No Fancy DrawersBy M.J. Fievre
July 26, 2010
Another Morbid Tale.
By the time you’re sixteen, you realize that most people hate when you dump on yourself. They simply can’t stand being part of your pity party. After all, last thing anyone needs is to be dragged into someone else’s bummer. Before your high school sweetheart, Junior, hangs up on you, he calls you a cry baby, which foreshadows that there will be no ever after—not for you two, anyway.
When they tell you about the car crash, you feel around for grief or sadness to match the horrific news but all that comes is a sense of something gone from the world. You remember Junior’s last words to you: cry baby.
In his memory, you decide to trade your Drama Queen crown for some nerves.
On Career Day, you tell your teacher you want to be a surgeon because, all things considered, someone has to handle all the bloody mess, and there’s no reason this someone can’t be you. The teacher nods—your confidence is apparently really convincing.
That same night, you call Uncle Adrian, who’s an orthopedic surgeon. “I want to see an autopsy,” you tell him. “May I come to the hospital?”
He says, “No problem. I’m teaching tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by?” And you’re amazed at how many people actually believe that you’re brave enough to face a dead body. Maybe you’re not a cry baby after all.
The hôpital général is in downtown Port-au-Prince, where garbage rots in mounds along the sidewalks. Schoolboys hike up their pants to jump puddles. Girls in tight braids, crisp corsages and knee-length skirts, hold hands, their faces freshly scrubbed. There are people everywhere, closed in by cracked asphalt, gray concrete walls and repressive heat. Pate kòde vendors chase away flies, and fresko merchants push their colorful carts.
An elderly gentleman dozes in the entryway with a shotgun balanced on his thighs. The hospital is old, decrepit, falling down. In place of the faintly sweet smell of disinfectant, the air hangs heavy with the foul odor of a slaughterhouse. There’s a waiting room inside, but the wait line spills onto the front yard. Patients are lying on straw mats or leaning against the concrete building, sweltering in the tropical heat. Women mumble incoherently or weep, hands pressed to their faces, tears running between crooked, callused knuckles.
Next to the admissions office, the body of a man is parked in a wheelchair, the head fallen back, as flies buzz about. Is he dead? Every day brings a bullet. Every day brings a body.
You’re wearing old jeans and running shoes. Uncle Adrian is waiting for you in the parking lot, white coat over blue shirt and imprinted red tie. He hands you a lab coat and gestures with one hand, “In there.”
You’re taken aback by the pungent smell of formaldehyde and concentrate on not breathing through your nose. You brace yourself for whatever gruesome sights you are about to see.
You pass in front of a huge door, and Adrian says that’s where they keep the dead. The whole building is very quiet. There are bodies in the hallway of the morgue—a teenager lying in fetal position, as if sleeping quietly; a baby so tiny, she’s kept in a shoebox and wrapped in a Ziploc bag.
You think about Junior, then, and the moment his body probably went limp.
You didn’t attend his funeral, and the longer you think about it, the harder it is to imagine him in any way other than this one: laughing—a joint the size of a sausage hanging from his bottom lip, a fragrant pillow of blue marijuana smoke hanging above his head.
The room where the autopsy occurs is not exactly what you imagined—it is not large nor is it brightly lit. The windows are open, letting in the lemony sun and sweltering heat and the dust stirred up from the nearby street. Five medical students are chatting softly, as if afraid to awake the dead whose body is covered with a white sheet; they wear hip-length white coats over their skirts and heels, dress shirts and ties.
“Ready to start?” Adrian asks his students.
They all nod silently and you hold your breath as he whisks away the sheet. You feel your jaw tighten, the saliva pool behind your teeth.
She is a skinny woman in her thirties who’s had a heart attack. She’s black, almost purple, with dark hair, and her mouth and eyes are open wide, horror crystallized by rigor mortis. There’s a nametag hanging from a cord laced around her big toe. Her name is—was Mireille.
You take out your camera and take a few shots. Nausea is crawling up your throat, but you have to be tough. If only Junior was still alive—how you would gloat on the phone tonight!
Adrian examines Mireille’s limbs and the outside of her body, and one of the students records your uncle’s observations into a microphone. Adrian’s hands are beautiful, and the way he bends his wrist is beautiful, and the way he uses the stylus as a scalpel to open the rib cage and peel back the skin. In the fluorescent light, the ribs remind you of the racks of pork ribs Mother buys at Epicerie de Lourdes.
There is little blood. Blood is life. Corpses don’t bleed. Mireille is just—dead.
Each organ is fascinating. The form and function of our anatomy is something that will never cease to amaze you. You are somewhat numb to the gruesome aspects of the experience because you are so determined to betray no shock or revulsion. But it is disturbing to see a human body that is nothing more than a shell. You know that the image of her body, or of your own self in that state, will haunt you at times afterwards, particularly when you are out running. You ponder what a gift life is, what difference a single moment makes, how just a few days ago she was very much alive, how sudden her death was—no time for “I love you,” kisses, “I’m sorry,” or goodbyes. You feel a sense of validation and thankfulness because of the frantic beating of your own heart.
A student is wiping the sweat from his brow. Another has raised a handkerchief up to her nose. She speaks to Adrian without looking over to where he is standing by the corpse.
Your uncle finally pulls the white sheet back over what remains of Mireille. The students leave. In a few years, you’ll be one of them, learning anatomy from gigantic books, tracing complicated drawings of veins and muscles.
“Want to see the morgue?” Adrian asks.
How many died today? At sunup in Haiti, schoolchildren who step from home to street hold the promise of a brighter future. At sundown, the rumors start and all the mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles rush into the streets and call down the narrow alleys: Gaspard! Jean! Amélie! Has anybody been lost today?
The freezer is not exactly what you expected either. The space is tiny, and there are no fancy drawers, only shelves. The morgue has no electricity, and bodies overflow, quickly devoured out of recognition by maggots. Dead infants lie stacked in a pile. Babies. So many of them. “All these babies,” you whisper. They are in such a state of decay, they are barely recognizable as humans. Masses of rotting flesh, greenish black.
There is a table with wheels in the middle of the room, with a mulatto man in his underwear, arms outspread, yellow face streaked with dried blood, his chest a mess of smashed bones and meat. Huge chunks of ice are scattered around the body to slow decomposition.
“It’s Mr. Valcin,” Adrian says. “His daughter Beatrice is in your class, isn’t she?”
She is. Oh lord, I hope Beatrice hasn’t seen him like this. And then, you think about how Death is absolute, insidious, and cynical. You are disturbed by your sudden, uncanny awareness of the oblivion that follows it. However loved, the man on the slab remains forgettable, a drop in the crowded bucket—only inauthentic and deceptive images will remain. Since Junior died, you’ve tried very hard, but you can’t picture his face. You remember almost everything he did or said but you can’t remember his face. You remember his high school graduation picture. He looked nothing like this picture.
“What happened?” you ask.
Your lips quiver. Adrian says Mr. Valcin was killed this morning with a machete. And Beatrice doesn’t even know yet.
That’s when you throw up on your lab coat and tennis shoes. And you are crying, snotting, and hiccupping all at the same time, suddenly horrified by all these strange corpses around you.
Somewhere, you also feel sick with disappointment—with yourself. You wanted to be strong and prove Junior wrong. You didn’t manage to take it all in, to keep your emotions at bay. You realize you can’t forget Junior, not as the person he was, but as the one he was going to be—your ever after. You pretended to, but you really can’t let him just be a person gone.
You run outside, in the streets of Port-au-Prince, away from the hospital, until you reach the park and the Palais National. You want to inhale fresh, cool air and sense it rushing through your body, purifying it. But instead, garbage smells pungent and rotten and warm.
The lump in your throat makes it hurt to swallow.
I read this early this morning, M.J and I have been thinking on it for hours.
There is a quality in your writing that is so ethereal and otherworldly, that comes through even though you write about the most human things.
It is a gift that you can make death transcend its ugliness.
You speak of the beauty of the doctor’s wrists, and by speaking of that, you shine light on the dark places.
I love your pieces.
Thank you, Zara, for reading this. I was a bit afraid to share this–I’m happy you enjoyed it.
be afraid to write
what you write.
we wait for you.
we wait for your
for the smell
of your rooms,
stack of dead
we wait for them.
I don’t know how I can possibly add to what Irene has said. That is no lie. I wait for your posts, M.J. I wait for lightning in the form of balled up reality, bouncing over seemingly solid surfaces to reveal them as pregnant hollows, forbidding, and yet utterly part of us. That’s the gift of your writing.
What a marvelous story.
Uche, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Pregnant hollows–I like that.
I think I’m gonna frame your comment and put it on my bedside table–in case I ever forget, you know 😉
MJ, what power you’ve shaped this evolution from attempted courage to exploding sorrow. The tres precise physical observations of dead bodies as now-uninhabited cloaks, the observer’s carefully rendered thoughts and memories of her beloved and of her own expectations crushed—-these finally dovetail to form a righteous anger at needless deaths.
I felt a profound gratitude for this: “You feel a sense of validation and thankfulness because of the frantic beating of your own heart.”
I had tried to write about the experience before but somehow never could make sense of my emotions. Then I not only found the horrible pictures in my teenage bedroom during my last trip in Haiti, but also some of Junior’s drawings–and all fell into place.
Thanks for reading 😉
Fascinating how writings find their own time, MJ. The lovely part is that we seem to instantly recognise the moment that they’re ready to be written.
This was beautifully crafted.
You might want to know that I think about “My One-Time Dentist” EVERY single time I go to the dentist 😉
MJ, you pore thing! I’m sorry to’ve ruined your dental visits. But it may give you a chance to laugh out loud while the dentist has her hands in your mouth. You would sound something like this: MMMFFMMMMMHUHUHUHUH.
Now back to serious writing. 😉
I’m curious why you chose to write this in the 2nd person.
It’s a dangerous POV, from a reader identification perspective. It creates an extra aspect of alienation, which, given the content, I understand, but why the change on this one?
This is a very good question. I’m not too sure what the real answer is, though. The original draft was in first person, and somewhat it didn’t feel right. It felt as if the narrator was somehow trying to steal an experience that was too universal to be appropriated by a 1st person.
So gentle and still with such haunting ghostly images. I feel a sense of quiet acceptance somehow.
So even after the experience of seeing your classmates father, you pursued med school for some time? That strikes me as amazingly brave.
Lovely piece M.J.
Yes, Dana, I did go to med school–for three whole years. My parents seemed thrilled by the idea of a doctor in the nuclear family, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Later, though, I realized that my happiness was their #1 priority (plus, the long hours of studying interfered with writing) so I jumped ship.
Thanks so much for reading!
Your pieces are so vivid and alive, no matter your subject matter, which both times I have read your works, focus on atrocities. I would too if I were in your shoes. I would capture it all. Your emotions. The sadness. The excitement and false confidence. So real.
Not long ago I was curious about embalming. So I asked a mortician friend to show me the process. I thought I would be sickened. There were no organs of course. Just needles, fluid, a body, water…
I think I’ll stay away from dead bodies, N.L., even if there’s only embalming involved 😉
I wish I could write about funny things. I (seriously) have this fantasy in which I am a comic writer. I’ve been reading lots of Chelsea Handler’s book lately, trying to figure out what it takes…
Thanks taking the time to comment!
As a writer, sometimes I subject myself to experiences I wouldn’t otherwise seek out. America is often rosy compared to what you have seen.
Well, your comment had some comedy in it. There’s a subject for you. Write about how you dream about writing comedy!
Oh my God, M.J. This is stunning. Being pretty new to TNB, it is the first of your work I have read. I now count myself among the waiters… wow. Just wow.
Welcome to TNB, Meg! This is such a supportive community. I’m sure you already love it 🙂
Thanks for reading!
This was so good.
There’s such vivid detail in your writing, it’s so easy to get captured in it. And I don’t say that lightly; damn it, there are so, so many good writers here. And I know I say that all the time, but, really, there are.
– I’m sorry for your loss, and sorrier still to hear about your history in a place where death struck so frequently.
– I’ve heard med students generally do OK operating on cadavers until they come to work on someone unconscious – when the blood starts to flow, that’s when the students start to throw up.
“Adrian’s hands are beautiful, and the way he bends his wrist is beautiful, and the way he uses the stylus as a scalpel to open the rib cage and peel back the skin”
Thanks for taking the time to read “No Fancy Drawers.”
One day, I will write a non-morbid story about Haiti–because I do have some great memories from the land, although reading my stories, that seems inconceivable 😉
Thanks again for the comments you leave. Always so welcome!
I’ve never posted here before, but this just touched me. I was a nurse, and have seen horrific things, and know exactly what you describe. Your words wrench me, emotionally and otherwise. I may never write, will certainly never write as well as you do, but just want you to know, you have touched me.
I’m glad my story moved you. It’s always hard for me to put my life “out there” and getting comments like yours is such a great reward!
I’m glad my story moved you. It’s always hard for me to put my life “out there” and getting comments like yours is such a great reward!
this is amazing – gruesome and yet i couldn’t stop reading.
i like the second person narrative. i find that with difficult pieces putting them into second person gives me more distance and i’m better able to tell the story.
Thanks, Angela 😉 I’m starting to like the second person narrative too.
“body as a shell” – wow.
Wonderfully chilling, this post.
Thanks for reading, Aaron.