Word Count: 2,790
One evening, Karen and I sat with friends in a bourgeois little wine bar and laughed until we cried over a woman who lost a finger in a mishap with a folding chair. This wasn’t a thing that happened right in front of us. It was a story we were hearing over hummus and mixed olive tapenade, told by a man gifted in the art of telling stories.
This happened back in October of 2019. The moon was out and the air was cool, and we sat on the patio beneath a tall heat lamp glowing orange. It was one of those lamps that had a little steel spaceship hat, and the way it floated there, right over the orange heat, you’d have thought it was leaving the planet, or landing, take your pick. We were all together for a nightcap after a cancer camp fundraiser, which I bring up only to show there’s a little bit of good in six people who would sit around and laugh at a woman who got her finger cut off.
The man behind the story was a firefighter with a years-long phobia of severed fingers. That’s what got us all going that night: a little wine, hummus, and this firefighter’s strange, severed finger stories. In his line of work, he has a whole library of them, so there’s some real comic irony there. I’ve been telling him for years that he has to write a little compendium about his experiences, just like the fireman-turned-writer Larry Brown did, but he’s always said “Why would I do that when I have you?”
So, here we are.
The firefighter had already told us one about having to cut a woman from a wrecked car. He had gotten her to the ambulance and thought his work was done, but the EMT came back and said, “That woman you just cut out of the car is missing a finger.” He asked the firefighter to go look for the finger in the car, so he unclipped his flashlight and passed the beam around the interior, and there amongst the shattered glass, resting on the passenger seat, was the finger, right where the woman left it. He said the nail attached to the finger was so long it curled like a pig’s tail. That’s how he picked it up, by the long, curly nail, before dropping it into a baggie for the EMT. You have to imagine this firefighter as he pantomimed this, like holding a tiny mouse by its tail, his arm straight out with no bend in his elbow, his thumb and index finger pinched together, his other three fingers in the shape of a W.
“Fingers really trigger me,” he said. This is a guy who grew up in the shadow of a northern California forest and spent his childhood in the company of loggers who drank Scotch from tin mugs they held with only their stubby knuckles. That’s what this fireman told us that night: that as a boy, most of the men in his life were fingerless, having lost those fingers to saw blades while grading logs into boards. Nightfall came, and these men sat around the campfire with their Scotch, their faces aglow, the stars twinkling bright on a sheet of black sky. Spooky, I say. They all had nicknames, these men, things like Joey Two Thumbs and The Jackhammer, and most were missing more teeth than fingers.
I’d be triggered, too.
I asked the firefighter which finger was it the woman lost.
“What does it matter, which finger?” he said.
Then I asked if the woman was drunk at the time. “I mean, you’d almost have to be on something, wouldn’t you?” I said.
Besides me and the firefighter, our wives were there, and another couple we’ve known for going on three decades. These are all people we’d part with a vital organ for. Before we’d gotten on the topic of missing fingers, we’d talked about the passing of a kidney stone, a melanoma on the scalp, and an ovarian mass the size of a grapefruit. We’d been talking about aging and how it compromises one’s dignity.
“It was seven in the morning,” the firefighter said, which I mentioned wasn’t an unreasonable hour for some folks to be drunk, especially with casinos nearby. “She was just trying to read the Sunday paper in her yard,” he said. “And it was her index finger, by the way.”
The Cliffs Notes version of the firefighter’s story goes like this: On a Sunday morning, some poor woman in her seventies was opening her metal folding chair at the same time she was trying to sit down in it. She had her chair in one hand and her newspaper in the other. Picture it! She had one hand behind her wrestling with the chair when her finger found the very spot where the metal seat came together with the metal chair leg. Simultaneously, she lost her balance and fell backwards into the chair, her weight bringing those two pieces of metal together like pruning scissors. This lopped off her finger down to the first knuckle, and I can only imagine her surprise at seeing it slip so freely from her hand like that, giving way without much of a fight, before dropping into the grass at her feet. She showed up at our friend’s firehouse with it wrapped in a bath towel, calm as could be, as though her problem was nothing bigger than a drain that needed unclogging.
When I hear stories like this, I realize how dull my own job really is. I mean, wow. Severed fingers! The gnarliest thing I deal with on a daily basis is severed sentences. I also grapple with comma splices and run-ons and other things that impede a reader’s understanding. I know how to use commas and apostrophes, something a lot of folks struggle with, and I often get text messages from friends in the affect/effect bind. Normally, these are the kinds of talents that consign a person to a life of crossword puzzles and cats and paralyzing lonesomeness, not to mention the constant griping at contestants who buy too many vowels. As it is, though, I’m just a man who prefers to avoid the question, “So, what do you do?” Since “Academic Artifact” isn’t an actual thing, I say simply that “I work at the university,” at which point I fake a leg cramp before any further questioning. Here’s why: Years ago, when I told people I read doctoral dissertations and master’s theses for a living, I was invariably met with puzzled looks.
“Is it theses or thesises?” they’d ask.
“Theses like feces,” I’d tell them. “I work with thecal matter.”
Hoo, baby. Nothing.
Once those humdingers fizzled, I’d liken myself to the academic integrity police, which is the closest I’ve ever gotten to gritty cop work. “I read research papers and track down plagiarism,” I’d say, making the words track down sound noir and cagey, like I was a Raymond Chandler character in a fedora. This oversimplified my job but did extract me from introductions that always ended the same way: “Oh, that sounds interesting,” or this one, which I have gotten more than most: “You couldn’t pay me enough to read [pause] thesises [pause] or whatever.”
That’s exactly what a police officer said one evening at a party, the first night I met him fifteen years ago, right after he told me he used his cruiser to knock down an armed robber. Once on the ground, the robber scrambled to his feet and tried to run away, but when he realized he had pistols and headlights trained on him from multiple directions, all he could do was stand there with his hands up and wet his pants. Because it was a frigid night, the officer said, the robber’s pants started steaming. What a riot. I couldn’t top that, not in a million years. One time when I discovered plagiarism in a student’s thesis, he stood in my office with his hands in his pockets and almost wet his pants, but the two situations in no way compare, adrenaline-wise. It would have been much more exciting if I’d been able to point a red pen at him and yell, “Freeze, cheater!” I bet he’d have wet his pants then.
Things did get a little more eventful a few years ago when our campus police department mandated active-shooter training. At the time, we all thought the most dangerous things in our office were gossip and the paper cutter (the latter of which holds serious potential for severed fingers, by the way), but then along came some very bad people waving guns around college campuses, and this got us thinking about how safe we actually were in our little cube farms. It put the fear in a lot of us, really, me included. We sat around a conference table one afternoon and watched a dramatic video that started out like this: “It may feel like just another day at the office, but occasionally, life feels more like an action movie.” Most folks who work in humdrum office settings would line up for at least a little action, provided there were no actual bullets or any real reason to shove a copy machine in front of a door. That’s where most of us would draw the line. But anything that throws a little chaos into our cramped, tidy work lives–a streaker, maybe, or a stray mountain lion–we’d be game for something like that.
In the active shooter film, the camera opens on a guy in a tight black muscle shirt and wrap-around sunglasses on a pleasant, sunny day. He’s square-jawed and bald, wearing a black tactical backpack about the size of a mini-fridge, along with black pants and black shoes. He’s a big, rippling man with no neck to speak of, just these muscles that wing out from his jaw to his shoulders, and there he goes, walking calmly up to the glass doors of a nice office building. He may as well be a rhinoceros in a tophat, that’s how conspicuous this man is, but no one, including the armed security guard, looks twice at him, not even when right there in the middle of the lobby, he calmly sets down his backpack, unzips it, and pulls out an AK-47. First guy he goes after is the security guard, whose pistol remains holstered as he throws his arms in the air and takes a bullet in the belly. Of course, it was good sport to chuckle at the bad acting and the film’s complete disregard for credibility, but I’d be lying if I said the needle didn’t move on my holy-shit meter a little.
You can probably guess what happens in the film next. Things get theatrical and alarming, with lots of screaming and falling to the floor and the kind of chilling pandemonium I wouldn’t wish on anyone. That’s when the narrator reminds viewers in his best James Earl Jones voice to be prepared for the worst, so that’s what I did. I went to work the next day with a wooden baseball bat–a flame-treated Rawlings Adirondack, Harold Baines version–and sketched out my run-hide-fight plan, which involves me coming up behind the rhino in the tophat and breaking open his skull like a melon. Because my plan is for this to happen before anyone gets hurt, I will be a hero to my coworkers and community. People will write things about me. Likely, there will be added vacation time, some place lovely and tropical where I can clear my mind and repair certain psychic trauma.
I had mentioned this to Karen before dinner that night–the campy video, the baseball bat–along with the true crime story of a Ph.D. student who shot his dissertation adviser in his campus office. That one didn’t end well for either the adviser or the student. Just like in the video, I made things sound pretty dramatic, talking about this crazy world we live in and how you can never be too careful, lots of koo-koos out there, things like that. I mentioned a worst-case scenario of some grad student losing his marbles over the fact that I sent his thesis back for major revisions.
“It could happen,” I said. “And then what?”
I stood in the kitchen with my Harold Baines bat running the length of my shoulders behind my neck, one wrist slung over the knob, the other over the barrel: a man pilloried. Karen rolled her eyes. “You’re not in any danger,” she said, and while I knew at my core she was one-hundred percent right, in some twisted, insecure part of me, I wanted her to be just a little bit wrong.
Having a dangerous job, I suppose, meant being important.
In the fall of 2020, I was home watching television. It was midday, a Saturday, and the valley where we live was clogged with smoke from weeks of forests burning in the nearby mountains. The sun was a deep, haunting red, so filtered as to be easy on the eyes. It would have been beautiful were it not such a grim reminder that every two seconds in the hills above our homes, another conifer was turning to ash.
Our friend the firefighter, of course, was there. He’d been there for thirty-six straight hours alongside the other friend with us at the wine bar that night we’d laughed so hard over missing fingers and other maladies. The firefighter, in his official capacity, deputized and dispatched our friend with a shovel to create firebreaks and defend structures that would otherwise have burned to the ground. I had been tracking their progress on social media, where the firefighter’s wife was posting updates. They hadn’t slept. In one picture, my friends stood soot-faced in turnouts with shovels slung over their shoulders. The caption, just one word, read, “Heroes.”
First thing I did was turn off the television and head to the garage where I kept a circular saw and a stack of two-by-fours. Suddenly, urgently, I needed to cut something into pieces. I needed, even in my private space, to be something other than the soft friend. It’s silly to think of now, but at the time, it was all I could do to not to feel jealous of my friends and their obvious importance. On the news of my hiring nearly twenty years ago, one faculty member questioned the need for another “ruler lady,” a cheeky, mid-century term for the priggish librarian-type who measured margins before thesis binding. I suppose I have never gotten over the notion that I am nothing more than that. I know that I spend an awful lot of time parsing through and correcting minutiae that no one else cares about, that no one else will likely see. I do wonder when someone with more authority than me will examine the future of my job and decide that it is no longer, if it ever was, relevant. When that becomes the case, as it most certainly will, I will pack up my measuring stick and walk away. I will put my pens and grammar guides in a box in my trunk, and I will drive home and park my car on the curb. I will watch the neighborhood crows pick new seed from my lawn, and I will wonder what happens next.
In my garage, I found a board worth cutting. Along its face, I penciled straight lines measured four inches apart in perfect squares. I plugged in my saw and put my finger on the trigger and roared it to life. With my left hand, I held the board steady, nudging my fingertips to the edge of the drawn line; with my right, I leveled the blade on the wood and made my first cut. It was so quick, so without effort. So I made another cut, and then another, each time moving my hand to the next line, and the next, working backwards, the blade passing within narrowing fractions of my fingertips, my brain fully aware of the possibilities: the board might buckle or the blade might jump its groove, in which case it was quite likely the saw could hop to my knuckles, and a small part of me could slip away without resistance from the greater whole, like a body in outer space. But because I am a thinking man, because I had a plan all sketched out, I wasn’t at all worried over possibilities, over what might come of my indifference. I have this guy I could call, you see, and he would know exactly what to do.
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