The Ministers’ Morgue - Conclusion

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

The following piece of fiction is the conclusion of a three-part series. Read part one. Read part two. On January 13th I will share the real event from my life that was the inspiration for The Ministers' Morgue and discuss some of the issues from this story.

The man began to speak quickly - very business-like. “Well, that’s done. Cause of death was a comminuted fracture of the spine due to unknown stress agents. The spine itself had been fused together over time by further unknown stress agents, leading to a lack of flexibility. The fracture caused massive internal injuries and bleeding, leading to the patient’s demise.”

He nodded at me. “You can take a seat over there by the wall. You’re looking a little shaky, which is understandable. I’ll close him up. We’re done. You’ve seen what you were brought here to see.”

I sat in a metal folding chair against the wall while the man pulled Doug’s skin back together and stitched him up. I was bouncing my heel up and down at a furious pace. My stomach was churning. I felt like I had done something wrong and been caught. It was like sitting outside the principal’s office in high school. I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled it sounded shaky. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. After a few moments I heard the man washing his hands. He walked toward me as he dried them.

“Come into my office.” He pointed to a door I hadn’t noticed. I followed him inside. He sat behind the desk, and I sat in a chair facing him.

The man looked at me for a moment or two. He spun his chair around, grabbed a cup, and poured himself some coffee from a Mr. Coffee machine on the credenza behind him.

“Cup of coffee?” he asked without turning around.

“Oh, no. Thanks though.”

He spun back around and opened a desk drawer. He took out a small, flask-shaped bottle of whiskey and poured a shot into his coffee. He looked at me and raised the bottle a few inches. “You sure?”

I snickered and shook my head.

“What’s funny?”

“Oh, just the flask and pouring a shot of whiskey into your coffee. It’s in every movie. Only I’ve never really actually seen anyone do it. It's almost like we're in a movie or a story or something.”

The man said nothing. He raised the cup to his lips and sipped from it.

“I find that kind of thing funny is all. That’s funny to me.”

He made no response to this. He leaned back in his chair and drank his coffee. I thought about asking if there was a Coke machine, but that request seemed so wildly out of place that I abandoned the thought as soon as it occurred to me.

“So what did you think about that?” he asked.

“The autopsy? I don’t know what to think about that. I don’t know how to think about…even thinking about that. What was that? How does that happen to anyone? Fused spine? Exploding stuff? Bone shrapnel?”

“I see this sort of thing fairly often. As I said before, it’s rare among the general population, but surprisingly common among clergy of a certain type. I have a pretty good idea of what happened to Doug.”

“Yeah? What happened to him?”

He set his coffee cup down and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk.

“Do you know what a tell is?”

“A tell? Yeah, that’s like in poker where your face or something gives you away. You know, like shows that you’re bluffing or something.”

“Right. Some people say that everyone has a tell. That’s correct, but it’s a vast understatement. The truth is, the entire human body is a tell. Your body always tells the truth about you. Eventually. Oh, the body will let you get away with stuff for awhile. You can overeat, smoke, lie, try to love everyone in the world, embezzle, try to act like Jesus, tell white lies for all the best reasons, cheat on your wife. Whatever. You can do these things, but the body will always tell on you in the end. The truth always comes out in the body.”

Suddenly I had a very strange feeling about this guy. “Who are you? You’re not just an autopsy…guy, the person who does the autopsies. You're something else...some other thing, right?”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Heh heh heh. Ahhhh… You!”

I had no idea what he meant by that but decided not to ask.

“What happened to our friend Doug is simply stated. He was trying to be what he could not be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, let me lay it out for you. There is the reality of who you are. It is the sum total of all that you think and feel and do. It is an undeniable reality. And there is the reality of who you hope to be, what you hope to do, the kind of person you hope to become. And hoping to become something that is better than what you are is a good and worthy thing. But it doesn’t change the fact of who you are at this time. Doug was trying to be something that he was not.”

“You mean he was a hypocrite?”

“Good Lord, no! Doug was perhaps the finest minister I’ve ever known. And I’ve known quite a few. His integrity was above reproach. Ironically, that was his downfall.”

“I’m really having a hard time following you here.”

“Look, the hypocritical ministers never have this problem. The televangelists, the con-artists, the narcissists, the ambitious. They can say one thing, do another, claim to be something else altogether, and go home and sleep like a baby. They know who they are. They’ve made their peace with hypocrisy. They decided long ago that they would do whatever is necessary to get what they want in life. And they usually get exactly what they want.”

“Yeah, but they’re not happy, right? They get the money and the power, but those turn out to be hollow and meaningless.”

“Oh no. They’re quite happy. Tickled pink. Glowing. Laughing. Filled with joy. Having a ball."

“Are you serious? They're actually happy? That bites!”

“Settle down. The truth is, those people have a very shallow idea of happiness. Let them enjoy it while they can. It's all they have, you know. Doug’s problem was that he tried so very hard to be what he thought he should be. He tried be the kind of person he thought the church needed him to be. He tried to love people he could not love. And he denied loves he truly had but felt he shouldn’t. That one hurt him badly - every day. He did things he did not want to do - which is fine - but he tried to make-believe that he enjoyed doing them. Worst of all, he tried to make himself believe things that he did not believe. That’s the one that broke his back in the end. He tried so hard. He couldn’t bear hypocrisy. You can’t imagine the mind games he played trying to keep the faith. I told you that the body does not lie. The tension inside of Doug was immense. By the sheer force of his will, he developed a thick spine to try and hold it all together. But eventually the pressure was too much, and he blew. Boom.”

He paused and scratched the surface of the table with his fingernail.

“They always blow in the end. You should remember that. The body always wins.”

“But it seems like those things he was trying to do are all good things - most of them anyway. It seems good to me that he wanted to be what he felt he should be.”

“It was good. And Doug was a good man. But it’s not a question of good or bad. It’s simple reality. You are what you are. What else could you be? Perhaps it’s even a good thing that Doug gave his life trying to be what he thought he should be. He helped a lot of people along the way. But just because it was a good thing doesn’t mean it didn’t cost him. Remember, when you break the bottle and pour nard on the feet of Jesus, that might be a good thing to do, but the bottle is still broken and the nard lost forever.”

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Moments passed. The man said nothing. He just sipped his coffee and watched me.

“I don’t know what to do with this new information. I never thought of ministry like this. What am I…what are we supposed to do?”

The man stood up and walked around to my chair. He laid his hand on my shoulder.

“You don’t have to do anything. You came to bear witness, and so you did. You saw what you needed to see. I dare say you won’t forget it either. That’s all you need to know for now.”

A small red light on his desk started blinking. Both of our heads turned toward it.

“Well, that’s all the time we have. That would be Reverend Sparks. A friend of yours, I think. He’s here to identify the other body. I have one last thing to say to you. Be about the Lord's work. And be well. See if you can find a way to be both."

I gasped. “The Tertium Quid!”

He smiled.

I met Sparks at the top of the stairs. He was understandably surprised to see me.

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

“Same thing you’re doing.”

I watched Sparks go down to the man waiting for him. The last thing I heard before the door closed behind me was, “No credentials? Well, you’ll have to take the test.”

by Gordon Atkinson, author of and Turtles all the Way Down. Photo by Plain Joe Studios.