Toe tag #148639 lay on his stainless steel table and stared at a small brown water spot on the ceiling. He pondered the spot’s color momentarily, decided it not worth consideration and focused on a compressor that was short cycling somewhere in the distance. He listened to the room gasp as the AC kicked on and off, shuffling the dust that lined the ductwork. Pressure switch going bad, he thought. Maybe a thermostat. A long fluorescent fixture buzzed intermittently over his head. Bad ballast maybe. F32T8, two tube, 3 wire. Easy fix.
“You Peter?” Toe tag # 148624 lay on his stainless table half covered by a mint-green sheet.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Peter. You know, the Saint. Gates of heaven and all that.”
#148639 laughed. “I’m no saint,” he said. “And this ain’t heaven.” The AC unit clicked on and the room groaned as it took a breath.
“I didn’t figure you for Jesus,” he said. “No offense.” #148624 looked around the room. Stainless cabinets lined the walls reflecting the cool white light of the room. The white tile floor was spotless save for a bronze drain-grate mounted below a Midmark surgical light that hung from ceiling.
“None taken,” he said. “It’s not a comparison I’m used to. Name’s Earl. Earl Lavender.”
“Jimmy,” he said, “but most folks call me Shaky.” He paused. “I guess I was expecting something…different.”
Earl counted the seconds in his head until the compressor clicked off and decided it was definitely a faulty pressure switch. “My daddy use to say life’s all about managing expectations, Jimmy. And I reckon he was right.” A faucet dripped in the distance and his ear directed him to a gooseneck spigot on the end of a large stainless table near the center of the room. Seats and seals, he thought, and added it to his growing mental maintenance list.
“I was just hoping for something better, you know?”
The heavy door opened with a moan then slammed shut, rattling the room (simple hydraulic closer adjustment, more than likely). An aged man, maybe sixty, in misty green scrubs began washing up at the stainless sink on the far wall. He donned a white apron, a pair of gloves and a plastic face shield before walking to Jimmy’s table, wheeling him to the center of the room and effortlessly sliding the body onto the surgical table with the leaking gooseneck spigot. He hit a switch and moved the light into position as he spoke:
“The medicolegal examination of the body of James McKinney performed by J.D. Saul, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner of Coffee County, at the Medical Examiner’s Facility on August 12, 2013 at 9:00 a.m. for the determination of cause and manner of death. The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished adult white male who appears the stated age of 24 years. Body height is….
“It’s a fine line between expecting and hoping, Jimmy. That’s a lesson better learned early on.” The high-pressure bulbs of the surgical lamp gave off a slight buzz and Earl listened intently until they warmed and were silenced. The compressor kicked on with a click and the room took another asthmatic breath as the stale sterile air moved through the building.
“…At autopsy, rigor mortis is generalized to late; livor mortis is posterior and slightly blanching; the body is cool to touch. Artifacts of decomposition are absent, and evidence of medical postmortem care is absent. There is obvious evidence of multiple sharp-force injury. The head is normally shaped. Scalp hair is short, brown and straight. The head, face, neck and upper shoulders show no suffusion. The irides are blue; the pupils….
“Everybody hopes for something, mister. Everybody wants something better than what they got.”
“There ain’t no work involved in hope, Jimmy. That’s why everybody does it. Hoping is easy.” He listened to the room and the languid sound of the doctor’s voice for a moment. “And call me Earl. This ain’t no place for formality.”
The chest is not increased in the anteroposterior dimension but has heavy, dried blood over the xiphoil and lower sternal regions. The abdomen is soft with a modest panniculus adiposis, and there is no venous discoloration of the external wall.”
“It ain’t that easy, Earl. It’s hard to hope for much when you’re surrounded by shit, you know? I mean, you get to where you just hope for less shit.”
“You want less shit, you shovel faster, Jimmy. Hope doesn’t shovel shit.”
“Multiple incised and stab wounds are present on the head, neck, chest, back and upper extremeties. These are entirely too numerous to count and detail. However, in general, there are 20 or more on the head, 20 or more on the chest and back, and approximately 50 defensive incised wounds at the right and left hands and forearms. Many of the head wounds are very irregular and have slightly scalloped or….”
“I was just hoping for something better,” he said. “That’s all. Even just a little bit.” Jimmy listened to the voice and the slow steady beat of the dripping faucet at his feet. “When it can’t get no worse, you can’t help but hope for something better.”
“This is another one of those lessons better learned early in life, Jimmy – It can always get worse. There ain’t no bottom,” he said. “Hoping for better is like carrying a big ol’ rock around all the time. Sometimes you gotta put it down so you can use your hands for something else. You get what I’m saying? Sometimes you gotta lose it and let it find you.” He paused for a moment, and added, “Sorry for lecturin’.”
“…most of the incised wounds of the trunk suggest a single-edged, thin blade, although a double edged blade cannot be excluded. Many of the head wounds, and also the hand and forearm injuries, suggest a scalloped object, and multiple injuries of the hands and forearms are consistent with defensive injuries”
The whine of a Stryker Model 10 bone saw filled the room and drowned the sound of failing compressors, faulty ballasts and dripping faucets. The pitch of the saw rose and fell as it encountered resistance and Earl thought it sounded slightly musical. The ringing continued long after the saw stopped but slowly decayed giving way once more to the gasping room and its fluorescent hum.
“This place is fallin’ apart, Jimmy.”
“…there is almost no blood present in the heart and great vessels and tissues due to exsanguination from multiple wounds. The organs are present in the usual anatomic location and relationships. Little blood is present in the pleural cavities and there are some slight adhesions at the right upper lobe of the lungs. There is a slight smell suggestive of alcoholic beverages within the body. Inside the head, the right parietotemporal region of the cerebrum has a focal area of….”
The compressor clicked on like clockwork and the room took another wheezy breath. The spotty hum of the lights was now a roar in Earl’s ear, and the steady sound of water dripping to the stainless pan below became a faint heartbeat. The doctor’s voice droned on like tires on asphalt interrupted only by the sound of metal instrument hitting the metal tray.
“What do you suppose comes after this?”
Earl listened to the roar of the room for moment. “Don’t really know, Jimmy. Peace? Maybe quiet?” I hope, he thought.