The Diminishment of Charlie Cain
Corey Mesler
Publication April 2021!
 
Binding

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246 pages

ISBN 978-1-60489-281-9, trade paper $18.95

ISBN 978-1-60489-282-6, hardcover $28.95

Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 
 


Excert from Book:

Charlie Cain had a pain. It was in the lower right quadrant of his back. He thought perhaps his kidneys were there. Or gall bladder. Or liver. The truth is that he had no idea what was there. Charlie Cain was not a hypochondriac but he was not not a hypochondriac.

            The truth also was that Charlie Cain’s girlfriend, Amber Dressing, had left him because she had fallen in love with another man, a doctor. Now, thinking about that doctor made Charlie sick. He was sure the doctor was handsome and fit. Amber worked at a fitness center. Charlie had a bit of a belly and he was sure Amber had been turned off by his body.

            After a full week of the pain he decided to see a doctor. Charlie had no insurance because Charlie worked for himself. He was a freelance writer and, generally, reviewed anything any newspaper or online zine asked him to. His payments ranged from $35 to $150 per piece but, honestly, the $35 gigs were more frequent. Charlie thought he was whoring out his talent and there is some truth in this. Anyway, Charlie’s finances were not that great. He looked back on the days that he worked for UPS and his steady paycheck brought him nice things like food, gas and a beautiful girlfriend: Amber Dressing. Amber was small and willowy and she read books. Heart-whole Charlie loved her the way he’d never loved before.

            Charlie lived in a house in a nice neighborhood north of downtown. The house was left to him by his parents who died in a car accident on Charlie’s 22nd birthday. Amber loved Charlie’s house because it was so suburban quaint. They made love on Charlie’s parents’ bed. Charlie never learned whether that was a turn-on or a turn-off. In any event, Charlie was a victim of ghosting. Amber gone. Charlie dead inside.

            Our thoughts keep drifting toward Amber. We were talking about Charlie and his undernourished bankbook and his mysterious pain. He called his friend, Meyer.

            “Meyer, I have this pain in the lower right quadrant of my back,” Charlie said.

            “Who is this?” Meyer answered.

            “Charlie. Cain. I have this pain.”

            “Charlie.”

            “Yes, Amber’s boyfriend.”

            “I heard you broke up.”

            “What? Yes, technically. You know me though, right?”

            “Amber’s stuff, isn’t she?”

            “Yes. Meyer, I need your advice.”

            “About pain.”

            “You’re a med student, aren’t you?”

            “Yes. I can’t prescribe. I can’t even really tell you what to do.”

            “I have no insurance.”

            “Ah.”

            “No money.”

            “Ah ha.”

            “Can you help me?
            “What? Like an operation on my kitchen table?”

            “Certainly not.”

            “Don’t you have real friends you can call?”

            “Ok, yes. Sorry I bothered you.”

            Charlie hung up in a huff. He could call his friend, Ken, but Ken was usually stoned or drunk or suicidal. Given that he had scant hope for good medical advice from Ken. Charlie could call his sister, Ruby, but Ruby was a worrier. It was her job. She was the family worrier. She was also the kind of person to whom you had to say, “It was a joke,” a lot. He was reaching for the phone to call her anyway. If the conversation went well maybe, just maybe, he’d ask her about the pain in his back. The phone rang. Charlie, answering the phone, often sounded like an ape who was surprised that there were other apes around.

            “It’s Meyer,” Meyer said.

            “Hi Meyer.”

            “I can help you. You got a pen?”

            Charlie found a pen. “Yes.”

            “Write down this name. Dr. Milton Raphael. Got that?”

            “Yes. Yes, Meyer I’ve got that.”

            “And here’s his address and phone number.”

            He gave those to Charlie. “Thank you.”

            “You’re welcome. Oh, and Charlie?”

            “Yes.”

            “Don’t make an appointment whatever you do. He’ll be expecting you.”

            “But, Meyer—”

            Meyer had hung up. It occurred to Charlie that Meyer might be pulling his leg. Charlie could not find a listing for Dr. Raphael in the phone book or online. There was only one reference to a Milton Raphael, M.D. online and it was a college newspaper in Oregon. When Charlie clicked on the link he found it was to a page that no longer existed. The doctor’s address he had been given was in an area of town Charlie did not know well. He decided the next morning he would drive there and, if it looked fishy, he would turn around and go home.

            After a fitful night Charlie woke irritable and the pain in his back was acute. He dressed gingerly and ate an English muffin with a single soft-boiled egg. At 8:30 a.m. he was in his ancient Volvo heading east toward the office of Dr. Milton Raphael.

            As he approached the part of town where the office was he was nonplussed. Surely, there were no active businesses here. He turned onto Vine Street, rolling slowly. He turned down the radio so he could see the address better and then there it was, a three-story apartment complex as grey and dead as last year’s leaves. He stopped, the engine rumbling. The whole street stank of decay. Though it was almost nine in the morning no one was about. Charlie put the car back into gear and that was when he saw a curtain move in a downstairs window. The face peering out seemed to be a small child’s, a girl perhaps, with dark eyes.

            Charlie turned off the car and the curtain dropped back into place. He made his way carefully up the cracked sidewalk. The office number he was given was printed on a small card which was tacked onto the only door still attached in the bottom story. Above the address: Dr. Milton Raphael, D. P. S. A small, chipped cement platform with three steps and no railing led to the door. Weeds, like unruly whiskers, sprouted from the cracks in the steps.

            Charlie knocked and the door was immediately opened by the young girl from the window. She was around 12, Charlie guessed, with dirty blond hair and eyes as black as the ace of spades. She wore a simple white shift. In brief, she was beautiful, in a decidedly ethereal way.

            She showed Charlie to what was a sort of waiting room. He was amazed at the warm comfort of the place, as if he had stepped off Skid Row into the Ritz. The dark, plush furniture was handsome, vintage but in excellent condition. The mantle above the large fireplace—in which a cheerful blaze was crackling—looked as if it had been carved for the Knights of the Round Table. The lighting was dim, principally emanating from an ancient, crystal chandelier, in whose center winked the eyes of elves and fays.

            “He’s expecting you,” the young girl said behind Charlie’s back, startling him.

            “Oh, thank you.”

            “Through that door,” she said. And she smiled. It was as if light had come from a stone. Again, Charlie thought, what a beautiful child.

            Dr. Raphael’s office was more of the same: dark, luxurious furniture, oak bookcases full of esoteric texts, medical manuals and novels. Heavy drapes and low illumination gave Charlie the impression he had stepped back in time. This was a set from a 1940s Warner Brothers melodrama. And Dr. Raphael completed the picture. Instead of a white coat he wore a smart suit of dark blue with light pinstripes and a collarless black silk undershirt. He had the salt and pepper beard of the older Freud.

            “That’s Annie,” Dr. Raphael said, extending a hand.

            Charlie shook the doctor’s hand which was soft and cold.

            “I’d be lost without Annie. Wise beyond her years, she is.”

            “Is Annie your daughter?”

            Dr. Raphael looked over his hornrims. “I’m told you are having lower back pain.”

            “Yes,” Charlie said, and he reached around to place his hand over the tender spot.

            “I see.”

            “I’m a little flummoxed. Who made the appointment for me?”

            “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you sit on the table there? Brush the cat off.”

            A beautiful, brindle-colored cat, somewhere between the size of a house cat and a bobcat, looked at Charlie with dancing blue eyes. Charlie didn’t want to try and move it.

            “Get down, Metagrobolize.”

            The cat reluctantly hopped down and disappeared under the desk.

            The table was a simple table, again of brunet wood. No white paper. And no medical instruments anywhere in sight.  Nevertheless, Charlie took his place on it.

            Dr. Raphael came forward and took Charlie’s hand. “Just relax,” he said.

            Dr. Raphael pulled down each of Charlie’s eyelids and gave them a good look. He pulled on his ears, and as he did, he sniffed each one.

            “Open your mouth, please.”

            Now the doctor grabbed Charlie’s tongue and held it firm between two fingers.

            “Mm,” the good doctor said, leaning over to smell Charlie’s breath.

            Charlie didn’t know if he was meant to repeat but he said, “Mm.”

            “Fart much?” the good doctor asked.

            “Excuthe me?”

            “Sorry.” He let go of the tongue. “I asked if you fart much.”

            “I don’t know how much is much. I fart after eating. Sometimes on an empty stomach.”

            Dr. Raphael nodded and seemed to be thinking.

            “Lemme see your hands.”

            Charlie held out his splayed fingers. The doctor pulled each finger. A couple of them cracked. He put his face up to the half-moons on each fingernail.

            “Uh huh,” he said.

            “Do you want me to take my shirt off?” Charlie asked. He was feeling slightly panicky.

            “No, no. Thank you.”

            Dr. Raphael returned to his desk and sat down. He thought for a moment.

            “Much sex?
            Charlie hesitated. “No, not right now.”

            “But recently?”

            “I had a girlfriend. I don’t have her anymore.”

            “Mm hm. Masturbate?”

            “Of course.”

            “Good, good.” He thought a minute more. “Here’s what I want you to do. Start taking these every morning with your breakfast. Probably best if you take only one and eat something with it until we see what they will do.”

            Dr. Raphael scribbled a note on a small pad of paper, at the top of which was the logo and name of Redrider Industries.

            Charlie looked at the note. It said something like ‘Buttonazole.’

            “That’s all?”

            “For now, I think, yes. Thanks for coming in.”

            Dr. Raphael sat and smiled. It was Charlie’s move. He stood up.

            “Ok, thank you, Dr. Raphael.”

            Charlie backed out the door.

            “Close that, would you?” the doctor asked.

            Charlie did and he looked around the outer room again. Annie was nowhere to be seen. The room was as quiet as a statue.

            Charlie shook his head as if he’d awakened from a strange dream. He was pleased his car was still there and, apparently, unmolested. It was 9:30 in the morning so he drove straight to Walgreens. He waited, as usual, in the line at the pharmacy. Walgreens always had a line and, when you reached your destination, there was a surly pharmacist wondering why you were bothering them.

            After about 15 minutes Charlie reached the pharmacist, who was a young black woman, as pretty as Halle Berry. She curled her lip. Charlie handed her the piece of paper.

            “What is this?” the surly Halle Berry said.

            “My prescription.”

            “Next,” she said, pushing Charlie’s paper back toward him.

            “Wait, wait. I just got this from Dr. Raphael. I assume you have drugs here.”

            Halle Berry gave him the look she saved for dogs that pee on the carpet.

            “Buddy, nice try. You can’t scribble a drug on a piece of paper and expect us to give it to you.”

            “Listen, I swear. This is what he gave me. I know it looks odd but he’s a real doctor.”

            Charlie suddenly didn’t know why he believed this.

            The pharmacist looked at the note again. She beckoned one of her mates over. The new guy had a face like a dropped cake.

            “What’s that?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “What does it even say?”

            “I think it says buttonazole….” Charlie’s voice petered off. He was losing hope.

            “Get out of here,” the guy said.

            “Next,” Halle Berry said.

            Charlie stepped on the foot of the person behind him. The foot was wrapped in a bloody bandage. With an apology thrown over his shoulder he stumbled toward the door. He was shaking by the time he got back behind the wheel of his antediluvian Volvo and he had to gather himself before he started back for Dr. Raphael’s office

            He parked and sprinted for the door the note clasp in his sweaty hand. He pounded on the door.

            “There you are,” Annie said, opening the door. She was dressed in an absurd ball gown and tiara.

            “Where’s the doctor?” Charlie burst in.

            “He’s out,” Annie said, quietly closing the door.

            “Of course he is. What kind of outfit are you running here?”

            “I don’t understand your question. You ran off without paying this morning.”

            Charlie realized then that he had. He felt embarrassed. And he paused to catch his breath.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. “But that doesn’t make any difference because this prescription is a fraud.”

            “I assure you it is not,” Annie said. Charlie had the odd feeling that Annie belonged at the Madhatter’s Tea Party. She sat down and crossed her thin legs.

            “I took it to Walgreens and they said—”

            Annie raised her palm and cut Charlie off.

            “Walgreens is for the others. You’ve been sent here because your cure cannot be found at Walgreens.”

            “Sent here? I’m all muddled.”

            “I can see that you are. If you had not bolted this morning we could have taken care of everything right here.”

            “I came out of the office and you were gone. Naturally, I thought—”

            “I understand what you thought. You have no patience, impatient patient. I was in the lavatory and, had you waited a moment, I would have taken your payment and given you the nostrum the doctor prescribed.”

            “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand how things work here. This is a very unconventional office.”

            “For unconventional cures.”

            “But why do I need an unconventional cure. I only have this pain in my lower right quadrant.”

            “Is that really all that’s bothering you, Charlie?”

            She spoke his name as if they had grown up together. She looked at him with gentle appraisal, as if she could peer into his pneuma.

            “What do you mean?”

            “Are you happy, Charlie?”

            “I don’t see—”

            “Are you in love, Charlie? Are you satisfied with your life currently?”

            “Well, no.”

            “There are you.”

            “Where am I?”

            “Right here with us where you belong. Now if you will just pay I will take the doctor’s note and retrieve your medicine.”

            “I have no insurance.”

            “Neither do we.” And she simpered. “Nor do we take it. Cash only.”

            “I—I don’t have much cash. How much is it?”

            “Let me have the note.”

            Charlie handed her the wadded, retted note.

            “I think I can make this out. Of course. That will be ten dollars.”

            “Ten dollars.”

            “That’s correct.”

            Annie uncrossed her legs and recrossed them the other way.

            “This seems so—”

            “I know. Ten dollars and I fetch your meds.”

            Charlie opened his wallet and took out two fives and laid them softly on the desk.

            “Ok,” Annie said. She stood and left the room. Charlie waited.

            “Here we go,” Annie said, returning with a small umber vial with a black squeeze bulb top.

            “Drops?”

            “That’s right. One under the tongue with breakfast. One with lunch. One with dinner.”

            “And then what.”

            “Well, if one day’s dosage works—huzzah!” Annie raised both arms like a cheerleader after a score.

            “I see. Ok.”

            “Thank you, Charlie Cain.”

            “Thank you, um, Annie.”

 

 

 

 

 

            Charlie drove home. He put the vial in the middle of his kitchen table. Should he wait till the morning to start the full day’s dosage? He wished he had asked. He was hungry so he made himself a bologna sandwich on white bread, with some corn chips and a coke. Before he ate he lifted the vial and shook it against the light. The liquid was murky as if minute, squirmy things were suspended in it. Without thinking any further he unscrewed the stopper and dropped a tiny globule under his tongue. It was acrid but not unbearable.

            He ate his lunch.

            Then he began work on a book review due for the daily paper. The writing went well for a while. Phrases appeared on the screen as if my conjuration—conscious thought was not creating but the better angels were. After about ninety minutes Charlie stretched and looked at the screen. He had already completed his approved word count. This felt good. Charlie admitted that he felt good. The pain in his lower back was now only a slightly painful whirr.

            With dinner—some light pasta with olive oil, lime juice and garlic—Charlie took another drop of his medicine. So far, no effects, side or otherwise. He wondered how long before he would feel better. Another question he should have asked.

            He watched a little television—TCM was showing a Glenn Ford festival—and about ten the pain in his back had returned. He was also experiencing some slight vertigo. He decided to sleep rather than brood about it. He slept well the entire night, bothered only slightly by strange dreams about animals that no human eye had before discerned, manticores and teratisms. By the time he awoke the sun was coming in around his curtains in honeyed shafts.

            Charlie rose, feeling light of limb and heart. The pain in his back was all but gone—a small pebble of pain was all that remained. He shuffled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Under the water Charlie relished the slight needling of the spray and the heat that steamed the air around him. He shampooed his hair, shook his head like a dog, and opened his eyes. It was then that he saw something anomalous about his hands and forearms. They were—almost transparent. They flickered like an old film and seemed lit by a lemony inner light. He shook one and it was flesh and then not-flesh, flesh and then not-flesh. Charlie’s heart constricted. Fear filled him.

            He turned off the water and stepped outside the shower. The entire bathroom was filled with fog and Charlie opened the door. In the clearing atmosphere he surveyed his entire body. The flickering filled his entire frame.

            “Eek!” Charlie eeked.

            He grabbed a towel and wiped the mirror clean. His head—his face—were indistinct. He was transparent. He could see the fleur-de-lis wallpaper behind him through his forehead.

            “Eek!” he said again.

            He quickly found his robe and wrapped himself in it. His body’s shape was there beneath the terrycloth but his hands and head were jars of fireflies. He ran into the next room. What to do? Call 911? What would he say? That he could see through himself? They’d laugh and never come.

            He went to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. He paced while it dripped. When he’d gotten himself a cup he took a bagel from the cabinet and sat at the kitchen table. The coffee felt restorative and he ate the bagel only to keep the coffee from burning a hole in his stomach. He kept looking at his hands—he did not recognize them as part of him. Then he saw the bottle of drops sitting on the table in front of him.

            He pondered what to do. Had the drops caused this? Was it because he didn’t take three in one day? Did that mean he should take another right away? The dithering was making his globe even lighter. He squeezed another drop onto his tongue and followed it with a bite of bagel and a swallow of coffee. He sat still as if something were going to happen right away. After fifteen minutes he got up and walked around. After another fifteen he decided to get dressed.

            He found a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, socks and tennis shoes. When he dropped the robe onto the bed he looked down. Never look down, his insipient brain said. And he wished he hadn’t. Everything was gone. Gut, thighs, cock, legs. Charlie was completely invisible. He ran back into the bathroom. Nothing stared back at him from the mirror.

            Am I dead, Charlie wondered? Were the drops poison?

            He ran his hands down his torso and was relieved that he could still feel himself. He gave his penis a reassuring tug, as if this were a test for nullibiety. He still existed. Unless he was a ghost. A ghost with a penis.

            He pulled his jeans on and the effect was horrible. This was worse. He could not go out in clothing. It would appear as if the clothing were floating along by itself. He took the pants off and laid them carefully on the bed.

            He called Meyer, who answered after one ring. Except it was only the outgoing message: “It’s Meyer. At least it was this morning. Leave me a message or leave me alone.”

            “Meyer,” Charlie said into Meyer’s phone. “It’s Charlie. Call me back soon please. It’s important.”