Fiction from Caleb Michael Sarvis
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Baylee opens the glass bowl of leftover salad and her left thumb falls off without a mark. It’s been numb for a few days, but now it rests atop spinach and grape tomatoes. Italian dressing coats the nail. She picks it up with her other hand. It’s knobby and soft, a leather-coated rock. The spot on her hand where it used to sit is closed and scarless. Maybe she never had a left thumb, perhaps a dimensional mirage, but mirages fade, barely leaving a memory. Her thumb rests against a crouton, undoubtedly present. The winter is a little worse this year. It could’ve frozen off. Baylee’s neighbor, a small, cheerful man, says he smells snow on the way. Snow! In North Port!
Roscoe, her husband, made the salad for a special dinner. He does it for himself. A little reminder that she exists, that she’s a present member of the household. He’s an inventor, so he can check out for a few days at a time. Maybe a few months. It’s kind of nice, because Baylee gets to catch up on cheap television and mindless crafts. She’s decided to finish her undergrad degree and has completed a few courses over the last year. He stumbles from the office, drunk with guilt, but it’s all momentary. He tells her it’ll get better, that one invention will satisfy his thirst, but his hibernations are getting longer and longer.
She rinses her thumb and wraps it in foil. She drops it in the freezer, the ice bucket, for preservation. Roscoe’s doing a headstand when she walk into the office. “Blood flow to the brain is scientific inspiration,” he says.
Baylee waves her hand. Her wedding ring shines brighter without the thumb. “Check this out.”
“Carpet that warms your feet,” he says to her. “It’s getting pretty cold out there.”
In their bedroom is a basket of unfolded laundry. She scoops a pair of socks, reaching with her left hand before switching to the right. When she tosses them at her husband he falls over. She studies him while he studies the socks. They stand like that, the Soviet Union and America, until he shuts his eyes and takes a nap. She calls the doctor and makes an appointment.
Her doctor is from Eastern Europe and speaks with an intention that doesn’t match his wandering eyes. He wears a fur shawl over his lab coat and tells Baylee the thumb fell off because it lost its utility. “Appendages are an evolving species. There are documented cases of them becoming existential,” he says. She can see his breath indoors. He is full fingered, no wedding band present.
“How do I inspire it?”
“Give it a little affection. Perhaps it will crawl back.”
When she holds her thumb to her face, it does droop in a familiar way. It’s something like slow disappointment, an empty house on Christmas. Baylee asks the doctor for one of his plastic gloves and he lets her have it.
She’s left handed and struggles to cut up one of her husband’s shirts. She turns the jagged fabric into a small blanket for her thumb. It wiggles in delight but doesn’t return to her hand. She rubs it against her cheek, and it rubs her back, but chooses to remain detached. The piece of her husband’s shirt isn’t warm enough. Cheap cotton fading in a drawer.
Baylee drops the thumb into the appropriate pocket of the doctor’s glove and shoves her hand inside before it can jump out. For a moment, it looks whole again, until the thumb thrashes about, its violence pulling the glove off her hand. It looks like it might suffocate, all panic and fear, so she frees it and lets it be for a while.
Over the next few days she doesn’t wear any makeup or straighten her hair. She paints the thumb’s nail and becomes adept at texting with one hand. Roscoe comes out once to remove a leg from their dining room table and returns to the office. It’s his first appearance in weeks. Occasionally Baylee hears their wedding song boom against the walls and she’s hopeful. That means he’s making progress.
The thumb squirms now. It nestles close, rubs its paddy head against her elbow, but still won’t reattach. She tries reading to it, but it only falls asleep. She grabs it and sits it on her hand but it remains independent. Baylee tries super glue, holding the thumb down tight, but it drops to the coffee table and seizes in a way so awful she doesn’t try anything else. She resigns to the belief that it’ll happen when it happens.
Baylee continues going to classes because it turns out she doesn’t really use the thumb when she types. It sits on her desk, thumping and distracting other students. When she raises her hand to answer questions, students murmur to one another. One day, a professor asks her to stay after class. She tells Baylee the same thing happened to her a couple of years ago.
“You shouldn’t be so casual about it,” she says and holds her hands up. Both thumbs, as well as the left pinky, are gone. “Inaction is just as sharp. When I remarried, I started to feel them again, but they never came back.” Her face shakes when she says this. Baylee doesn’t understand why she bothered remarrying.
The thumb worms about in her pocket. She thanks her professor and considers dropping the class.
Roscoe sits in the living room when she returns from a study session. His face is in his hands and the coffee table is dissembled and lies in pieces. She drops her jacket and scarf over the mess. The thumb sits in her breast pocket. It wiggles and peeks.
She sits next to her husband and rubs his back. He feels like an iceberg.
He turns to her, eyes dry and crusty. His curly hair is flattened by grease. He seems to be looking past Baylee, or at the top of her ear. He takes her hands.
The thumb hops out of her pocket. It crawls down her shirt, down her arm and attaches itself to its rightful place. There’s no separation line, as if it never left. It caresses her husband’s thumb, rubbing its own prints dull, a ravenous indulgence. For a moment, she can’t see the steamy clouds of their breath anymore.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s another world in there.”
There’s a tilt from the office, a mechanical gargle, an aluminum stretch.
“I graduate next week. Cap and gown and all,” she tells him. “I made reservations at Capono’s to celebrate after.”
Roscoe hugs her. His breath seeps through the cotton and onto her shoulder. It melts her nerves. His beard cuts through the fabric. “I’m so proud,” he says.
The mechanical gargle is louder now. From the hallway comes a robot that can hardly walk. It wobbles like a baby deer, using the table leg as a cane. Its face is made out of their wedding china, its mouth of their Panini press. It opens its mouth and the room’s ten degrees warmer. They’re both sweating.
The robot reaches forward and beckons Roscoe with its fork fingers.
“Finish me,” it says, its voice the grind of a garbage disposal.
Roscoe squeezes her hands. “Next week?” he says.
Baylee nods. Her thumb clamps down like a bear trap.
“Just a few more tweaks. She’s almost done.” Roscoe stands from the couch, pulls his hand from hers, and joins the robot by the hallway. He pets its face and kisses it on the forehead. Then disappears into the office.
Her thumb doesn’t drop off this time. It leaps. It bounces off the couch and onto the carpet. It crawls into the hallway and slips into the office before the door shuts. Her sweat turns to ice, dangles from her ear lobes. Baylee’s pinky goes numb. Outside the window, snow falls.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Literary Orphans, Panhandler Magazine, Flock, The Molotov Cocktail, Barrelhouse, Oyster River Pages, Yellow Chair Review, and Empty Sink Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis or come to Jacksonville and grab a beer.