John Dermot Woods


I had no stomach. I didn’t have to work; I didn’t have to eat. I never knew the pleasure of lacking necessity. You might call it a disability; but the people in my neighborhood, they always treated me well. They didn’t stare. They didn’t tease me with their delicacies.

The old man with the stall on my corner sold a very special soup; he’d been selling it since his father retired before him. The fragrant soup – thick squishy noodles in a dandelion broth – was the pride of our neighborhood. Discos, museums and ethnic restaurants attracted visitors to other parts of the city, but the only thing that brought people to our lazily cramped streets was a soup mysteriously drawn from crushed petals and weed stems. Oversized foreign tourists even braved the complicated bus route to sample our soup. I tell you this because the old man with the stall on my corner never once asked me to try his soup. I’d catch him placing a lid over his tureen when I walked by, containing the aroma. He didn’t want to tempt me, to draw attention to my lack.

I rattled some folks. Rationally, they knew I had no stomach. But, still, my behavior vexed them. Why would a man watch rushing water for days on end? (This is what I did.) What they couldn’t understand was that, in the truest sense of the word, I was sated, and, as such, I was blessed with time; I had nothing to spend my hours chasing. When the seasonal downpour came twice a year I sat by our usually dry canal and watched it fill. The frothy brown rush threatened to spill over, into our local well, and spoil the drinking water – the famous local water that was the base for our soup. I loved the tension, the threat to our prosperity. It kept me rapt for days, each season, until the last drop of the rainy season passed us by.

I could spend days by the canal, because no one was waiting for me. Families are support systems, clusters of people who come together in mutual reliance, providing for one another’s needs. As such, I didn’t have one. I never had any reason to find a wife, and my stomachless personality never made me much of a catch, anyway. I found pleasure elsewhere.

My joy was in watching those who had what I didn’t. I spent most mornings on my park bench watching the woman who lived beneath a tarp. She slept in, putting off the hunger pains that came with the day. Then I would follow her on her daily rounds as she struggled for handouts, cold soup noodles from kitchen backdoors, handfuls of change from the folks who knew her well, but never asked her name. I spent most afternoons back in the park again, beside the public restroom, hoping to see a fat tourist who had made himself sick with too much soup, running to relieve himself however he might. His violent relief would fascinate me; the wretches, the expulsions, the stenches, they were exotic wonders, something I could experience only by proxy.

My life without a stomach was not simply a life of lollygagging between bouts of wonderment. It was especially difficult at festival time, which came twice a year, at New Year’s and at the exact height of the summer, a time when candles are hung from every house, shop and child in the neighborhood, and music is piped from dawn until dusk through the public address system. The center of every festival was a feast. Our widest avenue was roped off and dining room tables from everyone’s homes were placed end-to-end. A steaming bowl of soup was left before each chair. And no matter how long the collective banquet table grew (two or three table lengths a year), no place was set for me; my abstinence was assumed. And though I wished to sit with them all, there was no one, no mother or no wife, to make my case. So I would return to watch the river. But, as festivals never come during the rainy season, there was nothing to watch but a dry canal, with an occasional scrap of trash pushed along by a dull breeze, vaguely tracing the path of the river that came through twice a year.
Late this winter I felt something, a sensation in my cavernous gut. I’m tempted to describe it as an ache. I visited my physician. (“This will be a quick one,” he said with a smile as I entered his waiting room.) He listened to my abdomen and his face became serious. He demanded x-rays immediately. And what he found was barely a shadow. He showed me the translucent image; there was something growing inside me. He couldn’t be sure, but he said he would bet money that my stomach had finally arrived. Would I like it removed? If we did it soon, it would be a simple procedure. In and out.
The spring has come and is almost gone. I wait in this dry canal for the rainy season which is due any day now. There was a time when the days passed as fast as I pleased, but now I’m distracted, and sometimes the hours drag. At other times, they are lost without notice. As I wait for the rain to come, there is a new pain inside me. Sometimes it grows so strong, it is almost unbearable, but I’m sustained by the prospect of relief, my first relief.

The doctor was crossing the bridge yesterday and caught sight of me sitting here. He called out, “It’s not too late. A simple procedure. In and out.” But I will not visit his office again. I will remain here and wait for the river to come and take me. And, when the storms subside, if the pain has not defeated me, I will go to the festival and I will find my place at the table.

John Dermot Woods lives with his family in Brooklyn, NY. His most recent book is a comics collection called Activities (Publishing Genius). Next year his novel The Baltimore Atrocities will be published by Coffee House Press.

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