No one wants to see death in their rearview mirror. The guy in the Honda in front of me does a double-take as I roll up behind him. I’m driving your average white plumber’s special, save for the all-caps lettering on the front and the sides and maybe a body in the back. This guy is more dramatic than most; he mouths “oh” into the mirror before hitting the blinker and moving over to the slow lane.
“Steve, you scared that citizen to death, man,” says Jose. We burst out laughing. It’s an old joke, but it cracks us up every time.
“That’ll teach him to dawdle in the fast lane.” Jose is the investigator and is riding shotgun today. I’m the attendant – the muscle. He keeps fiddling with a new tattoo on his forearm, the skin irritated and red. He says it’s his son’s name, but I can’t make it out because it’s in that gangbanger gothic script like some Old English calligraphy on crack. My brother, Trey, has ink like that.
In the old days, whenever he was trying to get clean in rehab, Trey would always wear long sleeve t-shirts. All day and all night. “Tats be loud, bruh,” he’d say. “Got to keep ‘em covered up.”
We pull up to a Day’s Inn in Long Beach. Jose glances at the building and says, “Thank God for air conditioning, Batman!” Jose says we’re superheroes. He once got loose after beer and barbeque and went off on the superhero thing, “We defend those who can no longer defend themselves. We speak for those who can’t.”
We fist bump and grab our gear. Once, we rolled up to some roach motel during the hottest day of the year. We found an overdose who’d been cooking in the sheets for days. I almost passed out wearing a Tyvek suit and respirator. For now, we look like janitors except for the badass black windbreakers with the lettering on the back. Tonight, when I get home, I’ll leave my shoes outside in the garage. I’ve got a toddler who still picks up Cheerios from the floor.
Later, we’re headed into skid row to pick up some homeless guy when the call comes through that it’s a false alarm – the guy passed out, and some rookie cop jumped the gun. “Pansy didn’t bother to check for a pulse, I bet,” says Jose. “Didn’t want to touch him.” We’re already deep into the neighborhood, though, so I do a slow cruise around a couple of blocks of homeless humanity, looking. Jose knows the routine and passes the time playing with an unlit cigarette.
“Heard from your brother?” says Jose.
I give up once we pass Baby Jesus. We don’t know his real name. He’s standing on a crate, spewing obscenities at the top of his lungs. His voice fades as we roll past. “What’s he bitchin’ about now, Steve?”
“I don’t know. But for sure, God’s to blame.”
It’s cooler, so I roll down the window and stick my hand into the breeze. Back at the morgue, there’s a photo of Trey taped to the inside of my locker. I look at it every day. I’m afraid I’ll forget what he looks like. I thought I saw him behind Baby Jesus on the corner. There was that tilt of the head, a familiar gait that made me gasp. But the dude turned around, and it wasn’t him. If we come face to face, I hope that it’s him that recognizes me first rather than the other way around.
David Lanvert is a management consultant and published author who lives with his wife in Southern California.