Vernon and James by Sara Henry Paolozzi

Vernon and James

Bridget turns to her father, staring at his hand, and asks him if he remembers which of his brothers cut off the tip of his finger. Vernon puts his fork down, frowns. It’s not the first time she’s asked, and he wishes she wouldn’t at dinner, seconds after their chef brought out the baked tilapia. Not with their dining room so delicious and silent, smelling of crusty bread, butter and chives. Unfortunately, she keeps going. It’s weird that you don’t know, she says with a mouthful of fish. How could someone forget?

He rubs his lip and pretends to think about her question, his heart squeezing. He doesn’t remember who did it, he says. It was a long time ago and a few of his brothers were playing with him that day. The whole thing is fuzzy. But the important thing to remember, he says, is that it was an accident. He glances across the table at his wife, wondering if she’s listening.

Lisa isn’t paying attention. She hasn’t had a passing thought of his finger in twelve years. She’s staring at her phone across the table, but her mind is even further away, on the beach in Mykonos with her tongue against another man’s teeth. The taste of lemons, crushed ice. The salty air cleansing her of something old and sour. They mostly hid away in that little hotel in Athens, but Mykonos was their most memorable afternoon together. The kind of memory she holds onto like oxygen.

Bridget doesn’t accept her father’s answer but stays quiet. She has a quietness that lets her take dark things in. She supposes he won’t say which of his brothers hurt him because he did it to himself and is embarrassed. She pictures her father as a boy, tubby, trying to chop carrots. Watching the blood pool with as much surprise as a kid can feel. Or maybe he did it intentionally, not understanding what the knife was truly capable of but feeling its pull, its innate purpose to open things that are closed. Bridget can imagine this because she’s been possessed by that same feeling for many nights, sitting cross-legged on her bed, pressing a glinting edge to her bare thigh. Feeling the coolness and then the burn of a wound that makes her feel like she’s back in her body instead of floating just above it.

The truth is that Vernon’s brother James did it, when Vernon was three and James was four. The two of them playing with things that weren’t toys — hammers, knives, truck tires, jumper cables. It was dangerous and they weren’t being supervised, but with five brothers Vernon understands that things slip through the cracks. Foreheads get gashed, birthdays are forgotten, conversations skipped. That’s how it happened, they were forgotten in the garage, and James giggled and swung the rusty knife around even after Vernon started crying, his hands pressed to the grimy floor. Begging him to stop. James only stopped after he had slammed the edge down on Vernon’s left ring finger, both staring in stunned silence.

The doctors couldn’t reattach the tip, but a little of Vernon’s finger regrew on its own. He got half of a fingernail back, and a new bulbous tip that adults and children alike marveled at. Vernon hated his finger, hated its odd shape and shortness, but the wound healed and everyone laughed about what happened, James most of all, until they let it slip from their minds and the event was lost to history. If Bridget asked her uncles, not one would be able to say how exactly her father’s digit was cut. James himself might not know, though Vernon suspected deep down he did remember, that that tiny knot of meanness was in him still. After all, a part of that day was still in Vernon. Years passed and Vernon’s feelings dimmed until his brother’s wedding. Ouch, James said, his eyebrows knitted together. Jesus, Vern. Vernon looked down and saw he had his brother’s hand in a vice grip. He saw the ring there, glinting perfectly, dreadfully, on a complete finger, and for a moment all Vernon could think was: four is old enough to know right from wrong. It didn’t ruin the night; James slapped Vernon on the back and danced with his bride, a red-cheeked woman who obviously adored him. Vernon would not get married for another ten years, when he was forty-one and could afford a beautiful woman, a woman who asked him about his finger once in passing and shrugged. Just shrugged. A woman who called him her most regrettable mistake when she discovered he had a vasectomy after their first child. He didn’t think he needed to justify that choice, the choice to have just one child. He’s content — that’s what’s important. Content despite seeing James and his wife dancing at the last reunion, still happy all these years later, still moving together, unlike he and his wife, who does not move with him when they have sex but slides against the bedsheet, her eyes clouded over, until he shudders and a drop of sweat from his forehead hits her lip and her pupils focus on him, crystallized with hatred. After he rolled off yesterday he was overcome with laughter at the absurdity of their lovemaking, but that feeling was swiftly replaced by thoughts of jumping off the roof of their five-story house.

But why should I die, he wonders now, when James is guilty of ruining my life? That would only be fair.

Something squeaks beside him. It’s the sound of Bridget shifting against the calfskin chair. He sees that he’s lifted his fork again, and is gripping it so tightly that his knuckles are white. Even worse, his daughter isn’t staring at his hand anymore, but into his eyes, and that cannot continue, he cannot bear it, so he shoves the fork in his mouth and thinks only of the tilapia and its tender perfection. Exactly what he paid for.

Sara Henry Paolozzi’s fiction has appeared in Hobart, Booth, The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Austin, TX, where she’s at work on a novel.

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Artwork: Nelly Marmorek Public Domain ALT: woodcut image of a striking stony face, looking left, mugshot style

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