Paul and the Finger

Richard Gess

The action in the following snippet of a novel takes place in Cambridge. As it opens, the narrator has just botched the seduction of Anne, his one great obsession. Depressed and at loose ends, he decides to drop in on an old acquaintance from Ohio.

At Paul's door, out of breath--oh. Background. Paul Goudreau, bona fide madman. The perfect gift for Harvard from Toledo. Now it is true that I never met anyone from Harvard who wasn't mad--if only for believing in Harvard and your experience may well be the same, but it must be admitted that Paul Goudreau was more . . . how should we phrase it? Noticeably mad? Yes. More obviously out of his mind than most of his peers. Never violently crazy--at least not until last weekend--but just strange. Visions of Napoleon hats and drool form in your minds--scrap those quickly. The obviousness of Paul's derangement lay precisely in its subtlety. He was not very unusual to look at; a mesomorph, for sure, huge-boned and somewhere over six-five, but his face was unremarkable. Conventionally square-jawed handsome, with a fastidiously trimmed little beard and a pair of aviator horn-rims--a serious young-Cantabrigian face. You can see hundreds of duplicates every day. (The ordinariness of his face is now a problem; wherever I go, for years, I'll have to deal with seeing Paul, and with having my memory jogged.) He was no one you'd pause to stare at; it was what he said that betrayed his craziness. Ask him any question; he would answer it as perversely as possible, every time.

"Paul, what's it like outside?"

"It's a perfect day for a rape . . . . "

"Paul, what's for dinner?"

"Children's genitalia, in red clam sauce."

"Paul, you wanna go get a beer?"

"I'd rather go get a hooker, and beat her up. Do you want to come with me and watch?"

These are all actual exchanges--those who knew Paul collected them and traded them like numismatists. All of them could be dismissed as morbid two-liners from the NatLamp. But they can't really; that's the problem. Paul's mind actually worked that way. Reality to Paul was a vast set of interconnected bloody jests. The genitalia line, for instance: his reference there was to a mixed pasta dish. He was incapable of benign perception. That's why I enjoyed his company. Spending time with Paul--especially inebriate time--was always a dip into the dangerous. I say dangerous because the clinching evidence of Paul's craziness was the fact that he had at times been known to act it out. That dangling promise of the surreal was what attracted and kept such companionship as he had. Had he actually gone out for that hooker, I would certainly have followed along as an eager spectator. That flaw of mine was what turned me into a dog-killer. But that began as Paul's idea. as you'll see . . . .

Out of breath, I knocked on Paul's door in Quincy House. No answer at first; I knocked again and listened carefully, to hear what (if anyone was home) I might be interrupting.

There was a guilty rustling, and then footsteps; then came Paul's muted "Who is it?"

"Trots and Bonnie," I said, feeling coy; if he wasn't opening up, I felt, he should at least get a mystery for his trouble.

I heard a whispered consultation behind the door, and then Paul replied characteristically: "Well, Trots can come in and lick us for a while, but Bonnie will have to go home."

And with that the door swung open and shirtless Paul greeted me. "Well, well, friend," he boomed, "come right in. You're just in time to see something interesting."

"Great, " I said, as he ushered me inside. "Titillation is what I'm here for."

The room--the living room of his suite--was darkened, save for a small candle at the center of the floor.

"Perhaps you'd like to carry the flame," said Paul.

"You mean the candle?" I asked, I took off my snowy jacket and draped it on what felt like the piano bench--Paul's was the only dorm room I'd ever seen with a piano.

"Yes, the flame," he said. "Will you carry the flame for us?"

"Sure," I said. "What are you doing?"

"Well," said Paul, "Roethke here--have you met Roethke, from Frankfort, Kentucky?" Roethke, mole-like, nodded in the darkness; I could barely make him out. "Roethke's going to break my finger for me."

"Not really."

"Oh, of course really. Roethke is definitely going to break my finger. The index finger of my right hand."

"Won't that be painful?"

"Mmmm. . . . Well. Initially so, I imagine. Yes."

I didn't quite know how to continue. What are the proper questions at a self-mutilation? I supposed that some attempt at dissuasion was obligatory.

"Come on," I said, "how can you think that breaking your finger is important when my whole existence is in ruins?"

"Your existence is in ruins, is it?"

"That's right. Ruins, Gone down in flames."

"So?"

"So?" I felt like I was talking to Anne again.

"What am I supposed to do about your ruins?"

"Distract me from them. Get me high . . . . "

"Afterwards," Paul said, "as an anesthetic. Breaking this finger should be plenty of distraction for you."

"Okay, Paul," I said, "why must your finger be broken?"

"Because I have a Spanish exam tomorrow morning--"

"On a Saturday?"

"Yes, tomorrow, Saturday! And I am not at all prepared. But if I break the index finger on the hand that I write with, I can hardly be expected to participate, can I?"

"Uh, yeah, true, but--"

"Enough discussion," said Paul. "If you will carry our flame, Roethke can break my finger quickly, and then we can tour your ruins at leisure. Agreed?"

"All right, Paul. Why not? Go ahead," I said, "I'll carry your flame."

"Wonderful!" said Paul with a clap. Great, I thought, terrific. I felt appalled, and slightly frightened; in retrospect, though, I must admit that I would have felt let down had I succeeded in talking him out of it. I guess I wanted a show; so I took the candle from the floor and held it aloft.

"Now," I asked, "how is this going to proceed?"

"Simply," said Paul. "We've evolved a ritual. I hold out my right hand, straight, like this, with the fingers spread apart nicely." He stuck out his arm like a sleepwalker. "Then Roethke takes the crucial finger and leads me to our altar--following you, as you have the flame."

"Sounds like The Golden Bough," I said. "Where do I take you?"

"To the corner, over there." Paul circled on his heels like a weathervane and pointed his arm towards the corner where the rental refrigerator sat. "That's our pyramid," he said. "Lead the way."

We all lined up--me in front, with the candle dripping wax on my shoes, and then Roethke behind me leading Paul by his finger. We stood still for a moment; in our pause we noticed somebody's Bach record drifting in through the walls, orchestrating our ritual with harpsichords. I took a step and the others followed; we moved towards the corner as slowly as we could. A small battered anvil rested atop the refrigerator; alongside it lay a heavy-looking mallet--a sledgehammer-like thing, but with a short handle and a lighter head.

"Now we gather around," Paul said. We made a half-moon around the fridge. Roethke placed Paul's finger neatly at the center of the anvil.

"Now you'll want to keep the light steady, and closer in, please--"

I took the candle in both hands and held it as close as I dared; I was worried about the hot wax, and also about the arc of the hammer.

"All right," said Paul, "I think we're ready. Do your worst."

Roethke looked blank. He didn't move.

"Go ahead!" said Paul impatiently.

"Anything you say," muttered Roethke. As he spoke he reached for the tool.

Christ, I thought, he's doing it! I pulled back on the candle, Paul closed his eyes and tensed, and Roethke swung the mallet up--it flashed briefly in the red light-and then brought it down, grunting, on the sacrificial finger, which cracked with an incredible cherry-bomb noise beneath it.

"Jesus!" I said, jumping back.

"Bang!" whooped Roethke.

"Ohhh, bang indeed," moaned Paul, "those were the-whooo!--the bursae blowing up!" He was swaying, trying to grin but grimacing instead. The finger apparently felt much worse than he had anticipated.

"Sit down, Paul," I said, turning on a lamp.

"Yes," he replied dazedly, "yes."

He dropped to the floor and began rocking back and forth in pain.

"What's it look like?" inquired Roethke.

"It looks disgusting! said Paul. "Awful!"

I knelt to have a look for myself; there was a spreading blue bruise and much swelling, and the top half of the finger was canted at a foreboding angle.

"We better take you somewhere," I said.

"No," said Paul, "no, that's not necessary. Not now. I'm going to stand up in just a second-"

"No. Don't. Stay there."

But he was already rising weakly.

"Anethesia!" he cried, "anesthesia!"

Roethke, on cue, produced a joint.

"Here," said Paul, lurching, "here, let me try to light it. This is the test."

Roethke put the joint in Paul's mouth, and then proffered a pack of matches; Paul somehow grasped them with his right hand and transferred them awkwardly to his left. He then attempted to extricate a match.

"There, you see?" he said triumphantly as the matchbook bobbled from his hands. "It doesn't work!"

"I don't think that really needed proving," I said.

"Everything,' Paul said, "should be proven at least twice."

"Okay," I said, "I think you've met the requirement. Now what?"

"Well," said Paul, "if Roethke here will--Roethke?"

Roethke was halfway out the door.

"Roethke! Aren't you going to stay for the anesthesia?"

"I've gotta go do something," said Roethke.

"I'll see you later."

"But I haven't even thanked you!"

"That's all right. G'night now--" Slam.

"Well," said Paul. "Well."

We were silent; a siren rose from Mount Auburn Street, but the Bach had disappeared. Paul sighed. "This does hurt."

"You admit it."

"I'm not admitting anything. Did I say I found it unpleasant?"

"You were calling for anesthesia."

"Anesthesia is always in order."

"True," I said.

"True," Paul repeated.

"So," I said, "let's be socially correct."

"I'm ready; all I need is your assistance with the match."

"At your service." I retrieved the matches and gave Paul a light. He toked and passed me the joint.

"Ruins," he said through his teeth. "Ruins. It's time to talk about ruins." I passed the joint back; he took it with his right hand, balancing it gently in his undamaged fingers. "Ruins. Ruins."

 

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