Rattle Snake Jim

When I was younger I used to see a psychiatrist once a week.  The first time I went to see her she asked me what my earliest memories were.  My answer hasn’t changed since then: the first thing that I can remember about my life is a blue building, made of bicycle cards, on a heavy oak table;  in the background I could hear music playing and two people yelling.  The two people were my father and my mother, and they were fighting about something; something my therapist used to swear wasn’t me.  To this day I know better because of the cards.  I don’t think that I was the one that had stacked the cards so high, there were other hands involved, but it was my task to finish the tower.  I remember hearing my mother crying as I bumped the table and all the cards fell down, like an inevitable river of laminated paper.  I tried to catch the cards and hold together the tower, but it just fell apart in my hands; it was so complex and must have taken hours to build, but regardless of this it only took a few seconds to fall apart.  After the cards fell to the floor, there was a moment of silence, no fighting and no music, and then my mother and father came running in to find me crying on the ground holding a card in each hand.  Without intending to I had inadvertently ended their fight, and changed the course of events to come.  I would later be told by my mother that after I knocked over the tower of cards, her and my father had realized that their fighting was too much for me and that it would be better for everyone if they just separated.  I’m still not sure I completely believe that story, but it makes for a beautiful tail to tell a child when going through a divorce.

Two years after my parents were separated and my father had moved to Arizona, I went to visit him for the summer.  I was six years old then.  My father wasn’t a rich man and lived at the edge of town in Phoenix.  Even though I was there for the summer my father still had to work and the babysitter he had found was more interested in teenage boys than my whereabouts, so I often found myself alone wandering around the desert behind our house.  It was there that I can recall my strongest memory happening.  It was something like putting heroin into your veins, or so I’m told, but the pain didn’t go away.  Instead it just grew and grew until I was on my knees weeping for help.  I think I was reaching over to pick up an empty coke bottle when I must have startled the rattle snake hiding under a bush next to me.  In an instant it had bitten my left forearm and had disappeared again.  But as I fell to my knees, he came at me again, this time above the elbow on my left arm.  It was ten minutes before the babysitter heard my cries and found me in a heap on the ground, and another ten minutes before she called an ambulance.  By the end of the day it was decided that I would need to have the entire arm amputated, from just below the shoulder.  My father didn’t take it very well and sent me back to live with my mother after I was checked out of the hospital.  I was left handed.  I never saw my father again; I think he blamed himself for what happened; so did my mother.  The next two decades weren’t too hard.  I went to school and learned to use my right hand more and started seeing a psychiatrist about once a week until I was eighteen.

My mother got sick when I was about twenty-two.  At that time we were saving up to buy an actuator driven artificial left arm, since I hadn’t done very well with traditional prosthetics and the technology for robotic arms was getting cheaper and cheaper.  It was in my second year of college when she called me from the hospital and told me that she had fallen down the stairs outside her third story apartment and was taken to the emergency room.  The next day I went to visit her and she explained that she had a very large tumor growing on her frontal lobe, and that she was very lucky to be alive.  There was a surgery that could put her right, it had been around for about twenty-five years, but it still wasn’t cheap.  With our health insurance and the money for my prosthetic, we were still fifty grand short.  So the doctor put her on a medication that reduced the replication of the cancerous cells in the tumor, and gave us six months of breathing room to get together the money or secure a loan.

We opted for a loan, and I went to apply with her.  But I had maxed out my student loans for the second year in a row and she hadn’t had good credit since she left my father eighteen years earlier, so we were turned down at every bank we tried.  Finally I took her home and told her not to worry about it anymore.  The next day I went to a loan shark who made a joke about me not having paid once already because of my stump and finally gave me the money for a huge interest rate.  But it didn’t matter because I was able to get my mother her surgery.

I found a part-time job in a rehabilitation clinic I used to go to as a child and for a while things started to look up.  But loan sharks aren’t patient and every month he started asking for more money, until the payments were double what I earned that month.  Even with the ridiculous rates of interest and massive payments each month, I put up with his threats and worked and studied harder, until the day my mother died.  It turned out that although the surgery had been a complete success, the medication she had taken for six months to put off the growth of the tumor had damaged her heart and she had suffered a heart attack.  I had no legal grounds against the company that manufactured the medicine because she had signed a waiver in case of just such an occasion.  A few days after her funeral the loan shark came by again; this time he came to where I worked and found me in the locker room alone.

I remember how calm I felt as I crushed his shoulder and watched him fall into the lockers he was standing in front of.  At work I get to use a state of the art actuated prosthetic arm, and the pressure safety parameters had never been configured since I only used it to push wheel chairs and lift medicine balls and calibration costs a bit extra.  I believe the equivalent force I applied was that of an elephant standing with its entire weight on the end of a baseball bat, jabbing into your collarbone.  The loan shark had walked right up to me and socked me in the stomach, without saying a word and started screaming in my ear about his money.  I tried to tell him about my mother and he just kept yelling about me and my excuses.  I don’t think it bothered me too much, until he said something about her having it coming and insinuated that he had something to do with her death.  Then I just reached up and squeezed.  The actuated arm presses a series of pins into my stub to simulate the sense of touch in the limb, but because it was never fine-tuned to my body, it felt like I was squeezing a ripe fruit moderately hard.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget how liberating it made me feel.   He just fell over in pain, and then I just reached down and twisted his right shoulder some more, until it just tore free.  I could see it in his eyes; he knew what I had done.  I had made him just like me.

The commotion had gotten the attention of the only other people in the building, the CEO of a large artificial limb company that also owned the rehab clinic I worked in, and his entourage.  Instead of calling the police, he casually walked into the locker room alone, while his entourage stood at the doorway watching with empty stares, as he walked right up to me.   The loan shark had lost consciousness at this point, and the CEO stared him up and down and then me as well.  That was the day I quit working for the rehab clinic and started working for BioSol directly.