The Finger Cup
So I was a smart child.
I may not have remained so in moving to adulthood, but when I was younger, when the slate was cleaner, I was almost a genius. My IQ, when tested shortly after my sixth birthday, was 139, and I was educated publicly via a specialized, accelerated program. I read fluidly—whole sentences, with punctuation and everything—by the age of two. Yet this is not bragging; you must believe me. It is not harrumphing or overripe nostalgia, but rather the drawing out of myself for a desired effect.
Midway through my kindergarten year, on a cold morning bus ride through the blank hills of western Pennsylvania, I found myself in an argument with the Copeland brothers, both in my age range, neighbors of mine with strangely unified opinions on everything. I sat back as they hung over the shiny brown vinyl seatback in front of me, dangling Gore-Tex gloves in front of my eyes like hypnotists’ medallions. The argument, amongst other things, boiled down to the simplest of math: 1+1, to be exact. And I, who read at a middle school level then—had already finished To Kill a Mockingbird, for the most part—boldly declared this:
It was a blind declaration, one that I made with loud assurance, trumped with the exclamation of an argument I would certainly have today if someone were to say, openly dispute the connection between air and breathing. 1+1=1. In my head it made sense. And even later, with adults alike telling me, speaking slowly to me in a timbre I was not used to hearing: “Michael. Take one apple, add one to it...,” I blindly defended the calculation, waving off interjections like summertime mosquitoes. Not 1+1=2. 1+1=1. No exceptions.
My faux pas, as I later discovered in my teens, was the result of a learning disability that can only be described as numerical dyslexia, a blown fuse when it comes to analytical logic; the first chink in what had then seemed an undented intellect. But at the time, having been hailed as such a rare mind—for years neighborhood adults, for whatever reasons, made me read various things, books, pamphlets, instruction manuals, aloud to small groups—by people who were so much taller than me, it was an abstraction that I defended with the vigor of a piqued lion, because by kindergarten I had learned the system that well.
Long story short: because of this disfluency in logic I showed a beautiful girl her own severed finger.
* * *
“Say ‘Aunt Kary’,” she sang, bending over into Rob’s plush face. “Say ‘Aunt Kary!’”
She always talked to him like that, with a cutesy, obstructive tone that flirted with intolerable, like she was talking to a puppy or a mouse. Rob, six, looked blankly back, probably waiting for a cue to dart back outside and resume playtime with his imaginary friend, whose name I cannot now recall. Kary held her hand in front of him like she was starting a pre-game rally cheer, golden shine and diamond looped around her ring finger.
My Uncle Joe had just proposed to Kary, and she said had yes. They had been dating for some time, years, and she had been babysitting my brother and me all summer. I was twelve then, so my need for a babysitter was not high. But my parents were both forced to work that summer and Kary’s parents had moved to Maryland, leaving her with no place to stay, so the arrangement, for lack of a better comparison, was Scott Baio-ish. She acted more or less as a half-parent who kept consistencies in my and Rob’s lives, riding us to places we needed to go to; practices for sports, etc.
She was also someone who dated my nineteen-year-old uncle and slept in what was my brother’s room for the summer. (Rob and I shared a bed for three months.) We had our own Charles in Charge, and if one were to substitute her name into that television show’s title it would be almost accordingly alliterative.
She was seventeen, almost eighteen, and surely the most beautiful female I had ever seen in real life. She was—yes—going to be a model, even had the sample photos to prove it. I remember when she got them developed and brought them to a family function. I sat crouched over the coffee table where they lay, curiously eyeballing the proofs, studying the anomaly of a real life girl who looked like girls looked on television, with skimpy swimwear and massive, sculpted hairdos. These things were important to me when I was twelve, girls looking like television girls did.
* * *
At the crust of the cul de sac that punctuated one end of our cookie-cutter neighborhood of paneled houses, differentiated only by the colors they were painted, lived Santa Claus. At the other end of the neighborhood was a paved hill that spiraled upwards like a beanstalk towards bigger homes with bigger yards.
* * *
The first ugly thing I ever saw Kary do was an ill-advised flip on the rings of our old and tattered play set in our scrunched, grassy back yard. (The second was later that summer, when she tongue-kissed a short, sideburn-wearing male who was not my uncle. She did this while swimming in the deep end of the local public pool on top of the hill at the end of our neighborhood. I saw.) I was snaking around to the back of my house to search our garage for a basketball with air. (A task that would prove hopelessly daunting. The Scalise household still today carries with it a poltergeist of appliances, knick-knacks, toys, etc. They crumble shortly after settling on the property. My father goes through lawnmowers as dogs do bones. Picture tubes to televisions and computer hardware are powerless against the sneaky and evil hand of the Scalise Family Poltergeist, a force so acutely taxing that it has hardened my parents’ resolve like a prolonged biblical war.) My eyes drifted over to the play set only briefly. I saw Kary and Rob; him swinging slightly forward on one end, her attempting a back flip on the rusted rings that made up the other end of that tattered hunk of metal. As she awkwardly wriggle-flipped over her legs turned in like skewed hinges, like logs in a dryer. It was so ugly I had to turn away.
Her feet landed smack on the hard dirt patch below the rings. I kept walking.
I walked back out to the play set after finding three basketballs in the dusty corners of our garage, all smushed and lopsided and of course airless. Kary was hunched over like she was cramped; her head by her tan knees, clutching her left hand. As I walked towards her, she looked at her hand.
“Ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod-ohmigod—,” she ran, grabbed, pulled me back into the garage. Rob now hung from the monkey bars with his feet, something he seemingly had done since birth.
“Michael,” she whispered. “My finger’s off. I didn’t want to scare Robbie, but my finger’s off.”
Then shock set in for her, and the record skipped.
* * *
At one end:
Santa Claus’ real name was Mr. Messenger. He had been in our neighborhood since before it was a neighborhood. He had (of course) a jolly stomach and was forever strapped with denim overalls, his jowls raining down the trademark white whiskers that brought us neighborhood kids to his house every December, lined up like ants outside his door, lists of Christmas wishes in hand. Our parents would watch from the curb as we filed one by one into his wooden, gray cabin that beat like an eyesore in a neighborhood with such a strict, regimented style as ours. The chipping wood of his outside walls was no match for our brick and aluminum siding, his towering evergreens were shunted by the music blue of our above-ground pools, the efficiency of our blacktopped driveways and stained, kidney-shaped decks. The inside of his house was dim like coffee and smelled old and pleasantly familiar, and I don’t remember Mr. Messenger ever enunciating any of his words clearly; I recall only him sitting us on his lap, his legs rumbling underneath our bums with a palsy I’m sure we all thought was playful.
* * *
When Kary told me about the finger, I didn’t call an ambulance.
I remembered hearing about friends who had slammed their fingers in doorways, then got them patched up, which was what I had estimated happened to Kary. Her finger was just cut badly. She lay on the couch in our living room—watching a television I turned on for her—clutching her hand, whimpering sobs like a housebound puppy. She begged me to call my uncle, then not to because she said the new ring he had bought her was ruined. She did not ask me to call an ambulance. She did flop radically, again and again, between begging for me to call my uncle and for me not to, so my common sense told me to call my mother at work.
“Hey Ma. Kary’s finger’s cut pretty bad. She’s bleeding.”
“Put some ice on it. I’ll be home soon.”
I checked the freezer for ice, but alas: that summer we purchased a refrigerator equipped with its own ice maker which—in accordance with the supernatural rules of the house—had broken down that week. All we had were Freeze Pops, the Popsicles you buy warm, then freeze and eat. The kind that, when you eat too many, scrape up the roof of your mouth. I gave Kary three and a towel, and when I noticed that Rob was now inside, sitting at the empty end of the couch where Kary was now curled like a boy-touched caterpillar, I gave him one too.
“Michael?” asked Kary.
“Can you please go out back and get my finger?”
“I can try.”
I grabbed a paper towel and headed back to the swing set, expecting a broken nail, maybe a hunk of skin.
Her ring finger, almost the whole thing, was in the middle of the hard patch of dirt below the rusty rings. Repeat: it was nearly an entire finger, cut jaggedly just below the second knuckle, in my back yard. Kids who had been nearby hovered around it, and the Copeland brothers must have decided in both of their heads that it would be a good idea to poke the thing. With sticks.
I rushed back inside, yelled: “HOLY SHIT YOU CUT YOUR FINGER OFF!” Or: “YOUR FINGER’S CUT OFF AND SEAN AND MATT COPELAND ARE OUT BACK POKING IT WITH FUCKING STICKS!” Or some such thing that surely should not have been mentioned in front of Rob, who was now abuzz and alert.
I didn’t call an ambulance. I called Roberta Hudak up the street, a nurse, I think, but she wasn’t home. Kary was calming now, her whimpers hushed to low tenor hums. Rob, spooked by my frantic entry, darted outside.
I called my dad.
“Ice is in the basement. Listen—listen.”
“We have bags of ice in the basement freezer. I bought them two days ago. Go get a cup. Break up the ice. Put it in the cup. Go grab the finger and put it on ice. I’ll be home.” (My father was in the Civil Air Patrol when he was younger. He used to tell me stories about the two times he had to go hiking after crashed planes in the mountains. Once, he bagged bodies. The other time, he ate grubs, which he said were good if bland.)
Cup—check. Ice—check. Go grab the finger—with my hands? Of course not.
So instead I grabbed barbecue tongs.
Kary, in her awkward and ugly flip on the rings, had entangled her new engagement ring in the chain links that hung from the play set. I know this because while I was inside the Copelands had examined my entire back yard, and had found the ring, which proved to be the culprit. Matt Copeland held it up. The ring was oblong—some flesh, some blood.
And if you would ask me, I would tell you: certainly it is surreal to pick up an unattached finger with a pair of barbecue tongs; especially when it’s your babysitter’s finger. Especially when it’s in your back yard. But none of it, please believe me, was as surreal as looking into the ice-filled cup that now housed the finger, and seeing that at the frayed base of a digit that used to be attached to an almost-eighteen-year-old model, there was an ant crawling in the exposed bone cavity.
To get it out I shook the cup, and the finger shot out towards Rob. I remember yelps; kid yelps sounding like balloon rubs and door squeaks, but none from Rob’s lips. He silently stepped aside, let the finger fall like snow at his feet.
Logic then told me that after I picked it back up and checked it (no ant), a good idea would be to run inside and—yes--thrust the cup in Kary’s face, say “got it!” and jam it under her nose, so that she saw what used to be on her hand, what was now teetering on the crest of a mound of dirty ice inside a Styrofoam cup. And my logic then concluded that I should tell her how—yes—it was her loose ring that had ripped it off, and about—most definitely—the ant in the cavity.
Imagine the sound.
* * *
Lest the earlier description of my high intellect again be mistaken for bragging or worse:
My mother walked into our house, calm, smiling, thinking Kary had simply cut her finger, because that was what I had told her.
I, of course, shoved the finger cup in her face, and she ran and threw up.
Rob was out back, fielding questions.
My father burst into the situation shortly after my mother ran away from it, fireman-tossing Kary onto his shoulder. He swiped the finger cup from me and galloped back to the car parked in the front yard. I followed them like the whole thing was on television, like I was now an audience member of a production, not a functional piece of its ensemble. I ran after my father and Kary, watched hanging from the brim of the doorway as he sat her in the back seat, the finger cup in front--presumably in the loose center console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, because why else would she have yelled while backing out over the curb, “ohmigod-it’s-on-the-floor! On-my-foot! On-my-foot!”.
And do you know what I did when my mother returned from the bathroom? Do you know what the first thing I told her was?
* * *
At the other end:
The road spun up one of the largest hills in Western Pennsylvania like a ribbon, and at the top of it was a different neighborhood with a different house that we moved into about a year after Kary’s finger was severed and never reattached.
Towards the end of that summer she babysat us, she and my uncle Joe broke up quite badly, and a few months later we closed on the house at the top of the hill. Shortly after the move, while I was keying open the doorway one afternoon, a car pulled into our paved driveway and a moustache-painted man walked briskly out, handed me an envelope, and walked away just as briskly, as if he had just tagged me, as if I were It.
The legal terminology was that my family had provided Kary with “an unsafe workplace.” We met with a lawyer to discuss options if court became necessary. Due to my limited viewpoint on the actual incident, my lack of clarity on the specifics of the finger’s removal, my now seven-year-old brother’s testimony, it was decided, was the more reliable.
* * *
When we made the move to the top of the hill, the poltergeist came with us. In the decade plus since my family has moved in it has claimed, amongst other things: two snow-blowers (one of those, the neighbor’s), three weed-whackers, a 1991 Honda Accord, a ping pong table, two kitchen tables, and a waterbed.
* * *
Later that year, after the legal proceedings progressed to a point where Rob had been rehearsing with our lawyer the hills and valleys of his testimony, Kary and Joe got back together, and everything was dropped, almost in mid-sentence, like a fragment.
The situation—now that Kary and Joe are married, now that she is my and Rob’s aunt (say “Aunt Kary”)—is not discussed. It floats like smog in between the tired spaces strung across our careful conversations with one another. It echoes in the dramatic ways Kary demands reconstructive surgery for her small children when they skin their knees or bruise their noses, as small children do. The dissention in our family is like aging; visible but not discussed.
In high school a prosthetics expert came to visit my biology class. He showed us how to make prosthetics of our own fingers from the same material prosthetics are made of.
(Do you know how to do it? First take a Styrofoam cup and fill it with a white, milky mold, about half way full. Then cave out the mold with your finger, fill it with an orange plastic, then when it hardens and looks like white people, you pull it out with a metal hook that comes out of the base of the new, fake finger, right below the second knuckle.)
Please understand that I’m not defending or declaring pride in my actions here. I’m just drawing things out for a desired effect. But angry as I was--specifically about the situation with Kary, but moreover, on a grand scale, with the world or something--I collected several of these fingers and secretly hung them amongst the bulbs and tinsel of our Christmas tree that year. They were visible. I must have hung twenty of them.
Then, much in the way they once stood quietly back while I rattled off my wish list to a deteriorating old man who I thought was Santa Claus, my parents politely avoided the awkward yuletide truth that year. We had our extended family, including, amongst others, Joe and Kary, over to our house Christmas Eve, and the tree—finger ornaments and all—hung warm like the sun in the center of the living room while we exchanged boxed gifts and grinned pleasantries. And although the things were visible , those hard fingers pointing down from the tree branches like muddy icicles, to a callous teen’s dismay no one said a thing about the little plastic finger ornaments. Not one.
* * *
And if you would ask, I would tell you: I understand why things happened the way that they did.
Getting personal was not the intention of Kary’s lawsuit. I have been told this. People with law degrees and nice pens have made this clear to me, and over the past few years I have come to understand our situation as something that became necessary for Kary to do. It was not meant to stunt my family. It was not meant to hurt my brother, who would have had to speak out about what he saw that day, when an engaged seventeen-almost-eighteen-year-old flipped hard and ugly on a child’s rickety play set.
This is what was told to me by older people who know more about these types of situations than me. And when they told me, it was in a slow, patient timbre I have grown so wearily accustomed to: “Michael, when you sue a person’s insurance company, you have to also sue the person....”
And I have to believe it, because it would be too easy not to; to swell with anger, thump down how-could-yous like a soap opera actor or swear to exact some sort of plan against those who, etc. And the easy thing—what seems at its core to make the most sense—has never been where I excelled. I know my logical hiccups, and I’ve learned to ignore the easy thing because it hurts people.
Take inventory, count the fingers and tell me different. 1+1+1...
Copyright © 2003 Michael Scalise