April 5: “Medicine” by Michelle Richmond

Happy Tuesday, Story366! If you read yesterday’s post, you know that I’m doing a Books I Got at AWP Week this week, as that makes sense to me (though it’s awfully unfair to some of the books that have been waiting on my desk for the past three months …). Yesterday also marked Opening Day for the Cubs, which for Story366 might mean that we not only have a special themed week, but we might have a special themed seven months. Will I post Cub updates every day in the blog? I don’t know—that might not be what the blog is for—but for today, the day after Opening Day, I’m going to exercise that right. So …

Hey, did you hear the Cubs won 9-0 last night?! I stayed up late and watched, catching every pitch, even though that meant missing most of one of the great NCAA tourney finals ever and not tucking my kids in. Man, they looked good! Jake was nasty. The offense put up nine. They chased the Angels’ starter after five. What a game! I don’t want to start saying, “162-0” at this point—it’s a little early—but after last night’s performance, I’m not sure if they will ever lose again. Time to fold the league! Game over! Go Cubs!!!

Okay, now that that’s out of my system (or not … check here tomorrow), I can move on to today’s book, Michelle Richmond’s Hum. I found this book at the FC2 table, the only story collection they had that I hadn’t read before, which is good, I guess, as that means I’ve read a lot of their (excellent) books already. It’s also good because Michelle is an old friend, back since she served as the visiting writing at Bowling Green one spring and her office was across from mine. Both of us also named our first-borns after Sesame Street characters (The Count and Mr. Hooper, fyi), so we have that bond as well. I’ve also read her first story collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, which one the AWP Award one year, and a couple  of her (many) novels, The Year of Fog and Dream of the Blue Room. It’s been a while, though, so I’m glad for AWP, the book fair, and this project, just to get caught up; I also published one of the pieces in Hum, “Hospitality,” in Mid-American Review some years back, so it was nice to see that story again.

There’s no exact formula for picking a story to write about for any given day, though usually, I will defer to the title story, which I could have done very easily. “Hum” is a really good story, a weirdly absurd piece about a woman finding a connection via the ambassador of a made-up country, an ambassador in which she’s helping—tangentially—to spy on. I like that story, but the one that stands out more is the second story, “Medicine.”

“Medicine” stands out for a variety of reasons. The main reason is, it’s an alternate-near-future story about a society in which Medical Manual Manipulation is a reality, a cure for everything that doesn’t have to be carved out of you or attacked with radiation and chemo. What’s Medical Manual Manipulation, you ask? Hand jobs. Legal, medically administered hand jobs. Trained and licensed technicians are called in once a patient is diagnosed for the treatment—kind of like a chiropractor—and then you take your referral to the technician and get a medical hand job. There are offices, insurance forms, scrubs, and Latex gloves. No touching (of the technician) is allowed, and neither is nudity or social contact after the procedure. Patience with stress, aches and pains, and upset stomachs, if they have the right coverage, can be cured what ails ‘em via a simple hand job. Perhaps it’s no shock, but this story appeared in Playboy before it appeared in Hum, because after all, isn’t Playboy itself a medical manipulation?

Richmond doesn’t make the story that simple, however—it’s not eroticism, or really, at any point, particularly erotic. The woman at the center of the story, the protagonist, has moved on to this profession after a personal tragedy. Her sister has died in a horrible way—she leapt from a burning building, four stories up—and the protagonist isn’t getting over the loss. While she’s working on distancing herself from her patients—something she’s tested on in her training—she needs to do the opposite in real life, try to find a connection. Throughout the story, the temptation is there constantly, and the story goes back and forth between the more medical storyline and the dead sister backstory. Sure, the premise is pretty shocking and sexual and such, but really, at the heart of “Medicine” is a story of loss, of sisterhood, and human connection. I giggled a bit at the opening, I admit, but after a couple of pages, the conceit established and the characters taking over, I was more concerned about the why than the how or the what. “Medicine” is a story about people needing healing, and that’s what Richmond wrote. It’s just different than any story about healing I’ve read, and those specifics make it stand out, make it the right story to write about today.

Michelle Richmond has put together an outstanding career as a writer, producing a couple of story collections and several novels. Hum is a really great book about people needing to connect, and sometimes, sex is how they know how to do that—the story I most remember from The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress is about a very lonely woman who seduces and the sexes up a Mormon boy who comes knocking on her door for a mission. I haven’t read everything by Richmond, but I’ve read a good hunk of her catalogue now, and Hum just reminds me of how much of a fan I truly am.