“The Man Who Spoke with His Hands” by William H. Gass

Image by Tom Moore / tommooreillustration.com

The man who spoke with his hands was not deaf nor did he speak with his hands because he was communicating with deaf people. The man who spoke with his hands was not noticeably shy, therefore unlikely to say much, or be inclined to wait for a passing noise behind which to hide his remarks. He engaged in conversations with average frequency and ordinary ease, and employed for these everyday purposes a voice that was mellow enough to spread on bread; neither so low as to approach a whisper nor so high as to threaten screech. It was a voice as brown as his eyes.

The man who spoke with his hands did not gesture expansively, because he spoke with his hands not his arms and/or eyebrows. His hands tended to remain in close touch, mostly about mid-chest. His hands were made almost entirely of fingers. These were long and slim and supple. One thought of cigarette holders except for the supple. A cigarette holder is not supple. It is a bamboo tube with a coating of lacquer. Those who believe that smoke filtered through the stem of such a holder is less likely to sicken them are probably mistaken. According to authorities, they are being poisoned when they breathe such drugs. Smoking is a bad habit but the man who spoke with his hands did not appear to have any other habit than his hands.

The man who spoke with his hands had cheeks that were tanned; outside of those two places—the left and right cheeks at the lower edge of the bone—his skin was pale. His fingers were exceptionally white and consequently easy to see, which is possibly one reason why he chose to speak with his hands, although nobody supposed that he actually chose his gestures; what made them so graceful and attractive was that they (his fingers for the most part) seemed to dance outside the range of their owner’s attention. It is no longer fashionable to describe anything as “unconscious.” The few who still employ the concept have probably been smoking too much Freud. Freud had a cigar habit, and we know it was bad because it killed him.

The man who spoke with his hands would, while speaking, sometimes move the thumb of his right hand gently (one might say with circumspection) back and forth, in and out, of a hollow formed by a downward curl of the left hand’s lengthy fingers, as if they were lightly gripping a pole where the thumb slid. Professors Rinse and Skizzen understood this to be a meditative moment; for instance, if he were saying that he hadn’t taken any of the students in his History of Religious Music class to hear some famous organist who had come to Columbus yet again this year (it was the sixth occasion), they would take his hands to be indicating that he had debated long and hard about it. As Professor Skizzen saw the thumb glide gradually out again, he thought of the trombone. Freud would have ascribed this habit to another practice that was equally compulsive and otherwise unspeakable.

On the whole the man who spoke with his hands created movements that were slow, as if they were distant from his words, and reluctant to leap to conclusions. Only when his forefinger, seemingly held back by the pressure of the thumb, sprang forward in that snap one uses to flick a crumb from the dining cloth, did they call attention to themselves. This gesture meant—the Professors believed—that whatever it was he was discussing—an event, a meeting, a class, an opinion—was over and done with, no longer held, not to be taken up again. When he said: I just couldn’t face another long bus ride with a load of noisy kids; there was neither snick nor snip, but a gentle, almost imperceptible movement of the fingertips, the nails in full view, as if brushing something away or warding it off, pushing the imagined thing out of his purview. Then he might conclude: so I didn’t. The snip would follow this.

A gentle brushing of the table top with the fingers will roll crumbs to the edge and over it onto a ready palm. There is no need to flick offending grains of salt or sugar into space where they will sand up something else—a chair seat or the floor beneath your feet. A table knife will scrape them to a corner and fancy folk or attentive waiters in hightoned restaurants employ a silver blade just for this purpose. So the flick is probably a bad habit too. The flick removes a problem from your presence but does not yet rid it from the world.

The fingers of the man who spoke with his hands might mesh like the tines of forks, but gently and easily, for tines may jam. Then one could watch his fingers slide between his fingers like blending fans, again very gradually, so the hands were clasped, and almost immediately moved again, separating with the silence of cream, and thereby measuring degrees of commitment or withdrawal, of coolness or ardency, agreement or disavowal. His hands often assumed a prayer-like stance when he began to speak—pardon me, your humble servant, by your leave sir—and then the right hand would withdraw, its fingers sliding very slowly down a calm left palm until the wrist was reached when they would hesitate a moment before rising up again or continue to drop on down to the wristband of their owner’s watch.

Yes, the man who spoke with his hands could be nervous and impatient too, the fingers of his right drumming on the back of his left, those tappings reminding Professors Skizzen and Rinse of the way his long slim white fingers flew on and off the holes of the flute, whereas if the left danced a bit on the back of the right, it meant, they calculated, expectation coupled with serene acceptance. Occasionally both hands would droop from their wrists like fresh wash hung from a rope, but this was not a feminine gesture, even though Professors Rinse and Skizzen judged that it signified: you win, I give up, you don’t say. Unless, of course, the hands suddenly flew up again, when it meant a very firm: go away, take your topic elsewhere, little boy, run out and play.

When the man who spoke with his hands was confronting a knotty problem, or trying to be clear about a complexity that had hold of him, he would revolve his hands around one another, slowly or quickly, quietly or forcefully, as the puzzle was pursued. The knot at last untied, the left hand, palm exposed, might fly gracefully away as if to say: there, you see, or, it consequently comes to this. I liked particularly the definite but brief pinches one pair of fingers might make on a lower arm or the upper skin of a hand, or all the subtle tweezer variations, since he seemed to have a special role for every digit, and Professor Skizzen particularly felt those fingers were very sincere about their business, well manicured and behaved, especially during geometric gestures, small circles mostly, as if one were twining one’s hair, or unrolling an idea like a length of rug.

Occasionally, the man who spoke with his hands would add a little flutter, or some zippy propulsion of the right indexical toward the object or person he was addressing (the way one adds ‘-ed’ to a verb or tacks on ‘-ly’ to an adverb or attaches an ‘-est’ to an adjective or ‘-ness’ to a noun of which ‘saintliness’ could serve as an example, or ‘livelihood’ be an attractive instance, or ‘implicational’ at least representative), thereby altering the assumed character of a run of silent remarks.

Rarely did the man who spoke with his hands permit them to touch his head, ears, or face, though Professor Skizzen saw a forefinger brush his earlobe once in a gesture so expressive as to warrant applause. They never strayed below the belt, or roamed far or widely from his torso, or fell meekly like a coat sleeve to his sides. And despite of all this nearly continuous motion, the Professors hardly noticed them; took little heed of this habit; were not distracted as much by the fingers as by the light which rollicked from their owner’s bald head, pale as paper. He was a man, compact and even slight, whom one could nevertheless pick out of a crowd as one would the most attractive piece of fruit from a bin. His hair would have been brown had he had any. The truth was, Rinse and Skizzen talked more about the man’s dark curly eyebrows and his baldpate than his shiny nails or their scintillating moves.

When the man who spoke with his hands performed, his colleagues read his gestures as signs, and Rinse thought his fingers danced, but Skizzen heard an orchestra that the man conducted to accompany his words. Skizzen saw the pick, the drum, the strum, the tweak, the pluck, the rub, the damp, the trill, the run of the instruments, the strain of the strings, as the man’s nails flickered, and loose fists were formed only to relax like petals leaning back into their blooms.

Arthur Devise was the man who spoke with his hands, and he played the flute, the piccolo, and the recorder. When the death of Clarence Carfagno created an opening in the music department, Arthur Devise arrived to fill it. Professors Morton Rinse and Joseph Skizzen held it against their new colleague that he had been chosen without consulting them; they held it against him that he was a friend of Howard Palfrey, the President who had hired Art (as they would later affectionately address him), and a President whom the male faculty to a man despised; they held it against him that he was almost as old as they were and so as big a failure as they were (though they didn’t immediately put their animosity in such terms); they held it against him that, as a musician, he was quite accomplished; Professor Morton Rinse especially held it against him that he, like Rinse, played the flute, the piccolo, and the recorder; while both men held it against him that Palfrey had picked Arthur Devise because the Department of Music had always—anyway in Palfrey’s memory—had two members (there were three altogether) who professed the flute, the piccolo, and the recorder, and that it was proper to continue the tradition; the remainder held it against Arthur that he actually seemed a good sort and a wise choice, because they did not want to think the President ever acted wisely; Professor Joseph Skizzen held it against Devise in addition that he was a widower with an attractive daughter about to become a student of music in her parent’s own college, in her parent’s department, and might enroll in her parent’s class; they jointly held it against him that Devise agreed to teach, lead, and pamper the choir and the chorus, and had them sounding splendid in no time; finally, they held it against him that he spoke with his hands, and that, at first, neither Rinse or Skizzen liked what he said.

The man who spoke with his hands, because he spoke with his hands, was a quiet man, with a slow warm well regulated smile, a smile hard to dislike, and he chuckled deeply in his chest to the point of an almost inaudible rumble, and the slow well regulated shaking of his ribs made his hands, so often positioned on what would have been his stomach had he had one, rise and fall lightly like a pair of drifting leaves—motions charming in their pacifying consequences.

It has been said that St. Francis of Assisi used such gestures to charm birds who would then perch upon his extended arm and eat grain strewn artfully along it, though some say they just flew in for the grub.

Dottie Devise was, in contrast, chipper, perky, cheeky, cheerful, and squeaky as a toy mouse; perhaps her voice could be better described as chirpy, high but thinly pitched, leaping from syllable to syllable almost as if it came from a clock. When she bounced, which was much of the time, her small breasts crossed the net like tennis balls, and reminded Professor Skizzen, unpleasantly, of the way his sister’s rose and fell in a manner most disturbing when she had led cheers, her High School letter sweater leaping as if there were small animals bundled behind the cloth trying to burst free.

Mor ning Pro fes sor Skizzzz en ow r u? The question was almost a relief. I am fine Miss Devise, as you can see. Tee hee, I am hap pee to no tha tt. And howw arr uuu, Professor Skizzen would particulate. Fi ner than be for. Holding books against her busy chest, Dottie (for that is what she chose to call herself) would flicker away at a half skip. Professor Skizzen would sigh like a leaky inner tube, shake his head as he entered his office, and each time think how terrible poor Devise must feel, having raised such a giggly flibbertigibbet almost from infancy, as the Professor had been led to believe.

He remembered the way she seemed when Art had first arrived at the college. Quiet, demure, in a frilly frock, her hair tied up like a restless dog, since Art apparently could not teach combing. She followed her father when he walked her to her school, precisely five paces behind. Dottie was untouched by her future nature then and didn’t jiggle.

The sorrowful story that President Howard Palfrey so enjoyed telling about the tragedies their new colleague, Arthur Devise, had been honored by God to endure—the loss of his wife, the loss, during the war, of his power of speech, which might explain those expressive hands—was just one more thing to hold against him, and would have been held had it been necessary, but there was so much against him already that, at least in the early days of their acquaintance, Devise had to go about bent as if he were leaning into some persistent wind.

The man who spoke with his hands remained on the staff long enough to earn a sabbatical if Wittlebauer had granted them. Then he and his daughter disappeared without so much as a giggle of goodbye or an equivalent wave, though President Palfrey announced that Professor Devise was leaving for personal reasons. This was regrettable. The bags beneath President Palfrey’s eyes swelled with something near tears. Professor Devise would be missed, especially his piccolo and his work with the chorus, which immediately fell out of tune. Bon voyage et bon chance. Don’t forget us.

At the time of Art’s departure, Joseph Skizzen not only held nothing against him, he considered Art his friend; he appreciated his trills, rests, riffs, roulades and cadenzas, and understood what Art had to endure from his daughter whose birdsong Skizzen now heard as the cackle of starlings or the shriek of the shrike.

If one were thinking of the Northern bird, this comparison would be inaccurate because its call is mellow when it isn’t scolding. But the loggerhead’s is as sharp and abrupt as a spill of tacks, and has a harsh complaining quality as well. Shrike’s were not unheard of in this part of Ohio, so her appearance at the College was scarcely a miracle. They are predators, fierce to a fault, with bright white teeth often in a wide girlish grin.

Although she still lived in her father’s protective shadow, Dottie was now a disturbing presence in Professor Skizzen’s class, the introductory Elements of Music, and she showed up for office hours more regularly than he had his lunch. She could play several instruments tolerably well and was far ahead of almost everyone else, a fact she let her questions prove. Skizzen had attempted to move her to a more advanced level but both Dottie and her father wanted her to stay where she was. Now, in his office, she was provocative, showing leg, showing smile, standing close, tossing her hair as she’d no doubt seen in the movies, and asking increasingly personal questions.

On a day no more dismal than most others, Joseph Skizzen was approached, while reading in the faculty lounge (a large closet sized space with a coffee pot, scarred wooden table and few chairs, where he liked to hide out and study scores because every one else hated the ratty little room and found that it reminded them of Whittlebauer’s tightwad President and their benighted condition), by Arthur Devise who had entered with his hands wrapped around a steaming mug in order that they should enjoy its warmth since the day was sleety, gray and cold, although no more dismal than most others.

Devise placed the mug rather emphatically in the middle of the table where some chiseler had scratched, “teachers love the ignorant” with a flinty pointed pencil, its carbon darkening the line; and then he pulled up a chair near Skizzen as a conspirator might, and allowed his hands to make his apologies.

Skizzen shrugged his “no matter” shrug. Devise pursed his right thumb and forefinger. I understand, he said in a tone level enough to plant seeds on, my daughter Dorothy has been making a nuisance of herself. Devise’s left thumb wiggled as if to say, I don’t mean that. She had, of course, been making eyes at Skizzen, embarrassing him past pink, but he naturally said, of course not, why would you think that? Both of Devise’s palms slowly showed themselves as if they were aces peeking from a poker hand. Well, she has predilections . . . she . . . in the past . . . From a binocular position, the fingers tentatively disclosed the inner hand, then exhibited one apologetic spasm.

Ah. Skizzen exclaimed, genuinely surprised, that’s why you put her in my class. You thought I’d understand.

I thought you’d know I wouldn’t otherwise.

Yes, otherwise it would be a poor practice.

I had to keep her near me.

A class with you, a class with me—that’s near.

The hands of the man who spoke with his hands slid into a tangle of shame.

I think it’s because she misses her mother. Well, not misses exactly. Because she has no mother. She’s decided to be the mother she needs.

She doesn’t act like a mother with me.

Ah . . . she . . . I’m afraid she wants you to make her a mother.

But anyone . . . nearly anyone . . . will do, I presume.

She has gone rather far in other . . . schools.

High School even?

Yes . . . well, other places . . . community colleges . . . She’s gone rather far.

Surely she would not promote such things with me?

Possibly. It’s likely. I’m almost sure of it.

She has accused me of . . . you know . . . looking at her.

I am terribly sorry. She is playing the coquette. It’s her subject.

But her speech . . .

Oh yes, I know, her speech is mechanical. It’s made up. It is a complaint about mine . . . my hands. His hands were stitching cloth. She . . . you see . . squeaks in protest.

I’ve noticed you do move your hands about.

I don’t do it. God does. God moves my hands. I speak that way on his behalf.

This conversation had been so painful for Skizzen that each previous word had felt pulled from him like an embedded cork, but now almost every function ceased: his throat clogged, his face burned, so his blood must have rushed into his cheeks. They are both mad, he thought. Since he was able to make such a judgment, his mind must be operating. But he wasn’t breathing. Never had he heard anything so preposterous, but such a statement, made to his face and meant for him—such a statement, clearly serious—was like a blow to his chest.

I know that what I say must seem surprising to you, though our good President Palfrey was ready to entertain it, still, it’s true, I have become merely an instrument of God’s, or rather, not I, but my hands have become an instrument of God’s. They do his bidding and, when he’s speaking, will not mind me. Since they often make their moves while I am speaking as I am speaking now to you, some people have concluded that they are accompanying me. Two fingers pinched and lifted the loose skin about the knuckles of his left hand. I have thought you might be one of those. The musical connection, you know.

I can’t make out the signs they are sending; I cannot read their code; I just know; and I was never a believer either, before my wife was so terribly killed.

Devise’s pause made his statement a question. Skizzen could not answer. He began to think, though, of what he might possibly say to this man who had become a threatening stranger—humor him, deny him, sympathize, chastise him, return the subject to his daughter wayward ways? say I don’t want to hear another word, or rise, rush, bolt the room? Skizzen’s weight shifted. This was sensed. One of those hands touched his arm.

As if released by this tender gesture of restraint, Skizzen stood up. He thanked god he had grown a beard, and in that moment realized whom it was he had invoked—already a ghostly presence if this testimony could be believed. He might perhaps ask how Professor Devise presumed to know that the gestures he involuntarily made were those of some other spirit than his own unconscious, but this would prolong a conversation he wished had never begun. Well, there was no conversation since he hadn’t said a word. Maybe he shouldn’t. He would just go.

I can’t make out the signs they are sending; I cannot read their code; I just know; and I was never a believer either, before my wife was so terribly killed. Devise’s smooth firm features looked to be dissolving in a solution of sorrow. He was swimming in tears. That was it. When I told Dorothy what had happened to my hands, she screamed at me. She accused me of leaving her as her mother had, though, of course, I hadn’t, and I assured her that my mind was clear, sane through and through like—you know—paper that’s 100% cotton.

Skizzen found this comparison almost as unsettling as his colleague’s revelation. The man was mad. Why was he—Joseph Skizzen—a person who endeavored to stay in the background—why was he always the accosted one? the falsely accused? the rudely confronted? After all, he had only backed around his office desk, Dottie in salacious pursuit, and then, rid of her one more time, locked up all his temptations in a steel cabinet and fled to this squatters hole, a place forsaken by all until now when a crowd seemed to have assembled. The chairs were standing guard, the coffee pot was listening. No comment from the mug but steam. Skizzen noticed that there were only six checkers left. Mostly reds. Whom did he know played red?

I’ve endured the shame of her nymphomaniacal imposture; I’ve put up with all the jokes—


That I’m only going through the motions.

Oh dear . . . yes, of course. Oh dear . . . of course. Yes.

Professor Skizzen, my friend, if you complain of her, we shall have to move on again, and we are running out of places to land.

I despise imposture, Skizzen found himself saying.

I thought you might understand imposture very well.

Skizzen did not reply because he was suddenly frightened. What was meant by that? Was there a threat? what sort? from what quarter? Devise had been last seen smothering his mug with both hands. Perhaps he was making a joke about the quality of its—what did one say?—mud. In the company of his beard, Skizzen retreated toward the door. Perhaps he was preparing to make a call to his god. Keep your eye on the hands, he implored himself. Keep an eye on.

I mean it is very hard to be honestly what we are. A finger, rooted in a fist, popped free.

Well, she better not. Dottie. Dottie better not imposture me. She crowds me, even in corridors. Where everyone can see. Skizzen cracked the door and slid through. And from the building, he ran out.

Perhaps, after this, the man who spoke with his hands said less with his hands than before. Perhaps he kept his arms loaded with books. Perhaps he chose to participate in fewer social gatherings or to plan fewer accidental encounters. It was hard to tell. But for a time, at least, Dottie did nothing in class but cross her legs, and nothing after class but bob when—by circumstances—he was carried close.

Professor Skizzen said nothing with his eyes or mouth, or evidenced anything in the way he walked, or gave his own hands leave to stray into oratory. He kept mum about God and God’s signals; he kept mum about Dottie’s—well—devices; he kept mum about his fears. Before he left the morning mirror he made certain to be clothed.

If it is possible for a member of the faculty to drop out of school that is what Arthur and his daughter did. He disappeared and left his colleagues with four classes adrift like bottles in mid-ocean. The last time Professor Skizzen saw Professor Arthur Devise the man was sitting on a campus bench like an ampersand. Skizzen studied, from a safe distance, those hands, but what he saw was a very ordinary clench.



This story first appeared in Conjunctions and is reprinted here with permission of the author. This story is now featured in Eyes: Novellas and Stories, published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.


William H. Gass—essayist, novelist, literary critic—was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the author of six works of fiction and nine books of essays, including Life Sentences, A Temple of Texts, and Tests of Time. Gass is a former professor of philosophy at Washington University. He lives with his wife, the architect Mary Gass, in St. Louis.