Introduction:Practicing the (Almost) Lost Art.
Autopsy Room Four.
The Man in the Black Suit.
All That You Love Will Be Carried Away.
The Death of Jack Hamilton.
In the Deathroom.
The Little Sisters of Eluria.
L. T. ’s Theory of Pets.
The Road Virus Heads North.
Lunch at the Gotham Café.
That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.
Riding the Bullet.
Autopsy Room Four
It’s so dark that for awhile just how long I don’t know I think I’m still unconscious. Then, slowly, it comes to me that unconscious people don’t have a sensation of movement through the dark, accompanied by a faint, rhythmic sound that can only be a squeaky wheel. And I can feel contact, from the top of my head to the balls of my heels. I can smell something that might be rubber or vinyl. This is not unconsciousness, and there is something too too what? Too rational about these sensations for it to be a dream.
Then what is it?
Who am I?
And what’s happening to me?
The squeaky wheel quits its stupid rhythm and I stop moving. There is a crackle around me from the rubber-smelling stuff.
A voice: Which one did they say?
Second voice: Four, I think. Yeah, four.
We start to move again, but more slowly. I can hear the faint scuff of feet now, probably in soft-soled shoes, maybe sneakers. The owners of the voices are the owners of the shoes. They stop me again. There’s a thump followed by a faint whoosh. It is, I think, the sound of a door with a pneumatic hinge being opened.
What’s going on here?I yell, but the yell is only in my head. My lips don’t move. I can feel them and my tongue, lying on the floor of my mouth like a stunned mole but I can’t move them.
The thing I’m on starts rolling again. A moving bed? Yes. A gurney, in other words. I’ve had some experience with them, a long time ago, in Lyndon Johnson’s shitty little Asian adventure. It comes to me that I’m in a hospital, that something bad has happened to me, something like the explosion that almost neutered me twenty-three years before, and that I’m going to be operated on. There are a lot of answers in that idea, sensible ones, for the most part, but I don’t hurt anywhere. Except for the minor matter of being scared out of my wits, I feel fine. And if these are orderlies wheeling me into an operating room, why can’t I see? Why can’t Italk?
A third voice: Over here, boys.
My rolling bed is pushed in a new direction, and the question drumming in my head isWhat kind of a mess have I gotten myself into?
Doesn’t that depend on who you are?I ask myself, but that’s one thing, at least, I find Ido know. I’m Howard Cottrell. I’m a stock broker known to some of my colleagues as Howard the Conqueror.
Second voice (from just above my head): You’re looking very pretty today, doc.
Fourth voice (female, and cool): It’s always nice to be validated by you, Rusty. Could you hurry up a little? The babysitter expects me back by seven. She’s committed to dinner with her parents.
Back by seven, back by seven. It’s still the afternoon, maybe, or early evening, but black in here, black as your hat, black as a woodchuck’s asshole, black as midnight in Persia, andwhat’s going on? Where have I been? What have I been doing? Why haven’t I been manning the phones?
Because it’s Saturday, a voice from far down murmurs. You were were
A sound:WHOCK! A sound I love. A sound I more or less live for. The sound of what? The head of a golf-club, of course. Hitting a ball off the tee. I stand, watching it fly off into the blue
I’m grabbed, shoulders and calves, and lifted. It startles me terribly, and I try to scream. No sound comes out or perhaps one does, a tiny squeak, much tinier than the one produced by the wheel below me. Probably not even that. Probably it’s just my imagination.
I’m swung through the air in an envelope of blackness Hey, don’t drop me, I’ve got a bad back! I try to say, and again there’s no movement of the lips or teeth; my tongue goes on lying on the floor of my mouth, the mole maybe not just stunned but dead, and now I have a terrible thought, one which spikes fright a degree closer to panic: what if they put me down the wrong way and my tongue slides backward and blocks my windpipe? I won’t be able to breathe! That’s what people mean when they say someone swallowed his tongue, isn’t it?
Second voice (Rusty): You’ll like this one, doc, he looks like Michael Bolton.
Female doc: Who’s that?
Third voice sounds like a young man, not much more than a teenager: He’s this white lounge-singer who wants to be black. I don’t think this is him.
There’s laughter at that, the female voice joining in (a little doubtfully), and as I am set down on what feels like a padded table, Rusty starts some new crack he’s got a whole standup routine, it seems. I lose this bit of hilarity in a burst of sudden horror. I won’t be able to breathe if my tongue blocks my windpipe, that’s the thought which has just gone through my mind, but what if I’m not breathing now?
What if I’m dead? What if this is what death is like?
It fits. It fits everything with a horrid prophylactic snugness. The dark. The rubbery smell. Nowadays I am Howard the Conqueror, stock brokerextraordinaire, terror of Derry Municipal Country Club, frequenthabituT of what is known at golf courses all over the world as The Nineteenth Hole, but in’71 I was part of a Medical Assistance Team in the Mekong Delta, a scared kid who sometimes woke up wet-eyed from dreams of the family dog, and all at once I know this feel, this smell.
Dear God, I’m in a bodybag.
First voice: Want to sign this, doc? Remember to bear down hard it’s three copies.
Sound of a pen, scraping away on paper. I imagine the owner of the first voice holding out a clipboard to the woman doctor.
Oh dear Jesus let me not be dead! I try to scream, and nothing comes out.
I’m breathing though aren’t I? I mean, I can’t feel myself doing it, butmy lungs seem okay, they’re not throbbing or yelling for air the way they do when you’ve swum too far underwater, so I must be okay, right?
Except if you’re dead, the deep voice murmurs, they wouldn’tbe crying out for air, would they? No because dead lungs don’t need to breathe. Dead lungs can just kind of take it easy.
Rusty: What are you doing next Saturday night, doc?
But if I’m dead, how can Ifeel?How can I smell the bag I’m in? How can I hear these voices, the doc now saying that next Saturday night she’s going to be shampooing her dog which is named Rusty, what a coincidence, and all of them laughing? If I’m dead, why aren’t I either gone or in the white light they’re always talking about on Oprah?
There’s a harsh ripping sound and all at once Iam in white light; it is blinding, like the sun breaking through a scrim of clouds on a winter day. I try to squint my eyes shut against it, but nothing happens. My eyelids are like blinds on broken rollers.
A face bends over me, blocking off part of the glare, which comes not from some dazzling astral plane but from a bank of overhead fluorescents. The face belongs to a young, conventionally handsome man of about twenty-five; he looks like one of those beach beefcakes onBaywatch orMelrose Place. Marginally smarter, though. He’s got a lot of dark black hair under a carelessly worn surgical-greens cap. He’s wearing the tunic, too. His eyes are cobalt blue, the sort of eyes girls reputedly die for. There are dusty arcs of freckles high up on his cheekbones.
Hey, gosh, he says. It’s the third voice. This guydoes look like Michael Bolton! A little long in the old tootharoo; maybe He leans closer. One of the flat tie-ribbons at the neck of his greens tunic tickles against my forehead. but yeah. I see it. Hey, Michael, sing something.
Help me! is what I’mtrying to sing, but I can only look up into his dark blue eyes with my frozen dead man’s stare; I can only wonder if Iam a dead man, if this is how it happens, if this is whateveryone goes through after the pump quits. If I’m still alive, how come he hasn’t seen my pupils contract when the light hit them? But I know the answer to that or I think I do. Theydidn’t contract. That’s why the glare from the fluorescents is so painful.
The tie, tickling across my forehead like a feather.
Help me! I scream up at theBaywatch beefcake, who is probably an intern or maybe just a med-school brat. Help me, please!
My lips don’t even quiver.
The face moves back, the tie stops tickling, and all that white light streams through my helpless-to-look-away eyes and into my brain. It’s a hellish feeling, a kind of rape. I’ll go blind if I have to stare into it for long, I think, and blindness will be a relief.
WHOCK! The sound of the driver hitting the ball, but a little flat this time, and the feeling in the hands is bad. The ball’s up but veering veering off veering toward
I’m in the rough.
Now another face bends into my field of vision. A white tunic instead of a green one below it, a great untidy mop of orange hair above it. Distress-sale IQ is my first impression. It can only be Rusty. He’s wearing a big dumb grin that I think of as a high-school grin, the grin of a kid who should have a tattoo reading BORN TO SNAP BRA-STRAPS on one wasted bicep.
Michael! Rusty exclaims. Jeez, ya lookin gooood! This’z an honor! Sing for us, big boy! Sing your dead ass off!
From somewhere behind me comes the doc’s voice, cool, no longer even pretending to be amused by these antics. Quit it, Rusty. Then, in a slightly new direction: What’s the story, Mike?
Mike’s voice is the first voice Rusty’s partner. He sounds slightly embarrassed to be working with a guy who wants to be Andrew Dice Clay when he grows up. Found him on the fourteenth hole at Derry Muni. Off the course, actually, in the rough. If he hadn’t just played through the foursome behind him, and if they hadn’t seen one of his legs stickin out of the pucker brush, he’d be an ant-farm by now.
I hear that sound in my head again WHOCK! only this time it is followed by another, far less pleasant sound: the rustle of underbrush as I sweep it with the head of my driver. Itwould have to be fourteen, where there is reputedly poison ivy. Poison ivy and
Rusty is still peering down at me, stupid and avid. It’s not death that interests him; it’s my resemblance to Michael Bolton. Oh yes, I know about it, have not been above using it with certain female clients. Otherwise, it gets old in a hurry. And in these circumstances
Attending physician? the lady doc asks. Was it Kazalian?
No, Mike says, and for just a moment he looks down at me. Older than Rusty by at least ten years. Black hair with flecks of gray in it. Spectacles. How come none of these people can see that I am not dead? There was a doc in the foursome that found him, actually. That’s his signature on page one see?
Riffle of paper, then: Christ, Jennings. I know him. He gave Noah his physical after the ark grounded on Mount Ararat.
Rusty doesn’t look as if he gets the joke, but he brays laughter into my face anyway. I can smell onions on his breath, a little leftover lunchstink, and if I can smell onions, I must be breathing. Imust be, right? If only
Before I can finish this thought, Rusty leans even closer and I feel a blast of hope. He’s seen something! He’s seen something and means to give me mouth-to-mouth. God bless you, Rusty! God bless you and your onion breath!
But the stupid grin doesn’t change, and instead of putting his mouth on mine, his hand slips around my jaw. Now he’s grasping one side with his thumb and the other side with his fingers.
He’salive! Rusty cries. He’salive, and he’s gonna sing for the Room Four Michael Bolton Fan Club!
His fingers pinch tighter it hurts in a distant coming-out-of the Novocain way and begin to move my jaw up and down, clicking my teeth together. If she’s ba-aaad, he can’t see it, Rusty sings in a hideous, atonal voice that would probably make Percy Sledge’s head explode. She can do no rrr-ongggg My teeth open and close at the rough urging of his hand; my tongue rises and falls like a dead dog riding the surface of an uneasy waterbed.
Stop it! the lady doc snaps at him. She sounds genuinely shocked. Rusty, perhaps sensing this, does not stop but goes gleefully on. His fingers are pinching into my cheeks now. My frozen eyes stare blindly upward.
Turn his back on his best friend if she put him d
Then she’s there, a woman in a green-gown with her cap tied around her throat and hanging down her back like the Cisco Kid’s sombrero, short brown hair swept back from her brow, good-looking but severe more handsome than pretty. She grabs Rusty with one short-nailed hand and pulls him back from me.
Hey! Rusty says, indignant. Get your hands off me!
Then you keep your hands offhim, she says, and there is no mistaking the anger in her voice. I’m tired of your Sophomore Class wit, Rusty, and the next time you start in, I’m going to report you.
Hey, let’s all calm down, says theBaywatch hunk doc’s assistant. He sounds alarmed, as if he expects Rusty and his boss to start duking it out right here. Let’s just put a lid on it.
Why’s she bein such a bitch to me? Rusty says. He’s still trying to sound indignant, but he’s actually whining now. Then, in a slightly different direction: Why you being such a bitch? You on your period, is that it?
Doc, sounding disgusted: Get him out of here.
Mike: Come on, Rusty. Let’s go sign the log.
Rusty: Yeah. And get some fresh air.
Me, listening to all this like it was on the radio.
Their feet, squeaking toward the door. Rusty now all huffy and offended, asking her why she doesn’t just wear a mood-ring or something so people willknow. Soft shoes squeaking on tile, and suddenly that sound is replaced by the sound of my driver, beating the bush for my goddam ball, where is it, it didn’t go too far in, I’m sure of it, so where is it, Jesus, Ihate fourteen, supposedly there’s poison ivy, and with all this underbrush, there could easily be
And then something bit me, didn’t it? Yes, I’m almost sure it did. On the left calf, just above the top of my white athletic sock. A red-hot darning needle of pain, perfectly concentrated at first, then spreading
then darkness. Until the gurney, zipped up snug inside a bodybag and listening to Mike (Which one did they say?) and Rusty (Four, I think. Yeah, four).
I want to think it was some kind of snake, but maybe that’s only because I was thinking about them while I hunted for my ball. It could have been an insect, I only recall the single line of pain, and after all, what does it matter? What matters here is that I’m alive and they don’t know it. It’s incredible, but they don’t know it. Of course I had bad luck I know Dr. Jennings, remember speaking to him as I played through his foursome on the eleventh hole. A nice enough guy, but vague, an antique. The antique had pronounced me dead. ThenRusty, with his dopey green eyes and his detention-hall grin, had pronounced me dead. The lady doc, Ms. Cisco Kid, hadn’t evenlooked at me yet, not really. When she did, maybe
Ihate that jerk, she says when the door is closed. Now it’s just the three of us, only of course Ms. Cisco Kid thinks it’s just the two of them. Why do I always get the jerks, Peter?
I don’t know, Mr. Melrose Place says, but Rusty’s a special case, even in the annals of famous jerks. Walking brain death.
She laughs, and something clanks. The clank is followed by a sound that scares me badly: steel instruments clicking together. They are off to the left of me, and although I can’t see them, I know what they’re getting ready to do: the autopsy. They are getting ready to cut into me. They intend to remove Howard Cottrell’s heart and see if it blew a piston or threw a rod.
My leg! I scream inside my head. Look at my left leg! That’s the trouble, not my heart!
Perhaps my eyes have adjusted a little, after all. Now I can see, at the very top of my vision, a stainless steel armature. It looks like a giant piece of dental equipment, except that thing at the end isn’t a drill. It’s a saw. From someplace deep inside, where the brain stores the sort of trivia you only need if you happen to be playingJeopardy! on TV, I even come up with the name. It’s a Gigli saw. They use it to cut off the top of your skull. This is after they’ve pulled your face off like a kid’s Halloween mask, of course, hair and all.
Then they take out your brain.
Clink. Clink. Clunk. A pause. Then aCLANK! so loud I’d jump if I were capable of jumping.
Do you want to do the pericardial cut? she asks.
Pete, cautious: Do you want me to?
Dr. Cisco, sounding pleasant, sounding like someone who is conferring a favor and a responsibility: Yes, I think so.
All right, he says. You’ll assist?
Your trusty co-pilot, she says, and laughs. She punctuates her laughter with asnick-snick sound. It’s the sound of scissors cutting the air.
Now panic beats and flutters inside my skull like a flock of starlings locked in an attic. The Nam was a long time ago, but I saw half a dozen field autopsies there what the doctors used to call tentshow postmortems and I know what Cisco and Pancho mean to do. The scissors have long, sharp blades, very sharp blades, and fat finger-holes. Still, you have to be strong to use them. The lower blade slides into the gut like butter. Then, snip, up through the bundle of nerves at the solar plexus and into the beef-jerky weave of muscle and tendon above it. Then into the sternum. When the blades come together this time, they do so with a heavy crunch as the bone parts and the rib cage pops apart like a couple of barrels which have been lashed together with twine. Then on up with those scissors that look like nothing so much as the poultry shears supermarket butchers use snip-CRUNCH, snip-CRUNCH, snip-CRUNCH, splitting bone and shearing muscle, freeing the lungs, heading for the trachea, turning Howard the Conqueror into a Thanksgiving dinner no one will eat.
A thin, nagging whine thisdoes sound like a dentist’s drill.
Pete: Can I
Dr. Cisco, actually sounding a bit maternal: No. These. Snick-snick. Demonstrating for him.
They can’t do this, I think. They can’t cut me up I can FEEL!
Why? he asks.
Because that’s the way I want it, she says, sounding a lot less maternal. When you’re on your own, Petie-boy, you can do what you want. But in Katie Arlen’s autopsy room, you start off with the pericardial shears.
Autopsy room. There. It’s out. I want to be all over goose-bumps, but of course, nothing happens; my flesh remains smooth.
Remember, Dr. Arlen says (but now she’s actually lecturing), any fool can learn how to use a milking machine but the hands on procedure is always best. There is something vaguely suggestive in her tone. Okay?
Okay, he says.
They’re going to do it. I have to make some kind of noise or movement, or they’re really doing to do it. If blood flows or jets up from the first punch of the scissors they’ll know something’s wrong, but by then it will be too late, very likely; that firstsnip-CRUNCH will have happened, and my ribs will be lying against my upper arms, my heart pulsing frantically away under the fluorescents in its blood-glossy sac
I concentrate everything on my chest. Ipush, or try to and something happens.
I make a sound!
It’s mostly inside my closed mouth, but I can also hear and feel it in my nose a low hum.
Concentrating, summoning every bit of effort, I do it again, and this time the sound is a little stronger, leaking out of my nostrils like cigarette smoke:Nnnnnnn It makes me think of an old Alfred Hitchcock TV program I saw a long, long time ago, where Joseph Cotten was paralyzed in a car crash and was finally able to let them know he was still alive by crying a single tear.
And if nothing else, that minuscule mosquito-whine of a sound has proved tomyself that I’m alive, that I’m not just a spirit lingering inside the clay effigy of my own dead body.
Focusing all my concentration, I can feel breath slipping through my nose and down my throat, replacing the breath I have now expended, and then I send it out again, working harder than I ever worked summers for the Lane Construction Company when I was a teenager, working harder than I have ever worked in mylife, because now I’m workingfor my life and they must hear me, dear Jesus, they must.
You want some music? the woman doctor asks. I’ve got Marty Stuart, Tony Bennett
He makes a despairing sound. I barely hear it, and take no immediate meaning from what she’s saying which is probably a mercy.
All right, she says, laughing. I’ve also got the Rolling Stones.
Me. I’m not quite as square as I look, Peter.
I didn’t mean He sounds flustered.
Listen to me! I scream inside my head as my frozen eyes stare up into the icy-white light. Stop chattering like magpies and listen to me!
I can feel more air trickling down my throat and the idea occurs that whatever has happened to me may be starting to wear off but it’s only a faint blip on the screen of my thoughts. Maybe itis wearing off, but very soon now recovery will cease to be an option for me. All my energy is bent toward making them hear me, and this time theywill hear me, I know it.
Stones, then, she says. Unless you want me to run out and get a Michael Bolton CD in honor of your first pericardial.
Please, no! he cries, and they both laugh.
The sound starts to come out, and itis louder this time. Not as loud as I’d hoped, but loud enough. Surely loud enough. They’ll hear, theymust.
Then, just as I begin to force the sound out of my nose like some rapidly solidifying liquid, the room is filled with a blare of fuzztone guitar and Mick Jagger’s voice bashing off the walls:Awww, no, it’s only rock and roll, but I LIYYYYKE IT
Turn it down! Dr. Cisco yells, comically overshouting, and amid these noises my own nasal sound, a desperate little humming through my nostrils, is no more audible than a whisper in a foundry.
Now her face bends over me again and I feel fresh horror as I see that she’s wearing a Plexi eyeshield and a gauze mask over her mouth. She glances back over her shoulder.
I’ll strip him for you, she tells Pete, and bends toward me with a scalpel glittering in one gloved hand, bends toward me through the guitar-thunder of the Rolling Stones.
I hum desperately, but it’s no good. I can’t even hear myself.
The scalpel hovers, then cuts.
I shriek inside my own head, but there is no pain, only my polo shirt falling in two pieces at my sides. Sliding apart as my rib cage will after Pete unknowingly makes his first pericardial cut on a living patient.
I am lifted. My head lolls back and for a moment I see Pete upside down, donning his own Plexi eyeshield as he stands by a steel counter, inventorying a horrifying array of tools. Chief among them are the oversized scissors. I get just a glimpse of them, of blades glittering like merciless satin. Then I am laid flat again and my shirt is gone. I’m now naked to the waist. It’s cold in the room.
Look at my chest! I scream at her. You must see it rise and fall, no matter how shallow my respiration is! You’re a goddam expert, for Christ’s sake!