Fiction

Jacksongrad

Harry Mathews

A DISSAPOINTING INNING


 Mannish Madame Nevtaya slowly cried “Fur bowls!” and he Fideist batter, alert to the sense behind the sound of her words, jogged towards first base.  The wind from the northern steppe blew coldly on the close of our season.

            The Fideist division received the camps worst villains, and its team assembled their dregs.  Among us Defective Baptists a love of baseball signified gentleness; among Fideists, cruelty.  Consider their team of murderers.

            Left field: Sydney Valsalva, undertaker’s assistant and supplier to necrophiliacs, kidnaped infants for beheading.

            Center field: Lynn Petomik, dentist, mutilated the mouths of patients, killing one.

            Pitcher: Hilary Cheyne-Stokes, gynecologist, committed equivalent crimes.

            1st Base: Tommy Withering, dilettante, flayed a younger brother.

            Shortstop: Evelyn Roak, surgeon, supplied human fragments to a delicatessen, and was undone by scandalous amputations.*

            (2nd base: Cecil Meli, nurse, had been unjustly jailed.)

            Right field: Lee Donders, grocer, transformed Roak’s material into “Donders’ Delicacies.”

            Catcher: Marion Gullstrand, obstetrician, tortured unwed mothers.

            3rd base: Leslie Auenbrugger, psychiatrist – the “Restroom Bomber.”

            Valsalva had walked.  Since I was catcher, I went out to the mound to say a few words of encouragement.  The second batter grounded to third, forcing Valsalva; the next struck out; and the Fideists’ turn at bat would have ended with Withering’s high foul if, failing to allow for the wind, I had not misjudged it.  Withering singled on the next pitch.

            I was thus obliged to execute my plan in the first inning of the game.  Having foreseen the possibility, I drew a prepared ball from my chest-protector to substitute for the one in play.

            I had made the ball myself.  It was built around two unusual parts—a tiny battery and an ounce of dynamite.  From each of the battery’s outlets, a wire extended through the hair stuffing of the ball about halfway to the leather wrapper.  The free ends of the wires, one of which passed through the firing cap fixed to the dynamite, were eight millimeters apart—enough to prevent their junction at a mild impact, but not a sufficiently hard one.  The difference, which I had determined exactly, was that between a fast pitch caught and a slow pitch hit.  The wire-ends separated into meshing sprays of filament, so that no matter how the ball was struck, it was certain to explode.

            To shield myself, I had reinforced my equipment with layers of nylon in the chest-protector, steel in the cap and shin-guards, and a Lucite screen inside the mask.

            For Madame Nevtaya’s protection, I counted on her thick skin.

            I expected the explosion to do three things: create confusion that would cover my actions; stun and knock down the batter; explain the batter’s death.  I knew that the bomb itself would kill no one; but I had concealed in my right shin-guard, ready to use at once after the ball had been detonated, a small hypodermic of curate.

            Evelyn Roak stood at the plate.  To my dismay, the first three pitches were low—our pitcher remarked later on the ball’s imbalance.  The fourth was a perfect strike, and my hopes revived.  At the next delivery the batter drew back to swing, but the pitch was wild—it sailed past my outstretched glove as I lunged at it, skittered over the ground behind home plate, off the playing field altogether, at last disappearing irretrievably, and with an abysmal liquid reverberation, into a drain.

 

MY DENTAL APPRENTICESHIP

 

            The camp at Jacksongrad, in which I was completing my second year, had kept its prerevolutionary structure through historical, ideological and geographic change.  Established during the Holy Alliance for the internment of heretics, it had since the eighties received offenders of every sort.  Recently it had been transplanted intact, down to the last dossier, prisoner and guard, to its present southerly location.

            The camp’s organization was still sectarian: on arrival, prisoners were arbitrarily and finally committed to the Americanist, Darbyist, Defective Baptist, Fideist or Resurrectionist divisions.  Although the assignments were theologically haphazard, the divisions had real unity.  Particular types flourished in particular sects, and were perhaps knowingly allotted to them; and the descendants of the first religious prisoners, faithful to their traditions, exerted a constant influence on their fellows.

            This influence was strengthened by the ban on all political and nonconformist discussion, and by the strict segregation of the sects.  Fideists and Resurrectionists, Americanists and Darbyists only met on exceptional occasions, such as concerts, civic debates and athletic encounters.  Even then the guards held intercourse to a minimum, and the mere exchange of greetings was beset with preventions and penalties.

            Such circumstances had inspired the plan so unsuccessfully executed at the Fideist ball game.  The stratagem was not my first.

            When, soon after my arrival, the camp authorities had asked me to choose a professional activity, I had refused.  Because I was a musician, I was urged to join the camp orchestra, band or choir; but I had been too recently maimed to think of taking up the euphonium or singing hymns.  The cultural administrator, irked by my refusal, had relegated me to the dental infirmary.

            This was meant as a punishment, and proved a boon.  The dental clinic had an evil reputation in the camp; but this reflected, more than its drabness and inadequate equipment, the mentality of its director, a martinet who spared neither his patients nor his assistant.  When I reported to the clinic, this person had just been replaced by a kind and intelligent woman dentist, Dr. Zarater.  She had been appointed by the authorities to apply a more humane policy, and she was empowered to reorganize the clinic according to her own high standards.

            My relations with Dr. Zarater were good from the start.  When I reported to work, she at once remarked on the fitness of my left hand, reduced to three spaced digits, for working inside the mouth.  “No tool (she said) is as good as a finger, but with five it’s like using your foot.”  She questioned me tactfully about my mishap, then about my life.  When in the course of our conversation I mentioned the name of R. King Dri, Dr. Zarater’s interest quickened; for she herself had studied with Dr. King Dri and hoped to use the camp clinic to demonstrate her methods.

            From that moment to the end of my time in Jacksongrad, Dr. Zarater treated me with special affection.

            Who was R. King Dri?  I had learned of him quite by chance some years before when, leafing through old magazines in a dentist’s waiting room, I came across a letter about him in a 1930 issue of Dental Cosmos.

            King Dri called himself the “Philosopher-Dentist”.  Victim of a long history of dental ailments that classical remedies could not relieve, he had invented to explain his own case a new theory of the human organism, and deduced from it new surgical techniques.

            He describes the origin of the theory in his one treatise, a prodigious work that opens with a humble declaration of intent:

            “Either men will think that the nature of toothache is wholly mysterious and incomprehensible, or that a man like myself, who had suffered from it thirty-six years, must be of a slow and sluggish disposition not to have discovered more respecting thee nature and treatment of a disease so peculiarly his own. Be this as it may, I will give a bona fide account of what I know.”

            Dri then relates how, refusing extraction, he had little by little so lost his strength through his chronic ailment that he was at last obliged to take to hs bed, spending fourt months in total immobility. (“Movement, he writes, “is one of the greatest troubles in toothache, since, with perfect quiet, the agony is just tolerable.”) It was thus bedridden that Dri began talking to his teeth, at first cursing them, then prating to them, and finally addressing them as sensible being in need of consolation and reassurance. A prompt diminution of pain and swelling followed Dri’s first attempt at “’internal charity”.  After three weeks of it, several afflicted teeth, including the one first smitten thirty-six years before, stopped aching. Only two failed to respond. After another ten days spent comforting them, the doctor decided that they knew themselves unfit for continued life in his body, wished to be free of it, but were unwilling, perhaps for fear of the unknown world outside, to take the initiative of leaving him. Dir thereupon patiently assuaged their fear, explaining that there was only one escape from their predicament, and that by delaying to choose it they were exacerbating their suffering, not to mention his own. In a week, without being touched, the reluctant tooth fell out.

            King Dri’s conclusion from this experiment might be summarized thus:

            The human body, richest of nature’s fruits, is not a single organism made up of constituent parts, but an assemblage of entities on whose voluntary collaboration the functioning of the whole depends. “The body is analogous to a political confederation – not to the federation it is normally supposed to be.” Every entity within the body is endowed with its own psyche, more of less developed in awareness, but conscious—and self-conscious—nonetheless. (Aching teeth can be compared to temperamental six-year-old children; an impotent penis to an adolescent girl who must be cajoled out of her silkiness.) Most advanced of all entities is the heart, which at the center of the body does not govern but presides over it with loving persuasiveness, like an experienced but still vigorous father in his household of relatives and pets. Health exists when the carious entities are happy, for they then perform their roles properly and cooperate with one another. Disease appears when some member of the organism rejects its vocation. Medicine intervenes to bring the wayward member back to its place in the body’s little society. At best, the heart makes its own medicine, convincing the rebel of its love by speaking to it with patience and understanding; but a doctor is often needed to encourage the communication of heart and member, and sometimes, if the patient is incapable of performing the task, to undertake it himself.

            In his treatise, Dr. Dri gives many examples of such intervention. The following paragraph, the close of an address to the infected canine of a sixteen-year-old boy, may suggest the Indian’s stature.

            “You say, ‘Is not the goal of life to die rather than to live, not to leave death to others but to accede to it voluntarily, giving one’s self up with rejoicing?’ No! That is neither joy, nor liberty, nor grace, nor eternal life; which are in your father’s love. Child of my being! Flesh of my flesh! As distant from death as the morning star is from a farm’s smoky fire, when that fair virgin on the sun’s breast lays her radiant head, may your father in his infinite love behold you forever in that place reserved for you! Next to such life, what is death worth? And what is life worth if not given to him? Must you torment yourself, when obedience is so sweet? Return and say: ‘Now I have all! Everything is at my feet, I am as one who, on seeing a tree laden with fruit, and having mounted the ladder, feels a depth of branches bend under his body. I shall speak beneath the tree, as a flute neither too grave nor too shrill. Behold I am lifted upon the waters! Love unseals the rock of my heart! So let me live! Let me grow thus mingled with my father, like the vine with the olive tree.’” The tooth was cured.

            The medical profession had not taken R. King Dri seriously during his lifetime, despite the attractiveness of his theory and the undeniable results he achieved in Punjab dental wards. According to Dr. Zarater, however, a revival of interest in the philosopher-dentist had distinguished recent stomatological writings in Europe, where a movement was under way to obtain legal recognition of his teaching.

            During eight months as Dr. Zarater’s assistant, I learned much about the clinical uses of King Dri’s theory, as well as the rudiments of traditional dentistry, With the directress’s help I made such rapid progress that after only four months; training I was able to treat simple cases.

            I had hardly begun exercising this responsibility when a valuable patient was assigned to me. I had hoped to benefit from my position: as the clinic ministered to the entire camp, I would inevitably meet member of sects other than my own. But I was especially lucky that one of the first of these should be a young Fideist woman named Yana, celebrated through-out Jacksongrad for her beauty and visible good nature: more pertinently, Evelyn Roak was in love with her.

            In order to see her more often, I prolonged Yana’s treatment; and I wooed her myself. (Dear Yana! I became devoted to her. Even when she lost her usefulness, I remained her friend.)

            My courtship succeeded: Yana and I began meeting secretly in a storeroom of the clinic. Then a always we were obligated to address each other by gesture or in writing. Yana spoke no English, although she had learned to read and write it in school. One useful if unforeseen consequence of this was that during our exchanges we evolved a written code. At the time it was little more than a game between us; later, when meeting became harder and we had to rely on letters, the code preserved our relationship.

            I was passionate with Yana but unpossessive—I had no wish to anger her Fideist suitor, for whom I feigned admiration. Lest this arouse suspicion, I asked Yana not to mention me by name. “A dangerous political matter,” I explained.

            Meanwhile I had Yana deliver to her Fideist friend a succession of anonymous gifts, chiefly items then scarce in the camp—absorbent cotton, airmail stationery, Swiss toothpaste.

            Seven of the presents were innocuous. The eighth and last, which I myself prepared in the dental laboratory, was a box of caramels. Dr. Petomi’s career suggested their composition. I mixed into the caramel sugar a few ounces of crystalline oxylous acid. This chemical, normally inactive, combines with certain phosphates into volatile compounds whose formation requires no catalysts other than moisture and mild heat.

            I expected the glueyness of the candies to attach a quantity of acid crystals to the teeth. They would then transform the calcium phosphate of the tooth enamel into oxyluric acid, a violently corrosive substance. Four days after delivering my present, Yana told me that her friend would report for treatment. I mounted a sleepless watch at the clinic entrance. Early next morning the patient was brought in on a stretcher and taken, a I had ordered, to my office. But dr. Zarater had observed the arrival. It was she who conducted the examination and she decided to handle the case herself.

            “Those cavities (she declared) are monstrous and unnatural!”

            Yana’s admirer had been expectedly generous. During the following week eight other Fideists called at the clinic with stricken mouths. Even Yana, unwarned, lost a molar.

 

THE INFECTION

 

            Dr. Zarater had good reason to keep me from “my” patient.

            My severed fingers had headed with difficulty—even healed, they remained abnormally sensitive. Recently a few pimples had appeared on the stumps, adding to the soreness a tormenting itch.

            The pimples were small, lying nearly flush with the skin, with minute white spots at the center. They looked trivial; I managed not to scratch them in the hope that they would soon vanish if left intact. They would have gone untreated if Dr. Zarater had not noticed them (unluckily for my plan, on the very eve of its fruition). She limited my contact with her patients and told me to consult the cap doctor. I put of doing so; the directress became increasingly urgent; finally, when she showed signs of anger, I agreed to visit the infirmary.

            The camp doctor was Dr. Amset, a popular figure in Jacksongrad, celebrated for his addiction to whisky, monologue and fresh air. On fair days he received his patients in the garden behind his clinic, and it was there that I found him on the morning of my visit. Dr. Amset had just dismissed a patient when I arrived; he began speaking to me as though we were resuming an interrupted conversation.

            “Yes, there’s little doubt but what it’s cystic fibrosis! It’s a strange disease! Or if you prefer, ‘familial steatorrhea’. It’s best to give at least two names to things, above all to diseases and plants, which I have a grim time grasping, memorywise I mean. It helps to know that neurasthenia is the English malady, St. John’s wort is klamath weed, old man’s beard…Hm—your hand! That’s funny—did you—let’s see, you’re a dental assistant. Wait a minute. (He sharply pinched one of the more swollen pimples; yellow matter issued.) Now did you happen to treat a young boy called…called…a Resurrectionist I think; Moe Kusa, that’s the name! You did? Oh oh. My dear, you can call it lues if you want, but in four other letters it’s syph. It has to be. You see I remember Moe’s mother—his older brother was congenitally syphilitic, and so Moe…as you say, the sores on his moth. Well, I’ll give you three zillion units today and gone tomorrow.”

            Two crows that had been circling above us settled in an alder at the far end of the garden. The doctor’s cure was useless. The gamut of antibiotics, tried during the long complications that followed my operations, had nearly killed me. Dr. Amset agreed that there was no chance of their helping now. Having poured each of us a generous glass of whisky, he prepared me some mercurous acetate for local application, and wished me luck.

            Leaving, I thought of little Moe Kusa. He was a charming boy who suffered his disagreeable affliction without complaint. (The ends of his mouth were ulcerated, so that eating and drinking were painful to him, and his pretty face marred.) He had mentioned suffering from diarrhea, and I had, while unable to treat his principal affliction, effectively soothed the lesser one, with a broth of what the good doctor might have liked to call starwort.

 

IN THE BARRACKS

 

            Our quarters were cleaned and supervised by an unamiable person known as “The Concierge”. Although a prisoner, she was dependent on the camp authorities for her privileged job, and she accordingly acted in their interests rather than ours. Her role was contemptible, but I took a tolerant view of it—she was a minor power and very well informed.

            For a long time I could not persuade The Concierge to trust me. My assignment to the clinic seemed of little use, since she had incorruptible teeth and perquisites greater than my own; yet it was through my position that I at last won her over.

            The Concierge’s joy was her pet, a miniature urubu. She spoiled it elaborately, nursing it though the ordeal of the Jacksongrad winter and providing it in all seasons, to our dismay, with gamy morsels of animal brain and eye. The vulture was as little liked as its mistress, and a resentful prisoner finally kidnaped it one night while The Concierge slept, returning it before dawn with its beak smashed.

            Unable to pick or chew, the bird starved. The Concierge was in despair, and herself wasting away, when I intervened. Retrieving two drawn wisdom teeth from the clinic, I fashioned out of them a dentine beak, cut away the ruined bills, and wired the new ones to their roots. After a few days the urubu began using the substitute, soon mastered it, and recovered its glossy health. The Concierge was in my pocket.

            As a reward, she promised to tell me immediately, no matter how great the difficulty, any news she might hear concerning the Fideists.

            Wandering into the barracks one Sunday morning, I found The Concierge alone, reading a back issue of The Worm Runners Digest and listening to the radio. An English-language program was being broadcast—

 

                                                                                        the people themselves

                                                      terrible spider plague?

                                                          the webs upon

                                                                  more like tents than

                                                      wind

                                                  than German incendiary

                                                                                 a decoration

                         “food rose plants” from light and air.                     citizens

                                          the autonomous                                   Joe, the natural

                                                               penis?

                                                       the phoenix

                                      sprays                   dust

                                                                                                          ravaging

 

Then in your view, Greg, a huge smokescreen has been spread between the true facts about medicine in America

“Those shmucks have muff it again,” The Concierge remarked as the telephone rang. She switched off the radio to answer.

“This is Calvin nine oh nine oh.” She listened a moment and hung up. “I think that soon, very soon, I have important news.” She smiled horribly, and turned away to begin her weekly cleaning. A duster of which she was very proud (but which she never used) hung from one shoulder. It had been made from the hair of Tula Finklea, a Hollywood actress who, having to shave her head for a prison role, had given away her locks in response to The Concierge’s distant appeal. No one knew why she had turned her trophy into a domestic implement.


* For example, removing, together with a troublesome spur of bone, the index and ring fingers of my left hand.  I was then a violinist

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