A Bounty of Days and Nights
I woke at 1 a.m., the tension of the coming day robbing me of my last hour of sleep. In the early morning hush, I learned a good deal about Nightvale, Lee Marvin, and the epic Outpost Harry battle of the Korean War. For 8 nights, artillery fire rained down on a hilltop defended by American and Greek soldiers, the dead and wounded evacuated each morning. Sometime between my first sip of milk tea and last bite of roast nan and ketic, I had fallen down an Internet rabbit hole, blind-turning down rabbit corridors until I bumped my head against a wall and looked up, disoriented and uncertain what I was meant to care about or do.
When I reach the station, Beto is already loading the rig in the dark, stacking the empty body bags in his precise way, his brow a clean line of concentration, his muscled shoulders and arms smoothing the vinyl and aligning corners.
“Ehmet, my man,” he says. “Today is a good day to die.”
“And the day is not yet over,” I say, as I always do.
We have 5 pick-ups lined up for our first run. We can fit 6 bodies in the van, 3 bunks on each side. The virus dropped like a chemical bomb in Staten Island, the death toll too high for mortuary services to keep up. The virus becomes hyper-contagious after death, a last gambit to find new hosts, so people leave the bodies outside, in the hours before the neighborhoods wake. We pick up the bodies and transport them for cremation, or thermal decontamination for those with the money to insist on burial. The job pays better than car-share but there’s risk involved, and I’ve lost the flexibility to stay up all night reading the novels the library app keeps recommending, Scandinavian crime novels, all that snow, all those bodies. We were heroes at first (Rest in Peace Corps, they called us). Now we’re just garbagemen.
They leave the bodies on the porch or in the front yard, outside the door of the apartment building. They lay the bodies on towels, cover them with a sheet or scarf or coat. Sometimes they leave flowers, petals along the length of the body, a Bible, prayer beads, a votive candle.
Before we leave the station, we don our masks, face shields, white hooded coveralls, two layers of gloves. Beto pulls on his gloves and I’m distracted by his hands, how proportional, how fair they seem, like he’d selected from a shelf of hands and taken no more than his share.
“Dude, you have to hear this.” Beto plays a Bad Elmo song while I drive. What he cares about is soccer and emo rap, and I have learned to care about these things, too.
Beto is the first man whose enthusiasms I have studied. After high school, I started meeting men through hook-up apps, always at their apartments and not at the apartment where I lived in silence with my mother and a photograph of my father who might or might not be alive in a camp in Xinjiang. I found I only wanted to touch these men with the backs of my hands. My palms felt too susceptible somehow to the unsettling heat of another body. In my dreams, though, Beto and I are kissing and my hands are tangled in his hair and there is air all around us touching our bare skin.
The first pick-up on our list is a 75-year-old woman, Patricia Hunnicutt. I will say her name silently when I pull the cover from her face. The names pile up and intermingle in my head by the end of the shift. Reza Louisa Raizel Ezio Edward Fred. Ella Johnella Mirela Malik. K’alin Lina Michaela Makin.
We turn onto a street with tall overhanging trees and brambly shrubs. The porch light is off and the body is wrapped in a yellow patterned sheet. The front curtain moves and then falls closed again.
When I pull back the sheet, her hands are folded on her chest, a note tucked against her palm. In the light of my headlamp, I read the shaky handwriting:
Let me sleep, for my soul is intoxicated with love and
Let me rest, for my spirit has had its bounty of days and nights
Before we shift her to the bag, I take a photo of her face. I’ll upload it to her record when I’m back in the rig. I try not to think of my mother’s face, how in one moment I touched her cheek and in the next I was alone with the sound of the hospital monitor shrieking to the silenced rhythm of her heart.
Beto lays out the body bag while I set up the gurney. A cricket trills somewhere. I grasp the sheet to roll her onto her side so Beto can tuck the bag under. My limbs move as if the cricket’s chirp is a song just for us, Beto and I in a duet, leaning in as we zip and seal the bag. He moves as always with a graceful economy of angle and timing. I wait for Beto’s pause before we lift her onto the gurney, that pause to set his body, relaxed like a wrestler in position for a match, so that his motion accomplishes just what it needs and nothing more. When I handle the bodies, I must resist an urge toward tenderness. You could bury yourself under the weight of all these bodies.
Back at the van, a cloud of tiny particles or insects swirls under the beam of a streetlight. We angle the gurney to load her onto the lowest bunk. All around us is a quiet hum and it feels like we’re the only two people in the world, like the world belongs to these armies of barely visible things rushing somewhere, a universe of vital activities outside of our awareness, and we’re just in it for a moment.
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