I can't find my shoes. Why is my purse open? Where are my keys? My roommate turned the machine off when she left, and the coffee was cold...at least I was able use it to wash down some energy pills. The frigid, bitter swig gagged me into some sort of conscious state, I guess, because I realized that my purse was full of all my crap and nothing was missing, and I was wearing my goddamn shoes. I checked the time on my phone as I shoved it into the nest of receipts and Skittles bags in my purse...6:48 am.
The ferry left late this morning. I know, it's probably not the best idea to use its departure horn as an alarm clock. I've found that I'm up on time more often when I wake to it...I guess it's because I can't hit snooze on a boat. Some days, though, like today, it bites me in the ass. Bunk says I should set an alarm and use the ferry horns. I know it makes sense, but she has her ways and I have mine. Five years of being Army roommates had provided us the opportunity to replace privacy with the intimacy usually reserved for couples ready to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. Done with our enlistments but unwilling to live apart, we decided to think of our attachment as a positive redefinition of codependence and moved our Unger- Madisonesque paradigm to San Francisco. It was a good decision, and one that we never regretted.
Except on days she shuts the coffee maker off before leaving for work.
I hauled ass toward the BART station, hoping that the train gods, too, were running a bit late. As quickly as I could, I wove through the people on the sidewalk. Fuck. This fog hadn't come in on little cat feet. It was more like it had come in on the hooves of a herd of wildebeests and moved with the same ruthless urgency. I sighed with relief at the train's open doors and fought my way on, rewarded only with immediate regret. Being late for work was preferable to being sandwiched between a pissed off Prada clad blonde and a whiskery brute emanating the scent reserved for those who toss around the morning's fish haul. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts, but was interrupted by Prada-suit. Apparently, she was tired of being eye-fucked by the fishmonger, and I was the closest distraction that didn't portray outward signs of being a registered sex offender.
”You off to work?" I nodded, and she sighed heavily. "I wish I could wear sneakers to work. What place lets you wear jeans and sneakers, but makes you carry a portfolio?"
"The City Morgue," I said, and flinched, waiting for the standard reaction. And Prada didn't disappoint.
"Ugh. You work in the same building that there are dead people?" She gagged and recoiled as far as she could, considering the circumstances. "But you just, like, answer the phones or something, right? Or order the funeral flowers?" She held her breath in anticipation.
"I'm the Medical Examiner." Prada stared at me like I had a corpse fridge in my pocket.
"So you..." She trailed off.
She turned slightly and smiled at salmon-cologne, who whispered that I was creepy. She nodded, her hair bobbing as he tilted his head to look down her blouse.
Creepy? I always get this reaction. Always. I am not creepy, goddammit.
I walked into the morgue and relaxed a bit. Weighing various internal organs may not make for a great conversation starter, but it does involve a pretty quiet work environment.
"You used my espresso machine, Francie. I know you did, and don't even say that you didn't," shrieked my assistant as he glided into the room on wings of rage. "You fucked it up again, and when I tried to use it this morning it shot espresso all over my Armani shirt. Armani, Francie. I saved for a month to buy this shirt, and now it's covered in espresso." Calmly, I began laying out the instruments for my first autopsy.
"Curtis, doesn't that machine cost, like, three grand?" I asked. "For that price, it should work after someone runs it over with a truck. And I didn't touch your coffee maker, so chill out."
I had totally used it. Turns out three thousand dollar coffee makers don't like grocery-store espresso. Who knew?
"You wear scrubs at work, Curtis. Why were you wearing Armani anyway? Dead people don't impress easily."
"You did touch it! You're a bitch, and you owe me a new one. You're the doctor, don't you have enough money to buy your own? Why do you have to screw mine up?" He stomped off.
I put a check in my mental win column for making him scream like a harpy, and began to cut the paper off the hands of my morning work, trying my best not to notice that he was missing half his head.
Several hours later, I walked outside and lit my lunchtime cigarette. The midday sun had burned the fog off, and I was hungry.
I walked into Bunk's restaurant, nodding at the bartender and I entered the kitchen. I leaned on the prep table, waiting for Bunk to finish steaming the clams for a bordelaise.
"Did you know I was coming, or is that supposed to be for someone else?" I asked.
"You're upset," she said, as she poured wine into the clam pot and ignored my question. "Someone else call you creepy?"
I briefly laid out the morning's events. She "hmm-ed" quietly, and poured brandy into a ramekin and slid it across the cold metal table at me.
"What do you think?" I asked her, booze burning my tongue.
"I haven't decided yet," Bunk said, and turned around suddenly. She walked over to her young sous-chef and looked at his pan. Calmly, she explained that his sauce was the culinary equivalent to the Armenian genocide. She walked back and stirred the clams. I took another sip from the cup.
"Why are you staring at me?"
I didn't really know why I was staring at her.
"He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. How does a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America fuck up a sauce?"
"How do you have such passion for your job?"
"I like food, I like efficiency, and I like things clean. Kitchens have those things, and those things make me happy. Why?"
"I want to love my job, too. But I hate it."
"That's bullshit," Bunk said, ladling the steaming clams and broth into a wide bowl. "You love your job. You hate close-minded assholes that equate embalming with Dahmer sympathizers."
"I hate my assistant," I said.
"He'll shut up if you quit fucking with his stupid espresso machine."
"But I love getting him to hit that Mariah Carey decibel and shake his hands like he's having a seizure. It's so much fun."
"It's a shame that your proudest accomplishment today is making your queer assistant flap his hands and screech. I'm pretty sure that's a frequent reaction for him," she handed the clam pot to her sous-chef, shaking her head. When I left the kitchen he was still holding it, too terrified of Bunk to decide where to put it.
I walked along the pier, not wanting to go back to work. I made my way through the endless lines of sightseers, trying not to walk through anyone's seventeenth panoramic shot of Alcatraz. At the end of the pier I leaned on the splintering wood rail, breathing in the salt and seaweed. The small waves glittered blue green as they bounced toward the rocks below, and I felt more peaceful than I had earlier. My cell phone chirped, and I tilted it into the shade to read the message.
"Body on slab. Jane Doe vs. Buick. Buick won. Detectives asking for you. -C".
I arrived at the morgue as Curtis was opening up the bag of the woman's personal effects. Piece by piece, he compared each item against the property list from the police. He didn't look up.
"The cops left a few minutes ago...something about a robbery. I wasn't really listening. They said to call if we found anything to help them identify the car that hit her."
My stomach sank. "It was a hit and run? In broad daylight?"
"Yeah. And she's wearing a wedding ring, but there's no ID in her stuff and her cell phone was smashed in the accident. I'm almost done going through the stuff, but all I've found are Chapstick, cash, and a pacifier. The cops are running her prints, but they think it's a long shot."
"Well, we'll have to pull some DNA and try to rush the results. Maybe I can pull some strings with the lab tech," I sighed, pulling on my latex gloves. Instead of the usual reassuring feeling of the snap on my wrist, though, my blood ran cold. "A pacifier? She had a pacifier? Please don't tell me we have a...."
He cut me off. "Yes, Francie, she had a pacifier. And no, we don't have a baby to cut open. The cops took her to the ER, and she's with Child Services now."
I pulled the instrument table up and grabbed the tweezers, my face much closer to the body than normal to keep Curtis from seeing my tears. I began pulling paint slivers from the mass of shredded thigh muscle and yoga pant, forcing my mind to focus. It worked, I guess, because the ring of the phone through the tile room scared the shit of me. Curtis answered it, and I tried to breathe my panicked feeling into control. He scribbled something on a pad of paper, and then dialed another number rapidly. I picked the tweezers back up. I was curious, but indulgence wouldn't pull evidence from her body.
It was times like these that I remembered why I didn't fire him when he pitched fits over shirts and coffee...because those were the only things that got him riled up. Ever. When tragedy struck, the Armani stained bitching was replaced by the most even tempered, efficient person imaginable. In spite of the situation, I smiled to myself. If there were any hands to leave difficult situations in, Curtis' moisturized hands were those. Feeling a bit relieved, I warmed the water to shower the blood off her body.
"Her prints were in the system," Curtis said as he grabbed a stack of blue towels to dry her off. "Carol Rosales. She used to be a notary, so she was bonded. The cops ran her info and found her husband."
"We should call...."
Curtis interrupted. "I've already called Mr. Rosales, and he's on his way down here to identify her."
"If the cops are that sure...." I started.
"He asked about the baby so I called Child Services, too. They're bringing her here."
I smiled weakly at him. My brief thoughts of buying him a new espresso maker were halted by the detectives escorting Mr. Rosales. I smoothed her hair and turned on the camera that would display an image Carol's husband would never be able to erase from his mind. I heard the brokenhearted yelp as he recognized her. I braced myself for the screams, or for the sobs so intense that they yielded only deafening silence. Instead, I heard a squeal.
"Daaaa! Daaadaaaaadaaaaa! Hi!"
I turned the camera off and walked toward the viewing area in time to see a bouncy haired toddler stumble across the room, hands outstretched. Mr. Rosales lifted her into a long hug, ceased only when the little girl stuck her tongue in his ear, giggling wildly. The police smiled sadly as they left the room and as the door clicked closed, Mr. Rosales looked up.
"Thank you for finding me. Thank you for finding my daughter. Thank you for identifying my wife," he whispered. "You do God's work here." Unable to speak, I nodded and began to walk toward the morgue. I stopped in the hallway, though, and watched him for a moment.
He stood still, as if he were unsure what to do next. The little girl squealed and he looked at her. Smiling, she kissed her hand and placed her wet palm over his mouth. He smiled back, his eyes the eyes of those whose only choice is to ignore the defeat. I watched as the large, suit clad man juggled the girl and her polka dot bag and stepped into the elevator. She pushed a button and shrieked with joy as it lit up and the doors slid closed.
I walked back into the morgue as Curtis was gathering his things to leave for the day.
"I finished up," he said, handing me my sweater and portfolio. "She's in the fridge and the notes are on your desk."
"He said we do God's work, Curtis," I said quietly.
"Well, shit," he said, grinning. "If it's God's work, I guess we'll have to come in again tomorrow."
He handed me a styrofoam cup, kissed me on the cheek and walked down the hall. I closed my eyes, smiled into the steam of the ridiculously expensive coffee, and decided that I would come in again tomorrow.
Just not on the train.