Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “Contrapasso,” by Mike Mulvey

Contrapasso

While sitting at my desk correcting essays one afternoon, I became aware of an uncomfortable, slightly painful, even, twinge in my rear. I squirmed, shifted position, got up and picked at what I thought might be a wedgie, sat back down, squirmed again, got up, circled my chair several times and poked at the seat cushion, thinking perhaps a metal spring was trying to work its way through the padding. Finally I realized that the source of my discomfort was in my bottom, not in my chair.

When I got home, I queried my girlfriend, a graduate student named Lilith, about this discomfort in my derriere.

“I have this pain in my ass . . .”

“Yeah, me too,” she said, looking up from her textbook at me.

When I started to drop my pants, she held up her hand and turned away.

“You probably have a hemorrhoid,” she said without looking, and with an expression I’d seen before, especially when I took off my pants.

“This is a work-related injury,” I said. “I should be able to collect workman’s comp. It’s from sitting in that college-issued chair all day.”

“Not likely,” she replied. “It’s from straining to let one of your beer and chili farts go . . . in bed . . . or in the car . . . or anywhere for that matter.” The smirk on her face told me she was taking great pleasure in my discomfort.

“It’s an example of contrapasso,” she added.

I racked my brain for a reference.

Contrapasso . . . punishment that fits the crime . . . poetic justice . . . payback,” she said, again with a smirk. “It’s from Dante’s Inferno . . . And you teach English?  Really?

“You’re a big help,” I said, opening a can of beer.

“A hemorrhoid is no big deal,” she said dismissively. “Go see a doctor if it bothers you that much. Now go away. Go watch cartoons or something, I have to read.”

“No doctors. I have an aversion to strange men poking around that part of my anatomy,” I said, half in jest. “The last time a doctor got near me with sharp instruments I lost part of my pecker.”

“I’d sue for malpractice. He took off way too much.”

“Ha ha. What’s for dinner?” I asked, hoping she’d close her book and throw something on the stove.

“Whatever you want . . . Burger King is open till midnight. Bring me back a salad.”

 

After several days of applying various creams and ointments, spending hours in a sitzbath, and parking my posterior on a blow-up rubber donut, I reluctantly scheduled an appointment with Dr. Donald Blackburn, a GP with a small office in a weathered Victorian on South Main.

On the appointed day, I circled the block several times before parking in the rear lot of Dr. Blackburn’s office. I hated hospitals and avoided doctors if at all possible. They were always poking around your private places and sticking you with pointy things. My policy had always been that if you waited long enough, the pain would eventually work itself out.

“Shake it off,” yelled Lilith when I took a high fastball to the side of the head at a student-faculty softball game. After I struck out she handed me a beer. “Good eye,” she said. A PhD candidate in English, my girlfriend’s specialty was Victorian sarcasm and ridicule.

All I wanted was for Dr. Blackburn to take a quick peek and prescribe a pill or something, anything short of surgery to alleviate the painful and itchy ailment in my rectum.

“Just take a look,” I’d tell him. “No needles, knives, scalpels, saws, probes, clamps, ropes, restraints, or . . .”

“Can I help you?” asked the receptionist, a thin and sallow, gray-clad woman of middle age.

“I have a ten o’clock appointment to . . . uh  . . . see Dr. Blackburn. Wallace is the name.”

“Ah, yes, here you are,” said the receptionist, fingering my name on her computer screen.

Tap, tap . . . tappity, tap, tap . . . . tap, said the keyboard as she typed.

“Fill this out, please,” said the receptionist, handing me a pen and a clipboard with the standard medical history form.

As I filled in my medical history, small beads of sweat began gather on my upper lip. For a moment I thought of slipping out. But before I could escape, the receptionist stood up and announced, “Dr. Blackburn will see you now. This way, please.”

I followed this gatekeeper through a dark door with a bronze sign that read “Surgery.” I winced at the sight of the word but reluctantly followed the receptionist deep into the bowels of Dr. Blackburn’s office.

“Wait here, please,” said the receptionist, pointing to a long black leather examining table. “The doctor will be with you momentarily.”

Looking around, Dr. Blackburn’s surgery had that white and sterile look you’d expect of a doctor’s office. There was the long black leather examining table, several tall white cabinets—all filled with potions and ointments, splints and dressings, leeches and mustard plasters, no doubt—and counters covered with stainless steel trays filled with shiny instruments all lying at attention.

“Good morning, ” said Dr. Blackburn as he entered the room.  “So, you’re feeling a slight discomfort in your backside, eh? Well, let’s have a look, then. Drop your trousers and hop onto the table.”

The rolling ‘r’s told me that Dr. Don probably hailed from the Highlands of Scotland. And his abrupt manner also spoke of a man who wasted little time with pleasantries. No “How are you today?” or “Wonderful weather we’re having, eh?” or “Hi. My name is Dr. Blackburn, but you can call me Don.” No. Just “Drop your trousers.”

“Uh, yes, a slight discomfort in my . . . uh . . .  rear.” I undid my belt, slowly lowered my pants and underwear, and cautiously climbed up onto the table.

“Lie on your side, please,” ordered Dr. Blackburn, snapping on a pair of white surgical gloves. He held open my buttocks and closely examined the affected area.

Not too close, I have a reputation.    

“Yes, a hemorrhoid it is,” he announced. “Quite common,” he said, turning to his counter covered in stainless steel trays filled with shiny, sharp, and pointy instruments.

“Grace, could you come in here please?” he yelled over his shoulder to another room. I peeked over my shoulder and found a nurse of substantial proportions—Reubenesque the art majors would call her—dressed in grey scrubs, briskly walking up to the black leather table.

“Ah, there you are. Could you hold the patient’s buttocks open for me, please?” asked Dr. Don.  Grace snapped on a pair of surgical gloves, grasped my buttocks firmly with both hands and held open my cheeks for the good doctor.

Looking up, I stared into a vaguely familiar face. Dr. Blackburn’s nurse looked like someone I’d known in high school, a plain and portly girl who had trouble finding a date for our senior prom.

“She has a great personality,” someone said when searching for a polite way of describing Grace.  Others joked that when she moved, her name became an oxymoron . . . or a contradiction . . . or a . . .

But there she was, wearing grey scrubs and her all-too-familiar black-frame glasses. ‘Birth control glasses’ we called them in college. I wanted to ask Grace how the glasses were working out. But I thought the better of it. Not smart to act the wiseass at times like these. Not around sharp and pointy instruments and with your pants down around your ankles.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she asked, holding open the cheeks of my sweaty, pasty-white ass.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, covering my groin with both hands and attempting a smile. “We were in Miss Worley’s English class together, I think.” Behind me I could hear Dr. Blackburn sorting through his collection of shiny, sharp, and pointy instruments. The comfort I felt at seeing Grace’s closely-cropped nails just before she snapped on her surgical gloves was offset by the tinkling of metal on stainless steel.

“I’m going to numb the area a bit. Hold still now,” said Doctor Blackburn.

Numb the area? What the hell does that mean?  I twisted my head around and peered over my shoulder just as the good doctor shot the air bubbles out of a tall syringe with a needle that looked to be at least a foot long. I wanted to jump up and run away, but Grace had a firm grip on my buttocks.

I immediately broke from a nervous sweat into a panic-induced outpouring of bodily fluids. Soon I’d be devoid of all fluids and lose consciousness, or, with the grace of God, I would die, if not from embarrassment then from terminal dehydration.

Liquid streamed from my pores like water from a lawn sprinkler as I felt a pinch in my rectum. My shirt grew dark with perspiration. Sweat began to collect in small pools on the black leather operating table. Grace struggled to hold open my cheeks as my face and rectum winced.

“Hold his cheeks open, would you please?” said Dr. Don, with a hint of irritation I hoped was aimed at Grace.

No consultation, no discussion of treatment options, just right at it. No shilly-shallying around. Well, maybe it was better this way, I reasoned. If Dr. Blackburn had discussed the proposed procedure with me, I would have raced out of his office shouting over my shoulder, “I’ll just learn to live with it.”

“Now we’ll just slice open that vein and squeeze out the clot,” he said matter of factly, turning again to his table of shiny, sharp and pointy instruments.

Say what? All I wanted was for Dr. Blackburn to look at the troubled area, recommend a course of treatment or maybe prescribe a balm or poultice, anything besides the useless Preparation-H, not stick me in the ass and slice open any veins, especially in that delicate part of my anatomy. Now I was covered in sweat, as if someone had dumped a bucket of salt water over my body.  I could see a worried look on Grace’s face as she struggled to hold open my sweaty ass cheeks.

“So, how have you been?” she asked. “Where do you work?”

“I . . .  uh  . . . ” I gasped.

“Open up wider, please. Keep a firm grip,” ordered Dr. Blackburn.

“Yes, doctor,” said Grace. The worry lines in her brow added to my angst. If her hands slipped, my cheeks would slam shut on Dr. Blackburn’s hand and that scalpel he was holding. Not far from that knife were body parts I held very dear.

“I . . . uh . . .  teach at the community college,” I replied, trying to take my mind off sharp and pointy instruments. It wasn’t working.

Now numb in the affected area, I felt nothing as Dr. Blackburn sliced open the guilty vein. In a flash he had the offending blood clot on his thumb, holding it in front of my nose for me to examine as proof of his surgical skill.

“There’s the little bugger,” he said in a tone that spoke of a man who took pride in his work.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, looking away, grateful I’d missed breakfast.

“Now I’ll just cauterize the incision and we’ll be done.”

Cauterize?  Hey, hold on a second! Does this part of the procedure involve any hot instruments or open flames, I wanted to ask? Wait! Let me tell you a story about my Uncle Joe who discovered a gas leak the hard way in a third floor walkup in Brooklyn one afternoon.

But before I could relate this humorous and highly relevant anecdote, the stench of burning flesh reached my nostrils. It was the offending vein.

Arggggg…!

“Right, then. Done,” said Dr. Blackburn as he slapped a piece of gauze between my cheeks. Again with the rolling ‘r’s.  Grace let go of my buttocks, stepped back and smiled.

“You can get up now,” said Dr. Blackburn. “Try to keep it clean, will you? You might want to stay off your buttocks and sleep maybe on your stomach tonight.”

How the hell was I going to keep off my ass? I have to drive home! And how was I supposed to keep it clean? I have to eat! What goes in eventually comes out. Surely that’s some law of anatomy or at the least the law of gravity.

“Thanks,” I mumbled as I tried to hide my privates with one hand while pulling up my ‘trousers’ with the other. Before I could gather everything in my now sweat-soaked pants, the receptionist entered the room and announced there were patients waiting.

“I’ll be right with them” said Dr. Blackburn, turning his back on me and tossing his soiled surgical gloves in a shiny and round metal trash container. I was old news. There were other assholes to save.

“You live in town? Maybe we’ll run into each other,” said Grace as I tucked in my shirt and headed for the door.

“Yeah, sure,” I said over my shoulder. “Send me the bill,” I yelled to the receptionist as I scurried, head down, past waiting patients, out of that office and into the afternoon sun.

As I drove home, I wondered what my colleagues would say on Monday as I ate my lunch standing up – if I ate at all.

“Why don’t you have a seat?” they’d ask. How would I explain to them what I’d been through?  Would they laugh or sympathize?

As I drove back to my apartment, the anesthetic started to wear off and my rectum began to burn. Seeking relief, I stopped off at the Six and Seven, a local watering hole on the south end of White Street.

“Just one,” I said to myself. “To ease the pain and replace body fluids.” And since I’d left home that morning without breakfast, I was famished.

“Good morning . . . or good afternoon,” I said, looking at my watch. “How are you today?” Lou, the owner and a man of few words, nodded, smiled and asked, “What’ll you have?”

“I’ll have a Heineken and a couple of foot-longs,” I said. “And can you throw some chili on the dogs . . . and some kraut? Got any kraut?” Lou passed my order on to his wife, the cook, who I could see through the little window that looked into the kitchen. “Coming up,” she said as she waddled over to the griddle.

I washed down the foot-longs—and a large order of chili-cheese fries—with a couple of beers. Lou turned on the TV and tuned to NESN. The Blue Jays were at Fenway.

Eight innings, another foot-long with chili and kraut, and many beers later, the pain was gone. “Last one, Lou,” I said, slamming a wrinkled five-dollar bill on the bar. Lou wiped his hands on his bar towel and gave me a long look, no doubt wondering if this last one was a good idea. But I was a regular, a hail fellow well-met, a respected academic . . . at least in my own mind, so he poured me one last glass of ice-cold anesthesia.

Somehow I managed to find my way back to my apartment and my loving girlfriend.

“How’s your heinie, honey?” she asked. Again with that smirk.

I ignored her question, turned on the TV, and collapsed on the couch . . . on my stomach.

“Can you get me a beer?”

“Get it yourself. The doctor didn’t amputate your legs.”

“Wait till you want me to rub your feet,” I said. “You’ll pay for this callousness.”

“Rubbing my feet is foreplay to you. You don’t care how hard a day I’ve had.

Suddenly I felt a familiar movement in my lower intestine.

“Ah, Contrapasso,” I said, smiling.

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