Joyland

The Midwest |

Toof or Else

by Weston Cutter

A few days ago Toof started up again, eating only a bit of dog food at a time. He’d race in from the living room while I sat at the table with the newspaper and my meal, nip a single pellet of dog food, look at me like he was guilty and I was about to scream, then dash back out beneath the coffee table. Oh man, I thought, and it’s only Monday. Then there was the television and the radio. It’d happened just like this before. Last time it’d been Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday,” and for three straight weeks I couldn’t go into the thrift store for a new overshirt or to the grocery for a bag of tortilla chips without that goddamn song coming on. This time it was some Phil Collins number, and I told myself, when I heard it for the third time in a single day—first in the truck, then at home on the radio, then during the closing credits to some bad movie I’d left on while I cleaned my workboots—that if I refused to acknowledge it, if I refused to learn what Phil Collins song it was, then maybe I’d be okay. When the radio alarm came on the next morning the last few bars of the song played and the announcer, with his rise-and-shine, coffee-and-doughnuts voice said How’s some Phil Collins for the early risers, huh? That’s his song— You’ve never seen a guy jump from bed that fast. At work that day Gordy asked why I was eating a newspaper sandwich, and I thought he was being a joker until I took a bite and realized I’d left the salami and provolone on the counter and in between my pieces of bread I’d put the first section of the Bugle. Gordy clapped my back like we were men who made endearing mistakes like this all the time, then ripped his peanut butter and honey sandwich in half and offered one of the halves to me in exchange for the section of the newspaper I’d left between the bread. Brushing the mustard off the folds, he spread it out and said Huh, wouldjya look at that—says here a north wind’s moving in. Says the cold shouldn’t be too bad, but goddamn will some shit fall over. He laughed, slapped a thigh, and I didn’t think much of the wind until I drove home that night and saw a few cloth fingers blow by. Oh man, I thought. Early on I saw her pushing a box out her window. Never asked about it, can’t even remember now how my head filled it in and let it go. We’d been dating for two weeks, three, small enough to let questions about boxes go. What’d I know? It was her box, her house, her own window she was pushing it out of. We played, that’s how we started. Go Karts. A whole night of air hockey at the roller rink with little pimpled ten year old boys getting up and falling down in circles around the girls. None of this stuff my idea, either; she said she got itchy sitting across a table pretending it was fun to sit all still, talking about doo dah, doo dah. You want to know how fast you forget about boxes getting pushed out a window when you’re a man with a woman who wants to play air hockey till the roller rink closes and then take you home and kiss you raw? You forget like this: a snap. Once she was gone I wondered about the box. There were always boxes all over her place, like she’d just moved in and was unpacking, but it took me mentioning them twice, three times, and her shooting me down and saying it was just dumb junk she was dragging ass on getting rid of. A girl’s got boxes? Fine: girl’s got boxes. Kid I was friends with growing up? He said he’d sooner see his parents dead and his dog run over and drink his best friend’s pee than lose his stamp collection. I put oil in my work boots every three nights and would probably go without food to get it done if I had to. She caught me looking out the window once, out her bedroom window down onto the lawn where she pushed that box that day I saw her. Whatchyoo looking for? she said, lassoing the back belt loop of my jeans and yanking me hard onto her bed. Before she pulled me down and flipped me over and pulled my shirt open and spread both her hands on my chest. I really wanted to say I’m looking for that box you pushed out of here before—I want to know what was in it, but what did I say? I put my hands on the back of her neck and pulled her face down toward mine and I said Come here, you, and that was that. I never wanted to name him Toof. Cute dog, sure, but Toof? I don’t know how she picked it, but when I tried listing all the other names I liked—Seely, Robo, Jack—she just shook her head and said, Toof or else. She woke up one day and started in on how she thought what we needed to do was get a dog. I said: okay, let’s get a dog. We didn’t know the kind. Brown, mostly, with white splotches, the sort of animal that makes people cross the street to come talk to you and pet the thing. Toof bloomed something between the two of us, and once we got him she started spending every night at my place, which hadn’t been part of the plan. I had a truck, good work boots, a few scars on my forearms, enough money so I could buy my beer in bottles. So what did I think about a small, pretty girl like her spending the night every night, kissing me and snuggling up close like some electric critter? What I thought was: great. Just really, really great. Things cruised along like that: walking the dog, asking each other questions. Middle names, old loves, favorite song to dance slow to at the end of a good night. Sometime during all that she started talking about going home, back to the old mill town in Maine she’d come from. Something about that place being more French. A visit? I’d ask, and she’d hold my hand and talk earnestly about how much the place meant to her. What could I say? She thought naming a dog Toof was a good idea. I liked the way she tasted like lemonade and how her whole body could fit onto my chest if she squeezed up enough and I spread my arms wide. She’d tell me in the dark, in bed, how they used to make these beautiful scarves and hats and gloves in her hometown, the most wonderful gloves you’ve ever seen, she’d say, stroking my big hand with one of her tiny ones. It meant something, a big hand getting held and handled by a small hand, meant something to her, but what it meant to me was fuzzy. Oh, those gloves, she’d say, squeezing. I asked around at work. Guys like Gordy and Mullroy, they’d seen their stretch of women, knew about gloves and hand holding. Just gloves? Gordy asked. Not sweaters or jeans? No, I said, nothing like that. And not even hats? Mullroy asked one day, dropping 2x4s from a window to me. Not even hats at all, thinking she can help you look more, you know... he waved his hand in a few circles meaning debonair, meaning high class, but I shook my head and caught another board. Gloves, huh? They’d ask. Who leaves love in the middle of summer? The week before she left was when Toof started to eat funny, darting in and out like the whole kitchen was a chopping block and he was up. Why’s Toof acting weird, I asked her one night, while we were pouring salad dressing on the lettuce and cutting chicken into bite-sized pieces. Why’s he darting in and out to eat like that, and she reached her hands out across the table for my hands and we sat, palms clasped, in the summer evening light and didn’t say anything. I thought it was a way of saying something by not saying anything, and that felt good, and so I didn’t ask any more. And then it was July and she was gone. For a week I asked Toof where she’d gone. At the end of that week her mom started to call, asking questions. What have you done to my little girl? She’d ask simple as why’d you leave the lights on? and not all huffy, not the scared way I thought she would. She’s there? Is she there? Put her on the phone, I’d beg, but I could tell her mom was just sitting there, shaking her head. I’d never met the woman, didn’t even know her name, but anyone can tell the quiet of an old mother shaking her head at her daughter’s man from the other end of a telephone. Would never even tell me if her daughter was really there, she’d just ask her question a few times and then go quiet and so I’d ask my questions and go quiet, and after a few nights the phone calls stopped coming. Toof went back to eating. And then it was Stevie Wonder all the time, everywhere I turned. Three weeks of it. I almost started wearing earplugs when I went out for half gallons of milk, when I needed to get another three-pack of undershirts. I didn’t mention to Gordy or Mullroy that she was gone at first, but then one day Gordy came to work, pulled up to the site with “Yester-you, Yester-me, Yesterday,” blasting and he got out, raised his cup of coffee to me and Mullroy like a toast, and started singing horribly along. I almost puked, and then I told them that she’d left, that the dog had been acting funny, that her mom had been calling and calling. But you’ve still got the dog? One of them asked, and I nodded and they looked at each other and shook their mustached faces. Of course I looked up her town after she left. Lewiston, Maine. Old French mill town. Made hats and scarves and, of course, gloves. Real fine, fancy gloves, some of the nicest you could buy, least that’s what one website said, and when the mills shut down all the workers just left everything right how it was, mid-stitch: gloves half assembled, patterns drawn on fabric and whole boxes of leather hands cut out and waiting to be sewn. Townspeople took some boxes of stuff, but then one night a resourceful and bitter lady went into all the old factories and cut all the fingers off the half-assembled gloves because she was so upset. Her husband’d worked there for twenty-nine years, the whole sob story, and she wanted no one to make a nickel off whatever was left. She was a room-to-room kind of woman, had half-conversations going to and from whatever chair she was in, and there were only so many times I could ask about home, gloves, me and her and Toof, only so many times I could ask as she’d sip a bit of coffee then be in the next room changing the radio station or switching off a lamp before I realized my asking didn’t have anything to do with her answering. One day she’d walked by me in the grocery store and I’d dropped a jar of pasta sauce while I watched her pass, and then a few months later she was gone no matter how much I broke. I’d walk around the house, thinking if I went from room to room, just like she had, I’d find something. So: Thursday night, the wind picking up. Home from work I spent some time looking at my hands and listening to things blow by and watching Toof peek out from underneath the coffee table and then dash for single bits of food. I couldn’t eat and I’d oiled my boots the day before and it was only seven. I called Gordy and asked if he’d meet for a drink, a round of bowling, and he said sure, sure. When I started my truck and hit the lights I saw a couple dozen fingers blowing zippity down the street, settling against fencing and parked cars. I bowled a 126. Gordy bowled a 211. I bought the first pitcher of beer. I wanted to ask if he’d seen fingers blowing on his way here, but I was too worried either way for an answer. The second game I bowled a 154, Gordy bowled a 182, and when we were done he rubbed his belly and said it was time to get along. I had a whole beer left, he had none, but he patted my shoulder and said I looked like a man in need of ten quiet minutes alone with his adult beverage of choice. When he left I noticed a girl staring at me, and when I raised my beer to her she came over. Got another game in you? She asked, and someone nearby hit a strike and the crashing pins and cheering made me not answer for a second. I was a man drinking beer in quiet. I raised my eyebrows, trying to think if I wanted to stay and play another game, when Phil Collins came over the sound system and I closed my eyes. When I looked at the woman again she was smiling. I love this song, she said, and I lied, said I’d love to stay for another game but I had to go home and take care of— Figures, she interrupted, walking off. There were three fingers stuck underneath my windshield wipers, and the wind was quick and furious, even in the dark. The truck shook on the drive and every mile closer to Toof and the house I saw more and more fingers tumbling along the road, pointing this way then this way then that. At a stop sign two blocks from home the wind was blowing sideways and a woman was crossing the street all huddled into herself, head-to-toe covered, hood up and all. She was halfway through the intersection when she stopped, pulled her hood a bit back from her face and I almost yelped—I thought I’d driven into someone’s scary movie, thought the old woman would look at me, point a wicked old finger my way and say some spell, turn me into a frog or a fingerless glove or god knows what. The woman’s hair whipped around like tossed pasta and she paused in my headlights, looking down at the road in front of her. Fingers whizzed by, one after another, and after a minute of watching the street the woman looked up and right at me. She squinted, couldn’t see me for my headlights, and then mouthed the word fingers. A minute she stood there looking at me, and the whole time I sat sweating, waiting. At home I parked the truck and noticed there were fingers piling up at the front door, all colors and materials. You’d think you’d be able to tell the difference between a thumb and a middle finger, between a pinky and an index, but you can’t: you need to see the whole glove to gauge the differences. I went to the mailbox and there were two bills buried in there beneath more fingers than anyone could count. I pulled them all out, pulled my shirt up a little to carry them like an old woman carries vegetables in her dress, and I walked inside and dumped them on the table. Toof looked up at me, growled, and wagged his tail. You going to tell me now what’s going on I asked him. He cocked his head like dogs do, darted for a piece of food, left the kitchen. I grabbed a beer and went out on the back steps, watching the wind blow fingers in. All the houses around me had motion-sensitive lights above the backdoors, and all the lights were on, catching stray fingers as they blew by. Joe stepped out from his house next-door, put his hands in his back pockets and looked over at me, said, Evening, hell of a thing, ain’t it, this all, pointing to the fingers that flew between us. Hell of a thing indeed, I said, and we nodded and he went back in as I raised my beer to him. Toof came fast through the backdoor and head butted my lower back, growling. Easy, boy, I told him, and he took off crazy into the yard, yipping and snapping at the whirling fingers. He’d get one, chew it a few times, drop it, and jump for another. I wasn’t thinking of anything until he started to cough, and then I went and stuck my finger in his mouth and pulled a sticky, wet, purple finger from the back of his throat. You’re probably better off leaving all these alone, I told him, and he cocked his head and jumped toward another finger as it flew by. The beer didn’t make me tired enough to sleep, and I lay down listening to soft fingers thud against the windows. Knowing she was coming was bad enough, but I also didn’t know when. How many fingers could there be? Even if she’d gone home, grabbed every box of fingers in every old factory, how many could there be? Thousands? Millions? The radio had said the wind would be strong the next two days. Would I be followed by fingers? I lay in bed for an hour then went back to the kitchen. In my boxers, standing at the table and looking at the pile I’d pulled from the mailbox, I drew fingers on over my fingers. I pulled two, three, four, as many fingers as I could over each of my own, pulled big ones and tiny ones and striped ones and leather ones and one rubbery one that felt like dead chicken skin. I didn’t use all the fingers, but a good bunch of them. I looked down at my hands, my dressed-up fingers, wondering if this, finally, was what she’d meant before about gloves, and when I went back to bed it still took some time but I fell asleep eventually. She was at the table when I woke up. I went into the kitchen to make breakfast and there she was, the fingers on the table in front of her spelling out the word LeRoy. Toof darted into the kitchen, saw her, then moved slow and easy from the kitchen like he was relieved, could finally relax. I cracked an egg, put some bread in the toaster, and turned to her. What could I say? She looked into my eyes for maybe a tenth of a second, then looked at my hands, at all the fingers. She did something like nod, something that meant come here, and I walked to her side, eyeing the table and wondering. She took my right hand and started one by one pulling the fingers off. What if I said the first guy I ever loved was named LeRoy, accent on the Roy? And that the name means The King in French, and the first night we made love was down by Toutain Creek on a bed of fingers he’d stolen from the factory we were kissing each other in the shadows of? She looked up quick, taking a long pause, still working on my hand. I’d forgotten how she smelled—like tomatoes, sweet, both fruit and vegetable— What if I said he left two weeks later? And what if soon enough I felt him gone like I’d felt him there, like him being gone was a new person—LeRoy the Ghost made me howl as much as LeRoy the Present had, just in opposite ways—and I went back to Toutain Creek and grabbed all the fingers, put them in a box, and I’ve been humping them with me everywhere since? She finished with my right hand, patted it like a mom, dropped it and took my left. I could hear the egg sizzling. What if, after I took that first box of fingers I went back and got more, got every box of fingers I could find? And what if I kept them all? What if, sometimes, I’d push one or two boxes out a window, out the back of my car, thinking I could let them go? What if I kept trying and trying? She’d stopped pulling fingers off my fingers, looked more tired than I was. I wanted her to look up at me but she didn’t, she wouldn’t. She started in again at my fingers. What if they meant something about absence, about having and not having? And what if one day I went home and took all the rest of the boxes from my parents’ place, and then came back a few months later and took all the boxes from my own place, and then one night, as a big wind was moving into town, I took all the boxes of fingers out to the hill we had a picnic at one time and I opened them up and dumped them into the wind and it took hours, just opening and dumping all the boxes, and after that I sat on the hill and watched them all fly into the wind and circle around? She’d finished. Both my hands were bare, and by now the toast was toast and the egg was cooked and she held my eye for a long, long time, long enough for Toof to come clicking slowly back into the kitchen and I was getting cold, just standing there in my boxers, but I knew this was something I was supposed to sit still for. The wind outside was loud as cars. What if everything can, even in the smallest ways, be in contact but alone, like how when you lie on your back and I curl up on your chest? What if everything can be let go of, smoke up a chimney, poof? She looked up at me, finished now, and neither of us said anything about the egg burnt hard into the pan, the bread that’d popped up black as a bad idea—she stood up and we looked down at the table, the word LeRoy buried there underneath all these other fingers, and she bent down, took a deep breath, and put her hand in mine as she blew all the fingers, all of them, clear off the table. They scattered everywhere. Poof.