With pen and spiral notebook in hand, I set off to try to scribble my first meaningful story.
I spotted a victim sitting on a park bench, took a deep breath and boldly walked toward him. With no embarrassment or apologies, I sat down right beside him, introduced myself, and asked his name. He extended a weathered, age-spot covered hand and said, “my name is Henry Nathaniel Bealer, but you can call me Hank.” I think he was a little startled by my impertinent intrusion at first, but slowly warmed to my presence.
It didn’t occur to me that he could be a serial killer waiting for his next innocent victim, nor did it occur to me that he might just want to be left alone.
Looking at my paper, he asked, “what have you got there?” I lied when I told him that I was a writer. He asked, “do you write for the newspaper, or a magazine, or are you hoping to write the great American novel?”
I shrugged and said, “I just write about ordinary people. You know, it’s so normal for people to pass each other on the street and just walk by, without a hello, or a nod, or even a glance. If people would just try to get to know people, they might find that they’re interesting.” I sighed and said, “of course, they might also find out that they’re skunks.”
Hank appreciated my humor, I think and asked what I would like to know.
Most likely showing that I was clueless as far as writing, but hoping to fake my way through, I said “just tell me about yourself.”
Hank leaned back and began talking, almost as if he had forgotten that I was there.
“Well,” he said. “When I was a youngster, I was nothing but trouble. I’d steal candy from the local neighborhood store, shoot BBs at birds and squirrels, set the toilet paper on fire in the school bathroom…and my favorite thing to do was break off the antennas on cars. My poor Mother almost lost her mind, and my Father wore out many a hickory stick on my caboose.”
Smiling, he said, “when I finally got out of school, my Father took me down to the local Army Recruiting Office, and gave me a choice. ‘Sign up or get out’. I didn’t want to sign up, because there was a war going on. I knew that I wouldn’t be drafted because I was the sole surviving son but I also knew that my Father wasn’t going to put up with my foolishness any longer. I did a bit of whining, telling my Father that I didn’t want to go to some foreign land to get my head blown off, but the look on his face told me that if I didn’t do what he said, he would probably end up blowing my head off himself…so I signed up.”
“Thirty-eight weeks after boot camp, I got to ‘Nam’ and it was the doggonest thing. They made me a medic.” He lit a cigarette and apologized. “Something I picked up in ‘Nam,” he said. “Never could quite kick the habit.”
He stared ahead and said, “anyway, I imagine I saved a few lives over there, but there were so many that I couldn’t save. Sometimes I wondered if I could have saved more, if I had gotten to them sooner, or if I had done something different, but I’m not sure it would have mattered. I just watched the life drain out of them.”
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “you’d probably think that after seeing all those horrible injuries, and all that death, I would want to put that behind me. Instead, I became fascinated with death.”
“Anyway, I came back in one piece, and decided to go to medical school. I think it was the only time my Father was proud of me.” With a twinkle in his aged eye, he said, ” I guess after what I put them through when I was young, they thought I’d most likely end up in prison, ‘doing life without parole’, as the song says.”
He said, “I didn’t go to medical school to cure people, or help people, or save people, nor was I interested in giving closure to families. I went to medical school to study death. I became a specialized Forensic Pathologist. Any fool can see a bullet hole in a brain or a decapitation and determine the cause of death. It was the sudden, unexplainable deaths that intrigued me. So that became my forte…finding the unfindable…answering the unanswerable…defeating the unknown.”
“It became an obsession for me. I never had time for a wife or a family. It was all about work. Most nights, I wouldn’t even go home. I stayed with the bodies. I guess you could say they were my only acquaintances…not that I cared about them. I didn’t care about them at all. They were just bodies. And someday, that’s all I’ll be. Just a body laying on a cold steel slab.”
I found those words chilling.
Almost gleefully, he said, “I remember the first time I made the usual ‘Y’ cut into the chest, removed the organs one by one, weighed them, measured them and under a scrutinous eye, looked for any sign that might have caused their death. It was exhilarating. Determining their last meal ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous. One man’s last meal was about two pounds of common dirt.”
“Dirt?” I asked. “Yes, dirt,” he said. “There’s a disorder called Pica. It’s when people eat bizarre things. Most of the time, it won’t kill you, and eating dirt didn’t kill this particular person.”
“Were you always successful in finding the cause of death?” I asked.
“Most of the time, yes,” he said. “We’ve all got an expiration date stamped on us the day we’re born. Sometimes cruel fate steps in and hurries up the process, but sometimes death just happens and there’s no reason, except the old adage, ‘it was just their time’. Not everyone has the gift of length of years.”
Hank might have been a little strange and maybe even a little scary, but he was by no means “ordinary.”
Although I had only asked a few questions, it was time for the most important one to be asked.
“Hank,” I said. “Of what do you dream?”
He sat there with his head down, and I could hear the regret in his voice as he said:
“I dream of touching the living.”
To be continued____________