I think I’m gettin’ too old for my job.

Been overthinkin’ things lately, tossin’ in bed, havin’ bad dreams. Nowadays, with my dried up ol immune system, even the plastic suits I wear to work don’t ease my head like they used to. Ain’t that I gettin rusty or nothin’—just ask the eight hundred Lithuanians tested out my last release. Them golf ball size tumors all testify, ol’ Eli Jones’ still got it. And ain’t that I “feel bad” exactly, ain’t no “crisis of conscience” or some shit. Naw, I put that all that to bed years ago. Just old age, I think. Workin’ with death so many years, it startin’ to make me feel close to my own. The Reaper’s my lab assistant, and these days I catch him makin’ eyes at me behind my back.

Lot of people say to me, Eli, why you got to make deadly diseases? How ‘bout just a few fevers, infections, a rash here n’ there? Why all the cancers, AIDS and whatnot? Who needs an epidemic? Well, thing about that is, it ain’t as easy as it looks. Sure, it don’t behoove a virus to kill off its host. That way everybody loses, includin’ the Companies. But viruses, cancer cells, germs, they ain’t that different from you and me, truth b’told. Even the ones I design with the care ‘a God hisself, they get antsy. They get greedy. They don’t know when to say when. So it’s a balancin’ act, what I do. My bosses, they want discomfort, not death, so that’s what I shoot for, swear to sweet Jesus. But still, sometimes, when I’m done in the lab, when the bug all growed up and outta school, trained real nice to act how it s’posed to act, once it get out there in the real world and feel that fresh wind in its face, well, the bug just do what the bug wanna do.

But don’t be gettin’ the wrong idea, I say it again, I ain’t lost my touch. I been in this business over sixty years, and I got me a lot more hits than misses. Example now, next time the pharmacies ‘a the world call you up with an order for a hundred thousand cases ‘a them inhalers, y'all can send up a prayer ‘a thanks for ol’ Eli Jones. Asthma, that was my big break. Started cookin’ that one up when I was still in highschool. Wrote equations and chemical compounds on the back ‘a my Sociology book and published the whole thing my first year at MIT. Oh sure, asthma been around before that, but not like this, naw. Not like it is today. Got me noticed, that's for damn sure. Got me a job. Even back in those days, the Companies ain’t give a shit ‘bout the color ‘a my skin. That be one moral principle Joe American can’t fault ‘em on: Company folks too busy to care ‘bout trivial shit like whether or not I a nigga. In them upper outer layers ‘a the onion clock, only thing they prob’ly give a damn ‘bout is whether or not I human. Maybe not even that. They a results-based group, y’understand?

Didn’t shock me much when they called me up, truth b’told. No I ain’t never heard ‘a the Companies before that, no I ain’t know there was other folk doin’ the same work as me, other Diseasemakers, but it all seem just kinda natural-like to me. I been doin’ this shit my whole life, y’understand. Made my first infectious rash when I just outta eighth grade. I know, it seem like a funny hobby for a highschool kid, sittin’ at home with a chemistry set thinkin’ up new and better diseases while everybody else out doin’ sports and parties, drownin’ their brains in booze, their pricks in pussy, but I guess I had what you'd call a higher callin’.

Not that it was easy, stickin’ to what my heart was tellin’ me, hell no. Skinny little negro boy growin’ up in dusty ol’ southland America, I took my share ‘a shit for bein’ smarter n’ everyone else by ‘bout a million IQ points. Sure, I got my share a ass whuppins, my share ‘a nasty names, sure, sure, and y’all can guess what the girls thought ‘a me. Got ‘em all back pretty good though. Sophomore science fair, when everybody else makin’ bakin’ soda volcanoes and potato clocks, I be makin’ a flu that lasts a month. After everybody in the school got it ‘cept me, and somebody sees me walkin’ through them empty echoin’ halls with all my books, pretendin’ to sit in classes that ain’t got no teachers in ‘em, just sittin’ there and smilin’ my little smile, well, everybody pretty well let me be after that. I ain’t never did care much ‘bout them anyhow, though. God gave me a special gift, and damned if I wasn’t gonna use it.

Dr. Eckert, man who introduced me to the Companies after they picked up my Asthma thesis through MIT, he says to me—soundin’ smart as hell with that East London accent and all—he says to me, “Mr. Jones, what God has given you is not merely a talent. He has given you permission to be His regent on Earth. You and your colleagues serve as His surrogates, His agents and angels in an age too fiercely modern for the feather-winged variety. In this flawed creation, this flawed system here on Earth, you will help keep the balances of power aligned in the most stable of all possible configurations. You will keep the resources flowing ever clockwise, the people safely bound and coiled like springs, and while the hour and minute hands tie it all together in their unquestionable dark immensity, the world will simply tick, and simply keep ticking, forever.”

I liked that. Liked the sound of it. I whipped up Type 3 Diabetes a few days later. Slapped the canister down on Eckert’s desk all wrapped in Santa Claus paper, with a card that just said, “Tick”.

Got a damn good Christmas bonus that year.

Course now that I’m up here in my late seventies, with the white hair and the bad hip, the money don’t mean much no more. Hell, I ain’t even top man in my department and I make more scratch than the President ‘a the United States. Don’t matter for shit. Got nothin’ left to do with it all. Even when I was in my prime, once I made my first billion I quit carin’. Shit, what’s any one fella really gonna do with a billion dollars? So for the last thirty years or so, I been mainly doin’ it on principle. It’s what I’m good at. What else I gonna do?

But in case I paintin’ the wrong picture here, I ain’t want you thinkin’ the work is boring. Hell no, we got a lively office in this department. Got a few jokers, no doubt ‘bout that. Eckert, now he a pretty cold son of a bitch, but even Eckert give us a surprise or two. I ‘member the time, damn he gave us a trip—he come in one day sayin’ that Friday gonna be Hawaiian shirt day. We all lookin’ at each other like, say what now? We just shook our heads and kept workin’. But then sure ‘nuff, Friday come ‘round and in walks Eckert. Where that ol’ bastard come up with a Hawaiian print biosuit nobody ever gonna know. Bet it cost him a thousand dollars. I s’pose that’s a real particular sense ‘a humor.

Everybody here got a competitive streak a mile wide, too, so we do get to goin’ sometimes, let me tell you that. One week me and Hodgeman had ourselves a race. Five oclock Friday rolls around, I got thirty new mutations ‘a the common cold, Hodgeman got fifteen. Won myself a seaside villa in Italy off that one. So, sure, we be playin’ like that, but really we just testin’ ourselves, tryin’ to get better. We got the framed portraits of three Company legends starin’ down at us from the breakroom wall. Between the three ‘a them, they come up with AIDS, cancer, and sixty percent of all heart diseases. Sure, sure, all three ‘a them diseases got away from their makers, turned deadly, but hell, who gonna hold that against ‘em? These are the big ones. Trillion dollar industries. Hell, cancer alone pays the salaries of the whole Disease department, and then it spill over into Psychological, Religious, even a little bit into Tech Suppression and War. Shit, even when it take somebody’s mama, ain’t nobody gonna argue against power like that.

 You probably already figured, but I ain’t got many friends outside Company circles. Your average sidewalk slappin’ Joe, he just don’t get it. Can’t get it, even if I told ‘im thirty times. Even the big fish a the world, the CEOs and presidents, the foreign kings and dictators, the OPEC warlords, they just don’t follow me. And besides, I get tired ‘a explainin’ myself. There really only one person from the “normal world” I ever just kick back with, and I s’pose “normal” ain’t the most right description a the world this fella live in. He an arms dealer, and you know I ain’t mean Lockheed Martin, I mean the other kind. He doin’ his work so far under the table, he don’t even know there is a table. Doin’ it right there on the border between world circles and Company circles, between “their” reality and “ours”. I figure that’s why I ain’t feel too bad talkin’ to this guy, tellin’ him a few things he ain’t never gonna hear nowhere else. Might get m’self in some shit for it, sure. Couple ‘a powders slipped into my brandy, forced retirement, ha ha, sure, sure. Hell with it, though. I be too old to care much any which way.

Yup, told Kozlov a few things. We in some fancy club in Reykjavik, hell if I remember why, and we’d had a few cognacs, and I s’pose I just got sick ‘a that smug look on his pasty Slav face. Boy probably all ‘a thirty-five, sold some guns, made some money, fucked some women, thought he knew this world like the backside ‘a his dick. Don’t even rightly recall how I met him, but I’d been comin’ to him a few years for ingredients. The kind you ain’t gonna buy at the grocery store, y’understand, the kind that ‘might’ have come from human beings. A heart, a liver, a few fetuses, it all just look like meat when it’s piled in an icebox.

See here now, it all be connected. Folks who sell tanks and jets got no shortage ‘a dead bodies at they feet. Might as well turn a profit off ‘em, he figured, and I ain’t one to argue. He sell ‘em to me, and next month maybe his wife get a golf ball brain tumor. Just layers and cogs in the onion clock. round ‘n round ‘n round.

Course, Kozlov ain’t know what I was doin’ with the stuff he sellin’ me. Thought I was I was a pretty nice old fella, thought I must be into somethin’ innocent like organ traffickin’. So while he sipped his Louis XIII and watched the bored teenage strippers shakin’ they skinny titties in the blue club light, I smiled my little smile at him and just started talkin’.

Told him things Eckert told me and things I figured for myself, and damned if I didn’t even start talkin’ a little like Eckert after a while, even though I mixin’ metaphors like the DJ mixin’ records. Sipped my cognac and told Kozlov damn near everything, and I mean capital Everything, the Everything that sidewalk-slappin’ Joe be too far away from to fathom. Figured maybe Kozlov, workin’ so close to the borders, could catch a glimpse.

Told him I was a Diseasemaker. Told him I invented modern Asthma, Herpes, Chron’s ( Jones’ ) Disease, and two thousand varieties of the common cold. Told him me and my department colleagues were part of the guard rails that keep the slippery World-Train on its tracks. Told him I get paid more than every member of Congress combined, and my managers’ salaries surpass the GNPs of some mid-sized countries. Saw the confusion in his booze-blurred eyes and explained to him where the money goes and comes from. Told him about the layers. How the world governments he knew about were all just low-level branch offices, just a tender inner layer of an ever-expanding onion. How even nations involved in the most bitter of wars were part of the same layer, just competing departments in a larger Company, which may be in rivalry with another Company like it, but which were both just branches of another even larger Company in the next layer of the onion, encompassing and enclosing all the layers beneath it. Told him how I sometimes theorize about how far out it goes, where all these currencies and resources and energies are going to and coming from, and how me and some of my colleagues have started to assume that at some point, these layers must reach to other planets entirely, planets unknown and unrevealed, at least to us, incorporating their resources and their economies, because surely this pitiful blue Earth is too small to contain this vast, bitter onion and all the raging drooling grasping of the human spirit.

That’s the type ‘a shit I said to that slick son of a bitch, sittin’ there in that noisy club in Reykjavik. See now, told y’all I been overthinkin’ lately. Kozlov just looked at me for a good while, then he go and drain the last hundred-dollar drop ‘a his Louis XIII, and as smooth as that shit s’posed to be, looked like it went down hard.

I just smiled my little smile again. Now it lookin’ like maybe he was close enough to that border afterall, seein’ as he ain’t laughin and callin me a crazy old nigga yet. S’pose I’ll put in a word for him with Eckert. Guessin’ somebody in War got a place for Kozlov now, or if not now, real soon.

I be visitin’ that Italian villa I won from Hodgeman this weekend. Damn nice place. Spent most of today just layin’ out in that hot sand and starin’ up at the sky like a crusty ol’ fart tryin’ to be young again. One ‘a the perks ‘a this job, we get immunity DNA for every disease our department come up with. That means I ain’t never gettin’ cancer, heart disease, diabetes, lymphoma, hell, the whole list’d be a peanut butter mouthful. None ‘a my kids’d get nothin’ either if I had any, though ‘course I don’t and won’t. Truth is, seein’ as how most ‘a the old-time diseases been replaced with ours, it’s a pretty clean world for me, and I might just live to be a hundred and fifty. Still got to wonder, though, when the hour hand finally strikes twelve and I get cuckood out the clock, am I just goin’ to another one ‘a the layers? Is Heaven and Hell just two more Companies, with they own policies and economies? Is God just the branch manager? Anyone really windin’ that onion clock, or we all just doin’ it ourselves? Sidewalk slappin’ Joe, windin’ the crank a lil’ more with every scared, distracted step?

Hell, I’ll say it again, I’m getting’ too old for this job. Need myself a real vacation, someplace remote and lifeless, where I ain’t got to see all them microbes floatin’ around my head all day, remindin’ me ‘a work. Think I’ll make another bet with Hodgeman and bust out another few dozen flu viruses. He got a nice cabin in the Arctic I’d like to snatch from ‘im.