While his wife, Frances, was at church, Paul stayed home to make headway on a trellis he was building for his daughter’s wedding next month. He took his time measuring twice and striking a clear line with his pencil before placing the plywood on the table saw. While cutting, he realized his wife would be home soon, and he glanced at the open garage door to the empty driveway. Then he severed his thumb.

      Frances was late coming home from the Christmas Bazaar Preparation Committee meeting after Mass, only to find Paul hunched over a dark red and white shop rag. Beside him sat her medium-size Tupperware container—the new kind that ‘burps’ when you press on the top to seal it—full of ice and a thumb.

      Now in the ambulance, the EMT wanted information like a name and address, did Paul have insurance, and any medication he was taking. “Date of birth,” the EMT said, more fill-in-the-blank than querying. Paul replied with numbers. The EMT asked if the accident was work-related.

      “I’m retired,” said Paul.

      “So, no,” the EMT said, and he checked a tiny box on his intake form.

      The emergency room waiting area was quiet save for CBS Sunday Morning coming to an end on the corner television.

      “I don’t see any doctors around,” said Frances.

      “They’re coming.”

      Eventually a nurse appeared with paperwork for Paul to fill out. She offered him a pen and he looked at his injured hand, the Tupperware in his other.

      “I can do it.” Frances took the clipboard and pen, and then asked, “Is there a doctor who can see him now?”

      “Turn these forms over to the registration counter,” said the nurse, pronouncing her words more slowly, “and we will get your husband through triage at that time.”

      Once in the examining room, a male nurse named Enrique applied small blocks of foam to Paul’s wound. “This will clot the blood so we can take an X-ray and see if you have any chipped bone floating around in there,” said Enrique. He led Paul to another waiting area outside of the X-ray room. Paul continued to bleed, even on the X-ray table where they had to lay out a small tarp to keep his blood from dripping onto their machinery.

        “Hold still for one moment,” said the radiologist, before stepping out to operate the machine. Paul wiggled his thumb once before the radiologist cleared the room.

      “We should have these in about twenty minutes,” said the radiologist. “Your doctor will see you in the examining room.”

      Frances scoffed.

      The two of them sat in the examining room long enough to read each poster warning of high cholesterol and diabetes, as well as all the flu prevention and pregnancy preparation pamphlets in the wall rack. The doctor and Enrique arrived to say that they were calling a hand doctor from a hospital across town who would reattach his thumb because nobody on staff could handle such a delicate laceration.

      “You don’t have a single hand doctor in the building?” asked Frances. Paul raised his good hand to settle his wife’s tone.

      “Not on Sunday,” said the doctor. “They should be here in forty minutes.” The doctor, Enrique, and Frances each looked to their wrist and then to the wall, but no timepiece was to be found, while Paul’s eyes settled on the bundle of gauze at the end of his wrist.

      Enrique later returned with his arms full of equipment shrink-wrapped in blue plastic. Frances looked up from her book to cast a brief but scornful glance his way. A young female doctor entered wearing an expensive black fleece jacket and rose-colored cheeks and nose. Enrique gestured for Paul to lean back on the examining table.

      Frances eagerly closed her book. “Are you the hand doctor?” she asked.

      “Yes,” said the doctor.

      Enrique motioned to help the young doctor with her rubber gloves but she helped herself to another pair from the box. She sat between Paul and the table full of equipment that Enrique had set out, and quickly began to undress Paul’s hand.

      “How did you do this?” asked the doctor.

      “He cut it off with a table saw,” Frances said. “Will you be able to reattach it?”

      “Yes,” said the doctor, without looking up from the wounded hand. “This is a clean cut. Does it hurt?”

      “Yes,” he said. “Somewhat.”

      “Only when I touch it,” said the doctor, and she gave Paul a smirk. She peeked over at Frances to receive a baleful look in return.

      The doctor gently guided Paul’s hand to rest over the table of equipment. “I’ll first need to numb the area,” she said. “It will be a tiny prick but that’s all you’ll feel.” She shuffled around some equipment.

      “How long will this take to heal?” Frances asked, almost accusingly.

      “Oh,” said the doctor. “It will take some time. First the skin will heal where I am going to attach it together. The sutures will dissolve and the tiny little fibers of tissue will slowly regenerate. But the bone will take a long time.” The doctor turned to Paul. “It will be months before you can grip with it or even bend it.”

      “Months,” said Frances. “Our daughter’s wedding is in five weeks.”

      “You’ll still be able to dance,” said the doctor, and to Paul, who now held a forlorn gaze, “What do you do?”

      “I’m retired,” he said, thinking momentarily about his old route and the post office sorting case where he started each morning. “But—” he said, about to explain the trellis he was building, before his wife interjected.

      “He was a postal worker,” she said. “A mailman. He won an award.”

      “What for?” asked the doctor, now sticking him with a needle.

      He didn’t wince. He didn’t even feel it. He was back at the station, listening to the guys complain about another day, another pile of letters and magazines.

      “He drove a million miles without one single accident,” said Frances.

      “A million miles!” The doctor looked to Enrique. “Did you hear that?”

      “That must have taken a long time,” said Enrique. “I bet you watched that odometer every day.”

      Paul thought about how most other carriers watched the clock, while others passed time counting letters and packages. Some carriers watched the miles go by.

      Frances laughed. “He didn’t even know.”

      She was right. When it happened, he had no idea. He just clocked out as usual. But the other guys were waiting by his sorting case, and the post master had a certificate already made up with his name and the date. They had balloons.

      “How long did that take you?” asked the doctor.

      He couldn’t say for sure. It took his whole career to that point. He had never been one for counting miles or years or anything. But looking at the bloody gauze around his hand, he couldn’t help but think about time and the forms it took, like hands rotating around a clock or letters dropped in a mailbox. Time rolled over by the mile on a dashboard gauge or traced by the inch along a piece of plywood and fed into a table saw. Maybe time was a dissolving stitch or tissue fibers stretching across a wounded thumb, so subtle and minute that he could hardly tell it was happening.

Greg Shemkovitz holds an MFA from UNC-Greensboro. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gihon River Review, Oracle, and Echo Ink Review.

I began to think about how we measure time by marking our accomplishments and tragedies while letting the everyday moments pass quietly between these events. I wanted to challenge that view by considering how time takes different forms. A few days after starting a much longer story, a large glass door with a broken hinge swung closed on my hand, ripping off the end of a finger. Perhaps because at the time I could only type with one hand, the story ended up being shorter than I'd anticipated. And time in the story, only naturally, became a wounded hand.



Copyright 2009