The city was a blank, unknowable slate to me. I’d graduated mortician school that May and had originally wanted to go to LA or Miami for my residency. Somewhere sunny enough to at least attempt to counter the morbid theme of my day job. As it turned out, there was only one hospital in all of the US that would have me, and it was in the city of Detroit – a place I’d never been and until match day, had never imagined going. “Trust me,” my advisor had assured me, “Detroit is the best possible place for you to learn. You’ll see more gunshot wounds and trauma cases in a week there than you’d see in six months in Los Angeles. You’re lucky – by the time you’re done, you’ll be the most employable of anyone in your class.”
Skeptical, I bought a used car anyway and packed it full of books and clothes. The first time I stepped foot in Michigan was just a week before residency started, everything from my old life in New York in tow. Although I wouldn’t be making much that year, I was hellbent on finding a place with no roommates, in a good neighborhood. What I’d ended up with was a 500-square-foot studio with a couple windows on the second floor of a brick townhouse in midtown Detroit. Besides downtown, the realtor had promised, this was the place to be. I’d be right in the heart of it – good restaurants, bars, shopping, this neighborhood was really up-and-coming – popular especially with students, young professionals, and hospital employees. Looking in either direction, I wasn’t convinced. There were a couple nice looking restaurants down the block and I was close to some student housing, but other than that, it certainly didn’t seem like the heart of much. Compared to my block in Queens, it felt eerily quiet.
Residency itself started only a few days later, all my things still in boxes, stacked neatly around the perimeter of my apartment. Orientation took place in a vast auditorium mainly used for lecturing med students and hosting grand rounds. My entire residency program didn’t even fill up the first row. It took all of thirty minutes for me to figure out that everyone else in the program was from the area, and mostly knew each other already. They all had their families close and had graduated from the same few local colleges. They’d spent the last four years copying off each other’s Embalming Procedures homework, swapping study group notes in Forensic Pathology. “You’ve never had a Coney dog, like, ever?!” asked one of my friendlier co-residents, sounding shocked. “You’ve gotta go to Lafayette – try Lafayette and American, and tell us which one you like better.”
For the first two weeks of residency, I was on days, reviewing embalming technique, restorative cosmetology, and container selection with the attending morticians at the hospital. Two easy, circadian rhythm-respecting weeks of days before I switched to nights. After my first night shift, I drove downtown to Lafayette Coney Island for my 7 am dinner. Breakfast. Who knows. If nothing else, I’d be able to tell my co-residents I’d tried it. To me, Coney Island was a littered beach. The rickety clatter of the Cyclone, the Mermaid Parade, minor league baseball, old Russian ladies in satin scarves and ankle-length skirts out on the boardwalk with their walkers. In Michigan apparently, the name was synonymous with what I would’ve called a Greek diner. Rather than a long Nathan’s hot dog with ketchup, the specialty at these Coney Islands was the Coney dog – a hot dog slathered in loose brown chili and topped with chopped onions, maybe a squirt of yellow mustard.
Despite my groaning empty stomach, which was slowly beginning to eat its own lining – I poked at the gummy, greyish boiled meat, wholly unappetized. The hot dog itself looked intestinal – shiny and taut and slathered in brown, soupy chili. Like innards. Maybe it was all the corpses I’d been hanging out with, but the thing looked disturbingly anatomical in its flimsy paper takeout dish. Lifting a sporkful of chili to my mouth, I set it down, my stomach churning. I pulled a morsel of soft white bread off the hot dog bun, convinced it should be inoffensive enough to choke down. Looking down at the mild, lightly sweet white bread though, all I could think about was the possibility that some loose cadaver had wedged itself under my glove and between my ragged, bitten down fingernails during the embalming process. No wonder I’d hardly eaten in days.
When I got home and turned sideways in the mirror, it hit me how gaunt I’d grown in the two weeks since residency started. My reflection was pale and skeletal, corpse-like even. It felt like years since I’d seen the sun. Longer even since I’d been able to keep real food down. My body was begging for some solid REM sleep, fifteen minutes of movement, fresh fruit, a vegetable if I was feeling ambitious. Anytime I sat down to eat though, all I could think about was the stench of dead bodies as they were wheeled down on guerneys, some still bloody. Leaky. The slick, slightly viscous feel of embalming fluid between my gloved fingers.
The whole point of residency was to learn from the experienced morticians. To shadow them, hour after hour, carefully copying their practiced motions as they pulled out IVs, removed bandages, wired the patient’s jaw shut. Observing closely as they drained the patient’s blood, replacing it gradually and completely with embalming fluid. Like all the city hospitals in Detroit though, we were chronically understaffed. As a result, the staff morticians jumped at the opportunity to relieve themselves of night shift, leaving me largely to my own devices. Alone with the unending parade of cadavers from 7 pm to 7 am most days. No better place to learn than Detroit, no better way to learn than by fire.
The only other person in the morgue at night was the young security guard who sat at the end of the hall connecting us to the main hospital – the juncture where the living met the dead. She wasn’t anything like the security guards at my clinical rotations during mortician school. She was young – younger than me even – and exceptionally beautiful. Glowing, really. Her skin was always dewy, a healthy flush in her cheeks. Her lashes, though possibly fake, were everything. Long, lush black eyelashes that tickled the underarches of her brows, thick curtains that revealed warm, deep brown eyes. Her jet black hair always in perfect coils, just brushing the top of her shoulders. With her posture and casual elegance, she even managed to make the boxy security guard suit jacket and slacks look flattering, feminine somehow. She seemed more vibrant, more alive than just about anyone else I’d ever met.
Each evening when I passed through the morgue doors I’d nod in her direction, my hair still half wet and lank from the shower, deep purple bags under my eyes from my sleepless days. Most nights, she’d look up from the notebook, pushing her gold wire-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Have a good one!”, she’d smile, her straight white teeth gleaming. Never once did I pass by without her sunny greeting, never once was I not jealous of her perfect smile.
It felt weird to think that we were the only living people on the unit most nights. If I didn’t seem so anti-social and harried walking through those doors each night, I’m sure she would’ve made an effort to be friends. She seemed so charismatic and sweet, she must’ve been friendly with the last residents, I was sure. With a personality as warm as hers, I must’ve come across as a real loser for her to not make any real attempt at conversation.
My blood sugar felt low – my hands shook. In recent weeks, the only things I’d been able to stomach were products detached entirely from the cadavers I worked on. Peppermint patties, mango Hi-Chews, Bali Hai cigarettes. Something to bring me back to earth without feeling too real. Vegetarianism suddenly felt obvious. My thoughts felt as shaky as my hands. Unsteady and ethereal – not all there. “Shit,” I said to no one in particular, patting all my pockets. I’d probably left my badge in my purse, and I was already fifteen minutes late for my shift. The day shift mortician would be waiting, desperate for me to relieve him, to usher him into the night.
The blue security light at the morgue’s side entrance glowed bright. Perfect. I buzzed, waited, then buzzed again. It wasn’t clear whether anyone sat on the other side, but it was worth a shot. Better than waiting outside in the sub-zero temperatures hoping by some miracle that someone might happen to walk past or hear me knock. She suddenly appeared at the end of the hall, her curls bouncing with each step. “I’m so sorry!” I told her, rubbing my hands furiously together for warmth as she pulled open the door. “I was running late and completely forgot my badge at home.” Even the sterile air of the hospital felt nice in comparison to the frigid winter night.
“No problem,” she replied. “It happens all the time. What’s your name by the way? I feel terrible – I see you every night and still haven’t gotten a chance to ask.”
“I’m Sasha,” I told her, walking in lockstep with her, lengthening my stride to keep up. “What’s your name?”
“Daniella. It’s so nice to meet you,” her voice was affectionate and soft. It took all my effort to emulate her friendliness. Daniella even smelled nice – sweet and floral – the contrast stark against the metallic, microwave smell of the hospital. The hall was silent besides our footsteps. Glancing down at my phone, I estimated how long it would take me to get down to the morgue and relieve the day shift resident. “Sasha,” Daniella said aloud, breaking our silence. “I always loved that name. What do you do here? It’s so weird, I see you more than almost anybody and I don’t know anything about you.”
“I’m in my mortician residency,” I explained, bracing myself for the usual bad zombie joke.
“You should come down if you get a lunch break today or something,” she replied. Only someone else who worked in the morgue would skip over that fact like it was nothing. It made me like her even more.
“Yeah, for sure,” I smiled. “I’m gonna be so late – I should run, but I’ll come back up sometime tonight,” I promised her, power walking downstairs.
Time always moved slowly in the hospital, but especially in the windowless basement morgue when things were slow. “I’ve been sitting here all day scrolling Reddit,” the day shift resident had warned me at handoff. People always seemed to have a way of choosing the same few days to die. When things were slow like that, I craved a hobby. Something to do at work besides stare at my phone and will space-time to fold. I thought about Daniella and her thick notebook filled with writing, filling up incrementally each night as she manned the morgue. She must have had epics written in there, I figured. Whenever I’d brought a book or my iPad to entertain myself, it turned out to be a busy night. A flurry of bodies to prepare for the afterlife. Not wanting to jinx it, I’d stopped bringing anything to pass the time at all.
It had to have been past midnight by the time I looked up at the clock. “God, how was it only 8:45? Maybe I should go talk to Daniella. Find out her secret to boundless positivity. If nothing else, it would be good for me to interact with an alive person,” I thought.
“Hey!” She shouted, waving at me from down the hall. Her energy was magnetic. If there had been more people around on nights, they surely would’ve been there too, crowded around her desk, hoping to siphon some of the life force that flowed through her so effortlessly. Of all the jobs in the world, I wondered how she’d ended up as the night guard at a Detroit morgue. She should’ve been an actress, a dancer – even a child-life specialist or a music therapist, brightening the halls of the pediatric hospital as she wandered from room to room, strumming a Disney princess guitar. “I’m so happy you came! Slow night?” She asked, setting down her pen.
“You have no idea. I was starting to pull my hair out down there. How is it not even 9:00?”
“You’re telling me,” she replied. “At least you can get up and walk around. I’m stuck at this desk for twelve hours.”
“Can I ask what you’re always working on?” I asked, gesturing to the spiral-bound notebook, which lay open on her desk.
“Oh! I’m a poet. This is my poetry. You can flip through it you want,” she flipped the book around and pushed it in my direction. Of course. The contagious smile, the effortless charm. This is why she was a poet, and I was a mortician-in-training. The first two-hundred pages were bent and swollen, blackened with ink – the remaining hundred clean and white, yet to be filled. As I thumbed through the book, I was floored by how perfectly printed her bubbly handwriting was. Her penmanship was even better than I’d thought as I’d stolen glances on my way past her desk. It felt too intimate to sit with a poem and read it right in front of her, but I skimmed several pages, each one covered in carefully crafted prose. “I’m in school at CCS for creative writing,” she told me. “That’s why I work nights. Once I graduate though, I’m moving to Paris to write.” CCS was the College for Creative Studies, not too far from where I lived. I’d passed it a couple times and had meant to check out some of the student exhibits, but never could rally the motivation to venture out during the day, choosing instead to bury myself in bed until it was time for work.
“How do you have the energy for this every night?” I asked, jealous of her seemingly endless ability to not only stay awake, but to stay awake writing poetry, greeting me with a smile each night like she’d been waiting up just to see me and only me. To still dream of an artist’s life in Paris. I’d never seen her lids heavy, her attention waning. She seemed so incredibly present, so fully alive despite the bleakness of our shared surroundings. In my sleep deprived, hungry state, it had become increasingly difficult for me to really focus on another person’s words. For the most part, working nights provided a legitimate cover for my rapidly deteriorating focus and social skills. On the rare occasion I did have to talk to someone though, their words usually came through garbled, our conversation muffled and distant. I’d nod, looking them in the eyes to indicate yes, I’m here with you, listening, but my mind would be miles away. With Daniella though, it was different. Her energy felt radiant, uplifting even. Her voice cut through the fuzziness, addressing me directly.
“You want to know my secret?” Daniella asked, reaching under her desk and pulling out a shoebox covered in wrapping paper. She opened the lid, revealing stacks of what appeared to be chocolate chip protein bars, each wrapped individually in Saran Wrap. “They’re amazing – they’ll keep you going all night, seriously. Try one,” she handed me a bar. Normally, I would’ve politely declined, but I hadn’t seen a body yet that night and I was starving. Figuring it would be better to eat now before a corpse came down to ruin my appetite, I unwrapped the bar, eyeing it hungrily. It was soft, lightly sugary and pleasantly chewy between my teeth. Flecked with mini chocolate chips, it tasted exactly like the Tollhouse cookie dough I would secretly spoon raw from the fridge as a kid, but even better.
Maybe it was the starvation talking, but I could’ve sworn my eyes rolled back as I chewed, a heady rush flooding my brain. “These are incredible,” I said to Daniella. “Do you make these myself?”
“Thank you! I do – top secret recipe. It’s my little side hustle actually. A lot of the night shifters here buy them from me.”
“What’s in them? Caffeine?” I asked.
“Like I said, top secret. Come by tomorrow night though, I’ll hook you up,” Daniella smiled, closing up the box.
“Thank you so much. This shift work has been killing me. At this point, I’d try anything to keep me up,” I told her, putting the rest of the bar in the pocket of my scrubs. “I’ll see you later!” Daniella turned back to her writing as I walked away. The bar was so incredibly good, I was eager to polish off the rest in private. Whatever they were, I needed more.
That night flew by in what felt like minutes. Bodies started coming down just after midnight. In retrospect, I must’ve done at least three embalmings, but it felt like nothing had happened at all. Twenty minutes after I finished the bar felt like a rebirth. Energy coursed through my veins – my thoughts clear, my movements swift and intentional. Unlike the usual slog, the walk home that next morning felt crisp and bright. The birds’ early morning chirping sounded lyrical, rhythmic even. At home, I lay down in bed, pulling the cool comforter up to my chin and fell asleep like it was nothing. For the first time since moving to Detroit, the shouts of the guy living on my corner didn’t keep me up. No dreams of corpses reanimating as I wired their jaws shut. In fact, I didn’t dream at all. My mind felt completely at ease. As I rolled over, I looked at the clock. It was only 1:00 pm and I felt refreshed, fully rested, still satisfied from the bar I’d scarfed down last night. Since starting nights, I hadn’t once woken up with hours to spare before work, actually feeling motivated to get out and see the city. In fact, I had enough time to head down to CCS and see some art. Digging through my laundry basket full of just-cleaned scrubs, I rummaged through dusty teal tops and several hospital-issued ice blue pants before finding a pair of Levi’s and a sweater at the bottom. It felt like ages since I’d needed real clothes.
The lobby of the main CCS building was hosting an exhibit featuring a visual arts student’s senior thesis project. How fitting that they’d chosen mummification as their theme. Neon colored Egyptian-style mummies lined the walls – bright pinks and purples and blues. Ancient artifacts reassembled with metallic duct tape. I read through the artist’s plaque hung by the entrance – something about preserving the body in order to support rebirth in the afterlife as it related to modern rave culture. The role of psychedelics in preparing the soul to leave the material world. Ego death and all that. Not sure anyone could reasonably gather all that from the flamboyant mummies on their own, but the art was pretty if nothing else. On my walk home to get ready for work, I resolved to do more of this. This waking up early thing, putting on real clothes. Go see more of Detroit, which everyone had been telling me such great things about. Tonight, I’d need another bar from Daniella and then tomorrow I’d try to hit the Detroit Institute of Arts, or maybe go downtown. Try to actually eat something besides a Coney dog or a chocolate chip bar.
“Hey!” I walked up to Daniella’s desk, early for my shift for the first time ever. “Do you have more bars? That was amazing last night! I’m happy to pay for them.”
“Oh my god, are you kidding? I’ve got you! I never charge people I like,” she winked, handing me a plastic-wrapped bar. “Aren’t they incredible? I’ve been calling them Ideal You bars in my marketing,” she said, pointing at her signature lettering decorating the side of the box.
“So freaking good,” I replied, “They do make me feel like the Ideal Me.” That night, another shift flew by without me even noticing. It didn’t feel like I was high. Almost the opposite in fact. I felt more zoned in and awake than I’d ever been before at work. My movements flowed without even needing to think. My body felt light, but not that hungry eating-my-own-stomach-lining lightheadedness that had characterized my pre-bar night shifts. No, this felt much different. Like levitating.
So it went for the next four weeks. Nothing had ever transformed my life so completely and quickly as the bars. No single meal had ever tasted as good as that first perfectly chewy bite. Daniella only ever offered me one at a time, which seemed right. It was generous enough of her to share at all – if she thought it best to dose them out, I had to believe that was true. As badly as I craved more, the bars perfectly sated my hunger for a full day, down to the minute. No need to rush back to work with the assurance that Daniella would be there at her desk, as always, standing at the ready with more.
The biggest change of all was that I started loving night shift. I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the world slept, just me and the bodies. The quiet of the night made me feel important, reminding me of the seriousness of my job. The precision with which I needed to perform the rites in order for the dead to pass smoothly into the next life. The buzz I felt those nights wasn’t exactly like the first time I’d tried coke at a college party – my energy frayed and electric, my confidence false. This was different. My newfound vitality felt embodied – realer. Was I getting addicted? Maybe. But it was a healthy addiction, more exercise than cigarettes. If this was a drug, it was only making me better. Since I’d started waking up with energy, I’d actually started doing things. Fun things. Interesting, enriching, cultural things. I’d browsed the produce at Eastern Market, hand-arranging flowers in bespoke bouquets that brightened the window of my midtown apartment. I’d tried coffee shops, cocktail bars, strolled art galleries and skate parks and the Dequindre Cut. I’d stood at the edge of the turquoise Detroit River looking out at Canada. This was the Detroit I’d heard about – the one everybody had been trying desperately to sell me. The city was finally becoming knowable.
That Tuesday night started like any other. I’d gone down to the brewery below my apartment for a Diet Coke before work, determined not to break my streak of societal participation. Convinced staving off agoraphobia and narcolepsy was not a one-time effort, but a daily habit, like flossing. That Tuesday I’d actually struck up conversation with a nice couple sitting next to me at the bar. I’d seen them around and figured that it was what normal people did in their neighborhood. Me! Starting conversations! Meeting my neighbors, maybe even friends. This was the new me.
As I badged into the hospital that night, I strained my eyes to see down the hallway, surprised not to immediately recognize Daniella’s perfectly coiffed head of curls. In her place sat a 350-pound bald man, eyes closed, snoring. Walking by without acknowledgement, my first thought was how I missed the sweet sound of Daniella’s “have a good one!”, followed closely with a crushing hunger pang. How was I supposed to get through the next twelve hours without a bar? “Hey! You off tonight?” I texted her, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate. My phone sat face up next to me that night, but nothing came through.
This went on for the next three weeks, the pattern from that Tuesday repeating itself – her replacement guard snoozing, me fighting to keep my eyes open throughout the night, struggling to keep any food down when I got home. White toast just looked like bones to me, white rice like marrow, plain broth like fluid secretions, still sometimes bubbling up from the bodies’ mouths, even after death. My stomach rejected it all violently – I lost seven pounds. Slept all day. Back to zombie mode. “Hey!” I texted her. “Everything ok? Haven’t seen you in a while.” Sad face emoji. Broken heart emoji. “I miss you.” Skull emoji. “U alive?”
Another barely conscious night in the morgue. Little bottles of five-hour energy lined my desk – the only thing keeping me awake. I stared down at the face lying supine on the gurney, staring up at me. A little old lady – her face bloated but still human looking. From behind me, I heard an unexpected knock on the door. I jumped, footsteps fast approaching. “Oh my god!” I whipped around, surprised to see another living person awake in the morgue at this time of night. “You scared the shit out of me, I’m sorry.” He was tall and skinny, kind of cute in his loose-fitting scrubs in an abject, gaunt sort of way.
“Hey, sorry. I guess it would get kinda creepy here alone at night,” he said, glancing down at the corpse lying between us. “I know this is weird, but you’re friends with Daniella, right? The security guard?”
How did he know? I guess I did spend a lot of time lurking around her desk. “Yeah, well I thought so… I was friends with her anyway – I haven’t heard from her in weeks though. Do you know what happened?”
“Nah,” he replied. “She won’t return any of my texts. I’m pretty sure she got fired though. The new guy said he thought she might’ve been stealing from the hospital. Anyways, question for you. Did she ever sell you any of those bars?”
“Oh my god, yeah. I miss those.” I didn’t correct him, but it made me happy to think she’d given them to me for free – I remembered her telling me she’d sell them to some other night shifters. That must’ve meant we were real friends. “They’re so freaking good – I can’t function without them. You?”
“Dude, right? She was my hookup. I don’t think I can keep doing this without them. I think I figured something out though, and I might need your help. Check this out,” he said, handing me his phone, open to the Cremation Wiki article, scrolling to a section titled RVGs.
I scrolled, skimming the article furiously. RVGs stood for Revitagenic Byproducts, a group of biochemicals released during the cremation process. It was believed by some that they contained life-giving compounds, returning some of the life that had been lost to anyone who consumed them, like new mothers swallowing their own placentas. “What the fuck,” I muttered, disgusted.
“Listen, I know this sounds crazy, but I think I know what Daniella was stealing. Where do those vents lead?” He asked, pointing at the large metallic tubes connecting the morgue to the cremation chamber.
“I’ve never gone in before. It’s a biohazard – I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t breathe in whatever’s in those rooms, but there should be a key in one of these drawers.” Digging through the mess of papers and pamphlets, I scanned for the yellow lanyard my attending had pointed out during orientation, just in case something should ever go wrong. “Ahh, found it!” I held up the bronze key. He followed me to the back room, waiting patiently as I jammed the key into the sticky lock. “Can you try? I can’t get it,” I asked, handing him the key. He wiggled it forcefully, pulling it out and pushing it back in until we heard a sharp click, and he pushed the door open.
The room was small and hot – uncomfortably hot. It smelled repulsive, nauseating at first, but then I recognized it. A vague, sweet smell. Not the tiny chocolate chips or the mild vanilla sweetness of the dough, but an unmistakable, addictive chemical headrush. On the floor beneath the silvery ventilation pipes sat a white bucket labeled RGVs, in those familiar, perfectly printed bubble letters. “So, this is what she was using? Dead bodies?” I asked him, already knowing the answer. Hating myself, hating Daniella, hating this guy. He nodded. The whole enterprise was fucked, but I needed it. I needed more. I couldn’t go on living like this, already half dead. “This stays between you and me,” I said, looking him square in the eyes. Unspeaking, we each knelt, hoisting the heavy bucket. Two strangers bound by a shared appetite and no other option. For once, I was firm in my conviction. If given the choice between life and death, I was choosing life.
Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.