Story — From the February 2014 issue

The Mighty Shannon

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The pain began in my hips, as far as I remember, and then moved to my lower back, and from there to my shoulders and then to my neck — while the shoulders continued to hurt. Then — and again, I’m doing my best to remember — it went back to my hips and, at the same time, struck my shoulders — this might’ve been a week or so later, and then it moved down to my heels while remaining in my hips, neck, and shoulders. Not my forefoot, where I’ve had pain before, or the plantar fasciae, where I’ve had problems from running, but both heels, I said, and then I watched while Dr. Zuck, thin and limber-looking, most likely a runner himself, leaned forward again, ran his fingers along the film, and once again examined the X-ray of my neck. He’d heard it all before from me. We were starting to circle around a potential diagnosis. I’m sure we both felt it. He gave me a nod that said as much and put his finger to his chin. It was my third time in his office, and he had ordered blood work. He kept his finger on his chin and turned away, looking out the window as he spoke in a condescending voice and explained to me, again, that shadow pain migrating from one point to another might be indicative of any number of conditions, from fibromyalgia to Lyme disease — the latter admittedly unlikely given the two negatives on the Western blot, he said — to, well, certain types of cancer. Frankly, he said, cancer’s also unlikely. But of course it is possible. As for a differential diagnosis, I’m not ready to make one yet, he said, and then he began to speak in general terms while his face stayed immobile, because he was the kind of doctor who struck deeply authoritative poses that kept dissolving to leave him looking absurdly young. Well, he said, we’re starting to go around and around, which makes me inclined — granted, we need more blood work — to consider your stress levels, because it’s very possible that some of this musculoskeletal pain, given everything we know so far, is related to your emotional life, he said, and then he instructed me to lie back on the table (I felt cold and vulnerable as I stood in my underwear before a floor-to-ceiling window while my own reflection — of course — came back at me: a blunt, broad-shouldered man pretending the best he could that he wasn’t closing in on middle age while a barge navigated through his belly and the buildings of Fort Lee, New Jersey, stabbed through his breastbone). I lay back on the table while the doctor took a pin and pricked my toes (a faint itch), worked up to my heel (faint prick) and to my ankle (sharp, thorny prick), and then up my shin (jab). With each prick, he drew his breath through his nose and cleared his throat as if to speak, a little cluck of air coming from his mouth while the vents overhead hissed and through the glass came a single horn call from the tug pushing the barge — a familiar sound that transported me up the river to my house for a moment — and, when that died off, barely audible, the thrum of traffic on the West Side Highway and, pushing through it, the spongy, soft thump of my heart whiling away my life.

Photographs by Sandi Haber Fifield, whose monograph After the Threshold was published last year by Kehrer.

Photographs by Sandi Haber Fifield, whose monograph After the Threshold was published last year by Kehrer.

I did not want to acknowledge that one way or another my so-called migrating pain was connected to what was going on at home, not only with Sharon, who at that time was in the middle of her affair with her colleague at the firm, but also with my own thing with Marie, who was at that time my lover but also, in truth, a responsive gesture (as Dr. Haywood would later call it). I’m not sure, but I believe now that in Dr. Zuck’s office, just after he pricked my shin, I was filled with foreknowledge. This young doctor would not be able to nail down the cause of my pain, and I would go off to specialists at the Mayo Clinic — the beehive of clinical intensity inside while outside the thick summer heat glazed the Minnesota sky — and then the Cleveland Clinic, with all that corn-fed medical teamwork. I’m not saying that after each prick I knew a little bit more about what was coming, but lying there, wincing as he got beyond my shins, I was, I now think, aware that my physical condition, my pain, was prying my body from my mind. Even there on that crinkling sheet of paper, with sweat beading on my brow, listening to Dr. Zuck breathe while the light outside faded and the light inside, fluorescent and shrill, pressed the glass, I had a sense that whatever was going on with my body was eventually going to find a way to relate itself to the extremely tactile facts of my life, my son, the house, the yard, as they, in turn, would relate to vague, nebulous, cloudy sensations that surrounded love, desire, loneliness, need. Then, as I stood (as instructed) on the cold tile and struggled to touch the floor, as Dr. Zuck stood back and watched, saying, Keep those knees straight, I felt exposed, small, fragile, like a core of chewy softness that had once been at the center of a hard shell, and for a second — with my hands yearning toward the floor — I became keenly aware of my predicament as it would unfold in the next few months, with bouts of intense pain and visits to figures of medical authority until, finally, the story of my pain — as Dr. Haywood would describe it — would merge with the story of my relationship with Sharon and our simultaneous assured destruction in the form of two affairs, although even now, years later, I have trouble apportioning blame equally between us because I’m still sure — from that tidy vantage of retrospect — that Sharon was the first to betray me, the first to stray off the map of our relationship, so to speak, and I was responding in kind, although I can admit — and I do admit! — that because I’m telling this from my vantage, the whole unseemly thing was ultimately on my shoulders.

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is the author of Assorted Fire Events, The Secret Goldfish, and The Spot. His most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “The Blade,” appeared in the April 2009 issue.

More from David Means:

Fiction From the April 2009 issue

The blade

Fiction From the November 2008 issue

The Botch

Fiction From the April 2006 issue

The gulch

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