By T.R. Healy
A squat man in a bulky charcoal gray suit slowly approached the long table set up at the north end of the hotel ballroom. When he reached the table he stared for a moment at the nearly one hundred people in the audience as if searching for someone in particular then in a very hoarse voice thanked everyone for coming out on such a blustery evening. He seemed uncomfortable standing before so many people. His left eye twitched. His forehead quickly became damp under the glare of the powerful twin lamps that were on either end of the table. Then, after an audible sigh, he said, “Now it is my pleasure to introduce the person you have come to see, Dr. Stanley Sackheim,” and urgently he began to clap his hands.
A man well over six feet tall, with a shock of wedding cake white hair, strode from the back of the ballroom past the members of the audience. He was dressed in bright blue scrubs with a surgical mask hanging loosely around his neck. He moved briskly, seemingly oblivious to the applause that greeted his entrance. When he reached the table, the gentleman who introduced him took a seat in the front row beside a woman with a pair of opera glasses in her lap. For a brief moment, he also surveyed the people in the ballroom then he bent down and slapped his child-size hands on the table. Almost at once, from a side door of the room, a younger man also in scrubs wheeled in a gurney. On it was a dark blue human remains pouch.
“I am here this evening to show what you are … what we all are,” he announced as he hovered above the pouch. “And I trust it is something you won’t soon forget.”
Kyle Jarrett, who sat in the third row, leaned back as Sackheim started to unzip the pouch. To his surprise, a vein in his forehead began to pulse, and briefly he shut his eyes, not sure if he wanted to see what was inside the pouch.
Jarrett, a part-time custodian at a community college on the edge of town, was walking to a coffee bar near the campus late one afternoon when he spotted someone outside the fieldhouse in hospital scrubs waving a handful of papers. Curious, he went over to see what he was promoting.
“You want to see something you’ve probably never seen before, brother?” he asked him.
“There’s going to be a public autopsy conducted at the Alhambra Hotel tomorrow night. You can see it for only five bucks.”
“Is that legal?” he asked, stunned by the idea.
“It’s going to happen so it must be.”
Jarrett was skeptical. He knew from a world history course he took one semester at the college that public autopsies were banned over a hundred years ago in most western countries because of the spread of body snatchers eager to sell cadavers. So he could not believe such an event could take place in his hometown. Not here, not anywhere in the country for that matter. More likely, he figured what was being promoted as an autopsy was a stunt of some kind performed by some self-proclaimed artist. Just last summer, at a storefront theater downtown, he watched a woman who billed herself as a contemporary Godiva put on one of the strangest performances he had ever seen. She was close to two hundred pounds, dressed in a shimmering silver evening gown that reached her ankles. She was barefoot, her toenails blood-red. She cracked a few lame jokes then took out of her purse a pair of scissors and invited members of the audience to come onto the stage and snip off pieces of her gown.
“All of us should be willing to be vulnerable,” she declared after she was practically naked on the tiny stage.
Once the pouch was opened, Sackheim removed a plastic sheet from inside it and flung it on the floor then he removed a pale white cloth that covered the remains. It was a man, a very elderly man, with skin the color of rain.
A woman behind Jarrett gasped, as did some others, but most of the audience remained eerily quiet.
“I shall call him ‘David’,” Sackheim announced, “though he bears little resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture.”
Several people in the audience smiled at the reference, a few even laughed out loud. Not Jarrett, though, he scarcely heard what the anatomist said because he was so stunned that an actual person was lying on the surgical table. When he purchased a ticket for the performance, he assumed the autopsy was going to be a simulation with some kind of detailed mannequin serving as the cadaver. If he had known an actual person was going to be used, he never would have come, not even if the event was free. He wondered if many others in the audience were as surprised as he was when they realized what was about to take place. Certainly a majority of them he figured because who, in his right mind, would pay to see such a spectacle.
You should leave now, Jarrett told himself. You should leave this instant.
He didn’t, though, because he sat in the middle of a long row and would have to make his way past several others who would not be pleased. So he was stuck, he reckoned, in a roomful of ghouls.
A medical bag sat under the table and Sackheim picked it up and took out his dissecting kit and from it took out a scalpel. Raising it above his head, he slowly swiped it through the air so the audience could see how sharp it was then held it for a moment under one of the lamps where it gleamed like a Christmas ornament.
He was a performer all right, Jarrett thought to himself, accustomed to being in the limelight.
With the scalpel in his left hand, Sackheim snapped his right fingers and, at once, an image of the cadaver was projected on the blank wall behind him. Some in the audience applauded, impressed by the size of the image which nearly covered the wall.
“The internal examination of a specimen often begins with what is known as a Y-shaped incision,” he announced as he transferred the scalpel to his dominant hand. “This approach is used in forensic autopsies because it allows maximum exposure of the neck structures for later detailed examination.”
Bending over the cadaver, he made a deep cut at the top of each shoulder and continued to cut down the front of the chest to the pubis. Then, with his fingers, he began to peel the skin back from the underlying bones.
Jarrett watched only for a moment then looked away and stared at a fire exit door in a corner of the ballroom. The only deceased person he had ever seen until now was his grandfather lying in his casket but he didn’t look anything like this man. He just looked as if he were sound asleep.
Trying not to listen to the droning commentary of Sackheim, who had yet to say a word about the identity of the person he was cutting to pieces, he decided to invent one for him. Because he appeared close to the age of his grandfather who died last spring he figured they probably had a few things in common. He suspected David likely served in the armed forces like Gramps since the Selective Service program was in existence when he and his grandfather were young men. Quite likely, they had married and raised families and attended some church that told them how to conduct themselves throughout their lives. Too, he assumed they liked baseball because when they were youngsters it was the most popular sport in the country. Often, when he visited his grandfather as a kid, Gramps would shake his hand with a Kennedy half dollar tucked inside it then invite him out to the backyard to play catch for close to an hour.
He wondered if David ever played catch with a grandchild. He had no idea, of course, but he liked to think he did, maybe at some park swarming with other children and grandparents.
“The liver is the largest organ in our bodies,” Sackheim declared, after shaking the drippings from David’s into a pan on the table. “There is quite a bit of scarring on this one so it is likely David suffered from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.”
He then held the organ above his head, idly passing it back and forth in his hands as if it were a child’s toy.
You should leave, Jarrett counselled himself again, before it’s too late.
A burst of laughter swept through the audience, and Jarrett looked again at the table and saw Sackheim pulling some tendons which caused David’s toes to wiggle.
“He’s quite the showman,” an admiring man seated next to Jarrett whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“He’s something all right.”
Jarrett didn’t know very much about autopsies but it was his understanding that one could not be conducted on an individual without the consent of a relative. So how could a relative of David’s sanction what was going on tonight, he wondered, which seemed more of a desecration than a dissection? Perhaps whoever let this happen was in desperate need of money. Or perhaps the relative was under the mistaken assumption that the body was to be used for research at some medical facility. Whatever the reason, he just hoped the relative didn’t know David would become a prop in what amounted to a theatrical performance.
Minutes later, a sharp bang reverberated through the ballroom, and Jarrett looked up and saw that Sackheim had set a small hacksaw on the table. His forehead became damp, a pulse throbbed in his temples.
“As you may or may not know, ladies and gentlemen, bone is a very hard tissue,” Sackheim informed the audience as he stroked the back of David’s head.
Jarrett, realizing what was about to happen, got up from his seat and started to squirm past the others in his row.
“You’re not going to be sick, are you, son?” Sackheim asked with a slight grin.
Not as sick as you are, he thought, as he made his way to the back of the ballroom.
All he wanted to do now was get out of there, out of the entire city really because it had permitted such a travesty to take place.
T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His most recent stories have appeared in Across the Margin, Freshwater, and Wise Owl.