Two of Marissa's tales from Dust Off The Neurons (c) NotePoet Publishing
Mary Pattisti's Finger
Close to my Grandmother’s photograph hangs a colorized picture of my Grandfather in his Sunday best black suit and derby hat. It was taken in my family’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, perhaps in the 1930s. He’s standing behind a park bench in a public rose garden on the shores of the Great Lake Superior. In the photograph sits a young boy, my Grandfather's hand rests on the boy's shoulder. This boy isn't my father, but a family friend named Bobby Pattisti.
Bobby's parents were also full-blooded Italians. His mother's name was Mary. She was a petite woman with a thin voice and no pointer finger from the joint up on her right hand. This both frightened and fascinated me as a child. I could not keep my eyes off of her missing pointer finger and my thoughts would run wild imagining what grisly accident had occurred to sever it.
What made the impact of this haunting even worse was that every time we'd give her a ride to church (which my father dreaded because he said she "talked too much"), she'd bring us a loaf of home-made bread. I would look in every loaf of bread, every single slice, for that damned finger. I'm sure it was good bread, but I had a hard time getting it down. I deliberately chewed and chewed again, sifting and straining the pasty mush through my teeth, wincing at each and every bite. I even imagined that the bread would somehow reform in my stomach as the finger and it would find its way up my throat or through my body, become its own entity, suffocate me in my sleep, then continue on it’s violent rampage murdering everyone in its path. OK, too much Poe as a child, “Tell-tale Finger?” But how little it takes to plant a seed that produces night-mares and phantasmagoria in a young, impressionable mind. It would only take a finger, or lack thereof.
One Sunday during the family spaghetti dinner that we'd usually have after church, I finally got up the nerve to asked the blazing question, "What happened to Mary Pattisti's finger?" There was an inhaled silence. Then my father, mouth half full, gave me the answer that I'd both desired and dreaded hearing; "Her and Mr. Pattisti were having an argument, she pointed it and shook it at him and he bit it off." My God, I was blown away! Of all the things that my little mind had imagined, that wasn’t even close to one of them.
It was then that I began to obsess over the truth behind the finger rather than the mysterious event behind the finger. Where did the finger end up? Did Mr. Pattisti spit it out on the ground somewhere? Did he spit it back at her? Did he hurl it at her? Did they try to sew it back on? Did they bury it in a small matchbox in a simple ceremony in a tiny grave in the garden? What in the hell happened to that bloody finger? What on earth were they arguing about? Was this the kind of madness love and marriage brings? What kind of a bastard bites off his wife’s finger? And what kind of revenge would that wife plan for that particular kind of bastard? Is pride or passion the answer, the emotion, behind all of these questions? How the hell do I know.
Growing up Catholic I’d heard the stories about saint’s finger bones being placed in altars, strange custom - as so many Catholic rituals are, but since Mary Pattisti was Catholic and must’ve met at least some of the criterion for sainthood (especially co-existing with the mister), couldn’t there be some little church somewhere where a little Italian lady’s pointer finger could find its final resting place in an altar until the world ends? If that little church existed, where would one find it? This is just one of the fantasies I’d come to invent for the finger. I continued to imagine elaborate journeys and much better ends for that innocent, orphaned digit.
It’s been more than thirty years now and I'm still mesmerized by Mary Pattisti's finger. Everyone I've mentioned here is dead and gone. I know no more than I did on the day that I first heard the truth. Mrs. Pattisti lived a long life in spite of her digital misfortune. Mr. Pattisti was not as fortunate. He died many years before her, I'm not sure how, but I've fantasized that she murdered him in some slow and torturous way. Maybe ground up glass in his oatmeal, or a poisonous home-grown herb that she'd hid in his weekly moustacelli. Did she dig up and re-bury her finger next to his body? Perhaps she saved and hid the finger, preserved it for years, then secretly inserted it in one of Mr. Pattisti's orifices before they interned the body? Or even worse, did she forgive him? That would be even more unthinkable.
The last time I saw Mary Pattisti was over 30 years ago. I was a teenager, with all of the same unanswered Mary Pattisti finger questions poking around in my head from childhood. My Mom and I had dropped her off at her house after church and she insisted that we take the grand tour of her garden. She had a green thumb...umm…she was a master gardener. She invited us into her house, the same house where she'd lived most of her married life. It took all I had not to blurt out my questions about what had happened the day she lost her finger. I wondered on which floor, in which room the finger had fallen. Was I standing on the spot where the blood dripped? Did she pick it up off the floor and wrap it in her hankie so it could be reattached? Did they even go to the hospital? Or did her husband kick it under the couch or the refrigerator? Did the family cat find it and mistake it for a snack? Then when it was too late and she couldn’t be stitched together again, how did she hold a pen? Count to ten? Mrs. Pattisti prattled on (she did talk a lot), but I was lost in macabre deduction and wasn't hearing a word she was saying until I heard the word "bread." BREAD… She pulled a foil-wrapped loaf out of the pantry and handed the bread to my mother. We followed her to the front door, we said our farewells and silently walked to the car. As we were pulling away Mary was standing at her garden gate smiling, frantically waving good-bye like Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies with - you guessed it - her right hand. I glanced out the back window and saw her tiny figure - no, I didn’t say finger - framed in the window, and I could’ve sworn I saw her wink and wag her half a pointer finger as if to say, “You be good now!” “Yes Mary, I’ll make a point of it.”
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