Way of All Flesh

There was a car in his usual parking space. Morton was perturbed. He scanned irritably up the street, and settled for a space half a block farther up. As he marched back with his shirts wadded over his arm, he told himself he had to expect these things to happen, for he didn’t usually come at this time of day. He dropped the shirts at the cleaner’s and entered John’s Meat Market next door.

His mother had run a tab with John for years. After she died, for a time Morton looked like he had slept in his clothes even when he hadn’t and when Mother’s friends from church stopped bringing him casseroles he bought frozen dinners at the supermarket. Then Phoebe developed a colitis that hadn’t responded well to several courses of metronidazole, and the supermarket wouldn’t prepare the special meat mix she needed. So he went back to John’s (John, Junior these days), and discovered the laundry service next door. John always had the package of ground-up turkey necks and chicken backs and frozen livers ready for him, wrapped in brown butcher paper with “Phoebe Morton” written on it in grease pencil. Because Morton appreciated John’s respect for his cat as a proper customer with a full name, he would also choose something for his own dinner.

The beautifully clean shop soothed him. The broad front windows poured sheets of light along the polished slope of the casefronts and the immaculate tiled floor. He leaned his forearms on the high steel countertop and waited for a woman choosing a long list of things. John smiled with his long horsey teeth, and chatted and cut and packaged as she directed. She was probably the one parked in his spot. Morton looked at the meat.

It was also beautiful and orderly. Glistening pork chops were shingled in chilled trays, edged in sleek white rinds of fat. Red steaks glowed against crisp green beds of lettuce. Hanks of purple sausage bowed rebelliously over the edge of the shelf, as though considering a slither to the floor. A circle of chicken breasts, opalescent and pale, surrounded a dozen silky legs arranged in a radiating pattern evoking the Rockettes.

“Doc Morton!” said John. “Keeping banker’s hours now, are you?”

“I worked late last night,” Morton explained. “And I might have to again tonight, so I thought I should come now.”

Yesterday he’d had the little boy, a toddler. The child had a cold, he was cranky, he wouldn’t go to sleep. His teenaged mother’s girlfriend said kiddie benadryl would make him sleepy and they’d gone to the drugstore to get some. It worked so well she couldn’t wake him from his nap, and the paramedics had brought the nearly empty bottle with them.

“Occupational hazard, I guess,” said John. “You must be a kid’s doctor. Every time my kids get sick it’s always the middle of the night.”

Morton said what he always said. “I trained as a surgeon.”

“A surgeon!” cried John. “Well, sir, then you and me are in the same line of work, sort of.” Morton considered this. John grinned. “The cutting, the chopping, the slicing… we both got to know what all the parts are and where and how to cut,” he said. Morton smiled uncertainly and thought about that.

“Ah,” he said finally. “Ah, but surgeons are supposed to know how to put them back together.” John lifted his baseball cap, scratched his stubbled head, and laughed.

“Good one, doc,” he said. “You got me there! But even though I got cows and pigs and chickens, and you work on people, the parts are pretty much the same, aren’t they?”

Morton looked up at a poster on the wall, large silhouettes of a cow and a pig platted into neat geometrical shapes with short Anglo-Saxon labels: round, chuck, loin, ham, brisket.

“We use different names for them,” he said. He pointed to a thick spear of pork tenderloin reclining in the case. “Where is that on a pig?”

“Runs from here around to here,” John said, pointing to his own back and running his fingers around to inside the hipbone.

“Psoas muscle,” Morton informed him.

“So-ass,” John repeated happily. “Huh. What do you call these?” He pointed to the Rockette tray of chicken legs.

Morton recited, “Quadriceps, biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and gastrocnemius – that’s the drumstick.”

“Gas-troc-neemy…How about that. I know the breast – that’s the pecs, right? Brisket is pecs too. That’s the best, whitest part on a chicken, but on a cow you got to cook the hell out of it to make it tender.”

“Pectoralis, yes,” said Morton. “The more you use the muscle, the tougher it gets. Chickens don’t fly, but cows walk.”

“You got it,” said John. “You think I should mark up those chicken gastroneemies as some kind of special delicacy?” He laughed again. “So, okay. You’re here for your kitty food, and what else can I get you today? You got a fridge at work to keep this stuff in?”

“Oh, yes, I have ample refrigeration,” said Morton. He decided to continue their pleasant little game. “I will have a slice of bovine gluteus. Please.”

“Okay, smart guy, you want to show me what that is?” Morton pointed to the sirloin. John whisked it out, wrapped it up and presented it with a flourish.

“See you in a couple weeks then. Don’t work too hard. Got a lot on your plate today?”

“No,” Morton said, hesitating. “Just one today, but she’s – she’ll be complicated.”

“Don’t keep her waiting, then,” said John.

“It’s okay. My patients are very… patient.”

“Nyuk nyuk. Very funny. See you!”

Morton knew he had been lucky when the match placed him at the Hunter Medical Center for his surgery residency. Only fifty miles from home, but too far to commute as he had been able to do through med school. He moved into a furnished cinder-block studio apartment across the street from the medical center, with one box of dishes, another of clothes, one skillet, one saucepan, a handful of castoff silverware, a coffeepot and an insulated mug from the 7-11. Mother got Phoebe from the animal shelter to keep her company and he was a little jealous. His shirts turned gray from being washed with his blue jeans, but he was in scrubs most of the time so it didn’t matter. Mother shook her head and worried that he wasn’t going to church regularly; he promised her he went every Sunday he wasn’t on call and he did.

God, he’d loved the medicine. He’d been in its thrall since the sixth grade, the day the A volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica Mother bought him fell open to the anatomy plates. He turned the clear plastic pages, layered one on top of the next: skin, muscles, organs, arteries, veins, nerves, bones. He pored over the colored drawings, murmuring the words to himself: deltoid, latissimus dorsi, pyloric sphincter, aorta, subclavian, carotid (he thought it was “carrot-id”), brachial plexus, trochanter, clavicle. When he opened his first cadaver in medical school , he half-expected to find the colon bright blue, and was reassured when the liver was the same lustrous purply-red, just as it had been in the slippery little Britannica pages.

He loved the way it all fit together, the way the body ticked over, balancing chemicals, the tiny zipping and unzipping of muscle cells, the electrical pulses zinging and ions shifting, the perfect nesting of the liver and pancreas and spleen and gallbladder in their appointed places, glossy and wet and doing complicated things all by themselves. He supposed it might be a proof of God’s infinite skill to build such a wonderful machine, but it came to seem more wonderful to think of those lovely processes happening on their own. There were more beautiful words: islets of Langerhans, fallopian, seminiferous tubules, hepatopancreaticoduodenectomy. He wanted to be a surgeon so he could see and touch them, to examine their errors and failures, to lay them out and look at them and put them back again. It was the living people that were hard for him – they were frightened, worried; they complained, they didn’t do what they were told was for their own good. They might be ugly, with bad breath and scaly feet. But once they were safely asleep with the anesthesiologist watching over them, inside they were all alike, all neat glistening parts he could unpack and peel and pare and repair.

That simple damn appendectomy. A healthy young guy, classic presentation. Morton scrubbed in and the attending handed him the scalpel to make the first skin incision. He drew that blade so carefully, neatly, exactly where he was shown, and the tender lips of skin sprang gently open, just a few little driblets of blood. And the guy coded – just crashed. Morton set down the scalpel and stepped back, against the wall, automatically holding up his gloved hands, the palms facing him like reproachful puppets. The resuscitation whirlwind swept around him, past him, and when he crept out of the O.R. no one noticed.

It was not his fault. He hadn’t done anything, he hadn’t not done anything, the residency director and the attending assured him of this. The guy had some kind of defect, a heart defect, an anesthesia reaction, something, Morton never quite took in what they said and was too embarrassed to ask again. The guy even survived – they brought him back, stabilized him, got the rotten appendix out, and the attending dealt with the frantic wife, who kept wailing, “What happened? Why did this happen? What was wrong?” He went home more or less okay. He went home well before Morton came back.

He wanted so much to solve the puzzle and fix the plumbing, but that unseeable little flicker that kept it all going could just short out, and turn that living system into offal on his table. It was just too risky. He tried to resign from the residency, but the director talked him into taking a leave, into rethinking his commitment to surgery. Surprisingly, she found an unexpected opening in a program at County; someone there had a family emergency in India and withdrew to go back. He took it because he didn’t know what else to do, and because County was a ten minute drive from home. He moved back to Mother and Phoebe. No surgery, lots of lab work, three years instead of five, and then a fellowship. He never left.

Morton put his necks and livers in the big cooler. His technician glanced up from her computer screen and said, “She’s ready for you. Holler if you need anything, I’ll be in in a few minutes.” She was very good with the paperwork, but he remembered he needed to speak to her about the typos in the last report she’d done for him.

He read through the police report. He put on the gray scrubs, creased into squares with folding and smelling of the hot dryer drum, and poked his head through the apron.

She lay naked on the steel table, middle aged and heavyset, her small breasts splayed loosely to the sides. He flipped down his face shield. Standing behind her head, he placed his double-gloved hands on the chilled flesh of her shoulders and murmured a wish for peace upon her soul and for his own skill and wisdom. He took up the large-bladed scalpel, steadied her left shoulder with one hand, and drew a long, deep line from the acromion, swung it down below the breast and over to the xiphoid process at the lower edge of the breastbone. The sluggish skin slit like leather. Then from the point of the other shoulder to meet the first stroke at the breastbone. From the breastbone, straight down through the soft, cold belly flesh and yellow fat layer, parting the hair of the pubic mound. He flayed and folded the heavy flap of thoracic flesh up and back over her face, set down the scalpel and picked up the rib cutters. Now, now he could begin to find out what had been done to her.

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