When Simple was a little boy, a teacher told him about shooting stars. She used big words; she said things like “combustible,” “atmosphere” and “vaporisation.” Her voice was a worn out sway. Her eyes glanced at the clock above the blackboard more frequently than the children’s. Simple never looked at the clock at all. Simple was an odd child in more ways than just his lazy dead arm. Beneath her big words and dragging tone he imagined a fireworks display with
multicoloured flames whizzing wantonly.
That night, he stared up at the sky. It looked like the black kitchen tabletop when he spilt salt on it that one time, and his mother had told him to take the salt and toss it over his shoulder. It was so strange. His mother hated him spilling or wasting things and yet she was telling him to throw salt. It had felt so good to fling that small pinch of salt and he had wished it were a handful.
His mother saw him staring at the stars and said, “you should make a wish for something you want.”
Simple’s lips moved slowly: “shoot, shoot, one of you, shoot. You, you, you, you. Shoot.”
He kept his eyelids open as long as he could—didn’t want it to happen while he was blinking. He stared at the intricate constellations and prayed one of the pinpricks of light would break free from the pattern.
Simple stayed out in the veranda until his mother said, “it’s time to go to bed.” Then he got changed, climbed into bed and pretended to fall asleep.
When he heard her footsteps clip clop away he crept to the far end of the room, parted the curtain and looked up. “Shoot, shoot, one of you, shoot.”
Them silly stars must have been too far away to hear him, and he couldn’t holler or his mother would know he was awake. He gave up and made a cocoon out of sheets covered with Mickey Mouse icons. He hoped he would dream of shooting stars. Instead, he dreamt of a man without teeth or eyes who had long vegetable fingers and sharp fingernails.
At school, a fat boy made fun of Simple’s arm. He walked back and forth swinging his arm this way and that like pendulum. All the other kids laughed. Simple didn’t cry even though he wanted to.
In the shower, Simple often looked at his dead arm: the way the skin was so puffy and it was shorter than the other arm. He’d look at it and think move, move, move! Maybe if I think hard enough it will move?
When no one was looking he would grab it in his other hand and force it to move. Maybe one day he’d let go and it would keep going—like the way that little girl’s bicycle kept going when they took off the training wheels.
That little girl is named Hemali, an Indian name. Simple’s mother said that people in India pray to statues, but Simple was standing near Hemali when they went to the museum and there were lots of statues. She didn’t kneel or nothing. She also kept on talking no matter how many times the teacher said “shush.”
Simple always shushes himself, even when he has things to say. He’s got a job at a stationary manufacturing plant now. They make paper and pens and staples and clips. This morning he’s been thinking of memories he hasn’t in ages.
Like the time Hemali fell off the swing—a football hit her in the face and knocked her off. She cried so hard and the next day she came back with her arm in a sling. Her arm swing swanged when she walked and bounced against her side.
Simple walked up to her in the playground and talked to her—he never had before. She said words differently: “kwataa” instead of “quarter,” “hhopen” instead of “open.” He thought he was going to talk to her about her arm. He wanted to tell her how he knew what it was like, and that if the fat boy made fun of her she shouldn’t cry because he’d just make fun of the crying. Instead, they talked about marbles. Hemali had sixty-one: swishies, misties and even a few clearies. She showed him a smoky marble she’d traded for five marbles. Simple didn’t like it. He liked the ones that gleamed in the sunlight.
They played marbles in the playground, digging out pits in the tarmac and flicking the tiny spheres with their fingertips. They played marbles every day for the next few weeks. It was impossible to beat Hemali. She could chip a marble at the exact right angle to make it twirl and move sideways instead of forward.
One day Hemali came back and her sling was off. She hugged Simple with both arms and she talked real fast about how the doctor had a little scary saw that whizzed and whirred and about how he had given her a bag of chips, not candy like the other doctor, but chips and she thought that was odd because chips were not sweet like candy and everybody knows that doctors are meant to give you sweet things. Simple didn’t hear Hemali. He was staring at her left arm.
He ran away as fast as he could. He kept running till his legs hurt and his breathing was like coughing. He hid between the assembly hall and the sick bay and kept thinking of Hemali’s arm whipping up and down as she spoke, and of how hard it had pulled him to her when she had hugged him.
He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his arm and shoulder. It was difficult to make a knot but he leaned against the wall of the sick bay and bent so that he could make a loop. When he let go his dead arm dangled in the makeshift sling he had made. He looked at the dead puffy skin and thought, when I take it off you will move. You’ll move this way and that and I’ll put out both my arms like that guy in the circus.
Simple stood there for a long time. The class bell went clang clang clang but he didn’t go. He waited there, scared to take it off.
He thought of all the many things he would do when his dead arm woke up. In PE class he’d be able to climb the rope. He would climb higher than everybody, especially the fat boy who could only get a meter up. They’d not be able to make him come down. The teacher would tug the bottom of the rope and say, “come down, Simple.”
“No,” he’d say. “I’m staying here.”
In the stationary manufacturing plant, at the age of forty-one, Simple remembers that day. A part of him wishes he had never taken the sling off because while it was on, anything had been possible. When he took it off and his arm fell limply as always he had felt worse than he did saying goodbye at the airport.
He was never really able to talk to Hemali again. She’d come up to him and talk to him and hug him and want to play with him but he would run away. She got angry and cried and asked him why, and he said nothing so she went away and found another friend.
Simple grew up and amid so much mind-clutter, he forgot about Hemali. He didn’t think of her once. Until yesterday night that is.
He was walking home from the plant—didn’t miss the bus, just wanted to walk. He saw a group of musicians playing in the park. He went over and listened to them tapping and wailing their instruments. He wondered for a moment what it would have been like to play an instrument. He sat on a bench and watched them for hours, not just for a few moments like everyone else.
They left when it was dark and he remained on the bench for a while, thinking not of the music but of how beautiful the pianist’s ten fingers had looked dancing across the keyboard of his electric synthesizer; he thought of how the curly-haired woman had held the double bass like a lover, threading the strings with one hand while the other gripped the neck and twisted; he thought of the drummer’s palms, rising and falling and rising and falling.
He looked up just in time to see a star shoot across the sky. It whipped down like a kingfisher, or one of those Olympic divers, a bright flash like a matchstick just after it strikes the box. For some reason the star cutting across the night made Simple think of a little girl holding a handful of marbles in her palm, some of them gleaming like fire in the morning sun.
DALISO CHAPONDA is an African stand-up comedian and freelance writer based in the United Kingdom. He has published stories and poetry in magazines and newspapers like
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Apex Digest. As a stand up comedian he has appeared in the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, the Leicester Comedy Festival, and a Canadian television special.