The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Devil's Grip

Monday, September 16, 1974

It's 1974 and I'm operating computers on graveyard shift, but also I'm a handyman for Jan, my landlady.  Today I promised to clean out and prop up the rotten old garage where her husband Ray used to repair his taxi fleet and where he dropped dead 20 years ago.  Heart attack.  With the clean-out, Jan is finally ready to move on.

After riding the bike home from work, I fix the usual breakfast of 3 eggs and hash browns cooked in the grease of some ground pork sausage of questionable vintage.  You could say I had a healthy appetite but not-so-healthy diet.

I start hauling decomposed tires and smelly rat nests out of the dirt-floor garage and come upon an old wooden soda box full of hand tools.  Woodworking tools: a brace and several bits, a couple of try-squares, big slot screwdrivers, several planes — all with wooden handles burnished by the grip of Ray's fingers so long ago.  I have to pause and appreciate this treasure.  

Of course I never met Ray, but I know him.  He's the man who married and attempted to tame my spunky kittenish landlady.  He's the man who constructed an elaborate plank multi-level walkway for raccoons to come to his kitchen window where Jan still offers them food every night.  If Jan forgets to close the window, the coons come right inside and trash the place.  He's the man who ordered and assembled four Montgomery Ward cottages, one of which is my home.  He's the man who collected dozens of old wooden wagon wheels and lined them along the fence, giving this acre its name: Wagon Wheels.

Ray must have been a practical jokester.  By the creek at one edge of this property there's a metal lid, like the top of a small garbage can.  Painted on this lid are the words:
Everybody who sees it for the first time (including me) lifts the lid, expecting to see a natural spring, some gurgling water, something lovely.  What everybody finds is a concrete-lined hole with a metal bed spring embedded in the bottom.

Ray must have dug that hole, formed that concrete, embedded that spring.  A lot of work for a laugh.

I can almost feel Ray's ghost, peering over my shoulder.  The sunlight is fractured by the spiderwebs and broken glass of the window over the workbench where I stand.  My fingertips sweep over the corroded blade of a try-square.  Would naval jelly restore it? 

Suddenly I bend over clenched in pain.  Have I been shot?  Stabbed?  No.  Cramps.  It's my stomach.  No — my chest.  Holy shit I'm having a heart attack.  No.  Food poisoning.  It was bad sausage. 

I stagger to the cottage next to the garage and pound on the door.  Steve Marks is a medical student, and he's home.  I start blabbering that I have no idea how to treat a stomachache and I'm embarrassed to go to a doctor when probably all I need is something simple like Pepto-Bismol or something — but what?  I don’t want to take the wrong thing and make it explode.  Maybe I need my stomach pumped?  The pain is getting worse every second. 

Steve says, "You must be uncomfortable." 

I admire that.  By choosing understatement, he's seizing authority.  He's calm, doctoral. 

Steve fetches a stethoscope and listens to my chest.  "You know I can't practice medicine yet," he says.  "But your heart sounds okay."

Again I try to explain the symptoms.  Steve says, "If it's a tummy ache you could take some baking soda."

Tummy ache.  I admire that.  Steve wants to be an oncologist.  He'll be a good one.  I say, "I don't think I can swallow anything.  This really hurts, Steve.  It hurts to just breathe."

"It could be pericarditis," Steve says.

"What's that?"

"You should see a doctor."

"I am."

"Cheapskate.  See a real doctor."

My wife is at work.  I don't think I can drive in this condition.  One thing about being sick, though: it makes you stupid.  Unable to operate a car, suffering chest pains, I decide I can ride my bicycle to the clinic, which is about 5 miles away.  On the bike I wobble out the driveway past the wagon wheels, turn onto the side of Alpine Road, advance about 20 feet and topple over.

Abandoning the bike, I teeter home and fall onto the bed.  I'm sound asleep when my wife finds me an hour later.  Steve had called her.

"Are you okay?"

"No.  I'm being tortured.  And I'll tell them anything.  Tell them he's hiding in the crypt."


She drives me to the clinic where I lie on a sofa curled up in fetal position.  A nurse calls Dr. Perkins to come out and look at me.

Perkins dashes out and stops short, next to the sofa.  He gives me a tender look, which seems unusual for a doctor, and asks if I can walk.

"Walk?  I can ride a bike."

My wife is shaking her head.  She and Dr. Perkins help support me as I walk half-bent in pain to an examining room.

"Steve thinks it's pericarditis," I say.  "He's a med student."

Dr. Perkins looks amused.  He pokes and listens and then says, "Not a bad diagnosis for a medical student."  He explains that I have epidemic pleurisy.  The medieval name for the ailment is ‘the devil’s grip’ because it feels like the hand of the devil clutching your heart.  It's a virus that inflames the muscles of the chest wall.

Dr. Perkins says I'm the second one today with this condition.  A kid this morning was sitting in class at Foothill College when he had a sudden attack.  He gasped and fell to floor, rolling and groaning, clutching his chest.  The teacher panicked.  A counselor drove the kid to the clinic.

Somehow this makes me feel better.

Dr. Perkins gives me a painkiller and a sleeping pill.  My wife drives me home.  I sleep painlessly though stiffly for about 13 hours and wake up at 5 a.m.  A new moon is rising.  I'm pain-free but weak.  I have this weird feeling that I just swam the English Channel.

I eat a small, cautious breakfast: toast and water.

As the day brightens, I seem to be okay.  Back to the garage!  Twenty-four hours, lost.  That's all.  I'm ready to work, to clean up after Ray.  If he will just leave me alone.

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