Three men walked down the brightly lit hallway. The Zavala
County Sheriff walked on the far side and in lock-step with
the grief stricken man to his right. Keeping pace on the
near side was the man’s uncle, Clarence Leroy. Most folks
called the second man CL and knew the man between he and the
lawman was his nephew, Harlan McFadden.
The Sheriff and CL were painfully aware of the horror the
man had faced three days before and were watching for
telltale signs of the likelihood of him collapsing. They
knew he might not have the strength to do the herculean task
required of him, but if he stumbled they would do their best
to catch him and ease his fall.
Fragile, pale, spent but determined, Harlan continued his
solitary walk as the walls, ceiling and floor began to close
in upon him.
An arm’s length in front of the threesome, dressed in
hospital-white, the Medical-slash-Examiner-slash-Coroner, or
whatever title folks bestowed upon him, led the way down a
brightly lit hall deep in the bowels of Del Rio’s single
hospital and toward a pair of doors at the far end.
Harlan had never imagined—not in a million years—he would
ever be one of those parents in those weekly TV hospital
dramas who were asked by a stranger dressed in white to
confirm if the body lying atop a stainless steel table had
once belonged to a loved one of theirs. But, here he was—he
had to do it—no one
else was available. Nor would he have ever asked such a
thing of anyone else. No. Not in a million years. Being her
father required only he could be the one.
The shining, stainless-steel doors, each equipped with a
foot square pane of opaque glass, suggested the room inside
was well lit, ready for the grisly task yet to be performed.
The Coroner, stepping aside, extended a latex gloved hand
indicating the four of them were to enter the room beyond.
And in this room death reigned supreme.
Harlan placed his palm against one of the cold steel doors,
and his hand began to tremble. Still, he was determined to
do the thing required of him, but a dread of entering the
room locked his legs in place. Death awaited him and he
understood what he saw would be the end of life as he knew
it. The ex-lawman, ex-husband, and now, ex-father felt his
knees buckle. A cold hand pushing through his rib cage
squeezed his heart with a pressure unlike anything he’d ever
felt in his life. He struggled to catch his breath. He
struggled to remain erect.
paused—inhaled deeply and pushed the doors inward. As he
did, he heard his mind tear, and felt the whispery grind of
his heart breaking. His eyes—void of life, dulled with
confusion—ached from the blinding glare of the fluorescent
lighting strategically placed about the room. He held a palm
across his forehead, allowing them time to adjust to the
overpowering brightness. And slowly, they focused. Before
him was a scene he’d seen hundreds of times on TV.
The room was austere, bare, except for the most basic of
essentials. But the things he saw spoke of the work required
of those who performed grisly tasks in it daily. The
gleaming stainless steel prepping table, its edges rolled
into drain-channels on both sides, hardly needed an
explanation. Nor did the funnels built into each end of the
table. The oversized storage tanks below the table did not
need to tell what they held hidden within.
The rack secured to the side of the table, with its clear
plastic hoses attached to hand-held tools—saws, scissors,
nozzle-tipped suction guns, pliers and an assortment of
pencil thin probes— told a grim story of what was expected
of them. An aged and tightly coiled garden hose, the tag
still attached as proof of its long ago purchase from the
long dead Western Auto store north of the hospital, dripped
water meant to flood the ceramic-tiled floor once all of
their grisly work was finished, and begged to be replaced.
At the center of it all, atop the spotless table, lay a
child-sized form beneath a white sheet. In vain, Harlan
prayed the small rise of the white sheet covering her nose
would flutter, even if only a tiny flutter, but it refused.
A child’s hand, palm slightly cupped, fingers curling
upward, extended from under the sheet. A lock of blond hair
entwined in it, snaked from under the round of a child-size
head. He reached for the curl of hair he had brushed each
and every morning before he sent her off to school—a
keep-sake—but it still retained the tendency to curl and
slowly disappeared under the white sheet.
That springing of hair was the last thing the father ever
saw which resembled life in his daughter. The Sheriff and
the Uncle were unnerved by the curl as it shrank into a
A tear dripped from the tip of the father’s nose. All was
lost and now he knew it.
The Coroner stood on the far side of the table. Damn. I
hate this job. Always handing out bad news, never the good!
his eyes said. Lately, he’d taken to scolding himself
for not accepting the position of Vice-President his father
had offered him in the family banking business. Or, that he
could have been a minister—that was what his mother wanted
him to be. At least men of God could speak of life and
was what was expected of them,
thought, but that ‘calling’ was not in the deck of cards God
had dealt to him, either.
State law required the presence of the proper person—a
mother or a father—or someone who could give a nod to the
dreaded question yet to be asked. If need be, it could be a
close relative, maybe a member of his former church, the
Holy Cross and Communion Church of Jasper Corners—or maybe
someone like Brother Lyle, the former pastor of the church
which Harlan and his now dissolved family once attended. And
the same law required a person of responsibility within the
hospital be present to hear the words they dreaded
themselves. And it had been the Coroner’s duty far too many
He saw an uncanny resemblance of the father and the child on
the table. His hand trembled as he reached for the corner
of the sheet near the body’s head and readied himself to ask
the hard question.
In the horror of the Coroner’s work shop, Harlan’s moods
were beginning to swing to extremes—from an
unbearable sense of loss to anger the likes of which he’d
never known. Where is the humanity in this room? Why not
a vase of flowers? What could possibly be the harm in
flowers, he wondered. Why not play soft sweet music,
maybe a song or two she loved so much instead of that damn
crying in their beer crap? I would have told them
which ones she loved. And why not let her wear her favorite
dress beneath the sheet? He’d sent one along for that
purpose. Where the hell is it?
As quickly as he raged over such issues, he let go of them.
What’s done is done. Maybe those soap operas got it right
after all. There is no humanity in mankind anymore.
Although it tortured him to be the one to view her, even
before the sheet was lifted from her face, he knew it was
his sweet Sue Ellen. Even so, he would do his job and burden
no one with his responsibility. No one should ever be asked
to view the mortal remains of a loved one unless a parent
was not available. But even then, it should not be
pushed upon anyone. There are people who could not do
such a job. And others who could.
The Coroner pulled back the sheet exposing the face beneath it.
The singular beauty—the perfection—the chalky paleness of it,
locked the man’s throat. Protocol required he asked the
question, but he was unable to do so. All he could do was wait
for a yes or no from Harlan.
Harlan felt faint and fell to the side. And as he did, Sheriff
Moody and CL caught him. Regaining his composure, the father
looked at his daughter—her eyes closed—his wet
with tears. He wiped at his nose with a handkerchief offered by
CL. Zavala County’s Medical Coroner waited, pen in hand, for the
answer he had to have.
Finally, Harlan nodded his head and whispered, “She’s my baby