Existential Ironies: With Strength
“I just can’t even imagine how you do it, you know? Day in and day out, simply going about your day, it’s incredible, how tough you are,” the lady went on. She leaned up against the glass check out counter, thrusting her face towards Josh’s as close as is socially acceptable. Josh had seen this woman nearly every week, buying an assortment of different items, but he had never taken enough interest to learn her name. Or, any of his customer’s names for that matter. All he knew about this woman was that she would get on her soapbox every time she saw him and glorify his supposed bravery and vigour. She was, of course, referring to Josh’s missing arm. Congenital amputation; he was born without his left arm, however, he was also apparently born with a surplus of resilience and hardiness.
“And, if I were in your place, I don’t know what I would do. You’re just an inspiration how you approach every single day with strength, and you know, with that determined look on your face. It’s such a joy to see.” Josh smiled occasionally, and grabbed the other side of the checkout counter to prevent himself from running away in sheer reflex. He had been regaled of his gifts, and his supposed inspirational life for more than twenty years. His lack of an appendage was widely known in the small town of Surajgram, with opinions stuck on either: 1) how 25% of Josh’s total possible limbs missing was compensated by an indeterminable surplus of vague, intangible gifts, or 2) how Josh was to be politely avoided, as not to disturb the mind’s image of what a human is.
Josh just wished his family store had more customers. Not to save the slowly sinking business, but to have an excuse to move people along after their items have been purchased.
“I really appreciate it, ma’am, thank you, thank you.” He didn’t believe a word of it. Both his own and the woman’s. But his life had been dictated and accounted for almost entirely by other people. His strengths and weaknesses were highly documented and rich in oral tradition in the town, as his lack of one arm gave him the power to supposedly tolerate every opinion that people had of him. College, higher education, or even having a job outside Surajgram was a goal made impossible. “But how would not having an arm prevent me from studying? And I have a right arm anyway, odds are I’d be right handed regardless,” Josh had argued to his father, Josh Sr. His father and namesake responded with the same sickly sweet tone, “just trust me, it’s for your own good.”
‘How come my own good is decided by someone else?’, he thought of asking, though much later. ‘Is it normal to wonder what my life would be like if I did have both arms?’, he often thought to himself. It certainly was a fantasy. But it wasn’t that absurd seeing as he could see that fantasy being realized, everywhere he looked. It was an impossibility being made possible by everyone but him.
The woman left, but he knew she would return. Everyone had taken it upon themselves to provide Josh with ample affection and sympathy that stung him in the right way. The way a coach tells the runt of the team, “Nice try, you’ll get ’em next time.” Fortunately, the large clock overhead let out a soft ding that informed him that it was lunch. The store’s other employee would probably be coming soon. He would take over the shift. Josh had a couple of hours to himself. He walked towards the back of the store, near the office and the bathroom, and in the hallway leading up to it, Josh Sr. and the successor to his shift stood talking softly. He had come in apparently, unbeknownst to Josh.
He gave them both a smile, and walked towards the bathroom door. Josh Sr. and the young man who was in conversation with him turned quickly, and each placed a firm hand on the door, swinging it open. They had stopped talking, and looked at Josh, who had now slowed down. He stood, and looked at their kind faces looking at him, perhaps expecting something. He simply mumbled “thanks” and made a gesture with his empty hand. He walked into the bathroom to wash his hand, before eating.
Josh looked in the mirror, trying to understand who stood in the mirror. Every day, his own reflection seemed more and more vague and hard to pin down. If he went missing, how would someone describe him to a police officer? Well, the arm of course, he thought as he looked at the empty shirt sleeve. It seemed he had no concrete meaning, or anything foundational to describe himself. He must have strength and passion, and honor, he’d been hearing it all his life. But he couldn’t see any of it. The only thing of note, of meaning, of importance, was what was missing. The arm.
He washed his one hand, and walked out, where his father was still in deep conversation. He walked out into the store, and no one stood at the counter. Well, no one was in the store. “Not my problem,” he thought, as he walked out of the store, and towards his house a few minutes away. On the sidewalk, with his hand feeling the texture of the concrete walls and trees.
When he reached the front porch of his modest family home, he saw his neighbor, standing facing the door, with a large container in her hands.
“Oh, Josh, I got something for you,” she said when she heard his footsteps, and stretched her offering out.
Josh kept walking towards his door, and fumbled in his pockets for his keys.
“I see, what is it?” he responded.
“Well,” she said, straining to lift the container, “I was making lunch for myself and the kids, I thought I’d bring you some, I’m not sure what your lunch plans are. I was going to leave it at the door.” Josh smiled, ‘if only I’d walked slower’, he thought.
“I can bring it in, help plate it up for you,” she said.
Josh pulled out his keys from his jeans, and like a switch turning on in her mind, she shifted the large container, which was likely quite warm, onto her left land, and leaned sideways to accommodate the weight imbalance. She stuck her right hand out and gestured towards his keys. “Let me,” she said.
Josh handed her the key, and let her open the door. She nearly dropped the large container, but managed to push the door open and walk in. Josh watched, as he always did.
`What did doors ever do to people with one arm’, he thought.
He walked into his home after pulling the key out of the keylock.
Josh sat down on the sofa opposite, which was a few feet away from the dining table, upon which the large container had been set. The woman walked back and forth from the kitchen setting up plates, spoons, and bottles of water.
“I didn’t know what time you’d be home. Is the store closed?”
“Well, I do have to eat. This is my lunch hour. There’s someone to cover my shift.”
“You know, it’s so nice to see someone making something of their life. You’re working, helping the store, it’s great. Then you have my kids. School, then they waste their time on their books, board games, and television.”
She was comparing Josh to fifth graders.
“And I have to pry them away to get any work out of them. It’s a daily routine now,” She went on. It just occurred to Josh that although this woman had lived next to them for decades, and used his family as a testing board for food and therapy talking points, he hadn’t quite learned her name. A woman whose name he didn’t know was in his house, entered unprompted about to serve him food that he had not asked for on utensils found while rummaging through the house without permission. A situation when stripped of all laquer was eerily similar to a murder case.
“Alright, I made some Khichdi, the plates are out, only you’re required at the table” she said proudly.
Josh walked over to the table, and took a look inside the large metal container still sitting there. It was still nearly full, despite Josh’s plate having a large serving on it. Spoons, forks, and knives were set out next to the plate. He sat down, and as he did, so did his neighbor, in a chair adjacent to his. The table was long, and normally seated eight, but she had chosen the closest one to him to observe him eating. Josh carefully took a spoonful into his mouth. It wasn’t bad. As far as rice dishes go, it was as good as it can be.
“So, it’s good isn’t it?” She asked him, seemingly not even considering the alternative.
“Mhm” Josh responded, looking at her proud face.
“I knew you’d like it. Tell your parents that they can get the recipe from me any time.”
‘Well, why can’t I take it?’, Josh thought to himself, eating quickly, mainly to have an excuse not to respond.
“It’s really healthy too, it makes your bones strong.”
She got up again, clearly straining herself. She was probably in her fifties, and wasn’t the fittest of people. Josh wondered whether she was going to take a victory lap, or maybe show the good grace of leaving, but no, she just continued her strange game of treasure hunt in Josh’s house. First the cabinets, inspecting the photographs and assorted trinkets, before she finally found something to be occupied by. The mail stack. A tower of letters, useless advertisements and old newspapers which were likely never read. She brought the whole stack back to the table and sat down.
She slowly looked at each paper, and set them down one by one on the table.
“All the trees that had to be murdered for this,” she said, setting down a large pamphlet of real estate ads. But the one directly below that caught Josh’s eye.
It was a single sheet. Pitch black in color, with white font over it.
‘“Everything has been figured out, except how to live” — Jean Paul Sartre,’ it said in large letters. And directly below that, it said “So be safe, don’t take a risk, choose LivLife life insurance.” The irony was apparent to Josh. His neighbor pulled up the piece of paper and looked at it closely, reading the quote.
“It’s all a scam, you know. They’re gambling. Gambling with the bet that you’ll live,” She announced.
Josh didn’t respond. His eyes were transfixed on the quote. For the rest of the day, Josh kept thinking about that advertisement. He hadn’t seen it before. Neither had he ever read such a scathing indictment of his life. He was sure it wasn’t meant to sound like that, but to him, it was almost an insult. Josh had indeed had everything figured out for him. Doors were opened, food was served, transportation arranged, a job, and a comfortable house. But he had no idea how to live. In fact, he had no idea whether he did live. If he did have both arms, would everything still be figured out? Or is his only redeemable quality, the one that gives him any sense of self worth, a sense of individuality, a sense of life, the fact that he wouldn’t be requiring the left sleeve of all shirts. He was most likely a quarter of the way through his life, and the only thing he could describe himself by was what he didn’t have. Yet, he did have what most people didn’t, and desperately wanted.
The hours went by. The woman left eventually, Josh didn’t realize when. He went back to his counter at the store, although only a few customers had availed his services. All throughout, a knife cut in the back of his mind. His life was nearly perfect, but he had no idea what to do with it. He was in a pool of warm water, while not knowing how to swim. Those words stung his mind as he said it to himself. He walked back with his father, and when he got home his mother was there too. He explained the strewn out mail and the large vessel of Khichdi on the table.
A life had been given to him. Granted, an imperfect one, but one supplemented by the minutia that a person would ask for. Again, the intent was different. The way he was treated was not out of kindness, or human respect. It was out of pity and a goal to achieve some feeling of moral superiority. Josh could open a door. He could cook, quite well, in fact. But he was a lake used for fishing the warm feeling of righteousness. One missing limb made him deserving of all the kindness, love, and help one could ever want. But no one asked if he did. He was given a life. And he didn’t know how to live.
He stayed up at night, looking through the window, at the asphalt on the road. Josh couldn’t stop thinking about this destiny that had been forced onto him. A pleasant life of niceties and risk-free living awaited him. A life entirely planned out by everyone, except him. Frightened, and frustrated, Josh stood up, and walked out of his room. His instincts lead the way. He picked up his keys from the counter and walked out. The air was cool, and the moon was partially obstructed overhead. His footsteps were the only audible sound.
He walked into the store, and left the key in the key lock. There were no cameras in the store, so he walked freely. He walked around the aisles, stalling. He finally wandered around to the aisle with the kerosene. He picked up six large tins, and made his way to the counter. There, he picked up a lighter, and took a longing look at his old post.
Slowly and meticulously, he opened the cans, clutching the tin between his knees, and poured it in and around the store. It didn’t take long, it was a small store. He worked as quickly as he could, for the kerosene would evaporate. Josh worked on principle and a sense of new found ambition. He was burning down his destiny. He was setting his future on fire.
Josh stood outside the store, and sparked the lighter. He threw it on the puddle and trail of kerosene, and watched it burn. The flames rose high, and the air danced above the flashing embers. He knew he didn’t have long, so with only his clothes, he ran. He sprinted on the poorly paved roads, not knowing where he would go. He would cross the town borders, and then? He pushed the questions out of his mind. They were of no use now. This was his life, and his choice. He didn’t know how to live, but he knew how to run. So he did, along dirt roads and through small farms, not knowing where he would go, fueled by the exhilarating feeling of control. He was a criminal, an arsonist, and only because he wanted to. He had no money, and no plan, but that was his choice.
“And the funny thing is,” Josh said aloud, “No one will even think I did it.”