“Live for Today” by S.A. Solomon (from New Jersey Noir)
Live for Today
by S.A. Solomon
University Heights, Newark, New Jersey (from New Jersey Noir)
En route to her job at the morgue, Jinx walked on JFK Boulevard to the PATH station at Journal Square. It was hot for June, the evening cloud cover an airless ceiling pressing on the street. A grimy storefront diorama displayed mannequins behind plate glass, girls with bald heads and painted-on lashes, clad in cheap, thin dresses. They stood frail against the hard gray light. Commuters hustled by, indifferent to the girls’ orphaned gazes.
At the station, a man with a crew cut, his florid face glistening in the heat, watched her stride by in her work pants. He spit on the tracks.
“Walk like a woman,” he said hoarsely.
The train arrived. She wedged into the car. Sweat trickled down the backs of her thighs. The train labored past boarded-up factories, fossils of a former manufacturing town, brick shells tagged with graffiti (LIVE FOR TODAY) that had migrated from the gentrifying precincts of Jersey City. A trash curd drifted by with the Passaic River, awakened by the recent heavy rains. The Pulaski Skyway reared up like a roller coaster against a steel sky. The kid next to her pointed it out to his younger friend, drawling, “Welcome to Newark, son. Try not to get shot.”
She emerged to a garbage truck rounding the corner, gears grinding a hard-used complaint, its foul breath trapped in the day’s heat. The Market Street bus trailed it past dollar stores and a recently vacated video rental/laundromat/dry cleaner (Your One Stop Shop), shut down for supplying certain regular customers with special-order baggies in the pockets of their indifferently pressed shirts. She hurried into the institutional building housing the morgue on Norfolk, but clocked in late.
Downstairs in the autopsy room with its overflow drains set into a tiled floor, Manny was waiting. His skin looked ashen in the watery light. As usual, he was stoned. The first job of the evening (Manner of death: Accident. Cause of death: Acute drug intoxication), a young white woman, lay on the gurney, flame-red hair curling all the way down to the circled A (for anarchy) tattooed atop her livid buttocks.
Manny’s bloodshot eyes rolled in their sockets as he slid the body off the transport. The girl’s doughy bottom succumbed to gravity and she spilled heavily into his arms.
Manny crooned at her, “Qué linda.”
“Give her here, Romeo.”
“No, she’s mine, see the way she looks at me?” He scrolled her eyelid with a practiced thumb. A hazel eye flashed at them.
“Cut it out, pig.”
“Listen, you’re already behind on yesterday’s homicides. The way you moon over them, someone would think you’re a little . . .” He stuck out his tongue, liverish in the morgue light, and twirled his finger over his head. “I mean if they didn’t know already.”
He propped the body on the prep table.
“Besides, the cooler’s out again—we called for repairs but you gotta work faster, get me?”
It did smell riper than the usual ambient odor of decay, bearable (though a civilian might observe a preference for the stronger varieties of perfume and aftershave among the morgue workers, your musks and essential oils) until it reached the no-go level, tripping the gag reflex. Jinx bit her fingers in irritation, shredded cuticles inflamed from the latex gloves they wore to work with clients. Clients was how she referred to them, anyhow. It was respectful. She pinched her thumb and forefinger together and squinted in Manny’s direction.
“What’s up with that?” He wrinkled his forehead, usually smooth like a baby’s blissful brow.
“It’s the universal symbol for pot-smoking loser.”
“Oh,” he said in a mock hurt voice. “What you saying, you gonna narc on me? Damn, they should require it for this job.”
But he knew her history and knew she wouldn’t snitch.
“All right,” he relented, “you can have her—but be ready for me at six a.m. sharp. I’m making my deliveries.” He tapped her lightly on the back and she flinched. “Twitchy, huh? You need something to relax you?”
“Some of us are over that shit,” she snapped.
“Some of us still got fingers left.” He inspected her ragged hands. “You better double bag those, girl. You don’t know what she tracked in, just because she’s Anglo . . .”
She knew what he meant: white junkies like this one were pegged as middle-class, slumming bourgie kids, dumpster divers who observed the niceties of the needle exchange. It wasn’t so much of a panic if a glove finger popped and bodily fluids leaked in (an occupational risk because of the soup of potential pathogens, hep C, and HIV, among other nasties).
“Who you talking to, Manny? Once a junkie, always a junkie. I know they’re all fools.”
He shrugged. “All right, blanca.” He heaved the girl onto Jinx’s table, nose wrinkling as a marshy gas escaped the body. “Whoo, she’s all yours. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
He rode the gurney through swinging doors into the fluorescent hallway.
As a morgue technician, her job was to prepare bodies for autopsy by the medical examiner and afterward clean and prep them for release to the funeral home, or, if there was no family (as was often the case in the county morgue), a pauper’s burial. She also performed clerical tasks associated with the issuance of death certificates and the collection and tabulation of medical information related to the conduct of autopsies, and photographed and fingerprinted decedents upon admittance for verification of identity.
What Manny meant by “be ready for me” was for the report (with corroborating photos) to read: White female, appears 25 years of age, measures 67 inches, weighs 150 pounds, hazel eyes, short red hair.
What he wanted was a baggie filled with those luxurious waves of hair. If anyone (there was occasionally someone, family or a friend) noticed, well, what girl didn’t cut off all of her daddy’s pride at least once? It was a rite of passage. Manny had been in the hair trade for as long as she’d been here: shearing likely candidates and selling their crowning glory to wholesalers, who weren’t so choosy about where they got it. Downstream, the chain of custody was even more lax. She’d seen the signs downtown: We sell human hair. She wondered what the customers for wigs and hair extensions would say if they knew their source.
Probably nothing. Like Manny always says: “All’s fair in love and hair.”
But lately Jinx had been resisting, making it harder for Manny to ply his wares. It wasn’t scruples on her part, exactly, but something closer to possessiveness.
Manny, in high entrepreneurial mode, had already vacuumed, disrobing the body, sucking up any loose personal effects EMS had overlooked. She snapped on powdery gloves and the requisite face mask. The girl was surprisingly clean, except for the acrid drops of urine dewing her reddish pubic hair. Most of them had to be hosed down, were caked with the release that accompanied the terminal event.
Others, like the teenage male she had prepped last night (Manner of death: Homicide. Cause of death: Gunshot wound, perforated heart. Box #53. Decedent’s race: Black or African American), were smeared with blood and lymph, as coated on departure as they were at birth. She could have fit a fist into the exit wound on his chest. She imagined being sucked down into it, drifting through his exploded ventricles. They would become intimate; he would share his secrets, his final thoughts.
The antiseptic stung her bitten fingers as she wiped down the redhead’s freckled body. Kind of fat for a user; maybe a first timer. Lousy beginner’s luck. She’d heard there was a bad batch on the street (once a junkie, always). She spotted a pinhole in the glove finger. Irritated at her carelessness, especially after Manny’s lecture, she pulled at the glove to peel it off and her index finger burst through the split rubber, indenting a marbled thigh. At contact, a thrill coursed through her like she’d only ever known on the small end of a syringe.
Jinx shuffled backward, landing heavily on the one office chair they rolled from station to station to do the paperwork (the county had a terminal budget problem). She crashed into the cooler which lodged the morgue’s transient populace. Her fingers flew to her mouth but, remembering, she spit them out. It’s not fair, is it?—but life isn’t fair—fighting the hunger so hard for so long and now here it is, back again to taunt her, like a sense memory. What’s the message now: better off dead?
Maybe Manny’s secondhand smoke had finally gotten to her. But weed never carried this hit, such extreme bliss she couldn’t possibly contain it, not if she wanted to stay alive. Truth be told, that was a coin toss, weighed against the delirious acceleration to the roller-coaster emotion of childhood—the real deal, the hard stuff, not the mediated compromise that passed for it in adulthood—and the return of tears switched off somewhere in her teens.
There was the young girl, a Latina (Decedent of Hispanic origin? Check yes, Box #52) NPD phoned in last week from a domestic violence shelter, her wrists slashed. (Manner of death: Suicide. Mechanism of death: Exsanguination. Other significant conditions contributing to death: Facial contusions, subdural hematoma. Box #36. If female: check if pregnant at time of death.)
She had glanced at the report (Age last birthday: 15) and realized the girl’s D.O.B. coincided with her actual or presumed date of death. She’d touched the plump hand with its girlish fingernail decals, and was tapped into a current of sorrow, of homesickness, of utter aloneness so intense it was hypoglycemic: the sweats, the shaking, the blurry vision.
Last Friday she was working rapidly, mask tight over nostrils, on the remains of an old man destined for potter’s field, discovered in a trash-filled alley (Manner of death: Could not be determined). Eyes watering, she’d abruptly snapped out of a half dream where she stood on a ship’s deck, watching the shore recede in a flutter of handkerchiefs. God willing, when you get there, you’ll make good and send for us? The family had given him all their savings. I will, Mama, Poppa, you’ll see.
She eyed the clock on the wall, its black hands standing at 12 disorienting her as if she were back in high school craving the bell. Midnight already. She wasn’t hungry, but forced herself to rise. She had to eat something. She’d learned the hard way that the body’s natural signals—hunger, thirst, tiredness—were quickly confounded with cravings in an addict’s haywire nervous system.
In the cafeteria, Ruby was sitting with Manny, leaning in close in the way she had that made every exchange seem conspiratorial. Jinx saw her lipsticked orange mouth twist as she approached. Manny was saying, “Jinx got a beauty on the slab, red hair to die for.”
“But it’s one of her babies—you know how she gets, like a bitch with her pups.” Ruby smirked. “Whatsa matter, Jinx, you look like you saw a corpse,” she said, laughing with a smoker’s musical wheeze, a cloud of Tabu emanating from her. “Lighten up, sourpuss. Business is business, that’s all, and you make it hard to do.”
Jinx thought that Ruby could do with a wig herself. Her hair was in the terminal stages of bleaching, twig dry, burnt-yellow—a suicide blond.
They used to get along fine. Ruby had been her defender at the beginning, when she started working here. The other techs had sniped that she had no sense of humor, was as dull as dishwater. She supposed they were right: to this day she failed to see the joke in humiliating the newly dead with plastic pumpkins and witch hats for the annual (unofficial, after-hours) Halloween party. There was a family that time, and the county had paid a hefty sum to settle the matter. The ringleaders were fired and the others had it out for Jinx, convinced she was the rat. Ruby had tartly reminded them that it was in their job description to demonstrate a mature and respectful approach to the decedents and told them to shut their traps. They complied: you didn’t mess with Ruby if you wanted to keep your job. She’d worked here forever and had the M.E.’s ear.
Anyway, that was how Jinx came by her nickname.
She ignored Ruby, wrinkling her nose at Manny’s plate. “Mystery meat?”
“Quit it, Jinx,” Manny shrieked, “you know I’m a vegan! It’s seitan.”
“Satan is right,” Ruby cackled.
Jinx unwrapped her lunch, turkey roll on whole wheat bread and an orange. She ate the same thing every night. She applied this approach to her wardrobe (desert boots, Dickies, long-sleeved Ts) and apartment decor (early Sears). It was one less meaningless decision to sap her energy from the struggle.
Ruby skewered the sandwich with a curved, butterscotch-lacquered nail. She worked upstairs in processing; those tips would never survive a night in the trenches. Jinx, flushing, forced down an urge to slap her. She pushed at Ruby’s fleshy forearm, feeling it tense. She glanced up without thinking, met the woman’s inquisitive eyes, and looked down. Once, new on the job and reluctant to return to an empty apartment, she’d joined the crew for a few drinks, waking to find Ruby in her late-afternoon bed, preening like a ruffian alley cat. It was an episode she didn’t want to repeat. She concentrated on her sandwich.
Manny, studying job postings on the employee bulletin board, said suddenly, “I don’t even know if it’s worth it anymore. Synthetic hair is getting too much like the real thing. I’m thinking about taking the F.T. training.” Forensic technicians were a cut above them in the medical examiner ranks and were on call to investigate suspicious deaths.
“They work like dogs, Manny,” Jinx said.
“Yeah, but they make great overtime,” Ruby pointed out.
“Not to mention the other perks,” he said.
Other perks? Jinx imagined Manny presiding in stoner’s time over her frail charges, their innards barely cooled to a ceasefire, body cavities yawning for harvest, the extracted organs, tissue, flesh, and bones packed into coolers, destined for the lucrative black market. Her throat spasmed and a bitter reflux filled her mouth.
Manny said, “They can work from home; they don’t have to clock in every day. They get pagers. And a van.”
“Haw!” Ruby exclaimed, setting off a coughing fit. They waited. She wiped her mouth. “When it’s running.”
“I gotta go.” Jinx stood up.
“Yeah,” Ruby smirked, “me too. I got all that F.T. overtime to write up. You be good, sweet cheeks. You too, Satan.” She swayed away on pumps with worn heels.
“You okay?” Manny asked her, around the gluten chunk he was chewing.
“I just need to lie down for a minute.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll cover those gang hits from last night,” he offered.
The women’s lounge was an industrial orange. The flickering light triggered a visual halo that meant the onset of a migraine. Her scalp tingled and burned. She closed her eyes, tried to practice the relaxation techniques they talked about in rehab. You picked a happy memory and reinhabited it, shutting out everything else. The pleasant associations were supposed to trigger the good brain chemicals, the ones the drugs had sucked out. She pictured napping in a hammock under the sun, birds singing, feeling utterly at peace. She wondered if invented memories counted and the image vanished.
As in her recurrent childhood riddle, she tried to picture being dead: floating disembodied over the earth hurtling along without her, but she is no longer she and so cannot be thinking this, or anything at all; she is dead, absent, the world with its hurt and clamor gone ahead without her. Yes. By the time her clients reached her, they were quiet, they were satiated. Those who came to her came from tragedy or neglect: the murdered, the unlucky, the abandoned—but they were past all that now, weren’t they? If they found their way to her, they were reportable cases: sudden or unexpected deaths, unnatural deaths, deaths of public health interest (anthrax, tuberculosis), deaths from suspected criminal violence or neglect, car wrecks, suicides, overdoses, poisonings, deaths occurring in police custody, in jails, shelters, or other public institutions. She was their last witness: the one whose words would be the final proof of their existence. She owed it to them to be accurate.
She was familiar with abandonment. Her parents, for instance, who had disappeared while driving home from a sales convention on Miami Beach. Her father had been a rep for a hosiery company, her mom a retired “dancer” (which Jinx learned only later meant stripper) he’d met and fallen for in Atlantic City. They loved the road and took the kids along in her dad’s old Cadillac that he’d bought from his boss, with its pillowy headrests and plush upholstery, whenever they could.
When her parents left on their last trip, she was nine, and her brother Hal, six. They were staying with their aunt and uncle because it was a school week and anyway her mom said this trip was for grown-ups. The wives and girlfriends shopped on Lincoln Road during the sales meetings and when the men were done with business the couples hit the nightspots at the hotels on Collins Avenue. The day of their parents’ expected return came and went with no word from them. Aunt Rae said with forced cheer that the trip was taking a little longer than expected but their mom and dad would be back soon and meanwhile it would be fun! They could go to the shore, never mind that it was a school day. She muttered then, Why don’t they call? and Hal started to cry and their aunt said sharply, Janice, you’re a big girl now, set a good example, don’t upset your brother. At least when the police showed up the charade was over. The Florida Highway Patrol thought they’d been carjacked at the I-95 rest stop just north of St. Augustine by an escaped convict from the state pen in Raiford. Back in their New Jersey town, curious neighbors stood on the sidewalk and spouted off for the news cameras. Then the excitement died down and there was just the waiting.
At least she’d waited, her overnight bag packed with clean socks and underwear, a toothbrush, pajamas. In school, each time a hall monitor came into the classroom, she thought she’d be called to the office where they would be waiting: Roy in his blue windbreaker and aviator sunglasses, Charlene in her favorite flowered driving scarf. As she grew older, as her body changed, they did not. She, approaching her mother’s age, would be her best friend; they would share their secrets. It took her a long time to admit to herself that they weren’t coming back. In her mind’s eye they were still at that rest stop where they were last seen, giggling like teenagers over Orange Juliuses.
She had convinced herself that it was a test: if no one was waiting, how would they know to return? Sometimes she wondered if they had really existed or if she’d invented them. Absent a body, where was the proof of a life? Some paperwork, the memory others had of you. Both were easily manipulated.
Hal was grown now, a lawyer, married with two kids. He was weary of Janice’s soap opera, as he called it. Life is pretty simple when you don’t have many choices, he would explain to her as if she were the younger sister. You have two: you can make it hard on yourself or make it easy. You decide. Hal’s wife, who was in charge of medical records at the county hospital, had found Jinx this job. She couldn’t fault them, but still managed to sabotage their good turns. And Hal was always there to bail her out, like the time he got her a job as a secretary at his law firm in Newark. Her first week she was inadvertently interrupted in a bathroom stall, finishing off a fix. It was a Friday night, after all: payday. She could still see the shock mixed with fear on the face of the pretty little law clerk who’d walked in on her. There had been a moment of complete recognition—it was this fear that kept people respectable, that maintained the thin line between order and chaos. When you lost that, there was nothing left to lose. She’d felt sorrier for the girl, still clinging to her illusions, than for herself.
Later, though, she felt remorse, when she heard Hal in his mild voice saying he’d found a clinic for her and would foot the bill. “Try to make it easy on yourself this time, okay, Janice?” She saw the little boy screaming in the supermarket parking lot one hot, airless August day, “We do so have a mommy and daddy,” waving frantically at their aunt and uncle, now their legal guardians, as they walked to the car with the week’s groceries. “Shut up, Jan, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re so stupid,” his words breaking into hungry gulps of air, nostrils whinnying with the effort. Aunt Rae, alarmed at the shouting, had turned and looked accusingly at her, rushed over with Hal’s atomizer, and, smoothing away hair plastered with sweat on his forehead, helped him breathe.
Jinx raised herself heavily from the couch, its plastic cover detaching reluctantly from her clammy skin. Her head ached. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, wan face, dark circles under her eyes, her own hair dull as dishwater blond, cropped short. Downstairs, the client waited on her work table. Jinx decided to finish her quickly and give Manny the goods. She’d let the others do what they had to do to get by, stop being the pathetic champion of the dead.
Don’t think too much—it’s not what they pay you for. Snap on fresh gloves. Dispatch digitals and prints. Dress her in a gown of institutional cotton, shorn of her mortal glory. So young for it all to be over, disembodied. But she is at peace now, whatever drove her to the nod behind her, the hunger past.
Request one last favor before she departs on this, her last earthly journey: Tell me my destiny, I’ll tell you yours. The Amazing Jinx who after close study could read the hieroglyphics of the body: its scars, bruises, lumps, ground-down teeth, stretch marks, wrinkles. They played dumb, these dead; they struggled to keep their secrets. But their champion, their confessor, shepherd of the poor wrecked vessels, will show you lives lived with their attendant pain and occasional distraction, step right up for the sinking in of flesh and the gaseous stink forecasting your corruption, watch in dread while memory, your only weapon, fails you.
With a gloved hand, she stroked the girl’s red tresses, pulling a metal comb through the unruly mass. Static electricity jolted the hair, attracting it to her gloves where it clung as if living. She took up the scissors with one hand and gathered the hair in the other, pulling it for the cut. The girl’s chin lifted as she sheared the coppery coil and Jinx saw it then, the puncture in the skin over the jugular. It was the vein of last resort: only the hardcore mainlined there. The blood had stopped running to her hand where the hair bound it. Without thinking, she freed it and pulled out the forensic technician’s preliminary epitaph from its plastic folder. (Manner of death: Accident. Cause of death: Acute drug intoxication.) She turned back to the girl, inspecting the usual points of entry, but saw none of the telltale marks on her arms or legs. A careless auditor of souls, the forensic tech, overworked, jaded, shuttling from one wretched ending to the next. This was no accidental overdose: it was homicide.
Jinx took the dead girl’s hands in her own and leaned down as if to comfort her. She swore she felt a flutter of air, heard a whisper:
He wrapped my hair in his fist yanked my mouth to his crotch “act like a woman cunt” when he finished he stuck a needle in me have a nice ride he said I am going now I promised my mom I wouldn’t be late she always said I’ll be late to my own—
She fumbled for the report. She could still catch the assistant M.E. on duty—they could do a DNA swab, find the fucker who did this to her before he could do somebody else. And it would be Jinx who cracked the case—who saw that there was a case, that the redhead wasn’t just another junkie but someone’s daughter done horribly wrong.
Voices echoing down the hallway woke her from her reverie, the click of pumps and a whiff of Tabu signaling that Ruby was escorting identifying next of kin to the small waiting room. They would have questions, might object to the autopsy, would be told that their consent was not required, but that the procedure would not delay the funeral arrangements or prevent an open-casket viewing. The digital photo of the redhead with her flowing tresses would be up on the computer for the grieving family, unless they insisted on seeing their loved one beforehand. Which they apparently had, as Manny, hustling in to warn her, found her stuffing hair into a Ziploc bag, most of it spilling onto the floor in a spray of red like a salon massacre.
Later—after it was all over, out of work again (Ruby’s shrug tinged with unmistakable morning-after malice telling Jinx that she couldn’t expect her to save her ass this time, could she, sweet cheeks?), a wheel click away from the drop and anticipating relief (LIVE FOR TODAY inked like a tattoo on a glassine envelope)—she walked to the train, the dawn rain running down her face passing for tears.
S.A. SOLOMON has published short fiction and poems in the Dos Passos Review, Exquisite Corpse, the New York Quarterly, Lungfull!, and other journals. Her lyrics for Leonid Andreyev’s The One that Gets Slapped, a circus-cabaret-drama, were featured in a 2008 production at Colby College. Her brush with New Jersey noir comes from her years living and working in Jersey City and Newark. She now lives in New York City, and is a freelance writer and editor.
Posted: May 14, 2013
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