The guy is living and walking around with his head separated. It’s on a table. The decapitated head looks bad. Really bad. You have to massage it. That’s your first day as a volunteer at the hospital. Someone put you up to this. You have to rub the decapitated head’s temples and listen to it groan with pleasure. Or is it pain? You don’t know. You’re a volunteer physical therapist with living dead people. Hanging out with them in the game room.
They said at intake, “A lot of people don’t stick with this work. It’s hard. It takes a special type of person to work with these patients. We really need to know you’re serious about this job and in it for the long haul.”
“Oh I’m serious,” you say. “My mother worked with the dead and I’m not easily put off by it. I understand these patients need help. I’m not squeamish.”
You show up for one week and never go back. You’re a liar. You never intended to stick around.
It’s like the time you volunteered as a literacy fellow to work with that retarded guy who will never in his life know how to read. His name was Harry. You did it to take video of his struggles and laugh. You were allowed to be alone with him in a room. You brought Harry explicit erotic romance to try to read and made videos on your phone of him spitting out the words with no idea of what he was saying. Then you anonymously put those videos on the internet. You didn’t even ask for money for it. It’s volunteer work after all. No one wanted to do it so they were eager to have you when you signed up.
But the hospital for the dead is something else. You put down a fake name. A fake address. Something they check on but you figured out how to make it through the measures. You infiltrated the hospital’s security. Background checks. Interviews. You laid it on thick.
The guy’s head from across the room looks mummified and Chinese. Or Mongolian. The face looks like the inside of a golf ball, all stretched strappy fibers of tendons. The body moves around separated from it and a nurse watches over you in the room with it. You move towards it and it watches you through ragged slits. There’s a lot of people in here. Some of them might be dead. They’re not zombies. They can have involved conversations with you. But it’s like talking to serial killers behind bars. Your goal is to tape one of them talking about the afterlife. You’re forbidden to ask them such questions but if you can get alone with one of the dead you can ask it. Ask it whatever you want. They’ll answer. They keep offering and the nurse silences them.
You have to wash a burnt woman. She’s all black, charcoal. She doesn’t say anything. Just lays in her back and stares up out of a crushed face like a stepped-on box of cereal. You have to sponge her melted breasts and flip her over and wash her crack. It’s like every job as a volunteer is touching these dead people. This is the job no one wants. Holding their hands and helping them walk down a hall. A dead kid you put up on a balancing beam and catch him over and over because he falls off. You can feel his lifelessness in your hands from his armpits, from catching him all day. He says he wants to go outside for a walk. You tell him that’s not allowed. Dead people can’t go outside of the hospital doors. They’re locked.
That first week you just go home to your house and get fucked up. It’s hard to get that chill of death off you. It’s hard to forget those people. Over and over again you just see the guy with his eyelids turned inside out and you take another drink. It’s like how images are burnt into a TV screen if you look at them too long.
Other volunteers are there at the hospital who are legitimately there to help. Who are they? A sad but pretty older woman, Janice, you end up having coffee with down the block from the hospital. She opens up fast. Janice tells a story of how when she was a kid and abandoned by her parents there was someone who showed up to help her. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Bob.” Bob just passed away so Janice is sad. You think about saying, “Let’s go back to my place and just tear all our clothes off, Janice.” But you don’t.
You get some pretty funny footage of dead people crying because they’re dead. They all seem really sad and don’t want to be there but they’re resigned. It’s hard to get them to talk about why and either they change the subject—like they know they’re not supposed to talk about it—or the nurse enters the room and everybody hushes up.
One day you just don’t go in to work. You’re a volunteer. You didn’t give them your real number so they can’t call you and ask where you are. You’re a volunteer. Volunteers don’t step to attention when their non-boss snaps his fingers. You excuse yourself from it all. It’s a generational thing. You imagine yourself telling them, if they ever caught up with you, “I can’t volunteer anywhere anymore. I have to make money.” The guy from the website pays you $100 for each video of the weeping dead people. Only two are usable. Still, that’s cash money. The website guy says he would have given you a couple thousand for the afterlife testimony. Maybe you can go back, figure out a way to make up a story.
You’re at a nightclub a couple nights after you get paid, spending your money, when you see her. Janice. At the bar. What’s she doing here? You think about avoiding her but she sees you. She looks different. “Hey,” she says.
It’s not long until she tells you, “You were right.”
“I was right? About what?”
“Leaving the hospital,” she says over the noise of the club. “I quit today. You gave me the courage.”
“That’s good.” You’re trying to decide if she looks good in this lighting. “It was kind of a drag,” you say. “I don’t think I’m cut out for that type of job.”
“And there were no career advancement opportunities,” Janice says.
You calculate what kind of impression it would make if you went back to work at the hospital, how it would look to Janice if you’d mouthed off about the hospital then went back there. But you don’t care.
You try to get her number but it turns into a thing where you end up going back to her place. You just need a hit of sex. But you end up sitting with her on her couch which is like a plush green fungus and watching half of a stand up comedy special. It’s an unoriginal female comic talking about raunchy shit and Janice laughs like an idiot but you don’t. It’s desperate. You put your hand on Janice’s knee and she doesn’t do anything. She keeps looking at the screen and you can see side of her face as she laughs at the stand up comedy special, all wrinkly around the eyes. A silent “now I got you.” It seems like she’s not in as much of a hurry as you are and that’s off putting. You want someone moving at the same speed as you not Janice in her sad old lady apartment with her comedy specials. It feels like a trap. You make up some shit about needing to work tomorrow and you go home. Fall asleep. Wake up to a text. From Janice. It says “Can I come over? I’ll bring Chinese.” It was a while ago. Maybe she forgot.
Resentfully you tap in your address as a reply. Might as well just go along with it. It’s hot in your room so you turn on the fan and go back to sleep on the couch. Janice is a redhead. Will you ever be able to see past those wrinkles? This will be a two week thing at the most, then put her out by the curb with the other recyclables. Bottles, cans, cardboard.
The dead man with the eyelids inside out is standing over you when you wake up on your couch. “I came to tell you what comes after. You’re not going to like it.”
“I thought you weren’t allowed out of the hospital unescorted,” you feel your lips say a hundred miles away.
“I have a night pass.”
Janice is lying on the floor with her head turned around on her neck to an impossible degree. The fan was in the window—now it’s on the floor, not blowing on you anymore—