Whose Hand?

I studied the crags in the old man’s wind-burned face. His gold and silver hair was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, leaving his bald head open to the elements. The ragged collar of a black T-shirt peeked through the v-neck of a dirty blue-green sweater with a run in the left sleeve. Nicotine had stained the dirty fingernails on the left thumb and forefinger he used to grip his ceramic coffee mug. 

Leaning a little forward in his chair, he looked me straight in the eye, the stench of his breath hot in my face. He rubbed his left hand on the thigh of his faded camouflage pants -- the green kind from a jungle war, not the sand-colored ones from a desert war. He told me he was fishing in Lake Harriet on one of those warm, sunny days last October.

“My butt was getting numb,” he said, “but I cast off one more time, and sat a bit longer. Then I felt a little tug-- like maybe I’d caught milfoil. There was weight but no wiggle, ya know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I do.” I’d fished some with my daughters.

“But that was no fish that broke the surface of the water.” His crow’s feet grew deeper as he broke into a smile, then pushed the coffee cup aside with the back of his hand, as though he didn’t want it to come between us.

“It was someone’s hand,” he said.

 He said it loudly, with a combination of shock and mirth. So loudly, in fact, that the guy sitting at the next table looked up from his computer. Then the old man leaned back in his chair, which gave him a better perch to watch my reaction.

“A hand?” I asked. “Are you sure it was a hand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This was one rough guy, I thought. Should I believe him? I wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t hurt to listen. I reached in my purse, pulled out a pen and my long skinny notebook with the spiral at the top, and flipped it open to the first page. “Start at the very beginning.”
He’d fished Lake Harriet several times a week for years, he said, and had even caught muskie late in the fall. This time he’d been lowering his line all day long with no luck, until the big catch.

“I tried to reel the thing in. A big ol’ airplane was coming in low over the lake just then, making such a racket I couldn’t think straight. I leaned over a little too far, I guess. I was holding the pole with one hand and reaching with the other and the blessed thing slipped through my fingers.”

“Meaning the hand, or the pole, slipped through your fingers?”

“Both. I lost my new Shimano Baitrunner reel my boys gave me for my birthday.”

“What did it look like?”

“The reel? It was a beauty.”

“No. I mean the hand.”

“Oh, it looked like a human hand, but it had been in the water a long time, I figure. All bloated and kind of mushy looking.”

“What did you do?”

“I shouted a word I wouldn’t repeat in front of a pretty lady like you. A sight like that can really jack up a guy’s ticker, if you know what I mean.”

“I can imagine. Then what? How long did it take you to reel the hand in?”

“Quite a while. Must’ve come from deep water. The lake can get eighty or ninety feet deep, ya know.”

“Was there a ring? Tattoo? Anything?”

“All I saw was some of that milfoil hanging on it.”

We were meeting in Linden Hills, a neighborhood on the west shore of Lake Harriet. The coffee shop, in what had been a neighborhood drug store, was adjacent to a women’s boutique in what had once been a used bookstore. A couple of women chatted quietly on a black leather couch. It was the kind of place where a good conversation was better than a month of therapy, and a lot cheaper, too.

“Is this your usual place?” I asked, unable to imagine him as a regular here.

“Hell, no,” he said. “But I’ve lived in Linden Hills my whole life.”

“How’s that?”

“I grew up just a couple of blocks from here. Long before it became so dee-zire-able. Couldn’t afford to buy a house here now. But I like coffee and I figured a high-falutin’ newspaper reporter like you would like a place like this.”

The cappuccino maker hissed along with the soft jazz playing in the background. I was trying to formulate the next question, but I kept wondering why the owner of the adjacent dress shop wasn’t worried about coffee spilling on her merchandise when an open sliding door invited customers to float back and forth between the two establishments. Maybe I was subconsciously avoiding the gruesome image.

“Was it a right hand or a left hand?” I finally asked.

“Ma’am, I was so shook up I didn’t take the time to figure that out.”

“All five fingers?” I asked, trying to suppress a grimace.

“Looked to me like all the parts were there.”

“Know anybody who fell in the lake recently?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Heard any stories about anybody losing a hand?”

“Nope.”

“Got any idea whose hand it might have been?”

“Beats me.”

I glanced over to the next table and noticed a teen apparently doing homework online. I live near the coffee shop and recognized her. She was the daughter of a friend of mine. She wore white earphones and seemed to be bouncing to a beat. I wondered what class she was taking, and whether my girls would be doing the same soon.

“Did you drop a buoy marker?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Did you try to get a visual marker, like line up where you were with a house along the shore?”

“I was pretty shook up, so I just rowed back into shore. On my way I passed a guy who was taking his sailboat out of the water for the season. They have to have all the buoys empty by the end of October. Anyways, I told the guy what I saw and all he said was, ‘Is that so, Pop?’ Imagine. He called me ‘Pop.’ Like I’m too old to be believed.”

“Did you call the cops?”

“Yeah. But I think they don’t believe me. Even my boys think I’m crazy, but I swear on my beloved wife’s grave, that’s what happened.”

I wasn’t surprised he had trouble getting people to believe him. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the story from the rheumy eyes and tremulous hands of the teller. Urban myths about sunken treasure and six-foot-long fish have been floating around Lake Harriet for decades. I wondered if this was just another one. What’s more, he claimed this happened last October. We were meeting in February. Was this a fish tale that had grown over five months?

“I hope you won’t take any offense at this next question, but I can’t help but notice you seem to have a cataract in your right eye. Are you sure you saw a hand, and not something else you mistook for a hand?”

“My right eye may be a bit cloudy, but my left eye is twenty/twenty,” he said.

“I know there have been times when fishermen have sat in their boats all day long just drinking beer. Are you sure you didn’t see a fish that looked like a hand?”

He pulled back from the table, his face awash in disappointment. Then he looked me dead in the eye and with great earnestness said, “I pulled a hand out of Lake Harriet.”
I gave him my card and suggested that he call me if he thought of anything else. He promised me he would and rose from the table, absentmindedly pulling at the crotch of his pants before reaching for his hat and scarf. We shook hands and he gave me a sly wink before ambling out the coffeehouse door.

People like to tell me stories. Sometimes on the phone. Sometimes in coffee shops. Sometimes in their homes. I always listen, but skeptically. Each time, I try to figure out if the storyteller is just another nut looking to get his name in the newspaper, or the real deal. I listen because that’s my job. I’m a reporter for the Minneapolis Citizen and my beat is missing persons.

As I watched BJ trudge down the sidewalk, his heavy rubber boots leaving big prints in the newly fallen snow, I decided I believed his story. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was intuition. Maybe it was my reporter’s DNA. Something told me the story was more than some old codger’s fish tale. Turns out, I was right.


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