A middle-aged Asian woman stood in the doorway, looking around. She'd no reason to know who Mr. Deeb was in midst of the crowded room but spotted me immediately. I was the only white man in a threadbare clinic in the depths of Detroit. I rose, following her into one of the cubicles.
"What brings you to see the doctor today?" she asked, motioning to the examining table. I looked at it warily; things were getting too real. Me, sitting on that paper sheeting, hearing the telltale crinkle beneath my sweating thighs after weeks of putting it off.
I cleared my throat, debating whether to tell her the truth. The facts were so ridiculous that I decided to be vague. "I'm having some problems with my back."
I was mumbling and she leaned in to hear me. "Lower?" she asked, jotting something on her clipboard.
I pointed to the spot. Both spots to be precise.
She looked at me over the top of her glasses. "When you say problems, do you mean you're experiencing pain? Do you have difficulty in raising your arms, for instance?"
We looked each other in the eye.
"A bit." There was some tenderness in the area, but that was the least of it.
She waited for me to continue, but when I didn't, said, "Would you please take off everything above the waist, Mr. Deeb?" She handed me a gown, took my temperature, checked my blood pressure and pulse. "The doctor will be with you in a minute."
The door closed behind her, and after hopping off that table, I began to read the cautionary literature covering the walls. Thirty-five minutes later, an Indian doctor, roughly half my size and weight, entered the cubicle.
"Mr. Deeb?" he said, holding out a delicate hand. I shook it.
He promptly washed his hands, glanced at the clipboard, and said, "Back pain, yes?"
I swallowed, nodding. "Probably see it all the time. Right?"
I was badly in need of some reassurance after the reading I'd just done. It was hard to believe anyone got out of here without a grim diagnosis.
"Yes, back pain's a common complaint. Can you tell me more about your particular problem?"
I don't know why I was so reluctant to tell him. Was it fear of a dire diagnosis or embarrassment at my particular problem's oddity? For several weeks, I'd noticed a growth on both sides of my upper back. Felt it more than saw it, of course, because it was in one of those places that's hard to spot for the affected person. No matter how I positioned myself and my mirrors, it eluded me, taunting me almost.
"I seem to have some sort of … enlargement." The word growth seemed laden with implications I didn't want to introduce into our conversation. "See?" I flexed my shoulders and what were actually "enlargements" appeared.
The doctor's face grew pensive as he began to examine my back. After a minute or two, he straightened up. "It's called a winged scapula. Or, in your case, scapulas. Your shoulder blades are pushing out. Have you always had them? It's often congenital."
"Noticed it for the first time a few weeks back."
In fact, I'd turned over in bed one night and rocked on one of the little nubs. Twisting left, I quickly found the other one. I was a virtual rocking chair.
"Did you hurt yourself on the job recently?"
I shook my head.
The doctor sat down on his wheeled stool, planting his heels on the floor to steady himself. "Well, you must have done something. Your thoracic nerves are damaged. Someone slam you into a wall?" I shrugged and he sighed. "What do you do for a living, Mr. Deeb?"
That was a question I didn't want to answer—maybe the real reason I'd put off coming here. Telling a doctor you're a pickpocket doesn't earn anyone's respect. I'd never been asked about my occupation by a doctor before, but I had my share of queries from other sources and remembered the look on their faces. I was a thief, a petty criminal, a small-time crook. None of these terms garner any admiration.
"I'm unemployed at the moment."
Not so unusual in Detroit.
"I used to load trucks," I added, suddenly inspired. I loaded trucks for the Free Press in the nineties. It was the best, if not only, legitimate job I ever had.
The doctor smiled, pleased to have an explanation to hang my winged scapulas on. "If you heaved weighty merchandise, you may have done some damage. Odd that it didn't develop before now, but still …. I'll give you some literature on your condition along with a set of strengthening exercises. Let's give it three months to see if things have improved. Of course, call the office if the condition deteriorates."
The word deteriorate hung in the air like a bat in flight.
He had me push against a wall, flex various muscles, raise my arms. He took several photos, even pulling a video camera out of a filing cabinet. "First time I've seen wings on both scapulas," he muttered, mostly to himself.
The nurse showed me out, giving me several leaflets with exercises to do. I made another appointment, paid my bill, and left.
I read the literature thoroughly and began the recommended exercises. Thinking back on it, my natural ambidexterity was probably why it was a two-sided condition. And I decided it was reaching rather than throwing or lifting that had brought about the condition. I'd reached a lot over the last ten years: primarily into pockets or to grab purses dangling from shoulders or hands. I'd reached my hands across aisles and through windows on cars, buses, subways, trains. Lots of times, well, most of it, the object I was reaching for was on the move: a man or woman walking down the street, occasionally someone on a bike. Once or twice, a car took off before I'd extracted my hand. Grabbing a purse, for instance, was rife with problems if it didn't easily detach. My long arms, which had served me well, turned out to be weakly ligatured.
I decided to stop reaching for things as much as possible, but I only had so many ways to make a living. I contented myself with mailboxes, the ones people install by the road. Problem was, often some wing nut would swing around the corner just as I stuck my hand into one—or the front door would open despite the bogus mail carrier's uniform I wore. I began to wonder if I was losing my touch. My hearing wasn't good enough now to pick up a car's motor before it closed in on me. My intuition also seemed to be faltering. I was the beneficiary of a declining skill-set in every way at forty-four years of age.
Despite doing the exercises, regardless of getting more rest and modifying my behavior, the wings continued to grow—alarmingly. It became difficult to lie on my back so I slept on my stomach with a pillow between under knees to ease the pressure. I needed to go back to the clinic and ask to see a specialist, but I didn't. It was just too damned weird. I'd built my life on being as invisible as possible, on fitting in without a fuss, and now I didn't. My shirts began to look odd, so I purchased larger jackets with shoulder padding to hide my growths. Soon I moved on to capes. More than once, I thought of the Kafka story I'd read in tenth grade. Was I turning into something else? Was a metamorphosis taking place?
After a half-dozen wasted efforts (empty mailboxes, ones filled with flyers or magazines), I finally stumbled on a box on a quiet suburban street the next week. Red, gold and orange leaves drifted over the macadam as I studied my quarry from behind an evergreen. The size of the mailbox attracted me. The residents must be receiving packages of some heft to install this behemoth contraption. A scarecrow stood propped beside it, its arm draped around it. A plastic black cat nestled nearby.
Halloween was a holiday that meant very little to me as a childless man, and its decorations even less. Somehow over the years, it had become an extravaganza rivaling Christmas. Creeping up, I pushed the stuffed doll aside, but luck wasn't with me. I heard the front door opening before I'd even fully pulled the mail out. Fleeing, I took the entire contents along—sticking it under by arm. Back to the car and departure post-haste.
Had the occupant of 5 Pillsbury Road seen me? I was pretty non-descript except for the bulge under my cape. Back home, I sorted through the sizable packet of mail. What I was hoping for, of course, were checks I could quickly cash or financial information I could make use of. There were rarely any saleable items in mailboxes. No stray pieces of pricey jewelry or expensive electronics. Constant references to mail theft by the press had seen to that.
Today, there was a good-sized package from a medical facility, however, and although I generally kept my distance from drugs because of the people they attract, I opened it. Selling drugs might tide me over—painkillers, anti-depressants, Ritalin, anti-anxiety drugs. There was a market for almost any drug and I knew a guy or two who would middle-man me.
It was drugs, but the wrong kind. Along with the medication, the Styrofoam box was filled with Polar packs and air bags. The accompanying pamphlet advised it was insulin for Type One diabetes. The instructions addressed the issues in administering the medication to a child. I'd intercepted a shipment that would soon expire if I didn't return it. A child was waiting for this at that house at 5 Pillsbury Road. It would have to be returned. None of my activity had ever endangered a child, and I was not about to go down that road now.
I parked several streets away that night, not sure if my car had been spotted in the afternoon by whoever opened that front door on Pillsbury Road. It was a good night for loitering being Halloween, and it grew dark quickly the way it does in late October. I made my way along the suburban streets, just another costumed reveler among hundreds. Hadn't E.T. gotten away with this stunt thirty years earlier? I'd left my cape at home despite the chill temperatures and my wings were freed for once. A hint of euphoria came with it, too.
"Look, an angel," a small boy cried, pointing. But I'd disappeared before his father could turn and question the height and weight of that angel.
My goal was to set the box on the porch, ring the bell, and disappear. If anyone spotted me I'd be just another costumed trick or treater. I made my way to 5 Pillsbury Road. The front walk was festooned with lighted skulls and tombstones, and I nearly put my foot inside an overturned squash.
"You're here then," a tiny but assertive voice said from the bay window nearest the door. The child was about six, I'd guess, and dressed like a princess. A gold crown perched lopsided on her head. Her hair was too short and messy to pull off such an elaborate headpiece though.
"Me?" I said, after looking around. "I think you have the wrong guy." I placed my package on the step and turned to go.
"Then you aren't my guardian angel?"
She adjusted her crown, using her reflection in the window for a mirror. A line of winking pumpkins on a table outside lit her view.
"No, I'm just trick or treating. Same as the rest of 'em." I motioned to the distant hordes and began to skulk down the walk.
"Not me," she reminded me. "I'm to stay inside." She paused. "And that's sort of ridiculous, you know. What you just said. A grown man trick or treating." She peered at me through the dark. "Those aren't real wings then?"
"Nope." I was nearly at the gate and turned. "Hey, see that package on the porch." I pointed. "It's for you." I pointed again when she didn't move. "You might want to fetch it and take it inside." Where were her parents? "It needs to go in the fridge."
"I can only open the door if you're my guardian angel." She was quite adamant. "I'm not allowed to open it to strangers."
I sighed. Maybe I could be her guardian angel for the length of time it took her to open the door. "Okay, I'm your guardian angel."
"I thought so. And those are real wings?"
I nodded and fluttered them, rising a few inches at the same time, something I hadn't even known I could do. I heard a deep intake of breath, and then she smiled and disappeared, opening the front door a few seconds later.
"You shouldn't open the door to strangers," I said as she picked up the package. "This is the one exception. You need to get that package into the refrigerator pronto."
"I know what it is," she said, sounding bored. "It comes every week. I was hoping you'd bring me a greeting gift."
"A greeting gift?"
"You bring one to your hostess when you come to their house the first time. Something like guest towels, flowers, or coasters made of tile." She frowned. "Or in my case, perhaps something more suitable for a princess."
"Never heard of that custom before. Look, why don't you shut the door now and I'll be on my way. You're going to catch a cold."
She did just that, returning to her position at the window before I could escape. "What's your name anyway?"
"Deeb," I said, without thinking.
"That's a funny name for a guardian angel. I suppose I can get used to it though."
"Sure, call me Deeb." What did it matter if we never met again?
"You can call me Princess Isabella." I nodded. "And next time you come, try and remember to bring me a greeting gift."
I nodded again. "I'd better be off."
"I especially like barrettes if you can't think of anything else." I was at the gate now and held up a hand. She waved back. "See ya."
The streets were filled with children by now. Taking a circuitous route in case I was being followed, I made my way back to the car. There was a tattered wallet on the road beside it. It had fifty bucks inside and nothing else. I pocketed the money surreptitiously. Well, even angels have to make a living, I told myself. And one good deed a day was enough.
Or at least until I grew into my wings.
Copyright © 2011 Patti Abbott. First appeared in the anthology Deadly Treats.
Patti Abbott's first print novel CONCRETE ANGEL will debut this June from Polis Books. With luck, a second one, SHOT IN DETROIT, will be published in 2016. Her stories can be found in all sorts of places.
Many thanks to David Cranmer for being a tireless supporter of writers across the globe.