Fiction · 08/01/2012

My Fingernails

A burning in the crevices of the crotch, trousers damp and reeking with a week’s worth of wear, feet rotten with mold — these conditions don’t bother me so much, but fingernails overgrown I can’t abide, and mine grow fast and thick, quick to yellow with chalky flecks, perhaps indicating yet some other deficiency. It’s a superstitious preoccupation, really.

Those I’ve always been of a mind to take care of, fingernails, and I did, dug through the long-gone lady’s zippered overnight bag she had, for some reason, left behind for that handy, little tool: a pair of thin, sharp jaws with a grooved lever.

Went to work.

I wedged the first offending shingle on my left thumb into the tiny, metal mouth, gauged the bite so it would take enough to make the process worthwhile, but not so much that it would expose the timid, salt-sensitive quick beneath — I do not care for pain, no, not that kind — and squeezed.

It took a few chewy chomps to get started, the stuff being tough, as described, these clippers meant for finer fingers, and proceeded until I finally had the first offering: a dry moon-sliver, already growing a shiny white, like fractured crystal. I went at the rest of them, changed hands, collected the crescent scraps into a small pile on the lap of my pants, careful not to lose any, and then, finished, inverted the lever of the tool back to its resting position and returned it to the bag.

My fingers felt better. Lighter. Cleaner. I tested each hand, pleased. More free, again. I went to the clippings, picking each up from the pile, twisted and spun them, tickling the things across my upper lip, placing them between the lips, holding them there, rolling them, even gnawing at them a bit, but not too much, as these pseudo-skeleton particles can ruin those other pieces of exposed bone, the teeth, if gnawed too earnestly.

After toying with and fondling them for a while like that, luxuriating in the ritual, my purpose dawned on me, and it was time to send them off. Away, and back to the business of grieving. So I took a small envelope a drinking powder had come from, some kind of vitamin, slipped the clippings in through a slight, diagonal tear that had been made in the corner, and folded the envelope into thirds. I scrounged along the floor for something else to contain this, a proper vessel, and found an emptied, plastic, water bottle. Nothing exotic, but it would do.

After removing the lid, I inserted the folded envelope containing the clippings, screwed the lid back on, held the thing by the neck and shook it like a rattle, enjoying the sound until it began to grate, then unceremoniously dropped it from the slightly parted window of my room down into an open dumpster located in the alley several stories below.

In the dumpster the bottle sat silently for a few hours, undisturbed, nestled amongst bits of rotten things and other discarded and/or broken containers, then more hours, through the night, the following day, nights, days, several, nothing added or subtracted from the contents of the dumpster the bottle dwelt in, nothing that in any way might indicate the passage of time aside from the mild disintegration of some of the organic items that shared this space, and the meticulous fussing of ant teams some distance from the bottle, the envelope, the clippings. Then finally came the lumbering truck with the mighty, hydraulic arms which plucked the dumpster up from the floor of the alley in a series of quaking shudders, shook the dumpster’s guts out from its flapping mouth into the black cavity its own body, returned the now mostly empty dumpster to where it sat before, and drove on to the next.

My clippings in the envelope in the bottle were buried, the bottle crushed and soiled, vibrated into compression with travel, but still intact. Still sealed. The leaking feces of a shat diaper lingered hideously close, threatening to ooze forth from the bundle, if enough weight was applied, lick the bottle’s exterior, and both were crushed further, the shit creeping closer with each new load, almost meeting the bottle’s surface when the contents of the truck all slid in one tumbling groan onto a heap of refuse, so great and vast it amounted to a sort of putrid city silhouetted against the moonlit horizon, stinking and settling, humming quietly with the grim work of flies, rats, roaches, and million gently wriggling maggot babes.

There the bottle sat, occasionally nudged by vermin, but never gnawed or directly attacked. Strange birds came in the morning, picking at bugs and other edibles while the rats largely quit their shift, hiding and sleeping, stomachs plump with vile nourishment, while the wild birds reigned.

Seventeen days and nights the bottle went through in much the same fashion, seemingly on the verge of approaching something blissfully eternal, when a small, claw-like hand wrapped itself around the still object, pulled it up to a pair of blunt, flared nostrils that sniffed knowingly, then went, clutched in the hand, away from the junk city, across a rubbish-strewn plain, over a high, razor-wire crowned fence, then to a thin, gravel road where a dusk-colored sedan was parked.

The rear, passenger-side door of the car was open, and the owner of the hand in which the bottle was held climbed through, sat heavily in the back seat and pulled the door closed with its other hand as the engine began mumbling.

“Do you have it?” said the man in the front seat.

“Yuh, yuh,” muttered the creature with the bottle.

“Give it to me,” said the man, and the creature leaned forward, clumsily dropping the bottle into the man’s lap.

“Good,” the man said. “This is it.”

The creature nodded and smiled, bouncing up and down on the cushion of the back seat, singing wordlessly.

“Now, get out of the car,” said the man, and the creature stopped singing, stopped bouncing, obediently opened the door and climbed out of the car, shut the door and stood waiting.

“Go back over by the fence,” said the man. The creature did, and the man, bottle in his lap where he absently rubbed the filth on its surface away with a corner of his polyester sport-coat, carefully shot the creature in the head with a heavy, matte-black pistol, watched the creature crumble, and then slowly drove down the grumbling road, cautious of the dark curves, until it opened out onto the freeway. He pulled onto it, the car aimed toward the true city, glowing weakly in the distance.

He drove, lit a cigarette, turned on the radio, smoked it down and lit another, caressing the bottle and blinking at the milky drips that came at him steadily through the middle of the road, counting them, nodding his head slightly out of synch with the crackling music until he came to his exit and moved into the core of the lights.

He took one turn, then another, closing in on his destination in a series of memorized, boxlike patterns, finally stopped and sat in the parked car for a moment, turned off the radio, the car, and smoked another cigarette alone in the dark with the bottle. He looked down at his watch to confirm the time.

It was time.

Finishing the last cigarette, he got out of the car, not bothering to lock it, and moved toward the glass door of a filthy storefront, windows blocked out with sun-yellowed posters advertising various festive beverages and faraway places, edges lined with dust, cobwebs, and mounds of dead insects. He knocked on the glass.

“It’s me,” he said. “I have it.” and stood for a while, about to knock again when an unrevealed door opened and a grayish man with a grease-streaked beard beckoned him in.

“Come on then, dammit,” the bearded man said, leading him through heaps of old restaurant equipment, giant crates, cardboard boxes. At the end of the room there was a long desk, its surface almost completely covered by crooked stacks of wrinkled papers and foxing books, which the bearded man slowly sat down behind with a feeble groan.

“Give it to me,” he said.

The first man nodded, handed the bottle across the desk.

The bearded man took the bottle gingerly, put it in a drawer.

“May I… see her?” the first man asked. “Just once?”

The bearded man shook his head from side to side, wiped his nose with his sleeve.

“No,” he said. “You know you cannot.”

The first man swallowed, let out a long breath and shrank a bit.

The bearded man opened another drawer of the desk and removed a tiny honey-colored vial of pills. He poured several of them into the palm of his hand, and held them out to the first man.

“Here, take these with you. Go home… eat them… Sleep… In the morning, it will all be over.”

The first man frowned, opened his hand and let the bearded man drop the pills there in his palm, then put the pills in the breast pocket of his shirt, beneath his coat.

“Will you tell her… good-bye?”

The bearded man shook his head again.

“No… I will not see her again myself… Go.”

The first man nodded, looked at the ceiling, then turned and left.

The bearded man sat and stared at the door for a dozen minutes or so, then began quietly crying. When he became aware of his tears he stiffened, dried his face with the back of his hand, poured the remainder of the pills into his mouth, swallowed dryly, and set his head down on top of the desk, did not move again.

The bottle sat in the desk, still as the bearded man, but unexposed to the weak rays of dawn that leaked through the cracks between the posters on the windows, or the mote-swirling bars of pale daylight that pushed in hours later when the glass door creaked open and a tall, graceful, determined-looking woman in a black, tight-fitting dress, onyx heels, matching gloves, seamed-stockings, pointed sunglasses, hat and long, dark coat clicked across the room to the man slumped over the desk, stopped there, gently ran her fingers through his thin, colorless hair, and then opened the drawer.

Bottle clutched to her breast under the coat, the woman strode quickly down the chilled city streets, sun just peeking over the shadowy buildings and exposing the tired gray people moving among them. She ducked her head as businessmen and bums grinned her way, occasionally tipping their hats or fingering their genitals through the fabric of their pockets, preserving images of her for later use, and moving off toward their respective occupations.

The woman almost ran, making short work of the long blocks, never stopping except when traffic made it necessary, and then shuffled nervously in place at the street corners, glancing about and blowing cool jets of air out through the fine gaps between her ghost-white teeth. Somewhere a mighty clock tolled a significant hour, then began chiming out a pre-recorded tune.

Finally she came to the building she sought, pushed the thick, tinted-glass doors in and sped quietly along the worn, red carpet, past the elevators to a door, beyond which was a long, winding stairwell she climbed several flights of before leaving it for a dark hall, lined with rows of identical apartment doors with faded numbers stenciled under small brass eyes that marked the faces of each until she came to her own, inserted a key into its lock, entered, closed and re-locked it behind her.

The apartment was dim, overwhelmed with towering shelves, stuffed with musty books and exotic knick-knacks, swords, masks, painted gourds, the cobweb-coated bodies of taxidermied animals. She swept across the room, pausing to discard her coat, hat, glasses, shaking free her hair and switching the bottle from hand to hand rather than setting it down somewhere to make the process less difficult, stopped before a final door at the end of the room and began awkwardly removing her dress, peeling it away with quivering fingers and spiked heels, seams popping when it wouldn’t come easy, tearing it off until she wore nothing but the shoes, stockings with garter belt, the long black gloves, and a thin chain around her neck, from which dangled a small key.

She leaned close to the knob of the final door, unlocking it with the key without removing it from her neck, and opened it cautiously, as if something heavy might tumble out.

It was a deep closet, and the closet was full. Not with clothing or boxes, but curled, sepia-toned photographs, odd drawings on wrinkled, yellowing parchment, gaudy paintings seemingly cut or torn from long-gone frames, dead roses, stacked shards of ink-stained bone, and candles perched on flattened nails and small wooden ledges. From a small container she extracted a match, lit a candle with it, and with that candle, one by one, she lit the others, twenty, thirty, forty, a hundred candles, maybe more, kneeled on a small mat in front of the flickering display until she finished, and then hastily opened the bottle.

She shook the object inside out onto the palm of her gloved hand: a small, creased envelope, like any piece of innocuous trash you wouldn’t even take note of if it was merely soaking in a gutter, kicked about in the filthy parking lot, discarded on an un-bussed counter, took the envelope reverently and carefully unfolded it, shaking it softly next to her small, ivory ear, luxuriating in the rattle.

She centered a clean, glass ashtray on a shelf at the level of her face before her in the closet, tearing the envelope all the way open, and lightly brushing its contents onto the glass, counting the small, dry objects with her gloved fingers and making tense shapes with her wet, red lips.

Ten.

She added a dash of some sooty powder from an ornate shaker of tarnished, filigreed silver, then began pinching at the tips of her left glove, and tugged it away from the hand. She held her trembling fingers over the ashtray and examined them in the candlelight, brushing the surface of a photograph, then caressed the space in the air over the mixture.

With her still-gloved right hand she took a fresh razorblade from another container on the one of the shelves, un-wrapped it, gently pressed its edge into the surface of her left thumb, and pulled. The skin split, a shimmering spot of blood emerging, and she held it over the ashtray, flexing out drops onto the stuff below, wincing slightly at each one as she did.

Finally, she stopped, smiled slightly, took a long series of thick breaths and lit another match from one of the candles, prepared to drop it in. The tiny fire danced, winked at her like a wild eye, chewed down the stick, burning, eating, promised.

“You will love me,” she said. “You will love me,” she said. “You will love me,” she said.

You will love me forever.

And then she let the fire go.

+++

Zack Wentz’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mud Luscious, >kill author, Black Clock, Golden Handcuffs Review, Weird Tales, Opium, Word Riot, elimae, In Posse, Pindeldyboz, Mad Hatters’ Review, Swink, Vestal Review, Nerve, Fiction International, Smith Magazine’s six-word memoir anthology, Not Quite What I Was Planning, and elsewhere. His novel The Garbageman and the Prostitute was published by Chiasmus Press. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of New Dead Families.