Excerpt from the novel

My Life as a Cadaver

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The isles of Langerhans

It was a blazing hot afternoon and I was sweating profusely with all the windows buzzed all the way down, frantically looking for another place to pull over to relieve myself for the fifth time that morning. San Francisco is a tough place to find a public restroom – I have no idea how the homeless get by without pissing in the alleys. But it’s aneven worse place to find a parking spaces when you really need one. My fallback was to stop at a hotel and dash into the lobby for relief, then find a water fountain or a place to buy a soda, maybe two sodas, because they went down fast in this weather. Problem was, the rides off hotel taxi lines are usually shorts, and aren’t worth waiting for, unless you think you’re going to get lucky with an airport. Better to play the dispatcher between toilet breaks, but I was still losing time and money with every pit stop. I thought I was going to lose my mind. There was a white zone in front of a Chinese restaurant and I grabbed it. I didn’t care whether they yelled at me in Cantonese for using the facilities without ordering a plate of garlic bok choy. It was an emergency.

Back behind the wheel of my battered yellow Plymouth Volare, I made up my mind to take time off and get out of the city as soon as possible because pissing and drinking and pissing again was making me miserable, making me angry, making me crazy. I feared the stress of driving the cab and the stress of living with Satomi was going to kill me. I started seriously smoking again, not rolling up the occasional Drum tobacco on Zigzag paper anymore but actually buying packs of Marlboro Lights, something I’d vowed never to do again. Each one was going to be the last, and I imagined the “light” version was less harmful than the regulars. I was deluding myself, trying to smoke away the premonition of doom, of incomprehensible death by urine.

It started happening a couple days earlier, out of the blue. I was recovering from the worst cold I could remember, a cold that choked off my breath with gobs of mucous and gave me terrible headaches. It wasn’t long after I’d passed the stage of coughing up thick gunk when the parched throat and the unquenchable thirst began. Then the inexorable demands of the bladder. I got edgy, irritated and started raising my voice at Satomi, finally yelling at her to stop blaming me for her misery and acting like a spoiled teenager. It was as if she believed I’d dragged her home to America against her will. She was beautiful, funny and extraordinarily talented and I still loved her very deeply, but how can you live with someone who does everything she can to make you give up on her? I had to find a way to get her out of my house, as gently and compassionately as possible. I had to get free of the oppressive burden of responsibility for her. I had to get rid of this terrible, virulent cold. I had to take a piss. Then drink.

As I turned out of the white zone I decided I’d tell Yellow I was sick and needed time off. I knew they’d say they couldn’t guarantee I’d get a regular shift when I got back, but I had to let the pressure out. I remembered seeing an old movie about the first ever brain operation, where a nineteenth-century surgeon innovated the technique of drilling a hole through the skull to release the pressure on the brain.Something trapped inside the patient’s head whistled out like some sort of evil gas escaping after the surgeon lanced a cerebral boil. Evidently the procedure worked and the patient stood up, weeping with relief, his agony lifted. I wondered whether I needed to sign up for something like that as I squirmed behind the wheel of my cab. The torture had to stop. Then the answer came to me. I needed to find the cure in the mountains and the waters of the Sierra. I’d go backpacking and hike into the high country until I returned to peace.

Satomi had a friend from her ESL class at City College who expressed interest in going backpacking during a recent dinner. He was French, as were a number of Satomi’s friends. She was an artist and had somehow tapped into a vein of French expatriates in San Francisco. Diderot and his annoying American wife were among them. He was a caricature of the lugubrious French intellectual, a man who seemed like the last person who’d want to go along on a camping trip. The two of us never hit it off – it was if we intuitively decided not to like each other. But I owe my life to Diderot.

My day was an unmitigated disaster already, and I was halfway through my shift without earning enough to make my gates and gas. At that rate I’d end up paying the company for the privilege of driving a cab. I was snared in a hellish Sisyphean trap: Immediately after stopping at the Chinese restaurant to urinateI was thirsty again, and knew drinking more fluid would make me need to flush it out in no time. I was resentful and angry with my passengers, who disrupted my haywire metabolic rhythm. I yelled at a poor old lady who must have been in her late 80s. She wore a heavy black wool coat in the summer heat and demanded I drive her three blocks up Nob Hill. She forced me to stop before the meter passed the $2.90 drop and she demanded her ten cents in change in a surly voice.

I didn’t use to hate my passengers. I was able to tolerate the cloying tourists looking for postcard locales. I was able to restrain my contempt when I ferried pompous men in designer suits from the financial district to overpriced restaurants and they insisted I take nonsensical wrong-way routes to their destinations, smug carpetbaggers from New York who either thought they knew the City better than the natives or suspected I was ripping them off on the meter by taking the long way around. I was entertained by all the local characters, drunks and lunatics who hopped into the back of my cab, telling me absurd stories about lost loves or encounters with the law. On the night shift I prospered thanks to gay men who talked about taking poppers in the back seat as I shuttled them between Polk Street and the Castro to the baths south of Market. They were the most generous tippers and always surprised me by speaking to me kindly and with respect and sympathy, as if struggling taxi drivers like me were kindred sprits in a cruel world. I was young and ignorant about the ways of city life, and driving the cab gave me a crash education in the grubby reality of the world. I eavesdropped on intimate conversations between men and women and listened to the sounds of heavy petting and moaning in the back seat, wondering whether I was invisible to them or a crucial audience as they put on their show.

Today, I loathed all my passengers. Disaster was near. It suddenly occurred to me, in my heightened state of misery, that I hadn’t had a bowel movement forfour days, and things started to make sense. My colon was putting mighty pressure on my bladder, causing all these problems. Backpacking in the Sierras was bound to be the ultimate laxative that would cure my urban distress.

I drove directly into a traffic trap on Mason Street, the kind of trick corner that more experienced drivers had learned to avoid. I was in the correct lane to turn left onto a one-way street, but I didn’t see the little sign that said No Left Turn Allowed. When I rolled around the corner a motorcycle cop was waiting for me. He wore leather riding breeches and he didn’t waste any time in thrusting a $20 ticket in my face and saying, “sign this, sir.” I was already furious at the curse of my bladder, and now lost control of my wits, swearing at him as I handed him back the ticket in indignation. I was stupid enough to get out of the car and face off with the cop, yelling about deceit and entrapment. I will not sign this fucking ticket, I shouted. There was a little flap of skin on my neck that I scratched now and it started bleeding. The police officer stood motionless, like a mountain, and calmly informed me that I was under arrest and that he would escort me down to the Hall of Justice where I might cool off with an evening in jail, a guest of the City. “I’ve had enough of cabbies like you,” he said in a low tone. His hand was touching the hilt of his gun.

It all caved in on me at that moment. I watched myself in horror as I bowed before the cop apologizing in tears as I said please, please, I’ve been sick, I can’t stop pissing and it’s driving me mad. I lost my head and I’m sorry. He handed back the ticket, which I signed and said thank you, thank you. Then he dismounted, approached me and leaned his head toward my face. I was confused. After all this he now suspected me of drunk driving. “I can smell it, the sweet breath,” he said, his growl softening. “You’d better check your blood sugar, buddy. And your ketones. My daughter has it too.”

What the hell was he talking about, I thought. What does he mean by blood sugar? What the hell are ketones?.

The cop roared off on his bike. I got in my cursed taxicab and tried to think of a strategy to find a place with a bathroom where I could also pick up a coke and maybe a fare. Cold and shaking, I turned the vehicle around and headed to the St. Francis Hotel. I resolved to call Satomi’s French friend when I got home. We’re going to the mountains.

***

The coroner realized he needed to visit the bathroom himself and quench his own thirstwith a tall glass of water.He could also use a dose of Tennessee whiskey to clear the cache of his mental circuitry. Barlow’s crisis had rattled him. What a fool that man is, rutting around in his own misery and stepping deeper and deeper into it. The coroner returned to the desk and turned the page to the next section.

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Copyright  © 2015 Karl Schoenberger

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