I stared at the prosthetic arms, legs, and other fake body parts displayed in the shop’s front window beneath the steady glow of a neon sign advertising: ARTIFICIAL LIMBS.
Mama and I walked through the front door of the shop. A short man dressed in a white jacket approached us. He was a hairy man; hair was sprouting above the top button of his shirt, and his arms were hairy all over. His name was Leroy Cook.
I was in this house of horrors because I had been diagnosed with scoliosis—curvature of the spine. An orthopedist had prescribed the treatment, a Milwaukee brace, a monstrosity of metal bars, screws, belts, pads, and hard plastic. This thing would be my closest companion 23 hours a day, corseted tightly around my hips and pelvic area with anterior and posterior bars attached to a circle of metal outfitted with a chin-rest in the front. My head would be thrust upward and backward, changing my field of vision.
Mr. Leroy led us back to a space resembling a large garage. Artificial flesh-colored body parts were resting on workbenches. Pails the size of paint buckets sat in the corner.
Mama and I followed him into an examining room. Mr. Leroy asked me to hop up on the table covered with white, crinkly paper.
“I don’t want to embarrass you, but you have to undress and put this on, so I can make an impression of your body.” He handed me a long length of stretchy material the color of an ACE bandage. “Pull it up under your arms and pull it down below your bottom,” he said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Mama turned her head away while I undressed. The mini tube dress accentuated my flat chest and protruding shoulder blades.
Mr. Leroy re-entered the room and instructed me to lie down on my back. He held a fancy ruler and a Sharpie-like pen. He gently explained what he had to do. Inked marks were drawn at the lowest part of my abdomen, lower than the waistband of my bikini underwear.
The next step in the process would be the plastering. It would be spread over my body like smooth icing. I would hold my arms over my head while keeping a firm grip on a metal bar to ensure a full extension of my torso. The plaster would dry while I stayed in the stretched position. A small round saw—it would not cut me—would cut the cast. It would come off like a rigid dress, and Mr. Leroy would make my brace using the sculpture of my body as his guide.
I looked at my mother at the end of the table. I will not cry. I will not cry.
It took Mr. Leroy two weeks to complete my Milwaukee masterpiece. I spent a second morning in my underwear in his exam room learning to slip on the brace like it was a casual piece of clothing. Arm to the left. Arm to the right. And the wide, rigid bar in the middle separating the two “armholes.”
I learned to secure the Velcro straps, linking the back bars to stabilize my corset. I was stuck.
The Captain D’s restaurant was bustling with the lunch crowd. It had been a difficult morning, and Mama wanted me to enjoy my favorite meal: fish and chips. Perhaps, she thought it would be a good place for me to experience my first public appearance wearing a brace. School was in session; there was little chance I would be seen by one of my classmates.
The hot and flaky fish refused to stay on my fork, sliding down my chin onto the cold metal bar jutting out from beneath the top of my blouse. When I lifted my drink to my lips, I couldn’t maneuver the straw to get it into my mouth. I was thirsty. The straw could not bend, and neither could I.
Pushing back hard from the table, I rocked front to back, plastic on plastic, attempting to propel myself from the unforgiving chair. I pitched forward, hit the edge of the table, and wobbled backward into the chair.
I shoved my food tray to the floor. Fish and french fries flew from their paper basket. Coca-Cola spattered on my pants. Mama grabbed napkins and knelt to soak up the Coke. She looked up at me.
“I want to go home,” I pleaded.
I flopped down on my bed, relishing the feel of my green, chenille bedspread beneath my back like a cat rolling around on a warm, asphalt driveway. The late afternoon sunshine filtered through the sheer window curtain splashed with orange, green, and pale pink flowers, creating a kaleidoscope of shapes on my wall.
I caught the glint of light off metal. My hour was up.
photo by Lisa Phillips