He finally had a date. Finally, a date with a real live human being. A woman. Nice, plump—beautiful, even. It was not important that she was a vegetarian. It was important that she was alive, that she knew he was alive, that she knew he even existed. And again, the fact that she was a vegetarian was unimportant. Not even relevant.
Morton stared at the body on the table for a long time before moving. It was a young man’s body. The skin of it was white and stiff. The hair on it was withered and brittle, faded black, but not gray.
And Morton had another life crisis moment. Autopsy was a field fraught with life crises.
“I hate my job,” he said aloud, not for the first time. He said it to himself. He was alone.
Morton looked down and remembered the scalpel in his hand. He gripped it a bit tighter and brought it over the whiteness. The blade entered just below the clavicle. It traveled down the chest, breaking hairs as it went. It reached the groin, and then left its canal.
The process quickly became mundane. He laughed at the idea of an autopsy specialist having a life crisis. He looked up as if to meet the knowing eye of a colleague.
You know what I mean?
Oh yeah, man, you know I know.
Oh yeah, I know you know I know that.
His thoughts wandered, going somehow from his last girlfriend in college to what shows would be on that night to wondering what bone marrow tasted like. This last was a frequent muse of his. He turned blindly to reach for the rib cutters and when he faced the table again, his eyes came back into focus.
He stared quietly.
Open, bare, the chest cavity stared quietly back. It was full of stones. Actual stones. They were smooth, layered with shades of burnt colors, all intertwined within and around each other like pieces of a fine hewn puzzle, its contours fitting the inside of the body exactly. There were no bones, no organs at all.
For a split-second—and no longer—he wondered if this is what happens to people like him, veggie haters.
Morton gently felt the stones with his hand. The stones were warm. He picked one of them up between nitrile-gloved fingers and held it so that the white ceiling light could catch it up in its hardness. The stone was about the size of a ping pong ball.
In college he had been a champion ping pong player. He remembered getting into a brawl with the team from a rival college back in ’87. Now he was an autopsy specialist. Now this corpse was full of stones.
“Death crisis,” he said aloud. He didn’t laugh, though.
Taking great care, he began removing the stones one by one and putting them onto a cart.
Twelve thousand two hundred thirty-four stones.
Morton held his pen over the release form for the last one, a woman who had previously suffered from anorexia. He stared at her dissected body on the cold metal table, the flesh empty of everything. Her stones lay on the cart next to her. They were blacker than the rest, like smooth slate carved into softly curving pellets, and the thought crossed his mind that if he wanted, he could reconstruct all fourteen of these bodies out of their stones. He could do it quite easily.
His pen hovered, quivering, over the line that said cause of death.
Stones, he wrote.
There was still time before the weekend. No one upstairs would suspect he was holding anything back until Monday. Autopsy was a field with little room for career aspirations, but he had the strangest feeling about all of this—that maybe he was destined to make some sort of discovery here that would rocket him into another job. Like, with people. Real live people, clapping him on the back. Just like after he lit Professor Hanley’s bushes on fire back in college. His buddies had gotten such a kick out of that.
He was thinking more and more about his old college days. Morton had been quite alive then, even rambunctious. That was what Professor Hanley had called him once, before the whole lighting-the-bushes-on-fire thing. Morton liked the term. Especially because it had the word ram in it. It used to make him think of a ram’s long horns and its unstoppable virility. He used to call himself Rammy, trying to create an innuendo. It never really caught on, but it made the girls laugh.
Morton inserted the table back into the wall unit and closed its door. He saw his reflection. Unconsciously, he moved a hand to his face and ran it over white stubble, sighing.
What was he doing here? He was alone in an autopsy morgue.
The next day, Morton was chewing his roast beef sandwich. He had decided to take his lunch break here instead of in the cafeteria, in order to study his work.
Across from him, leaning upright against the wall, was a statue of a young man made of stones, the first body that he had examined. It stared straight ahead, unmoving, and yet had some sort of life to it. The shape of it, the weight of it, the nascent motion of it added up to something like a buzz that he couldn’t pin down.
It reminded him of the statue in the campus plaza years ago. He and his friends somehow never got caught going out at night and posing by that old bronze academic, hanging from its outstretched arm, snapping pictures with their cameras of each other. Trevor had even peed on the statue’s foot.
Morton put down his sandwich and reached into his pocket, getting up from the table. He walked to the statue and posed with it, holding out his cell phone and listening to the electronic snapping noise it made when he took pictures. He smiled at the little blue phone and its dumb cyclops stare, then grabbed the crotch of the statue and made a shocked face, then held its nose and puffed out his own cheeks.
Fifteen minutes later, he was looking through the pictures. He smiled at the crotch pose. And then he looked around and realized he was still alone in the morgue.
Morton assembled all fourteen statues that day. He chewed his granola bar afterward and looked at his watch. It was almost time for his next shift, but he had not yet left the morgue from his first. It reminded him of the all-nighters at the college library, studying for an exam only to fail because he and his buddies had spent most of the night playing games. That was only during his freshman year, though. It seemed after that he grew less and less rambunctious. More serious. Less virulent, in any case. Now he was here, staring at fourteen impossible statues and wondering what had happened to his life.
Morton got a text message. U stood me up again, it said. His brow furrowed. There was no name by the number which he didn’t recognize.
The early morning hit him over the head with some kind of bludgeoning tool. In another five minutes he was snoring on the table, a half-eaten granola bar in his hand.
When Morton opened his eyes, he found he was stuck. He was lying down on top of the table, and the thin slate woman was nestled underneath his left arm, cuddling against him on her side. One leg was slung up on top of him affectionately. She was perfectly still.
For a long time, his mouth was fixed in a solid frown of bewilderment. And he couldn’t move. But then he remembered the body’s weight, looked down at the contours of her skinny physique and decided to lift her off.
When he put his hands on either side of her waist and squeezed, she woke up. Her head rose and though the face was bare of any features, it seemed to look him in the eye. Then she jerked up as if surprised. The sheer speed of it made Morton’s spine shiver and in a panic he threw her off of him. He watched her arms and legs flail and then she struck the floor. The stones shattered with a thousand loud cracks, sliding, ricocheting in every direction.
As if waking up and startled by the ruckus, all thirteen of the remaining statues wobbled to their feet, coming away from the wall where they’d been leaning. All heads looked at the pile of slate on the floor, and then slowly turned to face Morton, who was sitting upright on the table.
An inexplicable sorrow washed over him, and he thought he remembered the touch of hands last night, the breath of a river somehow running across his chest.
His date! He stood up what’s-her-name!
Morton looked down at the shattered body on the floor and then up into their blank, segmented faces.
You know what I mean?
Oh yeah, man, you know I know.
Oh yeah, man, I know you know I know that.
Strangely, all he could think about was the ping pong team brawl back in college, remembering how miserably he’d been beaten up. Morton hiccupped and winced. He thought he felt something impossibly hard settle into his gut.