Grandma got sick and something was going on with her kidneys. She was always thirsty and she got this growth on the inside of her bottom lip. She was always sucking at it and wincing. I was a little boy when this happened, about 4 years old, and one of my earliest memories was the local doctor coming over with his medicine bag to take a look at her while she was sprawled and wheezing on the bed. The doctor looked old, wrinkles criss-crossed like cracked Earth across his forehead, dark liver spots accentuated the stringy forest of his receding hairline. He looked older than grandma, too old probably to be practicing medicine. But he examined grandma’s mouth with an intense, hard focus and said he needed to do a small operation, he could do it from the comfort of her room. Both my mom and dad had to work the day it was scheduled, so I was home, in the other room. I was instructed by my parents to make myself scarce, to not get in the way.
I saw the doctor enter grandma’s house from the back door, they arranged to leave it unlocked. I was in the kitchen sneaking milk and stale molasses cookies. He was wearing a surgical mask. His eyes were dark, almost black, so piercing you could sense their will to make you leave. The other thing I noticed was he wore this large tan trench coat. His medicine bag looked big and heavy. As I went quickly to the basement staircase he said “don’t bother your grandma, or she will die, you understand?” His voice sounded like it was pinched with vibrating sand paper. I didn’t answer. I just closed the door.
I hid out in the basement and played with dump trucks. The chipped cement indented my knees and made their marks for a long time. I could swear I still saw them when my pasty knees showed themselves for the first time at the start of each season of track and field as I got into my teenage years.
I was trying to build a little mountain out of the concrete gravel on one side of the washer and dryer, trying to forge a job for my dump truck to scoop up. I heard some grinding upstairs, like a super powered vacuum, something wet slurped over a motor.
I heard grandma screaming, so I decided to disobey my parents, the doctor, because I couldn’t stand to let my grandma, who loved me, suffer. I ran up the stairs and threw open the door to her bedroom. The doctor pivoted to see who was intruding. He was no longer wearing the trench coat, he was in a lab coat. The coat wasn’t buttoned and I could see a sort of vest hanging from his chest made from plastic bags, with something gooey and pink inside. A metal attachment at the end of a plastic accordion-style tube extended through his right hand sleeve. Something dark and red dripped from the tip of the metal attachment. The doctor howled at me but it didn’t drown out my grandma’s screams. She leaned over the side of the bed to see who came into the room. The flesh around her mouth was missing. A lipless grin displayed teeth, their roots, and a thin layer of her gums. Blood was splashed across the white of this wicked smile. Her eyes were thick with gunk and tears. The screams clashed with the image of seeming glee indicated by the sculpted shape of a frozen chortle.
The doctor pulled off his mask so he could lick the metal rim of his vacuum hose, to unclog a piece of flesh that was starting to flap. The doctor had no flesh around his mouth either, just like grandma. But where there was flesh, it was scarred, like it had healed a long time ago. His gums were a healthy pink. Come to think of it, he came into grandma’s for the examination the day prior wearing that same mask, had said it was to prevent infection.
The doctor swung the metal part of the hose and pushed it against my chest. It suctioned near my left nipple. It felt like something was cutting my skin. As it was doing this, the fleshy pulp in the bags that hung off the doctor’s vest started gulping and kissing the liquid that was stirred. That was when I realized, in those bags were lips, swollen as they soaked in a dirty brine.
I shouted at the doctor and tried to step back, but the doctor pulled me toward him. His vacuum overpowered my tiny boy’s body. I reached around and grabbed onto the door frame and pulled hard, twisting my torso to face back out that door. There was a strain in my back that made it tough to fight against the pull of that hose, but I was able to twist my chest to such an angle that the hose lost its suction, it slid away, something sharp cut out my nipple. I still don’t have that nipple, I can show you. As I was taking my first step to sprint out into the hallway, the doctor tried to clamp down his hand on my shoulder, but his palm was cold and wet and slid off as I ducked and ran.
My parents didn’t believe me. They thought I was a foolish brat for making such claims. Grandma died from complications of trying to remove cancerous cells from her bottom lip. It had spread so far there was nothing anybody could do anyway. They were just trying to provide some bit of comfort to that part of her body so she could enjoy eating again in her final weeks. This is what they told me.
I would ask questions throughout the years.
“What was his name?”
“Goddammit son, you’re still on about that? You imagined that crap!”
“Just tell me his name?!”
They gave in one day, his name was Dr. Rip Hudd. He was long gone, retired soon after treating grandma, moved south for the warmer weather. In high school, when I’d have to go to the library for some research project, I’d distract myself trying to look up Rip Hudd. There wasn’t much information on him, but I did find his office used to be in a storefront that I knew of most recently as the Chinese restaurant that was shut down for serving cat. Before the doctor set up his practice there, it was a vacuum shop, which had experienced a fire that damaged the interior of the shop and all of the merchandise. The town paper described the remains of the shopkeeper, Seth Hudd, no relation to Rip that I could find, as being a mixture of ash and bubbled fat. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me that Rip Hudd pried his way out of those layers of melted skin, the resurrection of a malevolent life force, to brush himself off and take up a new trade.
I also learned that Rip Hudd was on his high school swim team and in the picture on the front page to commemorate their win in the state meet, I could see the young man had some big lips. He was also involved in a fracas at the science fair midway through his senior year. He had dug up his family’s cat, several years deceased, extracted the teeth and secured them with rubber cement to the mouth of one of his father’s exotic fishes. The African Cichlid died during the procedure but was brought back to life using a car battery. The judges almost awarded Rip first prize but his father stormed the fair and demanded they disqualify the boy. Rip and the father fought. Rip clawed at his father’s jaw, he was so furious with his meddling. The town police escorted them off school grounds. The next Sunday at the Methodist Church, the bandaged father turned to his son, sitting in the pew behind him, as the pastor finished his sermon and hissed through the gauze, “does any of this resonate with you?”
Rip laughed so hard, his head rocked back and forth as he was overwhelmed by chuckles. In a forward thrust he banged his face on the back of the pew in front of him. The father recoiled and Rip pulled his head back up to show his front teeth knocked askew, blood staining his grin.
“Nothing to worry about it, I’ll fix this. I’m the Lord’s mechanic.”
“Which Lord are you talking about?” his father asked.
The Hudd family moved to a different state. Rip graduated from high school in New Hampshire and went to medical school at Tufts. That was all the information I could find on him in a small town’s archives.
Last year when I had to get my gallbladder removed, I saw someone enter the operating room as the sleeping gas took hold and my consciousness started to fade. I only saw it briefly, but it was that doctor from long ago. The white lab coat bulged with the shape of weighty bags, liquid swishing the swollen flesh of stolen lips inside. The vacuum attachment hung down through his sleeve. Breath puffed the surgical mask. Then I was out.
I woke from surgery hours later. I was okay, but there was a cut on my bottom lip. I asked the surgeons why there was a cut on my lip and they said I had a restless moment when I was going under, I was biting my lip pretty hard.
When I got home I saw a little baggie taped to the bathroom mirror. Inside was a slice of lip skin and a sliver of paper with a handwritten message: I’ll be back when your lips are a little more thin and shriveled.