Dead Calm

Dead Calm

Illustration by Jason Schneider

I’m in a room with two doctors and one large machine. So far, only the machine hasn’t handed me a stack of forms to fill out. Also, comparatively speaking, the machine has a personality.

“Robert, this is a spirometer. We’ll be using it today to run some tests,” one of the doctors tells me. The two of them have
introduced themselves, of course, but they’ve done so perfunctorily, mumbledly, more like beleaguered, disengaged servers at some appetizer-happy casual dining restaurant than the caring, accomplished OSHA-affiliated researchers I expected. The upshot being I didn’t catch their actual names, so for the sake of expediency, I’ve internally designated them Dr. Nachos and Dr. Buffalo Wings.

“The tests are painless, Robert,” Dr. Nachos drones. “Basically, all you have to do is breathe into this.”

This is a translucent blue plastic tube, maybe three feet long, an inch-and-a-half in diameter, a lot like the hose of a low-end tank-type vacuum cleaner. The tube is attached to a port in the side of the machine.

“The spirometer will give us your lung function. We’ll use that to help assess and diagnose your respiratory impairment. OK?” 

The “OK” is superfluous, a brazenly bogus inquiry, the $19.95 toupee of OKs.

“Super,” I respond, trying out my newly minted slang term for “supercilious bastard.”


What’s brought me to this place is my suspicion that a substance used by my employer, a small, family-owned chemical company, is responsible for the labored breathing and serious wheezing I’ve been experiencing the past few months. (OK, sure, I do smoke a lot of cigarettes and more than my share of weed, but I’m also only 24— and aren’t lungs designed to put up with everyday lifestyle-based abuse for approximately indefinitely?)

The substance in question is quillaia bark. Quillaia bark is stripped from trees in Chile, bound by heavy wire in bundles the size of washing machines, loosely wrapped in coarse burlap, stacked on pallets, and dropped by the truckload at the chemical company’s loading dock. One of my jobs is to help wrestle, by hand and man-powered machine, the hundreds of scratchy, dusty, unwieldy bales out of the cramped, fetid, airless trailers and pile them in a roomy, fetid, airless space inside the plant. This is the kind of unskilled labor for which my arsenal of unskills is ideally suited.

And the bark’s purpose? Well, over the course of a couple of months, the bundles are schlepped again into a cavernous, medieval industrial space that’s equal parts safety hazard, ossified grunge, and extinguished dreams. Once inside they’re arranged in one of several giant metal tanks, then submerged in water, heated, boiled, and steeped for days. The steaming vats of viscous “quillaia sap tea” are processed (don’t ask) into a powder (saponin), packaged in 100-pound drums, and sold for use as a stabilizer in photographic film and a foaming agent in root beer. If it sounds romantic and rewarding, I can only assume you work on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse.


The whole operation, from receiving the raw material to shipping the finished product is handled by me and three other guys: Don, Luther, and Gil. (All names have been changed to protect myself from a pummeling.) I’ve been part of the crew for about a year now and so far we seem to have just two things in common: poor grooming and dim prospects.

On the other hand, if you subtract me from the mix, Don, Luther, and Gil share many traits and connections. All three were born and grew up dirt poor in Hazard, Kentucky; are high school dropouts; speak with accents as thick as any first generation immigrant; hate immigrants (but to be fair, they hate all minorities); have worked at the chemical company for more than three years; live within a mile of each other in a highly industrialized neighborhood; bite their filthy fingernails down to the quick; listen to country music as if it were listenable; have tremendous thirst for beer; think Billy Carter would make a better President than Jimmy Carter; and though I sense the intensity of their individual opinions vary somewhat, consider me an ignorable asshole (like that’s never happened before).

No question, my biggest non-fan is Don, the unofficial leader of the trio and boss of all four of us. He’s 30-ish, maybe five-foot-nine, and bulky, with a big, round, firm-not-flabby abdomen that looks like he slid a Galápagos tortoise (shell side out) under his taut white T-shirt. Don doesn’t mince words and he’s wound really tight. He never lets his Kool dangle loosely from his lips but instead clamps the filter hard between his teeth, a bit of padding for his clenched jaw. When he stubs out the butt, it’s always flat and dimpled with dental impressions.

I give the guy a wide berth because he’s strong as an ox with the nature of an ox with PTSD. Quick true story: Don doesn’t like the school his 6-year-old daughter goes to because they’ve taught her to say “Thank you.”

“She don’t need to say that,” he grumbles. “She’s as good as anybody.”

That Don links courtesy and gratitude with class oppression and inequality makes him either a communist or a deadly threat to Miss Manners.

The first thing I noticed about Luther is that he’s a little older than the rest of us, probably close to 40, with some gray salting the peppery stubble he shaves on no particular schedule. There’s a similar nonchalance in his attitude toward work, best exemplified by his tendency to stand around and thoroughly deconstruct, discuss, and critique the job at hand rather than perform it. Where his laid-backness is most impressive, though, is in his approach to weekends. See, not long ago Luther was busted for drunk and disorderly and sentenced to 30 days in jail. In order to keep his job, he was put into the work release program. So every Friday after work he checks in to a cell at the Workhouse and every Monday morning he’s let out for the five-day work week.

To my astonishment, Luther is beyond fine with this arrangement, doesn’t dread or bitch about it—seems to look forward to it, as if it’s a spa with orange jumpsuits and no shoestrings. Never have I known a person to be so blasé about being imprisoned. (Note: Luther is the only person I know who’s been imprisoned.)

Gil reminds me a bit of early Elvis except that Gil has a moustache rather than musical talent and an unplanned second baby on the way in place of worldwide superstardom. Still, he’s got a head of lush, oiled hair that requires frequent slow sweeps of refurbishing comb strokes throughout the day, as well as a slight sneer of rebellion. Also on the plus side, he’s my age and occasionally speaks to me beyond “Hurry up!” or “No, not like that!” Truth is, I’ve tried to cultivate Gil as a point of entry into the group and have failed miserably. I can’t help but think I’d have more success if I looked a bit more like one of the Jordanaires.

And what about me does this backwoods brotherhood find so repellant? Plenty, I’m thinking. From their perspective, I’m a person of high status and privilege (middle class background and a childhood that didn’t require participation in the killing of dinner); an educated elite (I graduated from high school and briefly went to college, which is snobby enough, but they’ve also seen me reading books without superheroes or scriptures at lunch); from the big city (the only thing less trustworthy and more contemptible than an urbanite like me is an urbanite with skin containing higher levels of melanin); soft and weak (OK, fine, the blind pigs have found their acorns).

But probably my greatest offense is that they think I think this job is beneath me. And I guess I do think that. Fact is, I took this job as part of a deliberate career plan: to work someplace that only needs me from the neck down, a place that doesn’t require any mental strain or engagement, so that at the end of the day I go home with a fresh brain I can apply to my writing. Because that’s what I am, really, a writer. That a full year of this plan has resulted in no novel, no stories, no essays, no first drafts of any of those works, or in fact, anything beyond a handful of short journal laments about my failure to make any progress, is not evidence of any inherent flaw in the plan. In the fullness of time, the plan will work. Although that may be the $19.95 anti-ballistic missile system of defenses.


Dr. Buffalo Wings instructs me:

“First, we’ll establish your baseline lung capacity—that’s the maximum amount of air you can expel after a maximum inhalation. So what I need you to do is take in a really big breath, then put the tube in your mouth, press your lips in a tight seal around the opening and blow, forcing out every bit of air you can. Every. Last. Bit.”

I do as I’m told, expelling over 5 liters, a reading, they inform me, that’s excellent, even exceptional, leading me to wonder if perhaps my other organs are just as overachieving. Might my liver function be mind-blowing? My EKG one for the ages? My kidneys total badasses of filtration?

My innards pride is cut short by Dr. Nachos, who hands me a large, clear plastic bag with wood chips and sawdust in the bottom. “We’re going to do the same thing we just did, except this time we’re going to shake up those pine scraps you see, then I want you to hold the bag tight around your mouth, big inhale, take the bag away, big exhale like before into the tube.” 

I do as asked and blow 5 liters again. Boo-yah! In your cellulose fiber face, wood chips!

We do the bag inhale once more, this time with locust wood. My lung capacity remains the same, i.e., borderline superhuman. It occurs to me that my vision of medical research and testing—sterile rooms with Bunsen burners and petri dishes, centrifuges and mainframe computers, scrupulously measured ccs, drams, and grains—bears little resemblance to the reality at hand: a compliant asthmatic huffing handfuls of sawdust from a trash bag.

“OK, this time we’ve put in the quillaia bark you brought in,” I’m told. “Do the same thing you’ve been doing.”

I shake the bag, close the opening around my mouth, and breathe deep. Dr. Nachos hands me the tube. Which I can’t get to my mouth. Because I don’t feel so good. And the room is spinning. Receding. Splintering. I sit. Crumple into a chair, actually, capitulating to gravity. I feel worse. Until I don’t feel at all.


“BP’s dropping!”

“65 over 44.”

“Not responding…”

“…Pulse is weak.”

“Can you hear me, Robert?”


There are voices but I am alone. The tone is emphatic, urgent, not panicked but with an unspoken undercurrent of tension, apprehension. It’s unclear how many voices there are or where they’re coming from. They simply exist. Here. Where I am alone. In the dark. The redefiningly dark dark. A darkness devoid of foreboding, alarm, or gloom. A darkness I am.

“60 over 40.”

“We’re losing him!”



“55 over…”

“Still unresponsive.”

“Robert? Rob…”

I am bodiless and buoyant, untethered by thought, the static of life’s bandwidth silenced. I am free of regret and resentment. I am not sad or angry, helpless or in doubt, essential or insignificant. I am centered and still as never before, as never imagined. Resistance is not futile, it simply is no longer. I know calm. I know peace. I know acceptance. I am calm. I am peace. I am acceptance. In this pure moment. Where life and death are not in opposition.


My eyes open. Hello, space-time continuum.

I’m lying on an examining table, shirt unbuttoned, in a room I don’t recognize, surrounded by five medical professionals. Dr. Nachos explains that inhaling the quillaia bark triggered anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that wasn’t entirely anticipated. This caused my blood pressure to crash, heart to race, breath to severely shorten. I went down, lost consciousness. My vital signs lost their vitality. Without a quickly found vial and hypo-spike of epinephrine, I’d be dead right now instead of listening to the guys who almost accidentally killed me boast they saved my life.

That was close, I think. Quickly followed by this thought: Was it? Because what’s close? Even if I was within a millimeter of death, can’t a millimeter be divided infinitely?

Point being, what qualifies as a near-death experience? And how close does one have to get before one’s view over the edge of existence or nonexistence is valid? I’ve read and heard accounts of people “dying” and coming back, stories of patients whose hearts or breathing or whatever stopped, and they saw a white light and/or the welcoming arms of a benevolent deity. If “clinically dead” is what it takes to know what’s coming then I suppose I don’t qualify.

On the other hand, when I hear those stories I wonder: If God is omniscient and perfect, then He’s fully aware who is and isn’t going to die and, therefore, has no reason to show these pre-revived cadavers any proof of His existence or Kingdom—which, by virtue of His withholding tangible, incontrovertible proof of such existence or Kingdom from some pretty hardworking and devoted adherents (see: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, et al), it seems He’d prefer to keep to himself. That’s not to say I doubt the truth of their stories, just the definitiveness. Making my brush with death, my end-of-life insight, my moment of passing over, of perfect serenity with no otherworldly, afterlife-like overtones, to be just as legitimate as those who beat my
1 millimeter by .99999 millimeters.

This is reassuring in the extreme. Because my moment relieves me of seeing death as a time of fright and fear and uncertainty and allows me to accept it as a comfort—as the peace we, or at least I, seek in life.


Before I leave their offices, The Doctors Appetizers make one thing very clear. “Do not go back to work, not even to pick up your last paycheck. Call and tell them to mail it.” They say if I’m exposed to the bark again, it will be fatal.

Beautiful. Now, I won’t have to put up with those rednecks anymore.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue.

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