Copyright 1991 Richard Seltzer
"Look at these hands!" That's what I'll tell them. "Look at these hands. Do they look lazy? Did they get those callouses being lazy?"
I'll show them. I'll prove I'm not lazy. I've got a wife and a car and a house. I've held onto my job for six long years. And now I'm going back. Back to show them I can hold a job, I can have a wife, I can be as good as any of them. Back to show them my hands.
"Take a good look at these hands." That's what I'll say. "These hands have packed tons of meat. These hands are hard. There's no feeling in them. They're my proof of how hard I've worked. And here's my wife. Would she have married me if I were lazy? Could I support her if I were lazy?"
I was a nothing, a bum, a neighborhood joke. I couldn't keep a job for more than a week. Nobody thought I ever could. Everybody laughed when I tried. But now I've showed them.
They'd laugh at me, and I'd start to shake inside, and I'd drink to stop the shaking. Then I'd start shaking outside, and the next morning I'd wake up shivering in the gutter, and they'd be right because I lost another job. And they'd laugh all the louder. I couldn't stand their laughing and that shaking I felt inside me. I hopped a train to Cleveland.
That's where I met my wife. Not right away, of course. At first it was as bad as before. No, maybe it was worse because everything was harsh and cold. It's better to be hungry some place you know and where you know somebody, even if they do laugh.
She wore a red and white striped dress the day I met her. They were thin stripes, very thin. And her hair was tied together in a ball in the back. She smiled. It was just after I'd woken up, just after I'd dared open my eyes to see what the day would be like. And the street I was lying on was soft, so soft; but no, it wasn't the street -- it was a bed, and she was standing there beside me and smiling.
I don't know how they got me in there. I didn't ask. When somebody gives me something, I don't ask questions. But she was there, and they were going to "rehabilitate" me -- that's what they said. They would help me get back on my feet.
When she talked, she always smiled. My wife always smiled back then.
When I left that place, I was still a nothing, and nobody believed in me, nobody but her. Her eyes told me she believed. She didn't slap me or spit in my face. She didn't think I was dirt. She wasn't like the others. When I held her, she smiled and said, "Your hands are so tender. There must be a wealth of love and feeling in anyone with hands so tender as these. For the hands are the mirror of the soul." That's what she always said. My wife always had a way with words.
She believed so hard that soon I too believed that I could get a job and keep it, and she'd be proud of me and marry me. And I did, and she did, and we were happy for a few months.
I really believed. As the days became a week and the weeks a month, then two, I knew I wasn't a bum and I wasn't lazy. I knew I could stop the laughing of the guys who had known me before. I knew I could prove it to them. I had to.
I worked hard packing meat. The harder I worked, the surer I was that I was somebody as good as anybody else.
At first my hands were very sore. The skin came peeling off, layer after layer. There were sores and cuts. Damn those tender hands! It was like my hands were determined to destroy me. They'd make sure I didn't work. They'd make sure I'd have to quit. Those hands could peel so fast and ache so hard. Those milion little red gashes would all laugh at me, knowing that they'd break me. And I'd shake inside when I saw them laughing. But I wouldn't drink. No, this time I wouldn't drink. I'd win this time.
Sometimes I'd almost give up, but my wife was there, always. She'd kiss those raw, aching hands, and the pain would go away for a while. She'd bandage them ever so carefully, saying, 'The hands are the mirror of the soul. Take care of your hands.' She'd say that every night, softly, kindly. And her eyes said that she believed in me.
So I believed and worked. If my hands ached, I worked all the harder to spite them. And I didn't mind when I cut them because I knew those hands were my proof. Those sore hands that everyone could see showed how hard I worked and how much it hurt me to work that hard. I was glad when I cut them because that was another proof, another scar to add to the others to show everyone that I am not lazy.
Time passed, and one day I was shaving and the blade slipped out of the razor, and I grabbed it in mid-air. It cut deep, but it didn't hurt. I couldn't even feel it.
I ran into the livingroom with the razor blade still sticking in the skin, and I told my wife, I shouted and laughed to her, "It doesn't hurt! Nothing can hurt my hands anymore. Just look at these callouses!"
She looked at my hands, and she looked in my eyes, and she wanted to call the doctor because something really bad must be wrong.
But I said, "No, don't call the doctor. Nothing's wrong. Everything's right. These hands can't stop me now. I can show everybody. And these hands are my proof."
She cried a bit, but she got used got used to them. I got used to the work, and she got used to my hands. Anybody can get used to anything.
That was a long time ago. Now I'm going back home with her to show all those guys who knew me back then -- to show them my hands and my wife.