atingly hot main room, scattered with artwork he's created. By nightfall, the 20-inch-square canvas has evolved into a grim parody of Robert Indiana's stylized Love icon from the 1970s. In garish violet, corpuscle-red, and squid-ink black, Gein's version spells out hate, the t cocked at an ever-so-jaunty angle. Carefully applying coats of oil paint from tubes, squinting and sweating in the dim light and festering heat, it's 4:55 a.m. by the time he crawls into bed.
Twenty minutes later, Gein is jolted awake by the squeal of a two-way pager. Soaked with perspiration, hair stuck to his cheek, he somehow manages to grab a pen and a notepad and groggily jot down a name and address. He hangs up, lies back down on the mattress, and groans. A macabre Howdy Doody doll, grinning maniacally, leers above a small lamp. One of his own works, a black-velvet rendering of Charles Manson with searing red pupils, gazes at him hungrily. After his disorientation fades, Gein throws on a pair of dress slacks, a gray button-down shirt, and matching jacket. Fumbling, he finds a black clip-on tie and clumsily tucks it in place. It's time to go pick up a dead body.
The popularity of true-life crime dramas like Miami: CSI or HBO's behind-the-funeral-home-door series Six Feet Under notwithstanding, the task of taking care of the dead is just business. Life's dark down-
slope can appear as a sharp precipice or a slow, gradual decline -- maybe even somewhere in between -- but in the end, there's always someone with a gurney and a white van waiting for us.
For the past several years, Gein has been employed in this capacity, working for a private firm responsible for picking up corpses from crime scenes, morgues, hospitals, hospices, and medical examiners' offices, and dropping them off at funeral homes and crematoriums. In the process, he's learned exactly what happens to our loved ones after we've finally turned away. He's seen a lot. "Pretty much any way you can die," Gein drawls, "I've seen it."
This ill-timed, early-morning call isn't exactly atypical. There's been an accident on a Palm Beach County stretch of the Florida Turnpike. Gein needs to pick up a black male killed in the crash from the medical examiner's office and drive the body to a funeral parlor in nearby Riviera Beach. Even though he's seen tons of dead bodies, this one is particularly messed up. "I heard it was an accident involving a mobile home that was being moved," Gein says. "But from the way this guy looked, the trailer must've fallen right on top of him or something."
Gein couldn't help but notice the condition of the body as he raised his gurney to the height of the examination table and, using a sheet underneath it, expertly slid it into place and covered it with a fuzzy blue blanket. The guy's legs were all twisted up like Twizzlers. His jaw, caved in like a sick Popeye caricature, was covered with a blue bandanna. His autopsied organs had been tied together like giblets and stuffed back into his empty abdomen, which was then crudely sewn back up.
When Gein finished the 20-minute drive from the medical examiner to the funeral home, his work wasn't done. The African-American woman who lived upstairs in this large, well-kept building in a sketchy neighborhood near the Tri-Rail tracks watched Gidget roll the gurney through the garage and into the drab, chemically cleansed room where restoration artists work. She asked Gein, when he put the body onto a table, if he could place the man's head in the headblock, the cradle that holds the cranium in place like a customer about to get a shampoo at the hair stylist's.
"When I picked his head up, it wasn't even connected," he recounts later that night in the rushed, excited tones of a youngster describing finding a forbidden fort in the woods. "The only thing holding his head on was skin. It felt like... wet goo. But with broken bones, so it was jagged. Squishy but crunchy. His head felt like solid Jello with shards of broken glass." He pauses, feeling for exactly the right sensation, thinking back to the moment he'd held the man's broken head in his latex-covered hands.
"I know!" he says, breaking the silence. "This is exactly what it felt like: a hard-boiled egg with the shell all broken."
Obviously, it takes a special soul to stomach this sort of work. In Gein's case, that stomach is more than up to the task. A few days before he retrieved the Turnpike victim, Gein had been awakened by a call for a "decomp removal," which involves picking up a corpse in some hellish stage of decomposition from the scene of its discovery and taking it to the medical examiner. In this case, Gein zipped up the offending article in a black body bag before draping the blue blanket atop it and spraying judicious amounts of Febreze Spring Renewal Scent Fabric Refreshener into the van.