Making a canoe. That’s what the cops call it.
It’s what coroners do when they perform an autopsy: Slit the body from throat to groin, pull back the heavy flaps of skin, eviscerate the corpus of a once-living human being. Of course, they’ll also examine the organs – before and after removal – and scrutinize the bloodied infrastructure that those lights were once part of. But it’s the resultant visuals, the basic hollowing-out of the body, that mints this grisly coin of phrase.
Making a canoe.
You can learn such arcana by becoming a coroner, or a mortician, or a cop. Or you can learn this by reading any of the several books written by cops for writers of crime novels; or you can read enough of those crime novels yourself.
Or, like me, you could’ve had a friend who was a mortician and who needed a little help one busy night.
It was 1982. I was 20 years old, a floorwalker for Montgomery Ward, spending all my free time at the bookstore my girlfriend worked at in the same pathetic mall. And one day I met this guy at the bookstore; he was an infrequent customer who liked to browse the paperbacks while waiting for movies to start at the mall’s theatre. And we got into a conversation, and we hit it off like gangbusters – tossing around Monty Python references and twisted observations on life as we knew it, talking about how we’d eventually make megabucks doing something new and exciting, about how I was going to seriously get to work someday – someday, damnit – and write The Great American Novel. That kind of thing.
We started hanging out at the nearby Denny’s, too, sometimes, this guy and I, after the mall had shut down for the night.
Eventually he told me that he made his living as a mortician.
He didn’t look like a mortician at all; he seemed like a tailor-made contradiction. He was tall and blonde and handsome, he was lightly and evenly tanned. He was the impressive kind of muscular that some guys just get to be, due to genetics or divine right or whatever. He looked like an art director’s idea of Bronzed Beach God, this guy.
His name was Mike.
One evening, after a few days of fierce storms, he showed up at the bookstore where I was trying to convince my girlfriend that it was time we moved in together. Mike said he’d had a busy day, that there had been so many traffic deaths due to the weather that he was way behind schedule at work. And he knew I had a sort of macabre interest in the whole process, so he said that if I ever wanted to come down to the shop and see what it was like – well, now was the time. He could really use the help.
I looked at my girlfriend. She looked at me.
Mike and I hit the road.
I’d never been in a funeral home before. I’ve still, to this day, not attended a single funeral – but it was a lot like what I’d expected from the movies. Big lobby, subdued lighting, thick carpet, walls a bland mauve with slightly darker wainscoting. A lot of wood, a lot of drapery. Somber as hell.
Mike let me take it all in, then ushered me past a desk and through a display of fancy caskets.
He took me into the back of the place.
The back was different. It was a lot colder, for one thing. The air conditioning was turned way, way up. Maybe, although I’m sure I only imagined this, maybe there was some overflow from the freezers, too? Intense lighting galvanized the big room and presented the starkest display possible. The floor was gray plastic tile, the ceiling was lower than in the lobby, the walls were a monotonous white broken only by lines of stainless steel. Stainless steel shelves, stainless steel tables, stainless steel gurneys. With bodies on them.
“This is the guy we have to do first,” said Mike, indicating a gurney directly below one of the fluorescent lights. The body atop the bright slab was naked and pale and whole, darker along the bottom where gravity had pulled the blood: no autopsy had been done on this one. Gases from internal decay had further bloated the obese figure, and the face registered a jarring familiarity. I would’ve sworn that I was looking at Sorrel Booke, the man who played Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard.
I pointed this out to Mike.
“Yeah, I guess he does kinda look like that,” he said, picking up a large tool. He moved toward the body. Toward the dead Boss Hogg.
“Okay,” he said, lifting the tool for me to see. “This is a trocar.” It was a metal tube, about half as long as a pool cue, with a spear-like point at one end; but the spear’s point wasn't closed at all: It described the mouth of the tube. The other end of this metal tube was attached to a flexible plastic tube; the other end of the plastic tube was attached to an industrial-strength vacuum.
What a trocar does, you see, is it sucks the guts out of corpses.
There’s less to decay, that way. Less to embalm.
Mike put the point of the trocar into the corpse’s navel. He shoved, and the spear went in. He flipped a few switches, turning on the vacuum, and proceeded to move the spear around inside the body’s bloated belly. The part of the trocar’s tube that was plastic was also completely transparent; I could see pieces of the dead man’s interior stuttering through its easy curves.
Mike moved deliberately around the corpse, holding the trocar with both hands, guiding its point to the major organs. The clear tube jerked and was suddenly flooded with dark matter. I shot Mike a puzzled look.
“That’s the heart,” he told me, over the vacuum’s muffled roar.
The heart, I thought, speechless, watching purple chunks speed through the tube: That’s the heart.
Mike continued his work.
Eventually, the corruptible guts removed, Mike set the trocar aside and picked up a big hypodermic needle from the nearby shelf. He injected the corpse with embalming fluid: in the neck, in the legs, in the arms. He finished one load, then refilled the syringe’s chamber from a bottle labeled C.A.R.E., and repeated the process.
“C’mere,” he said, struggling with the dead man's left arm. “Pull this arm away from his body so I can work.”
I took hold of the arm. It felt like a length of cold rebar. I tugged at it; gently, at first. It didn’t budge.
“Shit, man,” I said, a nervous giggle threatening to leave the back of my throat.
“Rigor mortis,” said Mike. “Pull it harder, Brenner. And hold it, okay? I’ve got to get this needle in there.”
I struggled with the arm, finally getting it far enough away from the body so Mike could position his needle.
“We should use the pump to do this,” he complained. “We could pump it right into the carotid, drain the blood out the jugular, do the whole body that way. But this guy’s got big-time blood clots – and the goddamn pump is broken. A night like this – it figures, huh?”
In minutes, he was done.
“We’ll finish him later,” said Mike. He pushed the gurney against the far wall, near a stack of small cubes that looked like half-shoeboxes built from corrugated cardboard.
“What are those?” I said, pointing at the boxes. “Embalming stuff?”
Mike shook his head. “Cremains,” he said.
“Cremated remains. It’s how they’re shipped.”
“Ah,” I said. “Cremains. Of course.” I stood there, stupidly, looking at the boxes, very aware of the corpses around the room.
“This is the next one,” said Mike, walking to another gurney. “This kid.”
He wheeled the gurney underneath the light we’d used to do Boss Hogg.
The kid was 15 years old, Mike told me. He had been 15 years old. He’d died from other than natural causes, so the coroners had had to investigate the exact cause of death.
So they’d made a canoe.
“He’s riding home from his girlfriend’s house at two in the morning,” said Mike. “It’s raining, he doesn’t have reflectors on his bike. He gets hit by a semi. See the marks there?” Mike indicated several areas along the body that were marred by road rash. “He died instantly, though, way before he hit the street. The truck snapped his spine in two.”
“Jesus,” I said, looking at the corpse.
He looked like a sweet kid. Like he had been a sweet kid. Tousled mop of dark brown hair, face like a model for Wholesome American Goodness, a scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose, a body that interested people would’ve been constantly scoping out, probably, anticipating the age of consent.
But there was a red gash down the front of that body, now; a gash that ran from between the clavicles to just short of the pubic hair. The gash was more than skin-deep: it completely bisected the wall of his flesh.
Mike reached for the gash, folded back the thick flaps of meat there; the inside of each flap was red and wet, like the insides of a coat lined with slimy velvet. The kid’s body was hollowed out, the sides curving up like ruddy cliffs strutted with white verticals of bone. In the center of this valley of ribs, in the pool of blood and bits of yellow fatty tissue at the bottom, sat a big green Hefty bag.
“What the hell?” I said.
“That’s his guts,” said Mike. “The coroners have to check everything, get stuff out of the way. This makes it a lot easier for everybody.” He pulled the bag from the dark cavity and set it upon a nearby table, then pointed to an open box beside me. “Get you a big handful of that sawdust.”
I turned, dug my hands into the box, came up with a pile of powder and shavings. “It looks almost empty,” I said.
“I know. We’ve been so busy, we’re about to run out of everything.” He shrugged. “Okay, sprinkle that stuff around, now. Yeah, that’s it – soak that shit up.”
I kept glancing at the kid’s face as I sprinkled sawdust. It was a little disturbing, the way that face looked merely asleep above the torn and bloody curtain of his throat.
“That gonna be enough?” I asked Mike, brushing off my hands.
Mike frowned, looking into the opened body. “No,” he said. “But it’ll have to do. There’s still a few more to go.” He moved around the table until he was standing behind the head. “Okay, check this out.” He reached down to the back of the head, grabbed hold of the scalp there. He pulled the skin up and over, right off the skull, kept going until the bottom of the scalp was folded over the top of the kid’s face. The hair on the scalp’s outside was around the bottom of the kid’s nose, now, like a false mustache.
“Christ,” I said, my eyes wide. “It’s like a fucking mask.”
“Yeah, isn’t it?” said Mike, nodding. “You want to do something for me, now?”
“Sure,” I said, my eyes fixed on the weird sight.
“Here,” said Mike. He took off the top of the kid’s skull; it had been neatly sawed through, during the autopsy. “They have to check the brain, right? It’s in the bag with his guts.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Do me a favor and wash this out, okay? The sink’s over there.”
He passed me the top of the skull; it was like a rough china bowl smeared with tomato soup.
I took it to the sink as Mike began embalming.
“I hate this,” he said, digging around with an aneurysm hook. “Makes it so hard to find a decent artery, the way everything’s all ravaged.” He needled fluid into the best conduits he could find. “You know what they do, the coroners? It’s not like Quincy, man, it’s not like that at all. It’s like McDonald’s, especially when they’re real busy. It’s like fast-food autopsy. They have this big sickle thing – like the druids used to use, y’know? But it’s got this brace on it, like those Wrist Rocket slingshots, you know what I’m talking about? And they just slice the body open – BAM! – like lightning. They make this big old Y. And then they saw through the ribs and start digging around, start slicing and poking and tearing shit apart.” He shook his head. “It’s a fucking mess.”
I walked back to the gurney, holding the gleaming skulltop out for Mike to see.
“That’s great,” he said. “Just give me a minute, here, alright?”
He finished the embalming.
“Okay,” he said, taking the strange bowl from me; he placed it into the kid’s head and folded the scalp back over. He took the Hefty bag and returned it to the chest’s cavity, rearranged the flaps of skin-covered meat until their edges were almost touching. “Now we’ve got some sewing to do,” he said.
“This is so cool!” I blurted as Mike threaded a pair of big leatherwork needles. “But it’s so freaky, too, you know? How do you deal with it, day-in-day-out like this?”
“You get used to it,” said Mike, concentrating on the needles. “Or you try to, anyway. I try not to think about it too much. If I thought about it too much, it’d get to me for sure. Like my boss. He’s been doing this for years and years, and he’s totally burned out, man. He’s like a corpse himself.”
Mike passed me a threaded needle. “Here – like this.” He began stitching at one end of the Y-shaped gash, poking his needle through the toughening skin, drawing up a smooth line of thread, rejoining the separated bits of meat. Like some old lady doing a sampler for the wall of her kitchen.
I tried it myself. I almost stabbed my fingers a couple of times, but finally got the stitch going smoothly. Well, more or less. We worked in silence for a while, sewing up the compromised chest and torso of the dead 15-year-old.
“We have to cap his eyes next,” said Mike. “We put these little things in there so they don’t look all sunken in. And his hair, too: it’s real dirty, we gotta shampoo this kid before he’s dressed for the viewing.”
By the time we were finished sewing, I’d done one-fourth of the work. My part looked like the stitching on a football sewn by a drunk with no thumbs and bad arthritis. Mike’s stitching looked like it’d been done by a state-of-the-art machine. Practice, they say, makes perfect.
“After we get him cleaned up, we’ve got a few more to go before it’s quitting time,” said Mike. “Stupid damn rain.”
“Man, this is so cool,” I said again. “I don’t want to sound all geeked-out, but I swear this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. Working on dead people, Mike! I had no idea you did this sort of thing until you told me. I never would’ve suspected.”
“Yeah, well,” said Mike, almost smiling. “It’s not something I like to talk about. Not that I’m trying to be all mysterious or anything, but – what do you know about people, unless you’ve been around them for a long time, right? And even then. You know what they tell you, pretty much, and that’s about it.”
He looked down. Reached over and brushed a bit of dust from the kid’s pale lips.
“Like this guy, here,” he said. “Aside from the police report and the coroner’s paperwork, what do we know? We don’t know a thing about him, do we? Or Boss Hogg over there. Or those women by the file cabinet. We dig around inside their bodies, try to fix the way they look. We get closer to them than anybody ever will again, but we don’t know shit about any of them, do we?”
“Dead men tell no tales,” I suggested, trying to be clever.
“Yeah,” said Mike. “I guess you’d better start writing while you’re still alive, then, huh?”
He looked at me from the other side of the young corpse, his fingers absently tracing stitches down the center of the freckled chest.
I looked back at him for a long moment. I didn’t know what to say.
Autopsy, post-mortem, coroner’s investigation.
The cops call it making a canoe.
But then – we’re all vessels, aren’t we?