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Monday, September 26, 2011

Fiction #28: Kate Millar

Thurston Pyle

by Kate Millar

Thurston Pyle loses his thumb when he's three years old. Sucks it clean off. He deposits the shriveled digit into his mother's lap, like the loneliest thumbs up of approval in the world. "What did I tell you about sucking your thumb," his mother is quick to admonish, but, unbeknownst to Thurston, remains rather shaken. Thumbs don't simply fall off, after all. She takes Thurston to the doctor and he's diagnosed with a rare condition. "Like leprosy but not," the doctor says with a shrug. "Best keep him indoors." Heeding the doctor's advice, Thurston's mother keeps her son indoors at all times and, after witnessing him stub his foot and lose three cherry pink toes as a result, decides that little Thurston would be best off in a wheelchair.

Thurston hates his wheelchair. The loudness of its whir makes it impossible for him to sneak up on his mother and share a laugh together. But the chair's controls remind him of a joystick and it's like he's the hero of his own private video game. Sometimes he even makes sound effects when he wheels through the house, blipping and bleeping to himself. To maneuver the chair, he cups the fleshy part of his palm around the joystick; using his fingers is too risky and he only has one thumb left, his mother reminds him.

Thurston's favourite place to sit is near the window of his new ground-floor bedroom, which overlooks a grassy knoll of oak trees and a swing-set for the neighbourhood kids. He looks at the children playing, and he looks at the sun which shines back at him like a half-eaten lemon drop. The sight of the grass and the trees makes little Thurston's heart swell and when he sees the wind tip the branches and bathe the leaves in coolness, Thurston sways in his wheelchair, hypnotized, as if feeling the breeze through the walls of the house himself. This swaying costs young Thurston a rib bone, which breaks off from the ribcage and rattles in his torso like a maraca. Too absorbed with the scene out the window, Thurston hardly notices.

When Thurston Pyle turns eighteen, he ditches the wheelchair and leaves home.

"This is a mistake," his mother says to him, hysterical.

"I'm grown up now Mum," he tells her with a kiss on the cheek. He moves to the city and immediately loses a hand pushing through the subway turnstile—his left hand, which falls plumb off at the wrist. But Thurston's intoxicated by the strange soupy air of public transit and the gathered mass of people in the subway car, each with somewhere different to go, and it's like the most chaotic magic he's ever known. He finds a small bachelor flat and gets a job answering complaint letters for a soft drink company. He takes pride in his work and is good at what he does. Thurston meets a girl named Jessica and he takes her for a picnic under the stars. "I've always wanted to do this," he tells her. Jessica kisses him and she smells like oranges, and then Thurston Pyle has sex for the first (and, unfortunately, final) time.

What was his mother so worried about? He's happy, has many friends, and shrugs off any and all minor mishaps, like the time his ears fall off at a rock concert, or when he loses his tongue after an adventure with Korean barbeque. When he's thirty he meets a woman named Debbie, and Debbie takes Thurston swing-dancing because it's her passion. She leads tongueless, earless Thurston around the dance floor and, mid lindy-hop, Thurston's arm comes off at the shoulder socket into Debbie's hand. But Thurston's so happy to be wearing saddle shoes and lindy-hopping with Debbie that he doesn't really mind, and then he decides that he loves swing dancing and then he decides that he loves Debbie and within a year they are married. They are happy together.

For his sixtieth birthday, Thurston Pyle goes sky-diving. The timing seems right. He lost his dear mother the year prior, so he no longer has to worry about her worrying about him. And Debbie has never been disturbed by Thurston's flights of fancy. "I always admire your vim," she tells her husband. The sky-diving instructor had been reticent to allow a one-armed, one-legged senior citizen to jump (Thurston having lost a leg in his forties on a boating excursion to the Keys), but Thurston's eyes and cheeks are so buoyed with anticipation that the instructor is eventually persuaded. Thurston kisses his wife and boards the airplane.

Thurston ascends. He gazes out the window contentedly, the white corpulent clouds still so far above him and the field and farmhouses hazy below. And then the sky-diving instructor tells him it's time to jump and Thurston Pyle flies out of the airplane without a moment's hesitation, caught up in the raptures of open sky that envelope every inch of his body.

His stomach is the first to become detached. Thurston is thrilled to feel the organ flip-flopping and freefalling inside his abdominal cavity. His nose snaps off next and his head fills with a rush of cold splintery air. His collarbone grinds inward to press against his spinal cord, and then his eyes dislodge, rolling into the back of his cranium like marbles clinking in a glass bowl. His kneecaps shimmy up his legs into his pelvis and Thurston giggles at the sensation. But his favourite part, his absolute favourite, is the rush of wind that he feels on the two remaining fingers of his one remaining hand. A rush of wind like a blanket. And then his arm flies off, fist over shoulder, and then his leg and then Thurston's head and torso keep tumbling, falling, as Thurston weeps with ecstasy.

By the time Thurston Pyle finds land, his skin and bones have all fallen away and there's nothing more to him than a mass of gelatinous liquid that splats across the landing strip with terrific force. But then the liquid oozes back together, gathering its gooey molecules until it forms a perfect puddle. Debbie collects the puddle and puts it in a jar.

"I've always loved his vim," she tells the sky-diving instructor, with tears in her eyes. She hugs the jar tightly to her chest. The puddle gleams in the sunlight.


Kate Millar's work is forthcoming in Event and Paper Darts and she is currently at work on her first collection of short stories. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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