Robb White: The Neurosurgeon’s Rat (fiction)

My Southern legitimacy is purely honorary (two degrees from U. of Arkansas, 1985).

The Neurosurgeon’s Rat

The neurosurgeon grimaced at the sight of the family clustered in the waiting room.  They refused to leave the waiting room, according to the supervising ICU nurse at the desk.

They reminded him of street people gathered outside the Emperor Jade Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. He and his wife, the lone tourists in the street at the time, were the center of their unabashed attention. He recalled the intense humidity, the broken air-conditioner in their hotel, the nausea induced by a hot lump of grease in his stomach from the hotel’s cuisine.  He’d tried to drown the fire with Tiger beer. Later, at the Cu Choi tunnels, the guide explained in sing-song but passable English how the Cong had outmaneuvered the Americans by digging directly below their headquarters.

His French-Canadian wife turned to him and asked: “Did he say ‘oeuvre’?  Quelle work?”

“‘Outwitted,’” he meant,” he’d replied at the time and immediately doubled over to vomit.  His head was splitting from the pain of retching.  

They never did go down into the tunnels.  The ride back to the hotel in a motorbike taxi, the ubiquitous Honda om, that sped in every direction around Ho Chi Minh City, like disoriented bees, was too much.  He spent the rest of the trip sitting on the toilet or moaning in bed with sheets taped over the windows. 

His dreams were terrifying—worse than when he’d been a twenty-three-year-old medic for an Army battalion positioned near Khe San. He’d seen death from every direction. Shrapnel that obliterated faces and limbs, Kalashnikov rounds that punched through tissue. At the end of his tour, they assigned him to a unit that used the Tunnel Rats, those Cong-sized volunteers who crawled through mazes of tunnels in the darkness none wider than shoulder-width. 

He’d treated wounds ranging from poisonous spider and snake bites through septic infections from punji sticks—sharpened bamboo placed in pits dug beneath the tunnels to the worst head wounds from gunshots. The one that haunted his dreams long after Johns Hopkins was a dead boy from Texas, hauled feet-first from a tunnel. He brushed away the clotted dirt from his throat and saw the cherry-red semicircle. Fuckin’ Cong, the top sergeant said, looking on, you come to an opening, they pull your head through and slice your throat . . .  

“His Brocus Area was severely impacted by the fall in his driveway,” the surgeon repeated. 

“Broke his what?”

“It’s called Broca’s Area,” he said. “It controls speech and language acquisition.”

“That why Curt been talking in a foreign language?”

His patient Curtis Eugene Rhodes had fallen in his driveway and cracked his head, damaging the temporal lobe and had been unable to speak anything but garbled English.  But his family believed Curtis had miraculously acquired an ability to speak in a foreign language despite the fact Rhodes had never studied a foreign language, never traveled outside Clay County, and his education had stopped short of a high-school diploma.

The one he loathed was the matriarch of the clan.  Every explanation he provided drew a sneer or a look of scorn. He knew these were simple people and he tried to avoid jargon, but the old harridan’s attitude rubbed him raw. 

“The brain is complex,” the neurosurgeon said, trying once more to explain how a simple fall could interrupt the brain’s circuitry and garble the speech.

“It sounds like Ay-mish Dutch to me,” the biggest member of the family said, stepping forward.  A couple of the family nodded in agreement behind him.

Ay-mish, Amish. High German, not Dutch.  He recognized the bearded cousin from his frequent photo in the Clay County Register—a notorious deer poacher rumored to be the biggest meth cook in the county. His name—what was his name?—was usually followed by the phrase “is no stranger to the police.” 

“We should git another damned doctor is what,” the old lady said.

He swiveled his head to take her in, loathing her yet magnetized; he assessed the silver outline of a red razorback embossed on a spotted sweatshirt like something out of Flannery O’Connor. His own maternal grandmother, a reticent, dignified woman, had come from tiny Coalton, West Virginia.  The man took up more space, challenging him like a Neanderthal. The neurosurgeon thought of alien paleontologists digging him out of a peat bog and exclaiming over the extraordinary find of a modern Americanus humanus. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the grandma on her cell phone in a corner, talking loudly, one finger plugged in her ear to drown out noise out of habit. . . Hopeless, hopeless.  

He turned to leave. 

“You ain’t leavin’ here, Doc, without no got-damn explanation, you,” the big cousin said.

“Excuse me, sir,” the surgeon said. “I do have other patients.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” the cousin said. 

A frisson rippled up the neurosurgeon’s back. He stood still, remembering—what was it?  At the last second, he recalled the cousin’s first name:  Roman—the name itself a grotesque parody of civilization in the man looming in front of him.

Then it hit him like a fist:  that memory from Khe San.  When they pulled the dead Texan from the tunnel entrance by a rope tied to his feet.  He recalled the body emerging from the intestinal, foul-smelling tunnel into brutal sunlight, the oppressive humidity. The shoulder patch of a smiling yellow rat giving the world the finger, the red semicircle of the boy’s throat scabbed and clotted with dirt from deep in the earth. The Latin motto beneath the patch the Army had awarded these men, so few of whom ever came home:  Non Gratum Anus Rodentum.

The neurosurgeon turned back to the family. Their hostile stares bored through him.

“I’m sorry,” he said; “forgive me. Let me see,” he said, if I can explain myself a little better to you’all. . .”  The beloved idiom of his youth came flooding back, a sob caught in his throat, and he smiled as if to embrace the entire clan staring back at him.