The way it works is that I get a phone call and Lyle tells me, “We’ve got one at _____.” Today the call comes at four a.m. and I pick it up on the second ring because it’s not like I was sleeping anyway. The television, on mute, is my night light because I’m 28 years old and terrified of the dark. Lyle says, “We’ve got one at 1325 West Maple,” and I say, “Okay.” Then I roll off the futon, go to the kitchen, and drink day old coffee straight from the pot. I like my coffee like I like my women – cold. I don’t know if that joke is any good, because I’ve never told it to anyone.
I get dressed and find my keys and then walk out into the frigid air and hope my car is still where I left it. I got home at midnight from the last job and it’s already on to the next one because there just aren’t enough people willing to do this job for only $12/hour. Not when you’re on call practically 24/7 and the only benefits are mileage reimbursement and the kind of nightmares that will make you forget about everything else you’ve ever been scared of.
I live just 15 minutes from the funeral parlor, which is where I pick up the van, but not where I bring the bodies. I’ve never met the owner in person but I know his name is Ronald because the funeral home is called Ronald’s Funeral Home. The vans we use have that name on the side. Body transporting is a service that most funeral homes offer but few advertise.
I go around back and pick up the keys from Lyle, who always greets me, “Mornin’ Phil,” regardless of the time of day. Lyle is an overweight Filipino man with a faint mustache and a gold tooth who writes romance stories at his little desk in the back. Lyle is the guy who interviewed me for this job in the parking lot of the funeral home. The interview consisted of two questions:
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Do you get grossed out easily?”
Lyle was the one who took me on my first two training runs. He showed me how to fill out my time card and clock my mileage, how to get the body into the body bag and load it in the van, and how to hoist it into the storage unit at the morgue. He spent the whole time talking about the main character in his romance novel and asked me if I read Harlequin romance novels. I told him I did in the hope that he would stop talking about it. He asked me what my favorite Harlequin romance novel was, and I told him I couldn’t decide.
After the second training run, Lyle shook my hand and said, “Congratulations Phil, you’re ready to fly solo.”
Lyle is a bastard.
* * *
Our vans are deathtraps. The engine in this one stalls out sometimes if you idle too long, and the transmission sounds like an old, worn-out mattress heard through a motel room wall. I can tell the vans apart by the stains on the seats.
Whoever was driving this one last left McDonald’s wrappers all over the passenger seat. The whole cabin smells like French fries. I’m not on the road long before I add my own mess to the pile. I chug cold McDonald’s coffee and think that maybe this can be a new tradition for all of us movers – each guy adding to the pile until not even the floor is visible. Maybe if the pile gets big enough, the smell of grease and fat will cover the stench of death. Or maybe I’ll just start to associate that smell with death and never want to eat McDonald’s again. Either way, it’s a win.
I don’t actually know any of the other movers. I don’t think I want to know any of them. What’s that joke about not wanting to be a part of any club that would accept me as a member?
* * *
The address Lyle gave me is two towns over. I drive the speed limit and keep my eye out for cops, because the only thing distinguishing this van from a serial killer’s is a flimsy piece of paper. If the cops were to look in the back they would find discarded rubber gloves and blood-stained towels, and I would probably have to dig the documentation out of the glove compartment and wait for them to make some phone calls.
West Maple Street is in a bad part of town, but it’s far from the worst place I’ve been. The road is spiderwebbed with cracks and there is graffiti on the walls and many of the streetlights are out, but no one is shooting at anyone and there are no dead-eyed children lingering on the corners. There are chalk drawings of flowers and butterflies on the uneven sidewalk. The houses are almost perfectly square and have small, unkempt yards enclosed by rusted chain-link fences.
The house in question is in even worse shape than its neighbors. Grass bursts through the driveway in places, and the paint is peeling. In front of the house are parked a cop car and two unmarked black sedans. I park behind the sedans and approach the house just as two uniformed police officers, a detective carrying a coffee cup, and a coroner wearing rubber gloves emerge from it. The uniformed officers don’t even acknowledge me as they pass. The detective peers over her coffee cup at me as she passes. The coroner stops in front of me.
“Should be an easy one for you,” he says as he strips off the gloves. “One Jane Doe, still fresh. Drug overdose. Couldn’t be more than 120 soaking wet.”
I thank him and approach the front door. I pause on the stoop and psych myself up, as I always do. I recite my mantra, in my head:
It’s not a person. It’s an Object. It’s no different from moving furniture.
Inside, the place is almost completely devoid of furniture. The living room is littered with empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. A boxy TV sits on the floor. There’s no couch, but there are couch cushions. The kitchen floor is missing tiles, and the countertops have scorch marks on them. The whole house reeks of cigarettes. It reminds me of my first apartment.
Past the living room and kitchen, I follow a hallway to a bedroom in the back, where the door is wide open. I don’t smell anything. The Object is still fresh, just as the coroner said.
I enter the bedroom. Before me, scattered across the sage-colored carpet: soiled clothes, used condoms, discarded needles and little plastic vials. To my right, a bare mattress and a stained, flimsy sheet. And on top of the mattress….
Recoiling, my mantra forgotten, I back into the door with such force that the hinges vibrate. My breath rushes from my mouth and does not return. My chest is a poor excuse for a cage for the panicked animal that pounds against its bars. I cannot contain the thing that now wants out.
Her eyes are open.
* * *
I retreat from the room, yanking my cell phone from my pocket and hitting the speed dial for Lyle. I focus on regaining my breath as I wait for him to answer.
“This is Lyle,” he announces.
“I can’t do this,” I tell him. “Not this one. You’ll have to send someone else.”
“There is no one else,” he tells me. “Everyone else is on a call now.”
“You’re on your own, Phil.”
“I can’t do this,” I repeat. “I just can’t.”
“How bad can it be?” he asks.
“Worse than that one in the sewer?”
“Worse than that.”
“Please don’t make me fire you, Phil. Neither of us wants that.”
Then he hangs up the phone.
* * *
Kara looks better as a corpse than I do as a living person. Her skin pale, her makeup flawless, she’s a movie producer’s idea of a drug addict. Naked, frail, ageless. Upright on the mattress, leaning against the wall beneath the windowsill, head slumped in the corner. Her nipples small and pointy, her pubic hair like scrubland. There are bite marks on her neck, shoulders, and breasts. I wonder what the detective and the coroner made of that.
And her eyes. The color of a strong energy drink. Dilated, fixated on something I can’t see. Following me as I pace back and forth between the doorway and the opposite wall, a short and fruitless journey. I’ve stared into the eyes of the dead many times while doing this job. But I’ve never felt them staring back. The hairs on my neck rise as an impossible thought crosses my mind.
Could it be there’s still a fragment of her in there? I think of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride: ‘There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.’ But that’s just fantasy. In reality, that light in her eyes means nothing. When a light bulb burns out, the filament inside retains its glow for a brief moment afterward, just as electrical impulses continue to fire in the period after the soul has left the body. Dangerous thinking, I know – Objects don’t have souls.
The coroner referred to her as a Jane Doe. They must have searched the house for her wallet, her ID, her cell phone, and found none of those things. This was not her house. Whoever it is who lives here, whoever it is she came here to see, he or she or they left her here, discarded anything that might have identified her, washed their hands of the mess they’d made. Squatters, most likely, people with no ties to this place, people who know how to disappear before their mistakes can follow them. Mistakes are like orphans – born into the world and then abandoned, a burden to those left to care for them.
The coroner referred to her as a Jane Doe, but she is not a Jane Doe. Her name is Kara Oswold. I know this, just as I know that her birthday is June 17 and her favorite movie is Fight Club and that she likes to be bitten, hard, right when she’s about to come. I know these things, but I don’t know what led her to this place, or whether or not she was alone when she died, or whether she thought of me at all in her final moments.
But I know her name, and that’s more than the police know. I need to turn around and run out of the house and try to catch them, or take out my phone and call 911 and tell them what I know. I am in a unique position to bring justice to those who left her to die. I have an obligation.
But her eyes have left me powerless, immobile, as shaken as I was on my first day at this job two months ago. I don’t recall crumbling to the floor against the door, but it happened and here I am. Her eyes are open. Her mouth is open. Her legs are open. But I am the one who feels exposed.
“Take a picture,” she says. “It’ll last longer.”
After a long time in this position, I finally will myself to get up. I move slowly to her side and kneel down beside the mattress. I bring my hand above her face and remain poised there, hovering, until I take a deep breath and bring my hand down and close her eyes.
The touch, the feeling of my skin on hers, sends a surge of electricity through me and then there is a jumble of images, like an acid flashback.
* * *
You and me, playing slapjack in the back of a city bus. Lifting some fruit from a produce stand and pelting it at the brick wall of a local bank. A hot steam rising up from a snowbank, me writing your name in the snow near an empty playground in the park. You, kicking the snow, crossing your name out.
You, kissing me in an alley behind O’Flynn’s. You and me, boosting a car and making love in the backseat. Abandoning the car in a McDonald’s drive-thru. Watching the chaos unfold from the top floor of the bookstore. Re-shelving all the Bibles in the “True Crime” section. Moving the self-help books into the men’s bathroom stack by stack, until the employees finally chase us out.
Me, snorting cocaine out of your navel. You, snorting it off the bridge of my nose. Me, telling you that I love you as I rub your feet. You, laughing and telling me to say it again when I’m not high. Me, reaching for the bag of cocaine, finding it empty. Sticking my face in the bag, trying to inhale the residue. You, electric eyes twinkling as you tell me how we can get more.
Them, their eyes bulging, their cheeks ruddy, their bodies scattered throughout the living room of the stash house. The fireplace still crackling, the chimney blocked from above by wet rags. You, prying the lock open on the back door. Me, holding you back and creeping into the house alone. Covering my face with my shirt, trying not to breathe in the deadly invisible gas. Tiptoeing around the bodies, reaching for the heap of cocaine on the coffee table.
Him, reaching out and grabbing my leg, his grip weaker than a newborn’s. His eyes clouded over, not even seeing me. His lips moving, forming words I can’t hear. Me, shaking him off, sweeping the cocaine into a gallon-sized plastic bag.
Sudden floodlights blinding me through the living room windows. The police, kicking in the front door and dashing into the room, catching me white handed. Their guns trained on me, their voices shouting.
You, standing at the back door, your hand on the glass, panic in your eyes. Me, commanding you with my eyes to run. You, never looking back.
* * *
How have I filled the empty days, the ones spent behind bars and the two years since my release? Reading. Getting clean. Earning my GED. Lecturing troubled teens in the Scared Straight program about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and the critical importance of having working carbon monoxide detectors in their homes.
Learning how to make pruno. Spending the night doubled over on the floor, my stomach a Gordian knot of pain, retching into a stainless steel toilet. Vowing to never drink pruno again. Learning to accept the warmth of another man after a long night spent trading cups of pruno.
Finding an apartment in the city with a landlord who doesn’t ask too many questions. Passing the lonely nights watching stand-up comedy specials on TV. Deciding that I could do that too. Writing bits like this one:
“Hey, who here has got a weird job? Yeah? I guarantee you it’s not as weird as mine. I get paid to move things that have stopped moving. I’m a mover of the immobile. I’m talking about dead bodies, folks. You know, technology has made a lot of jobs easier, but it hasn’t done me any favors. I think people in the olden days had it better. ‘Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!’ I know it’s only a movie, but it makes a lot of sense. After all, we don’t make garbage collectors come into your home and personally bag all your trash for you before they take it out, right?”
Mostly, though, I’ve spent the time thinking about her. Wondering if she would be waiting for me when I got out. Wondering why she wasn’t when I did. Nobody who still remembered her even knew where she was. But everybody told me that I could use this internet thing to find her, that in this day and age nobody could truly stay hidden. All those people were wrong. She never had any trouble outsmarting cops, so what possible challenge could the internet pose?
I never stopped looking for her, even after I gave up hope of ever finding her. I looked for her in the windows of every passing bus and in every back alley. I revisited all the old places where we had left our mark, but none of the marks were still there.
* * *
I swaddle her body in the sheet from the bed and carry her out to the van. As my hand brushes hers, I swear her fingers twitch in response. But it doesn’t matter. Corpses are full of surprises like that. Pent up carbon dioxide escaping the lungs can sound like a low, guttural moan. Try and avoid them as we might, the newly dead have ways of getting our attention.
I place her gently in the back and then shake my head with disgust at the mess. There are no trash bags left, so I fill a body bag with all the garbage from the back of the van plus all of the McDonald’s wrappers and cups and fry containers from the front seat for good measure. I leave the body bag on the curb for the garbagemen to deal with and get back in the van. When I try to start it, it doesn’t start. I try again and then rest my head against the steering wheel.
“The answer is yes, by the way.”
Her voice fills the van, or maybe just my head. I shut my eyes and take a deep breath.
“You were wondering if I thought of you, in my final moments. The answer is yes.”
“And what did you think?” I ask out loud. “When you thought of me?”
“I thought that I knew you would find me here. And I was right.”
“How could you have possibly known that?”
“The same way I know everything else.”
I try once more to start the van. The engine stutters. Still no luck.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“So that you can stop asking. You’re free now. You don’t have to live like this.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” I whisper.
“Keep moving. Never stop moving.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You’re free now. Haven’t you waited long enough?”
I bite my lip until it bleeds. Then I turn the key in the ignition one more time. Finally, the engine starts. I leave the neighborhood behind me and beg for God or Zeus or whoever the hell is up there to call down a lightning bolt or a meteor and reduce the house where she died to cinders.
I drive to the morgue, and then I drive past it. I keep driving, on and on, until I reach a spot that only the two of us used to know about. I park the van right on the beach and get out. Out beyond the choppy sea, color is just beginning to ooze in above the fold of the horizon. I go to the back of the van and I take her out.
I carry her body across the sand.
Her eyes are open.