by Flavian Mark Lupinetti
Garrett’s father named his shop Mountain Metals, but everyone called it the Finger Factory. All the employees, even kids like me who worked only summers, felt shackled to the place by our Finger Cuffs, making so much money and needing so much more that no one could gin up the courage to quit. We all agreed Garrett’s father wasn’t to blame. If anybody chose to, he could always follow the directions mimeographed and taped to every vertical surface in the building. Not that we needed to do that. We had them memorized:
Feed the sheet of tungsten steel into the press. Take a step back. Activate the safety switches on the side walls, depressing one big red button with your left hand . . . and reaching for the other . . . with your right . . . depress that one, too . . . Now hit the foot pedal
releasing twenty tons of hammer.
Do you doubt the existence of gravity? Have you seen the strongest force in the universe deform a metal sheet into half a washing machine or a sink for a commercial kitchen? Years later a professor would try feeding me his fundamental physics bullshit about how electromagnetism is stronger than gravity, but I wasn’t swallowing. Not after seeing what gravity can do to a human body.
By the end of one shift, everyone with an IQ in the upper two digits figures out the game, just like every Finger Factory employee who came before.
Getting paid piecework takes food off your table when you waste time with the goddamn red buttons. Instead, grab a broomstick and wedge those fuckers closed.
Now you’re stylin’.
Feed the metal, step. Feed the metal, step. Feedthemetalstep.
That’s the sound of a fat pay envelope. But pay attention. Don’t get distracted
counting the hours left in your shift.
Oh, Jesus Christ. The first time I saw it happen, it was Jimmy Coco. Craig the foreman did his best to calm him down. “Look, Jimmy, it’s only the first knuckle, only your middle finger.”
The finger didn’t bleed as much as I imagined it would, but Jimmy didn’t appear to take much solace from Craig’s words. He did take it like a man, refusing to cry out even as tears dripped down his cheeks and snot bubbled from his nose.
“Doc’ll mobilize the skin, pull the edges over the bone, and sew it up. Two weeks off with workmen’s comp, my brother. Take advantage.”
Jimmy continued panting like a mountaineer on Everest. I expected the arrival of an ambulance crew or some kind of nurse or medic, but Craig called for a security guard to take Jimmy to the glass plant down the road, where a company doctor provided services for all the town’s industries, including the scrap metal foundry and the paper bag shop as well as the Finger Factory.
I followed Jimmy, Craig, and the guard to the door, with Craig conducting a monologue that he must have intended partly for Jimmy and partly for the rest of us. “In the end your hand will work just fine. You’ll discover you overestimated the importance of fingertips. Think of the fun if you get busted, and the cops can’t get that last print. And next time you flip somebody off, you’ll do it with style. Your recipient won’t merely get the finger. He’ll remember it.
“He’ll remember you.”
Garrett saw to it that I got a job that summer after my sophomore year in high school, partly because we were wrestling teammates, but also, I suppose, because he felt he owed me for helping him graduate. I didn’t really do that much, just his algebra homework and a few book reports. He selected Catcher in the Rye from a list the teacher gave him in the hope it was about baseball. Garrett wasn’t dumb, just lazy, and clever enough to coach me into telling the employment office receptionist I was seventeen but would turn eighteen in July—which I would, but not for two more years. Finger Factory policy decreed that close enough for me to get the gig. Surprised at the sloppy hiring practices of West Virginia corporations in those days? Understand this: I grew up around men who worked in the coal mines from age eight.
I became Garrett’s apprentice in many ways, learning the art of metal stamping, punching out his timecard for him on the days he left work early, and joining him for a joint in his car at lunch two or three times a week. Garrett’s father wanted him to become a doctor or an engineer or at least to take over the company someday. Garrett wanted those things too, but not as much as he wanted to smoke dope and listen to the excellent heavy metal bands that played the clubs of northern West Virginia in the 1970s.
One Friday afternoon, Garrett, Frankie Zablakis, and I smoked a little more than usual in Garrett’s Olds 88. We returned to our stations, me to Garrett’s left, Frankie to his right. Garrett continued the soliloquy he started in his car about the superiority of one band over another. I can’t remember the names anymore. Dry Ice over The Souls? Cloverbottom over The Crawdads? I responded with obedient nods, but Frankie offered a rebuttal. Garrett’s argument grew more passionate, his attention wandered, and his technique turned sloppy.
I didn’t know how much blood a human body holds, but I know more of Garrett’s blood bathed his machine than I thought possible. And his right shirtsleeve anchored him to the press. The sight horrified me so badly that it took me until the next day to remember the sound Garrett made—not a scream, not a howl, but a low moan like the noise a forklift makes when it lifts a pallet of steel plate.
This time Craig did call an ambulance, which had to come from the next town up the river, and that meant crossing a county line to take Garrett to the hospital. Frankie, probably the second youngest guy on the Finger Factory payroll, educated me as to the significance of this. “Some kinda report. Sheriff or somethin’. Anyone comes snoopin’ round, us young’uns got to get gone. Maybe we’ll get our asses fired. Maybe go to jail.”
Firing I could handle. It would be a bitch to settle for working the Dairy Queen for a third or a fourth as much money per hour, but juvie? Or prison? A criminal record?
At least my father, whom I had told I was working at the swimming pool for the summer, settled the issue of my continuing at the Factory. “You’re done. Effective today.”
I didn’t get arrested. Or even questioned. And Garrett lost only down to the second knuckle of his index and middle fingers. Which meant the Mayo Clinic would have to look elsewhere for its next chief of surgery.
Garrett enjoyed flashing those dwarf remnants, a gesture he believed made him more attractive to women. I had my doubts. But maybe some girls found it cute or even considered it the tiniest bit erotic when he stuck his tongue between the stubs. “I can only make a little peace sign,” went Garrett’s pickup line, “but I can make the sign for a little piece.”
When Garrett stopped joking and grew serious, he tended to wax pedantic. “The psychiatric literature notes that some cultures consider deformities sexually attractive. Take, for instance, hunters who ‘inadvertently’ blow off a toe or two. The shrinks say one out of three such events is other than accidental.” Garrett concluded his disquisition with his trademark tongue-and-finger-stub sign. “Listen up, boys. Heed my words. Make your disfigurement work for you.”
Flavian Mark Lupinetti—a poet, fiction writer, and cardiac surgeon—received his MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in About Place, Briar Cliff Review, Cutthroat, december, Sheila-Na-Gig, Sport Literate and ZYZZYVA. Mark lives in New Mexico and currently has a winning streak of 125 on Wordle.