This morning Carlos called me at six. Dawn was breaking. I was outside, sitting in my rocker on the porch, sipping coffee and listening to the Santa Anna breezes shiver through my collection of wind chimes. The notes were inharmonic, but when blended with the calls of sage sparrow and mountain quail from the surrounding hills, together they exclaimed a morning hymn.
‘Buen dia, Batiste,’ he said.
‘Buen dia, jefe,’ I replied.
He chuckled then switched to English.
‘Did you watch the news last night? There was a ten-ninety-seven in Brentwood. Three bodies. One kid.’
Carlos likes to use police jargon. Ten-ninety-seven is the Los Angeles police code for a multiple homicide.
‘Señor Clean must be happy,’ I said.
Señor Clean is what we call our boss, Jack Howard, owner and operator of Biotrauma Inc. Jack served in the Marines in the first Gulf war, he worked as some kind of mortuary assistant. On his return to America he decided to put his familiarity with the deceased to good use. We have worked before for the city of Brentwood. Jack has an arrangement with somebody at the coroner’s office.
‘He’s wetting his pants,’ said Carlos. ‘He just called and said we were to meet him at the shop at seven. Can you get over here by six thirty?’
After he hung up I stood and flicked the dregs of my coffee over the porch rail. I still find the cases involving children upsetting. It was always that way, even before, when I was a doctor back in Cuba.
I began dissembling the wind chimes. Each one is handmade. Many of the tubes are metallic, others wooden, bone or bamboo. One or two are porcelain. The clappers are large bronze pendants chased with gilt in the manner of medieval reliquaries. Hanging from the clappers are the wind catchers, and here I have improvised, using little mementos I have stumbled across during my time in LA. An old silver wristwatch, a porcelain doll, a pair of aviator-style sunglasses—the kind of things you could find at any neighborhood garage sale.
I took Military Road through the mountains to pasadena. The scent of white fir and incense cedar lay on the air and in the west a charcoal cloudbank drifted over the ocean under a paling sky. Beneath the horizon the night lights of LA flickered and dipped as the morning sun rose and burned weakly through the rolling orange cloud that clung to the city’s rooftops. I played Bach’s fifth suite on my CD player. I play it every morning when I go to work. One could say I’m a creature of habit that way and one would be right, for I’m an old man now and I find routine reassuring.
As I drove I thought about the house in Brentwood, surrounded now by yellow police tape. I wondered what rooms the bodies were found in. Carlos is a fan of the C.S.I. police shows and sometimes he will reconstruct the crime, walking from room to room, following the blood spatters or the broken furniture. We are old friends, he and I, indeed I could say that he is my oldest friend for we are both Cuban and I met him in Havana shortly before I moved to America. We lost track of each other after our arrival in Miami—it was a difficult time for both of us—but fifteen years later, quite by chance, I encountered him whilst on vacation in Las Vegas. He was doing well, looking fit and clean and sober. He said he had found God in prison, serving a seven- year sentence in pelican Bay for armed robbery. He didn’t drink anymore and had a steady job paying good money in LA. He was working for a company that specialised in cleaning up death scenes.
Carlos was outside when I arrived at his trailer. He is a tall, cadaverous man with shoulder-length black hair which he wears tied back in a ponytail. He was dressed in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, the kind he habitually wears to hide the tattoos on his arms. Beside him was Pepe, his sister’s youngest boy. He is a skinny youth and he was wearing a baseball cap that was a little too large for his head. Its brim was pulled so far forwards that I would have been amazed if he were able to see anything but the tips of his sneakers. There had been trouble with the law recently, some kind of driving violation, and it had fallen to Carlos to pay the fine. They jumped in the truck, Pepe in the back and Carlos in the passenger seat beside me. I looked at the boy then I looked at Carlos.
‘I know, I know,’ said Carlos, throwing his hands in the air. ‘But I promised my sister I would do something for him.’
I didn’t say anything. It’s not my place. If there’s one thing I have learned in the twenty-three years I’ve lived in America it’s to know my place. It isn’t easy washing dishes for a living when you’ve been trained at one of the finest medical schools in the Caribbean. people do not need employees who think they are smarter than them. I like this job. Carlos has been my patron here; he has provided and I do not bite the hand that feeds. I am his loyal sidekick. For eight years I’ve played the Boo-Boo to his Yogi Bear, and it’s been a good time, one of my calmer periods, and for this I owe him an unspoken debt.
I took the freeway to Lincoln Heights, where Jack rents storage space in an industrial park on the banks of the LA River. Bach’s suite was coming to the climax, the part where the French horns and the violins arrive, when Pepe thrust his head into the space between the two front seats.
‘What’s this shit?’ he said.
Carlos placed his hand on the boy’s forehead and firmly pushed him backwards.
‘Let me explain a few things to you,’ he said.
I leant back in my seat, a smirk trapped in the corner of my mouth. I’d heard this lecture before, many times in many different situations, but firstly from the lips of the mighty Jack Howard himself, in a work truck outside the house of my first job, a slit- wrist suicide in Mid-City.
‘Now listen up, paco,’ Jack had said in his slow southern drawl. ‘I’m only gonna to tell you once. There are three golden rules. The first one, and the most important, is no talking. You do not talk to the clients. I don’t care if you’ve just cut your finger off with a carpet knife you do not talk to the client. If you need to ask about something you talk to Carlos here. Inside this house I want you to pretend like…’ and his face screwed up for a second then a smile spread across it like he had just invented penicillin. ‘Like you’re in a church. You Mex are all religious, right? Well just think of it that way. Like you’re at Mass. No talking and definitely no cussing.’
‘What are the other rules?’ I asked.
‘They’re easy,’ said Jack. ‘No puking and no crying. particularly the crying. It can set the clients off and before you know it you got a house full of people crying. It’s enough to depress the shit out of you.’
And Jack had been right, in his homespun, diamond-in-the-rough sort of way. He understood the care, the reverence one must be capable of, in this kind of work. And the kid in the back of the truck this morning, Pepe, I doubted he possessed that quality. Most kids nowadays don’t.
Jack was on the phone when we arrived at the lock-up. He was in the rear of the car park, pacing up and down next to the chain-link fence that separates the property from the river. When he saw us he snapped the handset shut and marched over to the truck. He is a big man in his forties, and still has the military bearing that was imprinted upon him during his time in the marines.
‘Can you believe that motherfucker over at the Brentwood coroner’s office?’ he shouted at Carlos. ‘He gave the job to that asshole Rick. I’m paying the son of a bitch fifteen per cent on every house we wipe and it ain’t enough.’
‘Still it’s not all bad news,’ continued Jack. ‘A shotgun suicide came in over at Hancock park. Some rich Jew’s sister whacked herself in the bathtub. Load up, go on over there and I’ll see you at quitting time.’
It rained on the way to Hancock park. The cloudbank rolled in from the ocean, covering the city and blotting out the sunlight. Traffic on the freeway slowed to a crawl. I exited when I saw the sign for La Brea Avenue. When I first came to LA I visited the George C. page Museum in Hancock park which tells the story of the La Brea Tar pits and exhibits specimens excavated from them. Asphalt from petroleum deposits under the LA basin seeps up into the ground at certain locations and this seepage over thousands of years can form deep pools. Water can collect over these pools and animals wading into the water became trapped in the tar beneath. Large prey animals struggled for hours in these pits, attracting predators who also entered the tar pit and also became trapped. The scientist at the museum called it a predator trap because the predator skeletons exhumed vastly outnumber the prey ones. They have found the remains of lions and jaguars, dire wolves and sabre-toothed cats. As the bones of the dead animals sink the asphalt soaks into them, staining them a dark brown or black, sealing them from dissolution for thousands of years.
The job was in a small, wealthy development called Edgewood off the north end of La Brea Avenue. Usually you can tell from the area what kind of job it will be. If we’re called out to Watts or South Central chances are it’s a homicide. Bel-Air or Hollywood and it’s probably a suicide. It seems strange but the suicides outnumber the homicides. We do about twice as many of them.
Just as we entered the development the rainstorm ceased and the sun reappeared. Tall, graceful willow oaks with rainwater dripping from their canopies lined the pavements and shaded the quiet streets. The houses were all detached and set well in from the road. The power and telephone lines were buried and fences seemed strongly discouraged.
The client’s house was a sprawling, Mediterranean-style bungalow with terracotta roof-tiles and white stucco walls. I parked the truck and Carlos and I got out. When Pepe went to follow Carlos turned on him and snapped ‘Stay in the truck.’ The boy jerked backwards as if attached to an invisible leash. We walked up the driveway and Carlos lightly rapped on the oak-paneled door. From a nearby yard I could hear the muffled shouts of children playing and in the distance the ebb-and-flow drone of someone cutting grass with a lawnmower. The door was answered by a middle-aged Hispanic woman in a long, black dress. She was wearing a church hat with a short veil that covered her face to the crest of her upper lip. The smell of her perfume was over- powering, but behind it, seeping out from the inside of the house, was the spicy odour of dried blood. She was the maid, she explained in Spanish, and she was expecting us. Mr Bernstein was at the mortician’s but would be back some time in the afternoon. He had said we could get started as soon as we got there.
We followed her through the door, along a stone-paved passageway and into the living room. It was a large room with an iron-grate hearth and built-in bookshelves lining the walls. The ceiling was low and wood-beamed. Framed photographs dotted the walls and two large windows with cushioned window-seats flooded the room with sunlight. A grandfather clock ticked in one corner and the twin armchairs were deep and chunky and covered in cherry-red leather. I got the impression it was a bachelor’s house, all leather and polish and stained wood. It was clean, but lacking a woman’s touch in warmth and decoration. A tiled passageway led off the end of the room and the maid stood at its beginning, pointing a single, red-nailed finger at the door facing her set at its very end.
‘The bathroom?’ asked Carlos.
We paused for a second to insert our nasal plugs, then I followed Carlos down the passageway and entered the room behind him. It was a large, white-tiled bathroom, easily the size of my bedroom at home. A walk in shower stood in one corner and a toilet crouched in another, but the room was dominated by the free-standing, porcelain bath set dead in the center of it, with a spigot like an old fashioned pump rising from the floor beside it. Next to the bath was a miniature table on which lay a stack of women’s clothes and a small pile of jewellery. There was a large mirror on the wall directly behind the head of the bathtub and both mirror and wall were coated with a red, fine mist. The floor was splattered with blood in a wide radius around the bathtub. The clean, white wall-tiles were littered with fragments of bone and clumps of mousy- brown hair. Both the rear wall and the ceiling above the bathtub were dotted with what looked like tiny patches of dried cement. That’s what brain fragments look like when let dry out on a hard surface. When I approached the bathtub I saw its bottom was coated with congealing blood. It had blackened and stiffened and I thought of the old bones buried in tar in the La Brea pits.
‘She did a pretty good job, didn’t she, Batiste?’ said Carlos.
I nodded. I saw what he meant. She had come in, undressed and lain naked in the empty, porcelain bath. Then she had most likely placed the tip of the barrel against her forehead and pushed the trigger with one of her toes. Your head gets splashed over the walls and ceiling but most of the blood that pumps out of your dying body stays in the bath. Minimum fuss. We see it a lot. I wondered if she had put the plug in the bath before doing it. I looked over at Carlos. He was beginning to sweat. The morbid sights never bothered him but he had never gotten used to the smell. Most people don’t. It doesn’t affect me. When I finished medical school I specialised in pathology and worked for four years in the coroner’s office at the Cira Garcia hospital in Havana. I was immersed in that smell to the point that—after the first couple of years—I didn’t notice it anymore.
‘You start the paperwork and I’ll suit up,’ I said.
He nodded, relieved. He took out a small digital camera and photographed the bathtub, the walls, the ceiling and the small table of piled possessions. It’s something we have to do at the start of every job for insurance purposes.
I stayed on for a minute after Carlos left. The clothes on the table consisted of a green silk shirt, a short black dress, nylons and underwear. A pair of black, high-heeled shoes were underneath the table. The clothes had been neatly folded and the shoes were carefully placed—the angle from heel to toe running parallel with the edge of the table. piled on top of the clothes were a slender, silver neck-chain, a pair of turquoise teardrop earrings and a wide golden bangle that was inscribed with a line of baby elephants, each one holding on to the tail of the one in front with his trunk. I could see words etched on the inside of the band. My Darling Sarah, ran the inscription, To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you are the world. Billy.
‘Hello Sarah,’ I said to the empty room. The remains of someone, the brains and the blood and the fluids that are left behind after the cadaver is gone, they’re like a kind of after-image, the persistent suggestion to the mind of a presence that is no longer there.
I began with the blood in the bath. Old blood can thicken to a jelly-like consistency so using a broad-bladed trowel I scooped it into specially designed plastic containers. When a container was full I would fasten its lid, place it in a sealed plastic bag and carry it to the door where Pepe waited to take it out to the truck. I had told him that on no account was he to enter the bathroom.
‘Not for any reason,’ I said.
He just shrugged, and narrowed his eyes at me. I could see he was curious—he kept trying to peer over my shoulder at the bloody bathtub—but I was ready for him and firmly shut the door in his face each time. I have always taken Jack’s advice about the religious nature of the work to heart. To me the place of death is an inner sanctum, a tabernacle of sorts, and I went about my chores with the solemnity of a bishop at the high altar.
It can be an act of appalling intimacy. I found four of Sarah’s teeth and bone fragments from her lower jaw buried in the blood at the bottom of the bath. These I set aside. On the ground beneath the mirror I found the lobe of her ear and I put that in the container marked for flesh, muscle and brain matter. I scoured the room, scraping the dried brains off the wall and ceiling, plying my putty knife with the delicacy of a master artisan restoring a Dutch masterpiece. When Carlos popped his head in to tell me he was taking Pepe to lunch I barely acknowledged him, so engrossed was I in the task at hand. Some time later, I wasn’t sure exactly how much, I heard the front door bang and footsteps sound in the living room. The tread was unfamiliar, heavier and slower than Carlos. I glanced out the window and saw a bottle green Mercedes parked in the driveway. I heard the rattle of ice cubes being dropped in a glass then the hiss of liquid descending upon them. The footsteps stopped. There was a creak of leather as somebody sat in one of the armchairs. The TV came on but whoever was watching wouldn’t stay on one programme but kept surfing from channel to channel. It must be Mr Bernstein, I thought, acknowledging in the muted sounds the tone of familiarity and ownership. He was sitting alone with a drink in a sunlit room, unable to concentrate, unable to be at peace. True mourning is a refining process, where emotions are burnt off as time passes; denial, anger, guilt, they pass like summer fevers and leave behind the acme, the essence of your grief, that subtle spirit you shall guard henceforth. It is something that lies in wait for us all, the ogre under the bridge, an unavoidable part of surviving.
It wasn’t till I heard a cough behind me that I realised there was someone standing in the doorway, and had been standing there for quite some time. I turned around. A tall, fleshy, middle-aged man with receding hair stood there holding a glass that was filled to the brim with a cylinder of brown liquor.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you.’
‘That’s quite all right,’ I said.
He just stood there, staring at the bathtub. He looked like he was at a loss for words. The usual trivia of human conversation is obsolete in these circumstances.
‘Well fuck you anyway, Sarah,’ he said eventually.
I nodded serenely.
‘No you don’t understand,’ he continued, as if I’d contradicted him. ‘She didn’t live here. I hadn’t seen her for months. She just called in, out of the blue. Said everything was fine. Said she was turning her life around. I left for ten minutes to run to the store and I come back…’
I stood and approached him.
‘You know what I think?’ he said. ‘I think she’s planning on haunting me. She knew I kept that gun here. I mean what did I do to deserve this? But I can tell you one thing,’ and his face hardened, ‘she won’t get me out of this house. I don’t care if she haunts the place. I’m not leaving.’
What could I say? Maybe I should have told him that she had done him an honour, a gesture of immense trust, to leave her body for him to find instead of the prying eyes of strangers. But I do not think he would have understood. How strange life can be at times. We are together and yet separate, beside, but not adjoined to one another. Our bodies serve as oubliettes that preserve and yet confine us.
‘Perhaps I could have a glass of water?’ I said.
‘Sure,’ he said.
I followed him back to the living room, down another passageway and into a spacious kitchen at the rear of the house. The appliances were all stainless steel and there was an island set in the middle of the floor with a polished granite counter top. The windows looked out onto the backyard, the centre of which had been converted into a putting green. Citrus orchard trees lined its edges and they had been recently pruned; the fresh, yellow wood of the pruning cuts winked starkly against the browner bark of the interlocking branches. Mr Bernstein poured a glass of water and handed it to me.
‘You like golf?’ I asked him and soon he was chatting away, his sorrow momentarily forgotten, telling me about the local, private courses. I half-listened to him, prodding him with the occasional question to keep him talking. After ten minutes I made my excuses and returned to the bathroom to find the door open and Pepe standing at the foot of the bathtub. He had his mobile phone in his hand and he held it in front of him, aimed at the blood-streaked porcelain.
‘What are you doing?’ I said. ‘I told you to stay out of here.’
He slid the phone into his pocket and gazed coolly at me with his deep, brown eyes.
‘Chill out, old man,’ he said. ‘It’s not like I’ve never seen blood before.’
‘Get out of here,’ I said and he laughed, and casually strolled from the room. I shut the door behind him. I knew what he was doing with his phone.
It took me another three hours to finish. Just as I was giving the walls the final steam-clean Jack arrived in his Dodge pick-up. So clean it will be like it never happened reads the slogan on the side of the truck. Through the window I saw Jack and Carlos chatting on the front lawn and Mr Bernstein came out and joined them. He handed Jack a white envelope and there was pumping handshakes all round. Pepe was beside my truck, loading up the tools. I walked to the front door and stood in the doorway. I stared at the three men talking till I caught Carlos’s attention. He raised an eyebrow and I nodded my head in the direction of the inside of the house. I walked back to the bathroom and began taking off my protective suit. Two minutes later Carlos appeared in the doorway.
‘What is it, Batiste?’ he said.
‘Have you got your camera?’ I said, holding out my hand.
He nodded, dug in his pocket then handed it to me. I scrolled through the pictures he had taken earlier till I found the one of the small table with the clothes and jewellery. I zoomed in on the jewellery and pointed to the gold bangle lying on its side on the table. ‘
It’s gone,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ said Carlos.
‘I mean it was there earlier and now it’s gone. I was in the kitchen with Mr Bernstein getting a glass of water earlier. When I came back pepe was in here and now I can’t find it anywhere.’
Carlos’ shoulders slumped.
‘That dumbass motherfucker,’ he said. ‘I’m going to kill him.’
‘Maybe it wasn’t him,’ I said, ‘Maybe the maid…’
He shook his head angrily. ‘He’s got no sense. Listen, please, Batiste, say nothing to Jack. He’ll call the police and my sister will die of shame. I’ll get it off him and come back here on Monday, say we forgot something and put it back. Just don’t tell Jack.’
‘Whatever you want,’ I said.
He put out his hand and gripped me by the bicep.
‘You’re a good man, Batiste,’ he said.
The drive back to Pasadena took two hours in the weekend traffic. Pepe chatted to friends on his phone in the backseat while Carlos grimly gnawed on a cheap Honduran cigar. I played Franz Neubauer‘s La Bataille. It is foreboding music, written in memory of the Austrian victory at Martinesti, and filled with the portentous, martial rhythm of marching soldiers. When Pepe found himself alone with Carlos he would regret it. When I first met Carlos it had been aboard a ferry in the docks at Havana at the time of the Mariel boatlift. The boat had been full of peasants from the countryside, eager for a chance of a new life in America. The authorities had mixed us in with them but we stood out to each other, with our pale complexions and shorn haircuts, dressed in second-hand clothing that didn’t fit. Even then Carlos had the reputation of a man you did not cross.
When I dropped them off at the trailer I drove away slowly, watching all the while in the rear-view mirror. By the time I turned the corner Pepe was on the ground curled up in a ball, while Carlos beat him across the back with a tyre iron.
After I got home I prepared a simple dinner of meatballs and rice and ate it outside on the porch. Afterwards I washed the dishes and swept the floor, then I took out my wind chimes and reassembled them. I hung them from the hooks set in the roof of the porch then began to assemble a new chime. I chose a mixture of glass and ivory for the tubes then took from my lunchbox a new bronze pendant and hung it midway between the top and the bottom of the tubes. I took a small steel chain and wrapped one end around the pendant and the other around Sarah’s wide, golden bangle, to drift in the breeze as a wind catcher.