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What Are You Looking At?

Published: February 9, 2018

Otto shudders to think what will happen to his body after he dies. Having endured decades of people staring, whispering behind his back, and asking intrusive questions, he’s braced himself for the worst.

Barring complete disintegration in a spectacular mid-air collision, he expects his corpse to be enveloped in a black bag and whisked to the morgue for identification (should he drop dead of a heart attack in the middle of the street) or courteously draped in a white sheet by a nursing home attendant (should he be one of the lucky few who dodges accident and disease to make it to an old age death bed). Collecting his remains will be the easy part, but how will his handlers treat him in light of his short stature?

First, Otto doubts he’ll be given a freezer drawer of his own. Less than half the height of the average cadaver, the morgue attendant will probably look at Otto and think, Why waste space? before sliding his corpse into the same drawer they keep the miscellaneous body parts — mysterious arms found in the woods or the odd foot that washes up out of the lake. Otto dreams of lying in cold steel drawers without a stitch of modesty, surrounded by random body parts.

His arms will present a challenge. Given a choice, Otto would prefer the morgue attendant fold them across his chest, giving himself a comforting embrace and avoiding his fingers coming in contact with those strange body parts, but he doubts his handlers will treat him to such a poetic, borderline spiritual arrangement. Most likely, his mismatched arms will be stretched along his sides — the gnarled left arm coming to rest at his waist, and the bamboo-thin right arm reaching all the way to his kneecap. Assuming, of course, the morgue is able to lay him on his back. That could be tricky.

At the rate his back continues to hunch, Otto expects to celebrate his 40th with a spinal curvature the size of a basketball. When his chin is pushing into his chest, will the morgue lay him on his side like a dead ox, or worse, on his stomach, with his lips mashed against the steel floor and his fat, hairy ass the first thing to greet whoever opens the drawer? Just one final, embarrassing spectacle.

“First of all,” his fiancée, Olivia, said, setting her wine glass onto the restaurant’s elegant tablecloth. “They don’t throw a bunch of random body pieces into a morgue drawer. That’s sick. And I’m sure it’s illegal.”

This did not reassure Otto. He had read about deals cut between hospitals and funeral homes, where medical waste such as amputated arms and legs were taken off the surgeon’s hand by funeral directors, who slipped the extra appendages into coffins prior to burial.

“Just think,” Otto said. “A thousand years from now archaeologists could discover an old cemetery and say, ‘Holy cow! They were walking around with three legs back then!’”

Otto’s entire life, people gawked over his appearance. Why expect better treatment after death? He knew his postmortem caretakers wouldn’t be able to resist showing him off. Doctors would make their way down to the morgue under the guise of small talk, and say, “Oh, I understand Mr. MacDougall was brought down last night,” and with a conspiratorial wink the attendant would roll open the drawer and cast a spotlight on Otto’s misshapen remains, tangled buck naked all in a heap. The situation might be tolerable, a bit of unprofessional courtesy between two professionals, but Otto knew the opportunity would go to the attendant’s head and relishing their small window of popularity they would start calling nurses, security guards, maybe even cafeteria workers, and rolling out his bones again and again to give everyone a cheap look.

Hijinks would ensue. Otto didn’t believe the pranksters would be so bold as to snap pictures, but he could see some wag putting sunglasses on him and sticking a cigar in his mouth. Maybe even plopping one of those Mickey Mouse ear hats on his head.

“Otto, stop it! Can you listen to how ridiculous you sound? I mean, in what morgue do you think they have a pair of Mickey Mouse ears lying around?”

The skeleton in Dr. Janowski’s practice, Otto reminded Olivia, wore one of those Mickey Mouse hats.

“Dr. Janowski is 80 years old. He will be gone a long time before you, so you don’t have to worry about him bringing his Mickey Mouse ears to joke it up at the morgue. And I think he would be really hurt if he heard you say that.”

Otto speared his steak with his short arm and reached for the serrated knife with his long one. “He doesn’t strike me as overly sensitive.” Dr. Janowski’s bedside manner rated little better than a cranky supermarket checker. Otto had seen more than one patient leave his examination room in tears.

Olivia stood on her chair and reached across the candle-lit table for Otto’s hand. The adjacent diners watched them, likely thinking patronizingly about how lovely it was the two little people had found one another. Otto suspected one texting woman was actually snapping a surreptitious picture to slap on her Facebook. “I promise sweetie-feetie, I’ll make sure no one takes advantage of your body after you’re gone.”

 

 

A week later, Otto received a late-night summons to Olivia’s apartment.

“I can’t figure it out. Look and tell me what you think.”

Although unaccustomed to deciphering the hieroglyphics of a home pregnancy test, Otto took the stick from Olivia, ashamed by the faint voice in the back of his mind urging, Don’t forget to wash your hands after!

The window of the test displayed two blue lines sandwiching a pink dot. The image looked to Otto like a stick-figure man drowning; only his head visible above the surface, red with panic, while his arms flailed above his head. Otto shared this man’s sense of doom.

Otto shook the test like a thermometer, but the image did not settle. “What are we looking at?”

“I’m not sure. The box says two blue lines means positive and a red dot means negative.”

“Give me the instructions.”

“Some tests don’t use pictures. They just say, ‘You are pregnant,’ but the cashier didn’t think they were as good as this one.”

“Why is the cashier butting in about what kind of test you buy?”

“Excuse me, I’ve never bought one before. I took a couple different ones to the counter and asked which she thought was the best. You’re allowed to do that.”

He pictured Olivia in the middle of the bright pharmacy aisle, dwarfed by the shelves, picking different brands of pee sticks for examination, squeezing them to test their ripeness, and then walking through the store with a whole armload for everyone to gawk at.

“You ask the pharmacist. The cashier doesn’t know anything.” Otto crumpled the shoddy, generic packaging. “Look at this. She told you to buy the store brand. No wonder it doesn’t work.”

Olivia smoothed the box and removed the second test. “It’s not the store brand. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m going to try again.”

 

 

As soon as possible, Olivia and Otto met with Dr. Janowski for what Olivia termed “a proper rabbit test.”

Otto was surprised anyone still used the term “rabbit test.” The procedure was

already obsolete by the 1950s, replaced by the “frog test.” After injecting a woman’s urine into a rabbit, the rabbit had to be killed in order to examine its ovaries to determine if the woman was pregnant, but the frog got to live, as the woman’s pregnancy was determined if the frog lay eggs immediately or not. The change wasn’t about ceasing animal cruelty but practicality. One rabbit was only good for one test, but a doctor could use the same frog over and over again. Unfortunately, frogs were not cute and fuzzy, which was why “rabbit test” succeeded in becoming the euphemism. Made sense. Otto couldn’t imagine a home pregnancy kit using a cartoon frog as their mascot, but wouldn’t be surprised to find one with an anthropomorphic rabbit on the box.

Olivia lay on the paper sheeted examination table, covered by a child’s polka-dot gown. Otto waited in the corner, trying to ignore the gaze of Dr. Janowski’s skeleton, wearing its Mickey Mouse ears and grinning like an imbecile.

“Are the two of you trying to have a baby?” Dr. Janowski asked.

“God no!” Otto regretted his response, which he recognized sounded more tactless than truthful.

“No,” Olivia said, salving the moment with a bit of dignity. “We’re not trying to have a baby just yet.”

“The two of you are regularly sexual active?”

Olivia giggled. “Yes. It’s not like I had a couple too many cocktails at dinner and Otto decided this was his big chance.”

“And if you are pregnant would it be welcome news?”

“Again, it would be premature, but we’ve decided a family is in the cards.”

Otto frowned. Maybe Olivia made flippant decisions about having children, but without consulting him first. For Otto, discussion of kids took place in the far away land of “What if we won the lottery?” or “If you could sleep with one celebrity, who would it be?” He didn’t want to ask in front of Dr. Janowski, but Otto didn’t even know if Olivia was capable of carrying a child. For all he knew, a baby would tear out of her before the ninth month like a watermelon through a paper bag.

“Let’s see if you get your period first. The amniocentesis can’t take place until —”

“No,” Olivia said. “We aren’t doing that.”

Dr. Janowski smiled and patted her knee. “I think it’s best if we all wait a little. Not wanting to upset you, but even if the egg has been implanted it is not uncommon this early for it to be flushed out, appearing like a late period. Many women have that happen without ever knowing they were pregnant. Women not as vigilant as yourself.”

Otto drove them home. Olivia stayed quiet most of the trip.

“I get the impression the idea I’m pregnant bothers you.”

“It’s a bit of a shock. I mean what, we get to be the two percent with condom failure?” He wanted to insinuate foul play on her part, itching for provocation to air his conspiracy theories about pin holes in the rubber, but he knew saying such a thing would be unforgivable.

“Are you unhappy I’m pregnant?”

“You don’t even know you’re pregnant yet. For real.”

Tears leapt from Olivia’s eyes like the first spurt out of a garden hose. She held them back since the doctor’s office, but once Otto pulled his finger out of the dike, they sprung free.

Otto tried to beat the red light but failed. Caught at the intersection, some blowhard with a Bluetooth stared at them, probably describing to his friend the two midgets in the next lane, one of them crying her eyes out while the other gritted his teeth like a psychopath.

Otto felt ashamed of himself, treating Olivia no better than Dr. Janowski. Maybe he ought to set up practice in the empty examination room next to the old crumb. Between the two of them, no patient would escape the violation of Hippocrates’ first rule.

“Would it be so terrible, for me to have a baby?”

“Right now? Yeah, it would.”

“It would be nine months. The baby isn’t going to come this week.”

“I’m too old to be a father.”

“Seriously? Thirty-two is not too old, and I don’t feel like my ovaries have turned to stone.”

“I’m getting wrinkles around my eyes. I’m losing my hair …”

Olivia laughed, a series of involuntary snorts made louder by her mucus. “You think anyone looks at you and says, Wow, he’s bald? You’re short, your arms are messed up, you’re all hunched over, and you’re vain about your hairline?” She put a hand to her chest. “You gotta be putting me on.”

Rather than feeling diminished, Otto relished Olivia’s blunt assessment of his physicality. She was more truthful than tactless. He flipped the sun visor and used the mirror to brush his hair over his forehead, checking out the widening crater of scalp taking over the top of his head. She was right, all things considered, crow’s feet and male pattern baldness were small fries to be concerned about.

“Besides,” Olivia said, “If you think you’re getting old now then what’s the sense in waiting?”

Risking death in case of a collision, Otto cast off his seatbelt and pulled Olivia into his long arm. The light changed, but they idled, wasting gas, blocking the lane. Angry cars pulled around them, the drivers hitting their horns, a few gesturing obscenely, but Otto pretended to be oblivious to the spectacle he had created, unconcerned the entire time that people were staring at them.

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