Apr 1997

The Stomach Ache

by Philip R. Dunn

It's quite astounding... what little is done in the time between doing. Chewing on ice. Searching for the tilde key. The computer's fan. Birds that must chirp incessantly. A trip to the fridge. Check the messages on the voicemail. And, finally, back down in front of work - a series of concrete tasks. But first scratch the ear, then actually begin to type and click. Tasks are being completed, but there are still those gaps of nothing between strokes and jots and back-up hard drive scratching. They're gaps yearning to be filled, like young, impressionable minds. They can go one way or the other—evil or good. But when they do go, they tend to spread and infect the rest of the gaps until all sense of normalcy is lost and the bulk of a minute's respite is turned either to a minute of terror or a minute of calm like that between the ripples on a pond. I am convinced a prayer of attitude exists in those intervals. But no... not attitude... something else much more profound. A chance for peace, I think, is it. A chance for real peace.

But the intervals can also produce a chaos, a continually regenerating foil. And that foil can incubate so many little demons, that soon they creep into the tasks at hand. A simple phone call can turn out as bad as an accidentally bitten lip. Walking across the room can become wrong.

At some point the usually unnoticed gaps became riddled with those demons. When and why they turned on this day was not readily clear to me. I knew they'd turned, though, when I twisted a pencil into the blade of a handy little compact sharpener. It was then the gaps between my important tasks began to elongate. For me, the areas of non-activity began to take on more importance than actual events. For instance, if I hit a "p" on the keyboard, then an "h," finishing the word "graph," the time between typing the next word, "data," concerned me more than the two words. A usually serene interval, that particular point in time made me feel unassociated, non-causal misery. It manifested itself as a lump in my throat and abandonment of the word "data." Crying would have been good, to clear the lump, but I didn't have a reason to.

So I stared out the window past cheap, broken blinds with a layer of dirt, not dust, over them. Fingers cleared off some of the soot and left marks where the slats had to be separated or evened. Sod was never laid on the lawn. So piles of dirt mixed with wood chips and gypsum sat in semi-landscaped piles. The winds often blew dirt through the window. A young palm tree bent with the wind, its lower fronds outstretched for mercy. Just as I had to live with the lump, the palm tree had to live with the lump and me. We were all somehow intertwined.

I would wash out the lump, though, and dismember that tree if I had to. I wouldn't accept its gesture. I resolved to extract the lump myself without any heavenward entreaties.

I tried to think of nude women. I tried to picture the tan lines on girls of the 60's; those horizontal hip-hugging triangles framing the wide patch of similarly triangular hair. Then I imagined the longer, more vertical swatches of 80's over-the-hipbone bikinis. But the lump persisted. An agitated heart and dreamy visions wouldn't deter it from spoiling my throat.

Looking out the window again, with the lump swelling, I pitied the milk blue fence painted by a neighbor who cussed all day while he built it. He was very angry with that fence. I wanted something to be equally angry with. Perhaps it would help break up the lump and stem the infection it was wreaking on the moments between my moments. I wanted peace.

The odd thing about the lump was it felt so physical, yet it quite obviously originated in my head. Was I guilty? Did I overlook a personal crime? Did I let someone down? People can want things of you, but they can't put voodoo rocks in your throat, can they? Did I let myself down? The gods? Did I go to a funeral and not care? Did I shackle my feelings into this internal corpuscle? Does my soul need to be lanced?

I couldn't answer those, and I thought the inability to answer could be my biggest misery. A life examined so much, meaning couldn't even be found in the absolute moments between a "p" and an "h" on the keyboard. A man with eyes who couldn't see, for the tumors of nameless guilt crept over the lens. The terror of a dictionary that listed known things but no definitions. I knew what this living was, but I didn't know why. I couldn't see it in the moments.

The lump was hard, a stiff muscle perhaps. The heart and the brain might have been struggling to pull away from each other. They tugged at the throat. But I wouldn't have it. I struggled to squeeze out a tear, giving myself witness to some fraction of redemption. I'd dissolve it by ritual. I'd hum it out. A mantra. But I ended up just whimpering to myself, "Don't choke me."

I looked up from my grief and saw again somebody had painted the street black. It was fine before, but somehow a blacker street was better to drive on. To hell with those people painting streets black. "To Hell!," I screamed, and that felt good... until the street came back a bit blacker.

I'd get some iced tea and drink the lump loose, a ritual of cleansing and ingesting my plight. But the fridge was fucked and the glasses had bits of food particles stuck to them. Fifty jars of condiments, jalapeno jelly, and piss vinaigrette dressings had weighed so heavily on the refrigerator door, it was drooping on its hinges these days. That kept it slightly open and slightly energy inefficient and slightly useless for keeping iced tea at the proper temperature for drinking. I didn't want to have to resort to ice, but I had to.

The dishwasher wasn't draining properly and food particles would stick to the glasses, leaving them there to bake on in the drying mode. But I had a lump in my throat. I wouldn't let some particle get in my way. I'd expunge the lump and take back my tear and spit on the past receding away from me. It was all so silly. I mean, a giant steel contraption designed to keep things cold, and a device explicitly crafted to take grungy matter off of the surface of glass and plates. My zucchinis were probably liquefied by now. All the rotting food certainly raised the temperature in there. Food decaying heater plugged into the wall. I found myself spitting on the kitchen floor.

The freezer worked, though. So I opened it up to get some ice. The compartment held a large bag of store-bought ice that had been consolidating itself into one large block of connected rock. So I plunged the glass into it, expecting to break off a few weak chunks. A couple fell into the glass, so I plunged again. The glass broke. The ice broke the glass. Water broke my glass. The power of solid water was tearing apart my day. It's supposed to be in cubes. Not a big fucking block. Cubes go in the glass, not a boulder. Ice is useless in that form. To me, ice is only useful in small units. Ice will fit into a glass when it assumes the proper size. I can't manage my life in small pieces, but I demand it of my ice! Nothing of the proper size is in my freezer. Nothing! I slammed the door shut, declaring, "I'm not a part of this." I tried to stare at a blank wall and get one good moment. I saw stucco and felt the lump become healthier and more brazen.

So I just took the warm pitcher of iced tea and started chugging from the blunt plastic edge. I drank probably eight glasses worth of tea, but the lump wouldn't go away. The glass and the ice had distracted me for a bit, but the lump was definitely still there. I whined to myself and felt the lump pulling my thoughts to increasingly less intelligent thoughts. I'd trash the place. I'd tip over the fridge and rip the wires and coils from its back. I'd take every glass on the shelf and make the place really sparkle. Pop fucking bulbs and swing from wires and pour every piss-stinking cleaning product on all four walls. Pop this whole jail from the inside. Break the whole nonsense.

But I only slouched to the floor and finished off the rest of the tea.

Then the stomach ache struck. I'm not sure which came first, but I noticed something, and my stomach started to hurt. The tea was sweet! What? The tea was not supposed to have sugar. I never made it with sugar. How could it have sugar? "Who put the fucking sugar in the tea!" I yelled. I knew it was sweet, because my hand stuck to the outside of the pitcher. The pitcher was very sticky, something a pitcher full of pure tea would never be. My condition prohibits the ingestion of refined sugar. Didn't anybody care? They'll care when they want ice; when they go for some ice and get some shards of glass. They'll have a stomach ache. That was my pitcher, the blue one, milk blue, like the stupid cussing neighbor's ugly fence. I imagined my stomach imploding, making a pool of acid above which the terrible throat lump would dangle and fall.

All along I thought it was my throat, but now my stomach was killing me. It felt like a furnace. Fear mixed with stomach acid and lit like a flaming cocktail.

A spot on a tile caught my attention when I keeled over gripping my gut. It looked like blood. My sticky hand still grasped the empty pitcher. I looked at it. There was blood on my hand. And above the pain of my rotting stomach and the choke of the lump, I felt a slim, harmless pain in my hand. I had cut my hand on the broken glass. That made the pitcher feel sticky. That made me think there was sugar in the tea. I couldn't trust myself to perceive the difference between myself, my own blood, and some sugar feloniously dumped into my tea pitcher.

The pain in my stomach went away as quickly as it came. I got up from the floor and stared at my sticky hand, a half-inch-long gash, and the funny redness of the splotches. I extended the palm out toward the window and a new, redwood fence standing outside. The blood seemed to blend with the color of the wood, and two-toned green loquat leaves brushed back and forth across the planks. I paid attention to all the forces on my arm. Some tendons turned around the inside corner of my elbow as my wrist rotated in the light. Gravity seemed to pull down from the top of my arm rather than the bottom. It struck me as odd that gravity wouldn't pull from the bottom first. My watchband really pinched, but I hadn't noticed it before. The stickiness of the blood still felt like something else. Rather, it could have been sugar, syrup or katsup, but not any product of my veins. It didn't even remotely appear to belong to me. Everything felt really smooth, and tiny breezes puffed at my arm.

This was one gap, and it was very long and very certain and very pure. My movements held intention and grace. The moment and the action, just lifting my arm, ceased to be separate. Experience blended into action for this brief period.

So I followed these moments like a fed up kid following a stranger with truly exotic candy. Each movement made the next one easier. I opened the freezer, felt a rush of cold, humid air, and found the crenelated glass resting next to the sturdy block of fused ice cubes. It was jagged at the top edges and smeared with a trace of blood. As I took the glass out of the bag and eased the door of the freezer shut, the moments between tasks were so calm they couldn't be separate from the tasks themselves. If someone were watching, I'm certain it would have looked something like performance art.

And, of course, the lump was disintegrating. I slowly and patiently sat myself back down onto the tile floor. Some dead, long-legged spiders underneath the cupboard edges interested me for a moment. I felt a grit of sand on the linoleum floor. It was from a day of surfing, perhaps many days of surfing, at another, happier time. The lump was gone and I took a very deep breath that echoed all the truth in my posture and gaze. With my face awash in tears which seemed to be pulled outward by gravity, I plunged the glass into my stomach three times over. The first time made a popping noise, like fingers through plastic wrap. The second time never registered. The third left my hand in my gut, the glass further in than that, and a distinct intention to pull my fist out. Slow reminders to pull my fist out, but I didn't remember doing so.

And certainly then, at the end, the moments became one, or none, or, of course, both.


Philip lives in Costa Mesa, California, while writing features and a web column for Coast Magazine. He studied (and attempted to write) fiction with Leonard Michaels at UC Berkeley (undergrad History BA) and with Ben Masselink at USC (grad Journalism MA). Those were elective creative writing courses. He's working on a novel titled The Wrong Castle, which follows a manic trail loosely based on Franz Kafka's The Castle. It reads a little more like Voltaire's Candide. He also conducts information searches for law firms and general business.