A short story by Andy Rausch
Joel stared at his laptop. So far the only words he’d written were “Untitled Novel by Joel Wise”. He’d written those six words a week ago and hadn’t been able to come up with anything to add. Nothing. He couldn’t even force words onto the page. He had no idea what his novel was even going to be about. All he knew was that he wanted desperately to write one. He’d always felt it was his destiny to write the next Great American Novel. Not just any novel—certainly not a paperback original—but something iconic. He’d dreamed of this his entire life but had never actually sat down and attempted to write it. At least not until now. But here he was, and writing was a hell of a lot harder than he’d ever imagined. He believed if he could just come up with one interesting well-drawn character the words would start flowing and eventually he’d have an actual novel. If he could just write a line or two, that would grow and the words would come from some unseen muse. He envisioned such a thing as being akin to dictation. Joel had heard many famous authors explain it that way, but he himself was not a famous author. At this rate, he might not ever be an author at all. At the moment, a single good sentence seemed unattainable.
Joel had worked as a software designer. But now he’d made his nest egg and had retired at the young-adjacent age of forty-five. This, he’d believed, would give him ample time to finally sit down and write his novel. To be honest, it was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. He’d dreamed of doing this from an early age and had always envisioned himself writing a single masterpiece and then walking away like his hero J.D. Salinger. If he could produce one great work, his life would have meaning and he would then be able to die a happy man.
But here he was, staring a nearly-empty screen, unable to produce anything. Disgusted, he closed the laptop and drank the last bit of scotch from the bottle. He looked across the room at his sleeping collie, Lizzy, and whistled for her. The dog’s eyes popped open and her ears perked up. Her tail started wagging happily and she scrambled to her feet and trotted towards him. He stroked her head, smoothing back her ears with his hand and giving her a few obligatory “good dogs”. As he did, it dawned on him that he’d been so wrapped up in his attempt at writing that he’d forgotten to feed her.
“You want din-din?” he asked. Lizzy’s ears perked up again and she went halfway to the kitchen, stopping to look back to make sure he was behind her. Whenever she heard “din-din”, she knew it was feeding time.
Joel walked to the kitchen and grabbed the box of dog food from atop the fridge. He pulled out a pouch and walked to the far end of the room, dumping it into the dog’s bowl. Lizzy immediately went to work scarfing down the food. Joel stood there for a moment, scanning the kitchen, trying to decide what to make for his own dinner. He decided to prepare himself a salad. He opened the fridge and removed the necessary veggies. He opened the cabinet and took out the cutting board, setting it on the counter before him. He extracted a knife from the silverware drawer and started dicing carrots. Once he had an adequate amount of carrots diced, he began dicing celery. As he did this, his thoughts returned to his would-be novel.
And that’s when it happened.
“FUCK!” he screamed as pain surged through his finger. He looked down and saw that he’d done the unthinkable—he’d cut off his left index finger! The sight of his finger lying there on the cutting board shocked him and he became woozy, stumbling, the knife accidentally scraping the finger off onto the floor. Horrified, he looked down just in time to see Lizzy snatch the finger up in her teeth. “Lizzy, no!” he cried, but the animal didn’t listen. Trying to protect her newfound treat, Lizzy darted towards the backdoor. The room was spinning and Joel’s mind was hazy, so he just stood and watched the dog disappear through the swinging doggie door.
Joel stumbled to the door in horror, opening it, covering its handle in blood in the process, but Lizzy was gone. His eyes scanned the yard for a moment before he remembered his injury. He looked down at the nub where his finger had been—there was about a fourth of the finger remaining—and saw intermittent spurts of blood spitting from it. He felt woozy again, as if he might faint, but he steeled himself. He would not look at the wound. If he did, he knew he would pass out. He told himself to think of something else—anything else—but found this impossible. He looked around the kitchen for a cloth to wrap around the bloody nub. He grabbed a damp red dish towel with a chicken embroidered on it and wrapped the nub tightly, careful not to look. He took a deep breath and returned to the backdoor, still standing open. He looked out for Lizzy, but she was nowhere in sight. He called for her a few times, but eventually gave up.
By the time he climbed into his station wagon, blood had soaked through the towel, which was now a bloody red mess. He drove around the neighborhood searching for the dog. After searching for a few minutes, he gave up hope. If he waited any longer, he feared he might pass out from a loss of blood. Besides, he told himself, the finger was likely chewed up and/or inside the dog.
As he headed to the ER at Maimonides, Joel’s jumbled brain suddenly cleared and an idea presented itself with all the majesty of Jesus descending from the clouds. As unlikely as it was, Joel could see the beginning of his novel with great clarity. It was a fully-formed segment complete with the most intricate of details. The words formed in his head, fully composed, and they were flawless. It was a righteous moment and he felt overjoyed in a way he’d never felt before. He recognized that it was strange to experience such bliss in the midst of calamity and chaos, but that’s what happened. Marveling at what he saw as the perfect first chapter of a novel about a secretly gay schoolmarm in the late 1800s, Joel wished he didn’t need to go to the ER. Going there was never a good time, but it was even worse now that he had the perfect chapter mapped out in his head.
Joel thought he might be able to leave the hospital that same night, but things didn’t work out that way. A young blonde doctor, who looked like she was still underage told him he would need to stay for at least a night. Joel hated this, but he saw no way around it.
Once he was situated in a room and everyone was finished with him for the night, Joel started scribbling the story longhand on a notepad the nurses had provided. He was tired, high on Vicodin, and his left hand hurt liked bloody hell, but he kept right on scribbling. He was worried he might lose the idea, so he wanted to get it down on paper as quickly as he could. The drugs and pain and weariness might cause his writing to suffer some, but that could be corrected easily enough with a rewrite. He just wanted to get a rough first draft knocked out. He ended up writing for more than three hours. Joel suffered the worst writer’s cramp ever, but he managed to finish the chapter before dozing off.
When he awoke up the next morning, he was eager to revisit what he’d written. He read it again, reaffirming that what he’d written was good. So good, in fact, that it made him want to write more. So he touched the tip of his pen to the paper. Okay, go! he thought. But nothing happened. He sat there for two hours trying to figure out where to take his schoolmarm protagonist next, but nothing came. Once again, he found that he could not produce a single sentence.
What the fuck was this? He didn’t get it. The first chapter had come so easily; in fact, it had been one of the easiest things he’d ever done in his life. And it was good. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t just good, it was fucking great.
But here he was again, unable to squeeze out a single word. Pondering this, he wondered if the pain from his severed finger had somehow sent a jolt through his nervous system, knocking the chapter loose from his brain. Maybe the idea had come from the result of his pain. Or, and he knew this was the thinking of a crazy man, but maybe it was a magical transaction in which he’d somehow traded his finger for the chapter; a sort of sacrifice to the muse. He laughed aloud at this, thinking the muse was one cold-hearted bitch.
Eventually, he gave up the ghost and watched the Cooking Channel for a few hours. Somehow all of this had worn him out. He’d heard writing could be exhausting, but he’d never imagined simply thinking about writing could be tiring.
Joel was released from the hospital after two p.m. When he went home, he begrudgingly fed Lizzy and then returned to his desk.He sat down, switched on the laptop, and propped up the bloody handwritten pages. Looking back and forth, he carefully typed the words. When he was finished, he found himself tired again and decided to wait a few hours before trying to write anything new.
It was just before seven when he returned to his desk, intent on writing his second chapter. But when he did, it was the same result—nothing. Not a single word. Even after rereading the first chapter in the hopes that that might spark something, he still had no idea where his protagonist might go next. No idea what-so-fucking-ever. After a few hours, he gave up again. Joel would experience this same awful routine every day for the next four days.
After having sat down to write each day with no results, Joel found his mind returning to the crazy notion he’d had about pain summoning the muse. He knew it was crazy, but he was desperate. After having written the first chapter so easily, Joel had become like the gambler who’d won enough money to acquire a taste for it. Joel went to the kitchen and sliced the back of his hand with the same knife. He stood there staring at the blood emerging from the slit and waiting for an idea to come, but there was nothing. Eventually he gave up. After doing so, he started giving serious consideration to his other idea—the crazier one—about sacrificing fingers for ideas.No, no, he wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t. The cost was too high. Joel needed his fingers. Besides, the idea was bugshit crazy. If he were to tell anyone what he was contemplating, they would lock him away in a padded cell and flush the key down the shitter. Saddened by the prospect of abandoning his new novel with its perfect first chapter, Joel took a couple of sleeping pills and drowned them with a slug of scotch. Then he went to bed and slipped immediately into a deep sleep.
Nine hours later, Joel thought about the novel the very moment his eyes blinked open. He remembered how good the first chapter had been and how good it had felt to write it. His heart started to sink when he remembered the struggles that had followed, and his mind returned to his nutty finger theory. What the hell, he thought. It was then he decided he would do it; he would chop off another finger. He knew it was crazy, but he didn’t care. If there was even the slightest chance this might allow him to press forward in writing his novel—not just the best thing he’d ever written, but probably the best thing he’d ever read—it would be worth it. All he’d ever wanted was to write a great, powerful novel that would live on long after he himself was dead and gone.
He told himself that slicing off the finger might not be as bad the second time. It would be no walk in the park, sure, but he was prepared now and had already done it once. Yes, he told himself, he could do it. As long as he kept Lizzy from absconding with the finger, he could simply take it to the hospital and have them reattach it. If he did that, there would be no loss—only gain. The finger might never work as well again, but he would be one step closer to completing achieving his dream.
He went to work drinking himself into the necessary mental state.
Drunk and determined, Joel put Lizzy out in the yard and attached her to her chain. Then he returned to the kitchen, where he lay his left pinky flat against the cutting board. He took the same knife—he’d considered tossing it out, but had decided it was stupid to waste a perfectly good knife—and cleanly sliced off the finger.
He screamed a shrieking scream that managed to even startle himself.
There was blood everywhere. This time there was much more blood, and it seemed to flow more quickly. It also hurt a great deal more than it had before. His idea that it might be easier the second time had been idiotic. Joel wrapped the nub tightly in a rag. Then he popped two Vicodin and sat down in front of the laptop. And just like before, Joel saw the second chapter fully formed in his mind. It didn’t feel like creating so much as it felt like excavating buried treasure. He had no idea how much time he had before he might pass out, so he typed as quickly as he could, trying his best to complete the chapter before going to the ER. Despite having to hunt and peck due to his missing fingers, Joel finished the chapter in just under eighty minutes. He clicked “save” and shut off the laptop. He then wobbled outside and hopped into his station wagon, heading to the ER.
When he arrived, the orderlies looked at him like he was insane. A plump black female nurse who’d been there on his previous visit said curtly, “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but you need to stop.” She stared at him for a long moment with a knowing look and then added, “You’re doing too much, Mr. Wise. Too damn much.” This second ER trip was awkward and filled with tough questions and judgmental stares, but the doctors reattached the finger. The hospital kept him for three days, which was fine since he’d already completed chapter two.
When he returned home, he immediately went to his laptop, opened it, and switched it on. He clicked on the file that read UNTITLED NOVEL. When the file opened, Joel was stunned to find his second chapter was gone. Feeling panicked, he felt like he might hyperventilate. He sat there with his mouth hanging open, staring at the screen through watery eyes. Then he remembered that he’d backed the file up on the cloud. Thank God, he thought. He went to the backup version of the story and opened it, finding that it was also missing the chapter. What the fuckity fuck? Had he somehow imagined writing it? Joel looked down at his reattached pinky, wrapped in blood-soaked gauze, and knew for certain he’d written it. So where was it?
A thought occurred to him—maybe it only worked if you lost the finger completely. Maybe it had to be a full sacrifice. Maybe there were no loopholes that would allow him to save the finger. He’d cut it off, the muse had given him his chapter, but then he’d undone his part, forcing her to undo hers. Maybe it was even necessary for him to allow Lizzy to carry the damned thing through the doggie door and go off somewhere to eat it. Who knew how far down this rabbit hole of exactness he needed to go?
Joel went to bed sad, depressed, and confused, his left hand throbbing in pain. Despite popping two Vicodin, he found himself unable sleep. Instead of resting, his mind focused on two things: his novel and his fingers. When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed about sitting at his laptop, trying to write without any fingers on either hand. He then had another dream. This one was about the plump nurse telling him he was doing too much. This time she glared and said, “I told you your ass was doing too much.”
He woke up just after sunrise. He hopped out of bed, took a leak, and then went to the kitchen to slice off his newly-reattached pinky. Fuck it, he thought, he’d already lost it once. After removing the digit a second time—the third time he’d chopped off a finger this week—Joel tossed the finger onto the floor in front of Lizzy. After it bounced on the linoleum, she snatched it up in her teeth and bee-lined to the doggie door and disappeared just like before. Joel then returned to his laptop. When he put his bloody fingers on the keyboard, smearing blood on the keys, between the keys, and all over the desk, he found that the words came to him easily once again. He rewrote the lost chapter the same as he’d written it the first time. Exactly the same. The same words, same placement, maybe even the same typos.
He saved the file, closed the laptop, and headed for the ER. This time he drove across the city to Bellevue, where they didn’t know him. This way he wouldn’t have to listen to that damnable nurse telling him he was doing too much. The conversation at Bellevue was still awkward and he received similar probing questions and judgmental looks, but they released him two days later. Sure, he’d lost two fingers, but he’d also written two of what he believed were the finest chapters of any book ever written. This, in Joel Wise’s estimation, was a fair trade.
When he arrived home, he went to the kitchen and immediately sliced off his left middle finger. This one was thicker, so it was slightly more difficult to cut. It hurt like a sonofabitch and blood sprayed everywhere, even managing to splash onto the wall beside the stove this time, but Joel handled it like a champ. The fourth time was a charm. He already felt like an old pro at this finger-cutting business. He then tossed the finger to the dog, who started chowing down right there in the kitchen. Ever superstitious, Joel wanted Lizzy to follow the same routine as before, so he dragged her across the linoleum to the doggie door, soaking her fur with blood in the process, and he leaned down and shoved her thick body through the slot. He then grabbed a dish towel and wrapped his wound. After that, he walked to his desk. He sat down, bleeding like all hell, and hammered out an exquisite third chapter. He came close to losing consciousness, but he still managed to finish. Then he went to the ER, this time traveling all the way out to Montefiore Medical. The staff there made some of the same inquiries, but they didn’t pry much. The emergency room was packed, so Joel figured the reason the doctors and nurses probed less was simply because of the number of people who were there.
That night as he lay in his room, Joel thought about his book. He now had three superb, fully-detailed chapters. He started to consider potential book titles. He kicked around a few, such as Miss Annabelle and The Secret Life of Miss Annabelle, but none of them sounded right. He wondered if he would have to sacrifice a digit for the title, as well. Then his mind turned to the question of book length. How many chapters would this thing run? Since he didn’t have any idea where the story was going, he had no way to gauge. He stared down at his bandaged left hand, which had only two fingers remaining and thought, I hope there aren’t too many chapters. Then he considered something else—what if he ran out of fingers before the book was finished? He pondered this for a moment and then concluded that this would most certainly be the case. Each of the first three chapters had run roughly 4,000 words, and most novels ran longer than 40,000 words. What would he do? At that moment, a new idea occurred to him—perhaps toes could be sacrificed, as well.
He would have to try a toe sometime soon, he thought. That way he would reduce the chance of his ending up completely finger-less. He had no problem with sacrificing all his fingers if he had to, but he would rather avoid that scenario if possible. Maybe it would be a small novel. Something like Bridges of Madison County, which was only 35,000 words. Or more likely, it might be somewhere around 50,000, which meant he would only need to sacrifice twelve digits. If that were the case, and provided the muse accepted toes as payment, Joel would only have to cut off six or seven fingers and six or seven toes. This would allow him enough digits to still fully enjoy his success once the novel was published.
Joel was released the following day. When he got home, he was tired and in pain and decided it would be too much for him to cut off a fourth finger.So, he decided he would wait. When he woke up the next morning, Joel went to the kitchen and fixed himself a cup of coffee. Then he ate a bowl of Cheerios. Once breakfast was finished, he chopped off his left ring finger. When he presented the finger to Lizzy this time, a curious thing happened; she sniffed at it and then looked up at him, seemingly disinterested.
“What’s the matter, girl?” Joel asked. “You getting tired of eating fingers?”
A moment later, however, the dog picked up the finger, turned, trotted to the swinging doggie door, and disappeared through it. This time Joel wrapped the nub in an old green shirt that had long since shrunk. When Joel sat down at his desk, he raised his right hand over the dried-blood-covered keyboard and switched the laptop on. He opened the file and stared at the screen, but nothing came to him. Well fuck, he thought. Had his deal with the muse come to an end? Had he let the clock run out? Or maybe there were only so many times a person could do this.
He sat staring at the screen in terror for five long minutes, and then, finally, the words came. Joel was furiously hunting and pecking with his right hand, his left hand now having only a thumb. The pain was exruciating, and it took him longer to write this chapter than he’d expected. Each chapter was taking longer and longer. But Joel kept typing until he’d completed the fourth chapter. This time he went to Lincoln Hospital. He found that the ER process was getting easier with each trip. However, his stitches ripped open the following day and he was forced to spend another night.
After returning home, he waited another two days before chopping off his right pinky toe. That little sucker came right off and Lizzy seemed to enjoy it. Maybe toes tasted different, Joel thought, because she seemed particularly excited about this one, her tail wagging rapidly as she chewed. That fifth chapter turned out terrific and ran slightly longer than the others, coming in at 5,219 words. When he finished writing it, Joel climbed into his car and drove all the way out to the ER at North Shore.
The process was starting to take a real toll on his body, wearing him down, each time making him just a little more tired, so he started spacing out the sacrifices a little more. Repeating the process over and over, he figured out the easiest ways to chop off the digits, as well as the easiest ways to make Lizzy take them outside. Everything went smoothly until Joel sawed off the big toe on his left foot—his seventh sacrifice in all. First, he’d come closer to passing out than he ever had before, and he’d nearly wrecked his car. Because of his inability to remain alert, he’d been forced to return to Maimonides. The only saving grace was that the black nurse was off duty.
Then, when he was released two days later, he discovered that Lizzy had run away. This worried him tremendously—not because he missed the dog as much as he worried that his sacrifices would not work without her. He drove around the neighborhood all day searching for her, but to no avail. He continued his search for another four days before concluding that Lizzy was gone for good. Maybe she was dead, maybe she had simply run away because she was tired of Joel making her eat fingers and toes. No matter the reason, she was gone and Joel was faced with a dilemma. He now had seven pristine chapters, but he wasn’t sure he could continue to rouse the muse without her.
Finally Joel concluded that he would have to get a new dog and hope for the best. He scoured the local Internet buy/sale/trade site, but found nothing, so he posted an ad himself. The ad read: “I.S.O. DOG, ANY TYPE. NEED IMMEDIATELY.” To his delight, he received a response within the hour. The message read: “Got germain shepperd boy male name Hagar. Sale him 2 u 4 65 dollar ok?” Joel messaged back, accepting the offer. He then drove to meet a shirtless tattooed Mexican who looked like he had a drug problem, in the parking lot of Walgreen’s.
“My ex ran off with some dick-shit,” the guy said. “But the bitch left Hagar at my house. I don’t much like dogs, and I especially hate Hagar. Hagar’s a real prick.”
“I’ll be glad to take him off your hands,” Joel said, handing him the cash. When he did, the man looked down at the blood-stained bandage on his hand.
“What did you do to your hand?”
“Lawnmower accident,” Joel said.
“That’s fucked up, man.”
Joel then took the bony, raggedy-looking mutt by its leash and led it into the station wagon. Hagar smelled rancid, had fleas, and took a runny diarrhea shit in the passenger seat before they got home.
That evening, Joel stood over Hagar in the kitchen, watching the starved animal lapping from its water bowl.
“You’re a hungry fucker, ain’t ya?” Joel said. “You’re gonna love this.”
Joel then squatted and went to work slicing off his remaining pinky toe, accidentally cutting into the linoleum. It hurt like a bastard, but Joel was becoming somewhat used to it. He would never have believed such a thing could be true, but it was.
Still squatting, Joel picked up the bloody toe and held it out towards the dog. “Hey there, Hagar,” he said. The dog turned from the water bowl and looked at the toe, its nose sniffing. Then Hagar looked up at Joel, studying his face to make sure it was okay to take the toe. After a moment, Hagar lurched forward and snatched the toe in its mouth. Joel then dragged the dog by its collar to the back door, forcing its big bony body out the doggie door. Since the dog was unfamiliar with the environment and would likely run away, Joel had planned to chain him just outside the door. Once Hagar was outside and the doggie door ritual was complete, Joel opened the door to fasten him. However, Hagar was gone.
Well fuck, Joel thought. He scanned the area for a moment, finally giving up. If the ritual worked and Hagar didn’t return, he’d get another dog. He’d buy another every day if he had to. Anything to finish his book.
Joel wrapped a kitchen towel around his toe and went to the laptop. He sat and stared at the screen, placing his hands on the keys. He kept staring, and his hands set motionless. Nothing came. Joel sat for as long as he felt he could without passing out, just staring at the blank screen. Nothing. Well, hell, he thought. He might never finish his book. Then what would he do? This thought made him sad, but right now he had to focus on getting himself to the ER. Having cut it too close to go anywhere else, Joel had no choice but to go back to Maimonides for the fourth time.
The doctor—the same skinny blonde who’d seen him all four times—looked at him with no shortage of irritation. With her hands on her hips, she said, “Either you’re just coming here for the Vicodin or something’s wrong with you mentally.” She sighed. “I’m going to give you the meds. If you’re doing all this crap just for meds, I guess you’ve earned them.”
Joel considered telling her his secret, but decided against it. Who cared what she thought? He told her he was fine and that all the lost fingers and toes were just random accidents. The doctor rolled her eyes, huffed, and then stalked away. After that, the heavyset black nurse came in and looked at him with a scowl.
“Why are you here again?” she asked. “I don’t know what the hell it is you’re doing, but it’s getting tired, Mr. Wise. Real tired.”
Joel nodded at her and said, “Duly noted.” She gave him the stink eye and left the room.
The hospital released him the following afternoon. This was a real problem, Joel thought. If different dogs wouldn’t summon the muse, what could he do? Maybe he would have to hire a ghost writer to finish. Maybe the seven solid chapters he already had would be enough to make it a good book. Not as good as it would have been if he were allowed to finish it the way he’d been working, but “almost as good” might have to be good enough.
Joel considered this for the next two days. Hagar, thankfully, never came back. Good riddance, Joel thought. He considered purchasing a new fingers- and toes-eating canine, but he knew it wouldn’t work.
Even if he figured out a way to complete the book at the same quality he’d been writing, he’d now completely wasted the toe Hagar had run away with. The thought of this made him irrationally angry and he decided he would track down Hagar and shoot him with the Luger his grandfather had given him. Joel still had enough fingers to pull the trigger. Besides, now that Joel’s writing had stalled, he had nothing else to do.
Joel went upstairs and rooted around in his closet, locating the old shoe box buried beneath a stack of nudie mags. He took the box down and set it on his bed, opening it and looking at the pistol. He took it out and felt the weight of it. The World War II relic still looked as nice and shiny as it had when his grandfather had given it to him decades before. And it was still loaded. Joel’s reasoning for leaving it loaded was that if he ever had a need for it, it would likely be an emergency situation, so keeping it loaded made sense.
With the Luger in the passenger seat beside him, Joel drove around the neighborhood searching for the stinky flea-ridden bastard. He searched for several hours, but did not find him. Instead he found something else—Lizzy! Seeing his collie standing between two houses, Joel parked the station wagon on the street and climbed out to get her. When he approached her, Lizzy looked at him hesitantly. Perhaps these past few days of freedom had given her a new outlook on life—a life that no longer included Joel. However, when he squatted down with his hand out, whistling, her ears perked up and she bolted towards him.
He patted her head and called her a good girl. “You wanna go home and get some din-din?” Hearing the familiar phrase, Lizzy allowed him to pick her up and carry her back to the station wagon.
After the six days he’d spent Lizzy-less and unable to write, Joel decided he would not waste anymore time. What if, God forbid, Lizzy died? Then where would he be? Within five minutes of having her back home, Joel had already chopped off another finger and tossed it her way. Hungry after her trip, Lizzy immediately snatched it up. She tried to eat it right there on the linoleum, but Joel dragged her to the backdoor and pushed her through the doggie door once again. Then he opened the door, went outside, and fastened Lizzy to the chain. He then ran to his desk and sat before his laptop, which was already on with the document open and waiting.
Joel started typing chapter eight. The blood was pouring through the dish towel he had wrapped around his hand, and there was blood all over the keys—somehow more than before. Nevertheless, Joel kept right on typing the chapter, which he believed to be his best so far. As he wrote this latest installment, he learned that Miss Annabelle, his lesbian schoolmarm protagonist was hiding a dark secret; as a young girl, she had stabbed her father in the neck when he’d attempted to molest her. As Joel wrote, he found himself feeling rather bad for this character, despite the fact that she was a figment of his imagination. But that wasn’t quite right, was it? Even though Joel would be credited as such, he knew he wasn’t the author. But then, who was? The idea of where the story was coming from fascinated him.
Once Joel was finished with the night’s work, he hopped into the station wagon and sped to the ER at Mount Sinai. The routine was pretty much the same as it had been at all the other emergency rooms and the doctors advised him to seek psychiatric help, despite Joel’s insistence that this been just another in a string of freak accidents.
This gruesome routine continued for another two months until Joel was left with a single digit—his right index finger. Cutting this one off would be tricky since he’d have no other fingers to cut with. Before going about this task, Joel had opened “voice recorder” on his laptop. With the function, he could speak the words into the computer mic. Then, afterwards, he would hire someone to type up the chapter. This would be chapter nineteen, which he believed would, thankfully, conclude the novel. All the pieces of the story were in place—Miss Annabelle had found her one true love in Sister Dorothy and the two had decided to run away to Mexico. As Joel saw it, this concluding chapter would likely be about them happily living out their days on sunny beaches.
And then, even though he would have no fingers or toes remaining, Joel would have the novel. A really, really great novel. Perhaps the greatest American novel ever written. Then he could purchase some prosthetic fingers and live out his own days on a beach somewhere.
But first he had to get this last chapter completed. Joel walked into the kitchen. Lizzy was already there, sitting and waiting, as if she understood how important the day was. Joel stood in front of the cutting board where he had cut off all those fingers and stared at it. Instead of his usual knife, this time Joel had a cigar cutter he’d purchased specifically for the occasion, ready and waiting. Prior to his needing it, Joel had never even heard of a cigar cutter. He’d never smoked a cigar before, and when he saw guys on television smoking them they were just biting off the tips. The cigar cutter was a small metal device with a hole in its center and two handles on the sides that obscured a blade. When the two handles were pushed inward, the blade emerged, slicing the cigar or anything else pushed through the hole.
Joel looked down at Lizzy, and the dog stared back at him as if she understood. But hell, she was just as much a veteran of the finger-chopping ritual as he was.
“Lizzy, old girl, this is gonna be one hell of a day,” Joel said, sighing. “A rough one, I’m afraid. But after this, we’re done.”
Joel pushed the tip of his index finger into the cigar cutter’s hole and slid the device to the edge of the counter. Once it was just beyond the counter’s edge, he was able to push his finger all the way down through the hole. Once the finger was inside, he was able to use it to lift the cutter. He then leaned in and turned the cutter on its side. This would allow him to press his left arm down hard against the handle, chopping off this Last of the Mohicans.
Joel felt sweat beads popping up on his forehead. This severing was more frightening than the previous ones had been. Despite having done this nineteen times before—nineteen times, could you believe it?!—he was scared shitless. He stood there, hunkered down over the cutter for a few minutes, trying to muster up the courage to go through with it. He didn’t really want to do it, but if he didn’t, all of this would have been for nothing. So, he concluded, there was no choice. He had to do it.
“Here goes nothing.”
He clamped his teeth hard—so hard he thought he might break them or injure his jaw—and he pushed his left arm down hard against the handle. The blade emerged, swiftly slicing off the finger. Joel howled, momentarily fixating on the blood spurting from the nub.
“Good Jesus fuck!”
The pain hurt tremendously. Joel was breathing hard and his face felt hot. Suddenly he was woozy. But he had to press forward. He had to do this or, again, all of this would have been for nothing.
Joel took a deep breath to help him regain his composure. He used his left arm to sweep the severed finger off the counter and onto the floor. This time Lizzy just sat there staring at it. She looked up at Joel with big dopey eyes.
“Eat the finger,” Joel said. “Please… Eat the fuckin’ finger!”
Lizzy watched him for a few seconds. Then she leaned down, as if she were a worker performing a tediously routine function and picked up the finger. She looked up at Joel with eyes that seemed to say “fuck you for making me do this shit”, and she trotted to the doggie door, disappearing through it.
Unable to pick up a dish towel without fingers, Joel pressed the open wound against the leg of his jeans. He went to his laptop and took a seat. The screen was in rest mode. Joel used his left hand to tap the keyboard and the screen came alive. The voice recorder was already up on the screen. The cursor was in the center of the record button just as he’d left it.
Joel used his fingerless hand to tap the touch pad. When he did, voice recorder began to record. As the words formed in Joel’s head, he said them aloud. It took him seventy minutes to talk out the chapter. But, to Joel’s horror, the story wasn’t finished. What he’d written led right up to what he presumed to be the story’s ending, but there was still another chapter to go.
Cursing with words no human had ever spoken before, Joel used his left hand to shut off voice recorder. He rose and stumbled towards the front door. He’d left the door standing open, so his only obstacle would be the storm door. He used the back of his profusely-bleeding right hand to press down against the latch and open the door. He had no way to shut the door and lock it behind him. He hoped his laptop would be safe, but there was nothing he could do about it. He stumbled down the porch steps, almost falling as he did. He approached the parked station wagon. When he went for the keys in his pocket, he realized his mistake. Without fingers he couldn’t retrieve the keys. Then, even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to get the car door open, insert the keys into the ignition, start the car, or steer. Joel was royally fucked.
And he was losing blood. Lots and lots of blood.
Maybe he could pay someone to drive him to the ER. He looked around the neighborhood, but saw no one. He stood there for a long moment, his eyes going from the empty street to the station wagon to his neighbors’ houses and then back through all of it again. He took a deep breath and started to say a prayer. He was halfway through the prayer when he blacked out and fell onto the grass.
When Joel awoke, he was in a bed inside a hospital room. There was no one in the room with him. Looking around at the walls and the layout of the room, he knew he was back at Maimonides, which was the closest hospital to his home.
Joel’s hand was hurting terribly. He tilted his head forward and looked for the controller that called the nurse. It was lying beside his leg. However, without fingers he couldn’t use it. He tried to use his bandaged hands to press against it, but had no luck. He then screamed and screamed until a nurse came to assist him.
After the chapter nineteen incident, Joel’s mother came to stay with him and assist with his day-to-day living. Joel waited nine days after his release to write his novel’s twentieth and final chapter. His mother had gone to the grocery store, and the Food Way she liked was thirty minutes away, so Joel knew he had time. He set up the computer so that voice recorder would be ready and waiting. Setting it up without fingers took a while, but eventually he managed.
Joel went to the bathroom. Standing in the doorway, he called for Lizzy. It took a moment, but the collie eventually came to him. He then led her into the bathroom and pushed the door shut. Since the removal of his last finger, Joel had worn pajama pants to make it easier for him to pull his pants down to use the restroom.
Joel used his fingerless hands to push the sides of his pajama pants down around his ankles. He opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. When he did, he found the cigar cutter inside where he’d left it. He used his fingerless hand to knock it down into the sink.
This was going to suck, but there was still one last chapter to write, and Joel had come too far to turn back now.
He had a difficult time getting the head of his penis into the cutter, but he did it. His dick became hardened as he attempted to push it further through the hole, its expanded width making it even more difficult. But finally he managed to scrape the length of his dick through the cutter. He then placed his nubs on the handles.
He looked down at Lizzy staring up at him.
“You want some din-din?”
Joel clamped the handles closed and the blade flashed out, cutting off his dick.
* * * * * * * *
Three years had passed since Joel cut off his dick. It had hurt like a sonofabitch, but he’d been able to write his twentieth and final chapter. It had been a hell of a price to pay, but Joel had completed his novel, The Schoolmarm’s Secret.
Joel now had state-of-the-art metal fingers, but he hadn’t been able to replace his dick, so now he pissed through a catheter.
But he’d survived.
He was sitting on the couch watching Days of Our Lives when Lizzy started barking, letting him know that the mailman had come. Joel leaped to his feet and made his way to the door. He stepped out onto the porch and went to the mailbox, where he plucked out a thick stack of envelopes. There were eight medical bills, a grocery advertisement, and the letter he’d been waiting for—a response from Beaumont House Publishing. Joel turned and went back inside, staring down at the envelope.
He set the rest of the mail down on top of a pile of books on his desk. The stack of mail immediately toppled over, but Joel paid it no mind. He went to work tearing the envelope open. He had received seventy-three rejection letters so far and had been turned down by almost as many literary agents. But Joel knew what he had; he knew The Schoolmarm’s Secret was destined for greatness. Sometimes, he reasoned, a work of art could be so far ahead of its time that very few people recognized its potential. But it would only take one editor to see it for the masterpiece it was. And that editor, Joel believed, would be this one.
Once he’d removed the letter from the envelope, he raised it to his mouth and kissed it for luck. Then he began to read:
Dear Mr. Wise,
I regret to inform you that your novel is not right for Beaumont Publishing. I considered sending you a form rejection, but I felt this novel demanded something more. I have been an editor for three decades, Mr. Wise, and I must tell you that The Schoolmarm’s Secret is by far and away the single worst manuscript I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I know this sounds harsh, but believe me, I am doing you a favor by letting you know in no uncertain terms that you are a terrible writer. Not just terrible, but something far, far worse. Read these words and let them really sink in, Mr. Wise: writing is not your forte. I am telling you this so you don’t waste your time and efforts (as well as the time and efforts of other editors) repeating the painful process of writing things that will never be published.
You possess no talent, Mr. Wise. None whatsoever. I have read thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, and you are, by far, the worst, most untalented hack whose work I have ever encountered. I recommend you go and find something else that you are better suited to. Maybe something with your hands. But please, Mr. Wise, do the world a favor and stop writing now.
Samuel H. Janakowski
Joel crumpled up the letter and let it drop to the carpet. He stood there for a moment, wobbling and woozy, feeling like he might pass out. When he felt stable enough, he lowered himself to the floor and lay face-down, sobbing.
As he did, he remembered the nurse’s words: you’re doing too much. And she’d been right, he had done too much. Even worse, he’d done it all for nothing.