The Dearing Award: A Sampling of Winning Poems & Prose
Deborah Cloonan, The Rope (Faculty/Employee: Essay/Prose, 2018)
The Rope (excerpt)
She pushed open the back storm door, the yard light arcing through the blowing snow. She felt for the rope with a gloved hand and used it to balance herself down the back porch steps. They had made fun of her for insisting on the rope, but they hadn’t lived through blizzards she had as a child, when people were known to lose their way as going to the barn, to be found frozen, just feet away from an outbuilding. The rope of her childhood had been thick and rough, with protruding whiskers and when rolled up in the spring was so heavy that it needed to be taken in with the wheelbarrow. Now it sat unused in the barn, stiff and dead, the winters having been milder in recent years. This fall, she had thought about putting out the rope again, thinking of getting to the barn or getting lost in a blizzard, thinking of the frigid cold. This new rope was silky and light, bought just for this job this fall.
Her name was Linda and she thought that fit her life. Unassuming. This South Dakota farmstead had been the backdrop for her almost all her life, except for the year after high school when she lived in Omaha. She had met her to-be husband, and he had agreed to return to South Dakota and make a life there with her. For several years they lived across the road from the farm, in a rented house. When her parents eventually moved to an apartment in town, yielding the farm life to the young, she and her husband and toddler son had moved in. When the farming itself didn’t carry them through, her husband got a job as a truck driver and she tended the family and the place, and in this fashion they raised their kids and got along. She worked as a secretary at the local grange off and on and sometimes at Christmas as a cashier at the Kmart
There had been a horse when she was a teenager. She had always wanted a horse, fantasizing about a sleek steed, cantering through pristine forests, or streaking around the barrels at the fair, maybe even the fair in Sioux Falls. The reality of a farm daughter’s horse had turned out to be a stocky, stubborn horse capable of withstanding the livestock life, pasturing with the steer and the milk cow. The perpetual winds and lack of close neighbors made riding a lonely, blustery task and the sheen had been quickly taken off the fantasy. Her mare Candy had colicked one day when she was in high school. When she got off the bus, her father was using the tractor to dig a hole by the western fence line. She had taken it quietly, but her younger brother howled in confusion and distress until her mother took him to bed early.
Now her daughter had two horses on the same land, and her granddaughter was a good rider. The lonely riding had persisted, but they had a trailer to go to 4H shows, and the teenager was closer to that barrel racing dream. When Linda let go of the shiny rope to push the sliding barn door open, there was no greeting from the livestock within. The barn was not heated. The cow was lying down; the horses ignored her. She did not turn on the light. It was only slightly warmer with the animals’ body heat; miniscule heat was being generated by the chemical reactions in the soiled straw. There was a scent of hay, ammonia, and leather. Even in the cold, the waft of the ammonia was softened by the warm tannin of the leather. She thought of a balmy spring breeze with the trees just starting to green up, months away. If she lived to a day like that she would be bed-bound. She would be in that bedroom with the scalloped-edged sheets and her mother’s old apricot quilt, and she would probably feel frigid and shivering.
She moved to the stall of the bay gelding who had a patience about him. She put up her mittened hand to pat him on the side, but when he flinched she did not finish the pat, thinking better of disturbing the fine layer of warm under his coat. Instead she found the corner of his stall; the straw was clean there and she slid down to sit. She thought of the things that she would miss. She wondered how much the world would miss her. She wondered about her granddaughters’ lives, them getting older, and what the world would turn into.
Isaiah Buchanan, Risk Factors (Student: Poetry, 2018)
|Maiming black bodies
without our compliance
But the story’s not over
We were stagnant for a while
Building our resources
Combat these attacks in style
With the weapons of the masses
No need for guns
We challenge the majority in classes.
Med School, Law School
Any professional degree
How you perceive “WE”
Look past my skin and look at Me.
I’m more than a poor outcome
Or a Sickle Cell therapy.
If I say I’m in pain
Please believe me
I’m not just a drug seeker
Like you see on TV.
I’m more than what you thought
Or think as well
Might be a risk factor
In your eyes
But for me it’s
Melanie Hundt, Practicing in the Twilight Zone (Student: Essay/Prose, 2018)
Practicing in the Twilight Zone: A Third Year Medical Student’s Perspective
“I’ll be there once I’m finished with these notes.” From our computer nook at the nurse’s station I could see Mrs. Smith’s room: her husband of over sixty years clasping her hand in his as he wept, her son red-eyed but stoic standing beside his own wife. My intern sat next to me in her long white coat, typing away, her eyes briefly flicking up as to dismiss the nurse who had approached her.
Medically speaking, there was nothing else to be done for Mrs. Smith. A few days earlier she had come in for severe diarrhea which was most likely iatrogenic given her recent hospital stays and courses of antibiotics. She also carried a diagnosis of lung cancer and now reported increased shortness of breath with exertion. We began to treat her infection as we monitored her respiratory status. Initially, I thought she looked pretty good compared to some of the other patients on the oncology floor. But then her breathing took a sharp turn for the worse, requiring multiple nebulizer treatments and continuous oxygen therapy. The oxygen flowed into her lungs through a nasal cannula, a thin tube anchored by two plastic prongs placed into her nose.
She could barely speak, and after a difficult discussion skillfully and compassionately navigated by our attending physician, she and her family opted for comfort care. Her family spoke about making arrangements to transfer her to a well-respected local hospice facility, but the window for that had already closed. Mrs. Smith’s awareness diminished along with her lung function, and despite IV morphine the haunting sound of her struggle to breathe could be heard from the hallway. Her lips remained parted in a perfect “O”, the famous O sign, which my senior resident later described as a well-known harbinger of death.
It did not surprise me when Mrs. Smith passed away surrounded by her loving family. My intern’s response, however, is what came as a shock. I know she had a lot on her plate. A driven, methodical person myself, I can understand the appeal of completing a task and crossing it off of the to-do list before turning one’s attention to something else. I don’t think she’s a bad person; in fact, she had seemed nice from the brief time I’d spent working with her. But in that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder. Where were her priorities? Where was her humanity? Internally, I struggled with what to do. I felt strongly that someone from our team should go speak with the family immediately, and I wasn’t sure if that person should be me. What if they had questions I couldn’t answer or were insulted that only the medical student came to talk to them? My attending was not in her office on the floor, and my senior resident was in a meeting. I tried suggesting to my intern that we go speak to the family together or page the attending, but she was dismissive. I mulled over the consequences of bucking the strict hierarchical system that is academic medicine. As luck would have it, my attending arrived, interrupting my silent turmoil and spurring the team into action. She promptly entered Mrs. Smith’s room to speak with the family, offering her medical knowledge, but more importantly her condolences and empathy.
I left that afternoon with a bad taste in my mouth and a lump in my throat. I’m not often overcome with emotion; however, when my shift finally ended, and I reached the safe haven of my apartment, I curled up in my bed and cried— mostly for Mrs. Smith and her family, but also for how our medical system can at times be so broken. We had talked about loss of empathy and physician burnout in orientation and in bioethics class. We discussed the now all-too-common phenomenon of physicians and physicians-in-training becoming so stressed and overwhelmed that they lose sight of why they went into medicine in the first place: the patients. I’m not sure if this was the case with my intern, but I know that I don’t ever want to get to the point where finishing my notes before 4 pm comes before caring for other people – whether that be medically or just as a fellow human being.
Natela Dushukyan, Returning Home (Student: Poetry, 2018)
Walking along a street I see
My own footsteps fall before me.
Footsteps from another time,
From when this street used to be mine.
And in a moment, they are gone,
As if to say “there’s no harm done.”
And yet I stand there, frozen still,
Eyes welling with tears that I’ll not spill.
The winter wind against my skin
Reminds me of how long it’s been
Since last I walked my little dirt road
Despite the rain and snow and cold.
So with deep breath and reverent step,
I continue on—step by step.
My gaze now wanders side to side,
Etching my street into my mind.
And once again a memory
Plays like a scene in front of me.
Triggered by the setting Sun
Meeting the railroad on the horizon.
There are three figures up ahead,
Merely shadows outlined in red.
A little girl on her daddy’s shoulders,
To the left a boy, only slightly older.
I remember being that girl,
Holding on tight so I don’t fall,
Walking off into the sunset,
Yet looking back to my own doorstep.
I’m looking back, and there I see
The object of my inquiry:
I see my home, and by the door,
Stands my mother whom I adore.
And now my tears all o’erspill,
Flowing free against my will.
Because I’m home, I’m home at last!
Yet know full well, ‘twill soon be past.
Jim McKeever, The Invitation (Faculty/Employee: Essay/Prose, 2017)
The Invitation (excerpt)
Walking along the road that September Saturday on her way to commit suicide, Marie looked like a typical motorist who had simply run out of gas.
She carried a red, plastic one-gallon container, newly purchased at the convenience store down the hill from her apartment. It was filled with gasoline, and heavier than she expected. Marie, a small woman with graying hair, shifted the container from one hand to the other as she walked.
At the convenience store, Marie had used a $50 bill to buy the $8.99 container and pre-pay for $2.27 in gas. A few minutes later, she went back inside. At the counter, she pulled out two $1 bills from her khaki capris and bought a Bic Classic lighter for $1.19.
Closed-circuit video, later entered into evidence, showed her at the counter flicking the lighter to make sure it worked.
I wish I could tell you more about Marie, but right now I know more about her death than her life.
I wish I could tell you about her childhood, her family, her dreams, her loves. About her struggles with mental illness and homelessness.
I wish I could tell you how she worked so hard to get better, how her support system, her safety net —church friends, therapists, case managers, doctors—kept her afloat, saved her time and again. At least three other times, Marie had harmed herself. Twice, she slit her wrists; another time, she drank boric acid.
In the end, her illnesses won out. Despite the kindness of others, despite the medications, despite her own resolve. They wore her down, wore her out. She grew tired of fighting.
Ben Casola, Staying Alive (Student: Poetry, 2017)
You’re not pushing hard enough.
His pulse returned to be lost
like a love note.
His last breath couldn't escape
the plastic tubes within.
He spoke through them
with one word
whose cardinal grasp
left me motionless for a week.
Joan Confrancesco, we were all afraid (Faculty/Employee: Poetry, 2017)
we were all afraid
“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.”
the book of secrets
my black cat
we were always traveling
yet we love to come home
crying to come in
wet with september rain
scent of eucalyptus
janis joplin coming
across the radio waves
the dj cuts in to announce
terrorists, hostages, plane crashes
it is 7am and
i am sitting beside my cat
grateful for my
as dark as
a van gogh
from the twins
a man kept waving
a white shirt
from one of the floors
in the heaps of rubble
Emily Weston, The Hero (Faculty/Employee: Essay/Prose, 2016)
David is 38 years old. He has been a nurse long enough that almost nothing makes him gag anymore, but not long enough that he is annoyed if he misses lunch because of a cardiac arrest. In his mind, full of logic and order and straight lines, this is a not very precise measurement, but he understands that if he reaches the point where he’s doing CPR and wishing the patient could have waited until after he ate, then he’s been a nurse for a very long time.
On an average day doing charge on A6, David answers 32 phone calls, starts seven IVs and corrects four mistakes made by new nurses. He hangs eight new bags of IV fluid, questions fifteen new MD orders, discharges four patients and admits five new ones. He helps eight people to the bathroom, cleans up six dirty beds and helps other nurses and techs lift or reposition a total of one ton of human flesh. He clocks between three and seven miles on his fitbit. When he gets home at night, he lays on the couch and stares at the ceiling. Some days A6 is more work than the Air Force.
He likes it, though. Likes that he knows the answers, he can assist and correct, likes the way illness and disability don’t faze him anymore, because there’s something he can do. And he likes the way he moves. In a place where walking down the hall is a feat and so many are hampered by stiff knees, disease and extra weight, he walks easily, for hours, his body still lean and strong from years in the service, a lodestone of order and sanity in his cluttered and chaotic environment.
On Tuesday morning, after switching the assignment twice (the pregnant nurse can’t take the chemo patient and the patient in 20 door is suddenly refusing male RNs) David illegally eats a Clif Bar in the med room.
Three call lights are going off. One will be 20 door, asking to page the doctor about her change in morphine dose. 16 door is probably ready to come off the bedpan and the other, well, it could be anybody. He swallows his Clif Bar and thinks he’ll make a break for his water bottle in the break room but as soon as he steps out of the med room, he is confronted by middle-aged man in a Vietnam hat.
“You know what’s going on with my wife?” he says.
“Who is your wife, sir?” His mouth is dry. 15 steps and he can grab his water.
“I’m Howie. My wife is Beatrice.” The man gestures towards 18. “She’s been here for a week and can’t nobody tell me what’s wrong. You doctors just sit around with your thumbs up your ass all day or something?”
David is thinking about Beatrice. He’s been hearing her rattling cough and raspy voice much longer than a week, and he’s pretty sure she’s dying. Then he realizes the man’s mistake. “Howie, I’m not a doctor, but I can page one for you.”
Howie peers at David’s name tag. “Oh,” he says. “What’d you become a male nurse for?” He looks David up and down. “You a homo?”
At the desk, the phone is ringing. There is no secretary today. The nursing tech hurries by, laden with linens. David bites back three ridiculous answers. “I’m not a homo.”
“Hmph,” says Howie. He looks at David’s ringless fingers. “You ever been married?”
David is puzzled now. “I was.”
“Ha! Wish I could say was. Damn woman is a pain in the ass.” He scratches his head beneath his hat. “Nevva mind callin a doc for me. They’re just gonna tell me the same stuff.” He glances towards his wife’s room. “I just thought you was a doctor and maybe…” His sentence hangs, fractured.
David lays a quick hand on the man’s shoulder and goes for the phone. It is his manager, reminding him that the staff have mandatory empathy training over the next two days. OK, he says, while scrolling through Beatrice’s chart. Chronic diastolic heart failure, non-resectable lung tumor, unstaged, history of smoking, DNR. He was willing to bet Howie knew all that stuff, and Beatrice did too. Sometimes people want a different answer.
At 3 pm, staffing changes. He’s down a nurse and the supervisor is sympathetic, but sympathetic doesn’t help do discharge paperwork and turn total care patients. She sends him an LPN and he feels obligated to thank her even though that means he’ll have to look out for the LPN’s patients. At 3:30, the girl in 20 door has screaming meltdown because she’s in horrible pain and the pills aren’t cutting it. 16 window was all set to go home and then his discharge got cancelled because his insurance wouldn’t pay for a critical medication. A new patient arrives from ED, blood pressure is 65/40, confirmed, thank you and and it takes an hour to get her transferred to the ICU.
At 5:30, he finally checks on his patients. The LPN (who would think about lunch while doing CPR) gives him an update, he thanks her, and says hi to all of them. This is a little hazardous because there’s a pretty high chance that one of them will want something that will either be impossible or take a half an hour. But the LPN is good, she knows her stuff, and his patients are well cared for. He checks on Beatrice last.
As soon as he opens the door, he knows his mistake. There’s no rattling cough or raspy voice, and the room feels empty. He steps around the curtain. She lays alone in a quiet room. The light above her head is like a halo. He gets that queer dizzy feeling like the world is shaking a little beneath him. He knows what he will find, but he touches her anyway. There is no pulse at her wrist, her skin is waxy and cooling and the DNR bracelet confirms that his work with her is finished. If I checked on her earlier, he thinks, this might be different. But would it have? Was there anything else he could have done?
He hears a shuffle step behind him. Shit. He turns, and imagines how he must look to Howie. The male nurse, the potential homo, holding Howie’s wife’s dead hand, confirming her non-existence.
The man sits down heavily in a chair at the foot of the bed.
“Howie,” David says.
Howie grunts. His knuckles are tight, squeezing and releasing his legs. Men of that generation do not cry, nor do they show emotion. David slowly places the dead woman’s hand on her chest and walks to Howie. He squats next to the chair and touches Howie. The man stiffens and then grips the nurse’s hand tightly. They both look at Beatrice, beatific beneath the lone fluorescent light. Howie shudders and his head drops to his chest.
In a few moments, David will step out of this sacred moment and into the bright chaos. He will call the supervisor to let her know 18 window has passed. He will help bag the body and send her to the morgue. He will answer more phone calls and call lights, manage the assignment for the night shift. But right now, there is nothing more he can do. He is thinking about Howie, and that both of them will, tonight, be home alone. He is thinking about how, because he is a nurse, it is okay for him to hold hands with a complete stranger, and share sorrow. He is thinking about how it is not that he is a nurse and Howie a client, but that they are two human beings, grieving together for the beautiful temporary blink that is human existence.
Brielle Stanton, A Collection of Firsts (Student: Essay/Prose, 2016)
A Collection of Firsts
The first time I performed CPR. I fully understand that it is something that will become of habit throughout my career. I comprehend the logistics behind the amount of people who will be resuscitated under my witness, but still, I will never forget my first code. How indescribable is the feeling of knowing that I was one of the last people on this earth to feel the warmth of his skin before his life slipped away? This was not only my first code, my first time performing CPR on a real person, but more colossally, the first time I witnessed someone die. I felt the sting of forming tears build pressure behind my eyelids as we quietly left the room, passing weeping family members on the way. I felt a pang of heartache and squeezed my eyes tightly, shoving those emotions into a cerebral box labeled “For later” as we dove back into patient rounds. On to the next.
My first sense of guilt. Two cancer diagnoses in one day. That was quite a bit for me to handle. If that were me, or my grandmother, or my father, I would not want the diagnosis of cancer to be expressed in the way that I witnessed. No time for questions was allotted, no detail about prognosis stated, just the blunt, yet minimalistic truth revealed- that we had found cancer. We found a tumor. This is what it’s called. You’re going to get radiation today. I cannot imagine the internal anxiety evolving behind the patient’s glazed, unblinking eyes. No matter that you were fine two weeks ago. No matter that you walked in here under the impression that your biggest concern was a little cough that was simply bothersome at most. His life was just turned upside down and we fled the scene without so much as offering a hand to reorient.
My first open heart surgery. The surgeon motioned for me to step closer. Put your hand right here. I gently slid my hand under the musculature, looping around vessels and lung parenchyma. I held the heart in my hand, encompassing the warm structure, my amazement deepening with every beat. This organ, so imperative to life and so alive itself, exuded its strength with each vigorous contraction. I found my mind wandering, not to diagnosis or prognosis, but to perhaps the kindness this heart may have displayed to someone, the ache it felt with one of those inevitable losses we all have, or the power it supplied for this person to stand where she is today. The surgeon smiled, Now you can tell your family that you touched someone’s heart today. Little did he know, or maybe he knew all too well, that I felt it was the reverse.
My first visit to the nursery. I was almost brought to tears when I saw my first newborn patient in the nursery. He was so new to the world, to the outside air, to human touch. The cycle of life is such a humbling and stunning progression. The dependent innocence of infants is fascinating. To think that we were all at this stage at one point puts much of our current eminences into perspective. So much potential and so much future all wrapped up in colorful elephant blankets lined up, row by row in the nursery. Who knows, there could be a future nurse, teacher, or veterinarian in there. The possibility and potential is breathtaking.
My first delivery. I took a deep breath. Soon we would be helping to bring a new life into this world. Simply the honor of being present for such an event seemed surreal. This was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the word joy. Once again, I felt that familiar sting radiate through the caverns of my eyes. However, this was due to the gasp of a tiny human taking her first breath, the relief of a new mother, the sheer pride exuding from a father, and the seemingly palpable love that was being poured into a new person. Realizing I was the first one on this planet to hold this tiny baby, I didn’t squeeze my eyelids shut. Instead, I allowed that pure and simple tear to run down my cheek, catching it’s warmth at the corner of my upturned lips.
Ann Sutera Botash, Taking the Stand (Faculty/Employee: Poetry, 2016)
Taking the Stand
Reasonable cause to believe.
These words admonish and command
twelve peers and more; proclaimed
in marker on hanging whiteboard, behind
the witness stand. Grand jury job defined:
A hearing to determine trial, a process of the law,
requires voice behind a wooden rail as evidence is laid bare.
The sworn expert, nothing but truth
to those unblinking eyes and straight backs.
Her steady hand on worn bible; stethoscope
jammed in a pocket.
Khaki pants, jeans, pink sweater, plaid shirt,
heels and tailored suit—The jurors breathe in rows
and tap uneasy fingers on their knees.
She turns and pens the lesson: marking around
The Phrase. Behold a baby bone-
a squeak of fracture, underlined,
evokes wet eyes in one or two.
An arrow here, an arrow there, she teaches:
This broken piece meant
legs were flailing and this blood, right here?
She thinks, so sorry, baby passed away;
you jurors, please, stay with me.
She scribbles the untellable.
She knows the lies we choose.
Not the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus,
childhood. We accept not mother, not father,
biology says so; species survival and all.
We believe love conquers anger and crazy.
Minds cling to fairytales of invisible
villains who crept to the crib.
The expert thumps the marker. A fist
has wrapped the ribs, and squeezed,
The pink sweater cringes and fidgets;
khaki pants man chews his lip;
heels and suit dabs at eyes.
The expert says the crying stopped.
Kaitlin Kyi, Kind of a Bummer (Student: Poetry, 2016)
Kind of a Bummer
The other day, someone told me about the Irish goodbye,
which is also known as a French exit
or something else that sounds just a little bit wrong.
It’s when someone leaves a party—
the bridal shower, the summer barbecue, the Easter brunch, etc.—
without a formal farewell.
“Goodbyes are kind of a bummer,” she explained.
“Leaving without goodbye can be easier.”
Sometimes people call it ghosting,
as if a paler, more responsible shadow-self chooses to stay.
One that makes sure Aunt Bets doesn’t drink too much wine,
that everyone signs the guestbook,
that all the glassware gets cleaned and sorted.
It made me think of all the other ways to say goodbye:
How growing up in my family,
my mother always made the three of us stand at the front window
to see our father off to work, waving in synchronized annoyance
How whenever I see old friends,
the goodbyes stretch into minutes and accidental hours
as we laugh and say how-does-this-happen-every-time
How I even forget to say goodbye at times
as classmates mill around me after lecture
and all I want to do is check off the next thing on my planner.
All these ways to be together
only to be separate once more.
And then there’s the way I hope we’ll say goodbye one day.
(Even now, I can see your tired smile,
the one that means not-this-again.)
One papery-skinned hand atop the other,
a life well-lived behind us,
that’s how I hope we’ll say goodbye.
Somewhere in my mind, I hope it won’t be the end
that we won’t have an end
that somehow, maybe our dust particles will find their way back to each other,
fearless, infinitesimal atoms bouncing around the world.
fearless like we’ve always been.
Making fun of the previews in darkened theaters and spilling popcorn everywhere,
stirring tomato sauce on the stovetop and lifting a steaming spoonful for the other to taste
leaving notes for no reason at all except to say it’s raining outside and I love you.
Travis Quinn, To the Patient in Room 16 (Student: Essay/Prose, 2015)
To the Patient in Room 16,
Do you care about what happens to your body on the day of your death? Do you mind your body being suspended awkwardly, unevenly by people who have never known you? After life has left it, do you want your body stored in a closet like a used board game? Do you want your socks on? How about just one sock? What if your body bag rips? Do you want a new one? That is up to a sweaty, stressed-out physician assistant, Grace. She is preparing your body to be moved to the morgue. But actually, she isn’t preparing your body to be moved. She is preparing Room 16 for the next patient. You are part of her job.
This morning you were a loving, breathing entity. You ate breakfast. You thought of your family.
Now you are somebody’s busy work. A stroke of bad luck has left you lifeless. You are what is between the physician assistant and the soggy salad she packed for lunch. You are the reason why the patient with knee pain has not seen the doctor yet. You are an inconvenience.
You have become a topic for argument. “You didn’t put gauze on the eyes!” shouts Eddie the security guard. “I’ll wait outside until it’s ready.” Eddie and Grace stand over you fighting over you. Grace audibly curses as she lays moist gauze squares over your partially open eyes.
Grace, Eddie, and I begin putting you into the body bag. You have a sheet covering you. It slips off, exposing your naked body. But you don’t care, because you can’t care. Actually, you aren’t naked; you still have socks on. Grace instructs me to remove them. I take one off before she changes her mind.
“Should I put the sock back on?”
“No, just toss it in the body bag.”
This seems strange to me, but I do as I was instructed as I am just a volunteer. You have one sock on. I gently cradle your head to slide the bag underneath it. I have never handled a dead body before. “Rip!” Your arm has torn through the body bag as Grace was stuffing it in. It is a busy day in the Emergency Department, and she was not careful. We both stare at the hole, panting. I ask, “Do we need to get a new one?”
We zip the bag closed. I can still see the contours of your face and body. Your arm is visible through the tear. Grace, Eddie, and I lift your body to the metal stretcher. You are heavy. “Bang!” Your body clangs on the stretcher surface. It would have been painful if you could have felt it.
Eddie asks me if I would like to accompany him to the morgue. He pushes the metal stretcher down the hallway, his keys jingling the whole way. I hold doors open.
This rural hospital’s morgue is the size of a walk-in-closet. There are three drawers, and you are to be in the middle one. We lace the straps of your body sling to rusty hooks. The clanky crane echoes in this closet-morgue as Eddie wheels the crank. Your body lifts. Six feet off the ground you slightly sway, your feet suspended higher than your head. It looks awkward and graceful. Again, the contours of your body are visible. You are placed into your drawer, then the drawer is closed.
I never see you again.
I do not know your name.
Pam Freeman, Land Line (Faculty/Employee: Poetry, 2015)
I pick up on the second ring she tells me her name but it doesn’t register
Help me out I say I’m sorry I’m drawing a blank
From Skaneateles she says
(You probably grew up here if you pronounce it that way)
Oh yes sure I say okay
Hoping I’ll figure out who she is before it gets awkward
I’m calling because I need a ride home from the movies she says
I forgot who’s supposed to pick me up
I was trying to call my relatives
I might have dialed the wrong number
I’m sorry to have bothered you (One thing about our town is
There’s no movie theater)
Call my relatives is how she says it not call someone in particular
Like dialing up a clan she’d somehow strayed from
Or a past
It’s no bother I say let me see if I can help
We are chatting now using each other’s first names
What movie theater is it I ask
She’s very pleasant let me see she says
I’m not sure what the name of it is
There are beds here
This might be someone’s basement
I was at the movies but it’s over and I need a ride home
I don’t have my relatives’ phone numbers with me or maybe I do but I’ve misplaced them
That’s okay I tell her I have the phone book right here
Stay on the line and don’t hang up on me okay I use her first name again
Oh yes I’ll stay on the line you must be a special person
Not special at all just happy to help I’m glad you called me
Now what are your relatives’ names
First she gives me her husband’s
(Our phone book is maybe a quarter inch thick
The pages are booklet size it’s a very small town)
I find her husband’s listing and there is her name alongside his
Below it is the relative she must have tried to call
One digit different from mine
I wonder if it’s a daughter or maybe a niece
I’m on my cell phone now still talking to her on the land line
Her husband answers and she hears me say his name
I explain the situation about his wife
Needing a ride home from the movies
And accidentally misdialing me
She can hear my side of the conversation but not his
In my left ear he thanks me and says
My wife’s in long-term care
In my right ear I hear her saying
Yes yes you reached my husband thank you
In my left ear her husband says she has memory problems
And I agree that yes I understand
Yes all right so would he please call her in just a moment
And take it from there
Certainly he says I’ll do that right now and thank you again
He misunderstood my name
A little hard of hearing I suppose And calls me by a similar name
She hears me suggesting this plan and in my right ear is clearly relieved
I hang up with him and tell her it’s fine now we can hang up too
Because her husband will call her in a moment
And take it from there
She understands and is delighted and thanks me
They are both gracious people
I call the daughter or niece whoever
The one with the phone number so close to mine and get her answering machine
Kind of a lucky accident if she was out that her mother or aunt got me by mistake
I leave a message in case she wants to follow up
I guess that’s about all I can do
As far as being in cahoots with the universe
I hope the lovely woman who phoned
Will remember only
A nice evening at the movies
Kaitlin Kyi, all the kids aside from you (Student: Poetry, 2015)
all the kids aside from you
the neighborhood girls and boys are zipping past my upstairs window,
their loose t-shirts moving blurs of color.
one of them is on a scooter contraption
the kind that all kids seem to get for Christmas
at one point or another.
all the kids aside from you, that is.
he’s pulsing forward now, spilling light on the pavement,
and all the others run after him in a way that makes the word
finally make sense.
the years have brought me loss:
the phantom clanking of keys
come to mind.
but perhaps I have had no loss
so keenly felt as this particular one—
this loss that I did not even know of until just now,
as I sit inside, watching the neighborhood girls and boys,
who are zipping past my upstairs window,
who are shrieking with all the brilliance
of their own untouched youth.
Katherine Robinson, He Didn't Look Dead (Faculty/Employee: Essay/Prose, 2015)
He Didn't Look Dead
He didn’t look dead. Not from where I stood. His face was visible, but not clear enough to see any details. Afterwards the New Year’s Eve party we had planned together. All of our friends taking little bits of him: a t-shirt, a record, a book. His room as if he just walked out. A bookmark in the Dylan Thomas he was reading, tossed sheets and his musty smell everywhere. Later there were tears, of course-and sadness. But mostly-absence. Moved to a new apartment, new neighborhood-no smell of singed pork chops or dirty towels hanging in the bathroom. Summer came and went-chose one easy class during summer session.
I saw him as I crossed campus going to class. He was going into the Science building. A building I know he never had a class in. I recognized his shape and the slouchy gait of a guy so big. When I got to the door-no one was there. Nothing. Just cool emptiness and stairs. I went to class thinking-I don’t know what. Mistaken. Obviously. Visited the gravesite over the weekend-had a chat-with him- with me-whatever. I felt more together once I talked it out.
Weeks went by-nothing unusual. Then, there he was going into the library ahead of me. That stupid black fisherman’s cap he had been so proud of. Just like him to wear it mid-summer when it was 100 degrees outside. I hurried up and got to the door after it had closed. Once inside-it was practically empty. I asked the librarian at the help desk if she saw who came in. She shrugged and continued her work typing. I walked every aisle up and down the stacks, peering into cubbies and into toilets. Nothing.
September came-more classes and more work. A dumb job waiting tables. A brainless activity. And again-and again I spotted him. Just ahead of me-turning off before I caught up- going inside before I got to the door.
The previous year we had both been on campus-sharing an apartment but driving separately as we had different schedules, different work. Only saw each other in our shared Speech class. Just like high school. He-a smart alleck-eating endless orange tic-tacs-rattling the container at regular intervals. Me-always sitting in front of him-laughing at his Three Stooges humor.
There he was going into the main dining hall-same black Converse sneakers he’d been wearing since 11th grade. Surprising they hadn’t fallen apart-or at least developed a hole.
Sometimes it was his t-shirt-black Van Gogh self-portrait one. I would be walking zoned out and catch it going past me-turning to find that tall figure with a mop of dark hair receding into a crowd of students.
I told people about seeing him. They smiled sadly and patted my hand. They understood what I was going through. And changed the subject. I let it go. But I kept seeing him.
The family got the film developed from his camera. Like a big dork he had been taking pictures and hadn’t noticed how close he was to the edge. The photos are all of the stuff we had looked at-Petit Jean’s grave, a little dog he had plotted to steal, a flock of birds overhead, a waterfall-nothing very interesting or inspiring. One photo-the last developed- just a blur. As if the shutter had stayed open while he moved.
Winter came-cold and damp. And still I saw him. Sometimes he wore a grey windbreaker we had gotten at a thrift store-but mostly it was that t-shirt, light blue jeans, black sneakers-sometimes the cap-sometimes not. I started counting-six times one week, two the next. I started keeping a log of it. Maybe there was a pattern-but if there was I couldn’t find it.
New Year’s Eve again-this time at someone else’s house. We toasted him-and then-everyone went on with things. Who was going to kiss who, who drank what, how was school, what classes were you taking next semester-and on and on. I went for a walk before midnight. It was cool and the stars were very bright.
And then I saw him. He was ahead of me going down a sidewalk towards an area I didn’t know. Away from the familiar neighborhood of our friends-into the darkness. Without thinking-I followed him.