The Homecoming

Lisa pulled the stack of mail out of the mailbox and was flipping through one final bill after another. As she walked back down the driveway, the hand-written return address stopped her dead in her tracks. Belfast, Maine isn’t a place where more than a few thousand people reside and, if memory served her right, the only person she knew who lived there in what seemed like another lifetime, had moved to Wyoming at least twenty-five years ago.  But the hand-writing belonged to no other – it was as familiar to her as her own, no matter how many years had come and gone.

Lisa’s fingers were shaking; her heart pounding as she opened the envelope and took out his letter. Without seeing what he’d written, she began to be filled with his presence. His scent enveloped her and his voice spoke to her as she started to read what he wrote. He began by telling her how sorry he was to have heard about the death of her father. He said he knew, probably better than anyone, the paradox of feelings she’d had for the man, and just how devastated she was at losing him. He also apologized for not being able to come and pay his respects when it happened, but explained that losses in his own life had prevented him from being able to do so. He went on to tell her how, after twenty years of marriage, he and his former wife decided to go their separate ways. His way, he said, brought him back to his roots because he’d never once – not one day in all twenty-five years he’d been gone – stopped missing his mountain. He’d only just returned about three months earlier and already, in that short span of time, felt like he’d never left. There’s still, to his knowledge, no other place where he can be so humbled, awed and inspired by the forces of nature – in all her beauty and in all her harshness.  Yet, as natural as it’s been for him to return to his mountain, an awareness that something is out of kilter just won’t be denied. This awareness, he explained, is something he’s been pretty good at suppressing up until now; given the demands of the life he’d chosen when he’d moved west. But now that he’s attuned to the natural rhythm of each day again, and the distractions that kept his awareness at bay have disappeared, he knows there’s one last wrong he needs to right.

Lisa put the letter down on the hood of the car and realized she’d been holding her breath. She leaned back against the driver’s-side door, relaxed her shoulders and forced herself to start taking slow, deliberate breaths, exhaling evenly through her mouth. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore, but the pounding she’d first felt in her heart had turned into flutters deep within her belly because she could actually hear his voice in her heart as she read his words. She’d forgotten about the effect his voice always had on her. In all the years that separated them, she’d never known another person whose voice she’d actually felt, rather than heard. After she spent a few minutes getting her emotions under better control, she leaned over and picked the letter up off the hood of the car, and walked towards the front steps so that she could sit down to finish reading it. She thought about how ironic it was to have received his letter today, of all days. If he’d waited just one more day to mail it, she would never have even known he’d written it. The house was empty, all of her material possessions either sold or in storage, the car packed with everything she was going to need for tomorrow’s journey. The last twenty-five years hadn’t been kind to Lisa, although she was at peace with everything she’d attempted to do. Her ex-husband had finally begun to have a relationship with another woman, so his quest to try to make her life a living hell appeared to be over.

Lisa lowered herself onto the top step, and began reading where she left off. The wrong he needs to right, he says, is all about the words he’s left unspoken for what seems like a hundred years. He tells her he loves her – he’s known from the first moment he laid eyes on her, all those years ago, that she completed him. As she reads what he’s written, she doesn’t even realize that the tears are pouring down her face, until she can’t see the words on the page any more. Grabbing the hem of her shirt, she wipes her face and remembers that last night they were together…

They’d never been more than just very good friends to each other, although she always felt electric whenever she was around him. Lisa was only fifteen when she met Craig. He was nineteen. Something about him brought her out of herself, so that she was always more, whenever he was around; more confident, more assertive; more creative; more definitive; more animated. She always thought her feelings were one-sided; since he’d never once given her any indication that he was romantically attracted to her, until the night he told her he was moving – the last night they were together. They’d gone to a party at a friend’s house. As the night wound down, Craig told her he’d decided the time was right for him to take off for Wyoming – something he’d always dreamed about doing – and would be leaving the following morning. The news hit her hard and she had all she could do to maintain her composure long enough to tell him she had to go. Craig usually insisted on driving her home but, on this particular night, Lisa refused. She said she needed to walk. As she got within about 50 yards of her driveway, he pulled up beside her, parked his truck and got out. Without a word, Craig put his arms on her shoulders, turned her around, and brought her to him. He held her there like that, with the palm of his hand caressing the back of her head as she silently sobbed into his chest, neither of them speaking. After Lisa finished sobbing, Craig brought his hand up under her chin and tilted her head back to look into her eyes. No words were necessary – she could see directly into his soul. He put his hands on each side of her face, softly kissed her forehead and said goodbye. She turned and walked the 50 yards to her house, never once looking back, and never once uttering the words she so desperately wanted to say to him…

As her tears dried and her thoughts turned back to the present, Lisa realized that everything in her life prepared her for this exact moment. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, preventing her from beginning her journey right now, rather than waiting for the morning. She got up off the step and went inside to grab her keys.  Lisa took one final look around at the empty rooms and walked out the door.

Four hours later, as her car maneuvers its way up the gravel driveway, Lisa begins to feel the electricity, and knows Craig is close by. She crests the top of the hill and brings her car to a stop, completely awed by the landscape before her – the mountains, the valley, the ponds and trees, glimpses of the ocean – though none of it’s changed in all this time. She shuts the car off and gets out; there’s a chill in the air. Smoke is coming out of the chimney and she can hear country music coming from the stereo speakers inside, which explains why he didn’t hear the car door slam. She walks up to the door and turns the knob; it opens and she enters. A fire’s burning in the woodstove, beef stew’s simmering in a pot on top of it, and he’s upstairs softly singing along to the music. She silently climbs the stairs and approaches the open doorway of his bedroom. He’s standing with his back to her, wrapped in a towel fresh from the shower, looking through the sliding glass doors at the beauty surrounding him. As she walks over the threshold towards the foot of the bed, a floor board creeks. Craig turns towards her. She stops her approach and waits for his reaction. It’s as if he’d known she would come. He walks over to her, puts his arms on her shoulders and draws her to him. She begins to silently sob into his chest as he caresses the back of her head with the palm of his hand. Once her sobbing subsides, Craig puts his hand under her chin and tilts her head up. He brings his mouth down onto hers with a hunger so fierce, it’s as if he needs to consume her. Her knees buckle and he holds onto her, gently lowering her onto the bed. As their need for each other builds, she removes his towel and he removes every single stitch of clothing she’s got on, until there’s nothing left to act as a barrier between them, anymore. He takes both of her arms and brings them up above her head, resting his arms on hers, palm on palm. With his right knee, he parts her legs only wide enough so that, when he lays his body on top of hers, his thighs and his hips are aligned with hers, and his heart beats directly above her own. Craig looks directly into her soul as he enters her. Lisa whispers softly “Welcome home”.

Cake Batter

Bernadette was out in the driveway, getting more and more frustrated with not being able stay up on her bike, after taking the training wheels off. Just as she was feeling like she should just quit, she heard a tapping on the kitchen window and looked up to see her mother waving her inside. As she dejectedly walked through the back door, she noticed the cake pans, floured and sitting on the kitchen counter. Her mother didn’t even have to tell her to go wash her hands. As soon as she saw them, she ran up the stairs to the bathroom, yelling “I hosie the bowl!” loud enough for her three older sisters to hear her, no matter where they were in the house.

Bernadette quickly washed her hands and raced back down the stairs, jumping from the second-to-last step while holding onto the bannister, then skidding her way into the kitchen. Her three sisters were all standing around their mother, Gina, arguing over how it wasn’t fair that Bernadette got to lick the bowl. But Gina wouldn’t budge. “Bernadette hosied it,” she’d said, “so the three of you will just have to be satisfied with licking the batter off the spatula and the beaters.” As the three of them grundingly accepted that they weren’t going to win this one, Gina turned her back to them and gave Bernadette a wink. The fact that she’d waved Bernadette in from the driveway would be their little secret.

Morning in America

Alexis woke up to the scent of sausage cooking on the stove. Her mother was in the kitchen, humming along to the instrumental Celtic music coming from the speakers on the counter, while she prepared a hearty breakfast for the two of them. It was snowing and blowing like crazy outside, but school still hadn’t been called off.

The music her mother was listening to disturbed Alexis. It made her feel like she was yearning for something she knew she needed, but was just beyond her grasp. As Alexis tried to shake off the feeling, she reached for the green backpack on the floor beside her bed. From the small, zipped compartment in the front, Alex took out the make-up bag that held her rig – all the tools she needed to begin her day – along with the magical rock Harley had given her last night after cheer practice. She reluctantly peeled back the cocoon of blankets she’d slept under, padded into the bathroom and locked the door.

After relieving herself and brushing her hair and her teeth, Alexis put the seat down on the toilet, tied off her arm and prepared for what had become her sacred morning ritual. Just as she injected the heroin into the vein of her left hand, her mother tapped on the bathroom door and announced, “Breakfast is ready!”

“Be right there, Mom” Alexis softly responded, as the rush of chemical tranquility enveloped her.

Going Out to Play

I wish you’d known my brother when he was little. He was one of the happiest, kindest little boys I’ve ever known and I fell madly in love with him the moment I laid eyes on him. The day my mother brought him home from the hospital, I was eight years old with three older sisters. They were ten, twelve and fourteen, respectively.  Over the course of the next decade, while our older sisters graduated from high school and moved on with their lives, he and I grew very close.

One night, when my brother was ten years old, our parents went out to dinner and I stayed home to babysit.  My brother was out playing in the neighborhood – something we’d all done as kids – and was due home by the time the street lights came on.  On this particular night, though, he didn’t come home when he was supposed to.  In the beginning, I wasn’t really concerned, and just figured he’d gotten involved in something with his friends, so I went looking for him.

After checking for him at all of his friends’ houses, I was starting to get a little worried. This really wasn’t like him to stay out past his curfew. He was just that kind of a kid; he never caused anyone any problems. Anyway, that night I walked everywhere, looking for him and calling his name. I even  walked up to the center of town to check the candy and music stores (his usual hang-outs).  By the time I got home, I was pretty frantic.  Just as I was getting ready to call the police, he came slamming through the back door, all out of breath and with a panicked look on his face.  In fact, he looked like he was on the verge of crying.

As this feeling of relief washed over me, I calmly asked him where he’d been, more to try to just relieve his fear than for any other reason, really.  But his answer stopped me in my tracks.  One thing my brother wasn’t was a liar.  He didn’t have to be.  I was his confidant and his protector, and he knew it.  But, that night, he told me he’d been at one of his friend’s houses; a house I’d just checked when I was out looking for him.  They told me they hadn’t seen him.  The lie bothered me more than anything else, and I told him so.  He wouldn’t change his story and insisted that’s where he’d been, before running upstairs to his room.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on and after a few seconds, I ran after him.  The sight that greeted me when I threw open his bedroom door still haunts me, after all these years.  He’d thrown open his window and was about to jump out, screaming that he just wanted to die.

I think it actually took me a second or two to react, but I threw myself across the room and grabbed his arm as he was leaning out.  We both ended up on the floor, sobbing and screaming.  He was crying and telling me to just let him go, while I’d wrapped him in my arms and was pleading with him to tell me what was going on.  He wouldn’t.  He just kept saying he couldn’t tell me and, after calming down a while later, begged me not to say anything to our parents.  I stayed with him until he fell asleep that night, then waited up for my parents to come home.

Sadly, my parents reacted as most parents would have, I think.  I couldn’t seem to communicate the utter despair I’d witnessed that night, a despair that was so grossly out of character for this little boy whom we all loved more than life itself.  Rather, they chalked it up to a little misbehavior on my brother’s part, and a lot of over-reacting on my part.  It didn’t help that my brother acted as if I was making a big deal out of nothing, when my parents asked him about it the next morning. He denied trying to jump out the window, or saying that he wanted to die.  But something changed that night, and life with him was never the same.

The boy who was always so laid back and happy had disappeared.  In his place, an anxious child grew into a troubled teen who became a man battling addictions and demons that threatened to destroy him, until he’d finally had enough.  At the age of forty, my brother checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for what turned out to be the first of many visits.  It was there that he finally felt safe enough to tell me a story.  It was the story of a ten-year old boy who’d gone out to play one day, and ended up being molested by our parish priest; a story that ended two years later, after living through unspeakable horrors he spent the next thirty years trying to erase from his mind.

As I listened to his story, it occurred to me that the little boy we’d lost that day had grown into the bravest man I’d ever known.

Taboo

Introduction: At a recent Writer’s Conference, a writing prompt was given to the attendees, labeled TABOO. From that prompt, a list of subjects considered socially taboo was created and all were instructed to spend some time writing about something considered “taboo.” The following story flowed from that prompt. 

Taboo

“There’s no crying in dispatch,” Sam jokingly reminded Jessica as she pressed the NOT READY button on her console, yanked off her headphones and headed to the supervisor’s station for some tissues while failing miserably at controlling the tears streaming down her face. “Some days,” she said to herself, “this job is just TOO MUCH!” As she rounded the corner and stepped down from the area known as “the loft”, the other dispatchers not taking calls stood and applauded her. All other radio transmissions had been silenced for the past two hours, while every available County, City and Municipal unit responded to a neighborhood held hostage by a man with an AK47. Dispatchers, law enforcement officers, and every other first responder held their collective breaths, as they’d listened to the constant exchange of information and instructions between Incident Command and Jessica, against the backdrop of automatic weapon fire…

It isn’t often that God is spoken of in a 9-1-1 center. In fact, religion is one of the few subjects everyone usually stays away from. Today, though, was a different story. Prayers were sent out to officers over instant messaging screens, letting them know we were with them in spirit and praying they returned safely home to their families tonight. There’s a well-known quote credited to no one in particular from the WWII era that goes something like this: “there are no atheists in fox holes.” Today, that quote came to life for many.

While the neighborhood was being held hostage, the “normal” course of 9-1-1 calls continued to come into the center. Car accidents, kitchen fires, drug overdoses, sexual assaults, stolen property, homes broken into, domestic situations…the never-ending story of man’s inhumanity to man. Not much is considered taboo – or off limits to joke about – in a 9-1-1 center. Sometimes the stress is just so potent that the only way to release it is to find humor from the madness.

But there are a few things dispatchers are strictly prohibited from talking about at work. Political discussions and politics are a no-no. Religion, as I said, is usually a subject no one really wants to get into, but silent prayer happens on a fairly regular basis, and commentary on calls involving children is usually strained, if discussed at all. Those are among the most difficult to hear, along with hearing “officer down”, “shots fired” and “may day” from first responders and fire fighters. There’s no way to minimize situations like these, or to box them up and dissociate from the lasting trauma of the sounds and the voices that replay in your mind, over and over again. On occasion, Critical Incident Stress Debrief sessions are offered, in an attempt to help find some balance for everyone involved.

So, from the list of Taboo topics most normal people refrain from discussing at work, topics and questions you may often hear in dispatch centers, are:

  • Sex: Sex and its many and varying aspects; from gender identity issues, one night stands, gay vs straight vs bi-sexual sex, who’s having sex with whom, who’s not getting any, porn and who thinks it’s right – who thinks it’s all wrong. Sometimes you hear this from the callers, and sometimes you just hear conversations. Anything is fair game.
  • Finances: Income and finances are not only talked about but comparisons are made to make sure things are being distributed right. Credit card information, security codes, numbered passwords, PIN numbers, dates of birth; all are fair game when you’re working on a busy radio console, or are running short-staffed. Online shopping in some 9-1-1 centers is as natural as breathing, but sometimes our co-workers have to help out with the ordering.
  • Weight: From the moment a dispatcher begins their shift, usually the first chat message sent around the room – depending upon the size of the center – is about what to do for lunch. This discussion normally takes about three hours, as people send around suggestions, and votes are tallied. Then decisions have to be made about who will place the order. Restaurants often cringe when they hear who’s calling because they know there’s going to be a separate debit/credit card for each order…and some dispatchers are horrific tippers. As an aside, it usually takes about a half hour after all the food is consumed for the chat message screen to begin to be filled with dispatchers complaining about how much weight they’ve gained since they started this job because the choices of delivery don’t often entail healthy options. But the next shift will be just the same.
  • Age: Age is always an issue. If you’re young (ish) when you start out in this line of work, you resent the “old” people who think the job “was so much better when…” and that “these young people today” just want to come in and change the way things have always been done. If you’re old (er) when you start out, the first day you walk into your new job, most people will roll their eyes behind your back as you walk by and say things like “I wonder how long this one will last”…and then the betting begins.
  • “Are you pregnant?” “Are you infertile?” “Do you have your period?” “Is it hot in here or is it just me?” These are just some of the questions often shouted across the room from one female dispatcher to another, while it’s not uncommon to hear one of the male dispatchers ask why they “can’t just have one tiny estrogen-free corner of the room” to work in.
  • “Who’s your daddy Thursday” is an actual theme in, at least, one district courthouse. No self-respecting, law-abiding citizen would even attempt to do business there on Thursdays, as the business of the day is given over to custody battles and DNA denials and women fighting other women over whose kids’ daddy was her kids’ daddy first.
  • Badge Bunnies: There’s a term used in Law Enforcement that describes people who choose to work as support personnel for first responders because they’re sexually turned on by the uniform: Badge Bunnies. And if you are one, you can be certain everyone else knows it and talks about it. It just goes with the job.
  • Profanity and discrimination: If you walk into a dispatch center unannounced,  you just may notice a dispatcher rolling their eyes and mouthing words at their computer screens. The verbal abuse female dispatchers are required to take from callers is unimaginable. They are called everything thing from “f-ing bitches” to the “c-word” and many have no recourse for making it stop. The male dispatchers don’t seem to have this problem. Bigotry and discrimination are even alive and thriving in the midst of life threatening emergencies.

But the most taboo behavior all good 9-1-1 dispatchers learn never to engage in while working, is allowing their emotions to become entangled with the caller. The voice of calm and reason under all circumstances, they often grow skin so thick that they forget to feel anything at all, even after they go home. This can lead to periods of intense depression and anxiety, as a natural consequence of forcing themselves not to instinctually respond, human-to-human. It’s from those experiences that humor can break the cycle…

So, as Sam reminded Jessica that there’s no crying in dispatch and her co-workers gave her a standing ovation while she blew her nose and dried her tears, she laughed. A big, deep belly laugh. No one died that day. The officers were all going home to their families, and the neighbors were all present and accounted for while one mentally deranged man lived to convince another psychiatrist, a year from now, that he’s no longer a danger to society and will go home to do it all over again.

Dispatchers refer to that as job security.