After the Man Jumped from the 58th Floor
we covered the blood-soaked concrete with sawdust, sipped warm colas, watched the dust dry. This was November 1984—the same week the liquid propane tanks exploded near Mexico City, killing hundreds of men, women, and children, their bodies stretched, charred, and broken, many who burst into a wet flame and where vaporized like the man who’d ruptured today.
“You ever seen such blood?” Earl said, leaning against his shovel. “Even the skull fragments get stuck in the treads of your boots. It’s like stepping in dog shit, only worse.”
I shrugged, looked over at the dark patch on the pavement, which had already faded from a full to a three-quarter moon.
“Good thing people don’t have to clean the same crap we do.”
“Why?” I said, and looked down at my boots, thankful both were still clean.
“Because if they did they’d quit and the next group would quit and soon we’d be climbing over a mountain of dead to get to the beer store.”
“We live in San Diego, not China,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “With all the bodies stacked up the jumpers would have a cushion to land on. It’d force them to choose another way to die. Or at least think it over first—one that doesn’t force everyone to get blood on their hands. Selfishness is the worst shit, man, just look around. Everyone bleeds it nowadays.”
The truth was I wasn’t sure what or who to believe anymore. In the three years I’ve worked with death, I’d seen men who deepthroated pistols and blew their skulls out in front of the TV. I’d seen an entire family struck and dismembered with a hatchet, their body pieces chucked into an old washtub in the backyard; I’d seen a man who’d fallen head first into a copper press, and was pressed into only God knows what—a soap dish? —but the worst was never what I’d seen; it was always what I imagined I’d see next.
“You hear about the fire in Mexico City?”
“A little,” Earl said, and lifted his left boot while standing, tried looking at the bottom but failed. “Imagine working that job, sweating our asses off, eating stale tortillas and rice amidst all the stinking bodies.”
I could imagine the fire, my sick belly, the young boys and girls who’d turned to ash, or those whose arms and legs were ripped clean while they slept, the mothers who were incinerated trying to protect them. All week, after work, I rushed home to watch the news—always death, half-death, the spectators showered in death—to study mortality rates as rescuers sifted through rubble, the miles of casas leveled, the occasional stray dog that carried an arm to gnaw on.
We had our sawdust scene secured, but spectators still stopped to lean over the caution tape for a better view; they pushed and shoved, cussed one another, all wanting a glimpse at what remained.
“I never understood why somebody would do this. Does it ever really get that bad? I mean, so what if you’ve lost everything. Work harder from now on, find a new ol’ lady,” Earl said. “When you cut the main vein it’s over, man, no changing your mind after that.”
I tried to ignore Earl and motioned for the people to move back. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” I said. “It’s easy sometimes to quit, to say the hell with it. We’re emotional beings. Once we’ve been beaten or burned we don’t forget.”
“Emotional what? You must’ve voted for Mondale.”
Two men in suits pushed their way through the group until they reached the caution tape. They turned their heads up at the open window, then at the blood stain.
“Can everyone please move back,” I said.
“That’s my ex-brother-in-law,” the bigger of the suited men said. “Can you be respectful and cover what’s left of him with a sheet instead of playing grab ass? I need my people on the 58th floor to get back to work.”
“I can assure we aren’t playing grab ass,” I said.
“Right,” he said, and laughed and the group laughed.
“Would you rather we vacuumed him up and poured him into a street drain?” I said. “We’re trying to be respectful.”
“With a broom and a shovel?” the ex-brother-in-law said.
A young kid with a red bandana and star tattoo around his eye said, “Fuck the police,” and the group concurred.
“Why don’t you all mind your own business,” Earl said. “Let us do our jobs while you go on worrying about your mistresses, BMWs, and your underachieving portfolios.”
The group began to push and shove. An arthritic woman with a cane was knocked down and a fat guy eating a hotdog stepped on her brittle pelvis, wedged closer to the tape.
“Why don’t you come say that to our faces,” the ex-brother-in-law said.
The fat guy raised his hotdog and nodded at Earl.
Earl lifted his shovel, moved toward the group.
“Don’t,” I said. “It’s not worth it. Spare the children and the concrete from another stain.”
“This isn’t right,” Earl said.
The group continued to push and shove and stretch the yellow tape.
Without speaking, Earl and I inched closer to the remains, where I began sweeping the man into a pile. Then a gust of wind pushed through and the remains rolled into the group’s eyes, mouths, hair, their suit jackets, and the last bite of hotdog.
The group coughed and gagged and stood in a cloud of smoke-like dust and a tiny girl spewed orange Jell-O onto the injured woman who still moaned underneath the fat man’s feet.
“Good God,” Earl said. “They’re stuck in a brainstorm.”
I thought about the children on fire, those still trapped in rubble, all those who’d died without choice. “There’s no way to escape it,” I said, and cast the broom toward the group and waited for the next to die.
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