How quickly blood dries on the skin depends on the body, on its temperature, its salinity, its proximity to humidity. The coroner tells me that post-mortem skin slippage and maceration account for the loss of more fingerprints than we have any way to gauge, that cells get digested by the enzymes living inside of them. Cell death by suicide.
He tells me this as he puts the last stitches into the cadaver’s abdomen. He hands me a pair of scissors and asks me to snip, to place the clippings of gray pubic hair into a white envelope and label it “Joe.” We don’t have a last name yet, just the first name, “Joe” from the badge on his blue button-up.
I ask about Joe’s woman waiting in the lobby. I ask why she hasn’t asked a single question. Not when I took her a cup of coffee. Not when I gave her directions to the restroom. Not when I handed her a clipboard of forms to sign in order for the autopsy to proceed. The coroner reminds me that death is not for everyone. He tells me about his first autopsy, about how he had puked in the shower when he got home from work, how hard it was for him to sleep for the first month. It takes 10 he says, 10 times of opening and closing a body, 10 times of telling the person in that room that it’s best to wait, that no one should see a body like this. I look at the woman again. She is sitting beneath the television, legs crossed at her perfect ankles.
As I prepare to close the black bag, the coroner begins his dictation of findings. Cause of death: blunt force impact to chest with associated aortic tear. Contributory cause of death: enlarged liver, possible ethyl alcohol poisoning. Traumatic exsanguination noted. Toxicology pending.
That Joe likely bled to death, that his autopsy shows he wasn’t found for days after he bled to death, that his liver was heavy and yellow when I held it in my hands and placed it in a plastic container to be biopsied, all of this is running through my mind as I prepare to send his body to the furnace, alone. And it occurs to me now that I’m the last person who will see Joe’s face, the superficial laceration that extends through his left eyebrow, the map of blown blood vessels that live beneath the surface of his nose, the off centered chin and crow’s feet.
The coroner tells me that it’s just a job when he catches me placing my palm against Joe’s forearm before I pull the zipper into locked position. He slides his finger along Joe’s sliced eyebrow, says the brow is merely an alternate hairline that forms on the superciliary arch, that all primates have this bony ridge above their eye sockets. He tells me this examination has been a teaching moment, congratulates himself on a job well done. We unglove and the coroner shakes my hand.
He leaves me to finish tagging the samples for the lab. Through the window of the door I see Joe’s woman nod while the coroner speaks. Still, she says nothing. I do not know her name. I don’t know how many miles she travelled to get here, whether by car or bus or foot. She could be anyone, a co-worker, a neighbor, a spouse or daughter. She could be the stranger who called the cops after noticing the foot of this man, how it was turned unnaturally inward, how it was nearly buried with the rest of his body beneath a mound of gravel at the quarry off of Sandpath Road.
Some of the stomach contents slosh onto my sleeve as I screw the lid of the bottle into place. I quickly note the time with a Sharpie on the label, and when I reach for a Clorox wipe to clean myself, the door opens and the coroner returns, says Joe’s woman wants to speak with me, that she would feel more comfortable hearing the news from a woman. But, I still have to label the slices of tissue we took from the kidneys and spleen. There are two vials of fluid we drew from the eyes that have to be documented and processed quickly in order for the results to be accurate. I tell the coroner I need a few minutes, but he calls out the door to the woman anyway.
He introduces her to me as Cassandra Roland, says she wants to see Joe. I warn her that a body cut open appears barbaric, the way the front rib cage is completely removed to expose the esophagus, the lungs, the heart. She tells me she is Joe’s sister and asks to hold his hand. I don’t press her for identification. I don’t ask additional questions. I tell her that I too was new at this once and she seems relieved, but I’m only partially being honest with her.
What I don’t tell her is that there was a time I fought to see the insides of a body, to smell the air of an examining room when the preservation solution was being injected but that now, I only see the margins of things and how the data will affect the death statistics of the district I work in, the district that pays me a fair wage to write things down about bodies. From the data, her brother appears to have been an overweight drunk with poor dental care. It’s not a judgment. It’s the data. By next week, though she will undoubtedly continue to grieve the loss, her brother will be relegated to a set of numbers, at least that’s how he will be remembered here.
Cassandra steps back as I unzip the bag. I slip my hand down the length of Joe’s arm, careful to keep the bag from gaping open and I pause because I don’t know whether Joe’s fingers are extended and flattened or whether they are curled up into a fist, whether he was clutching or relaxing at the time of death. The coroner had examined the extremities for deformities or trauma and had, as usual, left me with the guts. I feel Joe’s knuckles. I tell Cassandra that hands contract post-mortem. She nods, and then I pull Joe’s arm from the bag. It is blue and bloated. The misshapen tattoo near his elbow is stretched taut and the image is unidentifiable from the excess fluid pooling beneath the skin.
It’s him, she says. Cassandra removes her cell phone from her back pocket and snaps a quick photo. She tells me she needs proof to take back to her shift manager at the Waffle House and to Joe’s angry neighbor who keeps asking her for money. She needs to show her mother the bruises so she understands why his body won’t be coming home for a funeral.
She tells me no one will believe that Joe is gone, that just last week his work truck hydroplaned on the interstate and flipped twice before landing in a field of seedling pines. Not a scratch, she says. Not one. That when he was 12 years old, he fell from a silo on their grandparents’ farm and didn’t break a bone. That when he was 25, his RV got toppled by an F4 tornado with him in it and that all he lost in the whole mess was an old dresser and a beat up guitar. She tells me how he rode bulls and horses and survived two tours in Iraq in the Guard. She says her brother was the luckiest man she ever knew. She says he loved looking at the stars.
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