by Dave Fromm
Amarillo sounded like Lionel wanted to feel; curled into a ball and plated. The train station, locus of their first and fateful encounter, blanched in the Texas sun. Lionel took a seat on a bench towards the back, by the lockers and the cheese-dispensing machines. Way back, before it all, Lionel used to eat those cheese sandwiches, slim and triangulated, used to peel back that plastic skin and wolf down four or five at a sitting. And he'd do it again, hell yes, he would do it all again if it meant he didn't have to feel like he felt right now.
Lionel settled onto the bench and pulled his hat down low. It was the hair that usually did him in in public, not that he cared much right now. But he felt soft in a way that just wouldn't do for a man. He removed two stiff letters from the inside pocket of his coat, one written in Julia's halting cursive, and the other in the tortured legalese of her attorney. Lionel hadn't read either of them closely, but he knew what they meant. He crumbled them up and rolled them like a bocce ball under the cheese-dispensing machine.
"Excuse me," said a voice to Lionel's left, "but please don't litter in my dining room."
Lionel looked over. An old man lay on the bench opposite him, wrapped in a tired and dusty Indian blanket. Next to him, a shopping cart brimmed with assorted items: a hockey stick, a plastic bag stuffed with other plastic bags; a radio; a wooden box marked "Nectarines." The old man appeared to be asleep, but then he spoke again.
"This is a TRAIN station, not a TRASH station, you know."
Lionel looked around. Across the station, the crowd ebbed and flowed through the doors to the tracks. Occasionally, someone looked his way, but otherwise they were alone by the lockers.
It was rare that Lionel spoke to strangers, but now he said, "I do apologize." He rose from the bench and went to the cheese-dispensing machine. The letters were lodged against the wall at the back.
Lionel got down on his hands and knees and reached under the machine. It wasn't as bad as he thought: the floor was sticky but that was about it. Reach as he might, though, the papers remained about two inches beyond his reach.
"Do you need a hand?" says the old man, and Lionel heard him rummaging around in the shopping cart.
"No, I'll manage," Lionel said, and reached again, now laying flat on the floor. The brim of his hat pressed against the machine, and Lionel removed it.
"Here," said the old man, and reached something out to Lionel. Grudgingly and without looking up, Lionel took it and found himself holding a smooth plastic hand, like a mannequin might have. Lionel started for a moment and looked at the old man, who had gone back to his cart and was repositioning the hockey stick. It was a left hand, with a delicate curve to the fingers and a give that made it seem almost flesh-like. Lionel looked up again to confirm that the old man himself had two hands. Confirmed.
Lionel bent down again and reached under the dispenser with the fake hand. It found the balled letters and cupped them in its synthetic palm. They shot out onto the floor, spinning skittishly, as if unnerved by its nerveless grasp. Lionel retrieved them and looked up for the old man.
"Thanks. I appreciate ..."
But the old man was nowhere to be seen. Lionel looked across the station in vain for the Indian blanket or the mastadonic shopping cart. He still held the hand in his own. A train pulled away outside with a high whining whistle, bound for Lubbock or elsewhere. Lionel was alone by the lockers.
Eventually, he returned to the bench, and unfolded the letters. He set the hand down to his left and read the goodbye he had found last Sunday on the coffee table, two days before the other letter arrived in the mail.
"Dear Lionel," it read. And on and on. Lionel sat on the bench and felt weak and soft again. When they first met, she had run up to him in the station, breathless and curious. He remembered how she said his songs made her feel, and how she said they made her heart ache. She was such a looker, and she was in love with him. That's what people never realized, Lionel thought. He never stood a chance.
A little girl approached the vending machine, jingling a pocketful of change. She fed a string of coins into the machine and pulled a cheese sandwich from its rigorous confines. She turned around and looked at Lionel and the hand. "What's wrong with your hand?" she asked.
Lionel looked up at her. "It's not my hand," he said. "See?" He held up both of his own.
The little girl stared at Lionel and his own hands for a moment, then at the hand on the bench next to him. Then she screamed, dropped her cheese sandwich, and ran away.
Lionel sat there for a moment. The little girl's scream echoed off the lockers. Either that, or she had kept screaming all the way across the station. He rose and went over to where the girl had been, bent down and picked up the cheese sandwich, still sealed in its plastic container. "Expiration date 7/7/93," he read.
He returned to the bench and pulled open the package. The aroma took him back to the days before it all, before the music, and the troubles, and the woman in whose crimson curls he wouldn't get to awaken again. He bit deeply into the sandwich as a police officer approached.
"Excuse me, Mister," the cop said. Lionel looked up. "What's wrong with your hand?"
"Not my hand," Lionel said, holding up both of his own. "See?"
The cop walked over and looked at Lionel closely. "Hey, ain't you Lionel Lovett?"
"Yessir. I sure am," Lionel said. "And that there ain't my hand. Some homeless man just gave it to me and walked away."
The cop began to smile. "You're Lionel Lovett. I tell you what, I'm a big fan."
Lionel smiled up at the police officer and offered up his right hand. "Well, I'm glad to hear it."
The cop shook Lionel's hand heartily and continued. "You here waiting for a train? You going on tour or something?"
"Naah," Lionel said, "just sitting here thinking. I used to work here a long time ago."
"Well, then," the cop said, "that sounds just fine." He looked around at the station. "Listen, if it's not too much trouble, would you sign something for my wife? She's a big fan too."
"Sure," Lionel said, and put his John Hancock on a blank citation from the cop's waistbelt. The cop walked away, smiling, looking back occasionally, and smiling some more.
Lionel sat back on the bench. Presently, he looked over at the hand. It was a slender hand, still a man's hand, judging by the fingernails and such, and beautiful in a way that Lionel wished his own hands were beautiful. He held it up. The fingers were long and individual. Lionel slid his wedding ring off his own ring finger and slid it onto the fake hand. He held it up and looked at it. He slid his jacket sleeve down and his left arm up and held the fake hand in his sleeve, so it looked real. He propped the fake hand on his knee. The ring shone in the wan light of the afternoon. Lionel smiled at the illusion.
He looked up. Julia. Her hair was pulled back beneath a Lakers baseball hat. She removed wide dark sunglasses and he could see her eyes were red like her hair.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Are you alright?" she asked. "You could have returned my calls."
"Are you okay," she asked again. "Are you eating a cheese sandwich?"
Lionel looked over at the plastic triangle with its half-eaten contents. He shrugged. "What do you want?"
"Look, Lionel, I don't want to have this conversation here." Julia looked around and tried to modulate her voice. No one had noticed them yet, but it wouldn't be long, especially if things got emotional. "Come with me."
Lionel looked at her. She was getting impatient now, with him, with this closure, with this emotion. "I don't think I can get up," he said.
"Of course you can," she said, and reached out to him. She was such a looker. He still didn't have a chance, even though he knew how it would end. "Give me your hand."
© 2002 by Dave Fromm. All rights reserved.