Things that we need. Milk. Salt. Bread. Corpse holding the list is early 30s. Rigor mortis, the devil’s arthritis, has subject nearly in motion. Arching for something just out of reach.
No stench. Detective appreciates this. Corpse has been waiting for him three days, patiently, body preserved from within. Twenty-two empty bottles of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey provide the proof.
Detective moves to corpse shyly, as if a beautiful woman has asked him to dance. Places two fingers tenderly on the carotid, the back of his hand hot against forehead. Stiff is in a double bed, elbows hard into mattress, back bowed ten inches. Detective eyes the third-world circumference of the dead white man, the belly swollen with the granite of hunger. Bubble begins below the breastbone, swallowing everything down to the loins. Ribs hidden, belly button inside out. No exit wound, no damage. All the blood drying behind the skin.
Call came in this morning, shy of ten. Detective found it connected to a string of go-sees, dead bodies like relatives in need of a visit. This is the last. Then home to wife and the son he’s afraid of.
But this is not a homicide. File and forget. Time to go home, eat what this son-of-a-bitch neglected to. Make a joke about a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float to the Coroner. Steal a few books to take home to wife. Stop for a bottle of Bushmill’s to scratch the itch that keeps moving.
Detective is 44, quiet, lips thin from lack of use. Chin weighted, pulling his gaze down. Eyes colorless save bloodshot static and vacant black pupils. His hair is boy-thick, embarrasses him. He wishes for baldness, an oblivion, and he has the gait of 20 years in bad shoes. Detective is sorry, but not really, and he relies on days where nothing makes sense.
Mothers murder children. Priests rob banks. Wrists slit. Bombs shred. This comforts him. The chaos. He needs it. Keeps him above the believers, the ones who call 911, seeking answers. A tourniquet. Someone to stop the blood. And he comes by, whispers to widows, takes down statements like recipes, all the time calmed by new evidence of the random. He is a satisfied man.
“Malnutrition.” Coroner whistles in Detective’s ear. “Acute starvation.”
“No,” Detective disbelieves. “Food poisoning.”
“I can slice this fish from nape to nails we won’t find a taste. Discoloration at the neck and jawline. This body hasn’t chewed for weeks. Months.”
The murder groupies gather. Low rank, the ones who bully onlookers, and wrap crime scenes in yellow ribbon as if the dead might return. Cameras, notepads, shameless eyes take notice of the exquisite corpse. Beautiful in the arc of his pain. Detective will wait. Hide in the bathroom. He still has something to say.
Late. Closer to 11 than ten and no call home. Detective opens the door, finds a lamp blindly, knocking things over. Things of no use. Corpse is still, waiting. Detective opens his hunting knife, a, gift for trips not yet taken with his son. The knife is friendly and heavy, and from ten feet away, the dead man begs for an attack. A lunge, a plunge to wake it up, shake it alive. Detective moves to it, the thrill of the hunt a flavor on his tongue, and he knows why he has stayed.
A young man has starved to death in his own apartment in New York City. Not Harlem or Washington Heights, but a brownstone, windows onto Gramercy Park. And this corpse has been waiting. Patiently. For Detective to arrive. To make the Coroner’s cut. To find the morsel, the poison, the chaos that stretched young skin so tight. It will bring Detective comfort to pop the balloon, set all the vapors dancing. Intoxicate him, send him home woozy, convinced. Something killed here. There was a murder. This is not an accident, and he is here to report that fact. It is Detective’s only chance.
But before the dagger, a greeting. From the doorway a form, more outline than identity. “I knew you’d come.”
Snow. I was newly 14, and there was an early November snow. Wet, like rain only not. On any similar day, had it been rain, I would have stayed inside, watched cartoons, snacked, napped. I wouldn’t have pulled on my new boots, flipped off the TV at the last possible second, and corralled my four-year-old brother to play. In the snow.
Warren had been born ten years and seven days too late to be my twin, but he remained pinned to my side from the moment he could walk, eavesdropping on my life, trying to keep up. I was his teacher, coach, and confidant. When nightmares or thunder robbed his sleep, it was my bed he tunneled into, not Mom and Dad’s. Our tiniest soldier, he needed someone close to the ground to count on. And my parents seemed somehow relieved to pass his raising on to me.
My two eldest sisters were far from home that wet-snow November afternoon. One married. One being schooled. Nina, my final sibling, was in her room sewing her senior-prom dress so a boy from Harvard would have something to help her out of on the momentous night. She was silent but for the pianissimo of the Singer pedal and her unconscious humming of “The Wedding March.” My father was in the city, cursing his way through traffic after having let himself out early again. Most days he stopped at P. J. Clark’s before he hit the bridge but not that afternoon. The rain and snow had joined. A black ice formed beneath all our feet.
My mother was in the kitchen, rushing Warren and me out the door. There was the white smell of potatoes and soap. Though we lived in a too big house with yard enough to hide in, as I nudged my little brother out into the stinging hour before dark I felt that we were poor. Desperately poor. That no meal was safe. Even dinner felt threatened. Mother shut us out, shivering, then locked the door.
Warren and I were set adrift. The house and everything inside its protective walls were sucked into a hungry past. Spikes of snow closed my eyes, and I knew, out there in the yard, on the driveway, survival was slippery. I wanted to cry out. For Mom to let us back in. To be four and as overdressed as Warren, knocking on the back door. Please. It’s too cold. Let us in. I didn’t. I was raising Warren. I had to protect him from my fear.
In the yard we assembled a sloppy snowman, soaking our fingers. I rolled Warren down a small hill at his repeated request until his face was white with whiskers and his green eyes shone, new marbles. The day gave in, finding us numb and far from home. I hoisted him onto my shoulders, the house receding before my eyes. “We should go in,” I said, not moving.
“You always say no.”
“Sometimes I say yes.” Warren’s stuffed nose stealing his vowels.
“One skate around?” I asked, and the cheer came through, joined by several celebratory blows to my head.
“Told you I said yes,” he gloated.
“One skate around, then in.”
“I love you,” Warren announced from his perch.
“I love you so much more.”
The basketball court on our driveway was next to the garage and hadn’t been salted since the cold snap. It was slick enough to skid around on the way socks worked on the hardwood floor inside the house. For a skate around I would take Warren by the hand and simply drag him behind me as I zipped in circles as fast as I could. This, of course, left him in hysterics. It was a consistent way to make him laugh, get him to go to bed, eat his vegetables, whatever. Skate arounds were a guarantee.
“Don’t put me down,” he ordered, locking his hands under my chin.
“How can I pull you if …”
“Too cold. From up here.” His nails dug in.
Okay, but this won’t be as fun,” I warned. “And hang on.” He knocked on my head to acknowledge, and off we pushed. At first I skated carefully, my new boots extra nervous on the ice, the snow pouncing down harder.
“Faster.” I picked up a little speed, our house now almost invisible on the far coast of the first 14 years of my life. I leaned into it and could hear Warren yelp with delight. Faster, then faster, hoping that wherever I was headed would appear and make losing home not so unbearable. Hang on, I said to myself. You’re almost there. Hang on. “Hang on, Warren, here we go.”
But he didn’t. He threw his arms up to say yes, to say thank you, to howl at the beauty of being four with wind and snow and fresh tears all at once, and for his gratitude gravity threw him to earth.
For a second I imagined covering his body up with snow right there on the frozen court. He had been mine to raise. No one loved him more. But as a line of blood interrupted his perfect face, I could not move. And we waited for Dad to come home.
He sets down the knife. Lays it on the spherical stomach of the corpse. The outline in the door is of a woman, not 30, lovely as she closes the gap, a sleeping baby in her arms. “You found him. You finally found him.” Her voice is the sound Detective hears when the volume is off. He asks her to repeat, though he heard every word. “I’ve been waiting for you.” The baby kicks.
“I’m investigating,” Detective tries, ashamed of the knife. Of his presence.
“He is dead.”
Detective takes this badly, hidden things crossing his face. “I was going to wake him.”
“Too late,” she hums.
“I should go home,” he says, a caught schoolboy. But he wants to stay, hold the woman, the child, anything warm. He takes off his jacket and covers the corpse, his knife. “I am sorry.”
Woman turns, her back a seal on all that he has known. “We’ve been waiting so long.” An infant joy, and they are gone.
Detective finds a blanket and pillow, calls his wife. He is alone in an odorless room. He will not be home tonight. Neither will his son. Outside the snow rains. He pockets his knife, afraid of the blade, puts his hands on the chill cool of a belly unfed. Waits.
He is alone. With a corpse. In an odorless room.