If there was one way to describe a dead body, it would be with that one simple word. And not in the traditional sense. Sure, the body is a lower temperature, but it’s something else entirely that makes it cold. The emptiness of the eyes. The stiffness of the skin. The roughness of the hair. Cold. Dark. Empty.
“I know this girl”
That was the only thought going through my head as I did the initial examination. She looked familiar, but I can’t quite put a finger on where I know her from. Probably just my imagination. After years of working in my line of work, you begin to think of everyone on the table as just an object, another assignment. Makes it easier to take a knife to them, to open them, to empty them of everything that once gave them life. I guess that’s why it strikes me as so odd that I recognize her. Why can’t I think of where I know her from?
Three hours ago I slid her body into the drawer. Out of site, out of mind. Except not out of mind. Her face, the way it was still beautiful, even in the blue-gray hue of death, resonates in my mind even now. I suppose it’s time to self-medicate her out of my head. Joe’s on 5th and Oak should have the prescription for what ails me. Vodka Gimlet. Just take two of these, and everything will be just fine.
Joe’s is unusually empty for a weekend. I’m not complaining. A barstool with no one on either side. I can live with that. I don’t much like people when they’re still breathing. When the blood is still moving through their veins. I much prefer the company of those cold, dark, desolate husks of former lives. They don’t judge. They don’t lie. They don’t hurt inside.
However, this girl a few stools away… I guess I don’t mind all living people. Beautiful. That traditional, bland, boring beautiful. Blonde. That’s the only word I need to say and you already know the type I’m talking about. She’s there every night, drinking the same bland, boring drinks.
Cause of Death: Liver Failure from a life of Alcoholism.
Two hours. I’ll waste two hours talking to her about nothing in particular. And from there, I’ll go home alone as usual. It’s actually not hard to get their attention. You say you’re a “medical professional” and they’re like putty in your hands. I have to say “medical professional” because “mortician” doesn’t get you ladies like you’d think. Somehow, people think the dead leave their mark on you. I suppose sometimes they do.
Who the hell was she?
And another bus home. Sitting in the back, watching people asleep with their heads against the cold window. Listening to them cough. That fluid working up from their insides, into the throat, into the soft passage between the throat and the mouth. Only to be sucked back down, as if they were swallowing their pride.
Cause of Death: Lung disease. Smoking kills.
Home is where the heart is. That’s not really true. I’ve used a rib-splitter to find where the heart is. It’s in your chest. I’ve seen what a broken heart looks like. I’ve held one in my hands. Not many people can say that.
Every late-night television show, another remedy for having to think for yourself. Just close your eyes and let the drones sing their lullabies. When did I become so cynical? I suppose seeing the aftermath of the worst humans can do to themselves and to each other takes it’s toll. Look down at the body of a child beaten to death by it’s own parents, and you start to lose your faith in everything. It’s hard to really enjoy life anymore when all you know is the end. You just sit back and wait for the day you’re on that table, on the receiving end of that dissection.
Cause of Death: Boredom. Denial. Emptiness.
I spend the beginning of my sleep cycle imitating the many bodies on my table. I lie there, stiff on my back, with my arms to my side. Not moving an inch. Just staring at the ceiling. Reaching deep into myself to feel what it’s like to be that cold. It’s just not the same. There is still the warmth pulsating through me. It lulls me to sleep.
Her face permeates my rest. Dancing in my dreams, like snowflakes drifting on a winter’s wind. Things are different now. Her face now has life again. It now has motion. Smiling, crying, screaming. Screaming. Screaming so loud. Screaming in fear. Screaming in agony. Screaming in complete nothingness. Why do I know her? Maybe I don’t know her. Maybe she knows me.
It’s my day off. I can spend it doing whatever I want. I sleep through most of it. Not a restful sleep, but an apathetic sleep. Sleeping to escape. I’m woken up by the noise from across the street. The Crispin Johnson Funeral Home.
Staring at the assorted group of people out my window, dressed in black. Hugging. Crying and laughing at the same time. All of it so dismal and gray. Empty. Cold. Just like the body they just put in the ground. I bought this small house on Branch Street just so I could be across from that funeral home. Death at work, death at home. If you’re going to be comfortable with something, you might as well surround yourself with it whenever you can.
I can’t help but imagine those people are mourning the loss of that girl. The one I lost sight of just after the click of the drawer closing. Locking away her body, but not her memory. The memory of her I can’t remember.
People laugh more than they cry at funerals. I watch them, running through the stories of their recently-passed loved one. He was so funny. He did the craziest things. He had the most amusing life. Everyone’s life is more interesting once it’s gone. I can’t even watch it anymore.
I stare down, into the oil spill on my driveway. Why is there oil here? I don’t have a car, I ride the bus. Did someone park in my driveway? I bet it was one of the mourning damned. They ran out of street parking and figured that no one would mind them parking there. I mean, who would yell at the widow of a war veteran? Who would get upset with someone who just lost their father? Who would walk out to a mother who just lost her only child and tell them to get off their damn driveway?
A lot of people. A lot of empty, cold people. Already dead before they die. But that’s not me. I don’t care. Why should I? I don’t own this piece of land anymore than I own the skin that holds my life in. No one owns their life. I don’t. She didn’t.
Who the hell was she? Did I know her from school? Maybe she was someone I’d seen in the hallways in high school. A time before death was my life. Before all I knew was full and warm. Before that was replaced with empty and cold.
This leads me to my attic. Flipping through the pages of yearbooks. Faces of people I couldn’t care less about. I’d seen one of them on my table before. Tony Marksdale, captain of the football team. A total prick.
Cause of Death: Fractured neck from a car accident.
Real Cause of Death: Arrogance. Pretentious macho bravado. Ran a stop sign in his restored Camero, cherry red. He tried to turn in front of a bus. 4th and Goal, and he goes and throws an interception. And now he’s on the bench for good.
Nothing. Nowhere in those pages, that sea of faces time forgot, is the girl. The girl. The one that haunts me. Haunts. What a terrible choice of words. There are no ghosts, if there were, I’d have seen them. Death is infinite, death is finite.
Cold and gray. Even the sky is pretending to be a corpse today. If it’s going to be this gray, it might as well rain. Instead, the sky teases, right on the edge of tears. A widow standing over the grave of an elderly man, pushing the water into the reservoirs under her eyes. Letting the levis hold up, for the children’s sake. Always for the children. They don’t know why daddy isn’t moving. He’s taking a nap in that box, and they just don’t know why. Oh, to be those children again.
I was one of them once. I didn’t know what death was. Now I know more about it than anyone. Except maybe the dead. And the girl. She knows more about death now than anyone else. And I bet she’d give up that knowledge for anything right about now. That is, if she was still alive. I know I’d give up that knowledge, I’d go back to that child-like innocence. But I can’t. And neither can she. Whoever she was, she is all-knowing now. And that knowledge is inaccessible because her brain was removed, weighed like produce in the hanging scale next to the table, and placed in a jar. My hands held that knowledge, and just tossed it aside.
I wish I knew who she was. Why do I even care?
The tears, they fall now. A slight drizzle pelting me in the face as I walk the park. A jogger runs past. A pair of windbreaker pants with a matching jacket. Doing everything in his power to avoid the unavoidable. Practice healthy behavior, and die anyway. God’s cruel joke. Not God. Someone’s cruel joke.
Cause Of Death: Cardiac arrest while running.
Maybe not, but it’s always a possibility. I’ve opened up a few joggers in my time. Every kind of health nut has ended up on that cold steel bed.
A Vegan, who made all the right dietary choices. Shot in a botched gas station robbery. A bullet piercing through that perfectly sculpted stomach. Bled out right there on the floor next to the bottled water that was such a better choice than that soda. Age? 27 I believe.
And that girl. She was quite healthy too. She didn’t die from health complications. It must have been an accident.
Cause of Death: I can’t seem to remember.
Darkness. The sky going from dark gray to just dark. Time to go home again. An entire day spent wandering, like a lost soul searching for the great beyond. A soul. Something I’ve searched for behind the pancreas. It’s not there. It’s just a pretty way to describe the warmth that slips away when the life passes from your body.
Another day, another dollar. Work again. I don’t want to go in, I want to stay here in the shower. But I have to go. The dead wait for no one. The first body is already there to greet me when I get in. I’ll have to get him out of the way before I go to see the girl again. Let’s make this quick.
First incision. They say the first cut is the deepest. They have no idea how true that is. But it’s not the first physical cut, it’s that cutting glare from my eyes. That initial strike from a mental blade. As if I’m taking in everything about the person before opening them.
Cause of Death: Cancerous growth on the prostate.
Cold. The handle of the drawer is cold. Everything is cold down here. They lock the dead up in the basement, they lock me up in the basement. I’m the only warmth here. Am I even warm anymore? Maybe the cold I expose myself to has frozen me to the core? Maybe I’m over-exaggerating.
Click. Slide it open gently. And there she is again. My unfamiliar friend.
Only, this time she’s not so unfamiliar. Something about the way her face looks like it’s wincing…
And just like that. Three nights pass in the opposite direction, and I’m in my car. A car. That’s right, I do own a car! And I’m driving it back from Joe’s. But I’m taking a back road this time. My medicinal alcohol running rampant through my veins, an effort to stay warm despite the blizzard of cold that is my life. I’m racing. Racing like my pulse. Winding through the country roads outside of town like a blood cell. And that’s when I reach the heart.
Swerving. Screeching rubber on asphalt. And it was all over in just a few short seconds. My head hurts. But not from the dashboard. Not from the steering wheel. For that sinking feeling that comes from knowing you just did something awful.
I find myself in the tall grass. Crawling. Clawing. Inching my way towards something I now recognize more than I want to. The girl.
There she lies, gasping for air on the pavement. Her face bruised, puffy and purple, from where it struck the hood. Her arms, legs, twisted and broken from the force. There she lies.
In an instant. She went from being warm, to being cold. She went from being a rainbow of life, to gray. The colors leaking from her just as the blood did.
For the first time in a long time, I reacted to death. Fear. Beyond fear. I felt gray and cold myself as I let one foot after the other lead me away. My pace quickening as I opened into a sprint. My heartbeat matching the ever-growing pace of my feet against the ground as they carried me away from her.
I moved the car. I parked it behind Joe’s. And then I took the bus home. And then I went to work. And there she was again. But I didn’t know her this time. My mind was gray, cold. I let her die in more ways than one.
Staring at myself in the mirror, a flash of life shows in my once-dead eyes. It’s funny how realizing it’s all over makes you appreciate that it began in the first place. I stare at myself in horror, in dismay. A hand running across my face, as if to make sure I wasn’t a ghost myself. I knew now everything I didn’t know I didn’t want to know. I surrounded myself, my entire life, in death. And it came back to haunt me. Me. I’m the one who’s cold and gray. I’m the one who’s dead now.
Cause of Death: Reality.