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Short Story Tuesday: Most people just cut their fingers

May 21, 2013

From the first day I met Catherine, I wondered what she looked like with no clothes on.

It wasn’t sexual. Okay, I’m a guy. Show me a lug wrench and my thoughts turn to, well, you know.

But Catherine Burke is something different. There’s an air about her, an aura, something that says “I’m gonna kick your ass if I want to and when we’re done, I dare you to hate me for it.”

A lot of people do. But they still listen to her, because she forces you to. Not by any coercive means, but because a presence of that size has a magnetic effect. And because she works hard at being beautiful. She says she has to because women who look fifty don’t work in radio.

And because when you think you have her figured out, she’ll flummox you because that’s what she does.

Catherine once ran a marathon on consecutive weekends because she’d already signed up for one and a friend begged her to be running buddies for the other. I ran ten miles last week and moved like I needed a walker for two days.

But it wasn’t the shape she stayed in and how her body must look like a piece of art, painstakingly chiseled over countless Florida afternoons on the running trail.

I wanted to see if Catherine would be vulnerable.

Outside of my marriage–the marriage I used to have–Catherine Burke was my closest friend in the world. In the sixteen years I’d worked with her, I’d seen her hurt, angry, shocked, and even devastated exactly twice. But I’d never seen her vulnerable. She didn’t do vulnerable.

Now my marriage was gone, ripped away by the cancer. My career was circling the drain. My reputation looked like the morning after the last frat party of the year.

And I didn’t have to push any of that away from my thoughts because I was about to see Catherine Burke in the most personal way possible.

She smiled at me, and blushed. I wished I hadn’t had the fifth beer, except that the beer was necessary for me to get to this point. For her, it was the wine. Maybe it was the wine that made her blush.

“You have to be nice about it,” she said.

“Nice about what?”

She didn’t look me in the eye, which surprised me. Catherine was the difficult discussion taken head-on, unblinking. She was the opposite of subterfuge and misdirection. No one needed to translate for her.

Her cheeks turned scarlet. “Jesus, Jim, I’m about to show you my whole body.”

The thoughts came in a rush that I couldn’t sort out. “Cath…I mean…we have listeners in part because guys would crawl through a field of broken glass to see–”

I thought her cheeks had turned scarlet. It turned out they hadn’t until I said that. She put her hand up.

“Jim, no schtick, please.”

I shrugged, kind of. The way a sixteen-year-old boy might his first time.

The blouse clung to her, which was nice. Rain in Florida is a pain. Three steps outside and you might as well have jumped in a pool.

The slacks were baggy, almost bohemian. Wendy–that was my wife–picked them out when they went shopping together.

“Most people would just cut their fingers a little and mix their blood together when making a pact,” she said. I was thinking almost the same thing, but I couldn’t say that. Catherine was more than a pact, or should have been.

She took a breath in like she was about to jump off a high diving board, then unbuttoned her blouse in one smooth downward motion, somehow managing to undo each button without breaking the motion. She wore a navy-blue bra without lace or other frills and her stomach looked like it belonged on a twenty-year-old. She turned away from me and reached behind her back, as women do, and undid her bra.

“Turn out the lights,” she said.

I stammered and my feet disobeyed the half-hearted order to move and do as she said.

“Jim.” Her use of my name wasn’t snarky or angry, but almost imploring,  as if it were vital that I not see her.

I wanted to object. If Adonis were a woman, she would pale next to Catherine. But after sixteen years of being a person’s closest friend, you pick things up. I turned the light off and only the lightning in the distance lit things, an ill-timed strobe light that didn’t allow enough time to really see.

Still, she turned and when the lightning played across her, I gasped.

“Jim,” she said, either annoyed or worried.

“It’s okay,” my voice said. It was stronger than I expected it to be.

She stood by the foot of her bed, looking down at whatever the false reality was that made her want the lights off.

“You’re beautiful.”

I’m pretty sure she blushed again.

“I’m cold,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.

I held out my arms and she moved until she melted into me. She shuddered and I held her tighter. She was soft and felt smaller than I thought she would and she clung to me as much as I clung to her.

“You’re shaking,” I said and she nodded.

I brushed her left breast as I reached between us to unbutton my wet shirt. When I did, she took in a quick breath. While I undid the buttons, I paid attention to the back of my hand, to what she felt like. She cupped the back of my head and moved her mouth to mine. Somehow, she’d managed to get a breath mint or mouthwash and her mouth tasted clean and new, like a promise.

I went to a Catholic high school, where each year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition mysteriously got lost in the mail on the way to the library–at least that’s what the Sister who ran the library said. I’m not married to Catherine. My wife hadn’t yet been cremated. I know what we were doing wasn’t holy in even the most tortured definition of the word.

But what we did that night seemed solemn. Everything else had been stripped away. The only thing left was her and me and for some reason, it felt like we needed to do this to formalize our union.

There was no sweaty conflagration of limbs or urgent grabbing and thrusting. No one ran their fingernails down anyone else’s back. No deity’s name was shouted. It was just her and me and there may as well have not been anyone else in the world.

And when we finished, she lay on top of me, her forehead tucked between my neck and shoulder, her arms drawn up between us, my arms draped across her back.

“Was this the right thing?” she said. Her voice sounded different this close up.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t know what to say to her. “I don’t know.”

I noticed that the lightning hadn’t flashed in a while. And that her ceiling fan had four big paddles that looked like spades from a deck of cards.

She nodded. “Yeah.” Then a few heartbeats of silence. “Can you hold me?”

I nodded back.

“It’s gonna be different tomorrow.” Her voice almost sounded a girl version of her.


“Let’s don’t go there now.”

I tightened my arms around her and she burrowed into me.


For the first time in weeks, I wanted to stay awake. And for the first time in weeks, I failed.

When I woke the next morning, sun violated her room and made me blink a few times before my eyes adjusted. She stood between me and the window wearing a white cotton dress shirt and jeans. Her hair was damp and her make-up was on and she held a cup of coffee in front of her.

“Coffee’s on,” she said. “Your clothes are almost dry.”

“Hi,” I said. “I slept great, thanks for asking.”

She sat in the armchair in front of the window, put the coffee down, and pulled on one of the black sneakers she’d pulled from among the throng of other footware that dominated her closet.

“Sleeping’s for wusses. I’m hungry. Get up.”

Florida’s hot in the summer, but it’s really not the heat. It really is the humidity. She wore a long-sleeved shirt with a paisley vest, each button fastened, up to about three inches below the collar. I followed her to Chik-Fil-A where she inhaled two chicken biscuits and a Diet Coke while I nursed a coffee.

When she finished, she crumpled up one of the wrappers, raised it over her head, and threw a perfect arc to the garbage pale the guy had pulled out to empty. It landed in the geographic center and she pointed downward with two fingers.

When she looked back at me, her normal sly, sardonic smile faltered and I saw the eyes of the person who wanted the lights out the previous night. Then she looked down at her Coke, drained it, got up and said she had to go.

One Comment
  1. May 21, 2013 6:14 pm

    Well done. Really, really well done. Ms. Karen Bain Local FL: 561 310 6236

    >________________________________ > From: Florida Writers Conference Blog >To: >Sent: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 11:23 AM >Subject: [New post] Short Story Tuesday: Most people just cut their fingers > > > > >Chris Hamilton posted: “From the first day I met Catherine, I wondered what she looked like with no clothes on. It wasn’t sexual. Okay, I’m a guy. Show me a lug wrench and my thoughts turn to, well, you know. But Catherine Burke is something different. There’s an air about” >

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