Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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author

"The sketches were gruesome, wonderful."

The Hungry Eye, Episode 1
Joshua Brown

Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII


Subjects

Things were going well for Padlin in the morgue. He scanned his work with satisfaction. The dankness of the dreadful place, a clamminess pierced by dagger thrusts of disinfectant, the loneliness of the sound made by his pencil on the rough paper--the terrible, stark atmosphere of the place had transferred perfectly from his psyche into his hand. Every one of his pencil strokes struck home.

The sketches were gruesome, wonderful. He'd got the light just so, the murky illumination of the gas jets above the slabs. The geography of the room was accurate, and he'd captured the inert solidity of the dark walls bearing down upon the viewer, as well as the ghastly impression of the water jets extending from the ceiling like a row of spiders spewing foggy webs. Padlin's lines were all efficiently placed, the shading exact. He was quite pleased with himself, and the confidence did not flag as he moved from sketch to sketch. It was only due to force of habit that discontent remained on his face.

And then this pale, starched clerk appeared to ruin everything.

"May I be of help?"

Padlin, crouched over his pad, twisted around awkwardly. A man, dressed in black, stared down at him. The blackness appeared to have migrated up from his clothes into his face. He wore a dark, unkempt beard and long straight hair, oiled and brushed severely across his scalp, the combination seeming to hover just above the blanched flesh. Only the two bruises that marked his cheekbones gave his features any depth. Standing in the entrance to the morgue, his hands placed one over the other across his pelvis, this one looked like he teetered at another, more celestial threshold.

No, Padlin said. Or, actually, gestured: his head jerked to the left and then to the right. A fairly emphatic negative, Padlin thought.

He returned to sketching, working out details on the far wall: the wrinkled remnants of clothes hooked at the head of each specimen. A plaid suit and beige derby, the crown sliced in half (matching the cleft in the corpse's skull). A filthy, crumpled dress, its gingham checks faded in spots, stained coppery in others.


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"Why don't you draw the faces?"

Right behind Padlin's right ear, like a wheeze from one of the bodies. It made him flinch.

The clerk stepped around and bent down to face Padlin. His breath was warm and sour. Padlin conjured a vague image: this clerk bent over bodies, sucking up morbidity. Grimacing, Padlin averted his eyes.

"It's difficult, I know, so difficult to confront them. But for the sake of your readers you must."

He grasped Padlin's arm and gently tugged him upwards.

"I have to," Padlin heard himself mumble, "I must complete my sketches."

"Yes. Of course." The clerk had him by the elbows, escorting Padlin in a shuffling waltz past the bodies. "And it is my duty to regale you about our institution. Please take note of our washable stone walls, our tile floors. You're not to miss these marble slabs," he swept his arm over two callused feet, "or the preserving jets of water. And I must not forget to remark on the plate glass partitions that separate the viewing room from, shall we say, the meat."

Then this clerk stopped short. "No, pray--" he threw up a hand as if to ward off an intervention from miserable Padlin, although the sketch artist was merely looking for an exit.

"Pray," he repeated, slowly lowering his arm, "bear with me." He took a breath, like Forrest waiting for the Bowery Theatre audience to settle down before ending a soliloquy. "You think I underestimate you. No, you need not contradict me. I can see it in your eyes."

Padlin doubted his eyes were visible, shadowed from the overhead gaslights by the brim of his beaver hat.

"You are an artist. You crave more than the dimensions of a warehouse, or, for that matter, an abattoir. Your mission is to capture the essence of a scene, not the barren facts. And the essence of this wretched place, sir, is the metropolis."

Padlin worked his features into the most disagreeable configuration possible, but it only seemed to assure the clerk that he was on the right track.

"Look at these dead. They are the sum of the errors of the humanity beyond these walls. They possess the secrets of the city, secrets that must be rooted out. Consider this man--"

The clerk released Padlin and paced over to the head of one marble slab. He bent to the skull of the corpse, the cove with the split cranium, and placed his two hands, gently, on either side, cradling the ruined pate. He raised his own face up to the gaslight and gazed determinedly at Padlin.

The sketch artist still stood where he'd been left, at the foot of the slab. Padlin glowered back. Through the haze created by the spray of the water jet drumming against the dead man's chest, the clerk, as he caressed the cracked noggin, looked like some revivalist preacher performing a monstrous baptism.

"This man," Padlin's captor now said, his words more selective, stamped out in meaningful jabs, "I surmise that this man was vanquished soon after his arrival on these shores. He is a foreigner, I'm sure of it, most likely from the continent. Look at his mustachio. Look at his clothes." Padlin glanced at the waxed hair on the corpse's upper lip, at the broad plaid of the wrinkled suit hanging behind the clerk, re-examined the bisected bowler. "But we're interested in the soul here, in the heart of his demise. To ascertain the fatal combination of this man's spiritual weakness and this city's terrible strength."

The clerk's hands slapped together, making a puffy pop in the heavy atmosphere. He eyed Padlin, a schoolmaster assuring himself that he had his pupil's undivided attention.

"And now," the clerk nodded, his black eyes transfixed on Padlin's countenance, "this city, finished with the wretch, has disgorged his miserable wreckage. Look: he bares his teeth in death, snarling at the world that abandoned him to so sorry a fate."

Despite himself, Padlin looked at the corpse's mouth, his gaze fastening for an unpleasant instant on the rictus leer stretching the dead lips. He turned away, less from distaste than from a barely conscious realization that the expression bore no small resemblance to one of his own hallmarked expressions--and, for the first time, really looked at the neighboring corpse. The owner of the gingham-check dress.


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Padlin blinked.

Was it possible?

The clerk caught Padlin's preoccupation and smoothly moved to the head of his next victim. "Another one of the day's catch, dragged from the river. So young, yet marked by an immorality thrust upon her by this damnable metropolis."

The spray was like a fog muffling her features. Padlin stepped over to the clerk and squinted down at the face.

"Nameless, parentless, no kith or kin care to claim this poor wretch--"

Padlin shook his head hard and looked again. It was her.

"What's the matter?" The clerk reached up and placed a consoling hand on Padlin's shoulder. "Did you know this one?"

Padlin clenched his teeth, clenched his fists, fearful that he'd knock down the intrusive fool if he said another word, one more word, he'd knock him down.

The clerk persisted: "I understand. At least--" he faltered for a moment, "at least be consoled that now she'll have a name to place over her grave."

"No." Padlin spat the word out, in place of a blow.

"No?"

"No. I knew her." He took a deep breath of the soggy air. "But I never caught her name."

The water flowed incessantly from the pipe suspended from the ceiling, cascading upon her bosom, sending a fine spray over her face. It had been a pretty face. To be sure, she'd carried the mark of her race in her wide upper lip, in the brevity of her brow. Yet, to Padlin, ever aware of his incapacity to represent them, the fine carving of her features had, in an unsettling paradox, subverted the blunt outlines.

But the face no longer exhibited any beauty. Padlin would have preferred the usual slackness of dead flesh, the hint of festering to come, anything, to what lay before him. For her countenance now seemed locked in some terrible, fatal moment. It was an alabaster mask, frozen in angular and creased horror.

The clerk's pale, blue-veined hand suddenly appeared, hovering over the terrible wreckage. "Take care," he said, and Padlin viewed an all-together new expression on his torturer's face. "Don't get too close." He reached within his heavy black jacket and pulled out a handkerchief. "Here," he handed it to Padlin, "cover your nose and mouth." He nodded down at the girl. "Cholera."

But," Padlin stammered, "you said she was fished from the river."

"Yes, deposited there after she died. That's my guess. But it's cholera, no doubt. Her face is the terrible evidence."

Padlin shook his head in vehement denial. No. This did not resemble the arid, shrunken result of the disease. He knew what cholera looked like, knew it all too well. Padlin shuddered. The remembered vision captured in his mind's eye was terrible, but the awful face before him was the detritus left in the wake of something worse, far worse.

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