You are reading Fiddleblack #18
Telephones have never given me anything but grief, and if it wasn’t for other people I’d likely have nothing to do with them. Either they ring when you don’t want them to ring or they never ring when you do, which is why I generally try to avoid situations wherein I’d want them to ring. This one came with the apartment otherwise I’d have chucked it out a long time ago, and either way have never seen a phone bill or even know the number it goes by. It’s one of those older phones, the kind that hang on the wall in the bathroom with a rotary dial, seafoam green, and sometimes it just rings, and when it does I stare at it like birdsong burst forth from the bowels of the toilet beneath me before I wipe my ass and pick it up.
“Hello?” I say. It’s a man, deep voice. Detective Judy, he says his name is, which is unusual enough a last name to remind me of my father’s best friend, also named Judy, who knew my father since high school and served as best man at his second wedding. I trust him implicitly. “Is this John Doe?” he asks, and I say that’s right, and he says, “it’s about your wife, Mister Doe. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but your wife is dead.”
I don’t have a wife. Not I don’t have a wife because now she’s dead and so taken from me but I’ve never had a wife and I tell this to Detective Judy. “I don’t have a wife,” I say and he says, “You have to come down to the morgue to identify the body, and also we’re going to need you to stick around for the foreseeable future due to the suspicious nature of her death.”
First thing I do after hanging up the phone is pull my pants up. It’s an embarrassing thing to receive a call like that with your pants down around your ankles, even if your pants aren’t around your ankles for any untoward reasons but just because you’re a human being with a digestive system like anyone else. The worst thing about such an unexpected telephone call is that it doesn’t give you the time to prepare for it, that its suddenness is almost as shocking as the terrible news it bears, and not that there’s necessarily ever a good time to receive a call like this, but perhaps it deserved a more solemn a moment than was provided by my post-coffee evacuation.
Also I have other things to do today. Not that the detective asked me but I also have to go to the grocery store, have to stop by the post office to pick up some package that was apparently too big for the mailman to leave in the lobby, plus the morgue is downtown so not really to or from either of those places. Not to mention it’s a weekday so likely impossible to find a parking place, which it is, drive around in circles for twenty minutes before I finally find a spot five blocks away with a thirty minute limit, then realize I put on the wrong pants and no change in these pockets so run over to a corner store and buy a candy bar for the change, feed the meter and now have only twenty minutes and hope it won’t take any longer than that.
The morgue is in the downstairs of the county jail. Even though I tell them I’m just hear to identify my wife they still make me get in line to go through the metal detector, take off my shoes and belt and put them in a plastic bin to run through the machine, also empty my pockets and put the contents in a smaller plastic bucket and that on the conveyor belt as well, then walk through the metal detector. It beeps. One of the security agents waves me back through and it beeps again and he says, “Excuse me, sir. Are you wearing any jewelry? A watch? A ring?”
“No jewelry,” I say.
“Any metal implants?”
“No metal implants.”
He has me hold out my arms and traces my silhouette with a black wand that sounds like a Geiger counter. It crackles in unexpected places: the arch of my crotch, around the tips of my left hand. Whatever it is satisfies him enough to wave me around.
I sit down on a bench just beyond the metal detector to tie my shoelaces. Most people had the forethought to wear lace-less shoes, and quickly slip them back on and walk around me, turning left down the hallway marked Jail. To the right is a stairwell, and in front of the stairwell a small placard with a piece of paper taped over it that says Morgue with an arrow pointing down. I follow the arrow down the stairs to a window, and inside the window a glass pane and behind the glass pane a woman who asks if she can help me as a declarative statement instead of a question.
“I’m here to identify my wife,” I say.
Despite the ubiquity of morgues on television or in movies, they’re not a place many of us have the misfortune to visit and see for ourselves and so have no objective conception of what they actually look like, what they smell like. Interestingly enough, what they look like is what they look like on television. What they smell like is bad, also cold, and sterile. It’s a hospital room without its reason for being, that’s lost its will to live. A haggard-looking man in a white smock beckons me inside, probably the mortician if that’s what they’re called here, or else medical examiner, morgue attendant. “What do people call you these days?” I ask.
“Paul,” he says. He doesn’t even bother to look up, pale and unaccustomed to animate interaction as he likely is, but pulls out the slat from the wall just like on television, unzips the body bag, and there’s even a tag on her toe that says Jane Doe.
I look at her. “She was fat,” I say, and he shakes his head. “She was pregnant,” he says. She’s freckled, and this I find most surprising of all since I never imagined myself as someone who would marry a freckled woman, but also very beautiful. I look again at her pregnant belly and know that we must have had sex, at least once.
“How did she die?” I ask.
“Anaphylactic shock,” he says. “Bee stings,” he says.
“She was allergic to bees,” I nod. “This is my wife.” Was my wife. Was the woman who is now my wife.
There’s a ticket under my windshield wiper when I return to my car even though I’m only seven minutes late. I imagine the meter maid in her little white hat sitting in her pod car with the ticket machine in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. I suspect she has freckles.
I’m not sure what to do with the rest of my day. I certainly can’t go to the post office now. Only a monster would go to the post office after identifying his wife, and I’m quite certain I will cause some kind of a scene at the grocery store when the cashier asks me how my day is going. They always ask me how my day is going. I have never had a day so noteworthy that I felt compelled to recount it to a stranger, with the possible exception of today. Eventually I just go back home.
I consider the apartment as a man who has just brought his wife and infant child home from the hospital. Did she have to talk me into the baby? Was I resistant? If so, how did she wear me down? In the kitchen there’s only decaf coffee and I can’t find any raw fish, although I can’t remember if there was raw fish in the kitchen before or if I’m just now noticing its absence. The chocolate liqueurs my landlord gave me last Christmas have even been drained of their liqueur. There are uncovered electrical outlets and sharp corners everywhere.
I can appreciate the kind of self-sacrifice a bee has to make when it stings someone, though I don’t imagine they’re aware of what’s about to happen before they attack. They’re probably just thinking, here’s some son of a bitch threatening my pollen, and then the next thing they know their digestive tract is trailing out of their body and the lower half of their abdomen is still stuck in the dermis of some son of a bitch. A kamikaze pilot who still thinks he’s going home after all this. Did they attack en masse? Was it their objective to take her with them?
I pick up the phone and call the number Detective Judy left me. I’m told by the receptionist Detective Judy isn’t in right now but if I’d like to leave a message he’ll call me back as soon as he returns. I tell him I had plans to visit my father for Thanksgiving and if that’s going to be a problem, and after I hang up I wonder if I sounded guilty. I’m not guilty, at least not that I know of, but of course Detective Judy doesn’t know that and for that matter I am guilty of some things, some things I’ve certainly done or been guilty of not doing when I should have, gotten away with in the past and if marrying and falling in and out of love and children aren’t among them it’s not for lack of trying.
The telephone rings again and I reach to pick it up but then wonder who can it be this time so I let it ring five, six, seven times, thinking this is all some kind of joke, some friend’s practical joke that everyone’s in on, Detective Judy and the morgue attendant and the late Missus Doe and even the part of me that wishes it was all true yesterday when I still had and didn’t have a wife. The phone rings and I hesitate to answer because this is sacred to me, my peace is sacred, no one to account for aside from myself and likewise no one to worry did they remember to bring their EpiPen when they went to the farmer’s market? I hesitate to answer, and then the ringing stops.
In 2012 Jacob Aiello cofounded the Soft Show (softshow.org), a bi-monthly experimental reading series that weds improvised live drawing with fiction and nonfiction read aloud by the authors. His own short stories have appeared in Fiddleblack, Menacing Hedge, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Storychord, The Portland Review and The Wordstock Ten, among others.
His nonfiction has been previously published in Reading Local and street roots, a nonprofit homeless advocacy paper based in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, dog and four cats and amasses a collection of short fiction consisting of far too many pronouns.