The corpse on the rack reminds Gaby of her father. It has been a while since she stopped searching for his face amid strangers, dead and alive, but on this day it is his face that finds her.
“What’s the name of the deceased?” She asks her assistant.
He consults the paperwork, reads off a name. Enrique Manuel García. With each syllable, she is transported back to the last day her mother said that name out loud. The last day they ever saw him. Gaby has turned that memory over so many times in the last 20 years it now feels like a faded copy of the original.
“Hey, Doctor García,” her assistant says. “Where should I put the body?”
Two months before she would’ve stepped out and called Alejo. Would’ve processed what was happening with her boyfriend on the other end of the line. But after he left Venezuela he begged her not to call him unless she’d changed her mind about joining him.
“So where should I put it?”
It’s the Sunday of Holy Week, and they are expecting to top 50 bodies by the end of the weekend. Sweat collects on her assistant’s brow as he waits on her to respond. He’s wearing a wrinkled handkerchief over his nose and mouth to keep out the stench, so strong she can almost see it swirling in the air.
“When did it come in?” she asks.
She is used to making cold calculations. If she doesn’t do the autopsy, her father’s body will end up in what the assistants call the ‘rotten freezer’ until Monday, when the other pathologist comes in. Except the overstuffed freezer broke last year, so it’s not really a freezer anymore, and the body has already begun to decompose. The alternative involves cutting her own father open.
Gaby allows herself to look at him. His eyelids are closed, covering the electric-green irises that were even more striking set against his tan skin and white smile. When she was a little girl, she had been sure he was the most handsome man in the world.
In front of her, a liquid that looks like reddish bacon grease leaks out of the non-freezer. The assistants haven’t come up with a name for that.
“Put him on table four,” she says. There is no time to think of the past.
The last autopsy she’d been this hesitant to do, she’d had to use a hacksaw and her bare hands because the electric saw was broken and the morgue was out of gloves. That was the time she came closest to telling Alejo that fine, maybe she was ready to leave the country. That she’d finally reached her limit. But after the initial shock and anger subsided, she’d returned to a simple truth: the dead wouldn’t stop coming through the morgue. Somebody had to do the difficult work.
At first Alejo agreed they should stay, but then he began to waver. Let’s stay, she’d beg. And then Alejo would argue for all the reasons why they deserved to try for a better life elsewhere. For months Gaby felt like she was stuck inside one of those Looney Tunes cartoons from her childhood, with a devil and an angel on each shoulder, except she couldn’t always tell which one was arguing which side.
When she interviewed at the city morgue right out of medical school, her professors warned her it was both the best and worst place in the country to learn how to be a good pathologist. What mattered to her, she’d told them, was going where she could be most useful. Like so many other days since, she tries to draw from that old well of resolve as she crosses the chipped ceramic floor over to the examination table.
Gaby scans her father’s body. It looks like a bullet passed between his clavicle and first rib, hitting the braciocephalic vein. A warm sigh of relief catches inside her face mask—the cause of death is obvious and the autopsy will be quick, like his death. And once she’s finished with him, she can move on to the other bodies, and families, waiting on her to do her job, and maybe stay busy long enough to keep herself from thinking about what she’s about to do.
As she checks her father’s pockets, she wonders who will come for him. Then she realizes that she’s a family member, and therefore she might have some responsibility. She imagines herself discussing this with Alejo. He’s the only one she’s ever entrusted with her backstory. How her mom suddenly left her dad, taking Gaby with her. How at first he called her but then he didn’t. How her mom had loved her doubly but never explained him or herself to her.
There’s a thin leather wallet on her father, but no phone—a typical mugging in a city where even a wad of bills can’t buy a cup of coffee. Tucked inside one of the slots, Gaby finds a glossy school portrait of a girl who looks to be about 13 or 14. She stares back with those glow-in-the-dark eyes that Gaby always wished he’d passed on to her. Her hands tremble as she puts back the picture and rushes the rest of the autopsy. They’re still trembling when she finishes filling out the paperwork, adding a note asking the ‘next of kin’ to call her.
“I have a little sister,” she says out loud. She looks up to make sure no one has heard her, but it’s just her and her father, and three other cadavers lying face up as if they’re gazing at the constellation of missing ceiling tiles.
When Gaby finally gets home the next morning, she rips her clothes off before she’s even made it to the bathroom, leaving a trail behind her. But once she’s standing naked below the shower nozzle, she freezes, too scared to find out whether the water has been shut off again. Eventually she manages to pull the handle. After a brief wait that seems to stretch out time, a gush of water releases over her head.
It’s all she needs to finally break down in tears that blend into the shower water. But it’s a short-lived release, the kind she’s gotten good at, a sob just long enough to let out the pressure that has been building up.
Gaby takes a deep breath as she runs a whittled bar of soap over her body, the same bar of soap that Alejo ran over his body just weeks before. The morning after a hard shift, they would always talk it out with each other. But toward the end he said he didn’t want to talk about work, that it was getting to be too much for him. Gaby used to think she had the harder job until he started seeing a growing number of infant cases exhibiting acute malnutrition.
That’s when their debates about staying or going turned into fights. He’d come home and tell her about the four-month-old who died under his care because the hospital suddenly didn’t have formula. About the hospital director who was banning him from using malnutrition as a diagnosis. She had tried to comfort him when she said, “Think of all the children you’ve helped. Imagine what would’ve happened to them if you’d left.” Her words backfired. He slammed the bathroom cabinet so hard she thought the mirror was going to break. But it held on. They always made up, always went to sleep clutching each other like their bed was a sinking raft.
His mother still texts her sometimes, says she hopes Gaby will join him in Houston. That he just started working as a driver on an app and is sleeping better now. That he misses Gaby but is still upset she broke up with him—which makes no sense to her because he’s the one who chose to leave.
Yet again, Gaby replays her words to him the night he decided to move away.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be one of those people who runs off to Miami or Madrid, just when we’re needed here most, only to go scrub toilets or wait tables in a foreign country that doesn’t want us. What were all those years of medical school for? Seriously, how can we ever get out of this mess if only the old and the sick and the dead are left behind?”
But she doesn’t want to think about that night, or anything else. So after her shower, she turns on the TV. In these last few weeks of living alone, she has developed a habit of watching cartoons until her rattling organs grow still enough for her to sleep. Today it’s a rerun of Rick and Morty’s interdimensional adventures trying to distract her from Alejo, her parents, the country’s crisis, and what she’ll do if no one comes to pick up the body. Or what she’ll do if someone does.
Her attention drifts in and out of the show as memories insist on returning, one by one, as if her mind was an old carousel projector. There’s Alejo, packing his suitcase. There’s her mom, wiping mascara-tainted tears from her young cheeks, the first time Gaby ever saw her cry. There’s her dad, looking like a telenovela star in his brand-new Ray-Bans, catching frogs with her on their last family trip to Higuerote. Her brain is on overdrive, jumping across time and place in ways she doesn’t understand.
A loud boom makes her reach for the remote and mute the TV. Aside from the distant sounds of traffic, everything’s quiet. Gaby sits back, relieved the explosion isn’t happening in the real world, at least not today, and watches as Rick and Morty emerge from a swirling green vortex. She turns up the volume.
“Rick,” Morty asks. “What about the reality we left behind?”
“What about the reality where Hitler cured cancer?” Rick snaps back.
Just then, the power goes out. Gaby reaches for another screen, her phone, and goes to Alejo’s Facebook page. He hasn’t posted an update in months; in fact, his profile picture is still one of them. A selfie they took on a hike in El Ávila, the green lungs of their city, the one place where they could get away from the chaos, until the recent string of robberies on the trails.
The Valley of Caracas was their picture-perfect background that day. From up high, the buildings and highways sprouting out of the dense fauna looked like progress. Their backs were to Caracas, their faces to the Caribbean. Gaby and Alejo smiled, posing in front of their city, a paradise in hell blessed with unbridled natural beauty, cursed with the biggest reserves of petroleum in the world.
Her fingers flit across the screen to message Alejo. “I found my father at the morgue.” Send. “I think I have a little sister.” Send. She stares at the words for a moment, waiting, hoping, for an immediate reply. But nothing happens.
The sound of the phone rouses her out of an agitated sleep. It’s the morgue.
Gaby sits up, whatever grogginess she felt a second ago clearing. But they’re just calling to ask if she can come in for an afternoon shift. The pathologist on schedule hasn’t shown up, and for all she knows, may never show up again. Gaby says yes. It’s always better to keep busy.
At the morgue, an assistant informs her they’re out of sutures.
“But we have fatherland,” he jokes, before listing the new arrivals.
Alejo used to say that too. Whenever they couldn’t find something—toilet paper, sugar for their morning coffee, a replacement car battery, coffee, insulin for Gaby’s mom—he would say it. At first it was a way to counter the grim government slogan “fatherland, socialism, or death,” but over the years it took the place of an indignant sigh. The phrase takes Gaby back to their last fight.
“Living here’s like living in purgatory,” Alejo said, looking at the clear night sky through the rows of security bars on the window. They were sitting next to each other on the bed. “I’m so tired of this government and its fucking fatherland.”
“Come on. Don’t start again.”
“Why won’t you give Houston a chance? Paty and Javier are there. We could apply for asylum. We could—.”
“This is our home,” she interrupted. She went on, delivering her speech about why she didn’t want to be one of those people who left and gave up. Alejo listened, still looking out the window. When he turned to face her, his eyes matched the shine of the stars outside.
“Gorda, please. Don’t you ever wonder what our lives could be like somewhere else, if we didn’t have to deal with thishit every single day?” Gaby shook her head, looking down at her exposed hands, which a moment before he’d been squeezing in his. “I can’t live like this anymore,” he said. The words landed with the weight of a declaration.
Alejo started to cry, and then she cried, softly at first and then harder once she realized he wasn’t going to console her the way he had done when her mom died.
Gaby’s caught up in the memory of that night, and in the bullet she’s extracting from a woman’s nape, when she hears her name being called. One of the receptionists is holding the swinging door open with the toe of her shoe, just wide enough for her voice to reach Gaby from the other side.
“The family of Enrique García is here,” she says. “Did you really ask to see them?”
Gaby can hear other unsaid questions in her voice—this is not the standard procedure. But she doesn’t stop to explain herself as she plods into the waiting area, grabbing a clipboard on the way like it’s a shield.
The air in the waiting room is heavy not just with the fetor of decaying bodies, but with the sorrow of the living. A shriveled old woman is holding a rosary and crossing herself. Another woman is sobbing like she’s Mary Magdalene. The clipboard quivers in Gaby’s hand.
She looks around the crowded room a few times before finally spotting her. The girl is alone, leaning against a wall with her arms crossed over her chest. The first thing Gaby notices are her gemlike irises, but even though her features match, she’s not the same smiling teenager as in the picture.
Gaby’s feet take her over to the girl, but all she can manage to do when she reaches her is read from the form on the clipboard.
“Name?” Gaby asks, her eyes fixed on the blank form.
“María Alejandra García.”
Gaby’s throat feels constricted when she swallows, as if there’s a hand wrapped around it. But she presses on.
“Relation to the deceased?”
“I already filled out a form with that information,” the girl says. “I’ve been waiting here for hours. Are you the pathologist? They said the pathologist needed to talk to me but couldn’t say why. When can I see him?”
The girl stares at Gaby as if she wants something from her, but that only makes it harder to come up with the right words. Then she leans in closer, and Gaby’s drum-heart slows. Maybe she has recognized their likeness. Gaby looks up and meets her gaze.
“You have his eyes,” Gaby says.
The girl shakes her head and blinks, her brow knitting into a tighter and tighter knot. Suddenly, she walks forward and wraps her arms around Gaby. As the girl’s warm tears soak through her lab coat, Gaby fixates on the ceiling fan rattling round and round as if it will fly off at any moment and decapitate them.
Her clipboard clangs as it drops to the floor.
“I’m sorry, doctor.” The girl sniffles, letting go of Gaby. “I had prayed that it wasn’t him. That maybe you had the wrong person.”
The girl picks up the clipboard and hands it to Gaby. It is difficult to look straight into those eyes, so she glances down at the form and the next unanswered question.
“What’s your date of birth?”
She knows the question will jerk the girl from her sadness. But she doesn’t care.
“February 4, 1992,” the girl says, frowning. “But I told you, I already filled that form out.”
Gaby does the math in her head but can’t come up with an answer. It doesn’t seem possible that this girl’s 1992 could really be the same as Gaby’s 1992, the year her dad took her to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live concert and they stopped on the way home to eat street hot dogs. It’s as if that man, that child, that country, existed in a different time-space continuum from her current self.
Her throat constricts further. This girl doesn’t feel like her sister any more than the corpse she slit open felt like her dad. Instinctively, she knows that she will have to incorporate this new reality into her being at some point, that all she must focus on right now is breathing. Gaby turns and marches out of the waiting room, past the old lady with the rosary pointlessly whispering the Lord’s Prayer, past everyone who’s there for the dead.
Outside in the parking lot she inhales deeply. The equatorial sun warms her skin, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze. And she smells the same goddamn stench, as vultures flap over the building in circles. She’s all alone in a hell in paradise. An orphan in a fatherland.
Gaby sits in her car, waiting for her hands to stop trembling so she can leave the morgue and find fresh air, when her phone buzzes in her pocket: a message from Alejo. Before she’s even done reading it, she taps the green call button next to his picture.
An interminably long ring as she imagines the fiber-optic cables connecting Caracas to Houston lighting up in sparkles under the sea. And then the sound of life.
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