One Second = Two Lifetimes

I never wanted to make the decision. Who would? But being who I am in the order of things, it fell to me to decide when to let her go.

“Well, what do you wish us to do?” the doctor asked, with a benevolent demeanor, but a double-parked, motor-running, it’s 4:58 on Friday vibe coming off him. I could feel his inner toes tapping.

You don’t really think about making this decision, deciding life or death for someone you love. But you know what you have to do in the second, maybe half-second they ask you. You just tend to think about the other things as a diversion.

What’ll the family say? How can I face myself day after day after the deed is done? Can I live with being the instrument of another being losing her life?

You look up at the professionals and their eyebrows have that inverted V droop of a practiced medical professional.

“There’s no coming back from this,” the doctor said, meaning her condition, just lying there. But there’d be no coming back on my end, either. “It’s painless, she won’t feel a thing. It’s what she would want.”

You feel like your boiling as you stand still for that second or less, three heartbeats replacing the one that normally fills that space. Allegro.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I say as my eyes get all mushy and moist and my throat locks in the words and out the air.

The doctor does what he does, practiced, assured, always ready. And then, we wait. It really doesn’t take long, but a lot of life flashes before your eyes when you’re the one deciding. The guest of honor just closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and…. She’s gone.

In that second, though, everything changed for me. Emotions began living closer to the surface, and I noticed and reveled in more of life humming and growing and ebbing all around me. All from one second of indecision to decision.

It gave me a harder shell, too, though. I was graced with the same decision for my Dad not even a year later. Outwardly cool, I’m sure the weepers around me thought me an unfeeling bastard.

The doctor gave his spiel about no coming back, it’s for the best, he has a no-resuscitate order, all that stuff. The same inverted V they teach in Veterinary school they must in Med school, too.

Then came the money shot question, the big one, the life or death one.

“Well, what do you wish us to do?”

In a second of fire and freeze, the man in whom a dog’s death changed everything, nodded and said “Okay, let’s do it.”

And then I stood taller, set my jaw, began to breathe again, as the others began to sob. They could never have made this decision, wouldn’t want to. Who would? But, like I said, in less than a second, maybe even half a second, it changed everything. Dammit, everything changed.

I’d cry later.

Here’s a warmup story for Story-A-Day May (God help me!) based on a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore and her re-energized Free Write Friday. The prompt was to write this story: “It was less than a second, maybe half a second, but it changed everything.”
Twenty minutes of free write later, I came up with this. Not sure it’s a story. Sure as hell ain’t a poem. But it has a character or two, a dilemma with stakes and a change in the character’s world/life in the end. It’s a practice, folks.



Her love could not be bought,
since she spooned it out slowly,
like honey, and only to capture love
she felt certain she deserved…
whenever she felt she deserved it.
He could not give his love
because he never thought he
had any to give, nor deserve.
He’d inevitably stumble upon it,
though, lose all balance and
trip over his own two tongues.

Stinging obsessions, a constant war
of attrition, what they knew of love
could’ve fit in a spent cartridge.
And once so wounded they’d stagger
back and forth past one another,
like the flowers they most smacked of,
pink tulips that danced in the Spring wind,
wilted in Summer’s heat, always reaching,
never touching, unfinished songs
that always fell quiet long before
the sound of the shot ever reached them.

Poem No. 15 of NaPoWriMo 2016, freely written and based upon the photo prompt above from my old friend Kellie Elmore FWF. A story, a poem, a cleansing of heart and mind, like a wound before the healing can begin.



As my days flick off the calendar like autumn leaves after first frost, with them falls more of my memories. Perhaps they actually are the leaves of a lifetime journal, now scattered into capricious winds by the callused hands of a winding-down clock. I’d have forgotten so much by now if not for the magical talismans I wear that provide me with palpable evidence of the acts that mapped my vessel’s journey. See this one on my left wrist. Isn’t she a bitch? That’s when I climbed a chair I’d nudged to the stove and tried pushing myself higher by placing my wrist on the hot burner. I recall this vividly, but perceive no images, just sensations, deep and scorching. It’s kept me from striving too high, lest I get burned once again. The other talisman, I know not which came first, pocks my right forearm with shiny spots. I doubt you can see them unless I get it dirty, as a two-year-old might. Then my arm develops its own X-ray, showing my maybe-earliest injury. It’s my reminder of what it’s like to pull down what you do not know—a reverse lesson of look-before-you-leap. In this case, a bubbling pot of pea soup. These are hard-earned lessons for a toddler to learn. For a man, too. I could show you more, but these I prefer not to recollect, like the scars on this heart. They’re self-inflicted, too, by a man who never took anything away from them. Just more pain.

Here’s a true free-write. A block of a prose poem prompted by my old friend Kellie Elmore, who asks today for us to try recalling our very first memory. The fog of time has stolen those particular truths from me, but these are my reminders of them. Typically, they involve pain.

A Question of Keys


Does it exist, the place
they say you go when you go?
Or is it another con to keep
the masses in line, because
the laws of Man aren’t enough
to keep the dirty, hungry, needy
you and I from becoming
just another mammal,
feeding our children the milk
that likely is the only kindness
they’re likely to feel
from other humans unless
they believe fabulous
(if not fabled) prizes,
await for doing the right thing?

Is it that important that
we need some Over-Us Being
and a minion of winged, haloed,
glowing, enrobed, stern, gentle,
even immaculately impregnated,
come-from-above with the
Keys to the Kingdom
of a happily forever-after life?
We hold the real key from
the time we are born,
kept within that other
readily accepted fable,
the loving heart — the soul.

It is simple and sanguine,
not ornate and gold.
It is a Rule Golden that makes
desert, forest, jungle, prairie,
all Heaven on Earth.
Do for me as you would
do for yourself…
if you loved yourself.
Someone else does,I hear.

An eyes-half-open sprint of a free write for my friend Kellie Elmore, based on that photo up there. I’m trying to make a comeback from the dark place I’ve been. It’s a struggle, but I see that golden light ahead. Bear with me until then, Okay?

First Prize


First PrizeWhen I became a teen, and tired of sharing beds, berths and fraternity with my four brothers, I moved into the unheated room off the kitchen of our home. In winter, I’d scrunch my body into a fist and tightly cocoon it head to toe within a wool blanket. Then I’d shake my body to generate enough heat to simmer me off on an eight-hour hibernation.

If I scraped a hole in the frost off my window, beneath the winter moon I could peek into the neighbors’ diaries written in laundry on clothes lines that strung from back porches to poles at the other end of shotgun barrel backyards. And across the railroad tracks over into West Albany, shining above it all, you could see the all-night sundown glow from the giant sign above the Tobin Packing Company plant .

On summer nights, when the room and I needed an open window to breathe, we’d hear the trains go through and some clank to a stop outside the slaughterhouse. I even heard the sound of the hogs being squeezed from their airless rail cars along the narrow suspended walkway into the factory. From there they were somehow scrunched into sausage casings, packed side-by-side as First Prize hot dogs, a pitiless and final escape.

Years later, on a blowtorch summer afternoon, I sneaked behind a wall into the abandoned plant. I climbed to the room where the hogs blindly ran in the cruel hope of escaping untenable overcrowding with their brothers. I remember seeing walls shedding their old paint like forgotten ancient frescoes, the concrete basin stained with lost life in the killing room, the necklace of hooks on a chain encircling the room and hearing ghosts and echoes I didn’t wish to hear. Looking eastward out a vacant casement, I tried to see my bedroom window across the haze of distance and time.

And, on that August afternoon, I shivered in the cold.

© 2014, Joseph Hesch. All rights reserved


The Things I Carry


Image Credit: James Speed Hensinger | Vietnam 1970

That dream returned last night, the one where shadows
dressed for bed crawl toward my resting place.
All I can do is lie there and wait,
knowing it’s coming, pickled in a perspiration
exotic, torporific, frantic, paralytic.
I dream these nights of being in-country,
asleep in a faraway land I did not know,
but in a bed I do.

The dark figures, with faces vaguely familiar,
sometimes raid my slumber when I see
their waking work in an old friend or
in scorching color on television.
My dream-self awakens to the nightmare pop-pop-pop
of small arms fire, the b-r-r-rap-b-r-r-rap
of the M-60 spitting All-American fireworks
into three-dimensional silhouettes, and then
comes the tripwire boom of upright, soaking reality
in which I do not wear olive armor on my back 
nor upon my shoulders lug a sackful of
the things they carried.

My burden has no measurable weight but that
which I give it. My rank is guilty civilian,
a lifer who lucked out in the 1970 lotto
that saw boys next to me busted by
an insane spin of numbers.
Awake in this safe and dark bedroom,
I envision bodies and lives broken,
maimed, lost. And God help me, there are times
when I lie back down and stare at those ghosts
on the dark ceiling, and in some distorted sense
of shame and confusion, I may envy some 
their losses.

I had a hard time with this one. I wrote a very “Joe” fireworks poem yesterday in its place, but every time I looked at the photo up there, a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore, this new (too darn long) poem came exploding back at me. It’s something that’s been simmering inside me — even wrote a short story about it — since long before I ever saw that photo. I post it with great reservation because I revere what these guys suffered and endured and don’t wish to diminish or dishonor that with the prattling of some stupid hump of a middle-aged “poet.” I guess what I’m trying to say is I had to write this someday.

The First Kiss

I regret that my porous old memory cannot
recall who She was. Rose? Barbara?
Definitely not Mary Grace. Though I wish.
But I see brown eyes shining in moonlight,
street light or maybe porch light.
I still feel that cold stab of fear, tempered by
hot blasts of potential embarrassment
at the very real possibility of
screwing this up and setting my life
on a path of remaining forever
the untouched one.

Girls, I’m sure, think about this moment,
dream about it, worry about it, from an early age.
Did you practice, perhaps pressing your lips
to a mouth made of your thumb and index finger,
there in your single-bed sanctum sanctorum?
A guy can’t think that far ahead, would never
give that first kiss a dry-run. It wasn’t like
rehearsing his expression of insouciant cool
in the bathroom mirror behind that locked door.
You figure one night it just happens.

Uncharted, virgin, that first feeling
of neo-carnal warmth glowing off
that girl, that woman, Her.
The smell of her recharged perfume in the dark,
heady, sweaty, intoxicating, inviting.
Then that feeling of her mouth
drawing closer, warmer, tropical,
her breath sharing mine, mine with hers.
My shaking hand on the small of her back,
hers rising to slide within the black hair
now bristling at the back of my neck.

Then you simply fall into that wet,
warm pool of flesh, that doorway
to the pounding triphammer heart,
the unknown, the soon-enough revealed.
After that, the fall becomes a climb
and dive from the high board, then another.
I still feel it, walking away, whistling
my quiet, night-time whistle through the posh,
the not-so and the not-very neighborhoods home,
my left hand touching my cheek, my lips,
the smell of her still there.

But that’s all I remember.

My dear friend Kellie Elmore asked this weekend for a free write recollection/impression of that first kiss.

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