‘Finger, Spinster, Serial Killer’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
‘How did you lose it?’ she asked.
I rubbed my fingers against my glass and turned to face her. It was a cheap bar, but she’d dressed expensive: red satin dress; loud, really well done makeup, a Coach clutch on the counter beside her.
‘You know, some people would consider a question like that quite rude,’ I said.
‘I know. I’m sorry. I bought you this to show you no hard feelings. I’m genuinely curious.’
She slid me a whiskey soda. I drained the one I was working on and set the new glass in front of me.
‘Did you think I was rude just now?’ she asked.
‘Actually, it’s a story I like telling. But first I have to ask, what’s it to you?’
‘Believe it or not I have a reason. I’m not just some tactless ditz.’
‘Alright, so what is it?’
‘When I was a little girl, there was a boy that lost his finger on the school playground. He grabbed the hinge of the seesaw when some other kids were using it, and the thing cut his finger straight off.’
‘Why did he grab the hinge?’
‘I don’t have a clue. But it must’ve made sense to him at the time. I guess we were pretty mean to him after that. He got teased a bunch for only having nine fingers. That was a long time ago. I wasn’t super nice to him either. His family ended up leaving town, probably for his parents’ work or something, but we all thought it was because the kid couldn’t deal with us teasing him. We felt pretty bad after that.’
‘So now you’re trying to make up for your past by buying nine-fingered people drinks?’
‘You could say that. But the real reason is, I’ve been hoping that I’d bump into the guy one day so I could tell him I’m sorry.’
‘And you thought I was that kid? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to ask me my name?’
‘I can’t remember it. Can you believe that? I only remember the names we used to call him.
‘You really were a rotten kid, weren’t you?’
‘Well, I’m trying to make up for it. So are you, or aren’t you?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘I figured once I heard your accent…’
‘And here I was thinking I’d lost my accent.’
‘It’s not strong, but you couldn’t miss it. Where is the accent from, anyway?’
I hesitated. What was this? Some kind of elaborate pick up line? To be honest, if she really was interested, it wouldn’t have been necessary. She was a very good looking woman and it’d been a lonely few months for me.
‘Trinidad & Tobago,’ I said, cool as I could, ‘down in the Caribbean.’
‘That’s where you lost your finger?’
‘You got it. I take it you want to hear the story?’
‘That’s why I bought you the drink, isn’t it?’
‘Alright, here goes then. I lost it in a bet.’
‘You’re kidding. You bet your finger? Who would even want it?’
‘It was a nice finger. I didn’t think the guy was serious when he suggested it, of course. You’re at a bar and someone offers a bet like that, you assume they’re drunk or joking, right?’
‘Maybe. I still wouldn’t take the bet, though.’
‘What can I say? I do stupid things when I’m drinking.’
‘You must’ve been the kind of kid who’d grab a seesaw hinge for no reason.’
She finished her martini and called for another. Then she picked the olive out of the empty glass and popped it into her mouth.
‘What did you bet on?’ she asked.
‘A goat race? Are you serious?’
‘Serious as a severed finger. It happens once a year in Tobago. They were airing the footage on the TV at the bar.’
‘Well, which goat did you bet on?’
‘I actually remember the goat very clearly. I could sketch a picture of it if you asked me to. I picked the goat with the least hair. I figured it would be more aerodynamic.’
‘But it wasn’t?’
‘If it was, it didn’t end up helping. You know, once I had a chance to reflect on it, I realized that the race wasn’t even being broadcast live. The guy who made the bet with me had probably seen it earlier—the bastard.’
‘You got swindled.’
‘Right out of my index finger. I’d have rather lost ten thousand dollars.’
‘So how’d he do it?’
‘With a cutlass. I didn’t even have a chance to react. I was stupid enough to have my hand resting on the counter, and when the race finished, before I even had time to negotiate with the bastard, the cutlass came swinging down.’
‘I’m just lucky it was sharp and he had a steady arm. He only got my index finger, which is what I bet in the first place.’
‘At least he was honest.’
‘I guess you can give him that.’
‘So what did he do with it?’
‘Beats me. I didn’t go back to that bar after that — not that they would let either of us back in, anyway. Plus, I was out of Trinidad by the end of the year.’
‘Did you press charges?’
‘Why would I? He won the finger fair and square.’
‘At least you’re a good sport about it, then. No sense crying over spilled milk, right?’
‘Right. That’s a good way to look at it.’
‘Well, I can’t get forgiveness from that seesaw kid today, but for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry that happened to you. If I were a gambling woman, I’m sure I would’ve bet on the same goat.’
She held out her martini for a toast, which I met, and then she downed the drink. She picked out the olive, and like before, popped it into her mouth. She even flashed me a smile, and it felt like she really was sorry that I’d lost my finger. I hadn’t been expecting that. I called the bartender over and ordered a fresh scotch and soda and another martini.
It was the least I could do in exchange for feeding her a lie like that. Truth was, it was congenital. I’d ripped the whole yarn off an old Roald Dahl story. It’s really the only interesting thing about me, and I hate giving such a boring answer when people ask.
I felt a bit guilty, because suddenly it seemed like I didn’t need to have lied. But lying to get a beautiful woman to talk to you in a bar was hardly unheard of.
‘We’re going to run out of things to say to one another if we talk about severed fingers all night,’ I said.
‘So, tell me about Trinidad.’
‘Whenever I talk about Trinidad, I end up sounding like a travel agent. Truth is, there’s not much going on there that I can tell you about.’
‘Nothing except for goat races.’
‘You’re telling me that a whole country isn’t interesting enough to sustain a ten minute flirtation at an Alphabet City dive bar?’
‘Or maybe I’m the one who’s uninteresting.’
‘No way you believe that! I can tell. You really don’t think much about your country, huh? I’m from a town of seven hundred people in middle-of-nowhere Iowa and I can tell you a thousand and one things about it before I run out of stuff to say. I’m not saying it’s an interesting place — it’s boring as hell — but things happen there.’
‘So tell me something interesting about it then.’
‘Okay, well down in Campbeltown — that’s my town’s name — back when I used to live there, we had a serial killer. Murdered thirteen people then disappeared. The cops thought that whoever it was must have been living right there in our town. How’s that for interesting?’
‘It’s a bit morbid. Not the kind of conversation I’d use in a bar to get someone to warm up to me — he killed thirteen people, you said?’
‘That’s right. Thirteen that we know of. But there’s always bound to be a few more, don’t you think?’
‘I guess that makes sense. Were you scared?’
‘It’s strange. Even though it was just a town of seven hundred, I always had the feeling it could never happen to me.’
‘Really? I figure most people would be paranoid, even in a town of seventy thousand.’
‘Well, there’s a bit more to the story. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘So you are interested.’
‘I never said it wasn’t interesting. It’s just that people come out to dive bars like this because their lives are miserable. The last thing they want to hear about is a small town tragedy, I’m sure.’
‘Your life isn’t miserable like everyone else?’
‘I didn’t say that. I just happen to be interested in those kinds of things. Plus, you can’t just start a story without finishing.’
She paused; took a sip of her martini.
‘Alright, get this! The real reason I wasn’t scared was that this serial killer didn’t just kill anyone. The thirteen people — they all had something in common.’
She paused again.
‘You going to tell me?’ I asked.
‘Just building suspense. A story’s no good if you can’t tell it right.’
‘Well, it’s working. What did they have in common?’
‘They were all spinsters.’
‘You’ve never heard that word before?’
‘Should I have?’
‘Hmmm, I guess not. Now that I think about it, I only ever use that word when I’m telling this story. A spinster is an old woman who’s never been married. But it’s a bit more than that. It’s a kind of sad word — a spinster isn’t just unmarried, she’s too old for anyone to want to marry her. It’s like she missed her chance.’
‘What’s the word for a male spinster then?’
‘Doesn’t exist. Men never get too old to marry.’
‘One of life’s little injustices.’
‘Anyway, this killer only targeted spinsters, like I said, so I didn’t feel like I was ever in danger.’
‘How old were you then?’
‘Around twenty eight, I guess. Not old enough to be considered a spinster, if that’s what you’re getting at.’
‘So what age do you become a spinster then?’
‘Definitely a lot later than twenty eight. But beyond that, no age in particular—’
‘It’s interesting, isn’t it?’
‘Well, let’s say you wake up one day with one wrinkle too many on your forehead and all of a sudden you’re a spinster. One day you’re not a target for this serial killer, the next day you become a murder waiting to happen. It’s kind of tragic, isn’t it?’
‘Sure, if the woman wanted to get married.’
‘Do you want to get married?’
‘It’s a bit sudden, don’t you think?’
‘Very funny — well, supposing we were madly in love.’
‘If we were madly in love, I wouldn’t rule it out.’
‘You wouldn’t rule it out? Who’s the cynic now?’
‘I’m just being pragmatic. You’ve been in love before, haven’t you?’ she asked.
‘Right. And did you marry her?’
‘I tried to.’
‘But it didn’t work out — there you go! Just because something’s going well doesn’t mean it has to end in marriage.’
‘But it does keep you off a serial killer’s hit list.’
‘Sure; I’ve seen people get married for less.’
‘So let’s say you’re a not-so-young woman living in Campbeltown in this serial killer’s heyday. The body count is racking up and he’s running out of victims. You’re not a spinster yet, but sooner or later,’ I snapped my fingers, ‘you’re next. What do you do? Do you marry just for the hell of it, or do you take your chances with a killer?’
‘I’ve moved to New York — in case you haven’t noticed. In a city of eight million, I’m sure I can meet some lonely sap who doesn’t mind a bit of grey hair, get hitched and move back to Iowa with my peace of mind. Problem solved.’
‘Would you ever really move back?’
‘Not a chance. And that’s got nothing to do with a serial killer, either. Seven hundred people is way too small. You understand.’
‘For me, one point three million people is too small.’
‘Is that how many people there are in Trinidad?’
‘More or less, although I feel like I’ve been using that figure for the last ten years.’
‘What about you, would you go back?’
‘Not if I had a choice. But visas only last so long.’
There was an uncomfortably long lull between the tracks on the speakers overhead, and the other people in the bar were thinning out.
Eventually, I spoke, ‘You said, they never caught him?’
‘Never even had a suspect.’
‘What do you think happened?’
‘Maybe he got bored, or killed himself. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t a he at all; maybe it was a she who ran out of spinsters to murder, and moved out to New York to meet men in Alphabet City dive bars instead.’
She grinned. I wondered briefly whether she’d been making everything up, herself.
‘I’m glad I’m not a spinster, then,’ I said.
‘Maybe you’d already be dead, if you were.’
A drunk was fumbling at the jukebox and managed to get Take on Me playing. It lightened the mood a little.
‘So, do you think he could still be alive?’ I asked.
‘It’s definitely possible. It’s not ridiculous to imagine him back home, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the next spinster to pop up.’
‘Well, be on your toes if you ever go back. You never know when the homesickness will hit you and whisk you back to Campbeltown.’
‘Well, if that happens, I’ll give you a call. We can fly off together, take a detour in Las Vegas and get hitched. Both of our problems solved: you get a green card, and I’m not a spinster anymore.’
‘I’d better give you my number then.’
I wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to her. She’d inched closer to me and her knee gently rested against my thigh.
I thought about lying to her again. I thought about telling her:
Listen, we’ve been talking the whole night and I think I can finally tell you the truth: it’s me. I really am that boy who grabbed the seesaw hinge. I recognized you the moment you came into the bar, and I was holding back the tears when you told the story — did you notice? I put on the accent and lied to you because I was nervous. But it really is me, and I remember everything like it was yesterday. And there’s something else, too: I love you. I feel like I always have, ever since we were in school. And tonight confirms it. I always knew, even when you were bullying me that you were a good person underneath.
So — what the hell — let’s do it. Let’s do it and come full circle. Let’s leave New York and get hitched. Why wait until we’re old and gray? No one’s ever been happy here, anyway — that’s why people like us end up in Alphabet City dive bars on Tuesday nights. Let’s head back to Campbeltown and if we ever have kids, we won’t buy them a seesaw, and we can raise them where they can breathe clean air and play outside. Serial killer be damned.
I almost believed the story myself, but I didn’t end up saying it. I didn’t want to lie to her again.
We ended up parting ways at the door, and I remember lying restless in bed asking myself over and over, why the hell I was the way I was.
Of course, I never really thought she’d call me up to get married so we could start a family in middle-of-nowhere Iowa. But ever since I had to give up my American phone number, I’ve wondered if she’d ever called just for the hell of it.
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