A life lesson: Always check the deceased for loose change
It was the summer before my senior year of high-school when two of my friends, Billy and Howard got jobs working for a local mortuary. More specifically, picking up and transporting decedents from their place of death back to the mortuary.
On the one hand, their new job cast a pall on our summer activities as they were both on call 24/7, causing us to adapt to an all-too-frequently interrupted party schedule, thanks to these rude little mortuary beepers they both carried.
But on the other hand, it was a small price to pay considering we had full-time access to one really sweet Cadillac hearse, which, conveniently doubled as our summer party wheels.
On most days our routine was the same. Billy and Howard would come over to my house around noon, watch Sesame Street sans the volume, smoke weed, drink beer and listen to Led Zeppelin full tilt until we passed out.
It was on one such day that while sitting there, gazing incoherantly at the tv and listening to “Stairway to Heaven” for the gozillionth time—the bong still fuming from a massive overload, the beepers went off.
This happened fairly often so we were pretty much used to the drill.
One of the guys would call the mortuary, get the name and address of the decedent and any special instructions, then head out to pickup the corpse, drop it off, and head back to my place to resume the party. Pretty simple actually.
But this day would be different.
On this day, I got the bright idea to go with them. Why not I reckoned?
Up until that point, all I’d ever heard was their stories, and had it not been for the one about the old woman who’d stuffed her life savings into her granny panties before dying, only to be discovered by the mortuary, (and not Billy or Howard) well, if I could help it, that would never happen again, not if I was on the scene.
Besides, I’d never seen a corpse before so I thought it would be kind of cool.
“Do you guys mind if I ride along?” I asked.
“No problem, saddle up” Billy quipped back.
Hurriedly, we loaded up an ice chest full of PBR, the bong, some weed, and headed out.
I was excited in a weird way, after all, I was about to witness my first corpse!
After a short 20-minute drive (enough to down a six-pack and a few bong hits), we arrived at the corpse’s house where to our surprise several police officers were congregated in the front yard, milling around, all except for one who was visibly excited to see the hearse come wheeling up. He began jogging toward us, as if to flag us down.
“Fuck, don’t stop” I yelled at Billy, ordering him to pull around their squad cars and park down the street, giving us time to escape the Caddy without smoke signaling the police as to our illegal activities.
He quickly swerved and pulled ahead, parking nearly half a block away from the scene, leaving the excited cop standing in the street with a puzzled look on his face.
“What are the fucking police doing here, they didn’t tell me this was a crime scene.” Billy frantically shouted.
“Alright, calm down and let me handle this“, I yelled back, speaking 30 or 40 decibels higher than need be since the Van Halen was still bumping.
I jumped out and began walking confidently to meet the lone excited officer.
“Here to pickup a Mrs. Johnstone” I said to him in the most baritone voice I could muster up, hoping that by dropping my voice a couple octaves it would make me sound older and somewhat official.
“She’s inside, but I should warn you, this one’s a stinker,” the officer said with this odd little smile.
“What the fuck is a stinker?” I thought as I headed back to get the boys.
As I walked up to the hearse, I motioned Howard to roll down the window, knowing full well it could trigger a Native American smoke signal with a plume of pot smoke so huge it would resemble the Hiroshima mushroom cloud.
The window came down about a half an inch as Howard, cognizant of our potential pot bust, lifted his head toward the opening to speak.
“Dude, what’s with all the cops?”
“Never mind that, what the fuck is a stinker?” I asked.
“A stinker huh, wow dude, that’s not cool.” he said alarmingly.
The window went up.
After a moment or two, Billy and Howard emerged from the hearse, both donning full face masks.
What the fuck? Really?
“Where’s mine?” I asked.
“We only have two dude, you should probably stay here, she’s a stinker.”
“I know Howard, she’s a stinker, I got that.”
As we walked toward the house in what seemed like slow motion, the milling officers turned their attention toward us when one of them spoke up; “We’ve got an 81 year-old female. We think she’s been dead for over a week, its a red tag case—you guys gonna need any help?”
Stinker? Red tag? What had I gotten myself into?
“Nah, we got it,” Howard said out of the corner of his mouth.
Billy and Howard seemed to ignore the police after that, marching dutifully toward the front door.
“Guys, whats a red-tag-stinker?” I asked, both of them ignoring me as they went inside.
It was at that moment I figured out the stinker part of equation.
I’d only gotten a few steps inside the house when I got a solid whiff of something so God-awful, so unholy, I just knew it had to come from another world.
I ran to the front door and immediately began puking.
Not Billy or Howard.
They went inside never missing a step, and after several minutes came out of the house with a gurney, a woman’s corpse, and one mega monster funk that sent the police scattering—the way cockroaches do at the sight of someone suddenly sneaking up on them.
I didn’t need to worry about the cops smelling pot smoke anymore.
Two of the officers were bent over puking, while the rest of them had already gotten into their squad cars, preparing to leave.
We were on our own.
Me, Billy, Howard, two gas masks, a stinky corpse, and the question of how the hell I was going to ride in the hearse without a gas mask.
After a few words with the post-puking-police, Billy loaded the gurney into the hearse, lit a cigarette and stood there, waiting patiently for the remaining police to leave.
Billy had a plan.
After the police left, Billy, both his eyebrows raised in a maniacal sort of way that implied, “Eh—am I genius or what?” hopped into the hearse and began loading the bong. Within a few short minutes, the entire cab of the hearse was filled with so much smoke, its visibility had been reduced to that of an Antarctic blizzard.
“Get in” he said, and with that, we were off to see the coroner.
That answered the red-tag piece of the equation. The coroner.
Apparently, when someone dies of suspicious circumstances, the police get involved, attaching a red tag to the victim’s toe indicating their drop-off point as the coroners office and not the mortuary.
Ordinarily, and under any other circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem, but given how the coroners office was in the same city complex as the police station— the cab of the hearse was so smoky we couldn’t see one another—and Billy was so trashed all he could do was laugh hysterically, it was indeed going to be a problem.
There was only one solution.
Extract Billy from behind the wheel, allowing me to take control of the vehicle. Next, I’d drive around for a while until the smoke cleared, drop off the stiff, and get the fuck back home. Right?
Billy refused to yield the wheel, insisting on driving. Ironically, it was about that same time, (during his rant on what a good driver he was), he effectively managed to run us into a parked car, smashing the front end and flattening the right front tire.
Holy Shit, now what? I thought.
Billy was useless, sitting there laughing, as Howard, still wedged into the windshield from the crash was barely audible save for his incessant chanting of the word “fuuuck”—his voice reverberating off of the windshield each time he spoke.
I knew then it was going to be up to me to get us out this mess, and that’s when I took charge.
I grabbed Billy, dragging him out from behind the wheel, loading him into the rear with Mrs. Johnstone—screamed at Howard to buckle up, got behind the wheel, started the hearse, and promptly got the fuck out of there post-haste.
My plan was simple.
I’d drive the Caddy, flat tire and all, directly to the coroners office, get Howard to help me unload the stiff, then bounce before getting noticed by the surrounding police. But somehow, things never seem to go as planned.
I wish you could have seen the looks on peoples faces as we pulled up to the coroners office, steam pouring out of the radiator grill, one of the tires conspicuously missing as we rolled up on 3 tires and a rim, the screeching sound of metal from the tireless rim filling the echo-laden streets of downtown Phoenix.
A bomb blast would have attracted less attention than we did.
We sat there frozen, like 3 deer in headlights, none of us wanting to leave the safety of our weed-infused, stench-filled hearse as onlookers started to gather.
We just sat there, nobody saying a word.
Billy wasn’t laughing anymore, he’d passed out somewhere en route.
Howard, sitting there with his gas mask firmly affixed to his mug, looking like a space alien of some kind, wasn’t speaking either.
And me, sitting there in some kind of post-euphoric funk, gazing out the foggy window at the onlookers, wondering how the fuck I’d gotten myself into this mess when all I really wanted to do was to see a corpse.
I’d had enough.
I slowly got out of the hearse, limping from the accident, and began walking home. I never uttered a word to Billy, Howard, or the crowd that’d managed to surround our smelly deathmobile.
Zombie-like, I simply walked away.
The next day, around lunch time, the hearse, as you may have suspected never showed up.
Billy had been arrested for public intoxication and possession of marijuana, he was in jail.
Howard was in the hospital with 5 broken ribs and some minor internal bleeding.
I had a slight limp, a hangover that could rattle even a meth addict, and a story I’d eventually write about someday…like today.
As I sat there all by my lonesome, Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” blaring in the background, Fozzy Bear making weird hand gestures on tv, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the experience, thinking how bizarre that day had been.
And that’s when the thought suddenly hit me; “Shit, we totally forgot to check her panties for loot.”