JUST LIKE ME
by RON RIEKKI
ot at all,” I said, “I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I like it.”
The doctor left the room.
Tiny dots. A Sunday afternoon in some nameless place. Making tiny dots.
You’d think X marks the spot, but we tend to prefer a circle.
Think of surgery as a marriage. Scalpel and body. A consummation. Devoutly to be wished.
You start with one dot, hold the marker for a second and move to the next spot.
For awhile there, they banned markers. Afraid they would transfer bacteria from one patient to the next. But Sharpies, they found, have an alcohol-based solution, which kills germs. So it’s very safe. No harm done.
This is the fifth time I’ve done this.
Well, the thousandth or so if you count when I’ve done this professionally. But lately I prefer alternative medicine.
That’s why I came to Guangzhou.
They call it Gun-zoo. A mix of weaponry and zoology. The locals make exaggerated Mafia claims. Truth is, I haven’t seen a gun here once. Back in the States, I graduated from Emory. Trust me, I’ve seen guns in the ATL. But not in Guangzhou.
I walk the alleys here. Midnight. Feel completely safe.
The day I arrived, in fact, the newspaper cover was a photo of a man shot in the head by police. He’d tried to rob a store with a handgun. The police sent a message. The newspaper sent an even bigger message: No guns here. Only safety for its people. I liked that.
I came initially to inspect, to see what it’s like in a second world country and was fascinated that the ambulances were empty, how little they seemed to be used. There were no medical supplies on board. Just a bench. An uncomfortable bench.
I sat in with a doctor for a day. He had a line outside of his office that never stopped. It got down to as few as seven and up to as many as fifty. He spent about a minute with each patient. Maybe two. They would come in, take off their shirt or pants—depending on where the pain was—and then slowly spin in a circle. Then he would give a diagnosis, which, if my translation was correct, tended to be the avoidance of cold liquids.
But what particularly intrigued me was the sheer capitalism.
Anyone who says China is still a communist country is an idiot. China makes the U.S. look like Karl Marx runs it. China’s discovery of free enterprise has been voracious. It’s like they’re thirsty for money. They want to catch up. To surpass. Significantly.
Similar to NYC nightclubs, patients could jump to the front of the line by simply slipping yuan to the doctor’s assistant. Then they could stay longer, ask more questions, get medicine, any medicine, with simple RMB. And I mean, any medicine.
The doctor had so much money by the end of the day that it filled a small bucket hidden to the side of his desk. He threw the money in it like it was meaningless. A garbage pail bank.
The money, all untraceable. None taxable.
He told me the entire country of China was a republic of the untraceable.
He asked me how many people were here.
I said, “A billion or so.”
“More,” he said.
“Isn’t it 1.3 billion? To be exact.”
“More,” he said.
“Closer to 1.4?”
“More,” he said.
“Two billion,” he said.
He could tell it wasn’t registering. The number was too large.
“Let me tell you something,” the doctor said, “Sit back.”
I followed his orders, relaxed.
“About half of the patients you’ve seen today, maybe more, they do not exist. Do you understand ‘do not exist’?”
“They do not exist on paper. They exist in real life. Did you see them?”
His eyes were intent on me. I looked at his coat, the color of bones.
“1.3 billion people—that is a joke. That is a very funny joke. Do you get the joke?”
“Two billion,” he said. “One time, if you want, I will take you to a town that does not exist. An entire town.”
Days later, he took me there. A three-hour drive. People who were not people who were people.
We sat outside a house. A shack. It felt recycled. The sound of something chirping. A hum of chirping. Almost electrical. Constant. Like a razor being operated.
He told me that in China, anyone can disappear in a moment. He told me I could disappear. He said he could disappear, and come back. He said that in China everything is magic. Including the medicine.
I coughed. The cough had no echo. Swallowed by the cicadas. I said, “It feels like a ghost could be right there, right in front of us.”
He told me not to talk of ghosts. He said that in China if you talk of ghosts, people start to wonder if you are a ghost.
“I’m not a ghost,” I said. I coughed, like someone sick, someone who had a ghost-life in his near future.
“Allergies?” he said. He asked if I was drinking cold water. He told me nothing cold. Ever again. At least when I was with him. I needed heat. He went in the shack. I heard talking. Arguing. Laughing. Whispering. He came out, gave me a jar. Inside was something green and alive and dead and black. He insisted I swallow. First he examined my tongue “for the condition of the Qi.” He said, “Your digestion is bad. Thickness on your tongue. Swallow.”
I swallowed. It tasted like barn. I had just eaten Earth.
He took me to another house, a neighbor, a mile away. We walked down an anorexic path that snaked like earthquake cracks. He said the walk would be good for me, that walking saves more lives than any pharmaceutical.
We got to a house made of bamboo where there were no doors and the sun set with such quickness that it scared me. The owner sat with us, in the dark, never speaking. I wondered if he’d gotten up, left. He didn’t seem to have a presence.
“Why are you here?” asked the doctor.
We sat in the falling dark. In a dark that didn’t exist.
I couldn’t see.
He told me a story about a boy who woke up without eyes; he told me of the woman who kidnapped him and drugged him. He said that when they first met, she said to the boy, “You have nothing to worry about, I won’t gouge your eyes out.” When the child awoke, he couldn’t see. Because he only had sockets where his eyes had once been.
He said that in China there are 1.5 million people needing transplants. He said that they always need hearts and livers, kidneys and corneas.
I tried to see him through the black. It seemed as if my own eyes were gone.
Electricity did not exist anymore. Not here.
I leaned my neck upwards.
The stars were white melanoma.
“If you ever had someone,” he said, his voice trailing off, a pathway to nothing.
“Someone who’d be honorable enough to give an organ . . .”
I tried to connect the dots, to trace the Big Dipper.
“Kidney perhaps,” he said, “Or heart.”
I wondered what animals were in China, what reptiles, what insects. I lifted my feet from the dirt, cradled my legs into my chest. We stared at the poem that is the sky for almost an hour.
We stayed in that house for almost a week. Gave free exams. The doctor was like that. Kind. He gave free medicine. In exchange for stories. For meals. Rice and tongue. Rice and liver. Rice and ear.
We returned to Guangzhou. I didn’t return to the States.
I stayed in China. A long time.
Long enough to make enemies.
Five. To be exact.
Four of them had very bad things happen to them.
It’s unfortunate what falls on people, the collapsing of life, the failures so common to the world. The New Testament is filled with mistakes. History is made of errors.
I was assisting with one now.
A person can go into surgery for one thing, but simple marker spots can be erased—sanitizer, acetone, butter, simple water and salt. So many ways to erase.
And then you can pick any new spot on the body. You can choose from a hundred different surgeries for the patient. A person can come in for a diverticulectomy and leave with a splenectomy. A tonsillectomy can become a cardiectomy.
When you choose, it’s smart to pick the common surgeries. Surgeries done every day. In the U.S., in Columbus, you might do one surgery in a day. In China, the doctors do five, ten, twenty, fifty. They get very good at it. They get much more practice than in the U.S. In China, they can do everything quickly. Painlessly.
So far, I’ve chosen an appendectomy, a cholecystectomy, a colectomy, and a hysterectomy.
The doctor now calls me “Tommy.” He spells it “-tomy.” I’d tell you my real name, but I don’t exist anymore.
The doctor says I’m doing great things for the world.
The dots, I’ve noticed, sometimes remind me of the stars in that town.
I would tell you the name of the town, but it doesn’t exist.
I would tell you the name of the patient, but she doesn’t exist.
Soon she’ll be a ghost.
Just like me.
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