For three weeks last summer we picked up dead people. Bodies, my sister said, rummaging for masks in the glove compartment, dead bodies: their people are gone. 

She skipped out of the jeep and leaned her notebook on the remaining wall of the bakery. I climbed down behind her. She drew a square for the car, a line for each of the roads and tiny crosses for our landmarks: school, bus stop, yellow house, big oak with a hole in the trunk. To the north, a squiggly line marked the edge of the Chinese factory.

Mom’s taking this side, she said, coloring half the map in careful green marker. She’d left at dawn and cleared three sectors while Nish and I did the evening’s dishes and argued over whose turn it was to wear the boots that didn’t lace up properly. There was no point. Mom had them on. Soon she’d be back for her peanut butter sandwich. 

My first John Doe had been gone for three days and was missing a sandal. He was face down on a bed of sweet-grass that had yellowed in his shade. I pulled my mask tighter. He had one knee bent as if he’d been caught in mid-jump and his right arm was stretched out far, almost pointing. I followed his finger to the thick walls of the factory. You almost made it, buddy, I said. You almost made it. I blew my whistle for mom and Nish. They ran over. I took a few steps back for momentum and leaped like my John Doe had tried, to get to safety. Do you see? I yelled from behind the wall. He almost made it.

We lined up at his head, hips and heels, and on the count of three we lifted with our knees like a hazmat suit ballet. My gloves snapped off with a pop of wet latex. I put them back on with the outside in. 

Mom labeled the bag in her French schoolgirl handwriting.

7 Comments

  1. Jack O'Connell

    I keep thinking about “bodies: their people are gone”. A body is just a thing with the person gone. And the places you go seem to be places with the people gone: school, factory. Except for the narrator has people around. Maybe you could keep tunneling into that idea (as you do) with the food that goes in bodies like peanut butter, the clothing that hangs on bodies, like gloves, masks, sandal. How does the narrator feel about bodies, dead bodies, family bodies? Are they scary? horny-making? I certainly don’t want to know why there are bodies around, I’m glad you didn’t tell me.

  2. Benjamin Niespodziany

    Great opener! And love the contrast of the evening dishes/fighting for boots/peanut butter sandwiches mixed with bodies and gloves and masks. “…we lifted with our knees like a hazmat suit ballet.” Is just great. I feel like this is a tiny vignette of a larger portrait. I like the mystery of searching for bodies and not knowing why, but I also would love to know *how* she managed to get this job, why it was only three weeks. I picture tiny groupings of people all over America doing the same, maybe picking up after a national disaster. Family bonding in the weirdest of ways.

  3. Saxon Baird

    I love the matter of fact opener. So nonchalant about those three weeks last summer when we picked up dead bodies. Its strong because its kind of shocking but we are immediately pulled in and the confidence in the conceit also means we will go along with it.

    I feel like this story is the beginning of something more. So much I want to know about why there are dead bodies and why the factory is the landing spot for safety. And why have these three people been assigned to pick up bodies? Lots to work with…

  4. Ben Saff

    “She’d left at dawn and cleared three sectors while Nish and I did the evening’s dishes and argued over whose turn it was to wear the boots that didn’t lace up properly. There was no point. Mom had them on.”

    I love this subtle detail. It adds a flavor of pointlessness which is seemingly ignored by the family who continue to work and do their duty in the face of apocalypse

    “He was face down on a bed of sweet-grass that had yellowed in his shade.” – Lovely sentence. The idea of a dead face in sweet grass, what a move!

    hazmat suit ballet. 👏

    “I put them back on with the outside in.” Curious. Why does the narrator do this? Not worried about infection, feeling nihilistic?

    Why end with Mom’s handwriting?

    I really like this piece and honestly my interest is peaked. If this was the beginning of a longer story or even a novel, I’d be signed up at this point. Please flesh this out into a larger story! Also, Nish is a fantastic character name.

  5. Bud Smith

    This is great, I am so haunted by that last line, “Mom labeled the bag in her French schoolgirl handwriting.” And I feel haunted by the causal ‘peanut butter sandwich’ nature of this apocalypse, life goes on while we clear the dead and soon summer will be over and the kids will be back in school. That is such a mirror for how we are living now but also such a mirror for so many things in life that aren’t happening now just because we are in a pandemic. Let’s face it the thing that humans are best at is compartmentalizing so we aren’t driven insane by how brutal reality really is all around us. Great god. The ominous nature of this Chinese factory and how the kids root for the dead man who almost made it: I followed his finger to the thick walls of the factory. You almost made it, buddy, I said. You almost made it. I blew my whistle for mom and Nish. They ran over. I took a few steps back for momentum and leaped like my John Doe had tried, to get to safety. Do you see? I yelled from behind the wall. He almost made it.

    I could see this story progressing into the future a little bit, like, the bodies all get cleared away and the area is ‘safe’ but what happens next? It might be kind of wild to ask that of this reality, to have to make room for the survivors or for the survivors to have to make room for this new reality so to speak. A homework assignment for these kids could be something like: List All the ways the New Bad Things are Actually Pretty Cool!

  6. Greg Oldfield

    Teresa,
    This is a fantastic start. The opening line drops us right into the world with bodies and death, and the little details like the remaining bakery wall, the boots that don’t lace properly let is know that something’s off. I had questions about the family dynamics, how they survived, where the bodies are coming from, but it feels like your’re still unearthing these details and in the arranging stage. But so far there’s a lot working.

  7. Bill Merklee

    I so want this story to keep going. I want to know what has happened. Why just a three-week stint? The mother having French schoolgirl handwriting made me wonder if she was somehow connected to Doctors Without Borders. Except here they are in recovery rather than rescue mode. You’ve set up the scaffolding for a very intriguing world. Happy to follow you through it.

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