The Nether World on Pico Boulevard

By Karin Howard


The cremation was put on hold. Something was wrong with the death certificate.

My husband had died two weeks before. Two polite gentlemen from the L.A. chapter of the Neptune Society, which takes care of cremations and ocean burials, came and wrapped him, tagged him and whisked Joe away in an immaculate white truck. I watched it crawl up the hill of our curved little street in Silver Lake until it turned the corner and careened down Micheltorena with its splendid, mirage-like view of downtown Los Angeles. At the last moment I had slipped a bundle wrapped in red cloth, containing an eagle feather, an arrow head we had collected in Oregon, a rosebud we had picked up near an ancient church in Europe and his carving of a little donkey under the white sheet from which Joe's toe stuck out with his name tag attached. It's really done that way, wow!

The coroner would not issue a death certificate because he had a problem with the wording of the cause of death. This sounded very frightening. Joe had suffered a brain aneurysm. A registered nurse was present during his peaceful passing at our home. She called the family doctor who then did the required paper work. The ominous notion of a disgruntled, suspicious coroner was giving me nightmares. I was expecting guys in dark suits to knock at my door at 5:00 a.m. to interrogate me. Did you murder your husband? You'll inherit his IRA, will you not? Was assisted suicide ever discussed? Fortunately, we did not believe in life insurance. One less strike against me. In those first days of mourning, any dark, Kafkaesque scenario seemed possible.

My contact at the Neptune Society was getting impatient with my daily frantic calls and questions. It wasn't their fault. They got no joy out of tying up their freezers. They'd rather run a smooth operation.

A few days turned into two weeks.

I was spending sleepless nights wondering about being questioned by detectives and autopsies being ordered. Why had the doctor, whom we barely knew, not even shown up but signed the certificate in absentia, so to speak? Was it a problem that I could not remember my husband's mother's maiden name when the Neptune Society confronted me with endless forms only half an hour after Joe's death?

But it was the thought of Joe's body in a crematorium's freezer somewhere in L.A. that was becoming even more upsetting than the misgivings of the coroner and I inquired where exactly my husband's body was being kept. Reluctantly, the Neptune Society administrator gave me a street number on Pico Boulevard. It was a number in the 3000's and I assumed it was not far from where I live.

On a sunny Saturday morning I climbed into my hand-washed and hand-waxed red Mustang convertible. My husband taught me to take proper care of the old horse. He loved the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and was critical of people who neglected the upkeep of the technical objects they acquired.

I picked sunflowers, rosemary and sage from the garden and made a little bouquet. My black lab Midnight was eager to go for a ride. I brushed him and tied a red bandana around his neck.

I felt a sense of excitement, like we were going to the beach or for one of our favorite rides on the Angeles Crest Highway. At least I would know where Joe was. I wanted to believe that my visit would make him feel less alone. But truth be told, I hoped that by being near him I would not feel so alone.

I took Micheltorena to Sunset, Sunset to Alvarado, Alvarado to Pico and turned left and realized quickly that the address had to be east of downtown. Way east. I drove past the bank buildings, crossed the garment district and found myself in the industrial underbelly of the city. Normally, I love downtown and the amalgam of delivery ramps, old storage structures and once glamorous entrances with their art deco or Mayan themes, but on this Saturday morning the streets were totally deserted. I was all alone. My shiny Mustang, my Versace sunglasses and my noble passenger in the back with his red bandana felt dangerously out of place, possibly inciting Crips or Bloods or the 18th Street gang. Hopefully, we just looked silly or quintessential L.A.

Suddenly, Pico ended.

Now what?

One of the warehouses was open so I stopped and ventured inside. Robot-like, men and women from south of the border were sewing, ironing, and folding, sewing, ironing, and folding. Creaking fans kept the hot air moving. I asked the manager of the sweatshop for directions and he helped me to relocate Pico Boulevard. Driving away I could feel his puzzled stare at the nape of my neck.

I passed under graffiti strewn bridges and freeway overpasses. Crossing the L.A. River was like crossing the river Styx to Hades. I did not see a living soul. Just when I began to wonder if I would ever find the crematorium, the street numbers finally started making sense again. I rolled to a stop in front of a neatly painted one-story building. I thought it could have been a repair shop for window shades or a shipping outfit, then I saw three chimneys on its roof. No smoke was seeping out, they just sat there, made of solid steel. There was no company logo or sign, just a small, discrete number like at an exclusive night club.

Millions of tiny house wrens with their buzzy, scolding chatter flitted around the fichus trees that lined the entire block. The atmosphere was friendly and rural. Midnight hopped out as soon as I parked and went on a sniffing binge.

Holding Joe's bouquet I circled the building. A door and a small office window with burglar bars faced the street. The spotless yard in the back could be entered through an electric black iron-gate. A roll-up industrial door led to the inside. Security cameras were mounted on the corners. The place seemed as well protected as a showcase at Tiffany's. Why all the precautions? To keep people from stealing dead bodies? Prevent necrophilic orgies? Witchcraft? Halloween pranks?

I sat on the stoop of a boarded up house across the street, hugging my knees. Midnight settled smack in the middle of the dusty street.

I tried to visualize Joe inside the building. In a way it did feel comforting to be at least physically closer to him, and to know the location of his body's final resting-place.

I thought about his movements crisscrossing the City of the Angels over the years. Joe had been a sculptor and painter before he caught the film bug and worked for some 20 years as a cameraman. He grew up in Santa Monica, Reseda, and Hollywood and played football for Hollywood High. He had studio space in Venice and for a year negotiated Sunset in his VW bus, traveling from a cheap basement apartment in Echo Park to UCLA film school. Downtown, on Traction Avenue, his neon sculptures "High Heel Sneakers" and "Quicksilver Girl" had been shown at the opening of the Museum of Neon Art. We shared fabulous years together in Silver Lake – breakfast at Millie's, lunch at L.A. Nicola, harvesting peaches, figs, black berries and avocados from our garden, exchanging jars of oven-hot marmalade with our neighbors and hosting an action committee to preserve Silent Movie star Antonio Moreno's Italian villa and surrounding park, home to hawks and owls. From the balcony of our house, perched high on a hill looking west, we watched dramatic sunsets, vapor trails of rockets being catapulted into the sky at Vandenburg, police helicopters, car chases, brush fires, the looting of Circuit City and klieg lights at Grauman's Chinese Theater. And now Joe was here, in limbo, in the flats of East L.A. End of journey.

It was nearly noon and getting very hot. Midnight was panting.

A tall, skinny homeless man shuffled up with a rattling shopping cart. It had a few bottles and cans inside. He was curious. What was I doing here? And could he pat the dog? He could.

Then I explained. Words tumbled out at a rapid pace about Joe, my husband of 22 years, about the delay and the fear and feeling bad for him being locked up in there.

He sat down next to me and told me he helped out at the crematorium as a janitor. We shook hands.

"Karin."

"Tyler" he said. "If you want to see your husband again, the buddy I work for could let you in. Just show up at around 5:00 tomorrow morning."

Now that was a thought! Before I could make concrete plans to sneak into the crematorium and personally place my flowers on Joe's frozen chest, I wanted to have more facts. What was it like in there?

"Man, it's cold! Like a meat freezer."

I shuddered despite the midday heat. Would a thin veil of ice cover Joe's face? Would he be hanging from the ceiling on a meat hook?

"No, no, the bodies are stashed on shelves."

Like bunk beds, I thought.

"When the cremation takes place, there's a shroud of black smoke. They torch them at 3000 degrees. It takes three hours. The bones take so long because of the minerals. That's why they can only burn so many…the fire comes from above, the ashes fall below."

"It's a classy outfit," Tyler added after a while. Compared to what? Tyler wanted to be cremated, too. "The earth should be used to grow food, not to bury corpses."

Looking at his skinny frame I could understand his preoccupation with food. Tyler was from New Jersey. He had worked nights as a Janitor in New York. In the morning his wife would come and pick him up. One morning someone crashed into her car on the New Jersey turnpike. She died at the scene. Tyler couldn't stand being in familiar surroundings without her and moved to California. Getting over the guilt was the hardest part. If she hadn't picked him up that day she would still be alive.

"Sometimes I'll smile and somebody will ask me why. I'll say I've just remembered something beautiful about my wife. I've met many lady friends but no one can take her place." Tyler started to cry.

I had been crying steadily for a while now.

Midnight got up, shook himself and settled down a bit closer to us. I told Tyler about the red bundle I had stashed under my husband's sheet before the Neptune guys took him away. How Joe respected the customs of Native Americans. He valued their culture for its sense of place. He was convinced that modern day Americans would feel less alienated and adrift if they honored the land on which they lived and worked. He had tried to bring the beautiful book "Seven Arrows" by Hyemeyohsts Storm to the screen, because he thought it would help people to feel love for the earth and all living things, but it was not meant to happen in his lifetime. The idea for the red bundle was inspired by his friend Sky Bear who had told me to wrap items I deemed important to his afterlife in a piece of red cloth and have the little bundle accompany Joe on his journey. It would help him be welcomed into the right circles on the other side. The color red would deter bad spirits.

At the last moment I included the wooden donkey. Joe had started carving it during one of the long waits on the set of Robert Redford's "Milagro Beanfield Wars" up in Taos. A local Extra had taught him how to do that sort of thing. When we took down our last Christmas tree together and I wrapped the decorations to stow them away in the basement, he had asked me to leave the donkey upstairs because he hadn't finished it. The ears weren't right yet. Joe never got around to it. And now the little donkey would burn with him at 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. I liked the idea of Joe perfecting the donkey's ears, somewhere out there. Tyler liked the idea, too.

I smiled. Joe would have enjoyed talking with Tyler. He was an artist who cared about people who were down on their luck. He picked up on the surreal, painful and humorous in any situation.

A familiar looking white truck arrived. I perked up. So this is what happened when they took away Joe. The automatic gate slid open, the truck passed through, the gate closed. The building's rolling door opened and closed. It took no longer than five minutes and the truck departed again. Inside the crematorium, a still-warm body was beginning to freeze.

The driver waved at Tyler. I noticed it with a sense of satisfaction. It confirmed that he might actually be able to sneak me inside.

"Now you must live, it's your life," Tyler advised and stopped crying.

I nodded obediently and dried my tears.

"I…I don't think I want to go in."

"What about the flowers?"

"I'll tie them to the burglar bars by the door. Do you think you can… tomorrow morning?"

Tyler promised to tell his buddy about my visit and make sure Joe would get the flowers. He would also check on the red bundle. Who knows if it had landed in a broom closet or some lost and found box.

I got up, crossed the street and tied the bouquet to the burglar bars. "For you Josie! So you know I was here, close to you and everybody who passes by will know that there's a person in here, not a tag, not a number, but someone who is very much loved and missed."

I turned around.

No sight of Tyler. Two burly homeboys in sparkling white tank tops settled down on the concrete stoop opening their first cold beer on a hot day. They sat there like ancient guardians of the nether world whose job it was to tell visitors from the other side of the river that they should move on.

--------

Ten endless days later, the death certificate was finally issued. It took another two days for the ashes to be transported from Pico Boulevard to the Neptune Society headquarters in Burbank. I didn't want to risk further delays and picked them up myself. I was surprised how heavy the brown metal box was. But then, Joe had been a big guy.

I veered off the 5 Freeway onto Los Feliz Boulevard. The top was down and the sun was shining. Midnight's ears were flapping in the wind. It felt good to drive home with Joe beside me, one last time.

 

Karin Howard is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles. Her many credits include The Never-Ending Story II, the stylish film noir The Tigress and the animated feature Millionaire Dogs. Karin is originally from Germany where her first novel "Wild Mourning" was published and made into a prize winning television film. She has traveled widely and worked for international dailies as well as German television, specializing in youth culture, fashion and trends. She is a graduate of the American Film Institute.

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