Winter 2017 Fiction

















Jessica Walker


Chop Shop


Nate had been brain dead thirty-three days when Roxy cut off the tip of her middle finger. The knife slipped from the flesh of the lime, tore off her nail and sliced the finger just short of the bone. She put the severed piece into a shot glass, stuck it in the fridge beneath the garnish station and swaddled her finger in napkins. She went back to slicing lime wedges.

Gordon, a red-nosed regular at Castaways’ Bar & Grill, craned his craggy face up from a whiskey with a pickle-juice back. For several seconds he watched Roxy’s blood coat the cutting board before fishing out words.

“Goddamn! Roxy hurt her finger!”

The lunch drunks jerked to attention.

“Goddamn!” they chorused. Bobby the boat detailer slid the dregs of his vodka to her.

“Stick your finger in there. It’ll kill the germs, keep you from getting gangrene,” Bobby said. “I know, my ex was a nurse.”

“Bullshit, Bobby, your ex wasn’t no nurse,” Gordon said. “She was a goddamn dental hygienist who left your ass for a nurse.”

Roxy kept cutting limes, even as blood began to drip from the counter to the dirty linoleum. She was only missing a small, nonessential piece. No bone, just a bit of skin and fingernail. Baking soda and club soda, that was how she would clean the blood from her jeans. It was a combination she’d used after many sloppy nights. Erased stains like nothing was there to begin with.

The lunch drunks shifted their attention from Roxy’s finger to the exact nature of Bobby’s break-up with the dental hygienist. Roxy’s boss, Martin, ran over with a dish towel, bound up the finger and dragged her into the kitchen, her injured hand elevated in his own like she had just won a prize fight. The thump of chopping vegetables and the clank of pans dimmed to near silence as the kitchen staff gawked.

“What are you thinking? You need to get to the hospital,” Martin said.

“I’m okay.”

“Like hell you are. Why are you even here? I told you to take time off.”

“I picked up Tricia’s shift. I’m bored.”

“Bored? Your man just died and you’re bored?”

Roxy stared at the grill, where Nate used to stand slapping on steaks and Mahi Mahi. The fry cook was scraping charred bits of meat from the grate with a wire brush.

“He’s not dead,” Roxy said. “Just brain dead.”

“I hate to do this, but I have to let you go until you get yourself together,” Martin said.

He began to recount the damage Roxy had done—the cup of Clorox in the rum punch, the keg she dropped on the food runner’s foot, the screwdriver she served to a seven-year-old. Roxy walked out. She waved good-bye to the lunch drunks with her good hand. They were deep in debate over the difference between a dental hygienist and a nurse. No one waved back.


At home, Roxy sealed up her fingertip with superglue, then iced and bandaged the wound. She laid Nate’s favorite things on the kitchen table—a bottle of Jack, a Ziploc of weed, a pair of dirty jeans—and sniffed them. She licked the weed and the jeans, swished a gulp Jack in her mouth. She spat the liquor into the sink. What she missed about Nate wasn’t the smell or taste, but the noise of him—his donkey laugh, the clang of pans and tools, all those motors.

Roxy went into the garage and stared the puddle of oil where Nate had parked his Kawasaki Ninja before he skidded the crotch rocket off U.S. 1. She sat on Nate’s other bike—a Honda Scrambler 350, the same model a naked girl rode in his favorite movie, Vanishing Point. “First tits I ever saw on a TV,” Nate would recall caressing the bike during the obligatory garage tour he gave guests.

Roxy sat on the car hood wondering how she would make the mortgage. She hadn’t hustled in years. But she figured it was like a riding a bike. Your muscles never really forgot the routine even if your brain did. She snapped a few pictures of the motorcycle and posted them on craigslist with a still frame from Vanishing Point of the naked woman riding through the desert.

Roxy’s finger throbbed and she got up to search for ibuprofen. The house was covered in Nate’s things—his knives and pans in the kitchen, his bike gear and stained kitchen clothes in the master bedroom, his toy collection in the guest room.

She paused at the door of the guest room. Before she met Nate, Roxy was planning to quit bartending. She had updated her estheticians’ license and outfitted the room for business—a hair-washing station, a salon chair, a Hollywood-style vanity. Then Nate filled the room with remote-controlled devices—cars, boats, airplanes, strange little UFO-looking vehicles—dumped in heaps across the floor. She picked up a remote control, flicked on the power and moved the joystick. Somewhere, a small motor whirred.


Roxy looked through the peephole at Charles from craigslist and debated his serial killer potential. Crew cut, pencil moustache, pleated shorts, polo shirt buttoned all the way up. He pinged her radar. But he looked small and sober and Roxy had wrangled worse. She showed him to the garage.

“Dude!” Charles said, running his fingers over the body of the bike. “Vanishing Point is my favorite movie ever. You’ve seen it?”

“Nope. Kind of a guy movie, right?”

“Not if you get what it’s saying. It’s about freedom. The American rebel spirit. The fleeting nature of man’s existence.”

“What I don’t get is why anyone would ride a motorcycle naked in the desert.”

“The girl rides naked because she’s free that’s what she wants to do.”

“I’m pretty sure the girl rides naked because everyone else wants her to.” Roxy cranked the bike.

At the sound of the motor, Charles grinned like a school boy. As he began to count cash, Roxy dug through a drawer on the work bench and found the title. She got a blank sheet of paper and scribbled out a bill of sale with Nate’s signature. Charles squinted at the documents.

“Are you Nathaniel Wiggins?”

“Obviously not.”

“I need him to sign this.”

“He’s in a coma.”

“Do you have power of attorney?”

“His mother does.”

“She needs to sign. Otherwise, this is identify theft.”

“Come on. I sign for Nate all the time. Nobody’s gonna challenge this.”

Charles wouldn’t budge. Roxy agreed to have the title transferred to her name. She watched Charles back out of the driveway in his new Dodge Challenger. The acne-pocked neighbor kid stood in his yard playing with his drone, laughing and filming from above as Charles ran over the curb, took out a swatch of Bermuda grass and sped away.


Roxy found Bernice at Nate’s bedside, his hand in hers, Bible on her lap.

“I’m so glad to see you.” Bernice rose to hug Roxy. “Hardly anyone comes anymore.”

“I figured you needed your space,” Roxy said, looking everywhere but Nate’s bed. His respirator whooshed in the whiteness of the room.

“I’ve been enjoying our mother-son time,” Bernice went back to her seat and took Nate’s hand again. “I haven’t connected with Nate like this since he was a little boy.”

“Yeah...that’s…wonderful,” Roxy said.

“You want to lay hands on Nate and pray with me?” Bernice asked.

“Maybe in a bit. I wanted to talk to you about something first,” Roxy spat it out. “I’m hard up for cash with Nate gone. I want to sell his old motorcycle. Can you sign over the title for me?”

“I can’t do that.” Bernice shook her head. “Everything’s gotta be the same as Nate left it when he wakes up. I feel his spirit in this room. My baby’s more himself now than ever.”

Roxy let her eyes fall onto Nate’s body. His shoulder length hair had been shorn since her last visit. His tattoos were covered with gauze and sheets. Bernice had tucked a teddy bear under the crook of his arm and hung a silver cross from his neck. He had lost color, weight, all sound and movement except for the steady, forced rise of his chest.


Igor’s chop shop remained as it ever was—a concrete square inside a chain-link perimeter topped with loops of barbed wire. Three pit bulls behind the fence barked and slobbered in the morning heat.

“Igor,” Roxy shouted, jangling the gate. “Lemme in.”

Roxy’s stepfather emerged from the shop in sandals and track pants with his bulky torso spilling out of a wife beater.

“Why don’t you call your mother no more?” Igor opened the gate.

“Why doesn’t she call me?” Roxy stepped inside and let the pit bulls sniff her. “New dogs?” She scratched the ears of the biggest one.

“What are you doing here?”

“I wanna talk business.”


Inside the building a man was dissembling a red Ferrari, the upper half of his body hidden under the car as the steady clank of metal on metal vibrated. Industrial shelves overflowed with car parts—wires, pipes, panels, radiators, mufflers, rearview mirrors. Roxy jumped over a bumper and mashed the horn on a steering wheel.

“No sound,” Igor said. “It’s not attached to nothing.”

“I know, I honked anyway,” Roxy said.

Igor’s office was a small room of unpainted cinderblock with a metal desk. He lowered himself into a cracked leather chair. Roxy sat in a folding chair. There were no filing cabinets, no computers, no printers. Igor’s business depended upon leaving no paper trail. Roxy’s first job for him had been burning stacks of paper in an oil drum. She had spent half a day setting fire to documents she didn’t understand, watching smoke rise as everything went to ash.

Igor drummed his thick fingers on the desktop. Hollow echoes filled the room. Roxy knew Igor would never speak first. It was a tactic he’d learned in the Russian army, honed as a low-level Mafioso, then perfected extracting confessions from a teenaged Roxy.

“I need this title in my name.” She tossed the document on Igor’s desk.

“I don’t do titles. Titles are for vehicles in one piece. We disappear things part by part. Poof, never existed, zero identity.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I thought you’d know somebody.”

“I thought you’d know somebody.”

“I don’t even touch shady shit anymore.” Roxy said.

“A waste. You were good at it.” Igor pushed back from his desk. “You want my help? Go see your mother. Take her wherever she wants. My treat.”

He pulled a roll of money from his pocket and tossed a pile of twenties on the table. Roxy picked out a few counterfeits, ripped them in half and took the rest. Igor smiled.

“Smart and tough, just like papa raised you,” he said.

“You didn’t make me tough,” Roxy said. “You just made me act tough.”


Open and half-full at nine in the morning, Jokers Wild was the last twenty-four-hour dive in a town that wasn’t issuing any more all-night liquor licenses. A barstool propped open the door, releasing the smell of booze and cigarettes, bleach and mold. A big-haired woman in heels played Galaga, shouting “Hallelujah” or “Die, bitch, die,” whenever she vaporized a space invader. Roxy’s mother dropped the dirty dishrag she had been wiping the bar with.

“Roxanne!” Penny ran from behind the bar to hug her daughter. “Sit. Have a drink.”

“I’ll have a club soda.” Roxy sat at the end of the bar.

“My daughter, the teetotaler.” Penny went back behind the bar, poured herself a tequila shot and lit a cigarette. “I don’t trust people I never see drunk. You never know who they are.”

“It’s nine o’clock, Ma, most of the world is sober.”

“What’s going on with you? How’s Nick?” Penny slapped a coaster in front of Roxy.

“It’s Nate. He was in a bad accident. He might not be around much longer.”

“My god. So sorry.” Penny crossed herself. “That’s terrible.”

“It’s not good,” Roxy said.

“Can you support yourself? What’re you doing for work? Hair? Nails?” Penny downed her tequila.

“I’m bartending. You gonna get that club soda?” Roxy hid her injured hand beneath the lip of the bar.

“Really, Roxanne? Bartending? After spending all that money on beauty school?”

“I never wanted to be a beautician. You wanted me to be a beautician.”

“I never wanted you to be a beautician. I just didn’t want you to be a bartender.” Penny squirted a stream from her soda gun and set Roxy’s drink on the coaster. Seven of her fingers ended in magenta acrylic nails. Three nails had broken off.

“So, Ma, what do you want to do when your shift’s over? You name it. My treat.”

Penny didn’t hesitate. “Mother-daughter mani-pedi.”


Penny removed her flip-flops and plunged her feet into the soaking tub. Roxy unlaced her boots, rolled up her jeans and tried to calculate the last time she shaved her legs.

“So, how’s life?” Roxy asked, bare-footed and in the water.

“Your boy Nick ain’t the only one with a health problem,” Penny said. “Looks like I gotta say sayonara to the old uterus.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I got uterine prolapse. The whole thing’s gotta go. No big deal. I don’t need it any more. Happens to women with kids. Guess you made your mark in there, tore the joint up.”

“Umm. Sorry?” Roxy said as a young woman bent down over her feet and began to slough off dead skin with a pumice.

“Doctor’s also worried about my left lung. He’s taking a piece of that to biopsy. All that secondhand smoke from the bar coulda finally got to me.”

“Geez, Ma. That sounds bad.”

“It’s not good. But I’m lucky I got this far with all my original parts. We all go to shit, whether it’s piece by piece or boom—all at once.”

Their pedicures were over and they went across the shop to have their nails done. Penny wanted acrylics embossed with shooting stars. Roxy cringed as her manicurist studied the state of her hands.

“What happened?” the manicurist asked, pointing at Roxy’s gauzed-covered finger.

“It’s nothing.”

“Let me look.” The manicurist removed the bandage. “Oh god. You’re missing your fingertip.”

“My poor baby.” Penny looked over.

“If that nail grows back, it may never be the same,” the manicurist said. “I don’t think you’ll be able to manicure this finger for a long time.”

“I never wanted to anyway,” Roxy wrapped her finger up. “Doesn’t change my life.”

“That’s Roxanne,” Penny said. “Knows all about what she doesn’t want. Now ask her what she does want.”

“What color nail polish do you want?” the manicurist asked.

Roxy eyed the bottles of polish—lime green, baby blue, concrete grey, Ferrari red, Barbie pink, metallic shades of chrome and gold.

“Clear,” she said.


Roxy dropped Penny off at the chop shop and walked her to the gate.

“You should take better care of your nails,” Penny took Roxy’s hands in her own. “You can read a woman’s life in her hands.”

Igor came out, dogs bounding after him, and handed Roxy an envelope

“The new title’s in your name.” he said. “I destroyed the old one.”

Penny cut her eyes from her daughter to her husband.

“You guys are in business again?” she said. “That’s why you’re here?”

“We’re not in business,” Roxy said. “It was time to see you.”

“Lying little bitch.” Penny smiled. “I could always see right through you.”

Penny reached over with her fresh nails and pinched her daughter’s cheek. Hard.


Traffic on I-95 was at a standstill. Roxy checked herself out in the rearview mirror. There was a red mark when her mother’s acrylics had clamped on her skin. She stared at her own hands. Nine nails had been brought to their best state— stubby but clean—and one was throbbing in a place that no longer existed. A helmeted figure on a crotch rocket raced between stopped traffic. Roxy watched the rider grow smaller and smaller, then disappear. She strained to hear the motor long after it was gone.

The driver next to Roxy laid on his horn and shook his fist. Roxy stretched and leaned back in her seat. Traffic never bothered her. When she had worked for Igor, she had made regular runs delivering mufflers to a guy named Sergey in Tampa. She would cross Alligator Alley— a desolate stretch of Interstate across the Everglades popular for dumping bodies and drag racing. Igor’s van hadn’t had a radio. The speakers had been removed to conceal a radar detector that squawked at random intervals. The van ran rough and loud and the metal mufflers would roll around clanking until Roxy’s head was ready to explode. She would stop at a contaminated nature preserve where the swamp had been drained. All the wildlife had fled but there was a bridge where the scenic overlook used to be. Roxy would stand there, close her eyes and listen to nothing until her head cleared. Then she’d get back on with the haul.

Traffic loosened and edged forward. Roxy took the exit for Castaways. It was three o’clock. The lunch drunks would be morphing into their louder and dumber dinner-drunk selves. Roxy entered the front door.

“Goddamn! It’s Rosie!” Gordon cried out.

“Goddamn! Hi, Rosie!” the lunch drunks chorused.

“Whatcha doing back?” Gordon asked.

“I left something behind.” Roxy opened the mini-fridge. She found maraschino cherries, heavy cream, soy milk for Martin’s lactose intolerant son. Behind a metal container of souring limes she found the shot glass with her flesh and fingernail.

Roxy stood up with the shot glass held high.

“Goddamn, I forgot all about that under there,” Gordon said.

“Goddamn, me too,” the lunch drunks chorused.

“I didn’t,” Roxy said.

“Whatcha gonna do with your finger part? Reattach it?” Gordon asked. “Like old whatshisname who got his whang chopped off by his old lady.”

“He did porn after that!” Bobby said. “A goddamn miracle.”

“Goddamn!” the lunch drunks chorused.

Roxy waved good-bye. The guys were parsing out the logistics of penile reattachment. No one waved back. She drove away with the shot glass wedged between her thighs.


It took far less than time than Roxy thought it should to box and bag all of Nate’s toys. She shoved the pile in the closet. She ransacked her underwear drawer for something soft and revealing. The best she could find was a bikini with Hot Mama in glitter on the bottom and a robe Nate had stolen from a luxury hotel where he had been sous chef. She took a pair of panty hose Nate kept around for making hash, cut them and rolled the DIY thigh-highs up her legs.

She set the shot glass on the Hollywood-style vanity and turned on the bubble-shaped light bulbs that surrounded the mirror. Only two worked.

“Now who the fuck am I?” she asked.

Roxy put her hair in hot rollers and applied make-up to her face—slowly carefully—remembering a cautionary tale from beauty school about a woman who lost an eye from the bacteria infecting her expired mascara.

She finished primping, looked in the mirror and saw her mother. But with a farmer’s tan.

Roxy jammed her feet in a pair of high heels and wobbled to the backyard with the shot glass. She set her fingertip on the patio table beside the swimming pool that Nate had emptied and transformed into a skate ramp. She settled into a plastic lounger and closed her eyes. The disappearing sun filtered through the palms, mottling her body with shadow. The neighborhood was quiet and still, not a breeze to disturb the curls grazing her shoulders— no barking dogs, no screaming children, not a single sputtering lawnmower.

From over the treetops, a drone descended, shattering the silence and startling Roxy with the whoosh of its fan blades and whir of its motor. The drone began to circle Roxy’s yard. She got up and chased it, swatting at the machine like it was a swarm of mosquitos. Her nylons snagged on the bushes and drooped to her ankles.

“Go the fuck away!” She threw a high heel at the drone.

The drone zeroed in on Roxy with its camera eye and began to loop around her head. She flung the other shoe. The drone dive-bombed her. She flipped up her middle fingers.

“Can’t I have my own time and space for five fucking minutes?” Roxy rested with her hands on her knees, panting.

The drone ascended and headed west over the treetops. The sound went with it. Roxy’s makeup was beginning to melt off her face. Her curls fell slack. Her bandage lay on the grass under the bougainvillea; the wound had reopened and began to bleed.  

The drone faded to a dot, then nothing. Roxy straightened and jogged to the edge of the yard. “Where are you going?” she screamed at the sky. “Come back! I was just getting used to all that noise.”



Jessica Walker is a native of Georgia and a current resident of South Florida. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in The Indiana Review, Reservoir, Word Riot, The Indianola Review and elsewhere. She has placed in the top 5 in Blue Mesa Review’s Short Fiction Contest, and her short stories have been finalists in December Magazine's Curt Johnson Prose Award, The Thomas Wolf Award for Short Fiction and the Southwest Review's Meyerson Contest.

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.