A stainless steel room. A sheet-covered body on a gurney in the corner. A small shiny table and two shiny chairs. A pad and a pen on the table. And a black man wearing a shiny badge on a dark uniform shiny with wear.
Call him the Interrogator.
He sighs, reluctant as he opens the rubber sealed door. Reluctant to be here, reluctant to do what he is about to do, or reluctant simply because that is his nature? No way to know. But the reluctance is quickly replaced by a shiny, white-toothed smile, a grin almost, false as hell and right for that very reason considering the circumstances. The attempt to smile is what matters, and to fail at the attempt is what is required.
The Interrogator pulls the door wide, waves in a too-white white man who wears a shiny black nametag on a shiny white lab coat.
The name on the nametag does not matter.
Call this man the Subject.
He is ill at ease, rumpled in a way that implies he never usually is rumpled, let alone ill at ease. And he sighs, heavy with invisible burden that makes the Interrogator fall back to clear the way.
The Subject steps into the room, and the Interrogator closes the door behind him.
Please, come in. I mean, you are in. says the Interrogator. Thanks for coming. The Interrogator smiles bigger and shinier.
Right. says the Subject.
Do you want to sit down? Why donít you sit down? I think Iíll sit down. says the Interrogator, and does what he says, sitting down at the table and picking up the pen, poising it over the pad.
Right. says the Subject, but remains standing.
So, letís begin, says the Interrogator, would you state your name, for the record.
You know who I am. says the Subject.
For the record. says the Interrogator, again with the big, shiny, false but very white smile.
There is no record -- weíre all alone here. says the Subject.
I know, says the Interrogator, but Iím going to sort of take notes. On this pad. And he holds up the pad as if it would not otherwise ever have been noticed.
Oh, for Godís sake. says the Subject.
The Interrogator leans forward, drops the smile, adds a whisper, a confidence: You know, youíre the first person Iím interrogating. So Iíd sort of like to try to do it right, to get in practice for the others.
ďInterrogating?Ē mouths the Subject, the word not quite the appropriate size or shape.
Questioning. Asking questions. Seeking answers. Like whatís your name? Thatís the question, not the answer. says the Interrogator.
Next question. answers the Subject.
Okay, Iíll move on. says the Interrogator. Would you tell me what your job is, please?
Iím your boss. answers the Subject.
And you are a doctor? An MD? Plus some other letters? asks the Interrogator.
Many other letters. says the Subject.
Go on. says the Interrogator.
ďGo onĒ? Thatís a question? asks the Subject.
Sure. says the Interrogator. If you know what I mean by it, that is. Otherwise, itís an entreaty, an entreaty to ďgo on.Ē So, please, go on.
The Subject takes a deep breath that sounds like a sigh. I guess, he says, what you want me to add is that with my medical degree, specializations, and expertise, I am this Countyís Chief Coroner, and have been for the last twenty-four years and three hundred and sixty-four days. But at close of business tomorrow, I will be retired. Unemployed. Emeritus. Was I speaking too fast? Did you get all that? Need me to spell anything?
The Interrogator has been sitting at rapt attention, not writing down a word. He seems not to realize that the room has gone silent. And then he says: What I donít know -- when you say you are going to retire -- retire to what?
Being a bit personal, arenít you? says the Subject.
Just curious. says the Interrogator. Iíve worked for you for almost all your almost twenty-five years here, and now I realize I donít really know you. I mean, do you fish? When you retire, are you going to go fish or something? Or play golf, or paint pictures? Travel, collect stamps, needlepoint? The Interrogator pauses as if he might go on, but he doesnít.
My whole adult life, all Iíve done is work. says the Subject. Now, when I retire, Iím going to stop working. Thatís about it. Thatís about all the plans I have because thatís about all the interests I have. Once Iíve been retired for a while, Iíll have to get back to you about what I wind up doing. But I can pretty much assure you that fishing wonít be a part of it. And I can pretty much assure you I will not get back to you about it. I can pretty much assure you that tomorrow my not-so-surprise surprise retirement party is likely the last time you will see me or I will see you.
The fishingís not for me, either. says the Interrogator. Not that I ever figure to have enough money to retire and realize that, but Iím not complaining. Once you go tomorrow, your successor will step in and ignore me just as you have, and so Iíll continue to work here, and then Iíll either die here or die somewhere else and end up here, and thatís just that. Right? So, then, as for you, itís not really that youíre retiring to something, itís that youíre retiring from something. Anyhow, thatís how Iím seeing it -- is that how youíre seeing it? The Interrogator folds his arms over his chest, and his eyes are bright. It is pride, and not falsely so.
Right. says the Subject. I am leaving, not going.
But why? asks the Interrogator. Why are you retiring? If you donít have something to retire to, why retire at all?
The Subject squints as if by looking hard out he could look better within. I donít know. he says. It made sense when I promised myself twenty-five years ago that Iíd retire after twenty-five years, but now I canít remember why I made that promise, and so my answer is, I donít know why Iím retiring. I only know that today we found an extra body in my morgue -- a body without a tag, without a file entry, with fingerprints that donít appear in any data base anywhere -- an extra body that simply should not be here, and so on the very day before my retirement, I suddenly have a blemish on a perfect record, and Iíve asked you -- the morgue security guard -- to try to help me get to the bottom of this before we have to call in the real police. We need to keep this in-house. Entre nous. So you need to get on with this so-called interrogation. Could you maybe ask me a relevant question?
The Interrogator riffles the pages of his pad. Heís taken no notes, and none appear, magically or otherwise. I was just trying to relax you, get you to open up, he says, in case you know something you donít realize you know.
Then I am not a suspect? says the Subject.
Of course not. Should you be? asks the Interrogator.
Oh, for Godís sake. says the Subject.
You keep your morgue pretty well shipshape, donít you? asks the Interrogator.
Itís well organized, if thatís what you mean. states the Subject. Mistakes are unacceptable. What we do here is too important. Credibility and reliability are everything. The first thing I did when I became Coroner all those years ago was implement a fool-proof tagging, filing, and chain of custody system. Weíve never lost or even misplaced so much as a tissue sample, let alone a whole cadaver. The D.A. and the police copied my system for themselves, and no defense lawyer or independent pathologist has ever beaten our findings. The Subject stops speaking abruptly. Nothing more to say.
A perfect record. says the Interrogator.
Until now. says the Subject.
The Interrogator nods slowly, and then suddenly has a notion: Probably just as well you donít fish, says the Interrogator, itís a pretty uncertain thing -- all the lures in the world, you still never know when youíre going to get a bite. Itís not for you.
Youíre saying Iím a controlling person? asks the Subject.
Youíre a doctor who chose to work exclusively with the dead. Thatís pretty controlling. suggests the Interrogator. Probably why you never got married -- all the lures in the world, never know when the old ladyís going to bite. Believe me, Iíve been married forever. Canít even remember the last nibble.
Do I want to know about your sex life? asks the Subject.
Do I want to know yours? asks the Interrogator.
No. says the Subject. But no, thereís nothing freakish about it, if thatís what youíre thinking. This extra body has nothing to do with it, and I have nothing to do with this extra body. Iíve had girlfriends over the years -- living, breathing girlfriends -- but there really isnít time for all that. So Iíve had to make do with women I could pay for -- pay for them to be done and gone away when I need to get back to work. Understand? The Subjectís voice rises, a cudgel of pitch and reverberation, embarrassment become insistence, insistence become truth, truth become challenge. So may I presume that your interrogation of me is now concluded?
Hereís the thing, says the Interrogator, responding to the cue rather than the content, I got this preliminary DNA result from the computer -- DNA from the body, the extra body -- and it matches yours. The DNA. Not that I really understand any of that.
The Subject bristles now. Somehow he is less white, but his nametag is just as black. What do you mean the DNA matches mine? he nearly shrieks. You mean I contaminated the body? I left DNA on it? I suppose thatís possible, from when I opened what was supposed to be an empty drawer and found the body there. Or, maybe when I was taking the DNA sample from the body, maybe I accidentally sweat or spit or threw a hair or something that caused the contamination... but that still wouldnít explain what youíre saying. Then there would be two DNA records -- mine and the bodyís, co-mingled. No, youíre not explaining this right. Try again.
The Interrogator is undaunted. Youíre an only child, arenít you? he asks. At least you donít have any brothers or sisters listed in your personnel file. And no next of kin, you know, to notify in case of something. I guess everyoneís dead, huh?
Youíve been looking in my personnel file? asks the Subject.
Is that okay? asks the Interrogator. Heís got his pen poised over his pad again.
The Subject thinks about how he feels about this; and then: I... I guess. And no, I have no siblings. But my parents are alive. I just donít speak to them. So I would hardly want them notified in case of emergency.
Why? asks the Interrogator.
Because we donít speak. states the Subject. Because weíre all alive and we donít speak, so why would I want them notified in case Iím dead or dying? They wonít know the difference, you see, because as I said we donít speak.
The Interrogatorís eyebrows gather and eddy. No, what you first said was that you donít speak to them, your parents. Should I check my notes?
You havenít taken any notes! snaps the Subject. But, yes, you are correct in your recollection. I do not speak to my parents, but they would very well speak to me if I were interested in hearing them.
So, you speak for your parents by telling me what they would do and say, but you donít let your parents speak for themselves. Anyhow, thatís how Iím seeing it -- is that how youíre seeing it? asks the Interrogator.
Right. answers the Subject.
Itís as if theyíre dead, already dead. suggests the Interrogator. Because you are certain of what they could and would do, they are alive to you, and yet might just as well be dead. So, for you, your parents exist only in your mind.
Right. says the Subject. Just like all the people who have passed through my morgue in all these years. Is that what you were going to say?
Uncanny. says the Interrogator.
I am quite content with the dead. says the Subject. Happy, maybe. Safe, to be sure. They donít change. They are a certainty. So, they speak to me and I listen and then solve the mysteries of their deaths, and we both come away the better. I am therefore not so much controlling as respectful, reverent, do you see that now?
The Interrogator nods. I do. he says. Except, of course, as to this extra body. Heís clearly not speaking to you.
The Subject aims his finger somehow aimlessly. He would, in time, speak to me, but we have no time. He needs to be identified, his presence here explained, and then I need to retire and let him chat with my successor. says the Subject.
Iím afraid I donít think thatís how this is going to work out. says the Interrogator.
Of course it will. insists the Subject. Question everyone, and the answers will present themselves, and all this will be like it never happened... except that you will have earned my undying gratitude. So, whoís up next for the bright light and rubber hose? Whom shall I send in?
Thereís no one out there. says the Interrogator. I sent them all home. Youíre the only one being interrogated. Iím sorry I may have misled you on that point.
The Subject eyes the Interrogator steadily. But I distinctly told you, says the Subject, I ordered you --
You ordered me to close this case, and I am about to. says the Interrogator. Why is it that you donít speak with your parents, the flesh and blood living ones, not the ones in your head?
Because Iíve made the best of the life dealt me, says the Subject with a jarring lack of emotion, but Iíd really rather not have been born, and my parents made that decision for me without the slightest consideration as how I might feel about it.
So you hate them? asks the Interrogator.
Letís just say Iím rather disappointed. answers the Subject.
And scared? suggests the Interrogator.
Scared of living, scared of dying, or worse -- scared of not having mattered. states the Subject. Yeah, itís all scary, because, in the end, all it amounts to is this -- The Subject points to the sheet-covered body on the gurney.
The young man who has your DNA. says the Interrogator.
My DNA on him. says the Subject.
No, your DNA in him. says the Interrogator.
Thatís... not... possible. stammers the Subject. And then, as he stares at the sheet-covered body, he is elsewhere, the place where memories go. Oh, my God... says the Subject.
Preliminarily, itís a match, says the Interrogator, but after the full work-up comes back --
It will turn out heís my son. says the Subject. The son I never knew. The son whose existence I denied. Worse -- whose existence I demanded be aborted.
Cause of death is cancer. says the Interrogator.
See -- I knew it -- any son of mine would be bred not for life but death. The poor bastard. Or maybe the lucky bastard. Let us hope heís in a better place now. says the Subject.
You mean here, with you? asks the Interrogator.
Of course not. snaps the Subject.
Then why is he here? asks the Interrogator.
No doubt his mother -- this would be her doing. says the Subject. To get me to meet my son on the death slab. She must have found a way to slip him in here -- bribing a driver or attendant maybe. You check on that. This would be her way of teaching me a lesson.
She obviously doesnít know you very well, does she? suggests the Interrogator.
No, not very. says the Subject softly.
Then, itís case closed. smiles the Interrogator. A real smile this time. A white smile. A shiny smile.
Right. says the Subject. Youíve proven quite the detective.
Now you know what I know. says the Interrogator.
Shall I recommend you for something? asks the Subject. After all this time, do you need a reference? A promotion? I would like to do that.
You want to do something for me? No, I donít think so. states the Interrogator, still smiling. Whiter, shinier still. Nothing I need. Fine where I am. But Iím thinking... a man who resents living bears a son who dies. A man who embraces death finally gets the opportunity to know the son he could and would not know in life. And youíre still on the job until tomorrow.
I know my duty. says the Subject quite sharply, holding his ground but wobbling, the floor suddenly not flat enough.
No one will know if you walk away now, says the Interrogator, his voice so faint he might not have said anything at all. No one will know but me, and I wonít tell. Walk away. This time your son canít follow. Too bad for you.
The Subject eyes the Interrogator. I am too old to come alive. smiles the Subject. A weak smile. Not false, just weak, joyless.
There will be plenty of time to be dead again, says the Interrogator, forever-after should be more than sufficient.
So I should risk a brief life certain now to be filled entirely with regret? argues the Subject. No, I am going to leave here as I came, and there will be no fishing. I told you.
But donít you see, exhorts the Interrogator, and he is struggling now, regret matters. Pain matters. A legacy is not a light, itís a shadow -- itís not left behind, itís taken wherever you go. Welcome it.
The Subject starts to reply but stops. Itís not clear if he knew what he was going to say, or he realized that what he was going to say might very well be wrong, but now he turns toward the dead body, hesitates, then steps over, deftly lifts the sheet and folds it back, the patient face of the young man revealed. The Subjectís eyes are closed as he leans down, ear near the young manís lips, listening. And then the Subject looks at the Interrogator and whispers sotto voce: Youíre right, heís speaking to me.
The Interrogator nods. And, is he angry? Does he hate you? Is he disappointed in you?
The Subject shakes his head. No, he says heís lucky. No other father could be here for him like this. My God. Itís like he never died... because I never lived.
Who knows, smiles the Interrogator, maybe he will be the one to teach you how to fish. You really do have to know something before you know if you like it or not. The Interrogator slides the pad and pen toward the Subject. And while youíre at it, put down some numbers to call in case of emergency, and then dial them while things are still well and healthy.
ďWhom to notify in case of happy?Ē says the Subject.
Just in case. says the Interrogator.
Unlikely. says the Subject.
Just in case. says the Interrogator. Anyhow, thatís how Iím seeing it.
And, wearing his shiny badge on his dark uniform shiny with wear, the Interrogator leaves through the rubber sealed door. There is no reluctance in his stride.
After one moment and then another, the Subject smiles. A weak smile. But not so joyless. A smile less of present than promise.
For here, in the stainless steel room with the shiny table and two shiny chairs, with the unused pad and the unused pen, the too-white white man with the shiny black nametag and the shiny white lab coat pulls up one of the chairs and sits down next to his son.
The shine is suddenly here, there, and everywhere.
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