The Boy Whose Arm Had Been Bitten Off

“Gulf Shores” by Jordan Jacks, original fiction recommended by Electric Literature


I first encountered the story “Gulf Shores” at a literary salon in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was staying with friends. When Jordan Jacks read that first line, we all sat up: “I was sleepwalking down in the parking lot when I met the boy whose arm had been bitten off.” Who could forget a line like that? I knew immediately that it was the kind of story that I wanted to share with my fellow editors at Recommended Reading because it does all of the things that we look for in fiction here. It is at once strikingly odd and firmly rooted in reality. The flights of strangeness within the story work because they come so easily from the specificity of the characters’ lives. Jordan Jacks calls to mind writers like Joy Williams and Raymond Carver, whose realism is streaked through with a dark vein of the uncanny and whose characters have grown used to the quiet disturbances that haunt their lives.

“Gulf Shores” is the story of a young man who encounters a boy whose arm has been bitten off by a shark. The story hums with expectation common to summer vacations when you’re at the beach and hoping that something, anything might happen to you. Jacks is a funny writer of uncommon lucidity and beauty, but he never makes fun of his characters. They are how they are. For example, the young man who was bitten by a shark is not referred to by his name, but as “The boy whose arm had been bitten off.” It seems strange at first, even heavy-handed, but as the story progresses, it becomes a kind of invocation, and there is a passage in the story that takes hold of this moniker and delivers an insight so keen and so precise, that I gasped. At another point, the narrator refers to himself and his new friendship with the boy whose arm had been bitten off by saying: “I felt a kind of pride being with him. I was a lonely child, prone to friendlessness.” It’s the kind of observation that endears a reader to a character because it characterizes even as it describes, doubly so when the object of description is the character himself.

This story, so finely sifted from the minutia of life, is difficult to describe. It has the aimlessness of a summer trip. The intensity of first attraction, first friendship. It describes so perfectly the moment at which one comes into certain knowledge about themselves and about their family. Or, perhaps, it’s better stated that the story describes the moment when the character acquires the experience through which the rest of their life will be filtered even if they themselves don’t know it at the time. But mostly, it’s a story that takes hold of you from its very first sentence and invites you into its subtleties and nuances. A story that is smart and funny, compassionate and patient. Jacks has many gifts as a writer, but chief among them is his ability to craft unforgettable characters and to reveal them through their dialogue and their actions, with such subtlety that you feel as though they’ve been there all along.

I’m so thrilled to share this story with you, and I can’t wait to see what magic tricks Jordan Jacks has for us in the future.

– Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading

The Boy Whose Arm Had Been Bitten Off

“Gulf Shores”

by Jordan Jacks

I was sleepwalking down in the parking lot when I met the boy whose arm had been bitten off. This was in June of 1995, at a condo complex in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I was dreaming about the beach, about walking around on it, trying to sell umbrellas for twenty dollars a pop. They were on my back like a quiver of arrows.

Oh, the nights of my life. I have suffered through them. I take drugs for it now, I try not to drink too much. But back then my parents had to lock me in my room, jam a chair against the door.

The boy whose arm had been bitten off jumped out of a Ford Ranger that didn’t have any paint on the body. It had only one headlight. Even as he was coming towards me the truck continued to roll, edging up like a cat. There were two people inside, a man and woman in darkness.

“The fuck,” the boy whose arm had been bitten off said. “Are you crazy?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Lagoon Run was a wooden place across the street from the beach, a few miles west of The Hangout and the Pink Pony Pub and all the nicer, newer hotels. Like all the buildings that far down the strip, it was weather-beaten and gray, elevated on splintery stilts. It looked like a dirty pelican crouching over a bunch of broken shells.

We went there once a year. My mother was from Foley. We came from Houston in our station wagon to visit her brother and her mother. But that year her mother was dead, and Uncle Kenneth was only free on weekdays. On weekends, he had to be in jail.

Uncle Kenneth was a fisherman. The Proud Maria, his boat, didn’t belong to him. It belonged to a guy on a ventilator in Orange Beach named Darius. Uncle Kenneth drove lawyers from Mobile around in it until they’d had their fill of mullet and redfish and then he parked it back at the marina. On Thursday night he’d hitch out to the condo with a Styrofoam cooler of Coors and a trash bag full of shrimp. My mother would boil the shrimp inside while my father commandeered one of the grills out by the lagoon. Uncle Kenneth and I would pull up other people’s crab traps on the pier, taking whatever we found. After a couple of beers Uncle Kenneth was friendly and childlike. He barked at passing dogs and howled in the general direction of the moon. He told dirty jokes and slept on the pull-out sofa.

On Fridays we’d drive back up to Foley, my father behind the wheel, my mother in the front, Uncle Kenneth and me in the backward seat. Uncle Kenneth drank whatever beers were left in his cooler, crinkling the cans and putting them back in the shrimpy water. At the second red light in Foley he’d tip his trucker hat to my mother and pop the hatch, jump out in one motion. We’d turn right and he’d turn left, a short guy in denim cutoffs and white sneakers, his skin the same color as the red clay peeking through the grass. Sometimes the hatch was still open when we started to move.

When I asked my mother where he was going she always said he was going to Pizza Hut. I didn’t find out about weekend jail until years later. It was for the relatively minor offenses of working people: petty theft, public drunkenness. You checked in on Friday and you checked out on Sunday. You could even bring a change of clothes.

Kenneth had been busted that summer for breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s trailer in Orange Beach, making off with all the pictures of the two of them together, all the condoms he’d left there, and a baggy full of pills that he said belonged to him. Someone told me at his funeral.

But I was talking about the boy whose arm had been bitten off. I almost didn’t recognize him the next day at the pool. Things looked different in the light. I’d woken up tired, thinking I’d dreamed everything, that I’d never left my bed. But there was tar on the soles of my feet and a cut on my big toe where a shard of glass had sliced into me. And there was the boy, sitting on the end of the diving board, his chin in his palm, staring down at the greenish water.

His arm was something you noticed right away. From the elbow down, it was a different color than the rest of his body, darker and grayer, like wet sand after a wave. It seemed heavier than the rest of him. It hung from his shoulder like he didn’t quite have control over it. There was a ragged scar going all the way around his bicep, just above the elbow. It looked like the barbed wire tattoos that were so popular then, around the muscled arms of older boys at the beach.

“You awake?” he said, before I’d even closed the swinging gate to the pool.

I nodded and he scratched his leg. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”

He said it like we’d agreed to it the night before. Maybe we had. I didn’t ask questions. When I followed him out to the road, I thought we were headed for the beach. But we turned left and started walking east, towards town. Neither of us was wearing shoes, and the pavement was hot, so we kept to the parts of the shoulder that were covered in sand. We didn’t talk at first. I felt a kind of pride being with him. I was a lonely child, prone to friendlessness. The boy whose arm had been bitten off had long legs with hair on them. I was always a few steps behind, but I was still close enough to examine the weird, bruised-fruit color of his arm. When he caught me looking he sighed and said, “You want to know what happened?”

I nodded.

“A shark bit me,” he said, squinting into the sun. “Two years ago. I was swimming — ” he pointed in a general way to the ocean, across the road and beyond the dunes. “And then it felt like… BAM! Like something ran into me, and I tried to start running but I was stuck. And then I woke up and it was like this.”

He stopped and held his arm up almost level, right near my face. He smelled like cumin and sunscreen. He told me that his father had seen the attack from shore and had run in to save him. He’d tied a tourniquet, called an ambulance, and then ran back into the water to find his son’s arm. He’d found the shark instead, an elbow in its mouth.

What did he do then, I asked. We were walking over the pass, a twenty-foot wide channel where the lagoon emptied out into the ocean. Fish were fifteen feet below us.

The boy whose arm had been bitten off shrugged. “He punched it in the fucking face,” he said.

Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? But it was and is true. I asked my parents. Uncle Kenneth had sent my mother a clipping in the paper about it. “They sewed his arm right back on,” she told me, swirling the ice around in her glass. “In Mobile. A miracle.”

The boy whose arm had been bitten off didn’t seem to think so, though. He had some sense. I think he knew that if he acted like the whole thing was unimpressive, it would make him mighty. His father, too. He’d gone back in the water, then brought his son back to the same beach two years later. And now the boy was with me, shoplifting hermit crabs and keychains from Souvenir City, a stucco tower where, going in and coming out, you had to walk through doors made to look like a shark’s open mouth.

For obvious reasons the boy whose arm had been bitten off did not much care for the ocean. We stuck to other water. We’d loiter at the pool, take any kayak that wasn’t tied down. The water out in the lagoon was silty and warm, and if you went out far enough sometimes you’d see fish jumping. One time we went all the way out to the pass, saw the confused mackerel hopping from the waves as they were pushed out to sea. I wanted to follow them, but the boy whose arm had been bitten off turned his boat around.

It didn’t feel like fear. It felt like experience. In the pool, the boy whose arm had been bitten off could do the breaststroke from one side to the other without once coming up for air.

His father was big, an ex-marine, sunburned and gone a little fat. His mother was pretty, with black hair that went down to her waist and a slot between her two front teeth wide enough to stick a nickel through. We never saw them. The boy whose arm had been bitten off said his parents mostly came down to the Gulf to sit in the air conditioning. They didn’t seem to really care where he was as long as he took the empty bottles out to the dumpster. They locked the door behind him every morning. It was like his father had used up all his parental worrying on the shark and now was taking a vacation from his son. I don’t know about his mother. They had problems.

The boy whose arm had been bitten off started eating with us, peanut butter and jellies at the Formica table in front of the television, hot dogs on the grills at night. I think my parents were relieved that I had a friend. I had no cousins my age and I was shy. The boy whose arm had been bitten off was a year older than me, the quarterback of his seventh-grade football team, a solid B-student. Stick-thin-girls in ambitious two-pieces chattered around him like gulls. I, too, was too easy to impress. But who cared? I slept better. There were fewer nights when I woke up in the wrong room of the condo, or outside in a deck chair, or walking up and down the same stretch of hallway. I had mostly pleasant dreams. In one of them, the boy whose arm had been bitten off pointed at his scar and told me to kiss it. I did.

One day after lunch we walked on the road as far east as you could go, past the souvenir cities and the Pink Pony Pub and the high-rise condo complexes with names like ‘Waves II’ and ‘Pelican’s Secret,’ all the way to where the national seashore started and the navy had a base. From the road you could see a pine pole obstacle course and the occasional helicopter skimming low over the dunes. The boy whose arm had been bitten off pointed to the shirtless cadets climbing up the obstacle course wall and said that it was his dream to do the same. He told me he and his father did a hundred push-ups and two hundred sit-ups every night while watching the Howard Stern show. He told me he’d gotten a blowjob in his backyard from a girl in his social studies class the month before, and that she was waiting for him to come back to Dallas so that she could do it again. Watching the cadets, he rubbed the front of his boardshorts, and when he saw me watching him he said, “What the fuck are you at looking at?”

Uncle Kenneth came out for my mother’s birthday. Nothing special: a couple of redfish on the grill, crabs in a pot, Uncle Kenneth fresh out of the Madison County Jail. He brought his new girlfriend with him, still in her Piggly Wiggly uniform, with a nametag that said Lynette. “Nice woman,” said my father, sounding surprised, when she went inside to change. But Kenneth had a good sense of humor. He just laughed and lit up another Winston.

The boy whose arm had been bitten off had been told to invite his parents, but they waited until dark to make their entrance. At 8:30, just after sunset, they descended the stairs, a box of white zinfandel under the father’s arm, a bag of Tostito’s under the mother’s. The boy whose arm had been bitten off wasn’t with them. I could barely see their faces, but later my mother would say that the mother had a black eye under her bangs.

Kenneth introduced himself and handed both of them beers. The father put the box of wine in the center of the picnic table, like a bouquet of flowers.

“I guess our boys have been hanging out,” my father said.

The father of the boy whose arm had been bitten off didn’t really say anything. He stared at the fish Kenneth had just finished filleting, which was awaiting salt and lemon on a sheet of tin foil. Kenneth was still trying to get the charcoal hot.

“Who gutted that fish?”

Kenneth looked up, the bottle of lighter fluid in hand. “Caught today,” he said.

The father of the boy whose arm had been bitten off nodded but looked at the fish suspiciously. “Like to see the man who caught the fish gut it.”

“Jimmy doesn’t trust nothing out of the sea,” the mother of the boy whose arm had been bitten off said, laughing. She’d already drunk half her High Life.

“Who the hell asked you?” her husband said, fixing her with a look I could imagine him giving the ocean, when he charged back into it for his son’s arm.

“You just excuse him,” the mother of the boy whose arm had been bitten off said to my mother after a few seconds. Her voice was quieter, politer. “He doesn’t know how to act.”

That’s when I left, walking down to the end of the pier like I needed to check on the crab traps. I had the feeling that something bad was going to happen, that two areas of my life that had been separate were going to mix in a way not altogether friendly to me. All the traps were empty, even the bait gone. I lay on the slats of the pier, looking over the edge and into the water. I could hear the mosquito hum of a speedboat, and somewhere down the shoreline a stereo playing country music. I didn’t know why I was scared to look back to the shore, but I was. For about ten minutes I lay there thinking about nothing much in particular. But when I got up and turned around there was nothing to see. Just my mother and father, and Kenneth and Lynette, laughing and drinking from the box of wine, which they poured straight into their empty beer bottles. The boy’s parents were gone, and the grill was finally hot.

“That was the man that punched out the shark,” I informed Kenneth when I got there.

“Miserable dude,” he said.

That night we got locked out of the condo, and my parents were drunk enough to let Kenneth break into the place for them. He used a paper clip and then a straightened-out fishing hook, thin as a girl’s earring, and he showed me how to move it in the lock — first up, then to the right twice, and down in a sweeping clockwise motion that sometimes took a minute to catch. That satisfying click was what he liked. When he got it he stood up and laughed. Then he went inside, locked the door again, and made me try.

When I opened the door and walked in he and Lynette were there to welcome me. They clapped their hands. It was like I had walked into a different family.

The boy whose arm had been bitten off found a tall girl with braces who spelled her name with a K: Kortni. It was the first thing she said to you, and about the last thing she said to me. He told me that she had perfect B-cups, which he’d felt through her swimsuit under a beach umbrella while her family was just yards away, in the beach house they were renting. I half-believed him. I completely believed that whenever he wasn’t with me, he was with her, getting his braces caught in hers. I think that’s what made me do what I did.

I straightened out a fishing hook and a couple of paper clips and one day, as we were walking down the beach, eating snow cones that we’d paid for with a five-dollar bill he’d stolen from his mother’s purse, I told the boy whose arm had been bitten off that I’d learned how to pick locks. He didn’t look at me, just squinted out at the ocean. But I could tell he was interested. “Prove it,” he said, and then he pointed to Kortni’s beach house, a powder blue two-story set back about fifty yards from the beach.

I hesitated, and then he punched my shoulder. “You scared or what?”

I shook my head. I’d expected this, it was what I wanted. I wanted to become a sacrifice, crouching in the doorstep of Kortni’s beach house when her mother came out and caught me, the boy whose arm had been bitten off back in the dunes.

That’s not what happened, though. He did hide, and I did go up alone. But no one came out. I bent over the lock with my tools — up, then to the right twice, and clockwise down — and felt for the click. Once I knew the door would open, I paused for a moment. I could feel him waiting, watching me. I wanted that feeling to last.

When I finally opened the door and stepped inside, the boy whose arm had been bitten off was right behind me. No one was home. We crept through the beautifully appointed rooms.

Later that afternoon the boy whose arm had been bitten off had the bottoms of Kortni’s swimsuit and I had a new Walkman, an older brother’s Kill Em All inside. We repaired to the pier and with great ceremony the boy whose arm had been bitten off turned the bikini bottoms inside out and pressed them to his nose. “Yes,” he said, “oh yes.” I did the same but they just smelled like detergent to me. I didn’t like the tape, either.

We broke into three more condos that afternoon. Two of them were empty. The first one hadn’t had anyone in it since I could remember. The inside was dusty, decorated like all the others — cheap ocean-related crap on the walls, glass bowls full of sand dollars everywhere. The sheets were turned down like they were expecting somebody.

The second condo was where the two old queers had stayed. That’s what the boy whose arm had been bitten off called them, anyway, meaning the two old men we’d seen sometimes at the pool, their bellies expanding smooth and tan from opened shirts. One of them had helped me bait a hook, my first day on the pier, when I was having trouble.

This apartment was decorated like the other one, but there were homey touches that showed that it was usually occupied by its owners. Pictures of the two men were framed and arranged on a glass table in the living room. There was a record player in the bedroom and, deep in a bedside table drawer, a cigar box filled with neatly-rolled joints. The boy whose arm had been bitten off pocketed these, and on second thought took the box, too. I took a pair of green-glass Ray-Bans that were folded on the dresser.

We lit the joint with some kitchen matches and wandered around the condo like we owned it. I had the odd feeling that I’d been there before, and once I took the first hit off the joint it only got worse. I’d never smoked anything and it made me cough. The room felt hot and close, and my toes seemed rooted in the thick carpet, green as seaweed beneath my feet. I felt like I was sleepwalking as I followed the boy whose arm had been bitten off back to the bedroom, where he un-velcroed his swimsuit and, primly turning so I couldn’t see anything, pissed on the bed.

I looked up the boy whose arm had been bitten off last year, on a whim when I couldn’t sleep. He isn’t on Facebook. The first stories to come up on Google were the old ones: Boy loses arm to shark, Father gets it back; Surgeons re-attach arm to sharkbit boy.” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, then nothing. Death records for people with his first or last name, but never both. A chain of car dealerships in Topeka.

I wonder what it’s like to survive your defining event at age 10, and never have the world know anything else about you. To get hurt and for everybody to know it, and for that to be all they know.

The third condo we broke into was Room 213, where the boy whose arm had been bitten off was staying. It wasn’t my idea. After we locked the door to the old mens’ apartment, he just led me there. He didn’t even say anything beforehand. We floated there on feet that were inches above the ground. I felt nauseous, nervous. I’d felt that way all afternoon.

When we got to the door the boy whose arm had been bitten off dropped to his knees and asked for the paper clip and hook. I handed them over, and he gave me his loot — the bikini bottoms, the cigar box. It took him a few tries. But within a minute or so he’d gotten the hang of it, and the lock clicked. He took his hand off the doorknob and looked up at me. He told me to open it. It was like he wanted to show me something.

Twenty years later, I went to a peepshow in New Orleans. The second my quarters went in the slot I saw it all again: the dark room, his mother naked and bent over the stove, her face inches from the red-hot coil. His father naked too, behind her. Everything moving too slowly, then way too fast.

I’d already closed the door when his father started yelling. The boy whose arm had been bitten off was halfway down the stairs. I ran after him, dropping everything behind me — the Walkman, the bikini bottoms, the cigar box. I didn’t look back until I was about a quarter mile away, following as he sprinted down the shoulder of the road towards town. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the pass.

When I caught up to him, the boy whose arm had been bitten off was standing at the guard rail, looking down at the water. The tide was going out, the channel flowing into the ocean. A kayaker was making his leisurely way out from the lagoon, and dozens of skates, spotted like leopards, were swimming against the current, eating whatever came down to them. There was a fisherman on the rocks, casting into the water with a Mickey Mouse reel. He yelled up to us. “Y’all gonna jump, or what?”

I’d done it once, egged on by Uncle Kenneth. I shook my head, out of breath and looking behind me. No one was coming, but the boy whose arm had been bitten off climbed over the railing anyway, his bare feet finding the concrete lip on the other side. It was technically illegal, but it was only about a ten-foot drop. Kids did it all the time.

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