Jerad W. Alexander
First game of the season: Clemson versus Western Carolina. The Zenith console was tuned in and the picture beamed clear. Through its speakers, the crowd hissed a flat backdrop for the announcer marking downs and yards, mashed together with baseline stats and scripted catchphrase advertisements hawking foot spray and Goodyear tires. Rusty took a sip then rested the koozie’d beer on a small table next to the recliner. The curtains of the living room window behind the table were open and outside the sun pressed a humid sky into the earth, slow-boiling fat gray rain clouds along the horizon. Two neighborhood boys, no more than ten or eleven, played in a sprinkler on a front lawn across the street. When Rusty leaned back into his brown recliner the leg rest sprang up and locked beneath his calves. He stretched, and both his muscles and Saturday afternoon temperament sighed goooood.
Water hissed in the kitchen sink out of sight. Rusty heard the faucet turn off, then a knife blade tock against a wooden cutting board. He watched Rodney Williams catch the snap and toss a short pass. Numbered gladiators crushed plastic pads between them; they grunted and flung sweat, fighting for turf and distance with guttural playbook savagery. Rusty disappeared into the world, imagined the smell of sweat and canvas and the feel of hardened laces and the stiff, rough leather of the ball underneath rugged fingertips.
A halting scream burst from the kitchen. Metal clattered against the floor.
“Dammit,” Sue said. The kitchen faucet kicked on.
“What happened?” Rusty asked. He picked lint from the belly of his orange jersey and flicked it to the carpet.
She hissed and said, “Oh geez. Dammit.”
Rusty jerked up from the recliner and the footrest slapped closed. He turned up the television with the remote, then made for the kitchen.
Sue, his wife of five years, stood over the white sink with her finger in the running faucet water. The chef’s knife lay on the linoleum floor near her feet. Blood speckled carrots sat half-chopped on the cutting board. Her lips were parted and pulled across clenched teeth. Tight jaw muscles reformed the contours of her cheeks into shifting graceless exertions. Her forehead was furrowed and her wide eyes breathed pain.
“What happened? Did you cut yourself?” he asked. He picked the knife up from the floor.
“I was chopping carrots,” she said.
He set the knife on the kitchen counter and looked at her hand. Her pointer finger was cut along the top, right above the first knuckle. Blood dripped into the sink and down the drain. The knife was brand new from a set of eight, honed to a keen edge.
“Put some pressure on it,” he said. “Gotta stop the bleeding.”
He pressed his thumb down hard against the cut. She winced and sucked air between her teeth. Her eyes screwed shut.
“I cannot believe I did that,” she said. Rusty felt her hand vibrating in the cold water.
“Come on now,” he said.
“It just can’t believe I did that, Rusty. I’m usually so careful.”
The crowd roared from the television in the living room. Rusty tried to hear the announcer, but couldn’t make him out over the water hissing against the metal sink.
“Lemme move your hand,” he said. He pulled her finger out of the water and killed the tap with his elbow. He kept his thumb pressed against the cut, could feel the hard split in her skin.
“Let’s see how bad it is,” he said.
“Ok.” She screwed her eyes shut again.
He lifted his thumb. The cut ran the width of her finger and was nearly bone deep. Blood welled and flowed unchecked around her finger and splotched the white iron sink. He pressed his thumb back onto the cut. She winced again and sucked air. She bounced on her toes and flapped her free hand.
“Hold still,” Rusty said.
“It huuurrts,” she said. Her voice rattled. “I’m going to need stitches now.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “Where’s that first aid kit?”
“Upstairs, I think,” she said. Her eyes were locked on her finger.
“The bathroom sink maybe?”
“Alright. You’ll have to hold this thing while I get it.”
“You mean my finger?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Ready?” he said. “Let go.”
He released her finger and she grabbed it with her free hand. “Make sure you press down on the cut,” he said. “You have to keep pressure on it.”
“It stings, Rusty,” she said. “I think I ought to just go to the emergency room.”
“Just hold on to it. I’ll fix you up.”
He left the kitchen for the living room and stopped in front of the television— just a commercial for Mitchum deodorant. He shot upstairs past framed photos of his mother and father and in-laws and made straight for the master bathroom. He looked under the sink but saw no first aid kit, just rolls of toilet paper and a plunger, a case of Sue’s makeup and a box of pads, her blow dryer and a bottle of drain cleaner.
“It’s not under the sink. Where is it?” he hollered to no one.
He looked in the dresser drawers, sifting through folded socks and never-worn maternity clothes with the tags still affixed. He gave the bookshelf near the door only a passing glance as all the shelves were recently emptied. He peeked under the bed and found their cat resting in a fat gray loaf. It looked at him, disinterested, then blinked and looked away. He searched the guest bathroom and looked under the guest bed. He rifled through empty luggage and felt around the shoeboxes lining the dusty top shelf of the closet.
When he walked down stairs the game was back. He stopped. Clemson was on defense. Western Carolina snapped the ball. It was a draw play with a gain of— make that a loss of four. He hissed “yes.”
“Did you find it?” she called. Her voice registered tears.
He hustled into the kitchen. “It’s not up there,” he said.
“Well I don’t know where it is. Just take me to the ER.”
He went through the kitchen and into the laundry room where a beige clothes dryer echoed loose change tumbling against the metal cylinder. She called after him, but he ignored her and opened the door to the garage. He could see the outline of his Buick by the diffused yellow light of the plastic windows of the garage door. Rusty felt along the wall and flipped on the single bulb and stepped down. He had mowed the lawn that morning and the trapped air smelled faintly of two-stroke exhaust and fresh cut grass. Tools hung on nails above his workbench with the outlines of each drawn onto the plywood backboard. A can of WD-40 sat with its red straw nozzle next to a can of carburetor cleaner. A picture of a deep blue ’71 Chevelle cut from a hot rod magazine had been taped to the wall. A corner dangled.
He searched around the workbench and around a pair of never-ridden bicycles that hung from big yellow hooks. He looked through camping gear that still smelled of churned earth and pine moss. He opened a heavy box to find books on conception, fertility and pregnancy that Sue had tucked away out of sight, each dog-eared and cracked along their spines. He also found a smaller box of basal thermometers, rose quartz and jade fertility bracelets. He felt hollow in their presence, the snap of seeing faded pictures of something once hoped on, then forcibly forgotten. A shortening of breath filled the limpid space of his inadequacy, quickly learned in their trying for a child. He looked at the articles without moving, then folded closed the worn flaps of the box and stood and blinked it away and felt drained and spiritless.
He found the first aid kit inside a box of old winter clothes then rushed back into the kitchen. Sue remained at the sink holding her wounded pointer finger. She sniffed.
“Where was it?”
“Box of old clothes.”
“How’d it get there?”
“How the fuck do I know?” he mumbled bitterly.
She cut him with flat wide eyes. “Don’t be a jerk,” she said.
He pursed his lips and swallowed a flash of guilt. He set the box on the counter and opened it, removing a roll of gauze and tape and scissors. Then he began unrolling the gauze.
“How do you want to do this? If I let go I’ll just start bleeding again,” she said.
“As soon as you take your thumb off your finger I’m gonna start wrapping it up. It’ll probably bleed a little bit but it should be ok once I get enough of this on,” he said.
He held the gauze in both hands. “You ready?”
“I am. Are you?”
“Just let go of your finger.”
She pulled her thumb from the cut. Blood welled in the split in her finger as before, then overflowed and poured over the side and dripped into the wet sink. He placed the end of the gauze on the bottom of her finger and began wrapping the roll of white over and over until the blood seeping through the first few layers disappeared.
“I can feel it pulsing out,” she said.
“I’ll really ought to go to the ER,” she said, almost whimsically.
Rusty kept spinning the gauze around her finger.
“I’ll probably have a scar, too.”
“Maybe,” he said. He stopped for a moment and looked up at her. She bit her lower lip and fixed him with wet pained eyes. “It might not be too bad,” he said.
Soon the gauze resembled a white barrel running the length of her finger.
“How long will I have to keep this on, you think?” She asked.
“I dunno. Day or two maybe,” he said. He used almost half the roll of gauze and then cut the rest free with the black-handled scissors from the first aid kit.
“Hold on to it for a sec,” he said. She wrapped her fingers around the spongy bandage; felt blood roaring into her finger in deep, even throbs of red-hot beating life, the same blood flowing to every other part of her, fueled and working perfectly. She looked at Rusty a moment, then looked away.
Rusty opened the donut case of the white medical tape and peeled off three pieces and stuck them to the counter on one end. He closed the case and put it back in the first aid kit amongst the assortment of Band Aids and a bottle Calamine lotion. The crowd on the television roared. The announcers were locked into a fevered pitch. He shook his head.
Rusty pulled a piece of tape off the counter. “Ok, move your hand,” he said.
She unwrapped her fingers from the gauze as he stuck tape around the center. He put the other two pieces on the gauze, one on each end, then squeezed the tape tight.
“How’s it feel?”
“Ok. It still kinda hurts,” she said. She breathed. “I can barely move my finger.”
“We’ll take it off tomorrow and put something better on it,” he said. He packed up the first aid kit.
“You think maybe we should go to the hospital?”
“I don’t see why. It’s just a cut.”
“But it looked deep,” she said.
“It’ll be fine. Just keep that bandage on there.”
She bit the inside of her cheek and ran her thumb across the wet skin under her eyes. He squeezed her shoulder and kissed her below the eye and set the kit on the small breakfast table. They said “I love you” and “I love you, too” with married mechanics.
He walked into the living room and sat in his recliner and pulled the wooden handle. The leg rest pushed up against his calves and he relaxed and turned the television down.
Rusty reached for his cigarettes on the end table, put one to his lips and lit it, and took a long drag and exhaled and tapped ash into the small black ashtray on the end table. He glanced outside. The neighborhood boys play-fought on the neighbor’s lawn with the sprinkler streams arcing back and forth above them. One boy karate-kicked and his foot connected. The other boy fell to the wet grass with his eyes twisted shut and his hand clutching himself between his legs. He let the curtain drift back into place and adjusted himself.
Sue came from the kitchen with the first aid kit.
“Is it alright?” he asked.
“I guess so. I can still feel it throb. I still wish you wouldn’t smoke in here.”
He looked up at her and fumed exhaust from his nostrils. He held his cigarette a moment then mashed it out. “Take some Tylenol,” he said.
She seemed small as she walked up the stairs and disappeared. There was another flag on the play, this time on Clemson. Pass interference. Fifteen yard penalty. First down.
“Come on now,” Rusty moaned.
He watched the instant replay and shook his head sadly and sipped his beer when the replay showed the call irrefutable. He looked outside. The boys were gone from the lawn.
“Honey?” Sue called from upstairs.
“Can you come up here please?”
Rusty sprung the footrest closed and set his beer down on the end table. “I’m coming,” he sighed. He trudged up the stairs.
“Where are you?” he asked.
He walked into the bedroom. A bookshelf sat empty near the door. In the bathroom, the medicine cabinet was open and a bottle of aspirin sat on the sink next to a tube of Close-Up. Sue sat on the toilet with all the lids down. She held her finger over the sink.
“Your bandage didn’t work,” she said. She rubbed her forehead. “Take me to the emergency room, ok? Will you take me?”
He looked at his efforts. Blood curved off her hidden fingernail and dripped into the white sink, mixing with the running tap water, spinning down the drain. Blood stained the bandage around the cut. He breathed a bleeding ego, ignored his parts that would not function.
“Lemme see that kit again.”
She blinked and clutched her finger and went for the car keys.
Jerad W. Alexander is the associate editor of The Blue Falcon Review, an upcoming journal of military veteran fiction. In the past he has worked as an infantryman, a war correspondent, copywriter, theater director, freelance journalist and a litany of other grinds. His essay “On Our Next Stop in Modern War” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2013 Story Contest. His novella, The Life of Ling Ling, was a finalist in the 2012 Serena McDonald Kennedy Prize for Fiction and is available on Amazon. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.