Samuel Esposito stretched back in the wheeled office chair, making it creak as if it were about to collapse under his weight. He extended his legs in front of him as he cradled the phone receiver between his ear and shoulder and tried to finish his notes while Alicia Valdez continued talking. He glanced at the oversized round clock on the white tile wall above the cooler to his right; it read 7:30.
“… I’m so sorry Sam,…” she was explaining, “… but my kid threw up and I’ll be late. Do you mind?”
Sam considered he was used to it, as Alicia was often late, or absent all together. “Don’t worry about it,” he said nonchalantly. “I’ll pull a double shift. You stay home, take care of your kid.”
“You are such a great guy,” Alicia said happily. “Bye now, let me know if anyone starts sitting up and moving.”
Sam slipped the receiver into the phone base and shook his head. “You say that every time,” he said out loud. He sucked in his breath, straightened in his seat, and leaned over his desk. He tugged at his green scrub top as he read what he’d just written on the small spiral pad in front of him.
“My dog is named Ronnie,he’s a Shepherd and Chow mix. I live at 2534 Fourth Avenue. Please take care of my doggie. Tell him I love him. My will is in the top drawer of my dresser, in my bedroom. Please contact my lawyer. My sister lives in Tuscan, her name is Marilee McCoy; please find her and tell her about me….”
The double doors that led from the corridor outside flew inward with a bang. Sam calmly raised his head, carefully closing the writing pad with one hand as assistant hospital administrator Bill Barton strode in, followed by a straggling man and two women. “And this is the hospital morgue,” Bill Barton said as the others crept into the room. Barton was a short, thin man who dressed with great care and always had a perfect golfer’s tan. “And here is one of our dieners, Sam Esposito. Stand up and take a bow, Sam,” he said. “Sam keeps track of the bodies and organs and helps with investigations. He updates the Body Status Board and assists with autopsies. He pretty much runs this place on midnights, don’t you Sam?”
“New employees?” Sam asked as he obediently rose to his full six-foot-two-inch height, and displayed his three-hundred-plus pounds. He folded his muscular arms in front of his chest.
“Hi Sam,” one of the women said, reaching a hand across the desk, waiting for him to shake it.
He smiled at her. “I haven’t washed yet, been cleaning up after an autopsy,” he said, lying. He was meticulously clean; using gloves for nearly every task, washing himself and even changing scrub sets on occasion. A box of disinfectant wipes and a can of Lysol sat on his desk, along with a large plastic pump bottle of hand sanitizer.
The woman jerked backwards and her arm quickly returned to her side.
“Where’s that other one, what’s her name?” Barton asked, looking around, seeming to be unconcerned, but not moving beyond a certain point past Sam’s desk near the entrance. He elaborately pulled up his sleeve to check his watch.
“Alicia had to take the day off, and I’m pulling a double,” Sam answered, impatient for the group to leave. “I haven’t cleared it with Dr. Clarke yet, but I’m sure she’ll approve.”
Barton, his mouth slightly open and almost grimacing, stared at Sam for a moment then plastered his face with that cheerful grin once again. “Dr. Clarke is Renata Clarke, our chief pathologist here at St. Mary’s Hospital. She works with Dr. Sanchez and Dr. Horne over in there, our state of the art, three-dock autopsy suite….” He swept his arm and directed the group to the adjoining room.
Sam tuned them out as he lowered himself to sitting once more. He spread both of his hands over the notebook in front of him while the party briefly returned, and Bill Barton directed his protégés to the spacious cooler where bodies were stored; the smell of death wafted out as he unlatched and swung wide the heavy, metal door.
“There is only one cadaver in here now, but we can keep up to twenty at a time. And up there you see the two rows of individual freezer compartments where we can store some of the more problematic cases for weeks….”
Within minutes the visitors and the administrator were gone, and all the little noises Sam was used to — the air-conditioning and freezer cycles, the plumbing pops and fluorescent light frizzles — settled into his space once again. He sighed, lifted the cardboard top of the spiral pad, searched for the page he’d been working on. He needed to make some calls.
The intercom on the wall immediately to his left beeped a couple of times. He pushed the speaker button. “Yeah? Body?”
“Yup,” came the tinny response. “On the way down from med surg floor five. Family’s still here. We’ve asked them not to follow the body, but I don’t think the guy’s kids are going to listen. You might have to deal with them.”
There would be no time for coffee and breakfast, now. Dr. Clarke hadn’t arrived yet, but that was normal. None of the doctors ever got there before nine. Sam rolled back his chair and slid the tablet in his left scrub pocket, along with his pen. He stood and wobbled just a bit. He was tired; working a double especially when it started at eleven the evening before, wasn’t as easy for him as it used to be, now that he had reached his late thirties.
On the other side of the room, an amber light-bulb in a wire cage flashed above the extra-wide white door that led to the service elevator. Sam walked to his supply cabinet and sink, pulled on latex-free gloves as he heard the tech punch the numbers on the lock-keypad, then push the service door open with a thud using the front of the stainless steel gurney.
The tech wheeled in the dark-green body bag to a position just in front of the cooler. He retrieved his clipboard hanging from one of the gurney side-rails, passed it to Sam along with a pen. Sam signed his name in a couple of places. The tech grabbed back the board and tucked it under one arm; he left the way he had come.
Sam hovered over the plastic bag for a moment, before unzipping it about a foot. He gazed down at the somewhat blotchy, round face of a man — Sam removed the chart wedged next to the body and checked the cover for a name and age — Kent Sherard, 70 years. He had passed a few hours before, after suffering a pulmonary embolism.
He tossed the chart like a discus onto his desk, then peeled the bag off on either side, widening the opening until the entire corpse was exposed. He took a deep, deep breath as if he were about to submerge, and pulled out his small spiral tablet and his pen. He exhaled as if playing a flute, and closed his eyes.
A soft sparkling seemed to enter his head through his eyelids. There was a whirling, swirling motion but he let himself flow with the eddies, knowing from experience his body would remain standing and stable. “Hello, hello?” appeared on a textured cortex-like surface, three-dimensional letters made of electricity, undulating and shifting.
“I’m here, Mr. Sherard,” Sam said into both minds; his thought-voice seemed like fluttering silk.
Sam saw a tiny replica of a corpulent, naked man, pushing at black and charcoal clouds as if about to be swallowed by them. “Am I dead?” the image asked.
“Yes,” said Sam. “Your body is. Except for the last synapses, the last sparks of your brain. You have a few more minutes. Is there anything you need to tell your loved ones, is there something that needs to be done?”
The image seemed to swell in size, as if approaching Sam; the darkness was enveloping his feet. “I want to be buried with my mother and father in Ohio. I don’t want to stay here. And tell my kids I love them; Janie, Derek, and David … we had such a great time as a family. I could hear them crying….”
“People don’t realize,” Sam’s smooth and soothing mental voice said, “that hearing is the last sense to go.”
The shiny figure of Kent Sherard began to shift — he seemed to melt from the legs up, into a kind of curling murkiness. “I’m afraid,” he said as he held his arms straight out on either side.
“You’re moving on, now,” Sam tried to reassure him. “Don’t be afraid, listen to my thoughts, listen to the words; I’ll tell your family what you want them to know. Is there anything else you need to say?”
But the representation of Mr. Sherard was dissolving rapidly. Deep in Sam’s being he saw the uplift of the chin, the rolled-back eyes, a sense of intensifying light; he knew it was time to break contact.
Sam swayed to one side, and hopped a bit to keep his balance as he blinked rapidly, trying to orient himself. He gulped in air, feeling a heaviness and tightness in his chest. It seemed this took more and more out of him every time. He focused and looked down at the body. Kent Sherard seemed to have a smile on his face. Sam remained in place, and hurriedly raised his notepad that he’d been clutching during the entire episode. He wrote rapidly, attempting to reproduce accurately everything he’d been told. Then he tore the page off and hid his pad and pen in his pocket once more.
He focused on the sound of people outside in the corridor; high-pitched questions, crying. Then he recognized the voice of Dr. Clarke. She was attempting to redirect distraught family members. Sam turned and walked to the double-doors, carefully pushed through one side. The hallway was empty except for three young adults and the senior pathologist with her short brown hair, flowery scrubs, and white lab coat.
Dr. Clarke seemed relived. “Hi Sam,” she said. “Did we receive a Mr. Sherard yet?”
“Yeah,” Sam answered. He felt sluggish and somewhat disoriented. “Are you guys Derek, Janie, and David?” he asked the two young men and the girl, who appeared no older than twenty years. They were all crying, their faces reddened and twisted by grief.
The eldest, Derek, tried to speak. “… Yeah,” he said.
“A nurse took these notes just before your father died.” He handed the three-by-five-inch lined yellow sheet with the shredded perforations along the top to Derek Sherard. “These are your father’s last words.”
“But … we were there … we were there … we didn’t hear … anything….” the girl protested as she pushed back her hair and tried to read what was on the paper her brother held between a thumb and forefinger.
Dr. Clarke slid her eyes to Sam, stretched her mouth with disapproval, but turned a more pleasant expression to the three children as she pivoted and headed into the morgue. “Sam, please see me as soon as you’re done here,” she called to him as the door swooped back and forth to a close behind her. The smell of her disinfectant soap and perfume lingered.
“Sorry for your loss,” Sam said, fixing his attention on the oldest son. “Your father will be waiting in this large, cold room until the funeral home people can get here.” He added, “So, all you need to do is wait, and they will take care of everything.”
A few minutes later, Sam stood beside Dr. Clarke’s desk, in her cubicle occupying one corner of the autopsy suite. “What’s going on? Alicia called, and said she would be late,” he said. “But I told her to take the entire day, if she needed to, and I would pull a double. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Renata Clarke was reading through a pile of charts, as well as checking her computer monitor. She glanced up at Sam. “That’s not what I was referring to,” she said with some irritation but not anger. “I’m not stupid, Sam, and I’m not blind. How many years have we worked together? Someday maybe you’ll explain it to me,” she said in a clipped voice.
Sam shrugged. He was hungry and his stomach growled. “Man, doubles aren’t what they used to be,” he interjected.
Dr. Clarke smiled thinly and nodded. “Put Mr. Sherard in the cooler, and then go get yourself some breakfast,” she said without looking at him.