I like to walk in the forest. Today’s it winter, and the trees are like veins against the sky’s gray heart. Voices are in my head as usual. I’m taking pictures and wondering if I can make a living at photography. Maybe I should become a pilot. After all, Richard Bach makes it sound beautiful in his books. Easy. At least in a plane one can see her way clear. I can’t. I don’t know where I’m going. At least, not in my life. In fact, I was a failure in this line of work as far as I was concerned. The only thing I had going for me was pure blind stubbornness. 

That may not get you far. 

I’m arguing with the voices as I walk. Keep going or pack it up and quit? Softly I sing Kyrie by Mr. Mister. It’s one of my favorite songsI’m not religious but if there is a God, I need His mercy right now. It’s a cliché to say when learning something one puts in blood, sweat and tears. However, when it comes to orthotics-prosthetics it’s literal. I’ve sweated. I’ve cut myself on knives, scraped off skin on grinders. And I cried. Especially now, contemplating my current job, the fact that half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, and that everyone else seems to know more than me. I feel like someone tied a ball and chain to my foot and I’m dragging it alone. I’m afraid I’m the one that tied it to myself. 

Yeah, you even threw your project on the floor. In front of all your classmates no less.  

“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” What can I say? Desperation can bring a strength, fury, and a will to continue on that you didn't know you had. It can also make you do some pretty insane things. 

My project was to make a short metal leg brace attached to a shoe. It would give stability to a weak or paralyzed ankle and foot. It would be a bit heavy but the person could walk normally and that was the point. Anyway, I was in a lab with six other people. On my bench was a tracing of my lab partner’s leg. Contouring the uprights wasn’t the problem. The issue was the ankle joints had to be perfectly squared which each other. If not, the joints won’t bend smoothly. We had bending tools and alignment spacers to assist us. However, in bending the metal I had also twisted the upright. It had to be straightened out. 

With wet, slippery hands I put my upright into the vice. I took the bending iron, put it on the upright and made a downward, twisting motion. The metal slipped in the vice. I tightened it down and applied more pressure. Nothing seemed to happen. I made the mistake of looking at the clock which seemed to be counting in New York minutes. I couldn’t have possibly been here that long. Kyrie eleison, I thought, along with fuck this stupid fucking shit.  I took the brace out of the vice and flexed it. The joints moved as if they were rusted. So, I threw the brace on the floor. It bounced once, and came to rest on the floor next to the bench. Next to me, Susan jumped. 

“What did you do that for?” 

“To see if the force would somehow align the joints. The teacher’s not here so who cares?” 

She looked at me, her eyes wide. I could see she was about as desperate as I was. “Did that work?”  

I picked up the brace and bent it. “It seemed to help.” I put it back in the vice and used the heavy bending iron. I took it out and checked the joints. “Yeah it seems better. I believe I see a light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Susan shoved her hair out of her eyes and turned back to her own project. “That’s an oncoming train,” she told me. 

Somehow, I found that both funny and comforting. If it was a train we’d at least go down together. It’s become my mantra ever since then. That light is an oncoming train. I’m not sure what a psychiatrist would make of that but so be it. 


You still lost control by throwing your brace on the floor, said that voice in my head. 

“Yeah. Whatever. Anyway, I can’t quit.” 

It would be to your benefit if you just admitted you need help. It’s why you’re doing this internship you know. 

“I hate asking for help. That's weakness.” 

And… you're stupid. 

“Gee thanks.” 

Anytime, said that voice inside me. It’s not like anything else worked so far so you must be stupid. 

 That part was true. Since childhood, I wanted to be a nurse, thought I’d be good at it. Shows you what I knew. I had panic attacks in hospital clinics. At least I think that’s what they were since I never actually found out. I just knew I’d freeze up. I’d feel stoned, as if I was in some empty fog only I could see. I’d throw up just thinking about going to clinicals. And I didn’t know how to tell anyone about this. How do I go about telling a teacher or counselor I felt pathetic, weak, and sick? Who does that in 1989? I couldn’t and so they decided I wasn’t suited for nursing. I agreed. I thought about occupational therapy but failed statistics, a requirement. I failed the class twice and completely my fault to be honest. I didn’t study. I’m sure the counselor I never saw but should have would say “that’s a sign if there ever was one.” They’d be right. I really didn’t want to do O.T. So I saw this major, decided it was interesting especially because I didn’t need statistics, and signed up. I believe I did it as a man with no other options signs up for the Army. I had no idea what was in store for me. My father teased me when I left for college in Miami by saying I would be giving people a leg to stand on, a helping hand. Then in a moment of pride he said I’d also be helping the lame walk. 

I can’t see that happening. At least not today.  


Why can’t I drill through this steel plate? 

The metal brace is attached to the shoe by way of a stainless-steel plate that is riveted to a shoe. This involves drilling holes. The teacher had advised us to add oil onto the plate to lubricate the drill. I had a drill press, the oil, and I was sweating like I was in a wool suit in June doing the Lambada. Who wouldn’t sweat? I’d been at this five, ten minutes. I was doing something wrong and didn’t know what.  

“I can’t be this weak! Why the hell can’t I drill through this damned plate? It’s maybe three eighths thick for the love of God.” I added more oil and started drilling. All I got was smoke and a noise much like a banshee’s wail. And about as effective. It was warning me of a kind of death, the death of my academic career. I would flunk out, fail again, have to go home in disgrace.  

No. I won’t. Screw this, you miserable stupid plate. I won’t go down that easily. I added more oil when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Tom, another student at the school. He had worked in a prosthetic facility before so he had a bit more experience than the rest of us. And I’m certain he knew it. “Having trouble?” he said to me. 

No, I’m enjoying every minute of this, Tom. I just swear for absolutely no good reason. I took a deep breath and managed a diplomatic answer through my gritted teeth. “Yes I am.” 

“Try this,” said Tom. He held out some drills, giving me a look like I had issues that needed addressing. I took one, put it into the press, turned it on and drilled. This time it went through very easily.  

“They give us dull drills here,” he said. “Might want to bring your own.” 

Wonderful. Like I have time for that. 


I do have time to drink. I have a weekend job at a restaurant.  Salad Scene. Often, I go hungover. Last night after a particularly bad class we all went out to have a beer. The guys kept giving me beer and like I fool I keep drinking it. Finally Mike makes a joke about one of the teachers. 

“Her name is Ilene,” he says. “It’s very appropriate for this field we’re in. Get it? Ilene?” 

It’s not very funny but I start laughing. I laugh so hard beer comes out my nose and it burns. I look up and everyone has moved away from me and my puddle of beer. 

“Great...” I say, coughing, so in my cups I could just about sit up. “I could...have died...for all you care.” 

“Of course we do,” says Mike patting me on my back as if to burp me. And we’re all laughing. But I’m not laughing later on the bus. I’m trying not to throw up on the bus. I must have been giving myself a pep talk because my seatmate asks if I’m all right. 

“What...Yeah.” I said, turning away. “Just too much to eat.” As if I’m fooling anyone. I do manage to make it back to my dorm room in one piece without puking. I’d like to say it was the last time I drank that much but it wouldn’t be true. There was too much stress to not drink. Not to say I wasn’t completely irresponsible. When I’m not drinking, I’m working my job at Salad Scene in the mall. When I’m not doing that I study. Trig, anatomy, a physics class. Days I spent searching for muscle insertions on a cadaver, the pickling chemical burning smell of formaldehyde forever burned into my brain. I search while trying to forget this was once someone’s aunt or lover. 

I get to see an amputation surgery once. I don’t know whose bright idea this was but I could have gone my entire career without the experience. Most of it I have blocked out except that I could barely breathe. I felt sick that day. And one of the other students with me nearly fainted. But all in all for stress that was nothing. I study every night for every C I get. Every B is a miracle of God never mind getting an A in anything. I just want to pass. And I’m not sure I will. 


I’m doing a summer internship. I spend a lot of time asking stupid questions and feeling idiotic. And then came a certain patient. Everyone else was busy so i got assigned to him. He was a stroke patient, left with hemiplegia, a paralyzed left leg. He had a plastic brace the company I worked for fitted him with. But something was wrong with it and he was very frustrated with everyone. I’m certain that’s also why I got assigned to him. When all else fails get the newbie to deal with it. 

“What’s the problem?” I asked the gentleman. He had gray hair, was thin, and looked as if just getting to us exhausted him. It probably did. I’m sure he was also in pain for which I could do little about. It frustrates me as much as it does the patients. 

He made some sounds that might have been pig Latin for all I knew. No. pig Greek. I realized then the stroke had left him with a very bad speech impediment. I turned to his attendant. “What did he say?” 

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just a neighbor who drove him here.” 

WonderfulI thought. Maybe I should go find someone else to help me. Except they were all busy or hiding. Then that voice spoke up in my head. 

Well, figure this out. You can do it. 

I can? I thought, surprised that the voice in my head was actually encouraging. 

Why not. You identified muscles on a damned cadaver, didn’t you? Should be able to do this. 

I shrugged mentally and turned back to the man, who was now gesturing towards his leg. I looked at the brace. “Is it hurting you?” 

He nodded. 

I looked along it. I didn’t see any particular spot where it might be hurting. He gestured again but his hand was weak. He couldn’t point to any one particular place. He just kept gesturing and speaking his language, getting more agitated, his voice louder, angrier. 

“Excuse me one minute,” I said. 

I walked out and tried to think of what to do. I walked into the bathroom and leaned my damned head against the wall. From my mother I inherited a bad temper, hence the whole incident with the brace tossing. I breathed in and out telling myself to calm down. 

“But I don’t know what this guy is talking about,” I thought. “And I’m not sure what to do about it.” 

Well his speech problems aren’t his fault. 

“He could have brought a damned translator.” 

Well he didn’t. So now what are you going to do? 

Out of desperation I got an idea. I went back into the room. 

“Let’s watch you walk in the brace,” I said, “and see what happens.” 

Very slowly, as if it hurt him, he got out of the chair and walked away from me. I knelt on the floor, watching his foot. Then I saw the plastic flex as he stepped and hit his ankle bone. “Stop.” He did. I touched the spot. “Right there?” 

He nodded, now a bit excitedly.  

“Good. Sit back down and I’ll fix it for you.” 

He did just that. I took the brace into the workroom, heated the plastic with a heat gun and using the handle of a screwdriver created more room in the brace for his ankle. I cooled it down with water, dried it and brought it back to him. 

“Let’s try it now,” I told him. Once again, he got slowly out of the chair and walked across the room, then came back to me. “Better now?” 

He nodded. 

“Okay good. How about I check it over though and see if there are any other spots that might irritate you?” I checked it over and adjusted another spot that I thought was too tight. I brought it back to him and let him walk again. 

“How’s that? Good?” 

He said something that I took at “Yes, it’s fine.” 

“Good, then go try it out and call me if you need us, okay? We’re here.” 

He smiled, came over to me and shook my hand. Then he turned and left. The neighbor, following along behind him turned and said, “Thank you for your patience.” 

I nodded and turned back to the workshop thinking that at least in this one moment, this one day, the light wasn’t an oncoming train. 

August 15, 2020 03:43

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Evan Rocker
22:27 Sep 01, 2020

Despite all his own difficulties, I like the hopefulness of your character and his ability to work and rework to help another. Your character is real and human with issues that make us all want to give up from time to time. We need more people like your character in this world!


Michele Duess
12:13 Sep 02, 2020

Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.


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Roshna Rusiniya
07:28 Aug 15, 2020

This was an amazing story! I liked how the story started. So poignant. Loved your choice of ‘skill’. Very commendable. Great work!


Michele Duess
14:00 Aug 15, 2020

Thank you. Honestly I didn't think it flowed well so I'm glad you liked it. I'm terrible at memoirs so if anything needs to be changed anyone can say so. I can take it.


Roshna Rusiniya
15:11 Aug 15, 2020

If I spot any serious grammatical or structural errors, I point them out. I don’t usually go into very minute details or anything concerning the technique as I am not formally trained and I don’t want to give wrong advice. I read for the experience. And I give feedback or ‘likes’ or sometimes both, to encourage the other writers. I thoroughly enjoyed your story as I thought your take on the prompt was unique and clever. :)


Michele Duess
15:23 Aug 17, 2020

Thank you.


Roshna Rusiniya
04:43 Aug 18, 2020

You are welcome. If you have time, please have a look at mine too. Thank you.


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