‘In the Cardinal’s Mouth’ by Chris Milam

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David lost three fingers on his right hand in a hydraulic press last year. It happened at a machine we called the Cardinal because it was painted red and we lived in Kentucky, home to the U of L Cardinals basketball team whose most prominent uniform color was red. We weren’t the most imaginative guys in the world. Anyway, the steel bird chopped off three fingers: middle, ring, index. His inhuman scream drowned out the thumping of all the presses inside the warehouse. It lasted longer than a smoke break. The foreman called for an ambulance, and David was on a gurney five minutes later. He didn’t give us the thumbs up like a football player does after getting carted off the field by a vicious hit, letting the fans know he’ll be okay. He just kept screaming.

David pushes a broom now. He slides across the concrete floor alone, starting at the front of the warehouse and curling around machinery until he finishes at the back of the plant. Then he does it again. And again. He wears earbuds and bops his head while mouthing the words to songs only he hears. It’s almost like he drifts somewhere between happy and content, but how can a man who lost a vital part of his body feel that way?

Some of us avoid him because he doesn’t square with our warped definition of what a man is anymore. He can’t play on the company softball team, can’t play pool on Friday nights after work at Jack’s tavern, can’t tee it up at our monthly golf scramble. He existed until the day the hydraulic press made him invisible. To us, at least. I know he’s married, but I don’t know how she feels about him after the accident, if she harbors any unspoken dissatisfaction. But Monica isn’t vain, she probably doesn’t care at all about his injury. Maybe it’s me who has a problem with him. Maybe it’s only me who sees a less than and different David. When he walks past my station, we exchange head nods and nothing else, not a single word. I’m not sure what to say to a man who’s lost what nobody wants to lose: his fingers, operator’s job, his work friends. It’s easier to remain silent when faced with an uncomfortable situation and confused thoughts. Right or wrong, it just is.

Whenever he sweeps around the Cardinal, I wonder if looks into its massive metal mouth and has the urge to reach in and snatch what was taken from him on that day nine months ago. It’s hard to know what’s brewing inside his quiet head. All I see is a man dancing along as if his life hasn’t changed for the worse. David just pushes his broom for eight hours, clocks out, and goes home like the rest of us. I guess some people are better at adjusting to tragedy and moving on than others. And maybe some of us need to learn from them.

Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, Sidereal Magazine, (b)OINK, Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.

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