The form said What is the nature of your workplace injury? It said Check all that apply, which struck Em as so generous, she thought she might cry, though that had to be the painkillers. Em wasn’t normally a crier, and she knew not to get emotional in front of the nurses, because then they’d slow down her painkillers to show that painkillers were the reward for patients who weren’t pains in their asses.
- □ lifting (back)
- □ lifting (hernia)
- □ ladder (fall, sprain, or break)
- □ ladder (fall, concussion)
- □ heavy machinery (limb)
- □ heavy machinery (trunk)
Em’s job involved no lifting, no ladder, no heavy machinery. She imagined a trunk injury–
a man’s torso as a gouged piece of luggage. Word play had been wonderful to her as a girl, a kind of magic. She’d been a dumb girl, though dumb in a good way or at least enviable now.
- □ vehicle (cuts/lacerations)
- □ vehicle (head trauma)
- □ vehicle (ejection)
Her job involved no vehicle. She pictured the man with luggage for a torso ejected from a car, landing on his head. She thought: I am amusing myself. She thought: barely.
- □ job site (fall)
- □ job site (falling object)
- □ job site (collision with person)
- □ job site (collision with vehicle)
- □ job site (collision with other)
Em didn’t have a job site unless an office was a job site. Unless a desk. She read books and wrote summaries of the books and what she thought of the summarized books. Her employer told her to stop writing I think at the start of her sentences, though what Em thought was her job. Her employer told her to stop writing Dear Pamela, at the start of every email. She didn’t need a salutation. This isn’t Microsoft, her employer told her, which Em didn’t know how to take. Microsoft had a campus. Microsoft fed employees in a slick cafeteria. Microsoft let people work from beanbag chairs in rumpus rooms. She either knew this about Microsoft or was making it up. She’d read it online maybe or read tweets from people who’d read it online.
- □ fall (ice)
- □ fall (staircase)
- □ fall (sidewalk)
- □ fall (job site)
Em wondered what the difference was between job site (fall) and fall (job site). She wondered if the redundancy was carelessness or a trick. She would not be tricked. The one thing she was good at was reading. She read carefully, even if she didn’t know how to write an email. Even if she was or was not fit to work for Microsoft. Also, she had not fallen.
At the bottom of the form:
- □ other: _____________________
The blank line was shorter than her pinkie finger. She didn’t know how to fit spilling the cheap employee coffee on her hand and then remaining incredulous of the pain even after running and running it under cold water in the employee sink, incredulous still of the blisters, fascinated by them, poking and poking for days, first with her fingernail, then a tine of her dinner fork, then the needle she had for the irreverent cross-stitch (ok, boomer) she’d enthusiastically ordered from Etsy and then enthusiastically ignored, until the blisters popped one by one. The blisters oozed. (Enough with the passive voice, her employer told her in a salutationless email.)
Em had continued going to work because she could read one handed, she could write. The workplace injury (which she’d not thought of as a workplace injury yet, but rather one more unfortunate thing she’d done to herself and wished she could take back and could not take back and in lieu of any possibility of taking it back, adopted the belief that if she did absolutely nothing about it, it would go away) was to her non-dominant hand.
In bed at night, the pain kept her awake, and she wished for:
- □ antibiotic ointment
- □ Tylenol
- □ non-stick Band-Aids
Though these would have involved getting out of bed and walking down eight flights of stairs and half a block to the bodega where the nighttime woman (cherry cheeks, enthusiastic English) knew her by sight, which sometimes warmed Em and sometimes made her egregiously lonely. Getting out of bed did not fit with her plan of doing absolutely nothing. Em was, if nothing else, a person who stuck to her plans. A plan was how she ended up in:
- □ a city with a subway
- □ an apartment like a closet
- □ atop a vertical quarter mile of stairs
At work, she tried to focus on the book she was reading for her employer because it was a good book and most of the books she read for her employer were bad. Children died but beautifully. Men made fools of themselves but heartbreakingly. The world was an apocalypse but hopefully.
“Stop with all the adv-” her employer came out of her office to say, except her employer didn’t say, because her employer was standing close enough to see. “Oh my,” her employer said, which may have been the first nice thing she had ever said to Em. “God.” Em waited for her employer to tell her what to do. Em waited hopefully. “Get that,” her employer said, “taken care of.”
In bed at night, the pain made her wish:
- □ personal vehicle
- □ primary care doctor
- □ emergency contact
In bed at night, the pain:
- □ her stupid hometown
- □ its stupid McMansions
- □ its stupid Target
- □ its stupid parking lots for days
In bed at night:
- □ her narrow girlhood mattress
- □ thermometer under her tongue
- □ her (dead, post-boomer) mother’s hand on her forehead
- □ “there, there”
She woke from never having fallen asleep to a meat thing where her hand used to be. She held the meat thing by the wrist and cried.
The Uber driver told her Christ and What the hell? I know, Em said, though she did not. Nothing ever having hurt this bad had made her believe nothing would ever hurt this bad. She didn’t know coffee could do this. She didn’t know blisters could do this. She made involuntary noises over potholes as quietly as possible:
- □ guh
- □ aak
The Uber driver asked her which hospital. Em didn’t know which hospital. Em let the Uber driver pick.
- □ fu–
- □ sss
She loved the nurses, even the mean ones who lectured her. Ira was the meanest nurse’s name and Em said it every chance she could–Hi Ira. Hello Ira–because she was allowed salutations here, and what Ira was doing with the IV and ointment and the painkillers had turned the pain into something dull and faraway. Her employer left an angry voicemail. Em had forgotten to call in sick. Em told herself she would call and explain. Em told herself she would call and apologize.
Ira fed her pills in miniature plastic cups, followed by water in miniature plastic cups. She’d loved miniature anything as a girl: miniature dinner plate and miniature toilet paper roll and miniature potted plant, arranging and rearranging in her dollhouse. She told Ira dollhouse aware of being not herself or being more herself or contiguous to herself from the pain and then the cessation of pain and then the return of pain in smaller and smaller waves that no longer made her cry. She was always grateful to be not crying. She asked, that’s how a girl’s supposed to picture a life, Ira?
Ira did not answer. Ira delivered a lecture on wound care, a lecture on lucky you have medical insurance any idea how much this little stint was going to cost her, a lecture on a girl like you no reason to end up here, Em halfway sure she was falling in love with Ira, Ira thinking she was a girl like her even with her meat thing and her excessive salutations and her dollhouse dreams.
Ira was the one who gave her the form. She and Ira were having a fight, in which Ira was correct on all counts and she was:
- □ other: ____________________
She’d always thought of herself as an all that apply but it turned out she was a none of the above. Okay. That was okay. If she looked long enough at the blank line, she could make it blur into a squiggle. If she stared and stared, she could make it start to whorl. She wondered if this was the painkillers, or the low overhead lighting, or something she’d always been able to do had she bothered, or something anyone could do. She hoped it wasn’t something anyone could do. She hoped she was special, though being special inside her own eyeballs was less than ideal. She’d have to explain for anyone to notice. She’d have to tell Ira: Ira, look what I can do.
Miriam Gershow is a novelist (The Local News) and story writer. Her stories appear in The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, and Quarterly West among others. Recent flash appears in District Lit, Variant Literature, and And If That Mockingbird Don’t Sing: A Speculative Parenting Anthology.