Dr. Thomas Holmes
BY ADAM BERMAN
Princeton University, ’18
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
‘Texas’ I say to Texas. ‘Come make the incision.’ He mumbles something like ‘why do you call me that’ and stumbles over. I tell him that we will go together to Applebee’s this evening, Oprah’s favorite American restaurant chain; he will have the Savory Cedar Salmon, the Butter Pecan Blondie and a Coca-Cola.
Texas opens his mouth intentionally when he masticates his blondies, and when he pisses he does it right in the center of the bowl, aims it that way to maximize the clatter of it, its masculinity and the depth of its timbre. You might have heard him doing it in the stall over it, speaking to himself in muddled German all the while: the Rottweiler goes to the park, sauerkraut; you should meet my family and my spouses. I am convinced it is the only phrase he knows, he murmurs it over and over with different syllables stressed in a feeble attempt at differentiation. He’ll glance up at you contemplatively, coyly; he’d been caught. ‘I’m German’ he’ll offer, he was just practicing. Texas is from El Paso, Texas and took two German courses in the tenth grade. He has a vaguely German surname and he lives in a modest apartment on the eastern edge of town and he is in $1,540 of debt to the Ace Cash Express on Crawfordsville Road; he is a necrophile.
Texas makes his drainage incisions in the great saphenous vein instead of the slightly superior carotid artery ones that I make; he is making one now near the groin of an adolescent male who sort of resembles my dyslexic cousin in Indianapolis. Cancer, some skin kind; no hair on the body, so the genitals, though mostly pubescent, appear childlike and liken easily to plucked, boiled chicken. He is uncircumcised.
Another uncircumcised one, making my career tally 331-768. There have been quite a few uncircumcised members in the past year, although the numbers were somewhat skewed a couple months ago by a vacationing Italian family whose mildly inebriated father ran the rental car containing his three sons and wife over the nearby I-74 median; fortunately for Crawfordsville Funeral Home, their kin wanted the bodies embalmed for the trip back to Vernazza. Europe doesn’t circumcise its sons, I realized this as I looked upon the row of four tan phalluses before me, each sprawled across its owner’s right thigh and nearly identical to the next, great brown slugs dormant in the wintertime. The Y chromosome being completely conserved from father to son, I suspected that there was something genealogically profound about the striking similarity of this bi-generational queue of Italian penises and therefore I discretely took an image with my Canon Powershot of them all there together, intact, before I excised each of their prepuces with my scalpel and placed them into the appropriate and preservative ‘European foreskins’ mason jar from the top shelf of the leftmost cabinet.
When you first get into the embalming profession, you expect the blood to come bursting and frothing out when you make the drainage cut, expect the body to violently resist the metal intrusion and spew forth a red and retaliatory geyser. In fact for your psychological well-being you even want it to do so, for you feel that you are violating it, sexually, and you therefore wish it to at least struggle somewhat against your stiffened, Vaselined hand while you loosen your belt and yank down its patterned underpants. It is not so. Blood must be pumped out of a corpse; when you incise it it may dribble somewhat but it remains primarily stagnant and unpressurized, a great bodily Ant Farm of vasculature brimming with still and semi-coagulated slickness. Cancer kid even has a few clots preventing it all from sucking out cleanly, so Texas sets about massaging and palpating the stiff appendages, defrosting the rigor mortis and working his way down to the end of each pale dyslexic finger to free the miniature blockages and quicken the flow. Texas gets off to it, reproductively.
‘This one looks like my dyslexic cousin in Indianapolis.’ Texas looks up at me in what I think is confusion and I smile at him and reposition the pump’s probe in the saphenous vein. Texas continues palpating and mumbles something about dogs in parks in German. Texas thinks he can speak German. I tell him to hand me the tweezers to reposition the nozzle in the incision and he does so speedily; you could say that Texas views me as a sort of mentor figure, always parks his car adjacent to mine, most often gets up to refill his coffee mug just after I do and is two years my junior. I am not quite a father figure but certainly at least a strict and respected uncle; maybe an elder brother who spat in his mouth enough times in his weak and formative years to catalyze some sort of hierarchy in his head. Always cuts the corpses right at the groin and although my toes are curling in my Reeboks to inform him of the degeneracy of this practice, that due to the cut’s proximity to the legs the rigor mortis slightly inhibits the blood flow, I have read in Oprah’s 1996 tour de force “The Journey to Self-Renewal: The Companion to Make the Connection” that when one is interacting with a mentee, a subordinate, one must let him make mistakes so that he will learn on his own and become an independent, upstanding problem-solver and thinker. Out comes the blood, through the tube and down the sink, darkened and clearish.
You might have noticed an inconsistency in the chain of fatherhood and mentorship. Who, you ask, is my own mentor; who has spat in my mouth and is my guide to Make the Connection in the turbulent and filthy anarchy of Crawfordsville? In response you could say that Dr. Thomas Holmes is my mentor, you could imply it and I would not protest about it. Dr. Thomas Holmes is my father from Brooklyn and from 1817, and he was a great man and a great American citizen. You might be aware that between the Egyptians and Dr. Thomas Holmes was a long time span on the North American continent during which bodies were not embalmed; you will have heard of these ‘Dark Ages’ when corpses were thrown into the ground and pissed upon and buried immediately after death without formaldehyde preservation and without even the most modest vestiges of accessibility. This is still today the practice of the Europeans and Africans, the Sikhs and I am told the Australians. Anyway Dr. Thomas Holmes had no mentor and came into adulthood and fertility in the middle of the nineteenth century, developed a method of mortuary preservation which we now call embalming, a process which took the American Civil War to be recognized as the greatest American contribution to the enlightenment period. Turned out industrial warfare really did a number on quite a few little Johns and Jimmies and Jameses of the Union; also turned out that the train ride from Virginia to Massachusetts was long and damp enough to turn a corpse with multiple entry wounds into an odorous and decompository sack of shit. Now Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Smithson and the others really couldn’t stand to see their precious children yellowing and bloating and otherwise putrefying on their hardwood porches, so as any great man might do, a great man stepped up to halt the savagery and the decay. Dr. Thomas Holmes introduced his method of arsenic-based embalming directly to the battlefields, made the bodies keep so well that he began a sort of American tradition of bodily preservation which you are likely familiar with today. Thenceforth he personally embalmed Abraham Lincoln and his typhoidal kid and he became my mentor and my respected uncle. Dr. Thomas Holmes is an accessible American, you could say. He fathered 27 children.
At this point Texas is mixing up the embalming solution, formaldehyde and methanol, has added the proper ratios and glances up at me (I am several inches taller) for the final ingredient. I reach under the counter and produce a canister of Coca-Cola Classic, crack it open and pour it in, right in the center of the vat like Texas’s piss and the formaldehyde hisses in disagreement. I snake the feeder tube into the incision and with a hum and a whirr dyslexic cancer kid is filling right back up, skin pinkening and taphonomic bacteria lysing to methanol and all of the cells taking a thick, deep drink of America’s favorite soft drink. Tex again massaging for an even distribution throughout the capillaries and on queue I activate The Royal Teen’s 1957 one-hit-wonder “Short Shorts” from the small stereo I have set up in the far corner just for this purpose. Ooo man, dig that craazy chick. I time my steps to the brief saxophonic interludes as I make my way back over to Tex as he rolls and kneads at cancer kid’s middle toe. I brandish my scalpel and trace around the dyslexic’s hooded, lifeless glans with roughly the pressure required to score modeling clay. Who wears short shorts? Saxophone hook. With an upward flick I sever the frenulum and the foreskin peels away entirely. We wear short shorts! I transfer the pliable sheath directly into the sparsely populated ‘American’ jar and return it to the cabinet. I gambol back over to Texas, grab his shoulders and sort of shake him playfully from behind. Texas does not turn around, instead produces his skull-shaped pewter flask and takes a short gulp from it. He’s always doing that, and although I have informed him of the indelible damage it will cause to his liver and neurons and his necrophilic sex life, he persists; one has to let the child make mistakes so he can learn from them productively says Winfrey. Oh Tex.
Texas takes another swig from the skull and I decide that I must in this circumstance castigate him for his festering alcoholism: occasionally mouths must be spat into if mentorship hierarchies are to be maintained. ‘We will not go to Applebee’s tonight, Texas,’ I say to Texas in the doorframe. Texas walks away and he is looking backward at me oddly all the while, he is tapping at his head with his right forefinger and speaking such that I cannot discern what he is saying. I presume it is German. He turns away from me and again reaches into his coat pocket for his flask.
Anyway prompted by this gesture I remove another Coca-Cola from below the counter and have a long taste of it, roll it around in my mouth and think of how accessible the sweetened beverage is. That kills me every time. Accessible. Anyone can have a Coke and likely has had one, several: the Chinese, dyslexics, individuals from Boston, Alzheimer’s patients who defecate on themselves and drool and slurp it through straws jabbed into their mouths by underpaid suburban nurses in between babblings about Jews and Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 political campaign. Opiate addicts drink Coca-Cola. My incontinent grandmother drank Coca-Cola and Cambodian toddlers who occasionally smoke cigarettes drink Coca-Cola. All of the corpses I embalm are imbued with Coca-Cola, and if it weren’t that way I am sure they would not be accessible to the obese, crying people who come into our display room and kiss their hands and put chipped rings onto their fingers. They would really not be accessible without it, and they would certainly not be accessible to Texas when he makes love to one of them occasionally, usual via oral cavity (I suspect because he believes the salivary enzymes keep this particular orifice somewhat sterilized even a day or so after death).
Cancer kid is now full and pink of Coke and formaldehyde so I stitch him up for good at the incision and proceed to my favorite step of the embalming process while Texas works on “setting the features”: Crazy Glueing the eyes shut and wiring and plastering the mouth into a natural position; Crazy Glueing the lips shut over the wire and plaster; injecting expanding pink “feature-fixer” to replumpen the death-sunken nose, ears, and eyebrows; shaving the face and subsequently concealing any greyness with makeup. Texas is making some statement about polygamy in German all the while and at this point I realize he will spend no individual time with the dyslexic, no time after hours with the eyes shut like that. Tex likes them open when he spends time with them, and I extrapolate from residue I occasionally find that he sometimes ejaculates into them, into the green ones. Men with green irises and a bit of facial hair at death, really something of a rare occurrence but one that really ‘grinds the gears’ of my mentee and colleague Texas. Puts red lipstick on em too, usually. Old Tex and the green-eyed lipsticked men after hours. That kills me. I remove Layla the thirty-inch trocar from her long Mylar sheath and alcohol wipe her and activate the cavity pumping machine. Corpses are inaccessible and I make them accessible.
You probably believe that your body is a hardy and structurally sound apparatus. I aim Layla’s blunt end an inch and a quarter above cancer kid’s naval. You have used it your entire life and it has remained mostly intact and nothing has seriously breached it; it must be strong, it can really keep the digesting food and the urine and shit inside when you want it kept inside. I thrust downward with about as much force as is required to plant a spade into damp soil and with a greedy thud Layla is poking around the abdominal cavity of the hairless dyslexic, is swallowed nearly whole as I ease her in. You are to believe these things lest you be pissing right in the center of the toilet and suddenly realize your own disposability, realize the general disposable absurdity of the practice of urination, of mingling something of yourself with outside water; of diluting yourself as the piss disperses and flushing yourself down into oblivion, into water treatment plant and into Coca-Cola production facility and into some mental patient’s turbulent and ulcerated lower gut. I torque around to the intestines and out comes the slimy, apple cider-like substance within. I can assure you of the wholesomeness of your insides but I cannot of their integrity; Layla is persistent and skin and filaments of the body are as papery and yielding as Texas’s attempts at German. They’re such short shorts! You could say The Royal Teens are an accessible midcentury group.
After replacing the bile and intestinal contents with cavity fluid, glutaraldehyde back through Layla and into the stomach and bladder, I remove Layla and sew shut her entry hole. Tex and I hurry about dressing the hairless thing with plastic underpants (to prevent orificial leakage of any kind) and the clothing the family provided: pleated khakis, a flannel button down, cowboy boots; undoubtedly Protestants.
I wheel the body into its cubby in the adjacent storage room and retrieve the next corpse, an old and pathetically creased women with some of the vilest labia minora I have ever encountered, sort of curl and reach outward like disordered mollusk tendrils and in fact I become somewhat nauseous even looking at them and immediately retrieve the medical scissors from the drawer. I call to my mentee Texas to ready the next embalming solution as I quickly excise each tendril, considering all the while my own mentor’s decaying, uncircumcised genitalia.
With regards to my mentor Dr. Thomas Holmes, the arsenic ultimately collected in his subdermal layer and strangled him to death and buried him in Cypress Hills cemetery of Brooklyn and Queens in 1900. His body was not embalmed due to the arsenic having addled his head, swayed him against the practice in his later years and such was the death of Dr. Thomas Holmes by arsenic. I use formaldehyde.
I return to the other room and find Texas conversing softly with the embalming chemicals. Rottweiler he is saying. Sentences composed only of Rottweiler in different tones.
‘We’ll go tonight’ I say to Texas over the crackling formaldehyde and muddled German, ‘you will have the Savory Cedar Salmon and the Butter Pecan Blondie and a Coca-Cola.’ Oprah says that it is essential to always make amends and be willing to forgive transgressions. You could say she is an accessible public figure.