Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I caught the first available Amtrak train from then-home of Chicago to my former home of New Orleans. I spent a week exploring the city, watching the recovery and talking to people who’d been there for the worst of it. I started writing this story on the ride back to Chicago, influenced heavily by my own interviews and those I’d read in the local news outlets. I was also reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian at the time, which probably played a part too. “St. Gabriel’s Morgue” was previously published in Hair Trigger in 2006 and on Normal Words in 2008.
St. Gabriel’s Morgue
If we did not all know him by name, we certainly knew his face. There was not a body in the barroom that did not fight back a tremor upon recognizing that too-broad visage, features spread wide like pulling the edges of a rubber mask, thick black eyebrows under loose red curls, fleshy lips that pulled down at the corners in a permanent, half-hearted frown. We did not know his exact age, but whatever it might have been he seemed somehow older than the actual tally. Broadly built, not tall frame, skin tan and tough, pigmented in a way that had inspired more than one late-night conversation as to whether or not there was any black blood in him. We would not have been surprised either way, as in these parts east of Ponchartrain nearly every man is either a sun-baked white or a time-bleached black, largely indistinguishable, and anyway most of us ceased worrying ourselves over such things long ago.
So we did not know his name but every man in the room knew for damn certain his occupation. One of those jobs that makes the bearer a well-respected pariah. For that reason, as well as the unsettling gravity with which he carried himself, he drank alone most evenings, hunched over near the end of the bar. He had been drinking particularly alone for the past six weeks. We had all of us been hit hard by the storm but we knew he would have it harder than most. His very presence was a grim reminder, but what was not a grim reminder at that time? Even the television, screen black for weeks except for Saints games, reminded us by its absence of what we were avoiding by leaving it off.
And so a shudder rippled through the room the evening he finally took to speaking. He started slow, his voice a forceful bass that split the nightly unracket of no TV, the only background noise the jukebox turned low, scrolling through a half-heard country-western album.
“Michelob,” he growled, holding a tapered brown bottle at arm’s length. “Michelob. For years now I drank Dixie or I drank nothing. But Dixie, they brew Dixie here, from Louisiana water. And you gentlemen will forgive me if I no longer trust Louisiana water. So now I drink Michelob, from St. Louis, Missouri. And my God, it is awful stuff.”
He swiveled the stool around, turned to face the room, looking to the ceiling as he rolled a crick out of his thick neck. “I feel for those people out there. Really, I do. If there was any way we could expedite the process, believe me, we would be doing it. But we just are not equipped for a thing like this. No mortuary in America is. Thank God for that, really, because I would hate to live in a place where death on this scale is something to be expected.”
He swept the room with hard eyes, smaller and blacker than any of us had ever noticed, dwarfed beneath those unkempt eyebrows. None of us met his stare. “Look away if you need to,” he sighed, “I have been waiting twenty-three years to speak my piece in this place and tonight I am by God going to speak it. I believe I’ve earned that right in the past month. Did you gentlemen know that we have had 842 individuals come through our doors in the past six weeks? ‘Individuals,’ that’s what the higher-ups tell us to call them. Words like ‘bodies’ and ‘corpses’ are too dehumanizing, they say. I can’t say I mind following the order, but I believe they are glossing things over a bit much. What we get in that morgue are not people. Most of them don’t even qualify as bodies. By the time we see them, they are just bloated, soggy slabs of meat. Would you like to know what’s dehumanizing, gentlemen? Spending seven days floating face down in toxic water in your own goddamned backyard without so much as a single rescue boat passing by. That is dehumanizing.”
He took a slow pull from the bottle, capping it with a grimace. Someone buzzed that the man was inebriated, but he had been in the tavern for less than half an hour and the bar in front of him held only two empties. His face contorted in what we could only guess was an attempt at a smile, an unnatural, ghastly looking manipulation. “Seven days. Do you gentlemen have any idea what that much time in the water does to the human body? Swells everything up, distorts, discolors. Half the time, we have no idea if we’re dealing with a black body or a white one. Black is a pretty safe assumption, I suppose, given the nature of the situation. But hell, sometimes we can’t tell for sure if it’s a man or a woman. And that is what we do, what we are paid to do. We handle bodies, we identify bodies. I myself have been doing these things for twenty-three years and some men in the lab have been there much longer. But a lot of these ‘individuals’ the animals found before the people did. The papers didn’t say a whole lot about the rats and the gators and the wild dogs, but I can tell you this much – the humans were about the only ones going hungry during this thing. That albino alligator missing from the Audubon Zoo – I wonder how many of the people he’s nibbled on in the past few weeks went and gawked at him when he was in captivity? Apologies, gentlemen, if I sound a little harsh. This job desensitizes a man, I suppose.”
That grotesque grin again, a few uneasy mumbles from the room. “But the rats and the gators and the dogs, they have nothing on the little creatures. Have any of you men ever flooded out an anthill?” Not pausing for a response, barrelling ahead. “It’s something to see. The ants, they seek out the nearest log or tree and swarm all over it. In just a matter of seconds you wouldn’t even recognize it as a log, just a squriming mess of ants. Well, of course you realize that, for a drowning ant, there is no difference between a log and a human body. I had a boy on my table only yesterday – yes, a boy, half of the floaters they’ve hauled in have been children under the age of fourteen, did you gentlemen not know that? – a boy of possibly six or seven who must have discovered one of these anthills. And I tell you this, I had my calipers out and I could not find an inch of skin on that boy that was not peppered with red welts. Not one single inch, top of the head to bottom of the feet. And I tried to tell myself that the boy was drowned already when the ants found him but I knew that they would not have bitten an unresisting corpse so thoroughly. And gentlemen, if the fire ants find you alive out in the water, you will certainly be dead soon, but not nearly soon enough.”
Another long sip. A table of three in the far corner near the pinball machine stood as one, eyes to the floor as they filed past the hard, broad face. He did not seem to care either way that they were leaving in the middle of his narration. “Good evening, gentlemen. As I was saying, the ants are hell for the living. But from my side, the crabs are even worse. The crabs, they teem over a body just as the ants do, but they don’t simply bite. They eat. They go for the softest areas first, like rats – eyeballs, noses, earlobes, fingertips, genitalia. The rescue workers – and is that really the appropriate term in this case, when everyone left is so far past rescuing? Scrap haulers, rag pickers. Garbage men. Perhaps that suits them better – the rescue workers tell me many times they have to scrape the ants off the backs of the crabs, then pluck off the crabs one by one, watching them wave pincers full of meat as they sink into the water. I cannot tell you gentlemen how many fleshless faces I’ve looked down on in the past six weeks. Think of it, men. There are people out there, even as we speak, being eaten by crabs. Eaten. By crabs. Is there any conceivable permutation of the universe in which that is an acceptable situation?” His voice rising at the end, the first time any of us had ever heard it above an agreeable rumble.
A man at the end of the bar rose, tried to calm the storyteller down, buy him a drink. Let us all get back to the half-pleasant nothing we were doing before he grabbed our ears. But the interloper was ignored, not even waved off as the litany continued, the jukebox sliding mostly unnoticed into R&B. “And so now we have protesters. We drive to work every day past little circles of people waving signs and demanding the release of their loved ones’ bodies. It’s a sad thing to see, no two ways about it. And as I said, I feel for these people. But when you get right down to it, there is simply not a whole lot we can do. We have 842 bodies – my apologies, ‘individuals’ – packed into that morgue and nobody knows who in the hell any of them are. As I think I’ve made clear, half of them you could not recognize if they were your own sweet mother. And they sure as hell did not show up at our doorstep carrying three forms of state-issued ID. People got washed all over town. Even if a body was found wrapped around a street lamp on St. Claude, he could have been washed over from Franklin, from Claiborne, from any goddamned place in the Ninth Ward. We just don’t know. We do not know.”
“Even some of what you might call the famous ones, we don’t know for sure. I’m sure all of you saw that picture, that makeshift casket on Magazine and Jackson where some good folks gave that old lady the most proper burial they could under the circumstances. Stacked up some fallen bricks around her, spread a tarp over top, painted a message on it: ‘Here Lies Vera. God Help Us.’ Well, somebody grabbed Vera up eventually. Casket’s gone now, just a pile of bricks. Her old husband doesn’t know where she went. I’ve met the man. Nicest old fellow you could hope to meet. And it breaks your heart to tell him you can’t really help him out. Yes, we probably do have Vera back there somewhere. She is one of the 842, I’d lay odds on that. But I wish you luck trying to pick her out from any of the others.. Let me tell you this too, gentlemen, while we’re on the subject. Those folks that buried Vera? They had the best intentions, but it was not purely out of respect that they put her in a box. They did what they did because Vera had been laying in that empty lot for five days and her body was putrefying into ooze. Vera was getting to be a health hazard and they had to take care of that. Because after five days it was fairly clear that no one else was going to. Again, harsh, I know. But gentlemen, this is as harsh a situation as any of us will live to see, knock on wood.” He rapped a thick fist against the bar.
He stared down at the floor for a few seconds, then hiked the Michelob to his lips and finished it with a quick swallow. He set the bottle softly on the bar and did not motion for another. Several more men took the pause as an opportunity to slip out, offering quiet good evenings to the other patrons. The rest of us did not have to exchange a word to know that we were all in for the duration. The man behind the bar even turned down the volume on the jukebox, paying silent tribute to our barstool griot. For a moment it appeared as though the harrangue might have been finished, the storyteller staring blankly, murmuring, possibly chuckling to himself. But soon enough he looked up again, black eyes ablaze with some passion we had not yet seen.
“I spoke with two women the other day, two of the protestors. These women, lovely people both, they watched their mother die at the Convention Center. She had respiratory problems that no one in that particular pit of hell was equipped to handle, and she died there in front of her daughters and her neighbors and several scores of absolute strangers. And when they finally came to get the people out, these women were told their mother would have to stay behind. And now I have her. Their mother is one of my 842, one of the few we have positively identified, one of the few who came to us intact and unmutilated. And still we cannot hand this woman over to her own children for the burial she deserves. Because we need to follow regulations and procedures and address the needs of each and every one of our cabinets full of human jelly before we dare let this woman slip out of our sights. And that is something I could not, can not, tell her daughters. I only told them I sympathized with them and I would do everything in my power to expedite the process. Lord knows that isn’t nearly enough, but it’s all I have to offer.”
He stood from the stool then, a slow motion, unfolding his tensed muscles with a deep inhalation. We thought again that he had finished and was headed home to a restless bed, but he turned his eyes to the rafters and resumed, his voice calm and even again. “Something to consider, gentlemen – we haven’t seen the end of this yet. Our 842 bodies? Two dozen of those showed up in the last week. Six weeks after the storm. From October 10 to October 14, they found 32 new bodies in Louisiana. Six goddamned weeks after the storm. How in the hell is a man expected to deal with that? And they’re still coming. They will keep bringing me more every week, more shriveled children, more bloated grandmothers, more broken black bodies and rotted out white ones. And the protests will get bigger and bigger. They’ll shout and they’ll chant and they’ll sign petitions and none of it will get them one lick closer to getting their relatives out of that morgue. Those people want closure and they deserve closure and we cannot give it to them any more than we can just say the hell with it and torch the whole goddamned building and all our 842 goddamned ‘individuals’ and just try to forget this whole godawful business and start our goddamned lives over again.”
The dark eyes scanned the room again but it was clear that they were not seeing anything they passed over. “I have heard a lot of talk in the last month and a half about how badly the government let us down. And it’s true, they certainly did. Our government has failed us. But so has God. And man. And science and society and technology and history and money and justice and love and hope and faith. The only one who has not failed in all of this is nature. Because from nature’s perspective, this can only be one of her greatest successes. In three short days she reclaimed for herself a great swath of land we stole from her more than three centuries ago. But aside from nature, every element that could have failed has failed, and for now all we can do is deal with it, each according to his own means and situation.
“I don’t know what that entails for any of you gentlemen. Frankly, I don’t much care. For me, it entails 842 bodies stacked in a morgue. Eight-hundred forty-two filthy, decaying, inhuman individuals, each of whom must be identified and processed according to a system that was never designed to accommodate half the burden with which it is currently faced. And it entails also ignoring to the best of my ability those sad-eyed women with the protest signs who I see on my way in and my way out every single goddamned day. And it entails closing my eyes at night and fighting my way through noseless women and ant-bitten children and reeking puddles of every goddamned fluid that ever seeped out of a human orifice before I can slip into that miserable purgatory that has passed for sleep for six weeks now. And it entails coming in to this godforsaken hole every evening, watching every face turn away as I pass, as if I was the killer of those 842 and not merely the caretaker, and sitting at this goddamned bar drinking St. Louis riverpiss instead of my beloved Dixie, and listening to mindless chatter about stock cars and football and home repair because every man in the place is too goddamned scared to turn on the television and look what is happening square in the eye, just as every man in the place is too scared to look me in the eye and see the reflection of 842 neighbors who will never go home again, even if they had any homes left to return to.”
And on cue, we all looked away. Not one of us had yet looked him full in the face through the whole narration, but now we looked further away, down between the floorboards, straining eyes seeking out microscopic particles beneath our shuffling feet. And we heard that sad attempt at a smile creep back into his voice as it softened again, smoothing itself out into a mellow baritone heavy with exhaustion.
“I don’t know. A man has limits, you must understand. I suppose I never had much indication of what those limits were until all of this came down. But I tell you this, gentlemen: I am close. I am mighty goddamned close. It won’t be very long and you’ll come motoring up that mortuary road and you’ll pass me out there at the entrance, waving my sign and reciting my poems and demanding that we let those poor people out of that godforsaken building and simply let their folks give them a decent Christian rest.
“I feel for those people out there. Really, truly, really, I do.” He drew a breath in slowly and let it out through his nose. The place was silent for a few beats, save for some shifting in chairs and clearing of throats.
When we finally raised the nerve to lift our heads, he was gone.
Before the end of the hour, so were we.