You'd better listen because no one else will tell you the truth. People are filthy. I'm telling you this. Because you're the only one I love. The only one that's worth a damn.
The girl has pieced this together:
Her great aunt Henrietta was twelve when she learned to type on the typewriter in the basement. Her brother fixed the ribbon for her, and her sister showed her the exercises she had learnt at school. She set the metronome, and in the evenings when their father read the paper, and her mother put the younger children to bed, she typed: J-H-J, F-G-F over and over, until it was imprinted into the rubber roller. When she wasn't typing, Henrietta tapped her fingers on the kitchen table, on windowsills and chair backs, leaving inky fingerprints. Her hands were always dirty from fixing the sagging ribbon.
I suppose someday you're going to go and get married. Look all the good it did your mother.
It was up to Henrietta to stay with her parents, to keep house and to take care of them until they died. They were a poor family of twelve, and each of them had been taught that they needed to work for the family to survive. She told them she would prove more trustworthy than the others, the ones that had already left. The parents had stopped talking about those. Our Henrietta, they always said.
I know the value of work. Wise up. If another depression comes, you better have a job. You listen to me, girl. One day there will be only one thing you'll need.
At thirteen, she started part-time at the Title Company. She was an accurate typist; they paid her a penny for every page completed without any errors. She would come in after school and on weekends and was left alone in the small office. Sometimes the company boss would collect work from his office while she was there. Henrietta told them about his cashmere suits that stank of rubbing alcohol. At first, they were all angry with her--her mother in particular--because she often missed Sunday mass. Although work was necessary, it should never be as important as family. Her work was a sin they eventually forgave because her money provided pork chops, pot roast.
Henrietta was only fifteen when Frank showed up; she met him as she walked to the streetcar. She was much too young, so of course they said Frank took advantage of her. We thought you were better than this, her mother said when Henrietta told her she was engaged. Frank was enamored with Henrietta and they married a year later, against her parents' wishes. She moved into a small apartment with him, but she continued to send money home. Although they cashed her checks, her family refused to speak to her. They sent her curt letters saying they would forgive her if she left Frank and came back home.
Henrietta dropped out of school, went to work full-time, and she and Frank wanted to start a family. When Henrietta told the girl the story, she talked a lot about Frank. When the girl's mother told the story, she ended it, Let this be a lesson to you, although the girl wasn't quite sure why. Because her mother had more important things to do, she sent the girl to visit Henrietta.
Children will drive you m a d. When Frank died, I couldn't have supported any. It was a goodthing there weren't any or I'd of had to strangle them. Surprised. You're justlucky your own ma gave up so much to keep you a l i ve. Many of us wouldn't have.
Henrietta's small apartment smelled of face powder and damp newspaper. She fed the girl stale coffee cake or anise cookies, and showed her Frank's things--gray suits, a stainless steel shaving kit, and an ivory comb. She had worked at the Title Company until she retired with what she said was a decent pension and Parkinson's. Henrietta told the girl she was going to sell Frank's things, even the photographs from her wedding, and the girl could have the money for a dowry, a word that reminded the girl of the powdered sugar on the foods in Henrietta's house.
The girl gradually understood that her mother had no intention of visiting Henrietta herself. She asked her mother why she wouldn't go, but her mother only said that she couldn't be bothered with such things.
Remember Frank was a sweetman. Don't let them tell you otherwise. He had black hair. With a mind of itsown. He would grease it down with oil. That was the f a s h i on.
Her mother told her that Henrietta never spoke about Frank after he died, but the girl didn't know when her mother had last seen her aunt. The girl would walk up the street to the apartment then turn in the opposite direction and go to the movies. With the bus money her mother gave her, she sat and ate boxes of Jordan almonds before returning home. Her mother never seemed to notice that she had nothing new to say about Henrietta. When the letters began, the girl was able to pull them from the box after school, long before her mother came home from work.
The letters had stopped shortly before her mother got a phone call from the landlord. Henrietta had died silently in her sleep from a heart attack. In her apartment, there was nothing unnecessary, no pictures on the wall, no tablecloths. She had said that Frank sent her love letters for a year before her marriage. The girl hoped to find them, or the tiny amethyst engagement ring, or any other of a number of gifts that Henrietta said he had showered upon her. The girl could hide them with the letters, like a buried treasure, under her mattress like Henrietta had done. The girl searched the rooms and under the old mattress, but there was nothing.
Why. You don't come visit me anymore. You can'ts t a n d to look atme. Can you?
The girl told her mother she thought that there might be a will, a letter left for her, but her mother laughed. Obviously Henrietta couldn't write with her disease; she probably couldn't even hold a cup! Since her mother showed no real interest in Henrietta, she had never shown her mother the letters, and she decided then that she never would.
Child--you can go to hell along with the rest of the family. No one's ever done anything byme.You can tell your ma. I supported her most of my life and got nothingin return. Now you've turned out the same way. I guess you want some reward for listening to an old lady. Just wait until Idie. You'll be alonewiththem, then you'll see.
She went with her mother to pick out the clothes for her aunt's body. They had to go back to the funeral home by three. As they walked to the car, the girl heard an uncle chatter: She was a selfish old woman--kept to herself to the end. The girl's mother looked up, She never would listen to anyone--too stubborn for her own good, she said as they got in the car. The girl sat in the front seat thinking about Frank's comb that had been wrapped in a pressed piece of yellowed silk.
Ididn't do anyth ing but treat youn ice. Just want to se eyo u on ce beforeI die.
Her mother was crying in the bedroom while the girl looked in empty dresser drawers, under the faded living room carpet. There was nothing left but one set of dishes, a coffeepot, and the typewriter with a broken ribbon. She told herself that she hadn't really expected anything. She thought about it that night. Surely her great aunt would have left her another letter, something about the dowry. Unless her mother was right. Maybe Henrietta was just a bitter woman.
At the wake the girl wondered if she had the courage to stick a hairpin in the body like she had read in a story. When she walked up to the coffin, she thought that the tiny face looked silly, almost gleeful with its big, dyed-black wig. It didn't look anything like her aunt. Maybe she should show her mother the letters, let her know what Henrietta had written. After the wake, her mother gave her her great aunt's typewriter, Thought you might like this, her mother said, you might be able to get some real use out of it.
I'm dying an d none of you give a damn. Well, YOUnev erdid.Ate me out ofho use and ho me. YOU can't even c om e vis it a dying woman. It's killing me to t y pe th i s Y ou l itt le cun t.
The girl had accepted the typewriter because she couldn't say out loud that she didn't want it. The afternoon after the funeral, she took the typewriter to the resale store. Waiting for help, she stood examining the roller. Pounded into the rubber, she could see an alphabet soup in a pattern of grooves.
When she returned to the apartment, she went to her room and closed the door. She pulled out Henrietta's letters from between the mattress and the box spring and reread them. She had begun to memorize them.
Her mother would be home soon. After she replaced the letters, she went to the kitchen, and squeezing defrosted hamburger from its plastic carton, she patted it into two circular burgers that she dropped into the frying pan. Pink juices oozed as the meat cooked. What was it like to be alone in a room with nothing but a typewriter? When she flipped the burgers over, cooking juices sprayed over the stove and onto the floor. She ignored it and pulling the lettuce from the refrigerator, started to make the salads. Her greasy fingerprints covered the refrigerator and counter, the cabinets and drawers, as the odor of cooking meat soaked the small apartment. At least she was safe because she had given the old thing away. The girl tore the lettuce leaves, dividing them into two bowls and placing them on the counter. She had already decided that she would refuse to clean up the mess, and flipping the burgers, she let them drop from a height into the sizzling grease, until she felt the entire apartment, from wallpaper to shag carpeting feed on the cooking flesh.
You' re th e only oneI love.
Her voice was quivering like her eyes, which were gelatinous, so they did not believe she had seen the human finger and they convinced her to return home. But on her way back, it was still lying in the grass. Since the police didn't want it, she picked it up, placed it in a crumpled tissue and put it in her pocket.
She carried it for the entire day before she grew worried that she might lose it, that by accident someone at work might take her jacket and discover it, or worse, throw it away. She knew she should keep it safe--airtight in a glass jar--but she resisted doing this. First she propped it up on her mantle until the heat from the fire forced it to develop a kind of sweat, then she moved it onto a piece of lace on the bureau in her bedroom. Here, she could see it as she got into bed and then, the next morning as she dressed.
At night, she had dreamt about the hand that would grow from the finger. Slowly the whole body began to take shape: an elbow bent, skin stretched over collarbones, a vein in the neck pulsed. She didn't know if this body was male or female; it stirred but never had a face or genitalia. She became anxious about its growth, feared it might want to strangle her, might require her own de-limbing. But in the daylight the finger remained in her bedroom, pointing at her.
Before work, she searched the personals section for a reward notice. Not that anyone would mention losing it, of course, but she thought it must be the key to some intrigue. She imagined a murderer pacing in his house, fearing that this crucial evidence remained. She thought he would tremble, nervously expecting the police to link this finger to his basement mortuary. Or perhaps the murderer had watched her pick it up and was waiting to catch her alone.
Yet she was almost always alone--before and after work in her house--and during the walk to and from work. No one had approached her since she found it; no one had even stopped to ask her directions. She passed the spot again that morning. She looked down at the grass expecting other body parts to be there, or even blood, but there was nothing. She thought about this all day at work. Who did her finger belong to? Was there someone, somewhere who was bleeding to death? She was determined to solve the mystery even if the police were uninterested. She returned home that evening half expecting the finger to be gone. She even believed she might have made this up, that they might be right: perhaps she was hallucinating. Besides, wouldn't a maimed victim try to run first to the hospital?
She decided she would have to visit the nearest hospital and check if someone had come in with a wounded hand a day ago. She was sorry she had thought of this; she was afraid she would be forced to give up the finger, which seemed worse than being stalked by a murderer. That evening, she moved the finger to a wooden cheese box that she lined with a piece of silk from an old nightgown. It was firm and had the weight of an expensive fountain pen.
That night she dreamt that the body cringed on the surgery table calling her name; a drunken surgeon swung the scalpel over its head; the body called for her. She recognized that the surgeon could not be trusted, that the body needed her, but not before dismembered limbs began flying about, sinews coiling in the air. The scalpel was bloody; the body wailed. She woke up in a sweat. No one could be trusted. She got the box and brought it to bed. She told herself that she would protect it and kept her lamp on all night. She noticed that the finger was changing color; the nail seemed longer or maybe flesh had begun to shrivel.
In the morning, she found the finger had fallen out of its box during the night and it rested on her pillow. Startled, she remembered the black-and- white horror films from her childhood summer camp: Frankenstein's raw, sewn neck and the tick of the film catching the sprockets of the spinning reel. Irritated at herself, she decided that the finger must be evil. She had allowed it to beckon her, had taken it into her home with good intentions, and she had let herself fall under its spell. That was what happened to trusting individuals. Obviously, she was susceptible in such a way that evil would necessarily seek her out. She showered and dressed, determined to put an end to its control. She remembered from the films that even the living dead yearned for closure.
When she went to replace the finger in its box, the flesh seemed to slide, and a bit of bone poked through the fingertip. She felt nauseous. She closed the box and took it out in the yard. She dug a hole and said a prayer to St. Christopher, for all lost things. Rest in peace! she heard herself mumble as she shoveled the dirt over it.
It was Saturday, so she went about the house pulling weeds from the flowerbeds. She mended a cracked drainpipe, winding tape over the rusted, jagged edge. Returning to the house, she decided to attempt some cooking. She baked a difficult cake, whipping the whites with exuberance, carefully folding in the yolks. As the cake baked, she cleaned her bedroom--she washed the sheets and pillowcases--even the lace on the bureau. By evening, she felt exhausted, content.
She sat at her kitchen table nibbling the cake, staring out into the yard. On her way to bed, she found herself checking the mantle, then the top of her bureau. Did she expect it to diabolically return to seek vengeance? That night, she heard crying--a low, childlike sob. She got out of bed and went to her window--surely she had been dreaming; she was certain she saw a cat that must have been in heat.
When she went to work on Monday she felt better. On her walk, she refrained from looking at the spot in the grass. At work, everyone was talking about a mass-murderer on the coast whose entire yard was dug up to reveal the victims of his killing. As she typed in her cubicle, she imagined the detectives coming to dig in her yard. Could she be considered some kind of accomplice?
That evening, she unearthed the box. Although it had only been buried for two nights, moisture had seeped in along with a glistening worm. She dropped the finger into the dirt, trying to shake off the worm. She couldn't tell if mud or flesh broke off in clumps on the ground.
In the morning, she called in sick to work, and holding the dirty finger in a napkin inside her palm, she went to the hospital. In the emergency room, no one would listen. When she told the nurses that she was not injured--it was only that she had this finger that needed to return to its owner--they threw her out. One nurse had studied the finger but only mumbled to the others something about crazies carrying old bird bones.
She spent the day cleaning the finger in a basin of tepid rose water, lightly scrubbing the long, fraying nail with her nailbrush. She held the now mostly bone with a wash cloth. For the first time she noticed that the very end of the nail was ragged, slightly chewed. She decided she would ask for her boss's advice since she didn't know what else she should do. It was wrong to keep this lost part, she thought, and yet, it had to be wrong to throw it away. In the garbage, it could be found by someone who might report her. No doubt that could happen too if someone saw her replace it in the grass where she had found it. Worse, what if the neighborhood cats found it first? She worried the whole night, and, sleepless, started to shower and dress for work at dawn.
Although it had seemed plausible the night before, in his office she realized he would laugh at her. Why would he give her any better advice than she could think of herself? He would walk in and tell her that's what happened to women who lived alone. Or worse, turn her in to the police as some "crazy." Perhaps the nurse was right, maybe she had found some old decaying bird bones and only imagined they resembled a human finger. No doubt her boss would mention that her work was suffering of late; her typing speed had decreased and she had begun to leave the office with unfinished pages on her desk. Surely this would only convince her boss that she was unreliable. Only a few months ago, he had fired another typist who was diagnosed with carpal-tunnel syndrome. He was heartless; he would make her throw it away.
That night, she held the rotting finger in a bit of new flannel and studied it. The bones seemed too thick to be a bird's.