CONDITIONED   RESPONSE   by   Ruggles   Fishweir

This story was a writing sample that was sent to writers Digest SchooL as my first assignment...It gave my teacher clues as to what I needed to learn in the class.  So, it is included here in hopes that all can see the improvement I have made and why I strongly recommend their classes to anyone that is interested in becoming a writer...


Copyright (c) 1998, Ruggles Fishweir ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

     Stepping out of the hearse, the undertaker stopped 
only long enough to snuff out his cigarette butt on the 
asphalt with his shiny black shoe.  Then he opened the
wide back door of the hearse and unlocked the cot.  
Pulling the stretcher forward, he grabbed what looked 
like a folded woolen blanket.  The slamming door echoed
down the murky alley behind McCreary Funeral Home.
     Once inside, the undertaker deposited the little 
bundle on the prep room table and turned on the light.
The fluorescent bulbs crackled to life, humming loudly in
the quiet room.  The light glared off the white walls and 
the charts that mapped out the human circulatory system,
like so many busy city streets.
There were bottles and surgical instruments; the tools of 
the trade.  The stench of Formaldehyde was a grim reminder 
that death was at home here.
     Just as he was about to open the bundle, 
the telephone rang loudly, causing him to nearly jump 
out of his skin.
     "McCreary Funeral Home, Joshua Holcomb speaking; how
may I assist you?"
     "Josh, I was wondering if you wanted me to bring 
you your supper," Jenny Holcomb offered, hoping to spend 
a moment with her husband. "Or maybe you can come home 
and eat," she hinted.  Business had been good, so she 
had seen little of her husband all week.  
Old man McCreary was too tight to hire extra help, so
Joshua worked long hours.  He wanted to spend more time
with his family but it was just not possible.
     "I'm sorry hon, I just picked up a body," Josh
explained.  "I should be through in a couple of hours;
I'll eat then."
     "Okay, I'll see you later," Jenny said, trying to 
sound cheerful. "I love you."
     "Me too!"  Josh said before hanging up the phone.  
There were times that he really hated this line of work;
this was one of those times.  The long hours, and the 
time away from his family were hard enough, and he
constantly had to deal with death.  One had to be
half crazy to care for the dead for a living.
     Josh donned surgical gloves and apron and then 
gently unfolded the blanket.  The tiny baby lay curled
in a fetal position.  Something about the child's head
suggested that it had brain damage.  Joshua Holcomb
hated to embalm children since they reminded him of his
kids at home.  He wondered if Justin and Megan were 
curled up in their beds as they slept.
     Get it over with quick and then go home and kiss
your babies good night, and have supper with your lovely
wife, Josh told himself.  Joshua carefully uncurled the 
little body and made an incision in the tiny chest so
that he could connect the embalming equipment.
As he felt around beneath the skin he heard the faintest
sound. Like the mewing of a Kitten.
     Don't make this harder on yourself than necessary,
he warned himself.  Joshua continued probing to find a good
place to insert the tubes that would replace the blood
with formaldehyde during the embalming procedure.
The faint sound grew louder and then he recognized it, 
that agonizing sound...THE BABY'S CRYING!
     You've been working too hard! he tried to convince
himself, but it was no use...THE BABY'S CRYING!
     Mortuary college had taught him what to do to 
prepare a DEAD body for burial, but there had been no 
mention of what to do when you discovered a LIVE one.
THE BABY'S CRYING!  Years of showing dignity and respect, 
yet staying emotionally detached, had made it almost 
impossible for Joshua to cry.  Even when his parents 
died, he had been unable to shed a single tear.
This conditioned response made it possible for him to 
deal with other people's grief and remain sane himself.
"Professional detachment" he called it.
     "Damn it, what am I supposed to do?" Josh said out
loud.  Somehow, preparing to embalm the baby had acted 
like open-heart massage, causing the poor child to revive.
He guessed that Dr. Nolan or someone else had decided
that the child was "better off dead" or perhaps they 
thought the child really was dead, but...
THE BABY IS CRYING!  Think Josh Holcomb, what do you do
now? he asked himself.  He knew the parents were already
grieving over the loss of their poor retarded child.
He couldn't very well call them up and say "Guess what,
your baby isn't really dead."  He didn't have he equip-
ment or knowledge to save a life.  Besides, the 
equipment he used wasn't sterile.  The child would most
likely die from staph or some other infection...causing
it's parents even more grief after giving them some false 
     Finally, he had had enough.  Joshua gently covered 
the child with the blanket and ran from the room, 
stripping off his surgical gloves and apron as he left.
Even as he drove away from McCreary's Funeral Home,
he could hear the child crying in his mind.
     Several hours later, Joshua returned.  The child 
lay still and quiet.  Death had at last claimed the 
unfortunate infant.  Holcomb forced himself to embalm the 
child.  Then he went home to his warm bed.
     The funeral service was well attended.  Joshua had
hoped that the family would leave the small white coffin
closed, but they insisted on letting everyone view their
little boy.
     As the last mourner left, Joshua Holcomb felt tears 
well up in his eyes.  He desperately needed to cry, but 
his conditoned response took over....Maybe the child's
tears could somehow replace the tears he himself could 
not shed.  He hoped so.  Even years later, he can still
hear that pitiful crying...
                      THE END
This story is dedicated to my father and my mother's 
parents, who are or were undertakers... and to everyone
that loves them and knows what it's like to be one.     

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Mad Ravings Of Ruggles Fishweir: stories by Ruggles Fishweir