Dead people don’t smile.
They don’t say much either, except maybe for that fat guy who groaned a little when the doctor came in half-drunk from his Christmas party and pressed on the diaphragm a bit too hard. But no, generally, they don’t say much.
People ask me what I do for a living, I say, I take pictures; I’m a photographer. They ask me what kind, I say people. Passport shots? Weddings? Babies? I just shrug and I say yeah. Passports. Weddings. Babies. National Geographic.
Dead people don’t pose.
One night, something like a month into the job, I went for a strong double at Joey’s Corner, and I sat next to a character who was already working his way through his third. My shot came, I downed it, ordered another one. Keep ’em coming, I told Joey, I need ’em tonight. So this guy sitting next to me, he spins on his stool – already halfway to oblivion – and he says, “so, what’s eating you, buddy?” And he doesn’t wait for me to answer, he burps and slurs away something about his wife, about a divorce, about a fight; something about a broken bottle and blood all over the place, and he showed her – I’m not paying much attention because I have my own ghosts to drown – but while I’m putting my fourth one down the hatch and nodding along, he pops the question: “So, what do you do?” And I say, au naturel, “I’m a – a morgue photographer. I, like, take pictures of dead people. Bodies.” And the guy stares at me, he stares at me for the longest time and then says, “Wow. That’s – um. That’s hard, man.”
I stare into my fifth and mumble, yeah. Yeah, it is.
And then he says, “Guess I shouldn’t have put that bottle through her face, huh.” And he starts laughing, harder and harder, and he falls off his stool, still laughing, and then there’s noise and the cops bust through the door and drag him away.
I watch all this, and order a sixth one.
Turns out the next day they rolled his wife in – young, thirty-something – with the top half of a Johnnie Walker sticking out from where her nose used to be. Hardest shot to take – the protruding bottle messed with the focus, and I had to take double the facials – half with the face in focus, half with the bottle. Of course, if you have the right equipment you can do it faster, but this ain’t exactly a Marie Claire calendar.
Her husband got the chamber after one day in court. They said he was laughing up until he died, but when they rolled him in, he looked pretty grim. I drank one for him at Joey’s that night.
Anyway, ever since that, when people ask me what I do, I just say “photographer”, and when they ask me if it’s babies or weddings, I just say, yeah. I mean, it’s not really a lie – I used to do living people once.
How’d I land a job like this? No great story really – I was broke, and I saw the ad. It’s a steady gig, flexible hours (you just stick them back in the fridge if you want to call it a day), and nowhere near the hassle you get with live subjects: No fuss with the light, posing, getting kids to smile, arguments over quality, complaints about materials, making small talk, or photoshopping some sixty year-old whale to turn her into a prom queen. None of that – you just go in, set up the morgue’s stuff, and you click away for eight hours. I don’t even take a lunch break since the stink tends to kill my appetite, so I also get paid overtime. And you know what? Sometimes I even enjoy it.
Well, maybe “enjoy” is too strong a word. But the job is nowhere near as boring as it sounds. Subjects roll in, complete strangers (except of course for that guy from Joey’s, though I never caught his name), and they give me a list of things to shoot: Facials, whole body, broken fingernails, cracked knuckles, bruises, knife wounds, gunshot wounds, exit wounds, missing limbs, assorted limbs, remaining limbs, fractures, dislocations, ligature marks – you name it, I’ve done it. Gunshots are the most common. It takes some time to get used to the carnival, sure, but once you’re over the hump and you run on autopilot, your mind starts paying attention to the details.
For example: a girl rolls in and you have to shoot “high ligature marks over the carotids”. That’s a hanging right there, different to, say, strangulation, which would leave ligatures lower down the throat. You look at the age, it’s mid-teens. Holes in the veins, yellow nails, cuts and/or burns on the forearms and calves, and there you have it: the angst-ridden, emo teenager who couldn’t hack it anymore. Next.
And so forth. It becomes a habit, a routine, this parade of dead strangers rolling in, some fresh, some rotting, blue, gray, red, yellow, brown, white, black. The colours of death, same for everyone.
But back to my story. Let’s see… it was Tuesday, and it was raining. I had an early shift so I left home around 5am, took one look at the streets and decided to leave the car. Jam-packed, bumper-to-bumper, this early – you just know it’s going to be a good day. So I’m walking down Main Street, skipping puddles on the sidewalk, my umbrella scraping on the umbrellas of people who pass me by (“’scuse me, sorry, ‘scuse me.”), and then I see it.
Not that I could miss it.
It’s a truck. It has the logo of a big restaurant chain on the side of it. And it also has a car sticking out from the back. Seriously. A car. The crowds are standing there gawking, and the car’s back wheels are still spinning, shooting mud on everyone.
I don’t know how, but I seem to have gotten a front-row seat. Maybe I pushed a bit, maybe I shoved a little, and really, I should know better than these vultures, I should know better because if I just head to work, I’ll be taking pictures of the passengers by lunchtime, and gawk at them in peace and privacy.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because, despite my job, I’ve never actually seen them in situ. Never seen them fresh. I’m curious. Maybe it’s a professional thing – maybe I’m wondering what it would be like to shoot them in the car, before they put them on the slab and roll them in. Maybe I want to apply for that crime-scene photographer job I saw last week.
Maybe I just want to see dead people without the freaking lens. For once. I don’t know.
So I’m up close to the car, and there’s police, trying to disperse the crowd. Inside the car, I can see the driver with his face through the windshield, and in the back seat what seems to be a little hand up against the window. When I get close enough, I hear the radio playing Come sail away by Styx.
So sad. I stand there, nodding to myself, and for a second I’m surprised that the cops don’t seem to mind me being so close, so obscenely close to the car. No-one’s shouting at me or trying to pull me away. TThey’re just busy watching the crowd.
And then the little hand moves.
I see it, and something around my general chest area pounces. I stare at it for a second, frozen in my place, my mind gone blank – and it moves again, little fingers wiggling, leaving bloody trails on the window. And then the little hand collapses.
I start shouting, shouting at the cops, shouting for help, something about “she’s still alive, the little girl, she’s moving”, but no one seems to pay any attention, not the bystanders, not the cops – still busy doing crowd control – so I pull myself together and somewhere in my mind flash images of a little a girl on the slab and me taking photographs of her mangled little body, and of course I’ve done that so many times before, but this time, for some reason, some reason I don’t completely understand, I just can’t bear the thought that it will be her, that it will be this little girl, that it will be any other little girl, so I reach out like the hero I am and pull myself up the lorry and look inside the car, but all I can see are her two legs on the far side of the backseat, and I balance myself on a piece of twisted metal of the lorry, I grab hold of the back door’s handle and pull.
… so the little girl, she looks down at me and she smiles, a big smile under the bandages, and she loves me.
Like I said, dead people don’t smile.
I don’t remember much after I pulled the door handle. But from bits and pieces I’ve caught from the doctors and orderlies, it turns out that I got the little girl out right on time. Not very graciously, it seems, because I kinda threw her onto the cops who had finally noticed me.
It’s good to be a hero, although deep down I know I did it for myself. Somewhere deep down, I got sick of shooting the dead. I got sick of the fresh, of the rotting, the blue, gray, red, yellow, brown, white, black. Same colours for everyone. Same for me.
But at least there’s a little girl that gets to keep her colours. I don’t know if it means anything, but to me, it does.
The little girl smiles at me, and I know she would squeeze my hand if I still had a hand.
Turns out, from bits and pieces I’ve caught from the doctors and orderlies, that I got the little girl out on time. Turns out that the car’s engine was still on. Turns out that the guy driving had gone a bit crazy after his divorce, and grabbed his little daughter from school. Turns out he was carrying a bag with explosives in the car, and he’d threatened to blow himself and his daughter up if his ex didn’t call off the divorce.
Real family man.
Turns out that his ex called the cops, and they found him. Turns out he drove a bit fast, he skidded, and he rammed the car into the back of the truck. Turns out the cops were trying to get the crowd away because they knew about the explosives.
Turns out I didn’t.
There wasn’t much left of me when they found me. Some torso with my head still attached to it. In pretty good condition too, considering. That’s why they could bring the little girl to the morgue to see me. That’s why she could smile at me under her bandages.
I wish I could smile back, but, you know.
I start moving – they’re rolling me in. And there’s a new guy, some green rookie, getting the equipment ready. I wish I could give him some advice on the light – he’s going to struggle with the metering under that fluorescent. And he needs to use a wider lens to get all my pieces into focus.
Well, let him figure it out himself. I did.
Dead people don’t smile. But the others, like that little girl, they can. And you know what?
They really should.