PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity, and some mild violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Linger flipped a grimy Euro while Miriam sought faces in the whorls of wood. It was noon.
The studio was small, quaintly twentieth century, steamy from the whistling kettle. "Heads, I get the kettle," drawled Linger from under heavy, half-closed eyelids. "Tails, you do."
"I'm busy," said Miriam.
The coin sang as it spun, bimetallic face flashing in the sun. Linger smacked it down against the inside of his bony wrist. "Ready?" he asked.
"I'm busy," repeated Miriam, eyes on the wood. Without turning away she reached to her workbench and selected a chisel. She touched its keen edge with her callused thumb, enjoying the quiet rasp.
Linger peeked under his hand. "Tails."
The kettle piped on. Miriam raised her hammer and tapped at the chisel's base, just enough to let its blade taste the wood's surface, barely sinking in. It was an introduction, after all. It was a courtship.
"It's tails, Mir."
She didn't acknowledge him. She wobbled the chisel gingerly back and forth, running the fingers of her opposite hand over the grain as if in search of braille messages or a secret compartment. As she hunkered over her work Linger was able to simultaneously straighten in order to give himself an unobstructed view of her breasts swaying free through the loose neck of her fraying yellow smock.
This was why Linger never called before he came over from across the hall: he hoped to catch Miriam without a brassiere. While Linger was ostensibly homosexual for professional purposes he was, in fact, interested only in women. Ever since he'd come to Paris he longed for a kiss without stubble.
"Tails," he said again, his practiced smirk straining.
Miriam looked up, blew a strand of dark, wooly hair away from her face. "What?"
"You have to get the kettle."
"You're the one who wants tea."
"Don't blame me, blame the coin."
Miriam frowned and drew her index finger down a line in the wood, tracing a turn in the grain that met up with the embedded edge of the chisel. She was beginning to detect her sculpture in there. There was a woman in the wood, she decided. A woman who had lost something, and was hiding behind her arms, her elbows rounded and pointy at the same time like the knobs on top of wrought iron fencing, small pine-cone ice-cream dollops of slightly twisted black ice metal. Elbows like iron berries.
Miriam squinted. She could almost see her. She worked the chisel free and let it hover over the surface, scraping gently, teasing the hammer.
"Mir, the kettle," whined Linger, uncrossing his long thin legs one way and then recrossing them the other. "It's not a radio, you know." He found himself hilarious.
"Can you get it?" she mumbled, licking her lips.
"I won fair and square."
She raised the hammer. Linger flinched in anticipation.
Something thumped, bumped and scuffled with sudden intensity. The studio door banged open to admit the righteous rage of Thierry the Moroccan painter. He was covered in paint. It looked like he'd thrown a tantrum with his colours. He reeked of linseed oil. He bellowed, "What's with the damn kettle?" in a voice that shook every rafter in every unit of the decaying Bohemian apartments. Everyone jumped. A dozen trances were broken at once.
The chisel took Miriam's thumb off.
Linger swayed in his seat, mouth agog, and then spilled out onto the floor limply. The coin, which had actually landed heads side up, bounced free and rolled across the uneven tiles. It skipped over Miriam's severed thumb and then fell to flutter on its face, one edge caught by a dime-sized spot of blood.
Thierry blinked as he stumbled against the jamb. "Holy Moses, Miriam -- are you alright?"
Miriam looked down at her hand. It was red and shiny, splattering meekly between her shoes. "No," she concluded.
"We have to get you to a hospital!" shouted Thierry.
"Okay," agreed Miriam distantly as she regarded her wound. She could still feel her thumb, but it felt like it was on fire.
Thierry charged into the kitchenette, exploded apart a drawer as he yanked it from its frame, and then savagely rummaged until he came out with a handful of clear plastic grocery bags with Monsieur Tang's logo splashed across them. He picked up the thumb between his own fingers and slid it into one bag, then put that package into a second bag into which he shovelled ice cubes from Miriam's largely empty, frost-encrusted freezer.
Miriam always insisted on ice cubes in her water.
She watched the splattered giant sedately, holding her slick right hand with her left. The kettle was still whistling.
Everywhere the painter went he left a trail of fingerprints -- alizarin crimson, cerulean blue, cadmium yellow -- including on the tea towel he bound around the dazed sculptor's hand. "Where's the telephone?" he barked.
"I don't have one," said Miriam.
"You should turn off the kettle."
"We have to get moving!"
"I can't go out like this. I'm not even wearing a bra."
"You're bleeding! You have more important things to think about than your tits. Come on, Miriam. I'll help you up. Let's go!"
They trundled down the narrow, rickety stairway leaving blue-green handprints and a trail of tiny dots of blood. The sound of the whistling kettle diminished behind them and was eclipsed by the rising thrum of street noise. Thierry threw open the front door with adrenalin-ramped strength, the glass pane shattering and tinkling down in a jangled slush to the sidewalk. "Taxi!" he shouted, waving his paint-soaked hand in the air.
"What about Linger?" asked Miriam, blinking against the sun.
"Fuck Linger," grunted Thierry.
Thierry was a genuine homosexual and he didn't like the way Linger looked at Miriam. There was something perverse behind the lank German's stare, something lustful and craven that made Thierry want to protect her.
He pulled open the back door of a red and white Taxi Parisien and propelled Miriam inside, then ducked in after her. "Hopital Saint-Lazare! Vite!"
"Pas des noirs," said the driver, a swarthy Persian. "I don't carry blacks."
Thierry frowned as he backed out of the cab and banged his fist on the roof, leaving a small, cadmium yellow dent. "Saint-Lazare -- allez, allez!" he commanded, spittle flying.
The Persian turned to appraise his passenger. "You an artist?"
"Artists have no money," he said, shaking his head. "I need cash in advance."
He held out his open palm. Bewildered, Miriam handed him the plastic bag containing her thumb. "Somebody has to turn off the kettle," she told him seriously.
The Persian unknotted the bag and looked inside, then rapidly scrunched it closed again. He shut his eyes and made a brief, impassioned prayer to Allah.
"Allez!" boomed Thierry, kicking the door.
The taxi jerked forward as the driver's concern for his paint job outweighed his concern over being stiffed, nosing rudely into the thick traffic on Rue de Trevise and prompting a hail of horn honks. Miriam was tossed back into her seat. She banged her tea towel wrapped hand into the door post and squeezed her eyes tight as a wave of pain sizzled over her. She gritted her teeth and moaned.
"Are you having a baby?" gasped the driver, eyes on the road.
"No, my thumb's come off."
"Your thumb? I thought it was a penis."
"No. It's my thumb."
"That's a relief."
Miriam's eyes opened wider, her arteries suddenly alive with a new brew of pain-activated stimulants. She started to sweat. "Hurry, hurry please. I can't lose my thumb. I can't."
"It's right here on the seat."
"No, I mean I have to get it put back on in time. I can't be a sculptor with a missing thumb. Hurry!"
"I hurry, I hurry. What can I say? Traffic is bad."
Miriam sat back and leaned her forehead against the cool window. The blue sky was being eaten by a pack of hard-edged grey cloudlets, advancing from the west. Their shadows slid over the buildings, dampening the light, squirting over the cobbled road and drifting on. She wondered if it would rain.
Her hand was throbbing. The tea towel was soaking through.
They passed by Cecil's hardware store where she bought her wood-carving implements, and then Monsieur Tang's fresh grocery. M. Tang was out front misting the produce from a plastic squeeze-bottle and he looked up to wave at Miriam in the red and white taxi. She waved back with her bloody bandage. M. Tang turned pale.
A white man in an expensive suit shouldered past M. Tang. He had one of M. Tang's famous square watermelons under his arm. He wrenched open the taxi's door and pushed into the back seat while simultaneously ordering, "Get me to La Defense as fast as you can!"
"But Monsieur, I already have a passenger."
"There's a hundred bucks in it for you, you hear me? Two hundred if you get me there before that bastard Keith Dillons. Step on it!"
"I have to get this girl to a hospital, Monsieur."
"I'm talking about American money here, damn it! Did you hear me? Two hundred bucks, Ali! Now go!"
"Fine. A hundred for her, too. Okay, chicky? Let's move!"
The car lurched as Thierry rammed into it from behind, kicking the fender and then beating his multicoloured fists on the trunk. "What's wrong with you, idiot? Saint-Lazare! Drive!"
The Persian driver wailed plaintively because he didn't own the taxi, and he was sure his friend Ebrahim would punch him in the stomach again if he came back to the garage with any dents. He pressed his cheap shoe into the accelerator and felt the sole rip away. The car surged forward and hopped lanes. The Persian watched the furious Moroccan painter diminish in his mirror, then flicked his eyes back down to Rue de Trevise.
He should have looked down earlier.
"Watch out!" cried the American with the square watermelon.
Miriam had been overcome by a keen compulsion to rescue her thumb, whose bag was sliding back and forth across the front seat. She reached around to retrieve it but paused to lose her breath as she saw and appreciated the view through the windscreen. She recognized the nakedness of wearing no seat belt and it made her afraid.
The Persian stomped optimistically on the brake pedal.