Sixth in a series of stories from my career as an occupational therapist working with military veterans.
When Carl came up out of it he knew something was seriously wrong. His dog – a rangy stray he’d befriended – had licked his face to wake him and now trembled at his side, whimpering in hunger. Nothing new there, but his arm seemed nailed to the floor and on inspection had swollen like a fat lady’s leg, his fingers black exclamation points sprouted from a purple balloon. Reluctantly he lifted his head, then sat up horrified, having to drag that appalling deformed appendage onto his lap. The dog retreated and cowered in a corner. It took Carl a while to calm himself down enough to stop screaming.
Weirdly, no pain. The arm lay dead as a log, rotting from the elbow. Bloated bodies afloat in yellow water, bursting the seams on their pajamas. They popped and deflated at a burst. Come home to roost now. Red light everywhere, then blue, then darkness again, the dog restless, half-mad hunger in its frightened eyes. Seeking to calm him, Carl explained that time is a lie, measured not by clocks but by suffering. For users and dogs alike, the pendulum swings between hunger and satiation, tick-tock, but in the elastic yet ungiving web that made up the night to come, that clock went still. The only measure Carl’s slow rocking on the floor, the arm in his lap an abomination, like some monster’s aborted fetus. The poison seeped closer, would choke him off. He apologized to the dog for having to leave him like this.
Probably at some point it would begin to hurt, might hurt like hell, but that wouldn’t last. Even a flayed homunculus squirming in the hot piss of soldiers eventually stills, invites the flies. So this was the fate he’d courted. He imagined that the room’s one grimy window was a gaping, hot and greedy maw. The traffic below emitted a persistent rumbling growl born from the dragon’s red and honking belly. It too pulsed with hunger. The city itself and the whole blue ball it rode on just a junkie in need. Then the floor and walls tipped. He’d expected pain but not hallucination, not these shadowy skeletons thrown up in newsreel black and white.
He watched a scrawny man squirm across a floor of chipped linoleum, dig a plastic knife out from under a crusty hot plate, and sit stabbing a black pig held tight in his arms, again and again. The pig squealed, the man laughed maniacally. Sirens sang in the mix. He felt so bad for the poor yellow dog. Across the room, its more than human eyes fixed on the creature to which it had hitched its wagon, who lifted a broken plastic shiv in his one good hand and plunged it deep and satisfying into the swollen bag of flesh, then carved down, mouth wailing, eyes wincing, eventually tugging out a vein and a broken needle tip oozing blood and pus. A river of festering gunk mushroomed out of the wound as if it would never stop. Suicide to have done such a thing. The one straggling drummer in a long suicide parade. Here in this broken ruin of paper walls, cry after cry of sheer anguish and horror across the empty hours after dinner and no one dares to knock, no one bothers to check, no one gives a tinker’s damn. Just stop it, will you? Just keel over and be still. Lie down, damn it. Down.
But see, what happened, that old yellow dog, he wouldn’t have it. Sprawled out junkie dead to the world and they’d find me when the stink seeped out to the hall one day. That was alright with me. I mean at the time. But that dog, I call him Mister now, because he’s a man of a dog, you know what he did? You ain’t gonna want to hear this, but it was real as day. He come over while I was out again and he drank it all, every lick of pus and blood, yes he did. Until my arm shrank back to size. And he licked up inside the wound and cleaned it all out with his raspy old tongue. And then he went over in a corner and barfed it all out, and then he came back for more. And he had to of been at it I’m telling you for at least a whole day. Eventually I guess I come to, and my arm was on fire, man, I tell you. Five alarm. I had to go. Left him there alone like the ungrateful son of a bitch I am. Straight to the ED and when they seen me they bumped the line and flushed me out with saline and pumped me up with antibiotics so strong I shit my pants. And you can best believe I hit the bodega for some Alpo when they let me go. Stood on the corner for an hour boosting coin to earn it. And we shared that dog’s dinner, I’m not ashamed to say. That’s Mister. It’s mostly his eyes, man, everything they see. So I decided one thing, and it’s true to this day. I don’t want to say it. Jinx it, but I’ll tell you. My plan is live up to those eyes. What Mister thinks of me.
Carl’s not the first man who’s broken down and cried in this clinic. It can be a heavy place. You come in off the street — some of these guys live right down below there in boxes under FDR Drive — and it’s warm and the light’s good up here on the tenth floor, and yes we’re paid to do it, but we sit you down and bathe your wounds and salve your muscles and stretch your joints in a gentle way we’ve learned. You can nap while your hands warm in paraffin gloves. Right now while this wiry Viet Nam vet pulls himself together, I’m at his side working my thumb up crosswise to the fiber along a nasty swath of old scar that runs from his wrist to his elbow. The cicatrix lies deep, thick between the long bones of his forearm, and blocks rotation, so he can’t hold his palm open without bending sideways from the trunk. Frankly, I don’t know if anything short of surgery will help. But for an hour three times a week, we try. He goes home with an elastic band that winds around his arm, tugging a twist. He wears a glove with rubber bands stretched from fingertip to wrist that pulls his mummified hand a few degrees closer to a fist. When he arrives, I measure the change, never much, swap out the rubber bands, work on that scarified flesh, and like it is with most of these lonely guys, maybe it’s just the physical touch, I don’t know. But they talk. And sometimes when the talk takes them down a particular tunnel, you hand them a box of Kleenex. It’s okay in here. Patients and therapists alike, we’re used to it.
After that day, all I can say is, I was woke. Me and Mister had a long talk. And then we took us a long walk. We went straight out on the GW Bridge, all the way across there, way up over the river. You ever done that? The wind running from upstate makes the wires sing and that hum from the tires on the grates? Way up high there like it’s all just for you and you decide. Still do it to this day. Went to Goodwill and got me one of them ten dollar an hour jobs, mine’s sorting books, a ton of books come in there every day, and I go through and pick the ones go to the store, the ones go to Africa, the ones go to the mill. VA found me a room but they won’t take Mister, so I’m okay in my squat. Hard to stay clean I won’t deny, the whole street’s a market, but what I found you walk with your dog nobody mess with you. Maybe nod or something but you walk on.
You should see my place. Got enough books in there now I could build an igloo. My new thing’s the slave tales, the bad old testimonies, you’d be surprised how many turn up. Mandingo shit, but for real. Seems like people been bad a long time, you know? We ain’t invented it in Nam. What you think about this arm? Somebody say I should just get them to take it off, be better off without it. But maybe you can fix it. I won’t give up if you don’t. And it’s a badge, too, right? Of how fucked up a man can be. How close you can walk it.
Summer day I get home and it’s still light, Mister and me walk over the bridge to the Jersey side and take that path up the Palisades. We just hike upriver some, it’s all woods along there. It’s a cliff we found and you can lie down on the grass. Highway’s right there, cars going by, but in the trees you don’t see them. And the whole wide river out before you. I’ll bring a box of dry food in my bag and feed him. Might chew a bite of that old crumbly shit myself. And he pulls up in the crook of this same fucked up arm. I tell you buddy, when the traffic dies down and the river fans the air and the trees rustle like they do, for me and Mister that’s the best sleep a man or dog can have. It’s our little vacation. In our little tricky place across the river. And if we don’t get a storm this afternoon, that’s where we’ll be tonight, too.