BY ALEX HIGLEY
We were into eastern Colorado, into that flat, liminal region that could be misrecognized as any plains state, before we saw another gas station. The land was bleached, ascending. Desert hidden under burnt brush. The gas station had a green long-necked dinosaur out front, a more capable beacon against all that white than any sign. Shelly ran ahead to use the bathroom and I went through the aisles, waiting. The gas station was understocked. Many of the bright candy bar cartons were empty. Rolos were all gone. When she found me, Shelly widened her eyes, meaning “That’s better,” and started looking for a chocolate candy called a Blue Monday that she’d had once in Kentucky. She said the man she’d been engaged to was from Kentucky.
She looked tired, frowning at the low shelves, settled for an Oh Henry! and we got in line. Shelly was dressed like a marathoner. Black runners’ tights and a zip-up windbreaker. It’s embarrassing now, but I only noticed Shelly’s hand as she set down the chocolate. Her sutures were ink black, almost glossy, knotting the stub of her left ring finger. The finger was cut down to her first knuckle. Brutally. Like a gambling debt settled in a back room with a serrated blade. A raw pink ridge of flesh and clearly new. I have no idea what he normally saw come in off the highway, but the man behind the counter seemed to be registering Shelly’s hand as I was: her punishment was too deliberate. As if she now carried a warning, marked in a way criminals mark other criminals.
The man looked at me, wanting an explanation. Shelly was searching her jacket with her good hand, doling out coins as she found them. She didn’t acknowledge that the man’s gaze kept returning to her left hand, which she kept flat on the counter. And she did not turn to me. Maybe she’d not wanted any of her stitches’ stiff knotting to catch in her coat pockets and kept her hand out for that reason. And only now realized she was found out. Or maybe she’d chosen this moment for me to see what I should have already.
Shelly’s missing finger gave her and me, us, a new weight; and it was us, the man could see that. He saw it before I did. I don’t know where this specific thought came from, and it was solely a projection, but in that moment having a kid with Shelly occurred to me. Or, more specifically, her carrying my baby. I’m a little sickened by stating it that way. We’d never had sex. Came close, I think, but that was when we were nineteen or twenty, almost a decade ago by then. I hadn’t even seen Shelly in close to six years. And she wasn’t pregnant. But I felt that kind of love, expectant love, watching the man watch her; I felt that connected and protective even though I had no idea what had happened to her finger. Or why she hadn’t told me, shown me, during the three hours we’d already spent in the car. Shelly smoothed out a balled up dollar next to the scattered change, using her good hand.
The man behind the counter pushed his cap up on his forehead. “How much do you think a candy bar costs?”
“Oh,” Shelly said.
“That’s fine, just hold on to the bill. Always need change.”
The man shifted his broad jaw into an exaggerated underbite, nodding as she pushed a few last coins across the counter. Again, his look went from her face to her hand to me for answers. Because we both knew, the man and me, she could have kept her hand hidden. She could have just kept it at her side. Or bandaged. If I could have spoken to the man without Shelly hearing, I would have said, “It’s new to me too.”
The man spoke to Shelly but looked at me. “He making you pay your own way?”
We’d met in Hays, Kansas, at the college there, where we were both students. I was raised in Hays and for me Shelly might as well have been from Paris. She was from near Sterling, Colorado. Ghostly freckles and tawny brown hair, slightly bucked teeth. She had a way with a cigarette that was distinctly not from Kansas. Taller than me. Long limbed and completely inconsistent. We used to listen to Rachmaninoff laying flat on the floor in my dorm. Her room was never offered. As if going there was consummation. And then she’d be done with Rachmanioff, saying he was “one note.” I came to expect this kind of reversal from Shelly. I don’t know where she got the things she said. Her opinions always felt to me like re-stated sermons. And in that way, she seemed distanced from her choices, like, I later found out, a lot of sad people do.
It was a night relationship. Relationship is the wrong word, but so is affair, bond, link, even friendship’s wrong; the most truthful way to put it is just to say it was a night thing. Wet summer lawns and blurry walks and meals in a packed glowing Waffle House in the middle of dark Kansas. Jostling for a table. Students everywhere. Options were limited. Head on the table drunk. And I’d miss class the next morning. Shelly would not. Most of our time together was drunken and small and trivial. Drunken for me, small and trivial for her, is how it felt. She told me so once, in those words. But then she’d be outside my dorm the next night waiting on a bench, as if we’d made plans. It’s dumbfounding to think about, looking back, because we were in Hays, Kansas, and where else did Shelly have to be? Nothing was going on, but it always seemed she could have been somewhere else. That she had options for how she spent her nights, but had relented and chosen me. I’d walk anywhere to meet her, beg a car off my brother to take her somewhere, whatever it took. She seemed to be coming quietly undone in a way that allowed me to know her as I did. That was my thinking. A gap in her judgment allowed me to be in her life. Childhood’s a gap like this, a long suspension of thought where neighbors are friends without cause, and loneliness is a gap like this too.
Maybe it had been a year I’d known Shelly, or it was in that first year, and I was at my brother’s house asking his car off him for the night. They had a little square pre-fab home. Their front door opened directly onto the lawn. My brother had his wife in a headlock in the middle of their yellow kitchen. His wife was bent over like some animal, her face turning red from strain and laughing. She looked right at me from within his hold. My brother let her go and they both straightened themselves out, my brother cracking his neck and looking to the ceiling and his wife punched him in the chest. My brother staggered, smiling, and gave me a wild look.
“That’s why I married her!” he said. They acted like this in their house. My brother’s wife started making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and my brother sat down at the kitchen table. I remember both of them were barefoot.
“Do you not see what’s happening with this girl?” he said.
“No, tell him like you told me,” his wife said.
My brother understood what his wife was driving at, but said nothing. He waited for his wife to say what he knew she would now inevitably bring into the open.
“You’re a placeholder,” she said to me, finishing the sandwich next to the sink. She looked over her shoulder, watching me not comprehend.
“What’re you saying?” I asked.
“She’s using you. She is.” She licked the dull knife clean of jelly.
My brother’s wife set half the sandwich on the table in front of him and they both chewed, watching me. Mouth full, his wife added, “This girl might not know it. She might not realize she’s using you. But that’s what it is. Ask her why she doesn’t drive her own car.”
My brother cut her off. “Enough, enough.”
I had no response. I recognized that what my sister-in-law was saying was true, instantly, but could not account for how it could be so. Or, couldn’t account for how I didn’t already know. Shelly must have had a car. She was from out-of-state. I didn’t see her for days at a time. Where could she go on foot to escape anyone in Hays for more than a string of hours? But I’d never seen any car. There were questions I was unable to ask Shelly. Out of fear. Fear of no longer being allowed her presence. Those were the terms I thought of her in. I was young. Young, young, young. Stupidly and persistently.
All of it is stuck in my head chiefly because of the knife, watching my sister-in-law lick that knife. It was the most sexual gesture she’d ever made, would ever make, while holding eye contact with me. She’s years since divorced from my brother and it’s still the memory of her that I have. And I remember getting the keys off the hook below the phone and leaving their kitchen clearly knowing that I didn’t care if I was being used and that I wouldn’t for a long, long time.
I didn’t end up finishing school. I left midway through junior year. A decision I stand by. My brother and his then-wife left town and bought a Tex-Mex restaurant in Lawrence and I went with to assistant manage. I’m still there. Full manager. Shelly began dating an older man, men, at some point before I left school. Or she had been all along. I never got the details. I didn’t know other people who knew Shelly. I didn’t have anyone to help answer the questions I had about her. She graduated with a nursing degree and stayed on at HaysMed, the hospital. At some point in the last few years she found me online. We talked a bit on there. Vague and flirtatious. I was guarded with her; I tried to be. Seeing pictures of her on my computer had a dulling effect on my memory. Peering over her coffee mug in her blue scrubs. Her responses would come immediately or not at all.
I was going to be in Hays with my brother for a couple days, sleeping in our parents’ house, looking at two spots where we were thinking of opening another restaurant. Smaller, just tacos, aimed at students. We knew the locations, had our whole lives, but my brother was set on standing on the land before beginning any conversations with the owners. I clicked through enough, too many pictures of Shelly and let her know I’d be in town with some time. She called and asked if I could take an extra day and drive her back to Sterling. Her parents were selling her childhood home and she wanted to see it before it was sold. The house was already empty.
“Do you have a car?” I asked.
“Did you have a car when we were in college?”
She started laughing. “Yes. But you always wanted to pick me up.”
“Why can’t you drive yourself?”
“I’m embarrassed to say.”
“Well. I could make that part of it somehow.”
We squinted, merging back onto the long straight stretch of highway. “Why’d you wait three hours before showing me your–” my voice trailed off, unable to settle on a noun, not wanting to seem upset. Another question came. “Were you really engaged?”
She was staring straight ahead, her mouth held as if she was about to speak, a hand on each knee. I groped for the sun visor. The day was burning white. Even the concrete road itself was a shade lighter since we had crossed the state line from Kansas. The road and the sky were both so washed out there was no boundary between them.
“It was never about ‘showing.’ You weren’t looking for it. It’s easy to hide when it’s not being looked for.”
“If you’re going to lie why ask me to be here?”
“Because I can’t grip the wheel.”
She held up her hand and I looked at it, expecting to find it was somehow faked. But it wasn’t. I looked hard at her hand and then hard at the road. The fact that Shelly was missing a finger somehow validated my memory of her younger self.
“I lost it three weeks ago. Working retail.”
It took her a while to speak again, and it came haltingly, but she gave me the story. She said she had worn her engagement ring to work. That she had been engaged to a man from Kentucky. That she had worked at a Target, not at the hospital anymore, at a Target. The hours had been getting to her at the hospital, overnight, and switching to days wasn’t an option. The Target job was temporary, an in-between, she’d been ashamed and didn’t tell me. She was on a ladder in the back. She said her job was pulling and stocking items. And reaching out, stretching away from her footing on a ladder, she slipped. On her way down her ring caught in a notch in the shelving and ripped her finger off.
I didn’t know how to process or move past any of what Shelly had said. I felt I couldn’t turn the car around when we were a half hour away from Sterling. I tried to let her story dissipate.
“Is highway blindness a thing? Like snow blindness?” I asked. The road and the salt-stained land rushed to meet us. Blurring, burnished.
“It’s not the highway that’s blinding. It’s the sky. We’re closer to the sun, where I’m from,” she said.
“How long until we see mountains?”
“We won’t,” Shelly said. “We aren’t seeing any mountains.”
I took this to mean I misunderstood where we were headed and what I had agreed to do and it must have shown on my face because she said, “We’ll be there before we get far enough west to see the mountains is all.” Stretching everywhere were white fields, heat rising and folding into the sky.
“Tell me about Target,” I said.
Shelly closed her eyes, maybe to remember. “It smells somewhere between a new car and a dog.”
I pulled to the side of the highway. A maroon sedan I had passed in the left lane twice, and a similarly familiar yellow and blue truck shot by. Then a string of three white cars.
“Everything you said happened, happened?”
She reached out and held my wrist with her mauled hand. “You think I did this to myself?”
“Of course not,” I said, shaking my head. I hadn’t thought she’d cut off her own finger. But now I did. Felt that way with certainty. But why? And why would she do it? I’d agreed to drive her before knowing about her finger, hadn’t I?
“I want to talk to the man you were engaged to,” I said. I wanted confirmation that what I had been told was true. She was still holding my wrist.
Shelly reached into the bag at her feet and handed me her phone, saying his name, “Brian Luther.” I scrolled through her contacts to L, found his number and dialed. I held the phone up to my ear and as I did, Shelly began speaking at me, describing Brian Luther.
“Nearly has a unibrow but he’s so handsome in the face that it doesn’t matter. Wide, squarish hands. Strong. He’s a contractor. Works for his father–”
Brian picked up the phone and said, “Shelly? Are you ok?” I could tell he was outside.
“Sorry. Brian Luther, this is a friend of Shelly’s. Sorry. I’m realizing how crazy this sounds. You were engaged? She told me this story about how you two were engaged and her finger. It just didn’t seem–”
“Are you with Shelly?” Brian Luther asked.
I told him I was. Shelly continued talking the whole time. She was telling about how they’d met, Brian Luther’s sister was a nurse at HaysMed, he’d been visiting, he wore boots, didn’t own sneakers. A police car pulled to the side of the road twenty yards ahead and a cop got out and began walking towards us.
“If you’re with her now, then look at her fucking hand,” Brian Luther said.
The cop knocked at my window. Made a motion with his hand that I’ve seen understood as “yeah, yeah, yeah” or “roll down the window.” Shelly kept detailing Brian Luther: Doesn’t drink, doesn’t go to church. Coffee with lunch, coffee with dinner.
“I’m not there for a reason. You did this to yourself,” Brian Luther said. He hung up.
The cop knocked much harder, with his whole fist. He yelled. Shelly said, “He’s going to say if this isn’t an emergency we can’t stop here.”