Once Around the Corpse

David doesn’t like me to talk about it because he thinks it makes him look bad — banging a corpse’s head on the table like that. But it was so funny. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t forgive him, even if doctors are supposed to be held to some higher standard.

It was a unique opportunity for me, and it started with my having a best friend in medical school. The week had rolled around when his class was dissecting human cadavers, and he was kind enough to invite me in to take a peek.

I arrived at the medical college after hours. We met outside a laboratory building and rode the elevator to an upper floor. He brought me to a room that I immediately felt should have been much larger, for occupying four separate tables, covered by white sheets, were four dead human bodies.

I surprised myself with a sudden spell of near fainting. I was completely overwhelmed by the sight, and pretty terrified to boot. I couldn’t enter the room for many minutes because I kept expecting one of them to move, and then I knew I would start shrieking hysterically and possibly jump through one of those upper-story windows.

“Put these on,” David directed me matter-of-factly, presenting me with rubber gloves. While I still stood at the doorway on rubber legs, he introduced me to the nearest corpse. She was an older woman on whom his class had already done a good deal of exploration. Gingerly, he pulled back the sheet to reveal a grey and yellowed naked torso covered with plastic. Her head was wrapped up in a towel, so I couldn’t see her face, for which I was very glad. But I had a fair view of her chest, which I seem to remember David removing in one great piece and putting to the side.

Inch by inch, I worked my way into the room while David began the autopsy tour. After many minutes I found myself by his side, wide-eyed in disbelief, studying the grotesque inner workings. I remember the skin as dry jerky, surrounding random strips of white muscle that looked like chicken. And worse, a yellow liquid resembling melted butter was pooling on the table. This, David said, was basically fat from the body.

He took me on a tour of the corpse, centering on the major organs and digestive system. Piece by piece, he introduced me to the heart and lungs and whatever other parts he found lying around. The colors were disgusting, but not particularly surprising. I’d seen enough horror movies, medical pictures, and butcher shop offal to have pieced it together. A couple of the places I touched were also tactilely uneventful, although as on a churlish dare — which this was emphatically not — it was something I felt compelled to do.

By the time we were through the colon, I felt very much at home. The other bodies had not moved. My arched back was finally starting to relax. There wasn’t any noteworthy smell, save an alcohol-formaldehyde mix. All was well in this morgue.

David asked if I wanted to see the face, but I declined. David — his informative lecture continuing unabated — expounded briefly on the eyes, which had been removed. He pointed out some relevant characteristic of the skull, and I think referenced something relating to the protection of the brain. Then, with a dry wit so appropriate to the vague tension of the moment, he gently bounced the woman’s head on the table a few times to demonstrate his point.

All in all, it was a lovely evening, and especially memorable. I drove back home, still reeling from the experience, visions of the body dancing in my head.

Somewhere near home I remembered I hadn’t eaten, and suddenly felt famished. I stopped at a favorite Chinese restaurant to get some take-out.

I really shouldn’t have ordered the chicken.

Jarret Liotta is a writer from Connecticut. When his time comes he hopes he’ll take a lot of people with him.

Andrew Fulton is sometimes a cartoonist in Melbourne. His first time was entirely ill-advised; the second was much nicer.