“Gnarled”– A Mort Laitner Short Story





By Mort Laitner

I stood in front of the Barnes & Noble magazine rack wondering, “Am I in the belly of a dying dinosaur? Was this chain cruising down on the eight track highway? Better enjoy this pleasure now— it may not be around for long.”


Placing my hands in my pockets, I continued reading the titles of the publications. My ring finger then tapped against my keys.


“OUCH! Damn it!” I immediately knew what was about to happen. Within a second, a sharp pain would run from my hand into the crevices of my brain. I shut my eyes as a grimace spread across my face. I could not shout nor curse in this public venue. As the pain subsided, my brain commanded, “Idiot, stop putting your hands in your pockets! You can prevent this agony; don’t touch metal.”


I encountered my first arthritic trauma a year earlier. A tap on a piece of metal produced the throbbing, traveling ache. I thought, “So this is what the elderly complained about. Betty Davis had it right, ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’” I now realized why senior citizens sat on their hands and declined applauding outstanding performances at Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater.


I remembered gently shaking arthritic hands knowing my firm handshake could cause pain. I could now relate.


After a month of this metal-causing pain, it now occurred when I tapped on any object. My concern grew as the pain increased. In my frustration, I cursed aloud while throwing the object I held in my hand.


A few months later, I no longer had to touch anything; the pain just manifested itself out of thin air. While I tried to sleep, the throbbing kept me awake. I got up, swallowed two aspirins and eventually the pain dissipated.

A year later, I noticed a slight curvature of my left pinkie. Looking at that bent digit, I returned to glancing at the covers of the shelved magazines. One title caught my eye, —Arthritis Today.


I picked it up with caution as if touching it would cause all my fingers to curl.


I thought the four questions:


  1. How many magazines does Barnes & Noble carry the name of a chronic diseases?


  1. What is this disease all about?


  1. How many Americans have arthritis?


  1. Is aspirin the only palliative for my problem?


The first question was answered in a minute of magazine rack surveillance:


Two. Autism and Arthritis.


The second question was addressed throughout the magazine:


Arthritis is the wearing out of a joint, but includes more than “100” different diseases that cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and damage to the joints.


There are four main forms of arthritis:

Osteoarthritis— caused by wear, tear and trauma to the joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis— an autoimmune disease.

Gout— caused by too much uric acid accumulating in the blood.

Pseudo gout—is the result of too much calcium building up in joints.


The causes for most forms of arthritis are not known.


Sub-question: Which of the 100 arthritic diseases do I have?


Sub-answer: Time to go to the doctor to find out.


The third question was answered in the same article:


WOW. Fifty million Americans have some form of the disease. Osteoarthritis is the most common form affecting about 16 million Americans, while rheumatoid arthritis, affects about 2.1 million and is the most crippling form of the disease.


The fourth question’s answer was found on multiple pharmaceutical advertisements which filled full pages of the magazine. In fact, 50% of the mag’s pages were ads for meds.


Now that I had the answers, I returned the magazine to its rightful spot on the rack. I examined my fingers- no sign of curling.   I had just read Arthritis Today for free. Barnes & Noble hadn’t made a dime.


I am the poison in the belly of the dinosaur.


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