CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Our new storeroom is down in the bowels of the airport behind security. To get there I walk down a long, spare, white hallway lit from above by a series of fluorescent tubes. Sometimes when I’m alone in that hallway I see the Man with the Rubber Arm. He’s this weasely little guy in black pants and a white short-sleeved shirt who haunts the hallway.
The first time I saw him, I spotted him coming down the hall. His right arm was swinging freely, hand jiggling his keys, scratching a back-of-the-head itch, pointing at something. But his left arm was frozen in a partially bent position at his side, sort of as if it was in a cast, but there was no cast. It was just bent, stiff and lifeless. When we passed each other, I glanced at this stiffened arm and I saw it was rubber, cast badly at a Hong Kong rubber-arm factory by the looks of it, with a seam where the two halves are glued together running along his forearm. The fingers have exaggerated webbing between them, and he has little wispy brown hairs painted on the upper arm.
As he walks the rubber arm sort of bounces up and down with each step, as if it’s slowly shaking hands with another rubber arm, this one invisible. I never see this fellow when other people are around — only when I’m alone in the hallway. Our eyes never meet. He never says hello.
My first really gross sight of the new millennium was the Man with the Rubber Arm trying to eat soup. He was in the food court with this Styrofoam bowl of steaming chicken noodle. I think it was chicken noodle. He had cut a thumb-sized indentation into the rim of the bowl and hooked his rubber thumb there to hold the bowl in place while he spooned soup with his good hand. His fake thumb was totally immersed in the soup. He felt no pain!
I watched him over my newspaper for a minute or two. He decided to finish his soup by drinking it. His thumb was wedged in the indentation, so he uses his good hand to lift his rubber hand — with the bowl stuck to it — up to his mouth. You know, I hate to make fun of this guy, but he’s absolutely fascinating.
Our hero, the Man with the Rubber Arm, was grabbing forty winks in one of the airport’s seldom-traveled expanses. His head was titled back, his mouth slightly open, and he had listed to the side, crushing his rubber arm between his body and the chair’s armrest. The arm was bent at a ninety-degree angle backward at a spot located between his real elbow and his wrist. Poor guy. I wanted to wake him, but how to do it gently? “Rubber Arm Guy? Wake up, Mr. Rubber Arm Guy,” I’d whisper. “Your arm is bent unnaturally and it’s grossing me out.” I let him sleep.
Haven’t seen the Man with the Rubber Arm in ages.
I heard today that the Man with the Rubber Arm was sick. According to a guy I know who works with a ramper crew, the guys behind the scenes who unload baggage onto conveyor belts, the Man with the Rubber Arm may be out for the count with some kind of debilitating disease. My friend said that he, the Man with the Rubber Arm, may get, on his return, a fulltime desk job.
No word yet on the Man with the Rubber Arm. Haven’t seen him. My friend John from United says he thinks the guy has cancer of the nervous system — something eating his spine from the coccyx up — and that, get this, he saw the Man with the Rubber Arm last week at the Overlook, that strip joint near the airport, and he wasn’t wearing his arm.
Today I saw the Man with the Rubber Arm supervising a ramper crew. He was dressed in his usual: black pants, white shirt, black tie, and beige arm. I could read his Delta nametag — DEVANS. I now know his last name.
This is the first time I’d seen him engage in true airport action, so I hovered at the scene, first faking an untied shoelace, then faking looking for something on the concrete, then standing to check the overhead wiring. The Man with the Rubber Arm didn’t actually toss bags from the cart to the conveyor. But about every tenth bag, he positioned his rubber fingers on or near the bag’s handle, and walked the bag (it was actually moving on the conveyor) to the portal that sent it out to the passengers. He then turned around, walked back to where the rampers were tossing bags, and walked another bag to the portal.
The rampers were exchanging glances among themselves and even with me, the loose-laced wiring inspector. What the fuck? What’s this Man with the Rubber Arm doing? Is he joking?
The Man with the Rubber Arm spied a really big bag on the conveyor. He put his latex fingers on the back edge, as if he’s pushing it towards the portal. His fingers bent backwards at the faux-knuckles. The arm started to curve unnaturally between wrist and elbow. He really was pushing. He walked the bag to the portal, gave the bag a farewell pat — or bounce — with his hand, and kept walking down the baggage corridor, disappearing around a corner.
The rampers were all laughing, so I asked them what gives. They said the Man with the Rubber Arm must have been just joking around, since his last day was August 31. He was taking an early retirement because of illness, something serious, they didn’t know what. But he’d been acting very strange, they said. Very goofy.
Turns out I read the nametag wrong. His name is D. Evans. Now I just need to figure out how he lost his arm.
Mr. D. Evans came back for a visit and was down in the baggage area being welcomed by all his old buddies. One woman gave him an enthusiastic hug, and when he put his arms around her his rubber one bounced off her back and hit the fellow next to her who turned to the person next to him and said, “Quit your tapping. Whatcha want?”
The moral? The moral is always tricky, but try this: the world will amaze you.