Jake Hostetter earned his MFA at Penn State where he didn’t write The Great American Novel. Instead, Jake felt out a collection of linked polyphonic narratives. “The Finger” isn’t a part of that, the story spawned from a side project about odd children and boxes.
With his finger, Joel doodled hearts in the dust on his shop counter. Inside he wrote:
Then a question mark so Ms. Flower would wonder Is it me?
Her hair was an ashen pompom. It curtained her face. When not hunching her back at Joel, she faced him at his counter. She jutted out her bottom lip, exposing it beneath her curtain of hair. Chewing on her lip, she was rabbity. The tic had a paralyzing effect on Joel, except for one finger. The finger opposite his doodling hand he curled then uncurled at Ms. Flower, communicating.
Ms. Flower recoiled.
To help her warm to the finger, Joel refashioned it. He located a pair of pinking shears behind his counter.
He chose a glove from several in the box for Lost & Found. He cut the glove into a scrap pile beneath a veil of guarded secrecy. He decided on the best finger pocket out of all the scrap pile. He began to wear it.
Now when he curled then uncurled his finger at Ms. Flower, addressing her, she reacted positively. No longer did she clutch her bosom, recoiling. She shook her head at him.
Ms. Flower shook her head up and down the narrow aisles of the shop. While doing it, she said, “Sprinkle.” The flakes that fell from her head she called sprinkles. Her job was to dust everything in Crepuscular Rocks & Relics. She performed the duty ritually, bowing first at a copse of ebonized armoires and then weaving between them to enter a dark aisle of whaling harpoons, fish hooks and hanging maritime flags, which rustled in the path of one metal fan turned on low. A midget submarine mounted to the ceiling by a teetering pulley system cast over the aisle a shadow. Beyond the flags and hooks, beneath a row of fishbowl helmets there was a mermaid figurehead with fading yellow hair. To fit it on the shelf, the figurehead was turned horizontally. Its painted eyes were flaking off.
Ms. Flower told Joel the figurehead required a touch-up.
The artifacts that Joel sold in his shop were sacred to her. She gave herself to them in bits, dusting them with her sprinkles.
The next day, Ms. Flower startled at a discovery. The figurehead was gone. Beneath the fishbowl helmets, there was a shelf of dust.
"I am a slave to antiques," she said to Joel. "To things, Mr. Crepuscular. Very old things. I thought we shared that.” She exposed her lip in a tremble. “But now I can see it’s the other way around with you.” Her mouth persisted in trembling.
Joel wanted to help Ms. Flower control the tremble. He wanted her lip to remain in one place, inert. An impulse told him to go across the counter where he could better help her. Hold her lip using his teeth.
Uncertain about the impulse, he squatted behind the cash register and stared at his finger. His finger curled and uncurled.
Ms. Flower asked, “Where do they go if not here?”
She started to map for him the scope of his betrayal by doodling her own feelings in the dust on the counter top. She gave Joel the dust. She would take it back with her squeaking hand.
To Joel, the sudden madness crazing her hand conjured out of the dusty glass a tornado. A small tornado tore through one heart he had doodled then another down the counter. He scurried to what would be the end of the tornado’s path, his final doodle.
He focused on the question mark, uncertain how to stop Ms. Flower from leaving in a cloud of dust.
In the weeks that followed, Joel continued to doodle on his shop counter. Without Ms. Flower to supply the dust however the signs he made were invisible.
The hearts he made were invisible.
The finger he continued curling he experienced severe tension trying to uncurl. He thought about hammering the finger flat on the counter. He thought better. The finger remained crooked while in rest.
The rate at which his hairline had been receding sharpened. A calendar hidden behind a grandfather clock confirmed that soon he would turn fourteen.
He phoned a notorious doctor. While talking to him, Joel heard what he believed to be another party listening in on their conversation. When he asked the doctor if he also heard the breathing, the doctor suddenly found space in his schedule to see him.
The day after, a customer who entered the shop whistling said, “Looking – just looking.” The customer looked only at Joel. “Never mind,” said the customer, turning abruptly to go. He left in silence.
After that Joel remained inside, phoning delivery boys and girls for everything the shop could not provide him.
He sat on his hands, anxiously awaiting the doctor.
Erratically, he disappeared up the stairwell at the back of his shop, beyond a sign on a music stand saying The End. Beneath the grime on the sign’s iron, there was grooved ornamentation, lines unfurling out of hands to skeletons rendered in obsessive although inaccurate detail. Whenever Joel slipped around the sign, he carried with him Vivianne, a snake. She coiled on his thin shoulder.
Joel picked his way with Vivianne from the stairwell toward his shop counter. They went up an aisle of medical equipment. The antennaed tools intermingled on shelves with rocks for meditation. Radiographs hung off the shelving margins on squares of aluminum tape.
Along the edge of one shelf however there were snowflakes cut out of paper. The shelf below the snowflakes held uncolored paper dolls. They lived there in a town of boxed dioramas arranged above radiographs of a skull, which made the town look built on frozen oil.
Joel stopped in front of the shelf to move a paper doll. He reached under the paper snowflakes, his hand moving to a neighborhood of boxes. Its shadow fell across a cul-de-sac of miniature mailboxes and a single pinewood car. It hovered above a mainly yellow diorama that contained one doll and a black cardboard stove. On top of the stove there were four burners. They had been painted with a reddened toothpick. They formed four exquisitely fine whirlpools. A speck of blue and a speck of yellow tissue paper decorated one burner, a back burner.
Vivianne said, Please. Her tongue flickered in Joel’s ear. She wanted to be jewelry and attach to his ear lobe. He ignored her until after he set the paper doll in another diorama. Then he told her No. “My ear is sore today.”
Tickling the inside of Joel’s ear with her tongue, Vivianne tried again. Sorry, she hissed. She began and closed each day by apologizing for his sores.
Joel snapped a roll of pennies in half against the edge of the open cash register.
“Lies are ugly,” he said.
Vivianne hissed, springing from Joel onto the counter where she coiled into a knot. She called Ms. Flower ugly, knowing it would stab him to hear.
“Ms. Flower was an honest beacon.”
Then beacons were ugly reasoned Vivianne, not lying, which Vivianne found to be artistic. Then she delivered an explicit apology, indicating Ms. Flower by name.
Joel asked her to shut up.
Sorry Flowers gone said Vivianne, fangs dripping with sarcasm.
Unable to muster the venom for a retort, Joel stuck his tongue out at her. Nothing wounded Vivianne more.
Vivianne curled inside of herself.
There was a knock at the shop door.
Vivianne loosened into a question mark. Who’s there?
“The doctor,” said Joel.
Against her will Vivianne held the swerve of the question mark, frozen suggestively near a penny Joel had seen however decided against picking up.
When Joel returned he said it was no one.
He dumped the items from the box for Lost & Found on top of the counter. A monocle clattered on the glass. Vivianne narrowly dodged it. She glared. Joel ignored her for the items now on his counter. He breathed on a pocket watch then rubbed it on his shirt collar. He formed a line on the counter starting with the pocket watch: pocket watch, apple, mustache, wad, black cube, several gloves of varying elegance and a Chinese finger trap.
The monocle Vivian coiled around, claiming for herself. Her glare magnified behind it.
Joel could only return her scrutiny after pasting on the mustache.
That night he again phoned the notorious doctor. At first the doctor apologized and then Joel did. The doctor would visit Joel on the following week. The current week had always been impossible. While they talked, a corner of Joel’s mustache began to unpeel.
Vivianne remained downstairs. Joel opened his cash register for business the next day and found her in the tray for one hundred dollar bills. She slept in the cash register, she told him. But she dreamed last night of the unfurling swirls on the sign at the back of the shop, the one that said, and she hissed it: The End. She and the swirls went dancing.
Vivianne became coy about what had happened next. She slid to an extremity of the counter by a jewelry display rack. Pendants hung off the branches on the side that faced Joel. She draped there on the branches, mixing with jeweled eyes and occult insignias.
The rest of the day, Joel persisted in asking Vivianne what had happened between herself and the swirls after they went dancing. Vivianne remained coy. During lunch, she admired her reflection on a spoon. Joel ate one packet of unsalted crackers. He rapidly ate four more packets. Vivianne said to stop it, she would tell Joel. He gulped a mixture of seltzer water and juice. Vivianne sizzled. She asked Joel a pair of questions. Before she divulged anything else about her dreams, Joel would have to answer one question. One was about the doctor, the other recent activity Vivianne had observed in Joel’s pocket. He answered the question about the pocket.
The previous night, Joel explained, he had met a worm. He now maintained the worm in his pocket. He showed her.
He opened his hand to present Rex.
Vivianne gasped, flinging herself off the counter. She fainted.
Rex writhed in Joel’s palm.
Joel sat Rex beside a dark spot on the floor. Then Joel flattened his stomach on the floor, touching his chin to an area of wood between upraised nail heads. He studied Rex who inched over the floorboards in front of him. Rex was leaking a streamlet of yellow acid. It pooled, halfway beading on the wood then fizzed, becoming thin whorls of vapor Joel breathed.
Rex began to form a loop. I show, said Rex in his simple accent. I show, he said again, daring Joel to trust him. I show you Flowers, Rex echoed the entire night and day after.
On the second night, Joel tweezed a splinter buried in his chin. He decided against pressing his chin on the floor for time increments exceeding four clock chimes.
Vivianne returned, apologizing for having left Joel. By the time she reached Paris, she realized she had made a mistake.
“Lies are ugly,” said Joel, lying on his stomach.
Vivianne spat at Rex, calling him ugly. She sprang at him.
They tangled in combat until Joel sighed.
He rolled onto his back.
He found himself under a midget submarine in front of a row of fishbowl helmets. He stared at the shelf there he had yet to restock. He crawled inside it.