Excerpt

The Coroner

A High Functioning Sot

Retun to Cadaver

 

The coroner woke to find himself sprawled out on a luminous green lawn with the sun blazing down on his neck. He raised his head to get up when a wave of nausea washed over him, forcing him to collapse onto his knees to see the carpet of grass opening up beneath him. His head spun, his eyes crossed and twittered. The only escape was to dive into the earth. He tasted salty blades of grass and smelled what earthworms must smell when they burrow into moist soil. He breathed deeply, slowly, to hold terror at bay. The pain in his head was furry and diffuse.

Labyrinthitis was his diagnosis, the worst episode in years. After several minutes pressing himself to the ground he rolled over and assumed the corpse position, a relaxation technique he learned when he dabbled in metaphysics before embracing hard science as his religion. It was a yoga pose where you lie limp on your back with your arms at your side, palms up, heels touching, breathing like there was a feather on his belly gently floating and dropping. The feeling of helplessness soon passed, and when he sat up he found himself perched on a slope with an unobstructed view of the skyline to the northeast, grayish brown structures that poked at a cloudless sky. A light breeze cooled the greasy sweat on his face and neck.

The sun had crawled across the sky to the west, far enough to establish that it was mid-afternoon. He checked his watch. It was twenty-seven after three. He had been doing something he could not remember since dawn.

The palm trees looked familiar, and when he saw the large edifice with a Spanish tile roof he recognized it as the high school fronting Dolores Park. He had not traveled all that far from Barlow’s house, whatever he had done all morning. Maybe he went home to Russian Hill and returned, but that seemed improbable, because he was neither shaved nor showered. He vaguely recalled entering a playground, swaying on a swing and humming a tune, but was not certain whether that was a recent memory or one from his childhood. To regain his bearings he looked instinctively for the Good Karma Café, which would give him a definitive landmark. He stopped there regularly for spicy chai tea and carob muffins when he lived in the neighborhood and slaved away as a resident at Pacific Medical Center. How many decades ago was that? He was too groggy to calculate it, but the absence of the Good Karma was conspicuous as his eyes swept across the landscape. A new establishment took its place across from the northeast corner of the park, displaying the same large plate-glass windows, trimmed now in bright chrome and black lacquer. The sign said “Java.”

“What the hell, I wouldn’t mind some java,” he croaked.

In an effort to restore his dignity, the coroner righted himself and straightened the knot of his necktie, pressed his palms over his breast and thighs to smooth out his rumpled brown suit, and brushed off the grass. He checked to see if his fly was zipped and his scuffed wingtips were tied before plodding down the slope.

At the sidewalk he encountered a coven of men hovering with Safeway carts. The vehicles were laden with black plastic bags that might be filled with anything – their best clothing, photos of loved ones, meaningful found items, or cans and bottles to redeem for a nickel a pop. Folded cardboard boxes wedged between the bags suggested shelter for sleeping in the rough.

One of the three, a tall black man who wore his hair in dreadlocks and sported a short grizzled beard, whom he judged to be approximately forty-five years old, looked up and offered him an infectious grin. The man had three teeth, two on top and one on the bottom that did not come close to meshing. The lack of dentistry did not lessen the man’s air of dignity and the strength of a face that could be described as strong-jawed and ruggedly handsome. He waved and beckoned, and the coroner found his legs moving in that direction.

“You’re new, aren’t you, my brother. I haven’t seen you around, have I? Welcome to Dolores Village, the green ghetto.” He spoke with the clipped English diction of an old boy from Eaton, which the coroner could not determine was genuine or theatrical. “My name is Rolly. You must be the false Messiah.”

Rolly puffed up his chest and erupted into baritone howls of laughter. The other two men eyed the coroner with deep suspicion and shook their heads. They had seen Rolly invite strangers into their space and put on this show many times before. Evidently they were not amused, and it was clear they did like the looks of the latest guest.

He noted that Rolly’s torso was draped with a patch of blue polyester fabric that displayed a large “S” insignia on a golden shield. A little red cape attached to his neck fluttered in the breeze. He guessed that Rolly found the remnants of a child’s Halloween costume discarded in a trashcan as he foraged for items of value.

It was then he realized how foul and disheveled he appeared, bad enough to be mistaken for a fellow traveler. He found himself responding by instinct with the refined manners he affected when meeting new colleagues at a conference of forensic pathologists, wishing to show respect and minimize the hostility of Rolly’s comrades before moving on.

“Very pleased to meet you, Rolly, and friends,” he said with a nod. “I’m Dr. Bacigalupi, but you can call me Leo. I live up on Russian Hill.” He quickly realized that was the wrong thing to say. What if they wanted his money? He went for the laugh line. “But I’m not Russian.”

Rolly inspected the coroner like a punter checking out a horse on the paddock before the third race at Golden Gate Fields. “You’re Italian, and you come from North Beach or Sausalito, lower middle class, educated on scholarships. Am I not right? It’s obvious,” he said.

“Close enough,” the coroner said, amazed at how the homeless man read him with such accuracy. His brain was slowly adapting to the man’s sharp wit. “My parents were from Milan. I grew up in Larkspur, and my dad worked as a janitor at an elementary school. I got through med school by selling my body to lonely widows. Let me guess, now, you are from Britain, or the Islands. You are an English lord, perhaps. A pretender to the throne?

“Yes, I come from nobility indeed,” Rolly said. His pals shifted their feet and turned their faces away from the scene, bored and impatient, waiting for the right moment to roll their carts down the sidewalk.

“Honest, decent hog farmers in the kingdom of southern Arkansas. I speak in many tongues and accents and I wear disguises so I can carry out my mission without being detected. Somebody must save the planet from greed, suffering and delusion, and that is me.” He lowered his voice to a confidential whisper. “When I got fired by the post office the doctors said I’m a schizophrenic, but little do they know of my true nature and my destiny.”

The coroner shrugged in sympathy, wondering how long Rolly had been off his meds.

“Look, I’m feeling a little disoriented here, like I’m just waking up from a bad dream. Can any of you tell me what happened to the Good Karma Café? It’s missing, gone. It used to be right there.”

One of Rolly’s comrades suddenly showed interest in the conversation, a burly old man with white hair. “Ain’t nothin’ but bad karma ’round here these days. You must of just crawled out from under some rock, doctor Bachigahoopy,” he said with an ironic hoot. “You tell me where the good karma is and I can get me a fine suit like the one you wearing at the Salvation Army, and maybe some of that macrobiotic food they used to serve over there.” The third man nodded demonstratively, rocking on his heels.

The old man continued in a wistful tone. “A bunch of hippies ran it back in the day, before young Rolly here was even born. They used to give me leftover bread when I came around at closing time. It was brown and dry and tasted like dirt, but it was better than nothing at all. The motherfuckers that run Java’s don’t give a shit. They kick you out on your ass if you don’t smell right and threaten to call the police if you hang around, even when you got good money to buy their coffee. You see, we’re bad for business.”

“That’s right,” Rolly piped in, “we’re baaad.”

The coroner was tempted to pass around his flask in commiseration but thought better of it.

“How about I give it a try,” he said, reaching into the inside breast pocket of his brown suit for the thin leather wallet. “I have credentials.”

There was a frightening moment when he found the pocket empty. Then he calmed himself with the thought that he must have left his CME identification in the car after visiting Buck Pomeroy at Mission Emergency. “My investigator’s license is back in the car, but don’t worry. I know how to boss my way around without it.”

“You’re a cop! I knew if from the start. Undercover. Your dirty suit gives you away.” Rolly said. He stood his ground while his friends started to shrink away, ready to bolt.

“Wait, no, don’t jump to conclusions. I’m not a cop, I’m just a medical examiner. I have a county commission to investigate the dead, not the living. I use the ID to get into crime scenes. I don’t shake people down.”

“Where’s your stinking gun?” Rolly said. “Most cops I know use the Beretta 96D. Forty caliber. I know because I’ve had them pointed at my nose several times on suspicion of walking while black. What kind of gun do you carry?”

The coroner raised his palms to indicate he was unarmed as he turned and walked across the street with a wobbly strut. “Stay here and I’ll get us some go juice.”

Where did he leave his Walther PPK, he wondered. Probably still in the spring-loaded catch under the dashboard of the Volvo where he always kept it. He had not taken it out and cleaned it or even looked at it in years.

His daze of nostalgia for the old Good Karma dissipated as soon after he entered the establishment. The oversized green chalkboard that once listed organic broccoli soup, brown rice curry pilaf and nutmeg tofu stir-fry was no longer hanging on the wall. Gone was the sweet redolence of a coarse wheat bread baking in the ovens. No battered wooden tables covered with thick shellac. No bulletin board papered with flyers for new age masseurs and Maoist study groups. The chrome and black lacquer motif updated the premises to a clean cold contemporary look. It reminded him of the morgue.

He wondered if the shopping cart detail would still be at the park when he returned with a cardboard tray carrying four large “café grand coffees du jour. He wanted to buy the “café géant” size, but a surly young barista told him that the super sized cups wouldn’t fit into the tray. He noted with amusement that the woman had green vine tattoos etched on her arms and gold pins and rings impaled on her lips, her nose, cheeks and forehead. He tipped her an extra dollar. The counter culture lives, he thought. Long live the revolution!

The guys were waiting and he gave them each a coffees and a thin paper sack containing a raspberry walnut scone, which as far as he could tell were identical to pastry baked at the same factory served at every coffee house in the City. He put a fourth scone in his pocket.

“Thank you, doctor, but I take cream and two cubes of sugar,” Rolly said through a three-toothed grin. “Actually I prefer Earl Gray and crumpets.” Rolly seemed to think his remark was uproariously funny; the others scowled.

 

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