THE MAGICIAN’S THUMB
By Dennis Scott Herbert
It wriggled and writhed on the floor attached to a string that we could all see but pretended not to because Rodney was trying so damned hard and he hadn’t drunk a drop for three months.
But when the dog swooped in and bit that thumb up in his mouth, it started some trouble. Because you see, Rodney kept hold of that string and chased the dog for the reason that he wanted his removable rubber thumb back and the dog had gone and ruined the trick and all. So, Rodney is chasing down the pup yelling these profanities and threats like, “I’m gonna stomp that terrible terrier,” and “rotten fuckin shitball,” and all sorts of inappropriate things considering the kids being around for the magic show.
My girlfriend Em is hollering out, “He’s drunk, he’s drunk.” And that really didn’t help. The intensity of the moment was ramped up is all that did. Other people are saying, “Don’t hurt the dog,” and “he’s just a little guy,” and the kids are screaming and carrying on, they can tell things have taken a foul turn. But I doubt Rodney heard any of it. He really wanted that thumb.
I try to calm Em and tell her he’s not drunk and I’ll take care of it. I really just want to tone down the fervor; the house is frantic. So, I head to the kitchen where Rodney had followed the dog, thinking I can stifle his anger. But before I get there I hear the yelp, we all hear the yelp, and the banging of cupboards and the boots and the stomping, just the general commotion of an angered amateur magician upset with the dog that spoiled his act.
When I make it in, I see the mound of fur, Peanut, is hurt but not dead like I half expected and the “Happy Birthday” banner is tinsel and twisted, partially torn down, hanging by a corner, and there’s Rodney winding the string up around his detachable thumb and paper streamer stuck on his shoulder. He looks over at me with furrowed brows, one arm partially raised, and says, “You believe that damn dog. There’s bite marks all over this thing.” I shake my head telling him he’s gotta go and send him out the back door before Em can reach the scene.
Well, once Em does make it to the kitchen she screams out, “Peanut!” and goes into her hysterics telling everybody the party’s over and to get the hell out, which I thought was pretty rude, I gotta say. She scoops the dog up, calls her boy into the kitchen, and tells him, “Chance, my little man, sorry if your birthday was ruined,” and looks at me all dirty-like. I knew it wasn’t true, I saw how he lit up unwrapping my slingshot, the gift I’d been forbidden to buy a week ago. I try to give him a wink even though I’m lousy at it.
It’s the first time we’re in the vet’s office since the incident with our turtle, Lockjaw, who wouldn’t eat, whose shell got all soft and spongy, who Em carried in on the palm of her hand, who made the doc smile weakly when he saw us, a look of pity and embarrassment behind his specs, who when we got home had to be taken out back to be buried under a little pine sapling, a grave marked with crossed popsicle sticks: Here Lies Lockjaw.
The same doc looked down his nose at us this time, into our wide eyes, and told us “looks like our little Peanut took a pretty good kick.” We had nothing to worry about, though, the pup could still walk around he said. But when the dog came creaking out of the back, a set of wheels strapped to his hindquarters like the training device you’d find on a bicycle, his front legs churning away and the rest of him rolling behind, well it sent Em over the edge.
“You piss-poor hack,” she starts screaming at him and it is obvious this catches him off-guard. He’s backing up with his hands at his shoulders like somebody’s pointing a six-shooter at his heart. “You’re telling me we have nothing to worry about,” she keeps going at him with her head whipping around on her skinny frame and her arms flailing around, “Do you know what people are going to think?”
The doctor’s chin is tucked into his neck and he opens his mouth, trying to explain it’s only temporary and is common procedure, I think, but I cut him short with apologies over and over. He can tell I just want to get this girlfriend of mine out of the office.
I pay the bill, nearly a month’s rent, and we head for the exit. The anger resonates in her footsteps and that clenched jaw is a hairpin trigger. She storms ahead of us and I keep the pace in back with Peanut, who squeaks squeaks squeaks down the aisle turning the heads of all the customers. I wave.
The whole drive home I gotta hear about Rodney. How he’s sick and needs help. Em keeps looking over at me quipping these things like, “how can you two be so tight?” and “don’t you just feel so bad for having a maniac like that around those children?” We get to a red light. She grabs my arm and locks in a stare.
“He drinks too much. I don’t want you hanging around him anymore.” She says. And I look right back into her, her face painted pretty and lashes shadowed, I look into those dark wide pupils, black eyes like a killing machine.
“His drinking didn’t seem to bother you when you used to stick those drugs up your nose,” I reply. “It was all fun then, I guess.”
Em lets out this shriek like she’s boiling a pot of water in her chest; it causes Peanut to whimper in the back.
“You’re a sonovabitch, you know that,” she says.
We sit in silence the rest of the way home.
I pull into the driveway; the Chevy rumbles low and deep. Em is out the door with a slam before I can twist the engine off; I help Peanut out of the back seat and let him do his business on the front lawn before leading him to the house, picking his rear wheels up and over the couple stairs in the walkway.
Inside, Em is giving her boy hell for playing video games the entire time we were gone, then clamors up the stairs when she sees me come in; she was having an awful day I knew. I turn the TV off and say, “It’s too nice out, man.”
Coming from the upstairs, I can hear Em’s muffled voice on the phone and her pacing steps. It’s a while before I hear the bedroom door creak open.
Sometimes she can look so delicate when she walks, and this time, her coming down the staircase with an overnight bag in hand makes my bones split and crack apart. I want to crawl inside, I want to displace all of her grief, my head is burning off to be back in the beginning.
“I’m going to visit Amy for the weekend in the Keys,” she says. Her voice drips out just so, as if to say, you remember the Keys of course. And I do remember the Keys and Jorge and the ambiguity. I want to pull off her leg; I want to lock her up in the bedroom, and throw that suitcase back in the closet. I want her to stay.
“What about your boy and your poor Peanut?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, “I figure after the whole birthday fiasco you can have the opportunity to make amends. You know, spend some quality time.” Her red lips stained and she smiles goodbye.
I watch her go out the door. Chance is chasing the few fireflies that have shown up early in dusk, something I haven’t seen a kid do in forever; she kneels down to his level and kisses his forehead. A taxi waits on the curb to take her away. It says ‘yellow cab’ over top a white paint job. And I just don’t understand.
The road twists and winds, snaking its way around avoiding the beam of the headlights, but we follow it nevertheless, in the full, rumbling Chevy. Chance with the case of beer at his feet and Peanut in between us, we’re headed to the hill and the leftover stones from my last project plink around in the truck bed with every bump and turn. If she could only see us now.
Out at the shale pit, or what was once a shale pit, we drive past all the trailers bunched together on the flat meadow, past the broken-down bus that’s been abandoned and tagged, Poppa Waz a Playa, and drive up and up into the dirt and the rock, towards the top. We see the hand-made sign, “The Hill,” and go right on by; the stars are out and clear.
“Hell of a night for a fire,” I say.
“You bet.” Chance smiles; he’s an outdoorsman, or outdoorsboy, whichever, and I know it’s a trait he inherited from his dad, a man that I’ve never met, but when I took Em to the lake with my family, she slapped and itched and when I said take in the autumn leaves and she said, “I can’t wait until autumn leaves, or we leave, this place isn’t for me,” that’s how I know.
We pull over the top and the headlights bounce off the back of a red, rusty Jeep next to Rodney’s pop-up camper. His moped leans on an old, empty oil drum. I give the horn a little honk, and Chance pops the door open; it gives a whine from pushing it wide. We get Peanut on the ground, and he has some trouble negotiating the terrain; he’ll get by and I know he won’t make it far from us.
The tin door on the camper swings open. Rodney steps out, then lets the door slap back with a wobble and crash that sounds like a faulty cooking pan.
“Well, well, look who it is,” he says.
I wave. “Sorry, didn’t know you had company.”
He swats at the comment and points to the fire ring. I nod. We head around to the pile of wood near a wheelbarrow that is slick with evening dew and grab a few logs.
“Whose Jeep?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s Charlotte’s,” he says, “she’s my sponsor,” and he gives me an enviable wink, telling me the program isn’t a complete waste.
He looks over and sees Peanut struggling to get around, dragging his wheels, sliding over the dirt mounds and rocks that are his lawn, and says, “Jeez, you gotta be kidding me,” putting a whiskered face down into his knobbled, leathery hand.
“What’ya trying to do? Make me feel all rotten for hurting that pup. You know I didn’t mean nothin.”
I tell him no, no it’s not like that, and explain I’ve got the two of them for the weekend and point over to Chance, who’s crafting a tee-pee out of wood in the pit. When he hears Em is out of town, he looks at me like I’m trying to pull something over on him.
“The Keys, huh?” he says. “Think she’s going to see your old buddy Jorge?”
I say I don’t want to think about it, even though I have been, and ask how about we get this fire going.
We pull some chairs up; Rodney throws a little kerosene around.
“I got a new one,” Rodney says to us and holds up both his hands, palms first then the backs, to prove to us he’s not using a trick, but we know he must be. He flicks on a cigarette lighter, covers it with another one of his damn detachable thumbs, and it appears as if he pulls the flame off the lighter and carries it with his bare hand. It is a nifty, I have to admit.
Rodney lowers his hand to the tee-pee that Chance has stacked, and with a single touch the flames burst and go up with a whoosh that sends Rodney stumbling back, abandoning all showmanship. A sleeve of his flannel catches, and it takes a minute of flailing and smacking before Rodney can extinguish it, leaving an inch or two of melted, charred cuff around his wrist. We clap anyway, Chance and I, and Peanut looks over like we’re calling for him. All of us settle down around the blaze, watching it lick at the wood with crackling heat.
Rodney hollers out for Charlotte, and she appears, silhouetted in the glow of the open camper door. She is a strange beauty, nothing refined, nothing natural, but striking nonetheless. A cloud of buzzing insects jostle around the hanging apparatus near her head, basking in the perilous blue hum; the unfortunate burn out with an electric pop. Her hair is everywhere and the dress she wears is slightly off-center, tight. Barefooted she staggers our way and the burning cigarette that dangles casually from her mouth bobs around when she says, “Well hello, boys.” And I think, that ole Rodney, what a lucky guy. I give him a grin.
After the greetings and the introductions, we begin to empty the cans of Milwaukee’s Best. Chance gets a hot dog ready to roast on a stick he’s found nearby; I watch him and I admire him, his little fingers working away. Rodney lays a piece of shopping cart on the ring over the flames and turns to Chance, “Now you got a grill.”
When nobody talks, the silence is hypnotic. It’s easy to just stare and feel. The stinging cloud of smoke chokes my eyes red, but I don’t close them because I can see these headlights that are coming, burning up from the dark down below the hill. I hear the crunch and pop of rocks under tires, and I hope for a second for a change of heart, a change of her plans. But when the car motors on by, disappearing as a wisp of kicked-up dirt into the uncharted plateau, beyond our camp, I tilt back my can and take a long pull.
Charlotte, Rodney, and I are more than halfway through the case that none of us should be drinking, and Chance has eaten enough hot dogs to call it quits. I carry an armful of empties over to my truck and pull down the tailgate; I line the cans up like a carnie and fill my pockets with the stones that have been rattling around my truck bed.
I’m walking back from my truck, and I see those faces sitting around, flickering in the effulgence, and the dog and his wheels, and the bugs that chirp and chime in and out of the distant darkness. I look up and lose my memory in the moon. If this were where we lived, we’d be home.
“Well, let’s see what you got,” I say, and drop some stones in Chance’s lap.
He makes a neat pile on his knee and scoots to the edge of his chair. He squints an eye shut and takes aim, pulling the slingshot taut, a little tip of tongue creeping out the corner of his mouth. His fingers release the leather pad with an elastic slap and we all hear the metallic ring of a dented, downed target.
One by one, he picks the stones up and fires them over towards my truck, knocking a can with a hollow clunk each time. Charlotte bounces in her chair and claps with every shot, interrupting the napping Peanut who has snuggled by her feet.
“Woo wee,” Rodney says with a satisfied grin. “A young man with a sure shot like that is gonna make it in this world.”
We keep setting them up and he keeps knocking them down, as dead and true of aim as we’ve ever seen. And I think, if Em never comes back he’ll be mine. If she’s removable, if she can just up and detach at will, what will bring her back. Are these the amends Em spoke of, a lifetime of amends. And when I look at Chance’s concentration, his unyielding glare, I wonder if he’s waiting for her, waiting for Monday, her return just as planned, or if he’d be proud to have me as a guardian if she never arrives, and just as the thought rolls around in my mind, I realize I just don’t know what I would say. I don’t know what I want to say.
And for the rest of our evening, we spend it like this, under the sky on top of the hill listening to the rocks and the cans and the echoes that roll and roll away, wondering if Chance will ever miss.
Dennis Scott Herbert is a recent graduate of Coastal Carolina University, where he completed his fiction thesis under the guidance of Jason Ockert. His work has been published in Archarios Literary Art Magazine.