★ ‘The Arm of Ernesto Stranguellini’ by Gregory Von Dare

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On a day filled with sunshine and promise there came an anguished cry: The great Stranguellini’s career is ended! In what was described as a tragic accident, a helicopter crashed like a shattering eggshell not one hundred meters from the renowned Stranguellini family’s estate. The disaster occurred near Lake Como, where northern Italy slopes upward toward the great Alps and the perfume of juniper and pine freshens the air. As a result of this monstrous impact, the left arm of young Ernesto Stranguellini, a champion downhill ski racer, was cleanly severed at the shoulder.

Surgeons in a Milan hospital struggled to sew the spasming appendage back onto the athlete’s body but the arm jerked so violently it actually punched one doctor in the nose, drawing blood. The surgeons, blameless to be sure, were spellbound by the ability of a detached arm to move with such force and cunning. Then, following a rude gesture, the unruly limb tipped over a tray of valuable surgical instruments. In the confusion that followed, the arm escaped.

Stranguellini did not know what to make of his predicament. He had never contemplated life with only one arm. When asked why he had ventured up in the helicopter, he remarked, “The freedom, the exhilaration. And I was think­ing of all the bald heads I could spit on.”

The arm had a perilous journey fleeing the Hospital of Our Lady in Milan. It inched its way along endless corridors. At an intersection of two hallways, the arm was nearly run down by a hysterical, white-bearded old partisan in a wheelchair who, in his extreme dotage, thought himself still pursued by Mussolini’s Fascists armed with bottles of castor oil, ready to purge him of his royalist sympathies.

Not used to travel on its own, the arm was at the mercy of a thousand mishaps. Its fingers were painfully trod on by a fat nurse with thick glasses and a coarse black mustache. She hummed an air by Donizetti as she walked and never heard the crackle of bone and cartilage under her heavy foot. A thin and nervous doctor who specialized in organ transplants went home in a chill sweat when he noticed the arm loitering in front of his office.

Once out of the hospital, the arm of Ernesto Stranguellini worked its way to the nearest strada. As traffic thundered by, the arm reached up and grabbed a canvass strap dangling from the back door of a delivery truck bound for Rome. Bravely ignoring the cloud of noxious diesel fumes that swirled around it, the arm was off to seek its destiny.

Given its plight, the arm looked rather dashing. It was dressed in one long sleeve of a custom made, light blue cotton dress shirt with lightly starched French cuff, clasped by a shiny golden cufflink in the shape of a medieval Florin. It also wore a dashing brown pigskin driving glove with holes cut out for the knuckles. Around its sinewy wrist was a large chronograph watch on a non-expanding titanium band. Close up, the arm had a slight redolence of Armani cologne, which was not at all displeasing.

After the arm’s escape, Stranguellini the man underwent an unfortunate transformation. The once bubbly and sunny ski racer became hesitant and unsure. It was as though the arm had carried away with it some part of his vitality, his soul. The former darling of the press and the young ladies grew shy and reclusive.

He was uncomfortable around strangers—they were always inquiring about his missing arm. Did he know it had been sighted in Ravenna ingeniously operating the gearshift lever of a rare Ferrari 250 GTO? Had he seen the pictures of his arm around the waist of a notorious starlet in yesterday’s tabloids? To these people Stranguellini would bite his remaining thumb and march away, his face red, his heart pounding, his eyes moist.

At home Stranguellini was edgy. Without his daily routine of training, of skiing and exercising, he became idle and querulous. He read complex meanings into his wife’s simplest remarks. A little nothing set him off. And once the words with Lola, his beautiful and passionate wife, began flying there was no stopping them. Poor Lola hardly knew how to touch him. How to make love? Should the missing arm be ignored, remarked, dismissed, disowned? Was its absence a turn-off or a kinky thrill? She just didn’t know. Worst of all, Stranguellini was putting on weight.

At this time a story circulated among upper class men that the arm had performed unspeakable sexual deeds with a Countess X in the Roman sea town of Fregene. When her husband the Count confronted Stranguellini in a sidewalk bistro about this indiscretion, the former skier broke down in tears.

“Everyone knows I would not do such a thing,” he pleaded. But nevertheless, the Count delivered a vigorous beating with his walking stick which the one-armed man was little able to resist. The humiliation of this encounter left Stranguellini despondent.

Soon the arm had its own circle of acquaintances. Some were thrill-seekers it is true, but many genuinely admired the arm for its independent attitude. These friends discussed the arm in the most serious terms. They mused about its place in society, in history. Some mentioned the arm for public office. How could the downtrodden, the alienated, those cut off from the mainstream be better represented in government than by Stranguellini’s arm, I ask you? It would certainly have no trouble voting in a show of hands.

Meanwhile the arm sought to better itself. After some searching, it secured a job in the Poste Italiane. The arm was excellent at sorting mail, a G3 position with good hopes for advancement. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it took night courses at the University. It began a program of calisthenics and proved formidable at arm wrestling. All in all, Stranguellini’s arm was living a full, productive life. Yet sometimes, late at night, it would clutch a glossy picture of the noble skier tenderly in its fingers and tremble softly.

Headlines rocked the nation: ‘ARM ON DRUGS’. Like many headlines, this one was simply an exaggeration. It was true that the arm injected drugs, stimulants. But these were prescribed by a doctor who was shocked at how thin the arm had become during its ascetic phase, when it sought enlightenment through fasting and denial of the self.

Another time, the arm was accused of robbery and was briefly detained by the police in Rome. Thankfully, the sensitivity and good taste of the carabinieri forbade the use of handcuffs. After an exhaustive investigation, the real culprit turned out to be a professional thief who, by way of an ingenious costume, had managed to make all but his left arm disappear from casual view while he plundered a succession of banks.

About this time, Stranguellini faced a cash-flow difficulty. I’m sorry, his agent said, your skiing days are over. His business manager told him bluntly that all his product endorsements had been canceled. The goddamn arm even took away our wristwatch account, the man grumbled with obvious bad feeling. This sour little man had made a good living off Stranguellini and he regretted losing it.

Perhaps it was the business manager who suggested to Stranguellini that he force the arm to be rejoined to his body. Stranguellini’s lawyer was against the idea because the arm had established a life of its own. The attorney argued that they might be violating the sacred rights of the individual, they could be thought of as kidnappers or worse, slavers.

Basta!,” hissed Stranguellini. “Enough of this talk. We’ll get my arm back if we have to hire the Mafia to do it. Then this foolishness will be over.”

In the end, they did hire the Mafia to recover the arm. And a merry chase it was, as, thanks to a Eurail Pass, the arm led its pursuers through Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Holland. Finally, the arm was cornered in the Bloemhof district of Rotterdam by twelve men posing as Roman Catholic priests from the Vatican.

Drawing outsize pistols from below their long black cassocks, the Mafiosi priests sent darts of liquid tranquilizer into the arm. It struggled heroically but in no time the drug rendered it senseless. The arm was packed in ice and flown on a chartered jet to Milan, where Stranguellini waited anxiously in a hospital, smoking one cigarette after another. A team of splendid doctors labored all day and re-attached the arm in an historic operation that was hailed as a triumph of European medicine.

Stranguellini made a brilliant recovery. From the instant the arm was part of him again, his spirits rallied. Soon, the old color was back in his cheek, the flash in his eye. Soon the sweeping gesture his. During rehab sessions, he could be heard singing the lilting tenor arias of bel canto. In no time, he returned to the slopes. Perhaps out of his prime now, he still cut an impressive figure on the snow, a tribute to Italian manhood.

As for the arm, it seemed content to resume its old position in life―joined to Stranguellini at the shoulder. Yet some of its recent independence remained. It won’t touch cigarettes, for instance, and likes to be covered in the midday sun. It enjoys lifting a glass of fine French Cognac before bed. And if, occasionally, it should reach out, all on its own of course, to gently pinch the elegantly curving bottom of a beautiful young woman as she walks along, well, after all, what can Stranguellini do but try to explain, in a charming way, the reason why.

Gregory Von Dare has been writing since the lava cooled and fishlike creatures first crawled out upon the land, in other words the 1970s. He has written for Fox TV and worked in some capacity for Universal Studios, Disney and Warner Brothers. He was head of the Directors’ Wing of the Classical Theatre Lab in Los Angeles and worked with the Actors Studio there. Greg was commissioned by the City of West Hollywood to write a play about F. Scott Fitzgerald for National Reading Month in 2014 and he examined Fitzgerald’s love life in a play called “Jazzed.” He is a member of Mystery Writers of America and has authored several books and many articles on the non-fiction side. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.

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