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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Jason Goes to Hell: Part II

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The Downward Spiral

Perhaps a review is appropriate at this point. Within just a few months:

  • I lost my good job
  • I took a crappy job and got royally screwed
  • I moved in with my parents-in-law and experienced daily emasculation
  • I suffered a double inguinal femoral hernia and subsequent surgery
  • I lay in a ditch in the rain, vomiting on myself and shrieking in pain
  • My testicles swelled to the size of a small grapefruit and turned the color of an overripe plum

But all of that was nothing but prelude. This, my friends – this is where it really gets GOOD.

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While I had been incapacitated on the couch, watching rotisserie infomercials and a Perry Mason marathon, my parents-in-law had been renovating their backyard. Every day, my feelings of guilt intensified. I knew I should be helping them rototill and pull up stumps and things, but I could barely even operate the television remote without bursting into tears.

When Saturday rolled around, however, I felt (marginally) better. I could (almost) stand up straight, and the wound in my stomach had (mostly) stopped bleeding, so there seemed to be no reason I couldn’t dig a drainage field or break up some concrete.

When I rolled over in bed and announced my miraculous recovery, however, my wife wasn’t quite as excited as I had hoped she’d be. Actually, she just groaned like a dying animal and stared at me kinda glassy-eyed, and I recalled that she had undergone extensive oral surgery the day before. In fact, her cheeks were swollen beyond all standards of decency. She was clearly out of commission for the day. Make that “for the week.”

Gingerly, trying not to put any unnecessary strain on my stapled wound, I walked upstairs to wake up our son Max. I pulled back the sheets on his bed, and was reminded of that scene in “The Omega Man” where they pull back the sheets, and there’s a mummified zombie or something under there, and it’s super scary (or at least that’s the way I remember it). Max’s pajamas were sopping wet, he was shaking slightly, and he was covered from head to toe with bright red chicken pox.

So that was a bummer.

“Fine,” I thought. “I’ll just have to work twice as hard today to show my parents-in-law that we’re not a bunch of losers.”

Bravely, I limped to the backyard and offered my services to my father-in-law.

“Whatever you need done, I’m your man,” I announced gamely, through gritted teeth. Sweat was already forming on my brow.

“Are you sure, Jason? You don’t look so good to me…”

“I’m FINE!” I insisted, wincing slightly because I had accidentally breathed too deeply, resulting in a pain that felt like a red-hot steel rake being dragged across my lower stomach. “What do you need done?”

“Well, one of us needs to climb up that tree and cut off the top twenty feet or so.”

At this point, you might be saying to yourself: There is no way that someone recovering from a double hernia operation (and pro bono vasectomy) should be climbing trees, much less climbing old, partially rotten trees, much less climbing old, partially rotten trees while carrying a fucking AXE. If you are saying that, you have an excellent, compelling point, for which I have no adequate response. Within five minutes, I was scaling the tree, axe strapped to my waist with a bungee cable. Every time a branch gouged at my surgical wound, I hyperventilated until the pain subsided, then continued upward. Amazingly, I reached the upper branches, chopped off the requested twenty feet, and started back down, feeling quite pleased with myself.

That was when I fell. All four of the branches currently supporting my body weight snapped more or less simultaneously, and I plummeted earthward, bouncing off or smashing through everything in my path. A large-ish branch smacked me hard in the ear and spun me crazily backward, dry and broken branches tore at my clothes and skin, jagged twigs stabbed into my arms and legs, bark scraped the skin from my palms and shins, and I fell and fell and fell. When I finally cleared the lowest branches, my body was almost perfectly horizontal, my face pointed heavenward. The backs of my legs crashed into the top of the dry wooden fence, and a whole new kind of pain erupted there, as skin was scraped away and thousands of splinters were deeply implanted. Although the ground surrounding this tree was marshy and soft, there was a single, recently felled log laying a few feet away, and that was where I landed, on my back. On impact, my head snapped backward against the rock-hard wooden mass, and sawed-off nubs of branches pounded into my spine. I couldn’t breathe.

Dimly, I heard my mother-in-law explode out of the house, screeching. I couldn’t see anything, because I had fallen into the small wooded area outside the fence.

“Jesus CHRIST, CALL AN AMBULANCE!” my father-In-law barked, somewhere far, far away.

Then he was awkwardly climbing over the fence, tearing his Lycra jogging shorts on the dry, splintery boards, face crimson, breathing much too hard.

“DON’T PANIC, JASON! THE AMBULANCE IS ON ITS WAY! EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE FINE!” he shouted hoarsely at me, as though he believed the fall must have affected my hearing. I calmly prepared to die.

“come… closer… ” I whispered.

“Yes, Jason, what is it? What can I do for you? Oh, God, this is all my fault! JESUS! I never should have sent you up in that tree!” he moaned hopelessly, kneeling in the dirt next to my prone body.

I wheezed and patted his hand. “it’s… okay… I… forgive you…” In my hour of dying, I was prepared to forgive everything, absolve the sins of the world. I felt dizzy and holy. I imagined how bad they would feel about the way they treated me, once I was dead.

My father-In-law burst into tears as I heard the aid car arrive. Actually, there was some sort of mix-up – they weren’t sure if I fell 30 feet or 40 feet, and the height of the fall determined whether the city or county ambulance was required – and my mother-in-law was hysterical and gave them conflicting information, so they just sent TWO aid cars. Plus a fire truck. Altogether, about twenty men and women, in full firefighting and city/county EMT regalia, burst into the yard and were suddenly there, looking over the fence, holding axes, shovels, oxygen tanks, and defibrillators. They were grim and intense and coiled to pounce and spoke in that forceful yet monotonous and overly formal lingo like SWAT team members or Navy SEALs.

“EXCUSE ME SIR WILL YOU ALLOW US TO GAIN ACCESS TO THIS QUADRANT VIA YOUR FENCE SIR?” shouted the head firefighter.

“Uh, well, yes, I mean, whatever you have to do -”

“OFFICER JENKINS REMOVE THIS FENCE STAT!”

“REMOVING FENCE SIR!”

…and a fireaxe exploded through the rotten wood of the old fence, sending a shower of splinters into my eyes.

“FENCE REMOVED SIR!”

…and they were there, all twenty of them, hovering over me in the woods, shining a maglite into my eyes, adroitly slipping a stiff fiberglass board under my possibly severed spine, strapping my legs tightly to it, peppering me with questions.

“HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP?”

“uh… three?”

“WHO IS THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES?”

“…Bush…”

“WHAT IS YOUR BIRTHDAY?”

“…don’t know…”

The firefighter snapped his head around to face his colleague who was taking notes: “POSSIBLE BRAIN DAMAGE!” he screamed. I tried to explain that I didn’t know my birthday because I had been raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and had never celebrated my birthday, but he was having none of it. He moved out of my line of sight and began inspecting my arms for possible fractures. Frustrated, I lifted my head slightly so that I could see him again, and tried to explain about the birthday thing, but before I could form a sentence, he furiously slammed my head down on the fiberglass.

“DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES MOVE YOUR HEAD SIR! IT IS VERY PROBABLE THAT YOUR SPINE HAS BEEN BROKEN, AND TRYING TO MOVE YOUR NECK COULD PARALYZE OR KILL YOU SIR DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME SIR?”

“Well, sure, but could you… check behind my head here? It really hurts, like my head is resting on a small rock or something…”

“THAT IS MOST LIKELY A PHANTOM EFFECT PRODUCED BY THE DAMAGE TO YOUR SPINE!” he shrieked, while winching a luggage strap around my forehead. The sharp pain at the base of my skull became even more pronounced, but I decided to keep my mouth shut for the moment.

Now the firefighter was yelling angrily into some sort of radio or walkie-talkie: “EVACUATING VICTIM NOW TO NORTHWEST HOSPITAL! WILL RENDEZVOUS WITH TEAM ONE-NINER AT CHECKPOINT! THE FOX IS IN THE HENHOUSE! I REPEAT, THE FOX IS IN THE HENHOUSE! OVER AND OUT, CHARLIE ZULU!”

The firefighters and EMTs hoisted me aloft on the board, and I winced. Everything from the neck down had gone numb, but the back of my head hurt like a son of a bitch. I was hustled through the yard and – after a brief, heated discussion between the various teams – into the county aid car.

My disheveled and clearly ill wife and son watched tearfully from the driveway as I was prepared for evac.

“HERE YOU GO SON!” shouted one of the EMTs at my spotty-faced son, handing him a teddy bear. “YOUR DADDY IS GOING TO BE JUST FINE!”

“Mmmnphhh!” gurgled my chipmunk-cheeked wife, as the doors of the aid car slammed shut and we zoomed away up the street, sirens blaring. I was really starting to worry about that pain at the back of my skull. It felt exactly like a small, sharp rock pressing into my head. But since I was strapped tightly to the board, completely immobilized, there was no way to check it out. I asked the EMT about it, but he just looked meaningfully at the second EMT, and said something about how a 50-foot fall could cause all sorts of unexplainable symptoms and that I should just be quiet and not move or else I could end up paralyzed.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law had thoughtfully contacted my parents and notified them that my spine had been broken in a horrible fall, and that I had been taken to Northwest Hospital. Without hesitation, my horrified parents jumped in their car and sped to Northwest Hospital.

Unfortunately, I had been taken to Stevens Hospital.

“Hmm… I’m just not finding that name. Jason TOES, you say?” asked the front desk nurse at Northwest Hospital, as she thumbed through the folder of recently admitted patients. My father corrected her spelling, and she searched through the folder for the third time. “Sorry, no Jason T-O-E-W-S either. How did you say that was pronounced? TAVES? I NEVER would have guessed that.” She chuckled and shook her head.

At approximately the same time as the Northwest nurse was suggesting to my parents that they might want to check in the morgue, I was arriving at Stevens. When the EMTs finally removed the straps and transferred me to a stretcher, I turned my head just enough to see the large hexagonal bolt head protruding from the fiberglass back board, mounted precisely at the position where my head had been resting.

There was a lot of bustling activity at first, x-rays and the like, but soon I found myself alone in a semi-darkened room, too terrified to move, awaiting the expected diagnosis of complete neck-down paralysis. After two hours, a doctor wandered past my door and I shouted for him to stop. He examined my charts, and I asked him to give it to me straight.

“Take a look at these,” he said, clipping some x-rays to a viewing screen. “This is your spine. See these vertebrae, how they’re all essentially the same shape, rectangular?” He was right; they were indeed rectangular.

“Now look at this one… and this one. Notice how those two – oh wait, this one also. Notice how these three vertebrae are NOT rectangular?” He was right; they were not. They were clearly defined isosceles triangles.

“Well, that’s what happened when you fell. Those vertebrae essentially got… crushed. And notice all this discoloration around those crushed vertebrae? That’s the powdered or splintered bone floating in the surrounding tissue.”

“Isn’t that dangerous, to have all that stuff floating around in there?” I asked, feeling queasy.

“Oh, sure. That stuff could drift into your spinal column and kill you dead in a matter of seconds. But that doesn’t happen very often.” He continued to examine the x-rays. “Shoot. Looks like you got a couple of doozies in your neck, too. Probably… six vertebrae demolished altogether. Here’s a brochure that will give you all the information you need.”

The brochure contained helpful tips such as, “A gentle massage may help to relieve the pain and muscle spasm.”

“So…” I asked, barely in control of my voice, “what happens now?”

“What do you mean? You go home. That’s about it.”

“Is there any… you know, treatment?”

“Nope. Oh, we could TRY to clean it up in there, but that kind of operation has a pretty high fatality rate. Look, lots of people have crushed vertebrae. It’s not that big a deal. I mean, yeah, it’ll hurt like hell for the rest of your life, but at least you’re not paralyzed. But right now, we need to get you checked out. Big pile-up on I-5; lots of injuries.”

What? What did he say about a FATALITY rate – ? I was completely bewildered. Did he just tell me my BACK was broken? I needed some clarification.

“Bu… what did you… am I… ”

“Sir, I need you to get out of that bed. Right now.”

I staggered to the dressing room, hunched over like someone who’s been living in a small cave for too many years, a hunchback, a troglodyte, a homunculus… Just beneath the surface of the pain medication they had given me, I could feel the grotesque, unmanageable, terrifying pain. It took me a half hour of tearful maneuvering to put on my pants, and my attempt to don the shirt left me sobbing on the floor, until a friendly nurse knocked on the door and asked if I needed any help.

“I am not an ANIMAL!” I howled, like an animal.

“I’m sure you’re not, sweetie, now let’s get that shirt on like a big grown-up boy, shall we?”

So this was my life. I could feel each menacing chunk of razor-edged bone shrapnel inching steadily toward my spinal column, threatening me with paralysis, loss of bladder control, or worse. Clearly, I would have to hire a home care nurse to help me dress and wash myself. I could probably wash my face and arms unaided, but there was simply no way I could reach my genitals… and what of my feet? I would become a recluse, my horn-like toenails reaching hideous lengths, oblivious to the fetid stench of death surrounding me…

Eventually, my parents arrived, and offered to buy me dinner at Applebee’s, because my dad had a coupon.

Hello, My Friend, The End…

The next day, I went back to work. I really should have taken a few days off, what with the broken spine and all, but I had used up all my sick time on the double-hernia-and-complimentary-vasectomy thing, so I had no choice. I simply COULD NOT afford to lose this job. For the next week, I worked ten hours every day, bent double at the waist, clutching my gut lest the staples tear through my flesh, pressing my spine against nearby shelving to quell the muscle spasms, speaking only when absolutely necessary, and then whispering tersely through tightly clenched teeth. The doctors did eventually find some pain medication that DIDN’T make me projectile vomit, but I couldn’t really take powerful narcotics while I was assembling a million-dollar advertising brochure for Bayliner, so I just endured the pain.

About a week later, I started to feel slightly better. I was able to stand almost straight up without passing out, and I was even able to see a bleak humor in the whole series of events. I began to see all of it as a violent but effective wake-up call, and realized that I needed to make some major changes. My wife and I made plans to move out of her parents’ home. Max’s chicken pox faded.

The next day, I was fired.

“We need to make some layoffs, and your productivity levels have been VERRRY low during the past month,” explained my supervisor, tapping pointedly on a stapled bundle of log sheets.

I started to protest – but, my hernia operation! but, my broken spine! but –

Instead, I said nothing. I just handed over my key to the bindery, gathered my personal effects, said goodbye to a couple guys in the screen printing department (and also this one hot saleswoman who I always had a crush on), and left the building. (Weird Addendum: Two years later, when Tri-Graphics finally went belly up, I was working at another publishing company. One day at my new workplace, we received an auction catalog in the mail, with color photos of all the Tri-Graphics equipment and furniture being offered – including my old light table and stool.)

Arriving at home, I hugged my wife tightly and began to tell her about this latest affront, this final crushing blow to our plans.

“Honey, you are not going to believe this, but – ” was all I got out before she interrupted me.

“Jason, I can’t talk right now – we have a BIG problem.” She led me into the living room, where Max was sitting on the floor, looking somewhat sheepish. Scattered around him were fist-sized chunks of bright green sidewalk chalk. Behind him, my father-in-law’s beloved La-Z-Boy recliner was covered – and I do mean “covered,” all the way from the patented secure locking footrest up over the lumbar support cushion up to the topmost edge of the plush headrest – with demented scrawls, a wounded animal banshee screech, meaningless jagged violent desperate howls of spiraling hieroglyphs, all with the unmistakable color and texture of bright green sidewalk chalk.

It was like in a movie, where the director wants to illustrate how screwed up a kid is, and the art teacher says, “Johnny, why don’t you show your parents the pretty picture you made?” and the stone-faced kid holds up a sheet of paper almost entirely covered by crazed scribbles and slashes of deepest black, and the Bernard Herrmann violins shriek, and the camera zooms in on the terrifying wasteland of this kid’s second-period art assignment, and you understand that the terrifying wasteland is actually in the kid’s SOUL, dude. It was just like that, except that instead of black, this was bright green, and instead of a sheet of construction paper, this was executed on the extra-plush velveteen upholstery of my father-in-law’s prized top-of-the-line La-Z-Boy “Reclina-Rocker.”

Dejectedly, I gathered the cleaning supplies and began scrubbing next to my wife. After a few minutes, she sighed loudly, brushed the hair from her eyes, and sat back to assess the situation.

“No sir,” she observed, “that chalk ain’t comin’ off without a fight.”

She attacked the graffiti with renewed determination, and just for a moment, working there next to her, contrary to all logical reasoning, I felt happy.

That didn’t last, though.

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