Dave Newman ~ The Last Thing That Happened Before I Became a Med Tech

I ran into Dawn Reedy at the Big Lots in Beckley. We’d dat­ed when we were teenagers but I hadn’t seen her since high school. I was buy­ing canned pas­ta. I was buy­ing fish sticks and bread. I’d just blown my nose into a nap­kin and stuffed the nap­kin into my pock­et. It all sound­ed loud­er than I’d intend­ed. Dawn was a lawyer with two kids, both young—one on hip, the oth­er hold­ing her hand. I saw them and rec­og­nized her and tried to bolt but she said, “Hey,” and waved so I smiled and changed direc­tion. Adulthood is most­ly lies and mis­takes until the lies and mis­takes become some­thing else. I don’t know how I knew she was a lawyer. This was din­ner­time but I’d just wok­en up. I was hun­gover and pret­ty sick with dope.

She said, “I thought that was you,” but more like han­dling her kids.

She wore a camel­hair jack­et or mohair or some­thing in beige I couldn’t name. It looked like some­one put a nee­dle in her neck, removed all the fun, and replaced it with respon­si­bil­i­ty. I was jeal­ous and want­ed the same shot.

I breathed and imag­ined suc­cess and pre­sent­ed my face as such.

Dawn didn’t wait for me to start lying.

She said, “My mom watch­es the kids,” and paused. “I pick them up after work.” She said, “Work is up in Charleston. Our office. It’s near the DMV.”

How is your mom?” I said.

Still my mom,” she said, hik­ing one kid high­er on her hip.

The old­er kid said, “Can I get this?” and held up an unblown punch­ing bal­loon. His hair was long and styled with bangs like the wing of a blonde bird.

Dawn said, “What?” Then, “No.” Then, “Don’t touch things.”

The kid returned the bal­loon to the shelf with­out complaint.

I coughed into my hand and the cough sound­ed like a drown­ing victim.

She said, “You okay?”

Wrong pipe,” I said, straight­en­ing the inside of my throat.

I picked up the punch­ing balloon.

I said, “I could buy this for him.”

She said, “He’d kill his lit­tle brother.”

I put the bal­loon back. I most­ly said stu­pid shit when I want­ed to say the oppo­site. Trying to buy a bal­loon for a small child whose par­ent can obvi­ous­ly afford bal­loons and has reject­ed bal­loons is a rude offer. It was anoth­er rea­son to tilt my head to sobriety.

Dawn said, “But thank you. That’s sweet.”

I looked at the kid and nod­ded an apology.

The kid approached tears but still quiet.

The lit­tle one snug­gled in, almost asleep.

I was try­ing to get clean and want­ed to become a med tech. One of my pals moved to Pittsburgh to study nurs­ing but I knew I wasn’t that smart.

Some of this involved the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege and some involved still doing drugs.

Dawn said, “Don’t have kids,” and faked a smile.

I nod­ded, not con­sid­er­ing kids.

I prob­a­bly wasn’t going to eat the fish sticks I clutched to my chest.

I liked to pick at the canned pas­ta, even if it stayed out on the counter.

She said, “You ever see…?” then she couldn’t think of a name we shared.

Dawn used to be a cheer­leader. I wres­tled but it was dif­fer­ent. I rode a ten-speed bike I’d pieced togeth­er from parts. Dawn knew she’d get a car for her next birth­day. She drank beer in bot­tles. I stole rotgut gin from the bar where my mom worked and mixed it with Doctor Thunder, Wal-Mart’s ver­sion of Dr. Pepper.

Once the games fin­ished, after she ditched her cheer­lead­ing out­fit for jeans and a rock t‑shirt, Dawn reached out to old­er kids to find ways to get loaded.

If she couldn’t score oxy or xanax or mol­ly or weed, she huffed glue.

If no glue, she huffed gas.

If no gas, she huffed paint.

When she slurred, it was a love affair, and I put my ear into what­ev­er she said because her words always sound­ed bet­ter than mine, the way she owned every­thing by telling.

 When she huffed paint, a goa­tee of col­or formed around her mouth and chin. I nev­er mind­ed the paint on my shirt, the paint on my neck. Sometimes she fell asleep while we kissed and woke up and said, “Why aren’t you kiss­ing me?”

I nev­er want­ed to be pop­u­lar, let alone date a cheer­leader, but I won on the mat and peo­ple I’d nev­er noticed sud­den­ly noticed.

It was like mon­ey you couldn’t spend, a bot­tle with­out an opener.

At the begin­ning of wrestling sea­son, we attend­ed the Sadie Hawkins dance, the one where the girl asks the boy. Dawn’s mom dropped her off. I lived close enough to the school and walked back­roads to the tree where we planned to meet. My mom worked nights and drank. My dad lived in Alaska on a fish­ing boat. I’d bought a flower at the gas sta­tion, a sin­gle white rose. Dawn said, “How sweet!” She wore an over­sized flan­nel she belt­ed like a dress and check­ered leather boots that looked expen­sive. I wore what I always wore.

Deeper in the trees, in a patch of dying jag­gers and dead berry bush­es, Dawn reached around until she found two six packs of beer. She dust­ed off the bot­tles and pulled a joint from her purse. We smoked. We drank. The beer was so warm. The taste broke my tongue so I kept swal­low­ing like my mouth was a tun­nel. We stopped to kiss then smoked and drank some more. Alcohol helped with weight loss, how it dehy­drat­ed you. The whole wrestling team loved to get loaded and run around in plas­tic garbage bags, sweat­ing, try­ing to shrink with­out shrink­ing. I hoped I didn’t get the munchies. The munchies were a prob­lem when I smoked. I often dreamed of corn chips and woke up with crumbs on my tongue.

Dawn said, “I can read your mind.”


You won’t get the munchies.”

I will,” I said, but I hit the joint again.

Dawn apol­o­gized for the tem­per­a­ture of the beer.

She said, “I tried to get my mom to stop for ice.”

We should have gone to my place,” I said, know­ing my mom always kept ice and mix­ers and occa­sion­al­ly eggs but not much else.

I some­times lived on ice water and eggs.

I some­times stirred sours mix into my ice water and called it lemonade.

Dawn said, “That woman is the dev­il,” about her mom, but not seri­ous­ly, or teenage seri­ous­ly, or maybe seri­ous­ly, while I nod­ded and drank and smoked and tried not to dream about French fries dipped in milk­shakes from McDonalds.

I said, “I dig your mom.”

She said, “You want to bang her. All the boys do.”

I didn’t want to bang her mom. I’d just learned to bang Dawn. The pres­sure of bang­ing an old­er woman, one with mon­ey and con­fi­dence, ached in my stom­ach until I remem­bered it wasn’t my respon­si­bil­i­ty. I wor­ried Dawn thought I fucked poorly.

I said, “Your mom is pretty.”

Dawn said, “Try liv­ing with her.”

I pic­tured Dawn’s kitchen, her refrig­er­a­tor. I want­ed a refrig­er­a­tor like that, not brushed nick­el or what­ev­er the col­or, but one with Boar’s Head lunch­meat and left­over soup and cheese in blocks and cheese by the slice. I would have eat­en it all and wres­tled heavy­weight and I would have been hap­py to lose every match.

Food mat­ters when you’re poor.

A sand­wich is a dream.

Dawn had two old­er sis­ters. One had an abor­tion when she was a senior. The oth­er one attend­ed rehab down in Florida and their fam­i­ly called it col­lege. Her dad nev­er looked at me. Once he said, “You the guy?” and I shrugged, embar­rassed. He walked off before I could say some­thing humil­i­at­ing. But her mom fed me and gave me hugs and asked about wrestling, if I hoped to get a schol­ar­ship. I shrugged and thanked her and wait­ed until she slept so I could go down on her daugh­ter. Dawn pulled a pil­low over her face when she came, muf­fling the sounds.

Once, after sex, she said, “We fuck like adults.”

I hoped she was right and I trust­ed her experience.

It was weird grow­ing up around kids with rich par­ents, kids who could pass through mis­takes and phas­es with­out con­se­quences, because their future always looked like a start­ing line. I only knew how to shoot and take down and force boys onto their backs, hop­ing I made it cool, hop­ing I looked less poor because I fin­ished on top.

Standing in Big Lots, even with her kids, even exhaust­ed from argu­ing cas­es, Dawn looked rich as a cas­tle, a place you’d see in a pic­ture but nev­er visit.

I coughed again, less wet.

I didn’t care that she had stuff.

I cared that I didn’t.

She said, “It took a cou­ple sec­onds but I was pret­ty sure that was you,” a repeat from earlier.

It’s me,” I said, think­ing of a lie, some career I could pull off.

Once, lat­er in high school, after we’d drift­ed, she said, “You need to bury my soul.”

I said, “What’s that mean?” but sweet­ly, intim­i­dat­ed by her even when she sound­ed the oppo­site of intim­i­dat­ing, even when she sound­ed like she’d matured in reverse, even when she want­ed me to love her or tell her she deserved love. I hugged her and want­ed her to kiss my neck.

Now she looked at her kid, the old­er one, still eye­ing the balloon.

I looked towards the door, planning.

I turned back to Dawn.

The kid looked away.

Dawn sighed.

I said, “My fish sticks are prob­a­bly melting.”

She said, “You still eat fish sticks?” sound­ing shocked and grossed out, then caught her­self and added, “This one,” mean­ing the sleep­ing kid, “loves fish sticks.”

I said, “I didn’t think I’d see you here,” which was not an answer.

She said, “I didn’t think I’d see you here either,” but friendly.

Near the flour and the off-brand sug­ar she looked like a suc­cess­ful lawyer too busy to con­sid­er a drink, let alone a bag of glue. But she looked the same too. A lot of guys took what they learned from wrestling and head­ed to col­lege. I took what I learned on the mat and head­ed to par­ties and got loaded and some­times took down men who were years old­er than me then bashed their faces until they quit say­ing what­ev­er was meant to be an insult.

You can’t imag­ine how many rich young peo­ple love drugs and live in dumpy apart­ments and need to be punched in the head.

Dawn said, “You were a real­ly good wrestler.”

I said, “You still cheer?”

She laughed and caught the laugh to not star­tle her son.

Yes,” she said, “I pom­pom.” She said, “In the mir­ror.” She said, “Cheering for myself.”

I said, “I’m glad your mom is doing well.”

She adjust­ed her­self while adjust­ing the sleep­ing kid. She looked at the shelves and picked up the bal­loon and hand­ed it to the old­er son who muf­fled his excite­ment to not wake his lit­tle broth­er. She shooed him towards the front of the store.

She said, “Meet mom­my at the counter. I’ll be there in a sec­ond,” and wait­ed while he walked away, clutch­ing the punch­ing bal­loon. Then she turned back to me and said, “It’s good to see you,” and made her face curious.

I knew not to speak.

Then she said, “Honestly, I heard you were dead. This was a while ago, I think.” She paused. She said, “I may have heard it a cou­ple times. I may have heard you killed some­one.” She said, “I didn’t believe it.”

I replayed her lines in my head, my head which was filled with needs and dreams and left­over whiskey and a cou­ple lines of crushed oxy­con­tin. I looked at her purse, dan­gling, and imag­ined all the text­books I could afford. Then I imag­ined drugs. Then textbooks.

Then I stopped imagining.

I want­ed to help people.

No one any­where, not high school or the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege or my drug addict pals or even my par­ents, men­tioned that help­ing was a way to go into the world.

Now I want­ed to be a med tech, to lift and comfort.

I was sport­ing a Nirvana t‑shirt, jeans, and old Converse sneakers.

I dressed like I for­got to grow up.

Dawn adjust­ed the col­lar on her coat.

I touched the snot rag in my pocket.

Dead would have been more expen­sive but I would have paid for it if I had the money.

She said, “I for­get who I heard it from, but it was def­i­nite­ly dead.” She said, “I’m glad you’re not.” She said, “I nev­er believed you killed some­one.” She clutched the back of her sleep­ing kid’s head with great love or maybe great pro­tec­tion, which made me feel worse. She said, “But who­ev­er said it made it sound excit­ing. The dead part.”

It’s not,” I said.

What’s not?”

Dead. It’s not exciting.”

She said, “Where do peo­ple even go around here?”

I think she meant for drinks. I think she may have been ask­ing oth­er things. I think she may have thought I was still a good fuck or remem­bered that I lis­tened more than I talked. I looked at her purse again, dan­gling, and imag­ined all the text­books I could afford. Then I imag­ined drugs. Then text­books. Again and again, every mil­lisec­ond. It’s an addic­tion, imag­in­ing mon­ey. But also sur­vival. So I stopped imag­in­ing. I bet her hus­band came home exhaust­ed and furi­ous and nev­er want­ed to talk, let alone listen.

I said, “Are you real­ly a lawyer?”

She said, “Really am,” and smiled.

I said, “Then why are you shop­ping at Big Lots?”

She looked like I’d said some­thing mean and I had.

I’d hoped to hurt her then thought of all the peo­ple I’d hurt.

The thing with hurt­ing peo­ple is it’s always too many or not enough.


I ran into lots of peo­ple when I was fail­ing at being sober, which is much dif­fer­ent than being an addict who doesn’t real­ize their addic­tion. I ran into those peo­ple less once I became a med tech and moved away but I came home often, most­ly to help my mom who decid­ed she want­ed to get sober after forty years of drink­ing. I nev­er mind­ed see­ing the peo­ple who’d fall­en or who had lost what lit­tle they start­ed with, most­ly because I saw my face on their faces and want­ed to pro­vide com­fort and some respect.

Prayers don’t work until they do.

The thing about wrestling is the rules, which look a lot like facts as you get older.

The rest is blur­ry and you usu­al­ly have to cheat.

I’m still not religious.

Sometimes, I kiss the dead on their foreheads.

Sometimes, I hold their loved ones up when they hear the bad news.


Dave Newman is the author of sev­en books, most recent­ly The Same Dead Songs. He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, and teach­es at Pitt-Greensburg.