The Writer
Bunny Byrne

It's all I can do to make it to the next party...

Another Short Story: The Tender Parts

Posted By on January 19, 2012 in Writing | 0 comments

Another Short Story: The Tender Parts

I’m feeling cheery today, partly because of the darling feature in Southern Living, but mostly because so many of my hometown peeps have responded so positively to it.  Makes a girl feel loved.

In honor of this buoyant feeling…. here’s another short.  {It’s a long short}

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The Tender Parts

Ralph was a fluffy cat, with his face a little smashed up, like he ran into a door as it was closing. He ran into my room and shot under the bed, in obvious possession of some precious loot. I slapped my book onto the bed, and hopped onto the floor to peer under the dust ruffle. Ralphie peered back, with his treasure in his mouth, stock still, waiting for me to retreat so he could enjoy it in peace. I stayed where I was, and the waiting was too much for him. He dropped what he was holding and started licking it and nibbling it.

The thing was small and pinkish, with some darker pink on one end. I decided I needed a closer look and went around the other side of the bed and knelt quietly. I stuck my hand under the bed and yanked Ralphie out from under by his tail. He had the thing in his mouth, clamped between his needle teeth. I had to grab his head on top and bottom and pry his jaw open and shake the thing out onto the floor. It was a fingertip, from the second knuckle.

I shooed Ralphie out and shut the door. I went back to look at the finger. It was raggedly severed and a little chewed up. Just as I was inspecting the fingernail end, which was long and filed and decidedly female, I heard Momma’s voice come up through the open window. My room was on the second floor and she was hollering from the porch, “Lilly, come on down here, we’ve got to go into town. I gotta pick up my new hat for Sunday.” Momma loved hats and I personally believed that she felt they distracted from her rotund figure. But that would fail to explain why she insisted on wearing such tight clothing. A mystery.

I decided to hide Ralphie’s tidbit. I had a little box that I had gotten a charm bracelet in at Christmas. I emptied the bracelet into my top drawer, leaving it swimming among my socks and camisoles. I used a pencil to herd the finger into the box and placed the lid on top, making a private coffin for the stray appendage. Momma yelled for me again, and I jammed the little box into the top drawer. The charm bracelet just lay there looking on, displaced.

I put on my red shoes and glanced quickly in the mirror. Stick straight hair like hay, stick straight body like a scarecrow. Momma made me wear dresses, but they didn’t seem to help. At least my freckles were a little feminine. Lord, I thought, I wonder if the boys in my class pictured me when we read To Kill a Mockingbird last year. Then I galloped down the stairs, swinging off the bottom of the banister to turn the corner back and head toward the front door. I slammed the door behind me, and left the screen door flapping. Momma was already in the car with it running. I jerked the door open and slid onto the vinyl seat, which fried my legs on contact. The blue behemoth, which I referred to as the Turkey Oven, could cook a human in 20 seconds flat. It didn’t have air conditioning, and Momma didn’t intend on replacing it any time soon. She liked the big slow way it drove and how it looked when we careened into town on its marshmallow tires. She thought the blue steel framed her face like a portrait. A mourning portrait, I always said in my head.

For some reason I was exhilarated by Ralphie’s find. I clicked on the radio to make sure Momma couldn’t hear me thinking. Had he chewed it off a woman sleeping, or was there a body laying around somewhere in the woods? If there was a body, where did it come from? How did the finger get separated from the entirety? A voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Turn that racket down, Lilly! I wanna be able to hear the trumpets at the Second Coming!” Momma said.

“I don’t think it’ll be before we get to town, Momma”

“Lilly, we know not the day nor the hour. Now turn it down.”

I turned the radio down low, and went back to staring out the window, wondering. The weeds on the side of the dirt road were so tall; they were like a million people waving at me as we passed.

** ** ** ** **

We docked the land-yacht right in front of the mercantile where Momma would have her hat fitted. I followed her in and sat at the lunch counter on a shiny chrome stool. I twisted and turned, back and to, staring alternately at the window and the back of the store, which was a bank of orphaned shoes, display models. I swiveled back to the window view and I stopped, hand on the counter to steady me. I had finally noticed the small black shingle across the street: Carver’s Mortuary. I jumped off the stool and moved out the door and across the street like I was a piece of meat on a string being pulled straight across, luring a wild animal. I turned the gilt knob on the large black door, pressing it open with both hands. There were myriad smells that washed over me, none of them distinguishable, but I suspected that there may be some bad smells on the bottom with some others designed to be “better” languishing on top, not quite doing their job, but doing it enough not to get fired.

I walked to a small, heavily carved desk where a frail looking woman was reading a book. She looked over her glasses and gently put her book down. “Can I help you, Sug?” Norma asked, as identified by the small plaque on her desk.

“Yes, ma’am. Could I speak to the morturer?” I replied, twisting my feet around and staring at the plushy carpeted floor.

“Do you mean the mortician, dear?”

“Well, I mean the man what does the embalming.”

“I see. Mr. Carver is busy at the moment; would you like to come back later?”

“Well, I don’t think I can come back…” and as I was saying this, a tall, heavyset man with a comb-over came around the corner.

“Oh, Mr. Carver, this young lady wanted to speak with you.” Norma said.

“Privately,” I added.

“Alright, then, we could step into the parlor here.” said Mr. Carver.

I followed him into the parlor, trying to figure out what to ask, without being too incriminating. If I started a frenzy about a potentially dead body, Momma would be mortified and would have my hide after everything subsided. And I liked my hide where it was – firmly attached.

Mr. Carver sat on a small settee and I sat in the chair across from him. The window treatments were almost oppressive. There was a lamp on the side table that had an eagle with a ferocious look and claws hanging onto a tree made of iron. When Mr. Carver reached his hand up to turn on the lamp, the eagle looked like it was gonna bite him. But Mr. Carver pulled his hand away without a scratch.

“Well, Miss…Miss, “ Mr. Carver stumbled.

“Lilly. My name is Lilly.”

“Well, Miss Lilly, what can I do for you?”

“Um, I just had a question.” Think. Think. “You see my brother….well…he found a toad…and it was dead…and I wanted to…I mean, he wanted to…preserve it. How can I, well, he, do that?” I rambled out.

“Well, Lilly, we use something called formaldehyde. It’s fine to use it for animals, as well, but it can be a dangerous chemical. I suppose I could give you a small amount of it. But you would have to promise to be very careful with it. How old is your brother?”

“Oh, he’s older than me, he’s 15. Very responsible,” I lied about the brother I did not have.

“I see. Miss Lilly, do you think you could be very careful with it?”

“Oh, yes sir. I believe I could.”

“Ok. Then you just wait right out there with Norma, and I’ll be right back.” Mr. Carver rose from the settee and opened the door to the parlor and ushered me out. I flopped down onto the sticky leather couch across from Norma. I watched as she cleaned her nails under the lamp light. I watched while trying to look like I wasn’t. I would turn my head to the side, like I was watching the hallway for Mr. Carver, but then I would cut my eyes, only my eyes, back to Norma. She didn’t seem to notice, so I must have been successful in being discreet. Mr. Carver came back just as Norma was digging the pinky finger. She stopped mid-nail and peered over the top of her glasses at him. He held a small jar that looked like a glass jelly jar and was filled with a clear liquid.

“How big is your toad? Is this enough to cover him? You want to completely submerge him, ok?” He kind of offered the jar to me, but not quite.

“Yessir, I believe that’s just enough. He is a medium sized toad,” I replied, thinking that my severed finger was going to sink straight to the bottom and I’d never get it out of there. But then I decided that I probably wouldn’t need to get it out.

“Now, you are sure you will be very careful with this? Did you come downtown with your mother? Maybe I should speak with her to be safe. Or your father?”

“Oh, yessir, I promise to be very careful. I’ll just plop that toad in there and seal it up straightaway.” I put my hands on the jar, and gave my most earnest look, and he let go.

“Thank you again, Mr. Carver. I know my brother will appreciate it.”

I turned and got almost to the door when Mr. Carver asked, “Lily, what did you say your brother’s name was?”

“Ralphie,” I said as I was pushing the heavy door open and entering the bright sunny mainstreet. I wondered what damp and dark kind of evil or meanness made a man want to be a morturer. Maybe he hated his momma. Or maybe the devil’s got him all bound up, like a gorgeous black and gold flocked damask over his great big old heart. And when it pumps, the blood sieves out through the pattern, and it changes him.

I immediately looked over to the blue Turkey Oven, and was relieved that Momma hadn’t made it out of the mercantile yet. I hurried across to the car and opened the back door, behind the passenger seat. I screwed the lid of the jar on real tight and poked the jar under the passenger seat, hoping it wouldn’t betray me by leaking. As I stood up and shut the door, Momma was just coming out of the store, hatbox in hand, fighting with the door and struggling to keep her box and bag and purse all together and off the sidewalk.

She saw me and yelled over to me, “Lilly, now I know you can see me having a time, come over here and get this door offa me, it’s eating me alive!” I hurried over and helped her get out.

“Here, Momma, let me put these in the back for you,” I said, and took the bag and box from her. I hurried to the car and placed them in the back seat. Momma kinda looked at me a little squint-eyed, but then she opened the front door and got in like a feed sack dumping onto a barn floor. The marshmallow tires went way down on her side, and I walked around the back and got in.

The whole ride home I was worried about my jar, worried it would leak, worried it would roll out from under the seat when Momma slammed on brakes at the stop sign on Higginbottom Road. But it didn’t make a peep. When we got home I offered to get the bags in. I moved slowly, letting Momma get into the house, and then I loosened my jar from under the seat and stuck it in the bag. As soon as I got in the house, I took it from the bag and put it in the big potted plant that was next to the door. I took the bags in to Momma who was in the kitchen fixing to prepare supper. Before she could ask me to help, I left the room, collected my jar, and went up to my room.

I waited until I could hear pans banging around, and I pulled the top drawer open and got out the mini-casket, setting it on the top of the dresser. I opened it slowly, and set the lid off to the side. Then I opened the jar and set that lid off to the other side. Then I lifted the box and used my pencil to guide the finger into the liquid. I made a little sound when it hit the surface, and then it went down. I put the jar lid on tight and put the lid back on the box. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the box, so I stood there, half bent over, watching the finger. It had tiny air bubbles on it, especially around the raggedy end.

** ** ** ** **

“Well, ma’am, we’re not really sure what happened. Have you seen or heard anything strange?” The sheriff’s deputy was on the porch and his tight squealy voice was meandering up through my window. The deputy was a short man with a great round belly that he threaded his gun belt under, and which made his voice very out of place. I moved closer.

“No sir, we haven’t heard a thing. Now this sounds like something we should be concerned about.” Momma’s voice was getting a little pitchy, and she seemed nervous. “It’s just me and my daughter here, and the hired man, but he lives in the shed next to the barn, just over the hill.”

“Like I say, we don’t rightly know what happened. Seems to be some kind of terrible accident, but we can’t really figure a reason that Sally Jane would be using tractor by herself. Seems that when Tommy got home, she was already gone. The worst part of it, we can’t find all of her. Pardon my being so morbid, but, there are some pieces missing.” The deputy shuffled on the porch and I could hear his boots scraping against the pine boards.

“Oh my goodness. Well, it won’t do for us to stay here, I don’t think. I have a sister in town, I’m sure she’ll want us to stay with her, until you get this thing figured out.”

“Yes ma’am, you call your sister and get you and your daughter settled. If you think of anything that might have been unusual, just give me a call. We’re trying real hard to wrap this thing up. As I’m sure you can imagine, Tommy wants us to find every last finger.”

My spine straightened like a steel rod and I moved to the side of the window. I stood very still and didn’t breathe for almost a minute. Every last finger. They wanted my finger. Well, really it was Sally Jane’s finger. But I couldn’t very well give it back, now could I? With it rolling around in a jar of formaldehyde. I rushed over to the dresser and grabbed the jar. I held it to me and tried to think. All I could think to do was bury it. So I waited until the deputy left and Momma was in the front room practicing on her piano, and I crept down the stairs and out the back door and moved evenly, deliberately, toward the woods.

I had a favorite spot which was really just a stump on the edge of a clearing. I went there and dug with my hands in the dirt near the stump. The earth was black and peaty and smelled strong. I kept trying to fit the jar in the hole, and kept taking it out and trying to make the hole bigger. I finally made what I felt was a satisfactory fit, and covered it over.

I brushed off my hands and knees and walked slowly back to the house. It was getting dark, so I hollered goodnight to Momma as I went up the stairs. She had finished her piano practicing and was in the front room doing her daily devotion. Almost every moment of Momma’s day happened like clockwork. Tick – cook breakfast. Tock – cook lunch. Tick – piano practice. Tock – take the makeup off her face with cold cream.

I slipped into my room and shut the door. As I lay in the bed that night, I kept thinking about the finger. I finally fell asleep, but then I dreamed about the finger. I dreamed about it again the next night. And the next. Even when we moved in with Aunt Elviney, I dreamed about the jar getting crushed under the earth and the finger getting cut. I dreamed about the finger getting out of the jar and inching its way up to the house, up to my room. The finger hung in my thoughts and strummed my imagination. It held its fingertip on the page of my mind and refused to let the story go. I awoke one day and decided that finger had to come out of the ground.

We were living with Aunt Elviney, but we went back to the house several times a week. I made up a story about wanting to get some good sticks for Elviney’s dog to play with, and I picked up a satchel and headed to the woods. I dug up the jar, which was perfectly intact. I gathered a few nearby sticks and headed back to the house. I carried the bag with me when we went back to town, and that finger, Sally Jane’s finger, spent the night in my room with me. My room was a cot in Elviney’s very large pantry, which meant that her housekeeper woke me up each morning at 6 o’clock. I had plenty of time to think that night, and by morning I had a plan.

** ** ** **

The housekeeper woke me and I threw on some clothes and grabbed my satchel and bolted out the back door. Momma wouldn’t be up for an hour, and I should have enough time to get back. I climbed over the back fence, walked through someone’s yard, and got to the street behind Elviney’s. I walked down and turned right and kept walking. I got to where I was going and slipped inside the iron gate. I wasn’t entirely sure which way to go, so I looked for fresh dirt. I spied some and headed that way. It was getting lighter out, and I wanted to be done with this task. I knelt beside the fresh dirt, in front of the little cross and pulled the jar from my bag. I made a shallow hole in the dirt with my hand, about two thirds of the way from the cross, where her hand should be. Then I opened the jar lid and looked down into the clear liquid. It was just laying there pointing sideways, pointing away from the mound of dirt, accusing someone who wasn’t there. I tilted the jar and dumped the contents into the hole. There was a little watery splashing sound, and the finger was there in the hole – shining, wet, pointing. Pointing right to where Sally Jane’s heart would’ve been. Pointing right to the tenderest part.

I kicked some dirt over the pointing finger and ran to the entrance of the church cemetery. I ran through the gate and ran down the street. I ran back through someone’s yard and climbed back over the fence and ran into the back door of my aunt’s house. I sat at the kitchen table with the satchel under my feet. The housekeeper set me a place.

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