Surprised by Thumb

Surprised by Thumb[Two men sit in overstuffed leather chairs. They’ve both inched their seats away from the fire at the height of its intensity, and now most of the warmth they feel is an effect of the drink in their glasses. One of them speaks. His tie visible beneath his sweater. Silk under cashmere. He has the habit of twisting his index finger in the air while thinking, like an insect’s antennae.]

I haven’t told you about the source of my power.

That’s a hard sentence to just come out with. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get jazzed up enough to say it. This whole time you were talking about your interest in contemplative prayer, and your unhealthy relationship with Tylenol PM—it’s not that I wasn’t listening. But I wasn’t fully engaged. I had my own thing I wanted to talk about, something I had stowed in my back pocket, but which was barely contained there. Like a coffee card with all ten punches.

It’s C.S. Lewis’s finger. Or thumb. The one on his right hand. It’s his famous thumb. I have it in my desk drawer at work. You have your spare bottle of Evan Williams and a Gaelic St. Patrick’s Breastplate copied out in Sharpie. I have C.S. Lewis’s thumb.

[The other man, dressed more casually, with a thicker tongue and glasses, asks a question.]

Ah, I have a chest itch. Something that accompanies my hay fever.

When I have a major decision to make, I open the drawer. When I need some inspiration, I go to the thumb. Go to the thumb, thou sluggard. See how it remains unbent.

[The other man asks another question.]

Am I uncomfortable being in possession of a relic? Look at me. Do I look like the kind of person who’d join up with a monolithic religion? This square Protestant jaw, ready to utter schism inciting words at the drop of one of the five points. I distrust any earthly entity that would try to claim authority over me. I’m a bit uncomfortable with a relic. But you can’t argue with results.

You know, don’t you, that he inherited some congenital defect from his father? Much in the way that you inherited your chemical dependency and mystical religious tendencies from yours? Both Jack (I call him “Jack”) and Albert (I call his father “Albert”) had what he calls in Surprised by Joy a “sham joint.” The top joint of the thumb did not move. This early limit propelled him toward writing, since he could not make anything. He could hold a pen fine, could draw a little, but could not “make things,” cut shapes out with scissors. The thumb was yardstick straight, and it became his rule.

The thumb reminds me to limit myself. I don’t mean that it’s a reminder or memorial. I mean that, when I have the thumb in my desk, I remember to limit myself, and when I don’t, I forget. I remember to limit my impulse toward effusive generosity.

[The other man jabs a finger at the speaker, pointing at something on his person.]

Why do you ask? Well, I’ve worn this chain around my neck for months, not like it’s any of your business. A gift.

I once loaned the thumb to my brother—a painter, a lovely leech—so he could brainstorm a triptych of Laura Ingalls Wilder exploring Dubai, with the result that I launched a 401K matching program for all my employees. Unacceptable.

[The other man—with the same expression worn by an undergraduate who’s just pointed out in a heated class discussion that we’re all bounded by our subjective experience anyway—asks another question.]

How’d I get the thumb? It’d be interesting to know wouldn’t it? I like to think that the thumb chose me. Which, of course, it didn’t. It merely beckoned to me in that Bazaar in Port Au Prince, levitated within its case, and called to me in words so honeyed my eardrums went sticky.

[The other man dabs at his forehead with the back of his hand and makes a comment.]

What’s that? You think the thumb did choose me? Well, I would say that it largely depends on your definition of “chose.”

[The other man asks a question, audacious with drink.]

Other effects of the thumb? I’ve noticed that in its presence I have an increased capacity for telekinesis. I can’t move anything with my mind, but I feel like I almost could.

[The other man jabs a finger at the speaker again, asking a question.]

Under my shirt? Nothing. Or almost nothing. I have a growth there. A third nipple gone rogue. I’ve had it biopsied and found it’s benign, thank God.

In the presence of the thumb I make better decisions. I feel it turn in my mind like the spinner included with Chutes and Ladders, and land on the most efficient, austere, and, not seldom, brutal decision. Like when I decided to outsource our HR department. Hard decision. The thumb was up for it.

The thumb encourages me to sate myself. I don’t long for a damn thing. If I want three chicky tends (that’s what I call “chicken tenders”), I have them. The thumb says, “Yes.” The thumb always says, “Yes.” The thumb does not bend. It’s always up.

[The other man, nearly rising to his feet, speaks at length. His speech is thick, but not completely drunk. He speaks in such a way that you can hear footnotes embedded below the main text, and these discursions are more than a little meandering. He finishes, and cocks an eyebrow at the speaker.]

If I have you right, you’re put off that the character of the thumb’s decisions bear little resemblance to opinions we might expect Lewis to have, and you think that I’m abusing the power of the thumb. Well, right now the thumb is telling me otherwise.

[The other man lurches forward, snatching at the previous statement. He clutches at it with his hand.]

Of course I mean that metaphorically. I’ve learned the way of the thumb. I keep it at work. In the desk. No, I don’t wear it on a chain around my neck. That bulge under my shirt is my tumescent third nipple.

[The other man parries in utterance.]

Of course I can bear to be apart from it.

[The other man, in a tone you can hear the shrug in, makes an incisive statement.]

Like I owe an explanation of anything to a pill-popping Buddhist.

[The other man now lunges at the speaker, sloshing his drink. He leans into the speaker’s face. He places his hand on the speaker’s shoulder, from which position the speaker’s sudden slap sends it flying.]

Don’t you lay another hand on me. The thumb is mine. I don’t think we’d better find out if maybe I really can begin to possibly approach using telekinesis. These powers sometimes surface under stress. I think you should go.

[The other man gets up, bows a shallow bow, says “Namaste,” and leaves.]

It’s just you and me now. Yes, I think you’re right. Four fingers of scotch would take the sting out of it. Thank you, Thumb, for everything.

Illustration by Gabe Stevenson

Surprised by Thumb

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