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weekend-readsLeft Leg, Just Above the Knee

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Life would be livable if I could relieve this inner pull to amputate my left leg. Nothing wrong with the leg, but I’m incomplete with four limbs. It’s hard to share when your urge grows into obsession, then beyond, where thoughts of an amputated left leg equal the butterflies of budding sex. I lie to family. To friends. Strangers. I’m completely ashamed. My doctor calls it Body Integrity Identity Disorder, and you know if it takes four words to describe, it’s not good.

I’m supposed to be an amputee. Eight years old, I slipped off the monkey bars and landed on only my twisted arm, crisscrossed my ulna and radius, shattered my elbow. When I woke with a cast, my mother said the doctor wanted to amputate, just above the elbow, but the specialist reset the bones and said hope for the best. After three bedridden days, I stepped into the hall and saw a man in a wheelchair. He was missing his left leg, just above the knee, and I couldn’t stop wondering how it happened. He invited me to touch the pigtail skin on the bulb.

Because of wars and epidemic diabetes, the prosthetics industry is booming. On the first and third Wednesdays of every month, I park on Harrison Street, outside the Prosthetic and Orthotic Clinic at Rush’s Professional Office Building, and watch patients enter and exit for rehabilitation. Sometimes, for a closer look, I walk next to them and marvel at the technology. When that’s not enough, I drive over to East Superior Street, to the Northwestern University Prosthetics and Orthotics Center and do the same.

Summer before college, I worked in the meat department of the grocery store. The intoxication of smells, the chopping block, multiple knifes, and raw meats bloomed my urge until I had to release. The blade spit out sliced ham for the old woman who kept complaining about price per pound, and the bald man with thick glasses couldn’t understand why we were out of fried chicken legs, and my boss screamed, We’re getting behind! To stop the noise inside and outside my head, my finger poked the spinning blade. Sliced the tip right off. I held up the bloody mess for everyone to see. That night, I crafted a Band-Aid prosthetic tip, but I would need more. Much more.

I tell my doctor I dream about prosthetics. He gives me a tan leg to try out. In the privacy of my bedroom, I fold back my leg and tie it up. I slip on the prosthetic and it’s awkwardly comfortable. Takes days to get used to how the knee bends. Eventually, wearing it at home or in seedy hotel rooms isn’t enough. I strap on the leg and limp down Michigan Avenue, around the Field Museum, through the bleacher seats at a Cubs’ game. No one knows I am a non-amputee pretending to be an amputee pretending not to be.

All doctors say the same. By preventing me from elective surgery, they’re following the Hippocratic Oath, but surgeons perform millions of elective surgeries a year. I say I’ll pay out of plan, out of pocket, off the books. He says it’s a neurological disorder; otherwise, I’m a rational individual. I say, If I don’t lose my left leg, I’m going to lose my mind. He says, Sorry, too dangerous. Tis but a scratch, I insist. He says, Humor’s good. Here’s another pill.

Self-amputation is more difficult than you might think. You need an anesthetic, a surgeon’s saw, bandages, stiches, needles, painkillers, assistants. I have none of these. I imagine ways to mangle my leg enough a surgeon has to amputate. On my couch, I shoot it with a shotgun. In my backyard, I jam it in the woodchopper. On the street, I slide it under the wheel of a bus. At work, I stick it between the punch and die that shears metal. I don’t want to hear that there’s no turning back after amputation, because for me, there’s no going forward without it.

Jason Lee Brown is the author of the forthcoming historical novel, Prowler: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and the poetry chapbook, Blue Collar Fathers. He is the Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest and a contributing editor of River Styx. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the North American Review, Literary Review, The Journal, Ecotone, and Crab Orchard Review. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.