The Thumbs

The story you’re about to read is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.

Once upon a time, I worked for an information technology body shop as a consultant. This wasn’t the type of consultant where you ask a Fortune 500 firm to send you two fresh business school graduates to restructure your entire business model and fire the people not in the cool clique. I was a temporary employee at a whole bunch of different firms.

Part of the problem of this kind of position is that you need to describe what you do in a way that makes sense to business types. I’m a systems administrator. And a network engineer. And a writer. And a problem solver. I described myself as “a one-man Internet Service Provider,” which is technically true but completely worthless as a corporate brand. A big company doesn’t need someone to set up RADIUS, configure BGP, and set up WAN access lists; they need someone to manage user authentication and make sure the Internet stays up and corral the firewall.

I’m three misshapen pegs that can be reassembled to make up either a round peg or a square peg. That made me hard to sell. It’s much easier to call yourself a network engineer, or a systems administrator, or whatever, and get slotted into that space.

But I get bored. I want the whole stack, from the fiber to Kerberos. (Except for databases. Because databases swallow your soul. Yes, exactly like in that Evil Dead movie.)

One account rep had this uncanny ability to place me, though. Jill did this weird thing where she made friends with potential customers, listened to them describe their problems, and said “Hey, I have a guy who can fix that.” And off I went.

Part of an account rep’s job is taking the customer to lunch. If a customer cancelled, or nobody was available that day, or things just didn’t work out, they’d take a consultant. The customers got taken fancy places, but us consultants were pretty happy with a burger and a soda. (Or, at least I was.) So, Jill calls one June day, right before lunch, and we hit the local pub.

We’re talking about family, and I said “Of course, my family gene pool is so shallow, I’m the first man born in generations with only two thumbs.”

For those of you who have never talked with me: this is something called “hyperbole” or, less formally, “being a smart ass.” My dad was proud of his hillbilly heritage, but I have the correct number of appendages and organs, all in all the usual places. Anyone who’s talked with me for more than ten minutes know that I spew random weirdness. It’s part of my jackassnesscharm

She chuckled.

“Of course,” I said, “this has caused me all kinds of problems in my career.”

“How so?”

“Think about it. I work on a keyboard for a living. If I could type twenty percent faster, I’d get at least a few extra bucks in my paycheck. And can you imagine the marketing I could have done with that? ‘Lucas is so fast, he had to grow extra digits on his hands!’ I’m the first person who could have taken advantage of my family’s polydatylic heritage, and I got cheated out of it!”

And the conversation veered back towards normal territory.

A couple weeks pass. I fix a couple servers. I figure out a random TCP reset issue and report it to the vendor. I trap one of the $500/hour Big IT Firm consultants in a stairwell and use a live naked mole rat to persuade him to divulge the location of the secret shell script that justifies his continued employment. You know. The usual stuff.

Then Jill calls again, asking me to lunch. It’s only been a couple weeks, but that’s the way random lunch works–it’s random. Sure.

Jill pulls up at the door. “Hi!” she says. She’s all dressed up, with a fancy vest with fur trim and extra-careful makeup. I assume it’s for a big client meeting. “I thought we’d try something different today.”

“Sure.”

She drives to the local fancy restaurant. An expensive restaurant.

I’m starting to think this is kind of weird, but maybe she has some good news to tell me. I’m okay where I am, but the advantage of being a temporary employee is that you can easily jump to the next big thing.

I’ve never been to this restaurant before. The menu confuses me. Theoretically there’s a less expensive item here, but it’s hiding behind some fiendishly expensive dishes. I say I’ll have a Greek salad. Jill says “If you want a salad, you have to try the Japanese Wasabi Salmon Supreme Decadence Salad with Extra Snootiness.” Judging by the price, the salad includes edible gold leaf and is delivered by a pair of bare-chested romance novel cover models on a sasquatch-drawn chariot, but okay.

The salad is yummy, but that little voice in the back of my hindbrain that warned our ancestors about the approaching Smilodon screeches louder and louder. You don’t set someone up for a good talk. In this business, the end of a contract isn’t a bad talk–it’s business as usual. I’m beginning to think a lot of things beginning with C. Cancer? Nah. Criminal charges? I hope not. Crucifixion? Maybe.

“You have to try the chocolate cake. With the ice cream.”

Definitely crucifixion. Or perhaps cannibalism.

But the cake really is good.

We finish eating. Jill deliberately sets her fork down neatly beside her plate.

She’s out of stalls. This is it.

“I don’t want to be nosy,” Jill says. “But I have to ask. Just how does the whole two thumbs thing work?”

I blink.

“I mean,” she says, “does the extra thumb go by the regular thumb? Or is it on the other side of your hand or something? Do they make special keyboards? Because I just can’t see fitting another finger on a regular one.”

Deep breath.

“Jill,” I say, “that was a joke.”

Jill stops breathing. Her face turns a little pinker. “You–” she gasps. “You–” She throws the napkin from her lap onto the table. “YOU! I haven’t slept in two weeks trying to figure this out!”

I try to say “Sorry,” but the swell of laughter from my gut drowns it. Then she’s laughing too.

So, I got a really nice lunch out of deceiving someone. There’s probably a lesson there.

That should have been the end of it.

See that nice green leafy tree outside the restaurant? The leaves change color as we pass through September, blow away in October, and then there’s the bare branches of December. And the company Christmas party.

Outplacement firms tend to hire interesting people near the top of their field. You’re employed with these folks, but you don’t actually work with them. You see them only at company events and when you happen to get placed at the same client. And they get a lot less interesting when you have to work with them. At least, that was the missus’ argument when she made me go.

Jill is there. At lunch a couple months ago, she mentioned that she had a new boyfriend. I had the burger.

Jill brought new boyfriend Rodrigo to the Christmas party and is trying to introduce the poor bastard to absolutely everyone. He wears the glassed eyes of “How am I supposed to remember all of these people” and the nailed-to-his-face smile of “I’m making a good impression for the sake of my girl.”

I say “How do you do?” and Jill says “You can’t believe this guy. Tell him about the thumb thing.”

So I start to tell the story. His fixed smile shatters into a genuine grin. I’m slightly puzzled, but continue. His grin gets bigger and bigger. I finish the story.

Rodrigo sticks out his hand and says “Cousin! It’s so good to meet you!”

Puzzled, I look down.

There’s a scar on the side of his hand.

The scar runs from the base joint of the thumb, down along the edge of his palm, almost to the base of his hand. It’s an old scar. The only reason it’s visible is because the skin on either side is wildly different. One side is clearly smooth brown palm. The other is rougher and more porous. There’s no transition between the two types of skin, no fading from one to the other.

It’s like Rodrigo had something removed from the side of his hand.

And the skin stitched together to fill in the gap.

Rodrigo holds out his other hand. It has an identical scar.

Where his nonfunctional extra thumbs were amputated.

The relationship did not last.

But embarrassment? Embarrassment is eternal.

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