Unlike those who donate clothes to the homeless or ladle soup to the hungry, April gave her time to the dead. As a volunteer coroner, she’d hoist bodies into vans, transport corpses to the morgue and examine the flesh with scrupulous detail, as if to prove that those who are gone need help too.
I was unaware such community service even existed until April emailed me one day, ecstatic over her new gig.
“But what exactly does a volunteer coroner do?” I asked.
“Say your grandma dies,” said April, “except she’s not your grandma.”
“Um, okay,” I say.
“She has no family, right, she’s just a little old lady living by herself. But then one day a neighbor drops by to take her grocery shopping but instead they find her dead on the couch. That’s where we come in.”
“When law enforcement authorities are made aware of dead bodies, they contact us. We’re the ones who bring them to morgue, notify next of kin, assist with the autopsy and death certificate. All that fun stuff.”
“Right,” I said. Fun stuff.
April just found out she passed the rigorous application and interview process, As part of her application, she was instructed to write a death-ography chronicling all the loss she had personally experienced as well as her reactions to them. At just twenty-six, April was no stranger to loss. I knew her for nearly two years, and over that time I learned of the deaths she endured during her youth – unrelated incidents, each more cruel and senseless than the next. During her senior year of high school, April’s childhood friend and first crush died in a freak car accident. Just eight months later, another friend, a girl of only seventeen, was brutally murdered by her stepfather, stabbed straight in the chest. It was these traumas that left tracks in her heart and ultimately lead April to devote her time to those gone well before their time.
I thought about what my own death-ography might entail. It was nowhere near as extensive or dramatic as April’s. Though not much of anything in my life was as extensive or dramatic as April’s. My great-grandmother died when I was only eight. It hadn’t elicited much of an emotional reaction, as I barely knew the ninety year-old woman. Though I was thrilled to see my cousins from upstate at the funeral. We usually only saw each other on holidays.
My only other brush with death came during high school when I held a short-lived stint as a recreation assistant at a nursing home. One evening during snack time, I entered Joe Watkins’ room hoping to give him a sugar-free shortbread cookie before bedtime, as I usually did during my Sunday night rounds. He was a fairly quiet, anti-social man but he was always receptive to baked goods. Our conversations barely consisted of mere pleasantries “Here’s a cookie,” “Thank you!” “Have a good night!” But as I knocked on the door, which was already open a crack, I heard no reply. I entered the room, only to see a sheet pulled up to his nose, barely concealing his waxy corpse. I stared at his still chest and listened for his non-existent breath, scanning his body for any sign of life. I slowly backpedaled the snack cart out of the room in shocked silence. When I stopped by the nurse’s station and told them that I feared the worst, they said they already knew. Nobody bothered to tell me he was dead. An everyday occurrence that elicited a shrug from the rest of the staff left my sixteen-year old self nearly breathless.
April was thrilled at the work she was about to embark on, but I was paralyzed by the work I had done. Perhaps that only strengthened my admiration of her bold desire and conviction. Who willingly spends their spare time with corpses? Who willingly touches dead Joe Watkins and drives him to his almost-final resting place? Who willingly hangs around physical reminders of our impending mortality? April apparently.
“Our training begins on Monday. I can’t wait to watch my first autopsy!” She said as if it was a totally normal milestone, akin to getting engaged or graduating college. Her propensity towards death was just one of her many peculiarities that drew me towards her and in a perverse way I envied her bravery. I got a vicarious thrill every time I opened one of her emails.
At this point in our friendship, when she first started her volunteer shifts at the morgue, we’d chat online pretty regularly. We were united in our obsession over indie folk singers with admittedly silly names (Sufjan Stevens) and sillier affectations (on-stage antics that involved eagle wings and inflatable Santas). But not much else. We initially connected via a music blog. The internet was probably the only way we’d ever find each other, considering we lived over 3,000 miles away on opposite coasts (I lived in New York. She lived in Washington State). However geography wasn’t the only form of distance between us. As illustrated by my bafflement over her volunteering at the morgue, sharp divisions existed in our outlooks towards not only death, but life and how to live it as well.
It’s funny to think about how our correspondence originated with simple record recommendations, as our musical taste served as a sole point of common ground, but there were even distinctions within that similarity. While both obsessive fans of obscure musical acts, my fandom manifested itself in a more introverted form. I’d pore over liner notes and analyze lyrics in my dorm room, while April would scheme and plot to get backstage. However, as I grew more and more entranced by this woman who’d lived, loved and gone through more hair colors than I could ever fathom, our friendship soon evolved into something greater –the discussion and dissection of life moments that reminded us why the music mattered. I learned the songs she walked down the aisle to (The Beach Boys, Tori Amos) as well as the music that helped her mourn her friends (Jeff Buckley, and more Tori Amos). As is often the case, the soundtrack of our love and grief is often one in the same.
It was during one of our increasingly personal conversations that April informed me of another major absence in her life – the loss of physicality in her marriage. “I just don’t understand why he’s not interested in my body,” she wrote. I could practically hear the sighs in her texts. She had married John about a year earlier. Their relationship was rooted in deep camaraderie and spirited debate. They discussed the merits of everything from homemade chocolate frosting to prison reform with witty aplomb. From their detailed conversations, any casual observer could see their bond was strong. In every way, they were intellectual and emotional equals. And yet the spark of something sensual went missing since their college courtship days.
At the time I had only dated a handful of guys. April had slept with dozens and was far more accustomed to male attention. Clearly not in a position to relate, I could only offer the best of clichéd advice, suggesting romantic date nights which she’d already attempted myriad times. Much to her dissatisfaction, there wasn’t much April hadn’t tried. The inexplicable loss of touch in her marriage would not be accounted for until several years later, when his latent homosexuality would emerge, a surprise, but not a shock to either of them. But for now, they slept an ocean apart in bed.
After years of intriguing online banter and deeply revealed personal histories, I finally decided to meet April in person and flew out to Washington. That morning in the blue roofed breakfast temple of the International House of Pancakes, was my first time on her home turf – the hippie haven of Olympia. For the first time, I left not only the one time zone I’d ever known, but entered another realm completely, one detached from my black and white reality. It was in the cozy confines of a chain diner that the shades of gray that colored April’s world began to be revealed.
While at IHOP, I met April’s friend Darren and about five or six other volunteer coroners they worked with. Darren was tall, like an ostrich. The kind of tall you’re always straining to look up to. Decked in denim, a flannel button-up shirt, and his signature newsboy cap, he looked like a migrant worker straight out of a Steinbeck novel. He was just a gawky college kid, but I could see how his passion and wit would appeal to April. He wasn’t conventionally sexy by any means and yet there was a
glint of devious mischievousness in his eyes. He had the kind of eyes, that, when aimed right at you, could lead to bad ideas and even worse decisions. Despite half a century of ominous reports from the Surgeon General, he made smoking look cool.
Over pancakes and omelets, April and Darren spoke of the week’s cases — an elderly woman found alone in her Lazy Boy recliner (natural causes, probably a stroke) a teenage suicide (slit wrists) and a middle-aged man (unknown causes, though drugs were speculated). I wasn’t all that surprised by this odd topic of breakfast conversation. What does one expect half a dozen coroners to discuss in their spare time? But I was taken aback by the fluidness of their banter.
“Can you believe how we found her, with the cat still on her lap?” April asked.
“I know, we had to practically pry the poor thing off with a crowbar!” said
Darren was animated, wildly gesticulating as he spoke, as if imbued with the spirits of those he dissected on a daily basis. To speak of death with such casualness caught me off guard. They spoke with such ease. I watched as he swayed in his seat, dicing up waffles and scrambling his eggs with his fork, as if they weren’t already. Then I felt his hand on my knee.
April had previously spoke about Darren with a reverence that was almost mystical. From his meticulously thorough autopsy reports to his undergraduate psychology research, everything about him was a revelation to her. I thought it was a harmless crush, a mere attraction exacerbated during a marital rough patch and nothing more. After all, I too was charmed by Darren, and his exotic anecdotes about studying ornithology in New Zealand. I could easily imagine him with his lanky legs chasing emus in the sand and I envied those birds. I sympathized with April’s infatuation in the span of a morning.
Once I heard about the mix tapes, I knew she was a goner. I’m not sure who initiated the swapping of CDs, but one glance at the track listings told me all I needed to know about the events that were about to transpire. Loaded with the kind of pop songs expressly written to make girls and boys swoon, they contained everything from the Talking Heads’ jittery ode to fidelity “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” to various Magnetic Fields’ ballads culled from the band’s classic triple album “69 Love Songs.” Over four decades of romantic anthems were being surreptitiously passed between their hands, as if they were shy high schoolers dropping love notes into lockers. As the seeds of an emotional affair were being sown, I knew the physical couldn’t be far behind. One week later, April informed me of the Justin Timberlake coffee mug Darren cheekily kept on his bedside table. Not much more needed to be said.
After we ate, they promised to give me a tour of the morgue, which was my end goal all along. I wanted to see the world they saw, as they saw it. Just what was the morbid environment that drew these two together? I suppose they could have met at a bar or a hotel, but that sort of ordinary location lacked the infinite quirks of coolness they exuded. Much to my naïveté, April’s behavior and the circumstances surrounding it both repulsed and appealed to me. I was only twenty-two at the time, and given my lack of experience in the romantic realm, I was a bit jealous. Beyond shy and socially inept, I could barely imagine being romantically involved with two people, as April was, let alone two people simultaneously.
When Darren’s hand brushed against my leg, I got a glimpse of her reality. Like a magnet being pulled at both poles, I was again attracted and repulsed by his forwardness. It was a rare run-in with desire – a perverse one nonetheless and one I was too shy to act on (at the moment at least). But most of all it made me admire April’s confidence even more. She was bold and uninhibited and always had been. Her first sexual encounter was with a total stranger in Mazatlan, Mexico, the summer before college. Mine was with my boyfriend of over six months in my parents’ basement, the summer after.
Despite the questionable ethics of the situation, an affair of any nature would have seemed foreign and unknown to someone as unworldly as I was. But April’s affair began at place where most lives end, which made it doubly exotic, almost to the point of literary envy. It seemed so symbolically apt. What better place for a marriage to die?
But when I first arrived at the morgue I was immediately troubled by its bleak ordinariness. I had envisioned dank crypts overflowing with decomposing corpses. Or at the very least a dimly lit laboratory with high tech futuristic gadgetry. I expected both the gothic-ness of Dr. Frankenstein’s lair and the glamour of Law & Order. What I got, was neither. The morgue’s exterior – just a non-descript brick office building. Its insides – just a maze of cubicles. Most of the desks were piled with mounds of paperwork. “That’s the one thing they never warn you about. They’ll prepare you for all the blood and guts, but not the bureaucracy behind it,” April joked, while putting the finishing touches on a death certificate.
Further down the hall was a series of medical examination rooms, which weren’t all that different from any other doctor’s office. As I walked in circles around a bare autopsy table, the surrounding chrome sinks and glass mirrors gleamed with a sterility miles away from the macabre. Turns out the Joe Watkins that terrified me so much was likely sent off to similar place. This soothed my teenage mind- how relieving to know he’d reside in an environment that was the antithesis of haunting. But it also disappointed me that my assumptions were so far off from the truth. I was just another victim of misguided expectations.
While April and Darren continued filing some paperwork, I played solitaire on a spare computer. Every previously conceived notion I had about the titillating nature of not only death, but sex faded away as well. Here April and Darren were just as dull as most office drones. Maybe they slept together on occasion, but despite their discretion, there was no real mystique. (Can mystique even exist in the throes of county government?)
Future events would lend credence to my intuition. Like most relationships, both of April’s would fizzle out. A subsequent divorce and cross-country move would end both her marriage and affair. But for now, April was just another human trying to navigate the whims of her heart, mind and loins. Turns out coroners were just as ordinary as the deaths they examined.
The morgue’s only breath of whimsy came in the form of Mr. Bones, a real human skeleton who wore a lab coat and goggles. He stood assembled in the corner of the lobby. I posed for a few photos with him. I made him wave. We even high-fived. Yet I still felt let down, betrayed by the mundane-ness of my surroundings. I tried to take solace in his toothy grin, despite feeling as hollow as his bones.
Jessica Gentile is a writer living in the New York City area. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Paste Magazine, Nerve, CMJ and elsewhere. Follow her on twitter @volume_knob where she mostly posts about cats, snacks and music.