Argument with Orthopedics by Alex Mouw

I just want to fix people’s limbs, Luke says
when I ask about the purpose of his residency,
and the word just rings like a finishing nail
hammered against concrete. It’s evening, no
streetlights in Rochester, Minnesota where
we sit together for the first time in years.
We drink beer until we’re immune to its smell
settling like fog on the screened-in porch. I ask
if he wonders about the limits of his trade,
the ignorance hemming his bleached coat
of expertise? A doctor needs to be cocky
in order to survive. You have to believe
you know it all, he says as the maple leans
to one side in open-armed compliance
with the wind. Earlier today he led me
through the hospital, floor after floor
of obscure labs and gleaming operating rooms.
Outside the cafeteria, a sculpture by Rodin
stood hunched, its mendicant hands outstretched,
its eyes hollowed out, coarse bulges of bronze flesh
scattered as randomly as tumors. Supposed to be
a big deal, he said, pointing as we walked onward.
Down the hall, a hand-illuminated Bible lay open
under glass, a ring-tailed monkey in the margin
reaching to place an o in the gospel where a monk,
his wrists frayed by weeks of careful work,
had missed it. Last winter my own limbs were cut open
by an orthopedic surgeon forty years Luke’s senior.
I remember that doctor said, ten-percent chance
we make things worse, and I remember
he arrived late to appointments, then left
without answering my questions. But
on the morning of surgery, he asked my permission
to pray, petitioned for steady hands
that I might move again without pain.
He crossed himself as he whispered Amen,
and moments later I was under. In this twilight,
Luke’s eyes, wide and dark, make him look too young
for surgery. My nerves crackle, probably permanent,
the doctor said, but anything can happen. The yard
teems with fireflies and the shadow of a raccoon.
Luke rises, passes into the lit kitchen
for another drink, then returns and confesses
that his days are boring: body after body
and their mind-numbing rehearsal of symptoms,
prescriptions already given by a textbook. I’ve been there,
I say. It took six doctors to get me even an incomplete
diagnosis. He replies, what patients think they feel
and what’s real rarely align. I waste half my time
listening to them, then I come home to study. The night
passes from unshined steel to pitch, and maybe it’s a mercy
we can’t see one another’s faces. Rain begins
to fall on the flat porch roof, and every drop slaps
the corrugated metal like a fresh complaint.

Alex Mouw‘s poetry, creative nonfiction, and scholarship have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern ReviewWest BranchRuminateTwentieth-Century Literature, and other venues. He lives in St. Louis.