Disanime is copyrighted 2006 by R. Earle Harris (r dot earle dot harris at gmx dot com)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
The coroner is my friend. He lies on top of me. My legs are locked over his, from the outside, keeping him hooked into me. I like his lying here like this. Afterwards.
"Draj," he says softly, his lips brushing my ear.
"Shush," I tell him. "No talking."
My friend the coroner always wants to talk afterwards, wants to establish more of a connection with me than sex just did, more than physical closeness, more than our sometime friendship.
"You're supposed to melt in my arms," he whispers.
"I am very warm here, Peter," I say in a normal voice.
My friend the coroner has a bad joke for a name: Peter Pecker. What were his parents thinking? The former Mrs. Pecker, who does not know I sleep with her ex-husband, told me he was a prick. What did she expect?
"You're supposed to melt," says Peter.
"I am dripping," I tell him. "Does that count?"
"I think that's me," he says. "Let me up."
I use my legs and arms to keep him where he is.
"Stay," I say.
The clock on Peter's desk says it's two-thirty in the morning. Today was a very long day, followed by an even longer evening at the airport, meeting my brother's plane. Peter, who is now falling out of me, licks my earlobe, needs a shave.
"I am really tired," I say to Peter. "And you need a shave."
Peter raises himself up on his elbows and looks down at me. I can't see him very well in the dark but I know he's nice looking. He's the same age as I am, forty-one, and still has all his hair. Which is nice.
"Hi, Peter," I say and lift myself up to give him a kiss.
"Hello, Draj," he says. "If we could do this in my bed, or in yours, you could actually go to sleep now."
"We can sleep here," I say.
"No, we can't," says Peter. "There's no room on this couch."
"You could stretch out on the floor," I tell him, "and I'll take the couch."
"I don't even want to sleep here," Peter says, burying his face in my neck again.
"Why not?" I ask him.
"Because I work in a morgue, remember? There are corpses down the hall."
"I know that," I tell him. "My brother is down there with them."
"Another reason not to sleep in my office," says Peter. "Come home with me, Draj."
One reason I don't melt in Peter's arms is that he watches me every time I dress. I don't watch him dress. Why does he watch me dress? Also, he talks too much while I'm dressing. I like to dress in silence.
"Draj," says Peter, "really. Come home with me. We can just sleep."
"The last time I believed that, Peter, I lost my virginity. Where's my bra?"
"I think it went behind the couch," Peter says. "You look good in just your jeans though."
"Thank you, Peter. Help me move the couch."
We move the couch.
"Will you come home and sleep with me, Draj?"
"No," I tell him, shake the dustbunnies out of my bra, put it on.
"Now where's my shirt?" I ask him.
"Here are your glasses," he says, "I think your shirt is over there."
"Why did you throw it over there?" I ask him.
"I didn't throw it," he says, buttoning up his own shirt. "I just needed to get it off of you and it got away from me."
"Yes," I say, picking my shirt up off the floor. "That was nice."
Peter won't stop watching me until I'm completely dressed. I pick up my shirt, slip into it, tuck it into my jeans. We sit on the couch together, put on our shoes. He watches me tie my shoes.
"I really like you, Draj," Peter tells me. "Why won't you follow me home?"
"Because I'm in mourning, Peter."
"Oh. Right," he says. "Sorry. I'll stop."
There, I tell myself, my brother's death is good for something after all.
My brother's metal casket is in the morgue. It flew all the way here from Japan today, my brother dead and pale inside, packed up in this shiny metal box. It's a very pretty metal box, looking as if it should be full of food or something. Sushi, I guess.
Peter is finally quiet, no longer watching me. We stand at the head of my brother's casket, our fingertips touching. I touch the casket's nameplate with my free hand.
"Dusan Tabak," Peter reads. "What does Dusan mean?"
"I don't know," I say. "I don't speak the language our names are in."
"You told me what Dragica means," Peter says. "It means--"
"Yes," I tell him, "but that's the only word I know."
"Which doesn't make any sense," says Peter.
"I know just how you feel," I say and touch my brother's nameplate again.
"What did your brother do?" Peter asks me.
"He was a computer engineer in Tokyo. Graphic engines. Or something like that."
"Games?" asks Peter.
"I would know?" I ask back.
Peter is walking around the metal casket, sliding his hands along its surface.
"He died in some kind of accident," Peter says, "right?"
"I'm not sure," I tell him.
Peter stops and looks at me.
"Peter," I try to explain, "he died in Japan. Everything about his death and about his coming home has either been in total Japanese or in a very bad English translation."
"And you didn't know he was coming until yesterday?" Peter asks.
"I was busy with the Arqueda case," I tell him. "And besides, the first letter I got was in Japanese."
"That's what they speak over there, Draj," smiles Peter.
"But we don't speak it over here, Peter," I smile back. "Do we?"
"And the second letter?" asks Peter.
"That was last week too. I thought my brother had won a trip home, you know, on a game show or something."
"So when did you figure out he was actually dead?"
"When I got the letter from the State Department, saying his passport had been processed separately from his corpse."
"Which you received yesterday, while your brother was in mid-air, over the Pacific?"
"Which is when I called you, Peter, last night. I thought you were a natural for picking up dead people at the airport."
"Your brother's death has you all choked up, Draj," says Peter. "Shouldn't all this upset you just a little?"
He crosses his arms for moral emphasis.
"It will," I tell him. "Just not yet. Last night, I'd been celebrating the Arqueda thing until way too late--"
"About this time last night," interrupts Peter, "was when you called."
"--and I fell asleep on the kitchen floor right after I hung up."
"No wonder you look tired," says Peter. "You could sleep late at my place. On a bed, even."
"It's already late, Peter," I say.
I reach out and touch my brother Dusan's casket again.
"Do you think he should have an open casket funeral?" I ask Peter.
"I was just thinking about that," says Peter.
"You were?" I ask.
"I was," says Peter. "Not the funeral, I mean. The open casket. This one doesn't open. Not a hinge in sight."
Mike the Maintenance Man has a Beatles haircut. Or maybe Herman's Hermits. Mike looks like a skinny old British rocker with a broken nose and a mouth full of Red Man chewing tobacco.
"You want me to cut a hole in this casket?" Mike asks me.
"That's why we asked you to bring the cutting torch," Peter tells him.
Peter stands there, looking superior, drinking a Pepsi, studying Mike's greying bowl cut.
"Lucky for you I had the keys to the maintenance shop," Mike tells us.
"It is your shop, Mike," I tell him.
"That's right," Mike says. "It sure is. Where you want the hole?"
"Right here by the nameplate," I say. "That's probably the head, right?"
"If you say so," says Mike. "How big a hole -- 'bout like this Pepsi can?"
Mike holds out his hand for Peter's Pepsi. Peter hands it to him and Mike spits a mouthful of his chewing tobacco, or its by-product, or whatever that brown juice is, into the can.
"You were through with that, right?" Mike asks Peter.
"I am now, Mike," Peter says.
Mike fires up his portable torch.
"We do this," Mike says, arching an eyebrow at me, "and your brother's soul is likely to get out."
"Yes," I tell him, "but if we don't do this, my brother's soul won't be able to breathe."
Mike grins, pops his black goggles down over his eyes, and tweaks the torch's flame.
"Close your eyes," Mike tells us. "We're going in."
"See for yourself," says Mike.
He hands me his huge black metal flashlight and I use it to look into my brother's coffin.
"You're right," I say. "There's nobody in here."
I angle the light all around. Still nobody.
"Let me have that," says Peter. "Coffins almost always have dead bodies in them."
"Yes, Peter," I say. "But it isn't a natural law."
Peter looks in my brother's empty casket.
"Apparently not," says Peter. "This one's empty."
"What are you doing?" asks Mike.
"I'm reaching down in here where we can't see with your light," says Peter.
"Aw, man," Mike says, "don't put your hand in a coffin."
"It's empty, Mike," says Peter. "Except for this."
Peter's hand comes out of the coffin holding an envelope, which he holds out for me to take.
"There was something in it," says Peter. "For you?"
"Why me?" I ask him, taking the envelope.
Its face is blank. There is something hard inside.
"It's your brother's coffin," says Peter.
"My brother isn't in there," I say. "Maybe it's not even his."
"It has his name on the outside," says Peter.
I turn the envelope over.
"Nice," I say.
"What is it?" says Peter.
On the back of the envelope is a picture, kind of a cartoon.
"Let me see," says Mike.
Both men are craning their necks to see my picture.
"Nice legs," says Peter.
"And those really are your ... " begins Mike, but he lets it go unsaid.
"I don't look anything like this, in uniform," I say.
"Actually you do," says Peter.
I look Peter in the eye. He gives me his best innocent look. I'd kiss him if Mike the Maintenance Man weren't here.
"Detectives on the Houston Police Department do not wear hot pants," I say instead.
"Too bad," says Mike. "Can I have that when you're done?"
"No," I say.
"Why not?" asks Mike, spitting into Peter's Pepsi can again.
"Because we found it in my brother's casket," I tell him. "It's mine."
"Your brother isn't in there," says Mike. "Maybe it's not even his."
"I'm keeping the picture," I tell him.
I can't take my eyes off of this silly cartoon. It does look like me. Or like I would look on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
"I'll get it framed and matted for you," says Peter. "Let's see what's inside."
I use Mike's razor-sharp utility knife to open the envelope. A plastic card slides out.
"They have those in my laundromat," says Mike.
"This one is probably not from a laundromat," says Peter.
The card is brightly colored, covered in Japanese writing, and has a smart-card chip embedded in one end. We all stop looking at the card and look at each other. It is almost four in the morning.
"What next?" asks Mike.
"I could take you out for coffee," says Peter.
"Sure," says Mike. "I could use a coffee."
"Not you," says Peter. "Draj."
"None for me, thanks," I say, looking at the card, the cartoon, the coffin.
Then I yawn so hard I almost pull a muscle in my jaw.
"I need some sleep," I tell them and slide my Japanese smart-card back into its cartoon envelope.
"My offer still stands," says Peter.
"She just said she didn't want any," says Mike the Maintenance Man.
"I wasn't offering her coffee," says Peter.
"In your dreams," says Mike, spitting once more into Peter's poor Pepsi.
Peter gives him one of those looks that are supposed to convey the knowledge of sexual conquest among men. But Mike isn't looking. He's taking his portable torch apart.
"Peter," I say.
"Yes," he answers.
I shake my head at him and he stops giving Mike the look.
"Drive me home, okay?"
"Sure," says Peter.
"Thanks for your help, Mike," I say. "Really."
"No problem, Draj," he tells me. "You sure I can't have that picture?"
"I'm sure," I tell him.
"I'd pay you for it," Mike says, hesitating on his way out the door. "Twenty bucks?"
"I'll think about it," I say, fighting off a yawn.
"Good night, Mike."
"Peter?" I say as he unlocks my car door.
"Yes," he answers, opening the door so I can climb in.
"Why do you drive a Porsche?" I ask him.
"I must be compensating for something, Draj," he answers. "Get in."
I sit down into Peter's unbelievably comfortable leather bucket seat and he closes the door. I stare at the concrete wall of the parking garage until he climbs in.
"What are you compensating for?" I ask him.
"You mean besides my harelip, my gamey leg, and my tiny impotent member?" he says as he backs his sexy car out of its parking space.
"I'm thinking, Draj," he says and lets his car idle its way, throatily, between the empty rows of cars.
"I thinks it's all the dead people I handle," he says as we swing out onto the street. "I'm afraid all that death may rub off on me one day."
"So your Porsche is a talisman," I say, laying my hand on top of his upon the gear shift, "against mortality?"
"Or a really expensive rabbit's foot for luck," says Peter. "One or the other."
We are silent as Peter takes the access road and accelerates the Porsche onto the expressway. I leave my hand on top of his and watch the glow-in-the-dark green highway signs pass overhead.
"What are you going to do about your brother?" Peter asks, preventing the low tone of the engine from lulling me to sleep.
I turn sideways in the seat and try to curl up.
"I'm so tired, Peter. I don't know. What would you do?"
"Were you ever close to your brother, Draj?" Peter asks.
"In Serbia, in the Balkans, yes. But he stayed there when I came here. He didn't leave until my mother died."
"We never talked about this before," says Peter.
I press my face into his arm. But his leather seats aren't so comfortable if you try to sit in them your own way, like this. German conformity, I suppose.
"No," I tell him. "We haven't."
"We don't have to," says Peter.
"The Serbs took my mother from her home, all the women who were left in her town. And the older men, they took them too."
I sit up, still turned sideways and look out Peter's window, at Houston's brightly lit neon and glass night skyline.
"They put them in an airplane hangar, an old quonset hut thing from World War Two and let them go hungry until they killed them."
"They starved them to death?" asks Peter.
"No. The Serbs shot them," I say. "They raped the women first."
"But you were living in Serbia," says Peter. "So you must have been Serbs too."
"We were Muslim Serbs," I say.
"And they were?" asks Peter.
"Christian, I suppose," I tell him. "I wasn't there. I never liked their constantly choosing up sides. It was my idea to come here, to get away from all that choosing, to be a Texan."
"You mean American," Peter says.
"No, Peter, I came to America to be a Texan. What were we talking about?"
"Were you close to your brother?" Peter asks.
Someone is calling my name.
"Draj, we're home."
"What are you doing here, Peter?"
"This is my car," he says, touching my face.
His hand feels nice.
"My brother wasn't in that casket," I tell him.
"I know, Draj," he says. "Hang on."
The warm moist air washes over me as he opens his door and gets out. It does it again when he opens mine.
"I fell asleep," I tell him. "Hey. What are you doing?"
"I'm carrying you inside," he answers.
I put my arms around his neck.
"I live on the fifth floor," I warn him.
"I thought I'd use the elevator," he says. "You're too heavy for the stairs."
"That's not very nice," I tell him.
Peter closes the car door with his foot and crosses the sidewalk to where Mel is holding the door.
"Evenin', Mistah Peckah. Mizz Tabak," Mel says, tipping his doorman's hat.
Mel is a grey-headed wrinkled old black man, so old I thought he might have been born into slavery. We talked about that one time. His grandmother had been a slave. But he was born free, or as free as black men get to be in America. He owns the building I live in. When I asked him once why he plays doorman, he said he was too restless to sit around enjoying his money. He said he enjoyed people more.
"Thank you, Sir," Peter says as we pass inside.
"Hello, Mel," I say, looking back over Peter's shoulder.
"She came in just like that last night, Mistah Peckah," Mel tells Peter. "Had to get my nephew see her safe upstairs."
Peter stops and turns.
"He had to carry her?" Peter asks.
"No one had to carry me," I tell them.
"Had to steady her some," says Mel. "God gave us alcohol, Mizz Tabak. But He doan mean for us to abuse it."
"God gave us alcohol?" Peter asks.
"Ah'm pretty shuah He did, Suh," says Mel, coming around Peter and opening the elevator door for us.
"That would explain why it tastes so good," says Peter.
"Doan you let this w'man drink too much, Mistah Peckah," warns Mel.
"I don't drink too much," I protest weakly as Peter carries me inside.
"She's fah too pretty a w'man for that," Mel adds as the elevator doors close.
"I'm not pretty," I tell Peter's shoulder.
And that's all I have to say.
I wake up in a whorehouse, alone, and in bed. I live in a really old building, here in Montrose, that used to be a famous whorehouse -- once upon a time. Sex is very different in Montrose these days and my building's repute hasn't been ill since way before Mel bought it, sometime back in the fifties.
But we're in the guidebooks as a whorehouse and sometimes Japanese tourists, in their Bermuda shorts and collared short-sleeved dress shirts, will film me with their huge digital cameras when I come out. I try to give them a good show. And then I flash my badge.
It takes me a minute to figure out why I'm fully dressed and barefoot, under only a quilt, in my bed. It's my favorite quilt, a pattern of bright leaves and angular tree frogs with their tongues hanging out, and I pull it up to my neck. Someone has turned the air-conditioner up way too high.
That someone would have been Peter, who was too tired from carrying me home to do more than take off my shoes, cover me up, and turn the air-conditioner up way too high. I hate air-conditioning. So I roll out of bed, turn the air-conditioner off, and open the old double casement windows in my room.
It's Saturday. Or Sunday. I need to find out what day it is and think of what to do about my brother.
"You look mah-velous this morning, Dra-jeeka," says Stefan, crossing his legs gracefully and fixing the hang of his shirt.
"Mmmm," I say into my coffee.
I'm having coffee with my two favorite coffee-addicts, Mel the Landlord and Stefan Fits, who is possibly the gayest man in Montrose, certainly the happiest, and also my good friend.
"You hahdly look hungover a-tall, Mizz Tabak," says Mel.
"That's because I'm not hungover, at all," I tell him. "I wasn't drunk last night, Mel."
"You just couldn't walk upstairs under your own power," says Mel.
Stefan watches all this from beneath his beautifully-arched eyebrows.
"I was letting Peter play chivalrous," I tell Mel.
"You was sho 'nough lettin' him tote you upstairs," he replies.
"I think Peter is a love-ly name," Stefan says languidly for effect.
"You leave this young w'man's Peter alone," says Mel and then the two of them laugh so hard they have to set their coffees down.
"You two stop it," I say. "I don't know why I come down here to drink coffee with you two."
"Because we're more fun than anyone else you know," says Stefan.
"And because my coffee can't be beat," says Mel, topping off our cups.
"That must be it," I say, smiling at them both. Then I stop. "My brother wasn't in his coffin."
Stefan places two fingers on my knee.
"No," he says.
"Yes," I say. "We looked."
"He couldn'a gone fah, Mizz Tabak," says Mel, "him bein' dead an' all."
Mel's delivery makes this funnier than it should be.
"Stop it, Mel. I shouldn't be laughing about my dead brother."
"How do you know he's dead?" Stefan asks before delicately sipping his coffee.
"I have his coffin," I tell him.
"Empty. His coffin," Stefan says.
"I have a letter from the State Department," I say.
"Did they look in that coffin?" asks Mel.
"I don't believe they did," I answer, "now that you mention it."
We sip our Houston-morning coffee for a moment in silence in front of Mel's open casement windows. He has four of them right together because this is the nicest room in the building.
"Where'd you say yo' brother died?" Mel asks.
"Japan," I tell him.
"Call 'em up," says Mel. "Ask 'em what they did with yo' brother."
"Call who up?" I ask him. "They all speak Japanese over there."
"Some of 'em prob'ly speak English, Mizz Tabak," says Mel. "Try callin' the folks who shipped him here in the first place."
"Or didn't," says Stefan. "What did the letter from the State Department say?"
"That they had processed his passport and his body separately," I answer.
"His body?" Stefan says, arching another eyebrow. "Not very well, they didn't. Try embarrassing them. Then they'll have to help you out."
Novel truncated at 1000 lines