a 42-year-old man who died over in Zion yesterday, and they don't know how he passed
“I hope so.”
“Well, it may be harder to determine than that. If he had a bullet hole, it'd make it a lot
easier, huh?” he said, chuckling. “We don't listen to police reports or the news. We make
the news. He didn't have a heart attack!”
I supposed that he needed to laugh as much as possible. It was like laughing along with
a mental patient. You smirk and chuckle, but you keep a trained eye on his every
movement. What was it like to work around stiffs all day long, all week long from January
to December unzipping black plastic body bags with the scattered remains of strangers,
vagrants and criminals? Some were dismembered. Some were burned to a crisp. Others
were mangled, and many could not be recognized from bullet wounds to the face. He
didn't look crazy. But then again, neither did I. I’ve seen lots of bodies on the job, but this
one wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He was lodging there, paying no BCBS fee. I’d
hate to spend the night in that room.
The hospital rep had to get a word in edgewise. “Now Tim, if you feel queasy at any
point, just say the word. We'll have this chair for you.”
“I think I'll be okay,” I said nervously. My palms were dripping and I kept swallowing.
I always start swallowing the morning after a drunk with a hangover that signals a
message that I am about to throw up, and that it's just a matter of time. My mouth waters
more than usual; then there is the hot stinging tightness in the throat. The knock at the
door startled me, and I dropped my pen. I shouldn't have stayed out until 4 a.m. at The
Side Pocket Lounge.
“Have you washed up yet? Don't contaminate anything. I wouldn't touch the floor.”
Now you tell me, doc.
Scrubbing up, I used the brush to sandblast my fingernails as the hearse driver rolled in
this gurney with my new friend aboard.
“Where you want this?”
The driver was chewing tobacco and grabbing at his pen just to make sure it was there
in his shirt pocket as the bag moved a little as the gurney halted.
“That's Jimmy, Tim. Say hi.”
“Hey, man. Whatcha got there, dude?”
“You a reporter? You look like one.”
“Sure am. I used to wear a scanner all the time, but that sucks.”
“I ain't got nothing to say. Just kidding. I'll bet they all say that. Don't quote me! It's
payday. You'll have to pardon my sunny attitude, but nothing can go wrong on payday.
It's the happiest day of the week.”
The pathologist rubbed his stomach and said, “Don't spend it all in one place, Jimmy.”
“That's right Doc, or I might end up like this guy? You want to write this down? He d
died at a party last night. Been dead, I don't know, about 12 hours. You ever been to an
autopsy?” Whenever somebody asks me to write something down and it’s not important,
I’ll scribble incessantly, writing gibberish and act interested.
“No. Is that Red Man?”
“Yeah. A virgin! You guys get a load of that! You'd better bring out the net.”
“Damn, man, give me a break. Don't worry, I've taken precautions.”
“And what precautions are they?” the hospital dweeb said.
“Thanks a lot, Jimmy. You can wait outside, and Tim can interview you after we finish
up. Thanks a lot. Cheryl's needs your John Hancock at the desk. Is there anything else?”
“Nah, Doc. See you.”
The sound of a zipper - under the happiest circumstances it might be the slow, popping
sound of your date's jeans as you pull down the metal teeth to expose a belly button, then
tanned flesh, then untanned flesh, then hair, then the real thing. You might recall the sound
of a zipper on your traveling coat bag or the inviting sound of a zipper as your hand
guides her dress zipper down her back to the bottom of her spine.
But this particular zipper gave me a chill up around the top of my neck as gooseflesh
erupted up and down my arms. I closed my peepers, and when I opened them, I saw our
man Flint. Here was a zipperhead, dead to the world, laid out in unearthly splendor. He
looked dead. Dirt nap city. His skin looked different. It was gross as hell.
“It can be much worse than this. Sometimes they come in all burned up or with rotten
10-day-old skin and limbs falling off. This is a good one. He's a perfect subject. Now, let's
see what did him in.”
The pathologist looked over the body for marks or distinguishing factors which might
lead him to the conclusion that the man had died of foul play. Then he calmly opened up a
drawer and pulled out a saw and a big knife.
“Let's get started, shall we?”
All of a sudden I get this feeling somewhere between my thighs and my knees. It felt
like everything was numb. I couldn't feel it, therefore I could transmit no cerebral
messages to strengthen them and prevent them from shaking and giving way. The saw
buzzed and screeched, splitting the guy's chestplate open like a durned canoe. From the
neck to groin, he looked like a canoe. Reaching into the squishy wet tissues and organs,
the pathologist felt around like he was trying to snag a fish in a fishbowl and
transfer it to another bowl.
“This is the liver.”
“Oh, yes. It sure is. Oh, my God.” I thought of Dr. Paul Bearer from the High Point
TV station when I was young, the horror shows they'd broadcast on Saturday nights with
“We're going to take a close look at all of these on the microscope later. Now here is
With the scalpel, the pathologist sliced the stomach as a smell filled the room. It
smelled like apples.
“You smell that, Tim? This guy drinks. Looks like he was drinking apple wine last
night at the party.” My stomach's acid levels were rising. Its PH level was fluctuating.
The hospital rep looked at he pathologist, who looked at him, nodding with no
expression. “Tim, this is the part that you have to leave the room.”
The pathologist, sweating, said, “Don't smoke a cigarette out there now. You can get
germs on you and pass them to your mouth by smoking a cigarette. Just stand out there
with Jimmy for a few minutes, and I'll be through shortly. I've got to open the brain to get
the most important piece of evidence that we can discover?”
“Yes. The saw can spray contaminated blood into the air which isn't healthy, and the
hospital's insurance won't....” This was 1986, and AIDS was fresh out of Pandora's Box.
“That'll be enough,” the rep said. “Outside now.”
I felt like I was involuntarily having to admit that I had to leave the examining room. It
wasn't like I couldn't handle it anymore and ran. It was only a temporary penalty. In the
hall I stood across the hall from Jimmy, who was spitting thick brown juice into a
Styrofoam coffee cup about half full or half empty, however one puts it in a pathology
department. We stared each other down and the clock as the interns shuffled by. I tried
not to blink, but as the high lonesome whine of that saw permeates the walls, I looked at
the lab door and grimaced.
“You like Vincent Price movies?”
“Naw. I just drive the meat wagon. I saw 'Billy Jack' five times.”
“You can come back in now. How is he, Jimmy?”
Jimmy spat in the cup and grunted with a smile.
When I went back in, Flint's head looked like someone had taken a sword and chopped
off the top of his head down to about halfway down the forehead, a kind of half cap that
“And this is his brain.”
And this is my brain on drugs. It was horrible.
“Is graveyard humor allowed?” I asked as my legs started giving out again. Here comes the
big swoon. Oh Lordy, take me! If this was going to get back to the newsroom, I was going to go
in style and days off.
“Absolutely. I wouldn't leave home without it.”
“The one thing that gets to me is where is this guy's soul?” I asked. “We know where
his body is. It sits right there in front of us. We know where his mind is. It's right there in
the palm of your hand.”
“And so it is.”
“But where is his soul? That's the question of life I wish I knew. Has it left his body? Is
it still in this room? Did it disappear? Did he have a soul in the first place?”
“He had a soul. He may still have it. For a while. Death is a funny thing. You can't
schedule it or forecast it. You think that you can take your own life and outline it, but
that's a whole other story. Death is your father. He created you. Your mother is life. You
can't have one without the other. Now his cadaver is a shell, but last night it was at the
party and full of life. His soul was last seen at the party. I hate to wax esoteric, but there
nothing much else to do down here when it gets boring. I'm just an examiner. I had
nothing to do with his life or his death. But I can help determine how he died and help
family members to be able to put together the pieces of their shattered lives and rest easy
at night because they'll know he died of a blunt trauma to the head.”
“He wasn't strangled, but I have to check that possibility because of those striations.
You see, this liver here is very enlarged which leads me to believe that the apple wine,
whether it was cheap or Chateaux Blanche 1947, may have been self-administered in large
portions through his years. The brain will tell us that.”
“What was that noise?”
“Just gases. He's not getting up. Believe me. Don't get morose on me. Pink your
cheeks. You look a little queasy. Are you all right? Do they give your insurance at The
He took a sample of the brain and put it on a slide like he was wiping excess butter off
a butterknife. “Now we can determine when he died. You see that?”
“Yes. What is it?”
“He died about 10 p.m. He also had a bad ticker. His heart would have given out on
him in a year or two.”
Then the piece of brain on the table began to change shape, moving by itself it began to
slowly blur in and out of focus and my brain felt light like there was not enough blood
getting to it. Then the numbness in my legs spread instantaneously to every other part of
my body and my eyesight turned light, then pitch black. I was out like a light and hit the
floor like a ton of bricks.
Charlie and I had a load of laughs over that later in the evening, and he spewed beer on
me passing out. Sick days get harder and harder to earn.
“Very good, old boy. Chop-chop. Encore,” Charlie said as I told him the
story. “Bravo, skeevo. Cheerio! Did you really pass out?”
“No. Almost though.”
Driving into the Laurinburg cemetery Sunday with my nephews and niece, they wanted
to hear another one of my ghost stories. Usually, an extemporaneous phantom tale spun
from my cerebellum’s left-brain region, I ask them if they want the “not-so-scary” version
or the “scary” one. “We want the scary one!” they always chime. “You’ve told us that
one!” I hate funerals.
“Well, this is a real ghost story. It really happened.”
Saturday night I greeted visitors at McDougald Funeral Home on East Church Street
across the street from First Baptist Church where I worshipped as a child and would spent
the night during sleepover “lock-ins.” A vacant, dark church is the scariest place in the
world to spend the night, more so than a graveyard to me, because when you close your
eyes there’s nothing but you, Southern guilt, creaks, shadows and ghoulish thoughts of an
organ that plays by itself.
It was time to retreat and regroup from tears at the visitation for my uncle Norman
Sanford, mainly because I called “Mr. Patton” “Mr. Lytch” and got embarrassed. Into the
office of Beacham McDougald I hid, an office which used to be occupied by his dad, the
late Hewitt McDougald, who had a wooden leg from polio and a shiny, mischievous glint
in his eyes.
Beacham agreed to fax me a copy of the legend, a version written by William C.
“Sandy” Barrett III, son of former mayor Charles Barrett.
“Okay, here’s the scary version. When I was little, your age, we’d walk to the Center
or Gibson Theatre on Main Street with a Sundrop bottle that got us in free for the triple
feature horror movie on Halloween. We’d always stop by the funeral home to see
Just outside of McColl, South Carolina on April 29, 1911, near the current Rockola
redneck jukejoint where fights break out every 15 minutes and I’ve never seen closing
time, Spaghetti met his maker.
“Spaghetti worked in a circus, and he was an Italian fellow,” I said. The kids were
silent as we pulled into the graveyard.
Cancetto Farmica was born in Italy around 1887, according to Barrett, having come to
America around the century’s turn when he joined an itinerant carnival which traveled
from small town to borough across the South.
In Marlboro County the troupe set up tent, and sometime that evening a fight broke
out, and Spaghetti was killed with a blow to the head from a heavy tent stake.
“History does not record the events of the fight, or if anyone was ever charged,”
Barrett wrote. “What we do know, the next day a man appeared with the body in
Laurinburg, seven miles to the north at McDougald Funeral Home.”
“Was he dead?” my nephew asked, engrossed.
“Yeah. We could see him in this wooden box that had a glass case. You could see
where somebody had hit him in the head. All we ever heard when I was your age was that
Spaghetti was a real meek guy, and there was a bad guy in the circus who killed him over
The funeral home owners had been in the mortuary business since 1881 “of the sturdy
Scotch stock that settled in the region in the 1750s,” Barrett wrote.
John McDougald, the founder’s son, was on duty when the man brought the body,
reportedly identifying himself as Spaghetti’s father.
“The father left the body, the stake that was the murder weapon and a $10 deposit with
instructions to prepare but not to bury the body, and he would return in a few days to
make the final arrangements. Mr. John embalmed the body and awaited Cancetto
Farmica’s father to return.”
He never returned.
The mummy stayed at the funeral home where the McDougalds kept it on display with
a “perpetual grin,” sunken eyes, stitches and crossed arms. The cadaver was first kept in a
coffin in the attic of the when the establishment was on Main Street, but when it moved to
Biggs Street it was placed in a box.
Hewitt McDougald was told by his father to adhere to the agreement to keep the
“If a member of the man’s family would show up with proof, or if anybody would pay
for storage and funeral costs, I will bury the body,” Hewitt McDougald would say, Barrett
In the early 1970s a New York politician and media coverage over Spaghetti resulted
in a final resting place for the remains. The cost of the burial was $25,000, and Mr.
McDougald didn’t say who where the donation originated from. Finally, on Sept. 30,
1972, 61 years after his murder, burial was completed with a service by a Catholic priest.
“Hewitt provided the finest casket and vault that money could buy and had concrete
poured over the vault to ensure that no one would ever dig him up,” Barrett wrote.
When I was about eight or so the thing to do would be to walk to the Center Theatre
or the Gibson Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. There would be a Jerry Lewis movie
playing or the horror features which you could gain admission to by bringing with you a
Sundrop bottle which could be recycled at the bottling company near my father’s furniture
store. Collecting bottles was my major source of income. I’d collect cases upon cases and
turn them in for cold hard cash at a store.
On the way to the theater, we’d always stop at McDougald Funeral Home. At this
mortuary we would stop and gaze at one of the most blackest, most macabre sights in the
world without adult supervision. Sometimes you’d have to stand in line. But you’d wait
your turn to enjoy a gaze at what was Laurinburg’s claim to fame, a wrinkled charcoal-
Well, when we’d visit the funeral home on the way to the Hammer Films horror classic,
which might be accompanied by a vaudeville type of stage extravaganza, we’d walk into
the garage of the funeral home where the big bad black Cadillacs would be parked, ready
for the next burial. The light brown wooden cabinet, about the size of a small coffin, was
displayed upright against the wall near the steps inside the building.
If you were the brave one, you’d reach for the hook handle and open the plywood
door, holding your thumb, index finger and middle finger against your nose, and fling it
open with the verve of Aladdin. As the door swung open, there was an unutterable gasp as
the glass pane became visible and you came face-to-face with Spaghetti in all his charm
and vigor, hanging there like a piece of meat on a hook. There were two infant corpses at
his feet, and nobody ever knew where in the hell they came from and what their story was.
“Ooh! Look at how skinny he is!”
“What is that hole in his head?”
“That’s where the guy beat him in the head and killed him!”
“Was it murder?”
“Yeah, Spaghetti moved in on his girlfriend and the man got mad and hit him in the h
head with that club in there.”
Shrunken and brown-skinned, the cadaver hung with a spooky looking fiendish grin on
his face that looked like it was the one he was born with. You had to touch the glass, the
case, and tap on it just to see if you could awaken this murder victim. Looking at him,
staring, might allow you a glimpse at a silent movement. In the summer humidity a few
gulps of this stinky air would bother your stomach enough to make you want to march on
for the two more blocks to make it to the Vincent Price show of an Edgar A. Poe piece.
My brother always remembered when I pulled him down to the Center Theatre to
watch “Two on a Guillotine” with Caesar Romero where this head tumbled down the
staircase and my brother ran outside and threw up. He always mentions it in mixed
company. I think it’s to blame me for everything that has gone rotten in his life, or to
remind me that he was a victim of sibling torture. I think it pushed him into medicine.
Two Halloweens ago I did a story and column on “The Bingham Light” in Dillon
County, a tale much like “The Light At Maco Station” near Wilmington, which the
Wilmington Star had a thick morgue file on with articles and photos when I was a copy
editor there. Joe Baldwin, the brakeman, lost his head in a train wreck and supposedly
caused a light which people saw on the track where he looked for his decapitated noggin.
“Yeah I saw it,” said Uncle Tom Sanford of Wilmington in the funeral parlor. “We saw
Trickling, neon red, blue and white lights atop Brown Mountain in North Carolina
gave me chillbumps when I’d drive over from Boone to see the alleged lanterns of the
spirits of Indian maidens, awaiting warrior-hunter husbands to return from a sojourn.
My JV football buds skipped practice one Halloween to drive up to Siler City to check out
“The Devil’s Tramping Ground,” a circle in the woods where nothing grows.
What has always scared me the most is when a fleeting silhouette passes or seems to
appear outside a window’s curtain, like in “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.” Rent out Don
Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” When our security light activates and the
neighborhood cat is not outside in the darkness, that bothers me. Besides the trucker
suicide in Boone, a triple crack murder in Mullins, and wrecks, the story that frightened
me the most was the autopsy I witnessed at Catawba Memorial in Hickory, N.C.
A search on my computer for the word “ghosts” turned up several bloodcurdling
Worldwide Web sites, including Shadowland, which offers sounds of apparitions, photos
and stories from across the world. I found a Columbia ghost horseman’s tale.
What’s really scary is how a circle is still trampled down around the grave of Alice in
Georgetown County from folks who think they’ll see her ghost if they walk around the
And what’s creepier than that is to close your eyes and think of the day, moment and
second you will die and what will happen after that. It’s not as scary if you have faith in
God. That’s the scariest thing in this life, no faith in a higher Supreme Being. Ghastly.
Like white on rice.
Mac won’t quit calling.
He never calls me any other time. Yes, he does. Let me amend that. He’s Spock. He
knows what I’m doing all the time, because he’s omnipresent. He’s akin to the Supreme
She-Being. If doesn’t matter what I’m into, he knows, somehow, mysteriously, what I’m
doing and where I am and what I’ve been doing and also what ahead in the road. You’d
want someone like this to be your master roadkeeper in life, at the end of the road, you
know what I mean? Ever since kindergarten....
“You haven’t sent in your $25 yet.”
I know I haven’t, Christ. I am broke, you dumb motherraper.
“I suppose you have forgotten or you’ve misplaced your checkbook or something.
Jamie still hasn’t gotten your money, Bullard.”
When he used my last name, he was always getting excruciatingly serious. I’ve got a
few days to come up with a quarter hundred, what do they call it nowadays? A quarter?
Whatever, I’ve got to steal, cheat, lie or wait until Friday the day before the event. Well
here is it is. It’s 20 years since I graduated from high school, and one of my kindergarten
buddies has been calling, leaving these absurd messages about my attendance. In
kindergarten he ruled the playground by being “the king” in a bunch of bushes where we
would hold informal meetings with the leader sitting on a throne of branches. Now he’s
doing the same thing, but the Onslow County Recreation Department is paying him a
healthy salary to be recreation director.
“Bullard, you haven’t sent your $25 check in yet. I suppose you’re still planning on
Durnit, first of all, I haven’t got that much money to invest in an event that I’ve
been avoiding thinking about for 19 years. I don’t want to go. It’s like a ride I am afraid of
at the park. Why do they want me there? I don’t want to be shown up. Everybody else in
my class has a nicer car, they have a home. they have a mortgage. They are working on
grooming junior for the gifted and talented program, while I work on trying not to look up
women’s dresses, try to stay out of jail and try to keep a subnormal job that doesn’t pay
the same as their bracket. I don’t drive a BMW. Most of them don’t either. Everybody’s
married except me. I will feel so embarrassed. Little do they know that I may be tempted
to write a column about it in the newspaper, The Marion Star & Mullins Enterprise.
One of the most important things about attending your 20th high school reunion is this,
partner: do not, I repeat, do not put up with that “You’re still single,” crap, and the “You