Essay Four

Pride & Prune Juice

I have always been a little too proud. Prune juice can fix that!

Essay FiveEssay Contest

The Essay

Pride & Prune Juice

Breaking In

It was 1998. Or was it ’99? I was managing a rent-to-own store, doing my part in that predatorial industry – just a friendly, smiling, smooth-talking vampire feeding on the blood, sweat, and tears of the down-and-out, the unlucky, the over-extended, renting overpriced product to under-qualified people.

 I had been to the bottom myself. This gig was part of the climb back to self-respect. Not too long before this I was driving a cab, delivering pizza, and wrestling with God on how everything I had been was over and what now?

You can see how important landing a management job of any kind would have been to a man in my state. I was hired as an assistant store manager and promoted to my own store in what my regional director told me was record time – right at six weeks into the job.

I was conflicted about what I was doing. Before the fall, I had been a minister, helping people better themselves. Consequently, managing a rent-to-own outlet was a rung on the ladder back to respectability I remember with little fondness but plenty of gratitude. I needed an opportunity to once more prove myself a quality – if blemished – leader. I needed a place to bounce back, to show anyone who cared that those blemishes were factual but not fatal flaws.

Breaking Backs

Half of the job of a rent-to-own store is renting product. The other half is collections and repossessing product from those who won’t – or can’t – make their weekly payments.

On a gloomy, overcast, short-staffed day, I decided that as soon as the store hours were done, I would join one of my delivery guys and pick up a side-by-side refrigerator from a customer who was ready to let it go back.

I should have looked more closely at the address. Turns out it was a third-story apartment.

I should have looked at my 140-pound-soaking-wet employee, the dolly we carried on the truck, and the three flights of stairs with tight turns and small landings and figured this already-glum day was not about to improve.

I should have waited until my more masculine delivery guy was back on the job.

I should have…

But I had numbers to crunch, metrics to hit, books to balance. My stress levels were up. This store they awarded me was among the nation’s worst for customers skipping payments and disappearing with product. Our write-offs the first few months I was on the job were frightening. This was not going to be another. I would make certain of it.

Things were going well down that first flight of stairs. I was above the refrigerator, where the smart ones who wish not to be crushed stay. The lightweight was below, helping balance the unwieldy beast. First flight. Check. Second flight. Check.

One to go.

Somewhere between the fourth and third steps from the bottom, so close to level ground, one of us lost his grip. I held up the tilting, gravity-driven, awkward, falling, monster while my fearless underling dove for safety.

Somehow, I managed to bounce the unruly rectangle of steel, aluminum, and plastic to an upright landing. Somewhere in those fleeting seconds of fury and flying cusses, I felt a resounding pop in my lower back. I felt an invisible ice driven into my L5 disc.

I screamed. It was not the scream of a prepubescent girl, but worse.  Ever hear a howler monkey scream?

Breaking Bad

Apparently, I was already sporting a herniated disc. That explains a lot. For years, I had wrestled with a back that would wrench up from time to time.

Thanks to The Frigidaire Affair of 1998 (or was it ’99?), said disc was now ruptured, ballooned out, no longer between the vertebrae, but smashed against the sciatic nerve. The pain was near unbearable. If emergency surgery had not been forthcoming, I may have plunged the knife into my own back. It was a mind-numbing, relentless, merciless agony.

Forty-eight hours later, with no time to wait for Workman’s Comp, I happily submitted to the surgeon’s knife.

Some of my most vivid memories I do not remember at all. You know what I mean. Like things that happened in early childhood, which you do not recall, but your mother or father or crazy aunt has retold the story so many times in such vivid detail, their memory has become your own.

For instance, when I was four, five years old, I had two imaginary friends I played with. Their names were Big Ricky and Little Ricky. Mom told me a thousand times how I would insist they have a place at the dinner table. I remember that just the way she told me to.

Same with waking from surgery. I do not remember the first few hours after the sadistic savior/surgeon inserted two tiny Titanium cages where a disc once abode. My wife says I woke up cussing like a drunken sailor and then got wide-eyed and asked, “Are there any preachers in here?”

My hospital stay was prolonged because I could not take a… my bowels wouldn’t wake. After an X-ray showed I was full of… impacted, they gave me a strong laxative –Popeye the Sailor Strong – and made me consume prune juice! That night was the closest I ever came to Hell on a toilet.

I had to get help from nurses to get me to said toilet. I begged them to leave. They refused.

Next morning, I told my wife, “They did their best to kill me last night.”

She laughed and called our best friends, Keith and Debbie Day, so they could laugh, too. I provided material for jokes that went on for days, weeks, months, years. I am running the risk of reviving the joke series with this essay.

I don’t care. I never want to hurt like that again. My dignity can take whatever hits it must, so long as my sciatic stays out of it. Some triumphs are worth the sacrifice.

 Goodbye, pride. Thank you, prune juice.

essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

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