I’m not sure what the catalyst was for “Sally the Immortal.” I was in the midst of a project in which I was writing two flash fiction pieces every day for about a month, and this story was written about a week or so in. Many of the pieces in that project just sort of “happened,” starting with a—pun sort of intended—flash of an idea, in this case a woman whose stomach keeps growing. I then decided, as I started writing, that a story about a person who simply can’t die could be interesting, and from that this story was born. I was interested in exploring what the thought process and feelings would be for someone who was expecting death to arrive to never have it come. The idea of death has always fascinated me, not so much in a morbid, gloom-and-doom way, but a curiosity akin to Emily Dickinson’s. In the case of this story, I think Sally is frustrated that she’s seemingly so close to getting answers to the grand mystery of what it means to die but can’t quite make the leap. She’s stuck: she can’t move on to that revelation, nor is she able to return to her normal life.
Joe Baumann is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he is the editor-in-chief of the Southwestern Review. His work has appeared in SNReview, Hawai'i Review, The Coachella Review, and several others, and is forthcoming in Oblong, Cactus Heart, and The Helix Literary Review.
Sally cannot die. She’s thought about it, wondered why it hasn’t happened yet. Her uterus gobbled up the space in her lower abdomen, ballooning up to the size of a watermelon with the cancerous tumor hidden inside it like some precious pearl. She lost weight, she could feel the nubs and ridges of her bones in her elbows and knees, she could barely keep down anything more innocuous than chicken soup or wheat toast. But she kept living, kept breathing. She looked pregnant.
In the hospital the doctor would scratch his head and flip through thick stacks of yellowing paper that his clipboard could barely hold together. When he clicked his pen—such an emphatic thing, his thumb stiffening tall then chucking itself down—he would stuff it in his pocket and heave a deep sigh, his shoulders rolling like waves. Sally would stare up at him, her IV itching.
“I don’t know what to tell you. You’re a fighter.”
She would cough and scratch at her inner thigh where her hospital gown chafed.
“I’m hungry,” she’d say, opening her mouth and feeling her jaw crackle like bubble wrap. “I want a burger. And fries. And a cigarette. An amaretto sour, too, and I hate those.”
The doctor would chuckle. His hair seemed flecked with more silver than usual, like someone had dunked his head in glimmering body paint.
“You know I can’t do that, Sally,” he’d say.
“Then could you at least induce birth and get this thing out of me?” She’d rap on her stomach. It sounded like a kettle drum, and the doctor would frown.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he’d say.
“It’s bad for you.”
“So is cancer, but here I am, pregnant with the lord’s bally mess,” she’d say, strumming her fingers against her stomach like it was a table, catching her index finger against her outward-turned bellybutton. “So how about a Philly cheese steak? You must be good for something. How about a stick of bubble gum?”
He’d bring her ice chips and jell-o to calm her down, and Sally sucked on the spiky cubes and wiggled the colored blobs in front her, imagining the jowls of children, and she kept laying there for days on end, getting no older, her stomach getting larger, and one day, finally, when his head was buried in that silver color of old age, her doctor had to introduce her to a young man, wrinkle-free and covered in jet-black hair, whose eyes glimmered with hope and possibility. Her doctor said he was retiring and this kid would be her new one.
“Well,” she said, adjusting her hospital gown, which was now the size of a small tent to accommodate the bulge in her stomach, whose apex she couldn’t reach with her own outstretched arms, “I hope he might give me a t-bone steak one of these days, maybe.”
And the new doctor laughed, reached up, and patted the dome of her flesh that was sighing toward the ceiling with the hopes of becoming a mosque.
“Who knows, Sally?” he said. He reached out his stethoscope. It was cold, but so far away from her center that it felt like an evening breeze. “Funny,” he said, pulling out the earpieces. “It sounds like a jazz band in there.”
“Ain’t that something,” she said, wondering if she’d ever see the sky again.
by Joe Baumann