by Mary Ann Cooper
I was twelve years old when my brother Charlie lost his left arm. It was the summer of 1964, and my family and I were living on Long Island, NY. Our house was located in one of those planned communities built after World War II—nondescript, identical wooden boxes lined up next to each other, a ribbon of cement separating one from the next. In this close neighborhood, mothers pushed their babies up and down the block, fathers chatted with the neighbors while they watered their lawns on Saturday mornings, and kids were everywhere—roller-skating in the streets, chalking up the sidewalks and playing tag outside until dark.
Five days a week my father took the train into the city for his desk job at Chase Manhattan Bank, while my mother, a former teacher, stayed home and took care of my two brothers and me, the youngest and the only girl. Dinner was every night at 6:00, when we sat in the linoleumed kitchen and each of us shared stories about our day. Some of it was good, some not so good, but either way, when we sat around that Formica table it connected us and knitted us together as a family.
My older brother Dougie was 13 and I couldn’t stand him. He wore brown glasses and had a gap between his two front teeth, where he sometimes stuck his tongue in my direction. He delighted in torturing me, drawing devil horns on the kitten poster tacked above my bed, or duct taping my plush animals to my bedpost, a trio of stuffed hostages awaiting me when I opened my door.
“I hate you!” I’d scream.
He always laughed when I cried to my mother.
“Leave her alone Dougie!” she’d warn.
“You’re such a baby,” he’d say to me.
During my dance recitals I’d look into the audience and see my other brother Charlie sitting next to my parents, clapping and giving me the thumbs up. Dougie was there too, but whenever I looked at him, he held his nose.
But usually he just ignored me. Not like Charlie.
At 17, Charlie was tall with sandy hair and the kind of blue eyes that everyone always commented on. He was my favorite brother.
“Hey princess,” Charlie always said when I came home. He always made me feel special, which I desperately needed since I hated the way I looked: tall and skinny, face covered in freckles, wispy brown hair. Whenever I complained to my mother about my looks, she always hugged me and said, “You’re going to be a beauty!” Each week, as I stood before the bathroom mirror, I held onto her words and waited for the transformation to start.
Everyone loved Charlie. He was one of those charismatic kids people were drawn to. A junior at the high school, he was friendly with the geeks, the athletes, cool kids—everyone. He was a member of the National Honor Society, and the football and baseball teams. His girlfriend was Karen, a cheerleader. She was tiny, with long blonde hair that she usually wore in a ponytail. When they stood next to each other she barely reached Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie always winked at her from the sidelines before his football games. She was nice to me too; sometimes on Saturdays, the three of us went to Woolworth’s. I sat on the other side of Charlie so he could hold Karen’s hand under the counter while we all sipped our Coca-Colas.
Charlie wanted to be a doctor when he finished high school, and he talked about it a lot.
“I can’t decide if I want to be in regular orthopedics or pediatric orthopedics,” he’d say to my parents.
“You’ll figure it out, Charlie,” my father always said, beaming, while my mother nodded her Toni-permed head in agreement.
“I’m applying to five schools in the fall,” Charlie said, and then would list the pros and cons of each one.
Charlie’s best friend was Jerry Sawyer, also seventeen, who lived two blocks away from us. The two of them played on the same teams at school and they ran a lawn cutting business in the summer. And after three years, they had twelve regular customers. Charlie and Jerry left early in the morning five days a week working the three blocks that surrounded us, one pulling the wagon, the other carting the tools. At first the boys used an old blade mower, but after the second year they bought a gas one with their savings. Tied on to our old Radio Flyer wagon, it sat high, riding through the streets like the crown prince. Most summer afternoons when I’d see Charlie turn our corner, I’d leave my friends and run towards him.
“Hi Charlie!” I’d yell. He always smelled of gasoline and sweat, his T-shirt and shorts covered with bits of grass.
“Hey Princess,” he’d say.
“Whiffle ball later?” I’d ask.
“Yup.” And before dinner I would stand in front of the garage and swat away.
“Keep your eye on it,” Charlie always said, lobbing ball after ball.
I was in heaven.
Everything was going along fine until the accident.
Mrs. Neville was a widow who lived around the corner from us. She was one of Charlie’s customers. In her seventies, she was lost after her husband had died a few years earlier. Sometimes we’d see her sitting outside, talking to herself. On lawn cutting day, her face lit up when Charlie appeared. Once, I watched Charlie chatting with her. She talked about her aches, the weather, all the while Charlie nodding and making soothing sounds.
“You’re such a good boy, Charlie,” she’d say, her knotted arthritic fingers clutching his hand.
On a sticky, still Tuesday afternoon in August, Charlie and Jerry pulled up in front of Mrs. Neville’s house, their last stop of the day.
“I’m beat,” Charlie said as he took the mower off the wagon. “I can’t wait to go home and take a shower.”
“Yeah me too,” Jerry said. “One more house.”
As usual, Mrs. Neville came out to greet them.
“I have a favor to ask you boys before you start the lawn,” she said. “Would you follow me?”
She went in the small backyard to her garage and opened the old wooden doors. Shafts of sunlight illuminated the dusty tools hanging on the walls. The place reeked of mold and rot and had a large dried oil stain in the middle of the cement floor. Mrs. Neville pointed to a chainsaw lying in the back corner.
“I need you to bring that outside. You see that branch on that old tree out there?” she said, pointing. Charlie and Jerry looked outside. There was a tree next to the garage with a limb that was rotted. It was about five inches around, eight feet long, and twelve feet up in the air.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on it. It’s got to come down. I’m afraid it’ll hit the garage if it stays. Can you do that for me?” she said. “Take it down?”
“We really don’t do that kind of work, Mrs. Neville. I’ve never even held one of those things before.” Jerry nodded in agreement.
“Oh dear,” she said. “I was hoping you’d be able to help me out.”
Charlie looked at Jerry, who shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess we could give it a try,” Jerry said. “But I’m not sure.”
“Oh, thank you boys,” Mrs. Neville said as she went back towards the house. “Please be careful.”
Charlie shook his head.
“I don’t know, Jer. How do you even get it going?”
“My uncle has one. You have to pull that handle there,” Jerry said. He tried to pick the saw up.
“Ugh. This thing weighs a ton.”
Charlie looked around the garage and found a small wooden stepladder and positioned it against the tree, right below the branch.
“Should we do the lawn first?” Jerry asked.
“Nah, I want to get this over with,” Charlie said. “Try and start it.”
Jerry leaned over, put his sneaker on the handle and pulled the starter rope. The machine sputtered, came to life loud and ferocious, and then died again.
“Well, it works,” Jerry said. “I think you have to keep you finger on that trigger. That’s what starts the chain. I’ll climb up and cut it down.”
“I’ll do it, Jer.” Charlie said. “I’m taller and I can reach it better. But hold the ladder. This thing has power.”
Before he started, Charlie looked towards the house and saw Mrs. Neville watching them, sitting in the window, her creased face framed by yellowed lace curtains.
Charlie leaned over and pulled the saw’s handle. The chainsaw roared, giving off oily blue fumes and a deafening noise. Slowly, he carried the idling saw with one hand, using the other to climb each rung of the ladder. Once he reached the top, he hoisted the saw towards the base of the dead limb.
“When it comes down, watch that it doesn’t fall your way, Jerry,” Charlie shouted.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m watching,” Jerry said from the bottom of the ladder, his eyes on Charlie.
“Ok, here goes.”
“Careful, Charlie,” Jerry said.
Charlie held his finger on the throttle trigger as the whizzing chain at the tip of the saw made contact with the branch. Immediately, it kick-backed towards Charlie and ripped into the lower part of his arm.
It was quiet when Charlie and the saw hit the ground.
I was at my friend’s house that afternoon, playing in her backyard pool. Brand new, it had shiny blue sides supported by steel braces, with an aluminum ladder to climb in it. We stopped doing handstands in the water when we heard the ambulance sirens scream over the steady hum of the pool filter.
“That sounds really close,” Linda said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Like it’s on the next block!”
I had no idea at the time that the ambulance that raced through the neighborhood was the one that carried Charlie and his severed arm. Jerry, in shock, was taken in a separate one.
Charlie stayed in the hospital for almost two weeks after the accident. At first, right after his surgery, Charlie slept most of the time and was sedated for pain. My parents sat at his side every day, all day. The first time Dougie and I went to visit him, Charlie never woke up. His room was hot and semi-dark, tinged yellow-green from the hall lights. Tons of get-well cards and stuffed animals were scattered all over the room, along with bunches of droopy balloons. Charlie’s face looked the same, except that he needed a shave and his hair was combed in a funny way, with pieces sticking out on the sides. I was afraid to look at his arm. His bandage started at his shoulder, but his sheets hid the mystery below. I was glad; I just wanted to leave. My eyes darted between his sleeping face and the dull speckled floor.
Dougie and I were quiet on the car ride home.
“Charlie’s going to be fine, you know that, right?” my father said as he drove. We said nothing. My mother kept her head down and stared at the purse in her lap.
“He’s a fighter, that Charlie,” my father said. “Always has been. You’ll see—he’ll be back.”
But my father was wrong. The next time we went to see Charlie, he just lay in his big mechanical bed staring out the window. He never turned to talk to us. His eyes looked the same as a dead bird I once found in the backyard. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t answer me. I wanted to scream at him—“Charlie! It’s me! It’s Princess!” Instead, I said nothing.
That visit I could see his arm, or what was left of it. Still bandaged, it stopped at his elbow, pointed away from his body as if it were looking for the rest of itself.
My parents brought Charlie home on a Monday afternoon. Dougie and I sat and waited by the living room window, both of us nervous and not sure what to do once Charlie got there. Since the accident, Dougie had been treating me nicer. Once, when I lay crying on my bed, he walked in.
“Get out!” I yelled.
He stood there and shuffled for a minute.
“Do you want to go to the store with me? I have to get stuff for mom, but we could get some candy,” he said shyly.
And after that, he stopped torturing me and we started to do more things together—a silent truce forged out of tragedy.
The first week Charlie got home, I kept trying to spend time with him. I’d knock on his door every day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
“Charlie, it’s me,” I said. “Can I come in?”
“Leave me alone.” I couldn’t believe it. Heartbroken, I numbly went through my days, waiting for the old Charlie to return.
“Give him time,” my mother said. And I did. But weeks went by and Charlie stayed withdrawn and quiet; he rarely smiled and didn’t want to do anything with any of us.
Shortly after he was released from the hospital, Charlie had to be driven to occupational therapy three days a week. There, for about two hours the therapists helped him with his balance and also showed him how to dress and feed himself. My mother looked pale when she returned home from these sessions; some days she came home with a red, puffy face. Charlie always walked straight to his bedroom and slammed the door.
Many nights I heard Charlie screaming from nightmares, my father stumbling down the hallway to comfort him.
“Charlie, Charlie. It’s okay,” he’d say, holding him and coaxing him back to sleep.
A few times, I heard Charlie sobbing on his bed when he thought no one was home. I’d never heard Charlie cry before; it made me so sad that I cried also. I cried for Charlie a lot: each morning when I heard him swear as he tried to get dressed with one arm, too proud to ask my parents for help; when he dropped things that he thought one arm could handle; when he stood up and lost his balance. I heard him cry in the shower as he tried to wash his hair, and then dry himself off. My Charlie, missing his arm. Me, missing my Charlie.
Dinners were different now at our house. My father continued his daily banter, but it was forced and tinny. He chatted on cheerfully about his day, and then went around the table and asked each of us about ours. Our words were sparse; the happiness I once felt sitting there was replaced by a static tension that enveloped the hollow-sounding room. The invisible bond of conversation was gone. Now we mostly ate in silence, all of us missing our local piece of joy.
Charlie wore long sleeved shirts all the time now, even though it was the end of the summer and still hot outside. His left sleeve hung lifelessly, flapping alongside him as he walked. Underneath, a compression bandage covered his stump. Once I passed him in the hallway when it was off, and I finally saw his scar. It looked like the end of a hot dog; I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
When Charlie first got home, Jerry and the rest of Charlie’s friends stopped by to visit, but Charlie never said much to any of them. After a blurted “Sorry about your arm,” no one ever spoke of the accident, and neither did Charlie. In between a series of awkward silences broken only by my mother bringing in snacks, his friends spoke about sports and other neutral things.
“How about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris?” Jerry asked Charlie one afternoon.
Charlie just shrugged his shoulders.
“Haven’t really been following it,” he’d say, over and over. Jerry tried again with other chatter, but after a while, he gave up and went home.
Most everybody that visited left shortly after they arrived. Including Karen. Charlie kept telling us that he didn’t want to see her, but she insisted and finally stopped by. She stayed for twenty minutes, and left crying. We never saw her again.
School started, but everything was different now for Charlie. No practices, no games: no sports. Instead, he came home after school and sat in front of the TV all afternoon, day after day. He still got psychological counseling, which he hated.
“I don’t need it and I don’t want to go,” he told my parents. “The therapist keeps wanting to talk about the accident and I don’t. It’s over.”
“Just a little more, Charlie. For me, please,” my dad always said. My father looked older; he’d lost weight and always looked tired.
Charlie’s appearance changed also. Tall and thinner now, he grew his hair long. And he always smelled like cigarette smoke. My parents had to know that he was smoking, but they never brought it up. It seemed Charlie could do whatever he wanted—smoke, be rude, slam doors—anything—while everyone else in the house walked around humming the silent mantra: “Shhh. Don’t upset Charlie—poor guy lost his arm.”
At the high school, Charlie gradually pulled away from his old friends. Gone were the athletes and student council members; in came the troublemakers, hanging out across the street from the school, dangerous and dodgy. Charlie went and stood with them and soon they let him join their suspect circle. Steve Bertucci, another senior, was the leader of this group. He’d spent part of last year in a juvenile detention center for stealing a car. He had a wide tattoo on the back of his neck and a chain around his waist. I hated just looking at him.
“Hey, no more fucking sports for you, right Charlie boy? Are you missing something there?” Steve always said, pointing at Charlie’s stump as Steve’s loyal followers, Eddie and Paul, laughed along. Charlie usually gave Steve a half smile and then looked away. But he was a part of them now. With these new friends, Charlie quickly progressed from cigarettes to marijuana. Many nights at dinner he sat glassy-eyed, my parents clueless that he was high, while Dougie and I stared at this stranger, our brother.
I was in the eighth grade and excited about the prospect of high school in a year. Some of my mother’s predictions came true: finally, my face and body became less tomboyish and more like those of a young woman. My interests were my friends, my music and school. I’d finally given up on my friendship with Charlie; he barely acknowledged me and when he did, he called me “kid.”
“Hey kid,” he’d say when I walked in the house. Nothing more. Once in a while, he’d pass by my room, see me at my desk and stand at my door. On those rare occasions, we’d talk briefly but after a few minutes, Charlie always left. It was during those times that I saw a glimpse of my old Charlie, now with a permanent sadness settled behind his eyes. I ached to walk over and hug him, tell him how much I missed him. But that never happened.
In December, the occupational therapist informed my parents that sometime during the winter after Charlie’s scar had completely healed and most of the pain was gone, they would introduce him to a prosthetic arm. They gave my parents brochures filled with terrifying photos. Charlie’s new arm would be made of fleshy pink plastic, with a metal hook at the end. I was sick. People were already staring at him with an empty sleeve. Now what?
One evening, my parents went to Charlie’s room to talk about applying to colleges. Dougie and I stood in the hallway. As soon as they brought the topic up, Charlie laughed at them.
“Are you kidding?” he said.
“Charlie,” my father started.
“Can you both leave?” Charlie said. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Charlie, it’s important,” my father pleaded.
Charlie stood up and raised his voice. “What’s important? To be a doctor? With this?” he yelled, pointing to his half arm. “Are you crazy?”
“Charlie, there are so many other careers you can pursue,” my mother said. “You can do a lot of things!”
“I’m not going to college!” Charlie yelled. “Can’t you understand that? It’s over. It’s all over!”
I sat in my room and listened to Charlie yelling and later, to my mother crying, her sobs muffled by my father’s soothing words. My father was distraught also; when I walked into the kitchen, I found him there alone, sitting with his head in his hands.
“Dad, are you ok?” I said.
“Sure, sweetie,” he said. “Just a lot on my mind.”
It was Christmas time and a Thursday night. My parents were at Dougie’s holiday band concert at the high school. He played the trumpet, and this year he had a solo. I was supposed to go, but I wanted to stay home and study for my midterms.
Minutes after my parents left, Steve, Eddie and Paul pulled up in front of our house. Looking out my bedroom window, I saw the six packs of beer they carried. The red and green Christmas lights on the outside of the house cast garish shadows on their stoned faces. Steve tripped on the first step as his friends rang the bell.
“Hey, Charl! Weed and beer at your service!” he yelled when Charlie opened the door.
“Shut the fuck up, Steve,” Charlie said. “My sister’s home.”
Charlie let them in and they headed down to our half-finished basement, where they proceeded to drink and blast the Rolling Stones. Twice I stood at the top of the stairs and yelled down to Charlie to turn the music down.
“Tiiimme is on my side!” they screamed over and over, their voices loud and ragged. I didn’t want to go down there; I hated witnessing Charlie in his new element.
“Charlie! Charlie!” I yelled. But he never heard me; I gave up and went back to studying.
After about an hour, the handle of my bedroom door turned and there stood Steve, a creepy grin on his face, his long hair pulled back in a skinny ponytail. He wore all black, different colored tattoos slithering out from under his shirt cuffs. I jumped up.
“What do you want?” I said.
“I just wanna say hello to Charlie’s pretty sister,” he said, each word running into the next.
“Get out of my room, Steve,” I said, my voice tense. I felt my stomach tighten with fear. Steve ignored what I’d said, walked over and stood very close to me. He stunk of alcohol and pot. He then put his arm around my shoulders and started to puff his sour breath into my ear.
“C’mon, how ‘bout I show you how to have a little fun? Huh, pretty girl? C’mon.”
“Get out!” I yelled as I tried to push him away and run for the door. But with one quick motion, Steve took both my arms behind me and held them while he pushed me down onto my bed. And then he sat on me.
“Stop, stop it! Let me go!” I screamed as loud as I could. “Charlie! Charlie!”
But all I could hear was music and Steve’s taunting.
“You’re gonna like this, baby sister,” he kept saying. “You’re gonna really like it.” I started to cry. What is happening? Is this rape?
“Get off me!” I said. Sick and scared, I screamed. “Please! Stop!”
Steve stayed on top of me and furiously tugged at my jeans as I yelled and cried. I moved my body left and right to try and make him stop. But he ignored me, breathing hard, intent on his mission. I sobbed wildly as I felt my jeans roll down my legs. Steve quickly straddled me. Thoughts raced through me while I screamed for him to stop. Where are my parents? What will I tell people? Will it hurt?
With his zipper down, Steve reached inside his pants and leered at me with wild eyes, his breath fast.
“Please! No, Steve! Please.” But I knew it was hopeless.
The door opened and hit the wall. Charlie ran in, grabbed my field hockey stick with his one arm and began to beat Steve on the side of head. Steve immediately fell back onto my carpet, where Charlie proceeded to kick him, over and over.
“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you! You scum!” Charlie shouted as he kicked. Steve’s head looked like it had a hole in it; blood crawled through his oily hair. Moaning and whimpering, he tried to inch his body towards the door, away from Charlie. Eddie and Paul showed up, their faces scared and shocked as they helped pull Steve up from the floor.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Charlie shouted. “Get out!”
Moments later, we heard them screech away in Steve’s car.
When they were gone, Charlie sat down next to me. He held me as I continued to sob. Then he started to cry. His body shook as we rocked back and forth together.
“Everything’s going to be alright, Princess. Everything’s going to be alright.”