One of my varied outside duties while working as a 16-year-old copy boy at our local newspaper was the trip to the city morgue to collect the obits and return them to the city editor for the next day's page.
I hated making this trip. The morgue was in a dead-end alley reached only by taking Main Street through a seedy part of downtown Rochester, generally in the evening.
Going in the dark of night seemed to carry with it an irrational fear: Something evil was about to happen. I mean this could be scary; after all, the bodies that lay stretched out in drawers behind the large insulated door were for the most part, my mind imagined, people who died from acts of violence, from drug or alcohol abuse, murder victims, homeless people who had frozen to death on skid row; not the kind of people that a kid like me would want to associate with, alive or dead.
The guys who worked behind the counter were friendly enough and would good-naturedly chide me on my lack of knowledge in the ways of the world, and threaten to show me what was behind the door. I made certain I was always on my way out the front door by the time they finished their spiel and never looked back, sprinting the three blocks to the office.
One bitter March night I fought my way through high winds and heavy snow down Main Street to my destination. I imagined evil spirits lurking around each boarded-up building. As I hurried along through the blinding snow, figures appeared to pop up all around, lurking in doorways, standing on street corners, overcoat collars up and fedoras jammed down around their ears for protection against the cold; I gave them wide berth. When I arrived at the morgue, they had nothing for me that night. What a waste of my time, I thought. I turned to leave when the familiar chant started up that there was "something they had to show me behind the door."
For some unknown reason I hesitated that night. As I listened to their entreaties, I decided it was time to shed my wimpish reputation. I would soon be replaced by a summer college intern for three months, and I'd have no opportunity to see a "live" corpse. It would certainly make an entertaining story to tell my friends the next day at school. So I bit the bullet. "Okay you guys, you think I'm too scared to go back there? . . . Lead on."
With knowing smiles, Jim and Otto unlocked the heavy door and led me into the center of the darkened room; with each exhalation our breath hung heavy in the frigid air. "Well, take your pick Danny Boy," said Otto, pointing to the two banks of drawers lining the dark walls of the room. Notwithstanding the sub-freezing temperature, perspiration was breaking out on my forehead and on the back of my neck as I randomly pointed to one of the drawers, which, when Jim opened it, revealed no occupant. I pointed to another, then another; also empty. This was like playing Russian roulette, I thought. This routine continued until it was becoming evident that all the drawers were empty that night. I turned to leave and noticed that both men were smiling broadly; Jim said the drawers were unoccupied as "business" had been slow for the past few days.
Nevertheless, they both congratulated me on my bravery and I stood there, still sweating profusely and somewhat shaken from my experience. At that moment, the rear door of the small building burst open, letting in a strong gust of wind and snow. Two 6-footers carrying a body on a stretcher barged in and blurted out, "Here's some work for you guys." In unison, Jim and Otto shouted for me to come back, but the time for bravery had passed. I bolted out the door, making the three-block return trip to the office in record time.
Dan Riley is a World War II veteran and is retired from Lever Bros. A winter resident of Timber Pines in Spring Hill, his writing includes memoirs, poetry and short stories.