HomeSouthern VoiceThe Man with Burnt Fingers

The Man with Burnt Fingers

by Talya Boerner

I lean over the wrought iron rail and tilt my phone to capture the perfect shot. Overhead, a sapling clings to sheer rock, its yellow leaves filtering the midday sunlight. Water trickles down the vertical overhang appearing to seep from the exposed tree roots above. Pooling and spilling into a sinkhole below, the stream makes no sound, silenced by moss growing along the edge.

“Wow,” I say under my breath, speaking to the afternoon.

“Yeah, wow.” He stands only a few feet behind me. Spellbound by this place carved into the mountainside, I didn’t hear his footsteps on the crunchy gravel pathway.  Other than white Converse shoes identical to mine, he wears solid black.

Black fedora, black shirt, black jacket, black everything.

He has an Abraham Lincoln tuft of reddish-brown hair jutting from his chin. I file him into a category reserved for the hip and cool and possibly bizarre.

Musician? Artist?

His colorless eyes would likely be his most distinguishing feature if not for bulky white bandages covering every finger on both hands.

“You probably don’t smoke,” he says in more of a statement than a question.

“No, I don’t.” What category has he slipped me into?

“But can you strike a match?” He dangles a cigarette between his lips. With clumsy hands, he waves a red matchbook, the complimentary type often left near restaurant cash registers.

“Sure.” I tear off a limp match. Who can’t strike a match, I wonder? Other than a man with bandaged fingers, of course.

I hold the flame to the cigarette tip, and we both cup the space around the match to shield it from the afternoon breeze. I feel the rough wrappings across his fingertips.

“What happened to your hands?” I watch the match burn, and then I blow out the flame, leaving a sulfurous smell that dissipates quickly.

He proceeds with his story, one of the many stories buried inside this man I somehow happened upon in Eureka Springs. Or did he happen upon me? “Yesterday while my eighty-three-year-old mother cooked breakfast, the toaster exploded. The flames were huge, even scorching the bottom of my cabinets. ” To demonstrate the blaze, he circles his heavy hands through the air in loops. Cigarette smoke streams from both nostrils adding to the effect. “Without thinking, I grabbed the toaster and flung it outside,” he continues, scowling at his hands as though grappling with his bad fortune. I grimace at the thought of such searing pain.

“Did you go to the doctor or is this a homemade bandage job?” Dingy stains mark his dressings. Around the edges, the visible tips of his fingers protrude, swollen and purple.

“I can’t afford a doctor. I’ll be okay,” he says.

I’m not so sure. “Are you a musician?” I ask.

His expression brightens, and he seems surprised by my question. “Yes, which makes this suck even more. I’m out of commission for a while.” He squeezes his eyes shut and with heavy hands strums an air guitar. I shudder at the thought of steel strings against scorched skin.

We proceed into the mundane introductions of sorting ourselves into classifications that superficially define us. What do you do, where do you live? Quick — in this small Ozark town as we travel through this random moment, tell me what I need to know about your life.

What’s worth telling?

I consider weaving a story more remarkable than my truth. As a writer, I can easily drift between reality and fantasy, yet I hear my boring existence spill in one shallow breath. “I was a banker for years, but now I’m a writer. For the next ten days, I’m in residence at Dairy Hollow down at the end of Spring Street.” I point in the direction of my temporary home. “I live in Dallas, but I’m originally from Northeast Arkansas, the Delta area, near Memphis,” as though the mere mention of Memphis enhances my life.

He appears interested, nodding and smiling in all the appropriate places.

I inhale and tag him. “Your turn.”

“Like I said, I’m a musician. I’ve lived everywhere. Portland, Phoenix, Sacramento. I moved back here because I love it — the trees, the seasons, the culture. Plus I have family here.” His voice fades, he takes a long drag on what’s left of his cigarette, squints his eyes as though in deep thought then adds, “I drove through Dallas one time. Once was enough. All that traffic and those high overpasses.”

I smile, thinking back to my first memory of Dallas traffic some forty years ago. We’d never been anywhere larger than Little Rock. “Don’t say a word until we get through Dallas,” my mother warned. My father was crazy-nervous driving in all that bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic underneath scrambled overpasses that reached high into the endless hot sky. I sat in the back seat coloring and held my breath until we escaped to the other side of the city.

“So, what do you write?” he asks.

“A bit of everything.” A bit of nothing.

He moves closer as though to gossip or divulge a secret. “Well, since you’re the creative type, I’ll show you something I’ve been working on for years.” His pale eyes widen. I take a half-step back from cigarette smoke and day old cologne. “I haven’t let very many people in on this, but I know you’ll appreciate it.”

With a nod, he motions and walks toward a nearby park bench. I follow although I’m not sure why. A woman jogs past us, jerked along the sidewalk by her exuberant terrier. She smiles as though to say, I know, I know, I need to train this insane dog. I nearly blurt out, I have two untrained dogs myself, so it’s okay. I understand. I considered joining her, leaving this stranger’s story untold — Hey talk to you later, Mummy Man, I see someone I know — but I don’t. By now I’m curious. Plus, I rarely jog.

We sit, and he comments, “We’re wearing the same shoes.” We both stare at our feet, and I realize his are cleaner than mine. “By the way,” he says, “my name is Josh.” He pulls a package of traditional red playing cards from his jacket pocket, the type my parents used to play pinochle a million years ago with Arthur and Mattie Bullion. Although black electrical tape completely wraps Josh’s case, I know the word Bicycle is hidden underneath.

While his awkward fingers fumble with the cards, I mull over his name. Josh? I have the urge to take the deck from him and slip the cards from the pack the same way I want to finish the sentences of my ninety-year-old father-in-law. Instead, I study his face, the stubble around his upper lip, the scar over his eyebrow. You don’t look like a Josh. Not at all. You look more like a Sid or Iggy or even an Eddie, as in Van Halen or Scissorhands.

His cards are cut down from poker-shaped to square. Along the four edges of each card, one word is scribbled in black marker as though hurriedly written between smoke breaks.

“I’ve researched this for years,” he says. “I’ve come up with the only words needed to describe or interpret every single thing in life.”

“Are these similar to Tarot cards?” I hear the skepticism in my voice. Years ago, I worked with a woman who carried a pack of Tarot cards in her briefcase. She held readings in the bank lunchroom and always seemed jealous when mine revealed a happily ever after ending.

“Exactly, but my cards make sense. No one knows what the hell a double sword is, but these cards are simple. Each word represents a clear, easy answer. Go ahead … ” He passes the deck to me. “Shuffle, touch the cards, sort them however you wish.”

Shuffling small, square cards is more difficult than standard cards. I messily sort them hoping life issues are not determined by these defaced cards hand cut and handmade by someone who doesn’t look like a Josh.

“Ask a question,” he says.

I ask the question forever on my mind. “Will my book be published?” I immediately add, “Is that an okay question?” Why do I do this, second guess myself even with a silly question asked of a ridiculous card game with a complete stranger?

“It’s a good question. Now, pick five cards and lay them in a vertical line.” Josh Scissorhands continues explaining the rules of his life-deciphering card game. “The words facing you will speak to your question.”

Card One:  Awake. He nods his head. A bright orange leaf floats above us. It circles before landing on the concrete bench, completely covering the first card. I pick up the leaf. It’s larger than my palm.

Card Two: Begins. He smiles. “So see, your cards are positive. You’ve set out on a new adventure with your writing … an awakening.”

Card Three: New. With the third word, he seems overly pleased, and although I am entertained, I know I can connect any random word to a plausible explanation.

Card Four: Father. He frowns and shakes his head, defeated, as though the magic evaporated in an instant from our park bench. He searches my face for clues and says, “I can’t tie that word to the others. Father? Do you have any idea?”

“Well, my book is about my father,” I explain.

His eyebrow lifts. “I told you these cards work.”

Card Five: Crime. “Well, that’s random,” he adds. Again, he looks to me for validation.

“I have no guesses about that one,” I say and shake my head, unwilling to share the story of my father and how he once extinguished an unfiltered Camel cigarette on my arm just below my small pox scar. Forty years later, I feel the round hole searing through my skin.

“Now I’ll choose a card to symbolize you.” He passes the deck back to me with instructions to cut the cards once more.

He flips over the top card. Nurture.

“Are you a Cancer?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“It’s obvious. I knew it when you asked about my hands. Cancers are the most nurturing of the Zodiac.”

“So what’s your sign?” I ask with a straight face, yet the words sound more like a cheesy pick up line.

“Aries. Aries is one of the four fire signs.”

“So that explains your burned fingers,” I say. He stares at his hands in disbelief. Had he not yet considered this cosmic correlation, which, by his rationale, should be obvious? Fumbling with the package of cigarettes, he removes one yet says nothing.

“Another light?” I ask striking the match. The breeze immediately snuffs out the flame.

“So you never smoked?” he asks.

“Only one week in junior high.” I strike another match and watch the tip of his cigarette glow. “I stole a package of Vantage from my mother’s purse and smoked them with my best friend sitting in the back row of the Malco theatre.” He laughs. “The floor of the Malco was always sticky from spilled Coke.” I’m not sure why I add the part about the sticky floors, but it seems like an important part of the story.

With a pause in our conversation, the wind seems to change direction. A flurry of leaves fuss and twist before blending with the others already beginning to dry dull brown. Pulling the collar of my sweater closer to my ears, I stand to leave. “It’s been nice chatting with you, Josh.” I zip my jacket and wish I had brought gloves.

“Well, since our paths will never cross again … ” He offers his hand, and we shake, lightly, carefully, his bandages coarse against my cold fingers.

The uneven sidewalk, hidden by piles of autumn leaves, bulges and drops without warning, imbalanced from years of swelling tree roots. My feet shuffle as though wading in deep snow. I consider the burnt-fingered man. With one chance meeting, his story becomes part of my story, something I carry with me. A purple morning glory trails over the rock wall that leads back to Dairy Hollow. I snap a picture and check to see the photo is clear.  The flower, more black than purple, seems curious against this brilliant orange landscape. With tonight’s hard freeze, I know this may be my last flower picture of the season.

Talya Boerner is a Delta girl who grew up making mudpies on her family’s cotton farm in Northeast Arkansas. After 30 years as a commercial banker in Dallas, she has returned to the state she loves. She blogs at Grace, Grits and Gardening, and has been published in Arkansas Review, Front Porch Magazine and several online publications including the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute blog. She loves to cook and believes most any dish can be improved with a side of collard greens. Her first novel, The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee, will be available in January 28 through SYP Publishing.

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