Jessia Penner


The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

- Mark Twain    

I lost my job on an otherwise mundane Monday afternoon. This is it! I wanted to crow to my coworkers who sat falsely busy, waiting for the day to end. There was no other reason an HR representative would call me upstairs. I'm about to be fired!

Even as I thought this I laughed at myself. It is in my nature to assume the worst. I have a recurring fear that I might die in a fire because I will be unable to open the windows in our apartment. I envision a wall of flames sweeping toward me; my fingers tugging at a window in desperation as the blades of fire rip toward their destination.

I walked to the elevator and hit the button for the third floor, wondering how I would later relate this story to others with the mock embarrassment of one who would never be fired.

I should mention that the windows in our apartment are very hard to open, so, my fear isn't too far off mark.

"We're going to have to let you go."

"What the fuck?"

I tend to resort to cursing when I'm distressed. I cursed my neurosurgeon as I swung into the swan song of anesthesia: "Fuck you!" I screamed. "Fuck you! I wanted to say goodbye!" I weep easily as well. There are certain songs—often hymns—that move me to the point of tears. Some are joyous (Praise God from whom all blessings flow / Praise Him all creatures here below); most are joyous after sadness (Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, / and the world is about to turn! ). It's almost automatic—the moment I open my mouth to sing the words of particular songs, tears sprout from my eyes as if I have been sad for days, weeks, possibly years. I'm not sure why one song will trigger the tears and not another; perhaps there is a combination of words that strikes a part of my brain and triggers the tears, as if that mishmash of cells are a metal roof in a lighting storm.

There is a possibility that this is because of my brain tumor, that whatever causes my angry outbursts also causes my tears and shivers of joy. A neuropsychologist once ran some tests to explain this behavior, and gave me the answer I'd assumed but hoped against: the tumor had damaged my brain.

A fist-sized tumor, emanating from my skull, had slowly penetrated my brain since birth. If my MRI scans were shaded into the greens, yellows, and blues of different sections in a neurology textbook, one would see that the tumor had insinuated itself among them the way a decades' old barbed wire fence presses itself into the trunk of a tree until the tree encapsulates the wire. The tree has been fooled by the wire into coexistence. But the wire has not forgotten what it is—its molecules will not change and bend for the tree. The ignorant tree's rings have been compromised. It cannot withstand the wind as surely as it would have without the wire.

"We're going to have to let you go."

"What the fuck?"

I should have seen this coming. I should have seen this even before I even took the job as a writer at an educational software company. A job that was initially denied me for no other reason than I seemed to have no self-confidence.

Months after I was hired, a coworker told me the midlevel manager hadn't discussed my candidacy with those who had participated in a day's-long interview process, which was the usual protocol. Someone had asked the midlevel manager the reason he had rejected me. She seems to have no self-confidence, had been the response. I was surprised. I hadn't thought I ever appeared without confidence in my life. I sang a solo in front of an auditorium while trapped in a body cast; I shooed away a group of armed soldiers lounging on the steps of a convent in the Old City of Jerusalem; I survived brain surgery.

Frustrated by my underpaid adjunct position, I reapplied a year later. This time, I was offered the position by the same midlevel manager. No explanation as to why I hadn't been offered it the year before. I never asked; which is probably why I lost the job less than three years later. I was too eager to please. Too desperate to be liked and eventually loved. It is the only way I know how to survive.


One might consider me disabled, handicapped, or differently-abled. I've been called a gimp, a cripple, a limp-a-legger (certainly one of the more inventive slurs I've heard). I was born with Ollier's disease, which stunts the growth and twists the brittle bones of one side of the body. The University of Kansas Medical Center was a second home to me for the majority of my childhood, as various orthopedic surgeons forced my left leg to grow with drills and pins and Allen wrenches.

I don't think of myself as disabled, but I suppose a stranger could easily note my paralyzed left eye, my slight limp, and left arm that is shorter than my right. If that stranger stared long enough, he or she would see my long sleeves that hide my missing ring and middle finger on my left hand, and he or she might consider me disabled. A cripple. A gimp. A limp-a-legger.

When you are a cripple, it is necessary to be likeable. Whenever you see well-intentioned, glossy posters asking for money for this disease or that syndrome, the glistening photographs are of laughing children in wheelchairs, mentally disabled with their thumbs up, or wizened but proud elderly folk. Skittish donors don't want to see a deformed cripple, a furious retard, a vomiting hag.

When you are a gimp, you know you are constantly playing a part. Like the grinning and bowing Negro hoping for survival in the Old South or the "acting white" African American strugglng for respect in the New South, a gimp knows she is a breath away from that word that shows how the world truly sees her. So the gimp continues to smile, scrape, control, and make herself amenable to all people and situations.

Perhaps that is the human lot: to always stand a few syllables away from utter despair. To have all you earned eviscerated by the twist of lips and thrust of tongue.

"We're going to have to let you go," said the overly made-up HR representative and the midlevel manager who'd gone to the University of Kansas for his journalism degree. We had talked about Kansas from time to time. He once lent me a book about Kansas and journalism that gathered dust on my desk. Much later, I wondered why I hadn't read it. Would that have granted me the grace I needed? Did he know how little I thought of him, even on the first day we met, with his insipid bowtie and overly pomaded hair?


A temporary side effect of my brain surgery was mild aphasia. When one of my neurosurgeon's interns mentioned it before the operation, it sounded innocuous. But when you are asked to tell the hospital administrator on the line who wants money and your parents' phone number—the phone number you grew up with, the phone number that is the one constant in your otherwise changeable history—and you cannot say that phone number, the horror is immeasurable. I can only equate it to times when you know a song in your head but cannot sing it out loud—all the time. I could see the numbers, but I couldn't say them. I couldn't even write them down. My brain-weakened fingers curled around the pencil and scrawled ten numbers. I stared at them. I couldn't decide if they were correct.

It struck at odd moments. I could be having a normal conversation, only to have a random sentence lost; as if I were an actor who has forgotten her lines while waiting in the wings, and forced to go on anyway.

Writing, reading, speaking, and singing were what made me normal—undisabled, uncrippled, ungimped. When I learned the brain tumor was entrenched in the side of the brain that controlled language, I was strangely unsurprised. The one thing I had going for me could be deformed, crippled, gimped. Just like running, jumping, swinging from jungle gyms and swerving down stretches of road on a bike had been taken from me because of my brittle bones; it was going to be taken and perpetually dangled before me, forever unattainable.

The aphasia still brushes through my brain from time to time. I say things that I know aren't my intention, but I can't stop the false words from passing my lips. Unconsciously, I often keep my mouth shut, for fear of what might come out, but in my mind, I have spoken clearly. I am the actor who finally remembers her lines, but it doesn't matter, because the audience has abandoned the theater, the critics have dashed off their reviews, and the cast has gone to the bar without her.


I should've expected I would eventually be fired for nothing more than the fact that I was a gimp, a cripple, a limp-a-legger. When I took a certification course in teaching English to language learners, it was brought to my attention that I didn't participate enough in class discussions. "You take notes, but you don't speak," my trainer said.

"I don't speak unless I can add to the discussion," I said. What I didn't say was that usually other students came up with answers more quickly than I did because it took me an extra second to build my reply. By the time I was ready, the class had moved on. My handwriting was not the best since the brain surgery, so it always took me longer to get an idea down on paper. I had rarely taken notes in college, but I found I couldn't trust my brain anymore. I was afraid to admit this. Afraid I wouldn't get my certification because of this. For who would allow a person like me into a classroom with such defects?

The reality of my true defect hit during the following class. My trainer asked a question. I knew the question before it was finished, so I breathlessly answered. The words had barely passed my lips when he said, "No, that is not correct." He proceeded to answer his question with my own answer. The class looked at him in surprise. After a pause, someone said: "Um, didn't she just say that?"

When you are a gimp, a cripple, a limp-a-legger, people try to find something else, something that won't get them into trouble for rejecting you. He had seen my outside self, and judged that. He didn't say gimp, cripple, limp-a-legger, but he almost said it. That is what makes being deformed so difficult in a politically correct world. It used to be people felt unencumbered by using slurs. Today, most people know a lawsuit is around the corner if certain words cross their lips. So they find other things to substitute what they truly think. I would sooner take an honest cripple, gimp, limp-a-legger over a false You take notes, but you don't speak or a She seems to have no self-confidence.


Three weeks into the job the midlevel manager mentioned I was very quiet in team meetings. I needed to speak up, share my ideas, work to be a part of my team that created scenarios for language-learning software.

I thought I complied, but my yearly evaluation said otherwise. I didn't participate. I didn't bring new ideas to the table.

I was put on a focused team. For over a year, I sat in a small conference room with former teachers writing curriculum based on the software. The project was boring, but for the first time I felt that my ideas were valued and patiently waited for. It was only when the project was over and I was back with a less-patient crowd that was desperate to stand out during every meeting that I realized how comfortable I had been with my previous team. I found myself again with nothing to say that wasn't already said. I decided I needed to say at least one thing during each meeting, no matter how stupid or already implied—which seemed to be what my overeager coworkers did—and I would be safe.

My yearly evaluation did not agree. Now I was too down on others' ideas. Now I wouldn't support an idea that superseded mine.

I was put on probation and placed on a small team.

"Do they like you? I'll put you somewhere else, if they don't," the team manager said to me point-blank.

"We have a good time together," I replied, not hearing his obtuse warning.

I asked my team manager after my probation period was up, if there was anything I needed to do. "No," he said. "Everything's cool."

"We're going to have to let you go."

"What the fuck?"

The HR person sat and scribbled notes as if she, the midlevel manager, and I were in a business meeting. I wondered what she was writing. The conversation more or less went as follows:

"Is this about the probation? He told me everything was cool."

I don't know what he meant by 'cool' but it wasn't.

"Why didn't someone tell me?"

"Well, it's not really about the probation."

"Then what is it about?"

"Your work had never been up to par. It needed to improve. You aren't a good writer."

"No one ever told me this."

"Well, it's not really about the writing."

"What the fuck?"

The wire-weakened trunk snapped. My vision closed in upon itself like an abnormal kaleidoscope: the tiny conference room was suddenly washed in varying shades of greenish yellow. I found myself on the purple floor.

"I'm having a seizure," I heard myself say. "I'm having a seizure."

I should mention that a seizure was a herald for the discovery of my brain tumor, and I've had them intermittently ever since. There is an indescribable taste and smell that many seizure victims mention. I can only equate it with a combination of the tang of metal and a whiff of decomposition. Often I've found myself outside of myself: a frigid restroom, a dusty Jerusalem street, a cheek plastered against a car window, a booth of a restaurant, onstage beneath a spotlight, trapped behind a bed, smothered in quilts, a television speaking directly to me. I could now see myself on the purple floor. I assumed they probably didn't believe me, so I decided to shake in order to prove what was happening inside. I think I passed out briefly, because the next thing I remember is hearing the words "paramedics" and "police." I struggled to sit up.

"No police," I heard myself say over and over. "No police. Please. I'll be okay. I've had these before."


Six weeks after I was fired, I found a job at the local university teaching English. On the second day of classes, none of my students showed up. I was certain they hated me underneath their smiles, were disgusted by my disability and teaching style and had gone to my director to complain.

Fear grabbed my throat and began to squeeze. You're such a horrible teacher. You're finished. You're a failure, the fear whispered.

She seems to have no self-confidence, the midlevel manager had said.

I sang a solo while bound in a body cast; I shooed away armed soldiers; I survived brain surgery. I never doubted my self-confidence before that day in the cramped conference room with the purple carpet.

My students finally appeared ten minutes later. They had gotten lost on campus, they said, laughing with their broken English: "So sorry, Teacher. So sorry."


There was a spawn of tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma a few years ago. Reports of a twister on the ground heading to my hometown were broadcast on television and radio. My mother said that the odd thing about that storm was that it was completely silent. No wind. No rain. No hail. The only proof of the existence of a tornado was the siren that wailed for over forty-five minutes. Five people in a mobile home park died in Oklahoma from that massive storm, because the siren was busted.

Being a cripple, a gimp, a limp-a-legger, is like sitting in a silent storm with a busted siren. You wonder when it will strike. You know the storm will never blow away. You know the words will always be there, waiting in disguise.

"You never liked me," I said to the midlevel manager after the paramedics left. I had convinced them that my seizure was just a known side-effect, not a harbinger of things to come.

I still felt I was circling above the scene. I could see myself sitting in a chair, my arms hanging unevenly in space. The midlevel manager's hair was slicked into a yuppie Mohawk, his eyes glued to his cell phone. It was the moment when I could have said anything. I wished to say something witty and cruel. My mind screamed for something that would eviscerate him.

But my aphasia had kicked in with gusto. All I could say was: "You never liked me. I never understood why."


Jessica Penner earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her first novel, Shaken in the Water (Foxhead Books) was named an Editors' Choice by the Historical Novel Society. She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Luna Luna, The Fiddleback, Bellevue Literary Review, Rhubarb, Center for Mennonite Writing , and the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies. She received Honorable Mentions in fiction and nonfiction from Open City and Bellevue Literary Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City. Her website is