Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2013    poetry    all issues


Sarah Einstein
Walking and Falling

Jessica Bryant Klagmann
In the Forgotten Corner of the World

Melanie Unruh
Bend, Convolute, Curve

Aliya Amirh Tyus-Barnwell
Love and Marriage

Charles J. Alden

Ann Minnett

Amy Foster
Cripple Creek

Amy Dodgen
A General Rule

Joseph Hill

Lisa E. Balvanz

Ellen Darion

Erin Flanagan
The Learning Theory

Walter Bowne

Chris Tarry
Dairy Barn Angel

Gordon MacKinney
Death of a Motor City Talk Jock

Christopher Cervelloni
Tipping Superman

Daniel C. Bryant

Jane Deon

Justin J. Murphy
The Petrology of South Dakota

Melanie Unruh

Bend, Convolute, Curve

A contortionist came to entertain the children for Jenny Uhlman’s ninth birthday. Though her parents had wanted a clown or a magician, or really anyone who wouldn’t frighten the other kids, Jenny had insisted on a contortionist. When they asked her why, Jenny, who kept Roget’s Thesaurus of Words and Phrases on her bedside table, said she found them captivating. Mr. and Mrs. Uhlman assumed this would be another of Jenny’s intense but short-lived fixations, much like the moths, the hypnosis, the sari-making. But they also understood that their daughter was dead set on a grotesque acrobat being the main event at her party. After some debate about briefing the other kids’ parents, the Uhlmans ultimately decided not to bring it up. It had been a hard year since Jenny lost her hand; the last thing she needed was to have no one come to her birthday party.

And so, Jenny’s parents reluctantly did their own research on the man she had found on MySpace. Mrs. Uhlman was nearly sick when she saw his photographs—his feet resting beside his head, his torso twisted completely around so that his head appeared to be screwed on backwards, his entire body folded up inside a mini fridge.

He was called Salt.

Mr. Uhlman was in charge of contacting the performer, of checking his references. Salt said he was new to children’s parties, but had done plenty of performances. He’d worked for a traveling circus and even had a few parts in small films.

Could he entertain kids? Smile? Do tricks that would interest a young audience without inciting controversy and parental concern? Could he do other things, say, juggle?

Salt agreed he could do it all.

“That’s a strange name, Salt,” Mr. Uhlman commented. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get it?”

They obviously hadn’t read his profile too carefully. “Because I’m the human pretzel.”

Mr. Uhlman groaned inwardly. “I see,” he said.

Jenny was so elated when her parents told her Salt was confirmed for the party, she might have clapped if she still had her right hand.

Her classmates were generally nice to her, although some made fun of her or avoided her altogether. Some clever kid had given her the nickname Wristy. There were no synonyms in her thesaurus for amputee. Jenny understood that for her whole life, people would stare at her and she would be a spectacle. In public, strangers gawked and nudged each other. And yet, she never went to great lengths to hide her stump.

Though she’d accepted that people would always fixate on her, more than anything she was bothered by the fact that the subject of their engrossment was an absence. If she was going to be a freak show, she wanted it to be because of a skill, not a perceived deficit. As a contortionist, she could be Jenny, the One-Handed Wonder. As far as she could tell from her research—conducted via YouTube, MySpace, and a book she’d found at the library called Anatomy of Stretching—a good number of the moves didn’t require two hands. And so long as she had full use of one, the stump could serve for additional balance. Jenny stayed up late each night, stretching, doing splits, warming up her muscles for what was to come. Several moths still lingered in her bedroom, beating their brown bodies against the window panes while she lay prone on the floor reciting synonyms for the verb contort: bend, convolute, curve, deform, gnarl, knot, misshape, torture, twist, warp, wind, wrench, writhe.

The Uhlmans were paying Salt $75 for an hour of his time. He would do a thirty-minute performance followed by a thirty-minute Q and A. How Jenny even constructed this set-up eluded her parents.

When Salt arrived, he was smaller than he’d appeared in the photos, barefoot and clad in a simple blue unitard. A fake Burberry scarf was knotted at his throat. He could have been mistaken for an adolescent boy from a distance. Up close, though, his deep five o’clock shadow betrayed his thirty-six years. What people first noticed about him, when he wasn’t twisted into some odd shape or another, was his pale blue eyes. As she was leaving him, his wife Martha commented that she would miss his eyes more than anything else.

For Jenny’s party, in addition to his small Plexiglas box, Salt had brought red and yellow juggling balls, as Mr. Uhlman requested. The kids were already staring. Salt wiped his sweaty palms on his unitard, which wasn’t too absorbent. It was unclear if Jenny had told her guests why he was there or what he was going to do. They whispered to each other about his attire and the “weird empty fish tank” he set aside.

When Jenny Uhlman shook Salt’s hand, he noticed three things: she had an intense grip, she held eye contact the entire time, and she shook with her left hand because the right was missing. The stub that remained looked fairly new, baby pink skin folded together like a candle sunken in on itself. Poor kid, he thought. Her parents told him she had requested him, so he figured she was a little off, but he never considered she might be disabled. Was that even the right word? All those p.c. Nazis were always changing the terminology. You probably had to say “differently abled” now, although that term seemed to apply more to people like him, who could make the human body do things equally alarming and enthralling to the general public.

Unsmiling, Jenny said, “It’s nice to meet you. Did you bring music?”

He shook his head. Salt was trying to forget about music. Martha had stolen his iPod when she split, leaving him with only The Essential John Denver and a Harry Connick Jr. Christmas album.

“I’ve got some picked out,” the girl continued.

Jenny Uhlman had hair the color of white corn, cut so that it skimmed the tops of her delicate shoulder blades when she walked. She had a blank but beautiful face, and her eyes were large and brown with wispy lashes. Her father’s hair was the same ghostly color.

Below skylit vaulted ceilings, the walls were decorated with needlepoints of yuccas and casitas, photographs of White Sands, and watercolors of the Sandias and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Through the window, he could see the actual Sandias in the distance. Weren’t rich people supposed to be tapped into exotic, inaccessible art?

There were eight children in the room, including Jenny Uhlman. Five girls and three boys. Although they were all symmetrical and whole, none of the girls was nearly as pretty as Jenny. One girl had an unfortunate pageboy haircut; another wore a perpetual scowl; the other two had on so much make-up they looked like pageant kids. The boys huddled close on a brown leather love seat, playing with a cell phone. The only one who stood out in their group was the chubby one with carroty red hair, so covered in freckles he almost looked tan. The boys sat on the left side of the room, the girls on the right. Of the two groups, Salt wondered which would enjoy him more. He would have guessed the boys, but Jenny skewed the numbers.

Salt was a little high. He felt guilty being stoned at a child’s birthday party, but he often smoked before shows to relax and make his muscles more pliant. No one seemed to notice. He’d used eye drops, but if anyone asked, he would claim allergies, citing tumbleweed and cottonwood, desert dwellers’ favorite allergen scapegoats. Salt couldn’t afford to lose this job because after paying his rent this month, he had no money left for food.

He worried the young audience could see through him. Did they know he would rather be doing anything else, if only he could figure out what that was? He often had the sensation that his real life was out there somewhere just waiting for him to claim it.

But a job was a job and now he had to focus. First he removed his scarf, his small scrap of fashion and dignity. He wriggled his toes, his feet sinking deep into the plush beige carpet. It was softer than his mattress and probably cost more than what he made in a whole year. He tried to imagine what it must’ve been like to be an only child in such a household. Jenny would be denied nothing in life. For his own birthdays as a kid, there had been cake, but no parties and certainly no performers, unless you counted his Aunt Lurlene’s drunken Bible readings. Salt inhaled and stretched his arms overhead.

“What’s he gonna do?” someone whispered.

Jenny pointed a slender remote in the air and hit a series of buttons. Salt thought he recognized the song that began playing. Some rapper. At the first words, there was no mistaking the voice. In front of a captive audience of incredulous fourth graders, Salt was lowering himself into a chest stand, to the strains of Kanye West.

While Salt was fretting that the parents would blame him for the music, The Ulhmans stood in the doorway, peering not at Salt, but at the faces of their daughter’s friends. Would they tell their parents that Jenny was listening to rap music, even if it was the “clean” version? Jenny’s parents knew they were too permissive with their daughter. But after what had happened, neither was willing to deny her much.

“Do you think he can juggle with his feet?” Jessica Caley whispered to Sonya Jimenez.

Jenny rolled her eyes. Amateurs. But then she wondered . . . could he?

The room was large, but the audience sat only a few feet from Salt. Though he’d never had any problems with control, now he was hyperaware of his body, trying not to bump into any kids. There was also the possibility that they could smell the weed on him. Febreze could only do so much. Salt got down on his stomach, took hold of his feet, and rolled the length of the room in a move he called The Angular Human Ball.

He stood again and faced away from the crowd. Slowly he began to turn the upper half of his body around, until he was facing forward with his feet pointing backwards.

“Holy shit!” a boy in a Dodgers jersey cried out. The other boys laughed. Salt resumed a normal stance. Then, balancing on his left leg, he lifted and bent the right in towards his body, tucked the foot under his chin, and began to juggle. The little girls squealed. The scowling girl covered her face with her hands, but then peeked out through the cracks in her fingers.

The music, which had a sluggish, angry vibe to it, went well with Salt’s high. These kids were pretty alright. No tears, at least. He’d expected at least one crier in this crowd. Back on his feet, Salt put his arms behind his back and drew them around the front of his body until they met and clasped together.

The Uhlmans were uncomfortable, but they kept quiet about it. Salt’s half hour performance was moving briskly along. Of course, then that left Jenny’s Q and A session. God only knew what that would entail, or how long it would actually go on. Nothing and no one could deter Jenny from something that interested her.

Salt finished his act with his trademark move: folding himself up into the Plexiglas case. It wasn’t terribly difficult, but audiences ate it up. He made exaggerated movements, extending each body part before he tucked it in, and condensed himself into a compact wedge of a man. When he grasped the lid with the tips of his fingers and pulled the case shut, the children broke into wild applause. Someone whistled.

While Salt extricated himself from the box, Jenny turned off the music and asked her mother to get him some water. Mrs. Uhlman returned with the glass before Salt was fully out of the box and she hovered over him, shifting the water from one hand to the other. Free of his container at last, Salt thanked her for the drink and gulped it down.

“Alright.” Jenny perched on the edge of the coffee table. “Does anyone have any questions for Mr. Salt?”

“Please, it’s just Salt.”

Jenny wondered what his name had been before.

“Were you ever in the circus?” said Tyler Gruet.

“For awhile.”

“What did your parents say when you started being a . . . twisted man?” Jessica Caley asked, stroking her blond pigtails.

“They were cool with it,” Salt lied. The truth was that his parents had died in a fire when he was four, years before he started practicing contortion. His Aunt Lurlene, who had raised him, called what he did unnatural and blasphemous. As if the Bible ever said Thou shalt not contort thyself.

“Could you perform your act with one hand?” Jenny asked. She imagined joining him, calling herself Clove because Pepper was just too prosaic.

Salt thought about it. There were several moves that required both hands for gripping or leverage, but really, he could probably make do with just one. It sounded like a challenge.

The kids giggled at Jenny, whose gaze was locked on Salt. And then he realized what she was asking. Could she learn to do what he did?

He wasn’t sure what to say to this desperate little slip of a girl. Was she somehow under the impression that contortionism was glamorous and well-paying? Maybe if you were in Cirque du Soleil, but those assholes had rejected him years ago. Solo gigs like Jenny’s party were few and far between, and usually he had to supplement his income with manual labor. But then again, what sort of glamour or success could this child with one hand ever hope to achieve anyway? She would be ostracized. He could already see the cruelty and disgust brewing in the eyes of the other children, her invited guests, who didn’t really seem as if they wanted to be there.

“Please, Salt,” Jenny urged. “Could you?”

Wordlessly, Salt lay down on his stomach. Then, using only his left hand—he made certain not to use the right—he lifted himself up until his whole body was parallel with the floor, balancing on just his palm.

Jenny Uhlman’s smile was so genuine, her parents were taken aback.

“Hey, Wristy could do that,” Kevin Maloney yelled, his prepubescent voice gleeful.

Everyone in the room looked at him and then at Jenny. Salt raised himself up all the way so that he was doing a one-armed handstand. Surely this would draw some attention.

But Jenny Uhlman was at her breaking point. She marched over to orange-haired Kevin Maloney, her face even more expressionless than usual. Kevin rolled his eyes, as if to imply that he wasn’t afraid of her. Jenny poked him in the arm with her pink stump. Kevin laughed. She did it again. Kevin continued to act unfazed. Everyone in the room was rooted in place. For Salt, that meant he was upside down, watching the little girl with one hand repeatedly poke the rude boy with her stump.

“Imbecile,” Jenny said, jabbing him harder. “Cretin, pinhead, simpleton, dullard.”

She was tireless. Kevin tried to back away, but the love seat he sat on was up against the wall. The other children were in an uproar, crying out for Jenny to stop. They seized the juggling balls and threw them at her, the red and yellow plastic smacking her in the shoulders, the back of the head. Mrs. Uhlman ran to Jenny and tried to pull her off Kevin, but Jenny resisted, pressing her stump forward, now into his freckled chin. “Ignoramus,” she hissed.

“Yeah, well, you’re a freak,” Kevin screamed at her. “The only reason any of us even came was cause our parents felt bad for you!”

Mr. Uhlman helped his wife pry their daughter away from Kevin Maloney, who was now furiously wiping at his arms and face, saying he had to get off all her “dead hand cooties.”

One of the other little boys yelled, “Your party was Cirque du So Lame!” and then kicked Salt in his supporting arm before running for the far side of the room. It felt as though Salt was falling in slow motion, the carpet moving towards him instead of the other way around. He was hard pressed to topple gracefully because, despite knowing how to fall, he wasn’t used to being knocked down.

As soon as he hit the floor, Salt was sober. He rolled onto his side and observed the scene before him, a riot in miniature. Several children clutched the juggling balls, poised to throw them if necessary. The girl with the blond pig-tails kept shrieking, “I hate you,” to no one in particular. The third boy, not the one who’d made fun of Jenny and not the one who’d kicked Salt, was eating a dark glob of food out of his hand. Somewhere in the midst of all of this he had snuck into the kitchen and taken a fistful of chocolate birthday cake. A dark-haired little girl was crying, her make-up running down her cheeks so that she looked like a sad clown from a paint-by-number. The freckled boy cupped his hands around his mouth like a megaphone and announced that he was going to call his dad’s lawyer.

The Uhlmans had assumed if there was going to be a problem, if parents were to be called, it would be because of Salt, the grown man in the unitard who did abnormal things with his body. But it was Jenny who had initiated the downward spiral of her own party. One by one, the children without cell phones—three had their own—went to the kitchen to call home, asking their parents to come pick them up right away. During Kevin’s phone call, he used the phrase “bat-shit crazy,” which elicited a few giggles from the otherwise silent group. The Uhlmans escorted Jenny’s disgruntled guests to the front porch, where they were buffeted by sharp gusts of chilly spring air as they waited for the caravan of annoyed parents, now summoned back from their free afternoons.

Jenny sat on the love seat, Salt on the floor. He had to say something to this girl, to this child he’d first aspired to envy. “I think that was the most audience participation I’ve ever seen,” he said, surveying the beige carpet, which was littered with juggling balls and cake crumbs. When Jenny didn’t respond, he continued, “You forgot to call him a prick.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care about him.”

“They say redheads will be extinct soon,” Salt noted. Martha had red hair. He enjoyed thinking of her going the way of the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, the dodo.

Jenny let out a small laugh.

“Seriously, you shouldn’t pay any attention to that stupid kid.”

Jenny turned to him. “Do you think I could ever be a contortionist?”

“Sure,” Salt said. “Why not?”

“Will you teach me?”

“Uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

This girl really wanted to do what he did? There might have been a time when he had loved it, before those spectral yearnings for something else began to creep up on him. But being a teacher, even of this thing he did every day, had certainly never crossed his mind.

“Why not? I want to learn and you need money,” Jenny said pointedly.

Salt raised his eyebrows. “I do?”

“I saw your car. It’s like four different colors. People only drive those kinds of cars when they’re destitute.”

“Destitute? Well, thanks.”

“So will you train me then?”

“I dunno if your parents—”

“You want to know how I lost my hand?”

The question felt like a trap. Did she really want to tell him or was she just testing him somehow? “That’s okay,” he said.

Jenny pretended not to hear him. She had never needed to tell the story before because everyone already seemed to know it, as though her amputated limb itself had come to them and explained the situation. It felt strange for her to put into words what she never had before.

“We went up to Lake Tahoe last summer with my parents’ new speedboat,” she began. As soon as she started recounting the story, Jenny could feel the cool wind on her face and smell the sunscreen her mother had slathered on her. “We’d been out on the lake for a couple of hours and my parents got into this ghastly fight. One of them threw a pair of sunglasses over the bow. Even if you ask them now—don’t, by the way—they each say the other did it. Anyway, I climbed onto the front of the boat, following the sunglasses. They were just sitting there on the edge of the bow. I reached for them.”

Jenny studied the blue veins in her wrist, pumping blood to nowhere.

“Another boat cut right in front of us—my dad still says it’s a travesty we never figured out who it was—and made this huge wake. When we hit it, I fell overboard.”

“Did the boat . . . ” Salt coughed. “Did the boat chop off your hand?”

Jenny wondered if it would have been more accurate to say chopped up, since everyone seemed to think that was what had become of it. “The prop did,” she said, nodding.

“Are you serious?” Salt asked. Tears rolled down Jenny’s cheeks, but otherwise her demeanor remained unchanged.

“I lost a bunch of blood and passed out. Without my life vest, they say I would’ve drowned. My parents have a major guilt complex about it now, so unless I try to set myself on fire, they’ve got this whole laissez faire thing with me.”

“Do you ever still feel it? Your hand?”

“I kind of wish I did,” she murmured. Spurred on by overheard conversations between her doctors and parents, she read all about the “phantom limb” phenomenon, and was dejected that it didn’t seem to apply to her. She had no mysterious pain or itches she couldn’t scratch, no tangible memories of what it felt like to touch two hands together. There had been a half-hearted expedition to retrieve the hand from the lake, but no one seemed too eager to search the deep, shadowy water for what would surely be a mangled, useless scrap of flesh. Sometimes Jenny imagined that the remnants of her hand had been eaten by an ancient lake monster, and the creature would spend the rest of its life searching for the source of this delicacy.

The room was hot and quiet, save for the sound of the wind scraping at the windows.

Salt passed Jenny his scarf. She gazed at it with uncertainty until he gestured to her tear-stained cheeks. Wordlessly, Jenny wiped her eyes and nose on it.

“So you think they’d let me teach you?” Salt asked.
Jenny nodded.

“Even after that thing with freckle-face?”

She grinned. “Especially after that. Why do you think I invited him?”

Salt shook his head.

“So what about the other kids? Will it be weird now?”

“Them? They’re all too obtuse to be my real friends anyway.”

“I’m not cheap, you know,” Salt said.

“My parents have this boat in storage they’ve been meaning to sell,” Jenny said wryly.

Salt nodded. Without a word, he stood, balanced on one leg, and proceeded to lift the other leg in the air, until he’d tucked it into a triangle alongside his head, his torso arcing into a half-moon shape. He used his left hand to hold the leg in place, while his right arm hung free for balance.

Jenny stood beside him and tried to manipulate her leg the way he had.

“See, here’s the trick,” Salt said.

Just then, Jenny’s parents entered the room. Their daughter and the contortionist had their backs to the doorway. Mr. and Mrs. Uhlman watched as Salt explained to Jenny how to work towards the position. “It’s going to take some time,” he said. “You won’t be able to do this overnight, if ever.”

They looked so strange together: Salt in his blue spandex, Jenny in her black leggings and sweater dress, an unfamiliar brown plaid scarf around her neck, each balancing on one leg, Jenny’s truncated arm extended in the air like a pink torch. The Uhlmans wondered if their daughter would really be able to do the strange things they’d seen this man do in their own living room. Or maybe this was just another phase, and Jenny would quickly abandon her dreams of contortionism.

The Uhlmans continued their quiet observance, each holding on for dear life to the other’s hand.

Melanie Unruh received an MFA in fiction from the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Post Road, Echo Ink Review, Pear Noir!, Philadelphia Stories, and The Inside Mag. Her first novel, At the Rim of Vision, was a semi-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in the YA category. She is currently at work on the second. She lives in Albuquerque with her fiancé and their two cats.

Dotted Line