Shauna Hambrick Jones
Technically, Stephanie is my new auntie, even though I’m thirteen and Stephanie is twelve—her big brother Boyd and my mom tied the knot at a preacher’s house on Campbell’s Creek and I almost don’t believe it except for the Polaroid picture proving it so.
It’s the first Saturday of May. I know this because my mom, who just got the welfare check in the mail, gives me and my brother Brandon twenty dollars to split, enough money to take the bus to the Charleston Town Center, play video games, and, if we plan carefully, share a couple slices of pizza and a soda.
Stephanie, the baby aunt, has no money and since I don’t have any to spare, she can’t go with us. Her eyes glisten with held-back need. I push out my lower lip in commiseration, telling Stephanie we’ll hang out after I get home. Brandon yells for me to hurry up. We head down the worn wooden stairs. Blue sky warms my face when I exit the raggedy apartment building and the two of us trot across DuPont Avenue to the bus stop where David and his sidekick Gary lounge. The bus opens its mouth for the group to board.
The four of us plop down randomly, casually on the wide back seat. I’m beside David, Stephanie’s boyfriend, and his hand—like a piece of music that used to be background noise but now, suddenly, amplifies my thoughts—rests lazily between our bodies. He’s not my type—large frame, not into books, mean streak, plus he’s Steph’s guy. But I feel it. My hand eight inches from his, heat transferring between our flesh in a real-life science project. During the twenty-minute bus ride, jerking at each stop, our hands move millimeters toward each other but not. quite. touching. Brandon says, “I can whip all y’all on Pac Man,” while Gary bops his head to David Bowie and Dexys Midnight Runners blasting from his headphones. Bus jerks to a final stop. Transit mall. I exit with our group, walking toward the Town Center, talking like nothing is happening, nothing is twirling my stomach.
Brandon drops his quarter into Space Invaders while the rest of us form a semi-circle to watch. The bright blips of the spaceships from the machine mingle with Loverboy blaring from the arcade speakers, tight drum rolls and guitar riffs behind the sexy build of the chorus. The band moans about a hot girl in love, telling us about the magic touch.
It happens. I couldn’t stop it if I wanted, and damn, I didn’t want. David’s hand escapes the back pocket of his denim and skims my skinny blue-jeaned hip. Hands inch closer . . . closer—first, his pointer against my palm, tickling, tickling, my fingers spread like a blossoming flower, reaching to his longer, thicker digits—hands clasp. My legs feel liquidy and rigid at the same time as my private place begins to hum and I see Gary’s accusing look across the blipping game board and I don’t care—not about Stephanie, not about Gary’s stupid smirk, not about my brother, not about anything but the sensation. Sometimes, it’s all about sensation. My breathing quickens, our hands sweat but we don’t let go, not at the arcade or during the bus ride home. David breaks the news to Stephanie and as bad as I feel about betraying her, David and I hold hands and other body parts through that summer, but break up right before the first day of school. As many hands as I hold later in life, none will compare to the chemistry in early May 1983.
Human hands contain 29 major and minor bones, 29 major joints, 48 named nerves, at least 123 ligaments. I suppose their intricacy makes sense when I ponder what hands are capable of doing. The same hand that flattens against another’s flesh when dancing, moving up and down the curvature of spine with the rhythm of jukebox song, can later curl into a tight bud of a fist and punch the dance partner in the mouth after the two people get home.
Muscles controlling the fingers are strong enough for some persons to vertically climb while being supported at times only by the fingertips. Fingers have to be tough so they can dig into another’s shoulder to get the unwanted person off of you. Fingers have to be strong enough to embed fingernails in your attacker’s face.
All he did was take up for himself.
I mean, the jerk called Brandon a nigger. Mom and our stepdad Boyd were in the backyard with this greaser who helped supply the beer and hamburger. The group of them teetered around the yard in waves of heat rising from the grill, followed by waves of alcohol and smoke. I walked inside the sweaty apartment and flopped on the couch. Brandon stayed outside.
Our cable was on again, so that meant one thing. MTV. Cyndi Lauper bopping with flame-red hair, singing about girls just wanting to have fun. I wanted to be one of those girls. Cyndi was so adorable. I wanted to raid her wardrobe of leopard tights and hot pink tutus, though I doubted that I could carry off her clothes. Next thing I see is Brandon falling onto the love seat across from me, brown hands over his Afro to protect himself. Sometimes, it’s all about survival.
Our Mom loved rings and wore one on almost every finger. She torpedoed behind Brandon, twisted two rings so the sharp parts were palm-sided. Brandon flailed as Mom struck him on both sides of his head over and over. “You. Do. NOT. Call. Some. One. A. Mother. Fucker.” Her blows punctuated each word before she staggered back outside to the two assholes.
I did nothing to stop her. Even though I offered weak consolation to my brother afterwards, I was afraid to touch the face that had felt the hail of her hands, maybe because I feared what my own pale hands could do.
Nearly a fourth of the human brain’s motor cortex is devoted to hand muscles. The Scottish surgeon Sir Charles Bell said: “The hand is essentially the organ of the mind, the medium of its expression, and the instrument whereby its promptings are carried into execution.” Michelangelo’s hands sculpting his Pieta. Edison’s hands tinkering with his light bulb. Dylan’s hand penning his songs. Hitler’s hand saluting his minions. Kaczynski’s hand wiring his bomb. Andrea Yates’s hand drowning her children in the bathtub. A bully’s hand grabbing my son between his legs. My son’s hand painting the butterfly watercolor that hangs in my office. All hands are capable of violence and of tenderness. All hands hold power.
Pa-Paw’s hands. At twelve years old, he worked hard labor delivering supplies to the men outside the coal mine in Fayette County, hand-rolled cigarettes and whiskey bottles. Hands that defended and attacked family and friends as he deemed necessary. When he drank, he felt he could take on the world, and was often proved otherwise.
He was left-handed. That hand signed the Navy papers when he was seventeen. That same hand maneuvered the saw that cut through boards, fashioning a balance beam in the backyard when I was eight. That hand held mine as he walked me the five blocks to gymnastics practice and back and I loved the feel of the chalk on my palms before mounting the uneven parallel bars, chalk that softened his calluses against my palm. The bruises on Ma-Maw’s cheeks and chest meant he’d led with his left. After she died, those hands cradled his head as he cried. He only cried when he was drunk and he was drunk often. Sometimes it’s all about aim.
Pa-Paw donated his body to West Virginia University Hospital for students to cut into, pry open, jostle, rearrange. I don’t think anyone was contacted about his remains. I wonder if they have his ashes or if they were tossed out with the biohazards. I wonder about his wedding ring.
There are about 100 touch receptors on each of the fingertips, allowing for vivid sensation. The silky landscape of a newborn’s belly. Prickly cacti stubble on a lover’s face. Slippery squishiness between my inner thighs. Sticky pull from tape when wrapping a child’s Christmas presents. Lukewarm wetness from swiping tears of joy, of repentance, of frustration.
Confession: I develop short-lived crushes on certain hands, not so much for appearance as capabilities. Occasionally when I observe a musician up close, his or her hands making love with a guitar—deft fingers, firm grip, sliding palms—I wonder how those hands might feel on my body. I notice fingers wrapped around a pen. My eyes trail up to the writer’s wrist, and I think about what might be written about us, if there were an “us.” At the spa, I recline nude in the dim light, thin linen sheet outlining my contours. Eyes closed not in embarrassment but to shut out distraction so I can concentrate on the therapist’s hands. Male or female, young or old, Asian or black or white . . . doesn’t matter. I foster an infatuation with their hands. Fingers press into stress knots at my neck and shoulders, pushing, digging, breaking them down. Firm, knowing hands explore my hamstrings and glutes, kneading my muscles like bread dough. I stifle a moan as hands slick with essential oil reach my toes, tugging each one in a silent game of “This Little Piggy” before caressing the arches of my feet with the backs of the knuckles. Sometimes, it’s about safely letting go.
At the end of our time, those hands pull a heated blanket over my body, smoothing it over the swell of my backside like a mother tucking in her child. Don’t stop, I silently request, as the hands rest lightly on my chakra points, a healing prayer.
To say she didn’t work is inaccurate. Survival meant food stamps, monthly welfare checks, bartering. Washing clothes for a family of six was tough. Wringer washer, clothes lines in the bathroom and outside, heavy denim and dingy socks impossible to get clean. Her hands a permanent mess of chlorine bleach and cigarette tar.
Peg-legged jeans were what the other high school girls were wearing, and I had to have them as well. The State of West Virginia clothing voucher, sent in late August, was good for maybe one pair of pants, a bra, three or four pairs of undies, a pair of shoes carefully chosen—dressy or athletic was the judgment call—and one or two shirts if we budgeted.
Have you experienced the difficulty in sewing through denim with a hand-held needle and thread? My mom found two pairs of jeans at the Cedar Grove Baptist Church clothing giveaway. Long after the kids were asleep, Mom sat cross-legged on the couch, reruns as her company, forcing the needle through the jeans, then back through, pausing only to draw deeply from her cigarette or sip her tepid coffee. Sometimes it’s all about reinforcement.
Surely she pricked her fingers as she worked. Surely calluses roughened her palms as she pegged the denim from the knees to the ankles. Surely her fingers ached from the effort. Surely this was why she slept in when I rose to get ready for school, though Mom never was one to arise with me, leaving the alarm clock in the my room. Surely I thanked my mother for the sacrifice.
The word “hand” appears 1466 times in the Bible. The eleventh chapter of the fifth book of the Talmud is devoted to hands, focusing on the dirtiness of hands and of their purification. Hands dark with the blood of murder transformed into hands that carried holy commandments. Hands syrupy with adultery strum praise songs on the harp. Hands covered in a mixture of spit and mud tenderly touch the eyes of another, bringing healing and connection.
My mother’s hands: jagged nails bitten to the quick, except when she can afford candy apple-red acrylics. Yellow-brown stains at the tips of the thumb, index and middle fingers of her right hand from forty-six years of cigarettes. Bony fingers, each ringed: opal stone, silver filigree, tiny gold cross with a rhinestone center, her mother’s thin wedding band. Splotchy age spots on the backs of her hands that darken and expand each time I see her. Her hands drew picture after picture of kings and queens atop majestic castles whenever she would visit me. Her hands taught me to trace over the black outlines to make the coloring page pop. Her hands brought beer to her lips, slapped faces and smashed windows, threw plates. Her hands tickled our underarms and brushed hair from our foreheads to receive her kisses. My mother’s hands. Sometimes it’s all about grace.
Shauna Hambrick Jones is an alumnus of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. She has been been published in Vandalia, The Arts Journal of WVWC; Connotation Press: An Online Artifact; The Fiddleback; Temenos; Lunch Ticket; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and Daughters. She lives in Buckhannon, West Virginia.