Back Spasm
Chris Dungey


I hadn’t had a serious back problem in fifteen years, not since the summer my brother-in-law bought his power boat. It was a beauty—slept two (comfortably) and partied six. A twenty-three foot Bayliner, he just had to show off the twin-prop inboard engine, pounding over the chop of Saginaw Bay. We were sitting on the lounge seat in the stern. Bang, lurch, bang! We waited our turn to ride the Boogie Board. More pounding. By Monday I had to go to Emergency, it hurt so badly. I couldn’t breathe or crap. My wife had to roll me out of bed. When I was finally able to do my business on the toilet, I couldn’t reach around to wipe.

The doctor took some x-rays. He told me a spasm wasn’t an actual injury. It was just my body’s way of sending a warning: You’re lifting wrong or something else wrong that makes a real injury imminent. It took me a month to recover and my boss didn’t care about the distinctions. He wanted to see vertebra sticking out. He finally excused me for a week after I threatened to go on an extended disability leave.

I tried everything back then—the muscle relaxers my own doctor prescribed, Valium left over from some hassles my wife had at work, even some excellent reefer offered by my neighbors Darlene and Dale, the Hannons. Nothing worked for very long, though I managed to get supremely baked. It hurt like a kidney punch to cough out the smoke—at first. I tip-toed back across lots as if there was a broomstick up my butt. I climbed off our deck into the above-ground pool. I tried to lie back in the water with my feet hanging out over the edge, just floating and staring up. It was the week of the Perseid meteor shower. The pulsing stars and flaring space flotsam tried to give me vertigo but the dope held it back. An hour later, I had to crawl into the kitchen for another icepack.

So, here I was, on my knees again. This time it happened on a late afternoon in February of a whole new millennium. It wouldn’t be an assembly-line crisis anymore because I had retired from all that. I was in my garage with a stack of pallets, cutting them up to burn in our woodstove. I always try to pull the nails out first because they tend to clog the ash grate. The job was going smoothly, the nails coming out of the wood with little effort. Next thing I knew, I was an invalid.

I set the crowbar down and tried to relax. Cheryl had already left for the afternoon shift so I was on my own until midnight. The concrete floor was cold as a hockey rink. I leaned forward and put both hands on the floor. Why was this happening now? I had been hauling pallets home all summer. I carried them around behind the garage to stack. I could lift the oversized oak or ash monsters right up over my head, no problem. Now that middle-aged showing off had apparently caught up with me.

Finally, when the pain subsided, I used the crowbar like a cane in my right hand. I reached high on the pallet stack with my left. Pull, push. With a wince and a sissy groan, I stood up. Well, if I could do that, and then totter over to the kitchen door, I probably wasn’t permanently crippled. But I figured I was done working for the day. There were enough boards cut to keep our gas furnace quiet for a while. They were piled there on the floor where I would have to somehow bend down to gather them later.

I found one miserable Vicodin in the medicine cabinet and gulped it immediately. There were some old Doan’s pills but they never worked. There was some Xanax, too, if I decided to go for maximum relaxation. I saved them. I took the heating pad from the linen closet, but then I couldn’t remember whether you apply cold first, or heat. And was it supposed to be dry heat or moist? No, it was all coming back to me—ice first, I was pretty sure.

We’ve kept several of those flexible, blue ice-packs in the freezer ever since my son and then all the stepkids played soccer. I inched through the dining room and reached the kitchen tiles where I could slide my feet. The ice pack was under a bag of chicken strips.

In the living room, I arranged everything I’d need to remain inert for an extended time: coffee in a travel sipper, cordless phone, TV remotes. I turned on some C-SPAN action—a pack of rich lawyers grilling some other rich bastard at a confirmation hearing. (It was too early for my sitcom reruns.) Then I made a big mistake. I eased slowly onto the couch, but belly down. You’re supposed to lie on your back, with knees up, and on a firm surface. I had forgotten.

Our couch cushions are soft and comfortable if fatigue is your problem. But how was I supposed to use the ice if I was on my back? Lie on it? That didn’t sound right. I picked the blue bag of gel off the floor and placed it on my coccyx. God, oh God, that felt good! My abdomen settled slowly into the cushions. The joker on C-SPAN threw out enough ambiguities to convince the Senators that he would never authorize any kind of torture (other than legalese rhetoric, apparently), and especially not against fellow citizens, at least those of classes and factions represented in the hearing room. I waited for the Vicodin to kick in.

Two hours later, it was dark outside and I woke up practically paralyzed. My spasm had been folded in the wrong direction as I lay face down. I could change position only by rolling off the couch. Even then, the soft cushions made it difficult to wriggle toward the edge. I groped for the phone and punched in my neighbor’s number.

“Hey, Darlene,” I gritted my teeth. “Ya gotta help me.”

“Where are you?”

“Right next door.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re on my Caller I.D. What’s wrong? You fall down the stairs or something? You sound weird.”

“No,” I said. “I’ve got a back spasm.”

“Oh, boy. What do you need?”

“I dunno. What have you got?”

“You’re in luck. Kristen’s here. Do you have ice?”

“Tried that. Still doing that.” I felt around for the ice pack. It had slipped between the cushions where I couldn’t reach it. I knew they had a cube dispenser on their new refrigerator. “Guess I need a refill. Have her bring me a bag, would ya? And any of her samples that might work?”

“How about if I bring you a fatty? Dale and I are just having an after dinner Scooby snack.”

Geez, I thought. Aging hippies. There’s no cure for them. Worse than old farts who think they can glean and jerk pallets around. “You know that never helps me. I’ll just get paranoid about all the stuff that didn’t get done today.”

“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be retired,” Darlene said. “Anyway, I’ll send Kristen over with an assortment of her latest. But don’t you want some coffee, at least? We have a stuffed pork chop left over too.”

“Freida, I’m dying over here. I’m completely immobilized. Just send Kedsy,” I groaned.

Darlene didn’t say anything for precious seconds. “Sure sounds like you could use a hit.”

“No, thanks.”

“Okay, she’ll be right over.”

I called the Hannons’ daughter Kedsy because she went through a lot of court and other athletic shoes as a kid. Of course, past the age of ten or so, Keds were no longer good enough. She was nearly six feet tall. She had a good five inches on me. A big, graceful, antelope doe. It seemed like she spent about fifteen years in college, with time-out for marriage and a kid. Darlene did a lot of babysitting for her when Kedsy changed her mind about going into physical therapy. Then, with her degree and Board Certification in hand, Kristen had another epiphany. She went back to pharmacy school where the real money was supposed to be because there were signs that the husband might turn out to be a loser. Now, she was halfway up the ladder of a major pharmaceutical house, and I don’t mean in R&D. She was traveling and selling in a big way. I could picture her lobbying in Washington someday. She sure had the wardrobe for it, any time I saw her. And now that she wasn’t playing competitive sports, she wore her blond hair long and crimped.

I managed to turn onto my side and sneak my knee out over the edge. I aimed it at the floor and prepared myself for a short drop. I had been her first soccer coach. For her to see me in this pathetic condition would be like letting her change my Depends or something.

She knocked, and came in the front door. “Are you nuts? Wait a second!” She crossed the room in three strides to move the travel sipper, the remotes, and the phone. Her wrists jangled with bling as she held me in place on the precipice of my couch. Then she supported my front knee with one hand and worked her other arm under my chest. I eased down, thinking it couldn’t be much worse if she were to go ahead and give me an enema. “Okay, stay on your stomach a sec,” she said in a hoarse voice. “You know that’s the wrong way to try’n sleep though, right? But I’ve gotta show you something first.”

“Did you bring me something?” I whined. “Say, you don’t have a buzz going, do ya?”

“Maybe a little one. Don’t worry about that. Just get comfortable.”

The carpet wasn’t such a treat for my face after those couch cushions. I could see crumbs of bark and cat hairs. My lower spine twitched in even numbers. The spasm might let go with just one flinch, but the second clenched me up again. She laid a fresh plastic bag of ice cubes on me.

“C’mon, kiddo. Let’s have your latest thing. Gimme some of that ‘better living through chemistry.’ We’ll worry about the adverse effects later.”

“Funny. But hush up,” she said. “I guarantee you’ll be drooling on yourself shortly.” She pressed a tiny round tablet between my lips. “You want water?”

“Nah. I’ll need a twenty foot catheter if I start guzzling.” I swallowed the pill dry.

“Now there’s a mental image I could have lived without. But I’m telling you. You’ll be ambulatory before I leave.”

“I don’t wanta pay for any ambulance.”

“I mean you’ll be up and around.”

“What was that anyway?”

“It’s called Soma,” Kedsy said. Her voice moved away. She wasn’t crouched next to me. “It’s not that new.”

“Tell me why I’m still on my stomach?” I heard the blinds being drawn around the inside of the bay window, which faces onto our front porch. Well, the room had cooled while I was asleep. Maybe she could throw some wood in the stove too, and do my dishes. Then, I distinctly heard the deadbolt engage in the front door.

“There are two exercises, therapies you can do,” she said. She was close behind me again. “Including right now. I want you to lift your right arm and your left thigh at the same time. I’ll help. Hold ‘em up as long as you can.”

I closed my eyes. My head was turned in the wrong direction to see her. I lifted my arm. She pushed the long fingers of both hands under my opposite thigh.

“Now the other.” She worked her hands between my legs, her right thumb nudging the denim over my package. She did a curl with my chunky leg like it was a barbell. We held it up for a bit then went back to the first combination.

“Later, after this has eased up, you need to do the same routine, only on your hands and knees.”

I don’t know how long we repeated this process. Maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe an hour. The Soma arrived to reinforce the Vicodin. My thoughts drifted. Kedsy quietly readjusted the ice and changed thighs. She lightly stroked whichever arm she wanted me to raise.

“Okay, don’t be alarmed,” she announced in my ear. “I’m gonna see if I can work on this.”

Now the slushy zip-lock bag slopped to the floor. I felt strong hands slip under to undo my belt and unsnap my jeans. I couldn’t think fast enough to help by lifting the sorry, toneless flab of my gut. The pants were gone without much tugging or struggle. Kedsy’s thumbs and fists went to work with slow, relentless pressure where the ice had been. Her bracelets made wind chime music. “I’m kinda out of practice,” she said. “Can you picture me doing this for a living?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Was that a good thing about the drug? Probably. The pain of the spasm was the farthest thing from my mind. I was more concerned that she might relax me into involuntary flatulence. I heard a zipper and catches coming unclasped. It sounded as if she was removing her top.

Was there some part of that I should worry about? And, how did she manage to continue with the massage? One of those pull-the-bra-out-an-armhole-tricks, I guessed.

“Hector? Hector? Are you still with me?”

Kedsy’s voice had a dry clarity, relative to the white noise I had been listening to in my head. “Sure.”

“Do you remember the time you took us sledding at Water Tower Park and I broke my ankle?”

“Mnn-hmm.”

“You had to carry me up that hill on your back? Then way to the other end of the parking lot? You carried me into ER.”

“Yuh? So?” A minor twitch jumped under her touch, then another. C’mon, one more and I’ll be loose. It occurred to me that if I was going to fart, it would have happened just then.

“I already had a crush on you. You always took us neighborhood kids to the movies with Wes. Stuff my folks never thought of.”

“It happens. They both worked all the time.”

“God, I’ll never forget Alien. And Blade Runner is still my favorite sci-fi of all time.”

I pulled my arms in to cradle my face. Kedsy didn’t object. “Probably ir’sponsible. You were, what? Twelve? Get in trouble these days.”

Kedsy continued to knead my lumbar region. She shifted around somehow until it felt like she was straddling my knees. “I was finally getting tits. You carried me all that way.”

How was I supposed to respond to that? I did what any adult would have done. Now there was actually a spot of drool on my forearm. She was just twelve. And as for playing Captain Neighborhood—a lot of it was because Wes was an only child. He would have been ten that year. I wanted to make sure he always had enough playmates. Anyway, I was about to get some meaningful babysitting out of Kedsy. That’s what I was grooming her for.

Events taking place on my living room floor were becoming seriously distorted. That much I understood. But I guess I was still able to recognize the touch of bare breasts brushing across my back. One of Kedsy’s hands cupped my unit through my skivs as her wide mouth came down on my tail bone. She began a slow lapping of the affected area, then briefly probed under the elastic. She nibbled along that band toward each hip. She kept up a gentle massage of my sack through the cotton and licked her way back up my spine.

“Keds?”

“What is it?” she sighed. “I’m busy healing here.”

“What about what’s his….?” Then I couldn’t think of her husband’s name. Nor a lot of other names. “What about your…?”

“Jason?” She went back to mouthing at my tailbone. She may have been trying to find her own train of thought. “He has his function,” she concluded. “Don’t worry about him. This is my deal, okay? Try ‘n’ relax.”

Another blotch of saliva drained onto my forearm. “How’s…? How’s his new job going? I heard…”

“Oh, for Chrissake! I can just imagine what you’ve heard. He’s tearing it up, okay?! He’ll be the head of Regional Sales in our lifetime.”

“’That’s a good thing then, right? Heard you might dump him is all.”

The licking slowed, nearly to a stop—just one last, long, warm swabbing up the groove, almost to my shoulder blades then down to the top of my ass crack. At last, a final shudder pushed her mouth away. “That’s got it. God, I would’ve been a natural. Yeah, there’s been some speculation. Mostly Mom’s wishful thinking. Anyway, you may have noticed there’s not much going on down here, either. You’re being a very good patient.” Her hand slowly released me and withdrew.

“Gah….I didn’t notice. No fault of yours, ‘cept now I’ve gotta pee.”

She kissed my tailbone one last peck. “Great. Let’s get you up and see if you can navigate.”

Kedsy held my elbows as I rolled over onto my back. Then she slowly pulled me to my feet. There were her breasts all right, and still winning against gravity, though I didn’t stare. I felt pretty good, though kinda lost in my own home. I had to think about which way to turn. Then I didn’t push it, moving with baby steps down the hall to the john.

*

I knew where I was when I got in there. I’ve lived in that house for so long I could pee in the dark. I left the door open so I could hear Kedsy if she offered any more advice. A pale moonlight poured through the skylight we had installed over the tub. My stream echoed. Every sound had an echo to it. Plus, the draining went on for quite awhile. I heard the griddle top of the woodstove clank down. Wow, Kedsy had thought to load in some fuel for me. She had always been a considerate kid. Then I heard the front door unlock and close behind her.

I thought about that Jason and how he was a lucky guy to have a personal physical therapist at home part of the time—a wife whose other talents would soon make him well-off. It wasn’t his fault that he was sort of on the pudgy side. I remembered that he had hair like a televangelist at the wedding—all blow-dried and perfect. He’d probably never have to lift anything heavier than a laptop or a hedge trimmer. But he’d still be able to get a massage if their road trips intersected. I figured I knew what was going on with all of Kedsy’s childhood “crush” business. It wasn’t Jason’s fault. He was just too young to be a daddy figure.

I gimped into the kitchen, skating the smooth floor there as I tested my range of motion. But even a temporary reprieve from the spasm was appreciated. I stood like a zombie in front of the open refrigerator. On some subliminal level, I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten for ten hours. But none of our leftovers appeared worth the effort of carrying them to the microwave. Do you know how it is on the first day of a Dexatrim diet? You know you should eat and you have the impulse to eat, but you don’t get any farther than just standing in the cold light of the appliance. Nothing is going to be consumed while the drug remains effective. I closed the door.

At the moment, there was only one meal that sounded any good, one entrée that might force its appeal through the Soma lethargy. Probably unattainable now, given the appetites of the tokers next door. As I lowered myself into the correct position on the floor and groped for the TV remote, I wondered what the Hannons’ last pork chop had been stuffed with. And was anyone over there still ambulatory enough to deliver it?

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