Not all bodies go to the meat locker.
“I’m going to have to either sign you up as an assistant or start charging you admission. Are you looking for the same bodies or someone different this time?” Dr. Hauptman adjusted his thick glasses and studied Jon’s face closely.
There were still a pair of departed residents, covered in white sheets. Jon had imagined headless corpses hanging from the ceiling on meat hooks, lined in a row like sides of beef. No hands or feet, hairless, some already shorn in half lengthways, ready for the butchers table, ready to be broken down further into smaller consumable chunks. As more hanging corpses appeared in his imagination, what had been an odorless room just a few minutes before grew rank with the smell of raw meat, there was a taste of blood in his mouth. Jon swooned.
“Cookie or cheese sandwich?” Dr. Hauptman asked. “Maybe you should sit down.”
In an instant the carnage was gone. The stink of human flesh vanished and the Holding Room, silent and sterile, spartan, clean stainless steel, white light so bright it was blinding. Two gurneys with recently deceased parked at the center of the room. Not even an autopsy table where Dr. Hauptman might perform human dissection to discover and reveal a malady or perhaps evidence of a murder.
“I think I’m hallucinating,” Jon said.
“Sit here,” Dr. Hauptman wheeled his chair to Jon. “Sit before you collapse. You could split your head open, spill brains on my clean floor. There’s no way I’d be able to pick you up. Here, have a cookie.”
Jon sat. The wheeled chair rolled unsteadily over the hard floor.
“I saw bodies hanging from the ceiling.”
Dr. Hauptman looked at his ceiling.
“Some were sliced in half, like a cow. I remember that sight from the abattoir when I was a kid. It was a gruesome thing. Put me off eating meat for a while.”
“Nope. No bodies hanging from my ceiling. Maybe your meds are off.”
“I haven’t been well lately,” Jon hung his head. “I’m old you know. Probably a tumor of the brain making me see things.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, at your age.” Dr. Hauptman sat on a stool at his small desk, sniffed then began eating his cheese sandwich.
“Do you think it will go away?”
“No, tumors don’t work like that. But what difference will it make, you’ll probably die long before any tumor kills you. You look like you’re a pretty old guy.”
“Ninety nine, soon to be a hundred.”
“Well there you go. Lucky to be alive at your age.”
“I’m going to be a hundred very soon.”
“Good stuff, they’ll probably throw you a big party upstairs.” Dr. Hauptman sniffed his partly eaten sandwich again. “I think this might have turned.”
“I am looking for my friend, Mrs. Chin. I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“One of these?” Dr. Hauptman thumbed to the pair of covered residents.
“Can I look?”
“Are you going to cut them open?”
Hauptman shook his head. “I just check them to make sure they can go on their way. To the Coroner if it looks like there is something weird, but most often to the family’s undertaker. This pair has been here a while.”
“Has an old Chinese lady come through here yet?”
“Haven’t seen one.”
Jon looked over to the covered residents, two gurneys side by side, two mounds beneath sheets, inert, cloaked to conceal the indignity of death. He was reluctant to lift the sheet and look at poor Mrs. Chin. A reminder of his own mortality, his own imminent end would be there in front of him. He hoped her eyes weren’t open.
“Can you tell if she has been murdered? I’m pretty sure a lunatic from the 2nd floor did her in.”
“Murdered? My gawd why would anybody murder someone in this place. If you have someone you don’t like, just give them a little time and things will take care of themselves.”
“There’s a nut job on the loose upstairs. He’s been doing people in, like he’s done to Mrs. Chin. Poor lady. It wasn’t her time. He injected her with something or maybe stabbed her to death with this.” Jon held up the syringe tube that had remained clutched tight in his hand.
Dr. Hauptman tossed his partly eaten sandwich into the waste bin.
“I don’t know. That thing doesn’t look like it would kill anything, it’s just a part of a needle.”
“He carelessly left this piece of evidence. Proof that he did something nefarious. I will stop him before he can murder anyone else. He must have a string of people on his conscience by now. I’m certainly not going to let him get near me with a weapon of death.”
“Why would anyone…”
Jon cut off Dr. Hauptman. “A room. He wants a room on the third floor. But we’re all full up so he figures if he can get rid of someone then a room will come available for him. It’s crazy but he’s crazy, that’s why he lives on two with the other lunatics.”
“So, let him have a room.”
But to Jon, Karl Homesman was not one of them. He had been in the psych ward for a reason and it was folly to let him run loose, putting all of them in mortal danger. Besides, who was to say Karl had earned a room on the third floor.
Dr. Hauptman leaned over the waste basket and retrieved his discarded cheese sandwich.
“Maybe I should give it another chance,” he said.
“Are you a real coroner?”
“Pathologist. Had to study extra for it. It’s an interesting profession and you don’t have to deal with whiny sick people.”
Jon stood, steadying his feet beneath him as if he were walking on a tightrope.
‘Should have brought that damn walking stick’.
He made his way slowly to the first gurney. Dr. Hauptman pulled the bread apart on his sandwich and examined the cheese. He sniffed it, closed the bread, and took another bite. Jon lifted the sheet on the closest gurney. It was Mrs. Kyvonis, Gladys, starting to turn pasty in the face, as if she was made from marzipan. ‘Why is she still here?’ Jon wondered. He held his breath and looked at the second gurney.
“I can’t look,” Jon said.
Dr. Hauptman discarded the remnants of his cheese sandwich for the final time. He moved Jon aside, lifted the sheet covering the second body.
“If you never look you will never see. If your Mrs. Chin is an old man then this could be her.”
“It’s a man?”
“Look for yourself.”
Jon didn’t recognize the face.
“Says here this fellows name is Lipton. Sheldon Lipton.” Dr. Hauptman held the toe tag up for Jon to read for himself.
The dead man was the recently deceased resident of the room Jon now occupied. Jon turned away sheepishly.
“Sorry,” he apologized to Lipton. Now he would see the dead man’s face every time he entered his room.
“But where is Mrs. Chin?”
Dr. Hauptman shrugged.
“Maybe if you’re a good detective you can find her. Did you do police work?”
“No, I was not a police detective, I was a history professor before I retired. I’m not a particularly brave man but I won’t let this killer stop me from making my hundredth birthday.”
“Well you might just have to do some digging if you hope to find your Mrs. Chin. Digging, know what I mean?” Dr. Hauptman laughed at his joke.
“I know how to find answers, I was a teacher.”
“Teacher, well that’s too bad, but don’t give up, maybe you’ll get lucky in your search for your friend.” Dr. Hauptman sat at his desk with his clipboard. “Says here that Lipton didn’t have any family. That’s why nobody has called for him. Well he can’t stay here, sooner or later he’ll start to rot. Maybe your Chinese lady was shipped straight to the funeral home. They can be pretty aggressive about their customers coming over. Sometimes they never come down here. They do that sometimes, those foreigners. You’re not a foreigner are you Jon? No offense intended.”
“Perhaps he looks like Snorri,” Jon said as he held the sheet above Sheldon Lipton’s face.
“He looks like someone you know?”
“I came from him. Came from many others too, thousands. Who really knows how many. But him. Snorri. He is the main one. I studied him my whole life. Taught him to my students, and others that were interested. He was a great man, but such a scoundrel.”
“We all came from someone, somewhere.” Dr. Hauptman squinted as he rolled his finger down a list of names on his clipboard. “No Chin here. Are you sure there was a Mrs. Chin?”
Head bowed forward, Jon said, “I see him in myself.”
“What does that have to do with your friend Mrs. Chin?”
“I am conflicted. It’s not just her, it’s Herdis and the young woman Marta. I was powerless then, too young, couldn’t help myself, didn’t know any better. We were just a selfish bastard.”
“And you want to make up for it now, before it’s too late.”
It was always too late for all of the people that passed through Dr. Hauptman’s Holding Room.
“No. Can you help me?”
Jon imagined the sheet covering Sheldon Lipton’s corpse moved. Slowly, rhythmically up and down, as if Lipton were alive and breathing beneath it. A tingling, like an electric shock ran through Jon. He looked at the gurney holding Mrs. Kyvonis. Her sheet did not move. Jon pointed. Dr. Hauptman sat, head bent over his paperwork, he wrote on his clipboard and whistled softly, a happy smile on his face.
“Look,” Jon said.
Hauptman kept writing.
“Look there. It’s moving. Look,” Jon said louder.
Dr. Hauptman looked at Lipton’s gurney.
“He’s breathing, he’s alive.”
Dr. Hauptman squinted, looking where Jon was pointing.
“I don’t see anyone breathing Jon. Nobody alive there.”
“I saw it. Breathing under his sheet.”
“Naw. An old brain does funny things. You’ve just got some hallucinating going on. Probably residual low blood sugar. Just be thankful you didn’t take me up on the offer of my cheese sandwich. I probably have salmonella now. Don’t worry, just go with it. It will pass.”
“No, really, he’s breathing.”
“Nope, he’s been dead too long to spring back now. Go look for yourself. Have another gander under the sheet.”
Jon grunted as he shuffled to the gurney. He lifted the corner of the sheet reluctantly between his finger and thumb, tilting his head to peer beneath it. Slowly, carefully, so as not to disturb the departed Sheldon Lipton. Just then the sheet whipped back off the body exposing the stone cold naked corpse of a shriveled old man. Jon shrieked, grabbed at his chest as he felt his heart pounding hard. For the briefest moment he thought he was looking at his own dead body.
“See,” Dr Hauptman said. “Dead as a door nail. No breathing going on here. Don’t worry about it, just a little trick of the eye, a slight of hand from your old brain. Sooner or later you won’t even know you’re seeing things. I see things all the time and I’m nowhere near as old as you. Don’t worry, don’t give it another thought.”
“You see dead people?”
“I see them all the time, but they’re dead, just like Mr. Lipton here.”
Sheldon Lipton was waxy cold, blueish white, his lips a light purple. He was shriveled and wrinkled, thin with ribs showing through his paper thin skin, his cheeks hollow and sunken. He looked as though he might have starved to death.
“They tend to stop eating much,” Dr. Hauptman said. “Near the end.”
“But I saw him breathe.”
Dr. Hauptman put a reassuring hand on Jon’s shoulder.
Jon imagined a smile on Lipton’s face, but there was just a thin lipped line, more a frown than a smile.
“What do you think he was like?” Jon said. “At least I saw Mrs. Kyvonis alive, at her dinner table, heard her voice like a cackling chicken. She laughed in high pitched shrieking, it was annoying, stupid, to be laughing at things that aren’t even funny. But I never knew this man except for his name tag by the door of the room they gave me. His room. Now I’ll probably be sharing it with his ghost.”
“Well that won’t be so bad, at least you’ll have someone to talk to,” Dr. Hauptman chuckled. “Not like me, I just have my old mother and she doesn’t even know who I am.”
“Do you think he was a good man?” Jon asked.
“Who knows,” Dr. Hauptman shrugged.
“And now he’s gone, just like all the others.”
“Everyone. All the people that came before us. They’re all gone, nobody will even remember them, anybody that ever knew them are gone too just as if they never existed at all. What do you think the point of that is?”
“What is consciousness, what is life?”
“We were like that,” Jon said. “A real enigma. Savage and cruel in our mind but somewhat less brave in our body and actions. A lifelong conflict between selfishness and morality.”
Dr. Hauptman held his clipboard in one hand, his pen in the other. He poked Lipton’s cheek, his shoulder, his calf, with his pen and scribbled a final note onto the page on his clipboard.
Jon stared at the wall at the end of the room, his mind distant, imagining another place and time.
“Nothing much to see here,” Dr. Hauptman said. “Just another poor soul that has run out of steam.”
“No,” Jon said. “He must have been murdered. There must be evidence of foul play, you’re just not looking hard enough.”
Dr. Hauptman pulled the sheet back to cover Lipton.
“I looked the same as I always look. It’s not a fun thing to do with these old folks, the answer is always the same. Back in the day I used to get very interesting cases where you knew there was something amiss. Like a good detective story and you had to dig deep for the answer. A dead child or a torso with no head or limbs stuffed into a garbage bag or a suicide that might have been a murder. But now that I’m old I just get the old people stuff; everyone just runs out of time. We should wash our hands now.”
Jon sagged. “Gawd, that’s awful. But where is my friend Mrs. Chin?”
“A mystery in itself.” Dr Hauptman wiped his hands on his trousers but decided they were not clean enough. “I’ve got some good hand soap in a squirt bottle there by the sink. It smells like watermelon, come and give it a try.”
“I have to pee.”
“Ah, the call of nature. That brings up the other question. Should you wash your hands before as well as after.”
“You know,” Dr. Hauptman motioned to his groin area. “What if you’ve got something on your hands and you touch it. Or worse, what if you touch it and an insidious infection leaps from your thing onto your hands and then you touch your own mouth or nose. Septicemia my ancient friend. Obviously, you need to wash afterwards but is washing before just redundant.”
“I have to pee,” Jon repeated. His eyes had started to ache from the brightness of the light. “I should go now.”
“Whoa, not yet my friend. You’ll need a ride. Your taxi should be here soon.”
Jon was about to sit back down when the door to the Holding Room opened on its mechanical hinges and Nurse Clara entered pushing an empty wheelchair. She nodded and smiled at Dr. Hauptman.
“Looks like your ride is here Jon,” Hauptman said. “I hope you come again for a visit. I found your stories very interesting, enlightening even.
“That Karl guy has got to go, before he kills us all.” Jon stabbed at the air with the empty syringe tube.
“Mr. Homesman lives here Mr. Magnusson, just like you, even if he is on the second floor for the time being.”
“Is that where you keep the serial killers?” Dr. Hauptman chortled.
“Sit Mr. Magnusson, I’ll take you back. It’s almost dinner time.”
“I don’t need that thing, I’m not a cripple.”
“No you’re not disabled Mr. Magnusson, but Dr. Hauptman did find you on the elevator floor. So sit here just the same and enjoy the ride back upstairs.”
“I have to pee.”
Jon did not find Mrs. Chin in the cold Holding Room, the Meat Locker. His search was not over.
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