After spending a unit of World War I and the Weimar Republic in the classroom, my imagination created George Hero who suffered in more ways than one. The words fell right out of me. My first novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle was set in 1900. Now it’s twenty years later, and the second manuscript “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol” is on the back burner. Why? Time consumed by blogging. Caring for my granddaughter. Jim. Watching movies. Three jobs. All wonderful parts of my life. But the creative writing suffers. Writing is a process of isolation. I’m trying to rectify that, to put my second novel back into the forefront of my life. Maybe if I share the process with you all, I won’t feel lonely writing it. So here’s the beginning:
He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail. In his mind, he made a fist and punched the face of the dead soldier with the feminine features. Out of the shadows, the sun poured into the cabin car and George Hero squinted out the window as the train arrived at the Berlin station. The information board clicked the date: March 12, 1922. 13:00. The steam escaped from the train with a whoosh, and the iron wheels groaned to a halt. Dimly, it occurred to George that he had been roaming without forethought for two years since his discharge. He was reluctant to return to his parents in Chicago because he discovered many widowed women in France were attracted to him. With his pitiful command of French and their few words of English, it was easier to communicate with smiles and sympathetic fingers. Especially if she had children by her side. They looked up at the stump at his right wrist, and their eyes filled with curiosity and disgust. He wrapped the hot wound with clean bandages during the day and at night massaged the stretched, shiny skin.
What am I to do with one hand? The ghastly stitching on the top of his forearm mirrored his thoughts, and his indignation boiled for the skittish private who had misfired. During his stay in the Army field hospital at St. Mihiel, George dubbed him Private Cox, digressing with his pun by imagining daily ways of amputating the private’s genitalia. George chopped, burned, shot, squeezed, and sawed off Private Cox’s manhood.
George was transferred to Camp Hospital No.4 in Paris which was converted from abandoned school buildings into a makeshift hospital with no running hot water. He convalesced with 400 other wounded soldiers and waited his turn, the loneliness as profound as the pain that emanated from his amputation. When he was released, George’s anger intensified when he failed at buttoning his shirt or shaping a tie. When he pissed, he had to ask for help to button his pants, so he switched to trousers with zippers with limited success. It was impossible to tie his bootlaces. George practiced writing with his left hand. If he wrote very small, he had more control over his penmanship. He had a nurse post a letter to his parents: February 3, 1919. Dear Mom, I lost a hand, but I’m still alive. Healing in a Paris hospital. Will be home soon. George.
After his discharge from the 103rd Infantry, he impulsively changed his mind and sold off his return passage for one hundred Francs and two vials of laudanum. Private Cox was dead, but George Hero’s anger lingered and leaked to the women who broke convention and touched him freely as their nurturing tendencies invaded his personal space. At first, he enjoyed the abundant opportunities for sexual interplay. Their eyes widened over his good looks. They hovered over his clumsiness, appeased and stroked him. In him, they saw a replacement to their dead husbands, and he learned to compensate for the lack of a hand.
At twenty, his broad shoulders and plump lips gave him an older, sensual appearance. A pattern emerged as he made his way with a map south into the French countryside avoiding St. Mihiel, the empty trenches, the mountains of shell casements, the grotesque trees, and the rubble of destroyed buildings. He loitered in towns and searched for women whose clothes were once of good quality but had worn thin. Usually, their houses mirrored the state of their clothes. Before World War I, houses had been bright with colorful doors and whitewashed walls. Now crooked shutters leaned to the ground and fences faded to brittle gray. He would walk up and offer his services in exchange for food and sleep in the barn. On the first day, he was polite and completed chores he could manage with the help of her children to hold a nail or grip a tool. He surveyed the property, the windows, and the exit doors. He worked his way inside and ate at the kitchen table. Her stew was delicious, he praised, and the hand on hers, brief. On the second day, as she hung her clothes on the line behind the house, he tripped and pretended to fall. He grabbed her waist and held her. She blushed and patted his shoulder. That evening, he leaned forward after the meal and kissed both her cheeks. She found brandy in the cupboard. He thanked her for bandaging his wrist which throbbed with pain. She sighed and expressed with body language how long it had been since a man had held her. They rolled on her lumpy mattress and slept; when they woke, his stump pulsated with a heartbeat of its own. He asked where he could find an opium den. In Lyon. In Saint-Étienne. In Avignon. He allowed the opium dens to influence his direction, and the widows became checkerboard pieces as he leaped from one to another.
In late fall outside of Bourges, he met a young mother whose husband had propped a Sunbeam motorcycle up against the side of the house when his conscription orders informed him to report to the town square in 1917. It still waited for his return. George assessed he’d have to replace the crank and give the 3.5 hp engine a tuning. The back tire sagged. It was the first time since his amputation that his heart lifted with excitement. Could he get parts? He worked on it with the help of her eight-year-old son. They made a handsome pair, three hands manipulating the machine, and it charmed the mother. She gave herself with a passion that startled him. At night, he kissed her with enthusiasm, spread a cheek, and burrowed inside. He stayed in her warmth while the snow fell and icicles spiked down off the fascia. 1921 came quietly. Winter’s pastel skies deepened as spring arrived and turned the earth spongy.
She followed him around the room with her eyes. She fussed with his clothes and claimed his body parts with roving fingers tips. When he sat down, she leaned a hip on the arm of the chair, patted his crotch, and waited expectantly for him to pull her into his arms. Her insatiable need for affection annoyed him. George grew restless. He confiscated her dead husband’s wallet, a tie already formed into a knot, a jacket that fit, and a pair of loafers a little too small, but at least he could slip into them without needing help to tie the laces. The motorcycle rumbled to life and his departure came swiftly thereafter. He felt a twang of guilt as he aimed for the Mediterranean. He imagined her returning from her errand from the village. He heard her chirp his name with two syllables as she checked the barn, the kitchen, and the cellar. He saw her brace herself. Each time she called out Geor-ge, her voice lowered into a whine. He imagined her eyes fill with tears when she saw the motorcycle was gone. Perhaps, she reasoned, he just went for a trial run. She would hiccup with hope and dash upstairs to see if his possessions were still in her bedroom. Nothing of him remained, and her tears dripped off her chin. He could see her clearly as though she sat on the handlebars.
George maneuvered around a sharp bend and the bike wobbled. He drove slowly and focused on balancing. He had figured out a way to roll towels and secure them with a strap to his elbow so he could balance the right side of the handlebars. Gingerly, he braked with his left hand and leaned as a counter-weight. He would miss her smooth shoulders and the slight protrusions of her ribcage where his fingers traced and she wiggled. Her son would frown, confused he left without a word. The boy talked with a sissy squeal. George clenched his jaw. He felt suffocated by the pair’s silent insistence that he stay.
He dreamed of the war at nighttime with mortar fire and the strobe lights of the shells that punctuated the darkness. The tanks rolled and the screams of the hit reverberated in his mind. Fashioned from the fog of an opium high, he began to have a recurring dream where details grew sharp and shadows seemed real. In his dream, he swam in the air away from the sounds of the war. He used a breast stroke and exerted his arms and made paddles of both his hands. He kicked his feet, but he floated nowhere. Shadows raced ahead of him like ghostly whispers. Then, superimposed on the backdrop of the night, a bombast of fire streaks lit the face of Private Cox. George swore at him. His dream changed, and he ran through the trench, stumbling over the bodies cluttering the ground and jogging with the rats in a maze that never ended. He turned a corner and there was Private Cox. He stood in front of George with a bamboo pipe breathing and exhaling in a seductive fashion, his long lashes flickering, his mouth open and puckered. It disgusted George. He reached for his gun in his dream but both hands were gone. George stood helpless. Private Cox gave him a lascivious grin and laughed.
George sat up in bed and hit his head with his palm and wished he could expel the sounds out of his ears. The women would sit up on their knees and coo French phrases. After a year, he grew bored with the predictability of them all. Sometimes his actions grew rough, and his voice snapped. Sometimes in bed, his pats turned into slaps as he forced them into strange positions. He shoved them away and started to cry. He begged them for forgiveness. Their eyes softened and their worry lines disappeared when they tried to hold him. Then his feelings flipped. He found them in contempt for forgiving him and started to yell at them. He learned it was dangerous to stay too long, but the widows made it easy for him to stay. They were spiders that spit their filaments over his body and tried to wrap him in a cocoon. They found him jobs he could handle, introduced him to family members, and brought girlfriends over to inspect him. He bought another vial of laudanum from the apothicaire and told himself it was for the ache from the stump.
He spent the winter of 1921 in Marseille in an apartment overlooking the harbor with an older, sallow woman whose appetites matched his own. The realization he needed opium more than he needed sex or companionship began to creep into the shadows of his mind. He abandoned the dying motorcycle and bought train fare. He headed toward the one city he heard whispered for indulging strange proclivities and addictions–Berlin. When he pulled into the city on March 12, 1922, he arrived with a decent wardrobe, a silver pocket watch, and enough money to buy second class passage from Hamburg to the United States when he was ready. George stepped down onto the platform and a part of him mourned. His home in Chicago might as well have been on the moon.
I’m sorry, Ma. I think I lost more than a hand.
Thanks for reading.