Jan von Stille


May 1, 2012. Chance-Loeb, Texas. Day.

“Marcus and I will deal with this,” Colt nodded to the mud-filled canoe between us. His dad had built it in a fit of nostalgia two weeks after his last deployment, wore his white sailor’s hat the whole time. Colt rested the backs of his hands on his hips, scrawny arms jutting out awkward like a newborn bird’s. “And you go in and get a plastic spoon from the drawer beside the corn snake.”

The snake was six feet long, and Colt thought it was mean to leave the top of the terrarium shut. I ran. They hadn’t dumped enough mud before re-launch, and I returned to see Colt and Marcus knee-deep in the marsh behind Colt’s doublewide. They heaved the canoe just far enough into the reeds that it couldn’t float away and stripped to striped boxer briefs, algae clinging to their scant leg hairs so that it looked like they’d waded into a leechbed.

“Let’s just fish from the bank.”

Colt taught us how to make rods from downed cypress branches, and we tied off and sat on upturned ten-gallon buckets, fidgeting as the drums’ bottom rims indented our hamstrings. Marcus caught a bream, maybe three pounds, and filled his bucket with water for it. Feeling, for a moment, superior, he pulled a lighter from his pocket and grinned at us.

“Wanna see what my brother taught me?”

The first fuzzy wisps had colonized his pale face a few months prior, and he tore the safety off the top of the lighter and shot a jet of flame so that it barely licked beneath his chin. After a couple swift passes he brushed the charred curls from his neck and winked. “Never have to buy a razor.”

August 5, 2019. Interior, Nursing Home. Dawn.

“I’m gonna go do another autopsy. The nice man told me last night.” The man retains something of the aura of intelligence that defined him in his youth, but whatever that something is, it lies. Four days prior, he poured marinara over a shoelace–the twisty kind you don’t have to tie–and chewed it for an hour before a panicked nurse noticed faint choking noises.

That same nurse now places a small plastic cup of pills on his bedside table. He reaches a shaky, liver-spotted hand for it, but his fingers close several inches to the right. The nurse patiently takes the cup, afraid he’ll spill it, and stacks several pillows under his back before feeding him the pills one by one.

“That’s wonderful, Michael. Will it be Kennedy’s again? I recall you were very excited about that one last month.”

“Oh, no, Janet, this one is for a man named Jackson. No, no, it’s Jeremy. I’m sorry. The man came late at night, and I can’t seem to recall our exact conversation.”

“It’s alright, Michael.” She takes special care to emphasize his name. The heirs always hate it when the loved one forgets its name. “Take your time. Tell me, Michael, what did this man look like?”

He cackles weakly. “Well, it was dark, Janet.” Thinking that the overpronunciation of names must be an important custom of this new land, he has taken to mimicking it. “He wore a suit.”

“Did it fit him well?” Preoccupied with thoughts of the besuited man who read next to her on the subway on Wednesdays, she has forgotten that it was dark.

He waxes agitated. “You’re missing the point, Janet. A limousine will be here on Sunday to bring me to the examination. I simply wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t worry.”

She feeds him the last pill and pats his back to help him swallow. She needs to remember to call that speech pathologist. “Yes, I’m sure it will, Michael. I bet you’re very excited.”

May 1, 2012. Chance-Loeb. Day.

Colt built a small fire with the remnants of our rods. He instructed Marcus and I to wrap our single bream in tin foil. No cutting, wrap it whole. We walked to the front yard and played dodgeball with disc golf putters while the fish cooked. Marcus and I had shit aim, so Colt bounded back to retrieve the fish while we gathered ice from a cobwebby cooler in the garage to nurse our bruises.

While we sat on the back of an ancient ATV with Ziploc icepacks on our shins, Colt dashed inside and outside and laid the makings of a veritable feast on the once-white folding table under his dad’s tool rack: A paper bag of fried chicken livers from the Walmart deli, a brown jar of mustard, the unwrapped fish on its foil beside the plastic spoon, and three Dixie plates with purple and green floral rims.

We sat on our respective fishing buckets and Colt slipped into an impersonation of our hunting safety instructor. It had been his running bit for the past month. Thick Cajun golfball-gargling. “Firs’, boys, we clean de piece wi’ de proper tool.” He held the fish by its tail in one hand. In the other he displayed the plastic spoon. “You want to skim just along de surface so you don’ corrupt de riflin’. O’ de flesh, as de case may be. Get buku meat outta lil’ fish iffy clean ‘er right.”

He sloughed off a row of scales and offered the spoon to Marcus and I in turn. We’d left the bream to cook just long enough that the scales slid off with no pressure at all, and Marcus and I each removed thin chunks of filet meat on our first passes. “You wan’ get jus’ de scale, no lagniappe. Go mo’ gennle.”

We fidgeted on the buckets in our boxer briefs for about half an hour of steady scaling and then scarfed the whole spread in fifteen minutes.

August 12, 2019. Interior, Manhattan Medical Examination Facility. Mid-morning.

A long body with a long face lies on a long autopsy table. Naked, its grey body hairs sparkle in thick fluorescent light. The assembled note its egg-shaped penis: Thick at the base, it tapers to a narrow curve at the circumcised glans. The body has died by hanging, so its egg is crusted with semen, like a hard-boiled left too long in brine.

A woman in scrubs reaches for a scalpel, but an elderly man, leaning against his cane on the other side of the table, coughs conspicuously into his mask. The woman jerks her face up and glares at him. “What now, Michael?”

“It’s not time for that yet. Are you sure the rope burn has been thoroughly examined?”

She grits her teeth so hard the squeak echoes. “Five times, Michael.”

“As Chief Medical Examiner, I urge you to examine it a sixth time then check his hands for fibers. If you find matching fibers on the neck and hands, I daresay that’s incontrovertible evidence of suicide.”

“Have you ever seen a hanging victim who didn’t clutch at the rope, Michael?”

“Good point. In that case, give his penis another once-over. I assume you’ve read its psych profile: This was surely the type of loved one who jerked off before he kicked the stool. If you find fibers there, we can call our job done.”

“What if some fell, Michael? Nothing you’ve mentioned is conclusive. Have you not wondered how he found a rope and a stool in a maximum security prison? And enough me-time to rig them up?”

“It’s not our job to speculate. It’s our job to examine.”

A nondescript suited man standing beside the door bursts into vicious laughter, doubled over with his face between his knees. He looks up and finds the woman giving him the evil eye, and he straightens.

“You’re not gonna last long in this line of work, dear,” Michael croaks. “Too many scruples. You know I’ve penetrated the necrotic assholes of JFK and MLK? Marty was tighter. I suspect that Johnny had quite a vigorous priest.”

The woman picks over the loved one’s neck and hands with a magnifying monocle and a pair of tweezers.

“Nothing, Michael. Absolutely nothing. As though he were dead before he hung.”

“Oh? Well, I’d check again. And don’t forget the penis this time.”

“Dammit, Michael, there’s a time limit on this autopsy. We’re not gonna get the body open if we don’t do it now.”

“Why open the body? We’re investigating a hanging, not a poisoning.”

Another squeak. “How do we know if we don’t open the body?”

Michael points to the red marks on the loved one’s neck then folds his hands atop his cane. “This is mildly off-topic, honey, but have you ever had anal?”

The man by the door steps in front of it and crosses his hands over his crotch menacingly.

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