Pamela Painter

After the Flash

I am tired of edit­ing people’s lives. It used to be my col­leagues and I heard only amazed excla­ma­tions from the few peo­ple who unex­pect­ed­ly returned.  Each hoarse voice was filled with blurred awe and cel­e­bra­tion:   “my entire life flashed before my eyes.”  These words–often said from a cranked-up hos­pi­tal bed, or lat­er, into a lapel phone on night­ly news– assured us that our edit­ing was a suc­cess.  But now with post-90’s mod­ern med­i­cine, more peo­ple are return­ing from that bright light at the end of the tun­nel.  They are not happy.

As an art form it’s all over.  We’re a dying breed,” Juanita, my cubi­cle part­ner and long-time lover says.    She is peer­ing at her screen and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly review­ing 2,374 lives in forty-six dif­fer­ent coun­tries. For the last eigh­teen years she has held the com­pa­ny record for deliv­er­ing beautifully–edited, flashed lives to peo­ple at the end of the tun­nel.  That’s a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty and you can see how one could make mis­takes.  So far, omis­sions have been minor, but soon­er or lat­er greater errors are bound to hap­pen:  a debut in Verdi’s Idemeneo will be replaced with a minor role in Cats;  loved cats will be replaced with Rottweiler’s; or worse, triplets will show up as twins.

We’re both depressed.  Science has inter­vened, send­ing peo­ple back to the liv­ing at an alarm­ing rate.  EMTs rush to the scene, a defib­ril­la­tor at hand.  Or char­coal roams around the shocked stom­ach, soak­ing up the entire bot­tle of Valium, Lithium or Zantax.   Or a heart sur­geon suc­cess­ful­ly com­pletes an impos­si­ble quadru­ple bypass just after we’ve hit “send.”   That final flash used to be an event that every­one looked for­ward to as they expelled their final wob­bling breath.   But now, sci­ence allows more and more peo­ple to delay, often to reverse, the fruits of our labor, the “cross­ing over on judg­ment day” as reli­gious souls inac­cu­rate­ly describe it, which always sets us laugh­ing.  For obvi­ous rea­sons, com­pa­ny pol­i­cy dis­qual­i­fies job appli­cants with, to quote the CEO, “even a smidgen of reli­gion.”  Though I’ve won­dered if the con­cept of heav­en and hell, or nir­vana, or rein­car­na­tion keeps trag­ic and hor­rif­ic things from hap­pen­ing with greater frequency.

It caught us by sur­prise, this stream of com­plaints from our dig­i­tal-age clients.  “Too few pix­els.” “Where were the 72 vir­gins.” “The flash was more a series of frac­tured slash­es.”  “Instead of Technicolor, it was the grainy black and white of my child­hood, as if some­one was hold­ing age against me.” “My sec­ond step-son from my third mar­riage was missing.”

Clearly, respect for the edit­ing we do is gone.  I feel like telling that last per­son ‘okay, next edit you get the time you killed the cat.’

Today, we’ve been called to a spe­cial meet­ing by the Vice President in charge of pro­duc­tion.   A solemn des­per­a­tion per­vades the atmosphere.

The VP says that we life/death edi­tors need to be more dili­gent in our research.  A late-night talk show is solic­it­ing dis­con­tent­ed accounts of “my entire life flashed before my eyes.”

He tilts for­ward in his pol­ished wingtips. “Our ‘clients’ are not grate­ful that they are back on this–” he hes­i­tates, then con­tin­ues, “–this side, still capa­ble of voic­ing com­plaints, instead of on the oth­er side where their lives are a thing of the past.”

There is a col­lec­tive gasp in the room, a few tit­ters. “Side” is a word we are for­bid­den to use.  Horst, from two cubi­cles over, begins cough­ing uncontrollably.

Juanita leans against me and whis­pers “side.  Siiiiiiiiiiide.”

I return the pres­sure and for few sweet sec­onds think ahead to tonight.

The VP goes on to say there’s talk of a real­i­ty show that fer­rets out secrets not revealed in that “flash.”  I think:  like who real­ly killed the pres­i­dent, or the cat.

My co-work­ers and I peek around the room as we’re told the worst is yet to come.  Soon there will be an influx of all those unpub­lished grad­u­ates of MFA Programs or the refugees from Film and Media Arts, or the unem­ployed PhDs who demol­ish texts of the great writ­ers, but they can real­ly do research.  We’re told to be more care­ful with rich peo­ple who seek extreme med­ical inter­ven­tions. We’re told to take less revenge on vil­lains who can be charis­mat­ic or elo­quent..  We’re told to give like­able peo­ple bet­ter lives.  “And be warned,” he says.  “The secret is the secret.”   On that note the meet­ing ends.

All six hun­dred of us deject­ed­ly return to our cubi­cles. Beside me, under her breath, Juanita chants “Side, side, oth­er side.  Side, side, oth­er side…” People gig­gle in adja­cent cubicles.

As I sink into my seat still laugh­ing, cof­fee splash­es my trans­par­ent screen.  Juanita throws me a paper nap­kin, with one last “side.”

I pull up #1732.  I’m work­ing with 1836 lives, and I do not aspire to add more to that num­ber.  My eyes are giv­ing out.  There are too few plots, too many col­ors, a new for­mat but the same damn characters.

There’s no joy in it any more,” I say.  Juanita nods, and places her hand on my wrist, a ges­ture that will take me through the day.

Returning to her screen, she says, “Yesterday a man said he could have done bet­ter with Adobe Photo Shop.”  Juanita and are hunched-over husks of our for­mer selves.  “There’s no going back to the good old days—“

I fin­ish her sen­tence “–except for the two of us.”

We’ve done the first roughs of each other’s life, minus my ex-wife and her ex-hus­band.  We did our lives at the old speed with slip­pery slurred sound, the bright white light at the end of the tun­nel, and then the ele­gant gra­da­tions of black and white before the onset of what only we in this busi­ness know:  the secret of what comes after the flash, what is on the oth­er side.

Nothing.  Nothing but end­less, irre­versible night.


Pamela Painter has writ­ten two sto­ry col­lec­tions, the award-win­ning Getting to Know the Weather and The Long and Short of It, and is co-author of What If?  Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her sto­ries have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Quick Fiction, among oth­ers. She has won three Pushcart Prizes, an NEA, and Agni Review’s John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter teach­es in the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston.  Her new col­lec­tion of flash fic­tion, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, was pub­lished by Carnegie Mellon in 2010.