Bewildering Stories

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Back to Basics

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

I could smell white acrid smoke. I could hear the dental drill grinding... grinding. I could feel deep pressure and strange agitation. And she was singing while she worked. “Oops I Did It Again,” wasn’t a real good choice for her to be singing as we made our way along this dark medical maneuver.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Have patience,” she said.

We were in a dirty basement, in a cheap hotel, somewhere in Mexico. My doctor’s name was Bubbles. When I first talked to her from my car window I wasn’t sure I’d gone to the right address because she offered me sex. But then she saw the sheet... saw I was in Mexico for help with my back. So she helped me crawl down some stairs and she strapped me face down onto a giant curved metal apparatus. She started with some local anesthesia and then opened my skin. She was working quickly. She had to be finished by ten so she could start dancing on one of the tables upstairs.

“You like movies?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“See if you can guess what movie I’m doing.” She ground hard with the drill. The did it again. “Is it safe?” she asked, trying to sound like the actor, Sir Lawrence Olivier.

I laughed and then she told me I had to hold still. I couldn’t see her. She was behind me. She was working on my back. Cutting bone. Trimming vertebrae. Removing nerves off my discs.

“Mr. Smith?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Wiggle your toes,” she said.

I sent the message as best I could. But my toes didn’t wiggle. What happened was, my right foot angled down, and my left arm stretched out with my hand making a tight fist, all but the middle finger tucked into a neat ball.

“That’s actually a good sign,” she said. “There is very little need in life to wiggle toes, but it seems like you will be able to drive,”

“I was driving when I came in,” I said.

“You were tied to your car with a bed sheet. Had a sheet under your arms across your chest and tied around the head rest.”

“Yes. Yes,” I admitted, emotion leaking out of me like tears.

She moved her drill up onto the next disc. “Scars here,” she said.

“In the states I went to a...” And I almost used the word ‘real’. “In the states I went to a different doctor,” I said.

“Didn’t help though, did it?” She wasn’t asking, she was telling.

“Not for a minute,” I said.

“When we’re done here you’ll be a new man.”

I thought about the big long incision she used. “I’m a little worried about the pain. Can you prescribe pills for the pain?”

“I can get you anything you want. You name it I can get it. But I also promise you won’t need anything.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“You ever have a root canal?” she asked.

I winced in remembrance.

“It’s like that. Towards the end we’ll be deadening the nerves.”

“I see.”

“How bad was your back?”

“Pretty bad. You saw me in the car; how I had to fix myself into the car so I could drive. And no offense, but it must be pretty bad for me to leave my home and cross the border and get an illegal procedure from a woman named Bubbles. Like I say, no offense.”

“None taken,” she giggled.

“There were times when I couldn’t lift a boot without wincing, where I couldn’t pull open a desk drawer. It felt like hornets were lined up on my spine taking turns. I couldn’t sleep because the only comfortable position I could think of involved ice, elastic, a velvet hammock, Jennifer Lopez and weightlessness. And at times I was without trouble. Sometimes my back would be in remission, and I would be able to live without pain. But every time I heard the word “back,” I realized my trouble would be back someday. Some mother in a grocery store would tell her kid, “Put that back” and I’d cringe. I’d hear, ‘backless gown’ or ‘back me up on this one’ or ‘back to square one’ or ‘I’ll be right back’ or I’d be in the car and they’d start playing, ‘Back in the USSR’ and each time they used the word “back,” I was thinking about the next time my back would be out. One time I was working in the yard and just felt the merest twinge in my back and I started yelling, “JULIA ! DO IT TO JULIA ! RIP HER SPINE ! PUT THE CAGE FULL OF RATS ON HER SPINE ! And, funny thing is I don’t even KNOW anybody named Julia !

Bubbles said, “I know. It must have been bad. You know, I keep something here to show my patients.” Bubbles walked around to the front of the curved ladder to which I was strapped. She was very big upstairs with long lithe legs and she was wearing a very small pink bikini. She had on a surgical mask and latex gloves. She had a book in her hands. A book with a broken spine.

The book had a tan cover. A big book. About 400 pages. And she let it flop open and then flipped it closed. If there was ever a good metaphor for damaged, it’s probably written in a book like this, I thought.

“I normally show this to my patients right before I let them up,” Bubbles said. “I normally show this right before I lead them over to the full length mirror. But I know you’ll remember. You’ll remember this when the time comes.” She went back behind me. She went back to work. Now she talked as she worked. “An average person has nineteen vertebrae and twenty-five ribs. There are over six hundred bones in the human body. The only way nerve impulses travel through bone, is by flowing around these grey strips of jelly-fish stuff wire that runs up and down the human condition.

“I’ve studied in some of the best bars and taverns in the world. I know what a man really wants. What a man needs. He needs to be strong. He needs to be vigorous. He needs a clear mind. He needs to know that he has respect when he walks into a room. How does someone get that? He gets that by being savage. Not cruel. But by being quintessential, primitive, atavistic. All kinds of women say they want a sensitive man, but then they date the guy who drives up in a stolen police car. After this change you’ll be a little freaked out, but I promise things will work out. You won’t be disappointed. Not in the long run.”

“You didn’t say anything would change.”

“You’ve got to break eggs to make an omelette, Charles.”

I was thinking about the anatomy lesson I’d just received when I asked, “You do realize I don’t have any eggs?”

“Don’t be silly, ” Bubbles answered. “The minute you dropped your pants I knew that.”

She came around into my line of vision one more time; when she took a wire coat hanger off the coat rack. She took it back where her other instruments were. “We’re about done,” she said. “I’m just closing you up.”

She yelled up the stairs and the bouncer came down. “I need him to help me move you over to the mirror. Eventually you’ll be able to stand. Two or three days. The hanger wire will drop off once the skin mends.”

They took me off the rack. They carried me over to the mirror. On the way, Bubbles had some last minute observations.

“It’s standing upright. That’s what we weren’t designed to do. You never hear about a zebra getting a back ache. You never hear about a giraffe having a sore throat. It’s the upright part that puts a lot of strain on the back. Luckily someone worked out the answer years ago. Many years ago some men had the right idea. They died out. But I’m sure it wasn’t because of back pain.”

The bouncer and the lady with the implants lead me over to the mirrors. They had three mirrors angled into each other, like they were tailors selling serge suits. I stepped forward. From the front I looked about the same. My forehead looked a little higher, but that was just because I’d spent hours with my head against the pad they had for my head. My cheeks looked puffed out from me being face-down for so long. My hair looked wild and my eyes were sunken from the ordeal. But that was all that looked changed until I looked in the mirrors off to the side.

I was bent over. Like Quasimodo. How that name rings a bell! I was bent forward and looked almost monstrous. An ape with algebra on its mind. I was now a little bit between the age of towed aluminum pop-up campers, and the Precambrian. And now I knew what I was. What I had become. What Bubbles had made me. I knew the word. Neanderthal. I was bending forward my arms hanging limp in front of me. And I was a Neanderthal. A creature who didn’t have to worry about posture, because he has none. A creature built to endure.

“This is always hard,” Bubbles said. “The first minute is always hard. But do you remember this?” She held out the book with the broken spine.

“Yeth,” I said, my pushed-forward face affecting my speech.

“You’ll never feel like this again,” she said, and she threw the big book to the ground.

“U... Wathh. Wathh what I can do?” I said.

Without wincing, without sucking air in through clenched teeth, I bent a little without effort. I bent and picked up the heavy book. And then, using a rare and unfamiliar face, I smiled.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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