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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>A Week of Decades by S. Matheny


A Week of Decades


S. Matheny





In any light, she had her mother’s hands.  Especially in the light of the emergency room that is stark so they can see everything.  Fat wrinkly knuckles, crevices of stars and rivers.  She used to have long smooth fingers.  Her mom would brag about them, contrast them with her own, glad to not have passed down very much of herself to her only daughter.  The one she wanted in the first place.  The one she had to birth two sons to get.  She always thought her mom’s hands looked like that because she was very overweight and did a lot of housework.  And because she started life too young.  Life for her began at age eight when her dad orphaned her by dangling from a rope. Awareness by abrupt subtraction.  She looked at her hands. It was not about overweight or work.  Truth arrives like a slow train that loses its brakes on the last slope of  a long journey. She was born a paradox of young and old.  The old made the young aware, which in turn made it old.  She hides her hands.  An Asian man came in.  He held two syringes.  He smiled broadly with metal braces on his top teeth.  From the spacing of his teeth, he got them on recently.  He introduced himself but she heard him as she looked at him like hearing a TV.  The first needle was a pinch then a punch in the arm. The second needle was slow, entering insidiously then drawing out tissue nerves vessels breath.  He told her to breath easy as he tortured her.  He stood over her and said You turned red.  The levity of a lead balloon. He waited for her to cover her naked rear so he could leave.  She did not care who saw her white rear striped with pink stretch marks. She spoke strained breathy like a tragic actress in a melodrama.  She was nauseated.  She needed someone.  She was a telepathic renegade who turned against people before they turned on her.  She suffered alone because people need explanations for suffering.  They want to alleviate it. They cannot just let it be.  But now she explained to her fetched husband the shaking the tears the furrowing the sweating.  How the warmth of his hand made it bearable.  She never understood that until now.  Two shots in the big toe.  The nurse had to stop.  Iodine spilled on the floor.  She shook too much for them.  A shot in the other cheek.  The one trying to be invisible.  The nurse said it would be her addiction of choice.  He talked to her about something not pain-related.  He found a set of 36 pastels for only $18. Professional quality.  She was not in too much pain nor too dopey to ask if he already had some of the colors in his 24 set.  She suggested he buy additional colors individually.  Two more shots in the toe.  She could not feel the nurse cutting the nail off her big toe.  The nurse pulled at it. Twisted it like a dentist extracting a stubborn tooth.  It came off.  A bloody disk.  The nurse set it on a sterile pad and asked if she wanted to keep it.  She recalled the time she asked the dentist if she could keep the tooth with the root that curved around her jawbone that took so long to get out.  He said it was bio-hazardous waste.  It was a healthy tooth.  This was a toenail rife with pus and blood. Someone with less education would come bandage it.  She lay there a long time.  Blood dripped large and thick.  She wondered about fungi floating in the air landing on her meaty toe.  Two aides came in to look at her toe.  The torturing Asian with braces and a remarkably round man with no teeth and a buzz cut asked What do you think of it?  She said it looks just like she wanted it.  They walked out laughing and satisfied.  A pregnant aide squirted saline and bandaged her toe.  Antibiotics four times per day, peroxide soaks twice per day, walk with crutches, keep elevated, take painkillers as needed, they may cause constipation, eat fruit, pay at the window, come back in two days. Next time do not ignore the pain.


he lay on the couch covered completely with the blanket from Guadalajara except for her right foot and her head.  He stood over her and laughed.  You look like a burrito, he said.  What kind of burrito, she asked.  Beef, chicken, bean, cheese, green chile, red chile, fish, goat. I don’t know.  Chicken.  She wanted him to say bean and cheese.



The sun was setting on the Tower Bridge in a purple and yellow sky with orange lights glowing across the Thames before two figures who were not them.  It was a scene among many that he witnessed that he admired that he wanted to capture as she walked not with him as he snapped pictures around the city, confused.  As he wandered and wondered she was pacing, looking out the window seventeen floors up, looking at the abandoned Battersea useless breathtaking giant pacing between the beds looking at her purse with amber bottles inside pacing looking at her purse pacing looking at her purse looking at her purse.   She now painted the Tower Bridge from the photo.  It was black but she made it blue in shadow and green in light.  The lights were specks but she made them suns.  The figures were lost in the dark but she brushed around them leaving white halos standing on the bank.  He left with a kiss and she wanted him to stay wanted him to leave.  She asked if she should make dinner for him wanting him to say yes to prove her love wanting him to say no because she did not want to.  She folded his underwear and paired his socks she threw hers in a drawer.  The pain in her foot was greater as it healed.  It was good to feel something unequivocal.



Ben looked at her with one eye.  The other one was obscured by a lampshade.  He quickly turned his head toward the bedroom.  There was nothing to see.  A stripe continued the curve of his top eyelid down his neck.  Out of the darkness in the direction of his gaze, his brother appeared. Lumbering and haggard from sickness.  She will brush him. Ben sat in profile.  His chin like a little boy’s.  He lay on the blanket from Guadalajara.  He stretched toward her with rhapsodic eyes as if they were having a love affair.  She sneezed.  Ben’s eyes were alarmed. So were Clyde’s from the floor.  After six years in her possession they still did not understand the meaninglessness of a sneeze.  Ben ran away between the vases.  Before her on the wall were rectangles bordered in black.  Black rectangles holding rectangles of monuments, statues, flowers, toasts.  A strip of four small rectangles of goofy poses.  His faces are free.  She is jealous of him.  Her feet did not reach the end of the couch.  Not even close.  She thought of the documentary on TV the night previous.  The Rat Pack were supplied with endless liquor and show girls.  Every man’s dream, one of them said.  Show girls whose legs would reach the end of the couch.  The documentary before that was about corn.  A guy who made hybrid corn.  He was so consumed by corn that he did not speak to his family.  They could not talk to each other during dinner because he wanted to listen to the weather report on radio WHO in Des Moines. He related to corn better than to people. His wife took it out on the kids. No one knew what he was doing.  Corn is corn. His daughter is in therapy.  She is in her 60s.  If he had communicated with her mom everything would have been different, she said. If, in retrospect.  If, ad infinitum.  Many times, it has nothing to do with you. Ben sits nonchalantly by the aquarium.  He glances mischievously. Naughty boys have nothing on this cat.  She whistles an irritating tone.  His ears lay back.  So do
Clyde’s.  He walks away.  It punishes both of them.



She should not smile so big when she laughs.  She looks ugly like that. She has known this for many years.  Once someone said she had an ugly smile, someone who liked her.  People look down or away when she laughs hard, to not witness it. She tries to watch it. She has a strange face.  At a certain angle a rare angle one might say she is pretty.  She usually passes for cute.  But this is only when her mouth is straight.  Otherwise she is a gargoyle.  She is not free.  She was having a fine conversation until she laughed too hard.  She saw him look away and went back to her desk.  Ron was disappointed.  She did not want to be in the photography club.  She did not have a camera.  He had other friends but they did not keep their promises. She was glad to have that out of the way in the morning. Her husband brought her t-shirt design at lunch. They ate outside at a barbecue.  An elderly black couple sat a table away. The woman wore a purple paisley top. Something her mom would wear. The man had a sweet face. His hair was combed back, thin gray curls at the bottom.  She loved him as one loves a portrait.  His humanity captured.  She loved her husband more than she let herself realize. She loved him in a prophetic way, an intense love felt only in loss.  He sat across from her eating.  Her eyes begged him to never die, for the day she could let him in.  Then she hoped he would, so she could feel him now. Tony’s edge was crumbling. His walls were made of sand and water and built up high and thin.  He did not believe in jokes for fun.  There is truth in every joke and he was the incarnation.  She made a joke about him. To him.  He wanted to render the joke not funny.  It made her mad to walk on eggshells for this neurotic.  She drew a picture of him at the top of her notes.  He had a time bomb on his forehead.  She drew another picture.  She was eating his scared eyeball.  That drawing was not convincing.  He ran from dust and boulders the same.  She wanted to tell him to stop making up demons.  They keep you from loving.  She cut up sheet protectors for enough plastic to cover her large t-shirt design.  She thought of the guy at the photography club meeting.  Fat hairy.  He said he wanted to be there so he could see the reactions on people’s faces when they see his pictures. She does not trust people who do not have the strength to conceal their insecurities.  His pictures were not interesting.  She delivered her design to the round redhead.  Wrapped in a newspaper. So no one could see it.  If no one picked it at the contest she did not want anyone to know she had made it. She walked through the humid air. She tried to daydream about being beautiful or being really good at something. But nothing would stick.  The thought appeared like a road sign I’m not cured.  It was not her foot.  She belongs in a rainy place. This is why she will not have children.  She walked among the drizzle overcast and was calm.  She knows her future.  She will die by suicide.  She is trying to find something to make that untrue.  She is painting faces.  She listened to a news program on the radio in the car.  A story about a Pakistani tennis player and his Israeli doubles partner.  It is a controversy.  She wants to tell them to stop making up demons.


She watched the warehouse lofts turn into shacks.  The boards looked placed on top of each other.  Roofs sloped like in a watercolor of an abandoned property with a rusted tractor in front.  The painter does that for charm. The painter does not paint people in them.  The streets had names like Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and S. Malcolm X Ave. The shack windows offered deals on meats or wigs.  They could not provide anything but a lease.  The bridal shop had bars on the windows.  Baptist church inside a white building without windows. It was not supposed to be a church.  A stained glass window hung outside, a bird with leaves in its mouth ‘peace’ on a ribbon at its feet. They walked hot humid for a while to the stadium.  They were two hours early.  People were getting mohawks for free tickets.  They sat on a bench by the pond.  Two red balls floated and spun large to reveal the movement of the water.  Other sculptures were there for mystery.  A family sat behind them.  Their voices said they were black.  She was hot.  They turned around and saw a white man with a black woman and her kids.  They walked to a restaurant that used to be a mill.  It looked decrepit but was not.  The TV was on while a violin played.  A black waiter was explaining to a Hispanic busboy what the TV was saying.  There was a shooting at an airport.  Three people died.  There was a small plane crash.  One died. The violin played over the details.  All of the wait staff were black.  Old or middle aged. All the cooks and busboys were Hispanic.  She felt uncomfortable.   Fake demons.  They ate chicken sandwiches and fries.  She tried to hear the details.  He wanted to talk about his pastel drawings.  Everyone wanted to know the race of the shooter.  That would answer some questions. She did not want to eat the fries.  She had overeaten the past two days.  Ice cream.  All the people being seated were white.  She wondered what the staff thought of that.  What are they being told to feel.  He ordered blackberry pie and ice cream for dessert.  Lumpy blue soup and melting mode.  She was mad because he did not get what he expected. She and he were paralyzed by demons on both sides.  He ate the soup.  It was cold in the restaurant. The violin was louder. They went outside and sat on a park bench with a paper.  A man selling ice cream out of a pink pushcart tinkled by.  He left a wake of people eating from sticks.  She looked at the ads for nightclubs she never heard of.  Before she was old enough she imagined herself going to all the nightclubs.  Seeing everything.  Not missing any more life.  Dancing in a place called Milk Bar.  Where the women do not have as much milk as it appears.  Desire then fear.  A mosquito bit her twice before she realized it. It did not bite her again.  The national anthem played while she waited outside the men’s bathroom.  The guys at the hotdog stand took off their hats like Pavlov’s dogs. She wondered if they were secretly looking at her. Her mouth was straight. The women did not remove their hats.  They took their seats behind a fat couple with a baby.  She sat next to a guy she knew. He is Indian. There was tension.  The baby liked her.  There was a time she ignored babies.  She let the baby grasp her finger. The baby touched her toes.  The baby looked at her when his mom wanted to take a picture.  It was halftime before she talked to the guy beside her.  There was conversation about culture.  She did not join. There was reason for her to say Pakistani in a sentence she already started but she stopped.  The Indian refrained also.  They wanted things to be the way they were a month ago.  After the game there were fireworks.  Music with America or USA in the title. She watched the explosions through squinted eyes.  Her favorites shoot tiny lights in a sphere. An audio clip of the President saying Our freedom was attacked today. Soot rained over everyone.  The Indian clapped with everyone else.  She took a picture of his face illuminated by sparks.  She wants to paint him.


She awoke on her back like she does when she has been sleeping hard.  He was at the dresser trying to be quiet.  He rarely succeeds.  He left the room with the desired item: a pair of socks.  The clock read 7:15.  She had time to go to the lab before the art class at nine. She thought it was too early to move around. There were other options that entailed her remaining in bed. She could go back to sleep and then go to the art class. But she would miss the afternoon session for having to go to lab.  She could go back to sleep and not go to art class, take Clyde to the vet, go to lab in the  afternoon, and paint in the evening.  Clyde walked on her belly for a pat.  He made a compact curl at her side. She had not made a decision when her thoughts floated to something she was thinking about the day before. An evolutionary biologist at Harvard proposed that males and females fight for control over the growth of the fetus.  This is called imprinting.  But it was not proven to be true.  It was not proven false either. She tried to think up her own theory.  A long time ago a couple had written in to Dear Abby and said that their precocious five year-old would make a good advice columnist.  She tried to figure it out, why some genes are imprinted. She fell asleep without realizing it.  She had a dream.  She was dressed in a long skirt and bra-like top.  Everyone looked at her strangely.  The women hated her because the outfit was tacky but her body looked good.  The men were desirous but stayed away.  She was in a building like an old university.  She heard a puppy yelping and whimpering.  It made her angry because an animal was being abused and because she would have to confront a terrible person.  She did not like to confront people who were doing bad things.  Her heart pounds and she wonders what she looks like.  Like when she told a twelve year-old boy to stop beating the blossoms off a dogwood tree.  There was a chance he would beat her or think she was ugly.  She looked out a small window.  Far below on a hill of rich green grass like in England was a man throwing sticks to his dogs.  There were two enormous Irish setters, long wavy auburn and brilliantly shiny, grinning and running. There were a couple of dirty white poodles jumping around for an airborne stick.  There was a brown puppy, excited to be part of it all.  She walked up stairs to a stage in her bra-top and long skirt. There was an audience of men and women looking at her.  She might have changed her clothes but she already knew that she could not be anything other than what she was. She awoke with Clyde on a purple pillow at her head.  Whenever she looked at him she thought, Sublime, personified. Cat-ified.  He was drowning in his ruff.  A fragment of her dream floated back, not a vision of it but a detached memory of it in which she was telling somebody that it seemed like Clyde’s ruff was growing longer and maybe it was a sign that he was growing old.  It was 8:45.  She disappointedly knew that she had time to make it to the art class.  The room was darkened even in daylight by navy curtains.  The humming fan equilibrated the room.  Her smell mixed familiarly with his.  Clyde was sublime.  It was 9:05.  She considered her imprinting theory again with the goal of not falling back to sleep.  A five year-old explaining why men cheat, how to maintain your sex life while balancing family and work, whether or not to provide condoms for your teenager.  Maybe it is not a battle of the sexes but a mutually beneficial necessary contribution to the fetus, a genetic argument for the need of children for both a mother and a father.  She felt her face to see if the bumps were any smaller.  Her face was trying to be ugly.  She had an arsenal of infinite combinations of salicylic acid, adapalene, azelaic acid, sulfur, hydrocortisone, benzoyl peroxide, and various antibiotics and antihistamines.  It seemed to be working but her face was red blotchy.  Her mind floated to the day before, when they were leaving the home improvement store with a light for her makeshift studio, a corner in the spare bedroom.  The sky had rained earlier yet still held on to its gray, like sadness after crying, and the air smelled hopeful.  She felt a small impulse to say to him, I think we should have a baby, but did not because she knew she would take it back later and did not want to confuse him.  Another fragment of her dream appeared, this time a vision of her stroking the soft taut skin of a young girl’s cheek, a young girl who liked her, maybe was related to her, and she said You’re so pretty.  The girl beamed and skipped away.  But she was pretty only in the way that all little girls are pretty, not in a way that would predict her future. The girl had a healing hole in the side of her head that repelled her blonde hair.  She peeled a scab from her forehead and felt wetness.  She got up.  Clyde opened his eyes but did not otherwise seemed disturbed.  A strain of song entered her head like a skinny snake Oh when the saints Go marching in Oh when the saints go march-ing in… One of the songs she would hum to herself when she was young, in the backyard checking the growth of the dandelions before they would be mowed down. Their stems could grow over a foot tall before being cut into hollow tubes leaking bitter milk. It occurred to her that she never understood the meaning of that song.  She let it slither back and listened to the words Oh Lord I want to be in that number When the saints go march-ing in… Then she realized that it is a song about death.  She went into the carpeted bathroom and sat on the toilet.  Clyde entered. Sauntering potbelly pig in fuzzy gray velvet. Glowing in the muted light.  He stopped at her legs and presented his head. His eyes were black marbles reflecting a point of light in each, from a mysterious light source in the dark room.  They were searching; she thought it was his love for her.  He shook his head and expelled mucous on her hand; it had been the bewildered ecstasy of a sneeze.  He sauntered back out. His tail hovered vertically like attached to a string, a sign of happiness, the opposite of gravity.



The End


©2002 S. Matheny
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