In the movie “Jaws”, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider slice open a shark’s alimentary canal in search of human remains. They find a few fish, a tin can, a license plate from the state of Louisiana, but no undigested parts of people. Throughout the scene Richard Dreyfuss holds his nose and makes faces, conveying the idea that the shark’s insides stink to high heaven.
The shark in this scene is not the title shark of the movie. Instead it is a large but ordinary shark that the townspeople triumphantly catch during the first reel. It is a bogus shark, a plot device, allowing everyone to return happily to the water and be fish bait all over again. As for the movie’s gigantic, monstrous shark, we never learn what undigested surprises might lay inside it. As the movie ends, when Roy Scheider finally blows up the great beast, all we see are seagulls swarming over the exploded remains.
Seymour Merullo, a 53 year-old high school algebra teacher, was thinking about “Jaws” and sharks and undigested license plates as he lay in moderate pain in his hospital bed in White Vining, Virginia. Merullo knew exactly where the pain was coming from—his stomach—and exactly what was causing it—the inflamed tissues around two thumbtacks, a goldfish vertebra, and the broken crown of a queen from a plastic chess set. In a few quick spoonfuls, Merullo had downed these items with his vegetable soup some twenty-five years ago, and in his stomach they had stayed ever since.
Merullo had not eaten these objects on purpose. One day, two students who hated math and had a warped sense of humor decided to play a practical joke on their teacher and his love of vegetable soup. In interviews afterward, the students said that they never expected Mr. Merullo to actually eat that soup, into which they had also placed small bolts, washers, paper clips, buttons, a bra hook, and whatever else they had found available. The students had meant to perpetrate a harmless prank. But Merullo was very hungry that lunch time, and he wolfed down a gulp or two of the concoction before he realized he was swallowing something more than noodles, carrots, and tomatoes.
“All set for your surgery tomorrow, Mr. Merullo?” asked a nurse.
“Yes,” Merullo told her.
“Would you like to speak to Father Fontana?” The nurse was staring into her clipboard.
“No thank you.”
“Has Doctor Palmeiro been by?”
“Yes,” said Merullo. Earlier that day he had been given a heavy dose of barbiturates, leaving him groggy and dumb-headed. As the barbiturates wore off and his head cleared, his stomach began to hurt more. He also was a little frightened. Until two o’clock that afternoon he had never heard of Doctor Palmeiro or Father Fontana or anyone else associated with the White Vining Municipal Hospital. They told him that Doctor Palmeiro was a fine man and an outstanding general surgeon, but he could have been an outstanding garbage collector for as much as Merullo could attest.
“How about Doctor Daingen? Have you talked to her yet?”
“Doctor who?” asked Merullo.
“Doctor Daingen,” said the nurse “She’s the internist who examined you a few hours ago.”
“Oh,” said Merullo. “No, I haven’t spoken with her.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll be by soon. She has some forms for you to sign before we O.K. you for surgery.”
Merullo took a good look at the nurse; she was beginning to remind him of his elder daughter. Not because Merullo’s daughter was beautiful and statuesque like the nurse, but because Merullo’s daughter was also boring and proper and officious. Merullo’s elder daughter was a poorly paid accountant at an insurance company that kept transferring her around the country, usually without any raise in salary. Merullo’s elder daughter was overly neat and very fussy and eternally depressed or angry about something, such as the shabby treatment she received from her employers, or the noisy plumbing or poor air conditioning of whichever apartment she moved into, or the shortcomings of the single men who showed any romantic interest in her. Merullo silently chastised himself for not loving his elder daughter more than he did, and many of his self-imposed punishments took the form of visits to wherever she was living. Merullo’s other child, his younger daughter, had died some years earlier in the back seat of her boyfriend’s car. Merullo remembered the police report. The girl and her boyfriend had been necking and undressing each other when a drunk driver crashed into them, leaving the boyfriend with a broken arm and two cracked ribs but killing Merullo’s younger daughter instantly. Merullo’s wife had died shortly afterward. Merullo’s wife was a suicide.
So Merullo made the two-hour drive from Gilroy to San Francisco International, flew across the country on a cramped and ancient DC-10, rented a used Toyota from a cut-rate agency near Dulles Airport, only to have the detritus in his stomach suddenly seize him in agony on the freeway, just as he drove past the exit for White Vining, Virginia. It was all he could manage to drive the sedan to the shoulder and switch off the ignition, after which he heaved up the airport pancakes and breakfast sausage and whatever else he had eaten that day. Merullo doubled over in pain and passed out. The next thing he knew he was being sped away in an ambulance, watching his rented Toyota fade backward in the distance as the rest of the world spun around him.
In his mind’s eye, Merullo could see the X-ray of his chest and upper abdomen. His doctors in California had been taking the same X-rays for years. At first, they insisted that the tacks and fish bone and chess queen would dislodge themselves by and by. Certainly the goldfish vertebra would come out, they said. People eat and egest small things like goldfish vertebrae all the time. But despite months of conscientious fecal examining, Merullo never found any goldfish vertebrae, nor any thumbtacks nor broken crowns of chess queens. All the while, his doctors periodically subjected Merullo to gastric endoscopy, a process that involved shoving an optic tube down the esophagus while Merullo was doped silly. Invariably, the conclusions from these procedures were the same, that removing the foreign objects was not medically warranted. Instead, the doctors gave Merullo some Zantac and Mylanta and told him to let them know if the pains got worse.
“Mr. Merullo?” asked someone.
“Yes?” he replied from his bed.
“I’m Doctor Daingen. I am the internist who examined you when you came in.”
Doctor Daingen held out her hand, which Merullo shook carefully. Doctor Daingen was a young woman with cropped brown hair and a trim figure and a sweet voice. Almost instantly she reminded him of his dead wife, she was that beautiful. Suddenly Merullo felt embarrassed for his appearance. He was a 53 year old high school teacher with black hair that had turned quite gray, perhaps from the chalk dust from all those algebra equations. He had a pot belly and too much fat on his arms and legs, and he was beginning to get a double chin. But Merullo quickly realized that he was just another patient to this woman, a patient and nothing more.
“How do things look?” Merullo asked, meaning his stomach.
“They look fine,” she said. For a few moments, the young internist studied Merullo over the chart she was carrying, as if preparing herself to say something important.
“On behalf of the entire medical profession,” she said, “I want to apologize for the foreign objects that have been in your stomach all these years. They should have been taken out a long time ago.”
“Thank you,” said Merullo from his bed. “That’s an unusual thing for a doctor to say.”
“I’m an unusual doctor,” she replied. “Try to get a good night’s sleep. We’ll have you sign the consent forms in the morning.”
And she left him.
Alone in his hospital room, Merullo stared out the window. By night his room overlooked a small sea of empty streets and darkened houses, a community of sleeping, anonymous people. Merullo began to think about his honeymoon, an event from half his lifetime in the past. Merullo and his wife of six hours had driven down the California coast to San Simeon, where they ate fresh seafood and buttered sweet corn and toured Hearst Castle. They schemed about skinny dipping in the largest of the mansion’s swimming pools, the one surrounded by marble columns and statues of Roman gods. Instead they walked down to the beach, where they held each other and watched the sunset. They stayed there for hours, a lone pair in the darkness, listening to the black waves crash and recede in front of them.
Merullo eventually did fall asleep, wondering how and if his life could be different. That night he dreamt he was a dolphin, or a ray, or a whale, swimming silently and gracefully through deep waters.