E. Gabriel Flores is a geography professor who has recently begun another career as a crime writer. Her first published fiction, “The Truth of the Moment,” appeared in EQMM’s December 2016 issue, in the Department of First Stories, and was recently named the winner of the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Many different experiences form a writer and perhaps those that enter into the inspiration for crime fiction are of a darker sort. In this post, we learn about one of the early jobs that stirred ideas in this talented newcomer.—Janet Hutchings
My early exposure to Edgar Allan Poe had nothing to do with it. Morgue attendant was not a job category I eagerly sought out, hoping to meet Quincy, M.E. or one of the other mystery-related coroners from fiction. My rationale was simple. I was a poor college student, and the job, advertised as “Hospital Monitor Clerk” paid a whopping 7 bucks an hour at a time when the federal minimum wage was $3.35. I needed money. That is why I took the job.
Monitor clerk? Didn’t sound too difficult. I hoped it was the kind of quiet, undemanding, paper-shuffling job where you could do your homework in peace—or even read a mystery story or two undisturbed. I was right. At least about the quiet part. And I did get a lot of mystery reading and homework done there. (Can you think of a better place to read detective fiction? I can’t. As long as the combination does not let your imagination get the better of you, but more about that later.)
For those who have not had the pleasure of working in a morgue, I would like to dispel some stereotypes. Unfortunately, I cannot, because what most people think of morgue employees, especially those who work the night shift, is absolutely true. We were a strange bunch, a multicultural island of misfit toys, united by insomnia and our lack of fear of the dead. My companions—the living ones—included a fellow African American woman, middle-aged, who had brain damage from a car accident; a thin, twitchy, thirty-something white guy who was addicted to cocaine; a fearless, tough-talking working-class white woman about my age who was supporting her younger brother; and a conservative fortyish white Christian man who thought that women should not work outside the home.
The others knew I was a kindred spirit from my very first night on the job. Lured into a dark “storeroom” on some pretense, my coworkers closed and locked the door after me. I realized it was an initiation ritual and felt along the wall to locate a light switch. I found myself in a frigidly cold autopsy lab, the shiny metal tables lined with basins of bloody organs from a recent procedure. More curious than squeamish, I examined all the jars of preserved eyeballs, fingers, and intestines that were arranged on shelves against the walls and waited patiently to be let out. After a half hour or so, the doors were opened by a smirking security guard holding a blanket. I wrapped up and went back to work, never mentioning the incident. I was in.
Our job entailed accepting bodies of deceased persons, taking custody of any personal effects, and then releasing the body to a funeral director or other authorized person. That same first night, I checked in the body of an elderly man, and was handed his personal effects. A pair of eyeglasses, a set of dentures, and his wallet. I had not been told what to do with these things, so I put them all into a drawer. The poor guy was probably buried without his glasses or dentures, since nobody ever showed up to claim them.
Dead people were either transferred down from the upper floors of the hospital, or brought in directly from the street by ambulance. What I learned during my time as a night morgue attendant is this; real life is not much like a mystery novel. It is more pedestrian, rather boring in fact.
First of all, most people in the US die of natural causes. Period. Few people die in dramatic accidents. And even fewer die from exciting violence meticulously planned in advance by nefarious characters. That is why murder is such a big deal—it really doesn’t happen all that much in real life. (I am reminded of the statistics on murder in the real Oxford compared to the numbers of people killed on the Inspector Morse show. That city has less than one murder a year, but on the show as many as eight people are killed in a given month, yielding a murder rate 10 times that of New York!)
Secondly, morgues are not scary, at least not for the reasons people think. Dead people don’t do much but lay there. My coworkers told urban-legend type stories of a body suddenly sitting up due to gasses being trapped or some such, freaking everyone out. But that never happened when I was on duty.
What made the job nerve-wracking was the living people, my coworkers. Yes, the job paid twice the minimum and people need to work for a living. But most of you reading this have never worked in a morgue, or even considered it as a possibility. People who choose a morgue job as a career are not like other people. I have already mentioned the lady with brain damage. She was a single mom, being kept on until she had enough time served to retire. Her coworkers were secretly covering up the fact that she could not track instructions, fill in the nightly reports, or monitor the video screens. She ate her lunch and listened to the radio, humming along to the songs she knew. Conversations with her consisted of cheerful but repetitive discussions of the weather and what her school-age son had said and done that day. I am not sure she was even aware that she was in a room full of dead people all night. Interacting with her in the morgue had a surreal, Hitchcockian quality.
Then there was the guy on cocaine. He would come over to my desk and stand beside me, staring down at me in silence while I did my work or read. One snowy night, he disappeared from the work area, to my relief. But it was only for about an hour. He returned, high as a kite, and proceeded to open up all of the windows in the place, letting snow blow into the room. I was far more afraid of him than of any dead person. I was friends with the night security police, one a young man and the other an older guy. I slipped out to warn them that they were to come running quickly if they heard me scream.
As it turned out, the people I got along best with and had the most interesting conversations with were the working class young woman and the conservative Christian fellow. We agreed on almost nothing politically, but learned a lot about each other’s point of view. The past year’s political events made me think about them, wondering how the country had gotten to the point where the three of us could not be expected to have civil conversations about anything.
Which brings me to the strange incident of the hair in the chimney. One evening I was getting ready to go to work and I noticed something strange about the fireplace in the living room of my apartment. It looked like something was hanging down from the chimney. I approached and got close enough to see that it looked like a thick hank of black and gray hair. I backed away. What could it be? Suddenly it hit me. There was a dead body stuffed up my fireplace, with head hanging down and the hair. . . . I left the apartment and headed to work early. I could not stay there with a dead body, so I went where there were . . . more dead bodies.
I called my two roommates, a Vietnamese government-policy student and a woman studying library science, and told them what I had seen. I expounded on what the thing probably was, a murdered woman’s skeleton leftover from the violent thirties, crammed up there for half a century and now slowly descending. Her hair just visible, clung to her mummified scalp.
They were, understandably, terrified, and we all agreed not to return to the apartment alone. Everyone would return together and see what was in that chimney.
I also told my friend at work, the tough young woman. She decided she would come home with me and look up the chimney if the rest of us were too chicken. I think she wanted to be the one who found the dead body in the chimney and got to talk to the newspapers and so on. When our shift finished, we headed over to the apartment. My other roommates were waiting, huddled together outside the building. We all went inside in a bunch, the four of us getting more frightened as we mounted the stairs to the third floor.
We entered the apartment, turned on the lights and stood there for a few minutes, staring at the six inches of greyish stringy hair, clearly visible, hanging down in the fireplace. My tough friend said, “Oh for heaven’s sake,” and marched across the room. She got down on her hands and knees and looked up the chimney. To our horror, she reached up and grabbed the hair and pulled out a handful. And snorted in disappointment. She showed it to us. “It’s just loose insulation, not a dead body at all,” she said, to our relief.
We all laughed at how worked up we had gotten about nothing and went out for a snack. “Hair in the chimney” became an inside joke for the four of us. I had a lesson in how, even though I had gotten used to the dead bodies of strangers lying around at work, I still did not relish the idea of having one hanging around at home.
However, there is a story rattling around in my head. It is about a woman who knew too much about a bootlegging operation. She ended her life upside down, suspended, in the chimney of an old apartment building. Decades later, a group of young college women living in the apartment investigate and, like Nancy Drew, solve the Mystery of the Hair in the Chimney.