“A Stammerer at a Wedding” NF by Rick White

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Richard the First; that was the answer.

I can’t remember exactly what the question was.

My hand shot up to answer it, partly because I was a jumped up little know-it-all and partly because the answer was my name. Of course the teacher called on me.

‘Yes Richard…’

‘Richard the First.’ Is what I tried to say but for some reason the words wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t speak so I just sat there with a dumb look on my face as everyone in the class started to laugh. They all thought I was playing some sort of weird joke by putting my hand up and then pretending not to know. I tried to play along by feigning ignorance but I knew I was going redder and redder as the humiliation burned in my cheeks.

I don’t know why I couldn’t speak, it just felt as though the words were stuck in my throat. And the more I tried to speak the harder it seemed until I knew there was just no way I was ever going to be able to say the words.

After what seemed like eternity the teacher got bored of whatever game I was playing and let someone else answer the question. I slumped in my chair, cocooned in shame and wished for the ground beneath the classroom to open up and swallow me whole.

I was 10 years old when that happened and it’s affected me, periodically, throughout my life. I’ve never been a chronic stammerer, I don’t do that machine gun style stuttering but I do trip over words a bit and just occasionally that overwhelming fear of not being able to say a word stops me dead in my tracks and I’ll have to select another word that is easier to say than the one I feel stuck on.

That’s part of the reason I now go by Rick instead of Richard. It’s easier to say. I read in the Stephen King novel IT, which features the character Stuttering Bill, that the one word that stammerers have the most trouble with is their own first name. I also have trouble with anything which starts with a vowel so, ‘I, Richard’ is a potential nightmare for me. Hence, I was quite nervous at my wedding.

Like I said, I’ve never really been a chronic stammerer. I’ve gone years without even thinking about it but every once in a while it just starts niggling at me. My mum mentioned it quite recently in a rather jokey and dismissive way, ‘Richard had a funny little stutter…’ I replied that it was most likely the result of some deep-seated emotional trauma caused by one or the other (or a combination of both) parents. I’m not sure whether my mum would’ve taken my reply as just a joke or as a deliberate swipe at her. To be honest I often can’t tell the difference myself when I’m talking, it’s a bit of a negative trait I’ve developed of being quite acerbic at times for no good reason. When I said it though I suddenly thought, for the first time, that I might have actually had a point.

My parents divorced when I was eleven years old and for at least a couple of years before that it had been very obvious, even to a young child, that their marriage was failing. More than that, it was obvious that they could no longer stand each other. Aside from the screaming arguments which would often keep me awake at night, there was the emotional game playing and pettily-vicious point scoring in which they were constantly engaged.

As things progressed they started trying to undermine one another in front of us, their children. This is classic politics – you don’t just attack your opponent directly – instead you distort everything that they stand for in the eyes of the voters. You subvert and vitiate and corrupt everything which that person represents before eventually annihilating them altogether. Winning hearts and minds can prevail over superior force. Divorce 101 for beginners.

What’s that? Ok I’ll give you an example you sick fuck, if you really want to hear about it. When I was ten years old my dad decided to get a motorbike. It’s a fact that motorbikes are reckless, dangerous, and totally rock and roll. Naturally my brother and I thought that the motorbike (and by extension my dad) was the coolest thing ever. Motorbikes are also pretty expensive and one of the things my parents argued most about was money so the whole motorbike thing was always going to be giving off sparks in the powder keg in which we were living.¹


¹ I got my first CD at around this time – a split LP of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler’s greatest hits. Fucking loved it and used to listen to it on headphones whilst singing along to every song must’ve driven my parents nuts.


Now, for my Dad’s birthday (it was his 40th if I’m remembering this right) he wanted a leather jacket. Awesome right? You’ve got to have a leather jacket if you’re going to ride a motorbike and me and my brother wanted to go and help him pick it. So we all went out as a family to this big motorbike warehouse. We picked out loads of leather jackets and of course they were all super cool but while me and my brother were running round getting excited my mum and dad were talking in hushed tones whereby it was decided (I assume) that the leather jackets were too expensive and impractical. So the jacket which my dad went home with as his 40th birthday present was a bulky, black, kevlar-coated anorak. The kind of thing a traffic warden might wear in inclement weather.

That evening, we all sat down to enjoy a celebratory meal during which my mum looked up and asked;

‘Do you like your jacket then?’ to which my dad replied;

‘Well beggars can’t be choosers can they?’ Then they both went back to eating their dinner in silence.

I don’t know if they had any idea that I knew what was going on and actually at the time I didn’t quite understand it. Why did my dad not want a leather jacket? Why did he get that shapeless monstrosity that no one liked?

My mum had won that particular round, managing to transform my dad from a devil-may-care, leather jacket wearing motorbike hero, into a sad, middle-aged man in an anorak. I don’t know if I realised exactly what’d happened at the time or whether I thought of it as I got older but what I do remember is the sadness at that dinner table. Four people eating dinner together – two lonely parents and two confused kids.

At least that’s how I remember it but who knows, maybe I’m wrong? Maybe my dad had deliberately picked that jacket just to be a burning martyr and have something to complain about. Maybe the whole thing happened completely differently, or not at all. The thing with families is that they aren’t just the sum of their parts, they aren’t fixed or finite. Memory is imperfect – incredibly so. And therefore for most of us, the idea of our ‘family’ becomes our own personal mythology. We are the unreliable narrators of own lives and events get obscured and distorted over time, their significance becomes amplified or diminished as we observe them through different sets of eyes at different times in our lives.

What I do remember though is the feeling of sadness at that dinner table. Four people eating dinner together– each of them alone in some way.

I always thought I was coping with all of this. I guess that’s the thing with stress and anxiety is that you tell yourself that you are dealing with it. My parents tried hard to convince us that everything would be fine after the divorce, that not much would change. My younger brother was showing signs of obvious emotional trauma so I decided, almost subconsciously, to be the strong one. And in order to achieve this I took every emotion that I was feeling and I learned to push them all deep, deep down inside myself and lock them away where they wouldn’t hurt me and where I’d never have to face them. And I was doing ok, carrying on as normal.

Until I couldn’t say my own name.

Funny how it sneaks up on you like that. I didn’t even make the connection until twenty years later.

The night before my wedding I said I wasn’t going to drink, and I didn’t. I wanted to wake up with a clear head the next morning. Unfortunately it didn’t quite happen that way. We were hosting some pre-wedding drinks, a nice relaxing get-to-know-you for all of the main people who would be involved in the day. It was the first time my parents had been in the same room as one another for more than 15 years, the previous time being when they met in the police station after I had been arrested.

They stood at opposite ends of the room and kept themselves to themselves. I remember people kept asking me if I was ok which I found quite odd and was actually starting to stress me out a bit. ‘I’m fine,’ I kept saying in the kind of voice people use when they’re clearly not fine. I should’ve just had a beer to take the edge off but instead I decided that I needed some fresh air. So I got up from my seat and walked quickly towards the open French Doors which then turned out to be very much closed. I walked face first into the glass door and was knocked backwards onto my arse, chucking a glass of water over myself in the process and causing everyone in the room to immediately crowd round me and start making a fuss.

Looking at my face, people’s reactions were not good. The general consensus was that I had a huge lump above the eye which would most likely go black. All I could think was, ‘Oh shit I’ve ruined the whole wedding with my stupid face. They’re just going to have to photoshop me out of every photo and photoshop Professor Brian Cox in instead.”²


²  The author does bear a pretty striking resemblance to the well known physicist, television presenter and former D-Ream keyboard player. Even my close family say I look exactly like him.


Your old friend anxiety will get you every time. Some people get mad, some people get sad, and some people smash their face into a door and lose the ability to say their own name.

Maybe it was nothing to do with my parents, maybe it was just the pressure of the occasion. I must’ve looked uncomfortable and that’s why people kept asking me if I was ok. My reflex reaction was to say “I’m fine” and then just sit there sipping my water and grinding my jaw in silence as I sank further and further in to the quicksand of my own emotions. I hate having to talk about my feelings. It makes me feel like I’m being interrogated, like I’m being put on the spot and called upon to answer a question which I know the answer to but for some reason cannot say.

I’m very pleased to tell you reader that I have an extremely hard face. I don’t bruise easily and by the morning of the wedding my face was unmarked and only very mildly swollen. I was not hungover, although my head was not exactly clear. I looked okay in most of the photos.

The main thing I remember about our wedding wasn’t the awkwardness of drinks with my parents or nearly breaking my face on a window. It was the moment that my wife Sarah entered the church. She always looks stunningly beautiful but when she walked into the church she just seemed to radiate a kind of peaceful happiness which made her even more so. I just focused on her and her alone, didn’t take my eyes off her. When she got to the front and stood next to me we held hands, which I’m still not sure if you’re supposed to do. I thought maybe it wasn’t showing the appropriate amount of reverence but I could’ve just been worrying about nothing. The point was that holding her hand gave me strength, it made me feel comfortable, at ease and certain that I was exactly where I needed to be. Then I felt like I could speak.

When the time came I was able to say, ‘I Richard…’

And then the rest came easy after that.

Rick White.jpg Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Honest Ulsterman, and Vice Magazine and is currently working on his first novel which he hopes to finish before he expires. Rick is thirty-four years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry.

Excerpts from ‘Autobiography’ by Hatelet (NF)

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Wading through my memories feels like walking into an attic that has a roof battered by raindrops and is filled with rising spirals of dust.  When I was 16 years old I fasted for four days. I was at a boarding school that was at high altitude, and I ran every day of the fast, on a winding trail that climbed through rock and pine trees and dry, oily soil.  I got weaker every day of the fast. I started to feel like I was made of too much dry air– brittle, spacey, birdlike.

The last time I was happy was around two to three years ago.  I have been sick for a long time. I forget what my life was like before this.  I recall things with difficulty. In moments of lucidity provoked by medication, I feel as if everything in my body is flowing.  I like the pagan light that comes from the earth, that illuminates forest clearings where dryads and faeries lurk. How do mushrooms see?

I relish pain sometimes, but there are so many different kinds of pain.  Pain is a blunt word that means “aversive stimuli”. There are so many ways a body can fail, that it is hard to articulate the feelings.  Some kinds of dull pain are worse than sharp pains. In sickness, the body sometimes senses geological spaces, flows, and times. The body becomes desert sand, bones of giants, rock and mineral strata grinding slowly against each other.  It thirsts like rock does. It is helpless like rock.

I do not like marijuana.  When I smoke it I think of the book “Flatland”.  Everything becomes two-dimensional; the walls scream.  I like opioids, especially oxycodone. I have never used intravenous drugs.  As a child, I used to say that my favorite color was blue. I don’t think I have a favorite color now, but I would like to live in a red room with a bright yellow incandescent bulb.  

In the spaces in between falling asleep and dreaming, I am transported to dimly lit planes that I think are embryonic versions of different geological-spatial formations.  For example, I was at a central or southern african savannah before it was formed. I was in the most northern part of the tundra where you pass through the border and everything starts to twinkle and things become green again, welcoming you to the other side.  It was as if places I’ve been had a negative correspondence that wasn’t an ideal form but was nevertheless otherworldly.

I like cats and consider them my equals, or better than me.  Because of this I do not like to talk to them as if they are babies, although sometimes I do raise my voice in a sing-song way when they are particularly cute.  I think of Hell often. I might believe in reincarnation, but I’m not sure. Death is completely opaque to me. I have only lucid dreamed two times in my life. My memories elude me often, which is why this piece of writing is an endurance sport for me.

I feel that many women are angels.  On LSD I would often feel that men had an uncomfortable energy around them, women were more cooling.  One time on LSD I experienced a sort of “imprinting” in which someone who took care of me for the duration of the trip became a fixation for me, for no other reason than that.  We didn’t have anything in common but for this period, she had been my mother. I am too immature to have been in love, but nevertheless I have been in love once. I do not think I have many years left to live, but telling myself this is most likely a coping mechanism.  I do not know if my inability to kill myself is weakness or strength. After all, the present is very precarious, and many things could go either way for me.

I used to enjoy food far more before I got sick.  As a child, all my strongest memories were associated with food, although I was never at all overweight.  This is probably because I was largely friendless for most of my childhood. My relative lack of romantic relationships or serious friendships in childhood through high school may have been responsible for me developing a feeling of being constantly late for something, as well as a feeling of being orthogonal to the world.  

I think human life is so frustrating because we are “not quite there yet”.  I have always been an extremely messianic person, but this zeal has been mostly extinguished by events of the past year or two.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the inability to distinguish between different types and qualities of light is a serious concern for those in the intermediate state between life and death, but I think it is also a problem for the living.  I have always had a fear of not being noticed enough. This fear has been exacerbated by becoming a total hermit due to circumstance, and because of this, I use social media in fitful bursts occasionally, then retreat when the light hurts my eyes.

I turned away from religious and occult belief like a spurned lover.  I am a zealot and thus I believe or oppose belief in extremes. I cannot stand to be abandoned by God, and thus I am not patient enough to be a Christian.  I still like to wander into services sometimes. I like shaking the hands of the other people in the church and wishing each other peace. I find many religions and myths incredibly evocative, but the only ones that I think are really real are the impersonal metaphysics of religions that involve some form of reincarnation without a god.

I used to ski a lot, mostly alpine, but some nordic.  I loved skiing through glades with deep, powdery snow.  I mostly skied alone, all day, for a large portion of the winter months of my adolescence.  I sometimes got lonely and frightened once the dark came right as the mountain was closing and I waited for a ride home with my parents.  I used to be triumphant about being an atheist as a young child, until I realized the gravity of disbelieving in life after death, at which point I became often scared and depressed.  Winter always used to be my favorite season. I have seen things in the shadows and quiet of a snow-dampened, dark wood.

The last time I was truly happy or excited must have been in September of 2016.  In September of 2015, I met someone who I would fall for at a party a half-mile into the woods near my college.  In September of 2016 I went to a party in the same woods, after we had broken up, and met her there again. I try aggressively to not believe in magic, or coincidence, but the repetition of this occurrence felt like closing a circle, and set the hairs on my arm on edge.  That night I think some kind of threshold was crossed, and I walked into the unreal world that I reside in now.

I think that perhaps the closest one can come to the supernatural is by refusing to believe in it, but going through the motions of belief very strictly, as if one did.  Trying to draw a perfect circle, chanting in monotone, are all things that do something to the fabric of things regardless of whether they are believed in or not. Only fraud requires belief for it to work.

I slowly and imperceptibly become accustomed to the unreal and terrible existence I have, but I wake up sometimes in a start; terrified of how time passes and leaves me with nothing.  I remember when I was four, that I used to think the willow trees we passed on the South Carolina back roads actually turned grey at night–I didn’t realize that it was just how light works.  I was comforted by them as they seemed to be benign beckoners of a soft and rich dreamtime. I would sometimes play with the other children at the houses where we went to hear bluegrass and country music.  We were told to watch out for snakes and rusty metal scraps, and to not go too close to the river. Many dramas were hinted at that seemed inaccessible to me. I wanted adventure, but never really got it. I would hang out downstairs where people played music casually, offstage.  The floor was unfinished concrete and the air was filled with cigarette smoke and the bathroom was lit by a red incandescent bulb.

I can’t stand the idea of useless suffering.  Time passes and then congeals, in dirty glass jars in a cabinet in a small wooden house that cramps in on itself–this makes me nauseous.  I hate when things are not redeemed somehow. I don’t want my hand to be forced, I would like to not have to redeem my life in a final act.  I do not like anything much anymore. I am becoming immaculately boring, except for my rage, which I cannot usually express but would dignify my stupid existence.

I know that more women attempt suicide than men, but more men succeed.  Women are more likely to use less lethal means, like taking pills or cutting their wrists.  Men are more likely to use guns or hanging. Pills are less successful mostly because people taking them do not know much about pharmacology, generally.  It is not very difficult to kill yourself with pills if you know much about pharmacology. Anti-emetics are a very important aspect of this method because many people vomit up the pills.  

We were talking earlier about different types of pain.  I do not mind the feeling of a needle piercing my vein, but the duller feeling of the plastic catheter sliding in bothers me.  I broke my leg once, when I was about 16. I was playing an informal, or “pickup” soccer game at my high school in the mountains in California.  I was not wearing shin guards because it was an informal game. I was playing goalie, and I didn’t want to let my team down, so I charged the ball.  The player on the other team did not stop, and kneed my shin. There was a sickening, hard slap. I was helped off the field and then     

 

 

 

“Cosmic Micros” part two, by Neil Clark

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Left in the Dark

You told me your party trick was to imitate a black hole.

You covered my eyes with your hand, and when you took it away, you were gone. As was gravity. And time. And all the universe.

Bit of a shame, because I never got to show you how I can burp the national anthem.

Left in the Dark II

You asked me to watch your stuff while you went to the toilet.

As I said “yes,” my espresso became a black hole. Sucked the whole universe into the base of my cup.

But I’m a man of my word. I kept an eye on your stuff. It’ll be there when you return, albeit dotted across a billion dimensions.

Left in the Dark III

The aliens use keyboard shortcuts at the controls of the mothership.

CTRL + X cuts the contents of a planet out.

When they cut Earth, they selected everything but me.

Now I float alone in space, the rest of my planet on a clipboard, to be pasted somewhere without me.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh, The Universe and everywhere between and beyond. His work is published in Okay Donkey, The Molotov Cocktail, Five:2:One and other cool places. Find him at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter, where he posts a new micro fiction most days @NeilRClark 

“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine

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As the eldest in a large family, I grew up taking care of others. Watching my younger siblings, I learned to develop a sixth sense; I reserved a part of my attention to wander on that periphery where something might flare up among any one of them, at any time.

This ability turned out to be useful during the decade in my young adulthood when I was a teacher. All children share a yearning and striving after something too unformed and unknown to put into words. A great teacher is someone who takes a student’s poor question and, without any embarrassment to the student, transforms it into a profound inquiry with reverberant answers that ripple through the consciousness of the class like circles of water spreading outward in a pond. I wasn’t a great teacher, but I was a good teacher who got my students excited about learning and served as their guide.

All of my life, I have identified with being competent, dependable, responsible. My parents were strict with me and punished me for infractions. I absorbed their lessons and was hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes, and when I made them, I suffered agonies. Self-torture was the price I paid for error. I missed opportunities where others might have helped me because I wouldn’t let them.

There were times when I wanted help, and I didn’t get it. For a long time I was frustrated and unhappy. It took a paid professional—my therapist—to tell me that I didn’t get the help I wanted because I never appeared as though I needed it. His observation stunned me. I thought others could tell when I felt needy and vulnerable. Apparently not. I had learned to conceal my feelings. I thought neediness ugly and repellent, and I was afraid of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant letting my defenses down, leaving myself open for attack.

It’s often said that to be loved, one must be a lovable person, someone who knows
how to love. It’s the same with receiving help. To an extent, it’s knowing how to ask. That was hard for me, because I always thought I had to be in charge. From my parents I had learned that any help they gave was in exchange for something else. They expected a return, and often I thought the price was too high. The help they gave wasn’t really help at all. It was barter.

I knew that not everyone was like them, but my fear of this transaction infected my
interactions with others. When I needed help, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it until I was desperate. When I did ask, it was with the expectation that the price would be too great, or else I would be turned down. The cycle fed on itself: my defeatist attitude ensured that I would be defeated.

And sometimes I was guilty of the same behavior that I deplored in my parents. I
asked for help as if I were extracting a promise, and when I met with resentment in return, I only had myself to blame. That was another of my misperceptions.

Continue reading “‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine”

‘The Worst Call’ by KR Pendergrass

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I sat alone on the bench of my ambulance, tears falling unchecked, quite sure I had made some seriously bad career decisions. The stretcher was all made up with clean, folded linen and a fresh pillow, but in my mind I still saw it disheveled, only one strap fastened over the tiny, still body. I wasn’t cut out for this. I mean, who was? What kind of lunatic could do this?

The infant had been gone too long for me to do anything to help, but in the dimness of the mobile home I couldn’t be sure. In the bright lights in the back of the ambulance, it was clear. She was blue, and cooling quickly out of the hot environment of the trailer in the summer heat. There was no activity in her heart. She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it.

My partner had kept her distance, not sure how I was going to react, giving me time to compose myself. It was cool inside the ambulance bay, but I could still feel the heat from that home, giving me false hope that the baby could be saved. I had put on a professional mask, informed the family that she had been gone too long, transferred the scene to the state troopers and the coroner. Being a paramedic, there was nothing else I could do there.

It was the first question everyone asked when I said I wanted to be a paramedic. “How will you handle children, babies, dying?” It was the topic of conversation among students, the first thing rookies asked the old pros. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” It is the question on everyone’s mind when they first get into an ambulance on the first day. The half-finished letter of resignation on the bench beside me was my answer. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” “Not well, kid. I quit to become an accountant…”

I sat there alone trying to deal with my feelings for almost an hour. Layers of tears dried on my face as I went through waves of being ok, NOT being ok, wanting to finish my letter, wanting to tear it up, and wanting to just lay down and sleep for a month. I was so deep in thought that I jumped a mile when the back door opened and a familiar face appeared.

This particular state trooper had worked dozens of scenes with me, seen me hold together through some messy ones, heart-wrenching ones, all the stuff that goes along with our professions, and had seen me be strong. I guess now it was only right that he see me be weak.

Without invitation, he climbed inside and sat down on the bench. Picking up the half-finished letter, he read it. Putting it down and looking at me, he said, “That’s your plan? Walk away?”

I shrugged, changing the full battery on my monitor so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “Not a bad way to deal. There’s plenty of other jobs out there where you don’t ever have to hold a dead baby.”

“True,” he said. “There are. But not for you. This is where you belong.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied, now deciding my airway kit needed cleaned.

“Then tell me this,” he said, taking the airway kit so I had to look at him. “You couldn’t help this one. And that feels like crap. Maybe you can help the next one. But I can tell you this for sure.” He held up my letter. “If you turn this in, you go become a teacher or a carpenter, you absolutely, one hundred percent, CAN NOT help the next one. You stay here in the ambulance, the next person who needs your help will get it. If not… Well who knows who will get the call?”

I stared at him, processing his words. He was right. I might be able to walk away from the job, but I would always wonder. Every time I saw a wreck or obituary in the newspaper, I would wonder if I could have changed the outcome, If I could have done something someone else wouldn’t have thought of.

Before I could form the words to respond, my partner hurried out. “We got a diabetic emergency at the nursing home. You ok, or do you want me to send the other crew?”

The trooper gave me a questioning look, still offering the letter to me. “It’s your call,” he said.

It was. And there was only one I could make. “We got this,” I told my partner. “Let’s roll!”

As we exited the back of the truck, he held up the letter again. “And this?”

I shook my head. “Just toss it. I don’t think I need it anymore.”

KR Pendergrass is a paramedic of 13 years, author, homeschool mom, wife, pet of a particularly spoiled dachshund. Years in rural EMS has produced many heartwrenching stories. It has also produced many hilarious ones as well. Her home with her husband, sons and dogs is full of both laughter and stories, because you can’t let the heartbreaking stuff take a piece of your soul. Her first novel, Incompatible With Life was released last spring, and her followup, Crisis of Faith, should be out in time for Christmas this year.

‘The Seven Words That Changed My Life’ by Mary Campbell

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April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that leaves a vague sense of having been an earthworm in a previous life.

By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete, not jasmine or honeysuckle, diesel fumes, steaks cackling over mesquite; nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the glorious height of its blooming season.

Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance, chipping with an ice pick at the solid inch of salt atop my cold, tart margarita-on-the-rocks. Tonight I must attend a Leadership Class. Titled “Managing for the Organizationally Challenged,” it offers “useful strategies for ADD/ADHD sufferers,” on the apparent assumption that we’ve already exhausted the useless ones.

Arriving, parking, and going through my mental checklist—“clip keys to purse handle, lock doors, note car location”—I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west—always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, hinting at secrets in those backlit hills: The Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, but you must find the Enchanted Quarter-Acre. Sighing, I enter the windowless building and follow the unmistakable pre-class hum of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor says, “Find a seat, folks,” gesturing to the floor with a small laugh, we plop down complacently on the industrial-grade carpeting.

The instructor—“Sheila,” if her name tag is to be believed—is young, blonde, and busy, answering questions, emptying a large tote, then handing out single sheets of paper to the floor-sitters. She catches my eye, all confident, intelligent energy, as she works her way back to my corner. Over the heads of a half-dozen dark-suited up-and-comers, she sends two pages sailing. I catch them neatly, giving one to the jean-clad woman behind me. She is sitting on a small, quilted pillow. Has she been tipped off about the absence of furniture?

I glance incuriously at the letter-size sheet. In the years to come I will wish I had kept my copy, though it contains only four or five lines in the familiar Courier font. Perched on a bare table someone has scavenged from a closet, Sheila clears her throat and conversation dies down. With little introduction and no fanfare, she explains what we are to do, elaborating on the written instructions.

First, we have to “find a partner—someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I have been chatting with Diane, the woman in jeans, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow half-smile that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

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