A Pair of Broken Thumbs

By Ian Hilgendorf

oe Conflitto stood in the mirror with polyester round his neck, tying and untying a capricious double Windsor knot. His fingers were not nimble enough to orchestrate the various tucks and pivots the maneuver required and so he struggled on in vain, mistake upon mistake, tying, retying, flinging the tie to the floor, stepping on it, cursing it and the mother-fucker who made it, placing it around his neck again with tender touch, and repeating.   As he saw it, the tie was being an uncooperative bitch.  His pair of broken thumbs did not help either.

Joe’s reflection peered back at him like a glaring accusation.  His new suit, which still smelled fresh off the department store rack, looked esoterically tailored, almost too pristine and fitted.  Through the mirror, Joe looked at everything in reverse.  The sparse items of their bedroom were scattered to the room’s corners: a bed, night stand, dresser.  Shifting his weight, the floor boards, now dull with age, squeaked as if the mice which lived below them were breaking their vow of silence.

“Maria!”

He could hear her through the floor moving around the kitchen, taking the kettle off the stove.

“Maria, I need you!”

Maria trundled to the bottom of the stairs.

“What do you want?”

“Maria, my tie, I can’t get my necktie.  You want to come help me or what?”

Her thunderous stomps announced her approach up the stairs.

“What about your tie?  You never had me fix a tie before.  Not in your whole life.”

Joe held up his hands.

“I told you earlier this week; I think I’m getting the arthritis.”

She stepped behind him, a sharp breath from her nose, and adjusted the length of the tie as she watched their pair of disparate reflections in the mirror.

“How many times I got to tell you then to go to the doctor.”

“Doctor,” Joe said.  “I don’t need a doctor.  What I need is—”

“Then stop complaining, geesh,” said Maria, tightening the tie’s loop around his thick neck, adjusting her work with little fidgets and pulls.  “Now hurry up.  We’re going to be late.”

She smiled professionally despite her harsh tone and rubbed the bald patch on the top of his head, then went back downstairs where she did things he could not comprehend with (from the sound of things) an urgency he could.

Joe let out a deep sigh, looked once more at his too faultless appearance in the mirror.  He never wore suits, hated them even in his line of work, but if he was forced to don such attire, it would not go unnoticed.

Examination, which for Joe was rare, perpetuated in him awareness for the minutia of his existence.  On that particular occasion, while adjusting the tie and playing with the cuffs of his shirt, Joe recognized that he was the sort of man who, when asked by Maria to get a fresh jug of milk at the grocery story, always did so, no complaints.  What he could not have grasped, what was too finite and abstract, was that he was also the sort of man who, while there, would get himself a Three Musketeers bar without even thinking of getting one for his wife as well.

His mother had called his particular brand of living, selfishness.  When he was young she would shout, “È ragazzino egoista” in that thick Italian accent as Joe ran down the alley, unwilling to do his chores, more interested in meeting up with his friends for a game of kick the can or some such pastime.  But he had been her only child, her baby boy, and so she had never forced him to do anything he did not deem overtly important.

In Joe’s opinion, “selfish” had always seemed a bit excessive a term.  When asked to do something, he usually did it.  Eventually.  Every three months he got the oil changed in the cars.  He paid the lawn boy for cutting the grass.  Yet for some reason, Joe failed to see the ways in which he benefited from completing those transactions in such a manner.  That he took the vehicles to where his poker buddies Vinnie and Bud worked, so he could shoot the breeze while they looked over the cars did not seem suspect.  That paying for someone else to mow the lawn allowed him the space and necessary time to routinely meet with his bookie did not seem wrong.  Give and take.  Everyone was satisfied: People got paid, Maria was happy.  Winners all around.

In reality, ulterior motives lined every decision he made.  So when he agreed to attend a mass with Maria after being asked to do so every Sunday morning for thirty-four years and declining, he was doing so, not for Maria, but for himself.  It had to do with the thumbs.

The broken thumbs were the result of a bad losing streak, probably the worst of his gambling career.  Never before had he witnessed so many wasted opportunities, so many occurrences of grasping at straws.  The cards, as they say, were as cold as a well digger’s ass in Utah.

Joe’s game of choice was seven card stud and he considered himself, if not an expert, than nearly one.  He understood the game’s nuances, its delicate turns, the way it could change on you like the current of a river.  More importantly, he was aware of its risks and rewards, which was why he played it more than any other game.  That it had rejected him in the last few months made Joe feel like an abandoned orphan.

After such a wickedly bad stretch, Joe had been forced to come to terms with his bleeding wallet, prompting the necessity for excuses to Maria for the first time in his tumultuous gambling career.  Though not often surprised, he was, in that instance, startled to see just how easy it was to assuage her small barrage of queries.  He told her his investments weren’t panning out, the dividends he’d expected had not been as strong as the market had suggested, sales weren’t actualizing at the year-over-year growth rate he’d anticipated.  Never before had he been so happy for his encyclopedic knowledge of corporate doublespeak.  He only wished he could have said something about synergy, or dynamic communication protocol.

In an attempt to make up his losses, Joe had returned to the horse tracks after a fifteen-year hiatus.  He didn’t much care for horse tracks.  They smelled, and the men who went there were usually car dealers and know-nothings for whom he had no patience.  To Joe’s displeasure, the races had not yielded any better results.  In fact, he found himself in hock up to his eyeballs.

So, in nearly boiling hot water and unable to pay his debts, Joe had been unsurprised by the visit he’d received the week before at his place of business, from a man named Little Louie.  Louie was not little; he was a third Joe’s age and towered over him like a linebacker does a librarian.

“Come on, Joey.  You know, and I know, that we don’t do business like this.”

“I know.  I know, I know.  Jesus god—why are you holding my hands?”

The bones in his thumbs had snapped like matchsticks.

“Just a little reminder to you, Joey.  You gotta pay your bills, son.  It’s the rules.”

The real shame of the moment was not the torturous pain or the fear, which was so great, that he had not hesitated to wet himself.  No, what humiliated him most was the way Little Louie had called him son.  Joe had never expected to be chastised by a punk grunt when it came to gambling.  He’d never needed it.  Lying on the ground in the parking lot between two cars, Joe covered his face and wept while Louie rifled through his pockets and took whatever small bills he had on him, all the while making rueful comments about his urine soaked pants.

“Five days, Joey.  I’ll see you soon,” and he smooched the air before striding across the parking lot to his Cadillac where he burned a streak of rubber into the black top.

Now it was Sunday and day five was less than twenty hours in the future.  Joe had spent the last several nights in card halls and at the horse races, but all he’d been able to manage was to break unmercifully even.   Louie would be back to meet him tomorrow and he had no money to allay him.

Then Maria had asked him to accompany her to mass.  Facing God was the last thing he wanted to do, but Joe believed he was out of options.  He thought perhaps, if he were earnest and contrite, that God would show him the way, would open a door previously closed to him.  Maria was happy.  Joe had the chance to explore another outlet for safety.  Winners all around.

He had driven Maria to St. Michael’s Catholic Church every Sunday for the entirety of their marriage, yet never once, not even for their childrens’ christenings (of which there had been four) had he accompanied her into the building.  Joe hadn’t as much believed that God wanted nothing to do with him, as that in all likelihood His feelings for him were more ambivalent than anything else.  Why wouldn’t they be?  Joe liked to gamble and on occasion look at a T and A magazine.  Not a church sort of person.  In his mind, God could do better for attendees than Joe Conflitto.

Things were much the same that morning, as all others.  Maria sat across from him in the Deville, and Joe, with both hands squeezing the steering wheel (though not as tightly as usual—the thumbs) focusing on the road ahead of him.

“Aren’t you going to turn on the radio?” Maria said.  “We usually listen to—”

“I’m not in the mood, Maria.”

“Why are you so cross?” she said.

“I’m not—I’m not cross,” Joe said, looking to her across the length of the car seat.  She seemed so very far away, shoulders covered in a thin white cardigan, pressed against the tinted glass window.

“You are.  You are acting cross with me, Joe.”

“God dammit, Maria—”

“Not before church!”

He drove in silence wishing his thumbs would stop throbbing, wishing he could listen to the radio.

After a time Joe looked back at her again and said, “I told you.  Arthritis.”

“That’s why you’re not listening to the radio?” she said.  “Hah!  Why didn’t you just say so?  I’d have turned it on for you.”

She reached for the radio but, feeling guilty, he placed his hand on hers and stopped her from turning the stereo knob.

“There’s no need,” he told her.  “See, we’re at church now. Let’s go in there and get this over with.”

Maria, grinning like a fool, leaned across the gully of the car seat, pecked Joe on the cheek, and squeezed his arm.

“Thank you for coming with me today,” she said to him.  “It means… well.  Let’s just go inside.”

Joe followed Maria through the parking lot, she strutting like a peacock; he loafing behind, head hung, hands folded delicately into his jacket pockets.

They slipped into their pew, both offering the sign of the cross.  With the toe of his shoe, Joe let down the kneeling pad. Both lowered themselves upon it.  He felt his considerable weight fall into his knees.

While Maria prayed Joe took an opportunity to visually scour the sanctuary.  Its specifics were more or less what he’d expected: drab, ceramic tile flooring, wooden pews as weathered as the wizened hand of a statesman, stained glass windows with intricate mosaics of Christ and his disciples, a small rock garden surrounding a statue of Mary, and Christ himself, life-sized, hanging from a crucifix at the front of the church.

“Joe, we’re praying,” said Maria after catching his wandering eyes.

Mimicking his wife, Joe folded his hands and closed his eyes.  In an attempt to give the experience his full effort, he searched the confines of his heart for words.  He’d been told in times like this that God was listening, but all that came to mind when pressed was an intense desire for cheese.

“Welcome to Saint Michael’s,” said someone at the front of the church, and the service, which proceeded to blend into a soupy concoction of memories long recalled, began.  Standing and sitting and reciting commenced.

Though he had not expected it, many of the calls for response returned to him.  He found that mass, like many other aspects of his life, could be self-compartmentalized, placed into a box and opened again when time dictated.  Perhaps because of the unexpected familiarity, and his desire for cheese notwithstanding, Joe felt contented sitting beside his wife, his arm slung over the back of the pew where he drummed his fingers.  Maria slipped her hand into his lap taking his free hand, careful around those supposedly sore joints.  She seemed to rock from side to side as the priest paced the length of the altar, speaking with his hands, gesticulating, pointing.  Joe struggled to maintain his focus.  The room was warm, his wife cozy at his side.  As the homily grew in arch and form, Joe realized he knew not once ounce of what Father was talking about.  Yet the quality of his words, the actual feel of them, their shape and form and the way they moved about the room seemed to invite Joe in, despite his failure to comprehend even the slightest bit of factual or spiritual data.

When the priest finally prayed for the “concerns of our own hearts” Joe found himself, like the result of a cold glass of water tossed in the face, taken aback.  He’d anticipated this opportunity, knew that the asking of God to be spared, to be allowed to return to his life now a better man, prepared to do a touch more than he’d been willing to before attending mass that day, was on the menu.  But he hadn’t anticipated the ease of asking.  He closed his eyes and folded his hands and whispered in a place reclusive to his own heart that he be allowed to go back to the way things were.  He did not want a new life, a better life.  He wanted a return to uniformity, to stasis, to Maria being happy, and him being happy.  Winners all around.

When the praying ceased, a song broke out which prompted Joe and Maria to sit. At the same time, the gifts were presented by a young family with a pair of small, contrite looking children.  Their puny hands were folded and each wore a matching turtleneck shirt and khaki pants as they brought forth the bread and wine.  Father smiled, shook the parents’ hands, then placed his own hand on the childrens’ heads and blessed them.

In their wake came a team of gray haired elders in sports coats and gold watches with offering plates at the ready.  They started down the center aisle where, with their direction, the offertory plates began to snake up and down the pew.  Beside him, Joe felt Maria busying herself as she removed the checkbook from her purse to contribute her portion to the collection plate.

His previous prayer of penitence now a mere memory, Joe’s eyes filled with the sight of money as it multiplied before him.  The pile on the plate grew like the offspring of breeding gerbils.  He could imagine that cold cash lining his pockets, could picture it as a safety net deployed with his well-being in mind.  Who needed it more anyway?  The Catholic Church was practically bigger than God; they could do with a few less contributions.

He leaned to Maria and whispered, “How much money you giving?”

“The same as always,” she whispered back as she scrawled out the details of the check, “Five percent.”

“Five percent,” Joe repeated.  “Of what?”

“Of your income.”

He did the mental math.

“And does everybody give like that?”

She shrugged.  “Some give more, some give less.”

More.  Some gave more.  Joe unpacked a bible verse from a long dormant box in the back corner of his head which he’d stored away during his brief Catechetical studies as a boy: to those whom much is given, much is expected.  Looking around the room, he saw women in expensive coats and men in smart looking suits.  He saw expensive watches and polished dress shoes.  Peering over his shoulder, Joe saw children in designer clothes.  He remembered the Lexus and the Mercedes he’d seen coming in from the parking lot, the snot nosed kids playing on their hand-held video game machines, or whatever they were called.  He looked and saw, and then, he decided that he would take their money.  They had and he expected that they give it up.

A surge of heat swept over his body and he loosened the top button of his shirt, and drew the tie away from his bulging neck.

The offertory plate came to their pew and Maria tore her check from the checkbook as the plate was passed down the line.  She folded the check and slid it into an envelope, licked the tab, sealed it with a firm, swiping press of the paper between thumb and knuckle.  Joe watched her mouth open and close for the envelope, and how she seemed to do it all without even thinking.  He watched her take the plate in her hands and drop the envelope on the top of the pile.  She didn’t even seem to be looking when she handed the plate to him.  Joe’s place in the pew was the very last station.  He looked over his shoulder at the woman behind him.  Her hand was outstretched, prepared to take the plate from his trembling grasp.

The woman waiting for the plate smiled at him, nodding her hair-sprayed head, the glossy varnish of her lips pursing in a way that made her two lips appear to be only one.  The top lip seemed to disappear into the collective of the lower, her mouth swallowing itself.

Joe lifted the plate to her, his hand trembling.  Then the plate was slipping from his grasp and tumbling toward the wooden pew.  He observed as startled alarm came over the woman’s face, saw her lips separate from one to two lips again, felt her standing to try and catch the descending plate.

It struck the pew with a clatter, the mound of monetary contents spewing from its mouth and showered the floor in an array of green and silver and manila confetti.  The whole church turned to him as he fell to his knees and began scooping the contents off the floor and stuffing them down the front of his shirt while simultaneously trying to shield the robbery from the other parishioners view.  He could feel Maria’s hand on his back, trying to see over his shoulder at what he was doing, but he shrugged her away.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

He could not steal everything, it would be too obvious, but in a very spur-of-the-moment kind of way, Joe managed to prioritize the bits of cash and       change along the floor.  He took as much as he could as fast as he could.  Time, it seemed, had ground to a halt.  Whatever he did not scoop for himself, Joe managed to get back into the plate which he produced over his head like a trophy.  The woman behind him leveled him with an awkward look, her eyes squinting shut as if to shield herself from some unknown brightness that was emanating from the halo of fear draped over him. She took the plate from his still-shaking grasp.

“Sorry, sorry,” Joe said, both to the woman behind him with the scrutinizing eye and to his wife who was still trying to look over his shoulder.

He closed his jacket and fastened the button as he adjusted in his seat.  He could feel a coin sticking to the sweaty flesh of his chest and began to hope that quarters and dimes would not start trickling out from his pant legs to jangle about on the floor.  To prevent this, Joe forced all the air from his lungs and sat in such a way as to resemble a wax reproduction of himself.  He imagined all of the moisture evaporating from his body, his eyes sucking into his head, constricting to a smaller and smaller representation of himself.  In the following minutes, he grew rigid and stone-like.

When it came time to kneel again, Joe did not fall with his wife upon the kneeler.  She looked at him from the corner of her eye and directed him, with the slightest motion of her head, to join her.  Joe shook his head and pointed to his knees, thinking, almost believing, that those joints could not possibly move.

“Kneel.  Down,” she said to him through clenched teeth, her eyes bulging horrifically from her head.

When he did not immediately agree, she snapped her hand like the bite of a turtle and latched upon his broken thumb, torquing it to a perilous degree.

A dogish whine leaked from his chest and with tears cropping up in the corners of his eyes, Joe fell to his knees, the change in his shirt jingling like church bells.  He held his hands before his face, his throbbing thumb pulsing, pulsing, pulsing.  The sound of blood rushing to the appendage filled his ears and he was, for the briefest of moments, paralyzed.

Then the priest said from the pulpit, “Pray, friends, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

The congregation replied, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his Church.”

Maria laid a heavy eye upon Joe, her head shaking from side to side in obvious disdain, the strain of her neck near to rupturing.  He scrunched his face at her.

When she did not look away, Joe shrugged his shoulders and said, “What?”

She shook her head again, less hidden, before looking away.

“Pathetic,” she said.

“I don’t know what—”

“Stop. Talking. Now.”

Joe fell silent.

During the sign of peace, Joe’s hand, which he had extended carefully both because of the money in his shirt, and because of the broken thumbs, went unshaken.  No one made eye contact with him either.  After being rejected most harshly by his wife, who was bent on giving him the cold shoulder, Joe joined the others in kneeling again.

This time, father held the chalice and bread before the people.  Rotating slowly, he proclaimed, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

They replied, “Lord, I am unworthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Again, the eye from Maria.

Heads bowed in acknowledgment of God’s awesome power—the transformed elements before them.  In that moment, the subatomic elements of Joe’s soul recognized a perverse equality with the transubstantiated Body and Blood.  They both shared, in identical measure, two different life forces.  That the substances before him could be both bread/wine and Body/Blood was in no way spectacular to Joe because, as a minute investigation of his own corporal composition would point out, he too was made up of equally dissimilar characteristics.  He was both fiend and husband, both aware and unaware of the abrasive dichotomy from which he poured his life.  He was a different kind of chalice—brazen, perhaps rancid, but only to everyone else.  At such close inspection, he could not recognize his own self-inflicted ugliness.

As the people of his pew rose to join the line of parishioners in accepting the supernaturally transformed bread and wine, Joe, too, lifted his girth from the kneeler to accompany them.  Maria’s hand forced him back into the pew.

“Maria—”

“I don’t think so,” she said, turning her back on him.

In the pew by himself, Joe watched as the line of people filed passed, children looking at him with flagrant eyes, parents with their hands on those same childrens’ shoulders urging their clenched fists into reverent, steepled hands and their eyes on the nearing host.  Their own faces were bunched into tight little scowls, mouths puckered tight, the acrid taste of lemon on their lips.

Joe looked down at his shoes.  He had the money on his person and everyone in the house knew it.  It wasn’t like he could take off his shirt, let all that loot fall to the floor, scoop it up, and place it back in the basket, could he?  He wiped a dapple of sweat from his brow and adjusted himself in the pew as a quarter worked its way into his bellybutton.

Maria stepped to the front of the line, Father extending the Body to her, but just as she should have been opening her hands, right over left, she shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest.  Father held the host for a moment, then, with the smallest of glances directed in Joe’s direction, took the transformed Body into his own mouth, placed his hand on Maria’s shoulder, bowed his head, and let her away.  She coiled around the front of the pews with her arms unmoving, still pressed to her chest.

Joe’s stomach turned, the aforementioned quarter clamped down upon him like a bullet into a gun’s cylindrical chamber.

She continued down the aisle nearest him without looking in his direction even once.  There was no hesitation in her stride; she did not pause for a moment as she walked by, leaving Joe alone in the pew.  The expression on Maria’s face was muted, like a painting half finished.  Joe reached for her arm, but she yanked away from him with a violence her body had refused to show until that moment.  He stood to stop her, intending to block her path, but he was too slow and fat and she had a determination about her that could not be stopped.

As he stepped out of the pew and into the aisle behind her, the quarter, which had been lodged in his bellybutton, fortuitously extricated itself from the crevice’s grip, and slipped between the folds of his shirt.  The inertia of his body provided a trampoline affect which propelled the quarter forward, toppling end over end out of the shirt and onto the floor where it began, like a tightrope walker dancing on the wire, to run down the aisle in the grouting of the tile in the direction of his wife.  The velocity in which the quarter traveled seemed to exceed any probable speed Joe could have anticipated, and he watched as it snuck up on his wife who, by all uncertainty, was walking slower than the quarter was rolling.  Continuing along the grout line, the quarter worked its way beneath Maria’s stride and the heel of her pump came down upon it.

Physics could not explain the way that the quarter bisected the heel of the shoe in such a way as to withstand all of the downward momentum of Maria’s stride. Perhaps it was the support of the grouting, or the speed in which the quarter had traveled to catch up with her that allowed the coin, instead of capitulating beneath the imbalanced ratio of her weight over the quarter’s very slender coinage, to work in the same fashion as a banana peel in a cartoon and launch Maria into the air.

Joe reached for her again and tried to say her name, but it would not grace the poisoned flesh of his lips.  Her head, her supple, beautiful head, on its pristine neck collided with the armrest of the pew, twisting her spinal cord like a contortionist and shattering her uppermost vertebra like shattered glass.

The congregation rushed to her aid, none more quickly than Joe.  Her head rolled in his hands like a die, the rest of her limp, perhaps lifeless, he could not be sure.  A fine sputtering leaked from her lips, but he did not know if such a response was the sign of life or the body’s natural reaction in death.  He could hear someone, through the haze and fog of his own head, calling an ambulance to the scene.

Just then, a pair of heavy hands fell on Joe’s shoulders and he looked up into a frightened, familiar face.  Joe had not seen him in the congregation before, but there he was, Little Louie, an Italian Catholic, his lower lip quivering as he peaked through the cracks of his fingers.  There was a cartoonish vulgarity to his devastating size.

With his unresponsive wife still in his arms, Joe said, “Oh Jesus, please, I’ll get you your money.  I promise.  I will get you your money.”

Louie nodded, then pointing at a dollar bill sticking out of Joe’s shirt, said in a sheepish voice, “I know.”

_____

Ian Hilgendorf lives and works in Grand Rapids, MI. His writing can be found or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Wayne Literary Review, Midwest Literary Magazine and The Molotov Cocktail.


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