I used to go door-to-door selling fans, ones that make a particular type of woman think she looks pretty when she’s wafting herself on days the air ain’t able to move of its own accord. This was years ago, and you wouldn’t make a living at that kind of work now. I was only just grown. Pale, birch-tall and skinny. Didn’t eat much. When you’re young, you can get by on fresh air and promises.
The fans were these sad little things, mock-silk, with gaudy sequins and bad stitching. Plastic handles moulded into the shape of birds, mainly peacocks, some doves, some owls. I suppose they were nice enough as fans go, and if you’re that kind of woman, but I don’t claim to know much about fans, nor women neither.
A fella named Jacobs, he got me into it. Saw me one day sitting on the street-corner, head full of nothing, eyes in the sky.
“You want work, son?” he says. “It ain’t gonna get you rich, but it’ll get you off your ass.” He smiled a gap-toothed smile and reached a calloused hand down to mine. “Might get ya laid, too, if you smarten yourself up.”
Truth of it is, I was bored. I’d been in Haliville for months, and I was getting settled the way a stone-filled corpse settles in a slow-moving river. What little work I’d had struck me as too hot and too heavy, so what this fella said sounded tempting, but it was the thing ‘bout getting laid that really got me. My first sweetheart, Evie, was a hundred miles away, probably married already to Pete, or Grice, or one or another of the rest of ‘em, and the only touch I’d had in the last months had been a whore’s, and overpriced at that. I’d closed my eyes with her, and afterwards I’d asked her to hold my hand, only she wouldn’t. Not unless I paid her twice.
So, to this Jacobs fella, I says, “What you got for me?” and he showed me more of those teeth, pulled me up from where I was sitting in the dust, and he gripped my hand all the tighter.
Soon enough, I’m hefting a sack of fans door-to-door all around the parts of Haliville I’d never been before on account of a body like me had no business being there. Jacobs told me, “These women’s bored. Mothers ‘n’ their daughters with husbands somewhere out in the world, and nothing to do all day but sit around on the porch.” He looked at the blue above us, the white of the sun. “If you’re a woman, and you sit outside in this, you’ll want a fan. And soon enough, you’ll want a more colourful fan than Clarissa, or Annie, or whoever-the-hell else.”
I looked at him like he were a snake with a lisp, and he laughed. “Son, you’ll see. If a woman’s bored, she’ll do anything to fill the hole.” He slapped me across the shoulder, hard enough to near knock me down. “You’ll see.”
For a couple of days, I did alright. It was easy work. Mostly, I didn’t even have to walk up to a porch. The women, they were sat right there, looking out into the street, and when they saw me, it was like a fisherman’s line had split the surface of a river full of ravenous fish. They’d come right down into the street, gather around, and I’d lay my blanket down. They’d be all around me, cooing ‘n’ clucking. That’s when I knew exactly why whoever made the fans made birds out of those handles.
Each day, I’d go back to Jacobs’ place – he kept a little office in the back room of a bar – an’ I’d give him what was his and I’d keep what was mine. It was a nice arrangement. I wasn’t making my fortune, but I figured it wasn’t for long, and it was more fun than real work. Anyways, four days in, Jacobs looks at me as he’s counting the day’s take, ‘n’ he says, “You been up Blackstone Road yet?”
I told him I had no idea, but that I hadn’t covered much more than a half of the territory he’d asked of me.
“I want you to sell one of these fans up there, a woman I have a certain, shall we say, interest in. Ain’t no one else been able to do it for me. You game?”
I told him I reckoned I could sell anything to anybody, the way things had been going, and he laughed. “Fine. The party’s called Williamson. Miss Emaline Williamson. You sell her a fan – and I’ll check, mind – I’ll double whatever you made this week.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Ain’t so confident?”
“Just wanna know the bet, is all.”
“Let’s say we half your take for the week.” And there it was again, that lisping snake. I ain’t never liked snakes, so I just smiled, told him I’d be back in the morning, and that he’d better make sure he had some nice fans for me.
Turned out Blackstone Road weren’t quite as well-to-do as some of the other places I’d been selling. There weren’t too many women sitting out, and the porches were sagging, the grass overgrown. The weather had turned, that white sun was cloud-hidden, and there was a breeze like the last breath of the dead. Tell the truth, I didn’t give much for my chances of selling anything up there, but I was young, and it’s easy to kid yourself there’s nothing you can’t do when you ain’t done much of anything at all.
Jacobs had said I’d recognise the Wilkinson house all right. “Emaline sits out, all weathers. Wraps up in winter ‘n’ wraps up in summer too. Sickly ‘un, she is, but pretty as a pomegranate seed when she smiles.” He smiled. “Which she don’t do much. Not no more.”
A little ways up the street I could see a porch with a figure in black clothes on a rocker, tipping back, tipping forwards. Everywhere was quiet, and I could hear the creak of the boards under the chair’s runners.
I knew that if I sold her the fan, I’d have made enough to head out somewhere else, so I figured on not trying the rest of the street in the usual way, and just heading straight on over to her porch. By the time I got to the gate, I figured she woulda said hello, or at least looked my way, but there I was, halfway down the garden path, and her eyes weren’t on me, and she’d said nothing at all. Seemed as if one of us were a ghost, either her or me, and by the time I got to the porch steps, I coulda been persuaded either way.
“Miss Wilkinson?” I says. “Miss Emaline Wilkinson?” I was standing three steps down from her, and as she turned to look at me it was like I got lifted them three steps by some kinda force, and all of a sudden I’m next to her, and she’s looking at me, not smiling, and the rocking’s stopped dead.
“And what is it that you want?” she said. She was sitting upright, wrapped in a shawl, her hands hidden inside a black fur muffler. Her voice was young-sounding, and her face - pale and thin as it was - had a redness about the cheeks that wasn’t all just cheap rouge. I remembered what Jacobs had said about pomegranate seeds. I remembered what he’d said about the money.
I told her who I was, and I told her what I had. I took the sack from my shoulder, made a show of opening the tie at the top, and I says to her, “I’ve got just the fan for a beautiful lady such as yourself.”
She smiled at that. “A fan? Now, how comes so many young men come around here trying to sell me a fan, do you think? Do I look like a girl who could use a fan?”
“Miss Wilkinson,” I says, “I know this weather ain’t so great, but days like this are rare. Tomorrow we’ll be sweltering again, and what pretty woman wants to be caught without the means to make a breeze for herself?”
“Show me,” she says. “But only the best.”
“I know just the one.” And I’m straight into the sack, and I pull out any old fan my hand falls on. A fan’s a fans a fan, as far as I ever knew, and I figured if she was gonna buy one it’d have much more to do with me than the thing I was selling. So I holds it out to her, and gives her a big smile.
“That,” she says “is a pretty little fan.”
“Sure is,” I says.
“You know the real reason why women like to waft pretty little fans?” she says.
“Ma’am, I don’t claim to, no. I sell fans, but other ‘n’ that, I’m as ignorant of ‘em as I could possibly be.”
“Pretty little fans draw a man’s eyes. Men are stupid, you see. Sometimes you have to wave something right in front of them just to get their attention.”
I smiled, but her voice had turned like the weather.
She leant forward on the rocker and there was a creak. “The thing about fans is this: if you want to use one, you’re going to need something to hold it with.”
The smile I had on my face didn’t quit smiling, but the rest of me did.
“Now,” she says, “I’m going to show you what I showed all those others who came around here trying to sell me something I ain’t got no use of. And I hope you’ll judge the sight worthy of your trouble.”
And she pulled her hands from where they were resting in the black muffler in her lap, showing me what was left of her fingers. There was hardly even a stub of each one, and nothing of the two thumbs neither. The pink of the skin was puckered and pulpy, but it looked as if there’d been some clean cutting done, quick, a sharp blade.
“Now, you can tell him that took them from me to stop sending you boys up here. Hasn’t he done enough?” And with that, she stuck her hands back into their hiding place, looked directly away from me, and started rocking again.
Now, I don’t claim to know much, but one thing I do know is that a woman don’t lose her fingers over nothing, and a man don’t stoop to that kinda thing ‘lest he’s crazy-born or made that way. But I watched her moving back and forth, and I figured I could do one of two things: I could leave the sack of fans right where it sat on her porch, turn around and head as far away from Haliville as it was possible to be, or I could get her to tell me just what it is a woman has to do to get a man so crazy he’ll cut bits right off her.
It took a couple of beats for me to make my decision, but soon enough I reached out a hand and laid it on her shoulder. “What say you tell me what happened to your fingers?”
She didn’t even look at me, but she said in a whisper, “Now why would I want to do that?”
“Well,” I says. “I come all the way up here on a promise of money, and now I ain’ gonna get a sight of it. Least you can do is help me figure out why this fella Jacobs sent me to bother a woman who clearly has no need of being bothered.”
She turned her face to me. “You’re the first one who ain’t either fainted or run away.”
“Well, I don’t claim to be any better than any of the rest of them. Just more curious, maybe.” I smiled at her. “And I always liked a good story.”
“What I’ll tell you ain’t no story,” she said. “It’s more truth than you’ll hear from most people in most of your days on this earth.” And she nodded at the empty chair across the other side of the porch. “Sit down,” she said. “It won’t take long.”
I’ve always thought that it’s hard to know the truth when you hear it. Words have this way about them of taking the side of the person that says ‘em, and the more I hear people speak, the less I believe about anything. Sometimes I wonder if maybe she lied to me, and maybe there’s a fingerless man walking around Haliville lisping like a snake to anyone that’ll listen about the skinny son of a bitch who took a dirty, jagged knife to him on account of some crazy whore’s lies. But that day on the porch I chose to believe Emaline when she said he’d loved her. I chose to believe her when she said she’d loved him too. I even chose to believe her when she said that, to her shame, she’d loved another man more. I took her at her word when she said she’d done nothing - nothing at all - about the way she loved this other man, but that one day she’d seen him in the street and he’d stopped her, passed the time of day, and in taking his leave of her he’d briefly taken hold of the tips of the fingers on both of her hands and kissed them.
I believed her when she said that this was the one and only time they’d ever touched, and I believed her when she said she had no idea that Jacobs was just across the street in the doorway to the store.
“I never even knew he was the jealous type,” she said, and when she smiled I was ready to believe everything she would ever say in the rest of her sad life.
“What happened to the man?” I said.
“That’s one thing I don’t know, and one thing I try not to think about,” she said. “But when I sit out here all day every day, with no one to talk to, it’s hard not to.”
“You never saw him again?”
“The way I see it is, I was lucky just to lose my fingers.”
“What about the law?” I said. “A man can’t just do as he pleases, even out here.”
The way she looked at me, I got the feeling that if she’d had the full use of her hands she woulda reached right out and touched my cheek, but all she did was smile and say, “You’re young. You can hold onto that awhile, at least.”
She turned away then, and I felt the breeze on me, colder than it’d been all day. I stood up, and she looked down at the sack of fans.
“You taking them with you?”
“Think I’ll dump ‘em in the road,” I said. “Ain’t no one else gonna be coming up here trying to sell you any of ‘em. Not any more.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Maybe I’m young,” I said. “And maybe the law don’t count for much. Maybe there’s no truth this far out, but there’s words, and there’s actions. There’s things that were done, and things that have to be done.” I smiled at her. “Why don’t you go in out of the breeze?”
“I think I might,” she said. “In a little while.”
I walked down the steps off the porch and I headed back up the street towards Haliville. I knew I wouldn’t be staying long, and I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, so I turned around when I reached the end of the road, but sure enough, Emaline had gone back into the house.
It’s years now since that time in Haliville, and sometimes it feels like none of it was real. Sometimes I’ll meet someone who says they know the place, but I’ve never heard anyone mention a woman with no fingers, or a man in the same state. Maybe Emaline just stays in her house now, and maybe Jacobs got his own muffler and his own porch to sit on.
It’s difficult, now, to speak to a woman, because whenever I gets to thinking about it, I gets to thinking about their touch, and I always, always gets to thinking about taking a hold of their hands.