I didn‘t want to horrify anyone. You know what women are like. So I just put ‘lab worker‘. About fifteen women immediately responded, each, to my surprise, with bad teeth. They entered the coffee-shop carefully made up and full of expectancy.
“Lab worker?" they asked. “What kind of lab? Dental?"
They turned pale and looked shaken. Some left without a word, their coffee unfinished; others exclaimed things like: “I might have known!" If they asked about teeth in my laboratory, I carefully described to them the prosection process. At first I saw disappointment and then alarm in the eyes of each of them. I had been wasting my time.
I can’t complain about being lonely. I have enough bodies around me; it is a big town and the suicide rate is steady. Six dead everyday – do you know how many mourners that means? They greet me in the street and I mistake them for the dead. Sometimes as I walk, I look at people‘s faces and try to guess what they will die of. They seem healthy, some of them, but I hear a voice whispering in me saying: “You will not die a good death!“ And then a few days later I open the fridge and what do I see? My acquaintance lying in a sheet, all smashed up after a fall from the fifth floor.
Occasionally I get called in to do a forensic autopsy because they know I don’t make mistakes. I am on first-name terms with all the police round here. I often think about my work and imagine where to cut first in order to take a sample. Sometimes, just to stay in practice, I cut up what I don’t need to and spend long hours examining someone’s insides. You would not believe how interesting the human body can be! You switch on a lamp and the radio, make a coffee and start to ponder. All the children, for example, are entrusted to me, nobody else. I like children. They lie on the table so quiet and so innocent; I cross their arms across their chest. And their little bodies, skinny legs, half-closed eyes, oh God!...I like the 6 to 8-year-olds best, the girls more than the boys.
Sometimes I just sit and smoke, scratch my cheek and daydream. At such times my colleagues downstairs drink and play cards in their little cubby-hole. They don’t give a damn about their jobs and make fun of me. So I wait for them to leave and then I get down to work. My boss advises me not to work too hard, to go home and relax a little. But then he stands behind me, puts his hand on my shoulder and looks at the child lying on the table. Sometimes he stays until evening, watching as I cut. He does not say anything – work is sacred, after all. But when we finish, lock the building and head home, he always has a lot to say, especially about children. For my boss is not just a scientist but also a poet.
Cross-eyed Berty accuses me of sucking up to the boss. How wrong he is! All cross-eyed Berty ever does is drink himself stupid. And where is his respect for the dead? He can’t cut straight and the scalpel keeps slipping in his hand. He can’t even stitch up a trunk properly. Or when he saws through a skull, he makes such a mess he has to call me to finish it. That is why I just give him the heavy work to do. He lugs the bodies across the room, places them on the table and passes me my instruments. But he‘ll get drunk before lunch and then with the rest of them, start throwing the liver around. Which he is not allowed to do because it always ends up falling down the other side of the table. Berty is fat and when he stretches across the table to pick up the liver, he ends up sprawled over the open body and getting his coat stained. And even then he can’t reach it. So he stabs it with a cleaver or scalpel and then dusts it off. Sometimes there’s a piece missing off it, which I then look for and find under the table. Berty doesn’t care. They laugh at me for ‘overdoing‘ things but when they stitch up a body they sometimes leave organs on the scales. Sometimes you find some kidneys lying in Berty’s locker all shrunken up between his bottles of rum. And he can’t even remember who they belonged to: “What do the stiffs care?" that’s what he says! Can you imagine! Sometimes he tries to take organs home with him – he has got a Great Dane. So I go through his bags and take them out. Berty always finds a way of getting round me, though. If I don’t let him near the organs, he dresses the corpses and often cuts off their toes – it’s easier to put on their shoes that way, he claims. He is even capable of cutting off their penis – it happened a few times early on. That’s why I always check every male body with my hand. What if by chance some woman touched her man there, unbuttoned his flies and found only a scar? Can you imagine?! But you can’t reason with Berty. He just flies off the handle and drinks even more. When the boss goes off somewhere, Berty walks around the building with a bottle in his pocket. If he runs out of rum, he can even drink lyzol. Seriously...But back to the advert! I decided to rewrite it. Fifteen immediately showed interest in teeth but would there be at least one who would want an autopsy lab worker? Is it such a dreadful job? I know not everyone has the stomach for it. Take Berty, for instance. First thing in the morning he goes to the toilet to vomit. In the evening, he tehn vomits up his booze. He sits for hours in his little cubby-hole with his feet on the table, scraping out tins before breaking into song. When we ask him why he does it, he says: “Because I’m going nuts!" He sometimes comes with his dog but the dog daren’t enter the building and for hours waits outside whimpering pathetically. At first Berty tried to drag him in but the dog, tail between his legs and ears down,was having none of it. Berty then kicked him as hard as he could in the belly and started to laugh but the dog merely cowered, shook, howled but still refused to go in. Berty now ties him to a tree outside and always takes him something out for lunch – body parts, I suspect.
At the small-ads department, they said: “You’ll have a woman within a week" “Do you think so?"
“A dead one, for sure. Ha-ha-ha!"
They laughed, it’s true, but what did I care. I waited for a few weeks, even a month, but no-one got in touch. Then in the middle of November, a letter arrived out of the blue.
“My names is Ilonka and I was very excited to come across your advert! And impatient! When can I see you? I feel so alone and was thinking I would never find anybody. Everyone is so dreary. Oh dear! An autopsy lab worker! Horrible! But I bet you’ve got a sense of humour, haven’t you? So how about 9pm on 7.12. in the Chrysanthemum Bar? Do come, please. I’ll be impatiently waiting for you. I‘m so curious I can’t wait, I really can‘t. I’m mad with curiosity!"
The way she welcomed me was what they call ‘hyper‘. And she had friends in the band who immediately started playing the Funeral March when I came in. She was probably already slightly drunk and was jumping from table to table, blabbing to everyone: “His name is Frankenstein!" she announced.
“Löwenstein," I said correcting her. “Franz Löwenstein."
And again she went off, blabbing to all and sundry, running around laughing and saying things like: “Just look at that funny suit of his... And do you know what he does? ... Sh-sh-sh – listen to this... ha-ha-ha..."
The Chrysanthemum was a night club in a rundown sidestreet. They were a real shower, the people there, artists mostly. For a moment I eyed them with interest but they were all drunk and I hate drunkenness because it reminds me of Berty and his sidekicks. Some were already lying on the tables, others were flopping on the floor in an effort to be amusing. I was wondering what my boss would say if he could see it all. He is also an artist but has never been in a bar. He prefers to visit cemeteries at night, to sit on gravestones and write by candlelight. He has the key to a tomb and locks himself in there on Sundays.
A half-hour passed and still I sat alone in the black suit I wear to funerals. I had ordered a Fernet - I like its colour - when Ilonka suddenly ran up to me and waved to the band, which again broke into the Funeral March. She then invited me to dance but when I stood up, everyone burst out laughing. They surrounded us, holding hands to form a ring while we danced in the middle. I hadn’t expected such a reception in my worst dreams.
“You look like a notary or the sexton in a church," Ilonka whispered to me as we danced. “And your eyes are so...Aspiring... Why are you shaking like that?"
I was trying to contain my anger. But then it spilled over. I tore myself away, pushed her off and ran back to the table.
“Wait," she said catching me up. She sat next to me and took my hand. “Why are you so offended? ... What is it?"
I took her letter from my pocket and opened it in front of her. “What was this you wrote to me? ‘I can’t wait! I’m mad with curiosity!‘ But all you can do is make a fool of me!!!" I was furious and waved the letter around until it flew out of my hand and landed on the floor somewhere. Tears came to my eyes. I felt humiliated.
Ilonka motioned to the band to stop playing and pushed her friends away. Some then leaned over towards our table to eavesdrop; others even crept under it but she kicked them away with her heels in annoyance.
“I’m sorry. That’s just me, I’m afraid..." she said in her defence. “ Rather crazy... But I’m glad you’re here."
It sounded nice and honest, as if a child had said it.
“Really?" I had softened my tone but still had my doubts.
“Seriously..." she smiled. She had white teeth without a single filling; white, strong, even. They glistened in the darkness. She wasn’t interested in dental care but something else. But what? I didn’t know.
“There are lots of people here," I said starting from the other end.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?"
“Where there would just be the two of us..."
“It’s cold outside..."
“We could go to...my place..." I blurted and waited to see what she would say. She turned serious and surveyed me pensively, biting her bottom lip and weighing up the pros and cons. It probably wasn’t an easy decision for her. I’m no oil painting, am rather sallow, yellow even, have a long nose and more bony than muscular... “Let’s go then!" she suddenly exclaimed, and grabbing a bottle from the table, she got up and starting walking towards the exit. It was proof that she was in earnest. I chased after her so fast I was lucky I didn’t break my leg. And then left a tip in the cloakroom, though it is not a habit of mine to do so.