MURMURS
by Dale Stuckey 

Ted thought the creator had made a terrible mistake matching him with a career as a trainer, knowing full well he experienced paralyzing embarrassment speaking in front of groups. To heighten the unfairness, he had been deposited into the role of “safety” trainer, one who, in the last year, had no regard for his own well-being and despised people who felt compelled to buckle up or to check the weather forecast before venturing outside, as if they had any way to avoid it—the shit—when it determined to call. But the job paid well, and he needed the money—the hospital bills piling up and laughably steep. So there he was, false identity emblazoned on a silvery business card that no one ever asked to see: Ted Trueblood Sawyer—Industrial Education Facilitator.

A typical venue for his teaching ability occurred the week prior when, first thing in the morning, he had to conduct an OSHA Hazard Communication class, covering such topics as safety data sheets, proper container labeling, chemical hazards, and similar silliness. He smirked at the thought, knowing that the workers’ ubiquitous cigarettes and the heartless world awaiting them outside posed far greater dangers. Nonetheless, he had to steel himself and prepare. Twenty “eager” students would await his inevitably flustered facilitating.

* * *

A familiar sense of dread left the house with him that morning and deepened as he drove the pine-infested backroads to Conroe, bottoming out when he reached the parking lot. He sat for long minutes gazing up at the American Metal Finishing sign on the main building, the original shocking red of its letters faded into the orange of a garage sale toy, and he felt faded himself, his smoldering anger having aged him far beyond his thirty-five years. It was a beautiful East Texas morning, though, if he could have appreciated it, the sky a cobalt blue and chilled with the coming of autumn.

A debate ensued as he sat in his car. Could he go through with this?  What else was he going to do—roll over and die?  Could he disappear into the pines and find another life?  You’re a fucking train wreck. At last he exited and his legs slowly propelled him onward and into the crowded training center where the circus was to be held.

Technical difficulties plagued him at the outset, as always. He had to turn the projector off and on several times and play with the mode and keystone buttons to get the image placed onto the wall and off his laptop. While he fiddled thus he could detect the rising tide of impatience. The rustling of restless bodies. The tapping of fingers on portable plastic tables. The sighs. The shuffling of feet. The hushed giggles—mainly from the back but scattered throughout.

At last he began, not looking directly at the students because whenever he did they seemed to peer through his mask of composure, past the false grin pasted on his mouth, and to revel in the dirty secret beneath—his inability to get on with life. He could sense the audience trying to make him out; he could feel the question mark hanging over his head like a smoke signal. Smothering anger consumed him—What was someone who lost a kid to meningitis supposed to look like?  Running on such fumes strengthened him to at last face the faces. Things always turned out this way, every class—acute embarrassment morphing into disdain as the training ordeal progressed.

After introducing the topic Ted scanned the class like a human periscope and, though not surprised, didn’t care for what he saw. Shane Nordrum, from shipping, had slouched back against his seat in the front row, reading a newspaper though the class had already started. Ted winced at the sight, as if some scar tissue deep within hadn’t fully set up and a drop of vinegar percolated through. This was the kind of expected respect the clod-heads showed him.

Off in the left corner, nearest the door, sporting her perpetual scowl, sat Emily Scones from the non-destructive testing department. She detested Ted and he detested her. Funny, because they had never actually spoken. He surveyed her briefly, almost amused at her predictability. He could tell she had been a semi-beauty in her youth. Slender and not too afflicted with wrinkles. Her hair glowed like freshly polished silver and dropped over her forehead in a sort of bang. But age and the breathing of penetrant dye had loosened her throat into a dewlap, and the distance between her nose and upper lip had extended, as if a denture had slipped and dragged the skin with it. The others should be staring disapprovingly at her, Ted thought, not at him.

Snickering came from the back of the class. This increased his blood flow, turning him red, he was sure, from corpuscles splashing crazily against the sides of blood vessels. The sound issued, as usual, from the three amigos—Randolph Pine, head of maintenance; Zach Walters, maintenance helper; and Guy Saunders, the big cheese himself, the overall plant manager.

Everything about them irritated Ted. Randolph was a fifty-year-old delinquent turned loose on a substitute teacher. He sat fingering an annoying moustache that bristled outward like a chaotic prison break. Zach, in the middle, had drawn something he endeavored to show the rest, his face sprouting a mirth that belonged in an amusement park. And Guy, long and lean and redneck to the core, glared fixedly at Ted while cocking a grin to one side as if to say, “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Ted glared at the rearguard and thought—You people don’t know shit. But he carried on. He didn’t want to confront these problem children; they weren’t worth it, and he preferred to seethe within, to lash them with invisible ire.

Somehow he mustered through the class and did, he thought, a serviceable job of containing his feelings, although at times the red dot of his laser quivered on the screen—projecting a neurotic firefly. At such moments he directed the pupils to their handouts, asking them the proper response to a methylene chloride spill or some such, effectively diverting attention from himself.

When he finally dismissed the acolytes they, like a school of upright mackerel, moved forward, flicking their empty coffee cups into the trash can as they funneled through the door, breathing a collective sigh of relief. No one thanked or acknowledged him.

* * *

Ted arrived home that day to what he knew would be a quiet house, the day’s tension still rollicking in his veins as he pulled into the driveway. He sat immobile regarding the front door, a barrier never easy to pierce, and his tension began to die down, replaced by an encroaching sadness.

Inside, he walked past two never-to-be-opened rooms—the bedroom where his wife took her life some six years earlier and his son’s bedroom with its collection of dinosaurs hanging from the ceiling and its smattering of exotic cars on the carpet. His wife’s absence made him ache to the core, as if he were deprived of some essential emotional enzyme, as if suffering from spiritual scurvy. Yes, he’d gotten somewhat used to it. But the absence of his only living link to her fueled a burning disregard of God and of all that was holy and supposed to matter. To say he ached would be an understatement.

Nick’s room may have been closed off but Ted couldn’t close off the hall where his eight-year-old son had writhed in agony that night of the brilliant hospital lights and the dark looks in the eyes of the nurse who pulled spinal fluid from his spare, quivering back.

In the bathroom Ted splashed his face with cold water and looked up at a visage that surprised him with normality. He’d half-expected to see a reflection of what he felt—a mouth elongated into a sorrowful howl to make Munch’s screamer appear cheerful.

Later, he sat at his desk eating, forgoing the dining room as usual, blankly watching an NBA game. At halftime he went out on the back patio to get a breath of fresh air. A jiggled flash of lightning from a storm to the west teased his eyes open. The night was clear out, unusual for closed-in, insufferably humid Houston. Cassiopeia floated across on her stellar tide and other constellations salted the sky, and he had the impression of being transported to a mountain chalet in Colorado.

In the past year he’d often thought of moving to the mountains. His son had been fascinated by them and particularly reveled in a picture book of the national parks. That would be something indeed, Ted mused, an above-timberline existence where memories would be as mosquitoes blown away in an unimpeded breeze, where the air would be pristine and hard edged—like a raw-boned gunslinger with no body fat and no sentimentality.

He reflected. Maybe he himself had lost all trace of sentimentality. He remembered idly surfing the OSHA website at work that day and having locked in on a scrolling marquee that dispassionately listed workplace fatalities—construction workers suffocated in collapsed trenches, a worker pulled into a trash compactor, a roofer fallen from a balcony and impaled on rebar, tree-trimmers electrocuted by high-tension wires, a city maintenance worker suffocated in a manhole and a would-be rescuer collapsing behind him. All these scanned past his deadened eyes and he felt nothing.

But now, thinking back on it, an idea occurred to him. Maybe he’d stumbled upon a secret weapon. What if he could find graphic photos of such incidents and display them in class. Would this not make his frivolous flock sit up and take notice, make them realize that “shit” really does happen, and would it not deflect attention from him personally.

That night before bed he put Google through its paces, digging up horrible depictions of machine-on-man accidents that could prove useful in the next class—a session focusing on machine guarding and serendipitously scheduled to occur just before lunch. He came up with four photographs, culled from an ex-OSHA inspector’s website, that he thought would serve his purpose, ranging from mildly stomach churning to full-on nightmarish.

The last photograph was so disturbing he felt sickened by it, a result not expected and that gave him pause—his emotions were not as yet totally petrified. Storing the images onto his flash drive, he was at last satisfied with the preparations and, confident that the usual snide comments would be snuffed out by what he had up his sleeve, he drifted pleasantly off to sleep, though subsequent slumber was troubled by visions of shredded flesh and puddled blood.

* * *

The morning of the machine guarding class wasn’t as laden by dread as normally confronted Ted. He actually looked forward to the experiment and whether he could put his carefree and disinterested charges into a place of stunned respect.

The class began five minutes late while he waited for the last of the workers to lounge in, texting and conversing as they came. Then he began, enduring the usual quips of the participants and their maddening interruptions of scraping chairs and unnecessarily loud coughs and sneezes.

After a monotone presentation whereby he introduced the subject and its importance to the hearers, Ted began plodding through slides of various machine guarding devices: drill press guards, interlocking guards, photoelectric sensors, wire barrier screens, and several others. He related the pros and cons of each and their respective costs. The students eyes glazed over and they shifted in their seats, some moaning with boredom, some yawning and covering their faces.

Without warning he unleashed his first attack.

“And this is the sort of thing,” he said and paused, “that can happen”—and he flipped up a full cover photo of a hand from which a finger had been severed. The paper towel that served as backdrop was drenched in blackish blood, and the orphaned finger, a skinny, blanched, pathetic hot dog, had been positioned next to the bruised donor.

Quite reigned for a moment. Then a female from the back called out, “That’ll teach you, Jason, to keep your hands to yourself!”

A scattering of nervous laughter resulted. But some were shaking their heads. All were at least paying attention.

Bill Phelps from the anodizing department said, half-jokingly, “Hey, c’mon teach, we’ve got lunch coming up.”  A general murmur of agreement arose at this.

Emily Scones, Ted noticed, had diverted her stare, for once, from him to the screen, and the normally baleful expression on her face had morphed into one of dismay.

All going according to plan.

He then ratcheted it down, having decided to mete out shocks like a slasher film director, and delved into the regulations and the history behind the safety guidelines. When he detected their interest again began to wane, he announced,  “And if you doubt the importance behind these rules, the following, ladies and gentleman, can happen to you.” 

He unveiled a color photo showing a clump of brunette hair from a woman’s scalp hanging off a piece of baling machinery on a conveyor. The mess dripped onto the floor.

“Shiiiiit.”

“Goddamn.”

“What the fuck”

He could hear a pen drop, literally.

He waited while this sunk in, then plunged back into the banal, into the specific dangers of rotating parts, listing examples in intentionally boring fashion.

Then. Another assault. Two black-and-white photos. Drop hammer accident  Decapitation.

In one photo, the separated head was sitting atop a fifty-five gallon drum, the eyes open and startled, the mouth twisted into a grimace. In the other, the dismembered body lay flung onto the floor, the arms and legs splayed out like those of an ill-fated skydiver.

A smattering of graveyard humor presented itself, subdued and uncertain.

“Lost your head there, Ralph.”

“Bad hair day.”

After this, Ted made as if he were winding down. He launched into a summary of what he’d covered then asked if there were any questions. None. Students began gathering their belongings, in anticipation of the end.

He waited for the opportune time, then proclaimed, “Before we close I want to drive home my point that this is serious business, a real matter of life and limb.”  A collective groan sounded. He thought, They consider life all fun and games.

He pulled up the lathe accident.

It was horrific. Ted could only glance at the image for a few seconds himself. A machinist had been pulled into the machine. The top third of his body had been chewed into hamburger and chunks of it hung in great clogs from the torso as if in some nightmare delicatessen. One of the man’s arms was still partially intact, the hand still clutching the control switch. On his shirt back, almost sprayed over with red, one could still make out a Green Bay Packers logo.

The room grew quiet.

Ted heard a whispered, “God!”

Emily was obviously upset. She searched in her handbag for something, trembling. Guy got up and walked out, spitting into the trash can as he left. Ted waited a few minutes then dismissed the rest.

They stood slowly and somewhat aimlessly. With a show of bravado they exited. Bill asked if anyone had brought a baloney sandwich. Another spouted, “Chow time!”  But overall the mood was somber and Ted felt a twinge of remorse at their parting as if he’d been guilty of switching a Disney movie with A Nightmare on Elm Street.  He knew they’d be with left with images in their mind for hours to come as he had been. But, he rationalized, I bet they remember machine guarding.

The next morning, he was called to the president’s office.

* * *

Jeff Aldonaty’s door was closed. No big surprise. Ted stood facing the solid oak barrier, collecting himself, hearing Jeff on the phone inside, his voice pitched high, agitated.

“May I help you?” came the golden voice of Candace Wilson, the receptionist, a very professional and somewhat annoying gatekeeper. She sat around the corner and had rolled her chair back to spot him.

“I was told to see Jeff this morning,” Ted answered and remained facing the door.

“Well, he’ll be on the phone a while. Corporate, you know. They never call when things are going great,” Candace said and lasered onto him, surprised he didn’t back away immediately at this warning. “I’ll give him the message that you need to see him,” she offered. “Once he gets off the phone.”

Ted fixed his eyes on the bronze nameplate—President of Operations—and listened for an ebb in the inner sanctum conversation.

“Oh Teedddyyy,” Candace purred.

“Yeeesss?”

“I said I’d tell him.”

“It can’t wait,” he told her. And it couldn’t—he had` to get this over with.

“Your funeral,” she said and Ted heard her roll back to her desk, but he could tell she remained tuned in. Presently, the sound of the phone conversation died down and he knocked on the door. Heard the terse command, “Enter.”

He found Jeff still on the phone, listening to something that obviously troubled him. His face beamed red—forehead rouged as though he’d been butting a wall—and his lips were tightly compressed. He looked over and when he saw Ted, motioned him forward and pointed to one of the padded chairs facing the desk which was loaded with stacks of paper and several loose pieces of correspondence.

The great man distractedly shifted one of these around with his index finger, while listening to whomever spoke on the other line. At times he tried to interject in the one-sided conversation, with, “But I—” and “Yes, but I what meant—“ trying to establish a beachhead against an enemy who wouldn’t let up bombardment.

While Ted sat waiting, he surveyed an office he’d seen only a handful of times since he’d started work there. On those earlier occasions he had been flush with adrenaline, readied to present safety-related expense requests and without leisure to look around. This time he could admire the gleaming posters on the walls, each showing a sleek aircraft from the more important customers—an Embraer Legacy 650 executive jet, a Learjet 85 executive jet, a Cessna 525, and others that he couldn’t identify.

Out the window Ted noted the cerulean sky of another crisp autumn day. Then he settled his gaze on Jeff, a short, lean, sharply dressed man with a rugged face—presidential even, except for the redness. Ted knew from the warm sensation on his own face that he probably glowed beet red as well.

The phone slammed down into its cradle. Jeff stared at it, motionless, as if he didn’t trust the line to be really dead. His hand remained resting on it, visibly quivering. Then, turning to the underling, he launched into a diatribe as if Ted were in the know about all that had just transpired. Ted listened in wary fascination.

“Those shit-for-brains in Montreal don’t know what it takes to run this company,” Jeff exclaimed. “I tell them we’re on schedule to get three ship-sets out by Friday. Is that good enough for them?” 

He looked at Ted, who tried hard to appear on-board.

“NO, that’s not good enough for them. They’ve got to have five out by Friday. Well fuck-those-Frenchmen. I can get five out EVERY Friday if they gave me the budget to hire more people.”  At this, he sat silently for a moment, rubbing a nasty-looking mole on his cheek. Finally he spoke directly to Ted.

“Mr. Saw”—he snapped his fingers to coax recollection—“Mr. Sawyer. What’s on your mind?”

“I was told to see you.”

A blank expression settled on Jeff’s face and, for a while he merely stared. “Oh yes,” he finally started. “What are you—”  Then the phone buzzed again. He shook his head, punched a button and said, “Candace, hold my calls.”  Again Jeff stared down at the phone, thinking hard on something. Then he turned to Ted and said, “Now what’s this about the training?”

Ted shifted in his chair. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve gotten complaints. Gratuitous violence. An intentional gross-out session right before lunch. What do you make of that?”

“What do I make of it?”

“A certain female thinks you targeted her directly. Apparently, she says, you kept glancing at her and smiling while displaying the most godawful pictures.”

“I was just trying to get their attention,” Ted responded, struggling to control a massive indignation. “They’ve basically been zoning out during my classes. I had to do something.”

Jeff nodded. “I understand that. But you may need to be more discriminating. My workers aren’t very productive if they spend the afternoon puking.”  A hint of a smile flashed across his face; he’d apparently amused himself.

“That really happen?”

Jeff ignored the question and leaned back, cupping his head in his hands. He obviously relished the break from the phone. “You’ve got to realize,” he said, “some of those people are Desert Storm vets. Guy has PTSD, I’m pretty sure. And Randy witnessed his corporal get pinched in half by an Abrams tank that suddenly backed into a wall.”  At this the president paused, a smile no longer in evidence. “Nasty business.”  He stared at the ceiling.

Ted took opportunity of this lull to more fully state his case. He argued that the photos were an effective, sobering method of providing training that would be retained. After all, he reasoned, they tended to laugh off everything and that habit could get them injured or worse.

A quiet settled while Jeff pondered this.

“I don’t disagree with you,” he responded at last. “We have the same goal, Mr. Sawyer—nobody gets hurt.”  He paused again and Ted had the impression something distracted him.

“But you may need to more sensitive,” Jeff continued. “Traumatic memories can be a powerful thing.”

Ted mentally prepared to be released and rehearsed in his mind the various job applications he could put in. But the president made no move to dismiss him.

After an interval of silence, the president said, “You know, I witnessed a bad accident myself, back when I was just a teenager.”  He glanced at Ted for a reaction and seeing none continued. “I shouldn’t go into it. . . .it’s not pleasant.”

I’ve got some unpleasant stories of my own, Ted thought a little impatiently.

“Good old Dan Ames,” Jeff sighed and chuckled. “We worked at this factory in Katy that made communication cables wound on these huge reels. Eight and ten feet in diameter, several tons each.” 

Ted nodded.

“Ames was an older guy. We were unlikely friends, me being only nineteen and him probably forty, me short and stocky, and him tall and gangly. But we joked around a lot. Whenever he did a particularly good job polishing the end of a cable he would show it to me, get this gleam in his eye, and tell me, “Son, how do you like them apples?’  A good-natured sort but, man, could he brag. One night he claimed he was the fastest thing on two legs.

“I’d just done a stint in high school track and I firmly disputed this. So we had a footrace inside the warehouse. He had on these slick black dress shoes—no steel-toed footwear required back then—so I had an advantage with my sneakers. But he was fast for his age.

“I barely beat him. Did a victory lap around the shipping department, came up to him with a grin and said, ‘Pop, how do you like them apples?’

“He ended up owing me a hundred dollars from that. But he claimed he couldn’t pay yet until someone who themselves owed him money paid him back.

“Two weeks later, I still waited for payment. I kept reminding him of the debt. I was young and low on money and needed my winnings to pay rent. It got to be a sore spot. We quit palling around as much.”

A slight smile grew on Jeff’s face at this memory, but then flattened into rigidity.

“Well, this one day, Dan was seated peeling back the end of a small cable, prepping it for testing. I sat nearby on a large forklift.

“There was this reel, a massive one, perched at the edge of a nearby loading ramp, fifteen feet away from Dan—getting staged for quality control.

“The first thing I noticed was a guy back behind the reel who started flailing his arms like a semaphore corpsmen gone berserk.

“Then I saw the reel had started rolling, slowly then quicker. A huge metal snowball—somehow the chock had slipped out.

“I shouted. ‘Ames!’  He looked up, saw the reel bearing down on him, and started to run. But because of those damn slick shoes he slipped and fell.

“I just heard him say, ‘Oh shit!  That’s all. Then he made a kind of odd noise, like air being let of a balloon. Then came this crunching sound.”

Jeff was silent for a minute, unable to continue, and gazed out the window.

Finally, he started up again.

“He was crushed of course. The bottom half. Brain popped out like toothpaste. Blood everywhere. On me. The forklift.”

Jeff shook his head then picked up and fingered a stapler as if it were a rosary.

“Took me a long, long time to tamp that one down,” he said thoughtfully.

He stared at Ted. “Do you know, all I could think about for days, for years after that?”

“What?”

“I should have forgiven that stupid debt.”

* * *

Ted remembered this conversation for long afterwards, during intervals when he wasn’t thinking about his son and those times when he wasn’t preparing for and conducting training (he continued the job).

It nagged at him, the president’s story. It pestered his world view.  And though he was loathe to admit it, it somehow superseded his cynicism. He’d grown calloused into thinking that a tragedy didn’t usually come complete with a existential “moral to the story,” and he had long considered it a joke to say such things happened for a reason.

But upon reflection, he realized the president had been correct in his summation. He should indeed have forgiven the stupid debt.  The whole thing had surprisingly moved him.  Riding this current he decided to move on, for he never knew when an Ames might show up in one his classes.

About the Author:

Dale Stuckey currently resides in Wichita, Kansas, and works in the educational field (school bus driver) and do some environmental & safety consulting on the side. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University in 2014. This is first published work of fiction.  He has published a handful of essays in some obscure journals and the student literary magazine where he won first prize for non-fiction.

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