Morgue, A Verb

Darkness came early to Chicago’s west side ghetto. The mid-July sunset was totally obscured by stationary clouds that hung like black curtains along the western horizon. Silent lightning blinked in the distance: heat lightning we called it. The air was hot and still and the suffocating humidity magnified the natural odors of the city, the most easily identified being outdoor cooking, automobile exhaust and stagnant garbage.

Bill Felston and I were working a homicide car out of Maxwell Street and we were parked just off Taylor around the corner from Mario’s Italian Ice stand, enjoying one of their large frozen lemonades. I didn’t have quite six months in homicide and that definitely qualified me as a new guy. The dispatcher chattered at an almost constant pace, street disturbances, stabbings, shootings and a homicide on the street in the far southwestern corner of our area. Another homicide unit was told to “call the office.” No doubt they were getting the assignment. We waited, slowly spooning the icy mixture so as to avoid the inevitable brain freeze. On a night like tonight, our turn would come.

“Seventy-four-o-three, call your office.” That was us—perfect timing—we had just finished our lemonade.

“Two bits says they want us to morgue that case,” said Bill.

“Morguing” was a basic step in all new murder cases. Detectives needed to make a detailed examination of the body, making note of type and location of wounds. If circumstance permitted, many times a body could be morgued at the scene or at the hospital, but if things moved too fast and the victim was whisked away, a trip to the Cook County Morgue was required. A quick phone call confirmed Bill’s prediction and we headed to the morgue just as a fetid breeze began to stir.

We arrived in the parking lot just behind the Cook County Hospital, and at the same time huge widely spaced raindrops hit our windshield. The lightning now had an ominous rumble. Inside the morgue we checked in with Freddy the attendant. Ours was Case #137, July 1970, Crypt 12, John Doe, male/white, about 16 years of age. Pronounced at Saint Anthony’s Hospital at 2105 hours by a Doctor Whitney. Since he was as yet unidentified, we would need to get a very detailed overall physical description in addition to noting the wounds.

Bill and I took the elevator to the basement level and as we stepped out the building PA blasted the silence,

“Detective Felston, your office on line 14.”

“Get started, I’ll grab that call,” said Bill as he quickly re-entered the elevator. The door was closing before I could protest. Was this a test? I had been to the morgue many times in the past several months, but not quite under these circumstances.

I checked my notes for confirmation: the toe tag would read July #137 and he would be in Crypt 12. Crypt 12 was at the end of a short hallway lined with over-sized white refrigerator doors. The walls were painted institutional dung beige which might not have been a bad color except for being bathed in the garish green tint of the overhead fluorescent lights that lent a surreal ambiance to the scene. The floor was terrazzo with a tan/brown pebble pattern. I walked gingerly past the doors, Crypt 9, 10, 11 and there was 12. It was at the end of the hallway next to a window well to the outside world. As I arrived at my destination, the storm that had been hanging to the west all evening broke loose with a fury. I reached for the large chrome handle and the instant I touched it a bolt of lightning filled the window well with an almost immediate crash of thunder. I stepped back quickly from the handle, eying it warily. Try again I told myself — you’ve got to do this. As I slowly opened the crypt door, rain pounded angrily at the window punctuated by repeated thunder and lightning. If I hadn’t been alone it could have been an over the top scene from a cheap horror movie.

But I was alone. I swung the door wide and reached into the pitch black room where I thought the light switch would be. I stretched around the edge of the door jam and felt for the switch without actually entering the room. I can’t find the damned switch! I back away from the darkened room and there’s the switch on the hallway wall. I knew that! Click. The crypt filled with a very dim incandescent light. Each crypt held 25 to 30 bodies, mostly on shelving on three walls. Recent arrivals would still be on gurneys and if I was in luck, my case would be closest to the door.

There he was, just inside the door, #137 tied to his big toe. Another stretch, this time across the threshold, and again without entering the crypt, I pulled the gurney out into the hallway and began taking notes. Male/white, slender build, brown hair. I now had to touch him to raise an eyelid. Blinding flash! Deafening crash! Blue eyes.

His body was warm, warm enough to still detect his body odor. The boy looked to be perhaps the reported 16 years of age. I glanced nervously into the crypt and saw that most of the bodies had been processed and wrapped. There were two or three others, naked on gurneys… late arrivals like mine. What was taking Bill so long?

Wind was now whipping, rattling hail against the window well punctuated with almost constant lightning and thunder. I glanced at the window fully expecting to see someone trying to get in—or out. Where was Bill?

Concentrate! Wounds. Measure and note the wounds. GSW (gunshot wound), chest, four inches to the right of the right nipple. GSW, chest, one inch right of the left nipple, probably the cause of death. Small caliber contact rings, no powder burns. Probably shirtless at the time of the shooting. I lift each of his hands and carefully examine them for defense wounds. Each time I touch the body there are simultaneous cracks of thunder and lightning.

“John! Take it easy… I didn’t do this to you.” Another blinding crack-flash: concussion thunder shakes the building.

“I know, I know, your name’s probably not John.”

There are no defense wounds.

Number 137—he apparently doesn’t like being called John—is a little over a foot shy of filling the length of the 82″ stainless steel morgue tray and I mark 5′ 8″ for his height.

The elevator doors open and Bill Felston steps out into the hallway.

“How ya’ doin’ ?” he asks nonchalantly.

“Good.” I answer trying to sound equally nonchalant. “We just have to roll him to check for exit wounds.”

Bill grabs an arm and pulls the boy towards him and I brace for the flash and the crash: but there is none. I examine his back, brushing some gravel and stones from his skin. There are no exit wounds. We are done. The storm stops as suddenly as it began.

Outside the air is cool and there is a pleasant summer breeze. The ozone from the lightning has deodorized the city and everything smells clean and fresh.

Our next bit of detective work is to find the homicide team handling this case and give them our morgue notes. There is no answer on the air. They are probably out of the car canvassing the neighborhood so we head over to the crime scene to find them… it’s best to get this done now as the night is young and we are probably next up on the assignment sheet. I can work with Bill I tell myself. He’s easy to be with and even if he was messing with me at the morgue tonight, I proved to both of us I could handle it. Besides, sometime soon I won’t be the new kid. The tour of duty drew to a close without any further excitement.

While Bill and I would never work as regular partners, over the next ten years we would “float” into one another on occasion, working together for short periods with ease. We even shared an extradition trip where we crossed paths with a hurricane, but that’s a story for another time.

Fast forward another thirty years: Bill and I, along with Jesse, another homicide old timer, are sitting at the Red Apple Polish Buffet on North Milwaukee Avenue just this past week. Having finished our third plate load of home cooked delicacies, we pause, if for nothing more than to breathe. I tell Bill this story and he listens with a smile.

“So tell me true, Bill. Did this just kinda happen, or were you messing with me? Ya know, the new kid?”

Bill mops the last of the mushroom gravy from his plate with the remnants of a potato pancake.

“The real truth?” says Bill. “The real truth is: I don’t remember that night, but if it happened like you’re tellin’ it,” he pauses to wipe some of the gravy from the corner of his mouth, “I was most definitely not screwin’ with you. If I was screwin’ with you, I would have locked you in the crypt and shut the lights off before I went back upstairs.”

Jesse shudders visibly at the thought…


9 Comments on “Morgue, A Verb”

  1. Dave Joseffer says:

    Jim, One of your best yet! It has such a professional feel to it, the kind you see it very established authors. Now it’s my turn to be jealous. Let’s get together for a cup of coffee or something soon.

    Best regard,

  2. Ann says:

    You invoked “the creeps” as I read your piece in a sunny office, feeling TGIF nine to fivers love and live for, an herbal tea at my elbow. I swear I saw the lightening and heard cracks of thunder while trying not to envision the body of John. Thank you for your inside story on what happens every day in your line of work and ending the story with a dry-humored twist.

  3. Tom says:

    Good story, I hated that place. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone, except maybe some of the people who worked there, who liked going there.

  4. Jay Lyden says:

    I went out with a student nurse at County in 68 and we used to take the tunnel past the morgue as a short cut between the parking lot and her dorm. She said that years before someone sent a student there on some errand and tied a rubber glove full of ice to the light cord and the student had a heart attack. Maybe B.S. but I walked a lot faster going back when I didn’t have to pretend to be a tough guy.

    You are a very good writer. I appreciate your work.

  5. Fabienne says:

    Again you captivate me.

  6. Rich says:

    I can smell that old dump just thinking about it. Nice story telling Jim.

  7. Tom Kinsella says:

    Still remember being a young Homicide Det. in the old Area 1, currently the DuSable museum. Went to the morgue one night, walked into the refridgeator and my older partner slams the door on me. The lights went out and the fans went on at the same time, all of the paper sheets started ratteling and blowing, almost wet my pants. After we started examining our victim I sat him up and he belched out air, I was through for the night.

  8. Jim H. says:

    Cook County Morgue is wild. Bodies everywhere. Hands, arms, legs…heads. I had a shaken baby at Roseland Hospital morgue in the basement. There was a 25 watt bulb and paint peeling from the ceiling and walls. The baby’s body was so cold and stiff. I felt helpless and out of place. I will never forget it.

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