“I’m sorry, but, it’s just like I told you,” she said, closing the file. “Miss Lilienfield’s death certificate was issued by our office three months ago.”
Redge didn’t say anything to the coroner’s assistant. His hand was gripping the strange green laminate of her desk. The air smelled like winter despite the intense heat outside. It was the first true scorcher of the summer, and everything beyond the coroner’s dirty metal doors was wet and coming apart. The roads shimmered and everyone’s skin was damp. Here, though, things were frigid. The sweat in Redge’s armpits and in between his thighs had gone cold.
Mentally, Redge corrected the woman at the desk. Miss Lilienfield? No, that wasn’t right — neither was Ms. or Mrs. for that matter. In the winter, beside the hot tub, Lilienfield had said something to Redge about not feeling at all like a woman.
“You don’t strike me as being a man,” Redge had said.
Lilienfield’s eyebrows lifted, then, and a drunken giggle escaped her mouth. Redge was relieved that his words hadn’t offended. “No, yeah, that’s true. I don’t think being a man would look good on me. I don’t need all of that. I don’t know.”
Lilienfield gave a playful twist of the hand. Redge reached over the lip of tub to grab it. “I guess that just means you’re a person.”
And Lilienfield had smirked, said, “Close enough,” and padded on bare feet back into the stairwell and out of Redge’s sight. He’d seen her again. But not often, and their meetings were never as significant as that one had been. Small conversations over barista counters and at bus stops, winking moments on dance floors or in barns while house music played and kept their voices separated. And now Lilienfield was dead and there would be no more of that.
“I can’t give you the certificate,” the coroner’s assistant told him. “But I can direct you to the obituary if you like.”
She was a freckled, gangly black woman in a worn, pilled cardigan. She seemed young. Too young to be here, with nothing but bodies and the aggrieved around her. She deserved to be standing on the sidewalk, sweating in a dress and leather sandals, cooling herself with a glass bottled Coke.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Redge told her. Already she was typing and staring off. Then she swiveled her monitor to reveal that she’d been Googling Willa Lilienfield’s name and date of death. Google. As it were some government bureaucrat’s tool that Redge had never heard of. She didn’t even bother to click a result. And yet she looked up at him, dark brown eyes shining with goodwill and a practiced empathic sorrow. God she was young.
The first result was a two-sentence post in the Windsor Standard.
Willa Lilienfield, survived by mother Emily Lilienfield and father Joel Hernandez. In lieu of flowers, please send donations in Willa’s memory to the Windsor Queer Youth Center, wqyc.ca/give
No mention of where or how Lilienfield died. No acknowledgement of her young age. Nothing about who she’d been, or more importantly, who she might have become, had she lived.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the coroner’s assistant said.
Redge looked at her. “What’s your name?”
“Sarita,” she told him. She didn’t seem bothered. All these cold bodies and sad survivors and doctors in scrubs; maybe she liked seeing somebody as young as her, someone who didn’t know what to make of all of this death.
But Redge didn’t say anything. It seemed too perverse to demand anything else of her, in this place of all places.
“I guess you weren’t close,” Sarita said with a shrug. “Or you would have known she…had passed. An old classmate I’m guessing?”
He smiled at her. “A coworker, but yeah. I just figured she-” his voice cut out. Failed him. “That she had just-”
Sarita leaned in and shook her head an amount that was barely perceivable. “People lose touch. You never expect that this is the reason.”
“I’m getting a drink,” Redge said quickly, jamming his hands into his pockets. “At that place down the street, Spago’s?”
“Spago,” Sarita said carefully. “It’s not possessive. Only one S.”
Redge nodded. Jingled his keys. “So it’s uh, five thirty, I’m assuming you get off soon. Unless this is the kind of job where you have to wait around all night or something…I mean, I guess people die all the time.”
She laughed a little, an airy chuckle that wrinkled the corners of her eyes more than it made a sound.
“Sorry. Oh my God I’m being such a fucking nightmare.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s okay. Um. Only medical staff work here overnight. I go home.”
“Well,” Redge said, rubbing at the back of his head and stepping away so as to seem as non-threatening as possible. “If you want to swing by Spago’s…Spago. After you’re done. I’ll buy you a drink. And I promise not to talk to you about my, like, grief.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, twisting the monitor and returning to her work.
— — –
Spago was a generic Italian restaurant with a long, dark bar tucked behind the hostess’ station. Redge had been sitting there drinking vodka and cranberry juice and reading Lilienfield’s blog on his phone for half an hour when Sarita came in, her drab cardigan gone, a bright green dress in a kicky print revealing the elaborate, feathery tattoos that were lurking underneath.
Redge stood to greet her, and found himself hugging her as if they were forty-somethings who’d been conned into going on a blind date. This was fitting, given the rest of Spago’s uncomfortable-seeming Thursday night clientele.
“My God, I can’t believe you weren’t terrified of me,” he said. It really did seem miraculous, her being here. Street parking was nearly non-existent for five or six blocks, and the thought of her walking there straight from the coroner’s office seemed wrong, somehow.
Sarita edged onto a bar stool. “Should I be terrified of you? Did you murder that poor girl?”
Redge wasn’t aware of how his own face reacted, but he could see Sarita’s expression quickly shift from winsome into horrified and then distant.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was a terrible joke. I should really..,”
“Coroner humor.” Redge offered. “I’m sure you get anesthetized to it. What are you drinking?”
Sarita fingered the laminated menu. The bartender was at her side in an instant, seeming already perturbed.
“I’ll have this, um, Blackberry Fizz thing?”
“Perfect,” Redge cut in. “So refreshing, so summery.”
“I saw what you had and thought, I need some juice with my booze, too.”
Behind the bar there was a mirror. They looked at themselves in it for a moment, heads hovering above rows of brown and green and clear bottles.
“I guess most of your visitors are like family members and investigators, huh,” Redge said.
She shook her head, reaching for the drink as it was passed wordlessly to her, poured unceremoniously from a plastic pitcher below the bar. “No, not many cops. There’s very few murders really. And not as much family as you’d think, either. Lots of funeral directors.”
“Oh.” Redge readjusted his coaster.
“But when something like that girl happens,” Sarita said, “It has this way of waking you up. It doesn’t disturb you, you know. If it did, you’d be wrecked all the time. So you don’t get scared or grossed out or sad, after a point. You get numb and blasé. But when it’s somebody young or it’s sad or gruesome, you get woken up. And it’s like you can remember what death really is, again, and how most people feel about it.”
As she spoke, her eyes traced the ceiling. It was covered with dark wood and green lamps hanging from tarnished hooks. After she had finished speaking, Sarita leaned in, and directed the straw into her mouth with a dart of her tongue.
“Do you remember Lilienfield’s case?” he asked her. “I mean, I guess that’s a stupid question, you must get so many–”
“I remember Lilienfield’s case.”
Redge sat up, unsure how to proceed. If he asked, he’d be forced to know forever. He could forget all of this if he didn’t. Let it pass on. Someday he’d be smoking in the back yard with the hot tub and somebody would ask what happened to the Lilienfield girl, and wasn’t she so strange — and maybe, if he worked hard enough at it, Redge would be unable to answer.
Sarita was staring at him. Her gaze danced from one eye to the other, challenging him, sobering him.
“What happened to her?” Redge asked.
“It’s really not appropriate or ethical for me to say,” she told him. “I don’t even talk about this stuff with my best friends-”
“I’m sure your friends don’t want to hear about any of it.”
A smile. A sip. “That’s true. They get so uncomfortable. But just as friends…I could speak anonymously about a case, so long as I used no identifying information whatsoever.”
Redge placed his elbows on the bar. Sarita was staring at her reflection again, smiling into it. There was very little happiness in it.
“So as a friend, tell me about a case. Like, purely anonymously.”
Sarita took a drink. Smoothed her skirt and left her fingers there, playing at the hem. “There was a girl-”
“A person,” Redge corrected.
“A person who got very sick. She — they — had pneumonia. It got into their lungs. It was bad. But still, it’s pneumonia. Most healthy adults survive.”
Sarita gulped and stole a look at him. He shrugged a fraction, wanting to be nonplussed by the facts of it. Pus in the lungs was only horrific if you pictured the body laid flat and cut open.
“But she wasn’t healthy. The…patient had a lot of medications. Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics and blood sugar medication for Type 1 diabetes. They must have lost a lot of weight very recently, and perhaps not very safely–”
A look. Redge pulled the coaster out from under his glass, started folding its corners back and forth until the paper began to crack.
Sarita continued, “They did not see a doctor soon enough. They took some Dimetapp instead. And it, mixed with all of the, well, meds and the alcohol on an empty stomach–”
“Was she asleep?”
“Yes.” She nodded vigorously now, something catching in her throat. “The patient went to sleep and simply never woke up.”
Redge stood up.
He waved this away. “I’m just going to the bathroom. I’m not upset.”
Sarita watched him as he disappeared into the back of the restaurant, weaving slowly between tables and chairs and wait staff holding long flat stones piled high with piping hot pizzas.
— — –
Lilienfield had a lot of problems, sure. Redge knew that. They all had lots of problems. He was a grocery store barista with an Honor’s degree in Political Science. She nearly finished a Computational Philosophy five-year Master’s program before her health took a turn and she moved back home and started bagging groceries. They and their friends spent a lot of time smoking in dirty living rooms and trying to score something more serious, something that would give them the insight required to move past their place, their routine.
She was 98 pounds of sickly bitterness. Skin cancer. Manic episodes. Tremors that the medication gave her, which nothing but the exact right strain of weed could take away. They sat in the hot tub and drank till all the blood rushed to their heads and she was flushed in the face and her tongue was thick. She crawled out and hit the snow on her belly, then remained there, alligator-like in her posture and movements.
On her back Redge could detect the silvery shimmer of a long scar. Surgical probably, but maybe worse. Though who was to say which was worse? Paying to be cut open was nearly as traumatic as having it come out of nowhere.
“You need to go rest, girly,” he’d said, watching the ash floating among the pump-generated bubbles.
“I’m not a girl,” Lilienfield had mumbled into the cold earth. As she struggled to push herself into a kneeling position, he’d actually laughed.
“Oh yeah? Then what are you? A squirrel?”
“I’m not a woman,” she hiccoughed. “I don’t know, dude, I don’t know.”
She was shaking. As he spoke to her, she teetered and gripped at the side of the plastic basin, rose and then righted herself and squinted at his face.
“No, yeah, that’s true,” she had said, struggling to speak but still desperate for understanding. “I don’t think being a man would look good on me. I don’t need all of that. I don’t know.”
A twist of the hand. A reach; a miss. Redge had told her, “I guess that just means you’re a person.”
And Lilienfield had smirked, said, “Close enough,” and left him there to finish the bottle of Merlot, filched from the grocery store dumpster earlier that evening. They were both fired for it by the end of the week.
He’d gone on to a job in the casino’s buffet line and she’d gone on to…nothing. Last time he saw her, she was carrying a stack of philosophy and math texts to a used bookstore in a strip mall. It was early March and she had nothing on but a stringy t-shirt, damp Uggs and terrycloth shorts.
“Looks like you’re self-employed,” Redge had called from his car, handing her a bottle of Champagne hiding in a crumpled paper bag. It too had been stolen from work, this time the casino’s kitchen.
Lilienfield had seemed grateful. The Champagne went into a drawstring bag hanging off her shoulder, and threatened briefly to upend her. Between the books and the bottle, it seemed Willa’s baggage weighed more than she herself did.
“I’m truly liberated,” she said as she shuffled back across the mud and onto the pavement. “I am the hedonic ideal.”
“Good luck with the books,” he told her, and then he drove away.
Did she cough? Were the blue circles beneath her eyes telling, larger than usual or more vivid? Had she pleaded silently for him to help her, take her, drive her, cover up her bare goosebump-covered skin? Was death already playing on her mind then, no longer an abstraction but an option as viable as which course to take? He didn’t know. He would never know. He suspected no, no, no, on all counts. There was no narrative in any of it.
— — –
When he came back, Sarita was eating a bowl of minestrone and holding a rocks glass of brown liquor like it was a life preserver.
“She had an eating disorder,” Redge told her. “And she was an addict. And bi-polar. And she had cancer, once.”
She nodded and covered her mouth, letting the hot liquid flow down her throat with closed eyes. “That makes sense.” Then her eyelids parted and she seemed bashful. “I’m sorry.”
Redge sat down and ordered some breadsticks. The bartender dropped a dish rag and paced away.
“She was my friend,” Redge said. He noticed the torn coaster had been cleared away.
“She must have been a hard friend to have. People like that are hard to keep track of. I know that.”
Sarita was trying to give him an absolution. Redge figured that she had delivered comforting, empty words to more people than she could count. But he had not lost a child or a parent. It was not sudden or violent or cruel. It was just a strange person he knew, slipping away more completely than most. All friends slip away, change, pass into unknowability. Here the change was only a bit starker. He said as much.
“Why did try to find out what happened to her then?”
Sarita’s hands were folded in her lap. While the rest of her was birdlike, from the daintiness of her shoulders to the actual plumage of her feather tattoos, her hands struck Redge as surprisingly broad and strong-looking. Her nails had no polish. Her skin was dry. He stopped thinking of himself long enough to admire that.
“I had heard a lot about what Lilienfield was up to,” he told her, “And I was worried because I knew she wasn’t well. In the winter she was messed up on drugs, and in March…she was poorer than ever, and living with this guy, Evan, everybody knew he’d done all kinds of stuff to his last girlfriend.”
“But so she disappeared. Not a big deal necessarily. People get out of here with no notice all the time, like, everyone wants to do that. She coulda gone back to school. Could have gotten clean. Her parents live a few miles north of the city. She has a sister in Toronto. Anything. It could have been anything.”
“So nobody told you? It was just, what, a rumor?”
Redge found himself taking hold of her drink. She leaned away as he quaffed it. It was fragrant with peat and tasted mossy, with turpentiney notes that pulled Redge’s face into a scowl.
Sarita had swiveled her chair away from him. She nodded and gestured to a green pleather pocketbook in front of her. She had paid.
“People were looking for her, but then they’d get a flat tire or buy some Molly and they’d forget to care. But I saw Evan at the casino and he was a wreck. Sweaty, motor-mouthing and trying to get me to drive him somewhere…and he just said it. Just, like, verbal diarrhea. ‘Oh my girlfriend’s dead.’ Like he’s telling me about a neighbor’s cat.”
Redge placed the glass before her. She pushed it away.
“I thought it was a mistake. You know. You know somebody’s in a bad way but you think they can’t be dead already, I just saw them, I could still help–”
“Death is most painful in its uncanniness,” she told him.
“Is that from something?”
A shake of the head. Earrings swinging and striking her in the cheek. “No. But I’ve noticed it.”
“I’m never going to believe that she’s dead, I don’t think.”
She looked at him. For a moment he thought she might offer to show him photographs of the body. But instead she frowned and said, “You will.”
He was drunker than made sense. He’d only had two, maybe three drinks and that meager sip of Scotch and yet everything was confused. Sarita was getting up, and throwing her pocketbook into her bag and saying something — and Redge knew he had screwed up, had scared her finally — but the dread that ate at him was the slippery, ghostly dread of the drunk who had not yet sobered. It was more a vague fear of future regret than it was the thing itself. And then he was apologizing, trying to hug her, blinking back tears and saying he could explain but she was too far away, and sad, and unwilling to be pulled back into the moment or his embrace.
“I made a mistake,” he said, dropping his arms at his sides.
She was at the door, standing ramrod, with the hostess’ stand separating them. Her palms came up in a gesture of pacification.
“It’s…fine,” Sarita told him. “This kind of thing…happens. I’m sure you’re very confused and sad but there’s nothing else I can do for you.”
“Ma’am, is this guy bothering you?”
A shake of the head. Relief. “It’s fine.”
“I’m sorry Sarita.”
She shrugged and pushed the door partly open. “People experiencing loss get a bit of a break.”
But just a little.
The door closed behind her.
— — –
Everyone at the casino is sad in some way. The newly arrived are fleeing a sadness that bright lights and cacophony cannot save them from. The losers are sad at hopes of wealth that they themselves have dashed. The winners are about to lose it all, but they don’t know it yet. The denial of their sadness is perhaps saddest of all.
Then there’s the casino employees like Redge. They come from old jobs in bars and hotels and retail to take on the crisp red uniforms and stand like furniture beside the tables, counters, buffets, and machines. Their faces are waxy and placid as they watch everyone getting sadder and sadder around them. They are paid well, all things considered. There are free parking spaces, meal vouchers, and smoke breaks. The building is air conditioned and clean. When they catch a gambler cheating, they are rewarded.
Redge feels comfortable here. He watches people flutter by, a slim smile plastered across his lips. No faces are ever the same. The building is too big; five floors of opportunities to lose money, all told. Mostly it’s tourists from the suburbs or Detroit. They stand on the red carpets and scan the bright lights and are dazzled. Some even dress up, order fancy drinks, tip him for their meals or coffee.
Nobody ever reaches out to him in their sadness. There is sadness in every corner of the place, in every living cell, but it’s drowned out in lights and music and movement. So nobody sees him and asks for his help. If they are too badly ruined, too impoverished by their visit, they simply go away, down the central staircase and out into the light.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.