Unacceptable Conventions

by | Nov 8, 2016 | Fiction


Before she died, Dr. Candice Mittleton, an employee of Friendly Morgues Inc., the body storage facility that is associated, somewhat loosely, with Upper Valley Hospital, was habituated to addressing me as someone many years her junior. She acted in that manner despite the fact that I was her boss and despite the fact that I was decades older. Even when a mutual colleague, Seth Huffington, publicly protested that behavior, Dr. Mittleton responded to his remonstration with laughter.

Her guffaw was an uncomfortable sound, somewhere between that of a hyena choking on a sphenoid bone and that of a prison warden crying upon noticing that some of his convicts had escaped. Worse than the grating quality of that reverberations or the bumptious attitude that undergirded it, though, was Dr. Mittleton’s rationale; she laughed to underscore that nine times out of ten she was right and that the tenth time ought to be accounted for as being within a normal margin of error.

Regardless of her self-assessment, Mittleton failed as a team player. That woman, who had, in her employment interview, told my superiors that they would be privileged to hire her, wound up on my team since she had worn a white mini to that meeting. Unfortunately, like my bosses, I focused on Mittleton’s well-matched femurs, tibias, and fibulas rather than on her flaws. Call me “sexist,” but mortuaries are lonely places where few nice sets of satoriuses, vastus lateralises, or soleuses can be found.

Then, again, it could be said that Mittleton was like the majority of my subordinates, professionals that took seemingly forever to become proficient at dissecting cadavers, first year medical students’ claims to the contrary. As facile as most docs are with liposuction or with shoulder synovectomy, many of them find it tough to leave things in place or to return them to approximations thereof.

My peers dislike having to separate muscle from adipose tissues or having to break down a spine into vertebrae without being permitted to toss at least a handful of stuff into the trash. It takes patience to pluck eyes from skulls in a manner that allows those orbs to be transplanted into the living. It takes precision to enable a dead person’s lungs to give life. A ventriculostomy is immediately gratifying, but postmortem trunk incisions, even when aided by the best of dieners, are not.

Anyway, Mittleton’s big trouble began when she started photographing the dead and selling those images to necrophilists. She claimed her motive was repaying her medical school loans. I wish she had never studied medicine.

Since high school, Mittleton had been fascinated with anatomy and had entered many biochemistry projects in her city’s science fair. One entry concerned the relative worth of soil and hydroponics for growing sunflowers, another decried the healing wonders of green slime, and a third focused on enzyme activity in dust mites. During her senior year, she even won an honorable mention for her home-made stethoscope.

Mittleton told me about her life during the late nights when my team was tasked, at double pay, to respond to some hospitals administrators’ tenders. I found her gossip tedious while I found the bonus money I got by standing next to her and searching for gunpowder residue or and other deposits useful in meeting my overdue alimony payments.

It seems that at the same time that Mittleton was trying to interbreed her pet gerbils and goldfish and was contemplating DerF1 and Derp1 in cosmopolitan pyroglyphids, she was thinking about the ultimate kind of decomposition. She confided that her most wonderful adolescent moment was when she had performed an autopsy on her brother’s cocker spaniel. The dog had crossed the street without looking.

Shortly after that feat, her mom took her to a child psychology. Meanwhile, The University of Denver took her in as a premed student.

Later, after receiving a degree from The Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Mittleton left science for investigative journalism, using her medical credentials to “prove” to the world the existence of instances of child abuse, of rape, and of other sad social “artifacts.” Just as suddenly, she quit climbing the broadcasting ladder and applied to fill our vacancy for an autopsy technician.

Mittleton told me that she wanted to change medicine from an elitist, gender-biased profession into a more traditional channel of healing, in general, and that she wanted to teach people to treat corpses with dignity, more specifically. She claimed that her job with us was vital to those ends. Personally, I think she wanted to re-experience “doctor’s work” before attempting her licensing exam.

After the photo scandal, I was tasked with telling her that she was no longer going to be on our payroll. She was to be fired, not persecuted since the directors thought her too young and too pretty to languish in court.

In response to my announcement, Mittleton trembled like a landed fish. Her brother is that famous neurosurgeon who advises on the Internet. Her sister is an internationally known hepatologist. Her mother is an endocrinologist, who specializes in juvenile diabetes and her late father had been a world-famous urologist.

In firing Mittleton, I felt like I was the hardened uncle of a spoiled child, that is, like the only adult in a little horror’s family who deigns to tell the brat that her favorite purple hat ill-suits her hair color.

Before laughing at me, Mittleton just stared, her lower lip wobbling. Then she packed up her things and left. She never sat for her boards.

Instead, less than a year later, she gave birth to a bastard sired by Seth Huffington. Seth told me, as he and I pried upon a homeless person’s sternum, that between contractions, Mittleton had fingered the weave and the warp of a sweater her mother had made for her.

That endocrinologist mom had crafted that garment to the pulse points of her daughter’s body. Its fiber had been knotted together as much with tears as with fingers. Perhaps Mittleton’s mom regretted the family’s emphasis on medical education or grieved her own act of forcing her daughter to sit with an adolescent head shrinker.

Huffington said that after getting fired, Mittleton always wore that sweater. She wore it during the cold season and she wore it during the summer. She had worn it when she first rendezvous with Seth, too.

Although he hadn’t dared to date a coworker, as soon as she was a free agent he had hit on her. He hadn’t figured that his choices might push Candice to a dangerous state of low mood. Even the best pathologists can miss evidentiary truths.

Seth hardly helped matters by giving her an allowance or by making her a copy of the key to his home’s basement lab. Stupid man. No pair of linguinal or patellar and ligaments are worth the mayhem that resulted.

Mittleton used Huffington’s cash to buy formula and to hire a babysitter. She used her key to get in his back door and down the stairs to his experimentation facility. There, she summarily ignored his cautions about mixing 2-propanol with other compounds. A vapor trail and a flashback resulted.

When interviewed by the press, especially by the outlets for which Mittleton used to work, my bosses point to postpartum hormone changes as the culprit for her death. They repeated over and again that as wizened medics, they grasped the goings on that undergird extreme mood disorders.

After a judge was able to unseal some papers written by Mittleton’s former psychologist, Seth was acquitted for Mittleton’s death. Our bosses added two months of unpaid leave to the four weeks of vacation time he had banked and bought him a ticket to Albuquerque. They suggested that he stay away from Cliff’s Amusement Park and from the Sandia Peak Tramway as the rider on their employee insurance had tripled in cost after Mittleton’s death.

So, Seth gave up the child, who blood tests had shown to be his, for adoption, and headed west. He was in no shape to fix brain tissue in formalin or to sample urine and bile for pathogens.

As for me, when attending Mittleton’s much delayed funeral, I felt ambivalent. Her casket’s lid was only partially opened. Her lovely legs were, for the first time in my experience. Suddenly I beheld not a womanly wonder, but a sack of meat, the likes of which I butchered daily in the morgue.

All at once, I felt able to scold her and did, saying, “you’re dead? So be it. You were nothing but trouble.” Then I saw her equally lovely sister, the hepatologist, and recanted.

I loudly iterated “rest in peace.” Instead of spitting on the box, I dropped a handful of roses onto it. I then left in pursuit of the medical woman who boasted a lovely clavicle and who appeared to be in need of a free inspection of her scapulas.


KJ Hannah Greenberg, an evergreen inventor of printed possibilities, fashions lively texts and watches dust bunnies breed beneath her sofa. Her eclectic works are dedicated to lovers of slipstream fiction and to oboe players who never got past the second orchestral chair. She’s been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature, once for The Best of the Net, and helps out as an Associate Editor at Bewildering Stories. Hannah’s fiction collections are: Can I be Rare, Too? (Bards & Sages Publishing, 2017, Forthcoming), Friends and Rabid Hedgehogs (Bards & Sages, 2016), Cryptids (Bards & Sages Publishing, 2015), The Immediacy of Emotional Kerfuffles, 2nd ed. (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2015), and Don’t Pet the Sweaty Things, 2nd ed. (Bards and Sages Publishing, 2014).





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