My First Dead Body

By Louise


Deadbody


I came across my first dead body when I was sixteen. I don’t remember his name and I’m sorry about that. Especially because I had so much to do with killing him.

I was cheerleader-fit that summer, and as callous and superficial as only a teenage girl can be. My mind was on high dives and bikini lines. Kevin and Eldon and Keith.  Not on the job at hand.

I was the rent collector at my mother’s rooming house and I wasn’t happy about it.

Color219south4th

The boarding house had a proud past and a dissolute future. It was built in 1888 to house the engineers, conductors and brakemen from the new transcontinental railroad that had just reached territorial Arizona, and was both the first-built and the last-standing two-story adobe building in Tucson.

By 1967, the time of my story, its decline was complete. The two-foot thick adobe walls were crumbling. Mice and mosquitoes used the sliced screen doors as grand promenades. There were only three hallway bathrooms left to service the twenty-eight guest rooms.

The clientele was in similar decline. We now catered only to the drunk, the sad, and the desperate. Sometimes they were the same person.

Friday was always a good day for collections. I took in thirty-five one-dollar bills from the Indian in room fourteen, keeping a wary eye on the knife handle sticking out from under his mattress. Lucy, my longest guest-in-residence in number twenty-three, wore only a polyester slip and painted on eyebrows. She had an open bottle of vodka on the bedside table. No glass in sight.

The character in room seven was my biggest problem. A thin, wild-eyed Latino, he’d arrived only two weeks before but was already behind on the rent.

“I have one room left,” I’d told him. “Top of the stairs at the front of the building.”

My brother and I had used plywood and discarded railroad ties to cobble together another two rooms out of the grand old wooden balcony on the second floor.

Splinters

The man had no luggage — that wasn’t unusual for my clientele — but when I opened the door to the porch room, he recoiled.

“It’s wood!”

“Yes, and it’s thirty five-dollars a week.”

“But I cannot …”

“You don’t want the room?”

“It’s the splinters.”

He was haunted by splinters from New Mexico, he said. They swarmed around him and prevented him from leaving town. They even kept him from going to see his daughter for help.

Hauntednewmexico

“They attack. They jab like knives. They try to blind me.”

“Take it or leave it.”

He’d steeled himself and swallowed hard. I handed him the key, but he was still standing in the hallway when I started back down the stairs.

Crazy fucker.

I did have one other room, but it hadn’t been cleaned and I wasn’t about to do that when it was a hundred and ten degrees out. And what the hell, it had a wooden ceiling too.

He’d paid for the first week, but I hadn’t seen him since. I’d squinted through the screen door when I’d come by on Wednesday. He was asleep on the bed and no amount of pounding or yelling could rouse him.

I wouldn’t go away empty handed today. I was hot and tired and angry about having to be a slumlord-cheerleader. I felt almost justified in having sentenced Mr. Cabeza Loca to a windowless, all-wooden room for the week.

But something was different today. The air was not just hot but fetid. There was a thickness to the smell, something that clung to the back of my throat like sewage.

He was on the bed. Dirty gray boxers and yellow toenails. One hand flung sideways off the mattress.

This time there was no rise and fall of his chest. No thin wheeze of restless sleep.

And his fingers were covered in a dark red tint.

The paramedics didn’t arrive very quickly. It was August, after all, and they had lots of dead bodies to attend to in this heat. When they did get there, I heard one paramedic tell his partner, “Did you see his fingers? He tried to claw his way out of there.”

I do not take death lightly now. Not in life and not in literature.

It is never pretty. It is rarely peaceful. And it can be soul rending to those left behind.

And I can’t read crime fiction that devalues that experience. I don’t care if you’re writing about an amateur sleuth who keeps tripping over bodies or the police detective who has to deal with them every day. Don’t make a joke of it. Or, if you do, show me that humor is the only way the character can deal with the death, because his heart is breaking.

Ken Bruen reminded us several weeks ago about the Bossuet quote:

“One must know oneself,

to the point of being horrified.” 

I do, and this nameless man on a Friday in August, 1967, is part of it.

We’re all carrying splinters from New Mexico somewhere in our past.

Womancarryingwood

 

LCU

30 thoughts on “My First Dead Body

  1. Naomi

    Wow. You should definitely write a collection of essays. I’d buy it.

    And I agree with you about death and how it is portrayed in books. After the second young person in our circle to befall a gangster’s bullet years ago, a parent in our car to the memorial service murmured, “Who’s next?”

    Reply
  2. Gillian Roberts

    Powerful, beautiful and sad, Louise. And it raises the question of what is the wellspring of your talent and interests and whether you are paying homage to that painful memory every time you write one of your splendid books in which injustice and inhumanity is avenged.

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    Thanks, JD and Billie and Rae. Those are sweet words coming from youse guys.

    Naomi, your “who’s next” comment is so, so sad. If that parent in the car were a writer, I’ll bet there wouldn’t be any quips and light talk around the corpse.

    Reply
  4. pari

    Beautiful post, Louise.

    I’m always mindful of how serious a subject death is — murder — and have lost family and friends softly . . . and violently.

    Splinters from New Mexico? I’m not sure about that.

    Demons? Yes.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Pari, I don’t know why his demons were manifested as splinters. And splinters from New Mexico, at that. But the specificity of that threat is part of what stuck with me all these years.

    Hell, I’d take a New Mexico splinter over and Arizona one any old day.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    JT, you make my heart sing. Sometimes I would like to think I’m channeling Ken Bruen in these posts. But, as I wrote him recently, if both of us write such sad posts, Murderati will become known for its Suicide Tuesdays. I like that Poet’s Corner image much, much better.

    Reply
  7. Patty Smiley

    Boo-tee-ful, Ms. L. Sounds like a scene from your next novel. I never make fun of death in my novels but I accept that others do if it’s in keeping with the tone of the book. The problem is so few authors know how to do it right. People who work in hospitals and law enforcement often make light of death to keep from going crazy but the author always needs to explain that to the reader.

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    “People who work in hospitals and law enforcement often make light of death to keep from going crazy but the author always needs to explain that to the reader.” Agreed, Ms. Smiley. They need to be shown as human, even if they’re hard-shelled from what they have to do all day.

    And beautifully said, Billie. You’re our artiste in residence.

    Reply
  9. Cornelia Read

    Wow, Louise. wow wow wow. And holy *shit*, too. This is such an incredibly heavy story, and you write about it with such tenderness, and respect. And dignity.

    I am in awe.

    Reply
  10. Naomi

    I’m just shocked that it’s Louise’s Tuesday and Simon isn’t still moaning, “Giada, Giada.” That seemed like it was going to last forever.

    Reply
  11. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Ms. C. I owe tenderness and respect to the nameless man I put through such pain. I owe nothing like that to the callous child who made it happen. Hopefully, I’ve grown since then.

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Ha! Naomi, you make me laugh!

    I must admit that I’ve watched the big-headed girl a couple of times in the last two weeks, thinking, “I must be missing something. But if Simon thinks she’s that cool …”

    Reply
  13. Louise Ure

    Mike, you and Fran sound like you understand splinters from New Mexico.

    As for you, Simon … chow bella! (Don’t fault me for the spelling. It was a purposeful pun.)

    Reply
  14. Jacky B.

    Next time someone asks me just what noir is, I’ll refer them to your ‘Splinters’ post. Kick-ass without a doubt. Roses wrapped in chainmail.

    Now I’ll be taking a break from my own work, to hunt up a few of your books. Here’s a sure bet for you, I’ll be reading one before the sun sets.

    Best, JBD

    Reply
  15. Sharon Wheeler

    Oh wow! Louise, that was such a powerful read. Better than any short story I’ve read.

    And I so agree about stories devaluing death. It’s why I find a lot of serial killer books tiresome.

    Reply
  16. Louise Ure

    Jacky, I don’t know you but I love you. Can I have dibs on the title “Roses Wrapped in Chainmail”?

    Shaz, I’ve still never written a short story. But you’ve piqued my interest. I might try.

    Reply
  17. Jacky B.

    Louise,

    As you know, titles are up for grabs. Go for it! I’d be honored.

    Way I see it, Splinters IS a short story, a fine one.

    Started ‘Forcing Amaryllis’ last night. You’re keeping me from my own work! First Bruen, now you. You ‘Tuesday people’ are deadly.

    Reply

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