Green milk curdled: ash and smoke dumplings in ham and pea soup. Cigar and pipe smoke wafted against white fluorescence, hovered like the slow and fat flies near the entrance to the Tijuana coroner's office where I had spent most of the week watching autopsies, then trying to sleep. The nearly complete charring of a 12-year-old boy was a feature of what dreams I managed. That was well over 12 years ago and never fully enough forgotten, journeyman journalist's unpleasant dues. The doctors would break and smoke their pungent Mexican and Cuban tobaccos in the lighted doorway, the lights themselves covered with dead insects, nicotine, and dust from the road. The odor no longer plagued them, and the smoking seemed to be a hangover from younger days in the forensics facility. Back then, I remember thinking Mexico is a good place to die. It seems so much more a part of things here than a few miles north, where it only happens to actors, who get up and walk away. The Day of the Dead; it seems only right that they should have their say one day of the year, a day to think about that day we'll join them.
It is the perfect holiday for the morbid little kid I was and the shot-out geezer I am. Still, it would never fly up here. No one dies in America; everyone knows that. It is the worst that can happen, no? That is the unspoken thing, paradoxical in a place with so many exceptions; like the Ice Follies and John Denver on CD.
Memories of the Mexican dead are what accompany my thoughts on November second each year: the woman with a purse of chicken fat around her heart on the table, her chest pried open with heavy metal teeth. "Too much grease," the examiner had said.
And the boy, burned beyond recognition, looking like charcoal driftwood. "Every winter they burn whatever they can on the hillsides in the colonias to keep warm. There are always fires." Then there was the man with the top of his skull removed, his brain in a suspended tray for weighing. The brain was browned, as if it had been sautéed. "Alcohol," was the sole pronouncement. Or, "drugs"; and here the doctor was pointing to five bullet wounds in the side of an 18-year-old boy and through one palm, as if the lad had turned away from a pointed gun, his arm upraised to ward off the shot during a drug deal. Ten million ways to die in Tijuana, and here were some of the representatives, illustrations.
Of course, I picture my own death. I always have. I said I was a morbid kid. I enacted my death for the entertainment of my friends as I plummeted from rooftops onto mattresses, clutching a toy arrow to my gut. Or breathing my last after a shoot-out, "The gold...it's in the.. . " Now I envision it far more realistically, the curse of years of rehearsal. I am in a hospital bed; my midsection around my liver is swollen as if I had swallowed a basketball. I am begging God's forgiveness and asking a friend to pull the plug, kill me, as a friend once asked me to do, an alcoholic that died too young. Or I could easily go out beneath an oxygen tent gasping like a beached flounder, grabbing at fistfuls of imagined air and gathering only bed sheets in my bony white fingers. Even more likely is a "cardiac event," which might bring the curtain down with merciful alacrity or leave me drooling, mumbling, paralyzed, whining at a nurse with a kind of gravelly lockjaw, "Matlock. I want to watch Matlock!"
Death is more a vehicle for comedy to me than it is for horror, though it does have that vital ingredient of the mundane, or at least its first definition in the Oxford American: "dull or routine." Mundane's second definition may or may not fit, depending on your beliefs, and that is, "worldly, not spiritual."
Weirdsmith Arthur Machen in the last century defined horror more or less in The White People, when he wrote, "What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?"
Which brings us back to John Denver in the Ice Follies, John Denver dead and in The Ice Follies.