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Monday, September 28, 2009

Masterpiece

The winner has been announced for NPR's latest Three-Minute Fiction contest. It wasn't me. Here's my submission, with an afterword.


The nurse left work at five o'clock. It had been a long night, and he was glad to be done with it.

Jacob Figby had reached the pinnacle of his creative career the previous evening with the debut of his Seventh Symphony. The morning's headlines would tell of his glorious achievement, the capstone of the great composer's life. They would also tell how, six hours after the curtain fell, surrounded by family and friends, Jacob Figby had killed himself at his reception.

Never to grow old, never to become decrepit. Suicide had once been the domain of the depressed and the despairing. Death would lock a life into its lowest, darkest moment, a final failure that could never be redeemed.

But that was long ago. Now the fashion was to die only after achieving the masterpiece of one's life's work. Die too soon and you have left great works undone. Wait too long and you spend your days trying to match past accomplishments. Old age was for failures who became burdens on society.

Jacob Figby had entered into immortality by dying in the afterglow of his greatest creative triumph. But these after-parties tended to run late, and it was not permitted for the attending nurse to leave before the guest of honor's body had been removed. Then there was the paperwork, the forms in triplicate, the official documentation for the disposition of Figby's assets to his heirs. By the time it was all done, the first hint of dawn was showing red in the Eastern sky.

At least the trains weren't too crowded for the ride home.

The nurse climbed the ladder to the coffin-sized bunk that served as his apartment. He looked out across the city with its teeming millions, all struggling and striving to achieve their life's work. Where will I be assigned tonight?, he wondered. And when will I get to create my masterpiece?

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. When will it finally be my turn to die?


I tried to play around with assumptions in this story. The words "nurse," "work," and "five o'clock" all carry with them unconscious assumptions: all nurses are women (just as all doctors are men); nurses work at hospitals: five o'clock is in the afternoon. Of course these are all nonsense, but I have to wonder how many of the submitted stories involved female nurses leaving hospitals in the late afternoon.

Long-time readers may recognize the setting of this story from
a post I did in April of 2008. This is how I described the scenario for a dystopian tale:

Scenario 2: A society where suicide is not simply encouraged, it is expected. You create your masterpiece and then you die at the peak of your glory, never to become a burden, never to have your light dim. But choose to die too soon and you have wasted your talent; wait too long and you are pressured to achieve more, and more, always trying to reascend to the pinnacle of your life's work - so that you may then die without shame.

I originally envisioned this as a story about someone who has missed the right moment, and has spent the years since in a frantic struggle to match and exceed his past accomplishments. But I don't think I have the ability to squash that story into this format - at least, not in the brief time I had to actually write and submit the story.

Oh, well. Better luck next time.

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