I have a little invisible imp on my shoulder. Everyone has one, whether or not you admit it. But mine is kinda different, he’s especially mischievous and I’ve grown quite fond of him. His name is Gus, a nickname for Gusano, or worm in Spanish — what you find in the bottom of a tequila bottle, if you have the guts or the raw stupidity to tank the burning fire just to feel the slimy gusano slide around on your tongue, that is. It’s a real kick–which is what I got the first time I drank too much of that damn-awful concoction. I got me a boot-to-the-butt and I flew, with arms flailing, down past three dusty, rickety wooden steps under the blaring, neon green and red sign advertising Jose’s Cantina.
“You should’ve stuck with drinking beer, jackass!” came the raspy, dictatorial voice. That heckle was the first time Gus became audible.
“You TOLD me to…” I didn’t care, we were finally celebrating our graduation after a long, dismal eight weeks of Air Force basic training. They don’t call this Lackland for nothing.
“Goodbye San Antonio, hello Vietnam!” It was the start of a great life and I knew I wouldn’t be alone. Gus would be with me. I’ve always felt something there, something murmuring inside my head, urging me on, telling me that there is no limit to what I can do, something irrepressible, deep in me. Now that I had left home and finished BMT, I felt freedom in my soul, freedom so profound I could have happily backstroked through an ocean of gusano. I must have looked like an idiot, exuberantly backstroking dust in my drunken stupor outside the cantina that night.
“I’m never backing down, now my life is my own! Nothing’s gonna stop me. I’ll get everything I want in life or die trying.” Maybe I had too much wanting in my life until now, feeling pinned down by a lack of opportunity, a lack of money, a trailer full of siblings all like baby chicks with open beaks screeching to be fed. It was distressing watching Mom get home late at night, exhausted and cranky from having been on her feet all day, serving coffee and hamburgers at Ned’s. Dad left after their fifth child was born, he found someone else.
“Damn dad, wherever he is.” Well, having no f***ing father is better than having a spineless one. I decided long ago that I would never have a kid; my freedom was too valuable. I knew in the depths of my soul that there was more to life than our trailer on this dead-end road in the Hill District. I knew I would break away as soon as I could, and the quickest way out was the military.
“When I turn eighteen, I’m outta here!” No one wanted to join — it was a death sentence, Vietnam was on. Maybe that’s why Gus became real. I needed to be fearless to face death. I may or may not survive Vietnam, but it was certain, inevitable death in Pittsburgh.
That was the day when we actually met, Gus and I, on that first official night as a soldier, in my tequila-infused state. And since then, brazen, roly-poly Gus has been hanging out behind my collar, whispering into my ear, lusting for life. We’ve been everywhere together since then, whenever I needed him. We’ve been through the highest highs and lowest lows together, always together, especially when I needed him.
It was no different this day, high in the wooded hills above Castle Rock, Colorado. I was on a leisure mountain biking trek with Niki, my new fiancée, to limber up for my next 50K road race coming up in a month.
“Hey! Check out her form!” Gus whistled into my ear. I glanced back to watch as Niki’s bosom bounced animatedly while she pedaled along the uneven terrain.
“Come on, Cutie, just about half way there.” Niki wore a light-pink snug Danskin top that echoed the softness of her blond hair and made her fullness more inviting and alive with every bump on the trail. She was clean looking, not like the countless women Gus and I sought out late at night in back alleys overseas.
It was a cool, blue-sky morning here in Colorado as we zipped between Ponderosa pines and boulders–some the size of refrigerators, others the size of a footstool still too massive to budge even with a crowbar. We followed the trail arching around the prominent, upward spiraling, massive red-rock, castle-like butte that gave the area its name.
As had happened countless times before, an inevitability for any mountain biking fanatic, I hit a blind patch. The trail before me simply disappeared just a short distance ahead, over a very slight rise, only seconds away.
“Okay! Right? Left? Forward? Which way Gus?!” I wasn’t panicked, no, this is the thrill of off-road biking! A decision had to be made at the split second, the precipice in time, that the path unfolds. And that’s part of the skill and thrill of mountain biking, and that’s what I’m good at, making snap decisions with precision.
“Here we go!” I said in my head.
“Go left!” Gus screamed, but only because he already saw the path going left.
“Damn!” My eyes instantly traced the tire-penciled path to the left as I caught the air over the rise, but I committed my front wheel to the other direction and saw that a tree and a boulder were going to be a pain in the ass to contend with when I hit dirt.
“Oh shit!” It wasn’t unusual for me to be injured; I was more worried about my priceless custom-made titanium frame bike. It was a pain in the ass to order, cost a lot, and would be a pain in the ass to fix, and mostly, I needed it for my next race. The pain it would take to fix my bike would be worse than any pain to my body.
Plus, as my ex-wife used to say with admiration, “You have an exceptionally high tolerance for pain. If you were a woman you would be the exception in labor.”
Pain is just an irritating part of life for me. Dealing with the limits of the human body is like dealing with that brain-dead Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through server who wouldn’t sell me chicken even though there were still five minutes left before closing time. I get my chicken every time. And I’ve faced way worse situations hundreds of times before, like every single time our Huey flew a mission. This was nothing compared to shrapnel that had to be dug out of my back without anesthesia in Nam. The shrapnel scars on my chest, arms, legs are my hard-earned trophies, my badges for flying as a rescue medic in Vietnam. Some of it’s still lodged in me, I can feel it. Like the piece behind my right eye.
“And they have the nerve to say I’m legally blind,” I think as the wheels in my head spin my life before me while the wheels of my bike hit ground.
“Bob!” Niki’s eyes bulged. She scrambled off her bike toward me, so I jumped up in a flash, dusted off quickly, and grabbed my bike handle before Niki could do the “Are you okay?” routine.
“I’m okay,” I interrupted her and looked away to distract her by bouncing my bike to test its frame, but her eyes scanned me anyway to assess my injuries.
“Part of her medical training I suppose,” I consoled myself so her concern doesn’t get under my skin.
“Just a few abrasions, not even a strawberry, Hon.”
“Are you okay?” I guess some predictions are inevitable.
“Fine, lets go!” My left side caught the brunt of the fall but I popped back on my bike and was determined to shake off the incident as I sped away.
A hot shower melted the tension in my muscles when I got home, and of course, I needed to wash off the dirt and clean out the cuts.
“Guess I hit a bit hard.” I rocked my head, slowly side to side, feeling a little light-headed. I had to limber up because Niki was coming over for yoga and dinner. Yoga was always nice with Niki. She went real slow and taught me a few things beyond Downward Facing Dog. She had an earthy smell; I’m not sure if it was the incense, but I liked everything about her when we did yoga together. But my body was tight, not responding to my attempts at stretching. It would be better to just rest tonight.
That Tuesday, sitting at my desk at Raytheon was a blur.
My headache and dizziness hadn’t really left; they were more of an irritation, so I ignored them until my secretary, Anna, handed me the stack of my daily briefings and gawked at me, mouth open.
“Bob, you okay? What’s going on?” Guess Anna could read me well enough; she knew there was something wrong. I knew she usually cloaked her concern because she knows that, for me, admitting to pain was weakness. And I’ve never been weak.
“It’s my head, got Advil?” I jerked open my desk drawer to see if, by chance, I had left any there.
“I think I have some Excedrin in my purse, be back in a minute.”
The dull pain in my head never really did go away. I just needed to rest my head for a minute, so I cradled it between my hands, the weight fully on my elbows propped on my desk.
“Just close your eyes for a minute.” Gus was back, whispering into my ear.
The next time my eyes opened, I saw a hazy sea of grey with white. White above me, white around me, white covering me as I lay still, wrapped like a mummy. Even the muted murmuring images wore white as they floated around me.
“What’s going on?” My eyes wanted to stay closed but my brain nagged me to make sense of the situation.
“Where am I?” My voice carried no sound.
“What did they give me?” I wonder, my heart beat faster, almost a sounding alarm. I try to pull myself and reach for the silver rail, cold to the touch, but have no strength.
“Do I hurt?” My mental assessment began. “No, there’s no pain.” Voices, getting louder, came towards me. Someone leaned over and took my hand in his, warm, firm, and a bit clammy.
“You’re at Swedish Medical Center, Bob.” His face is close, I cannot feel his breath when he speaks. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” My voice made no sound. Was this a dream? I looked toward the hovering image and searched the blurry face in front of me for answers.
“Bob, you’ve been here for a day. We’re here to take care of you.” I heard the voice but could not feel his skin as he patted my hand. “Can you move your right hand?”
I struggled to nod, anger rising in me, “Yes.” Still no sound came from my lips.
“It’s a good thing your office was just a few minutes away, Bob. You’ve had a stroke.”
“Bullshit!” …Gus was back on my shoulder. And the fire that got me this far started to burn in my chest, a deep red feverish, unrelenting flame of determination.
Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 313: Creative Writing