It Aint Charity Puts Food on the Table

It’d been Aunt Lottie who’d lopped GG’s fingers off at the first knuckle just under the fingernail, hacking her way through with the same knife she used to de-bone whole roast chickens. For a while, we sat around the kitchen of Lottie’s apartment—GG, Etta, Allen, and the barfly Jamie, a slew of sweat-drenched bodies lounging across the Formica counter tops while the desperate neon of Larson’s bar sizzled up to Lottie’s window from across Main Street. Through the plate glass window, a man with no more meat on him than an over-cooked hot wing gnawed his way through the bar’s stock of pickled eggs. It looked as if he’d spent the week grinding the cartilage of his nose into the business end of a carpenter’s spoke shave. The whole thing was almost eaten down to the open sinus--blood and sinew frozen into a hard-bit mushroom from sniffing the burning chemicals that wafted up out of the forges on Ely Street.

            “Shit will eat right up into his brain,” Lottie said, meaning the burnt tire skink that laid over the city. “Shit will kill us all.”

            Cool runners of blue and green neon lit the cinderblock building from outside the wraparound window, highlighting more rows of rolled shoulders hovering over cups of nickel and dime whiskey. That same light flashed through GG’s hand, rolling over the newly ground stumps of her fingers where her skin dipped down into a loose U-shape when it had no more muscle to grip. Already GG was drying out, everything pulling back from the bone of her middle knuckles so that it looked like a white pistil surrounded by maroon-colored petals.

            “It’s kinda pretty,” Lottie said.

            She picked the whole of GG’s hand up by the wrist, bringing it closer to her face, business end first, so she could squint at the matted blood through her bifocals. Poor girl needed stitches, to be sure. Needed the better part of a whole hospital. In the time we’d been sitting there, the first few fingers on her good right hand had gone swollen with the same red that kept creeping down from the cuticle on her left.

            I wasn’t more than a year out of diapers when the red started creeping up on daddy’s fingers and toes. Wasn’t much to be done about it. Something from the Newton plastic plant over on Bayberry Hill—a slap-and-go set of corrugated steel warehouses run at a hundred and twenty humid degrees—settled deep into his lungs and grew until he was more a part of the plant than anything. Wasn’t cancer exactly. Even if it’d gotten its wires crossed somehow, cancer at least made like it might’ve been part of you. Shit was still human. What crawled out of the heat and the smoke of the foundry, what clung to our jackets and seeped out across our skin, didn’t have a lick of business thinking of itself as human.

            It’d be the same with the rest of us.

            Two weeks into a temp job at the Rockhill Foundry and the red on my cheeks started inching up towards my eye. For a couple days, the whole left side of my face itched like a mad bastard, and the world faded to a pale blur when I tried to look over my shoulder. Aunt Lottie promised she could get the eye out if I wanted, said it wouldn't even hurt so bad if I was still.

            Guess it would’ve made more sense for me and GG both to hit the local hospital. Trouble was, even while doctors ran their tests, drew their blood, and inspected their biopsies, the red in GG’s fingers would’ve crept up to her wrist, wrist would’ve gone to her elbow, then I would’ve had to hold GG down while Lottie sawed off her arm at the shoulder.

            “No,” Lottie said. “Easier to just deal with it as we see it.”

            While she sharpened her knife, dragging a whetstone across the already gleaming edge, Allen snatched a damp Marlboro from Etta’s purse, clamping it between the lipless gash of his mouth. We’d been up since damn near sunrise the day before, shrugging off the fumes from the forges while kids gathered at the street corner waiting for the Elementary school bus. They’d hired us all in for midnights after a walkway railing let loose, dumping part of the first shift crew into a pit of molten slag. Six men died. To save time and funereal charges, the Freedman family mortuary threw their parlor doors wide open so all of the services could be held at once. Their families pulled money and had the obituaries printed in the same running column. The foundries pulled their resources and brought us in at half the original salary. Wasn’t much else left between those of us that made up the new crew but a few two liters of Big Red soda and the leftovers from Lottie’s fridge.

            “Might as well someone eat it,” Lottie said, passing out grease-thinned paper plates. “Lord knows I’ll just wind up tossin’ it out.”

            Fifteen years since her husband retired to St. Joe’s cemetery and Aunt Lottie—a woman no thicker than the pages of a Gideon’s bible—still made dinner enough for her, him, and the two sons who’d been locked away in county for the last nine months. Ain’t so strange the habits we get used to. Right up until the day she died, my own momma fried enough breakfast sausage and eggs to tide over the whole of Glamorgan Highschool’s football team, a tribute, I suppose, to the seven brothers and sisters she’d left behind in Pittsburgh when she moved here with my daddy.

            “Jesus Christ, Glenna,” Daddy would say while Momma packed another set of leftover eggs into his lunch pail. “Gonna turn me into a goddamn chicken.”

            While I picked at the edges of a hot ham and cheese fresh off the griddle, GG sat with the ground ends of her fingers splayed out across the rose patterned tile. Wasn’t five star, as sandwiches go. Chances were, Lottie let mold grow along the edges of the bread holding my sandwich together, and I wouldn’t bank a buck on the sour bite in the cheese rolling around on my tongue.

            Hard times came different for everyone.

            In the window above the sink, GG’s reflection hung like a rough-cut round steak, all ribs and hip bones. She scratched at her cheeks with her right hand, scoring red lines through the muck of her skin. GG grew acne something terrible, had ever since we trudged through puberty together, long tracks of blackheads and yellow topped boils that swole up hot and bursting in the long days before summer break. Even after Danny Sonderst went up her shirt junior year in the empty baseball dugout between fifth and sixth period, no one dared kiss her for another three years.

            “Gonna get impetigo suckin’ on a bitch like that,” Allen used to say. “Pretty sure that’s how Day of the Dead starts.”

            It was Allen who drove us to Lottie’s. Allen drove with his seat slid forward, the knobs of his knees locked up around his ears so that Etta and Jamie, who were locked in the backseat at the mouth, hands, hips, and respective crotches, couldn’t slap at the back of his head every time a turn threw them into the car’s closed door.

            “Jesus Christ,” Etta said when Allen dropped the car’s front tire into another pothole, knocking Etta’s ear into the wall and twisting Jamie’s growing boner back against his thigh, “watch where the fuck ‘yer goin’.”

            A pearl drop diamond too big to be anything but paste and plastic hung from the mangled flat of Etta’s ear, the hook back caught in a fold of raw pink scar. Probably, she’d snagged the earring while cruising through one of the flea markets that peppered the dead-end of Main Street, pocketing plastic wrapped bracelets and broaches marked two for twenty-five cents.

            “Girl ’ll take anything that ain’t nailed down,” Lottie often said. “Wouldn’t take my eyes off a’ her for a second.”

            When the line blew on Etta’s injection mold, spraying molten iron and half cast rail car couplings across the workroom floor, it’d been Lottie she’d listed as her emergency contact. The official story was that Etta’s ear—still pierced through the lobe with a dangling bit of crystal—had to be peeled off Rockhill’s break room floor. Cops—long fingered accountant’s sons from out of town—wandered around the mill for a time, asking their questions and eyeing up the humid line of machines but never mustering up balls enough to go down it themselves. Real folk—town people who already knew about Etta’s ear, or at least had good sense enough not to ask—didn’t bother. After a time, seemed like most people had too much worry of their own to give much mind to Etta.

            “Now I don’t want you pickin’ when the scabs come in,” Lottie said to GG. “Ain’t nothin’ uglier than staph.”

            Runnels of sweat rolled over GG’s temples, matting the flat of her hair, which was dyed the bone searing yellow of a kitchen bleach job, into clumps at the bottom of her neck. Even with the hint of real summer thickening the air, Lottie kept the windows shut tight, manufactured heat blasting out of the wall- mounted heater in the hallway. Said a bit of fresh air wasn’t worth hearing the ruckus on Main Street. Said she didn’t want that mess from the foundries and the mill seeping in to where she lived.

            “After Herbert died,” Lottie said, “I swore I’d never let them have me, too.”

            Forty years Lottie’s husband survived with foundry ground deep on his tongue. The redness started in around his mouth, skin that cracked and itched no matter how much Vaseline Lottie smoothed against it and hurt no matter how much Ibuprofen Lottie made him take.

            Used to be, Lottie’d get called down to Larson’s where, in spite of  (or maybe because of) the encroaching threat of last call, a lot full of battered pickups, their tail gates and hitches draped with dust from the rail yard beyond the viaduct, idled like hard beaten field dogs. Albert Larson himself put in the call to Lottie after too many knocks at the bottle had her husband set for brawling. Scraped with him myself on more than one occasion. Brawny bastard bloodied my nose up, but I walked away with a runner of his cheek skin caught up in my class ring for the trouble. Seemed we could’ve gone blow most of the night, me stagger-stepping around broken bits of beer bottle, him laughing and tossing back shots of Lone Star bourbon.

            Come the time Lottie showed up, both of us stumbled out of Larson’s wearing bibs of blood across our chests. Couldn’t so much as swallow bits of bone broth mustered up from Lottie’s kitchen, my jaw hurt so bad, but the sly smile Herbert shot me over Lottie’s smile made worth all the while. Weren’t ever any charges filed against Aunt Lottie’s husband. You don’t live as long as Lottie without gathering up some favors. Albert’s own wife had herself a fair love for the Percocet that Doc Bilard prescribed for Lottie’s husband’s pain, each one a pastel Easter yellow that he’d left un-swallowed on the bedside table every morning.

            Mostly, Albert came to Lottie on his own, a wallet full of crisp wads of twenties, the feel of them all hard and stiff and clean as if they’d never been banged around or folded up at the bottom of someone’s purse, as if they’d never belonged to anyone but Lottie.

            “Breaks your heart,” Lottie’d said, “taking from people in the community like that, but then, it ain’t charity that puts food on the table.”

            In Lottie’s kitchen, Allen winked at GG and licked at the permanent pucker of his mouth. Rumor was, he’d passed out face first one Saturday in the cooler he’d been stocking at the Beer Depot Drive Thru on Watson. Wasn’t until Monday afternoon when Lila Egbert came stumbling in late for the first shift, eyes still blurry with hangover, that anyone knew he’d been missing.

            “Found him curled up back near the Schlitz,” Lila’d said. “Figured him for dead or drunk. Either way, I knew I’d be working the afternoon solo.”

            EMTs did themselves a hell of a job hacking and pulling at the freezer-fused skin until Allen popped free. With the coolers cranked up for summer, it took nearly an hour to pry him all the way loose.

            “You know how quick a beer skunks if you take it from cold to hot to cold again?” Lila had asked.  “Whole place would’ve gone skunk, and that’s my ass.”

            The bigger of the two men—Stephen by name, though I wouldn’t know him from Adam—threw Allen like a sack of potatoes over Lottie’s couch, leaving her with a list of instructions on how to best handle the frozen heap before heading off, fried bits of meat and clots of macaroni and cheese between the gnashing grindstones of his teeth. How Lila convinced the EMTs to take him to Lottie’s, I’ll never know. Don’t really want to know.

            Most times, she was happy to trade for what people couldn’t pay in cash: Allen forked over one or two Highlife’s long out of date that he’d squirreled away at the drive thru; Etta gave over with fists full of the jewelry she swiped, worthless mostly, but Aunt Lottie wore the rhinestones and glitter to church where she sparkled like a saint in the mid-morning sun. Jaime, whole as he was, didn’t bring nothing, but he didn’t take anything away, or have anything taken away. He was too young for that yet. Instead, Jamie just sat with Etta on his lap, blowing his own hot breath against the mottled scars on her face.

            “Oh God,” GG said. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

            What GG brought for the service of removing her fingers I don’t know. Could be her name went up on Lottie’s cork board next to her recipe for apple crisp and the other names with no time, no stuff, or no inclination to pay. Last week, cops found Bridget Liege splayed out between Korosy's grocer and the tenement block that ran all the way down to the high school bus garage. She’d been shot, a clean through and through that ended with the best of her stomach splashed across Korosy’s dumpster. Damn shame.

            As I laid myself across the flat of the kitchen table, I wondered what she’d want from me for my eye. Truth was, I didn’t have much. For a while, I bloodied my knuckles up for Lottie, taking out in blood what people don’t care much to pay. Kept my own name off the board. Across the table, GG cradled her spent hand. In the apartment block above Lottie’s, people—either night owls up too late or early birds prepping for what most still considered tomorrow—watched TV and fretted in the cold light of their half empty fridges. Curbside, men and women stumbled around in the stuttering red light of another Budweiser soaked midnight. Aunt Lottie threw in the last of her rancid cheese across a set of double tops from a package of hamburger buns. When she bent over me, Lottie’s knife picked up the light from Larson’s. I tried to keep real still.

            “Who’s ready for another sandwich,” she asked.

Kacie Prologo is an emerging writer and a student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program. Kacie's work has been featured in Calliope and has taken first place in the Echo Student Literary Competition.