My pitiable condition finally earned me the day off. I lay on my bed with an ice pack on my back. Alex O. had personally delivered the ice pack, and threatened to send a massage therapist.
Elvis had wanted to know if I had a headache. “If you do, we can get you some Speedy Alka Seltzer. When Congressmen debate a bill, headaches are a common ill, so they take Speedy Alka Seltzer.”
I assured him that my head was the least of my problems.
Howard and Anna took the boys to the police station to make their statements about the foiled robbery, and I asked them to assure the cops that I’d be there as soon as I could stand up. I was not sorry to miss the bus tour of D.C., though I was a little sorry to miss Elvis’s running commentary on the bus tour of D.C.
It was awkward to type, lying on my stomach and propped up on my elbows like that, but I wanted to catch up on my e-mail.
“Dear Rudy,” I wrote. “Sorry to bother you over the break, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m questionable for Monday. I’m in D.C. with friends and I’ve thrown my back out. If you’ll check the schedule, you’ll see that my two sections of Elementary Comp meet MWF at 8 and 2. I’m sure that one of the other A.I.s will be happy to take them, and the kids won’t be able to tell the difference. Hope you’re having a relaxing break. Hank Jones.”
“Dear Dick,” I wrote. “I know you’re expecting a chapter from me on Monday, but I just wanted to let you know that I’ve thrown my back out and so am running behind schedule. I did score a collection of rare 1950s TV dinner boxes on e-Bay, including the Swanson original (98¢!), so I’m eager to get back to work. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in D. C. until my back improves. Regards to Anita, Hank.”
“Dear Bonnie,” I wrote. “I imagine that by now Eco has let you know that I’m not around to feed him. I took an unexpected trip to D.C. on short notice, and I kind of forgot about him. He could stand to shed a few pounds, but could you make sure he has some Friskies in his dish? Unfortunately, I’ve thrown my back out and don’t know when I’ll be home, but I’ll bring you a cool souvenir, I promise. Your repentant neighbor, Hank.”
“Dear Amanda,” I wrote. “I’m glad that you’re having a good time in Florida. As for your research paper topic, I can understand why you might have developed an interest in shark attacks off the Florida coast, but please remember that you must take a position in this paper. Do you have a position on shark attacks or the best way to prevent them? Is there a pro-shark faction (e.g., animal rights activists) and an anti-shark faction? If not, you will need to come up with another topic. Feel free to e-mail me again if you like, as I am currently in D.C., where I have thrown out my back, and do not expect to return to Bloomington by class on Monday. Regards, Hank Jones. P.S. This does not mean that class has been canceled for Monday.”
“Dear Professor Whipstan,” I wrote. “I am indeed interested in contributing to the collection you’re editing on American popular culture in the 1950s. What I have in mind is a semiotic analysis of TV dinner packaging from that era. I am writing to ask whether an extension on your original deadline would be possible, as I have thrown out my back while on a visit to D.C. Thanks for your consideration, Hank Jones.”
I thought I heard a knock at the door, but I wasn’t certain. Since we weren’t supposed to have casual visitors, and the authorized ones all had access to keys and ought to know what kind of shape I was in, I went on typing.
“Dear Professor Dewbury,” I wrote. “I see that you are organizing an MLA panel on American popular culture during the Cold War era. I would be interested in proposing a paper on the semiotics of cereal boxes during the 1950s. Please let me know if this is the kind of thing you have in mind. Regards, Hank Jones.”
A man appeared in the doorway. He seemed surprised to see me. He was about my age, in shirtsleeves and gray slacks. A gray patterned tie was pulled loose around his neck and he was carrying a briefcase. He had close-cropped light-brown hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. He stood still and looked at me.
“You the massage guy?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s me.”
“I told Alex that I wasn’t sure I wanted anybody touching me, you know? It hurts like hell,” I said. “But he said that you were really good, and that I could tell you to lighten up. He promised I’d thank him afterward.”
“Oh, yes?” he said.
“So I hope you can work on me right here, ’cause I don’t think I can stand up.”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “That will be fine.” He still didn’t enter the room.
“Does the hotel make you guys dress up like that?” I said. “It seems kind of formal.”
“Yes, well—.” He cleared his throat. “It inspires confidence, I guess.” He took a few steps into the room and set down his briefcase.
“You think so?” I said. “Me, I’d feel more confident if you were wearing a lab coat, or—wait, maybe not a lab coat. That would be too hokey. Maybe a tee shirt that said ‘Gold’s Gym’ or something.”
“I’d better wash my hands,” he said, and gestured toward the bathroom. “Do you mind?”
“Go ahead,” I said. To tell the truth, I was a little disconcerted. The way he’d said it, you’d have thought he just remembered something his mother told him. You wouldn’t have thought he did this kind of thing for a living.
He picked up his briefcase and disappeared into the bathroom.
“Where’d you study?” I said, raising my voice over the sound of running water.
“Where’d you study?” I repeated. At least he was taking the hand-washing seriously. He might cripple me, but he wouldn’t infect me.
“You can study massage at Georgetown?”
Silence, except for rushing water. Then, “It’s part of the sports medicine program.”
“Oh. And when did you graduate from there? You seem kind of, well, young.”
He emerged, wiping his hands on a towel. “I was at the top of my class,” he said. “I did my best work in massage.”
I nodded. “And when did you graduate?”
There wasn’t much to say to that, except, “No, thanks,” and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He removed the ice pack and set it to one side. He appeared to study my back. He rubbed his hands together, like a concert pianist preparing to tackle Tchaikovsky.
“I’m Hank, by the way,” I said, and offered a hand. “I assume you knew that, but I figure it’s better to make sure. You don’t want to operate on the wrong guy.”
“Dave,” he said. We shook hands.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “My hands are clean.”
He hesitated then, and looked toward the bathroom as if wondering whether I was testing him.
I tucked my thumbs inside the waistband of my pajama pants. “How ‘bout I just pull these down a little? I don’t think I can get them off, anyway.”
I’m sure I sounded nervous, but he actually blushed. At first, I thought I must be hallucinating, but no, I saw a distinct red blossom at the base of his short sideburns and spread down his neck.
“You have done this before, right?” I said. “Outside of massage class, I mean.”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Lots of times. My clients love me.” Then he turned even redder, I swear.
I felt warm, tentative fingertips on my back, and turned my face away.
“Don’t you need some kind of massage oil or something?” I said.
He paused, as if feeling for movement at the cellular level. “This is a new kind of massage,” he said. “It’s called ‘dry massage.’ Research shows it’s more effective.”
When he spread his palms on my back, they were slick with sweat. His tie was tickling the nape of my neck. “Sorry,” he mumbled. The tickling sensation went away.
“Where does it hurt?” he asked. “Here?”
He was pressing my shoulder blades. “Lower,” I said. Then, “Lower.” And again, “Lower.” He finally hit the spot. “There.”
“Here?” He pressed his thumbs in.
“That must be it,” he said. “You’re supposed to breathe into it. Are you breathing?”
“No, I’m gasping in pain,” I said.
“Well, breathe,” he said.
I tried that, and it did help. He was circling the injured area with his thumbs, and the muscles were starting to yield.
“What were you doing when you screwed up your back, anyway?” he asked.
“The caterpillar crawl, I think, but upright, like in Alice in Wonderland.”
When he didn’t comment, I said, “Dancing.”
“Yeah? Where’d you go?”
“Place called Cabana’s in Georgetown. You know it?”
“No, but I’ve heard of it. I’d like to go some time. My girlfriend’s crazy about dancing.”
I could feel my muscles rippling in combined pain and pleasure under his hands.
“There’s a tight spot,” he said. “I can feel it. Keep breathing. Are you breathing?”
“Have you given massages to any famous people in this hotel?”
“You’re the most famous so far.”
“Well, sure. I mean, you were on the news and all.”
“I’m just a consultant.”
“Oh,” he said. I felt his fingers pause. “What are you consulting about?”
“Mostly American culture,” I said. “I’m not really qualified to consult about anything else.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Is that what you do for a living? Consult with foreign businessmen on American culture?”
“I teach freshman comp for a living,” I said, “and it’s not much of a living at that. I’m a grad student.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’d better watch my grammar. Man, you’re really tight in through here. You should get a massage more often.”
I moaned as he pressed on a sore spot with his thumbs.
“How’d you end up with these guys, anyway, if you’re a grad student?”
“Larry and Elvis? They’re, like, friends of the family. My cousin Mary asked me to keep an eye on them, show them around.” I was doing a pretty good job of keeping my story straight, under the circumstances. But if he pressed any harder, all bets were off.
“I saw part of the story on the news, but I didn’t exactly understand why they didn’t want to be seen or identified or anything like that,” he said. “I mean, that Elvis guy isn’t exactly inconspicuous. If they wanted to keep everything secret, why send a guy like that?”
“He’s the world’s leading expert on these aircraft stabilizer thingies they’re trying to sell to the U.S. government and American manufacturers,” I said. “Or so they tell me. Anyway, it’s Larry who might be recognized. He’s been in the business a long time.”
I could feel him lean in to put weight behind his palms as he pushed on muscles along the edges of my ribcage. “I didn’t know they made aircraft stabilizers over there in that place they’re from.”
“The Solomons,” I said.
“Yeah, there,” he said. “They have a lot of high-tech industry over there? Keep breathing.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “What I know about the Solomons you could fit in a Dixie cup. One thing I do know—they’ve got some killer dances.”
“I’d like to see some of those,” he said. “Hey, your neck’s really tight, too. Want me to work on it?”
I said okay, and he started crunching the back of my neck, squeezing, holding, releasing. “How long these guys staying?”
“Why? You going to offer them a free massage?”
“I might. No, really, I’d like to see them dance. I’m sorry I missed it.”
“So is this what you want to do with your life? Or are you planning a lucrative career in sports management?”
He paused. “What I really wanted to do, if you want to know, was play ball.”
“Second base. Maybe shortstop. I used to be pretty good.”
“So what happened?”
“Aw, I don’t know. Didn’t have the nerve, I guess. This was a nice, steady gig, and the pay’s not too bad.”
“Not what you’d make playing baseball, though, even in the minors.”
“No,” he admitted, “but I’m healthy. You play professional sports, you’re going to trash your body, one way or another. Doesn’t take much to end your career.”
“I guess you’ve got to be in good shape to do massage,” I said.
“You better believe it,” he said, and demonstrated by applying his biceps to the muscles on the other side of my ribcage.
When he’d finished, he proposed that he put the ice pack back in the freezer and bring me some water to drink.
“You should drink a lot of water now,” he said.
“Why?” I said.
“Well, you know—you’ve released a lot of, you know, endorphins.”
“I thought endorphins were good things,” I said. “I don’t want to drown them, do I?”
“No, no, you need to, um, spread them around,” he said. “That’s what the water’s for. Helps the endorphins to circulate through your body.”
“Helps me piss ’em away, you mean,” I said.
“Trust me,” he said, picked up the ice pack and his briefcase and left the room.
He was gone a long time, so I was nearly asleep when he returned.
“Hank, let’s get you turned over and see if you can sit up,” he said, setting the little plastic bottle of water down on the night stand.
“I don’t want to sit up,” I said. “I want to sleep.”
“You ought to sit up and drink some water,” he said.
“Don’t want to,” I said. “You can’t make me.” I shut my eyes.
“Your funeral,” he said, and that was the last thing I remember until my cell phone woke me up.
“Hangsta,” said the voice on the phone.
“Oh, hey, Chris,” I said groggily. “’S up?”
“What’s up with you, man? One measly little appearance on national television and you’re, like, totally AWOL. Just remember: fame don’t last, dude. One of these days, when they toss you in the gutter and trample you on their way to the next superstar, you’ll be thinking, ‘Wonder what happened to my old pal Chris?’”
“How’d I look?”
“Damn. I was hoping you’d say I reminded you of Matt Damon or something.”
I tried a tentative turn on my side so that I could see the clock. It went pretty well. I felt a twinge, but it was hardly the teeth-rattling pain I’d felt earlier. That Dave—what a guy!
“Look at it this way, Hangmon. You don’t have Brittany Spears’s stage presence, but if you went head to head with her on Jeopardy, you’d eat her lunch.”
“Especially if the Final Jeopardy category was critical theory and not primetime television.”
“Damn straight. Good news is, when I asked Anita if she’d caught you on T.V., she went all pissy. You’re getting to her, man. You’re really getting to her. Bad news? I think your cat ran off with a lady of the evening. I saw him up on your fire escape with a Persian twice his size. He likes them big, doesn’t he?”
“Listen,” I said, “I probably won’t make it to basketball on Sunday. I’ve thrown my back out, and I don’t know how long I’m going to be stuck here.”
“No problema, man,” he said. “You know Jimmy Hernandez is dying to take your place.”
“Another thing. You know that bar I go to sometimes—Jake’s?”
“The one way out Tenth Street? Yeah, I know it.”
“My car’s in the parking lot, and my jacket’s hanging on a hook inside the door. Do you think you could ask Bonnie to let you into my place, get my spare set of keys from the top desk drawer, and go retrieve them?”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll ask Eddie to take me out there. He’s looking for any excuse not to work on the diss.”
We talked for a while longer. Finally, he said, “Well, enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame, man. But if you get tempted to move to the Solomons with your new buddies, ask yourself one question: if you were driving to the basket, would they set a pick on Nagley for you? You ask yourself that.”
I ordered room service, and a cheerful Pakistani guy named Hussein brought it to me and helped me sit up to eat. The pain in my back had settled down to a dull ache, thanks to the massage. I spent the rest of the day watching mindless daytime television and surfing the Web, activities so stimulating that I was asleep again when I was roused by a hand on my shoulder.
“Wake up, Hank,” Larry was saying.
“We’ve been bugged again, Hank,” Elvis said, holding out a hand to display three tiny disks like watch batteries. They were dripping wet, as if they’d just emerged from a bath. “How did this happen?”
I squinted at them, groggy. “I don’t know, man. I haven’t been out of bed all day. I’ve been sleeping and watching television and messing around on the computer.”
Something leapt a synapse in my brain and caused a chain reaction.
“Oh, shit,” I said. And I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed, until the tears curtained my cheek. I tried to tell them, but I couldn’t stop laughing.