Scouting the Dark Territory

The arm rests in what looks like a child’s casket. The casket rests atop Dean’s coffee table in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Dean stands beside the table, his eyes roaming over the remains. A navy blue silk handkerchief covers the severed end.

Michael Signorelli

The arm rests in what looks like a child’s casket. The casket rests atop Dean’s coffee table in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Dean stands beside the table, his eyes roaming over the remains. A navy blue silk handkerchief covers the severed end. A pile of gray Velveteen fabric, previously employed as a curtain, lines the pine box. Richard opens and closes cabinets in the kitchen, looking for glassware and finding a set of crystal tumblers. From the living room he hears the liquid bloop of a Bluetooth connection. He fills the tumblers with ice and pours the bug juice.

*   *   *

The inevitability of these circumstances could perhaps be traced back three months. Dean had accepted a job as registrar at a gallery in Chelsea, leaving a job as registrar at another gallery not in Chelsea. This was no seismic thing. People moved jobs. And in the new position, as in the old, he moved modern and contemporary artwork wherever it needed to be.

Soon Dean began to socialize with his new colleagues. He met the gallery’s artists and clients. He attended expensive dinner parties when shows ended and began. At one dinner, because of the promise of his future good work or more likely as an afterthought, Dean was seated across from one of the gallery’s most illustrious buyers, the comedian, actor, and musician, Steve Martin. They had been introduced when everyone was taking their seats, but now, mere minutes into the bread, Dean had somehow drifted out of conversational range. He felt he should speak up, join whatever was being said on Mr. Martin’s side of the table. It felt like a rare opportunity, sharing a meal with someone famous, someone talented and beloved, to converse with him. And why shouldn’t Steve Martin want to speak with him? Dean had manners. He wasn’t dull or crazy. In fact, he had an air about him, one that had played well to the patrician parents of his college roommates. Furthermore, and most importantly, Dean was thoughtful-looking and handsome, a man of mind and muscle, no beautiful idiot. He once read a Hallmark card with the phrase, “Wishing you everything you could ever want,” accompanied by an illustration of a heroically built man reading a book of poetry in one hand and curling a dumbbell in the other. Dean had been put through the academic paces all the way to graduate school; and yet, his ideal for living was defined by a $2.99 Hallmark card meant for single women on their birthdays. The card teaches that balance of mind and body pays out in sex with women who are getting all they could ever want. Dean aspires to the balance every morning during calisthenics, every evening in his reading, at every organic, ethically-sourced meal, and every day at his job that calls upon his sensibility as well as his strength. He was sure Mr. Martin could bear a little polite conversation.

He was not aware, however, that during this deliberation he had fixed an utterly vacant stare on Mr. Martin, who took notice of the strange, empty gaze pouring out of the strange, unknown person seated across from him. Dean snapped to attention and found Mr. Martin peering quizzically into his face, as if he might find a malignant lump moldering where his brain should be. But one moment before a verdict was reached, Dean cooed,

“Forgive me. I forgot I was here.”

Mr. Martin laughed first. Then everyone who had witnessed the exchange laughed. They all laughed, relieved by the amiable absurdity, the spontaneous truth that had passed between them. Conversation came easily to Dean after that. He had endeared himself to those gathered—and, as became clear later on, to Mr. Martin in particular.

Two Saturdays later, Steve, as he insisted Dean call him, visited the gallery to view a new show of large-scale, oil on linen, landscape paintings. The gallery assistant fetched Steve some water. He had come on his bike and was dressed like an avid cyclist. He walked from painting to painting, speaking quietly with the gallery’s owner. Dean was behind the front desk, searching for an old show catalog, when Steve completed his viewing circuit and suggested that he and Dean grab lunch that Wednesday. They could meet at The Red Cat on Tenth Avenue and then swing by a performance piece Steve was interested in seeing. A young artist from Indiana had been provoking small audiences, appearing nude and in blackface, apologizing to a live goat for an hour.

This was one of several goings-on that Dean and Steve attended together over the next month. It was too soon to call their dynamic a true friendship. Dean sensed that he was still being vetted. How well could he ever expect to know Steve, whose life could swallow up his own a hundred times over?

One night at dinner, after the check came, Dean offered to pay. Steve, as he often did, thanked Dean but insisted that that wasn’t necessary. “What’s the point if you can’t take your friends to dinner?” They smiled at one another. Steve became quiet. He looked down at the table, pushed the coffee spoon around with his finger, and then raised his eyes to meet Dean’s. “Hey,” he said, “would you like to come back to my place tonight?” Dean warmed. He struggled to keep a response from showing on his face. Steve waited with interest. Dean smoothed himself to answer sweetly and with care.

*   *   *

Minutes later, on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, Dean said something like, “Of course not. I am beyond flattered. I am sorry that can’t work out. If you’d rather not to continue to see me, that’s fine. I understand. But I hope we’ll talk again soon.” Steve didn’t say much. They shook hands firmly. Dean wore a pained, apologetic expression. Steve kept his mouth a flat line, his eyes steady. Dean would come to feel that in this moment he had snubbed exactly what he’d been asking for, the recognition that his innate fame had the power to enthrall even the already famous. Then a light beamed down from a rooftop across the street, catching them in spotlight. The light quickly extinguished to the sound of popping glass. The light had come from the top of an object, one now hidden in darkness, its vague outline pasted against the deep-blue sky. There was the groan of metal, the snapping of wires, and the object began to fall. At first this occurrence seemed separate, a scene to be watched, but then the object tumbled over the building’s edge, somersaulting toward them. Its base hit the ground. The rest came crashing forward in an exploding metal wave. Dean shoved Steve out of the way. They were beyond the object’s zone of impact; but a protrusion, an unseen steel thread whipping from its top, sliced Dean’s arm right off. The cut was immaculate, a pure stroke, as if the protrusion had parted one cell from another. His right arm, toned, tan, well-formed, from fingertips to high bicep appeared to be waving hello from the sidewalk. He felt no pain. His heart broke.

“My beautiful arm!”

He removed his belt to tourniquet the squirting stump. Steve enunciated their location into his cell phone. The object, no longer lit, had been a water tower. How or why the object fell, how or why there was a light, whether or not some meddling god avatar had decided to make an ambiguous point, did not matter. It was already over for Dean. He knelt to his arm, blood, vital hydraulic, bloomed around it. He cradled his arm to himself.

*   *   *

Steve called Richard to let him know what had happened. Richard arrived at the hospital just as the ambulance carrying Dean pulled up to the emergency room entrance. Dean held the severed arm against his chest as they stretchered him into the building. The paramedics had been unable to pry the part away. The patient was conscious and alert, his blood pressure was stable, and there was surprisingly little blood, so they made this temporary allowance. Richard followed as they wheeled Dean to a curtained space. A nurse prepared an IV and untangled the tubing. Dean saw Richard standing at the foot of his gurney. He had never felt so grateful for the sight of a friend. Richard moved forward.

“Take this and go,” Dean said

He was passing the arm to Richard.


“They’ll grind this up.”

Again, Dean, in the distracted bustle of the emergency room, pushed over the arm, hustling the limb like a swaddled babe escaping the camps.

“For the love of God,” he hissed, “Go!

Richard left the hospital with the arm tucked beneath his jacket.

*   *   *

Dean swooned in grief for himself. A core string of him was pulled to the verge of snapping, and he felt as if he might tip over in an effort to lessen the tug. But he steadied and sunk down into the numb murk of himself, his eyes just above the surface of consciousness. This happened, he thought.

“If you would like us to try to reattach your arm” said a lean-faced doctor, peering over him, “you need to tell us where it is.”

“Was that an option?”

“Well, if we can’t find your arm in the next few minutes, then, yes, that was an option.”

Dean figured the arm was packed with ice in the trunk of Richard’s car, speeding up Ninth Avenue.

“My arm won’t be back in a few minutes. I’m sorry.”

The doctor stood back.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “for you.”

The doctor walked off. Dean pretended to hope for Richard’s return. He wanted to feign compliance with what the doctor knew was best. He knew also the measure of acceptance necessary to make this ordeal bearable. He endured the present. Hospital business blurred around him. A nurse would look him over, give him pills, adjust the angle of his bed. A doctor would arrive, mumble into the chart, check his pupils, murmur to the nurse, say, “You’re there. You’re okay. Do you feel awake?” The next afternoon a vase with white flowers, Amaryllis, Dean was told, arrived with a note that read, “You saved me. I will be forever grateful. Yours, Steve.” Very nice, Dean thought. Enjoy.

*   *   *

In his apartment, his ridiculous apartment—only so because of the private spectacle being indulged—Dean and Richard stand side by side, facing the coffin, a glass of Richard’s bug juice, his Southern family’s elixir, held by each. From the speakers triangulated around Dean’s living room, the theme from The Last of the Mohicans, on a track called “The Kiss,” plays on repeat. Those people are never coming back. Dean’s arm will never return. His body can no longer enchant. As grander dreams dissolve, his self-regard has only one truth to contemplate. This noble warrior of loosed flesh, Dean pretends, this severed part of what I once was, should fly with its portion of spirit. His arm, an advance scout into the dark territory.


Michael Signorelli’s writing has appeared in Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, Howler, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He works as a senior editor at Henry Holt. Find him on Twitter at @EditorSig

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