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Five Whole Fingers

Rating: PG-13


I can count on one hand the things I know about Tavvy.

I'll start with the pinkie. Tavvy is not her real name, but it's all U.L., or anybody else for that matter, have ever called her. We were the next house over, coming from town that is, and being such close neighbors, it was nothing new for us to get her J.C. Penny or Reader's Digest by mistake in the mail. That's the only way I ever knew her first and last names were Ouida and Rolan. Of course, I'd usually just call her Ms. Tavvy, you know, to her face.

Ring finger: she never had anything worth anything but one sister, Julette, who drowned while she was fourteen; I say "while she was fourteen" because according to U.L., Julette was sensitive about her age, and was not above reminding those around her when she turned half-ages, as in the following sentence: Julette received the Lord Jesus Christ into her heart at the Shabaha County-wide revival when she was thirteen and a half.

I would swear on a thousand Gideons that my friend Charlie almost drowned one time while he was visiting his aunt in Debalk. I wasn't there, I know, but he wasn't known to lie all that much. And he said it was about the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was soft and quiet and slow, his head full of Christmases and banana pudding which I think is gross and it would have depressed me even more if that'd been my last thought as I left this earth, but, then, at the final minute of what could have been his last possible breath, this Choctaw — they were always at Kemmy Lake, also in Debalk, sitting on the water in boats drinking can after can of Jax — pulled him up over the side into the boat with them, scraping a long, single scar down the whole length of his arm on this piece of metal jutting out from the boat, and so he lived. Plus, he'd been saved by a real live Choctaw which made me a little bit jealous. Charlie always got everything.

But, then, U.L. said he'd never heard tell of a peaceful drowning.

As far as I'm concerned, according to the "D" volume of the Encyclopedia Brittanicas, most of which I happen to know are kept, for some reason, in an old International Paper box in the back of U.L.'s hall closet — they're all I have to go on, research-wise, since he was afraid of the computer — say that drowning is…well, they don't really talk about it in terms that are good versus bad. Though, they did say that it was on record that, once, it took someone over an hour to drown completely.

I'm not sure how they'd know that, particularly, but, then, I am far from a scientist. And those encyclopedias are old as gumbo mud so chances are the information is no good anymore. Chances are people are drowning a lot faster these days.

I found those encyclopedias by accident when I was actually looking for stilts, which I knew were also kept in the back of the closet, but that's as much as I can tell you about the stilts, right now.

To be sure, I'm always careful handling the encyclopedias because I think they may be antiques. Every time I pick a volume up, though, and rub its bumpy leather cover, something shoots through me like lightning, and it feels like I'm stealing.

And I'm OK with that.

I also happen to know the story of Julette's drowning by heart, as it frequently appears when U.L. is dead-set against letting me do something I want to do. It's the go-to parable, I guess, for parents around here, doubled up if it's an uncle who's raising you, I guess, and not your mom or dad.

Story goes, she stole a bottle of her daddy's peppermint whisky that he kept for when he had the croup. She stole it straight out from the medicine cabinet in the downstairs bathroom, the full cabinet under the sink, that is; not the one above it. In her defense, if it was anything like our bathroom cabinets, then it wasn't a cabinet that could be locked so I suppose she didn't die a thief, or maybe her father stayed sick so often that he took the lock off; I don't know. That part of the story changes. What you need to know is she and a couple of her friends took the whole bottle with them and went down to that "death of a pier" on Blick's Pond, with Tavvy in tow.

Tavvy wasn't but a few years younger than Julette. And I know I'm supposed to be talking about her, but I need to finish this about Julette now that I've started.

I'm almost done, anyway.

One of those friends, Shela-Nan, was also there that fateful night, and she swears that they each only took a few swigs from the bottle, no more than two to five, she said, and that Tavvy threw hers right back up, anyhow, about as soon as she'd swallowed. A few minutes pass, and suddenly, she says, they felt the need to start singing.

It was during her best impersonation of Rita Hayworth from Down to Earth, one of the three movies that U.L. has actually gone to a theatre to see in his lifetime and paid good money for, that Julette somehow misjudged the length of the pier. (In case you're wondering, the other two were A Face in the Crowd and Snow White).

How anyone could drown so quick in so small an amount of water is less a mystery than a warning to U.L., though he's been known to add to the story, to anchor it, to put a little scare in it. For instance, Julette's drowned completely drunk before, and once, she hit her head square on the edge of the pylon roped to the far end of the pier, as she fell, and then another time, she's hit her head flat against the bottle itself, the bottle breaking and leaving a shard of glass in her cheek as she still held tightly to it in her grip plunging without hope of survival, nothing but a final plea on her lips to the ear of God as she disappeared into the watery depths below. However, the moral is the same: if you register down at the Y for swimming lessons, you ought to not stop until you've learned how to swim.

I'm at the middle finger now: Tavvy and I are not the same age.

You might have been thinking that, but as I write this today, I am just fourteen, myself. And for the record, I know how to swim. U.L. registered me for lessons a few summers back, and I didn't get out of that pool until Miss Diana — and she insisted on being called Miss, not the shorter Ms. and not Mrs., as she was neither a widow nor happily married — until Miss Diana had made sure that everyone, even the ignorant Histaw girl who U.L. swore had received her lessons on scholarship — Have you ever heard of such and at the Y? — could either float like a dead man or, at the very least, doggie paddle to the sides of the pool and pray. But, the truth is, there's a good deal of years between me and Tavvy. My fourteen to her seventy-nine.

Index finger: Tavvy is dead.

She died, best guess, maybe Friday night or early Saturday, last weekend.

Nobody found her until yesterday, right almost at 3:00 on the dot.

She was open-eyed, in her nightgown, half on, half off her king-size bed; there was a pink and brown afghan across it. The afghan was up under the leg still sprawled on the bed, and she was clutching a small gold lamp of Chinese descent, I guess, on account of the paper-style lantern it had for a shade. But I don't know that it was Chinese, for sure.

I think she was reaching for the phone; it lay in two pieces on the floor, the receiver had slid under the bed, but I know for sure it was right almost at 3:00 on the dot, because that's when I finally decided to go fishing, in one of our ponds that sits behind her house.

And because I'm the one who found her.


Don't go thinking I did it, either. I'm in church twice every Sunday. And, by the way, I happen to be a Boy Scout, and I don't think I could hurt anything on this earth but a deer, or a turkey. Those are things it's all right to kill. Or a rabbit. It's a rite of passage for a young man to hunt; everybody knows that. Or a squirrel. Hunting is right around somewhere in the middle of the Bible, maybe in Leviticus, for crying out loud. Or a catfish. I mean, I can't remember the scripture off the top of my head, and maybe it's not Leviticus because I never did good with memorizing the Bible. Or quail. Point is, if you're going to eat it, you can shoot it. Unless, of course, somebody's breaking into your house.

I reckon I'd shoot them, too, but there's an exception to every rule, isn't there?

I most certainly do believe that.

That might also be in the Bible, too.


I hate what I'm about to say, but I can't pretend I don't mean it, either.

You know what the worst of all of it was, me finding her? The smell.

That smell.

Guess that'd be the thumb, and much as I'd like to, I can't skip it just because it's the thumb, although I doubt Tavvy'd appreciate me counting that horrible smell as one of the five things I knew about her, but it is, all the same.

I can't recall ever seeing her outside her house. So, there wasn't much to go on, anyhow, about knowing her.

But now, I've seen my share, fair or not, of dead animals, you can trust me on that, and I don't mean only the ones that have died because of me and my 12-gauge. Out where we live, there's more road than necessary, and they're those long roads made of that old gray asphalt. This style of highway is a temptation for those who, as U.L. puts it, are fool-idiots with the loud engines and I'm an old man and I need my rest, and hand me the phone, I'm calling the sheriff before they even get started.

He's referring to drag racing. Out where we live by the church is unfortunately known for its drag racing; our roads are 70/30: most of them are long, straight stretches followed by short blind curves.

You can imagine, then, on week nights, the racket these idiots stir up, racing the roads. They are not ashamed of littering, for one thing, and it is common knowledge that they drink while they race. And the sheriff, who nevertheless always has to be called each time and so will most likely not be getting U.L.'s vote in the upcoming election, does nothing more than amble out our way and flash his lights a few times at them.

That works. For about an hour.

I don't know exactly how they figure out who wins, but I do know they run over a lot of animals, which was my original point, keeping with the thumb. You got your raccoons, your armadillos, your possums, what have you.

Every day a different funeral.

I sure hope animals go to heaven. Serve those fool-idiots right. If they get to go to heaven, too, I mean.

I don't move the dead ones out of the road, usually, unless they're in front of the house, or I've recently finished reading a sad or touching book like The Outsiders or The Family Nobody Wanted. Books like that make me do things like that. So did A Separate Peace, but, I wasn't supposed to be reading that.

I'm an old soul, U.L. says, and that's why I wish it could've been anybody else but me who found Tavvy. U.L. agrees although he thinks I'm destined to be a preacher. And I also hate to say this next thing, too, to be perfectly honest with you, but I'm afraid that smell is the part I can't forget about, thumb or not.

I'm afraid that it's the only part about Tavvy I'm going to remember. That doesn't seem fair. It really doesn't.

I threw up immediately, hardly having set foot inside. It was that awful.

I hadn't stopped but to let her know that I was going fishing in the pond behind her house, like I usually did. She'd been known to shoot her BB gun at trespassers, and due to a small, though hotly, debated landline issue, we had no choice but to go through a fence that ran behind her house to get to this particular pond. I preferred it to the other three on our land because it was sort of covered over with water oak and scrub brush, so you got a little privacy. I kept a small skiff tied up to one of the trees at the edge of the pond, and frankly, I enjoyed my time out there.

So, as a courtesy, I'd always knock and wait for her to come to the door.

She never opened it all the way; I don't think I'd ever seen more than half her face, until yesterday, and I knocked yesterday, but she never came to the door. I knocked a second time, and called out her name, but nothing. I probably should have gone on to the pond, but then I thought, Better safe than sorry, BBs sting like the devil, and so I grabbed the doorknob, and found it unlocked, so I pushed it open, all the while calling out her name.

Soon as I opened that door though, the smell. The smell was all I heard.

And I guess you know the rest.

Except this: Hi, my name's Raleigh.