The False Leg.
Marston had planned quite well, or so he thought. The new leg would be just as good as the old, only he could put things in it. Important things, secret things. Documents, perhaps. Or gold bullion. Or a pistol. He asked the design team if they could line the hidden chamber with something impervious to prying x-rays. “Yes, we can,” they said, and altered the schematic. The design team was very attentive and they concerned themselves solely with feasibility and usability.
“It should be as close as possible to the weight of my current leg,” Marston said, and looked at the design team, expectant, one eyebrow raised just slightly. They stood arrayed in front of him at the shop, various combinations of spectacles and slouches and ill-advised haircuts housed in identical white lab frocks.
“We can do that,” one of the designers said. He never differentiated between the designers, or even assigned them nicknames of his own; they were independent contractors, and he only spoke with them as a group. Foster, his personal assistant, did all the mundane things like write them checks and learn their names.
He paced in front of the design team when he presented these new challenges to them, back and forth, up and down the line (though a good ten feet away), pivoting without warning to state his desire. He hoped to shock them, but they were unflappable.
“And it should have feeling just like my leg does now–” suddenly, he spun “–but only when I want it to. I want an off switch, because that could come in handy.”
“Kill switch for sensation, check,” said one of the designers.
“And no one should know it’s not my original leg unless I tell them. The secret is mine to reveal, if I want to.”
“Verisimilitude,” said one of the designers.
Marston rattled off dozens of features, some of which he thought would interfere with each other, some of which he thought were flat-out impossible. The designers, consummate professionals all, seemed not to notice or, if they noticed, care. They pondered and considered but never rejected.
“How much are you willing to spend?” one of the designers asked, in a flat practical tone. Marston told them. For a fraction of a second, he thought he’d flapped the unflappable. But the design team, being independent contractors, maintained their professional demeanor, down to their flareable nostrils and twitchable eyebrows.
“We can do that,” the design team said, in unison.
The design team gave him a quote, a substantial quote, but nothing big enough to bother him, and said it would be ready in six months. He asked about installation. “We know a guy,” one of the designers said, and produced a surgeon’s business card.
The surgeon, who was an owner-operator, lacked the design team’s disinterest. He phrased his disapproval of the replacement leg in terms of his own skill: “I do not think I can perform the procedure.” Marston took this as a sign to proceed with great subtlety, and for a while he sat on the exam table, swinging his legs and whistling. (Marston had insisted on meeting with the surgeon in this state, in one of the exam room’s at the surgeon’s office, dressed in a paper exam gown, his street clothes piled on a nearby chair.) While he whistled, the surgeon would occasionally restate the reasons for his unease. Before the surgeon cycled through his reservations a third time, Marston said a number. When, after several seconds of bugeyed staring, the surgeon began to repeat himself again, Marston said another, larger number. Marston said three more even larger numbers before the surgeon fell into a chair and nodded, two weak dips of his head. Marston hopped down from the table and began to dress. “Knew you’d see it my way,” he said while pulling on a sock. “Give some of it to charity, you’ll feel better.”
In the operating room, Marston asked to draw the dotted line that would divide his old leg from the rest of his body. He flirted with the anesthesiologist, calling her “the lady with the vapors.” The surgeon looked crestfallen, even with his mask and hat on. Marston could not abide this, couldn’t stand to be operated upon by a man in a funk.
“Why so glum, doc?” he asked the surgeon.
The surgeon said, his vowels smoothed by an accent Marston had only just noticed, “I feel I am compromising my morals by performing this frivolous operation.”
Marston chuckled. “Doc, I’m about to go under the knife – that knife, right there in your hand – and you dump this on me?”
“Now you mock me.”
“You’ll get over it. Did you make a large charitable donation to the organization of your choice?”
“Good man. I hope for your sake that I don’t agree with their politics.”
“Actually, the group is a –”
“Now now, no need for that. You’ve got cutting to do. Gas me,” he said, and the anesthesiologist chuckled as she placed the mask on his face.
When he woke up, he had his new leg, the false one, firmly in place on his right stump, feeling like a part of him, except the achilles tendon, which was an odd numb spot, but the design team told him to bring it over to the shop at his convenience and they’d fix it right up. He had Foster hand over her car keys so he could try out the hidden compartment.
“Couldn’t you have made them make it look better?” she asked.
“I wanted it to match. It’s not the design team’s fault I’ve got chicken legs, it’s my mother and her blasted genes. Every one of my maternal relatives has a pair just like them.” He lifted his leg and shook it around, listening to the jingle of the hidden keys. A grin stretched across his face.
“Why didn’t you soundproof the compartment?”
“I did, but the soundproofing’s got an off switch. Everything’s got an off switch.”
So he had the leg, and it was a grand old leg. And more importantly, he had a story. He felt he’d always lacked good stories, at least good stories in which he played the lead role, and now he had a story, and he could carry it with him, and the main prop too, all at once, with a flask inside.
No one told him it was a stupid story.
He debuted the story in Monte Carlo, after four months of physical therapy and another month waiting on the custom suits he’d ordered, with their indiscernible breakaway right pant legs. He went to a casino and gambled and thought the waitresses were flirting with him more, though he won and lost about as much as usual. He retired to a lounge and struck up a conversation with a dark statuesque woman in a backless evening gown. He complimented her shoulder blades and bought her another one of whatever she was having.
On the strength of his unorthodox praise, she asked him to drink with her. Their conversation ranged wide, the sort of talk that took a very long time to reach a subject that Marston could use as a segue to his new leg. When a suitable topic arrived, he was a little less than half-schookered and he almost missed his chance, but he saw the opportunity and took it. He told her about his new leg, rattled off its many amazing features. He set it to “wooden” and rapped on it with his knuckles so she could hear the sharp percussive sound. He spoke of its sensitivity and looked away as she poked his knee with a swizzle stick and he said “I can feel that!” at just the right time. He ripped off the right leg of his trousers (partly to test the suit’s breakaway-ness; it was satisfactory) and danced a little softshoe. She asked if he had any training and he said “No, it’s all in the leg!”
“What was wrong with your real leg?” she asked.
He told her the truth: “Nothing.”
“Excuse me, ” she said, and left the bar.
Marston stood, watching her leave with his breakaway pant leg in his hand. Then he fully schnookered himself and flew back home the next day.
A week later, he visited the surgeon.
“I want my old leg back,” Marston said.
“That is impossible.”
“Impossible or expensive?” he asked, motioning for Foster to bring forth his fattest check book.
“Impossible. Your old leg has been disposed of.”
Marston waved Foster off.
“But I am no longer satisfied with this leg.”
“That is madness. The leg does everything your real leg did, and more,” the surgeon said.
“But here I am, unsatisfied.”
Despite Marston’s disappointment, the surgeon was the one whose eyes were watery and whose lip was quivering. “You are a fool. Leave my office and do not come here again.”
On the street in front of the surgeon’s office, Marston shoved his hands in his pockets. Foster squinted in the sun and wind.
“What the heck was his problem?” Marston asked.
“No idea, sir,” Foster replied. “Did you want to drive straight home, or did you have any other errands to run?”
Marston exhaled and looked, first to the left, and then to the right. “Actually, I think I’ll walk for a while.”
“Clear your head, sir?”
“I suppose.” He looked at Foster, specifically her ear. “How long have you had that thing in your ear?”
“Yeah, the phone.”
“Ever since you told me to use it, sir.”
“Alright then,” Marston said, and nodded once, and walked off.
Three blocks down, there was a small bar. Marston walked inside and asked the bartender for “a bottle of your most sullen beer.” Apparently, the establishment’s most sullen beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon. He sat at the bar and grimaced. After a prolonged period of grimacing, a woman sat next to him. She had pointy features and short spiky hair. She also ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, though she referred to it only as a PBR and made no reference to the beer’s emotional state. She turned to Marston, smirked and said “Why the long face?”
Marston turned to her and studied her smirk for a moment and then said “I’m glad you asked.” He told her about his leg, the design team, the surgeon, Monte Carlo, all the things his leg could do and the one thing it couldn’t, that one woman’s shoulder blades, the secret compartment, the sensation, the verisimilitude, everything. As he told the story, he watched the woman watching him. She never looked away, stole blind drinks from her beer bottle, and laughed exactly eight times. Marston figured this was a good number. They talked for a long time after that, but Marston hadn’t set his leg’s chronometer, so he didn’t know exactly how long. At the end of this interval, the woman set her empty bottle down with a definitive clunk.
“You say you can put things in your leg?” the woman asked.
“Yes, I can. But I get little satisfaction out of it.”
The woman reached up to her face and performed a series of subtle and alien gestures. Marston was transfixed. When she finished, she held her left eye between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. She had a glass eye. She grabbed a coaster and placed the eye on it so that its static pupil stared at him. Then she tied on an eyepatch. “Hold on to that for a while. I’m going to need it back.” She rose and headed toward the door.
“How quickly will you need it?” Marston asked.
“Whenever you feel like finding me.”
“How will I know where to find you?”
“My name and phone are printed on the back.”
“Why would you print your name and phone number on the back of your eye?”
“In case I lose it.” She opened the door and was swallowed by brilliant sunlight.
Marston picked up the glass eye and felt himself grinning. He ripped off his right pantleg, balled it up into a cushion for the eye, and placed the bundle inside the secret compartment of his false leg. Then he asked for one of the bar’s most contented beers, which it turned out was also PBR. “Cheers,” he said to the silent drunks at the far end of the rail, raised his bottle and then took a long swig.