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Ghost Limb

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The day she broke up with me, I walked with her along the railroad tracks behind Goodhew Ambulance. It was the first of the two summers I worked for Goodhew, and I wore a white Nehru jacket with a red name pin. She said she liked me in white, and not just because she wanted me to be a doctor.

In slightly more than a year together, the one thing we ever quarreled over was
whether I would go into medicine. She confessed that she wanted me to be a doctor because she had grown up with money. She had a palomino pony at 10, a red Corvette at 16, and a Bloomingdale’s charge card always.
I wanted to study literature, teach English at a college, and write novels, like Chaim Potok. I longed to write the Great Adventist Novel. She figured that a blockbusting best seller would earn me $50,000 in royalties and that if I wrote one every ten years, an unthinkable success rate, my yearly income would
average $5,000, the down payment on her Corvette or the payoff on her charge cards.
I had grown up in a stucco tract house on a busy boulevard in South Pasadena. She had lived in a brownstone on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. My father was a grocery clerk, hers a physician. Though I repressed thinking of it then, I had asked her to make the material sacrifice. My life as a professor and writer would have meant economic upward mobility for me and a downward spiral for her.
“I love you,” she said. “I love your dream of being a writer. But I know myself. I know how much the money means to me.” I looked past her down the tracks and listened for the afternoon freight train.
“Being the poor, struggling artist may seem romantic at first. But when you stay poor, it just seems sad.” When she talked like that, I could never believe it was actually her talking—the girl who brought me The Love Sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and underlined the passages especially for me and read them to me in the fine spray of a roaring surf at Laguna Beach.
When she talked money, she appeared like the wooden dummy of a ventriloquist, perhaps her mother, who threw her voice all the way from Boston, where she entertained her lady friends at high tea.
“I’d rather remember you like this, full of love and dreams, than hating me for being a little rich girl who became an old shrew.”
“So I’ll study medicine.”

“No!” she erupted, angered that I had patronized her. “Not unless you want medicine. I’m not taking the blame for making you miserable as a doctor.”

Things had begun to unravel a few weeks before on our “first anniversary.” We got reservations at the swank Balboa Bay Club through her mother’s transcontinental connections with a member. I borrowed my father’s second car for the occasion, a 15-year-old Chevrolet station wagon that he reminded me leaked a quart of oil every one hundred miles. I hid it around the block from the restaurant to avoid the embarrassment of valet parking.
The maître d’ led us into a dazzling dining room with marina lights glinting in the windows and opulent people sporting yacht tans, and in the sheer fantasy of it I believed someone had recognized me from The Tonight Show, where I had promoted my first best seller. But mostly they looked at her. She had such a long neck that evening, with wonderful bones in her face and her hair piled high and lovely on her head. I kept wondering how I would write it. 

During the drive back on the Newport Freeway, the glass slipper of an evening shattered. I had set the volume of the radio at deafening decibelsto drown the rattles and clanks of the old Chevy, and I forgot about the leaky oil. I first noticed passing motorists gaping at the underside of the car, and then I
smelled smoke, and finally, before I could navigate to the shoulder of the road, I heard the clamorous grating of metal and a heartstopping bang on which a highway patrol officer passed judgment: “You’ve got a blown rod, buddy.”
The car had not been worth the price of a meal at the Balboa Bay Club, but it was priceless to my father because it ran. It was, as he said, “transportation.” And if my indifference to earthly possessions distressed my Brahman girlfriend, it outraged my Depression-bred father. When I called him with the horrible news from the Shell station where they had towed us, his voice quavered over the phone with such a mixture of anger and grief that I could not tell whether he would explode in fury or dissolve in tears.

But he could have said or done nothing to make me feel worse than I already felt. I waited for him under the Shell sign next to a girl in a backless black gown—a girl whose love for me had started to die. And I was powerless to save it.

Parting shot

Two weeks later, the end came on a drive together on Highway 210 toward Pasadena. I was gunning her Corvette over the hump east of West Covina when she spotted the oil gauge. It registered that her engine was about to incinerate.
She shouted, “Pull over!” My insides turned to pudding. Never mind that the gauge had malfunctioned and the car checked out fine.
“How could you have missed seeing it?” she fumed. “After what happened before! It’s a Christmas tree light in July!”
Snatching the keys from my hand and relegating me to the passenger’s side, she raced straight back to Goodhew in somber silence.
I gazed vacantly out the window and thought of losing her over an oil gauge, and could bear thinking of the loss only because she still sat next to me in the car. But to think it was just the car that held her captive made me sick.
In front of Goodhew she stared at the dashboard and revved her engine and then discharged a prickly parting shot that injured me both as a male and as a hopeful writer: “If you’re ever going to be a writer, you had better find yourself a patron.”
She came by later that week for our last walk on the tracks. She parked her Corvette far enough from the pepper trees to miss their dripping sap but close enough to catch their shade.
We crossed the tracks to the Del Taco, where we had always grabbed a drink within earshot of the ambulance call. She spoke of our different worlds and never mentioned the recent events that dramatized the difference for her.
Crossing the tracks, she stumbled on a railroad tie, and I resisted steadying her. I also refused to rescue her from the silence that now clumsily forced itself between us. As she returned to her Corvette, I stared at her calves, too thick and muscular for my taste, and wondered if that would help me get free of her. If the 3:45 freight train came on schedule, as it always did, it thundered 20 feet behind me and I never heard it.
Fantastic ache

For days after she left, I used to wake up in pain and try to remember, for a blank moment, why I was hurting. My bedsheets were tangled about me like appendages of a monster that had tried to strangle me in my sleep. My head held the residue of bad dreams. I let one bare, blue ceiling light shine on me dimly through the night, like a perpetually full moon, because it made my sleep shallower and it made getting up easier, except that in no time I thought of her and I felt this fantastic ache.
I left Goodhew for the school year and enrolled in premed courses. I did this with less hope of recovering her than to spite her. I would become a surgeon, and when she looked me up at the medical building, I would send a nurse to say I had no time to see her. And for now, my new career plans helped at the church potlucks when ladies asked what I was studying in college. Before, when I had told them I wanted to be a writer, their eyes glazed over with incomprehension. Writing was a fine hobby, like collecting butterflies, but not a career. “With medicine,” one of them had said, “you can write on the side.”

The fact of the matter was I planned to practice medicine just two days a week and write the rest of the time. But the noxious odors of the science building, the unfathomable mysteries of calculus, and the organic experiments that repeatedly taught me the meaning of inert despite my best efforts to the contrary made clear that even spite foran ex-girlfriend did not spark enough motivation to succeed at medicine. Though I had heard nothing yet of the two hemispheres of the brain, I must have lived out of the wrong half to be a doctor.

I passed through a whole cycle of holidays without her, including personal “holidays” that just the two of us commemorated. Christmas and New Year’s were the worst, with “Auld Lang Syne” sung like a funeral dirge. Losing her was death, except worse, because she had chosen to go and continued to stay away even when she could have returned. She passed phone booths without calling me. She talked with mutual friends without asking after me. She drove
by in her red Corvette without stopping. (The number of red Corvettes I saw on the highway amazed me.)
I denied countless impulses to call her because I knew it would go badly. I wanted her only as it had been or not at all. I poured sadness into my journal. I read the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, though my English professor snickered at them. “She’s good for freshman coeds,” he remarked disdainfully.
I brashly submitted a term paper to him entitled “Love and Death in the Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” I cited line after chilling line from her: “The rain is full of ghosts tonight;” and “I only know that summer sang in me / A little
while, that in me sings no more;” and “Here is a wound that never will heal . . . ; / But that a dream can die, will be a thrust / Between my ribs forever of hot pain.”
I remembered her as this incredible radiance that I could never have reached anyway because, I reasoned, if I married her she would have lost it. The romance would have died. But I never could bring myself to reread The Love Sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Summer solitude

I returned to Goodhew the next summer and witnessed the usual blood and carnage on the streets of Riverside. I went with Hank, the oldest and crustiest of Goodhew drivers, to the grim scene where a locomotive had barreled into a small pickup truck and, with the explosion of a gas tank under the truck’s cab, had reduced its driver to a charred mass, unrecognizable as a human.

We got a call to an apartment where a big, apple-cheeked blonde had overdosed on sleeping pills. Her naked body wrapped loosely in a sheet, she resisted Hank’s efforts to reason with her, then his pleas and then his lunges toward her, which all failed to get her on the gurney.
On another call a Yale freshman, my age, had checked into a fleabag motel, swigged gopher poison, and walked, tears in his eyes, to our ambulance. He said to the proprietor, “I’m sorry, sir,” and went to the hospital, where he died.
I found myself less troubled by the tragic gore and grief of these scenes than by the routine of them and their failure to touch me. It struck me as insensitive
that I remained engrossed in my own problems in the face of these daily horrors.
At Goodhew her ghost lurked in all the old places. And I walked the train tracks in the shimmering heat, thinking of her. It unnerved me that in practically a year’s time I had made so little progress in shaking free of her. I thought I saw her once near Parkview Hospital. I went faint inside and chased a woman three blocks to a bus stop, afraid it was not her, afraid to lose the feeling it gave me.
I went up to the college to check on a grade change with the registrar and found myself aimlessly walking toward the office of the chaplain, to whom I had never talked, hoping he would be gone for the summer. The chaplain filled the doorway when I arrived and clasped my tentative hand. It occurred to me that I had not prayed for months except for perfunctory “St. Christopher” prayers (the please-don’t-let-medie-’cause-I’ve-prayed prayers).
I was afraid my impiety would show. He was square-jawed and swarthily handsome—too handsome, I guessed, ever to have lost a girl, or too pious or “straight” to have done anything but marry the first girl he dated. In no time I was spilling my soul to him. I told him that losing her was like death.

“You ought to be a theologian,” he smiled. I wondered if there was a demand for good writing among theologians. “Have you ever lost anyone to death?” he
“No,” I said, “not even my grandfather yet.” She had loved my granddad. The chaplain listened mostly, from a stuffed wicker chair next to mine, and he talked some about pain. “It takes time,” he said. “Lots of time. But then one day”—click, his fingers snapped—“you’ll think of her without hurting.”

I marveled at how simple he made things, even if he could not make them easy. At the end he did not ask to pray, which relieved me. But on my way across the campus, a ghost town in the baking summer sun, I felt like we had prayed together, and I cried and cried.
Near the end of the summer we were called Code 3 to Adams and Magnolia,
where we found a hearing-impaired old man pinned under a railroad train with both his legs severed. We had to apply tourniquets carefully so he would not bleed to death. Stunned with shock, the man lay quietly under the train and displayed no discomfort. Hank quarreled bitterly with an engineer who said, “I can’t move a train unless I get an order.”
“Well, this is an order!” Hank shouted. The engineer moved it. We loaded the man and then his legs, cut off below the knees, onto the gurney and drove pell-mell to nearby Parkview Hospital.
A couple of weeks later, on one of our visits to Parkview, I went to his room. He sat up in bed, a double amputee, oblivious to the flickering television, and waited for his daily physical therapy. In talking to him, I had to shout the usual questions about how he felt. He took me for a relative and commented on how I had grown since he last saw me.
I did not remind him of the grisly night I had served as an ambulance attendant. I felt good about following up on someone at the hospital. I thought of how railroad tracks had been the scene of love and death for me.
Before I left, he startled me by saying to the nurse absently, “My legs are cold, miss. Would you cover them for me?” She got up quietly and fetched blankets from the closet, spread them where his legs should have been, and tucked them in. On my walk with her down the hall, she told me about the ghost limb syndrome, in which you go on feeling pain in a limb after you have lost it.
This story won grand prize in the 1984 Insight writing contest and originally appeared in the June 22, 1985, issue. At that time Jonathan Butler was living in Riverside, California, where he was a professor of history at his alma mater, La Sierra University. Dr. Butler received his M.Div. from the SDA Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has written many influential articles about Seventh-day Adventist Church history and was coeditor of the magazine Adventist Heritage. He’s also won several Insight writing contests. Dr. Butler resides in Riverside, California.


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