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