So I’ve been noticing lately that sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night having fallen asleep on my arm and I can’t feel it or move it. It’s moderately distressing, although after a minute or two of massaging it with my other hand the feeling comes back, and I’ve heard other people talk about this happening to them. Weirdly it’s a total numbness, not like the pins-and-needles sensation of my foot falling asleep, which it sometimes does even when the rest of me is awake, and I still can’t figure out why it’s only my foot that gets bored. At night it’s always my right arm and I’m left-handed so I assume it’s not a big deal, although I’m getting older and I can’t take my health for granted. Not that I ever should have taken my health for granted and I’ve gone a pretty long way on mostly luck, but there’s no sense in taking risks. I don’t want to wake up some morning and have my arm simply fall off, or maybe decide to detach itself and crawl away because, like my foot, it’s gotten really bored and doesn’t want to stick around anymore.
That reminds me of a joke I heard when I was a kid about a young man who’s born with a screw in his navel. It’s a very peculiar thing and he feels very self-conscious about it—needless to say this joke was going around long before navel-piercings peaked in popularity, and, while I’m not that old, I guess the idea of a young man feeling self-conscious about a screw in his navel was a holdover from the ultra-conformity of the Eisenhower years. Or maybe it came from the Sixties when navel-gazing peaked in popularity. Anyway, the joke goes, the young man spends years of his life with a screw in his navel and finally finds a doctor to take it out. The next morning he’s so excited he jumps right out of bed and his ass falls off.
Even at the time I was baffled by the popularity of this joke. I heard it from my parents and from kids at school. I think I even remember the pastor of our church bringing it up in one of his sermons, although my parents went to a very progressive church where one Sunday the pastor gave a sermon on joy and started listing off joy in various forms: the joy of simply living, the joy of coming home after a long trip, “and,” he added, with a very un-pastor-like twinkle in his eyes, “in the brown paper wrapper, The Joy of Sex,” but that’s another story.
To get back to the joke about the young man with the screw in his navel, I do love the ending. Sure, it’s ain’t exactly The Twilight Zone, but it’s funny and surprising and leaves me wanting to know more, which is the perfect sort of ending. It’s the setup that’s problematic. I have no problem with a story that takes a completely different turn, or an essay that starts off on one subject then veers wildly off onto something else, but there should be some logic to it, some connection. What happened when the screw was removed from his navel? Did the doctor not notice that it was unusually long or that it seemed to be connected to something else? These are important questions that seriously undermine the premise. They couldn’t put him in an MRI because that screw, being metal, would shoot out of him like a bullet, but even as a kid I wanted to know what this guy’s X-rays looked like. I also wanted to know why a screw in his navel would be that much of a concern. How many people were going to see it? He could have even, if you’ll pardon the pun or even if you won’t, turned it into an asset and joined the circus, charging rubes two bits to see the screw in his navel before they moved on to see The Bearded Lady or, if it were one of those really cheap circuses, The Bearded Man. Some of this I thought about after hearing the joke but some tellers could really draw it out, making it a real shaggy dog story, giving me plenty of time to sit and listen and think how, logically, a screw in someone’s navel would be more likely holding up their nuts.