Jim Meirose


        Appeals for a refuge in which to die. Boxes stand in rows across the vacant lot. Piled on their sides upon one another, their open tops yawn. The pallets underneath hold them off the stinking mud. Rope ties the boxes into the pallets. Tied securely, they make a good place to die. Open a box for me please, I beg of you; let me have this place to die. Shut the box over me, close it up tight, tie it with rope, again secure it. The colors shimmer in my eyes as they do in the eyes of the dying. I lay my head upon the cardboard. Closed up, sealed in, I wait, watching the colors play on the back of my closed lids, my cheek pressed hard against the cool.
        It’s a damned shame, said Lydia. Look at them—just look at them.
        Don’t look them in the eye, said Danny—let’s just walk by quickly. If you look them in the eye—they come up to you.
        How do they live?
        Off of people like us.
        They really live in those boxes—they sleep there at night?
        Where else do they have to go.
        I know.
        Lydia and Danny walk by quickly. The lot fades off behind them in the twilight. They are on time for the symphony; the playing is virtuosic. Afterwards, they take a taxi back to the car lot. In one half hour they are at home in New Jersey,
        Illness. Changes going on inside; the disease, the wasting fever, does its work. Coins will not help you out from under this ailment. Totalling up your money over and over again, as you've done all your life, is over now. Twenties, fifties, hundreds, thousands; all worthless now. Handfuls of money will not buy off this illness. The drawer's full of rags; bandages lie there, medicines are all around, the anesthetizing IV hangs limply. Roll on your side away from the doctors. Bills come in fast; though there's been no relief, you pay anyway, or your heirs.
        God Danny, said Lydia from where she sat at the kitchen table. All these bills.
        She pushed at the paperwork strewn before her.
        Danny came in from the other room.
        It’s expensive to be sick, said Danny.
        You can say that again.
        She resumed writing out the check in the checkbook before her.
        Here, she said—here’s three hundred and fifty dollars that insurance didn’t cover. This is about the average amount for all these bills—lord there are so many different doctors involved—so many doctors, so many tests—and the hospital—oh the hell with it!
        She shoved the checkbook away from her and pushed back her chair and rose suddenly. She went to the kitchen window and looked out onto the street that was only a driveway when she was growing up—she looked over at the house across the street, where there had just been a field of Indian grass when she was a girl. He’d been strong and well back then—little did she know that all these years later she’d be sitting in this kitchen, taking care of the bills that flowed in from all the things involved in his illness. His only illness—and it was to be his last. They knew it. They’d already been told.
        It’s terminal, said the doctor gravely as they walked across the emergency room.
        This is his last visit to the hospital.
        I’m sorry to be telling you this—
        It’s all right doctor—it isn’t your fault.
        She turned back to the table and surveyed the bills.
        What are you thinking? said Danny, getting a Coke out of the refrigerator. You don’t often just stand staring out the window like that.
        The years, she said. I’m thinking about all the years that have gone by. I’m thinking about all the things that have happened in this room since I was born. And now, here we are, at the end.
        The end had to come, said Danny, popping the Coke open.
        I know, she said.
        But why’d it have to come so quickly?
        She wiped at an eye before returning to the bills.
        Death. Money stuffs the pockets of the cooling corpse. Paper is laid over the dead face. Green cloth is drawn up over the body. Worthless now but for the raw chemicals; a still and cold container of filth. Its value can be measured only in dollars paid to the undertaker. Steal the dollars away, just leave the cold flesh. Kill the value. You beat the life out of him, you disease. You robbed the living of one of their own. To be dead is to live; to live again; where was I before I was born? The same place I'll be after I am dead.
        Danny stood at the pay phone punching in the number of the funeral home.
        Hello, he said—is this Johnson’s?
        He stood listening, then spoke again.
        My father in law’s died. Right—right—we’re at General Hospital. He’s in room D-115. Yes, yes—we’ll be here.
        He hung up the phone and walked across back toward room D-115. He entered.
        The body lay there. Lydia stood with her hand on its forehead.
        Cold, she said—he’s already cold.
        The IV pole stood behind the bed with the tubing coiled up and hung on it. A sheet was pulled halfway up the body’s chest. Body. Body. It was just a body. Danny had to think of it that way—it would all be too much to take if he didn’t think of it as just meat—he looked at Lydia and thought what a shock it would be to her if she knew he was thinking this way. He looked at the meat in the clean white bed and at the bag of urine hung under the bed and the catheter, pulled out now, coiled across the tile floor.
        Look at him, said Lydia. His eyes are half open. How can we close his eyes? Can we close his eyes?
        I don’t think so, answered Danny—
        He imagined the feel of his hand over the cold eyes, trying to close them, but the lids would be too stiff to move. He felt his stomach turn as Lydia tried to close the body’s eyes, but without success. She looked white as a sheet as he headed for the door muttering I need to get the nurse to close his eyes. I need to get the nurse to close his eyes—
        I need to get the nurse to close his eyes!
        Decay. The milky rot juice puddles up inside. The body's become a long cold rack of shrinking stinking softening meat. Even iron decays given enough time. Slanted bars of light play through the narrow stained glass of the crypt. The cold is steady and constant. The organs slide into nothingness down over one another. Colorful is the stained glass light; forever, it cycles around in the hard silence, following the sun. Milkfat it looks like puddling up, turning lardlike. Per the laws of death; it disappears, leaves only bone.
        Danny pushed the long key into the lock on the door of the crypt and twisted it. With some effort, he opened the door. Lydia went in first with the vase of flowers. She placed the vase down on the floor below the large square marble nameplate set into the wall.
        His name was there.
        The dates were there.
        Lydia stood hands clasped praying with eyes closed. Danny imagined what must lie behind the nameplate inside the casket. It had been four, five months now. All the bills were paid, the house was up for sale, and here, behind the nameplate—he couldn’t imagine what lay in there, what it must look like. He remembered once reading a book about saints whose bodies did not decay after death. He found it much more comfortable to imagine that the body lay behind the nameplate perfectly preserved. She turned to him.
        Aren’t you going to say a prayer?
        I am, he lied—then he thought he should really pray so that he would not be lying to her. He silently said two Hail Marys to himself and then he felt better—he was no longer lying. Lydia stood waiting for him to be done praying and then they walked from the crypt, and the freshness of the air outside made them realize how close the air had been in the crypt; they both thought this and additionally Danny thought the air was bad for a very good reason—he imagined the smell behind the nameplate, inside the casket. Once outside, he turned and closed the door of the crypt and used the long key to lock the door. Above the door spread the name of the corpse. The corpse that was perfectly preserved. The corpse that he imagined was incorruptible—but he knew better. Quickly he rushed to the car leaving Lydia behind.
        What’s the rush, she said, following Danny.
        I don’t like cemeteries, he said, getting in the car and pushing the car key in the lock and twisting it. It was the same type of motion he’d used to open the crypt—he was going to drive forward into a crypt—his crypt, ahead of them in time—he shook his head to rid it of this image and the drove up and out of the Cedar Grove cemetery.
        The surrender of a corpse, or of a relic, solicited. With the hair, that big one there; that's the corpse I want. No dandruff flakes on that cold head; all those processes stop. Dirty are the bottoms of the feet; from the last walk he took. Bugs and all I'll take it, I will. Spiders webs stretch across the breast. The snakes slither all about outside. Burlington's where it'll come from; it's in Burlington.
        Renson drove the hearse up toward the hospital. I can’t imagine donating my body to science, he thought. The one in the casket in the back had done so; and Renson was delivering the corpse to the hospital, from which it would find its way to the medical school, where it would be lain on a stainless steel table. The medical students would be assigned to the body.
        Today we dissect the face, said the Professor.
        I can’t imagine, thought Renson. Lying on a slab and being cut up by a bunch of spoiled brat rich kids.
        Renson has always wanted to go to medical school. But the money was not there for such instruction; so he got his bachelor’s at the state college and fished around for a career.
        Mortician, had said his father, who sat in his underwear reading a newspaper with gigantic pages. You ought to go to mortician school. There’s always a job for someone trained in that—and you would make a good one.
        Oh yeah, said Renson. What makes you think I’d make a good one.
        His father took a drag from his unfiltered cigarette and answered, the smoke blowing out in time with the words.
        You’re good with your hands.
        So Renson went to mortician school, and there had worked on bodies donated to science. He remembered the coarse jokes made by the students as they huddled around their corpses.
        Well, look at that—
        Hey—watch this—snip!
        I don’t think you were supposed to do that.
        He won’t need it anymore.
        Renson clutched the steering wheel tightly and thought no—no. He could never donate his body to science.
        Look at that—
        Hah! Funny joke—
        He felt like pulling over to the side of the road and reasoning with the man lying in the casket and trying to talk some sense into him.
        Why the hell did you donate your body to science?
        Don’t you know the kinds of things those students do?
        You’re better off getting embalmed with some respect and buried in one piece.
        I was one of those students you know.
        I know what those kids do.
        The big black hearse turned into the driveway in the back of the hospital. The hospital eyed the approaching vehicle and thought dark thoughts.
        Come to me, come to me.
        I want bodies.
        I want your body.
        I’ll take you no matter what shape you’re in, or even if there’s a bit of rot.
        Come to me, come to me—
        Renson pulled up to the back door and got out of the hearse and knocked on the door.
        A tall rawboned security guard came to the door.
        Another body for science, said Renson—here’s the paperwork.
        He handed the guard a sheaf of papers and without looking Renson in the face the guard began signing sheet after sheet and took the paperwork into the hospital, to his desk, and he stamped the top sheet with the date and the time and he ripped off a bottom sheet and handed it to Renson. Renson took it and waited in the hearse as three men in white came out of the door with a gurney draped with white sheets and opened the back of the hearse and pulled out the casket and opened it; and they took out the body in its clean blue suit and put it on the gurney and pulled up the sheets and took the body into the door, and the door closed behind them and Renson saw how they had left the back of the hearse open, the empty casket out, and had left this for Renson to take care of. He got out of the hearse biting his lip.
        Dammit, he thought—they could close the damned casket and push it back in the hearse—they could slam down the damned back door of the hearse but no they just want their goddamned body—once they’ve got their body to hell with me! To hell with me, I’m just a mortician. Oh I wish he had taken my advice and not given himself to science—I wish he had taken my advice and just chose a nice clean burial in one piece without what is going to happen to him lying naked there on the slab.
        Uh—look at that.
        Here—see this?
        No Johnny—
        Oh what difference does it make he’s just a piece of meat now—
        Just meat now, thought Renson.
        He backed out of the slot by the hospital door and started back on the ten mile drive to Burlington, where he’d have to take out the casket and clean it up and store it with the others and he’d have to clean out the back of the hearse and he’d have to put the hearse in the garage and lock the garage and go into the funeral home, go through the wall of floral smell and go up to the boss and tell him it was done.
        You know, said the owner—I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who donate their bodies to science. I don’t know if I could do it—do you?
        I don’t know.
        I really don’t know.
        Look at this. God damn it anyway.
        The girls tittered.
        Begging for it. Checkout my basket; I'm ready to take the body away. My fingers are itching for its touch. Punch me; punch me; I can hardly believe this is happening, that it's not a dream. Count its fingers, count its toes--make sure its intact--I want the best. Papers to sign? Are there any papers to sign--give them to me. I'll sign anything. Will a few coins help? A little pocket change--one hundred, two hundred? Give me the meat. It's just meat. Give it now. Snap out of your daze and please give me this body.
        The men worked hard in the medical school, bringing the bodies into the lecture hall, and lying each body onto its stainless steel table and covering each body with its sheet.
        Boy, said Walter, slapping a bald corpse on the top of the head as he walked past. I hope I never end up like this.
        I know, said Lucas. How many more do we need to bring in?
        Oh. Ten or so.
        There was a great refrigerated room where they kept the bodies and Walter and Lucas walked back toward that room and Lucas thought I could be doing something better than this, I could be doing a job that means something instead of being a damned laborer buggylugging bodies from one room to the other.
        Hey Walter, said Lucas.
        Where do they get all these damned bodies?
        People donate themselves to science.
        What a way to end up, thought Lucas. What a damned shame.
        As they walked he pulled out a cigarette and lit up and Walter immediately protested.
        Gah! Put that thing out.
        Lucas ignored Walter and took a heavy drag.
        Walter said You know you’re taking years off your life smoking those.
        I know.
        So put it out.
        Taking years off of his life—they reached the refrigerated room and got another body, pulled the plastic off of it and laid it on the gurney. Someday, thought Lucas, I will be like this. Pale cold and stiff. What was his name, thought Lucas—had he taken years off his life with cigarettes, like Lucas was doing? What was his job, thought Lucas—had he had a job buggylugging bodies from one room to the other in a medical school, like Lucas was doing? What were his thoughts, thought Lucas—had he had thoughts of death like Lucas was having? As he pushed the gurney, he placed a hand on the dead man’s cold forehead. What thoughts if any is the man having right now—is the man just gone, like you are when you’re asleep, into some other world that can never be known or seen or smelled or—
        Lucas! cried Walter. Snap out of it! Come on and help me get this body onto the table.
        Stiffly the corpse slid onto the table and soon had been covered with a clean white sheet by Walter. The dead man was comfortable, thought Lucas—comfortable like Lucas was comfortable asleep at two in the morning, oblivious, numb. He pushed the gurney around toward the door, following Walter—who would someday be a cold corpse too. He wondered, why bother, when this is how you end up—why bother, if you end up eternally asleep. They went back to the refrigerated room and they took the plastic off a dead woman and put her on the gurney and Lucas thought you never think of a woman on the dissection table. You never think of medical students working on a female body—naked as the men; what woman would check off the Yes box on her license to be an organ donor, or leave it in her will to give her body to science? Lucas could not fathom this, then he came into the lecture hall with all the tables and bodies white draped and still, and he thought all men, all men, and this one woman. What had been in her mind to leave her body to science? He helped Walter put her on the table and watched Walter put the sheet over her, and he stood at the side of the lecture hall and saw the rows of white draped corpses, and suddenly a babel of words filled his head; he pressed his fingers to his ears but this made it louder. The words went by, one or more for each body in the lecture hall.
        —what can I do for you sir—
        —hand me the nails son—
        —what? No—
        —look at that—
        —I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go—
        —take your time—
        These were all snatches of things the bodies had said while alive. And one in particular spoke to Lucas at length.
        —I sold insurance. I made more money than you do. I sat at people’s dining room tables and talked about their insurance needs and I knew what I was talking about—
        Lucas scanned the rows of bodies. Which one was talking to him?
        —I was married and had two children, both of which are still alive, and they were at my funeral two days ago—oh, I’m fresh meat I am, fresh meat—no rot here. I lived in a big colonial house in Branchburg, I kept my nails trimmed and myself clean—I showered every day—as a matter of fact, I just showered last week—I dropped the soap and I cursed—I shaved and cut myself—see the tiny scar on my chin? I came from the bathroom and put on my clothes. I pulled on my shoes and got my pants and shirt on and I went into the bathroom to take a piss that suddenly came up in my belly—
        Yes Walter!
        Snap out of it and push the damned Gurney. We’ve got bodies to buggylug—we got to earn our money, our minimum wage. We got to get the remaining bodies out here—there’s three more empty tables in the room—let’s get moving Lucas—
        And Lucas stood by the casket listening to Walter telling him what to do from his prone position, his lips sewn shut, or maybe crazyglued. Lucas turned away from the casket and looked at Walter standing there.
        Well what’s the matter with you, said Walter.
        What’s the matter? What’s your bag?
        What the hell does that mean, thought Lucas.
        And they headed off once more for the refrigerated room.
        Obtaining of the corpse. Receipt for this transaction sir? Here's the paper you wanted signed. I've long wanted one of these--and now I have it. Thank you thank you thank you. It's feet are all blue--but that's all right. They're bluer than ink--look how odd. Will you markup the price? Will you markdown the price? Here's my proof that I can have such a thing. Return of these goods is not an option.
        He stood in the doorway as the hearse drove up in the heavy nighttime rain. He had ordered the thing as a trophy; and now at last here it was. The hearse pulled to a stop and the driver’s side window rolled down. He went to the window in the driving rain.
        Do you have it? he asked the driver.
        The driver hooked his arm over the windowsill and spoke strongly.
        Joey chickened out, he said.
        Chickened out? What do you mean, chickened out.
        He won’t sell you one.
        Why not?
        It’s illegal. He sent me to tell you.
        Illegal? Why didn’t he think it was illegal when we made the deal down at Solly’s?
        He was drunk. He’s not now. He says no.
        I’ll get him back you know.
        Who—Joey? How can you get Joey back, snickered the driver.
        I’ll tell the cops about the deal—
        But you would be just as guilty for wanting to buy one—
        He swept an arm across before the driver.
        I don’t care! I want one. Here—here—let me come with you. I need to talk to Joey—
        I’m not going to Joey’s. I’m going home.
        Take me to Joey.
        The hearse window rolled up with a whine and the hearse pulled away. He stood there, drenched. He had really wanted one—still wanted one. He thought to walk to Joey’s but thought that Joey was probably not there, because it was so late.
        Tomorrow, he thought—tomorrow I’ll go see Joey.
        He turned around and went in the door and went upstairs, undressed, and took a shower. Now, clean and dry, he climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his neck and looked into the pitch black. Gradually, as he tried not to think about what had just happened, he fell asleep. He walked down a pebbled path between wide grassy fields. The other one came up, naked, and stopped before him. The other one spoke.
        You wanted to buy me. Why did you want to buy me?
        He answered quickly.
        Because I am lonely and want a friend.
        Don’t you have any friends at all?
        And you thought you could buy a friend.
        And what would you do with me?
        I would sit you in the chair at the head of the table in my kitchen and I would let you be.
        Let me be?
        Yes. I would just want your presence in my house.
        But—I would not last. In a few days, there would be a smell.
        No, he said, raising a hand. Joey told me the ones left to science are double embalmed.
        Double embalmed? What does that mean, double embalmed?
        It mean you’re pickled—pickled! You’ll last days and days outside the cooler.
        I’m not pickled.
        Yes you are.
        No I’m not.
        The pistol went off with a roar, stopping the dream dead. A shadowy figure pocketed the pistol and stalked from the room.
        I could not let him bring hell down on Joey, he thought as he went out in the pouring rain. I could not let that happen. Joey’s been good to me. I have to be good to Joey. I have to keep Joey out of trouble—but God, he thought, running a hand back through his drenched hair—God, God—what a night.
        Cremation. Give me that pen. I'll sign it over. Or I could use pencil--what do you think? Do you prefer ink. Or do you prefer lead. Refill the gas tanks; don't you need tanks to burn? Look--in the retort--it catches flame like paper. A clean, blue flame shooting clean through the chest. The ashes are white. White as brand new notepaper. Seal the ashbox. Give them over; the cremains.
        The man who ran the crematorium sat by the roaring retort in a lawn chair, reading a Popular Science magazine. Soon it would be time to do the awful thing. Soon it would be time to turn the half-devoured body. Oh, he thought—everybody thinks you just put them in, and they burn to ashes, but no. No, they have to be turned like a hamburger on a grill. Heh, he thought further—this is a hell of a job for fifty thousand a year. But I am good at it.
        He turned the pages of the magazine idly as his thoughts ran on.
        Nobody knows what it’s like in these places—nobody even cares what it’s like to have this job—I used to dream about it at night but no more, no more—it’s just a job to me now. Nothing special. Hmmm—up now. Time to turn the body.
        He rose from the lawn chair and turned down the gas supply to the retort and opened the door with the push of a green button on the side of the furnace, and he looked in wielding a flashlight. What a sight, he thought—but it doesn’t sicken me. No. It’s just meat. Here.
        Turning, he got a long pitchforklike tool from where it hung on the wall and pushed it into the retort and did what had to be done. What sights I see, he thought—what things I do and what sights I see—brawn, too—it takes brawn.
        He struggled with the tool until he had done what needed to be done. Then he turned and hung up the tool on the concrete block wall and went across the grey cement floor and pushed the button to close the door of the retort. As it closed, he turned up the gas and listened to the flame start up with a mild soft woosh, and he sat in the lawn chair and got up his magazine, crossed one leg over the other and continued to read.
        Expiation, the seeking of a pardon, healing or deliverance.
        The man lay in the hospital bed unable to speak, almost unable to breathe, unable to move. But he could think.
        This is no way for it to end, he thought. But this is how it is ending. My son sits beside me, he looks at me and I look back at him. I cannot speak any more—I cannot move any more, he thinks I do not see him but yes, I do—I see what he is doing and I do not approve—speak—I need to speak, but I can’t. I need to tell him no, don’t do that—but I can’t—it’s getting dark—it’s black—I’m just going to sleep, is all, is all—I’m just going to sleep—with my eyes wide open looking before me, looking to see what’s next—what comes next?

Jim Meirose's short work has appeared in many other major literary magazines and journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, New Orleans Review, South Carolina Review, and Witness.

A chapbook of his short stories will be released in October 2010 by Burning River.

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