I SHOULD I HAVE CALLED 666 AND NOT 999.
It was easily the coldest day of the year when I was asked to go and check out a defective water heater in a building at an address that was far outside my regular route.
My dispatcher asked me to go there because the building’s usual service mechanic had gotten caught up on a difficult job someplace else.
I wasn’t familiar with the area so it took me a half hour to find the place and it turned out to be a Funeral Home.
I told the receptionist why I was there and I asked her to call the building super and when he came he told me that the ‘broken’ water heater was in the boiler room and he took me to the stairway and then said that the boiler room was one floor below the basement and so I’d have to go down two sets of stairs.
The room was poorly lighted and the boiler itself was a huge ancient one and it heated up the whole room excessively because most its insulation was in bad shape and there was nothing unusual about that. I took off my gloves and hat and overcoat and I got on with fixing the water heater.
When I’d found the problem and the unit was working again I didn’t put the covers back on because I needed to cool off and get some fresh air and I figured that the basement would have a door to the outside or at least it would have windows that I could open so I only walked up one flight of stairs and I opened the door on that landing.
As soon as I did so I breathed in almost overpoweringly strong formaldehyde and about ten feet inside the room there was a guy with a completely shaved head who was facing away from me and was leaning over a large-wheeled gurney that had the naked corpse of a woman on it.
I could see all of her face – it was really calm and peaceful looking – and her long brown hair had a little gray in it and I could also see her shoulders and most of her breasts which were smallish and firm and they looked like they were made of marble in that they were shiny white and there were criss-crossed blue lines on or just below the surface.
The guy was manipulating a large plastic tube that came down from a container that was hanging from a high steel pole and that had clear fluid in it and there was another liquid, ominously tinted red, that was running along channels on both sides of the surface of the gurney and then down two more tubes that led to big plastic catch-alls that were sitting on the floor.
There was a small, steel table to one side that had operating-room-type tools spread out on it and it also had a radio to one side that was tuned to a hard rock station which, evidently, was why the guy hadn’t heard me open the door nor my gasp of horror.
I stood stock still in shock and then, maybe ten seconds later, the tune on the radio came to end, with crashing chords and drum beats, which let me clearly hear what he was saying as he was working with the tube.
“Come on Mrs. Stevens, lil’ darlin’, cooperate with me for fuck’s sake!”
And then, in a lower voice, “Like you did for me yesterday and, I’d be willing to bet, like you did for Len and Fred last night too.”
He kept on struggling with the tube for a while and then he must have succeeded at what he was trying to do with it because after a few seconds more he shouted, “Ha! There you go, at last! Thank you, lil’ darlin’.
“Well now,” he went on, conversationally, “I’ll also bet that you’ve never had this much good loving since your honeymoon, am I right? Ha! Well now, please answer me this Mrs. Stevens honey, was it good for you too? All of it? Yes? Great. Uh, now please tell me something else – who was the one who gave you the best humping that you’ve ever had in your entire life? It was me, right? A hands down winner, right? ‘Course it was, no question.”
I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and I knew that I didn’t want to hear anymore of it so I eased back and closed the door quietly behind me and then I went back down the stairs but I had to move slowly and hang onto the hand rail because my legs felt wobbly.
In a daze I put all of the water heater’s covers back on and then, not wanting to stop working because that would let reality come back in, I went over to the big oil-burning boiler and did some much needed preventive maintenance on it and then, for the same reason, I did maintenance checks on every other piece of equipment that was down there which included a standing fan and a forced air blower and the box of electrical relays that control the boiler start-up and then its normal running procedures.
When that was done I grabbed a beat-up old broom and I swept the whole place clean.
Because I was still in full denial and didn’t want to come out of it I then emptied my tool box and I cleaned rust and dirt off all my tools and I oiled the ones that could use it – both things for the first time ever – and when I was done with it and had put them all back into the box they shone like new and made one part of me proud.
Still feeling shaky I looked around for something else to do and there wasn’t anything but I wasn’t yet ready to leave my ‘shelter’ so I took out my cell phone and I called my office and I told Harry, the dispatcher, that I’d run into some trouble and that the job would probably take another couple of hours to finish.
As I’ve already said, it was very hot down there and for some reason I suddenly became especially aware of it so I took off my t-shirt and my undershirt and then I pulled a rickety old chair over to the area that was best lighted and I read every word in every section of my newspaper, ads included, and then I did the crossword puzzle and I completed it for the first time ever and it wasn’t even Monday.
By then it was long past lunchtime but the thought of eating made my throat close up and I think that I would have stayed down in that boiler room until quitting time if my beeper hadn’t gone off which meant that I had to call my office. If it had been the dispatcher who answered me I would have thought up another excuse for him but it was my boss.
He told me that there was an emergency in the old folk’s home that was on my regular route and that I had to go there right away even if I hadn’t finished the job that I was on, “and what the fuck is taking you all this time? It’s only a crappy water heater, right?”
I told him that I’d had to do some extensive re-wiring but that it was now finished and, “I was about to call Harry to tell him that.”
I knew that he thought that something fishy was going on but he knows that I’m not a shirker so he just grunted and said, “Well, get over there as quickly as you can because these are old people that we’re talking about here and in this brutally cold weather – – – well, who knows what could happen, right?”
I put all of my stuff together and then I got dressed and I crept up the stairs until I got level with the basement door and then – not wanting to go up to the Lobby where I’d have to wait around until the Super came to get an up-date on the water heater from me and I feared that I might then find out that his first name was ‘Len’ or ‘Fred’ and where I’d also have to look the receptionist in the eye and if I did that I’d know at once if she was a ghoul too and from that I’d know that necrophilia was a necessary qualification to get a job there. It would also tell me whether or not she did disgusting things in one of the back rooms when she’d ushered the last mourner out of the building at closing time and I didn’t want my future to be burdened with any more disturbing conjecturing – I eased the basement door open and was vastly relieved to find that the gurney was gone and that no-one, alive or dead, was in the room and that there was indeed a door that led outside.
When I got out into the freezing air I put my tools in the back of the van and then I opened the driver’s door and I took off my coat and gloves and hat I threw them onto the passenger seat and then, in a strange quandary still, I found that I wasn’t yet able to dismiss what had happened from my mind and go on with life as if I hadn’t overheard something that was mind-boggling.
I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew that I had to find some kind of catharsis that would help me to function normally again.
I slammed the door shut and then I walked into the cold air and it went through the rest of my clothes as if they were non-existent.
I passed on by the Funeral Home From Hell and up to the next corner where I found that the wind was coming at me from my left hand side so I turned that way and I walked into it for an entire block.
My brain got blown clear in a minute or two but I had to keep on going to let the wind have a chance to slough off what felt like a half inch layer of slimy disgust that was coating my body.
All of the people that I passed on the sidewalk were bundled up against the cold and most of them were holding their gloved hands up to their faces to block out some of the coldness that was in the air that they were about to breathe in.
When they all saw me their eyes took on a look of astonishment at my stupidity and I could see that most of them wanted to yell something at me like, “Hey, asshole, get indoors before your blood freezes solid!”
None of them actually said anything and neither did I although I wanted to stop all the women and tell them to insist on being cremated when they died – no embalming is needed in that process – and to be sure to stipulate that, like burials for Jews, it has to be done quickly, that is, inside twenty four hours. Also, if I could have, I would have gone on to say to them, “See to it that a member of your family stays with you until you’re safely loaded into the hearse that’s taking you to the crematorium.”
I’ve worked in several crematoriums – on OEM installation, that’s ‘Original Equipment Manufacturer,’ and on electrical and mechanical maintenance, and trouble shooting, on the little conveyor belt and the shutter and the furnace doors and the furnace itself – and so I know that when the shutter goes up in the room where the service has taken place, and the button has been pushed that makes the coffin lurch forward and then go on in through the hole in the wall, it goes almost directly into the furnace and there is never enough space back there for an R&R room.