Stories

Aria (from Story Quarterly, Issue 45)
I smash my left pointer finger in the car door. Feel sick. Think, “I cut off the end!” Don’t want to look at it. But no, when I do, it’s just the old mash job. Such things happen to fingers. One may expect the nail to blacken, maybe fall off; the finger will throb. Some extra pain to add to the daily disciplines.
There is serious trouble at work–where I’m an account administrator and this is the busy time of year. Wife divorcing me. Money squeeze. Dad in a care facility and loathing it. Older son floating somewhere off the map and unreachable. Paying a service to track him down. Dusty. He’s 25.
So the finger? I’ll be fine. I have to be.
I’m not.

The pain expands. An aria of pain, both piercing and ascending. Not a vice clamp. But shaped like an explosion, billowing out from inside, boom boom with my heart beats.
Cold March rain sweeps down from everywhere. On the iPod, I’ve got La Boheme with Monserrat Caballe as Mimi and I’m trying to read reports, crying because of the beautiful music and the terrible pain. My ex calls leaves a message on my cell: “Hey, have you got or could you find Dee Dee’s school reports and her vaccination and her apptitude report deal from the Empson School? Give them to Michael.” Our lawyer, Michael.
Thursday night is all about bright red pain; it beats and throbs. No interest in food, sleep impossible. Still, I’m thinking, can’t miss work, hate ER waits and surely this ripening wound will somehow erupt, cast off nail, I’ll have a glass of red wine and all will come right.
By Friday, there are no options. Fingertip now crooked, ballooned, livid scarlet. Nail lifting from nailbed, edged in dead-looking black, and the tip eggplant color. Pain blinding.

In the emergency room stall–it’s a bed ringed by a shower curtain–I can hear to my left a man having a heart attack, his third, (he says, “Whew, oh, whoo!” and he even chuckles once–as if to say, Are you kidding me?) and to my right a man who worked construction and struck his own hand with a hammer. Tells nurse he’s the foreman and she laughs and he laughs. The ER rooms are giddy, as if disaster is festive. Same nurse winces when she sees my finger, (doesn’t she see car wreck victims and folks with gunshot faces?) and gives me a Louritab for pain and says a Nurse Practioner will be with me ‘shortly”.
Could be bad news because I cannot wait too many more breaths and I’m about nuts now. I’m at the limit of myself, my endurance. This hurt has been building to a crescendo and I understand now my marathon runner colleague where I work, when she said she just took pliers to a black nail on her toe and ripped it off to end its reign of oppression over her life and thoughts.
“That hurt, but in an all new way. Like a divorce. Like loneliness is better than its option,” she said.
Diego is the NP who swings in and he’s lean, young, bald, and clearly competent. “Hemotoma under the nail. X-ray shows the bone is shattered in about five pieces, like, I’ll show you–”

With a razor tip marker he draws a good picture of the bones of the finger, using the sheet on the bed as his page. The very tip bone of the finger looks like pottery fragments, but they don’t even use a splint for that he says. It all just knits, or it doesn’t.
“Now,” he says setting up shop, snapping on gloves, “ for the fun part.” He arranges equipment. “You’re gonna feel so good after this…While I’m working you can call me any names you want, just don’t jerk your hand”
Diego drills through the nail with a white hot needle, cauterizing, and piercing to the nail bed, making a big hole. Blue blood spurts out. I smell burning nail and burnt blood. He makes a hole but the second time through is the thing itself. It’s the most hurt one can feel, is my guess, without blacking out.
“Man, you waited too long to come in,” Diego says. “But that’s better now, isn’t it?”
It is.
The pain has peaked and now subsides, quieted, tamed.

At the CVS off Palm Parrot Drive, I fill prescriptions for pain pills and a weeklong course of antibiotics. My wrapped in gauze finger splashes blood on the floor by the counter.
I’m home and soaking the hand in warm water.
The Met Broadcast comes on. Some opera I don’t know.
In the opera all the wrong characters have money. The lovers have none. Some king wages a dark war with his advisors but his dark laments obey scales of beauty and his queen’s responses are lovely and the soaring, searing. I sit at the desk in the dining room with a bottle of Chianti, a Tupperware tub in which I soak the finger and a feeling of having done something wonderful. Having defeated some crazed enemy.
Later, a doctor friend tells me the medical term for intense, barely endurable pain: “exquisite.”