Johnny America


Saint Ormando’s Occupation


Illustration of a compact car that is on fire

Alfredo’s ca­reer as a mor­ti­cian be­gan with his grandmother’s death. It was deemed the un­for­tu­nate re­sult of an elec­tri­cal mal­func­tion, and the hos­pi­tal staff lied to the fam­i­ly in say­ing “she felt very lit­tle pain.” All that had been left of the frail woman was a thin out­line of burnt bed­sheet and a pile of ash­es in her place. Al­fre­do had been eat­ing break­fast in the kitchen when the in­ci­dent oc­curred on­ly feet away, in the guest room. The whoosh­ing-crack­ling sound of his grandmother’s im­mo­la­tion kept Al­fre­do awake for days. 

In his fresh­man year of col­lege, his roommate’s fish had been re­duced to ash in the night, and the wa­ter in its tank turned a murky shade of gray. Stephen, the fish’s ward, couldn’t parse why Al­fre­do had been so dis­turbed. Stephen be­lieved that the fish, a long-finned bet­ta of con­sid­er­able state­li­ness, had died peace­ful­ly overnight, and had its corpse pul­ver­ized and dis­trib­uted through­out the tank by some er­ror of fil­tra­tion. Al­fre­do want­ed to ar­gue that Stephen was both in­cor­rect and odd­ly de­sen­si­tized to the des­e­cra­tion of a fish corpse, but he found that he couldn’t speak. He spent the rest of the day out­side in an at­tempt to for­get the im­mo­lat­ed bet­ta fish. He couldn’t. 

For sev­er­al years, Al­fre­do man­aged to es­cape the specter of fiery death. He found a job dri­ving trucks for a whole­sale food dis­trib­u­tor. Orig­i­nal­ly, he had been dis­ap­point­ed in him­self for tak­ing such an unglam­orous job out­side of his field of study, but he en­joyed the pay and rel­a­tive ease of his work and came to find it tol­er­a­ble. One night, on a se­clud­ed Mon­tana high­way, a swerv­ing truck struck a com­pact car just ahead of him. The two rolled to the shoul­der of the road, and Al­fre­do pulled over to in­spect the dam­age. As he stepped out of his truck, the com­pact car dri­ver erupt­ed in flames, and, quick­ly as he caught, crum­bled in­to a pile of ash­es in the driver’s seat. Al­fre­do called the po­lice and drove away in­to the dark. 

Al­fre­do quit his job the next day and spent the fol­low­ing weeks sulk­ing in his apart­ment. He was wok­en one late morn­ing by a knock at his door, which he an­swered with con­sid­er­able hes­i­ta­tion. A man in a long coat took him by the shoul­ders and ex­plained that he was sore­ly need­ed by a near­by hos­pi­tal. Al­fre­do fol­lowed him to the park­ing lot and en­tered his car. He wasn’t sure in what way he was need­ed, but the ur­gency in the man’s voice was per­sua­sive enough. The two walked in­to the hos­pi­tal in a haste, and the coat­ed man de­liv­ered Al­fre­do to a man in scrubs, who shooed him in­to an el­e­va­tor, a hall­way, and then to a large room bor­dered by beds. Al­fre­do ex­am­ined their oc­cu­pants from the cen­ter of the room, where he had been or­dered to stand. One bed-bound man to­wards the cor­ner burst in­to flames. Al­fre­do lurched to­wards him but was stilled by the man in scrubs. He was in­formed that im­mo­la­tion of those fat­ed for death was a valu­able skill. Al­fre­do coun­tered that all hu­mans were fat­ed for death, and the man in scrubs hand­ed him a check. The next day, Al­fre­do was bid­den to re­turn by the coat­ed man. He was ini­tial­ly hes­i­tant, but, per­suad­ed by his vis­i­tor, he ac­com­pa­nied him to the hos­pi­tal. He ar­rived in the same room and was met by a chair in the cen­ter, with three mag­a­zines to the side of it. He sat and read dai­ly, and was paid hand­some­ly to do so, and was ti­tled In-House Mor­ti­cian. Alfredo’s reser­va­tions about light­ing the el­der­ly and ter­mi­nal­ly ill on fire were even­tu­al­ly re­placed by the no­tion that to in­cin­er­ate any oth­er doomed soul would be a sore waste of tal­ent, and he re­mained in the po­si­tion un­til his self-cre­ma­tion at the age of ninety-two.

Filed under Fiction on June 21st, 2024

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