Alien Hand Syndrome (Nth Street)
Updated: May 11
alien hand syndrome: the condition of one's body parts moving of their own volition.
Cavendish Grotto is seven and a half years of age when he loses control of his right hand. He wakes up to a normal morning, with normal birds and the normal weight of his blankets pooled around his calves, and tramps downstairs to eat a normal breakfast. His mother puts an apple in front of him, though he loathes apples, because she believes that one green thing a day guarantees a life of health and well-being. As is his habit, Cavendish reaches for the apple, prepared to choke it down, but his right hand swoops in and slaps the fruit to the ﬂoor. “Good Lord, Cavendish, what’s gotten into you?” his mother asks, and Cavendish shrugs.
“Suppose I don’t like apples,” he says, and his younger sister Lindy looks at him across the table with newfound respect. Lindy is beautiful, with perfect bone structure, but she wants nothing more than to be Miss Universe, so she rarely eats and cultivates talents such as baton swirling and hypnotism.
From that moment, Candendish’s hand prevents him from ever doing anything he doesn’t want to. It becomes known as quite a troublemaker at school, getting put in time outs so often that Cavendish has to teach himself ambidextry. When he develops an aching crush on an eighth grader in his middle school, his right hand writes her a love letter that makes her turn pink from the dot of her nose to the tip of her ears. When her teacher ﬁnds it, the hand is suspended and Cavendish has to wear mittens for a week.
Forty-two and a half years later, when he is known almost exclusively as Mr. Grotto, he opens his front door and ﬁnds a blindfolded baby curled up in a blanket. She has inherited the perfect bone structure that once clinched her mother a Miss Universe title, as well as the slender fingers and small feet; her father is reflected only in the curve of her lips as she smiles, the left side always just a tiny bit higher than the right.
He hesitates, but his right hand reaches out and scoops the baby up, bringing her into the curl of his arm and rocking gently back and forth. There is a note pinned to the front of her, in familiar handwriting.
“Well, all right then,” Mr. Grotto says with a sigh. He would recognize that bone structure anywhere. While his right hand occupies itself rocking the baby, he unties the blindfold with the left.
Her eyes are large as ladles, perfect circles that balance precariously on the shelf of her cheekbones. One of them is brown, warm and plain, and in the turned-down light of living rooms and libraries seems almost liquid.
But her right eye is golden, brilliant and perfect like whorled sand. He thinks it might be the most perfect thing two humans have ever created together. He sees in the reﬂection his mother’s apple on the kitchen ﬂoor, and the dirty love letter on the desk, and an incident when he was twenty when his right hand had stolen ten dollars worth of bread from the market because it had lost their grocery money during a bar ﬁght.
He chuckles. “Bringing out the worst in people is a talent of your mother’s, too,” he says, and carries the child inside.
He names her Lindy for her mother and Laura for his, but for whole life she will answer only to Lulu. At ﬁve years the local daycare asks him to stop bringing her in because she makes the teachers and the children’s parents cry; at twelve the city council passes a law requiring her to wear a eye patch over her right eye to cover the perfect swirling gold that beams there. It isn’t her fault, the mayor assures her, and of course everyone knows that she doesn’t mean to walk around casting light on people’s dusty corners, but someone is going to get hurt if she keeps standing on street corners causing accidents.
Once a year, Lulu receives a letter from her mother. They’re usually short messages, just one or two lines. They don’t say much, don’t ask much, but at least they mean that Lulu matters, that she isn’t forgotten.
But here is the first of three truths about Lulu’s letters from Lindy: Lindy doesn’t send them. Mr. Grotto writes them in the turned-down light of his room after Lulu goes to sleep.
Mrs. Merle, who lives across the street and always makes the pair sandwiches because they haven’t anyone to cook for them, offers to teach Lulu to sew. Mr. Grotto’s right hand insists that they’re enterprising enough on their own, and attempts four knitted caps before Lulu kisses its knuckles and goes across the street.
“Now there, dear, that’s where you’ve gone wrong. You’ve purled three, you see?” Mrs. Merle hooks her pinky into the offending error and tugs until the rest of Suzy Sarsberg’s lumpy-looking scarf unravels.
On Saturdays Suzy comes to Mrs. Merle’s Knitted Household Objects & Bagel Bakery for lessons, but she’s awful. She tells Lulu that she read somewhere that women who have relaxing hobbies like knitting and sewing live longer, healthier lives.
“Better sex, too,” says Mrs. Merle, who loves to say shocking things.
“Mrs. Merle!” cries Suzy, indicating Lulu with a sharp dart of her eyes.
Lulu, who is fourteen, rolls her eyes and adjusts her eye patch. “I live with Uncle Cavendish’s right hand,” she reminds them. “It brought me a book on safe sex the moment I hit double digits.”
Mrs. Merle clucks her to tongue and Suzy hides a giggle behind her hand. “And Mr. Grotto is such a nice man, too. Very appropriate. My mother is forever giving me pens for him because he sells her the loveliest bouquets.”
“Well, he doesn’t allow his right hand near them,” Lulu laughs. “It has a brown thumb that could kill a cactus.”
Suzy sighs. “Anyway, it doesn’t apply to me, whether or not you’ve already been corrupted. Steve and I don’t have sex.”
“The allergy?” Lulu asks. She loves hearing about Suzy And Steve’s Doomed Romance of Inﬁnite Sadness. Lulu has just entered the Brönte Sisters phase in her life, and her current favorite book is Wuthering Heights. Suzy nods, purling miserably.
Mrs. Merle, whose husband died in January and has been amiably haunting her library ever since, pats Suzy’s hand. “The good news is that things have changed for women these days. If you can’t be sexually satisﬁed in your marriage, well, heavens child, just cheat.”
“Mrs. Merle!” Suzy says again, shouting to be heard over the sound of a car alarm that has kicked off outside.
“Shocking,” giggles Lulu.
Mr. Grotto owns Lulu’s Garden Bouquets, the ﬂower shop next door to Mrs. Merle’s Knitted Household Goods & Bagel Bakery. All of the bouquets are from his backyard. He’d hired a woman from New York a few years ago to run the actual store, since he prefers to be outside manning the flower stand on the corner of Nth Street and Jean le Rond d'Alembert Parkway.
The New Yorker is his only employee, who’d come to town several years ago to deal with a haunting in the Rooney family’s toolshed, and had liked the town so much that she’d refused to leave. She’d known how to properly de-thorn a rose, and since there weren’t any other prominent hauntings in the neighborhood, agreed to help Mr. Grotto run Lulu’s Garden Bouquets on the condition that he paid her half in travelers’ checks and half in coupons. She doesn’t talk much. She’s a Buddhist as far as anyone can tell.
Every Monday, Mr. Grotto prepares a special purple and white bouquet for McNaulty, the owner of Shelby’s Diner. They’re for his dead wife, the eponymous Shelby, whose favorite colors were purple and white because of the Princess Diana Beanie Baby.
“How are you today, McNaulty?” Mr. Grotto asks, ﬁnishing up the bouquet’s bow with a little ﬂourish.
“Afraid of pinholes and balloon animals,” McNaulty laments in a sigh. “Anyway, you’ll want to watch your roses… Olive says it’s going to be a scorcher.”
“Pity. The heat gives Lulu a rash around the eye patch.”
McNaulty nods as he hands over a wad of bills. “Did you try the cream I told you about? It always helped Shelby when she was breaking in new shoes.”
“We couldn’t find it, actually. Are you sure you have the name right?”
“Best as I can remember.” McNaulty takes the bouquet into the cradle of his arms like a baby. “By the way, you finished that poem yet? Mrs. Merle keeps saying you’ll recite.”
“Not yet,” Mr. Grotto says. Mr. Grotto’s right hand has been writing a poem for as long as it’s been autonomous. He’d made the mistake of mentioning it once to Mrs. Merle when she’d come to bring him a sandwich and she’d bullied him into promising to recite it on her show. But his right hand hasn’t finished writing, and he hasn’t the slightest idea what it’s about, because the hand won’t let him read it.
On the first of every month, Mr. Grotto and Lulu paint the front of their house a new color. For a while Lulu was fond of colors bright and obscure: cyan, chartreuse, salmon. These days she’s been picking colors that make an anagram of her name. She is stuck on the second “u.”
When Lulu emerges from Mrs. Merle’s Knitted Household Goods & Bagel Bakery, he lets her kiss his cheek and suggests ultraviolet.
Lulu blows a strand of hair out of her face. It’s the same stubborn piece that always falls over her eye patch, which wouldn’t bother her except it tickles her cheek when the wind blows. “We can’t paint our house ultraviolet, Uncle Cavendish,” Lulu tells him exasperatedly. “Everyone will get skin cancer.”
“Ah, right,” Mr. Grotto agrees, closing up the flower stand with his left hand while his right steals half of Lulu’s bagel and puts it in his mouth. “Of course.” He catches Lulu’s hand on its way to rub at the skin beneath her eye patch. “Don’t, you’ll only irritate it more.”
“But it itches,” she complains. “I hate it.”
“It’ll itch more if it becomes a rash,” Mr. Grotto says sensibly, but his right hand lifts the eye patch off. Lulu blinks and Mr. Grotto sees a flash of the time that he ran over a dog while driving and his right hand hadn’t let him stop to see if it was alive.
Lulu touches the red line beneath her eye gingerly. She turns her head at the sound of a car honking and, forgetting for a moment that her eye isn’t covered, waves at John-John’s son Gunther, who works as a bike messenger because the local paper circulation isn’t wide enough to support a paperboy. He waves back, but when he’s close enough to meet her eyes he startles and can’t look away, trapped by whatever it is that he sees there, and runs headlong into the flower stand.
The bike’s back tire rears up and Gunther flies off into Mr. Grotto as the stand topples over onto the street. The scent of flowers lifts up in the heat from the pavement and dispels across the town, and Lulu scrambles around in the mess for her eye patch. When she can’t find it, she grabs a rose and rips off a petal to plaster to her face.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she cries, helping untangle the bike messenger from her uncle, whose right hand is pushing him roughly away. “It’s the heat, it irritates my skin, I wasn’t thinking, are you all right?”
Gunther stands, brushing himself off. “I’m okay, it’s okay,” he says, looking hard at the ground and not meeting her brown eye. They extricate his bike from the mess and he mumbles an apology to Mr. Grotto. “Just um … I’ll see you around I guess. Sorry. Sorry.”
He gets on the bike and leaves them, thinking of the time he’d locked his sister in the basement and forgotten her there.
Lulu never asks what people see when they look at her. She doesn’t want to know. Sometimes she stands in front of the bathroom mirror and meets her own gaze, waiting to see whatever it is that makes it impossible for anyone but Uncle Cavendish to look at the right side of her face.
But all she sees is herself, with her perfect bone structure and the side of her mouth that always curls up too far. She covers first her brown eye, then her golden one, but no matter how she looks at herself, all she sees is her reflection.
“Come now,” says Mr. Grotto gently, opening the door with his left hand and while his right tugs on her ponytail, “what is it you’re expecting to see?”
Lulu sighs. “I don’t know. But something.” She looks up at him with both eyes. “How come you can look at me, Uncle Cavendish? Haven’t you ever done anything you’ve been ashamed of?”
He kisses her forehead. “Lots of things,” he tells her, looping his left arm around her shoulders and steering her back into the kitchen. “It’s just that none of them were really my fault.”
Lulu touches the knuckles on his right hand. “I suppose not.”
Here is the second of three truths about Lulu’s letters from Lindy: Lulu knows that her mother doesn’t write her. She knows this because she sneaks into Mr. Grotto’s room and reads the poem his hand is writing. When she was eleven the newest stanza, penned in still-drying bright green ink, read:
one hand writes letters and signs them “Lindy.” the same hand complained when we forged a man’s signature and used his credit card but it looks like both of us are liars.
Mr. Grotto doesn’t know that she knows this, because he hasn’t yet been allowed to read the poem.
Gunther shows up at the doorstep a few days letter with a letter addressed to Lulu. He hands it to her while Mr. Grotto goes back to get him a tip and Lulu waits at the door, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She thinks Gunther looks handsome. She wants to watch the single bead of sweat drip from his temple down off his chin, and she doesn’t know why.
“I’m sorry again about the other day,” she says, feeling horribly awkward in her own skin. “I shouldn’t have—the eye patch, I mean, I should have left it on.”
“No, it’s okay,” Gunther tells the ground, keeping his head low. Lulu figures he must be avoiding her eyes because he’s afraid of seeing what she’s hiding under the patch. The thought fills her with an intense sort of dismay that makes her want to eat a lot of ice cream and cry until she throws up.
Gunther reaches into his satchel and pulls out another letter. “Um, this one is for you, too,” he says quickly. “You can, um. Don’t tell your uncle.”
He shoves the piece of paper at her and gets on his bike, riding away just as Mr. Grotto comes back with his tip. His right hand palms the bill, but his left hand takes the money back and puts it in his pocket for safekeeping.
“He forgot his money,” Mr. Grotto says, bemused.
Dear Lulu, says the unsealed letter, the letter Gunther had passed her with trembling hands before riding his bike away, I think you are beautiful, even your eye. If you want to meet me by the flower stand tonight at midnight, I’d like it. Love, Gunther.
“Is it from your mother?” Mr. Grotto asks, casually squeezing her shoulder on his way back to the couch, where he and his right hand have been playing a ferocious game of chess.
Lulu tucks Gunther’s letter into her bra strap. “Oh, um, yes. It says … she went to Argentina and the post service is terrible. That’s why she missed my birthday. She says that I must be beautiful.”
Mr. Grotto settles on the couch and leans forward, his fingertips kissing the top of his queen’s head but not moving her. “Of course you are,” he says. He carefully hands her the glass he’s carrying in his left hand, because his right hand put vodka in the other one. “You look more like her every day. She was Miss Universe, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Lulu says, but she is distracted, the corners of the letter in her bra biting into her collarbone. She wants to shower. She also wants to get a hair cut. Or paint her nails. She wants to run around in circles until her heartbeat slows down. “Uncle Cavendish,” she asks slowly, “how come you never got married?”
He doesn’t answer right away. Then, after a pause, he asks, “What makes you ask that?”
“Was it because of your hand?”
He covers his eyes with his left hand, briefly. His right hand remains quietly in his lap, listening. “I don’t have an answer for that, Lulu.”
“Didn’t you ever meet somebody who didn’t mind it?”
Mr. Grotto sighs. He stands and his right hand tugs gently on her ponytail. “I don’t mind it,” he tells her, and pushes her eye patch up so he can look into both of her eyes. “That’s what counts.”
At midnight, Lulu sneaks out of the kitchen door. Mr. Grotto is asleep on the couch, and his right hand is drawing a mustache on his face with permanent marker. She is wearing her favorite summer dress. She has her hair in a braid.
She isn’t wearing an eye patch.
Gunther is waiting by the closed up flower stand, and he breaks into a smile when he sees her. “Hi,” he says.
They stand in silence for a minute, Lulu toying with the hem of her dress and Gunther rolling onto the balls of his feet and then back again. “I’m um, I’m glad you came?” he asks after a minute, and then tries again: “I mean, I’m glad you came.”
Lulu smiles at the ground. “Yeah,” she agrees. “I … I brought a patch. It’s in my bag. But I thought … I mean, in your letter you said—”
“Yeah,” Gunther agrees hurriedly, “yeah, no, yeah, I’m glad you didn’t wear … I mean, I don’t mind it, your eye that is. I think it’s … um, I think it’s beautiful.”
She looks up at him. She can’t help it. He looks back and he sees his sister in the basement, but he thinks, well, who hasn’t locked their sister in the basement once or twice? She asks, “What do you see?”
It’s the first time she’s ever asked this of anyone.
“There was this one time last year,” Gunther tells her freely, “my sister was being annoying. So I locked her in the basement downstairs. I forgot her there ‘till my parents got home at dinner. She was stuck there for like six hours.”
Lulu covers her giggle with her left hand, and – almost without meaning to – reaches out to take his with her right.
When Gunther leaves her on her porch, he asks, “What do you see? When you look at it?”
Lulu shrugs. “Me,” she tells him.
Mr. Grotto doesn’t notice the mustache until he goes to shave in the morning, and when he does he sighs. “I thought we were past this,” he tells his hand, and begins trying to scrub it off. When he’s unsuccessful, he hunts down the permanent marker and at breakfast has Lulu neaten it up so it looks fancy. She puts little curls at the end so that he looks like the Monopoly man.
“Have you decided on a color for the wall?” he asks, a bit loopy from the scent of permanent marker.
“Yes,” Lulu says, and pours herself a bowl of cereal. “I was thinking green.”
Mr. Grotto blinks at her. “Green? What happened to 'u’?”
“G is just as good a letter. It’s handsome. And sweet. I like it.”
“Well,” Mr. Grotto acquiesces with a shrug, “all right. I’ll buy the paint. We can do it after McNaulty’s barbecue on Saturday. Unless you want to stay the whole time?”
Lulu has a cornflake on her chin. She dusts it off and pops it into her mouth. “No, everyone is drunk by the time McNaulty’s finished with all his phobias and they start daring one other to look into my eye.”
Mr. Grotto’s right hand flicks a cornflake at her as she stands to put her empty bowl in the sink. She kisses its knuckles as she passes. “Behave,” she tells it, and then, to her uncle, “I’m going to Mrs. Merle’s.”
On the day of the barbecue, Lulu lets Suzy Sarsberg pin her hair up using two Chinese chopsticks she keeps for just these occasions. Mrs. Merle fusses over the color of her mouth, which is just a little too pink with lipstick and a little too pale without it.
“Don’t be nervous,” Mrs. Merle commands. “When in doubt, show a little leg.”
“Don’t listen to her,” Suzy corrects quickly, dabbing with a tissue at Lulu’s lower lip. “Just be yourself. Take deep breaths. Laugh at his jokes and pretend not to notice the clamminess of his hands.”
“Kiss him with tongue,” Mrs. Merle says, and Suzy sighs.
“You’re worse than Mr. Grotto’s right hand,” Lulu says with a giggle.
Mr. Grotto spends most of the barbecue sitting with John-John and McNaulty as the latter sends off his phobias with joyous acts of bravery. They borrow Mrs. Merle’s rose-colored broach to celebrate the dissolution of his enetophobia, read entries from the encyclopedia in a farewell salute to his epistemophobia, and, towards the end, when McNaulty is drunk with bravery and John-John is drunk with beer, they steal Gunther’s bike and run all the traffic lights in empty street because McNaulty is free from his crippling fear of bicycles.
Lulu nervously sits next to Gunther at the barbecue. They eat in silence, barely looking at one another, but sometimes when she shifts position their arms touch. It makes her dizzy with happiness and fear. When Mr. Grotto comes to collect her, he says, “Oh, hello, Gunther. Did you enjoy yourself? Sorry about your bike.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Gunther says agreeably. He smiles shyly at Lulu, the tips of his ears red. “See you around, Lulu.” He puts his arms awkwardly around her and she feels a piece of paper slip into her hand. She thinks she can feel the ink of you’re beautiful burning through the paper, staining her palm.
On the way home, Mr. Grotto clears his throat. “Gunther is, uh, a nice boy,” he says tentatively.
“Yeah,” agrees Lulu, blushing.
“Is he … nice to you?”
“And if he’s not nice to you, you know you can come to me, right?”
Mr. Grotto’s right hand clenches into a fist, and Lulu kisses his knuckles. “Yeah.”
Here is the third and last truth about Lindy’s letters: Mr. Grotto’s right hand doesn’t write them. His left one does.