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Stephanie Gayle

The workshop machinery pulsed chugachugachuga. Two-penny nails danced on the draft table. I was alone in the shop. The boys had left hours ago. They’d called, “Hey Kate, why not knock off and come to Grady’s?” but I’d refused. They knew better than to argue.

I pulled a long walnut board from the shelf and carried it to the band saw. Time to make rocking chair slats. Grease and glue tickled my nostril hairs. I wiped my goggles clear of sawdust with a used fabric softener sheet.

The saw wanted to eat wood. I guided it nice and slow. Half-done, I realized my ear guards were missing. No wonder I was humming. The band saw kicked out 80 decibels, plenty loud when you stand in front of it. I figured to finish the slat and then grab the guards when I heard, “Kate.”

I turned. Delia stood by the draft board, a tapestry bag at her feet, full of her stuff by the lumpy looks of it. “I’m back,” she said. The board ended and the saw ate my hand. It chewed through skin and tendons, spitting my middle and index fingers atop the sawdust pile. My thumb dangled above, stuck to the table, glove still covering two-thirds of it.

Delia screamed. The saw table dripped blood. I looked at the place where my fingers and thumb should have been and said, “Call an ambulance.” I sat on the floor, dizzy with blood loss and the sudden nearness of Delia, who said, “I have my phone. I’m calling now.” She huddled so close I could smell peaches. The back of her neck, with its short blonde hairs, always smelled of peaches.

She moved away and I held my hand at the wrist and stared at the cans of stain under the shelves. “Never brush it on like paint, thick and gooey,” my grandfather taught me.

He was the only person who understood the call of wood. He taught me how to level a board and follow its grain with a sander. He smelled like pitch and never asked why I didn’t prefer to play with dolls. He didn’t tease me about boyfriends or tell me I’d look prettier with long hair. He was the only person who understood and he’s been under the dirt in Boston for eight years.

“Grandpa, I cut my thumb off,” I whispered. It felt as though I’d doused my hand with lighter fluid and thrown a match on it.

“Honey?” She crouched beside me and wrapped a ragged cloth around my hand. “They’re coming.”

Where had she been the past nine weeks? With one of her ex-girlfriends? Lacerating pain filled the gaps where my fingers used to be.

She held a plastic bag with ice and paper towels. The paper towels were wrapped around my severed digits. How could they fit in such a small bag?

Her arm supported me as I stood. The paramedics asked what had happened. I tried to remember the wood, how the blade cut, but it blurred. All I could see was Delia, bag at her feet, saying, “I’m back.” They set me on a stretcher.

I tried to pretend the throbbing was small, a minor cut. Not the kind that could ruin my hand, my career, my life. Delia touched my shoulder. “It’s going to be OK, baby.” The ambulance shook with speed. We blasted past frustrated drivers who had no idea how lucky they were to have two whole hands on their steering wheels.

At the hospital they rushed me into a big room with water-stained ceiling tiles and told me I was lucky, the best hand surgeon was on duty. He’d be in charge of reattaching the fingers they’d taken from Delia. She was in the waiting room, filling out forms, though I doubted she knew half the answers. Insurance plan number? Primary care physician? Prior surgeries?

She knew my birthday, I thought, closing my eyes against the metallic clang of surgical instruments striking a tray. In February I’d come home to find a paper mache parrot atop the refrigerator and a grass curtain hanging in the entryway to the living room. Ukuleles plinked on the stereo. Two tiki glasses with umbrella straws stood on the table. The liquid inside was pink.

“Welcome home!” Delia yelled, parting the curtain. She wore a hula skirt and plastic leis that hung just low enough to cover her small breasts. “Time to get leid!” She reached up and put real orchids around my neck.

We’d talked of Hawaii, of going there when Delia wore wool socks to bed. But Bill got the flu, and I couldn’t leave the shop.

“When did you . . . how?”

I hated parties. I wanted to hide beneath the table when people sang “Happy Birthday.” Yet there was nobody but me and Delia. No one else, I realized, to appreciate what she had done. Over the ukulele a man began singing about a warm ocean. I tossed my things into the corner and swept her into my arms.

“Wait! There’s more,” she said. “You should see—”

“Later.” I burrowed my nose into her neck. “Time to get laid.” When I threw her on the bed, she bounced; we laughed. It was my best birthday.

The red-haired nurse maneuvered me into a thin cotton shift and took off the pineapple charm necklace that I had worn underneath my shirts since Delia left.

“Oh, here comes Dr. Fitz,” the nurse said. “He’s the best.”

Dr. Fitz had a nose that could chop wood. He took a seat beside me and lifted my hand. “Band saw?”

I nodded, safe with this man who knew power tool wounds.

“Cut right through. We have the fingers?” The nurse gestured to my fingers and he said, “Good, good.” He looked them over for a full minute, rotating them back and forth. “This shouldn’t be too bad. Well, Miss . . . ”

“Whitman,” the nurse told him.

“Whitman,” he repeated. “What I’m going to do is called a replantation surgery. I’ll reattach your severed fingers to your hand.”

“My thumb?” I knew machinists who worked with missing fingers, but not missing thumbs. Without your thumb you couldn’t grip. You were lost.

He examined my fingers. Away from my hand, they looked like oversized worms. “It’s tough, but,” he smiled, “I’m the best.”

He returned the pieces of my hand to the nurse and turned to me. “This is how it works. I’m going to remove any damaged tissue and trim the bone ends to make the joining easier. Then we sew all the tricky bits: tendons, veins, arteries, nerves, and muscles together. It takes time, and you may not regain total nerve function.” He squinted. “Replantation is most successful in young patients who don’t smoke.” He leaned so that his sharp nose nearly touched mine. “If you do now, give it up.”

“Absolutely.” For my hand, I’d do anything.

The operating room was filled with machines I didn’t know, including a six-foot microscope a nurse explained they used to see “all the tiny pieces.” Strange noises: whooshes and beeps, mixed with the labored breaths of the doctors, three besides Dr. Fitz. One put a mask over my nose and mouth and had me count backwards from twenty. I reached seventeen and then I was inside Grady’s. Grady’s has a small television bolted to the corner of the wall and twelve beer-stained tables with people’s initials carved into them. The boys and I gathered at Grady’s after work to drink and watch the game.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a light. It was a woman with short, dark hair, a leather jacket, and the requisite motorcycle boots.

I lit her cigarette. “Thanks,” she said. She walked to a table behind us. That’s when I saw Delia. She smiled and revealed perfect teeth, the kind that cost plenty. I looked away. Pretty girls never gave me much time. But she said goodnight when she and her friend left. The way she called it across the room made the guys turn on their stool to look at me. I didn’t like that. The guys never witnessed me in action. I conducted that business elsewhere.

“I think she likes you, Kate,” Grady said, setting another beer before me.

“Shut it.” I banged my fist on the bar for emphasis.

The banging continued. Bang bang bang. I opened my eyes. The banging got louder. It was inside my head. A nurse stopped by my bed, her pink scrubs well wrinkled. She asked how I felt. Bruised, defeated, bloody, exhausted. “Fine.” The bandages mummified my skin up to the elbow. “ How is it?”

“Oh, your surgery went quite well. The doctor will stop by and talk with you. Until then, you have visitors. Your parents and sister.”

My sister? Oh hell. Delia, I thought. During our two years together, my parents never met her. I didn’t introduce girlfriends to my family. Not after the dinner I brought Meg. She was older and worked in construction. She talked about motorcycles and basketball over my mother’s smothered chicken and potatoes. My father said that he once owned a motorcycle for two months. That was his contribution. My brother, visiting during his sabbatical, asked about the economics of the housing market, as foretold by construction demand, as if Meg knew.

Before we left I said, “I’m sorry,” to my mother. She patted my back and said, “It’s OK, sweetie.” It was the same thing she told me when I spilled soup. She didn’t say, “don’t apologize” or “we enjoyed meeting Meg.” And she never asked about her again.

When they came inside the room, I saw my sister, Beth. So Delia had gone. Or my family had kept her out. My stomach ached. Beth and Mom fluffed my pillows and poured me water. They both wore bracelets. I never wore them. They were an invitation to a shop injury.

Beth told me about the house she and her husband planned to buy. Her bracelets jingle-jangled as she drew arcs and described windows. The noise hurt my head. “Maybe you could build us some pieces.” She blanched.

“I’m going use my hand again,” I said. “I will.”

“Is your doctor around?” my father asked.

“Your friend Delia let us know about the accident,” Mom said. “Such a nice girl. She said she knows Bill?” Mom knows Bill is the only single man in the shop, though I can’t remember making this plain. She was asking, in her way, if they were an item.

“Yes.”

Her smile widened. “You’re going to need help. How about I stay over a few days?”

Beth told me more about the house until the nurse shooed them out.

I fell into a sleep filled with whirling saw blades and sharp metal instruments.

Delia was beside me when I woke. She’d bribed a nurse to let her stay past visiting hours. “I had to see you.” She kissed my cheek and said, “I’m so sorry.”

“For what?”

“I startled you in the shop and then you cut yourself and—”

“Hush. Hush.” Her tears tasted salty.

“When will they let you out?”

“Two more days, I think.”

“I moved my stuff back in. I thought—” I wondered where her stuff had been, before she came back. I didn’t ask.

“My Mom wants to help out the first few days.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head to the side. “I’ll crash with Charlotte for a few days then.” Charlotte was Delia’s friend and former lover. My hand throbbed. “Take care. I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you.” She kissed me. Her lips needed balm.

Before I fell asleep I catalogued all of Delia’s former lovers that I knew of: Charlotte, with her tarot cards; Andrea, the cat lady; Phyllis with the magazine-spread garden; Cally, who wrote books; model Tammy; and Suzanne, the woman from Grady’s. Suzanne sculpted. Her pieces were in museums. Delia remained friendly with them all. They allowed it, although how they could see her with someone else and not want to kill her or themselves I don’t know.

After four days of home care, my mother and I ran out of safe topics. She kept picking up my things and asking where I had got them. A picture of me and Delia from last year’s barbecue drew her attention. She stared at it several moments, while I cursed myself for not hiding it.

“This is Bill’s friend, right?”

“Yes, Bill is behind us.” He stood, beer in hand, behind Delia’s shoulder.

“Your hair looks nice.” I exhaled. She never liked my hair. It was always too spiky and too short.

As soon as her car tires cleared my driveway, I called Delia at Charlotte’s. I suffered Charlotte’s inquiries about my hand, my health, my state of mind. “An injury like this takes its toll, emotionally as well as physically.” I wanted to ask how the hell she knew.

Delia arrived with windblown hair and banana bread, courtesy of Charlotte. I vowed to starve before I ate a slice.

She rubbed my skin with a beige sea sponge and washed my hair, careful not to wet the arm she’d wrapped in four plastic bags secured with seven rubber bands. She bathed me like an infant. Delia liked babies, and wanted one, soon. Imagining a child taunted on the playground for having two mothers made me queasy.

“How about a nap?” she said after she’d toweled me to a semi-dry state.

“How about some pills?” The pulsing in my hand felt like a misplaced heartbeat.

She frowned at the bottle’s multicolored labels: take with food, do not exceed four pills in 24 hours, may cause nausea, do not operate machinery.

“Oh for Christ’s sake, I’m not an addict.”

Hurt pinched her face. She gave me two pills with a tall glass of ice water. I almost choked as I swallowed, on grief and gratitude. I never expected her to come back.

She’d left on a Tuesday. The bookcase had big gaps between books. The glass bear sculpture was gone from the coffee table. The note was on my pillow. I can’t take it anymore. I love you but you don’t trust me. I hope you find happiness someday. She had signed it Love, Delia in her loopy scrawl. I ripped the note into confetti and screamed.

“Trust,” I muttered, headed for the liquor cabinet.

She slept with lots of women before we met. Her confused youth, she claimed. Ours was not a large city. We often ran into former “acquaintances.” Delia insisted some were just friends or people she’d met in her coming out days. I didn’t believe her.

We fought about other things: my workaholic tendencies, her sloppiness and lack of ambition. She took a few art classes, sold some pottery here and there, babysat for my neighbors. People I’d only nodded to felt comfortable borrowing my hedge trimmer or rock salt. “Delia said you wouldn’t mind,” they offered when confronted by my crossed arms.

She never understood what it was to be the woodworking daughter of academics. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t tell my family about us. She’d give me the standard coming out stories that ended happily. Those stories featured only children. Families with back up children don’t have to love their gay son or daughter.

When I awoke from my nap, I heard her singing. My heart beat faster as I imagined how I would keep her this time. After she left I’d worked seventeen-hour days and slept on the sofa. I drank more than I should and snarled at the guys for tiny errors. Eventually Tim snapped. “Look, we know your girlfriend left you, but that’s no reason to bitch at us.” I let the little things go, though I still made Bill reset the drawer pulls on a chest because I could see they were a half-inch from center.

Delia brought me lemonade and I sniffed her neck. She giggled as I nuzzled the source of her peach scent. If only I could hide there, my face burrowed in her skin, forever.

After six days of resting, I visited the shop. The cords lay tangled on a floor that hadn’t been swept. One stumble and I could end up with a hurt employee and insurance woes. I mentioned it to Bill and he assured me it would get done at shift’s end. He said the orders for the rockers were met. They were two days behind on the bureaus and music stands. I made a few calls to distributors and stores and explained we were running behind. My shop hadn’t run late in production since the blizzard of 1998. My head ached just behind my right eye.

Over dinner, I voiced my worries. “The guys know what they’re doing,” Delia said. “You’ll be back soon.”

“But what if my hand isn’t all better?”

“Kate, didn’t Dr. Fitz say you might not regain full sensation?”

“Yeah, but I’m a good candidate and I’m being careful. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since surgery.”

She poured water. I was forbidden alcohol because of the pills and denied coffee because caffeine restricted blood flow.

In bed, I lay on my good arm. The sheets needed washing. Delia hated doing laundry. “Why did you come back?” I asked.

Her head moved. Her silky hair tickled my ear. “I hated being away from you. Every day I pictured where you would be, and what I imagined seemed more real than anything happening around me. I thought I’d come back, see if we could make it work. But it can’t be like before, Kate.” I thought she referred to my accident, the fact that I would never be the same. “You can’t become jealous every time I talk to an old friend. I need you to trust me. And I need you to want me around, really want me.”

The pillow was lumpy underneath my cheek. The women I dated before her liked my strong hands and low laughter. None of them told me I was beautiful or that I made them feel safe. None of the others hurt me like she did when they took their things and left.

“Where did you go?” I whispered.

She sighed as if someone was pushing on her chest. “I stayed with my sister for two weeks, and then friends. I was just about to put a deposit on an apartment, but it felt wrong.”

I kissed her all over, grateful to whatever god had stayed her hand from giving the landlord his money.

In the morning Charlotte called. I asked her what she wanted. She said she needed to talk to Delia. I said she was out shopping. When Delia emerged from the shower I hugged her hard, getting water on my bandages.

“Careful!”

“They come off today,” I told her. “Come on, let’s go!”

Inside the hospital, I sat on a narrow cot, the disposable paper on it crinkling as I squirmed. They peeled the bandages, layer by layer. I was a human onion. My stomach turned over as each gauze strip fell away. Then I saw it. My hand lay exposed and grub white on the metal table. The surgery had failed. I would never work again. The fingers, purple with bruises, looked stiff and uneven. My thumb jutted at a hitchhiker’s angle. The nurse said, “Your fingers will get looser with time.”

At the shop I hovered over the guys, correcting their choice of blade widths. I made Tim restain a chest that had dried to the color of clove. I longed to split the ash boards we got last week. The guys didn’t understand about the dry times for ash; whenever they cut the boards the ends cracked.

Delia babysat three nights a week. She asked if I had given more thought to kids. “What sort of mother can’t hold her baby?” I asked, lifting my hand. My scarred thumb and forefinger couldn’t form a circle.

Charlotte called twice more. I cried in the shower and drank in the basement. I couldn’t draft with my left hand.

“What about the drawings you did last spring?” Delia asked. “You could work from those.”

“You said they could be better.”

“Kate—”

“You said they could be, what was the word? Dreamier.”

“You hide your artistic side. You think everything has to be functional.”

“It’s fur-ni-ture.”

“Yes.” She tugged her split ends.

“Furniture.”

“Fine.”

She talked about trips, about rearranging the kitchen and adopting a puppy from the humane society. I watched her like a stranger. Her voice got sharp and high when she was excited. She said “um” between every third or fourth word. Her earlobes were uneven. She blinked when she said I was doing great with my hand.

She came back before my accident. I tried to remember that. But when I drank until my teeth felt dirty I knew the only reason she stayed was because of my bent fingers.

One night she waited for me on the porch. I watched dirty moths flutter toward the overhead light beside the door. “Where have you been?”

“Work.” I dropped my tool bag to the floor.

“I called the shop. Bill said you left hours ago. He said it’s not the first time you’ve left early.”

I raked my hair with my good hand. “God, you’d have to leave early if you had to watch those monkeys ruin pieces every damn day. I went for a drive, OK?”

“Kate.” Her lips pushed out, pouting.

“What?” I opened the door and stepped past her.

“Come to bed.” She closed the door behind her.

“What? I haven’t had dinner. I need a shower.”

She touched my shoulder. “ Why don’t we make love anymore?”

“Because I can’t feel you!” I screamed.

My nerves grew so slowly. My fingertips felt nothing at all. When I traced Delia’s nipple with the pads of those severed fingers, the nipple grew hard, but there was no sensation in my fingers. I might have been rubbing gravel.

The phone rang. I stepped around her to answer it.

“Hello, dear,” Mom said. She began listing the details of her and Dad’s fortieth anniversary celebration. I wrote them in my new, bad script. Delia watched me, picking up the paper after I hung up.

“Is it going to be super dressy?” She wiggled her nose. “I don’t have anything formal. I have that nice sundress, but that’s probably too casual.”

I imagined her regaling my parents with her babysitting stories. I saw her trying to recruit them to pressure me to adopt a child from an underprivileged country. My parents, who still asked about my eleventh grade prom date, who still hoped for a miracle.

“I thought I’d go by myself. It’s just family really.”

“Just family.” She stared, unblinking.

“I don’t know—” I said, “I just—”

“You didn’t have the guts. Or the love, to tell your mother about me.”

I wanted to smack her for her self-righteousness.

“You’ll never tell them. And I can’t do it for you. I won’t.”

She stomped into the bedroom. I followed and watched as she grabbed T-shirts from the dresser. She stuffed fistfuls of them into her bag. “I hate it when you’re like this!”

She couldn’t leave, not again. I’d stop her. “What am I like, crippled? You did this!”

Her shoulders sagged. “So that’s it. At last. It’s all my fault.”

“You said so in the hospital!”

“Yes.” She brushed a damp strand from her face. “But you got your fingers back Kate. You’re OK.” She stopped and looked at me, her eyes darker than I’d ever seen them. She leaned forward and touched my cheek. “I didn’t make you gay. You were always that way. Even before I met you.” She swung the bag onto her shoulder. My stomach heaved.

“Stop,” I said. “Stop! We’ll go together.”

Her fingers dug into the straps of her bag. She shifted her weight.

“I promise.” I put my hand to her cheek. “Please.”

She set the bag down.

The next week she was all whistles and smiles. She bought a new dress and called me sweetheart once a day. I ate antacid and stopped drinking more than two beers a night.

The night of the party came. I sat on the sofa and listened to Delia sing in the shower. I wore my fancy dress, a silk thing my sister had bought me. My parents’ gift sat in my car trunk: an oak chest carved with an Acanthus leaf. They’d seen one years ago and had never forgotten it. Neither had I.

“Baby, you mean the world to me,” Delia crooned, her voice dulled by rushing water.

I shook my hand. It ached in the cold. My cheeks were lined with canker sores. Chewing them distracted me from the aching. Dr. Fitz counted me a success story. I’d regained 78 percent sensation. My fingers worked. The purple scar lines were fading to violet.

On the coffee table, beside the bear sculpture, were several studies I’d drawn of a crib with horse’s legs that ended in carved hooves. Even with imperfect curves, I knew I’d done it. I’d designed a piece of furniture that Delia would love. She’d see it when she got out.

I gathered my purse and walked to the front door. The metal knob was warm beneath my stunted fingers.

“Kate?” Delia called. “Could you bring me my robe?”

I opened the door and stepped outside into the soft darkness. The door closed behind me with a hard click.

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