CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Last Hand
Michael Harris Cohen
Before me lies a man. Perhaps handsome once, time has flattened his features, eroded the tightness of character—a creased brow, a drooped nose. Wrinkles radiate from the corners of his open eyes. Below the eyes puff dark pouches like bruises. The irony of time: Hair disappeared from his head and sprouted anew in his nostrils and ears. Was it hard for him to hear his wife at the end? Cataracts. Could he see her at his bedside? The sparse hair atop his head was dyed an absurd tobacco brown. I would laugh but I feel tenderness toward him. Toward all of them. The old and their struggles to stay afloat as the years pull them under, the weight of their histories written in skin. The young with their undiminished glow. Now the muscles begin to stiffen. I must work quickly.
A kind of civil servant now. In a town this small I have the privilege of acting as both examiner and preparer of the dead. Here my presence is requested at a weekly poker game. There sit the sentinels of truth, justice, and bureaucracy at the compass points of the green felt table. My person squares it. I sit north. I face south. Pig, shyster, paper shuffler. No nicknames have become necessary for my trades. Cards with painted mountain ranges on the back fall and slip into the deck. Colored plastic chips slide and roll into the center-abstractions upon abstractions. The money becomes secondary. We are here to bet secrets, raise the dead, explore the machinations of our hearts. Bluffs are told and called. A man once told me you should bluff to get caught; the other players will never know your hand then. The sheriff begins a story. I like this man. Heís stout but easy in his body. He has a way of making others feel at ease, too, in his presence. He draws his vowels out like syrup-little energy to expend and none to waste. Though I imagine he can move quickly when he must.
No doubt he will be polite, as he always is, when he comes for me holding death on his belt. I imagine this death a hundred ways. Every inch of my body is catalogued, in and out. I play with deathís entrance: choosing the time and the place, understanding what organ will still first and those which will carry my last pulse a few moments further. I understand these things. Alone in a motel. At the end of it.
At the moment of death the muscles relax completely. Then they stiffen. It begins with the eyelids, neck and jaw. Over the next six hours it spreads to the other muscles and organs, including the heart.
The sheriff tells of a man who spent thirty years in prison for strangling his wife.
Asphyxiation is often accompanied by a feeling of ecstasy. In this region they still hang the condemned. It is said the hanged man experiences erection and orgasm.
And with these seeds mandrake grows. Poison root.
Abandoned ground past the bars. Farmland that had been fallow for years. Through the tiny window of his cell the man observed the rows give way to rain and weeds, the clear definition of the planting mounds leveling off. This man watched the land reclaim itself. For decades. He watched the land grow wilder as the animals regained courage and crept back. The sheriff stops talking. He pours two fingers of whiskey into his glass, checks the bet, continues.
I remember this as night comes on in the motel. Car lights slice the shadows on my ceiling. I no longer sleep, though I feel safer because the layers of sound have lessened. I can dissect them easily now: passing cars hiss and drunken laughter somewhere. The air descending in my lungs then exiting. How many more times? A million? A thousand?
Hundreds upon hundreds of birds the man counted from his window, shooting them out of the sky with his finger. He dreamed of owning the land when he gained his release. He spoke of nothing else. He said he didnít want to return the land to farm, too much work for one. Instead heíd build a small house on it and let the wild keep the rest.
As the ground claims the flesh.
A house swallowed by weeds. Heíd drink his coffee and see through his window the other window he used to gaze out to where he was now. Thirty years inside contemplated from the outside.
With one body I paused on the outside. Sometimes they are more beautiful dead. Life stilled at its peak. Massage made the rigor subside, the body positioned so that blood can drain into and expands the vessels for embalming. Then my hand moved above her. Frozen over her abdomen. Hesitant with the trocar, the sword to pierce her.
The sheriffís face obscured by smoke, his eyes shadowed by his hat. He lights another cigar. One month later the construction began. Caterpillars moved in, scalping the earth and leveling it off. Pits were dug, cement poured, girders planted. Weeks passed as a skeletal structure grew skyward. One day, in a different cell, the man finally made out the builderís placard: A shopping mall. When he got out of prison first thing he did was obtain an assault rifle and go on a shooting spree, killing twenty-seven people and himself.
Bullet holes can be difficult to disguise, though not impossible. Iíve used mesh wire and putty on occasion. Sandpaper rough skin, then follow with the appropriate colored base. All this must be done slowly and with great care.
There is a smell of quick love in my rented room. At night I hear soft cries escape the walls and settle on my bed. Evidence of ghost couplings exists on the sheets-their floral pattern is faded. Here, I could excavate the bones of a thousand fucks.
Bullshit said the paper shuffler, slapping his cards down. First off theyíd never build a shopping mall next to a prison. Never. Second, howís a convicted murderer get his hands on an assault rifle?
At the table I see these men. Three ties loose at their throats. I imagine them on my table as the sheriff closes his cards and tucks them in his breast pocket. He fingers the chips in the pot.
His skin will be swollen. Pink like a babyís before his color ebbs. I must be careful as I trim his mustache. I would straighten his nose with cotton.
Iím not saying itís the positive truth. Neither am I saying itís an outright lie. You can read about the killings. Itís all there in an old newspaper at the library. You know where the library is?
The lawyer sighs broadly, leaning back in his chair too far, nearly falling.
On the floor a fat bug, a beetle on its back.
I could barely turn him over on the table by myself. I had no assistant. I work only with Mahler. Across his fleshy buttocks would be marks from a riding crop.
Now boys, says the shyster. Iíll agree there are points of contention in this yarn our esteemed protector of order has told, might I suggest this is beside the point?
The shysterís death would be a mystery. I would have to slit his huge belly, averting my nose from the stench. Booze and pills and a massive red nose, traversed by blood vessels, would betray his true avocation in life.
The incision is Y-shaped—from the shoulder to the bottom of the breastbone. It joins in a single line just above the genitals.
The Shyster pulls out a Swisher Sweet and slowly unwraps it, clamping the plastic tip between his teeth.
I will spread his mouth and see the white bubbles of cancer forming on his tongue and gums. His liver and kidneys are over sized.
point of these evenings together is to play some friendly poker and trade off a few aspects of our respective occupations.
The brain is removed with an incision made behind the ears and at the base of the scalp.
As someone smarter than I once said, itís oft better to be quotable than honest.
I deal in truths myself. The unveiling and often, frankly, the obscuring of them.
The front part of the scalp is pulled over the face, exposing the skull. Then a high-speed oscillating saw is used.
Gentlemen, I have found the truth to be somewhat overrated.
The connections to the brain are then severed and it is removed. The brain is sliced into one-inch sections and spread like a deck of cards for examination of the internal structure.
Let me say that in my humble experience, apocrypha is often the mortar for the truth, or the nail in the coffin, if you will.
A childís marble—a steely—was inserted a finger length into his rectum.
He nods sagely to the sheriff. When trying a case I must match my opponent plank for plank. The planks themselves are irrelevant, to a certain degree. It is the thing that binds them. These nails are inarguable. However, they are not necessarily the truth.
A nail-hung crucifix hangs above my head. The hammers and nails never end for that poor fellow.
When they stick, the box holds in these spots and there is nothing I can do to knock it apart. Say there is a body. That nail cannot be taken away, no more than the hammer my opponent holds can be pried from his fingers.
When Pilate asked him Ďwhat is truth,í he said nothing. Later, the nails shattering the bones of his hand must have been absolute verity.
At times I have forgotten what I know: The truth of bone is deeper then the truth of flesh.
Sheriff, itís a fine tale with some interesting points that I will consider in further detail at my leisure. Now I suggest we take a break, stretch our legs. Then play out the hand.
I understand prisons. Boundaries that define and limit, the flesh that binds me and betrays me.
Dead tonight, I am dead tired tonight, says the sheriff. He mops his brow with a spotted handkerchief and removes the cards from his pocket, eyeing them against the pot. There was probably a hundred dollars in there by now. Rather than alter the dealer by hand, one player deals and sets forth the rules of the game for the night. Tonight was the shysterís throw. He has an appreciation for a complex game: Texas Hold ĎEm—no limit. Two cards secret, five cards shared. For now, the cards favor me.
The sheriff taps his cards before peeling them off the felt.
The lawyer crosses himself before thumbing them apart.
Superstition. Small practice to influence things unseen. Iíve carved a mark into every body thatís passed through my hands.
The paper shuffler grasps his cards in an upside down fan. He is losing. But drink and the start of each new hand fire his enthusiasm. The past forgotten temporarily.
The past is immutable.
The paper shuffler flings down his cards. Drink raises the volume of his voice. My wife says the world’s gonna end in the year 2012. Course my wifeís been dead for years.
He never drops the smile.
It would be a challenge to let him keep it in death. Rigor draws the face into a frown. It is an effort just to bring the features into neutral. One must sew or staple the lips so they meet naturally. If done too tightly the area under the nose wrinkles and a scowl greets the mourners. With splints, perhaps, I could muster a smirk for him.
I have always felt the effort of a smile.
The paper shuffler drops his smile when I win another hand. He throws his cards down again, exposing a black queen.
Youíre awful goddamned quiet tonight. Donít you have a story to share? Perhaps some more platitudes? Why donít you tell us how it feels to spend your days pushing corpses around? Do you like it? Does it turn you on being around all those naked bodies? Shit, I bet itís tempting as hell, and whoíd ever know?
The eyes of the lord move to and fro over the entire earth. Yet he said unto Adam enjoy life, until thou returns to the ground.
He was the youngest of the three. Whiskey eyes stare me down. The smile creeps back.
I know for a fact youíve got a beautiful young girl on the slab right now. The Cullerís daughter, locked in her parentís garage with the dodge running. A real tragedy.
He looks to the sheriff who nods, echoing his last word, and then he turns back to me.
Here a magazine was left in the back of the drawer, beneath the bible with the olive cover. Women like pinned butterflies, wings spread and frozen.
And if Iím not mistaken, that kind of death leaves the body looking perfectly fit, nearly alive. So what do you do with a sixteen-year-old girl alone? Ripe as a cantaloupe, naked with high color?
The light on their genitals draws my eyes. The secrets beyond sight.
The last sound she heard was the rumble of the dodge. That black chariot taking her over. I run my finger along her ear, the tiny hairs there. They can be burned off with a candle. It is quiet now with her. It will be quiet at the funeral. Without sound, death has no witness.
Thus laments and dirges, sobs in darkness.
The shyster steps in again: Now Joshua, I do hope youíre not attempting to accuse our friend here of any type of impropriety? Itís distasteful to think of such things let alone speak of them.
Numbers here offer promises. Bracketed by women in familiar poses.
The muscles harden again after embalming. Once set, the position of the body cannot be altered.
The shyster points at him with his cigar, wagging it like a finger. Iíve known you since you were a teenager and you have always been one to pick fights. Ugliness. Pure and simple.
Beauty. Itís so rare for me to see such beauty so closely. To evaluate it from every angle without fear of discovery. I kiss her breasts. Not for powerfs sake but for communion.
Our friend here has one of the noblest and least respected professions I know. Itís a thankless task preparing one for the great beyond but one we all put a great stake in.
With salt, with honey, with a candle at the head …
I have a credit card with my name raised like Braille.
With frankincense and Cyprus, with coins …
Our friend has only been in our town for a few months. However, I have heard nothing but rave reviews and I myself have been greatly impressed with his work.
With rosewater and musk, with camphor and spices …
I finger the smooth plastic. A VISA. A permit to enter another land.
With lotus water, with mirrors, with shrouds, with jewels the dead go forth.
Sir, I do apologize for all of us.
I bow my head and say nothing.
The number is dialed here. The dull hiss of snake wire. Connections.
Women would not meet my eye. Their features chiseled and precise, facial muscles working in unison. Mine soft and warping. I have always felt the effort of a smile. Behind my thick glasses my eyes loomed large and hazy next to theirsí and I could not meet them.
ďFantasy line.Ē I imagine her from her voice. Itís thick from smoke. I hear the exhale of a cigarette now.
There is a moment of silence.
Gentlemen. In my hands exists the possible human. I sculpt, not by subtraction, as from stone, but by addition. Augmentation. Highlight, shadow and blush to deceive the light. Putty and fluid to fill what has sunk. The basic elements lie dormant in every face; they need only be enhanced or diminished. More in some, less in others. A teenage girl knows this when first confronted with the inadequacies of her features and the promises of a fashion magazine. As I play cards now, the girl who lies on my worktable, through no skill of my own, is indeed beautiful.
I picture the woman seated on a black leather couch. Legs crossed, skirt hiked up, phone cradled at her neck. It is warm in the room and her flesh sticks to the furniture.
She is also a virgin. Her parents insisted on knowing.
Her hair flows long and dark. Passing her shoulders to drape her breasts.
Temptation is an element that enters each of our respective spheres. The bribe, embezzlement, manipulation of the truth. We are all sometimes resisting the urge to succumb to the dark fruits offered in our work. I will not deny having dangerous thoughts.
Cold skin is all I touch. Hers is without flaw, like her body. Full, yet not even fully grown. A flower caught in its peak, pressed in a book.
But understand, it is not only work to me. It is art.
Such a shocking contrast to the bodies that usually cross my path. Human wreckage. The loose skin and brittle bones of the elderly. The grotesque menagerie of car crashes and farm accidents.
And I would no more defile the body of that young girl than an artist would deface one of his canvases.
I opened her eyes.
The flesh is sacrosanct.
Holy. And empty, like a church. A narrow husk.
The vital facts that describe me. Number … address … expiration date. ďOne moment please.Ē
There is a pause. The shyster nods gravely. Cards are shuffled and dealt. I draw two hearts.
Somewhere a computer is called upon. In the phone a sound like the clicking of a rat on paper. I wait.
A fullness in my belly. I return the tools to their shelf and place my space heater close to her.
She is preparing herself. What are her rituals? Does she excite herself first? Does she dab her juice behind her ears?
I am without fear now. Without guilt. Without thought.
My attention pours into the phone.
There is a smell in the room. I imagine it is like baking bread.
She returns saying my name softly and offering hers.
She describes herself and my imagination makes the appropriate corrections. Our lies mix.
When her flesh is warm I carry her to my room.
She explores my body with her words.
Skin so smooth … so perfect.
She tells me what is happening with her own body and I believe her, feel her …
See her …
I put her legs around me.
Our breath comes in unison. Where is she?
Her head slaps the wall, eyes fixed on me.
Her breath pushes in my ear.
There is blood on the sheets.
Letís come together.
So very close.
Her lips draw back slightly.
She is loud in my ear. Mine comes in silence … I hang up.
My breath slows, becoming even. I must sew the lips on their final word. The eyes must be glued shut on their last image, the hair combed again and restyled. I imagine her beneath the ground.
The paper shuffler has a change in luck. He ends the night sweeping the chips to his side. As I grab my coat and hat the shyster takes me aside.
A real breach of good taste. His words are slurred. His head tremors.
I muster a laugh. A shrug. I tell him it goes with the territory.
But respect is important. Respect for the dead and those who take care of them.
Yes. A respect for the dead is important. And I think, without saying it, that we all are in the same trade, defining order out of chaos. And I think, without saying it, of preparations and prayers that exists in wheels and not the rigid angles of a cross.
The cross above me. How many others have reached their arms out to touch it? I tell myself my intention is only to learn the material of construction. I touch tiny plaster feet, crossed at the ankle.
And I think that the great lie of man exists in the hard lines of ninety degrees. The rectangle of doorways. The strict edges of the law. The dictates of ancient books.
The body is a circle. No right angles exist. Smooth, fluid perfection. Even in death … especially in death. I realize I have spoken these last words aloud. I have had too much to drink. I watch the shysterís face for movement.
It is still.
I wait. I am followed by shadows … but not shadows. It is something else. The negative of the body, an outline of black cut for us from birth. And I wonder who will prepare my body after and how they will do it. I wonder if they will have an understanding of these things as I do. Will they correct my flaws?
Asleep. The paper shuffler has fallen asleep at the table.
The sheriff shakes my hand on his way out the door. Seeya soon. He tips his hat. Our night has ended though it is still dark.
My body does not stop though I will it so. Life is a gift. I cannot bring myself to freeze the aimless walking in my chest nor fix my pupils as they gasp wide to draw in the sinking light. I wait. I wait as I have hesitated with words.
Hesitated with scalpels.
I hesitate at the doorway, the shyster’s hand on my shoulder. I peer into the black.
Arms crossed beneath my head. The room is silent for a moment. I wait.