Hands that Listen

Racy Feder is the fastest sketch artist in the world. When the second tower fell in New York, she wasn’t taking a photograph, she was standing in the street, pencil in hand, making a sketch. When she was witness to two men making it out of the bank on 42nd Street with automatic weapons and sacks of Chase’s money, no one dared hold up their cell phones for a shot. Racy, sat calmly and efficiently with her knees tucked in, seemingly scribbling on a pad, and her not one but two sketches became the only globally syndicated images of the holdup. During the ice storm two years later, when cars were sliding out of control on I-87, Racy turned in drawings to her grandmother’s insurance company, made on the scene, showing the trajectory and position of each car in her line of sight, even before their own vehicle was struck.

It saved her family a bundle of money, but they didn’t really do more than pat her on the back, of course. Her brother Frank said it was an odd thing to be doing in the middle of a pileup. Her Dad, ex-stepdad actually, who she called by his first name, Jenz, said it was good for girls to go into art, because business just made them “bitches” like Racy’s mother. Her mother didn’t say anything at all – she never did. When she wasn’t exhausted and sleeping whatever hours she could while working a second job, Ms. Feder was mostly focused on Racy’s younger brother, Trevor – Trev. Racy didn’t mind. He was seven and needed what attention their mom could give.

Racy didn’t do still lifes. She didn’t make “nice” sketches like Mr. Zimmerman, her art teacher, kept insisting children should do. He didn’t say “especially girls should do”, but he looked the other way when boys Racy’s age made thinly concealed drawings of penises or breasts and snickered about them with their heads low to the tables. They never made drawings of a vagina, of course. Oh one or two might have seen one, but they hadn’t the confidence that actual familiarity might have produced. It would be like trying to draw a koala the first time without looking at a photo of one. From what she gathered hanging around after class when a higher grade level came in, vaginas were next year.

Racy only drew things in motion, things that were happening now. She didn’t call them drawings, she called the pages in her pad “events”, and the pad she called a “journal”. Her English teacher, Mrs. Merriman asked her why she didn’t write, if that’s what she wanted to do. No one seemed to understand, even after the Chase Manhattan robbery, that it was anything other than a fluke, and her Twin Towers entries were lost to adult attention in the myriad of other “children’s remembrances” of that tragic day. Racy didn’t like other forms of art, so much. Mr. Zimmerman had them cutting kirigami snowflakes, which didn’t interest Racy at all.

To leaf through her journal at bedtime, for Racy, was to relive a visual history of the fast-moving, unusual, traumatic, or just special things Racy had seen happen. There was the kiss she had seen in the middle of a street, when a woman and a man started to walk in different directions, and he caught the curve of her fingers with his own and said “I love you” loud enough for anyone to hear. There was the fight behind the bleachers in the auditorium, when David Lehman beat up Robert Harriman, because he had called his mother a whore – not to her face of course. And there was the time Jenz had stormed out of the apartment, dropping his suitcase on the walk, which spilled socks and underwear everywhere. The page in Racy’s journal showed him kicking the case down the steps.

Racy’s images seemed to be alive with motion. You felt inertia just looking at them. You felt momentum. When anyone looked at her work, their eyes traveled right across the page in the line of some suggested activity. A hand coming down, a tugging embrace, it was animated nature morte, a conflation of stillness and movement An old man on a park bench, a hobo probably, who had seen her flipping through the book commented that her hand was “still moving, even now, in each arc left by the pencil”. It was true, Racy sometimes could look at a sketch she had done a year ago and still feel exactly the motion her fingers had made squeezing the pencil, as if her hands had an eidetic memory of their own.

Racy’s hands remembered – the way your body knows exactly how it would kiss someone you loved once, if that person person loved you again and you loved them back. They remembered the way a pitcher for the Yankees could tell you exactly how he’d throw the knuckle ball in the game they won two seasons ago, because he had done it, and there was more than one way to throw a ball – it was the same but different every time. Racy didn’t know anything about being kissed or baseball, but she could have written each event no other way than she had written it, in sweeping thrusts of her hands, pushed by the mind, fed by alert and steadily watching eyes.

Her worst fears, partially justifiable given the scare they’d had last year when the Marchesi family upstairs had fallen asleep with a burner on, and everyone was forced to leave the building for a couple of hours while the fire department made sure it was safe, were losing her sketches to flame or moisture or theft. She kept the sketches, all 97 of them so far, in her backpack, and her backpack never left her side, not even when she sat down to eat. There were more than 97 drawings, of course, more than 97 experiences in the journal of her youth-so-far, but she kept the most important ones in the wrapped folio that held her pencil and pad, and the less important ones were in a steel cake box she had talked her grandmother out of, even though that woman normally saved everything.

The box was under her bed, tucked far enough under that one had to go digging in the dark for it, which was fine with her. Anyone looking for it would have their work cut out. But the sketches in her backpack, the ones she couldn’t bear to be apart from, were her chief concern. Where do you put your memories when they don’t fit in your head? Where do you store the things you can’t live without even when they were tough to live with in the first place? No place really seems safe but in your hands, which was where Racy’s heart was. That bum on the bench had said that too. She wanted to draw him, but he just sat there, grinning, with one tooth missing. He didn’t do anything other than talk, and Racy only drew things that *happened*.

What happened that was most important, not maybe in comparison to 9/11, and maybe not to that bank security guard that went to the hospital in critical, and probably not to Racy’s mom when Jenz had left, or even to Robert Harriman, who had been shamed more than seriously hurt, but that was everything when you were in school, was the worst thing that could happen to Racy. It wasn’t hard to imagine. She had imagined it for the three and half years she had made those sketches, an eternity in twelve year old time. Racy always knew she carried her memory on her back and, if you lose your memory, do you lose your mind? Not amnesia – lots of people survived that, and were sane, ordinary, and productive afterward. But what if you lost both your memory and the ability to make new memories? Wouldn’t that be the worst thing that could happen?

And that’s why, when the subway doors malfunctioned, and she lost both her bag and the use of her right hand, she felt sure she would never be sane again. The driver wasn’t paying attention. It was in all the papers later, though nothing much happened to him – there were 54 people who had died, many were pushed, on the tracks that year, after all. What was a crumpled hand and a  bag of artwork? The train had pulled away from the station with her fingers stuck in the door and the bag on the other side – the safety mechanism never sensed the pressure, and most people in the crowded car had just gotten on and were facing the other way. It was a fluke. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Any number of things would have stopped it, and any number of things should have prevented it ever happening. But fear always finds a way to turn itself into a reality, if you hold it long enough, if you keep it on your back with your memories. And that’s exactly what happened to Racy, not that it was her fault.

She managed to get her hand free. The train wouldn’t lift and carry her by just her fingers alone. But what Racy never got back was the physical memory her hand had held, or the journal of her recall in motion, her living sketches. She tried to start over, months later of course, after her hand had at least come out of the cast. The nerve damage wasn’t reparable. She would never draw anything with that hand again – at least not well enough or fast enough to matter.

Racy had to get psychiatric care. No one seemed to understand, because they didn’t really understand Racy in the first place. At least that’s what she told the reporter working on the anniversary of 9/11 who dug up the story for a nationally syndicated online post some years later. The web site had featured digital versions of the sketches that had made it into the news. It was almost a slap in the face, because the real, tactile originals were gone. Those images weren’t memory, they were only the ghostly memory of memory. Yes, you would have seen it in the news and, by now, you know that Racy isn’t her real name. When you’re writing about kids, sometimes it’s better to err on the side of protecting the innocent, even if she is grown now and it probably doesn’t matter. There’s no crazy like the crazy of people who show up on your doorstep when *you* show up in the press, and that story went far and wide, because of what Racy decided to do with the rest of her life. In fact, business for Racy has never been better, even if she does get her share of creeps.

You should know something the news story didn’t contain. The reason they put her in psychiatric care was not that they grasped the immensity of her torment, as much as they might empathize with the immediate cause of it. It was because, lying for a moment, unattended on that surgical bed – and it was only a moment, while an orderly stepped into the hall to ask for help with something he didn’t have authority to disconnect to move the bed – Racy’s left hand lay hold of something sharp, something used to cut into tissue, and that’s exactly what she did with it. She made quick red thrusts upon her small body, the gentlest and most brutal arcs you ever saw and, by the time the medical staff was shouting and pouring into the room like the New York City subway patrons who had gathered around her and borne her away from the tracks to safety in the first place, Racy had made a record of what had happened to her. She was the fastest sketch artist in the world, after all, and one last entry on the diary of her own flesh left an indelible memory that even bandages and stitches would not erase.

Racy now lives in New Jersey, where she is a tattoo artist who has a weekly television program on regional cable and, with better luck, is likely to get syndicated nationally and even overseas, just like her ‘young adult’ work back in the day, which she never likes to talk about. She still doesn’t have full use of her right hand. Years of physical therapy after the accident gave her back at least the ability to hold her tools with the right, but not to wield them. She trained the left hand to do what’s needed. And now the parlor she owns, which used to be called Hand Sinister Creations before the new, and possibly better name, at least according to cable TV focus groups (though the old one has a ring to it doesn’t it?) only specializes in artwork that conveys something the client recalls – something that actually happened to them or near them that they can describe in detail to Racy.

Racy said in a recent interview, before declining further to talk about the past, that in some ways it’s better now, because it’s not only her own memories she enters into the record, but those of other people, and her human journals number in the hundreds, if not more by now. She finally found the way to make sure she never loses everything again. Racy said she has become a better listener than she might have been otherwise, and her art isn’t only visual and internal anymore. It takes in other people’s minds as well. Her body is covered, of course, in her own masterwork, though she purposely left the scars un-retouched, even if she doesn’t flaunt them – the producers feel they’re too extreme and creepy even for cable audiences, edgy as the show is supposed to be.

~~ written by Frank Feder (and Asher Black)  ~~  “I too have become a better listener.” 

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