Bringing Out The Dead

“That’s juvenile, cruel and a perfect example of inappropriate horseplay in the workplace…so by all means, take my video camera.”

You just have to love a boss that gives you marching orders like that.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the workings of small town Mom and Pop ambulance services, they constantly struggle to find ways to buy supplies and equipment and pay the employees to the degree of poverty at which they are accustomed. Often, there just aren’t enough real ambulance calls to pay the bills. So, Mom and Pop are often forced to do unpleasant things…

…like take body calls.

They’ll contract with the coroner’s office or the local funeral homes to transport bodies to the funeral home or to the medical examiner’s office if an autopsy is ordered. For a modest stipend, Podunk Ambulance would send their Highly Trained Lifesavers to your house or nursing home to provide transport of your loved one’s earthly remains to the charnel house for preservation and burial.

If it sounds a bit macabre and ghoulish, that’s because it is. But hey, it pays the bills when quite often our real mission does not. And though it sounds odd, there is a certain honor in the service provided. A little respect, compassion and gentle handling of a loved one’s remains can often temper the sadness of the event for the grieving family.

Such solicitude however, does not extend to the EMTs performing the task. Away from the eyes of the family, body calls are an excellent opportunity to scare the bejeebers out of your fellow Lifesavers – particularly the squeamish ones. For some reason, there are quite a few medics who will aggressively work a cardiac arrest and perform all manner of procedures on a body in an effort to resuscitate someone…and then be absolutely unwilling to stay in the same room with that same body once it has been declared Officially Dead. A fellow crew – a husband and wife team – was just the type of which I speak.

I had heard the dispatcher send Ernie Keebler and The Troll way over to Quaint Little Hamlet on a body call. Knowing they’d take at least an hour and a half for the trip, Pardner and I hustled over to the Boss’ house to retrieve my moulage kit. The Boss was a tad curious as to why I’d want theatrical makeup at oh-dark-thirty on a slow night.

A wise man would concoct a lie. A creative fellow would contrive a plausible story. A careful man would consider his words before delivering an answer.

I blurted out the truth.

“Boss, I’m going to make up my feet with a little death pallor, strip down to my skivvies and lay under a sheet on the embalming table at Stiffs R Us funeral home. When Ernie and The Troll arrive with that body they’re transporting, I’m going to scare the living shit out of them.”

To which Boss had replied with the aforementioned marching orders, and provided the means to record the event. I suppose enlisting the Boss as a co-conspirator in a dastardly workplace prank could be considered unprofessional, but hey – the only time the words professional and Podunk Ambulance could hope to meet in the same sentence was when we were rendering patient care.

So, off we sped to Stiffs R Us to set up. After hiding our rig around the corner, we slipped the Hide-A-Key from its hiding place and let ourselves into the embalming room. Picture a cramped 10×10 room with a counter top along one wall and cabinets that extended almost to the ceiling, a big porcelain sink, an embalming pump mounted on a rolling stand, cans for medical waste and soiled linens and patient clothing, assorted other detritus, and one of these babies sitting smack dab in the middle of the room:


Pardner grabbed a sheet from the rig while I hurriedly stripped and applied some death pallor makeup to my legs from the calves down. I even added a little tinge of cyanosis and mottling to the underside of my legs to simulate lividity. Hey, I’m a detail-oriented prankster.

“Okay,” Pardner tells me breathlessly, “we’re all set. Hop on the table and let me spread the sheet over you. They’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“Did you disinfect the table first?”

“Uh, no.”

“Then respectfully, fuck you. I know what’s been on that table. I put some of ’em on there myself. Find some Clorox or something.”

C’mon, c’mon! We haven’t got time for this,” he urges, flapping the sheet impatiently. “They’re almost here!”

Ahem. Three weeks ago. Hundred degree heat, big fella found in his house trailer after no one had heard from him for six days. We used an entire jar of Vick’s salve between the two of us.”

“Oh. Yeah, that guy. Maybe I can find some wipes or something around here…”

I watch with a critical eye as he thoroughly wiped down the table with some disinfectant wipes he found in a cabinet, then I climbed aboard the cold porcelain and let Pardner spread the sheet over my considerable carcass, leaving just my artfully decorated feet sticking out.

Pardner wedged the video camera on top of the cabinetry, pointed the lens down toward the table, pressed the RECORD button, and beat a hasty exit. I lay on the table as still as possible and tried not to think about what had been there before me.

Presently, I heard the growl of a Powerstroke diesel engine outside. Vehicle doors slam, followed soon thereafter by the sound of a key in the lock. The door opened and through my eyelids I became aware of the dim glow cast by the street light in the back parking lot of Stiffs R Us.

Shit,” sighs Ernie Keebler, “they’ve already got one on the table.”

“Uh uh!” grunts The Troll dubiously. “I ain’t going in there.”

Okay, okay, OKAY,” Ernie groans placatingly. The Troll is a hard woman to please. “Let me go inside and I’ll see if we can find somewhere to put this one.”

The lights flick on and I am bathed in brilliant fluorescent light. I try to remain absolutely still. I sense Ernie somewhere to my right, just out of reach. He’s muttering to himself, moving around linen and biohazard cans…

“Damn creepy body calls…don’t know why I ever married that heifer…I’m a damned paramedic, not some professional ghoul…not my job anyway…Jeez, that’s a big sumbitch on that table. How the hell am I supposed to move him?”

I hold my breath. Then I hear the inner door open – the one leading inside
the funeral home. More banging around and fumbling for light switches. Ernie’s voice fades as he walks further into the funeral home, sounding all the while like a kid whistling his way through the graveyard…

“Jeez, why don’t these damn people even keep a stretcher handy…can’t be the first time they’ve had two stiffs at once…not my damned job anyway…the Lord is my shepherd…”

I let out the breath I’ve been holding, trying not to make a sound. I smell cigarette smoke from outside. I hear Ernie coming back, accompanied by the squeak of stretcher wheels in need of lubricant.

Okay, here it comes…

Ernie, still grumbling, can’t negotiate the space with the stretcher.

“You’d think they could throw some of this crap out…I shall fear no Evil…now where can I put these containers?”

I suppress the urge to smile. The only place to stow them out of the way is right next to my table. I hold my breath once again.

Grunting, Ernie drags first one can and then the other next to my table. I hear him cursing and breathing heavily, not two feet to my right. Those cans are heavy when they’re full.

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING???” I bellow as I sit bolt upright, reaching out with my right hand and grabbing Ernie’s wrist in the process.

Heh.

Go back to those halcyon days of your childhood when you watched cartoons all Saturday morning. Remember how the characters, when frightened, could levitate into the air while their legs pedaled madly, and the body would turn 180 degrees and zip away…but leave the head just hanging in space for a split second, mouth open and eyes bugged out?

Well, now you have a mental picture of what Ernie Keebler looked like when the chunky corpse reached out and grabbed his hand. His eyes stayed fixed on me, and his mouth tried to form words, but no sound came out. Meanwhile, his torso and legs were already out the door, leaving his head to catch up as if it were on a rubber band.

The Troll let loose with a bloodcurdling scream as her hubby blew past, still two feet off the ground and gaining speed and altitude. Ernie didn’t stop until he was in the back lot of the funeral home, curled up in a fetal position on the grass, moaning “Oh God, you got me…Jesus but you got me good…you bastard, you nearly killed me…

Ernie appreciated a good joke as much as the rest of us, and he was rolling with laughter as soon as his mind reported that it was me rather than a reanimated corpse. The Troll however, well let’s just say she bore a grudge. Might have something to do with her momentary lapse in bladder control, but then again, she never liked me much anyway. Teasing her about it for the past eight years hasn’t helped the situation much, either:

Pardner: “Hey, you seen the new MasterCard ad?”

AD: “Nope. How does it go?”

Pardner: “Death gray makeup – $16”
“Sneaking into the embalming room – N/C”
“Making The Troll soil her bloomers – PRICELESS”

The Troll still doesn’t talk to me, but Ernie Keebler still chuckles about that night…

But not while his wife is around.