Steven Dumar – ‘The Second-Hand Shop’
My name is Steven Dumar and I have recently graduated from the University of Plymouth with a master’s degree in Creative Writing. This piece is a surreal short story taken from a wider collection submitted for my dissertation project entitled Six Degrees of Separation.
Martin Banks had walked past the shop for the last forty-seven years, always curious but never daring enough to venture inside, until today.
Martin took his usual route to the office, though this was Saturday and therefore his day off from selling life-insurance to the unwilling. February rain came down as he turned onto Perkins Lane, a road with more terraced houses than stores except a parade consisting of florist, off-licence, and the Second-Hand Shop.
From outside the exterior looked sterile with an all-white façade. There was no name plastered across the fascia nor logo above the door. If one hadn’t heard about what happened inside you wouldn’t look twice, but lack of official signage only fuelled the rumours. Windows were made of a frosted glass that prevented bystanders, which Martin found both intriguing and intimidating. He paced between the Second-Hand Shop and florist smoking a cigarette in the rain whilst contemplating calling off the whole thing – instead buying a bunch of cheap flowers for his mother and returning to their miserable shared existence – when a man exited the store.
“Heading in?” said the gentleman holding the door open.
Martin glanced through the ajar, trying to glimpse something noteworthy that would justify his cowardice. He couldn’t see any such thing. “Thanks,” he mumbled, shuffling past.
An electronic bell chimed a cheery ding-dong as Martin stepped inside the shop and momentarily scanned around as one often does when entering a building for the first time. The interior wasn’t as he’d imagined. He’d always pictured the Second-Hand Shop as a dark and dusty emporium filled with jumbled assortments of books and body-parts in jars. The reality, however, was rather different. The place was well lit with clinical artificial lighting. The shop layout was minimalistic: an open space with two shoulder-high aisles that reminded Martin of an opticians, though instead of spectacles the shelves had been replaced with pairs of replica hands in every size, shape, and shade imaginable. Hands for all occasions and vocations – from neurosurgery to pianism – lined in neat rows and organised into relevant classifications. There was even a ‘Wall of Fame’ featuring the finest mitts throughout human history.
Martin extended an index finger towards a wall-mounted hand and, touching tip to tip, replicated the iconic scene from movie E.T. Growing in confidence, he applied pressure to the palm, tactilely exploring bone and tissue structure. It felt realistic yet coldblooded, as if shaking hands with a dead man.
“Can I help you?”
Martin released the limb like a naughty schoolboy who’d been caught red-handed. He sheepishly turned around. The Transplanter filled the doorframe; a heavy-set middle-aged guy covered in facial hair and tattoos and displaying the most perfectly formed hands.
“No thanks,” Martin replied, “just browsing.”
The Transplanter huffed and disappeared into the back room. Martin started left and moved clockwise through categories: ‘Watchmaking’…‘Gardening’…‘Music’. Now you’re talking. Music section was divided into Instrument Classification. Martin began perusing through ‘String’ when the door burst open and in entered a thirty-something well-to-do woman with dark features and matching demeanour. The cheery ding-dong contrasted against the clink-clank of high-heels on laminated flooring as she stormed to the counter.
“How can I help madam?” asked the reappearing Transplanter.
“What’ve you got in terms of pugilists?” she demanded. “And less of the madam”.
Martin glanced over his shoulder. He did love a decisive woman.
“Well you’re in the right place for a boxer,” said the Transplanter. He squeezed behind the counter and went to ‘Combat Sports’ section. “I got the classics: Muhammad Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard. If you’re after something modern just got my hands on a new Tyson Fury.”
The woman removed her sunglasses. “Who’s the best?”
“Ali is the greatest.”
“I’ll take one of him then.”
“May I ask for what purpose?” asked the Transplanter, looking her up and down. She was slim as if underfed; gaunt face accentuating a pointy chin and giving her the appearance of a ghost – or someone that had just seen one. Her hands were skeletal. “You’re aware that transplanting is barred from competitive-”
“-I’ve no intention of competing,” she interrupted, “I just want to punch my cheating ex-fiancé really hard in the face.” The woman gesticulated with a wild right hook. Martin’s ears prickled as he pretended to browse.
“I see,” said the Transplanter, “and after that?”
“I’m going to knock out his mistress.”
“Right. And after that?”
“The ex-mother-in-law,” she said contemptuously whilst throwing an uppercut. “She’s been asking for it since day one. Honestly, the hours I’ve spent fantasising over whacking that woman-”
“-Alright, I get the picture,” said the Transplanter raising a palm. “But you are aware the procedure is irreversible?”
He took a measured pause, allowing the information to breathe in the air like uncorked wine. The woman remained unmoved, so the Transplanter continued, relishing the opportunity to demonstrate his expertise. “Through the process of transplantation recipients acquire subsequent skills but lose whatever natural dexterity previously possessed. Sometimes you can get fortunate and find a pair that shares dexterous qualities plus their desirable talents, so it’s a kind of upgrade, but that’s often serendipitous.”
“I don’t care!” she screamed hysterically, “that good-for-nothing rotten scoundrel deserves what’s coming-”
“-This is a lifechanging operation which should only be performed if absolutely sure: if you’re willing to spend the rest of your days sparring and shadowboxing. Why don’t you think about it? Perhaps explore other options to enact revenge on your ex-partner?”
“Yes,” said the woman, stroking her pointy chin, already scheming away. She spun on her heels and marched past Martin, who’d all this time been thinking of a chat-up line. ‘Can I ask for your digits?’was the best and only one, which he reckoned would’ve been a great line in this context. However, before he could muster the courage, she’d already exited the shop and disappeared from his life forever.
“Can I give you hand?” asked the Transplanter.
Martin wondered how many times he’d used that line before responding. “Yes, I’m done with insurance, I want to become a guitarist.”
“You’re in luck my friend. I got Hendrix…McCartney…Santana. Batch of Clapton’s came in last week.”
“Actually, I’ve always fancied myself as more of a Van Halen.”
“Let’s have a look.” The Transplanter grabbed a brochure and started thumbing through pages. “Van Dyke…Van Gough…aha…Eddie Van Halen!” He spun it round to face Martin, who wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be looking at; these hands all looked the same. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer…Ultimate Shredder…Giant hands which suffered bone spur-”
“-Wait a minute!” Martin interjected. “What’s this bit?”
“Notorious nose picker!”
“Minor side-effect,” he shrugged, “we haven’t advanced the technology as to cherry-pick characteristics, so you essentially adopt all their ‘handy’ traits.” Martin hesitated. The Transplanter read the situation and continued. “But hey, what’s a bit of nose-picking versus becoming a rockstar? Just imagine my friend: you could travel the world performing to millions of fans, attend celebrity parties, consume copious amounts of illicit substances whilst cavorting with groupies.”
Martin’s eyes lit up. “Groupies?!”
A montage of scenes raced through Martin’s mind: his name on the Las Vegas Strip – encores in front of adulating crowds – backstage with a hareem of gorgeous girls drinking champagne and dancing naked on tables whilst he serenades them on guitar. “Let’s do this!”
“Alright!” The Transplanter raised a hand and they high fived, his palm velvety smooth like slightly melted chocolate. “Step into my office.” He led Martin to the back room before he could change his mind. The room resembled a piercing studio with sterilising equipment and menacing machinery. The Transplanter gestured for Martin to take a seat in the dentist-looking chair and thrust a disclaimer form on his lap.
“Fill this in whilst I fire her up.”
Martin studied the sheet front and back in desperate search of any last-minute get-out clauses. Near the bottom, in small print, stipulated side effects: ‘gangrene’, ‘loss of sensation in limbs’, ‘Alien Hand Syndrome’.
“What’s the chances of this happening?” he asked.
“Almost zero,” the Transplanter casually replied, “just for insurance purposes.”
“And you’re sure there’s no way to reverse it?”
“Not legally. There’s stuff on the black market – ‘Terror-wrists’ we call them – but that comes with complications.” Martin glanced at the exit door. The Transplanter pressed on. “But not to worry my friend, this operation is standard procedure, perfectly legitimate and medically regulated, so if you could just sign on the dotted line. Machine’s ready.”
The machine – Transplanter 3000 – looked a futuristic cross between medieval pillory and guillotine, with two holes for slotting through arms and laser to amputate. Upon noticing the apparatus Martin started shaking, pen trembling in a hand that would soon be lopped off forever. He fought the urge to run back home to mother and their lonely, sheltered life.
“Perfect,” said the Transplanter, mistaking squiggle for signature. “Now if you place your forearms through the slots.”
A resistant force fixed Martin to the chair. He circled his hands round in figures of 8, staring at them like never before – the contours and veins, carpals and phalanges. All the other hands they’d shaken, fists bumped, all the breasts they’d caressed – and the many they hadn’t – slipping though his fingers like the elusive sands of time.
“Anytime today, Mr Banks.”
Reluctantly Martin pushed his arms through the holes like a cautious tortoise remerging their head from shell. Once inserted, the Transplanter took a marker-pen and expertly drew amputation lines along the wrists, then reached for a syringe.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” he lied, injecting along the knuckle. “Just anaesthetic to numb the pain. Count backwards from ten Mr Banks.” The Transplanter pressed a button and the machine sprang into life with an ominous whirring sound. “Ready?”
Martin was not ready. “3…2…1…”
A green laser shot down like the shutter lens on a camera. The hands sliced off cleanly, hitting the floor with a definitive thud. The Transplanter lifted Van Halen’s manus and lined them up with Martin’s severed forearms.
“Little wonky on the left but nothing to worry about,” the Transplanter said mainly to himself. He picked up the ‘fusion-pen’ – a tool resembling soldering iron – and attachment proceedings commenced. Incandescent sparks emitted a crepitating sound like bone-dry twigs sprinkled on fire. Thick, pungent aromas of burning flesh filled the room. Martin slipped in and out of consciousness.
“First one done,” the Transplanter chimed in a perversely joyous manner. He inspected the other hand and ignited the fusion-pen. Pieces of skin melded together like sticky tar drying in the sun. “Almost there.” Martin felt too faint to respond. The Transplanter reached for a domestic hair-dyer and blasted cool air over the new appendages and blew a refreshing breeze onto Martin’s pallid face. “All done. You may remove hands from holes.”
The sound of whirring slowly wound down and silence hung in the dense, fleshy air. In time Martin retracted his new designer hands.
“How d’ya feel?” asked the Transplanter.
Martin sipped water to settle himself and suddenly felt a compulsion to air-guitar. He leapt from the chair and, like a man possessed, started strumming fingers against imaginary strings as if he knew all the chord sequences inside-out. “Excellent!” he replied as the Transplanter led him out to the front.
“That’s swell. How would you like to pay?”
Martin reached in his wallet whilst fighting the persistent urge to strum. He swiped his credit-card with an exaggerated flick of the wrist as if plucking a note.
“That’s gone through,” said the Transplanter.
Martin skidded to his knees and exploded into a riff. “How do I make it stop?”
“You can’t. That’s it. You now embody Eddie Van Halen.”
In one swift move Martin Banks the Rockstar jumped to his feet, kicked open the door and exited the Second-Hand Shop. Back outside he went to buy his mum a bunch of discounted tulips from the florist when he took a finger and shoved it up his nostril.