A Short Story
By Jeffrey Benson
"For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which
you belong, cease this madness. You have a duty not just to the
generation of the present—you have a duty to civilization's past,
which you threaten to render meaningless, and to its future, which you
threaten to render nonexistent. You are mortal men. You are capable of
error. You have no right to hold in your hands—there is no one wise or
strong enough to hold in his hands—destructive powers sufficient to put an
end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet. No one should wish to
hold such powers. Thrust them from you. The risks you might thereby assume
are not greater—could not be greater—than those which you are now
incurring for all of us."
— George F. Kennan
(Garmisch, Germany, October 1,1980),
in Sketches from a Life, Pantheon, 1989.
I wake up at nights, thinking about the General. I light a candle by my bed and watch the shadows grow thick and fuzzy. The wind rattles my window. I pull myself into a fetal position. My thoughts run like squirrels around a tree. Somehow I might have been able to do more with the General, as much as anyone citizen. I remember to breathe deeply, and to let my thoughts stream through the night.
I gave the General his first back massage at my studio. His secretary made the appointment. He arrived on time, wearing his uniform. He was a large-boned man of perhaps 50, maybe a young-looking 55. With a small smile his eyes searched my studio, the candles and rugs, soft piano music, burning incense. He didn't say much. I watched him unbutton his collar and his cuffs as he walked into the dressing room. I told him to put on a clean robe, and to untie it when he lay down on the massage table.
He seemed comfortable with the silence. I told him to talk only as much as he felt during the massage, to tell me if there was pain, tenderness, or pleasure, to use it as a time and place to relax, to let his muscles and his mind uncoil, to float like a rowboat on a lake.
His back was thickly muscled and tight, as most men's are. A woman's back often feels like long pulls of taffy, a man's often like concrete just before it hardens, barely flexible. I worked for a long time on the muscles of his midback, which were wound like tight shoelaces. The muscular tension was inhibiting his breathing. I ran my hands in long strokes up the ridges on either side of his spine, pulled my hands across his shoulders, and then pulled them down along his sides. His lungs expanded more fully. He made no sounds. I thought he was concentrating completely on the movements of my hands.
When I was finished, I told him to get dressed again at his own pace and that I would be in the reception room, drinking tea. He could join me there. He arrived quickly, again working on the buttons of his collar and cuffs. The General declined a drink, paid me in cash from a money clip in his pants pocket. He told me that he enjoyed the massage greatly.
"I could swing some more business your way with the other officers," he said, but turned away and added, ''I'd like to keep you to myself for now."
I didn't get up when he left, just waved from my chair. He wasn't going to keep me for himself—I had plenty of other clients. Don't worry, General, I won't ask you to hand out my business cards at the Pentagon.
The General came for a massage once a week. He seemed comfortable and coolly controlled, and he never said anything beyond simple hellos and good-byes. I like to know more about my clients, their jobs, their families, their hobbies. It helps my work. A receptionist, working under a continual barrage on interruptions, was fond of long, seemingly endless massage strokes that began at her coccyx and many luxurious moments later finished at the base of her skull with my thumbs rotating in small circles. I have a bus driver who uses his hands to grip all day, and I gently pull on his fingers and knead his palms.
The General offered no inspirational morsels on which to nourish the massage. I began to slyly question his secretary when she called to confirm his appointments: Was the General squeezing me in between meetings? Was he at the parade grounds? Did he seem particularly anxious about the movement of troops in Central America? She didn't know, I should ask him, and she wasn't really sure.
Left to my own intuition, I imagined his back to be a battlefield. Barbed wire circled his shoulder blades. Deep trenches were dug on the borders of his spine, an airstrip was being built in the small of his back. I sought to bring harmony to the conflicts among his nerves, muscles, and bones. My hands were a peacekeeping battalion, they were a USO show with Bob Hope featuring Miss America, my hands were a cease-fire. Over time I never succeeded in establishing a lasting peace, only in reducing the casualties. He was breathing from deeper in his abdomen, and the range of motion with his right arm had increased.
Then one day he was pictured in the newspaper, standing next to the president, discussing military strategy. The situation in Central America was unstable, the president said. The General was in charge of many soldiers. The president would not stand by idly while another small country flexed its muscles. Troops were being armed. Everyone was holding their breath.
I worked aggressively on the General's back. I rolled muscles like tanks over the edge of his waist, sabotaged the fortresses in his shoulders. I would level all resistance. If it were possible to delay the war by making the General too relaxed to command, it would be done here. For the first time the General moaned during the massage, and then he asked me to please be more gentle.
I felt stupid. My work was massage, and I was doing it poorly, ignoring the sensitivity my hands had developed. My hands could liberate his energy, but that was all. If I wanted to stop him from going back to work, I should stab him in the back. I considered stopping the massage. My hands were resting on his midback. They rose and fell with his tight breaths. His eyes were closed. The beating of his heart gently rumbled. He was nearly as inflexible and rigid as he had been on his first visit. I finished the massage with firm strokes that would loosen his diaphragm.
He came more often the next weeks. He was busy with war preparations. The best I could do for his back now was to maintain whatever flexibility I could. He made no significant improvements. He stored the pressure of his decisions in his back the way dogs bury bones and then forget where they are. On television his movements were rapid and disjointed. The president looked as if he had on a corset as he explained the circumstances surrounding the bombing of a school. We were a reflex action away from war. The entire population of the Western Hemisphere was in need of a massage.
A good massage was supposed to open the heart. I was up during the night. I had my hands on one of the most crucial backs during a world crisis, and the more I worked the closer we stepped toward war. The General was only breathing shallowly from his upper chest, and he had sharp pains in his shoulders. I felt incompetent.
In the morning I found out that the United States had launched an invasion. The General canceled his appointment. His secretary did not want to schedule another time.
"Not until there's more stability," she said.
I spent the afternoon with friends and family. We watched the news and drank wine. Phone calls were made to join a group of people gathering by the White House, quietly protesting the invasion. I stayed home alone, hoping for a phone call from the General that didn't come.
He had his next massage three days later. By then, more than 8,000 people had been killed, 50,000 driven from their homes, the number of wounded unknown. It was not going to be a quick war. The little country had secretly mined its harbor, and at the height of the invasion, four United States ships blew up. The backbone of our military presence was snapped. The president asked for more troops.
As always, the General was punctual. His back was as tight as any back I had ever seen, as if his muscles were the cables to a bridge, and life was a column of tanks rolling up the roadway. His shoulders heaved with every breath—I worked on opening the bottom of his torso, but it was heavily barricaded and my hands tired. I concentrated on being gentler. There was a spot at the base of his neck that was flexible, and I rotated his head slowly in my hands, stretching the muscles down into his shoulders. The General was momentarily more relaxed. I couldn't infiltrate the tension in any area below his collarbone, so I worked on his neck, his jaw, and forehead. I could see the muscles at the junction of his two lips yield, and his mouth lightly opened.
I looked at the clock—we were 30 minutes beyond the end of the appointment. I roused the General and apologized. He would be late for a meeting; perhaps I had delayed the war effort for a half hour. He thanked me for the massage, and I continued to apologize for delaying him. He shook his head, told me that he appreciated my work. His body was so stiff that when he shook his head I thought it might snap off. He was working hard to breathe as he put on his coat and scarf.
The United States launched a second invasion the next day. Planes, parachutes, PT boats, missiles. I sat at my kitchen table, listening to the radio. Reporters were not allowed to accompany the invading forces. The announcer filled the time with background information on the decision-makers in the military. Then he interrupted with a bulletin that the General had collapsed at the Pentagon late yesterday—word was just in that he had died. His lungs had become too weak to breathe, as if they had been strangled by the neighboring muscles. The announcer said he was 63 years old.
I felt numb, sad and empty. I would never massage that back again. He must have left my studio, had his meeting to launch the invasion, and then stopped breathing. I called his secretary and found out the time of the funeral. I wanted to be there.
Except for the women dressed in black, the preacher and the gravediggers, I was the only person not in military uniform.
The General's wife cried as she was given the United States flag from the coffin. The vice president was supposed to arrive, but I never saw him. I wondered if the other generals knew about his weak lungs.
One of the women approached me.
"You must be the massage therapist. I'm the General's secretary."
We stood silently together as the coffin was lowered and prayers said. The prayers were caught in the wind and shredded on the trees above.
"He depended on your massages," the secretary told me as we walked toward our cars. "He said they made him feel peaceful. Pretty funny, huh?" she smiled but did not laugh.
"I think I gave him a massage just before he died," I said.
"He probably would have died sooner if not for you. He wasn't healthy enough to be in charge of this war. He was trying to convince the others to hold off on the invasion, but the plans were inflexible, set in concrete. You know, he tried to get some of them to go to you for massages."
"No," I said. "He said he didn't want to do that."
"Well, some of them sure could use one. That's what the General used to say. Look at them." She nodded her head at the other generals. "So stiff."
I watched them climb down into their limousines as if the cars were bomb shelters and the road paved with terrorists. They roared off to the war room.
"Do me a favor, please" I said, pulling some dog-eared business cards from my coat pocket. "Could you hand these out to them?"
She took the cards from my hand. The war was escalating.