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   t h r e e -q u a r t e r s    s t i t c h e d

--- M A R K   W I S N I E W S K I

With a diamond ring in my apron chest pocket I'm kneading eggbread dough, and the gushy warmth around my fingers reminds me of whoopee with Junie, and I tell myself, as I knead, that I shouldn't marry for whoopee only. I divide into thirteen loaves and bake and remove, and during cooling Waju, my brother who runs the bakery with me, walks in through the rear door. Waju is twenty years older because Ma had him eight months after she and Pa married, and me ten years before they died and left us the bakery--me a year after they figured her time for children was done. Waju is married to Sophie, who I saw cheating on him while they were engaged and he was cooking for the lines in the Big One. With Pinky of Pinky and Jo-Jo's Bowl, she was cheating, right on the hood of Pinky's Ford, with she on top telling him to relax, and she might have seen me see her but never said a smidge about it, just gave me a look the next day I'll always remember and still sometimes see when she waits with a sale for the cash register.

See, Sophie helps us at the bakery sometimes. Anyway she's not there when, like I say, Waju walks in through the rear door. Where she is I don't know, and Waju probably don't either, and he looks at me like he's got good news and says, Let's see it.

What, I say.

The diamond.

I stick a finger in my chest pocket and feel nothing, so I stick in two and feel all the way into both corners, then pat all my pockets with both hands, powdering my dupa with flour.

So you're still chicken, he says.

No, I'm not, Waju. I bought it and had it in this-here pocket. And it's gone.

With wings it flew out?

No jokes now, I say. I paid four months' profit share for that thing.

The door to the storefront opens and Sophie walks in. She ignores Waju as usual and grabs an eggbread and sets it in the slicer and flips the switch. What's gone, she says, giving me her look.

Nothing, I say before Waju can answer. I donít want him to tell her what's gone because of course she don't like me and if she knows my intentions she'll fib to Junie bad stories about me so Junie'll say no when I propose. And then, to convince Junie, I'll have to explain that Sophie said this and that because she don't like me because I witnessed her wartime cheating, which means Junie might then mention the cheating to Waju--and I donít want Waju to feel hurt. Hurt he's had enough of. Before he met Sophie, when he played baseball semi-pro, he loved an Irish girl Kate, and Kate was gentle like an angel and loved him as if he were Christ, but he took her night-fishing one November and she caught a pneumonia Dr. Vraszak couldn't cure.

But you said something was gone, Sophie says now. Waju and I look at each other, and she turns off the slicer. Jesus in limbo she says. Lost a finger. She says this calmly, like she usually talks, and she's always fibbing about health problems--corns, bunions, ringing-in-the-ear, cancers--so I donít look over, just again pat my pockets.

Waju walks toward Sophie quickly, which isn't like him, and stoops in front of the slicer and picks up something pink. No blood on it, but then I see drops falling off the slicer blades faster than rain from the top of a clogged downspout, and Sophie has a look on her face I've never seen--like an infant sleeping, she looks--so I know she ain't fibbing. Waju holds the bloody hand high and says to her, Okay, let's relax. And to me he says, Get a clean washrag.

All used, I say.

Then a dirty one.

No dirty one, Sophie says, fainting against his side. Use an eggbread, she says, and Waju shrugs. So I walk a loaf over and Waju hands me the loose finger-half and holds the bleeding stub steady and brings down the soft side of the loaf so the stub plugs on in through the crust. He takes her good hand and has her with him hold the eggbread steady, then leads her out the rear-door, and I follow.

We get into their Rambler with Sophie sitting between me and he, with me now holding up and steady the eggbread and she resting her head on my shoulder. She fades enough to look gentle, almost like Kate, and Waju misses a stop sign, and the sliced-off piece in my palm cools like a miniature crueller.

We pass St. Josaphat's where they married, and I realize he's headed away from the hospital. To emergency, no? I ask.

To Vraszak, he says. Emergency takes forever.

Vraszak's no surgeon, I say.

He stitches, he says. He stitched my shoulder good that time I tore it sliding into third.

And he owes us for ham, Sophie mutters. So when he bills, we can call it even.

Relax, Dear, Waju says, and I wonder: Where's that gosh-darned ring? I took it from my pocket before I began kneading? I wonder, and Waju floors the pedal. I wonder too what Junie is doing, and I look at Waju biting his lower lip and Sophie gentle only because she's woozy and think: This is family. And family is what happens to love.

At Vraszak's, Waju explains to the typist what happened and she says to sit, and Sophie says Vraszak owes us for six pounds ham--and we get in. Vraszak is on the other side of the wall vaccinating Virgie Gladowski's screaming little ones, and for a second I think maybe it's good the ring's gone: maybe I should reconsider marrying. See, I donít take screaming well, never have. Waju does, but thatís because, when he played the semi-pro baseball, fans for the teams he'd pitch against would scream cuss-words at him in the ninth inning, so, to him, screaming means he's almost to victory. His problem now, though, is silence, because Sophie and he never scream anymore. In fact they rarely talk. As his brother I know this bothers him--and too that he ignores why it bothers him--and, as we three sit watching the jars of tongue depressors and cotton balls, I understand why he prefers to ignore: his wife just lost half a finger and he's holding her good hand and scratching her back soft-like--and she still won't say boo. I still have the sliced finger-piece half in my hand when Vraszak closes the door and says, How are we?

Minus half a third finger, Waju says.

Let's see, Vraszak says, and Sophie raises the eggbread, which Vraszak removes and tosses there in his wastebasket, and blood runs. Minus it is, he says. You bring the remainder?

I hold out my hand and open.

Clean slice, Vraszak says. Good.

He steps to a table and gets a needle and brown stitch-thread. He has a blind man's time threading the needle. Keep your arm up on an angle like that, he tells Sophie. So I can see what I'm doing. Then he takes the piece from my palm, rinses in alcohol, and goes to work.

While he stitches, he talks. His voice is the only sound in the room except the snips of the scissors and a Gladowski girl crying, and he talks about his last vacation up north to Door County, and how he and his wife took walks there and got to talking about their younger days--and how their talk helped them again fall in love. Sophie, while he talks, is gazing at the ceiling, and Waju is watching the needle, and I'm looking back and forth between them knowing they know that Vraszak knows Waju loved Kate and don't get along with Sophie: Vraszak is not only trying to attach two finger-halves, he's trying to attach two hearts. And because no one's answering him makes me sure he'll fail. He might get that finger to heal itself together, but those hearts, Waju's and Sophie's--forget it.

After he announces stitch sixteen, he quiets to sew only, and I keep thinking Where's the ring? I need to find it because it cost hundreds, and I need to give it to Junie to keep us loving because she herself has been quiet lately, and that bothers me. The ring, I think, should get her talking again. Then I think: What if it don't?

You need me here still? I ask Waju.

No, Vraszak says.

Waju? I ask. Okay if I go?

How will you get back? Sophie asks.

Walk, I say. I want my brother to answer, but all he does is watch the two finger pieces, which are three-quarters stitched but still apart. I tell myself there's nothing I can do, then tell Sophie good luck, squeeze Waju's shoulder and leave them to themselves and Vraszak's stitching.

Outside the office, I run like on fire. I pass St. Josaphat's, where I too will marry--if Junie wants to. I realize I left the bakery's rear door unlocked and run faster. And if I donít find that ring, I think, I might lose the love of my life. I think about how last I was over eating dinner with Junie and her parents, this guy my age Bruno, the son of Pinky of Pinky and Jo-Jo's Bowl, called and asked her out. I think about how she didnít say yes but stayed on the phone long, and how, while they talked, her ma offered me more meatloaf, more pierogis, more gravy and more kapusta, and how maybe the reason her ma was extra-nice then was because mothers donít like men who make secret whoopee with their daughers--and she knew more about Bruno and Junie than I do.

I reach the bakery's rear door and run in. For the ring I look on the floor, on and under the trays, in the open flour sack I used, between lard cans, under the silver tables, in the bathroom, around the bloody slicer, but: nothing. The phone rings and it's Junie asking if I want to go bowling later. Sure, I say, and I tell her I'm busy and hang up because maybe the ring is in one of the eggbreads I baked--and I see that they're gone off the cooling rack. I run out to the storefront, where the customer door rings shut and the Lutz girl is closing the register. I glance at the eggbread shelf and count twelve. Something wrong? the Lutz girl says.

You sell an eggbread? I say.

Yes, she says, and she smiles to show to me her teeth, which are yellow and crooked but still sexy.

You're kidding.

Nope, she says. I talk up your product and move it.

The Lutz girl, I know, is sweet on me. She's always grinning those teeth and asking about honey-glazed donuts when she slides cookies in the counter so I can see her rising uniform-dress show her thighs. She's too young for me, the Lutz girl, maybe eighteen or so, and she is an employee, and anyway I love Junie and when I love, I love one and that's it.

Shoot, I say.

Why shoot?

Because I need it.

Need what? she says winking.

That eggbread.

A fresh cherry-filled won't do?

No. That eggbread might have something in it I need.

Like what?

It's a secret. Who bought it, anyway?

Pinky, she says.

Bowling lane Pinky?

Yeah. His family's having a big-to-do dinner now. And he told me a secret of his own.

I picture Pinky's son Bruno slicing the eggbread and finding the ring--and using it there to propose to Junie.

Trade? the Lutz girl says.

What you mean?

You tell your secret and I tell Pinky's.

I can't, I say.

Why not?

Mine's personal.

So is his.

I think: She and Pinky know Bruno and Junie are making whoopee. Then I think, No. You're in love and imagining jealous.

Come on, she says. You'll find it interesting, she says, and she licks her teeth in a softer smile that pulls me toward her.

Interesting? I say.

Sure, she says, lifting her uniform skirt to scratch near her garter-snap.

Sex, I think. Everyone wants it--not just those hippies on communes.

Okay, I say.

You first, she says.

I want to tell her You first, but I know she'll flirt back, and Bruno right then could be slicing. So I tell her, I lost a ring. And it might be in that darned eggbread.

Her eyebrows form the shape of those-there McDonald's arches. What kind of ring?

None of your business, I say. Just tell me your secret so I can go look.

She puts her lips so close to my ear I get gooseflesh, and a customer walks in, Mrs. Stahowiak.

Hurry, I whisper, because the Lutz girl's breath tickles and Mrs. Stahowiak is looking and I don't want this scene back to Junie.

Pinky's family, the lips whisper, is eating Little Karen's pet rabbit.

Who's little Karen? I whisper.

Pinky's daughter. You know, Bruno's sister.

Mrs. Stahowiak faces the day-olds, so I enjoy the gooseflesh a little longer. That's a good secret? I say.

Why sure. Because Little Karen don't know. Pinky told her he gave the rabbit to the Humane Society because she wasn't feeding it regular. But see, he didnít give to the Humane Society. He had it field-dressed--by Norm Skoronek.

The gooseflesh is so good I feel how easy a couple can cheat.

And in a low voice the Lutz girl says, Interesting, inna?

They're eating the rabbit right now? I ask.

Yeah. They're making the meal a big to-do so no leftovers to raise her suspicions.

A dozen prune-filleds, Mrs. Stahowiak says, and the Lutz girl touches my arm and walks off.

Put them eggbreads in back, I yell at her as I run to the customer door. And don't let nobody touch them.

Then I run to Pinky's house, which everyone knows is his because it's three stories he afforded with all that shoe rental money--and because his wife Jo-Jo pained it pink. I ring and knock and ring, and a little girl answers, and I say hello and she says, I'm Karen, who are you?

I need to talk to your father, I say.

He's eating, she says, and she shows me her own ring, something she probably got with gumballs.

I need to see him now, I say. It's an emergency.

What kind? she says.

The secret kind.

She frowns and leads me through their living room. Near their bathroom, I grab her shoulder and stop us and ask, You eat yet?

Just about to. Deer's meat from Norm Skoronek!

Don't eat that meat, I say.

Why not?

I can't say. It has to do with my emergency.

But I love deer's meat!

Donít eat it, I say, and we walk into the dining room, where Junie is sitting beside Bruno, who's ready-set to slice the eggbread. STOP! I yell at him, and he sees me and stops and elbows Junie. And that's what makes me know they've had whoopee-the way he elbows her, trying to hide it.

Whatís with the barging? his pa Pinky asks.

Hi, Paulie, Junie says to me with a new fake-gold-chunk necklace touching her bosom.

Hello, I say, and I donít know what to say next. I donít want to explain about the ring because I donít want Junie to know I bought it--and because Pinky bought the eggbread, so he might call the ring legally his.

I should've powdered, his wife Jo-Jo says.

Little Karen stabs a slice of rabbit off the platter.

This humidity, Jo-Jo says, makes my hair like a Brillo Pad.

Your hair's fine, I say. It's your eggbread you should worry about. I just got word from the flour company that the flour we use might contain industrial strength rat poison.

Little Karen sets the meat-slice on her plate--and the door bell rings. Get that, Karen, Jo-Jo says, and Little Karen rolls her eyes and runs off.

Probably Sophie, Junie tells Jo-Jo. I asked her to stop by to help us eat the you-know-what. She points her fork at a pile of stewed cabbage leaves beside the meat slices--where I bet underneath is the rabbit's carcass.

You're kidding, Jo-Jo says.

You wanted it eaten in one sitting, no? Junie says.

By us here, Jo-Jo says back. Not company who'll bad-mouth my hairstyle.

Little Karen returns with Sophie and Waju. Sophie's holding up her bandaged third finger as if she's giving us the bird.

Same to you, Pinky tells her, and, while she and he wink, everyone laughs--except me and Waju.

Doctor's orders is why she holds it like so, Waju says, but no one at the table seems to hear him.

Except Jo-Jo, who stands and crosses herself and leaves the room.

Whatís this about a diamond in this eggbread? Waju asks me.

A diamond? Pinky says.

Try poison, I say to Waju, and I hate the fact that I'm lying to my honest-to-goodness flesh and blood. Who told you a diamond?

The Lutz girl, Waju says.

The Lutz girl is crazy, I say, and I realize I'm bad-mouthing the Lutz girl because of Junie's whoopee with Bruno.

You gave the LUTZ GIRL a DIAMOND? Junie asks me. She's leaning away from Bruno, and Bruno's gaping at her mouth, probably because he donít like the fact that she cares to yell at me after she's had the secret whoopee with him. Waju too is frowning, but at me--for ruining business by saying our flour is poisoned--and Sophie is still giving Pinky the finger, but they're smirking--because they made whoopee that night Waju was off against Hitler.

HUH? Junie says to me.

I face Little Karen, and she scrunches her nose at me and forks a piece of rabbit toward her mouth.

I'M ASKING A QUESTION, Junie says.

Little Karen's still scrunching; she bites the rabbit-piece off the fork, then chews and sticks out her tongue and giggles like she's beating the devil. If she swallows, I think, she'll be like her father and Sophie and Junie and Bruno--wanting and doing without caring about consequences--so I point and say, Spit that out.

She grins so that meat bulges through her two missing teeth there.

SPIT IT OUT! I yell.

He's nutso, Sophie says.

NOW! I yell louder.

Why? Little Karen asks, and she chews.

Because, I say quiet-like. You're eating a darned rabbit.

It's deer's meat, she says with her mouth full.

From Norm Skoronek, Pinky says.

I take a fork from Junie's hand and shove aside the cabbage slices--and there, baked brown, is the carcass.

Little Karen stops chewing. Staring at the carcass, everyone is, and I point out for them a few black and white hairs on one of the feet.

THAT'S MY TOODLES! Little Karen yells. She faces Pinky and spits the meat; it hits his forehead and falls to his lap. Then she runs from the table into Jo-Jo in the doorway.

MY TOODLES! she says with tears in the eyes, and Jo-Jo takes and hugs her head. DAD KILLED HIM!

Beside Waju, Sophie points her bandaged finger at me. Why did you have to tell her, Paulie?

Because sooner or later, Jo-Jo says, we all have to spit it out.

What-now? Pinky says.

At least you do, Jo-Jo says back to him.

As do you, Waju says to Sophie.

As do you, I say to Junie.

Bruno sits back and folds his arms. Blushing, he is--and ignoring me.

What are you talking about? Junie asks me.

You know, I say. And if you donít leave with me now to spit out what you know in private, I'll spit it out here for everyone.

He is nutso, she says to Sophie.

I know they donít think I'll actually explain, because cheaters count on the honest--like me and Waju and Jo-Jo--to look away or keep quiet. And I've been quiet, I realize, because being quiet is easier.

So I point at Junie's gold chunks and say, You've been making whoopee. I point to Bruno and say, With him.

Donít talk like that around Little Karen, Junie says.

YOU GAVE HIM REASON, Little Karen says to Junie. I SEEN YOU WITH BRUNO. I SEEN BOTH YOUR BARE ASSES IN DAD'S FORD WHEN I USED TO GO OUT TO FEED TOODLES.

Bruno covers his eyes with his hand.

AND THAT'S WHY YOU KILLED TOODLES! Little Karen screams at Pinky. BECAUSE YOU DIDNíT WANT ME SEEING THEIR BARE ASSES WHEN I WENT TO FEED!

And I saw your ass, I say to Pinky. With Sophie.

Waju glares at Sophie.

Your brother's nutso, she tells him.

I donít think so, he says.

Youíre nutso, Sophie tells him. It runs in your family.

You think I never suspected? Waju asks her. After all these years of your Pinky-winks?

You made time with Sophie? Jo-Jo asks Pinky.

Pinky donít say a thing. He shakes his head. Then he sighs. Yeah, but before we were married, he says. Years before.

During the war? Waju asks Sophie.

Sophie donít answer, just blinks, chewing gum.

While we were engaged? Waju asks her.

She stares at her bandaged finger.

Huh? Waju says.

These stitches, she says, are making me faint. I gotta go, she says, and she walks out the room toward the front door.

Bull crap, Waju yells, and he grabs the eggbread off the table and follows her, and I think of chewing out Bruno but instead follow Waju, and the sound of Junie's fake-gold necklace chunks follows me.

Where you going? I ask her over my shoulder in the living room.

To apologize, she says.

Apologize to Bruno, I say, and I open the front door and walk out and close it, but she follows me out, where Waju is getting into his Rambler. He closes the door against Sophie on the street, then locks it and locks the others. I'm nearing the Rambler and they're both staring ahead, Waju through the windshield, Sophie at her tight white adhesive, and then Junie, behind me, says, Stop.

She grabs the back of my shirt and stops, so it's either let the shirt tear or hear lies, so I walk faster and my buttons pop and the back of the shirt tears and Junie lets go. Waju and Sophie ignore me as I pass the Rambler, and then I'm ahead of everyone. I want to turn and get in the car with Waju and tell him he and I should ride off alone, but his business is his business--and if I turned, Junie would think I turned for her.

At the end of the block, the necklace sounds no longer follow, so I slow down. I pass bungalow after bungalow, each one shut and painted nice, no extra stories or eggbreads or rabbit hutches or diamonds anywhere, just sprinklers going in front of the chairs on the porches. Some of the chairs have on them couples old enough to be grandparents, and some of the couples smoke Chesterfields and others drink from insulated tumblers, and none of them argue, just nod at me and watch their sprinklers hit their sidewalks and lawns and geraniums.

Then I hear brakes like Waju's squeaking beside me. Sophie's with him, I think, and they'll end up together, and together in their silence theyíll hate me. The Rambler pulls even and inside is Waju alone, and he waves me over and points to the passenger seat.

So I stop and get in. The eggbread he took from the table is on the dash, and he donít say anything. Neither do I, and he drives toward the bakery, but halfway there, a few doors before St. Josaphat's, he pulls over, and we sit.

He takes the eggbread off the dash, breaks it in half, and hands one to me. I figure he wants us to tear our halves again and again into halves until we either find the diamond or donít, but he sits holding his half and stares out the windshield.

Then he lifts his half, takes a bite from it, and chews.

And I do the same.

Kid almost swallowed that rabbit, he says, chewing.

Woulda gone right down the tubes, I say.

Then we both sit and chew, looking ahead.




First published in Black Warrior Review.

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