I get sick a lot. I have magnolias in my gut. Magnolias on fire. I can feel them now. The rapid oxidation in my chest. My exothermic insides. Magnolioideae conflagration. I’ve punched walls because of my illnesses. Smashed dishes. My knuckles and plates destroyed from the anger at my insides. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just wait. It’s being a prisoner to your own immune system. It’s a system. It’s all systems. Systems of medicine. Systems of poverty. How my grandfather gave his lungs and ears to the mine. He should have just van Goghed his ears off, should have done a pneumonectomy on himself, sped up the process. I’m birthed from an area of prisons and mines—places where you work without daylight. Vampire jobs where you can die from explosions, where you can die from men. Explosions of men. Both places are disease-filled, bacterial overcrowding. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a prison psych ward. I worked at one. Work at one. Worked at one. I’m not sure. I’m on hiatus. An inmate attacked me. A “clear liquid” thrown in my eyes. Was it water? Semen? Water and semen and blood? The strange concoctions of bodily fluids. Prisoners are bartenders, mixologists. They stir cerebrospinal fluid and vomit and urine into cups. And then they wait. They are forced to have patience. They throw themselves in your face when you’re working, when you are thinking about work, when you forget that they exist, forget that they are waiting. They want to be inside you, force themselves inside you, rape you from a distance. They tell us they are going to rape us, scream that they are going to kill us, that they’ll get out and find us. I rush to the bathroom sink to flush my eyes. Later, the doctor tells me it’s blood where you get disease, that the contents weren’t red, that I can relax. Truth is, the doctor doesn’t know. The doctor tells me not to care, that there is nothing to worry about. I get sick. Again. I’ve had sickness after sickness. In the military, they throw you around the globe. You get drunk under streetlights in Spain. You watch the search & rescue of a crashed airplane off the shore of the base in Diego Garcia. You meaning me. Meaning I. Meaning you. You have your own horrors. Your own viruses. They say that the future of employment is all centered on virus. The future is computers and medicine. The greatest job growth. The field where infection can happen. That’s where the safety lies, in the jobs where you have to decontaminate. I write this while wearing Santa Claus pajama pant bottoms in August, with three garbage cans filled with tissue. I have a note scratched on my calendar for Monday saying, “Hospital.” I cough from working as an EMT, I sneeze from working in the prison, the fatigue in my joints from the Navy, from the Air Force, from working in two different military services, while the successful are somewhere else healthy as fists. Even their shadows look like they’ve been fed on organic berries and unsweetened soymilk. In the EMT world, we eat fast. We eat junk food. We eat like the diabetics we haul. Hyperlipidemia diets are all there’s time for. I eat cheesy sticks in bites made for choking. I can’t order a pizza; there’s no time. Every restaurant we go into, I have to ask, “What’s the fastest thing you can make.” I eat in the back of the ambulance with my food wrappers tombstoned next to a Biohazard sign. Today, my partner said he refused to work with me because I’m sick. That’s like saying you’ll only do porn if everyone is fully clothed. We transport iso patients—people with C. diff, MRSA, ESBL. The diseases have to be abbreviated to save time. We don’t have time to eat, so we definitely don’t have time to say, “Clostridium difficile colitis, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, Extended-spectrum beta-lactamases.” I memorize the terms because the EMTs seem not to know what they stand for. They say things like, “MRSA is in the lining of ninety-nine percent of people’s noses.” I ask what it stands for and they don’t know. It’s supposedly in their nose and they don’t know. They don’t wear protective gloves when they’re supposed to. They don’t wear the gowns when instructed. Maybe they’re thinking, “How can a clostridium hurt anyone?” It’s etymologically linked to rod. –Coccus means berries. Rod and berries. It’s all penis metaphors in science. They look under microscopes and see millions of tiny shaking testicles. My fever just yanked me out of where I was going with this. I just coughed so hard that I had to spit out an entire kindergarten of phlegm. I lost my place. You can see the sickness in the faces of the poor. In the hospital, you can just look at teeth and see meth usage, the squamous cell carcinoma of construction worker necks, the rhinophyma of alcoholics’ noses as if they’ve been punched by a thousand beer bottles. If I could write better, I might get a university teaching job with full health benefits. I can’t afford the health coverage where I work. They told us we’d have complete health benefits, but didn’t tell us that it’d be taken out of our checks. I make nine dollars an hour. Lorenzo Brown, a bench player for the worst team NBA team last year—the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 16-66 record (.195 winning percentage)—made $947,276. $78,939.67 a month. $19,734 a week. In one week, he will make more sitting on the bench than I will make for the entire year working forty-hours weeks in the back of an ambulance. $2,819 a day for Brown. $117.46 an hour. His full access to orthopedic surgeons R. Wynn Kearney, Jr. and Diane Dahm, M.D.; team medical director Sheldon Burns, M.D.; athletic trainers Gregg Farnam and David Crewe; director of sports performance Koichi Sato; and director of athletic therapy Mark Kyger. My neighbor in Florida killed his father and was trying to bury the corpse in the backyard when another neighbor, checking her mail late at night in the rain, happened to catch a glimpse of the horror show. She called the cops and he was arrested. Another neighbor got arrested for a pot farm in his house. The police found out because his electricity bills were so ridiculously high that they must have wondered if he was raising alien pods. Another neighbor got arrested for some other drug, some other stupid error on his part, some other prison sentence future. Some bounty hunter crept on my driveway one night for the neighbor directly behind my house in the trailer park. Here, everyone looks sickly—kyphosis, disk prolapse, small cell lung cancer for their small bodies. They go to the pool to smoke. They light up cigarettes next to their oxygen tanks. They drink while staring at the water. It’s a retirement community. I’m not retired. It’s just cheap. I smuggled myself in. It’s next to some sort of business that kicks up so much sand that you can’t breathe. I work nights now. I sleep when the sand owns the air. I wake to cough over the sounds of saws. I’ve had pneumonia and bronchitis in the double-digits. Recurring. Every other year, it happens. The military denied any connection to my lung problems. I just work. Maybe one day I’ll get a tenure-track job. Maybe I’ll teach creative writing. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll end up in the prison mines, the mine prisons, my ears turned into winter, my lungs filled with Sunday gloom. Or actually I’m already there. I’ve turned into my grandfather in my forties. Swallowed by failure. Eaten by corporations. Owned by hospitals where the flowers are all fake.
R. Riekki’s non-fiction, fiction, and poetry have been published in Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Juked, decomP, New Ohio Review, and many other literary journals.