Short Fiction: The Insurance Game

People rarely think of funeral insurance salespeople battling each other one-on-one with a fifteen-kilogram tuna strapped to each wrist. That’s no accident. The funeral insurance industry keeps the “fish fighting” well and truly behind closed doors; after all, it has a serious image to uphold. If you ask me though, there are few things in life more serious than a tuna being swung directly at your head. That will sober you up real fast, believe me.

Once you’ve had a couple of fights though, got the rhythm of it, you have to be unlucky to take a fish to the head. Either that or you are too slow. If you can’t duck a tuna coming long-way-round, then maybe you are just not cut out for the funeral insurance game, you know? You learn fast. First time I got hit, it was the end of financial year retreat in Cairns. The third night, we were all bussed to an abandoned warehouse way outside town. Busloads of people from other funeral insurance companies started arriving. I had only been in the business two months, and I had no idea what was going on. Next thing I know, I’m standing shirtless in the middle of a circle formed by a mob of frenzied funeral insurance workers, a hefty tuna fish hanging at the end of each arm, and I’m facing a salesman from a competing company, similarly armed. At first, I thought maybe it was a game or a prank. My opponent was not confused. It was not his first time. One swing and I was down—on my knees with my backside swaying in the air, face mashed against the concrete floor (it’s hard to break your fall with thirty kilos of catch of the day weighing your arms down). My head felt like it was going to explode; I thought my ear had been ripped off. Yes sir, you learn quickly after that first tuna to the side of the head. Brody from the Lismore branch says it’s like being clubbed with a soggy brick. I agree.

But, like I said, getting hit in the head is rare. The first thirty seconds of the fight is all wild swings, lots of haymakers, lots of ducking out of the way. If you are going to get hit in the head, it will be in the first thirty seconds. Then, for maybe a minute, it slows right down (fatigue sets in pretty fast). Every few seconds, one person will muster their strength and heave a big swing for the head, while the other fighter steps back out of reach. Then he takes his turn. During this stage, a fighter is more likely to spin around and fall over from swinging their own fish than get hit by their opponent’s. After that, the fight settles into the grueling part, the real battle. This is where funeral insurance salespeople are made. Sometimes it can last for fifteen minutes or more. The fighters stand about two feet apart and turn their torsos back and forth, side to side, swinging the tuna low for the legs (by this point, the fighters’ arms are too tired to lift the fish higher). It is a constant churning, both fighters swinging their fish around, both fighters taking hit after hit to the legs. After a few minutes, all you feel is the burning in your thighs as your muscles strain to keep you standing. That’s where it gets dangerous. Your legs might be swelling up with bruises, but you can’t feel it; you might have torn a ligament, but you don’t know it. All you can focus on is swinging those slimy anchors at the end of your arms. All you can picture is your opponent collapsing in defeat.

That’s why I think the internet saved the funeral insurance industry. Door-to-door selling was unsustainable. Not that those guys can’t sell. Believe me, I watched a guy sell the Windsor Deluxe Funeral Plan package ($56 a month!) to a nineteen-year-old kid at university on a basketball scholarship. No, it was simply a matter of boots on the ground—with fish fighting causing so many knee injuries, guys just couldn’t walk anymore. My right knee still flares up sometimes, but at least I can get around okay, I can still kick a football. I was lucky. I got out early. My friend Chris was in sales for eight years, and now he hobbles around with a walking stick. The advent of online business allowed the funeral insurance industry to shift to phone and internet sales, without having to disclose its barbaric, fishy secret.

It will not last, though. That’s my opinion. They only covered a symptom; the disease remains untreated, in the heart of the industry. Consider this: the funeral industry—not funeral insurance, but funerals themselves—has no lust for fish fighting or any such thing. You will rarely see a hearse driver taking pain medication for a torn medial collateral ligament, and if you do, you can be sure he did not receive his injury via tuna. That is because the funeral industry has something the funeral insurance industry does not: death. Actual death. Not the mere consideration of it as a future event, but the unavoidably real, face-to-face, weeping and wailing and will-disputing reality of dead human beings. The funeral insurance industry lacks the perspective of seeing clients in coffins. The salesman’s work is to sell plans, not handle claims. We speak of death, weaving heart-wrenching hypotheticals of grieving relatives breaking under sudden financial burdens… then we take the signed contract and leave. Immersed in death’s inevitability yet never witnessing its arrival, we become immune. It is ever mentioned but never encountered. Death is a perpetual not yet.

And so you get the tuna.

I sell car insurance now. Mostly for antique cars, muscle cars—you know, auto enthusiasts wanting to protect their pride and joy. It’s pretty easy. The last Friday of the month all the staff go for a drink. No fish fighting. No more bruised legs. It is a better way.

© 2022 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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