You’d think I’d be pleased, wouldn’t you? To find out I was right all along, I mean. Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? Well, excuse me dear, if I don’t break out the Stoli quite yet. It’s not easy to please an old Yankee bitch so set and certain in her ways. Of course I was right. Logic and science had always supported me. The inextricable connection between body and personality, to paraphrase Lamont. I always preferred my own rendition — Flesh and Soul as One. No cherubic celebrations, no rejoicing in beatific cloud fields. The soul is just flesh. Just flesh.
You see, I was right all along. And the truth shall set you free.
So very true. So very free.
They wheel us out in the mornings, before class arrives. The sun comes through the windows in flat, pale strips. It’s April or May now, somewhere in the prelude to summer, and the hazy light holds a hint of coming heat. Not that I can feel it; no, dearie, you could place my soft forearm on a glowing burner and I wouldn’t so much as murmer. But I can still remember the heat in those beams, Herb’s white gardening hat in the humid mornings. Herb had always been an early raiser — even in the last year of his life, he never broke ground later than nine in the morning. Not for me; I was rarely out of bed before ten. Besides, the garden was his. I don’t think he would have rejected my help, but I’m almost certain he wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. In 52 years of marriage, you learn what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘mine’.
I wasn’t offended. I much preferred to watch him from the balcony, glass of tomato juice with a finger of vodka in one loose hand, feet adorned with the most recent pair of Trevor’s travesties. His tradition of tacky slippers had started over thirty Christmases ago, when he was thirteen. This last year, they were lime green with plastic shot glasses on the toes and “Viva la Tequila” stitched on the sides. I wonder how in the world he’s going to top tha —
The wheels on the carts never catch or squeak — their ride is impeccably smooth. Rather unnerving, really. A few of us get going in response to that perfect rolling purr. The grunts and cries go unrecognized by the attendants. They are like stone as they push us — they don’t whistle, they barely speak, and they never laugh. I believe they’re trying to be respectful. But I don’t want respect. I want sound, something other than our noises.
I miss the word “fuck”. Shocked to hear that from an old lady? I hold the distinction of being the only person to use that word during my testimony in the McCarthy trials. Believe me, the contempt charge was worth the expression on old Joe’s face when I told him he was more of a fucking danger to America than the communists ever would be. I always liked the earthy bluntness of the word — vulgar and lively, crammed with emotion. I wish the attendants would use it — throw it at each other in jest or bellow it when a hand gets caught between the carts. Too damn quiet.
There are few voices of reasonable dissent left — just Ralph and I, in fact. We lost John Stanton a few days ago, when his tongue was cut out as a joke. John’s dissector stuck it on the end of a probe and waggled it at his partner’s enormous boobs. She rumbled with guilty laughter. John’s last words, shaking and resigned as the scalpel parted the pink fibers behind his teeth, were “Enough’s enough — I’ll be goddamned if I’ll talk without a tongue”.
Ralph still valiantly tries for humor as they roll him into place. “I wanted a table by the window. The window, damnit! Frank, if you don’t start listening to me you’re not getting a tip. I’ll tell you, the staff around here are a bunch of stiffs.”
Ralph’s left-hand neighbor is getting into her morning routine. “My eyes slipped open my eyes my eyes are open SOMEBODY GET THAT NIGGER TO CLOSE MY EYES CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER”
I like Ralph, know how he appreciates an active audience. “Doris is heckling you again,” I prompt him.
“Oh, it’s just Doris’ way of saying she likes me. Look at her. She can’t take her eyes off me, can you? You adorable bigoted cunt you.”
Vulgarity is one thing, but the lurch into callous hatred burns even my numb skin. “Ralph.”
“I’m sorry, Ann.” His voice disappears, like a cut phone line.
Oh, damnit. That’s the second day in a row I’ve shut him down. I hope one of us is gone before he breaks.
Ralph has struggled throughout this whole thing to remain upbeat, gentlemanly. He didn’t speak for the first three days because he didn’t want to see the women naked. Trying to close his eyes, he’d said, though we both know that phrase meant precious little under our new circumstances. Still, how else can we communicate? It’s dangerous to contemplate sight without functioning eyes, feeling while neurons hang cold. The man who shared the rack with me before Ralph was an English teacher. Rather, he was until an aneurysm ended his career in the middle of freshman grammar. Analytical man, pragmatist, concerned with coming to some logical grasp of our situation. I liked him immediately. His first priority, he’d informed me, was to try to understand our new language, since it seemed ontologically false to use metaphors that no longer had any significant meaning for us. He went mad in two hours.
The students enter in small waves. Their pre-professional bustle goads more of us. It grows, that stunted clamoring none of the students can hear. My Jill comes over, greets her partner. “Good morning, Sui Lee.” Curt nod at me. “Hilda.” I don’t know why she picked Hilda; the name should irritate me, but I like her bemused tone in spite of myself. Her zealousness reminds me of another headstrong, bitchy woman I always admired.
Jill corrals her dangling black curls into a hair band. Beside her, Sui Lee is small and patient, waiting; she knows My Jill will take the lead, be the first to continue the exploration. Today marks the beginning of hands. Jill hunkers over me and gently grips my palm, as though to give a manicure. The scalpel stands ready.
“Did you hear about Eddie McDormand?” Sui Lee asks as the blade sinks in.
“Hell of a thing. You don’t hear much about people hanging themselves anymore. Did you know him?”
“What he looked like. That’s it.” Eyes locked on the parting skin.
“They said his landlord didn’t find him for four days. Nice cutting.” Sui Lee is distracted from Eddie’s sad fate as Jill shears back skinny flays of epidermis. They fold under their own weight, like shaved ham.
“Thanks. Yeah, some people don’t have any place in this business. Where are we going today?”
Sui Li consults the anatomical chart. “Find the palmar aponeurosis, then trace its branches out to the fingers…”
They work awhile amid their comparable silence of instrument clangs and sharp shoe squeaks. Noise from us swirls around them. The screaming, of course, there’s always someone screaming. A prayer floats from the corner of the room, “Oh Jesus, save us.” Oh, save your breath.
“What breath, Ann?” Ralph, subdued, trying to make peace.
I am eager to comply. “Ah yes, the curse of the metaphor.”
I sense his smile. He’s with me for at least another day. An intense longing for Herb suddenly explodes through me as Ralph moves on. “They’ve already thrown poor Mr. Eddie in with us, haven’t they?”
Herb is too close to my still lips, so I say nothing. I don’t need to, Ralph knows. There are no secrets among us, no matter how much you imagine closing your eyes. When I can, I reply, “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
“Probably wishes he hadn’t signed his donor card.” I join Ralph in his chuckling, it’s too uneasy by itself. He’s right, of course — they’ve already lumped this Eddie in with us. He was different from them, didn’t belong in the business. Poor bastard, snip snip snip. None of them acknowledge that we mark the road end for them as well. Especially not My Jill — she can’t allow it to, it would destroy her ambition, the grab-Death-by-the-balls glint in her eyes. To them, we’re specimens, sources of knowledge in the fight. To us, they differ only in terms of years, days, seconds.
In the end, you’re us.
I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought I was ready for it. At ninety-two, you’re either rambling to your fern or you’re very aware the coda is approaching. The heart attack slammed me onto the concrete outside Watson’s Coffee To-Go like a freight train. Even when the emergency squad roared up a sparse two minutes later, I knew. En route to the hospital, the huge burning needle goring my left boob suddenly pulled out; lights and whistles sent everyone into a flurry of circles around me. It didn’t hurt after that. My left side had collapsed into a black hole that tugged insistently, threatening to flip me right out of the gurney. I didn’t fight the slide, I didn’t see the sense. When the show’s over, you don’t complain why it wasn’t longer, you get out of your seat and go the hell home. I slid further, the sound liquefying, and I just remember thinking, well, this is it, go on home folks, show’s over, show’s over, and everything around me pinched shut —
I was waking up. At least that’s what it felt like. My vision was opening back up, brightening. Brightening? Yes, much as I hate to admit it, there it was, a huge glowing light at the end of a tunnel of sorts. The light swelled, exploding the tunnel, killing the hints of periphery black. A harsh orange eye glared down on me. It was an operating table light. Well I’ll be damned, I made it through.
Then I tried my arm, and nothing happened. I had a stroke too? Nothing from the other arm. Have you ever half-awakened from a nightmare and been unable to move? Your mind kicking and thrashing inside the immobile rock of your body? Someone approached, a figure uniformed in green and white. He carried a harpoon with a rubber lead — I’ve since learned it’s called a trocar. He brandished it at me, and the indifference in this movement, the professional boredom, scared me far more than my inability to move. My tongue was thick, limp cardboard. I tried to twist away. He jabbed his hollow spear into my stomach, and I felt nothing.
And you think pain hurts.
I screamed and screamed as the attendant suctioned out my food, my blood, other less distinguishable juices. The rubber lead dangled in the morgue sink, and I watched the muddy parade slosh out the tube and down the drain. Intense vertigo; I was swirling, eyes ripped out and bobbing in the flood, just around and down, around and down. By the time the attendant had attached the trocar to the pump containing the preservative, I’d grown quiet again. This time, I didn’t cry out as he stuck me.
All in all, I think I handled the embalming pretty well.
Our first day was like a grand military assembly. They’d set us out early, all sheeted. The expanse of white folds covering me had gracefully molded to my face. They entered in small clumps, huddled in spite of themselves, some boasting too loudly as they stomped in — “Hey, how was your weekend?” — trying to fool themselves into believing this was not some terrible, extraordinary day.
The teacher stood at the head of the huge classroom. Short and round, Napoleon surveying the troops. Numbers hung at the end of the tables; several people crowded the wrong tables and were profuse in their quiet embarrassment. When the shuffling was at a minimum, he intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you would follow my lead….
His full-hand pinched the sheet near the rounded top. This was all done with the left, his right stayed hidden behind his back. The students tentatively mimicked him.
“And lift back….”
All fifty of us were unveiled simultaneously. There was the rippling of a hundred sails, and for an instant I was on my grandson Jeffrey’s sloop off Nantuckett. Napoleon’s melodrama worked on all in the room. Eyeballs bobbed as they took us in. Their faces crawled, some hardly at all, some as if they were infested with insects. A collective moan escaped us.
“Ladies and gentlemen, ” Fat Napoleon continued, “welcome to Human Anatomy. Those of you who survive this course will have taken a huge step in learning how to prevent a result such as this,” his plump left hand motioned to us, ” from occurring in a situation such as this….”
Napoleon’s right hand appeared over his head, wrapped around a claw hammer. The hammer whistled down and punched through the head of the body before him. Bone chips leapt up and bounced harmlessly off Napoleon’s own skull. The head jerked sideways, appealing to the rest of us, as the eye shot out like a marble on a sinewy string. The jaw popped out of its socket in surprise, and all I could think of was the jack-in-the-box whose wide mouth had sent Jeffrey into screaming fits his third Christmas morning.
Their reactions were to be expected. They were furiously alive; the shock that wormed across features and down arms, the graceful sway-and-drop as several people fainted, the aerobic stomach-crunches of vomiting. The hands of the girl standing over me jumped protectively toward my head, as if she would never do something so horrible to her cadaver.
You silly little bitch.
I did not yet know her as My Jill. For that instant, I hated her. If possible, I would have lurched up and crushed her throat. She could not hear the untwitching cacophony, especially not the goggling of the man ravaged by Napoleon — his apologizing for his appearance, his sounds breaking into tears as he strained to reel his eye back into his head.
Napoleon surveyed the room. “Those of you who’ve passed out cannot hear me. Those of you vomiting, finish and get a bucket to clean it up. Those of you still upright, pick up a scalpel.”
This was our first day of medical school.
Over three days, My Jill has changed the hand into an opened spider, a grey and white arachnid streaked with electric blue. It is a completely different creature from the puddy-toad of my back. They started on our backs first; big muscle groups, a safe place for practice and mistakes. Their learning cuts stripe me in heavy purple highways.
Sui Li steers the knife now. She is much slower than Jill, not uncertain but extremely cautious. Jill is rubbing her thumb and forefinger against each other as she watches. Oh, my dear, you just yearn to be behind that knife, don’t you? To be making all the choices, determining the paths. You’re so certain in your knowledge. Even if you don’t have all the answers yet, you have faith in your callings. They are certainly within striking distance of your blade. So much like me, so certain and sure.
Flesh and Soul as One. Even Lamont had complimented me on its poetic simplicity — no small praise, considering the source. I discovered his Philosophy of Humanism in ’51, a few years before McCarthy’s madness brought us into the same courtroom. My god, he was amazing. His words burned with dissident intensity, with humane conviction. Heaven and hell were just myths, he ranted, societal constructions used to convince the downtrodden not to rebel. The meek shall inherit the earth, indeed. The idea of an afterlife served only to remind the good and long-suffering that they would receive ultimate justice and that the sinners, the rabble-rousers, would receive well-deserved damnation. He hoped that death could simply be honestly recognized, not loaded down with undue hopes or fears.
How could someone be so right and so wrong at the same time? For this cannot be hell. If so, then God is much crueler than even the Old Testament tells. There are believers all around me, singing psalms of the suffering faithful. Ralph is one, I can hear his reedy prayers each night when they shut down the main lights. So how can we all be thrown together like this, the pagans and the pious? No, I was right. Flesh and Soul as One. This body is all there is. Somehow consciousness continues, possibly residual electricity in the neurons, released at the time of severe cardiac trauma. Neurochemical flooding, perhaps. Maybe the embalming preserves the body too well, so that it cannot break down as fast as it should. Yes, the process takes much longer, but it still goes on —
Oh god, the time of the dumping.
They do it so casually, pushing and sweeping the day’s bits into the bags, flicking away tiny scraps that have clung to the scalpel. It shouldn’t bother me. Damn it, Ann, take your stand. This is the way it is meant to be. We are nothing but worm meat in the end. To rally against this would be unnatural and stupid. A waste of time.
And yet, it may be those bags that finally drive me over the edge. Not Ralph’s faltering breakdown, not the forty raving corpses I’m spending the last part of my existence with. Just some red biohazard bags, the final source of my post-life dementia.
With each careless wrist flick, the gentle rustling rolls louder through my ears. Each little bit of me that drops seems to echo. I tell myself it’s just meat, no matter how it sounds. It can’t be whispering as it falls.
Night in the vault. A walk-in closet of bodies; two orderly rows, each of us suspended from crab-claws of metal. The claws hold us by the head, their thin but strong pincers gripping by the ears. The blackness wraps around like an immense velvet hand.
Memories swarm. Trevor’s pebble collection, still packed away somewhere in the attic. Our twenty-fifth anniversary, celebrated in the Moroccan street markets. Long summer mornings. Herb’s white hat glistens like a star. The air heavy with the smell of grass. His fingers carefully break the ground open. And there they are. They squirm uncertainly, startled by blinding light. Herb gently brushes them aside to make room for his hibiscus. They retreat back underground. Temporarily. Dripping around and down, waiting….
The blackness rushes back around me. Reassuring emptiness. It happens that way sometimes, the memories coming alive, almost like dreams or hallucinations. At least they quiet the screamers, lull them into an Alzheimeric peace. Deep inside, that’s what I’d always expected, blissful peace. That’s a difficult admission for me. I always mocked the Jesus brigade for their light-filled tunnels and eternal gardens, but I don’t know that I ever had a less concrete vision. You can’t imagine nothingness, can you? I guess I’d always pictured some sort of comforting oblivion — a tiny figure lying under an eternity of night. What a terrible lack of self-awareness. I always prided myself as being more rational. But that’s the point, I guess — it takes death to erase self.
I know this, because there is no true quiet anymore. Now, when night stills the ravings, something else creeps in. Static growing louder, struggling to be words. Flashes of color. Images ribbed, lined, thrashing. Lost bits of meat weeping, opening their eyes —
Up they go, unwinding, unwrapping. They cut and then stretch, as if opening curtains. All bodies match now, preserved pink and pickled grey with green fibers and mounds like dusky rope. My Jill has laid my neck open when Ralph starts singing.
“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me.
His tone is shaky, uncertain, and I join in to support him.
‘one else but me.
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.
I can’t remember the next line. It doesn’t matter, because Ralph is improvising.
’cause I’m already under the apple tree, just little ole me.
Dead and buried under the apple tree.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree….
Like a needle stuck on a record. I call to him gently, and the song becomes a shout, drowning me out. Each appeal brings a louder shriek.
I miss him already.
Oh god, neural fibers have to break apart at some point. Maybe when they get to our heads. Scoop out the ice cream, get rid of the nuts.
Delirious. I’m staring up at My Jill, watching the dedication in her mouth, and the noise that accompanies her face is sloshing, like waste in a sewer pipe. Smells slam through each other, mate and bear mixed offspring: isopropyl breathe mints, aerosol rubber, dead fart perfume. At night, the whispers break in more fervently, speaking from in my head but not in my voice.
I’m losing track of things. I distinctly remember Jill removing my arms, yet she did it again today. Arm: log of peeled fruit, strands of tendon randomly erect. She lifted the saw and the air buzzed with chewing. The first time, I watched the arm go. This time, I watch my body stay put as she removed me from the torso and wrapped me in the red hazard bags. Those fucking bags.
Working on faces today. Ralph’s features look like a lump of beets with two white grapes balanced atop. Jill is peeling my cheeks like an apple, an apple tree with anyone else but me anyone else but me N O ! NO! No. Have to stay. Together. The show must end soon.
I hear a thousand smackings somewhere. Can’t locate; ever since My Jill took my eyes, it’s been harder and harder to see. Applause. There’s a droning that makes me think of France, then more smackings. Happy whooping. Jill’s face suddenly fuzzes into view. Those steady lips. I wonder what she did with mine.
Different hands now. They’re scooping me into plastic. The red biohazard mouth wins in the end. That’s fine. Last act, it’s almost over. Finally, a cart with squeaky wheels. I hear an elevator. Anticipation settles through me, along with an unnamed liquid seeping across my back, slimy in its comfort, like week-old bath water. They cremate the bodies in a mass grave, I remember this from the school’s literature on body donation. Even if this meat is still dumbly winding down, the fire will end it, char it, burn it to embers and atoms. Whispers and slithering flashes —
THE NOISE! Outside. I’m outside the building. My god, to think I complained of the silence in the classroom. Life, like a thousand ruptures at once. Sharp explosion of bird wings as one of my vertebrae gives way, lolling my head to the left. Birds taking flight near me, or my spine breaking? Think it was both, synchronous soaring and slipping. Outside the vault, the world is a system. Everything is together, humming shining thumping driving whining revving braking gesticulating gesturing
Why are we in a cemetery? What used to be my cheek against the ground. Shovel passes me like a shark in murky water. No, don’t bury me, burn me, GODDAMNIT, BURN ME BURN ME!
Trevor. He never liked this donating idea, said he wanted somewhere to remember. I always told you we needed to discipline that boy better. Herb, where are you, get the usher, the show is over, I want to leave but I seem to be cemented to my chair.
Splatters of dirt, down and down and…stop.
Someone brushing cracked knuckles against corduroy, the sound of ripping. The bag splits, forms two skewed eyes, black pupils on a flushed face. They stare at me. I wanted a private table, a window table, damnit, where’s my window table.
They come in through the eyes, sniffing at first, curly little fingers. They rub through the holes and drop. They’ve vanished, but I can still feel them….
I was right. Half-right. Not Flesh and Soul as One — Flesh and Soul Is One. Each bit of the Flesh is Soul, has soul, has a voice. Death as the Great Liberator, unshackling the unheard masses, freeing them to sing, to …whisper.
Not sure if this is me anymore. Me. Silly word. I could be Ann’s brain. Could be her pancreas, splurting out insight. A stray skin cell, too stupid to have sluffed off yet. Now I finally know. Only one philosophy that matters in terminus — decayism. Decomposition of fact giving birth to fact, old voices breaking into new, leaking out of the joints gnawed open by the munchers at the door.
The truth shall set you free. I was right all along. Nothing but worm meat.
But, oh god, I didn’t know I’d still be screaming as they fed.