The Envelope Trick from Issue 96
What are three fingers? “You’re lucky,” the nurse said, “you still have the opposing thumb.” Who you kidding, I thought. But I kept my mouth shut. She was trying to help me out.
Clamping that lucky thumb and the baby finger like a pair of pliers, I’ve learned to fork up the rice and beans that Sarita serves for supper. Good thing we’re not Chinese, I think. Chopsticks.
With a delicacy that makes me embarrassed, I’m able to unzip my fly, and even to tuck it in after I’m done peeing. Wiping is a little tricky, but I manage, like I manage with the shaving. When I watch myself in the mirror shaving with my left hand, it looks like my right hand, and for a little moment every morning I’m tricked into believing I’m whole.
“What have you got to complain about, compañero?” I ask my reflection as I brush my teeth and feel my tongue rolling over the bottom row. Pedro’s tongue they cut out, because he spoke up for what he believed. My eyebrows match—a matched pair, black, over brown eyes with lashes so long my mother used to say I should have been born a girl. Over there, they say things like that.
Yeah, my eyebrows match, but Rafa’s don’t. One of his, the left one I think, turned white, at the spot where the soldiers attached the electrodes. There’s guys at Guantánamo right now gone white all over. You’ve got to remember how everything’s relative, Sarita tells me.
I inspect my nose: straight, nice, a painless appendage on a friendly face, a face like a puppy dog, like my old man’s. The nose of Dora María, Sarita’s sister, flattens to her cheeks and pinches a nerve, convulsing her in pain whenever she sneezes. They shattered the whole cartilage when they smashed their rifle butts into her face.
I look down from the mirror and see that except for the mangled hand, the rest of me is in good shape. I’m alive, I got my family out. My wife still loves me. What’s there to complain, about an industrial accident where all you lose is three fingers? Dough machines have been known to snatch up arms all the way to the elbow.
The guys on the job were real pals. Michael drove like crazy to get me to the hospital. Richard ripped off his own shirt to wrap my bloody stumps, and held me tight so I wouldn’t do something wild in my writhing and screaming. Without their quick action I might have bled to death; the fingers have a lot of blood vessels. The boss, he was good too. He didn’t dock their pay for the time they took to help me out.
After the accident I had to miss English class, so I studied at home, looking up words in the dictionary. Mano, “hand.” In English it’s so happy: handsome, handy, handshake, to handle. In Spanish, it hurts. In my country, Mano Blanca, White Hand, is the five-fingered print left on the wall by the Death Squad. Maniobra, maneuver, is what we call it when the government steps up the repression. Dedear, to finger, means to point somebody out for detention. It’s because I was dedeado that Sarita and I had to grab the children and run north. No good-byes, no preparation, no plans. Like you’d run from an erupting volcano. U.S. foreign policy sponsors marathons for millions.
“We will send you to Rehabilitation,” the nurse told me, “and having that lucky opposing thumb, you’ll be surprised at how many things you’ll be able to do with just two fingers. You’ll learn to write, too, with your other hand.” She was right. I learned quick. Before a month was up I sent a left-handed letter to my mother back home. I told her how I got lucky.
They fill out a lot of forms at the Rehabilitation, and ask a lot of questions. They teach you to trust in the future, to see the lucky side. At first I thought they were missing something, because, you know, they don’t teach you how to caress your wife left-handed, how to make love. And they don’t explain to you what to do when your three year old daughter starts to cry because she touches your knuckles. So, they can’t cover everything, I said to myself. Look how they showed you about the shoestrings, and the trick for opening envelopes.
When the letter came from the Homeland, I opened it using the trick they taught me at Rehabilitation, and it started to sink in, this business about luck and learning. What did they teach you, pendejo? I said to myself. Did they teach you how to plant your corn or feed your animals with seven fingers? Did they show you how to repair a fence, or patch a roof, or run a water line with nothing but a clumsy paw and a fleshy pair of pliers? Or what to do if a white print of five fingers shows up on the wall of your house? They make sure you learn the envelope trick, don’t they? That way, when they send you the official notice that they’re deporting you to your country because you used their super-lucky medical system, you’ll be able to open up your mail.