1-12-2011, 8:42 pm—Deceased brought in from snow. After signing transfer form, delivering officer, Deputy Desmond Fogle [#347], makes crass remark about deceased’s ‘knockers’ before surrendering Oklahoma state license with the name ‘Heidi Gordon’ printed beside an approximate picture of the deceased. I examine picture, and for a fleeting moment believe it might be a practical joke. I scrutinize Deputy Fogle’s features; they are bent towards the clipboard in my hand. He yawns impatiently, waiting for me to sign off so that he can take a nap on the side of the highway somewhere. I scribble my name in appropriate blank and stand poised above her while he exits. Have not looked closely at the body until now, but the resemblance is stunning. Her skin is blue and her features mute. It is not possible for her to be the same person, but that fact does not interest me. I close my eyes, forget what I know—try to see how far I can stretch the suspension of disbelief.
“No more reading,” I remember saying.
“Lots more reading,” she responded. I lay on her chest in her room, beneath a canopy of shade created by her book. We both had an organic chemistry test in the morning, although, unlike me, she was determined to study. I readjusted my body, rested my fingers against the parts of her I knew were ticklish, hoping to distract her without her realizing. No use. I continued to lay with my ear pressed against her chest, listening for every fourth heartbeat. I kept time with my finger against her breast, lightly tapping until I came to the fourth beat, which I held in the air, hovering above her nipple until the rhythm resumed.
“Hey!” she said, suddenly realizing what I was doing.
“I’m not a weirdo.” She closed the book and sat up, shifting so that now she was on top
of me. “What do you need, little boy? Are you looking for attention?”
“Do you feel neglected?”
I nodded again.
“Well, come here, little darling, and let mommy make it all better.”
I grabbed her by the waist and rolled her over so that her back pressed firmly against the carpet, kissed her and pressed with my tongue against her teeth.
“Little boy!” she said with mock astonishment. “What on earth will the neighbors think?”
“Knock it off,” I said, and kissed her again. This time she softened and relaxed into it, her body arching against the floor as I fumbled with her pants’ button. We messed around, and afterwards I laid on top of her again, head against her chest, listening to the quickened rhythm of her heart and counting once more the missed beats.
“What does it feel like when your heart skips a beat?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
“It’s your heart.”
My eyes focused on a freckle on the inside of her left breast, watching it blur and regain focus as I drifted in and out of thought.
“I’m surprised it doesn’t make you feel anxious.”
“What would I be anxious about?”
I had not meant to say it—that was my anxiety, not hers—but now that it was out, I continued: “Your heart sets the rhythm for the rest of your body. If that rhythm isn’t stable, your body’s like a band with a fucked up drummer. Like free jazz or something.”
“I like free jazz,” she smiled. “And besides, my rhythm is stable, it’s just different. More interesting, you could say.”
I listened for the fourth beat and felt how, as it passed, my entire body seemed suspended, as though my own heart were waiting for hers to start beating again.
“And besides, isn’t it all just perspective anyway? What if it isn’t a lapse, but a pause—a four p.m. siesta before the factory doors open again and everything starts anew, refreshed?”
“However you want to look at it.”
“I think that you could use a siesta.” She smiled and crawled on top of me, positioned her ear against my sternum and held her hand over my stomach, began slapping it rapidly once she’d dialed into my heartbeat. I tried to inhale, to breathe deeply and force my heart rate to slow, but her fingers continued to slap my belly at the same blinding pace, until the skin there began to flush.
“See there?” I said, grabbing her hand and pulling her up onto my chest. “Totally dependable. Never misses a beat.”
1-12-2011, 11:16 pm—Wife calls to ask when I will be home. Late night, I tell her, which is a kind of code the other has learned not to question. I circle the table. ‘Heidi’ lays upon it, still dead. I stare at her from different angles. Karen died years ago, but my mind cannot stop postulating the improbable. I imagine one scenario after another; far-fetched sequences of events to justify how the girl I once knew might have ended up on the table in front of me. As if it mattered. A corpse is a corpse… but even as I think it, I know it is not true. Late night. Sleep has been scarce. Deputy Fogle [#347] has advised that I practice thinking about nothing. Is this the same as not thinking? Have tested this method on several occasions now, lying in bed next to well-meaning wife, thinking about not-thinking, about the color black; thinking about the globules of color radiating on the inside of my eyelids, and about many things in a fevered, stream-of-conscious fashion, trying to convince myself that I already am dreaming. The result is a waking nightmare. Method is faulty. Late night. Even the freckle on the inside of her breast is where it should be, although the breasts themselves have swollen over the years. My breath catches and I look away. It can be awkward, surrounded by naked bodies. One feels there is some haunted part of them still capable of objecting. I look at her again and decide that this one, at least, does not mind.
By the time I received my first graduate school acceptance, Karen had already been accepted to four different schools, including Johns Hopkins’s medical program: her first choice. I remember celebrating with her the night she found out. I also had applied to Johns Hopkins, but hadn’t heard anything as of yet. “I think acceptances are rolling,” she said. “I’m sure yours is on its way.”
All that followed were rejections, except for one, and that wasn’t even to a medical program, but to the one law school I applied to out in Colorado. Not sure what made me apply. A change of pace, maybe? Deep down I think I knew I wasn’t cut out for medicine, but Karen was, and I believed I was pretty cut out for her.
I did not tell Karen about my acceptance, but continued to hold out hope for the final school on my list: The Annapolis School of Medicine. Annapolis, after all, was only a stone’s throw away from Johns Hopkins. I could see her on the weekends. Possibly during the week, as long as I promised not to keep her up too late—a promise I fully intended not to keep. When the rejection finally came, I hardly looked at it before crumpling it up and tossing it in the wastebasket. I did not tell Karen, but continued to check the mail as usual, cursing whenever I was with her and found it empty.
“Don’t worry,” she would reassure me constantly. “Any day now.”
Meanwhile, she commenced preparations for her own impending departure. We were still five weeks away from graduation, but she had a trip scheduled to tour the campus, meet her professors, all of that stuff.
“Maybe I should come too,” I said, the two of us laying together on the eve of her departure. “Annapolis isn’t that far away. I should probably check it out just in case I do get in.”
“I can’t believe you haven’t gotten your offer yet. You should call them, say you’ve got other acceptances pending or something. This is ridiculous.”
“Yeah. Ridiculous. So what do you think?”
“About me coming with you.”
“Oh. Well, of course I’d love for you to come… Do you think you could get a flight this late? Obviously you could stay in the hotel with me, but how would you get back and forth to Annapolis? You’d need a rental car or something…”
“Forget about it,” I sighed, and rolled over onto my back. “I probably won’t get in anyway.”
“Don’t say that! Of course you’ll get in.”
“Right. Of course. But what if I don’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“Us. What will we do if I don’t get accepted to the program in Annapolis?”
Her eyes drifted toward the ceiling. I couldn’t tell whether it was a thing she’d not considered, or one she’d considered exhaustively. I knew the answer: we were too young. Too young to keep up the long distance, and too young for me to follow after her… unless, of course, I could find some personal reason that would not put any pressure on her, or me.
Karen did not answer the question. Instead, she chided me for being so negative. I apologized by going down on her, then drew up and pushed our two bodies together. She loved the way my face smelled after I went down on her. We fucked and came and, even after I was finished, my hand slipped beneath the covers and pressed between her thighs. There was a moment of questioning in her eyes, but only a moment. I don’t know how many times I made her come before she finally forced my hand away, but I know it was not enough.
Afterwards, I laid with my head on her chest, listening once again for the fourth beat: that pause, my sanctuary. Her body was relaxed, drifting in and out of half-sleep the way one does sometimes after sex. My eyes remained fixed on the two suitcases standing side by side in the corner, and I clung to her, drinking her in as gently as possible so that she would not notice. It was as if I could not get close enough. Until every fourth beat, that is, when everything felt suspended and I experienced the temporary relief of stasis. It always passed though, too soon. No matter how I clung to her, her beating heart always resumed.
1-13-2011, 12:53 am—The blue has faded from deceased’s skin, resuming a healthy corpse-like paleness. She’s still cold to the touch though. I was sitting next to her on the steel table, savoring the buzz from a nicotine patch, when my hand pressed against the bare skin of her shoulder. Unsure, still, whether gesture was intended or accidental. I was surprised at how the cold actually transmitted between us, like a current between two wires, mingling with the nicotine and chilling the base of my spine, causing my testicles to draw up into my body. The air feels cold in my lungs. The quality of light in the room has shifted, now tinged with something that makes it appear darker while, at the same time, more crisp. World feels diminished, compressed to the size of this room, this table, the distance between our cold, increasingly mutual bodies.
The problem with an arrhythmia is that it is difficult to distinguish from a long QT interval—i.e. the time it takes for electrical impulses in the heart to recharge between beats. Unlike an arrhythmia, a long QT interval may appear stable, without actually being so. There is always the threat of the charge not picking back up, or, just as bad, picking up a fraction of a second too late. I’m not sure exactly when it happened to Karen, although I’m told that she was sleeping. For a long time afterwards I would try to simulate the rhythm myself, drumming it on my chest at night and sustaining every fourth beat, like counting sheep, until eventually I would drift off and the rhythm would cease altogether.
I accepted the University of Colorado’s offer and attended law school there, which turned out to be a much better fit than medicine. Later on, I combined interests by studying forensic law, and after several years, put together a campaign for county coroner. It was a long shot: the incumbent I was running against had been coroner for the past five years, was a physician of some standing before that, and unfortunately, his years in office had passed as uneventfully as a ship in the night, which is all anybody wants from a coroner.
Except that’s not entirely true.
During our one public hearing—which took place on a winter night in February and was attended by a grand total of six people, including us candidates—I asked him about his relationship with the bodies in his care.
“Relationship?” he repeated, drawing out each of the vowels sardonically.
“Yes, relationship. Are you not often called upon to spend late, quiet hours in the morgue? And are you not frequently alone there, surrounded by any number of deceased bodies, some of them female, and some of them admittedly attractive?”
His face went red immediately, and he looked to the moderator for help. Neither one of them seemed to know quite what to say.
“You can’t be serious,” he finally sputtered. “What is wrong with you, to even consider asking me a question like that?”
I would not answer.
Instead, I continued, addressing the rest of the room, which, besides the moderator, consisted of two janitors and a junior reporter from the local news network. “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” I said. “It’s just that I’m unsettled by your unwillingness to even consider the question. Do you honestly expect us to believe that, in the five years you have served as coroner for this great county, with deceased persons circulating through your office on a regular basis, many of whom are both young and attractive—not to mention nude—that the thought, no matter how brief, of fucking them has not flittered across your mind?”
“Young man, you are insane.”
The hearing ended with him storming out of the hall, still not having answered what, to me, and evidently to the other citizens of Arapahoe County, was a perfectly legitimate question. Weeks later, after I had been elected the new Arapahoe County Coroner, and the video of the hearing had gone viral, I met again with the junior reporter who had been there at the hearing, and who had since received a promotion. She joked with me, congratulated me on my election and the unusual tactics I’d used to secure it, but eventually she could not help steering the conversation back to that night, turning the question around on me. She worked hard to suppress her laughter as she asked: “Would you, Mr. Harper, ever consider amorous conduct with one of the deceased trusted to your care?”
Obviously, after what had happened, there was only one answer I could give. She smiled, and I returned her warmth with ease. “Consider?” I repeated, and rolled my eyes for a moment before answering: “Well sure, Nathalie. I suppose in certain unforeseen circumstances the thought would at least occur to me.” We both laughed and shook hands, and she congratulated me once more on my victory.
1-13-2011, 1:03 am—I rest the tips of my fingers against the deceased’s eyelids, feel the gently sloping astigmatism pressing against the other side. Her mouth, the skin of her neck, her shoulders: all are relaxed, lacking any tension. I bend my head to her breasts and locate the freckle on the left—like a hole in ice—turn my head so that my ear rests above her sternum. My fingers hover, poised above her breast and waiting; waiting for the rhythm to resume, waiting for the night to come swirling back into focus. We remain like that, poised but not moving, the silence spreading around our increasingly mutual bodies.