Fiction by Ann Tinkham • Photo by Kees Terberg


Needle Man Sticks Bat Girl

I first went to him to cure general malaise. It had moved in and was my constant companion. The permanent expression on my face was: is this all there is? Everyone was always asking me, “What’s wrong?” And I would say, “Nothing, really.”

But after all my schooling—I had earned a PhD in bats—I was now stuck in a cubicle writing copy for a natural history museum. My current gig was writing for Body Worlds. Stuff like, “Come see dead people. Dead Germans frozen in time, in action. Slices of humans. The work of a cannibal serial killer.” But of course I couldn’t write what I really thought about the dead people exhibit. So, instead I wrote stuff like: “Experience the power and vulnerability of the wondrous human body. A once in a lifetime chance to explore what’s on the inside.”

I was originally thinking about going to med school, but I couldn’t get past the idea of working with dead people in formaldehyde. But as it turned out, the cadavers found me. Don’t ever run away from anything in life; it will always find you.

Everyone told me that I was lucky to have such a cool job. And I would respond with a grateful-for-my-cool-job smile, but I didn’t feel anything. Not grateful. Not ungrateful. Just nothing.

People at work got creeped out by my bat décor in my cubicle. I had a bat on a bouncing string hanging from above. My coworkers would sometimes bump into it and squeal. I had bats velcroed to my beige cubicle walls. I hung a giant bat poster with dozens of different species displayed. That one would usually get an “eeew” or an “eek” from women and then they would turn their back on it. I was tired of my gender—one that was squeamish with all things creepy-crawly.

This was as close as I could come to having a bat cave in my current life. Sometimes I dreamt that if I were living with bats, I’d be more alive. But it was hard to find bat cave jobs, unless you’re an animated character in Gotham City. Which I’m not, unfortunately.

So when he first asked me why I had come, I said, “I feel nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Surely you feel something.”

“No, surely I don’t.”

“That doesn’t give me much to go on.”

“Do I have to give you something to go on?”
           
“It would help. Mostly people come to me because they feel too much.” I laughed.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Wow, your laugh lights up the room. That’s how I know you feel something.”

“Really? I do?” He jotted something in his notes. He made a little table and wrote things in it. I tried to read upside down. But it was squiggles and signs. I wondered if he knew what he was writing.

“Anything else to report?” I wanted to tell him that I was sick of writing cheerful copy about dead people and that I preferred bats to humans, but I decided not to open with that.

“Guess not.”

“Do you really mean that?” He touched me on my arm.

“It’s just that…Yes, I mean that.” He peered into my eyes; he knew there was more, but I didn’t want to say anything else.

“OK, up on the table.” He directed me to the table by the window.

“Lie down and I’ll get your pulses.” The thing that differentiates me from the dead people in the exhibit. My pulses. Otherwise, that might be me on a skateboard or in a tutu, my muscles, ligaments, and tendons exposed for eternity.

He held my left hand for a few minutes and then walked around and held my right. Then he walked back around and held my left and then my right. It was like when someone holds your hand when you’re grieving or something. It made me want to cry. At one point, he said, “Hmmm.”

“What?”

“The gate to your courtyard is closed and the metal and wood are out of balance. You’re a fire person.” Huh? It sounded like a bad horoscope.

“I didn’t know I had a courtyard.”

“We all have courtyards.”
           
“Maybe my courtyard is on fire.” He didn’t acknowledge my acu-humor. He closed his eyes and held my hand some more.

“Your pulses are bow-string.”

“Like a violin? But I guess if I were a string instrument, I’d be more like a cello.” He walked over to his book, put his hand on his chin, scratched his hair—what was left of it—and then walked over to the needle zone. Oh God. Puncturing time.

I wasn’t one of those fainting at the sight of needles people, but I can’t say I was at peace with them, either.

He said, “Shirt off. I need your back.”

“Oh, but I don’t have a bra on.”
           
“That’s OK.” OK with whom?

“Do you have a blanket or something?” He grabbed a blanket from inside a chest. Like you could have offered me one. What? Were you trying to sneak a peek? I slipped my shirt off and held the blanket over my chest.

He was touching my back up and down my spine, counting.

“OK, breathe.” I breathed in. The needle went in and caused a reverberating sensation. Not good. Not bad.  “Release.”

We did the breathe and release thing half a dozen times, each needle feeling different—hot, stinging, rippling pain, electrifying, pinching. Who knew there were so many different sensations when punctured?

“You can put your shirt back on, Sydney. Then I need your pulses again.”

He poked me with needles in my feet, hands, and fingers, until I felt as if I were a pin cushion.

It was after the pin cushion feeling that I started to notice a change. I looked up from a supine position into the brilliant blue eyes of this fair-haired needle man. I hadn’t seen him when I walked in, but I sure noticed him as I walked out.

  *

The needle bearer permeated my daily thoughts. I thought about him biking to work with my latte in my water holder. I thought about him while writing about dead people laminated for public viewing. He popped into my mind while searching the Internet for bat jobs. Bat Girl stuck on Needle Man, or rather Needle Man sticks Bat Girl.

I still couldn’t feel anything about my life—only about him. I found myself counting the days until my next session. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

  *

“Did you notice anything different this week?”

“Not really.” I lied.

“OK, we’ll have to do something about that. Won’t we?” His blue eyes locked with mine, as though he was trying to unlock a clue.

“Up on the table.” He held my hand with both hands and closed his eyes. I looked up at him. His lips were concentrating; his eyebrows were earnest and his nose was alert. He was sensing me—me the unfeeling one. I felt a twinge of vulnerability, and shifted my weight. I was feeling antsy. Suddenly didn’t want to be seen.

“OK, we need to clear your heart so your spirit can have a home.”

“My spirit doesn’t have a home? That sounds serious.”
           
“Exactly. Like all gates, the Spirit Gate must open and close freely. The spirit must be able to move freely, responding to any need. Locked out of its home, or with the gate stuck open, the spirit cannot rest.”

“Wow. That makes sense, I suppose. My spirit doesn’t have a home.” He took my wrist and stuck a needle in the fold where the hand meets the arm.

“OUCH!” It smarted like a funny bone incident.

“Good.”

“Good?”
           
“That was your heart protector point. It had a major release.”

“What does that mean?”

“I can’t really explain it in layman’s terms.”

“Try.”

“The chi from your wind is hollow.”

“Oh, I see what you mean.” He touched me in a reassuring way on my upper arm; his hand print reverberated throughout my body, as though his hand were an instrument of acupuncture.

“I need to do a head point.”

“You’re going to stick a needle in my head?”

“The archway to the heavenly temple is blocked; your spirit can’t get in.” I thought about the plight of my wandering spirit and agreed to the head needle.

“OK.” The head needle went in and a warm feeling washed over my body that energized me. “Wow.”

“Did you feel that, too?” He touched my back and said, “Lie back.” He put his hands under my head, neck, back, and then head again. He touched my head, cradling it in his hands like a giant delicate bird egg. I imagined a mama bird treasuring her baby bird, waiting for a chick to emerge. I felt a warm tear forming at the edge of my eye and start to make its way down my cheek. I reached up to stop the flow. His hand met mine.

“It’s OK. Don’t stop it.” His words opened up a floodgate. My tears streamed down the side of my face; I let them fall. I had no idea why I was crying. He moved his hands to the top of my head and stroked my hair. I wondered if it was appropriate acupuncture behavior, but I didn’t care.

He waited until the tears stopped flowing and said, “I think your spirit found its home.”

“How can you be sure?”
           
“I need your pulses again.” He finished stroking my hair and got up to do the usual hand-holding routine. He smiled down at me. “Perfect. You’re all set.” But I didn’t want to be all set. I wanted to stay and be needled. Needled more? What was wrong with me?

*

I sat at the end of a long, rectangular conference table at work, listening to meeting attendees talk about pitching dead people.

“How can we de-emphasize the cadaver factor?” asked the PR director. 

“Focus on the mysteries of the human body and the ability for the first time in history to view the magic of life,” said a PR associate with hair that curled up and under.

My mind trailed off to Needle Man—the tufts of hair on his pink scalp, his liquid blue eyes, mouth in a permanent question and sexy crossed front teeth. His tender touch and electrifying needles. His ability to see through me—as though my body were transparent.

“Sydney, what’s your take on this approach? You’ve got to be comfortable writing this copy.” I was startled back into the room when I heard my name.

“I’m sorry I was thinking about another aspect of the project.  Can you repeat what you said?”

“I said our pitch should emphasize the magic and mysteries of the human body.” While I considered a response, all eyes were on me.

“I don’t know. To me, there’s no magic in body slices. I think we need to say it like it is. All of the specimens are without skin so you can see the bones, muscles, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, organs, even genitals.”

A hush overtook the room. Eyes were darting about; people were shifting in their seats and clearing their throats. I thought I should take back what I said, but as I opened my mouth to rescind, the PR director said, “You know, Sydney, I think you’re on to something. Your approach has a two-fold benefit. One is that people will know what they’re getting into. The second is that people will be fascinated by guts and truth.”

Guts and truth. Leave it to the PR director to come up with a compelling sound bite about dead people.
           
After the guts and truth bit, and me turning into the meeting superstar, I checked my day timer, not for my next dead person deadline, but for my next appointment with Needle Man. Four days. I felt my stomach flip-flop thinking about Thursday. Four days of writing cadaver copy until I could feel the electricity again. I wondered what exactly was happening to me.

*

“Did you notice anything different this week?”

“Not really.” I lied again. His face dropped and he looked down, searching for something in his notes.

“Well, I suppose I feel something.”

“Really?” He looked up quickly, leaned forward and said, “Tell me more.”

“I’m feeling more alive than dead.”
           
“That’s something I suppose. But there’s more you’re not telling me.”

“That could be true of anyone. Don’t you think?”

“Sydney, stop evading. There’s something you need to tell me.”

“How is it that you can see me so clearly?” I asked him.

“Your soul is like a glass lake.”
           
“But I thought my spirit was homeless.”
           
“Sydney, your spirit is magnificent.” I felt suddenly exposed; as though I were standing naked in front of Needle Man. What was he seeing?

He motioned for me to get on the table in my usual supine position. He then slipped his hand down my shirt, in between my breasts. I flinched. What was he doing?

I almost said something, but then figured it was a clinical procedure. He removed his hand and then slipped it down the top of my pants to the edge of my pubic hair. Again, I nearly said something, but I felt a pulsing sensation between my legs. I wanted him to touch me. I wanted more.

Then I wondered what the hell was happening to me. I was lying on a clinical table, wanting this needle-bearing man to make love to me. Jesus.

His treatment went longer than usual—shirt off, shirt on, lying down and sitting up, turning around, needles in back, needles in arm, feet, and hands. I felt thoroughly punctured. His last point was the Heart Protector, which sent shockwaves through my system. I felt like a flowing stream of passion. 

  *

Was this acupuncture or was it voodoo?

I decided to investigate. I got online and Googled “acupuncture + love spells.” I came across this: “There are meridians and acupoints that if simulated can trigger an outpouring of love. If the chi has been stagnant for a time, the patient can be vulnerable to those around her, especially to the practitioner, who is opening up the heart channels.”

As I researched, I realized that this man, this love voodoo doctor, was intentionally making me fall in love with him.

I planned to show up at my next appointment wearing a leotard that had to be removed in order for him to get to points on my back. I envisioned undressing down to my underwear and bra. He would be so taken with me, he would instruct me to lie back and close my eyes. He would then climb on top of me and reach a point deep inside me, where no needle had gone before.

  *

“Hi Sydney,” he said with a sparkle in his eye.

“Hi,” I said with a mischievous grin.

“What’s so funny?”
           
“Nothing. I’m just happy to see you.” He hesitated.
           
“What’s new in the world of Sydney?”

“I’m feeling so much; it’s overwhelming.”

“Good, good,” he jotted this down in his notes. "I’m so glad to hear it. Jump up on the table for me. Let’s feel those pulses.” You’ll be feeling my pulses in no time.  I lay back and gave him my hand. A bolt of electricity traveled between our hands.

“OK, I’m going to do some feet and hand points.”

“You don’t need my back today?”

“Nope. Why? Did you want me to do your back?”
           
“Well if you don’t need to, it’s OK.” He inserted several needles in my feet—in and out. Then took my pulses again. He went to the head of the table, and put his hands under my back and neck. Next thing I knew, his hand was down my shirt—in between my breasts. This is where I come in. I took his hand in mine and moved it over to my breast. Then I held my hand on top of his to signal that I wanted him there.

“Sydney?! What are you doing?” He withdrew his hand.

“It’s OK. It’s what you want. I do, too.”
           
“No, no, no. Sydney, Sydney, Sydney. I’m feeling your core body temperature.”

“Oh, c’mon, love voodoo doc. We’ve come this far.”

“Love voodoo doc? Holy shit, you have the wrong idea!”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been using your needles to get me to fall in love with you. I’m your voodoo doll. It’s OK.  I won’t tell, if you don’t.” He went over to his chair and sunk into it facing his desk, putting his head in his hands. I sat up and swung my legs around on the table. “I won’t file a sexual harassment suit. You have my word.”

“Sydney, I don’t know where you got this love voodoo stuff, but you’re totally off base. I’m just helping you start to feel again.”

I sat on the table, confused. Hadn’t all of our sessions been leading up to this? He loved my laugh; he could see my spirit; he helped my spirit find a home; he could see me like no other man had ever seen me.
           
“Maybe it’s best if you leave, Sydney.”
           
“Will you see me again?”
           
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“But the job is half-done.”

“I’ll give you referrals.”

  *

I was in my cube, writing copy and stuck on: You’ll never look at the human body the same way again.

I couldn’t think clearly. The Needle Man incident hung heavy in my heart—my heart that was starting to open up. I was starting to feel, and then the door slammed shut.

The phone rang, and I answered in monotone, “PR department, Sydney.” It was the Director from Oregon State University that I had interviewed with months ago; she wanted to offer me a position as a Bat Research Technician in Southeast Alaska. She reminded me that the duties would include capturing and handling bats, guano collection, and recording and analyzing echolocation calls.

She asked me if I still had the enthusiasm to perform field work throughout the night in rugged, potentially uncomfortable settings (bugs, weather, darkness, etc.). She told me that bear activity would be high in most study areas and I would be required to carry and be prepared to use a high-powered rifle.

Beige cubicles, laminated dead people, and voodoo docs versus bugs, bats, and bears.

“Are you kidding?”

“Of course, you’ll want time to think it over.”

“I’m in.”

*

The last thing I did before I and my giant backpack and duffel bag left my apartment for Alaska was to call Needle Man. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to show him that I was moving on.

“Hello?”
           
“Hi. It’s Sydney.”

“Oh, hello.” Cold blast from the other end of the line.

“I just wanted you to know that I’m headed to Alaska to work with bats.”

“Good for you. Listen, I’m sorry about the misunderstanding, Sydney. But I knew that once your spirit was in the temple, you’d find your path.”

“Yeah, thanks.” He was right about one thing; my spirit had come home. He was wrong about my home, though. It wasn’t a courtyard or a temple. It was a bat cave.



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