Flash Fiction Friday: Interest
This is the earliest I've ever posted an FFF story! It's not even Friday yet in some parts of the US. Anyway, please be sure to also read the fictions of Caiti, Crow, and Gabe, our rulemaker this week. I'm actually pretty pleased with how mine turned out. Can you spot the similarity between our four pieces?
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the door
And in flew Enza!
(American children's rhyme, c. 1918)
Diseases have always seemed dramatically symbolic to me. Each new pandemic sends a little thrill down my spine and puts a little spring in my step. Death is like a lover — why else would we talk about it all the time? We spend our lives fighting age and inevitability, but the truth is, we love death. We love sickness and gore, because newspaper obituaries and photographs of bombing victims and lifeless sparrow carcasses remind us of how incredibly, astonishingly alive we are.
My favorite views of disease are the really gruesome ones. The yellow eyes, the black bile, the blistering red pustules. I used to go to the medical section of the library and leaf through pictorial guides to illnesses. The older books are the best, the ones from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Medicine was more hands-on then. Incisions were bigger and mortality rates were higher. The most memorable account I read was of Private Patrick Hughes, who was shot through the head at the Battle of Antietam — and survived. The entrance and exit wounds healed over with skin but not bone, and when he sneezed the flesh would pop out briefly like bubbles. A few paintings and etchings of Hughes show the holes in his head soon after the incident, his hair shaved and the flesh of his cranium peeled back to expose his skull and the dark red hollows of his brains.
In high school, I considered becoming a doctor. I had the grades to do it, but my love of blood and bile was unsuitable for a healer by trade. Instead I became a mortician, purveyor of the dead, a twenty-first century Charon. I’ll admit that the glamour of expiry has lessened now that I encounter it daily and often have my hands in it up to the wrists. My kind eyes and clean-shaven face comfort the widows of this city, who appreciate my gentle euphemisms and moderately priced services. And when I walk home after work, I take deep breaths and slow strides, focusing on how it all feels because I still can.
I’ve lived here for some years. My work affords me enough time to socialize with my neighbors and colleagues, and I enjoy their company. Sometimes we do favors for each other, as friends do. Marlon, for example, took me on a hunting trip last month up in the mountains of Saramason county, and Peter lent me his weedwhacker. I like to think I’m generous, too — when Jennifer’s brother passed away this week, I gave her a special discount and managed to get a good deal with the casket people. The brother was a farmer, an older bachelor who loved fresh fatty bacon so much his heart couldn’t take it. He didn’t own a suit, so as I was massaging the body to relieve rigor mortis, I took his measurements, and Jennifer went to the Men’s Warehouse. Embalming him took longer than usual. He was an eight-pointer, to employ the professional argot.
For all my talk of how much I appreciate death and disease, more so I think than ordinary people, I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with my own mortality. Not for lack of trying, but rather for lack of evidence. My immune system is quite strong and so I’ve never been truly sick; I get a slight cold every autumn, and once every five years I wake up with a fever and coughing fits, like today. It will subside by the weekend. Luckily the people I work with can’t catch anything anymore. The perks of being dead, one might say.
Sometimes I regret my career choice. I’ve never had a case that thrilled me as much as the books I read do. Everyone around here dies of old age or of banal diseases like cancer. I haven’t seen so much as a car crash in the eight years I’ve owned this business. Perhaps this is God’s way of toying with my morbidity: despite handling corpses on a daily basis, I have yet to see anything intriguing. But I can hold out. One day, something interesting will happen in this city, and perhaps then my curiosity will be sated.