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New post noti­fi­ca­tions:

So Grievous a Transgression

Creative Commons License photo credit: cbcas­tro

My dad’s beeper was designed to draw atten­tion to itself: if it didn’t make loud sounds, he’d never know when to go put out fires. I didn’t know its vary­ing tones were sig­nals to dif­fer­ent fire depart­ments, so I made a game of deci­pher­ing what each one might mean. Low, long beeps meant some­thing bor­ing, a kit­ten up a tree. Alter­nat­ing low– and high-pitched beeps meant a car wreck. And, since my dad only reacted to the most urgent-sounding one, the rapid, high beep­beep­beep­beep, I knew it was reserved for the real emer­gen­cies. I didn’t real­ize for years that the tone he responded to was just the one his fire depart­ment hap­pened to use. Dad’s beeper was also hard to ignore because it was the size of a small brick, and because it had a shiny but­ton on it I was for­bid­den to press.

I hap­pened one day to find myself alone in Dad’s truck, wait­ing for him to pay at a gas sta­tion. I didn’t notice the beeper on the dash until it screamed, break­ing me from some 10-year-old’s reverie. I knew I should take the beeper to Dad, who would, left to his own devices, sprout roots from his feet at the cash reg­is­ter, talk­ing the day away, and miss the mes­sage from the fire department’s dispatch.

I reached for the beeper and pressed the but­ton, pro­duc­ing a sat­is­fy­ing burst of sta­tic and then silence. Often after the alert tones are played, Dad would lis­ten for a gar­bled mes­sage from the dis­patcher to find out where he needed to go. I could never make out a word of what was said through the sta­tic and the tinny beeper speaker, and often as not nei­ther could Dad. But on that day, alone in the truck, a voice came to me clear as a bell.

A woman’s voice said a series of num­bers and the name of a road I didn’t rec­og­nize. I’d seen a lot of Smokey and the Ban­dit by then, and I knew how peo­ple talked into CB radios. When­ever Dad couldn’t make out what some­one was say­ing through his beeper, he always ended up call­ing another fire­man for news, and I never under­stood why he didn’t just use his own lit­tle radio to ask the dis­patcher. So that’s what I did. I depressed the sil­ver but­ton, adopted my sternest pre­pu­bes­cent voice, and said “Breaker, breaker, how about a quick repeat?”

A moment of silence, then the woman’s voice was inquir­ing, puz­zled, “What sta­tion is this?” And I knew I was doomed. I couldn’t hear any of the respond­ing chat­ter through the blood pound­ing in my ears and the sud­den appear­ance of my father at the door. I dropped the beeper on the seat between us and said not a word all the way home.

In bed that night I stared at my ceil­ing, map­ping con­stel­la­tions in the glow-in-the-dark stars I put there and imag­in­ing what kind of cri­sis I might have caused. The respond­ing fire depart­ment assumed, I was sure, that the sta­tion I rep­re­sented would have every­thing well in hand, and some poor family’s home would burn idly to the ground thanks to my neg­li­gence. I saw the con­fla­gra­tion, the bedrag­gled fam­ily stand­ing tear­ful on the lawn, the charred husk of the puppy who never made it out. Images like these would wake me from fit­ful rest for the next decade.

How was I to know, at that age, that Dad’s beeper had no micro­phone, no mech­a­nism for broad­cast­ing? There was no way the words I said made it beyond the win­dows of the truck. And even if the call had been for my dad’s depart­ment, he’d have heard one of the fol­lowup calls and been able to respond. Even after I learned all this, I couldn’t for­give myself for so griev­ous a trans­gres­sion. Even writ­ing this con­fes­sion, my heart pounds a little.

This is the inau­gural post in a syn­chroblog­ging exper­i­ment with some friends. I would like it very much if you read the other par­tic­i­pants here:

pas­sion­ately pen­sive
i write to be rid of things
adven­tures of alisha

  1. I once laid awake all night long because I was in the photo for first place win­ners at a 4-H com­pe­ti­tion. I was a sec­ond place fin­isher. It haunted me for years. Sigh.


    • Yes! Every­thing is my fault all the time. I once offered a tear­ful apol­ogy to my middle-school librar­ian for los­ing a spelling bee to a 9th grader. I was in 7th grade, and the mod­er­a­tor had mis­pro­nounced the last word I was sup­posed to spell.


  2. […] So Griev­ous a Trans­gres­sion, Word Shep­herd My dad’s beeper was designed to draw atten­tion to itself: if it didn’t make loud sounds, he’d never know when to go put out fires. It was also hard to ignore because it was the size of a small brick, and because it had a shiny but­ton on it I was for­bid­den to press. This entry was posted in Uncat­e­go­rized by David Mahaf­fey. Book­mark the permalink. […]


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