“The Slab” is the only finished piece of writing I created this year. There is another story in the works with the working title “Working Family” that’s willful and ever expanding, which I put aside to write “The Slab.” I’m working on reining in “Working Family,” and should have a draft in the next month or so, and then 2017 will be dedicated to getting back to my novel. 2016 was a bitch of a year personally and universally, though early in the year I did have the privilege of assisting Steven Yazzie at Digital Preserve in making a short-subject documentary for the Heard Museum about master potter Ron Carlos, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and his struggles to honor and maintain a dying artistic tradition. The film is titled: “Paddle and Anvil: a Piipaash Pottery Tradition.”
As for “The Slab,” it’s a 4200 word short story that follows Benjamin, recently saddled with chronic pain due to cervical disc disease, and his trials and tribulations navigating the anonymous, depersonalizing labyrinth that is corporate health care. Told with dark humor, absurdity and faint glimmers of human kindness, “The Slab” shines a light on turn and burn practices employed by behemoth pain management clinics.
Please find three excerpts below, as with my last story, I’m no longer putting full manuscripts up, as I hope to publish the stories. If interested, request the manuscript.
Opening of the story:
I’m freezin’ my man boobs off. It’s cold for March. Granted, it is 6:30 A.M., but this is Phoenix, Sun City to be precise. Cold Sun City 6:30, and me and Carla are locked out of the darkened Pain Clinic. A bitter wind is going to town on our extremities. It churns a group of mini palm trees near a fountain. They seem to wave a warning in the almost-a-courtyard of this stuccoed medical plaza. Garbage animated by wind swirls in an abstract dance near the wall-sized windows of the clinic. Carla instinctively leans in on my right shoulder for warmth and catches herself, but not before shocking pain sparks down my right arm. “Sorry babe,” she says. I wave her off with my good hand, knowing she didn’t mean anything by it. Seems like “sorry” is all we say these days.
This morning, outside the clinic there’s a selection of weary folks reminding me of twisted, contorted statues. A man who looks like a shrunken version of my father, big belly intact despite the rest of the wasting, is buckled against a cold stucco wall. Others lean on loved ones or on canes and walkers. My fellow travelers, mostly older, many much further down the road of pain. . .After another long ten minutes, we are inside. Again made to wait, as fluorescent lights flicker on, computers boot up, attendants yawn, even though we were asked to arrive 30 minutes early. But, hey, at least we’re seated. The lobby is built for speed, which is funny, considering the clientele. Three check-in stations, ten rows of seats, and chairs lining the walls. Some of the seats are love-seat sized, though not made for two. The lobby is adorned with huge blown-up pictures of shiny people enjoying life. They catch footballs, mow lawns, hold rosy-cheeked babies, testaments to the magic treatments proffered within. The lobby calls to mind the seating area of a private airport gate, destination: Less Pain Forever, or at least until whatever they’re peddling wears off and you have to come hobbling back.
I realize this is why the office is in Sun City: it’s a retirement community. I reckon Sun City has more body pain per square inch than metro Phoenix.
After sign in, the attendant, webbed in sleepiness, hair up in a wet bun, hands me a coaster pager like they give you at chain restaurants. Like a recording, without looking up, she says: “Please proceed to the far side of the lobby, to access your Pain Portal.” I wonder what magic happens between the LED pager and this Portal of Pain of which she speaks, but due to the hour and other elements informing my consciousness, can only say “Uhhhhhh,” for a few seconds before I deflate into silence. Too early for her to be assed about caring, she simply points in the directions of some cubicles on the far wall and says: “Your Pain Portal. In the cubicle, on the tablet.” These words sound both oracular and super condescending, but still nonsensical. I cock my head as dog might hearing something outside of human hearing.
I tap the Pain Portal screen in semi-private, answering near-endless questions with my non-dominant left hand, a hand used most often to grasp objects and to free wedgies. I soon learn that for my e-Questionnaire, not only do I have to pinpoint the quality, location, duration and frequency of my pain, but I have to endure loads of psych-light questions about how I feel about said health. Bonus questions for The Pain Club’s data.
I finish, but I can’t go back to my seat. In the cube to my left a woman’s massive lower body blocks the path. On the other side of my cube is a wall-sized window and perpendicular to it a row of seats prevent me from passing. The woman stands behind the chair in the cubicle, grimacing something awful. She has a special person; a small waxy-faced man in a polo, sporting a helmet of curly black hair. He functions like a service animal tapping the screen and relaying the questions to her. Most of us have a special person with us, some family member or friend; in my case because they won’t let me drive myself home after what they’re going to do to me.
“Melba, honey, it’s asking me.” says her person. “It’s asking uhm, were you, uh, able to make pooh this morning?”
Melba’s elephantine lower torso is frozen stiff, her eyes clenched, mouth pinched. Ten seconds later she opens her eyes in a squint and exhales more than says: “Yessss, Pooooh.”