the short story project


John Sheirer

Do You Know You’re Forty?

      Jack could bend his right hand pinkie finger out of joint and off to the side about ninety degrees. This trick could send people running away and covering their mouths like they are trying not to vomit. Jack knew that an otherwise responsible, forty-year-old man shouldn’t enjoy such antics so much. But he wasn’t ready to give up the reactions literally at his fingertip.

      Dr. Keller, Jack’s friendly orthopedist, sat across from him in the medical exam room and told him in a soft, sensitive voice, “You’ve torn away all of the ligaments. There’s not much left holding it together. Surgery would be a nice option if you want to regain most of the use of that finger.”

      The tone of Dr. Keller’s voice, which he must have practiced for months in medical school, so professional and caring, actually made Jack’s finger throb more. Between throbs, he wondered: What exactly constitutes “most of the use” of something as generally useless as a pinkie finger? Was it hitting those really high and/or low notes on the piano? Jack didn’t play. Displaying complete extension while holding your drinking glass at a formal dinner? Jack didn’t go to formal dinners. Assuring in-depth wax removal from a clogged ear? Maybe.

      This particular pinkie injury first happened about five years ago when Jack was playing basketball, his favorite sport. He reached up to knock down a pass while defending a fast break (playing defense—usually a mistake beyond age twenty-seven), and the ball sort of skidded off his hand at a weird angle while making a pinging sound. Jack didn’t feel the pain until he looked down and saw the top half of his pinkie finger pointing back toward his elbow like some kind of Picasso hitch-hiker. Hey, look at that, he thought, and then, boy-howdy, did the pain start.

      One of the athletic trainers at the gym told him not to twist the pinkie back into place (that thought honestly hadn’t occurred to Jack). The trainer mashed a bag of ice against Jack’s hand and told him to hold it above his head. Jack assumed this uncomfortable position had some medical purpose beyond showing the world his armpits. At the hospital emergency room, he sat around for two hours showing anyone who was interested his jigsaw finger. He really cheered up a couple of rowdy little kids who were waiting for news about their mother’s exhaustion attack. “Show my dad again, mister! Please show my dad your funky finger again!” they kept repeating as their father sank deeper into his ancient vinyl waiting-room chair, his hands glued to his forehead.

      After the x-rays came back showing no fracture, just a dislocated finger bone pointing in an impossible direction, the young emergency room doctor said, “I’ll be taking these to the next ortho conference.” Then he snapped Jack’s finger back in place and sent him home. “That’s gonna hurt tomorrow,” he said, handing Jack a prescription for Percocet (of which Jack took two and then hoarded the rest for years, just in case). The doctor was right. It hurt the next day, and the day after that, and the next one, and for the next five years.

      Jack’s pinkie is now pretty funny looking, to put it mildly. The top joint is very loose and just kind of dangles there. The middle joint is swollen and discolored and sticks out at a weird angle. For the last five years, He’s been slapping athletic tape around his pinkie finger and playing basketball. He has reinjured the annoying little digit about thirty times since then, usually playing defense. (Jack never learned to keep his hands to himself on that end of the floor.) Once he even hurt it twice in about five seconds, first jamming it into the bottom of the backboard while trying to block a shot, then smacking it against another player’s hard-muscled rear end while shaking it vigorously and saying “shitfuckhell” through clenched teeth.

      Despite Jack’s pinkie troubles, one advantage that he has is that he can shoot the ball left-handed. This skill grew out of an active childhood fantasy life. Jack read about a college player who broke his right arm, then played the next game with a cast on that arm while shooting the ball with his left. This was all the motivation he needed. In his fantasy, Jack broke his right arm just before half-time of the championship game, had it casted during intermission, then played the second half left-handed, leading his team to victory. Shooting through rain and sleet and snow at the basket he put up on a telephone pole in his yard, Jack scored on millions of left-handed lay-ups, hook shots, and long jumpers, each one dropping through the net for the winning basket as time expired and adoring fans mobbed the court to lift the injured hero onto their shoulders in celebration.

      Of course, Jack never broke his arm in a game. But the left-handed shot came in handy for more than just compensating for his right-hand pinkie. From close to the basket, Jack was just as good with either hand, often using the left to keep the ball away from shot-blockers who wanted to smack the oldish, slow, bad-fingered guy’s shot into another area code just for giggles. Sometimes when he plays at an unfamiliar court for the first time, he shoots all of his warm-up shots left-handed. Then, when the game starts, he fakes left, drives right, and scores on a right-handed layup out of reach of the confused, stumbling defender. And Jack can’t count the games of H-O-R-S-E that he has won over the years with left-handed free throws. Jack always found something wonderfully gratifying about watching a player six inches taller, fifteen years younger, and considerably more talented try to shoot a left-handed free throw for the first time in his life and miss by ten feet while looking wholly uncoordinated, perhaps for the first time in his athletic life.

      Even with the tape securely binding the finger, Jack can still pop it out of joint. And because he can’t seem to get it through his head that playing defense should be avoided at all cost, he’s even taken to using it to his advantage while guarding an opposing player. There’s one guy in particular, Andre, a sweet-natured twenty-year-old who thinks it’s really cool that an “old dude” like Jack is still “trying to play.” When Andre gets the ball and squares-up against him, Jack whispers, “Hey Andre,” then pops his finger out of joint, sending Andre into spasms of disgust. Andre then passes to someone else, and Jack has done his defensive job perfectly well for such an “old dude.”

      Dr. Keller told Jack that he could get his pinkie fixed with a simple operation. Simple for him, I’m sure, Jack thought. Dr. Keller asked Jack how everything else was doing.

      “My body works like a well-oiled machine. The Exxon Valdez.”

      Like everything else about him, Dr. Keller’s laugh was subdued. “Good one,” he said. “Seriously, any other problems?”

      “Well, there’s my shoulders,” Jack admitted. “No actual injuries that I can remember, but they click and grind as I lift and lower my arms. Sometimes when I roll over in bed at night, it feels like I’m getting nails hammered into my shoulders—sort of a non-joint-specific Christ complex, I guess.”

      Dr. Keller lifted and lowered one of Jack’s arms like a chicken wing, listening to more snap, crackle, pop than a cereal commercial.

      “Let me know if these get worse,” he says. “We might want to get that looked at.”

      “Aren’t you looking at it now?” Jack asked.

      “What else?” Dr. Keller said, moving on.

      Jack shrugged (ouch) and moved on. He had arthroscopic surgery on the left knee in his late twenties. His (now ex-) wife and Jack used to play tennis. She was a far better player than Jack, and their games usually ended with her being mad at Jack. She’d usually win, then accuse Jack of taking it easy on her. He wasn’t taking it easy—he just wasn’t as good as she was. But if Jack was lucky enough to win, she’d be mad at him for being lucky. Damned if you do and burn in hell forever if you don’t.

      One day, she decided that she needed to work on her drop shot. So she hit Jack little dinkers that just barely cleared the net for about two hours. He dutifully returned them, straining his left knee again and again each time. The next day, he woke up with a cantaloupe-sized knee, then just a few short years later, he was divorced. Coincidence? Jack sometimes wonders. He actually got some satisfaction from blaming the injury on his ex-wife’s obsessive behavior—his own bitterness easing the pain more than Percocet ever could.

      Jack told Dr. Keller about the knee, omitting any mention of tennis or his ex-wife.

      “Hurt any more than usual?” Dr. Keller asked.

      “Not any more than usual,” Jack replied.

      “Well, we’ll have to keep an eye on it, I guess,” Dr. Keller said, nodding in the general direction of Jack’s knees. “How’s the other one?”

      Jack’s right knee has never given him a moment’s trouble, god bless it.

      “Anything else?” Dr. Keller asked.

      “I forget simple words sometimes,” Jack admitted.

      “I’m not that kind of doctor,” Dr. Keller said. “But I can refer you if you need.”

      “Not yet,” Jack said. “But I’ll keep that in mind.”

      Saving the worst for last, Jack told Dr. Keller about something new. At first, he thought he had somehow bruised his right heel. He kept playing basketball for a few weeks, and the “bruise” eventually became almost unbearable. Then, just as he was sprinting back on defense, he felt a pop in the bottom of his foot. Jack limped for the rest of the game and actually did a reasonably good job at all facets of the game that didn’t involve running or jumping, which is a lot more of the game at forty than it is at twenty.

      After long sessions that night alternating ice and heat, Jack still felt like he had a fork stuck in the bottom of his foot. After doing some research on some sports medicine web sites, Jack learned a new term: “plantar fasciitis.” It’s a strain or, as in Jack’s case, a tear of the ligaments that join the heel to the ball of the foot.

      Confirming Jack’s diagnosis, Dr. Keller told him to get some arch supports for his shoes and showed him some little stretching exercises he can do to ease the pain a bit. Jack tried the exercises, and, of course, they hurt.

      “The treatment options,” Dr. Keller said, “consist of doing nothing or having surgery.”           “Extremes can be so much fun,” Jack said, “but only in moderation.”

      “And by doing nothing,” Dr. Keller said, “I mean for a considerable amount of time.”

      “How long?” Jack asked.

      “Until your foot feels better,” he said.

      “How long will that be?” Jack asked.

      “Let’s just take our time and see,” Dr. Keller replied. Jack didn’t like the sound of that.

      Dr. Keller spent the next few minutes writing notes in Jack’s file. It’s a thick file. There’s a stack of pages in it twice as thick as the finger Jack could bend sideways. He tried to peek at the notes like he was trying to cheat on a math test, but Dr. Keller blocked his view with his hand. No misshapen fingers, Jack noticed. Finally, Dr. Keller closed the folder and looked at Jack.

      “Do you know you’re forty?” he asked him. He was serious. Jack took in the implication and hung his head like a child who has done something bad forty times. “Have you thought about taking up cycling or walking or golf?”

      From the time Jack turned twenty, his friends had been trying to get him to play golf. He actually lost many basketball-playing friends over the years as they gave up hoops for the links. But Jack refused.

      “Golf is not a sport,” he told Dr. Keller. “Golf is a board game. A giant board game where people knock their game pieces into holes on a huge, grass-covered board. Any man who gives up a sport like basketball for a board game like golf has given up being an athlete of any kind and should be ashamed of himself if he thinks he’s playing a sport.”

      “How about chess?” Dr. Keller said with a chuckle.

      “I’d like to keep playing basketball,” Jack replied, not telling Dr. Keller that he was his high school’s chess champion.

      “Well,” Dr. Keller said, rising from his chair and hefting Jack’s big folder.

      Jack noticed for the first time how tall Dr. Keller was, well over six feet. “Have you ever played basketball,” Jack asked.

      “A little, when I was a kid,” he replied. “I wasn’t very good.”

      “What do you do now?” Jack asked.

      “My wife and I have been kayaking for a few years,” Dr. Keller said. “Maybe you could give that a try.”

      Jack raised his eyebrows. “Kayaking?” he mused, imagining the wind blowing a spray of water into his face on a crisp fall afternoon. Even with his mangled finger, he could still grasp a paddle. It certainly wasn’t basketball, but it was intriguing. “Maybe.” 

      “I wish you luck,” Dr. Keller said with a slight smile. Just before he closed the exam room door, he said, “I’d tell you to knock on wood, but I’m afraid you’d hurt your finger.”