I would have never gone to college if it weren’t for Mr. Boettcher. I had him in eighth grade, for English. He was plump and bearded and short, and he wore thick glasses with stems that curled over his ears to hold them on snugly. He needed that because he had no hands.
He had several stock reactions to the inevitable question. “What do you mean?” was his favorite, blinking through the thick lenses and furrowing his brows. When deadpan sarcasm wouldn’t work, he’d say, “I’m not sure. They were here a minute ago,” then distractedly paw around the papers on his desk with those strange stumps, each one indented slightly and capable of some minimal grip somehow, by the magic of muscles and tendons nobody else was aware they had. He was a wizard at picking up pieces of paper. Sometimes he licked a stump to give it some adhesive, then ruffle through a stack of essays easy as pie.
The longstanding rumor – one likely passed down through years of worth of eighth graders and supposedly having its origin in Mr. Boettcher’s first year of teaching, way back in 1978, before he developed his stock answers – was that he lost his hands to frostbite when he got lost and stranded climbing the west ridge of Quandary Peak, but it was impossible to picture him mountain climbing, being such a butterball of a man. “Maybe he used to be fit, but after the accident, he just stopped exercising,” said Manny, my friend and constant seat neighbor. “Maybe,” I said, sensitive to the topic because of my own alarmingly ballooning weight.
“I woke up one day, and they weren’t there. Might happen to you, you know.” That’s what he said to our class on the first day, not even waiting for the question. It was the last any of us ever mentioned it. We could tell, from the way he gave a rehearsed speech on the first day of school, that it was a well-exhausted topic. Even the cruel among us – about 50% of the class by my calculations – saw no opening for mockery in the smooth way he handled it. Plus, there was a magic to watching him work in front of his pristine blackboard, the only blackboard I’d ever seen still a near-perfect obsidian, the only faint chalk lines being remnants from substitute teachers. He did all his instruction by overhead projector. He’d maneuver a transparency into place, then wave at relevant passages projected onto the chalkboard. When he wanted to make a particular passage seen, he’d slowly underline it with a stump. In the wintertime, he often let the sleeves of his pullover sweater fall over the stumps so that his hands simply weren’t there.
In the middle of the year, there was a new kid. He was tall and lean and had the eyes of a wolf. He told everyone to call him Churro, so we did, even the teachers. He smiled at girls in a way that was … his mouth was pressed together and became impossibly wide, while his wolfish eyes squinted. Some of them liked him, some did not. He ignored most of the boys and had no friends but that didn’t stop him from bullying. Not with pushing and punching like the others. With words, almost whispered in passing. Cutting, devastating words. He made fun of Owen’s glasses. He made fun of Manny’s shoes. He told me one time, while I was grabbing a drink of water from the fountain in the gym, that I looked like lost hippo. It became his nickname for me. “Are you lost, little hippo?” he’d say, coming around a corner, spotting me, then continuing to stride past like he’d said nothing.
He was the one who said something about Mr. Boettcher’s hands. But it wasn’t the question. And it wasn’t exactly an attack either. The instinct he had, for finding someone’s skin and getting under it, was what he deployed one March day. The blinds were open and the sun was shining on the previous weekend’s snow, sending blinding light into the classroom. Mr. Boettcher asked someone to lower the blinds so we could see the projector. Churro sat near the pull cord, in the back corner, but he didn’t move. When it was clear he wasn’t going to do the favor, Maria stood up and walked two seats back to draw the blinds. “Be careful,” Churro said. “Those cords will slice your hands clean off.”
There was a stunned silence. Most of us looked at Mr. Boettcher, who was fiddling with the transparency to get it into position. We half expected, because of his own quiet humor about his condition, to see him laugh. But he ignored Churro. Didn’t even blush.
Churro leaned back in his chair. “Good thing it’s you doing it, Maria. When those cords whip up too quickly, they don’t just take your hands. They take your dick, too.” And he made a quick whistle, to mimic the sound of a dick being sliced off. Mr. Boettcher said nothing.
Maria finished pulling the blinds – carefully, it’s true – and resumed her seat. Emboldened by saying “dick” out loud and getting away with it, Churro turned his gaze to Mr. Boettcher and smiled his long flat smile, the one he used for girls. “Right, teach? Wouldn’t want anyone else in this room walking around with three stumps.”
Mr. Boettcher flipped on the projector and looked at Churro through his thick lenses. “Shut up, Mr. Martinez,” he said. We all giggled. Something about calling Churro “Mr. Martinez” triggered the sort of nervous laughter only eighth graders are susceptible to en masse.
The laughter pushed Churro further. “I just assumed it fell off when you couldn’t tug it no more,” he said, miming a couple of quick pulls on his own pantomime penis.
“No,” said Mr. Boettcher. “No, Mr. Martinez, it stayed on. The balls were what they took.” There was louder laughter now, but it quickly died. Mr. Boettcher wasn’t joking, not even in his usual deadpan way. “The balls, seven toes, both hands, and I lost most of my eyesight. All from snow, just like the snow out there. Wind, too, though. Cold. Icy wind. No sun to relieve it. They found me curled up, trying to keep my core warm, hands already gangrenous and purple, good only for clasping my elbows together. My ass was exposed to the elements. Most of the skin on it died. A good couple of stripes from the backside down the thighs, they had to take that, too. But I’m alive, Mr. Martinez. And I know who I am. You?” Mr. Boettcher made some adjustments to the focus knob on the projector then turned his attention to the blackboard where a passage of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was glowing. “Jury’s still out on you.”
Churro didn’t speak after that. When class was over, I went up to Mr. Boettcher’s desk and apologized to him. “He’s just mean. The rest of us wouldn’t say anything. You know.”
Mr. Boettcher looked up at me. “Omar,” he said, “he’s not mean. He’s a kid. He might always be a kid. Some kids never become adults.”
I must have stared at him stupidly for a whole minute. I remember not moving, even though he had gone back to reading the papers on his desk. “Grow up, Omar. That’s all you have to do. Grow up and don’t let the children rule you.”
“Is it true?”
He looked up again, blinking. “Is what true?”
“Your story. Were you on a mountain?”
He smiled, sadly, and looked at his arms. “The truth is wherever it needs to be,” he said. “That’s what you’re supposed to be learning, reading all these novels.”
“So you lied?”
Mr. Boettcher sighed, then waved me away with his left arm, saying, “I survived, Omar. Go, get to your next class. Survive.”
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