by Art Shay
(Swans - November 2, 2009) In fiction, a metamorphosis like Kafka's Gregor Samsa's turns a simple Prague-traveling salesman of a hundred years ago into a monstrous cockroach. Ransacking his troubled brain at the moment of horrible truth for a possible explanation before falling forward into his ordinary life this stupid morning, all that Gregor can come up with -- eyes skimming his fabric sample book (presumably bearing the latest swatches from Paris, London, New York and Vienna) is the fleeting memory he has of having recently cut out (and hung up in a pretty gilt frame just there at the same comfortably possessive masturbatory distance an ultimate Playboy fan eighty-years on would hang his centerfold!) the picture of a lady sitting upright, dressed in a fur hat and fur boa, her entire forearm vanishing into a thick fur muff, which she held out fetchingly to her viewer. Paging Dr. Freud!
He then fell into a self-pitying reverie of his works and days. A grueling profession, too much travel, bad train connections, superficial acquaintances who never blossom into sales, into friends, and presumably fucks. This was an earthy metamorphosist, so why not.
Lying in an emergency room hospital bed, diagnosed with colon diverticulitis a month ago, having had excruciating pain and a one-hour, $1,800 visit to a non-Medicare doctor (his bill boldly caparisoned with this intelligence), I felt myself metamorphosing from energetic, active me ...Hey, just the previous night I gave a complicated slideshow lecture for Granta Magazine's Chicago issue (an issue to be discussed hereabouts on Swans Commentary, I hear!) -- and 150 literary fans including Chicago visitors from Italy, Peter and Gabriella Byrne, MacArthur prizewinner Aleksandar Hemon, and among many others, a former walking oxymoron of a Chicago police commissioner -- Brzek! by wonderful unpronounceable name -- on Algren's Chicago. In the wonderful Rainbo Club -- whose building Algren and I had dined in many an evening in the gloaming of Division Street and Damen Avenue -- now so yuppified even Algren would need a passport and I for sure wouldn't be permitted near the area with fewer than 12 megapixels. I mean, that's how normal I was feeling, even having played racquetball the morning before being felled by acute diverticulitis and the instant prospect of losing a piece of my aggravated colon and two months of ambulatoriness.
But all metamorphosing involves transformation and there I was and here I am. Getting ahead of the story: I feel fine, at last, after four weeks. My cockroach tentacle is merely the inconvenience of a temporary second anus, this one near my bellybutton, drained by an efficient colostomy bag until November 5th or so, when I'll be "reversed" as they say, and, colon healed, I'll be back down to a single rectum. On the plus side, I've already lost 15 pounds of fat, am deep into planning my first ever exhibition of my color prints, and have been enjoying the company and sympathy of friends, the ministrations of my nephew-the-doctor in Maryland, and have helped launch my humorous writer-fotog son Steve of Seattle and his faithful dog into the pages of Swans.
If I were reading this instead of writing it, I'd allow but one more metamorphosis before getting into the subject of this meeting, my very own fucking metamorphosis. Accordingly, I take you into Hemingway country -- a few years after he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Before those snows melted under global warming and no one ever found out what the leopard was searching for 19,000 feet above the Amboseli plain of then-Tanganyika, I was on safari, and stumbling around with Lady F -- a marchioness. "Don't let that affect your joy," this observant British beauty cautioned (her husband, she explained boredly, was something below a duke but above an earl or count, unless she or my notes said "cunt"). He owned half a Norfolk county and was gay and near Arusha, off looking for lion probably atop or abottom his cute Pretoria white hunter, an aspiring photographer who had palmed Lady F off on me in Nairobi, seeking richer game in her husband, or at least enough money to buy my 400mm Kilfitt lens. (I had found a sharper Novoflex.) The ignoble wife and I were merely looking for a secluded place to pitch our sleeping bag and observe nature when some sixty yards away we came upon the newly poisoned corpse of a one-tusk elephant named Charlie that a few of us had befriended.
© Art Shay 1955
© Art Shay 1955
While we watched in shock and awe, along came a parade of hyenas, jackals, marabou storks, lion cubs, chimps, and several other jungle "garbage disposers." In three hours, Charlie, who had weighed as much as a Ford 250 truck, had disappeared into maw after maw. By morning the last bones had been fought over and carried off by the scoffing hyenas. The jungle floor had metamorphosed into the clearing it had been before the marauding outlaw Mau Mau had poisoned Charlie to capture his remaining tusk and sell it to the Nairobi Indian merchant who got several thousand rupees for it from his Bombay connection, who would retail part of the tusk to Japan, which, after India and China, was and is the best tusk-fancier in the world. They impossibly carve ivory beasts inside ivory cages and in Nippon fashion ivory holders for wedding napery.
It feels like I'm just marking time in India and Japan before arriving at my own metamorphosis. Sorry. I awoke from my five-hour surgery less the piece of my colon with three explosions in it, plus the rearrangement of my plumbing. Infection had gone from my foot-long central incision all the way north and west to my heart. The surgeon grimly explained to my fainting wife how much pus had been drained from my corpus. About seven IV bags' worth. There had earlier been a big discussion about whether my artificial pig valve could withstand the shock of surgery. The verdict was either good to go, or death. Here was Death itself winking at me from this grisly crapshoot.
The competent non-Medicare gastroenterologist who had diagnosed me and got me admitted to the emergency room, I would learn, would bill me for the same approximate fee for diagnosing me as the surgeon would receive for cutting me. My anti-Medicare doctor would ultimately bill me for the large sum hinted at above, plus $567 for a "telephonic" consultation with Dr. Irwin Silverman, my cardiologist and friend. Kind of an add-on. At, say, $500 for 20 minutes, that would approximate $1,500 an hour, $9,000 for a shortened day. Now, why would he rubber-stamp his bill "this is not covered by Medicare"? My medical advisor says it's because Medicare would only pay about a third as much. Plastic surgery must be more profitable. A local plastic surgeon's estate was advertised in last Sunday's Trib -- at auction because of a divorce. Included were three million bucks' worth of Warhols, the odd Picasso, some Jackson Pollocks, dinnerware with exotic foreign names, and this 7-figure house on the lake. Imagine what this guy might have amassed by the time he was 50 and possibly undivorced! Thanks, of course, to that same "no Medicare" stamp on his bills. But I divest.
Over my heads-or-tails dead body on the gurney outside the operating room, my calm, 42-year-old surgeon, Dr. Marshall Baker, explained my situation, and then hopefully told me what had to be done and because of my excellent shape for an old man, suggested I would survive and, as Faulkner said at his Nobel bash, prevail. He opined, as did my wife, that this was because of my lifetime on the racquetball courts and a built-in gene for wanting to survive, prevail, and as a Neil Simon hero once told his kid brother: "Yes I've done it all. But now I want to do it again."
Art Shay on Gurney
© Richard Shay 2009
But after surgery my blood pressure began to spike and I was sent, with some 15 tubes inserted into throat, arm, legs, penis, etc., to what was called "intensive care." More intensive, I guess.
Except I didn't have a clue in the world what or where that was. I thought this ICU I kept hearing bruited by people in white was a building adjoining the hospital. As I emerged from my chemical sleep and tried but couldn't move my legs, it occurred to paranoiac me that I was a prisoner. I had metamorphosed from patient to captive. How? Simple: My leg irons were literally metallic puttees of the WWI variety -- a variation of what a sexy divorced neighbor once said were her never-fail Blahnik fuck-me boots. My metal Blahniks had wires running into my body and on out to electrodes on one of the ten or twelve instruments surrounding my mobile bed. Every few minutes, when I'd try to move a leg, a blonde nurse -- it seemed to me right out of Mel Brooks's sanitarium for the very, very nervous in High Anxiety -- shook her head. I seemed to be in some kind of funny horror film.
The confinement of the leg irons was added to by the new 12-inch catheter tube that had been rammed up my penis to help me pee. Unbidden, along with this convenience came the constant urge to pee plus the stab of lingering pain at the tip of my player organ each time a droplet escaped. This, it would turn out when I turned sane again, was because the catheter tube had scraped a bruise against the tip of my urethra.
Looking up through my forest of IV tubes each with a diminishing bag of life-enhancing fluids, I realized I was in the center of another forest, swayed, it seemed to me, by little breezy assaults of pain from my basic surgical entry wound and long lacework of stitches holding together what remained of the skin protecting all the gut below my navel. Keeping me of me from spilling onto the spotless floor. But I was a little nutty by then.
I thought of the nine peaceful months my mother had afforded me at navel point and wondered if I was seeing Mollie Shay's beautiful loving Jewish-mother face as a prelude to meeting her and other relatives and friends when I soon would enter the final hallway, lit, as the Reader's Digest has averred of the dying, time after time, with weird lumens appearing to death-story contributors with the good fortune or imagination to hover above the remains of their corporeal selves. My heart picked up a couple of beats as I thought of meeting my poor murdered hippy son, clouded in 1972 marijuana, at last using his wasted high IQ to discuss his old man's drug experience. Wishful dreaming.
Naw, I couldn't possibly be having a deathbed epiphany. Atheists go to the hell of nothingness, and I was more than ready to return to the dust I was before my parents' principating fuck during the hot summer of 1921 in their fifth story walk-up on Caldwell Avenue in the Bronx.
But around my neck was a mysterious little black instrument. "When the pain is too much," whispered one of the nurses, "push it."
I pushed it. In a few minutes the stomach pain had drifted away. Now I didn't mind the raspy sound the metal puttees made -- preserving, as it turned out -- my blood pressure at an anti-stroke level. I just ignored the thud my feet made when I hit the end of the five-inch extensions their tether allowed.
Suddenly, as I blinked, I could see a long hall of miasmic stalls of impossible colors -- almost reds, almost yellows -- leading to an infinity of other colorful halls, some intersecting. On the nearest wall I could make out strings of red letters on a white field, spelling out lines just past my ability to decipher them. Blink again and one vasty wall appeared, yellow-green with curlicue scallops on it, like French wallpaper of two centuries ago. Wall to wall. Another blink and this wall crumbled as it segued into a soccer field with no ball in sight, but all the players -- down to red and blue uniforms -- sharp and clear. But no ball and no movement. This wasn't TV, I realized, but I remembered from heart surgery four years ago that the same morphine painkiller had thrust me into the heart of a stupid German horror movie in which the wall shelves moved at random, and the single ventilator divided as in a chemical reaction.
I must have fallen asleep eventually because when I awoke I asked the nurse for water for my parched throat. She waggled her head, "No."
A mysterious lumpy Hispanic man of forty in a blue jump suit came up to her and over matching clipboards they exchanged charades obviously having to do with my imprisonment. I suddenly got it! I was a prisoner in this place! Word of honor -- that was my inescapable conclusion! In back of what was left of my rational mind I understood I needed, then had, surgery -- but mid recovery I had been captured by these people who wouldn't give me what I soon began calling, in Annie Sullivanese -- "Wah-wah."
I vowed to escape -- but how? I made a few churns of my useless legs towards freedom then helplessly fell asleep. When I awoke hours later aching all over, the ogre-nurse had turned agreeable, gave me wah-wah and said she had looked me up on Google and if she paid for it, would I autograph my book on women's racquetball for her?
I remembered the 1949 night Nelson Algren and I had run into two dealer friends of his on Division Street. Between two transactions I asked dealer-addict Yellow Jack what it felt like to take a drug hit. He said, "You jes' put down seven cots right here and put Lana Turner on one, Rita Hayworth on the next, then Bette Davis -- and so on down the beds. Then you put this here ampule on the seventh cot -- and you watch this nigger climb over them six movie stars to get to that there ampule..."
So, my waning life beats on against its ineluctable current, like everyone else's. But having lost a hippy son in the seventies, been taken in by the simple vanity of recognition and realizing I was coming down from kicking medical morphine, I knew that all of the above and modern medicine, largely Medicare, had helped me through my own metamorphosis.
Art Shay and Nurse
© Richard Shay 2009
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