I can’t remember a time in my life when a muscle or bone didn’t ache. I just healed up my right shoulder, and now my left one sprung.
I didn’t do anything to it. It just started hurting. A lot. Maybe I brushed my teeth too hard, or slept funny.
I’ve always had aches, bruises and dings. Tall, bony and clumsy, I constantly bump my head, stumble down stairs, fall off my bicycle or tumble down a ditch on wayward skates. Those bonks and twists were earned honorably, a badge proving I was doing something. I’m far less tolerant of aches that just show up on their own, like uninvited guests.
My shins never had any meat on them. Only skin. It is a deformity. They’re as bumpy and raw as a tree branch. You can read every woody detail of my shin bone like the rings of a tree, or like that clear plastic Invisible Man we played with in elementary school, the one with realistic organs on the inside and one missing on the outside, the one we had the most questions about. During a softball game I once took an errant pitch to the shin, and from the sound everyone thought I got a hit.
In the middle of the city park near my childhood home there was a cylindrical building that housed some mysterious industrial function. We couldn’t figure what accounted for the droning hum that came from inside because, although we could climb the walls, we couldn’t see clearly through the dirty windows. The outside had a rocky facade rough enough to get a toe-hold, a natural scaling wall up to the tempting flat roof with its castle-like edge.
My friend Eric scampered up the side of the building like a gerbil. “I did it, you do it!” he crowed, a phrase that has taunted countless children to their deaths. Scared of heights but more afraid of being an outcast, I slowly worked my way up, wiggling over the square roofline like a fat raccoon.
The view was heady. Squirrels were eye-level. I studied the clouds to see if they were closer.
Going down was a lot scarier than climbing up. Eric, his face scrunched in concentration, worked his way quickly. Eric was small, nimble and lithe, the kind of kid who could get away with teasing you because, wily and slippery, you could never get a good enough grip on him to pound him. I was as graceful as a can of Pick-Up Sticks. Barely able to breathe, I managed to work my way over the edge, fingernails digging into the rock, and down to the first ledge. It took a while. Mindful of the setting sun, I gave up and jumped the remaining twelve feet or so. I felt (or heard) a ringing in my feet as all the cartilage melted into jello. I held still, afraid to walk or lay down, that my feet might lose their shape.
“If you’re not going to do it, get off.” This was another magic phrase Eric uttered impatiently. I psyched myself up to prove I could do a back flip off the park swing at the height of its arc. The feat would be no harder than letting go of the chains, but I had to convince my hands. I wanted to rehearse it in my mind a few more times, but at the sound of Eric’s nagging I kicked my head back into the the roll. My hands did not let go, not until the swing began returning to Earth with me no longer sitting in it. I rotated too far before finally releasing the chains, landing on my back with a dull huff! The next day Eric and I returned to the spot to admire the impossibly angled imprint of my arm and palm in the dirt, my broken wrist now in a thick, heavy cast. I hit him with it, and his head resonated like a ripe melon.
My nose looks like my dad’s, long and curvaceous with a preference for the left side of my face. His was broken in the Navy, by the first punch of his first boxing match. But one does not inherit a broken nose.
“Dad,” I asked, “did I ever break my nose?”
“No, I don’t recall anything,” he replied after a thoughtful, eye-wandering silence.
“Then how did my nose get so crooked?”
He thought some more. More eye-searching. “Well, there was that one time when you were three, and you walked in front of a kid with steel-toed boots who was swinging on the swing,” he recalled. “When he hit you, you did a back flip and landed standing up.”
Yeah, Dad, that might have done it.
Or maybe it was Plunger. Plunger was among the pile-on games we played in the park after school. I once heard Bill Cosby refer to it as “Buck-Buck.” Kids on one team would form a human wall-chain by lining up, then bending over and wrapping arms firmly around the waist of the kid in front of them, who did the same. It looked like a mule train or a woven rope. The front-most kid would secure himself by wrapping his arms around a tree. Then the other team would run up one at a time and jump on the fortified mass, using their compounding weight and relentless impacts to knock the wall team over. To protect the tree-grabbing kid’s collar bone we’d insert the littlest kid as padding in between. He was the Plunger.
I only recall playing the game twice. The last time, while I was in the middle of the wall team, we held up a record number of our opponents before the entire matrix of kids collapsed on top of my nose.
Nose blood is vivid red, rich with oxygen. The other kids ran home. I retired from Plunger.
As I get older my injuries continue even though I play less. I scratched a cornea when I picked up a basketball and didn’t notice the juniper branch in front of me. I turned my head to look as I backed up the car, and sprained my neck. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder by sleeping funny.
It’s as if my body is accustomed to feeling injured, and repeats it out of habit. As if it says to itself, “Say, it’s about time for a pulled tendon, isn’t it?”
“No, tendons are Monday. Today’s Thursday. Cramps day.”
Oww! What did I do?