I couldn’t remember his shoe size. He’d always bought his own shoes, and it was hard to tell looking at his cadaver, his feet poking up from under the sheet. I lifted cool, sheer fabric, his feet as smooth and unblemished as ballet slippers. Maybe 10s. Still it was hard to tell with him naked and still. I tucked the sheet in around his toes. He’d always had cold feet. His clothes were nowhere to be found. I could maybe guess if I had his shoes, but it was no matter with him purpling and beginning to bloat.
The coroner had stepped out of the room to give us a moment alone. I wasn’t sure that was protocol. What if I had chosen another cadaver, there were several similarly covered, had checked his feet, had planned his funeral, had come away with size 11s. But, of course, I would have recognized him, wouldn’t I? It was cold.
Worried now, I removed the shroud from his face. He was clearly dead. His nostrils no longer flared, and his eyes were shut tight. He needed a good nose clipping. I didn’t kiss him, hadn’t kissed him, in fact for 20 years, an occasional brush of lips across the cheek, sweet but not familiar. But no, no kissing and I wasn’t going to start now.
I wondered what he had been thinking, before, that is. He was probably thinking of his slippers, the brown leather ones, worn, soft, size unknown. That would be like him on the rattling train, slippers. I worried about the number of passengers he had startled as he had bolted upright, so they said, so they told the EMTs, the police, the hospital staff, knocking a cap off a youth, twirling, his hand over his heart, pledging, trying to keep his balance, the scared faces. Someone had shouted, “911, call 911,” but it had been too late even though it had been just fleeting moments. The train held up for precious seconds as they neared the next stop, the gurney, the shiny metal gurney. I could see it all in my mind’s eye even though I had been home preparing chicken cordon blue that burned and charred after the hospital called. I should have looked for his shoe size then.
When the coroner returned I was not ready to leave. It was cold and pleasant, the light florescent, muted with plastic screens, so it seemed like twilight. The coroner quietly busied himself at a small, rectangular table, stainless steel, clean and orderly to escape germs, except for the tablet he pored over.
I hadn’t thought of the funeral yet, the clothes he would wear, the size nine shoes, or 10, or 11. No, he was naked on the gurney, a thin spread blanketing the sins he had lived to confront God. I was sure there weren’t that many, not many I had known about anyway, but there had been lies. Everyone lies. That doesn’t make him a pariah. When he did lie I always caught him out as his lips turned downward in distaste.
My hands were not trembling when I stroked his hairless head. I pulled the sheet back over his face. He was gone, and I would spend the evening in his closet brooding over half-erased labels and know for sure his voice, so often curt and condescending, was absent. I felt inclined to talk.
“He was a salesman,” I called to the coroner, who nodded silently in return. “We didn’t have children.” He nodded again. I supposed talking about the dead was ludicrous here. Cry maybe, but I didn’t have tears. “Thank you,” I dared, knowing it was stupid, a faux pas, and I returned to the cadaver, touched his toes playfully in leaving. “Tens,” I whispered. The coroner nodded absently, as I made my way out of the sterile room. “Tens,” I ventured again.
Nancy Demme is a retired children’s librarian. She teaches ESL “Writing In English” to adults and is an active member of the Garden State Storyteller’s League. “The Ride,” a young adult crossover novel, has recently been published by the Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Her short stories have appeared in Confrontations, the Kelsey Review, U.S. 1, the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Willard & Maple.