The Clafouti Syndrome
by Adam Benforado
hings break or were never made right. Often you can tell just by getting a good first look.
Carl came into my office wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt and tight leather pants. He had gray hair, but was not balding. His fingernails were very clean and well cut. His right hand was shaking slightly.
I sat him down in the chair and took out my tools. I operate by the book so I don't ask any questions.
He emptied his pockets on the table. There were car keys, two sticks of gum, and a cracked hearing aid.
A visible aberration may have a number of causes. One can rank the likelihood of these causes. If you are dealing with a large group, this prioritization may prove beneficial. 13% of the time the cause of a non-ticking clock is that the grasshopper spring has become clogged with hair. 40% of the time the cause is that the clock was not meant to tick in the first place. You cannot fix a clock by playing the averages. Also, don't ask the clock what's ailing it. It'll tell you cancer every time.
He undid his trousers for me and I took off his ears.
Next, I removed his nose.
I hadn't seen one like him for a while so I had to go get a manual out of the study to figure out how to undo his thumbs.
I set out everything real carefully. "A prescribed pattern encourages accuracy" is how I learned it. This is a key point for apprentices. You've got to have a system. Just like in basketball. Every time you go to the free throw line you've got to have the same routine. Bounce, bounce, spin, and shoot. Nose next to ears next to thumbs.
I hadn't taken in his girth when he first waltzed in and by the time I had disassembled his lungs it was clear that all the bits wouldn't fit on the table. Since it was after four, I retired to the cafeteria. I packed as much as I could fit into a pushcart, but I still had to make a second trip. The head may have rolled out at some point.
"Carl," I said. "I'm sorry."
He gave me a wink.
Miss Clever who works the salad bar brought me out a snack "cause I looked famished." It was an apple and a piece of lemon meringue pie. I absolutely adore meringue.
It was near 6:30 when I finished the preliminaries. I did a few stretches and then I got out my chart to do the crossing off.
Lip section A = Check
Lower pectoral = Check
Left testicle semi-globe = Check
Heart cube C-17 = Slight discoloration
Flowering coccyx stem = Check
Asymmetrical cortex ring = Missing
There are 3291 bits to sort through. When you have a system it takes a surprising 1 hour 20 minutes to run down the list. Some items almost never go bad. In all my years, I have never come across a rotten right-lower nipple sack. Only once have I found a misplaced pinky cylinder.
For Carl there were three problem spots and he was altogether without two items. I went to the storeroom and was rather disappointed to find that I was lacking a replacement fourth vertebrae support lever. I am always cautious about doing an incomplete refurbishing. You see, you can potentially make things worse. I'm not saying this happens all the time, but I am a man of science and we like to air on the side of caution. Sometimes having two things missing means that they cancel each other out. Say you are missing the thing that makes your hair curly. Well, if you are also missing the thing that keeps it straight, it will go curly anyway in favorable environmental conditions. There are far more dire examples.
At 9:30, Carl's wife arrived to pick him up. She looked worried when I said the procedure required a little more time. I attempted to look resolved, steadfast, and above all, knowledgeable. Really, I was still mulling things over; considering the options; and evidently, busy losing a debate with myself on whether or not to send him off only partially bettered. He was still in bits and pieces. I didn't tell her this, of course. It wouldn't help—especially with someone squeamish about bodily fluids. Seeing what a surgeon really does is not a pretty sight. It can cause fainting.
They were already behind schedule for a movie date. She explained how much she enjoyed the previews. "They're half the price of admission really." I noticed her eyebrows were crooked.
I lied and said it would be about 40 minutes. It really doesn't matter what you tell people; you just have to say something. They've done the psychological experiments to prove it. I also said it looked like acute flibritus, but wanted to check for a label 2 basal endema. These are not real conditions so it was good she didn't ask for more details. She said something again about "previews."
I got myself a hot coffee. I usually do things by the book. It is nice when you can. Sometimes, though, you need to walk down the hall and get a baboon fourth vertebrae support lever from the animal sector parts room. Sometimes a good physician must improvise; must roll the dice and blend the edges. I felt invigorated.
Carl was reassembled in record time. I must have whistled while I worked. I even took a second to brush his hair and trim his sideburns. A beauty, I thought, a real gem I've made.
I smiled and Carl smiled.
"Carl," I said. "How do you feel, old boy?"
His eyes lit up. He leaned forward as if to whisper in my ear. His teeth flashed.
I frowned like a doctor. An untrained individual might have mistook the utterance. We often hear what we want to hear. "Care for tea?" I, however, heard it as it was meant to be heard. I glowered. You see, this was not normal.
There are occasionally odd results—things that would not be predicted by books. If I were writing a book I would suggest that he had actually said, "Bananas!" Odd, yes, but not unpredictable. As the argument would go (utilizing the Transitive Property of Equality or something very similar):
A. Baboons inquire after bananas when hungry.
B. Carl is now part baboon.
C. Carl inquires after bananas when hungry.
D. Carl is begging for bananas.
E. Carl must be hungry.
Unfortunately, Carl did not say, "Bananas." He said, "Clafouti."
Common sense would indicate that "clafouti" is a nonsense word. We are all quite familiar with the sounds of incoherence: the raving lunatic lecturing to the pigeons; the possessed religious type speaking in tongues; the baby babbling away in a baby world. Why wade though it? Why work to decipher? Indiscernible garble is, in the end, indiscernible. Walk away, common sense would say.
If this were a horror movie, one might argue for "Clafouti" being the wife of some ancient Pharaoh, murdered by the Pharaoh's mistress and now returned (in evil spirit form) to wreak vengeance upon mankind. Carl would play the possessed and I, the great exorcist. It would all be wonderful fun, but when the cards finally fell, it would all be wonderfully wrong.
Clafouti is, chiefly and exactly, a comestible—a foreign-type desert; indeed, one of my favorite deserts, before chocolate chip cookies and after lemon meringue pie. My mother used to call it cherry flan. I supposed that if Carl had said, "Cherry flan!" it would have been much less exciting all around.
Carl was still smiling. He stuck out his hand.
"Clafouti Claf-Claf Clafouti."
I said, "You're welcome."
It's dangerous to interfere when a patient believes himself or herself to be cured. Better to let a sleeping dog lie. Here's another one: messengers often get shot. Best to play it safe.
"Are you hungry, Carl?" I asked.
Carl raised his right eyebrow.
At this moment, Carl's wife came bounding through the door.
"Oh, Carl! You cured!" She exclaimed. "Doctor, thank you so much. In any case, we must be running along."
"Clafouti?" said Carl.
"Yes, dear. We can still make the late show if we hurry."
"No, we don't pay now. The insurance takes care of everything."
And they were out the door and motoring away.
I had barely moved during the entire encounter. When I finally lifted my arm, I realized I had missed dinner. I was starving. I went to the janitor's closet and got the keys to the little kitchenette down the hall. I was hoping someone had forgotten to eat his or her lunch. I was hoping there would be a brown bag with chips, a Coke, and a ham sandwich. I opened the fridge. There was exactly one item: a ripe banana. It appeared to have been sampled by some sort of animal. Normally, I would pass over such a delectable morsel, but as I mentioned before I was extraordinarily famished. I got out a knife and lopped off the broken end. I peeled back the sides. The inner fruit was pleasantly untouched, almost serene. I took a moment to marvel at the unexpected picture beneath the skin. I let my focus expand and dim. The banana became only a color—faint yellow against the background. A dark blemish floated like a tumor where the spoiled end had been placed on the table. I closed my eyes. I brought a bite to my lips and imagined ham, Swiss, and a touch of rye.
Adam Benforado is currently a Knox Fellow with the Cambridge University Faculty of Law.
His writing has appeared in a diverse mix of publications from newspapers and magazines (Boston Review, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe) to academic journals (Emory Law Journal, Crustaceana, Maryland Law Review) to more eclectic fare (Gestalten, Circle, Cricket Online Review). New work is forthcoming in the New Hampshire Review and alice blue.
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story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved