As Below, So Above
What would it be like to know it was the last time?
She brought him toast and tea. He laid a hand on the knob of her wrist and said, “I want to make love to you for the last time.” She had other lovers before him and people were telling her that one day she would have others again, yet she never knew the moment of breaking, never saw the unraveling before it happened, so she had never known which time would be the last. She could always assume there would be another time.
She wanted to be light, so she said, “You don’t know that it will be the last time.”
“Actually, I do,” he told her.
“We’ve got a foot,” was the first thing her boss said to her on her first day back from leave. Not an enthusiastic, “It’s good to have you back,” but, “We’ve got a foot.”
She had grown unaccustomed to the schedule of working people. “Is the foot with anything else?”
“The police are uncovering the rest of it now. I want you to go take care of it.” Which translated to, I am incompetent and now that you are here I can make you do all the work again. He was always writing memos to clarify the organizational structure of the office–which contained four people. It was not as if a lot of people were dying of unnatural causes and needing autopsies in the small county which they served.
“Fine,” she said, not because it was, but because that was what he wanted her to say. “Where is it?”
“On campus,” he said, and she knew it was going to be a long week.
Every day she made the boys lunch. As time passed the lunches got more and more extravagant because she had so much time on her hands, time to fill as her husband slept. Peanut butter and jelly gave way to chicken salad with grapes. Carrots not only peeled but lovingly cut into neat rectangles and wrapped in colored plastic wrap to brighten their day. They hadn’t wanted her to go back to work; the youngest had asked, “Who will color with me now?” She thought it best for him to be back in the classroom, with its bright primary colors and alphabet charts, where he got a gold star if he colored an entire picture without going outside the lines.
The sheriff’s deputies knew her; here she got the welcome back that she expected. They told her that she looked good and that they were glad to see her–the burly sheriff said she was “a damn sight for sore eyes.” They were not fond of the men in her office, who lacked her easy grace, and they reserved a special hatred for her supervisor, who had raised rubbing them the wrong way to an art form. When she first arrived, she had been vaguely insulted to be called the “lady coroner,” but had come to realize it as a compliment.
Crime scene tape fluttered around a clustered group of deputies, and they dug and plucked at the dirt like robins as they looked for clues. The autumn air was crisp and fallen leaves crunched under their feet as they worked. A leg was beginning to be revealed from under the dirt they removed as carefully as sand thieves. They were unable to investigate their way out of a wet paper bag, but she loved them. They were earnest and they took their jobs as bearers of the dead seriously.
“How are you holding up?” the young one asked her, handing her a paper cup of bitter coffee. She had not yet learned to remember his name.
“Not much to hold up yet,” she answered, as if he had only been asking her about her work.
He went along with it, even though she had evaded his question. “I think it’s safe to assume we know what happened to one of the missing girls,” he said, and she nodded.
She kept his vodka in the freezer, even though it made him puke. It poured sluggishly into cups and cups. She had done autopsies and knew what drinking did to the liver and she still drank more than she should. Even the teenagers brought in from drunk-driving accidents had the marbling of fat from their hamburger habits and the rough effects of beer. She was alarmed when he threw up blood, but he said, “If I’m going to be throwing up blood anyway, I might as well be drunk.” He smoked joints to be able to eat. She put on seven pounds during her time off from all of the munchies she had had, smoking with him. She hated thinking of what her lungs would look like.
She had to put them on the plane alone and it killed her. They were so small, even though it was a nonstop flight and the flight attendants promised to take care of them and she knew her mother was waiting at the other end. When they came back, their father would be dead from stomach cancer.
She expected them to be frightened; she hadn’t flown for the first time until she was eighteen and left for college. “It’s so big,” David shouted when he saw the plane, even though it was a smaller commuter flight. Mark just looked at her with his big eyes; he was happy because she packed them snacks and little drawing pads to keep them entertained on the flight, one of them with an invisible pen.
“Are you scared?” she asked him. He was only six.
He shook his head. “Gramma lets us stay up late and jump on the beds,” he informed her.
The house was so quiet without them. Paul slept for fifteen or sixteen hours a day, in a haze of painkillers. She missed the agitated whirlwind created by the bustle only boys could create. Once, when she was younger, she wanted a kitten, even though her family already had an older cat. Her mother let her have one, and the kitten would jockey for position on her lap whenever the older one was sitting there, eventually provoking a fight. When she joked to her mother that she needed more hands now to pet two of them, her mother responded, “Don’t have more than one kid, then.”
She had memorized the rates of decay, flipped through charts on insect invasion over time, and had dealt with bodies found that were nothing more than a bag of bones. It surprised her to discover she had the stomach for it. She took comfort from the known quantities of the people who came to her. They were never going to fight or fuck or drink good French wine or see a sunrise again, but they were also never going to break her heart or take something away from her. Even though she was generally friendly and people seemed to like her, she preferred the dead to the living, because they never talked back, never thought her jokes were not funny, or talked about her behind her back. There were other jobs she could have trained for that would have offered this stereotypical, antisocial garden of delights, but somebody needed to do it. Even though every medical examiner in the world probably came to the career for much the same reasons, she like to think that she was better at it, that “her” bodies preferred to come to her, for her light touch and reassuring kindness.
She was thirty and already a mortuary assistant by the time she had found her future husband. She liked Paul for his sense of humor, and that he wasn’t put off by her profession. He told her a terrible joke on their first date: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a hooker? A hooker will stop trying to screw you once you're dead.
They had been married for nine years. It had been nearly a decade since she had even thought about another man. She could still remember what it was like in the heat of their first flush: shaving her legs every day, just in case something happened between them; stealing napkins from restaurants they went to on dates; the immense joy of being allowed to leave a toothbrush overnight in his bathroom’s toothbrush cup. Not that everything was always happy–she avoided infidelity mostly out of laziness, being too tired with work and the kids and trying to read a book or magazine once in a while to find the time to screw around with someone else. He was completely useless with the kids when they were infants, acting like changing a diaper merited a medal of valor. She thought about leaving him more than once while rinsing a dish or picking up a dirty sock.
It was better when the boys were older: Paul was great with tossing a ball around the yard or putting bugs in a jar or creatively answering the inevitable questions like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Where does my goldfish go when it dies?” That and once both of the kids could be depended on to sleep through the night without crying or becoming afraid of the dark, there was time to have sex again, unlike the years when she was too tired to move at a speed faster than “listless.”
They started dating shortly after the New Year, so the first thing he had given her was a Valentine. A friend had once cautioned her never to start a new relationship anywhere near Valentine’s Day because to do so was courting disaster: one wrong move and the romantic holiday would forever be tainted with distasteful memories. The Valentine itself had been unremarkable–the kind that came out of a box, for schoolchildren to take one to their entire class, and it featured a popular cartoon character of the time and said, simply, “Be Mine.” Prior to that, she saved everything each lover had given her. Mike stole her a Stop sign in college; Peter gave her an Indian arrowhead; Josh gave her a string of colored lights after hosting a party in his apartment. She kept these things in the unlikely event that she ended up married to one of these men, years later she would be able to sort through her mementos and say, “See? This is the first thing you ever gave me.” Somewhere, she still had the box containing the remnants of her former lovers, like flowers from a corsage pressed between the pages of a book, but she had forgotten where the box was.
When they were ready for her, she took the pictures. The body was under a pitiful layer of dirt and it surprised her that it had not been found sooner. In life, the body would have stood around five feet, and a slight swell at the breast put the age at maybe thirteen or fourteen. Most likely, this was one of the spate of girls that had gone missing around the state that spring and summer, the youngest only eleven, the oldest twenty and a sophomore at the college where they found this body. Although she was only a medical examiner, and did no investigating (contrary to what popular mystery novels portrayed), she found herself wondering if he might have dropped this body off while picking up his next victim, saving himself a trip.
The skin was mottled brown and the bone structure was clearly visible. It had been a warm autumn but drier than normal. The body resembled a mummy she had once seen on display at the Louvre; the coating of dark, rich dirt was undignified. Her quick estimation was that the girl had been dead for more than three and less than six months.
She took her pictures, darting into the scene like a cat after a bird. She would take fingerprints with a tiny roller back at the lab. The police were taking crime scene photos all around her; she was interested only in identification. The rest of it would come later, as they put their individual pieces together like a puzzle. The deputies would bring her what was left in a black plastic sack after they finished with their work here.
She gingerly propped the mouth open for dental shots. She knew that somewhere there was a mother or sister who had been waiting for this girl to come home, and she tried not to think about the calculated process of her husband under dirt. Eight weeks had passed since she put him in the ground.
They gave him six weeks to live; it had lasted four months. At the end, Paul weighed a hundred and nine pounds. The last time, he hadn’t eaten anything more substantial than broth for two days and as she slid over him she could feel the sharp edge of his hipbone against her inner thigh. He was breathless even though she was easy. After, lying against him, she could feel his heart skip and jump with arrhythmia, weak because he had lost so much weight. She was afraid she would kill him with her love. She told him this, and he laughed. “That would be the way to go,” he said.
Two days after the last time, autumn rain fell as the weather turned colder. Sitting next to his bed, she thought each breath was his last until it was. Soon it would be winter, and she feared the coming of the next decade without him.