Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Wagon

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Wagon

Article excerpt

The dead seek the lowest places in Chicago.

We find them in basements, laundry rooms, on floors next to couches, sticking out of parked cars or shrubs next to the sidewalk. It is more than gravity that pulls them down, for in every dead body there is something more willfully downward, the lowest possible place: the head sunken into the chest and turned toward the floor. No matter what cause we cite on the Hospitalization case Report, an accident, a murder, or "natural causes," all bodies express this downwardness when we remove them from this cavern they have created merely by their presence, by their being.

Some cops, like me, circle the periphery of the room before we approach the body, making small talk with the cops guarding the scene, slowly putting on our gloves, unnecessarily double-checking that our path is clear, anything to avoid the inevitable bending over and touching it, shaking it from this descendance it insists upon, and bringing it back into our living world where it must be pronounced, photographed, identified, prodded, stripped, and categorized.

Their resistance is powerful. The dead roll back to their original positions, stuck to the ground or the sheets on their beds, their bodies unwilling to bend or sway into the bag, always pulling themselves back down, a force described only by the term "dead weight."

I am glad to have a partner who forces the issue. He positions the large diesel wagon as close to the site as possible, and wordlessly takes off his radio, rolls up his sleeves, and tucks in his shirt. He grabs the body bag and the gloves from the truck. He marches into the building or crime scene and holds open the bag with a leg or arm, while the rest of his body maneuvers it in. I jump to assist. I take my side, and we work together until we can get the bag around the body and zip it up, communicating in short statements: "His arm . . . Watch the head . . . He's leaking there." My partner never wants to double bag the dead the way I do. I dread the fluid drips that in the smallest amount will ruin a uniform. Instead, he grabs the bag by the handles, lifts, and heads back to the truck.

"I just want to get it over with," he says after we get back into the front seats and begin driving to the morgue. He is polite, acknowledging and explaining the reasons for his taking control, the sign of a good partner.

"Oh, yeah, sure, no problem. Me, too," I say, letting him know I am glad he did.

The drive to the near west side can take forty-five minutes and is a welcome break. We listen to calls on the radio, look at beautiful women, and keep our hands away from our faces, fearing that, despite our best efforts, some remnant of the dead is on us. We remind ourselves to use extra soap and some kind of fragrance when we wash our uniform that night. Even so, we sense the dead person in the back of the wagon as if we are keeping a secret-and we are. None of the people with whom we make eye contact has any idea that we are driving a dead body.

At the morgue the dead grow more sullen, insisting on remaining in the same awkward positions they died in, positions we would find impossible to endure. They will be faced upward in a well-lit room, the body bag suddenly and rudely opened with a razor and any clothes or blankets cut away. My partner and I stand on the other side of a window watching the attendant process the dead, their unforgettable scent mixing with the smell of disinfectants spread liberally on the walls and floors. The morgue attendant weighs them, measures them, and writes everything on the sheet, which we must sign. We use the morgue pen. (Until we can scrub our hands, we will touch nothing that will come with us.) The dead will remain in this morgue under constant bright lights for a few days, until the funeral home is ready to remove them.

I often think what wisdom and honesty there is in the fact that we bury the dead. It strikes me as the single truthful element of the process. …

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