Back Pain

Look, I know I don’t cut the most sympathetic figure here, what with the kidnapped baby and all.  But still, that doesn’t change the fact that my back is killing me right now.  I’m dying here.  I can barely turn my head.  But I’m powering through, and that should count for something, right?  I just popped a couple pills for the pain, the ones from that commercial where the light courses through the body and then flashes at the pressure points.  You know it?  Well, my back feels like that, like flashing lights.  And sirens, too.  The pills really just make it feel like only flashing lights, which I’ll take, I guess.  I have to.  And anyway, who isn’t battling through something, right?  Just to make it through the day.  We’ve all been here before.

But for the kidnapped baby, sure. That’s a new one for me, too.

The baby’s crying now.  That one’s not new for me; I have two of my own.  Or had two.  They’re teenagers now.  And they don’t really talk to me, although I pin that mostly on their mother. But then, she had her reasons.  I can’t really blame her.  My drug habit got me in all kinds of trouble, with all kinds of people.  Which led to my trouble with her, or really her trouble with me.  But regardless, all that past trouble is why I’m here in this car with this kidnapped baby now.  This baby I kidnapped.  I’m clean now, and have been for two years, almost two and a half, which I’m proud of, but, you know, things happen.  People are seldom who they want to be.

Look, I would never do this by choice. You think they said Roy, steal a kid, and I wasn’t like, nah I’m good?  C’mon, man.  I had to do it.  Why?  Because even though they’re teenagers now and they don’t really talk to me, Kenny and RJ are still the only way to threaten me into kidnapping a baby.  Which, I know, how could I do that to another father?  Look, things don’t just happen.  I got myself into this. So did he.

I was young when I started using.  I don’t know why I started, because I was young and things were easy.  I just did.  Maybe I was bored, I guess, like all kids are bored, but life hadn’t come at me yet with its claws out.  So, I have no excuse.  I know this.  Show me a guy who’s my age and using, even without an ex-wife and two estranged kids and back pain like this, and I’ll be like, yeah, I get it.  Shit’s hard, man.  But, back then, nah.  No excuse.  Now, though, I got real shit to escape.  Like we all do.  That’s just the reality of things.  I mean seriously, look around; all you see are attempts to escape reality.  Am I wrong?  You got music, movies.  Drugs and alcohol.  Cell phones and airplanes.  Religion.  Capitalism.  Well, maybe not capitalism.  Capitalism is reality.  We’re not nice to each other.  We’re mean. We’re going to do whatever we have to, just to survive and to be comfortable, and being comfortable means not thinking about people who aren’t comfortable.  I mean, really, look at some of the worst ways capitalism manifests itself: Wall Street, privatized jails, corporate-financed political lobbyists. Goddamn, you know.  But nobody even flinches.  And how about tax deductible charitable giving?  I mean, c’mon, philanthropic tax shelters?  Even when we’re nice to each other, we’re not nice to each other to be nice to each other.  But whatever, that’s just to name a few.  Don’t even get me started on Marketing.  Marketing’s so prevalent we don’t even notice it anymore.  But it’s everywhere, and it’s insidious.  It’s why I popped these pills I popped for my back, because that commercial got stuck in my head.  To be honest, I don’t even know if it’s actually the pills that make me feel better or if there is some kind of numbing agent just in the simple process of shopping for pain relief at the drugstore, you know, like a sort of pitch and purchase placebo effect.  They said these ones will make me feel better, so they will, because they must.  It’s not always in an addict’s arsenal to be skeptical.  At least these drugs are legal.  And I wouldn’t know about them unless I was told about them. So, we just accept it.  And not even as a necessary evil, but simply as necessary

Well fine, okay, but you know what, what I’m doing is necessary, too.  That’s my reality.

The baby’s a girl.  I didn’t know beforehand, I was just told: Roy, get the baby.  I know she’s a girl now because she was wrapped in pink when I found her, in her sparkly, princessy nursery.  It’s Marketing, man.  It’s separating boys and girls because that makes us easier to sell to. But you know what, I don’t even call it necessary evil myself.  Because I don’t believe in evil.  Not anymore.  And not because what I’m doing is, you might say, a pretty evil thing.  No, I’m saying there’s no such thing as evil.  There’s just weights and counterweights.

Look, the closest thing to pure evil that I’ve seen would have to be the two guys, and their guns, who have put me up to kidnapping a baby by threatening my own sons.  But not even because of that.  No, what was really, conventionally evil was introducing someone as young as I was to the idea of escape.  I didn’t need it; but once I had it, I did.  And the ramifications of that… well, let me just say the shadow of that time and those decisions is long.  Everything in my life is darker now because of it.

Did they have to do that, introduce me to it at such a young age?  I say no, but maybe yes.  Maybe to them it was necessary.  Maybe they needed to escape and knew no better way.

But either way, now I have this baby, and she’s crying, and I feel bad but I can’t look at her because I can’t turn my head to the right because of this pain in my back.  Something inside me wants to touch her toes or rub her head just to soothe her, but it’s just as well that I can’t, because I have to concentrate on driving because I have to get as far away as possible before they realize she’s gone and put out an Amber Alert.  Time, as per usual, is of the essence.

Did you know the Amber in Amber Alert is an acronym?  I thought it was named for a girl, and it was, a little girl, Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old who was abducted and murdered in Texas back in 1996, but it’s officially an acronym: America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.  I only know that because I looked it up after I was told I had to abduct a kid myself.

Amber is not only an acronym and a girl’s name, but it’s also a gemstone that is used in all types of decorative ways, including jewelry of course, and as an ingredient in perfumes, too.  I found that out as well when I was looking up Amber Alert, and I thought it was interesting, just about amber’s natural beauty, and how we’ve used it to make it into something different.

But anyway.  The crying baby in my backseat is named Rory.  I found that out when I saw those four pink letters – R O R Y – taped to the wall in her nursery.  It struck me how close her name was to mine.  I wished I didn’t know her name at all.  It’d make it easier to not soothe her, to not want to.  Her name, her having a name – of course she has a name, but I could make myself forget that if not for the glittery wall art – makes her a person, with a family history.  Which makes it easier for me to put myself in her situation.  Or more, her family’s.  I didn’t need that layer added to all this.

“Shhh.  It’s okay, Rory.  You’re okay.  You’re going to be fine.”

If I could just reach back there, but gaaaaaaaaawd almighty.  It’s all I can do to just do the job at hand.  I haven’t the capacity right now for flourishes, tender or otherwise.

Still I tell her, “I’m sorry,” and I am because she’s so young and she has no business being wrapped up in all this.  This mess that’s mine and her dad’s and the two guys with the drugs and the guns.  But, I guess we’re all born into someone else’s mess, though, aren’t we? We’re a highpoint in someone’s life, but soon enough, immediately really, we’re also a responsibility, a weight.  And now I’m into some bad dudes for a favor, and he’s into those same bad dudes for some money, and it’s my kids or his.  And that’s capitalism, isn’t it?

Regardless it’s how Rory ends up in my car, and is why Rory’s dad ends up calling in an Amber Alert.  I see the Alert flashing on the electronic sign to the side of the highway, and now I know the chase is officially on.

I push down on the gas, and as I do I say a quick prayer for me and for Rory.  I’ve always found it interesting how wherever you find the most persuasive evidence against the existence of a benevolent God, you also tend to find the most persistent calls to one.  I’m not above the urge to solicit divine intervention.

I’m not above appreciating a well-executed Amber Alert either.  Because that’s community action right there, Amber Alert is all of us looking out for each other, creating a system for when one of our young has been taken and needs to be returned.  But, it’s only so because with kids we can all put ourselves in that situation.  We shouldn’t have to be able to put ourselves in a bad situation to know it’s bad, to find the right amount of empathy for it, to feel the need to try and do something, you know what I mean.  We should just do it.  Because if it’s another person, it’s another life, and life’s too hard to be going at it alone.

I don’t know, I guess what I’m saying is this: you see an Amber Alert and you’re automatically feeling for “Amber,” or Rory in this case, and you should, absolutely, because I’m a dangerous man, and Rory’s just a baby, but I’m also just a man, and there are reasons, man, there are always reasons. This is life, plain and simple, life in the world as we know it, and the world as we know it is a world that includes cancer and slavery, SIDS and pedophilia, enlarged hearts and black ones.  That includes back pain that makes walking upright practically unbearable, and yet still I managed to go through a window into a stranger’s house, reach down into a crib, carry the baby’s dead weight back to the car and then drive for hours, and… look, like I said, I’m not asking for your sympathy, but tell me this world isn’t a crazy place to try and make your way in.  However you have to make your way.

Rory’s still crying, my back is still screaming, and all I can think about right now, at this moment, even as the Amber Alert messages flash, is maybe getting some drugs, like I used to, to numb the pain, to escape all this.

That’s where my head is as I drive as fast as I’ve ever driven before.  And maybe, I think, that’s the point of my back pain: to remind me of my body, to pull me back into it, to see I am, as we all are, just bodies moving through an oftentimes cruel, always indifferent world.  Because the body knows.  And it never forgets.

Goddamn, what a world to bring these babies into.

In fact, why do you think sex, our means for reproducing the species, to keeping this thing going, feels so good?  Like SO good?  Why is it such an unmatched sensation?  I’m thinking that’s why.  Because anything that needs that much incentive must be lacking something in its own constitution, in its own argument for being.   Think about it.  We are subject to our bodies, and our bodies are subject to the world.

I try to look back at Rory, but I can’t.  My back.  Which makes me think, maybe, actually that’s the point of my back pain: maybe the fact that I can’t turn my head to look behind me is so I don’t see – not the flashing lights and sirens – but the mess I’ve left behind me, and the future I’ve altered, drastically, by bringing it, her – Rory and her future – into my own present, and by making it a part of my own life, my own history.  Because to consider that is to be stopped in your tracks.  And maybe the only way to keep moving forward is to keep moving forward.

Of course, maybe this is just a long way of saying I need to give Rory back.

Or maybe I’m saying we’re too far into this to give Rory back.  There is no going back; which is fine, I think, more than fine: back is always where the pain is.

Her life starts now.  And if I don’t look back, mine starts now, too.  With each mile it starts anew.  She didn’t choose this.  But, I didn’t either.  Not really.  It was inevitable.  The lights and sirens are getting closer.  I accelerate until I can’t anymore.  It’s inevitable.  Something’s going to happen.  Good or bad, something’s going to happen.

Don’t look now.

Billy Thompson is a graduate of Cardinal O’Hara High School, Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in various online and print publications, including The Schuylkill Valley Journal and The Louisville Review. He lives in Media with his wife Abby and their two young sons, Joey and Declan.