Not maple leaves, mind you—hands. I dropped the hose and felt the morning, and all its promises, empty straight through me. Just regular hands, rounded at the bottom of the palm except for a nub of stem. I touched one—still warm. Thank God they weren’t stiffened and white, wrists weeping. It was bad enough that the tree the hands had fallen from was mine, a regal maple I planted after we moved in. My yard didn’t look so regal now. Not with the bottom branches bare in mid August and hands piling up on the grass. Some palms up, as if listening to robins carry on across the back fence. The rest palms down.
I went to the garage for a leaf rake. When I returned, a tom cat was edging around the pile, sniffing, one hand already in his mouth. Just what I needed: someone’s cat choking on a finger, or spreading this curse of fallen hands through the subdivision.
“Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” I said, pretending to like cats.
He looked at me.
“Nice kitty,” I said.
He bit deeper into the hand and froze.
That’s when I threw the rake. He ran, the hand bobbing up and down like someone drowning, and I followed. But wait, who would guard the other hands? We lived at the edge of town, which means raccoons to worry about and crows and nosy joggers and a pack of roaming ranch dogs from the foothills.
I picked up the rake. Made a couple long pulls at the hands, but the plastic tines just scraped the tops–a scrape you felt more than heard.
In the garage I found a heavier rake.
No matter how careful I was, the tines kept going in, and a couple of hands stuck. I tried shaking them loose, but the fingers just wiggle-waggled at me like a librarian shushing a noisy student. So I braced the rake between my knees, and slid my fingers under the tines, and pulled. The hands slid free, one, then the other, and plopped softly into the grass.
Just as I was about to go for a tarp, my neighbor walked over. No, sauntered. He has this way. Very light on his feet for a man who sells refrigerators. I hurried over to him to keep him on the sidewalk. He offered me his hand, the one not holding a coffee mug.
Picture a meaty thing coming at you, tendons worming across the back. I couldn’t shake it. Not today.
I offered him my elbow instead, the way women do in South America if you happen to catch them doing the dishes or washing diapers.
“What kind of sissy thing is this?” he said. He slapped at my elbow, then looked over at my maple—the fallen hands, the hands still in the tree.
“So, that’s why you’re nervous,” he said. “You should have pruned.”
“I was going to,” I said.
He pointed at his maple. “Nothing wrong with mine,” he said. Which was true, smaller than my hand tree, but covered in vibrant red leaves.
“You didn’t spray, did you?”
I shook my head.
“Or give the tree fertilizer treatments?”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t see how—”
“I’m a reasonable man,” he said, “but I don’t want those hands on my property. You know where the line runs.”
He jabbed the air with his mug.
I imagined yellow police tape defining our property line—underneath it, a bulge of hands flowing toward his house.
He walked over to the hands. He picked up a pair and held them at a distance.
“Disgusting,” he said. I felt like a teenage boy caught thumbing a girlie magazine in the attic. “I wouldn’t want these hands on my conscience,” he said, then he tossed them back on the heap. “This here is a neighborhood. I’m barbecuing tonight, and I’ve invited decent people. You know—doctors, American Legion types, people who go to their Sunday meetings, people who aren’t used to hands holding a tea party under a tree. In other words, I want all this to go away, capiche?”
“Sure,” I said.
I wanted the same, only worse.
As for his hands, they walked him back to his house. Sure his feet moved, but his hands—they were in charge.
I gathered. Driving hands, hairdresser hands, hands equally happy holding a baby bottle or hammer. But pick one up wrong, it was like shaking hands with a corpse. After that, I lifted by a single finger. Do hands resemble snowflakes, each unique? Or are they more like twins separated at birth, cursed in their aloneness, till they clasp each other on one of those reunion shows on TV?
Soon my wife would be home, and who knows how she’d react. Six years ago, the morning after I planted the maple, we’d had a tiff about its placement. To make peace, I promised to move it to the backyard, then never did. Would she blame this catastrophe of hands on my neglect? I couldn’t connect the dots, but knew something larger was at work. Break a promise on Tuesday. Wait six years, and on Wednesday, the tree pays you back in orphan hands.
Sometimes I do this courtship thing—kiss my wife’s hand one hundred times before bed. Quick kisses for speed. Slow ones to draw the whole thing out, with a hand massage and a romantic reading of her life lines, topped off with lavender lotion. I prefer her left hand, tip missing from her baby finger. I didn’t want fugitive hands under my maple to scare off lover hands under our sheets.
Through all this I hadn’t paid attention to my own hands. I lifted them and touched my face. Icy. Like when you leave the cat dish out and the water freezes. These hands had killed small birds, cheated the IRS, slugged strangers, carried me into midnight trouble, told lies in broad daylight. Scary, to think I bedded down each night with these pink conspirators. I was glad for my wedding band. It tamed my fingers, on one hand anyway. I twisted that gold back and forth making sure it would never come off.
The tarp from the garage was barely big enough to cover them. I straightened it over the pile till it resembled a drop cloth for an artisan tasked with painting the sky.
I didn’t feel like an artisan. I felt like someone with something to confess. I wanted to hide the hands or shrink them, watch them dissolve like mushrooms in the sun. I wanted to bury my own hands to the elbow in a hole in the backyard.
The wind came up, which I hadn’t counted on. A cool breeze blowing warm, a warmish breeze blowing tragic. A few ripe hands fell from the tree. No different than peaches falling, except for the invisible bruise I felt spreading slowly up my arms. The hands didn’t roll. The hands still in the tree quivered, like a flock of something trying to warm itself on a blustery day. Waving? Blaming me?
Damned things–I wish they would put their demands in words.