Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family—husband, son and dog—who accompany her on oddball adventures. If you enjoyed this story, please visit The Writing Disorder and Wayne Literary Review for more.
Below is Part 2 of 2 in a series of installments for Visitant.
◄ Read Part 1
Back in the efficiency, the four walls like a shoebox, Rune stared at her. Where were you? I was worried. Do you know it’s six in the morning?
She explained about the dog and the migraine. She omitted the police. The man. He grunted a reply and inched into his dull, gray work clothes. Mag, he said, stay home today. Take a day to rest. Your head isn’t right.
She slid into the bed after he left. Broken thoughts dripped in her head. What day did they bring Adolf home? She counted on her fingers. Nine. Just a little over a week. What day did she start living here? She tried to use her fingers again, the dry pads heating against each other as she struggled to count beyond nine. But it had been longer than the dog?
She felt around on the bed, moving her hands over the soft creases, the scrunched sheets, Rune’s warmth. She searched for a number of days—a secret of sorts—lost in the space.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Her head twisted toward the window. But I’m on the second floor? She scanned the ground—the same spot where she had stood with Adolf—and saw nothing. He had been there, she was certain. Adolf. The man. He was wearing a hat: a type of circular, wide brim that dipped close to his eyes. His face, only a shadow. His body, an overcoat. She closed her eyes and pressed the image of him into her memory. He exists. She felt his shape in her mind. He exists and he has my fucking dog.
Rune returned from work to find her with a shaved head. She claimed she accidently walked into a cancer benefit. The gentle sound of a buzz stroking at strangers’ skulls interested her and there she was, just like that.
He stroked the top of her head. From the front to the back and felt the soft spikes of hair against his palm. He liked it. He licked behind her ear, the lobe stuck on his tongue, and he continued, wanting to lick her entire scalp.
Your finger, she said, and he pulled away. And aren’t you worried about Adolf?
Forget about him. He smoothed his hand over the expanse of her body. Ran fingers through the sliver of back, and her skin bubbled below his touch. Forget about him and think about me. Machine oil, dirt, and dust covered his work clothes. She fixated on his smell. Sweat and heat worked into his folds. She counted oil spots, her head dipped toward his body while he caressed hers. She folded on him like a gentle bird.
He responded to her and let her go. His eyes assessed her. Your head any better? Thought you’d sleep, but you went out? He pointed toward her scalp.
Yeah I went out and walked. Tried to clear my head. Looked around. Hung some flyers. I dipped into the laundry shop and watched the clothes spin. But my head’s on fire, Rune.
He put her to bed. He stayed awake and watched over her. He showered and washed the oil from his clothes, the black liquid swirling into the sink. He hung the grey coveralls on a line by the window. Let the night wind in to dry it. He pulled a chair close to the bed, propped one foot up beside her body—a bulk of lump worked into the sheets and pillows. His finger pulsed. He lightly touched the wound, looking for a scab, but it hadn’t healed enough to form one.
She twisted in the bed from the weight of his leg. Not enough to wake up but enough to peek out of her dream. The figure of Rune’s clothes hung behind him. It cast itself over him. Watching him investigate his finger. Amputate, she heard it say. She tried to warn him. The man. She shut her eyes again.
She dreamed of body bags. People waiting to let the zippers close over their bodies. People walking by, their faces still open to the air. Their eyes navigating their course. You have to get your body bag, a man told her. The air’s not right. You have to protect yourself.
At the end of the next day, Rune returned from work and she was better, she told him. The stingray of pain has dissipated. I’m better, I really am. I slept and slept—like a mummy—I swear. When I woke a feeling of layers of silken, worn gauze peeled from my skin. The bed had been my tomb and I woke ready to live again. She didn’t tell him how death had lurked in her dreams, stalking over her shoulders in the abstract world.
I went out, she continued, a shrug of the shoulders to segue into a new topic. Garage sales. I poked my fingers through people’s stuff. Their trash. Old clothes. Rusted tools. It’s wonderful to see what people have accumulated only to throw it all away. Life by numbers. Color it all in. Erase it. Color again.
He observed her idly. What’d you buy? The gray jumpsuit flopped toward the floor and hugged his ankles. His gray boxer-briefs hung loosely at his thighs. Mag responded to his skin. His vulnerability. His openness to stand in the room and discuss other people’s belongings while nearly naked. She wanted to sleep with him—to pull him to the bed and pull him over her and let him drive into her own vulnerability. She craved some attention to her weaknesses. Needed to hear, it’s okay. A whoosh of breath against her ear. But his finger hung like a dead slug at his side. Useless. Decaying. Rotten. She thought again about body bags and their power of invisibility. Hide the body. Cloak the death.
I think I’ll go back out. She held up a staple gun in one hand and flyers in the other. A dog’s helpless eyes magnetized on the flimsy paper.
But I thought we could, you know. He stood now in pajama pants. Old flannel. A Christmas gift from the past. Another life, the one he existed in before he met her.
Rune, she started to explain and pointed mildly toward his finger but he knew the response and hid his hand behind his back.
Have it your way, then. He picked up the gun. A dribble of BBs jiggled into the chamber. He’d recently hung pictures from magazines on the closet wall. Celebrities. Singers. Politicians. Blank faces to shoot at, really. The dings of BBs on paper foreheads fell behind her as she shut the door and descended the stairs. The sound of Adolf’s padded feet beside her.
He slept under a mound of covers and pillows. A fortress against night. He didn’t dream like she did. He slept in a colorless haze. She crept into the efficiency after midnight. She slid a cardboard box of misshapen tools—bought from the garage sales—out from under the bed. Rusted hinges. Craters in the blade lines. She pictured someone gardening. Someone under a summer sun, heat against the neck. Sweat rolling under the throat. The smell of dirt and flowers snuffed against a nose. Just a trim, she thought. Just a swift trim in the garden. Her nightgown swayed at her thighs.
She found a hat, too, and placed it delicately over her fuzzy scalp. The wide brim swung over her eyeline. Keeps the sun out, she thought and smiled. Keeps the darkness in. She surveyed the cardboard box again. Picked up tool after tool until one fit against her ungloved hand. Some stranger’s time and work against her skin.
She picked up Rune’s finger. Pretty, dead flower. She sidled the shears in between his fingers. She clamped down hard and gritted her teeth and turned away and the heat of oily blood slid down her arm. The earth is cold and unforgiving and when we die, we succumb to its chambers. Our heated bodies cool and become one with the soil. The heat of life, gone. She reveled in Rune’s heat, flowing against her flesh. Open and vulnerable.
He woke up screaming. His mouth shot off like his gun, pellets of words through the air. A hot hiss of fire bubbled at the blank space of his hand. Nine operating fingers fumbled in the air. A dead but living digit in the sheets. Rune watched the colors contrast. The sheets bleed. The finger white.
He howled like a dog but she operated like a machine. She tossed the rusted shears back into the box. She put his finger in a prepared cup of ice. She had no intentions of taking him to the hospital or allowing the finger back in its place. She’d seen bell jars lined up in museums. Seen works of Science concealed in clean, glass spaces. Now here was Rune’s finger, submerged in ice in an old jar, the smell of pickles faint until she twisted the jar’s lid and preserved this piece of Rune that had once been a part of his body. She nestled the jar in the corner of the kitchen, a nook by the window, tucked behind Rune’s coveralls.
She crept out from behind the hanging man and Rune watched her. His mangled hand held up in the air, blood thick on his arm.
What the fuck, Magena? That’s my finger. His head nodded toward the corner. A rapid wind pulsed night’s air into their space. Sent it swirling with the pungent thick coppery smell, and Rune’s coveralls snapped in place.
There was a man, she said and walked toward him. Her movement pushed his body toward the bed. He flopped backwards. She nodded behind her at the clothes dancing in the wind. There was a man, she continued, and he said amputate. Amputate. Amputate. Amputate.
She repeated the word until it was no longer a word but just a sound. She straddled Rune’s body. He kept his hand raised. She grabbed the pillow, loosened it from its case, and wrapped the cloth around his hand. She cut and tied the cloth neatly and it held.
Do you still like the feel of my scalp, Rune? She dropped the weight of her body onto him, rubbing this way and that. Outside a dog barked into the black night, but Mag hadn’t heard.