A blast of humid air swarmed Mallory’s head as he bent over his pedalboard. Sweat dripped down his neck, saturating the collar of his black T-shirt. The temperature inside the club was at least a hundred. The club staff had yet to turn on large fans on each side of the stage, around the seating area, and by the bar. The air conditioning was broken. Two weeks of ninety plus degree days had overpowered it, the manager told him. So unusual for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in June. The repair crew was on their way; with any luck they would be able to fix the problem before the show, but there were no guarantees. It was just Mallory’s bad luck to be there on this particular day.
The front doors were open to encourage a breeze, but the outside air was just as sticky, motionless and dead as inside. A seagull flew near the entrance and squawked. Mallory looked up. Veronica stood outside near the door frame, chatting with a person he couldn’t see. Her shoulder-length curls were backlit auburn in the late afternoon sun, her cheeks shined, her pink sleeveless top showed off bulbous forearms and dimpled elbows, her ankles blending to the same size as her calves below the hem of her black pleated skirt. Dread pitted his stomach. She grinned as the gull swooped past again and brought her arm out with dramatic motion as if to shoo it away. She laughed. Mallory shuddered at the sound. She had followed him all the way from Philadelphia to Portsmouth despite the horrid weather. He was sure the conditions would have been a deterrent. But his luck just wasn’t cooperating despite it being his birthday. Fifty-five years young. He felt about seventy.
Mallory turned away quickly and buried his head in the pedalboard. The lower part of his back twinged into a sharp spasm. He reached for his spine and rubbed. Too many years of lugging guitar equipment, loading and unloading for each gig, and sitting for too many hours in a car, bus or plane to get to the next show had twisted his vertebrae in ways they were never meant to go. But a backache was the least of his concerns. If Veronica hadn’t seen him by now, she soon would. She’d catch sight of his stooped shoulders, his skinny legs in jeans, his shoulder-length, wavy gray-blond hair. He couldn’t hide.
She lived in Maryland but turned up in the most unexpected places: Eugene, Oregon, Carmel, California, Wenatchee, Washington. In the Midwest too: Grand Island, Nebraska. Meridian, Idaho. Duluth, Minnesota. The distance to the next stop didn’t matter. For the past three years, she was almost always there, in the front of the crowd, leaning into the edge of the stage, clapping, cheering him on.
At the end of a show, she would wait until the crowd had thinned, after Mallory had greeted fans and signed autographs. She would tell him how much she adored his playing, his melodic instrumental guitar. He drew so much emotion out of the instrument, it sometimes made her cry, she said. Her words were so genuine, he couldn’t help but feel appreciative. She’d chatter on about all the bands she followed years ago, how she’d sneak backstage to get their autographs and never be caught by security, how she once played guitar herself, how she’d always wanted to be in a band of her own. She’d ask him whether he was hungry, or thirsty or tired, what he needed, could she do anything for him? Could she help him pack up his gear? He’d say no to each question, smile, and attempt to extricate himself when she’d take a breath between thoughts. Finally, he would tell her he had to get going and turn away, but he’d feel her eyes on him, watching him, examining him, until the wait staff would tell her it was closing time and ask her to leave.
Was she karmic retribution for his antics as a late 1980s hair-band guitar idol? His band Dreamer had opened for Kiss, Poison, Def Leppard and Ratt. Their video was in heavy rotation on MTV in the summer of 1989 and their backstage dressing room was jammed with beautiful girls. He would choose the perkiest, most doe-eyed, voluptuous blond and invite her onto the band’s tour bus, but he never gave out his phone number or promised he’d be in touch. When the hair-band era succumbed to grunge, Mallory embarked on a solo career, which he soon discovered had neither the financial nor sexual perks of his Dreamer days. He recorded five instrumental rock albums, none of which sold well, obtained a few minor endorsements, and settled down with Marie, a petite brunette ten years his junior. For the eight years they’d been married, Marie wanted Mallory to stay home in Chicago with her and their golden retriever Frank and Siamese cat George, develop a student roster and produce instructional videos through his own website. Then came baby Max, whom he adored. He considered quitting the road but playing live had become like a habit, just like nicotine or cocaine or pills was with other rockers, so he continued touring the country from April through October, just like he had every year since the late 1990s, driving from place to place in an old rusty maroon van that always needed repairs he couldn’t afford.
As he adjusted his cables and checked his amp, he thought he felt his phone vibrate. He took it from his pocket and looked at the screen. No call or text or notification. Strange what lack of sleep can do—just five hours a night at the most for the past six weeks had him imagining things. The phone’s wallpaper picture of Marie’s pretty brown eyes stared at him. He smiled and took his finger and ever so gently placed it where her lips would be if this hadn’t just been a snapshot of the upper portion of her face. He was aware of movement behind him.
“Do you need a light?” Veronica was next to him, aiming her cell phone flashlight at his pedalboard. “I can hold a light for you.”
Oh, God, they’d let her in. The manager wasn’t supposed to open the doors until seven-thirty, after setup, after soundcheck, after he’d hidden in the dressing room downstairs near the kitchen, lying down with an iced coffee against his forehead until it was time to go on.
“No, that’s ok, don’t worry about it.”
“But you can’t see. Let me help.” She arched her wrist so that the light showed deep inside the pedalboard. The movement drifted salty perfume-infused perspiration toward his nostrils. He wanted to say, “Please don’t bother,” but he just said, “thanks.”
“It’s your birthday today, isn’t it?” she said. “What an awful present! No air conditioning. I’ll bet you won’t play here again.”
Sweat drenched the back of his hair, his long tendrils feeling like worms on his neck. If it had been anyone else, he would have said, “I don’t care about air conditioning, after the last few shows, I’d just like not to lose more money,” but he didn’t want to encourage the conversation.
“Yes, it’s my birthday,” he said.
“Happy birthday,” she said.
“Thanks,” he murmured.
Last year on his birthday, at a tiny club in Fort Myers, she showed up with a chocolate cake for him, encased in a large Tupperware, a candle in the center. She said she had brought it all the way from her home in Maryland, from the best bakery in town. At the end of the show, after the fans filed out, he heard the flick of a lighter and saw the lit candle, her eyes large and expectant, almost liquid blue. If she had been a cartoon character, there would have been large red hearts jetting from them in pulsating rhythm.
With her face highlighted by the candle, dismay enveloped him, but he put on a smile, gave her an embrace and kissed her on the cheek which made her giggle. She sang an off-key happy birthday and when he blew out the candle she clapped and clapped until the echo bounced off the club’s wooden walls and rang in his ears. She cut him a piece of the cake and he bit into it with a fork. It was chocolaty, rich. She watched him place each bite carefully into his mouth and chew each morsel. He licked the last crumbs from his teeth and lips, feeling bloated from the amount of cream and butter and eggs and God knows what other artery-clogging ingredients he usually tried to stay away from. But it was good, so good, the frosting so dense and the cake portion so moist, and she was so sweet to remember his birthday that, for a moment, he almost forgot how much she irritated him: her dyed red hair, her oversized flowered shirts, her persistence, her eager smile whenever he made eye contact, her oh-so obvious hope that someday something might happen between them if she were patient enough. If only he could tell her to go away and develop an obsession about some other unfortunate middle-aged rocker. But it would crush her. She didn’t deserve that. And he knew that even when he was feeling ill, or exhausted or when the notes were not coming out as spectacularly as they should, he could look into the audience, and see her in the front row, a smiling, supportive, familiar face, and know that at least one person in his immediate vicinity loved him.
“I have a present for you,” she said, clicking off her cell phone flashlight and removing from her purse a small wrapped box tied with a ribbon. She held it out to him, her eyes large, a delighted expectant grin encompassing her pink, carefully lip-glossed mouth.
“Open it,” she said. The box was the size of one that might contain a ring. At Christmas two years ago, he’d given Marie such a box. A gold ring with three small pearls, one representing him, one representing her, and one representing Max. He gazed down at the shiny blue paper and dark velvet bow before him but didn’t move.
“Here, take it.” Veronica moved closer to him, her body heat radiating. He felt slightly lightheaded.
“Oh, you didn’t have to,” he said. He blotted his flushing face with a napkin from the stack assembled near his pedalboard, aware of the lines on his forehead under the thin texture of the paper, the jowls at his cheeks and jaw. He curled the napkin into a ball and stuffed it into his back pocket.
He took the box from her outstretched hand. Their fingers made momentary contact and he felt her warm digits against his palm. Her smile widened. He withdrew his fingers quickly, his panic rising. It was probably a ring. A friendship ring. He wouldn’t be able to accept it. If she insisted, he’d have to put it in the trash or give it away. Maybe he could sell it.
He thought of telling Veronica he’d open it later, after the show, but that would only prolong the agony. Get it over with. Deal with it and get back to his pedalboard. Arrange the equipment, make sure everything worked, do soundcheck and then hide in his dressing room with that iced coffee. He inhaled, breathing in the rancid, stale alcohol odor that emanated from the wood floor of the club. Slowly, he pulled at the bow and tore the paper. Sure enough, it was a small white jewelry box, just the size for a ring. His stomach knotted as he lifted the top of the box.
White tissue paper lined the inside. Whatever it was resided underneath, hidden. It still could be a ring, but a ring would have a separate small box to hold it. He began to relax and smile. Maybe it was a big joke just to see his reaction.
But there was something underneath the tissue paper. Something solid but with soft pliable edges. He pulled back the tissue and stared.
Inside was a human finger, sliced at the knuckle, blood congealed around the edges where it had been severed, the skin folded and jagged, the exposed tissue bubbled and gelatinous, the exterior wrinkled and gray.
He gasped and recoiled, but she laughed. “Isn’t it cool? It’s not real or anything. I got it at a Halloween shop. You can put it on.” She took the box from him, inserted her index finger into the top of the fragment and waved it before him. The severed finger stood upright, like an artifact on a stand. He could see now that it wasn’t real.
“You can put it on and pretend you have an injured finger and then you won’t have to sign as many autographs after the show.” She held up her index finger again. “You can say you have to rest.” She took it off and put it back in the box.
“Nice,” he said weakly.
“Or even just for laughs,” she shrugged. “At a costume party.”
“Yeah, great idea, thanks,” he said, and then he turned to see who might be watching. Someone besides him might have thought the finger was real. They might call the police or at least come over and inquire about it. On the left side of the room, under a prominent neon sign advertising a beer company, the bartender was stacking glasses. On Mallory’s right, a waitress was wiping down the tables set up for the show. No one was watching. Mallory took another napkin from the stage and blotted his forehead. Under his breath, he said, “Whatever happened to chocolate cake?”
“Oh, not this time,” she said. She looked at him and shrugged, still smiling. “Sorry.”
She put the uncovered box next to the pedalboard, amidst the wire and cables jutting from its sides, the finger looking even more dead against the brightly colored levers, switches and dials. Mallory suddenly felt dizzy. The heat was too much. Veronica frowned and touched his shoulder. “You’re not looking well. Maybe you should sit down.”
She guided him over to a freshly wiped table with two chairs on either side. He sat and put his hands on his temples. His head was pounding.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
“What?” He raised his eyes.
“Food. When did you last eat?”
“Oh I don’t know,” he said. He had stopped at a diner in New Rochelle on his way north from Philadelphia but that was six hours ago.
“Let me get you some water. You need water,” she said, and she was at the bar in an instant, talking with large hand gestures to the bartender and pointing, her pink chiffon top shifting with each motion. The bartender filled a glass with water and ice. She carried it to Mallory and placed it in front of him. The glass perspired into a small round pool. He took the straw into his mouth and sipped, cold water encasing his throat and slipping down his esophagus.
“You’re probably dehydrated,” she said. “You probably didn’t drink enough today.”
He nodded and sucked on the straw. She was right. His mouth was parched and he hadn’t realized it.
“You’re probably hungry, too.”
Indeed he was. Sautéed vegetables with noodles, the only non-junk item on the bar menu, had seemed so unappetizing. It would be vegetables struggling in butter and oil and overcooked white spaghetti. He had been intending to order a bean salad from a recommended restaurant across the street, but the heat had shut down their kitchen.
“I’m really sorry I didn’t bring you a cake, but maybe I could order you some French fries.” Her eyes took on an endearing expression, one that might be worn by a concerned, loving parent. “Would you like French fries? How about a burger?”
He nodded, although neither a hamburger nor French fries was what he wanted.
He’d had that yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. On the road much of the time, there just wasn’t a choice. He suddenly longed for Marie’s marinated tofu casserole, the one she would make on Saturday nights when he was at home with the family, his family, cozy, safe, and tucked around him like a soft, soothing blanket.
“I’ll order you a burger,” she said, and in an instant was out of her seat, talking with emphatic gestures at the bar once again. The bartender nodded and went off to the kitchen. Mallory took another sip of water. Before he could breathe, Veronica was back. She sat down, put her elbow on the table and her chin into her open palm, and stared at him, smiling. He felt so exposed and vulnerable he wanted to take a magic wand, wave it, and disappear into a hole in the floor in a puff of smoke.
“Why do you follow me?” he blurted.
“What?” she said, in an unsure tone.
“Follow me. I mean why do you come to all my shows?” He sucked on his straw. “You’re married, right? Doesn’t someone at home miss you?”
Her left ring finger bore a thick diamond-studded gold band. It was big, bold, and expensive, way more than he could ever afford.
Veronica’s eyebrows came together in a crease in the space above her nose. “Yes, I’m married,” she said. Her voice was pale, confused, perplexed. She stretched out her palm and twisted the ring with the fingers of her other hand. “But he’s fine with it.”
“Well, that’s a problem, right there. He’s not fine with it. He’s just not telling you,” said Mallory.
Her crease bent into a frown. “No, really” she said. “It doesn’t bother him. He’s a cardiologist.”
Mallory put down his dripping glass. “What’s that have to do with it?”
“He’s busy. Lots of patients. Really, he doesn’t mind.” Veronica’s eyes shifted to the side and she glanced at the floor. Then she looked back at him with a defiant smile that struck him as unusual and fierce.
“But how can you enjoy this?” said Mallory. “Going around the country, running yourself ragged with all the traveling, going to dumps like this every day?”
Her chin rose. “I like to travel. And this isn’t a dump.” She turned her head, glancing around, and then she opened her eyes wide with incredulity. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It has no air conditioning.” He pointed at the peeling black paint on the walls and the humidity sheen like streams of eels cascading down. “It’s disgusting.”
She followed his gaze to the gleaming walls, their slickness highlighted by the dim, yellow recessed lighting. “I don’t like air conditioning,” she said. “It makes me cold.”
“Well, there’s no decent food, it’s all junk.”
“I’m on a diet.”
“And scary people.” He glanced at the finger in the box on the stage and looked away quickly. “Weirdos everywhere.”
The crease between her eyebrows became more pronounced, and she sat up in her chair, her back becoming very straight and still. “Are you saying you don’t want me around?”
A roll of sweat seeped from his left armpit, travelled down his side and landed at his belt. “No,” he said, softening his voice. “Not at all.”
“Then what are you saying?”
He swallowed and ran his palm across the back of his neck, lifting up his hair. “I just mean you’ve got to get a life. This is no life, going from town to town like a nomad, like a gypsy, nothing grounding you. Nothing normal. Always alone.” Suddenly, he was thinking of Marie and how he missed her. The depth of the stab surprised him.
“Don’t you have a job?” he said.
“I make costume jewelry,” she said.
He clapped his hand against his thigh. “See? Your customers need you, your husband needs you.” His voice became forceful and emphatic. “You need to be back home. You shouldn’t be here.” He paused, noting the unintended crescendo in his tone. “Being here is awful.” He touched the pocket of his jeans, where his phone rested, where Marie’s picture was a click away. He thought of her and Max, and their ranch house with its fenced in yard and herb garden, and the flowers lining their patio, and all the wonderful things he could be doing if he were there, like building his own guitars and writing a memoir. Being a real person.
He wiped the perspiration from his forehead. By now, he was shouting. “I mean, Jesus, you’re fucking nuts if you want to be here. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Veronica blinked at him, her cheeks shining in the heat, her deep blue eyes round and confused, equally ready to fill with tears, loathing or indifference. Her hair descended in dry rippled waves along the outline of her face, making her resemble a bewildered doll. Her expression struck his chest like a hatchet. He looked down at his water and took another sip.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was really harsh. I didn’t mean it that way.”
But she just stared at him, her face pale, freckled and inscrutable. She rose slowly from her chair and took a few steps away from him.
He frowned. “Hey, really. I didn’t mean it.”
She backed away farther and turned around, her pleated skirt whooshing around her legs, and walked with loud, determined strides towards the exit. He got up from his chair and gaped at her as if to say, “Wait, really,” but he stopped himself before words came out. In an instant, she was out the door and into the blazing heat of the afternoon. Gone. He stared after her, confused, and then someone was tapping his shoulder. He spun, half expecting to see her with a big grin and a, “Fooled you! Just kidding. You think I would be done with you that easily?” expression on her face. But it wasn’t Veronica. A man with gray hair and a bulbous nose was holding up Mallory’s most recent CD and a big black Sharpie marker, asking for his autograph. Mallory blinked several times. He took the marker and wrote his name. The man began chattering in a high-pitched voice about guitars, pedals and amps. Mallory finally patted him on the shoulder, and the man wished him a good show and moved away.
A waitress appeared with a plate of French fries and an oozing hamburger flattened in a plain white bun. “Is this for you?” she asked Mallory, and without waiting for a response, she placed it on the table in front of him with a bottle of ketchup. The odor of grease and overcooked animal flesh rose. He glanced at the boxed finger, with its fake blood and shriveled nail, and then the entranceway to the club. But no one could be seen in the doorway, just two seagulls who yelled at each other as they flew past in the baking late-afternoon light.
That night, he looked for her in between songs. He scanned the audience, but she was not there. She had not come back. His middle-aged male fans collected at the front of the stage, their arms crossed, their heads nodding in unison to the rhythm of the songs, studying his phrasing, snapping photos, sneaking video excerpts on their phones despite the pre-show announcement banning any form of recording during the set. Mallory played with his eyes closed so he wouldn’t see them. After the show, he greeted the men and signed autographs until his hand ached. He had stashed the fake finger in his guitar bag, but it occurred to him more than once to take it out, just like she had instructed, put it on, and pretend to need rest. He didn’t want to partake of a lie and, as much as he hated to admit, he needed the fans.
The streets were wet from rain that had fallen during the show. As he packed up his equipment, Mallory looked towards the door, not expecting to see her, but as if the essence of her were still there, in pink chiffon, waiting, hovering, ready to help him with a flashlight or an umbrella or an encouraging comment.
The temperature had dropped. There was a breeze now. Sweat still drenched his forehead, but it wasn’t as uncomfortable now. The mist outside looked like tiny droplets of milk backlit by the streetlights. As he loaded the last amp into the van, his phone vibrated with a text. It was Marie, saying, “Goodnight, love you. Talk tomorrow?” He had forgotten to call.
Marie. Sweet, wonderful Marie. His anchor.
He was tempted to dial her then, but it was late. Midnight eastern time, eleven o’clock central. She would be tired. She wouldn’t want to talk and he wouldn’t want to make her. He texted, “Goodnight, love you, too. So sorry. Got busy tonight before the show. I’ll call you in the a.m. I promise!” and replaced his phone in his back pocket, his insides panging with disappointment and longing.
He started up the van and drove north out of Portsmouth. The angular green metal columns of the Piscataqua River Bridge shone in the dark like the mouth of an alien spaceship. There was no real traffic, only the occasional car passed, the long-distance truck. The mist obliterated any scenery that might have been visible, the “Welcome To Maine” sign shiny, wet and blurry in the fog. He exited the highway in Wells and found Route One north. The lights of his bargain motel were in the distance, glowing like a worn-out diamond in the mist.
As he pulled into the driveway and shut off the van, he grabbed his guitar bag off the front seat and swung it onto his shoulder. A portion of the bag’s outer pocket jabbed his back ribs. It was the box. Veronica’s box with the finger. He’d get rid of it. He put his case down on the ground, unzipped the outer portion and fished around until he felt it. A metal trash can stood at the side of the hotel, under a glaring lamppost near where he had parked. He strode over and lifted the lid. Fast food containers, a half-eaten bagel, Kleenex tissues, soda bottles, the smell of something fried and rotten, and a clear plastic bag with a brown, soft substance, most likely feces from a large dog. No, he would keep the finger, at least for now. Maybe he’d give it away as a joke. He replaced the lid of the trash can, put the box in his guitar bag and dragged his rolling suitcase up the ramp and into the motel.
Mallory looked for Veronica the next night at the show in Portland. In Bangor, he looked again, and also in Montpellier, Worcester, Boston, Providence, Hartford, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and Harrisburg. Since she’d started following him three years ago, she had never missed so many shows in a row without at least telling him, “I’ll be back in a week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” and blowing him a kiss with an exuberant smile as she said goodbye. The venues seemed so empty without her bubbling around, before and after the shows, twittering with enthusiasm. Ensuring that he was ok, caring, forgiving him for all his shortcomings. Yes, she was irritating, extremely irritating, but who wasn’t at times? It shamed him to be so ungrateful.
In Baltimore, he played in a tiny club called Two Gramps. He loaded in as usual through the side door and brought his equipment over to the small platform that served as a stage. The air smelled of stale liquor just like every other club he played. After soundcheck, he decided to put Veronica on the comp list, with the chance that a little bit of good will would float through the universe, touch her brain, impute a strong desire to listen to him play in her hometown, and hear his profuse apologies for being so insensitive the last time they saw each other.
“What’s the name?” said the man who tended the door. He was stout with thinning gray hair squeezed into a ponytail. “Just bear with me, I’m new here.” He scanned the list until he got to a blank line at the bottom.
“Veronica,” said Mallory, and even just saying her name aloud caused him to remember how irksome she could be. How desperate and blatant. How she was always there, no matter what. He watched the manager write “Veronica” slowly in black pen, below a list of people who had already bought tickets for the show.
“Plus one?” said the man.
Mallory shook his head. “No, she’ll be alone.” And then he added quickly, “She’s always alone.”
The man began to smile. “Special friend of yours?”
Mallory nodded. “She comes to a lot of my shows.”
The man nodded along, his smile widening. “Yup, I got it. You leave it to me.” The smile cracked open more. One of his side teeth was missing. “I’ll send Veronica right in,” he said, tilting his head and pronouncing her name in a sing-song tone. He bent into Mallory and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ll be discrete. I know how you guys like your privacy.” He clapped Mallory on the shoulder.
Mallory’s eyes widened and he flushed. He shook his head. “No, no, it’s not like that. She’s just a friend, a fan.” But the man let out a full laugh, and bumped him again on the shoulder, this time with his fist. “I get it, no need to explain.” He glanced at Mallory’s left hand, towards his slim gold wedding ring and said, “You musicians are something. I wish I had your life. More power to you.”
Mallory looked at him with dismay. He opened his mouth but the words got stuck in the back of his throat, and the only thing that came out was a breathy cough and some phlegm. He blinked. The man bent over the guest list, underscored the name Veronica several times, grinned again and shook his head in envy.
The first song of the evening did not go well. Mallory hit several wrong notes, sloppied an easy chord progression, and slid into a tapping sequence that was flat. He scanned the crowd at the edge of the stage. A fat bald man on the left, a tall skinny one on the right, two bearded ones in the middle, all adorned in black T-shirts, but no Veronica. No Veronica with her brightly colored clothes and joyous face that at times made him want to bury himself in his arpeggios and bar chords just to get away, and at other times helped him feel less sad, desolate, alone. Mallory’s fingers felt like they were made of bricks. The audience congealed in groups around the foot of the stage and nodded their mechanical heads in time with his songs, just like they had last night last week, last month, last year.
When the show finished, after his usual two encores, he escaped to his dressing room without speaking to anyone. His half-consumed pre-show coffee waited for him on a scratched, wooden table.
He stretched out on the dirty floral couch at the back of the room and put his head on its threadbare arm. Graffiti signatures speckled the dressing room walls, along with the occasional, “This place rocks!” but Mallory couldn’t discern anyone he’d heard of. The evening’s dinner, a fried chicken sandwich with extra pickles, sat like lead in his stomach. He took a sip of cold coffee and swallowed.
He pulled out his phone. He had 8,213 followers on Facebook. There was a Vincent, a Vaugh, a Vern, a Vladimir and even a Velma, but no Veronica. He opened the email inbox that connected to his website. Over the years, she had sent messages, lots of messages, that were both ridiculous and endearing, like, “Such a great show last night! Loved your improvisation on ‘Lonely Waltz’!” and “Is a live album in your future? I’d buy it for sure!” and “Took some pix last night during the show. Printed them out—turned out great! Maybe you can use them?” with large smiley faces and red heart emojis attached. He deleted every email with only a quick glance to the subject line and a scan of the accompanying message, just to ensure it was nothing important, like last year’s “Bomb scare at shopping mall near venue! Traffic will suck for getting to the gig tonight!” which actually was quite helpful for the show in Atlanta. Now, of course, his email account didn’t know who she was. He had never responded.
He tried to Google her contact information. He thought he might call her or just appear at her door on his way out of town, say he was sorry, say thanks for being such a devoted fan and that in a strange way the shows weren’t the same without her. She would be thrilled, or perhaps not. He would take that chance.
But there were 200 Veronicas in Baltimore, seventy-five of whom were in her age range. He didn’t even know her last name. She had always just been Veronica, kind of like Madonna or Beyoncé or Pink, someone so indelible, she didn’t need a last name. He thought of trying to look up her husband with a search of cardiologists in Baltimore, but without a name or even an initial, it would be useless. He realized that, even just a few weeks ago, had he been able to look into the future and see himself that day, he would have been relieved to know that he had finally gotten rid of her. But that was no comfort now.
The front of his guitar bag still bulged from the box that contained the finger. All this time, he hadn’t thrown it away, carrying it from town to town, gig to gig. He put down his phone and took it out of his bag, removed the top of the box and stared at the finger, the etched rubber and plastic blood, the shriveled, black encrusted nail. His index finger slipped in without effort. The texture of the interior felt like a synthetic glove that enveloped him in a cocoon. He held the finger up and turned it around from front and back, back to front, and marveled at how hideous and wonderful it was. Then he put it back in the box, stashed the box in the front of his guitar bag, took another sip of old coffee, and exited the dressing room to pack up and greet the fans who still lingered in the lobby.
In October, at the conclusion of the tour, Mallory slept eleven hours a night for two weeks straight. He delighted in the plush white carpet that greeted his toes every morning as he stepped out of his bed, so unlike the thin, dirty motel carpets that assaulted his feet after only a few hours of rest. He went grocery shopping, admiring the array of fresh fruits and vegetables, the abundance of items that didn’t come from a can or weren’t old and wilted and putrid looking as everything he had eaten for the past six months on the road did. He did the family laundry, holding up Max’s shirts and his big-boy jeans, in awe of how he was changing and maturing so fast—he was now three. He brought Max to the neighborhood playground and marveled at his dexterity on the monkey bars and the rings. He and Marie went out to dinner together, walked Frank together, watched TV reruns of Friends and Seinfeld, and he basked in the sound of her laughter as they clinked wine glasses and toasted their reunion. He reacquainted himself with the floral smell of her long, lush hair and the curves of her slender figure, her back against his chest in their bed, his hand on her breasts.
Yes, he was home at last.
He kept his primary guitar—the one he had taken on the road—in a large closet in his practice room-office-spare bedroom amid the twenty or so other guitars of various shapes and makes and values. The room was his favorite in the house: panoramic windows with houseplants just below—peace lilies and ferns, ficus and philodendron each on a stand of its own, dark cherry wood floors, and a pastel oriental carpet with peach and green tones. Marshall amps stood in the center next to a synthesizer, a desk, a computer, and rows of built-in shelves filled with CDs and books.
The guitar lay untouched for three weeks, per his usual post-tour routine. He stretched out in his recliner and read for hours at a time, regenerated his interest in writing poetry, and drew several sketches of the backyard in various lights and times of the day. But when new melodies and chord progressions flowed in his head once again, like they always did after a hiatus, he began work on fresh guitar material, his fingers out of shape but grateful for the time off. At the end of each practice session, he would place his guitar on its stand, leaving its nylon travel case next to it on the floor.
George the cat, took a new interest in his guitar bag. Normally he would sniff it and knead it but then go off and settle down near one of the windows, on the carpet, in the sun. Now, however, he lay on the bag while Mallory practiced, rubbing against it, flipping onto his back, placing his head against the zippers, leaving a trail of cream-colored cat fuzz on the black fabric. He snoozed on it, setting his head against the indentations in the top portion of the bag, just enough to display the outline of the box containing the finger.
Marie came into the room and wrapped her arms around Mallory’s neck, her cheek snuggling into to his. He reached up, touched her hand and kissed it. “Let’s go out to dinner again tonight,” she said. George yawned at them, displaying all of his tiny cat teeth. “Is that one of your new effects in there?” she asked, pointing at the bulge in the bag.
Mallory’s heart jumped. He hadn’t thought of Veronica since he left the road, and now it was like she was there in the room, staring at them through the black nylon, accusing him of being unappreciative and mean. He put his guitar down on the stand. “No, it’s from a fan.” He pulled out the box from the bag, removed the top and the tissue paper and held it out to her.
“Strange gift,” he said.
Marie’s slender fingers cradled the edges of the box, and at once he was reminded of Veronica’s fat stumps in the same position when she first presented it to him. Veronica, with her grinning face and her enthusiasm. It had been four months since that Portsmouth show, but now it seemed like an hour ago. Marie’s eyes widened and she scrunched up her nose when she opened it and viewed what was inside. “That’s gross,” she said and handed it back to him.
Mallory took the box from her. “But kind of interesting, huh?” He gazed at the finger sitting in the tissue like a dead, blood-drenched worm.
Marie made a face and shook her head. “It’s vile.”
He glanced at the finger again, poked at it with one of his sketch pencils, and replaced the cover on the box. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s disgusting.” He threw the box into an empty wastepaper basket at the far end of the room. It thudded against the vacant metal bottom.
But later that evening, after dinner and playtime and teeth brushing, as Marie read a bedtime story to Max, Mallory went into his practice room and turned on the light. At the far side of the room, he peered into the wastebasket. The top of the box that contained the finger had disengaged when it landed in the trash. The finger lay by itself at the bottom, solitary and abandoned like the remnants of a knife experiment gone bad. Mallory picked it up and held it in the light. Veronica, despite all her vexing aspects was a kind, helpful person, unlike the throngs of opportunists he had met at his shows who only wanted his attention because his band had once been popular on MTV. He gently closed his palm around the finger, feeling the pliable rubber exterior bend with his grip. Then he stashed the finger back in the outer pocket of his guitar case where, without its box, it lay almost flat and undetectable against the interior padding. He rose and paused for a moment, listening to Marie’s delicate voice, animated in the guise of talking squirrels, nut-hunting chipmunks and happy, smiling suns, to Max’s squeals of delight in response, to their laughter together.
Thanksgiving and Christmas passed in a furious blur. January and February were even shorter. Marie’s parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary was coming up in May. Her youngest brother would complete his master’s degree in June. Her sister was pregnant with a second child. Max would attend pre-school in the fall. He would be four in August. There were so many celebrations to anticipate. Celebrations filled with balloons and streamers, happiness, togetherness, love. Mallory would miss all of them. In six weeks, he’d be back on the road.
“When are you going to quit?” Marie lay next to him in bed, one night in mid-March, her head nestled on his chest.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Soon, maybe,” he said, and he felt her body stiffen just like it always did when they discussed the subject. He put his hand on her hair, but she moved away and turned onto her side. He watched her take in breath, even and calm, her bare shoulder highlighted by the full moon that shone through the window. She was so used to his routine by now. She didn’t accuse him of lying or living in a dream. She just asked and he would feign an answer and he was grateful that she never took it further. He knew that he would continue until the fans didn’t need him anymore. Until they stopped coming to his shows. Until they all became fed up with him like Veronica.
The blades from the ceiling fan sliced the evening air, forming a breeze that caressed his face. Trees were budding in the yard. There would be flowers and green grass in just a few weeks, brightly colored birds. Mallory had filled the feeder the day before in anticipation. There would be rabbits and jellybeans and Max’s delight at hunting for chocolate eggs. Mallory closed his eyes and imagined the exhilaration and joy that would soon be upon his little family. His brain filled with images of Max and Marie playing in the grass, giggling with cottony, sun-soaked clouds and a pastel blue confetti sky in the background. For a moment, he pretended he was there, laughing among them.
The tour began in the middle of April. He drove the familiar route, heading through Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas first, and then east towards Ohio. The same places, the same hotels, the same dull highways in between each. He added some new tunes to the set list, but the majority of the songs were the same as last year and the year before, only in a different order. The fans seemed grayer, more mottled and tired, far fewer than before, but the ventilation systems worked in each of the venues, and the days were neither excessively cold nor hot. There were no major storms, no tornados, no power outages, no hotel mix-ups, and the van did not get a flat tire or otherwise refuse to operate.
On his way to Charlotte in late July, however, Mallory came down with a headache that pounded the interior of his skull. It might have been the fan who sneezed on him two nights before in Trenton as he was signing autographs. The man had apologized profusely and dusted off Mallory’s shoulders and chest with the sleeve of his jacket as Mallory smiled and moved on to the next person in line. The next day, he bought Vitamin C drops, which he sucked on continuously during his drive to Norfolk. By the next day, as he pulled into the outskirts of Charlotte, he couldn’t avoid it. He had the beginnings of a cold.
He exited I-77 in Huntersville, right outside the city. A strip mall up ahead contained a Walgreens. He needed a decongestant, cough drops, and more ibuprofen. Mallory parked the van, got out and blew his nose. For a moment, it occurred to him that it might be allergies and not a cold—the ragweed was in full bloom, raging in the gusts of warm summer air from the park across the street. He had never been plagued with allergies, but things changed. People changed. People outgrew what afflicted them before or developed new unexpected sensitivities. Situations in life were never constant.
Next to the Walgreens was a consignment shop with a brightly colored motorcycle jacket featured in its window. It covered the bare torso of a half mannequin and was studded with silver beads and blue, pink and green flowers embroidered on its collar and sleeves. He gazed at it, wondering who would wear such a hideous thing, let alone buy it. Perhaps that’s why it was being consigned. As he looked at the jacket, he noticed a woman sorting through garments on a rack near the window among the purses and scarves. She had curly hair and red cheeks. She picked up an orange shirt, tilted her head, and held the shirt out to examine.
Mallory stared for a moment, not trusting his eyes. He walked to the entrance, grasped the door handle and pushed it open. A bell attached to the door sounded with a deep throaty twang, like a Swiss cowbell. A girl with pink hair and a nose ring at the front counter looked up from the book she was reading. She said hello to him but he barely heard it.
“It’s you!” he gasped.
Veronica turned around. Yes, it was her, but a thinner version, her face not rounded, her cheekbones prominent. She wore a pale blue flowered blouse with white jeans and a blue silk scarf around her neck, coordinated with white high-heeled sandals. Her hair was blond now, which seemed less artificial and forced, although he’d suspected she hadn’t been born blond.
She squinted at him, as if she, too, was uncertain of the person in front of her, her blue eyes showing none of the adoring liquid quality they always had. “Hello, Mallory,” she said in a flat tone. There was no delight, as he might have expected after all this time.
The store was small with several rows of clothing pushed together, bursting in their racks. The smell of stale woolens, left-over perfume, and old leather goods rose to his congested nose. He bent in to hug her, but she did not reciprocate the motion. He remembered all the obligatory hugs he had given her over the years, the false patience he felt he had to convey, her bulk underneath him, her arms encasing his ribs in a crush.
“It’s really you! I can’t believe it!” He released her from the hug and put his hand on her shoulder, but she just glanced at it as if it was a presumptuous, rude piece of dust, so he took it away.
“How’ve you been? You’ve lost weight,” he said, and then he paused, not knowing if that was the correct thing to say or whether it would just emphasize that she had been larger before, so he added, “You look terrific.”
He might have detected a hint of a smile at his words, but Mallory realized he was wrong. Her expression had not changed. He thought of how elated she once would have been if he had complimented her or said she looked pleasing. How she would have given anything for a bit of positive consideration from him. How she would have blushed and said no way, you’re shitting me, how she would have looked at him with adoration and batted her eyelashes and buried her face in her hands with delight.
She turned away from him, held up the orange shirt that she had taken from the rack, perused its back, examined the label, the tag attached with the price, and turned it inside out for the fabric content and washing instructions. As she held it up with her left hand, he noticed that the large diamond encrusted wedding band was gone, replaced with a beige-and-white cameo ring.
“What are you doing here? In Charlotte of all places?” he said.
“I live here now,” she said.
A thousand stupid ideas of what to say next came into his head, everything from the banal, “When did you move?” to “Seen any good shows lately?” to “Marie wants me to retire, Max just turned four,” to “I’m sick of touring,” to “I’m so sorry for what I said to you last year. I never meant to hurt you.” But she seemed only interested in the orange shirt, as if it held much greater appeal than the aging, not-so-famous rock star who stood before her.
She placed the blouse over her arm and continued through the clothes, flipping through them, each hanger clanking against the last.
Mallory put his hand in his pocket of his jeans and searched. “Remember this?” he said, pulling out the fake finger. “I carry it around with me, now.” He held it up and slipped it over his index finger, the edges of the rubber and plastic comforting him with familiarity. “It’s become kind of my lucky charm on the road.”
She glanced at him holding it up and perched on his index finger like a trophy. Her brow creased as if the finger was a dead leaf, or a piece of fuzz, something so useless it barely deserved acknowledgement.
“Nice,” she answered, her tone flat.
But she remembered! He seized the moment. “I’m playing at the Old Goat tonight, downtown. My usual place here,” he said. “I’ll put your name on the guest list.” He wanted to add, “You could hang out like old times,” but changed his mind before he regretted the comment. “I have some new songs. I’d love to know what you think,” he said instead. He positioned himself ahead of her so he could be sure to catch her gaze. He smiled at her, showing his teeth and dimples.
She pulled out a pink pair of pants from the rack, glanced at the price tag, her eyebrows jetting upwards, and put it back.
“What do you want, Mallory?” she asked.
Want? No, there wasn’t anything tangible he wanted from her, or specific tasks, things that her question seemed directed at. Nothing he could point to with any certainty. But it was the same question that he could have posed to her at one time, and what would she have answered then? Your time? Your approval? Your appreciation and love?
“I don’t want anything,” he said.
She turned to him, her face cold and dark. “What do you want, Mallory?” she repeated.
He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, exhaled and spoke. “I’m sorry for what I said to you. I’ve been thinking about it for a whole year, and I just haven’t had the courage to try to contact you before this. It’s so uncivilized out here, so tiring, it makes you react sometimes, say things you don’t mean.” He paused, then said, “I want to be friends again.”
She stared at him for several seconds as if he was insane and pointed at a closet in the back of the store with red paisley wallpaper and a drape covering its opening. “I’m going to try on clothes,” she said. “And when I’m done, when I come out, you’ll be gone, right?” She squinted at him again.
He frowned. “No, Veronica, wait,” he said. Her face had a sense of triumph that could have produced a smile if she had wanted. But she didn’t smile. He felt his eyes water. A sneeze was germinating in the upper portion of his nose.
“I don’t even think I know you. You’re mistaking me for someone else,” she said in a loud voice. The pink-haired girl in front of the cash register looked up from her book. Veronica brushed past him and disappeared into the paisley closet, pulling the curtain closed behind her. Mallory sneezed loudly. The girl startled, her book fell to the floor. He apologized and blew his nose in a tissue.
He strode over to the paisley closet and leaned on the doorframe. “Well, if that’s the way you want it, so be it,” he said to the curtain. An item, which he surmised was her purse, plunked on to the floor. The curtain fluttered with movement. Plastic hangers clanked against each other and then jangled onto a hook. “But it hasn’t been the same without you. I just want you to know that.” He breathed in again and dismissed any reservation he had about uttering the next words. “I miss you,” he said. “Really, I do.”
The curtain suddenly became still, frozen. His heart sped up. His voice quickened. “Did you hear what I said? I miss you,” he repeated, turning his head, straining his ears for a response. He caught sight of the pink-haired girl whose expression had hardened into a glare. Mallory realized how odd the conversation must have sounded.
“I think you should leave, sir,” she said.
Silence from the dressing room. He waited, holding his breath. But then fabric rustled again, the jingle of hangers, and Veronica began to hum. He recognized it as a new tune, one that was played on pop radio stations, not an old familiar rock song he knew they both liked. He stared at the curtain, then backed away. “I’ll leave,” he said to the pink-haired girl. A part of him felt like a jilted lover, forlorn, abandoned, dismissed. He picked a blue-and-white scarf from one of the shelves and brought it to cashier. “Tell her this is from me,” he said, and placed a ten-dollar bill on the counter. The pink-haired girl gazed at him with pity.
He put his hand on the doorknob and pulled. The bell sounded. The pink-haired girl rolled her eyes as he waved goodbye to her and closed the door behind him.
At the Walgreens next door, he purchased water, decongestants, pain relievers and two boxes of tissues. When he came out, he looked into the window of the consignment shop again, but Veronica wasn’t there. The dressing room curtain was pulled back, revealing its empty paisley interior. The pink-haired girl was reading her book. There were no cars other than his van parked in front of the two stores. No odor of exhaust lingered. It occurred to him that the encounter may have just been a dream, a hallucination brought on by illness, lack of sleep or both. But he wasn’t going to try to fool himself. He got into his van, popped the top off of the water, and ingested some of the medicines he had purchased. The sun was turning to the west in the sky highlighting the clouds in rich bright summer light. He thought of Marie and Max, coming back from the playground, getting ready for dinner, or tossing a ball back and forth in the yard. In a bit, he’d call them. He’d tell them how he’d be home soon, much sooner than anyone expected, maybe even by tomorrow night if traffic cooperated. He’d try to hide the resignation in his voice, the reluctant acknowledgement that he was making the right choice, the best choice for them, but also him. They’d be surprised at his news, but delighted. No, more than that. Marie would be thrilled. She’d say “I told you so, you don’t need the road. To hell with it.”
He sighed and reached into his right pocket for the finger Veronica had given him. It rubbed against his thumb and nestled around his forefinger. He brought it out and balanced it on top of the dash, firmly securing its bottom edges between the two slats in the center vent. The finger remained in place as he started the engine. He touched the finger again, making sure it was attached and tight, and with a smile, he backed out of the parking spot, and put the van into drive.