Gary Fincke ~ During the Epidemic

We brought a dime every Friday to slide into a slot inside a card fea­tur­ing a smil­ing girl on crutch­es. I loved see­ing my card fill up. When there were ten dimes, we would start again on a card with a crip­pled boy. Miss Klein, our fourth-grade teacher, kept our cards inside her desk. “Wash your hands, all of you,” she said, after we slot­ted our dimes. “There’s no telling who han­dled those coins. How filthy he was and what you could catch.”

Every day, just after lunch, Miss Klein inspect­ed our desks. They need­ed to be clean. No crumbs inside or out.They need­ed to be spot­less before we had pub­lic health. Fifteen min­utes, Miss Klein said, of life­sav­ing. The con­ta­gious, she explained, leave filth that hides on bus­es and street­cars and seats at the movies. You’ll nev­er know who’s been there and giv­en you the itch and fes­ter. The con­ta­gious nev­er cov­er their mouths when they sneeze. They wipe their noses on their sleeves where crusts col­lect like scabs that bleed. They bor­row combs and touch foun­tains with their mouths. They gob­ble food they drop on the floor. They squat on pub­lic toi­lets and nev­er scrub with water that’s been run to scald­ing hot, but you won’t know who they are until they car­ry that filth to you like flies. Look around. You’ll see what I mean. Eyes open, class. Keep your­selves clean. Filth is a wel­come mat for polio.

Always, she said, “Polio,” at the end of her speech, snarling it like a curse. Always, she took a deep breath and said, “Polio doesn’t go away like chick­en pox or the measles. You wear braces and use crutch­es like poor Richard Hartman, who’s missed so much school he’ll fall a year behind.” Always, every­body looked at Richard Hartman’s emp­ty desk, some of us touch­ing our desk­tops as if filth had returned while we listened.

Look at this pho­to­graph,” Miss Klein said on the last day of school, walk­ing up and down the aisles so all of us could see. “Those chil­dren are stuck for­ev­er in iron lungs. Those chil­dren will nev­er do any­thing but lie inside them so they can breathe.” She paused by Richard Hartman’s emp­ty desk and said, “Remember to keep clean.”

All sum­mer, I washed my hands before lunch and din­ner. I cleaned my crumbs off the table. I swam in the coun­ty park lake with Jerry Mushik, who swal­lowed the water as if the con­ta­gious nev­er peed there. He said nobody in our town but Richard Hartman ever got polio. He said Miss Klein wasn’t our teacher any­more. She’d have Richard Hartman again next year and have to shut up about polio every day he wasn’t absent.

In September, Richard Hartman, wear­ing leg braces and using crutch­es, was still with our class. Mrs. Gardiner nev­er checked our desks after lunch, but she had new March of Dimes cards for each of us, even Richard Hartman. “The dimes aren’t going to help that boy,” my moth­er said. “It’s too late for that.”

Jerry Mushik laughed when I washed my hands after I insert­ed my first dime. He put his on his tongue and closed his mouth. “Fuck polio,” he whis­pered. For the next three weeks, he licked his dime. In October, in the cloak room before school, he forced two boys to lick their dimes. None of them got sick.


Gary Fincke’s lat­est col­lec­tion is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). Earlier col­lec­tions have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize.His sto­ry “The Corridors of Longing” is reprint­ed in Best Small Fictions 2020. An essay “After the Three-Moon Era” appears in Best American Essays 2020. He is co-edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy series Best Microfiction.