Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
The memory of the budding young scientist who didn’t bathe (but who ice skated like Dick Button) reminded me of another figure from the medical library who I haven’t thought about in ages.
We worked the night shift, so there was always a kind of subdued feel to the place, with med students studying quietly and only the occasional hum of the photocopier to interrupt the hush. My co-workers and I were usually scribbling away at a term paper on Milton or something, always due the next day, so we were silent too. But none of us compared to the silent man who would come in late, dressed in his wool suit and carrying his briefcase and cane.
And he was a striking man, a small, older man with a face that looked like a thumbprint, long and drawn with seams. His hair was the blackest jet black I’d ever seen. Almost as if he’d spray painted his head with Krylon. He had a calm, wry smile, but he never spoke, always vanishing into the mezzanine level below, where he staked out a carrel and pored over whatever texts he was obsessed with.
We had a lot of theories about who he was. Since he never borrowed books, he didn’t need a library card, so we never knew his name. He just appeared two or three times a week, nodded as he passed, smiled his wry smile, and went down the stairs to the mezzanine. Then he’d leave a few minutes before midnight, when we closed. One theory was that he was obviously a vampire. His pale complexion spoke to that, his closed-mouth smile (not wanting to reveal those long canines), his well-dressed formality, his silver-headed cane. It all added up. He was probably reading hematology books.
If he was a vampire, though, he was a benign one because we never heard of students getting attacked and exsanguinated by bite. Maybe he worked out of the area, that’s possible, but to us he was always nothing but polite and unthreatening. Though he never showed his teeth.
One rainy night we closed up at twelve and headed out the door, where we found the gentleman under the front awning, hesitating to go out into the downpour. He had an overcoat but no umbrella, and he looked at us as if to wonder without saying as much whether we could give him a lift. Since my co-worker was driving me the few blocks to my place, he asked the man where he was going. He gave an address in my own block of McPherson, just a couple of minutes away in the car.
The odd thing was, he had an accent. Kind of an Eastern European accent, actually. We tried to see his teeth as he spoke, but he seemed careful to keep their exposure to a minimum.
As we piled into the little Chevette, the man took the front passenger seat and I slid in back with my other co-worker. The man had gotten a little wet as we walked to the car, and now whatever black substance he used to make his hair so slickly, unnaturally dark was leaking down his temples and cheeks, the color of charcoal weeping.
We asked him a few questions as we drove along South Euclid, but he kept his private life vague and only told us that he happened to live where he worked, at the address on McPherson. I was trying to picture what apartment building that might be, but before I could piece it together we were already at Euclid and McPherson, turning right. My building was half a block up, and he guided us straight there. Then it hit me: the funeral home next door!
He was an undertaker. He lived and worked with the undertaken.
I got out with him, since our homes were only yards apart, and he nodded with appreciation, backing and bowing his way under the dark red canopy that protected the bereft from foul weather when they came to mourn. I thought I detected the odor of formaldehyde in the dank air.
I never did learn his name, but once in a while I’d see him walking along the street, possibly heading for the medical library to learn about some new embalming procedure that might save him time and money. I didn’t work there anymore, and he never seemed to recognize me, and I doubt that he cared that I knew his secret, that he dyed his hair with boot black and was probably hundreds of years old.
You can see in the pic below that the funeral home is still there, right next to my old building. Whatever became of the formal little man with hidden teeth and a foreign accent, I have no idea, but at least I live to tell the tale …