Losing a thumb was no way to start the day. But there hers sat wedged firmly between the worlds of the living and what was about to be lost. It was rather gnarled, flattened yet remarkably intact. It stung in places, mainly the flesh, but remained otherwise numb, which to her was a relief. That sad nub looked more like a half-deflated party balloon. The offending tear lay wide open, a ragged mouth like ruined fabric leaking liquid hell all over the table. And it was this of all had struck her the most—that it was so hot. Her hands were always cold. He’d told her so.
Like most of those things, she shrugged the thought off along with the pain seeping from her hand. How it happened she didn’t even know. The whole endeavor had been thoughtless. She went on with her affairs, one swift snap after another, hands moving like pistons, and before she’d known it she was stuck, quite literally caught in her own device. She’d been working too automatically, absently; her mind drifting from the dry cleaning to how much milk was left in the fridge to whether any of this would be enough when he arrived home, the kind of empty thoughts that drifted up and through her head like sweet air. Only these were laced with the tiniest touch of something stronger. What it was she would never admit, at least consciously. Instead she kept cracking.
The wound stopped screaming and calmed to blood-brown now that she’d tended to it with the small bottle from the long cabinet. The mysterious liquid formed a rubbery second skin where she needed it most, one which would let her continue as promised. The mark was all that remained, raised like a rubber stamp, a squiggle that traveled alongside her left hand after she’d closed the gash up tight.
She was aware of what she needed to get done, but never so much of what she was doing. At the time it had felt like a tough, stubborn shell wiggling because the insides had gone soft. Surely if she had guessed what was inside the vice, if she’d known what she was crushing, she would have taken off at least some of the pressure. But her mind had simply been elsewhere. She didn’t notice any of the pain until it was too late, until the pinched mark had reared its hurt red face and let her know.
That liquid skin came in handy just as he’d predicted. He knew she was accident prone. He said so with as close to a smirk as he could get, the night he brought it home in the plain white wrinkled bag. It was the same kind that carried secrets of teenage boys and remedies for careless girls. But in his were neither. His held the small brown bottle with perfect square label. It amused him, this gift. He gave a single one-note chuckle placing it tenderly in her hands assuring she would need it undoubtedly and soon.
As in most matters he was right.
That very night she’d proven it with the first in a long line of calamities. He stood in the rich scent of her labor, eyes glimmering as he explained the basics of everyday safety. She had made him a pie: another first of many, a butter crust French custard dotted with ripe boysenberries that had taken her the better part of the day, laying fruits down like gems in their soft white bed covering them tenderly with a lattice she threaded ribbon by delicate ribbon.
They talked over dinner about his work and the weather and things of a political nature. And though he wasn’t one for compliments she knew he must have enjoyed what she’d done because not once did he suggest or critique. Instead he ate, rather relished, when it was time for pie. He had done most of the talking but now there was silence as he savored and licked at his upper lip and smiled in almost peace. It was only when they were through, when she rose to smooth over the wrinkled table cloth that he took the look of a person unwilling to admit they are being tickled.
“You know you’ve got something just there.”
He pointed to the meaty part of the apple of his own cheek.
When she mirrored him she felt the half dried smear just under her eye, the boysenberry bruise she left behind sometime during dessert, perhaps between fiscal responsibility and global warming.
“I must have rubbed.” It was a sticky sweet accent mark she’d never noticed. “Sorry.”
She touched herself sometimes. Whether it was nervousness or habit, she never thought about why. It was just the way things were. They shared a smile over the foible and when she’d finished clearing the mess of the evening they shared a moment next to the drying plates. He looked at her as if he’d seen her for the first time, taking in her fresh face, pausing to brush a strand of wayward hair from the spot just under her eye. Without thought, she reached to meet his fingertips forgetting for an instant. He snapped backward with a sudden shudder
“Your hands are cold.
He retreated to his den and she turned to the sink just to watch the suds creep back down into the drain.
Only the pain remained now that time had its way with her, dull each time she squeezed, cracking hulls from meats, sliding her work carefully into her white porcelain bowl, as quickly as time would permit. He loved all this. Of that she was certain, and it wasn’t through contrived conversations or compliments. Those were for the insecure. He’d said so all the time. She knew he loved because he wanted. And he wanted for nothing, not that he’d say. But he wanted this. She knew it. And she was willing to give. No matter how much work it entailed, she did so not because he ever asked, but because it had become expected for both of them. She didn’t mind, not at all
In fact, she looked forward to it. She crafted and honed, perfected intricate recipes that could take days to complete. It didn’t matter. It was never about the pie, not for her.
That first night so long ago he’d let out the sweetest sound just after the first taste, a deep, breathy, barely audible sound, not quite a sigh, not yet a syllable, a single sound he didn’t know had left his lips. He wasn’t one to use extra words especially if they would not stack up into perfect sentences, ones that were logical. He wasn’t one for useless greetings, small talk or exaggerations. He didn’t like please and thank you’s, excuse me’s or you’re welcome’s, apologies, excuses or exclamations. He was not one to be so wasteful with his voice. So until that moment she’d never heard anything like what he’d just done. It was this beautiful little “oh,” this tiny thing that stirred something deep within her, a tingling, happy tension she wasn’t sure she understood and certainly didn’t want to stop. Little unfamiliar moans punctuated phrases made of squeaks and wet lipped smacks. Unaware of any of this, he had tightened his free hand’s grip around some loose tablecloth and he held it as if for life as he drove on toward the end when he finally let go. She could only watch transfixed, wide-eyed, breathing in quiet rhythm. She too had become unaware. She had no idea her face had gotten so hot until one bead of sweat, fat and swollen dropped just above the round of her cheek, in the pocket just beneath her eye. That must have been when she did it. That was her rub. It had to be.
He hummed one last time, ever-so-slightly just before he finished off. That note brought their two worlds into accord, the agreement they never mentioned out loud. She would keep baking and he would eat and all would be well. It was the way things would have to be
Each became a bigger production than the last.
Tonight would be no different. It would leave its mark. The shelling started this morning, plump pecans she had flown in overnight, after reading it wasn’t just rodeos and yellow roses that were best in Texas. She took the whole afternoon to soak them in a grade A bourbon she found on line. And then just before making dinner it was a sumptuous mix of imported butters and superfine sugars that bubbled together in her pot like molten gold. She lined up her mail-order desperados like rough-and-tumble choir boys, and when they were set in rows she smothered them with almost everything she had, stopping midway. He was never a fan of anything too sweet. It was a delicate balance. She had that extra something that would keep him wondering, keep him coming back. That was what mattered.
He didn’t like the obvious. Greeting cards were redundant and silly. Sitcoms struck him as uninteresting. He wasn’t like the men she’d seen on those shows, the nights she crept upstairs to watch as he pored over tables and figures. Those men talked way too much. They were the kind that belched and sucked down beers. His cans went straight into the recycling bin and were never crumpled or half-empty. He never had a wrinkle in his shirt or stain on his tie like they did. He didn’t find things like that amusing at all.
“I must have rubbed,” she explained that first night, and with her apology, his face had shifted from unadulterated joy to agony. There was anguish on the face that had seemed so serene moments before. It was annoyance there, disappointment and perhaps disgust. He saw her lack of grace as tiresome. She could tell by the way his expression retreated, how his face went back to the unmoving mask she saw every day.
There was bitterness there.
She used Angostura in the dark caramel river that cut through the center of the pie. She hid it well beneath the conventional layers, a crude pipeline she buried within that would coat his tongue like molasses and linger like kisses on his lips long after he was through. It would leave him puzzling, like a challenge. Anything worthwhile did that. He’d said so all the time.
Last week she made a chiffon-silk with meringue that managed to tease him from the moment he walked through the door. Vanilla and honey scents slow danced between them like candy clouds through dinner, floating coyly through their conversation as he explained cold fronts. They beckoned siren-like calling them to dessert. And when it was time she melted, as he gushed in his own way, deep primal sighs matching the cadence of her heartbeats with his movement. They were one in these sweet moments.
Fleeting as they were.
There was a sticky clump in her hair, egg white gluing an errant strand to her cheekbone. It could have happened at any time. She had no idea when. But he told her only seconds after he was done. His mouth flattened into a hard straight line, his back stiffening against his chair as he pointed out the blunder.
She left the dishes in the sink that night, not deliberately, not out of spite, but because before he could rise from his seat she’d already gone, rushing to the bathroom to take a look at the mess she’d made. But when she got there, there was no glance at the mirror. She shut herself in without attempt, and settled down low so her face was hidden in the crook of her arm. It was only then that she cried softly. She never thought about why.
As she moved now she tried to think words like graceful and ballerina hoping she could convince her body to follow the lie, that if she put her mind to it she could become a swan instead of a circus clown. She couldn’t give way to any of her usual accidents. S he didn’t have the time.
It was down to the garnish now, bourbon pecans coated in sugar she ordered from Hawaii, placed around the perimeter like tiny guards on watch. She needed to get it done right, for once. She expected him in less than a half hour and time was never forgiving.
She dipped each precisely; making sure each was covered with an even coat, and shook off all of the excess sugar as she worked. He wasn’t an excessive man by any means; he’d appreciate the attention to the little things above all. They sparkled like diamonds. She measured the spacing between each piece so carefully the whole thing could have easily posed as a gentleman’s timepiece.
“That’s funny,” she muttered to herself thinking quite the opposite. “He’s never late.”
It was just as well. She had overlooked one of the most important details. He was due home any second and here she was without any fresh cream to whip for the center of the pie. The last pecan was supposed to sit atop the center like a miniature king on a throne, a tiny little sultan on a huge downy pillow. And here she’d forgotten. She would have to speed.
She hated to rush. It left too much room for error, let alone to drive fast, especially when the sun had already gone down. She was tempting fate for sure. The roads seemed to wind in and out of sight in the darkness, playing peek-a-boo with her nerves, ramping up her doubt so that it buzzed in her ears, static that never let up. It was hard enough to see what was right in front of her, without any of the extra distractions. Guard rails beamed yellow like wolves’ eyes. Dotting each curve were giant trees, looking like ominous spectators waiting for her to slip. She tried hard not to sneeze, or daydream. But most of all she resisted the urge to check for the glowing light beside her, the single question mark, his simple way of saying so many things. With him a squiggle could speak volumes. It could mean anger or regret or in this case that he was home waiting, perplexed by her absence. If the mark was there, this was all for nothing, just another time she blew it all overlooking one minute detail. She did not want to fail him again.
This was the route she took all the time, the one that never seemed to differ. It was dark by now but she could still make it. This trip took fifteen minutes most of the time, except of course, tonight. She had wound halfway down the hill that stood between herself and the one thing she needed when she heard all the air leave her cheeks in an involuntary sigh. Cars were backed up in a long head to tail line like children’s toys silenced by knowledge that none of them would be going anywhere anytime soon. It looked like the man in front of her in the old German van had pulled out a newspaper. The lady behind her was taking large dollops of coffee-colored cream out of a small bottle and dabbing them on her forehead and cheeks. This was the kind of traffic that didn’t move. It was the kind that said, pull up a chair and enjoy it while it lasts.
It was a full ten minutes before she edged forward, and fifteen after that before she saw the lights, blue and glaring red disco strobing themselves across her windshield. There was a fine mist in the air that hung somewhere between smoke and fog. It made it hard to see more than shapes and colors. One thing was perfectly clear. She wouldn’t be making it home. She’d be better off on rickety roller skates at this rate. She could see him waiting in the front foyer without her, question mark hanging on his face.
No text, at least. Perhaps he was caught up in this as well, although he’d be coming the other way. But more likely he’d already arrived at his destination. She could see him. She could see his car, smart and neat gleaming in the last glint of sun as he climbed the hill toward home. It was impeccable on the inside and he kept the outside waxed so all you could see was reflection if you looked closely enough.
It was crumpled there on the side of the road, like a soda can, twisted and gnarly, greasy smears marking polka dots where it was once pristine. The policemen had their back to the road facing all attention on the wreck or more importantly, what was still inside.
It was all too familiar. The scents were overwhelming, burnt and mechanical. She needed him here to talk her through something like this, to be methodical and precise. She needed him to keep her from falling over the edge.
The rail was bent and jagged where the impact had been greatest. She caught her leg there in the rush to get the officers’ attention. The world was at a standstill except for those two. They were looking down toward the ground where a group of firemen pried open the knit together pieces
If he were here he would tell her not to shout. He would keep her calm. But he couldn’t do that, not just now
She didn’t remember telling them anything or walking over to where the ground was warm and grassy, where the metal thing was, the thing with the grease marks and the strange smells.
“Ma’am this would be easier for you if you could tell us if your husband had any identifiable markings.
Her eyes were blurring. It was difficult to stand at this angle
“Ma’am if there were any identifying birthmarks? It may make this easier for you.”
She could hear them talking but couldn’t make any of it make sense.
“A tattoo? Ma’am?”
Something lay under a white sheet next to the hot metal. She couldn’t help but think about his rows and rows of pressed white shirts, spotless, perfect, laid out for each day of the week with coordinating ties on hangers.
“No, no tattoos. Nothing. My husband is perfect.
Everything about him was.
The officers exchanged pained glances.
“Are you sure, Ma’am? This one would be new.” He tried to speak in a lower tone. “Maybe he didn’t show her because it was too embarrassing.
The older officer shot the younger a pointed look
“Sorry Ma’am. We just need you to id the body. I am sorry.”
He peeled back the sheet and there he was, only different. He looked perfect, as usual. Not a hair on his head was out of place. The apples of his cheeks still had a hint of their usual color. There were no bruises or cuts, no blood. From the looks of the car he’d been trying to make up some time, but the road had caught up to him in the end. The impact was too much. His heart had simply stopped
She saw the reason he’d been running late.
It was under a piece of clear plastic wrap, something she recognized but wasn’t sure she believed. On his arm like a badge, the only part of him that was bleeding, and it had nothing to do with the car. It was purple-blue with notes of fuchsia and hints of berry. She could see where the young officer mistook it for a botched job. Who would know what her husband had intended.
A tattoo of a smudge.
It was a simple squiggle, so hard to understand for anyone else, but so familiar to her.
Her throat felt thick, her voice dry, the words hard to form on her lips. They stuck to her mouth as she nodded dumbly that it was him.
There was a torrent that followed. It ebbed and rushed in a flow she made no attempt to stem. She had no idea how long she stood there, injured hand held down at her side, but she was sure that was where she wanted to stay. Her other was warm. She held it out in front of her whispering the words so only the one closest could hear. There was an unwavering certainty to the words as they grew louder, each one clearer than the next.
“It was never about the pie.”