Vito Elan lived alone with a cat and a constant emptiness in his heart. He was a homely man of twenty-seven who never had any success with women. He went on dates and the women asked, “What do you do for a living?” When he told them, that was it. Transporting dead bodies to funeral homes is not a turn-on for most women.
It was too bad, because he had a lot to say. He was of Italian heritage and knew about fine art and he loved opera. None of the women he met cared about any of that after he told them he was a body removal man. So he lived with his cat Lucia and ate TV dinners with the six o’clock news team.
One evening, as he was about to sit down to his nightly meal, he received a phone call from a funeral home to pick up a body. He needed the work. Business was slow. People were living too long, especially in South Florida.
Funeral homes hired him to pick up the dead from nursing homes, private homes, hospitals and the morgue. He charged $99.50 a body, plus $25 for every thirty minutes wait time, which was extremely reasonable. Some people in the body removal business charged astronomical fees. He collected an average of 200 bodies a year, making for an annual income of just over $20,000. He wasn’t going to get rich on that. At least the house was his, inherited from his parents who died in a car accident on the Everglades Parkway when he was seventeen.
Suddenly Vito had to fend for himself. The owner of the funeral home that handled his parents took him in as an apprentice embalmer. That led to his own business of bringing in the dead. The overhead was low. All you needed to start out was a van and a stretcher. The only mandatory requirements were a state license and some rudimentary community disease training. Vito took that training very seriously.
The phone call that evening was from the Limbaugh Funeral Home in Fort Lauderdale, which instructed him to collect the body of one Anna Beach from a private hospital in Hallandale and transport it to the funeral home. Vito put his uneaten TV dinner in the refrigerator, donned a white jacket and wheeled his personal private stretcher to his van. He drove to the hospital.
He wheeled the stretcher inside. Anna Beach was propped up in bed with a sheet covering her to the neck. He usually transported old people, but here was a beautiful young woman. Her face reminded him of Botticelli’s Venus.
No death certificate was needed for a body to be picked up and taken to a funeral home, but Vito asked, out of curiosity, when she had died. The assistant administrator of the private hospital, a man named Morton Riga, told him a nurse found no vital signs in Miss Beach between four-thirty and five that afternoon. Riga then phoned the funeral home.
“Miss Beach?” said Vito. “No husband?”
“No immediate family at all,” said Riga. “Just a distant cousin who had her admitted here six months ago and paid the bills from somewhere in New York.”
“What did she die of?”
“Leukemia,” said Riga.
Vito looked closely at the deceased. “She appears to be of normal color,” he told Riga.
“Well, whatever,” said Riga, who was eager to fill Miss Beach’s bed.
Vito took from his jacket pocket a stethoscope, which he carried on the job, leaned toward Miss Beach and pressed the stethoscope against the side of her neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” inquired Riga. “She’s dead. Kindly remove her.”
“Yes, of course,” Vito said, straightening up and returning the stethoscope to his pocket.
Riga helped him lift the body onto the stretcher.
Miss Beach was dressed in a loose-fitting nightgown, the front of which fell to one side, exposing her left breast. Riga and Vito glanced at each other and tried to conceal their interest. Vito then covered her entire body with his own white sheet and strapped her to the stretcher.
Without another word to Riga, he wheeled the stretcher out to his van. He opened the rear doors, rolled the stretcher forward, collapsing the front wheels against the rear bumper, and slid it into the back. He closed the doors of the van and went around to the driver’s seat. He started the engine and drove out of the driveway.
He didn’t drive to the funeral home. He drove to his own home. His heart was racing.
When he arrived at his house, he pulled the stretcher from the back of the van and wheeled it to the back door of the house. He pushed it inside. Lucia the cat watched darkly as he parked the stretcher in the living room and proceeded to untie the straps around the body. He pulled away the white sheet. He took out his stethoscope and held it to the young woman’s neck, as he had done in the private hospital.
“There’s muscle action in the neck and face,” he said to Lucia by way of explanation. “She’s above normal temperature and circulation is showing signs of movements to all parts of her body. And you want to know something else, Lucia?” The cat didn’t want to know anything else. “Her nasal passage shows slight movement from respiration.”
He spun around and announced: “This woman is still alive!”
That was enough for Lucia. She removed herself to a saner room.
Vito lifted Miss Beach from the stretcher and lay her on the sofa, her blond head resting on a cushion. He rubbed her feet. He pressed two fingers beneath her left breast to feel for a heartbeat. His own pulse raced. He leaned forward and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
They did everything together that night, everything he had ever dreamed of doing with a woman. They listened to opera, told amusing stories about their lives theretofore, had antipasto and red wine and kissed with passion and need. And, finally, gloriously, made love.
They were lying in each other’s arms. He looked at her, all of her, fully naked, the golden hair, the slender throat, breasts as delicate as dying birds, the white, virginal legs. She was not pretty in a conventional sense, but there was a quality there, possibly beautiful, clearly mystical. “Pale and interesting,” as she herself had said.
She said nothing now. Her eyes were closed and her lips parted slightly as though she was about to say hello to someone.
Her body grew cold.
Originally published in the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine