The Regenerating Man

In Fiction on April 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm

My job gets me up early, when the streets are empty and quiet except for the growls of far-away trucks, the chirps of their reversals, and the shuffling feet and subdued grumbles of the vagrants at the station.

So I am walking now, through this silent, noisy landscape,  and here, with all the others, I see a homeless man sitting on a blanket, a knife in one hand and three fingers missing on the other. Blood is pouring from what’s left of pinky, ring and middle.

The severed digits lay on the ground beside him, like chicken bones cast in some voodoo curse.

“Stop it!” I yell, my voice and body joined in a cord of panic. I rush at him, but he brandishes his knife, a very sharp knife it must be, and barks.

“Yours won’t grow back, boy.”

The blood oozes, making a mess of the whole scene, and for some reason I worry he can’t  see what he’s doing. He brings the knife up to his index finger and starts to dig it in by the joint.

“Wait!” I shout. “You’re going to bleed to death!”

“I will not,” he says, smiling as though he wishes he would. “But call an ambulance if you’re that concerned about it.”

His calmness is unnerving.  His knife is a quarter of the way through.

I take out my phone, dial the numbers and explain the situation. Someone will be on their way. I know I should stay with him, but it’s so hard to watch.

I wait a minute, listening for sirens. Three minutes. Five minutes. There is no sound but a dull grinding, like stones rubbing on stones. I realize he’s at the bone.

“Why do you say you won’t bleed to death?” I ask, desperate for anything to mask the noise. The man looks at me a moment – pulls out the knife to inspect the blade – and, seeming pleased, slides it back through the incision to keep working.

He draws a long, sad breath and tells me this story:

“When I was a boy, when I was 17, my jaw started to hurt. The teeth were coming in, way back here, you know. So I went to have them pulled.”

As he says this there’s a muffled snap, but I don’t look at his hand. I know what he’s done. He keeps cutting.

“It was easy enough. I’ve always had a high threshold for pain. But the tricky part came, oh, maybe a month later. That’s when my jaw started to bother me again, worse and worse. So I went back in and the dentist had a look – and what do you know!”

Here he succeeds in removing his index finger and lets it roll into the palm of his hand, his cutting hand, by the butt of the knife. He inspects it a second and then tips it carelessly onto the ground with the others.

“The things were back, just as if they’d never come out. The doctor, of course, was dumbstruck, but without knowing a reason why they’d grown back in, he decided the thing to do was take ‘em out again. So he did. Pop, pop, pop, pop. All of ‘em back out again.”

The man thinks for a moment, then moves the knife to the base of his thumb.

“Please,” I say. “Don’t.”

He laughs at me.

“Not to worry, boy,” he says, and he starts to saw.

“So out they come,” he says, “but three weeks later – faster this time – they were back again. That’s when we knew something was up. The dentist showed me off to his doctor friends, showed them the films and the teeth he’d pulled. They were all amazed, just as amazed as he was, except for this young fellow. He was a doctor at the college over there, across the river, and he’d done some studying of frogs or lizards or what have you – creatures that can grow back a tail or a leg if they happen to need a new one. You understand me?”

He pulls the knife and points it at me, questioning. I nod as droplets patter to the ground. He nods.

“Good. So this young doctor tells me he’d like to pay me to take part in a study, an experiment he’d thought up. And what he’ll do is take off my pinky, just my pinky — that one down there – and for that he’ll give me a thousand bucks.”

The knife is giving him trouble. Beads of sweat are gathering on his forehead. He takes a moment to change his grip and starts in again.

“I had come of age by that point. My mother begged me not to do it – thought I’d be disfigured – but the money was too good – real money back then, a grand was – so I did it. The young doctor put me under, popped it off with a pair of shears, and I was up and walking out the door with my money not half an hour later. Damn!”

He laughs. He seems nervous.

“Thicker than the other ones,” he says, shaking his head. “Anyway, what do you think happened? That’s right, it came back! First a nub, then the joint at the bottom, then the next joint,  the finger nail – the whole thing came back in a matter of weeks. It was astounding.”

I nod but my stomach is starting to feel upset and I don’t know if I can listen to him much longer. I’m not a medical man. My father and my sister are both doctors, but I’ve never had the temperament for that kind of thing. The man sees this.

“You with me, boy? You’re looking a bit green.”

I hear the sound again, the sound of stone grinding on stone.

“Well it was a big deal, anyway,” the man says, undeterred. “The story was in all the journals: The Regenerating Man! The young doctor had made a name for himself over night, but he was an ambitious fellow. He had another study lined up for me.”

There’s another snap, like a carrot being bitten, and in my periphery I see the thumb swing down, like a hitchhiker’s thumb gone rogue. The man makes a contented sound.

“He says he’ll give me ten thousand for my whole hand – ten thousand! I can’t turn down something like that — damn near enough to pay off my mother’s mortgage. So I say ‘OK’ and that week I had it done, right down to the wrist, clean off. Ahh.”

The thumb is off and he tosses it clear. It rolls into the street and I go after it.

“Don’t bother!” he shouts at me, and settles himself back against the wall. Reluctantly I leave the digit where it is.

“I can tell you’re getting restless – you’ve got places to be — so let me hurry to the end,” the man says. His head is back, his eyes are closed. He seems relaxed. “It was a rousing success, the thing with the hand. Grew back, which, by then, we’d come to expect. So we did the same with the arm, then both my legs. Both times it goes off without a hitch.”

He breathes slowly, but it’s loud. His sigh echoes in the recesses of the loading dock.

“I got – oh Jesus – I got fifty thousand for the first and nearly two hundred thousand for the second. I was a rich man. Cleared my family’s debt twice over and had plenty to spare.”

His eyelids are fluttering, as if moving in waves over his eyes, though I know the eyes are moving beneath and the lids are still. He’s gone pale with the telling of his story, and what is left of his hand is staining his shorts. The blood is running down the pavement.

“The ambulance is coming,” I say. “Hang in there.”

“It is not,” says the man. With an effort he opens his eyes and looks at me. They are brown and plain. “But I’m not done – there was one last experiment.”

His eyes close again. His head rolls to the side.

“The young doctor tells me the brain is the most complex thing known to man. A marvel of nature’s engineering, and if he could….well, if he could…”

He draws a breath, a gasp. He is nearly in tears.

“Son, you know what they did – they took it. Cut it from me for a cool million, or that’s what they said. For the thing of it was: my brain grew back, that marvel of nature, but it didn’t have  any memories in it. And by the time I’d woken up and gotten myself together and figured it out, which was God knows how many years ago now, the money was gone. The doctors were gone, my family was gone – and I couldn’t remember where to find them. Who I was and where I lived – that was gone too.”

He is silent now, and I am silent. The trucks grumble in the distance, chirp in the distance. The morning, which is the night still, expands around us.

“They’re coming,” I say.

  1. […] Favorite Posts: The Regenerating Man // The Albino Black Cowboy // Ky’Awe // The Mill in the Kip // Pietro […]

  2. Ohmygod! I absolutely loved that! Definitely up my alley, storywise! 🙂 Will definitely be back to read more! (You should check out my blog as well. I write stories/snippets as well)

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