The body farm looked like any other chunk of rural Tennessee, black and white oaks, cherry trees and clearings. Only this chunk had a 12-foot fence circling it, razor wire on top, and rotting bodies within.
“Why the fence?” I asked.
Landon, my brother’s best friend since kindergarten, shrugged. “It’s science. Can’t have people messing with science.”
We followed Landon through the woods. Last I’d heard, Landon worked night security at the mall. Now he was day security at the body farm and (supposedly) enrolled in night school. He’d abandoned his signature mullet for a crew cut.
We came upon the first body. It didn’t look like a corpse. It was more mummy or Halloween prop, skin motor oil black and bunched like a deflated air mattress. Its skull all eye sockets and teeth, the mouth gaped in a frozen moment of awe.
“Blacker they are, longer they been dead,” Landon said. “Don’t worry. Your old man won’t look like this. He’s fresh.”
I’d skipped my father’s funeral and flown down two weeks later. My girlfriend said I needed “closure.” When my brother picked me up at the airport, I’d told him how I wanted to see dad and say some words. Maybe touch his hand. Kiss his forehead. Closure.
My brother had shaken his head and stroked his tangled beard. “There’s no closure with the dead. It’s a one-way conversation, like talking to a busy signal.”
“Still,” I’d said. “Gotta try.”
But here I felt less certain. In life, my father was as predictable as taxes. In death, he surprised me. How was this what he’d wished and willed for his eternal remains?
There were more roped off skeletons and corpses. Some looked alive, just napping in the woods, face down and naked. One was half-covered with black plastic, legs stuck out, like an abandoned car in a yard.
“Hey,” my brother said, “remember how Pops used to take us to the cemetery at night? To light candles and summon spirits?”
Landon snapped his fingers. “That was fucking cool. Your old man was cool as shit.”
“That never happened,” I said.
Landon and my brother stopped and turned back to me.
“What’re you talking about?” My brother said. “Of course it did.”
“He never did that.”
They locked eyes.
“Mandela effect,” Landon whispered and my brother nodded.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
Landon raised his eyebrows. “I thought they taught everything in lawyer school.”
Landon spat in the direction of a stray ribcage. My brother stared at me with a look borrowed from our father. An open-mouthed, droopy face that said: Is your head screwed on backwards?
“Maybe you just weren’t there,” my brother said.
The path turned to gravel road. We followed it awhile, and then I saw her: the old man’s ‘71, 280SL. In the rush of his death, I’d forgotten Marilyn, his convertible. The vanity plates, TOPLWYR, still on it.
“Marilyn Mercedes?” I said.
“Pops stipulated it.”
Landon whistled. “Hell of a car.”
“Mom thought you might try to contest the will. She said, and I quote, ‘I don’t want your brother digging his legal beak into my husband’s last wishes.’”
“Why’s it called the Bar Exam, anyway?” Landon said. “Seems like a test I’d get cozy with. One I’d pass with flying colors.”
“Bar is short for barrister. It’s an old thing.”
“Like you.” My brother rabbit punched me, and I wrestled him into a headlock, like old times. He struggled, and I squeezed, but my heart wasn’t in it, especially with what lay ahead. I let my arm go slack, and my brother wriggled out and ran to the car, like we were kids again, homebound after a family picnic.
As a teenager, I’d told my father how much I hated Tennessee. He’d said, “No rust and nine months top down? Paradise.”
Marilyn’s top was still down, even though it was December. Her leather seats were glazed with leaves and animal droppings. Landon rooted the keys out of his pocket. “You ready?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t sure at all.
“First, I want you to know that your father has done a great thing. Donate your body to medicine, and they maybe use it six months. The research here, with some corpses, goes on forever.”
My brother nodded solemnly, tucking one hand under the elastic of his sweatpants. A candy bar appeared in the other.
“Second,” Landon continued, “prepare for the smell. Especially with a freshman like your father. This ain’t no dead mouse behind the fridge.”
I nodded and he popped the trunk.
The smell struck like a bushel of rotten fruit, a blinding, musty-sweet stench. I covered my nose and retched in my hands. The flies droned like a chorus of tiny saws.
Landon grinned wide. “That bouquet you don’t forget.”
Inside the trunk, our father curled, chin tucking knees, fully dressed in his blue suit. It could have been anyone, but it was dad. There was the scar from his Navy years. His gold wedding band squeezed a swollen finger.
I spoke through my hands. “Why’s he dressed?”
“They like to study all the variables with PMI—post mortem interval,” Landon said, flicking his shoulder. “Some are naked, some are dressed, under tarps or underwater. Some in car trunks.”
I stared as flies crawled in and out of his ears and nose.
“The flies show up ‘bout a half hour after you die. They crawl inside and lay—”
My brother punched his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up, Lando.”
We all shut up. I stood there, gaping at a dead man in the trunk of a car.
A crazy fantasy rushed my head. I’d swipe the keys from Landon and drive off in Marilyn, Dad still in the trunk. Top down, I’d get on I-40 and drive straight to Los Angeles, right up to the edge of the Pacific.
My brother dropped a hand on my shoulder. “You want to speak your thing? Last words for Pops?”
I did. I didn’t. What was there to say? I’d been rehearsing my ‘done with the law’ speech for months. I’d wanted to say that the people in law school were the worst people I’d met in my life. I wanted to say that the worst of the worst, the gunners, reminded me of him. How I’d never retake the Bar.
But I’d rehearsed the speech with a living man as an audience. Talking into this trunk felt useless. The finality of what lay there swallowed my words before I spoke them.
“It’s a weird thing,” my brother said. “Like all that’s left is an empty human suit. An empty cocoon. Like the part of us that is us goes on to something else.”
Landon whistled “Dust in the Wind” and looked at me.
I finally nodded, and he slammed the trunk shut.
Driving to the airport, my brother cleared his throat and spoke. “You’ve been back two days and haven’t once asked how I’m doing.”
“You have chocolate in your beard,” I said. “Your life uniform is sweatpants and Crocs. What am I supposed to ask?”
He grinned, fingers drumming the steering wheel. “I’m in a transition phase.”
I took the bait. “You’re finding yourself.”
“I’m a caterpillar.”
“Slow to leave its cocoon,” I said.
My brother giggled. I remembered all our father’s rationalizing riffs, the things he told himself and others on behalf of my brother, 30, and still living at home.
My brother reminded me of the time he’d bit a bar of vanilla soap, figuring it would taste sweet. “Remember how hard Pops laughed?”
“He was red as a stop sign. I thought he’d have a heart attack.”
My words rung like a vacuum, sucking out all sound. We rode two miles in quiet.
“He still talked about you all the time,” my brother finally said. “You know, his ‘Golden Boy,’ the New York lawyer. In Pop’s eyes, compared to you, I was one-inch tall. I started hating you.”
“More than before?”
“A lot more.”
“Anyway, I’m not a lawyer.”
“I heard a lot of people don’t pass till the third time,” my brother said.
I wanted to say how it was better to be a one-inch caterpillar—who got to light candles in graveyards and go water skiing—than the butterfly, saddled with legacy expectations. But I just shrugged and watched the cornfields scroll past.
At the airport, my brother pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and hugged me at the curb. He stepped on my toes, an old trick, and kissed my cheeks like a Frenchman. It was a thing he’d picked up from our father, who’d been to France exactly once during his Navy years.
My brother winked, chocolate crumbs in his beard like mud flecks.
“You’re in a transition phase,” he said.
“Finding myself,” I said.