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excerpt: Thumbs Up

from a work in progress entitled French Leave.

How Nicholas Black had come by his vocation was a story in itself which had as much to do with his being left-handed as with his having artistic talent. Born in a climate of conformity when lefty-baiting was a popular sport and inflammatory rightist pamphlets, that traced the lineage of deviants back to Satan via Cain and Judas Iscariot, were slipped under his family’s front door as regularly as take-out menus are nowadays, he and others like him were the object of a rigorous program of reeducation.

The handicap, it was then believed, might be corrected if addressed early enough. Just as a child’s posture can be straightened by strapping him into a patented harness while the spine is still flexible, so the left-handed could be shaped to comply with the norm by means of a device resembling an espalier. Nursery school was the right time to apply the therapy.

Nicholas’s problem wasn’t diagnosed until he was in third grade. By then it was late in the game. Judged intractable he was moved to the back row of the classroom. There, he and two other holdouts were left to their own devices. That they somehow managed to learn their ABCs as well as their non-disadvantaged classmates brought them faint praise. Who could decipher their backward scrawl? Anyway, no one expected them to shape up.

A similar policy of benign neglect prevailed in the school cafeteria. No one bothered to correct Nicholas if he wanted to fork his franks and beans with the wrong hand as long as he sat at the far end of the table where he wouldn’t tangle elbows with his neighbor.

During recess, his classmates weren’t that tolerant. They ganged up on him and twisted his arm behind his back.

"Which hand do you wipe your ass with, Sam?" they asked.

The class bully cornered him in the toilet. He forced Nicholas to drop his pants and practice wiping himself with his right hand. No toilet paper allowed. It was the only reeducation program that succeeded.

In high school the hazing eased up once he made the baseball team. Sports was the one activity where being left-handed was not a disadvantage. Actually, the odds tilted in his favor. The usual one in seven ratio of the entering student body jumped to two out of nine; more often to three, even four out of nine. First base and right field were automatically theirs, and the preponderance of southpaw pitchers was a tradition going back to Mr. Doubleday. Batting from the left side was no disgrace either. Some of the meanest righties would have given their eye teeth to be switch hitters.

Then he had the luck to take an art class with Mr. Disney, a sympathetic instructor rumored to be ambidextrous, who encouraged him to try his hand at drawing. Having students trace ‘the masters’ was his idea of teaching. Fresh out of Walt Disney classics, Mr. Disney (no relation) handed Nicholas a copy of Alice in Wonderland and was pleased to see the novice duplicate Tenniel’s illustrations freehand—just as if he had traced them!

The awakening of this innate talent, determined Nicholas Black’s future. The art scene, he discovered, was even more tolerant than the world of sports where southpaws, used for their peculiar capabilities, were still considered freaks. When he was hired as an apprentice by the art department of Hatch & Sons Publishers, it was on the strength of his portfolio alone. No one asked him which hand he used.

Having found his niche, Nicholas, assuming that the laissez-faire attitude prevailing in the bohemian art world was the rule, forgot about the harassment he’d been subjected to while growing up. As soon as he could, he married a right-handed woman, a social worker tolerant by temperament and politically committed to libertarian causes. His being a lefty, he liked to tease her, had made him particularly attractive to her.

She bristled. "Prejudice is no joking matter, Sam. Suppose we have left-handed children."

They had right-handed children.

"Left-handedness," he had assured her, "like being Jewish is passed on via the female line." Furthermore, by the time Greta and he had children, the political climate had changed.

"Anti-gauchism" was no longer tolerated by polite society. Behavior modificationists had had their day. Hickory sticks, harnesses, dunce caps, cattle prods and similar training devices were returned to the eugenicists from whom they’d been borrowed. Multi-sidedness became the buzzword of public figures who shook hands from both sides to show their political correctness. A whole generation of left-handers grew to maturity proud of their orientation, aggressively so.

Nicholas, who had long become assimilated, felt uncomfortable with the assertiveness of the liberation movement.

"What gives these loudmouths the right to assume they’re speaking for me? It’s ridiculous to refer to yourself as a Gauchist! What’s that going to change?" he asked and tossed the appeal to join the defense league into the garbage unread along with the rest of the junk mail. "No big deal being called a lefty, as far as I’m concerned."

He hadn’t been called a lefty ("a dumb lefty bastard," to be accurate) since a run-in with a pair of beer-swilling rowdies on the subway last July 4th. His fault, he acknowledged, for leaving the safety of his neighborhood on a national holiday.

True to form, his wife disagreed, shaking her blond head at his political naiveté.

"At best, assimilation means losing one’s true identity," she said, citing a handful of historical precedents.

"That’s easy for you to say, Greta. You’ve never experienced being an outsider."

"At worst, it’s self-hatred," she continued, paying no heed to his defense.

"Come off it, Greta. I like myself as much as anyone. I’m not denying my identity. Everyone knows what I am, and they couldn’t care less."

"That’s what you think. To them you’ll always be different… And so you are!"

He looked up from the newspaper he’d buried his head in when the argument had started to heat up.

"Catch!" she cried and pitched him an apple, hard.

He did. With his left hand.

It was a coincidence, he kept reminding himself, that the trouble with his thumb started the next day. To blame it on Greta’s Huck Finn-like trick with that bloody apple was unfair (a test which, by the way, proved nothing since American southpaws, born with baseball mitts instead of silver spoons, catch with their right hand). But there was no getting away from the fact that since that day his left hand, the hand he depended on for more important things than snagging apples, was damaged.

It happened overnight. One day he was okay, the next day he wasn’t.

These things always happen overnight. Children learn this early. They go to bed feeling fine and awaken swollen with the mumps or burning up with a fever. That’s why they fight sleep. And they certainly don’t believe their parents’ promise that sleep cures: "Close your eyes, dear. In the morning, your sore throat will be fine." They’re afraid, and for good reason. Adults forget, until one day when they wake up with their own neck out of joint.

The morning following the apple incident, Nicholas crawled out of bed dog-tired after a long night of uneasy sleep (if you could call it sleep). He stretched, yawned, splashed cold water on his face, put on his eyeglasses, found his slippers and shuffled off to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. Anticipating the
satisfaction of the first sip, almost as good as the first cigarette of the day (still fondly remembered even though Greta and he had both quit five years before, taking the pledge together on the fiftieth anniversary of his birth), he reached for his mug.

The pain was so sharp, so sudden, that he thought he had been stung by a wasp.

He yelped, dropped the mug, and popped the stinging finger into his mouth.

When the pain had subsided somewhat, he actually looked around the kitchen for a flying intruder before picking up the mug from the floor with his uninjured right hand. A close visual inspection of the mug (a gift from the blood bank decorated with an anatomically correct heart), unbroken by some unsolicited miracle, showed nothing that might have caused him harm. More cautiously than he had handled the coffee mug, Nicholas examined the thumb of his left hand, looking for a splinter or a hangnail.

Holding it under a beam of sunlight (it promised to be a glorious spring day), he turned the thumb this way and that way. Not a mark on it. No splinter, no puncture wound, no bruises. Could it have been a shock due to the buildup of static electricity? He had his doubts, but since the pain had faded to a tolerable tingling, he was willing to experiment.

Cautiously, ever so gently, he touched the counter top with his thumb.

Instant agony!

This time his yelp brought Greta (who, awoken by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, must have been lying in bed wondering why Nicholas hadn’t yet brought her her customary morning cup) flying out of the bedroom.

"What in the world is going on, Sam?" she asked, looking with disbelief at her naked husband—he slept without pajamas— bent double over the kitchen sink with his thumb in his mouth.

Peter Spielberg, a cofounder of the Fiction Collective, is the author of three novels: Twiddledum Twaddledum, Crash-landing, and Hearsay, as well as three collections of short fiction: Bedrock, The Hermetic Whore, and The Noctambulists, his most recent book.


Peter Spielberg

Peter Spielberg, a cofounder of the Fiction Collective, is the author of three novels: Twiddledum Twaddledum, Crash-landing, and Hearsay, as well as three collections of short fiction: Bedrock, The Hermetic Whore, and The Noctambulists, his most recent book.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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