I’ve held hundreds of hands. The meaty palms of a baker. The calloused knuckles of rock climbers. The peeling cuticles of mothers with teething babies. I think the woman was a waitress. The scar of a burn framed the underside of her wrist. Usually those are from carrying hot dishes. Her thumbnails were chewed ragged, and she sat across from me at the table like she couldn’t wait to leave.
Rose petal. That was the color she chose. A bloody red that never got opaque enough with two coats, so I always snuck in a third. She told me she never does things like this, but her best friend is getting married, and she’s a bridesmaid. Her hands were tense as I held them close to my face, working at the ridges in her nails, cleaning the edges of her fingers.
When I finished painting, I positioned her hands in front of two small fans on the table and went to empty the dehumidifier that was fighting the wet summer. The woman tapped her credit card against the counter. “That was nice,” she said as she left. She held the door so tightly I was afraid the polish would smudge. A determined, prodding, yearning grasp.
Then, with a popping sound, her hand broke off and remained, clutching the handle, knuckles white, the jagged edges of her wrist bones smiling inside her severed flesh. After a moment I ran out the door. “You forgot—” I called after her, unsure of how to tell a woman that she left her hand at the nail salon.
She glanced down at the stump of her arm and carried on as if she had lost nothing at all. I labored to unhook each finger from its grip on the handle, careful not to disturb the still-tacky polish. It didn’t bleed, exactly. More like oozed. Lymph and marrow the color of oily melted butter.
When I took her hand home that night I knew I should put it in the freezer, but it was already so cold. I held it on the couch awhile, pressed against my heart, thinking about the woman. Hoping she didn’t have to hold the bouquet during her friend’s vows. I was sure she would come back. I looked to the empty corner of the living room where my boyfriend’s guitar was just days ago when he still lived here. The imprints of the metal stand still dented the carpet.
Days passed without her. Her hand was starting to take on a grayish hue as I tucked it underneath the front desk at the salon. A bit of the polish on her pinky nail smudged, so over lunch I repainted it.
“Throw that out,” my boyfriend would have said if he was still around. “You can’t save everything.”
Controlling the smell was my biggest challenge. I sprayed the hand with perfume, covered it with makeup to look more alive. Peach tones to cut the creeping gray-black of decay. I tucked it into my bag as I walked the aisles of the grocery store. Laid my tube of lipstick in the mushy palm. The nails were changing shape. Softening, bending, submitting to the moisture of the air. I wondered if the woman’s arm was doing the same. If she filed down the edges of her bones or left them jutting, dripping, demanding to be seen.
The heat of summer was working against me. In the morning I would pack a cooler full of ice, drip mint oil overtop, gently wrap the hand in silk and foil, ice cubes on the tip of each finger. I couldn’t leave it in the fridge at work, so I wound plastic wrap around the entire cooler and kept it next to me, burning cinnamon candles and hoping the woman would show.
“You kept my hand,” she would say. “You mean everything to me.”
It was five days before the bugs. A maggot somersaulted underneath a sloughing flap of skin. That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed, worrying that sooner or later the woman would come back for the hand and all I’d have to give her is a pile of bones. I looked at it on the pillow next to me and thought I could hear the little larvae crunching away and it reminded me of when I used to hear my boyfriend chatter his teeth in his sleep. I thought maybe there could be beginnings in this bed now. Squirming, chewing, growing life.
When the nails started to fall off I knew time was running out. I took the hand into the basement at work and carefully molded a set of acrylics. I filed them down into delicate ovals, but I couldn’t get the edges totally smooth because the fingers were so limp. It was hard to imagine that at one time they had thrown a baseball, been wound with dental floss, interlaced with a lover. I painted them Rose Petal. Maggots rolled off my lap like popcorn kernels. I wondered why the things I tried so hard to hold onto could rot right in front of me.
The woman wasn’t coming back. I had to start leaving the hand at home. It was almost too delicate to touch. As I tucked it into a Tupperware full of salt and Borax it threatened to split at every little joint, to not be a hand anymore.
Remains instead of a body.
But I didn’t let it. I covered the Tupperware in plastic wrap and left it in a window. The process took a long time. The plastic fogged with condensation in the summer sun. Something was happening inside. A hardening, drying, dying.
I brushed off the salt, painted the nails with a fresh layer of polish and my shiniest topcoat. I sat in the empty corner of the living room and laced our fingers together. It was stiff and rough and tough as leather but at least it was a hand.
Molly Weisgrau lives in Corvallis, Oregon where she is pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Oregon State University. Her work appears in Flash Fiction Magazine and Waif Magazine.