I was pumped. I got a call to head up to a pickup at Wasco State Prison, just north of Bakersfield. This is a 120-mile run each way; it meant I would be occupied for more than half the day, most of it spent on the long stretch of freeway in between. Some people hate long drives, but not me. For me, it was a five-hour holiday from the grit of the city. It was a chance to listen to some music, be alone with my thoughts, and watch one dusty town flick past after another, separated by seemingly endless stretches of agriculture. Except for loading and unloading, I could forget about death for half a day. Ordinarily, I never get these assignments; my boss prefers keeping me crawling the city all day, so that I am close at hand if he needs something. However, we were short-staffed on this particular day, so he called me into the office to explain the mission.
“Just a straight run, there and back”, he told me. “Carlos will cover for you while you’re gone”
“Carlos?? Those poor bodies…” Carlos was a nice enough guy, a round, middle-aged man with seven children, but he was also extremely clumsy. He had once famously lost control of a gurney in front of a hospital on Sunset Blvd., spilling a corpse onto the street in front of horrified tourists and their children. (“Look, shit happens”, he said in the office afterwards, “It’s not like I was trying to traumatize a bunch of kids”) Another time, he had accidentally left a loaded gurney on a hospital elevator. The doors had closed while he was fiddling with his shoe or something, and the elevator went straight to the visitor lobby. Nothing like bringing flowers to grandma in the hospital and being greeted by an unattended corpse. I was going to suggest sending him instead and keeping me on the beat, but 5 hours of freeway time was the closest I had come to a vacation in months, and I wasn’t going to give it away.
“I need someone reliable on this one”, came the reply. “Take the Caddy”
This was almost too good to be true. Usually a prison run would be done in our plain white Chevy van; the gleaming, daily-washed Cadillac hearse was kept nearby for funerals and burials. I was halfway out the door when the catch came:
“The wife will be following you in her car. So you’re not going to be a speed demon out there, and you’re going to make sure you don’t become separated”
The anticipated fun of the day deflated like a rotten balloon. Spending a day tethered to a client is the worst. Making sure a car doesn’t lose me for four hours of turns and red lights also takes all the fun out of driving. It was highly irregular to be accompanied on a pickup by a client anyway, and I launched a feeble protest.
“Does she really have to go too? I mean, you know we never–”
“She’s a pain in the ass, and she’s insisting. So, just do it.”
So, I took the keys and went to the reception area. There, a woman of about 50 was waiting. Given that her husband was in prison, I was expecting an edgy character. But she was a stylish, well-groomed 50; you could tell right away she had both money and flair. She was dressed casually in jeans and blouse, and wearing sunglasses that she never removed all day. I muttered my condolences, and we walked out to the vehicles.
She was a good driver, I was glad about that. She never lost me once, followed on all the turns, made every light. We traveled up the 101 freeway at a steady 60MPH the whole way. It turned out to be almost as good as driving alone; it let my mind wander, which was the whole appeal of the ride in the first place. I thought about Bakersfield, and Buck Owens, and the ramshackle, tumbleweed towns in its vicinity. I thought about Chloe, the assistant funeral director, and rumors that she had been banging one of the licensed directors in one of the mausoleums. I didn’t want to believe that was true, but such goings on were known to happen, and Chloe was the type they often happened to. I thought about prison, and what a raw deal it is to be imprisoned, and vowed in my mind to nobody that I would never spend a day locked up if I ever went off my nut and did something crazy; too many other options exist. I wondered what the case’s last moments were, when his heart attack struck. Did he curse the four walls around him? Did he feel himself transcending the cell, and guard towers, and barbed wire in his last conscious thought? Or, was it a hell to die in such squalor, something to carry into eternity?
Wasco, the town, had experienced something of a population boom in the last two decades. It had gone from a dingy-looking purgatory of browned palm trees and sun-bleached clapboard houses to a clean, cookie-cutter community of cheap-looking new homes with two-car driveways and struggling lawns and fast food outlets with Spanish-tiled roofs. It is largely in what had been Indian country, but the Indians had been overrun by a suspiciously two dimensional facade of suburbia. Its main distinctive feature was how everything is decorated with pictures of roses; half of all the roses in America are grown on the outskirts of town. Wasco’s population had risen to 25,000; 8,000 call the State prison home.
When we arrived at the prison, we were directed to a narrow road that took us in back of the medical building, where there was a little two-space mini-morgue. The wife seemed poised to march right in behind me into the morgue, and I told her to wait outside. She did, but stood immediately outside of the door that separated the morgue area from the outside, where I could see her silhouette against the bright sun through the ample crack in the door.
A surprisingly cheery young female attendant brought the case down on a stainless steel cart. “He’s a mess!”, she announced cheerfully.
“Shhh!” I said in a hoarse whisper. “His wife is right outside the door!”
“What did you bring her for?” asked the attendant accusingly, like I was an idiot for bringing her.
“Never mind that, just help me get him on the gurney” He really wasn’t such a mess, fortunately, this kid was still wet behind the ears, she had no idea what a real mess is. He had the incontinence problem all corpses have, but he had been freshly hosed off. He was still kind of leaky though, and we rolled him into two sheets instead of just one. I looked at his face; he seemed to be in his late 50’s, mustached, seemed like a nice enough guy.
“What was he in for?” I asked her.
“I dunno”, she said. “I think it was a drugs and weapons thing. He’s been here four years”
We got him stowed securely on the gurney, and as I swung open the door, I almost ran over the wife.
“Can I see him?” she asked me. The answer was supposed to be no, not until we get back to the funeral home. However, I could not find the steely resolve in me to tell a wife she could not see her husband.
“Just a quick look” I told her. “It’s against the rules”. I pulled back the sheet a little and stepped back.
“Oh, baby…” she said to him, her eyes welling up. She caressed his cheek in only the way a woman who is in love can, and she kissed his forehead. “Okay”, she told me, and I covered him back up. “We were married for 23 years”, she told me, and composing herself, she walked back to her car. I rolled him into the back of the hearse, and it was back on the road for us. The hard part of the journey finished, I found myself back in holiday mode; I still had a two-and-a-half hour trip back to the city ahead, and by the time I got there it would be quitting time.
As I passed through Bakersfield, I decided to find a country music station on the radio, since it was my five-hour holiday, after all. That’s what Bakersfield is all about, isn’t it? To my surprise, it was harder than I thought. Pop stations and Spanish stations cluttered the dial. I eventually found one, but it wasn’t playing Bakersfield country, it was playing bluegrass. Ralph Stanley’s version of “O Death” to be precise; it is funny how the universe fucks with us that way.