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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fiction #46: Annette Lapointe

Clean Streets Are Everyone's Responsibility

The city issued a memo early in the snow-melt making bus drivers responsible for the collection of hands.  They didn't bother to print it on official letterhead.  Just mailed it out to the supervisors and had them shove a print-out into everyone's locker, so that the pages fell on us when we got to work.  It was a good trick.  If they'd given us any warning, we could have lodged a complaint.  Something about biohazards or inappropriate working conditions.  Instead, the memo reached us about the same time that the announcement went out on the morning news.

In response to the large number of hands which have been discovered in melting snow drifts, the city has established an interim hand-collection policy.  Winnipeg residents are encouraged to wrap any discovered hands appropriately (in grocery bags, etc.) and turn them in to city bus drivers.  Drivers will return all hands to a central collection point, from which the city will make all reasonable efforts to ascertain the hands' origins and identify their owners.

If you are unable to wait for the next bus, please leave the hand at your nearest bus stop.  Ensure the wrapping is labelled clearly.

I was braced for ugly, wet bags waiting in piles at otherwise empty bus stops, stinking and slowing down the route, but in fact most people waited in person to submit their discoveries.  I was issued a big plastic box, red and yellow, to hold the results.  There were very few grocery bags.  Instead, I carefully accepted bundles wrapped in old baby blankets and sweaters.  There were a couple that at first I thought might be kittens, or something else little and still alive.  It meant I had to check.  Pull back the wrapping and ensure that whatever I'd been given wasn't going to suffocate.

They were all hands.  People took it very seriously.

The snow-melt always reveals a few ugly things that stayed politely frozen all winter.  There's the layer of dog shit and garbage and small animals that didn't survive.  The police force is in my union, for some reason, and they told us that bodies turn up every spring, dead all winter and picked at by scavengers, and suddenly everyone's very urgent about it, just like the poor guys weren't missing all winter.

The first few hands were collected by the police with full forensic teams.  The city was worried, the way they were in Vancouver when feet started washing up on the beach.  People started talking about serial killers. 

Later, when they started to desensitize, people made jokes about secret implementations of sharia law.  Even before the hand-collection program started, at the bus sheds we received a couple of reminders that anti-Muslim sentiment wasn't welcome in the department.  That all residents of the city who gave respect deserved to receive respect.

It was phrased like that, about giving and receiving respect, because of the crazies, and the right we'd won in the last strike to eject them if they started to get rowdy.  We got our safety shields in that strike, too.  Taxi drivers only got safety shields this year.

Because of the shield, I had to climb down every time someone gave me a hand.  It didn't seem right to just say, Put it in the box with the others.  I had to come out and accept the wrapped-up thing, and tell the waiting person thanks.  Like it was a lost iPod or something: You did the right thing.  I'll make sure it gets back to its owner.

The police relaxed when they got a sense of how many hands were actually out there.  It seems counter-intuitive that they'd breathe easier when the number passed a thousand, but it was evidence that the hands couldn't possibly have been severed from city residents.  People would have noticed.  The hands were only hands, not evidence of bodies.  They were neatly severed just above all those tiny wrist bones, with no extra osteotic fragments.  It was done really neatly.  And because they were mostly still frozen, the hands didn't really smell.  There were some white hands and some brown hands and some black hands, men's hands and women's hands. 

No children's hands.  That helped.  I don't think I could have just accepted a child's hand from some stranger hunched over waiting at Inkster and Keewatin.

The second week of collection, I lined my box with a flannel sheet from the top of my closet.

The police sent us notes about the status of the hands.  The notes went up on the bulletin board next to our lockers.  When they determined that nearly all the hands were lefts, they told us.  Later, they added that about one in seven were right hands.  They were all dead, obviously, but it wasn't immediately clear whether they'd been severed before or after death.  The medical examiner wasn't even really sure how the hands had been severed, since there were no broken bones, and the cut ends were so even.

They were just hands.

There weren't anywhere near six hundred thousand, though I kept hearing people on the bus speculating that maybe there was an extra hand for every person in the city.  Still, the police cadets were pressed into service finger-printing them all.  Students from both universities came in to take DNA samples.  The city petitioned the province for funds to catalogue and preserve the hands until they could be properly something-ed.  The regional health authority invited people to come in and submit DNA samples, just in case.

That triggered the poster campaign.  I was working a north end route, so I didn't mostly see the signs until I took a few days off.  The posters went up in the city core and the hipster villages south of the Assiniboine River.  The kind of areas you can travel on foot, or on a skateboard.

I tried not to read anything into that.  Not everybody rides the bus, not by a long shot.  I see the odd bumper sticker, while I'm stuck in traffic, that reads, Anyone caught on a bus after 30 has failed at life.

A few whack jobs are banned from transit.  We have pictures of them up on the bulletin board, just in case, though most of them only ever haunted a couple of routes, and didn't try to crash new ones.

The campaign posters were hand-drawn and photocopied.  They warned us all against submitting DNA samples.  The police, they said, were just trying to make a catalogue of all citizens.

Below that it said, Smash the state! Learn to skate!

We tried not to take that as a slam against the transit system, either.

The hands dwindled once the snow was gone.  The odd one was discovered in Assiniboine Forest, chewed by dogs or coyotes, and a couple washed up on the river banks, but they were obvious leftovers.  No new ones appeared.

The city didn't identify any of the hands right away, or later on, either.

There wasn't actually a one-to-one ratio of hands to city residents; more like one-to-one-hundred.  The final tally of hands was six thousand eight hundred forty-one.  They're carefully wrapped and stored in the Health Sciences Centre, now.  All in little bags, with tags indicating what they were wrapped in when they arrived, and details like nail polish colour.  I found out that last detail when I signed up for a tour.  They have a little fact-sheet they give out to the curious.  It listed the number of men's hands and women's, and how many there were by race, roughly, and odd little things like the fact that while lots had tan shadows, three actually had wedding rings on.  Seven had tattoos.

If they can't trace the hands within ten years, the official plan is to release them in bunches to religious groups, so they can hold funerals.  It'll be proportionate.  Nobody has a plan for the atheist hands.  It'll probably depend on how religious the city council is feeling at the time, whether they leave room for atheists.

I keep hearing a rumour, though, through the union newsletter and work chatter, that if the religious thing falls through, they're going to give the hands up for adoption.  Sort of like kittens.  So I put my name in for that.  I'll take in a hand.  Maybe bury it in my flower bed.  I carried so many of them, I feel like I owe them something.


Annette Lapointe has lived in Saskatchewan, Quebec, Newfoundland, South Korea, Manitoba, and Alberta.  She has published two novels, "Stolen" (2006), which was nominated for the Giller Prize, and "Whitetail Shooting Gallery" (2012), which was a finalist for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year.  She lives in northern Alberta and teaches at Grande Prairie Regional College.

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