Oh Muerte, ¿Donde Esta la Espatula?

The main thing you need to know about me is that I love eating more than anything else in the world. More than sex, more than tropical vacations, more than reading, more than any drug I’ve ever tried. I’m not fat—I’m actually quite slender—but I can’t take credit for any kind of willpower or exercise regimen. The truth is, I’m not fat because I only finish eating things that are really, really good, and there just aren’t that many of them in my opinion. I love eating, as I say, but I’m picky as hell. A French pastry, ethereal manifestation of butter, custard, and chocolate, designed like a little piece of modern architecture? I’m there. A slice of cold pizza? I might nibble at it until my hunger headache goes away, but no more.

So, for the tale I’m about to relate, this food-love is the central fact of my being. I have a job (coroner of New Orleans), five purebred Oriental Shorthair cats, a mixed-breed husband (Irish and Jewish; wire-haired; his name is Reginald, but I never thought that suited him, so I call him Seymour), a house, and a hell of a lot of books, but none of that is terribly important here. What’s important is that you understand how much I love to eat.

All right—the fact that I am the coroner of New Orleans is somewhat important too, but I don’t want to put you off right away. Just store that information for future reference.

People think New Orleans is a world-class food city. Possibly it is, but only in a very narrow sense. There’s a saying that we have a lot of great food but only about five recipes. Gumbo—etouffee—jambalaya—oysters Rockefeller—and I don’t even know what the fifth one is supposed to be. Maybe breaded, deep-fried seafood, because we certainly have plenty of that. I see arteries full of it on my tables every day.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. There are, in fact, a lot of good restaurants here. But most of them … well, did you ever see that episode of “Frasier” where Frasier asks Niles, “What’s the one thing better than a flawless meal?” and Niles answers, “A great meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night”? Most of the places here are like that, except the flaws aren’t tiny. I can easily think of twenty places with excellent appetizers, terrific entrees, and dessert lists dull enough to plunge me into despair (apple tart, bread pudding, the eternal Death By Chocolate). There’s a good French restaurant on Magazine Street where, even though I always pay with my credit card, the waiters refuse to acknowledge my existence—“May I clear that for you, sir?” they say, gazing lovingly at Seymour as they whisk away my salad plate. There’s a simple neighborhood place where they used to have perfect fried chicken livers, but they hired a new fry cook, and now (no matter how I beg) the lovely little livers resemble nothing so much as deep-fried pencil erasers. I don’t even want to talk about who and what you have to know to get a decent meal at the old-line venues like Antoine’s.

There are problems everywhere. I eat at these restaurants anyway, and most of the time I enjoy them, but there is only one place where I know I can count on a flawless meal, without peer: Devlin Lemon’s little restaurant in the Garden District. It’s called the Lemon Tree and decorated with wrought iron baskets full of bright yellow lemons with their leaves still attached. In lesser hands it could have some serious cuteness issues. In Devlin’s hands, you just want to prostrate yourself on the cerulean carpet and cry, “Feed me, you eponymous, lemon-stacking, brilliant fool.” Or at least I do.

Devlin came from the frozen North with a Culinary Institute of America degree and a love for local ingredients. Anything that passes through his hands—a steak, a lobe of Hudson Valley foie gras, an unpasteurized French cheese—Is likely to come out tasting good, but he has always reached the apex of his talent with Louisiana ingredients: Gulf fish, artichokes, Creole tomatoes, andouille and tasso, cane syrup, even mirlitons. I’ve never met another cook who could make a mirliton taste like anything but a sweaty sock. Devlin bakes them with shrimp, garlic, and a shocking amount of butter until they release a hitherto untold sweetness.

(All right, you nitpicking foodies. Yes, I am talking to you. I know you’ve been squirming since you read the words “unpasteurized French cheese,” and I am quite aware that these ambrosial creations are legally forbidden to enter the country, let alone appear on a restaurant menu. The only thing I can say is all that’s on the menu is not always all you can eat, and a good chef takes care of his regulars.)

Devlin knows everything I like and hate to eat. He knows that I am genetically disposed to think cilantro tastes like soap and that I can’t stand cauliflower because it reminds me of certain cancers I see. He knows I will not eat amberjack under any circumstances; it was he who told me of the giant worms that lurk in its digestive tract. He knows how dearly I love sorrel, caviar, and clotted cream. At the Lemon Tree, I glance at the menu, but I usually end up telling my waitperson, “Ask Devlin what Dr. Brite should have today.”

Lest you get the wrong idea, nothing has ever “happened,” as they say, between us. We are both happily married. Any intimacy between me and Devlin is purely about his feeding and my eating.

It was May, close enough to my birthday that I had begun to wonder whether Devlin might find me something special—some Iranian caviar, perhaps, or some really fresh white truffles. I’ve never considered having my birthday dinner anywhere but the Lemon Tree, and some celebratory tidbit almost always finds its way onto the table.

I was at work in the basement of the big stone building at the corner of Tulane and Broad, where I spend a large part of my life. I’d spent the morning posting a young man killed in an automobile accident near the Calliope housing project (gross cranial trauma) and a fat old lady who died in her sleep (coronary event). I was beginning to think about lunch as my assistant wheeled out the last body that had come in the night before, a robbery victim who’d been shot in the head. I saw that the victim was wearing check-patterned chef’s pants and work boots, but did not find this surprising. Kitchen workers keep strange hours and are often (wrongly) thought to be carrying large amounts of cash. His shirt had already been removed.

At first, I could only see that he was a young white man. The gun had been small and his cranium was intact, but even a low-caliber bullet to the head can distort facial features beyond recognition. This is mainly because the hemorrhaging of the brain produces gases that force blood into the tissues, particularly those around the eyes. This man’s eyes were swollen shut and looked as if they had been smeared with heavy purple-black makeup. His lips were drawn rigidly across his teeth, and the teeth had dried blood on them. His hair was thickly crusted with blood; only a few clean strands told me that it had been strawberry-blonde. This may have been when the first breath of suspicion touched me, but if so, I did not notice it.

I parted the hair with my latex-gloved fingers. “Slightly stellate entry wound behind and below the right ear,” I said to my assistant, Jeffrey, who wrote it down. “Stippling of the tissue around the entry wound. No exit wound. The bullet’s still in there. What’s his name?”

“That’s a funny thing,” said Jeffrey. “I can’t find his report. I’m gonna have to call upstairs for the dupe.”

“Well, go do it, please. I’ll get him undressed.” I picked up a pair of scissors and began to cut his pants off. As I did, his left hand slipped off the table and hung over the edge; rigor had not completely stiffened him yet.

Something about that hand caught my eye: a black ink wedding band tattooed around the third finger. Many cooks don’t like to wear wedding rings because they can so easily get snagged or lost, so this kind of tattoo is common. Devlin had one. His was done in a distinctive crosshatched pattern, just like the one on this man’s hand.

I had opened one pants leg up to the crotch. Now I put the scissors down, moved to the head of the table, and looked carefully into the man’s face. A warm rush of adrenaline spread through the muscles of my back as I saw what I had not seen before. The eyeball protrusion, tissue infiltration, and rigor had disguised him, but they could not hide his identity completely.

I was supporting my entire weight on the edge of the table when Jeffrey came back. “I don’t have to call upstairs,” he said. “I found his paperwork on the floor in the cooler—Dr. Brite? What’s wrong?”

“I know him.”

“Oh, hell.”

“Let me see that paperwork.” I scanned the police report, but it told me nothing I didn’t already know: he had been shot in a robbery leaving the restaurant; he had been dead about eight hours; he was Devlin Lemon.

“I’m not posting him,” I said.

“Well, of course not. We’ll get Dr. Garrison to post him.”

“Nobody’s posting him,” I said.


“He can’t—I mean, we can’t—oh, God.” I bowed my head to hide the tears that stood in my eyes. Jeffrey had never seen me cry. No one at the morgue had ever seen me cry. I don’t socialize a great deal, but inevitably I had seen acquaintances on my tables before. I see everyone who dies in New Orleans. But none had affected me like this. I took a deep breath. “I have reason to suspect the presence of a communicable disease in this case,” I said. It was the only half-plausible reason I could think of to delay the autopsy. “I’m keeping the body here until further notice.”

“His family won’t like that. Getty said they were already talking about holding a wake.”

“I’ll talk to them. I have no choice, Jeffrey. If there’s a communicable disease involved, I can’t release the body yet.”

“Well, then, shouldn’t we take fluids?”

“Later,” I told him. “I need to… I need to read up on this. We may have to take special precautions.”

Jeffrey’s odd mint-green eyes met mine. He knew I was lying, and I knew that he knew. He trusted me, though; we worked well together. And he could see that I was rattled. He would drop the matter for now. “OK,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want me to ask Dr. Garrison to speak with the family when he comes in?”

“No. I’ll do it. I’ll call them after lunch. I’m going to have lunch now.”

I shut myself in my office just before the tears finally came. I curled up in my chair and hugged myself and cried. More than anything I wanted to call Seymour, but he and his brother were camping in Bogue Falaya for three days, unreachable.

Even if I could speak to Seymour, what would I say? I wasn’t sure I could own up to what was in my head right now. I wasn’t thinking of Devlin’s family, or his youth, or the fear he must have felt when his murderer pressed the gun’s muzzle against his skull. I wasn’t thinking of Devlin at all, not exactly. I was thinking of the last appetizer I’d eaten at the Lemon Tree, a disk of beef marrow melting into a fricassee of chanterelles, its flavor brightened by a persillade so finely chopped you could barely see it. I was remembering the scent and savor of this dish. I could only remember it; I could not taste it, for the taste of loss was too bitter in my mouth.

When I finally washed my face and went back into the autopsy room, Devlin was gone. Jeffrey had zipped him into a body bag and rolled him back into the cooler. Maybe he’d feel comfortable there, I thought. Except for the presence of corpses, it was a lot like the walk-in refrigerator in a restaurant.

Was I losing my mind? It had been years since I thought that way about a dead person—as if he could feel comfortable, or feel pain, or have an opinion about his surroundings. Cutting open one body, sawing off the top of its skull, folding its face down and lifting the brain from its moorings had gone a long way toward convincing me that the dead do not care what is done to them. Doing these things thousands of times left me no doubt. I treat them with respect because they still matter to the living, but I no longer imagine them “feeling comfortable.”

Now, though, I was.

I got through the rest of the day somehow. I even called Devlin’s wife, whom I’d met once or twice at the restaurant. >From the sound of her voice, I could tell she had been heavily tranquilized. She didn’t argue when I told her I would have to keep Devlin’s body for a few days. I expected to get a call from the wake-planning parents or siblings, but it didn’t come. I left the morgue in the early evening, as twilight was falling over the city, and drove home. There I tried to eat some dry crackers, gagged on them, and crawled into bed with the cats. A thin, sobbing, unearthly voice was trying to get me to hear it. “I’m hungry,” it kept telling the darkness. “I’m hungry.” It was trapped there, not knowing where it was or why. I tried to reply, but I could not form the words.

I wrenched myself awake, showered, and drove to the morgue hours before my next shift was scheduled to start. No one questioned my presence: they left me alone, assuming I had work to catch up on—which I did, in a way. I wheeled Devlin out of the cooler and slid him onto one of the tables, my back muscles knotting in protest. I ignored the pain. After measuring and photographing the bullet wound in his skull, I washed away the blood, used a disposable plastic razor to shave the hair around the area, and inserted a pair of long forceps into the hole. I was afraid that the bullet had ricocheted inside his skull, hiding itself among scrambled pieces of brain, but my forceps traveled a straight track to the region of his cerebellum and found metal. I pulled out a bloody bit of lead with a slightly flattened tip. I caught myself thanking God, or somebody, for my findings—his brain was not destroyed; the bullet had not shattered into fragments I would have to search out. What was I thinking? It didn’t matter how little damage had been done. Devlin was still dead.

I wondered what was happening to me as I triple-bagged the bullet, put it in a padded envelope, and left the building with it tucked under my arm. I might not lose my job if anyone found out about this, but only because I am a good liar and could probably come up with a plausible reason for my actions. In truth, I didn’t know what I was doing or why.

Usually Seymour brings me my coffee in bed, and I drink it with plenty of milk and sugar. This morning I drank it black in a Styrofoam cup from a gas station. Then I drove to the French Quarter, parked on Royal Street, and walked to St. Louis Cathedral. I was not raised Catholic and had never been to a Mass, but I’d lit candles here to ask for various small favors, and they had all been granted. I lit a candle now, stuffing a ten-dollar bill into the collection box, looking into the porcelain faces of Mary and her small son. Then I slid into a pew and sat there for a long time.

I did not pray, exactly. I didn’t know how. Instead I thought of marrow melting into chanterelles, of whole roasted snapper with wild-rice-stuffed figs, of fresh sweet Gulf shrimp on a bed of crispy fried spinach. I tried to remember everything Devlin had ever cooked for me, and as I did so, I slid my hand into the padded envelope and clutched the bullet in its triple layer of plastic.

I felt a little better when I came out of the cathedral. By noon, Jackson Square would be full of tacky fortunetellers, bad musicians, and ugly tourists, but right now it was peaceful. My good mood lasted until I went back to work, looked in the cooler, and saw Devlin there. His face had begun to look haggard from dehydration, and the bullet that had been in his head was now in its padded envelope under the front seat of my car. Nothing else had changed. I don’t know what I expected. If prayers could cause the dead to get up and walk away, I would have been out of work long ago.

“You look sick,” said Jeffrey. “I swear you’ve lost weight since yesterday.”


“Why don’t you go home? Dix and I can handle things here.”

“I’m fine,” I said. But after lunch—which I could not eat—I felt worse than ever. “Do you really think you and Dix would be all right if I went home?” I asked Jeffrey.

“Absolutely. Get out of here and get some rest. And some food,” he called after me. “Get yourself a hot meal.”

“I’m trying,” I muttered as I got into my car. Though it was only April, temperatures were already in the eighties, and I wondered if I was really picking up the dark rich smell of the blood on the bullet under my seat.

I did not go straight to my destination. Instead I stopped at a nice restaurant on St. Charles Avenue and attempted to have lunch. There was nothing wrong with any of the food I ordered, but it all seemed to taste of ashes and decay. The waiter wanted to know if there was a problem. I said I’d had the flu and would take the leftovers with me, and he encased them in a foil swan, which I threw away as soon as I left the place. In two days I had managed to eat perhaps two grams of food. It was time to seek serious help.

I knew enough to stay out of the Quarter this time. The places that billed themselves as voodoo shops there were tourist traps, pure and simple. But I didn’t know where to go. I had noticed a building on Broad Street, near my workplace, with words like CANDLES and HERBS and BOTANICA painted on its side. The woman behind the counter had skin the shade and texture of a Brazil nut. Her eyes were gorgeous: large and tilted, fringed with dark lashes, the irises a color somewhere between green and gold.

“Can I help you?” she asked, and I stood there stupidly. I had finally admitted to myself what I wanted to do, and in the same breath I had realized that there was no sane way to ask for it. I didn’t particularly care whether I sounded sane, but if I asked how to raise the dead, the woman would probably throw me out of her shop.

I didn’t know what I was going to say until I heard myself saying it. “I’m a writer,” I said, and almost laughed. I had kidded myself that my ramblings had literary merit, once upon a time, but those days were long gone. “I’m writing a story in which someone wants to bring a corpse back to life. Like they’re supposed to do in Haiti. Do you have any information on that?”

Those devastating eyes regarded me levelly. “Of course,” she said. “There are books. Of course, the dead can’t actually return to life—you understand that?” Perhaps my voice was a little too ragged, the skin around my eyes a little too red—but couldn’t these be side effects of late writing hours?

“It’s only a story,” I told her.

“Good.” She took a book from a shelf near the counter. Its black cover was embossed with a single word, VODOUN. “The recipe is on page fifty-three. You’ll recognize most of the ingredients—in fact, you’ll find most of them in your kitchen. But you may not have heard of datura, also known as the zombi cucumber.”

“What’s that?”

“A powerful hallucinogen, among other things.” She took down another book, this one titled Plants of the Gods. “You can learn more about it in here.”

“Where can I, uh, where can my characters get it?”

“You can’t. Not unless you grow it yourself, or find it growing wild—it’s illegal.” Her eyes shone, and I wondered if she thought she was saving me from something.

“Then it won’t work,” I said. I have killed every plant I ever tried to grow, and the idea of tramping around some wilderness trying to identify a hallucinogenic plant was just silly—I can’t even stand to go camping with Seymour and his brother.

Nonetheless, I paid for both books, took them home, and spread them out on my desk. As the woman had promised, most of the ingredients in the voodoo (or vodoun) spell were familiar, but it was obvious that datura was central to the thing. This seemed like an insurmountable obstacle at first. Then I turned to the entry for datura in Plants of the Gods, and I began to wonder.

The book told me that datura grows in tropical and temperate zones in both hemispheres, and that all species have tropane alkaloids as their active principles. Organic chemistry was the only part of medical school that I found nearly impossible to get through, and I had studied it so hard that I still remembered most of it. Even if I hadn’t, the names of three tropane alkaloids were listed in the book: atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. I handled at least two of these compounds on a weekly basis.

When a person dies at home, any medications he or she is taking are supposed to be brought into the morgue with the body. We note these medications on the autopsy report, count the pills, and (at least in theory) wash them down the sink. Atropine is the active ingredient in Lomotil, which is used to control severe diarrhea. Hyoscyamine is used in Cystospaz and Uriced, which are used for glaucoma, urinary obstructions, and bowel problems. These three drugs come in with bodies all the time; I was certain that there were some waiting to be counted in the morgue right now. Scopolamine is used in transdermal motion-sickness patches, which I don’t see as often, but it would be easy to get one.

I wrote myself a prescription for a scopolamine patch and drove to a Walgreen’s to fill it. I could write myself scripts for the others, too, but Lomotil is a controlled substance. I didn’t want somebody recognizing my name and spreading rumors. I’d see if the drugs were available at the morgue. If not, the Walgreen’s was open all night.

I could hardly make myself wait until midnight, but there was no way I could do anything at the morgue before then; too many people would be there. I gathered the other ingredients I needed and tried to make myself take a nap, but hunger pangs kept me awake. I fed the cats. I read more of the VODOUN book and learned that I was taking an enormous risk, not with Devlin, but with my own soul. I was tampering with the fabric of reality and would eventually have to pay a price. I didn’t care. With Devlin dead, I thought I might never be able to eat again, so I would soon be dead too.

When midnight came, I forced myself to wait another half-hour. Then I packed up the things I needed and drove to work.

I had been afraid that a traffic accident or a house fire would have caused a spate of activity, but everything was quiet; only the night assistant and the janitor were there. Even so, I wheeled Devlin into the decomp room. He hadn’t begun to decompose, but that room could be locked and there was no window in the door.

First I sewed up the skin over his head wound. I realized I should have done this earlier, as the skin had begun to curl and shrink away from the edges of the wound, but I did as well as I could. I had already cleaned the area around the wound, but now I washed all the blood from his hair, head, and neck. I didn’t know what had happened to his shirt, so I had brought in the top of a green scrub suit. Rigor mortis had passed and his limbs moved easily, but I was not strong enough to wrestle him into the top. I put it on an instrument tray nearby.

Finding the Lomotil, Cystospaz, and Uriced had been no problem. I crushed the pills, cut the scopolamine patch into tiny pieces, and mixed them with most of the other ingredients in an organ-specimen jar. The copy of VODOUN was open to page fifty-three on the counter, and I checked the recipe to make sure I had done everything right. I had only the last two steps to go.

“The final ingredient,” the text read, “is a finger bone taken from a living person.”

I sterilized my hands, my bone saw, and a heavy kitchen cleaver I’d brought from home. I had been tempted to grab a couple of painkillers along with the other pills, but I was afraid they would make me groggy. I had to be absolutely aware of what I was doing. I splayed my left hand on the steel table, expelled a long breath, and brought the cleaver down on the first joint of my forefinger.

This may seem senseless. The spell did not specify which finger to use, and I rely on my hands for my livelihood; why didn’t I choose my relatively useless pinky finger? I’m not sure. I was doing what I felt I had to do—had been from the moment I first saw Devlin on my table, really—and all I can say is that my pinky didn’t feel important enough. I didn’t know how the spell would work, if it did work, but I understood that the finger bone had to be taken from a living person because it was a sacrifice.

I didn’t need the bone saw at all. The cleaver went through the flesh, through the bone, and the joint skittered across the table’s slick surface. It would have fallen to the floor if the table hadn’t had a raised lip for catching blood and other fluids. I only looked at my left hand long enough to sink a few clumsy stitches into the raw flesh and slap on a butterfly bandage. The stitches were the most painful part of the whole procedure. When I had stopped the bleeding, I turned my attention to the severed joint. The book didn’t say anything about meat, blood, or nerves: it said a finger bone, so I used a scalpel to dissect away as much of the other material as I could before dropping the slick little bone into the jar of ingredients.

As I mixed everything together, I felt ravenous. Hunger, exhaustion, and shock were preying on me now; I think I believed Devlin was going to get off that table and immediately fix me a nice meal.

It was ready. I had done everything else; there was only the last step to go. I tilted Devlin’s head back, pulled his lower jaw down, and poured the mixture into his mouth.

Nothing happened.

Maybe the mixture had to dissolve, I thought. It wouldn’t do so on its own because his mouth was so dried out. I ran some water into the jar and let it trickle between his lips.

Still nothing.

“Goddamn it,” I said. “Devlin, you fucking asshole, come back here!”

I guess that was why the title of the recipe was “Calling Back the Dead.” You had to actually call them. Because as soon as I spoke, Devlin opened his eyes.

I had the scalpel in my hand, not so much because I was afraid of him as because I was afraid for him. The book didn’t say anything about what the person would be like when they came back. I didn’t want a zombie, didn’t want him in some mindless state of animated limbo. That would be worse than staying dead—and I doubted very much whether a zombie knew enough to hold a haunch of meat over a fire, let alone make a foie gras crčme brulee. If he was merely animated—if Devlin himself wasn’t there—I was prepared to drive the scalpel into the base of his skull, doing essentially what the bullet had done before. I don’t know what I thought I would do if that didn’t work.

But I never had to worry about it, because as soon as he opened his eyes, I saw the man I knew in them. And as soon as his eyes met mine, he said, “Dr. Brite?”

Then the mixture hit the back of his throat and he began to cough. Wouldn’t that have been cute, if I’d brought him back to life only to have him choke on my severed finger bone? “Devlin,” I said, “swallow.” He did, and the obstruction went down.

“I feel terrible,” he said.

“We need to get you to a hospital.”

“Where are we? What happened?”

“You’ve been hurt. There was a terrible mistake, but it’s going to be all right.”

And it was. There were questions, of course, but I stuck to my story that I’d found Devlin exhibiting vital signs after two days of refrigeration. It was highly unlikely but impossible to disprove, especially with the man sitting there, breathing and talking. Nobody ever connected my missing finger joint with Devlin’s resurrection. I just said I’d had an accident while cutting meat, which was essentially true. Seymour may have been a little suspicious of this story, since he would have expected me to save the severed joint in formalin as a souvenir, but he must have seen that I was in an odd mood when he returned from his camping trip; he asked very few questions.

Devlin didn’t remember anything after leaving the Lemon Tree the night of the robbery. The version of reality that most people came to accept—because any other version simply stretched the mind beyond its capacity—was that the bullet had not penetrated Devlin’s skull at all, but had worked like a hard blow to the head, rendering him unconscious for a protracted period.

Only Jeffrey knew otherwise. He saw Devlin’s body up close. He knows very well what a dead person looks like, and he knows me. But he has never said a word. That’s one reason he is my favorite assistant.

For my birthday dinner, I had a Creole tomato aspic with lump crabmeat and sorrel, a dozen Kumamoto oysters topped with sevruga caviar, a plate of braised veal cheeks so tender they dissolved in my mouth, and a miniature heart-shaped chocolate cake with a chocolate sphere full of raspberry puree somehow concealed in the middle. The last item in particular made me think Devlin knew I had done something more than find him warm on the autopsy table. Like Jeffrey, though, he never said anything. He didn’t have to. He continues to feed me all the thanks I need.

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