Every single word written here is an extraordinary exaggeration of events that have played out in my head... based on the stories I have heard from people I have met in jail or while I was dealing with my own stupidity and carelessness, resulting from my own addiction to alcohol and drugs. This is in no way a glamorization of drug use, but a tool to lend some humanity to a subculture that has been demonized and written off as a hopeless and worthless part of our human family. I do not condone or promote any of the behavior or activities herein.
The hospital’s front desk and adjacent lobby were deserted. The dimly lit, large, sterile room seemed as though it would be uninviting on its best day, let alone this one. As the revolving door opened itself to the bleak space of the featureless tile and uninspiring rooms beyond it, a flood of dry, recycled air washed over me and tossed my already disheveled hair. The blast of disinfected air reawakened the reality behind my morbid purpose, and I shook my head in an attempt to settle the grimy locks of unkempt hair. While I was fruitlessly looking for someone to offer me some guidance in the task at hand, my wife’s sister caught up to me as I approached the derelict reception desk spread across the center of the lobby.
“Do you see anyone?” she whispered.
“No,” my voice was raspy, although I was trying to speak loudly enough to draw attention. “I guess the reception area has a closing time.”
She closed the distance between where she stood behind me and the mammoth, laminate-wood desk protruding from the lifeless, gray slate tiles of the floor in front of me. Her arm reached across my field of vision and patted the chrome button of a shiny bell stationed behind a hand-written card taped to surface of the desk which read:
If receptionist isn’t available ring bell for assistance. Thank You!
The sharp sound of the bell bounced off of the cold, sanitary surfaces of the room we waited in, and also seemed to carry into the hallways opening in several directions on all sides of us. Almost immediately a round-faced, squat and bubbly looking young girl in pale green scrubs appeared from the hallway to our right.
“Hi there, can I help you guys with something?” She called across the room, noticeably startling my sister-in-law who wasn’t quite as aware of the nurse’s approach as I was.
“I’m not sure,” I started, and then cleared my throat unproductively to try and regain some of its composure. “Sheriff Doyle asked me to come down here and identify my wife’s body.” I produced the statement with a surprisingly cold and emotionless efficiency. None of the warbling or tear-strangled tones I had expected to reveal my shattered emotional state seemed to surface. The iciness I had begun to feel at the conclusion of our journey to this place had seated itself firmly in my core.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry to hear that.” The stout, bubbly features of her face melted away as I watched flushed red splotches appear on her ample cheeks. “Let me call down there and have someone meet you up here to take care of that.”
“Thank you so much.” I intended to sound genuinely grateful, but the words fell from my mouth like icicles dropping to their fate prematurely. I turned my back to the desk and leaned against it while she fumbled for the receptionist’s phone and made an uneasy intercom request.
“Carrie Timpke to reception please … Carrie Timpke or similar department nine personnel, please report to the reception desk.” The intercom wasn’t blaring, but the innocuous sounding request it wielded felt as though it were piercing my head.
“Someone will be here momentarily…” she offered shyly. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” The tone of her voice seemed to be pleading with me not to keep her tied up any longer. I felt regret for having made her uncomfortable, but couldn’t find the appropriate way to express it. I merely shook my head without turning around to acknowledge her, or even watch as she made her hasty escape.
The moments passed quietly while my wife’s sister wandered aimlessly along the pale barren walls, dragging her fingers carelessly along the top of the wainscoting. I found my mind curiously absent of the phantom parade of indictments I had suffered through for most of the last several hours. My eyes were vaguely preoccupied with watching my unsuspecting sister-in-law as if I were some mindless voyeur. As she found the distant corner farthest from me, we were both drawn back into reality by the muted tone of the elevator arriving at the end of the hallway behind the desk. I turned my body towards the sound and watched the doors slide open to reveal an ageless, sandy-blonde woman in caramel colored scrubs. She took notice of me, and raised a hand in muted acknowledgement. As she stepped out of the elevator I watched as she walked towards where I was waiting with her striking eyes locked on my face. There was nothing counterfeit about her poise or purpose. Her wide eyes were clear and the intensity of their blue centers was magnified by the amount of white surrounding them. I felt nothing of the anxiety I had been anticipating while her gaze remained fixed on me. There was a profound sadness behind the startling clarity and prominence of her eyes. I sensed that I was strangely familiar with her almost immediately, and felt as though the weight of my current burden was being unexpectedly monitored by and carefully shared with her.
She carefully and inquisitively pronounced my name while she narrowed the distance between us. The sound of her voice complimented the enlightened, deep-seated sadness of her eyes and the dignified humility of her posture. I nodded wordlessly as she offered her hand in greeting. I took her hand in my own while she closed her remaining hand around my knuckles. The gesture was as purely genuine as anything I had ever experienced.
“I’m wish these things didn’t happen.” She offered quietly. “Is... she with you, sir?” Her eyes darted over my shoulder and I turned my head to see my wife’s sister approaching softly.
“Yes, this is my sister-in-law.” I affirmed.
“I see,” the woman nodded in my her direction, while never releasing my hand from the gentle connection to her own.
“My name is Carrie. We should start walking. I’m afraid our destination is a little bit of a hike.”
“Sure,” I looked down at our interlocked hands questioningly. She released my hand gently, and returned her gaze to my eyes. The gesture would have normally made me uncomfortable with a complete stranger, but somehow I felt sobering relief when she looked at me.
“Which way?” I croaked.
“Follow me. We need to take the elevator unless you prefer the stairs for some reason.” Her voice was as soft as whisper while retaining its steady confidence.
“The elevator is fine,” I offered.
“Is that okay with you Miss?” Carrie inquired of my wife’s sister.
“Elevator it is then, and thank God! The stairs are on the far end of this floor and in the exact opposite direction of where we need to go.” She led us wordlessly towards the waiting stainless steel doors of the elevator and pressed the large translucent down arrow, which flashed green as the doors opened immediately with a muted hiss. When I entered the car I instinctively turned around to face the lobby as it disappeared behind the closing doors. Carrie, on the other hand, stood facing us while she pressed a button to her left. The elevator engaged and dropped gently one floor and came to rest.
“Shall we walk?” She gave a sweeping motion with her arm towards the hallway that appeared as the doors opened. I walked into the new brightness of this hallway and was followed by my two companions. Carrie quickly took the lead while remaining close to my side.
“I should actually tell you a couple of things before we get to where we are going.” Her gaze was fixed on me once more, and she hesitated briefly before she began speaking again. “You’re wife was found deceased inside of a vehicle which was registered to her. She also was found to be in possession of several forms of identification, one of which was her driver’s license. The reason why this is important, and the reason I think it’s important for both of you to know is because there was really no question as to who she was when she arrived.”
“Well…” I shook my head rigidly, “I’m not sure that I understand why this is important. It’s been a hell of a day so far Carrie, so why don’t you explain things to me as if I were ignorant.” I was trying to contain the ice in my voice and failing miserably.
“Ok… yeah… you’re right. I guess I was beating around the bush a little bit.” Her tender gaze softened even more as empathy crept in behind her stare. “You see... a lot of times families want to see their departed loved ones before the final arrangements can be made in times like this. Sometimes it helps to aide their closure, or jump starts the grieving process. Identifying your wife at this point isn’t necessary to how I have to do my job…” she hesitated again, “I mean, since we already know who we’re dealing with.”
“So what you’re saying is that I don’t need to see her to tell you that she is who you already know she is.” The icicles were still spilling out of my mouth uncontrollably onto the floor.
“No… you don’t have to see her if you don’t want to or don’t feel that you need to see her.” Carrie stopped walking and turned her stance to face me.
“Why would I need to see her? Please try to explain why someone like me would need to see the vacant shell of somebody who died trying to make an effort to save me from myself?” Agitation was mounting in my mind and I could hear the distant, growing rabble of the phantom-blame parade I had nearly forgotten was waiting patiently for me to drop my guard.
“I see,” Carrie diverted her gaze purposefully from my face for the first time. “I can empathize with your feelings, although I don’t know the back-story.” She began walking again while my wife’s sister stayed close behind. They made it several paces before Carrie turned around to watch me remain immobile and sorting through angry images and thoughts.
“What!?” I demanded. “If I don’t need to see her… and you're saying that I don't...” I paused as the last remnants of whatever relief I had been feeling up until this moment leaked from my mind and vanished like steam into the sterile air of the hospital hallway. “If I don’t need to identify her corpse, then I don’t see the fucking point in my presence here at all.” My throat began to tighten as the last words dripped sourly from my lips. I felt the sting and tasted the salt of snot and tears in my throat.
My sister-in-law looked confused and on the verge of tears herself as she cast worried eyes back and forth between Carrie and me. I fought the tears and did my best to stare sternly into our guide’s saddened, wisdom-soaked eyes while she observed my temper tantrum without any indication of judgment. She glanced momentarily at my wife’s sister, and swiftly minimized the distance between us.
“I’ll share something with you before we go any further. I don’t know you from Adam, but I do know something about the overwhelming weight of guilt that rests on a person after something tragic happens like this…” she paused momentarily, as a thin film of tears betrayed the deeply-rooted and closely monitored sadness in her eyes. “I know what it’s like to blame one’s self in the wake of a tragedy as well.”
“How could you possibly believe for even a second that you can relate to my feelings of guilt in my wife’s death?” I pushed my fists into my stinging eyes and backed-up into the wall behind me, sliding to the floor as tears began to stream from behind my closed hands.
Carrie knelt carefully in front of me and began to speak gently through tears of her own. “If you’d give me half-a-chance I could tell you how seven years ago I passed out drunk at a bar near here. The bartender was my neighbor, so he took pity on me. Instead of calling the cops and having them tote me off to jail for the night, he called my husband at home and told him where I was. My husband, the fucking saint, got out of bed to come rescue me from the gutter... for the thousandth time. About three miles from our house some other drunk coming home crossed the center line and hit my husband head-on. They both died at the scene.” Carrie wiped several tears from her face and chin, before sighing deeply and continuing. “Yes, stranger… I know how it feels to absorb the stinging guilt of not just one, but two lives cut short because my husband was somewhere he should never have been, doing something he never should have had to do.” She stood up, but remained in front of me. “Who knows? Maybe the drunk who hit him would have made it home that night too, but my husband just happened to be in the oncoming lane at the exact moment that guy crossed the double yellow line because I couldn’t stop popping tops and doing shots that night.”
“Oh fuck,” I dropped my fists from my eyes and looked up at her.
“When my husband didn’t show up after closing time, my neighbor…the bartender, did end up having to call the cops. It turns out that they were too busy cleaning up the mess I had inadvertently caused with my irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. Please try to tell me what kind of a piece of shit I’m NOT… I dare you.”
She extended her hand towards where I sat shedding silent tears in front of her. “C’mon, get up. It’s not my in my job description or my nature to make people do things against their will.” I grabbed her hand and she hoisted me back to my feet. “I will tell you that I wish I had been in good enough shape to come and say goodbye to him when Sheriff Doyle offered me the opportunity to come identify him here though. You know... before that makeup happy, vision-impaired retard at the funeral home got her hands on him and made him look like a fucking drag queen.” She chuckled uncomfortably at the memory. “Your wife doesn’t look too godawful bad despite what she went through though. You might want to see her one last time.”
I thought her last statement through, and decided that Carrie had made a valid point. If this was the last opportunity I was given to see my wife alone before she got thrown under six feet of dirt and locked in a concrete vault, I should at least man-up to see her.
“I’m sorry for how I talked to you.” The words I offered no longer felt like shards of ice spewing from my mouth.
Carrie nodded at me roughly and started walking again. After what seemed like an endless maze of hallways and free-swinging doors, we arrived at a large, heavy looking and windowless door bearing the words Littleton County Morgue stenciled in white letters. We all stopped and turned towards each other in a micro-huddle.
“If you’re not interested in seeing her before final arrangements are made, I’ll just ask you to stay here while I retrieve the personal effects gathered by the police from the scene and her person.” Carrie paused momentarily, reached for her keys and began to turn towards the door.
“Wait…” I grabbed her forearm before her hand touched the doorknob. “You were right,” I began to tighten up inside, “I should see her one last time.” I turned to my wife’s sister, “Alone for a moment, please.”
My sister-in-law nodded and looked towards our companion.
“Well, I’ll have to escort you in,” Carrie responded, “but then I’ll gather up her things and leave you alone. Come on.”
She inserted a key into the doorknob from a small key chain attached to a retractable cord on her belt buckle. The lock released and she pushed the door open. I followed closely behind, not anxious to examine the room I was entering. With my eyes firmly focused on the area in front of my feet, I noticed the floor change from the drab tile covering most of the floor in the hospital to a smooth, painted, neutral-colored concrete floor. There was a desk to my immediate right, and then the room opened up to reveal two empty examination tables, and one table furthest from us playing host to a body being covered by a thin plastic sheet. There were no feet visibly exposed with a tag on the big the toe, like I had always seen in movies. It was just a lifeless vague shape covered by a sterile looking, white, plastic sheet.
I followed my escort to the far table where I noticed the sheet wasn’t actually white, but opaque and nearly translucent. I could see the silhouette of my wife’s face and the smooth silky bulk of her dark hair piled around where her head was resting.
“Are you okay?” Carrie inquired.
“I think so. Let’s get this done.”
“I’m only gonna pull the sheet down below her neck. The rest of her is pretty badly bruised and not so pleasant to see.” She reached for the corner of the sheet and began to reveal my wife’s head and neck. When she was satisfied with how much was exposed she tucked the corner in on itself and near my wife’s armpit.
“I’ll leave you alone now, just call out if you need me. I’ll be right outside the door, okay?”
I nodded silently.
I hadn’t yet taken a full glimpse of my wife’s exposed face. When Carrie moved from between where I stood and the table I saw that my wife’s pristine olive skin had paled, appearing sallow and soap-like. I drew a startled breath and found my composure while Carrie hastened her exodus from the room. When I heard the door close I took a step closer to the table, unable to move my arms regardless of my impulse to reach out and verify the reality of what I was witnessing. There was a deep, ominous-looking cut in her forehead starting at her left eyebrow and reaching far past her hair line towards the back of her skull. The skin sagged and looked wilted on either side. Her right eye was bruised and swollen. The only comfortably familiar feature was the full lips I had kissed countless times. They were bluish and appeared to be frowning.
The tears rolled from my eyes as I finally found the nerve to reach out and caress her face. The warmth I usually found in this gesture was absent. My fingers were greeted by cold, unresponsive flesh. I sobbed heavily as I realized the futility of my desire to feel the warm flesh of her cheek.
“Oh baby, what happened?” I stammered through tears and growing sobs. “What did I do to you?” The quiet murmur of the indictment choir I had been repressing suddenly began to grow to a swarm of buzzing insects in my head. Ghostly allegations of my selfishness began to grow from a whisper to a coordinated frenzy as my sobs became low moans. “What am I supposed to do now?”
The clamor in my mind was reaching a feverish panic. I closed my eyes in an attempt to quiet the growing taunts. I squeezed my eyelids painfully tight until the blackness began giving way to a red fog and flashes of starlight. Eventually the raucous noise I was enduring began to subside somewhat. When I believed the noise was bearable enough to continue with my eyes opened, I relaxed the muscles of my eyelids. The red fog turned to black and the blackness began to clear as the table where my wife’s body was lying lifelessly began to come back into focus.
When my eyes finally adjusted themselves again I muttered softly to my wife, “I’m so sorry.”
As the final syllable slipped from my tongue I jumped when my wife’s head dropped heavily in my direction. The area of her scalp and forehead which had been violently divided by the jagged gash I had noticed moments earlier fell limply from the pink bone of her now exposed skull and hung loosely from her head, dangling near the surface of the table. Her undamaged eyelid peeled back revealing a pasty brown iris and the yellowing whites surrounding it. I gasped loudly and stumbled backwards.
“Why wasn’t I enough for you, my love?” The words escaped her pale, trembling lips in an unfamiliar gravelly whisper. “Why couldn’t you just stop using that shit?” Her visible eye rolled back behind her drooping, yellow eyelid as she arched her back, appearing to struggle for one final breath. “Have you had enough yet? Look what you did to me...” her mouth hissed while her visible eye focused on me.
I stepped backwards and clenched my eyes shut in an attempt to block out the sight. When my initial, breathtaking shock subsided I found my wind and howled wildly. I tripped over my own feet and landed hard on the floor without the support of my hands to catch me. My hands were now firmly planted over my ears to block out the sound of the reproachful words inexplicably escaping my wife’s dead body. I continued screaming.
The next sensation I experienced was that of hands shaking me firmly and the sound of Carrie’s panicked voice bellowing for me to calm down. I forced my eyes open, released my hands from my ears and stopped screaming to draw a much needed breath of air.
“Get me the fuck out of here!” I gasped.
“What the hell happened?” She demanded.
“Her eyes opened, her scalp… she's blaming me!” I was struggling for air while I pushed myself from the floor and to my feet. I saw my wife’s sister in the doorway. She appeared confused and frightened. I looked back towards where my wife's body remained lying still, half expecting to see her corpse sitting up and pointing accusatory fingers at me from the slab. To my surprise she appeared undisturbed, unmoving, and in the same spot that she had been when Carrie had pulled the sheet back minutes earlier.
“Calm down for a minute and look over here. She’s dead, goddammit.” Carrie pointed towards my wife’s body. I began shaking my head incessantly as she crossed the room and hastily repositioned the cover over my wife’s lifeless, unmoving head.
“I’m sorry… I know you meant well Carrie, but I’m not ready for any of this.” I turned around abruptly and pushed past my sister-in-law to find the nearest door offering escape from this place. I looked over my shoulder at the two women watching me retreat.
“I’ll be out at the van.”
This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo