“I got it,” I assured Jeff, who was watching me with the sort of nervous caution normally reserved for a three-year-old reaching for the top cupboard. I popped the crypt door open, grabbed the pan by the handle and firmly pulled Mr. Michaels out into the harsh fluorescent light of our shabby little morgue, completely without incident. ‘See?’ I wanted to say. His expression was relaxing back into neutrality, which I took as a victory.
“Can you open him up?”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Open him up.” Jeff gestured to the zipper running along Mr. Michaels’ body bag, obscuring the features of an actual human corpse under a layer of crisp white canvas. “He’s indigent, right? I need to check him against the toe tag.”
“Oh,” I managed, dumbly. Two months. It had been two months since I’d taken the job in the morgue, and I had not yet seen a single unshrouded body. I had somehow come to the conclusion that I might never, and being suddenly confronted with how breathtakingly mistaken I was, I felt myself freezing, Bambi-like.
Jeff’s eyebrows were tilting skyward, and I forced the astonishment roughly from my face, replacing it with a too-tight smile. “Sure!” I sang as if I did this every day. With trembling hands, I seized the zipper resting at the crown of Mr. Michaels’ head and pulled.
The smell hit me first. It was both sweet and darkly acrid, utterly unlike anything I had context for. Nausea rippled through me. Through watering eyes, I glanced at Mr. Michaels’ face and felt a gasp die in my throat. He was bloating and discolored. His jaw hung slack. His skin looked as if it were sliding away from the muscles beneath. Unlike most of the patients passing through the hospital morgue, Mr. Michaels was not recently deceased. He had died nearly two weeks ago. Normally, within a day or two of passing, the funeral home was called, arrangements made, family well on their way through the grieving process, but Mr. Michaels had stumbled into the ER off the street, half frozen and alone. He had no arrangements, and no family to make them. All he had was me.
I glanced desperately up to Jeff, looking to him for some kind of wisdom or reassurance, whatever it was a seasoned funeral professional was supposed to give a green young woman in this moment.
“No paperwork, hn?” Was what Jeff had to say. He had pulled the bag away from Mr. Michaels’ shriveled form and was calmly filling out paperwork, as if unaffected by the brutal reality of this man’s end.
“What’ll you do for him?” I found myself asking in a thin, high voice, eyes locked on the corpse before me. “I mean, what kind of services will he get?”
Jeff laughed. “No services. There’s no one to pay for them. We’ll probably cremate him and dispose of the remains if the money’s in the write-offs. If not, we have a potter’s field out west.”
My stomach filled with ice. I was suddenly seized with the mad desire to turn Jeff away, send him back to his funeral home empty-handed and to find better accommodations for Mr. Michaels, this man for whom I was responsible. I was all he had. He was a person. He had been a person.
But he was a person no longer.
Instead, I helped Jeff pack Mr. Michaels back up, strap him to a gurney and haul him out to the nondescript white van parked in front of the loading dock. He wasn’t even worth the dignity and drama of a hearse. I heaved the back van door shut, officially complicit in the disposal of a human being no one would miss.
“See you later,” Jeff told me brightly as he circled around to the driver seat.
“See you,” I agreed. As he pulled out, I slumped heavily onto the curb, watching the back of the van disappear into the city.