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The County Coroner, by Sarah Blackman


Dr. Hoff says:

Daddy was a country doctor. In suspenders. Making house calls.

He specialized in children, but was a G.P. not a pediatrician. He just liked children. Although, because of the poor and the rural and the house call element, he most frequently saw them when they were sick. Sometimes unto death.

Pox and burn and breaks and fevers.

Meningitis in the neck, strep in the throat or eye or suppurating wound.

Dog bites, snake bites, rat bites. Children in back rooms, on pallets on the floor, under sodden blankets, pissing blood into bowls.

Not that their parents didn’t love them—who doesn’t love their children? Even the breakers and burners. Even the mad eyes rolling white through biblical punishments. Everybody loves their children. Don’t be so naïve.

Daddy, he was kind, bald, slow. A belly that came first through the door as if his belly was the shyest, most inquisitive part of himself—a big dog’s nose snuffling carefully before committing the first paw. That’s one way I remember him.

A row of careful white buttons straining at the seams. The smell of starch in his shirt.

I must once have been a little boy, pale and blonde and seamless, burrowed in that shirt, but I look so much like Daddy that when I think of myself, all I can see is him. Myself: Boy Hoff tweedling in the garden, smashing snails with a rock to protect mother’s eggplants, but in Daddy’s strained, straining body, with Daddy’s pale, hairy hands.

It is a gift to touch at the throat and temple and bring relief. Even if relief is only the idea of relief, that relief might soon come. Do children understand the idea of relief? Do animals? There’s so much to say for dumb suffering.

By which I mean mute.

By which I mean so long felt it is no longer an exclamation even when it is exclamatory.

Which of course leads us to a consideration of death. The great reliever.

As in lighten your pockets.

As in something that lifts up, tugs at, strips away.

I have a lot of ideas about death. I am a doctor who deals only in aftermath, after all. Intentionally so. And not because I like a puzzle, although I do.

(Mother keeps a clipboard on the back of the toilet, pen threaded through the hinge, that day’s fresh newspaper crossword on top and behind it pages and pages of days gone by. The word Auroch is a common answer. As are Aloe, Eden, Erato, Opera, Ore).

Daddy would stick his finger in, stop the bleeding with his thumb. Once, in the most causal of all clichés, he punched a tracheotomy into a father-of-three’s throat with his pocket knife and a ballpoint pen. This, at a famous octagonal surf-n-turf in the Bay Bridge Marina. Outdoor seating on the splintery deck above the green chop and green stink of the shallows. Marsh grass, imagine. Egrets wading about the pylons.

This was on their anniversary, his and Mother’s, with all of father-of-three’s little children gathered about while Daddy shoved his thumb into the patient’s rippling throat. Little Hoff was at home with the sitter, but I can imagine. Many things, in fact. And when I grew to look so much like him…what was left but to stake out what was mine?

Mother is a sturdy one, straight and broad and plain like the first smear of mayonnaise across the bread. The one that blends in to the pale grain. She wore beige a lot when I was younger, cardigans over button-down shirts themselves worn over foundational undergarments, which were like armor. She did not touch. Did not like to touch. She wore her hair like a shower cap tight to her head.

When Daddy died—a heart attack on the road, crashed his car into the only tree on the great wide farm flatness and no one there to slit him open and stick in a thumb—Mother went even whiter, even tighter, as if her whole body were firmly pressed lips.

I have ideas about death.

Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Children know this. Animals. Look at an animal trapped in a box—a rodent scrabbling, a snake coiling—a small animal with small furtive movements. Imagine you have picked up the box all unawares in order to transport it elsewhere and inside, in the cradle of your arms, is this small, furtive terror, this scrabbling. It is a mouse, you think, perhaps recoil. Or, if the sound is more deliberate, more muscular, It is a snake, and you think of the skin you saw draped from the rafters, a good three feet, the terrible empty bubble of the eye.

You think of the extremes inherent in the conjugation to thrash.

It is right and good for the small animal to scrabble or thrash in a box in which they are trapped, which you have suddenly lifted from the ground, hoisted into the air far above their reach or belonging. Their terror or malice is proper; it befits them. But imagine if, inside this box, were another sort of animal, one we imbue with traits like dignity, autonomy, noblesse oblige.

Imagine it is a horse in that box, a hound, a tiger.

Imagine it is a child or a woman or a man. Thrashing. Scrabbling.

Now it is not good and right, not understandable terror or rage that causes your skin to horripilate, causes you to jump away full, nonetheless, of edgy laughter.

Now it is horror. Your horror.

The unright, the transgressive.

Now there is intent. Who has put the horse in the box? The child? The woman? Who has reduced the man to a state in which he will thrash?

A man who finds himself among others is annoyed because he does not know why he is not one of the others. But all men feel this, all of the others at all times: in a crowd outside of the revival tent; in a crowd at the ballgame; in a crowd at the bar; elbows in the shared tack of the countertop; in a crowd around the bonfire that makes the night more dark by the shortcoming of its light.

Even inside the woman, thrust deep inside the woman—like a shaft of the machine turned by what cog? Turning what cog?—he wonders why he is not the woman.

And if he is not the woman, if he is not any of the others, if he is only this own restless entropy, this dark, star-studded shape that moves, hapless, that thrusts, bursts, strikes, thrashes? Then what is he? What might he do?

A man and a woman, they can very well try to find each other; they will never find anything but parodic images, and they will fall asleep as empty as mirrors.

I assume; I surmise.

From mother, upright as a thumb, smeared as the mirror wiped with a dusty cloth that nevertheless relentlessly reflects.

I do not touch. I do not want to touch.

I watch. I am a watcher.

Animal life comes entirely from the movement of the seas and, inside bodies, life continues to come from salt water. The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis. The sea continuously jerks off.

I did not say that. Those are not my words in the sense that they did not originate with me, but rather long-ago clandestine words uncovered in the dark fust of father’s bottom drawer—a palimpsest translated from the French—along with pictures, all of people, one assumes, he did not know—

but the words are mine in that I think them as I creep

(Old Hoff, bald as an egg, kindly)

up the hill, under the cover of the teeming dark that gathers around anything upthrust.

I peek only very late. Only into the last last car after the patrol has done its final pass. The one that swept in with no lights beneath me as I sat in my own car higher up, tucked back into the gravel turn-around. The car that sat a long time still and dark, but is now rocking, rocking, and for Old Hoff, my face so like my father’s face, my face a scandal, now there is something to see.

Women mounted, women mounting.

The ladder of the back, up vertebrae I would count and clean if they were found, say, in the forest loam and not here, intact, in rocking car atop the iconic hill.

Once, to reward, say, my eyes that do not blink no matter what they are shown, there was a woman flaccid with drink, propped in awkward splay and nodding,

her breasts half out of the bra,

her breasts in flaccid, fatty counter-point,

to the man who hunched, who humped, who thrust, who thrashed.

Once, to reward Hoff who does not touch but would like to know all the ways it is possible to touch, there was a man alone, his penis in his hand, who hunched and humped and thrusted and thrashed with his eyes closed, seeing something else even as I saw him.

Every man has a bottom drawer containing within it pictures of people he does not know.

Every woman hunts and pecks, voids her bowels while she turns over with her eye the bead-bright word that will not fit.

In my experience, of course.

In my singular star-studded what-am-I.

Which is also to say that when they are on my table—the drunks, the suicides, the murders with their broken faces, guts stabbed to pudding, or, more demurely, necks snapped so the head politely nods—

still I do not touch, but look.

Peel gingerly back, lift gingerly out.

My scalpel is my inquisitive finger—prodding, entering—; my scalpel is my red-tipped dog’s penis: leaving the body only to enter another body, questing for what is soft, wet, warm.

I see very well, is what I am saying.

With my eyes, with both my flesh and metal fingers.

Daddy was a country doctor. A man from another age, determined to be so, who slept in a bed that adjoined his wife’s bed, who visited her bed with the same polite professionalism as he visited the houses of the sick, the broken, the nigh unto.

I assume; I surmise.

Mother was thick as a thumb, bland as a smear, but a few years after Daddy died she began to wear her hair a different way—longer, the grey roots un-cultivating the chestnut dye I had always known—and she got a dog, white with weeping eyes, upon whom she adored,

upon whom she foisted adoration,

publically, extravagantly, a spectacle.

Daddy was a man who would stick his thumb into another man’s throat so that what was unknown should stay that way, safely encased in the man-shape, not allowed to seep.

But Daddy was also a man who wanted a woman trussed ankle to wrist, her neck drawn back, jaw forced open, her vagina displayed like a peep-hole. Wanted a woman wearing a mask, no eyes, the mouth a zipper. Wanted a woman swinging by her wrists from a hook, turning this way and that in the gentle tock tock tock of a breeze.

This is the bottom drawer.

Every morning, Old Hoff gets up as brusquely as a specter in a coffin and falls in the same way. He gets up a few hours later and then he falls again, and the same thing happens every day.

Metaphorically, of course. There is camouflage to keep.

When I say I do not touch, it does not mean I do not see.

When a man comes to my table, intact, not diseased, nothing but the reverse bloom of the gunshot that tore out his heart to indicate his expansion (beyond the body, darkness released to seep into the greater darkness from which it was only momentarily separate) there is a form for me to fill.

For example:

61 year old man w/ catastrophic injury to the cardiac muscle and surrounding tissue caused by ballistic trauma.

And then the great question. Who was standing behind the flowering? Who was holding the stem of the bouquet?

A smell on his hands, lingering; a trace of powder; the gun found on the floor boards near his feet, wedged under the brake pedal as if it had been flung by the bullet’s own velocity; the bullet itself deep in the stuffing of the driver’s seat.

And other, more intuitive, sights for me to see:

that the car was old, lovingly restored; key in the ignition; radio tuned to a station known to bleat (Love, O careless Love);

evidence of recent sexual activity, secretions;

evidence of recent trauma to the hands—subcutaneous hematoma, middle phalange hairline fracture—;

one hair, coiled and blonde, pulled tacky from the pool of blood in his lap…

Violent love takes place beyond the constraints of fecundity. Mother named the dog Seraphina. They share the same bed, eat off the same plate. By now, Daddy is a wisp of yellow hair crossing the yellow skull, gut collapsed, baggy suit like a sight gag over the long bones.

Cause of Death, I write, Homicide.

But it doesn’t matter.

I have an idea about death, which is that it is the more natural state. More natural than life, although perhaps that is also an inappropriate fantasy. Life and death are not celestial contraries in magnetically opposed rotation around time, but rather the same stuff, the same nothing.

An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup…

An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges…

A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard—

all the same thing as each other; the same thing as Love O careless Love; the same thing as fidelity, fecundity, nurture.

The rat in the box is the same as the man.

They both thrash.

You know, I am not such a somber man. I have my jolly moments. My little jokes. I feel that here I misrepresent myself.

I never claimed to be a philosopher, merely an eye, perhaps lidless but not without a sense of order. A mirror that reflects something also reflects nothing—that’s all I’m trying to say.

Good Old Hoff,

kind as an egg,


Homicide, I write.

Then I go to the sink to wash my hands.


Note: Some lines of this text are taken directly from George Bataille’s The Solar Anus.

  • Sarah Blackman is the author of Hex: A Novel and Mother Box and Other Tales. Her poetry and prose has been published in a number of journals and magazines, including Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and American Poetry Review, among others. Blackman is the co–fiction editor of DIAGRAM and the founding editor of Crashtest. Director of Creative Writing at the Fine Arts Center, an arts-dedicated public high school, she lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with her partner, poet John Pursley III, and their two daughters.

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