A short story following the Machine of Death premise
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 1: Act first, think later.
My first dig was for Mom. Hopefully she was glad to be receiving visits still, in her bungalow underground. Even if the dearly departed would have preferred privacy, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. I just dug and dug, and I didn’t dare stop, because when my hands stopped, my mind might start working. I worried what an angel on my shoulder would say. I was a little disappointed in myself for not being overcome with remorse. At the same time, I was a little proud that I wasn’t on the couch like an average guy, watching celebrities bare their teeth for reality TV. I focused on mustering up some sadness, to convince myself that I was still a good person.
Mom had been the strongest link between me and the rest of civilization. When I was an infant and my brother was two, my father ran off. Mom used to say that he returned to the zoo. I knew no other relatives. We had started fresh in Los Angeles after the divorce.
The glow from my phone showed me where to pry up the coffin’s lid. The corners of my smile involuntarily twisted upwards towards my ears. Even before this plan had stained my imagination, I had luckily ordered a “green” coffin, not a regular locked-down vault that looked like it was fortified against a zombie invasion. Did I have a devil on one shoulder protecting me but nothing on the other side? Lightheartedness is not an attractive quality in anybody who is kneeling at an open grave, opening a pocket knife. I was greeted by Mom’s ample balding forehead. Hi, Momma. I’m going to help you lose a tiny bit of weight. The next task probably would have been easier with a steak knife.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 2: Do it for the right reasons.
Mom had been killed at the hospital, pure and simple. No, I couldn’t prove it was the hospital’s fault. It’s impossible to get doctors to brag about their malpractice hijinks. I was acting on a feeling, but it was a strong one—the kind that you follow into a cemetery in the middle of the night.
Mom had euphemistically called the hospital trip a “Club MD,” and she was sweetly reluctant to tell us what she was having done, explaining that her only goal was to end up naked with a doctor. She fell asleep for surgery and then: exit stage heaven. The death certificate declared she was taken by SUNDS, which is the adult flavor of SIDS. I had learned that less than five women per year fall victim. That sounded suspicious. It wasn’t like our family to accept anything so silently. I’d always pictured that she would live to be an ornery ninety, and then one day she’d mix up the gas and the brake, and dive into the YMCA swimming pool without ever leaving her car. Lately I’d been picturing her anesthesiologist, Dr. Palance, daydreaming about a yacht upgrade, carelessly injecting bouncing air bubbles along with Mom’s medication, until the air pressure exploded a heart valve. There was nobody alive who would tell me whether something like that happened, but I had a hunch that a Machine of Death could help. Mom never took the test while she was alive, so I was going to figure out her death prediction however I could. All I was asking for was a little card that said, “MEDICAL MANSLAUGHTER.” I’d wait for the machine to confirm my suspicions before planning what the doctors’ punishment would be.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 3: You don’t fail until you stop trying.
I had butterflies like on a first date when I carried my baggie of flesh to the Machine of Death booth. I closed the curtains as far as they would go, and then some. When I shoved my spoonful of shoulder meat into the machine, I didn’t get an answer back. There wasn’t enough blood in the sample to get a reading. The machine wasn’t motivated to generate a death prediction for a cocktail of formaldehyde and ethanol.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 4: Carve a thick steak right off the butt.
I’m indebted to a mortician for that gem. He thought I was a nice guy who was aspiring to study medicine. He thought that my interest in corpses was healthy. He got excited and asked if I wanted to see something interesting, and moments later I was applying denture cream to some bone shards so he could fasten them into the top of a cracked skull. I admit that I fantasized they were the remains of Dr. Palance. (One of his trust fund buddies caught him kicking golf balls off the green, and attacked him with a sand wedge).
We discussed how a body lies on its back while preservatives are forced into its hidden cavities. The pressure does a pretty complete job of cleaning out the arteries above the waist. Mom wouldn’t have felt guilty about scarfing fast food mystery meats if she had known how quickly an embalmer was going to fix her arterial plaque. But the weight resting on the buttocks usually prevents the cheeks from absorbing a full dose. So if you want to find a drop of real blood, you go check out the behind. Slice off a generous chunk so you don’t come up short like I had the first time.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 5: Practice makes perfect.
Performing my second dig felt like watching a horror movie that had been remade with a bigger budget. I ordered a dark lantern online. I unfurled a tarp, so that I could remove the dirt without smothering the lawn. I did a stellar job digging. Even if Mom appreciated it, she wore the same impatient look on her face. She smelled like one of her trucker ex-boyfriends. I had to drag her all the way out to the surface this time. Sorry, Momma. Would you forgive me if I took up cooking, like you always hoped I would? I bought a blender the next day. The first recipe was not for eating: Mom’s fat soaked with saline. I noticed for the first time how creepy the sound is that a blender makes. The resulting protein shake contained the blood I needed. Don’t let yourself worry too much about whether I got the blender thoroughly cleaned up because I don’t cook often enough for it to make a difference.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 6: You’re not alone.
By then I had done a ton of research about postmortem raids, as they were called. The scariest thing about people is how you can always find someone on the Internet who is way more depraved than you. One newsletter catered to professionals who recover death predictions from the dead. At first, I was insulted that the going rate was only $250 per order. Later I wondered whether the spare cash might be worth it.
I found crowds of postmortem paparazzi, especially here in Los Angeles, where the arid climate curbs decay. The online forums reported on Dr. Kevorkian’s death prediction: “CARDIAC ARREST, NO ASSISTANCE NEEDED.” Eartha Kitt’s postmortem read, “HOLIDAY BLOWOUT,” which makes sense when you know that she died on Christmas Day of colon problems. Michael Jackson’s heart was stopped by a combination of drugs, so there were stories that his card said, “DANGEROUS REMIX,” and competing claims that it was, “LACK OF RHYTHM,” but critics warned that these were all hoaxes, because his body was entombed in thick concrete. I noticed that no one had researched Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman yet, so I made a mental note to look for them sometime.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 7: Fortune favors the bold.
I returned to the Machine of Death, victorious. The machine drank deep from my pink oblations. It spat out a white card. With my fingers shaking, it took me three tries to turn it over without dropping it. Its block letters screamed, “MALPRACTICE DURING ANESTHESIA FOR NEOVAGINAL REJUVENATION.” The machine became my new hero when I discovered the outright blame against Dr. Palance. The card alone wouldn’t hold up in court, but with this running start I could interview experts and amass research. Or maybe I could take a shortcut and hide a venomous spider in his car. I would need to find out what the other words meant. Mom’s shyness about the operation was now explained, since it was related to something sexual.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 8: Beware the secrets of the dead.
With my fuzzy vision and pounding head, I didn’t dare try to count the beer cans on the bathroom floor next to me. My research had felt like a scavenger hunt in Hell. The bombshell was that a neovagina is different from a natural-born vagina, because a neovagina is surgically constructed during a male-to-female sex reassignment. Years ago, Mom had traded salami for roast beef! I scoured newspaper clippings and old photos to figure out what that meant. The evidence finally convinced me that Mom was my biological father. From the family history that I could piece together, Mom had undergone the sex change either right before or right after my biological mother ran off, (back to the zoo, as Mom used to say). The latest operation was meant to retouch her aging girl parts. I wondered why Mom could confide in me about the time she got sloshed and naked at a Cyndi Lauper concert, but she never talked about her switch. Whenever my eyes were closed, my imagination replayed the moment that I had pried up the coffin lid. This time my attention was arrested by Mom’s comically large mouth and masculine upper lip, not by the black mold spreading across her cheeks.
My older brother Simon was active in an Apostolic Pentecostal church. He had once even composed a sermon on the sin of cross-dressing. I hadn’t noticed Mom’s reaction, but in retrospect she probably didn’t shout, “Hallelujah, Lord!” I guessed that Mom might not like Simon to ever find out, and anyway, I knew that I didn’t want to be the one to bear the man-mother message. I didn’t plan on ever digging up Mom again, at least in the figurative sense. I dropped the idea of challenging the hospital in court.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 9: Bury your problems and move on.
There was a different way to take my revenge. I left an envelope on Dr. Palance’s doorstep containing Mom’s death prediction and the demand, “Bring $10,000 cash to Ironhitch Cemetery, Friday at midnight.” I arrived two hours early and for one last time I opened the hole above Mom. Dr. Palance sidled up right on schedule. We didn’t talk, because as soon as he was within reach, I chopped the shovel down on top of him with my full weight. Then I squeezed him into the box with Mom. She finally got to sleep with a doctor. As dirt covered the pair, my chest started feeling heavy. After the earth was replaced, I accidentally paid my last respects by vomiting hot dog onto the grave. Hopefully Dr. Palance didn’t have a roll of money in his jeans because it was too late when I remembered the blackmail. The way I see it now, the money represented my virtue, which was lost to me forever, if it had ever existed in the first place.
Instructions for tomb raiding, number 10: You might as well cash in on your demons.
Regular life was boring after those raw hours in the cemetery. I kept having dreams about being trapped in a stifling traffic jam, until I dug an escape tunnel to the ocean, finding some rolls of cash along the way. My cure for the nightmares and for the boredom was to offer my services in the classifieds. Every week I’d exhume another stranger. Eventually I was established enough to join a trade association, but unfortunately the other members are mostly sickos. We like to say that our business is underground. I even pioneered a method to recover predictions when the deceased is encased in concrete. (I bring a masonry drill bit that’s 500 mm longer than the concrete thickness. Clients don’t need to know what the extra reach is for.)
Are you interested in learning the death prediction of someone you’ve lost, by any chance? Do you have $250? Then you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Here’s my business card: “St. Lazarus Grief Therapy & Gravedigging.” And don’t worry about me. As long as my hands stay busy with a shovel, I can still keep my mind from working.