Dead Mens Donuts is going to pick up the pace and create more content, giving everyone all of the crazy death-related fun you’ve been craving. First of all, follow the Instagram account @dead.mens.donuts.
Also, I’m working on a book. Stay tuned for news as that project comes around.
It’s gonna be fun folks! I’m excited, I hope you are too.
I know that I frequently talk about Henry as though he’s some kind of investigative super-giant mega-hero… and he is. Henry has been in the game since before it was a game. Henry was death-investigating when Cain killed Abel. I’m pretty sure that as soon as that little sibling rivalry crash-landed into its inevitable end, Henry rode in on a donkey, took one look at the carnage and said something like, “Behold! Verily I say unto thee, thine sons hath argued and alas, one hath bashed the other about the noggin with ye olde rock! Thus goeth such travesties betwixt men and I heartily declare the manner to be a homicide! The first of its kind! Now where are my cigarettes?”
I’m not gonna say Henry’s older than dirt, but I will say I’ve seen his apartment and some of the coffee mugs in his sink haven’t been cleaned since a mass-casualty incident known as The Donner Party staggered in from the cold.
Every time I see him at shift change, I’m awash in a salty wave of sympathy co-mingled with fear. Because Henry is scary when he gets off shift… as scary as a gnarled old tree, alone at a crossroads, bereft of leaves or birds… twisted and malformed as it struggles toward the light… while smoking a Marlboro red and grumbling that Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.
God, he looks tired… I always think. When I see Henry at the end of his 48 hour shift… which actually marks the beginning of mine… he’s always sporting a scraggly grizzle of a beard and clothes that look like he’s just fought his way up a volcano to dispose of a cursed ring. He looks kind of like a brillo pad that’s been used to clean a barbecue.
We smoke together at the end of his shift, it’s the only time I do so anymore. The two of us leave the sterile blue maze of cubicles and meander across the street for caffeine and nicotine. And to be fair, I don’t actually smoke so much as I take a few drags from his cigarettes as we loiter juuuuuust outside the boundaries of what’s considered “county property”. I tell Henry about my latest dating misadventures and he offers me nuggets of wisdom which he mined from his three marriages. Then he fills me in on whatever lunacy happened during his shift- thereby preparing me for the screwball calls I’m going to get over the course of my shift.
“Some dumbass gave the family of this suicide victim our cell phone number so be prepared to deal with that… they’re doing the typical bullshit, claiming that someone must have murdered him and then forged the note…” he’ll tell me.
“This doctor is refusing to sign this death certificate. Or rather, his STAFF says he’s refusing to sign the death certificate. See if you can actually get the doc on the phone because his secretary is a moron.”
“This funeral home is saying they don’t have this guy’s wedding ring and they claim he wasn’t wearing it when he came in, but its right there in all our scene photos so tell them to check their employees pockets again and quit blaming their fuck-ups on us.”
And so it goes.
For the most part Henry’s hand-off reports tend to be pretty standard. But as you may remember from previous tales. Henry is the king of weird shit, the Mayor of crazytown… the crowned prince of “what-the-hell”?
Some mornings Henry is particularly quiet. He smokes his cigarette in sullen contemplation as he threads through exactly how to explain the sordid tale he’s about to tell me. Because the fact is, sometimes shit goes so screwy on Henry’s shift that it defies description. But he has to describe it to me, since I’m the one batting clean-up.
“Listen,” he said to me one morning. He had been standing on the curb, silent for the last 10 minutes, thoughtfully examining the glowing ember at the end of his cigarette. “You might get a call from a guy today…”
“Okay…” I said carefully.
“He called yesterday and wanted to talk to our supervisor about the suicide prevention program…”
“Okay…” I said again. We get calls from time to time on our suicide prevention program. It’s considered groundbreaking amongst our profession and our office has managed to quantify the suicides we’ve curtailed as a result of our policies and practices… which sounds great to say, but it looks even better on paper. Other agencies call from time to time asking for information and training- hoping to implement our program into their region so that they might have to deal with fewer suicides. Which I don’t mind telling you are probably the most prevalent non-natural deaths that we medical examiners see. I know shows like “Criminal Minds would have you believe that the United States is just writhing like an ant-hill with serial killers at any given moment. But the fact is, the biggest killer of people in America is themselves… followed closely by big pharma and doctors who prescribe too many goddamned narcotics.
Anyway, Henry rubbed his forehead in consternation and the lines around his eyes deepened.
“This guy… he called wanting to talk to Ken about the suicide prevention program… because he wants to commit suicide.”
“Yeah, he called and said that he was planning on committing suicide and he wanted to talk to Ken about suicide prevention.”
“I don’t understand… did he want help or something? Like was he looking for mental health resources?”
“Nope.” Henry shrugged. “He said he had decided to commit suicide and he wanted to know the best way to do it. He also said that it wasn’t going to be anytime soon, but it was what he’d decided to do and he figured he also had some insight that might be helpful to our program.”
“Wait… he called to find out the best way to commit suicide?”
“I told him that our program was suicide PREVENTION. And was there anything I could do to help him other than help him kill himself. He said ‘no’ and insisted that he wanted to talk to Ken.”
“What the hell, man?” I marveled as I throttled back a laugh and plucked Henry’s cigarette out of his hand. I took a deep drag and handed it back. “What did Ken say?”
“Well… Ken didn’t know what the fuck to make of it so he called up HIS supervisor, who called the head of Health and Human Services. They called the police shrink and adult protective services before the whole shit-parade marched right in to county council…”
“Jesus, it went to county council?”
Henry nodded emphatically as he sucked the last gasp from his cigarette and lit another one. Just to be clear I’ve never actually met anyone on county council. I’ve never even seen them. They’re like this mystical panel of administrators who convene in a big mahogany room decorated with brass light fixtures and maps. They all sit in big-ass leather wing-baked chairs and decide shit as they swirl around big snifters of brandy. And much like the gods on Mount Olympus, it’s never a good thing to be on their radar unless you’re one of their illegitimate children… even then it’s a dice roll.
“So what’s the word from on high?” I asked
“So… basically…” Henry looked up and met my eyes for the first time that morning. “They said we can’t do a damn thing about him. He’s perfectly sane and he’s not an ‘immediate’ danger to himself or anyone else. We can’t put him on a mental health hold or make him a ward of the state. All we can really do is hang around and wait for him to kill himself. And County Council is telling Ken not to talk to him. No one who has an office wants to get blamed for failing to intervene when this dude finally decides to lay down for the long-dirt nap.”
“Fuck me, seriously?”I spat through my mouthful of coffee.
“So… anyway… he might call during your shift. Good luck.”
Well, the good news is he didn’t call… and the bad news is he didn’t call. Nor has he turned up dead in our county, and no one has spoken a word about him since Henry gave me that hand-off report. It seems to me as though if we were serious about suicide prevention, we might actually follow up with this guy and see if there’s anything we might do to… you know… PREVENT HIS SUICIDE. But it appears that everyone would much rather swirl the brandy around in their glasses and discuss policies without ever actually implementing any of them.
Ahhh, the life of a politician.
Meanwhile, scrubs like Henry and I are flailing around in the quagmire of human existence and dealing with situations like this one:
I was out with a few of the local deputies and we may or may not have been drinking adult beverages when one of them blurted out to me.
“So, I hear anal kills!”
“Anal!” He hollered at me over the jukebox. “You know, like anal sex? Anal kills!”
“Dude,” I hollered back at him, “Is this like a PSA or something?”
“Was this not your case?”
“Jesus… no! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “Maybe it was Henry, I don’t know but there was some death with anal sex.” Then he continued drinking his beer like he’d never said a thing and didn’t bother to tell me what curiosity drove him to yelling “ANAL KILLS!” in a crowded drinking-class bar that was full of off-duty dock-workers and cops.
So, the next time I saw Henry, I got the real story. And I elicited it from him in much the same way that it was presented to me. The two of us were sitting down to lunch in a local restaurant and I didn’t even bother wait for the waitress to finish taking our drink orders.
“So, I understand anal kills…”
The waitress didn’t bother giving us the day’s specials and hustled away like a scolded puppy.
“I beg your pardon?” Henry said, daintily dropping his napkin in his lap and pulling out his glasses to examine the appetizers. I could have just said, “Looks like rain” or “I hear there’s a meteor hurdling through space at our heads and we’re all going to be dead in 36 hours.” It wouldn’t matter. Henry is unfalteringly Henry, regardless of the current crisis.
“Anal, Henry” I pouted. “Anal sex killed someone recently and you didn’t even tell me about it.” I sighed with a wounded air and gazed sadly into the middle distance, feeling as though something had gone tragically wrong in our relationship if Henry neglected to tell me about an anal-sex death.
“Oh, that…” he said, flatly. He folded the menu and leaned back in his chair, pausing to remove his glasses and polish them on his shirt. “I mean it wasn’t anything too outrageous.”
“How could an anal-sex death not be outrageous?”
“So… this dude was having his 50thbirthday. He finally talked his wife into trying anal sex. I’m not sure who she asked about it or who she was talking to, but I guess she went into Sneakers adult store and the guy there gave her some poppers.”
“Yeah… poppers. You… you… do KNOW what poppers are, right?”
For a second I considered playing it off. I like to think I’m fairly in-the-know when it comes to kink and I’ve, like… you know… been to Burning Man and stuff. But I’m a shitty liar and Henry has been an investigator sniffing out lies longer than I’ve been alive so what was the point?
“Do you mean like nitrous?”
“No, poppers are amyl nitrite. They sell it in little vials at sex stores, it’s supposed to relax the sphincter to make anal sex easier or something. But you’re supposed to inhale it. This woman was so freaked out about anal sex that she went to get some of it. The guy at the shop told her to inhale it, NOT drink it. There were two warning labels on it that said ‘Do not drink’. But guess what she did.”
“Oh… she drank it.”
“Yup, at first she just thought she felt sick after they… you know…But she started vomiting and he found her on the bathroom floor a couple hours later.”
“Yup,” Henry sighed. “So have you tried the Hungarian mushroom soup here? It’s supposed to be pretty good.”
But that’s Henry: Completely unflappable and utterly placid. Nothing ripples his surface… or rather, almost nothing.
There was one morning that Henry and I went out for our traditional coffee and cigarette meeting and he seemed particularly unnerved. I would even say “spooked.” That morning he scorched through his first Marlboro red with distracted agitation. And rather than press him for information, I waited until he was ready to talk.
“Yesterday.” He rubbed his hands together nervously and looked up at me. “I went to the death of a younger guy, 34. He didn’t have any history other than feeling sick and missing work. His brother found him when he went to check on him. The guy hadn’t been answering his phone for a couple of days. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing suspicious.”
“Okaaaaay…” I said carefully.
“Thing is,” Henry continued. “I was on-scene in his apartment for almost three hours. And when I finally came back out again… the entire family was there.”
“Oh god, that’s never good,” I responded.
And it isn’t. The arrival of an “entire family” as Henry had put it, generally heralds a shit-show of epic proportion. Don’t get me wrong, we have no issues with people wanting to support each other and say goodbye to their deceased loved one. The problem is, that’s NOT what they’re doing when they show up on-scene. Families that show up on-scene are flipping the fuck out. They’re screaming and crying, not only at the death itself, but also at each other. All of the latent family-issues and quiet resentments start tumbling out like a goddamnned clown car and as the medical examiner, you’re the fucking ring-master. Everyone is full of outlandish demands and truly baffling misinformation that they gleaned from watching CSI. And it doesn’t take long for someone to pull out the blame-gun and just start firing it off in every direction.
“So, what happened?”
“Well,” Henry muttered, rubbing his face with his free hand and flicking the ash from his cigarette. “They prayed.”
“I came out of the apartment, and the entire family was on their knees on the front walk, praying.”
“Do you mean…” I balked to say it out loud. “Were… they… praying for him to come back to life?”
Henry pointed at me with his cigarette. “Bingo.”
“Oh, shit!” I gasped
“Yeah, and I had to tell them that I was taking him in for an autopsy.”
“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”
“They said they wanted me to postpone the autopsy for three days.”
I blinked in disbelief. “You mean… like Jesus Christ? Like… they think he’s going to come back to life on the third day?”
“Yep. And so, I called Dr. Stone and she was like, ‘Fuck it’ we’re too busy anyway, tell them we’ll wait if that’s what they want.’”
“So… so… wait, that message that I picked up this morning on the office phone before you got there…” I HAD picked up a message on the office phone. Henry had been a bit late so I was killing time with checking voice-mails before he showed up to hand off the shift. One message had been some frantic-sounding guy, asking that we wait to talk to him before doing his brother’s autopsy. I had been planning on calling him back later on in the morning.
Henry nodded. “The family wants to go to the morgue and pray over him one last time before the autopsy.”
“Ummmm, what are we going to tell him?”
I was fairly certain we weren’t going to accede to that request. One of the many features of the medical examiner’s office that TV gets wrong is the highly dramatic “body identification” scene. You know, the one in which a dead person’s family stands there while the body is rolled out on a table and everyone has their poignant last goodbye? Well that doesn’t happen. The medical examiner’s office is a secured facility that doesn’t allow visitors for any reason. And if we don’t allow people to come in to identify a body, we sure as hell aren’t going to allow them in to pray over one. Not that it mattered in this case.
“It’s too late.” Henry said, cringing.
“Well… I know that. But what are you going to tell the brother?”
“No, no,” Henry shook his head. I mean it’s TOO LATE.”
“What do you mean?” I was still confused.
“It’s too late. Dr. Stone said she’d wait to do the post mortem. But Dr. Gillis came in and saw how slammed Dr. Stone was. So he went ahead and started doing autopsies on Dr Stone’s cases. He started cutting people up like fuckin’ Hannibal Lecter before anyone could stop him.”
“And Dr. Gillis… “
“Dr. Gillis did this guy’s autopsy two days ago… literally 4 hours after he was found.”
“Oh shit…” I gasped again. “So this family has spent the last 3 days thinking their son was going to come back to life. And he’s… he’s…”
I didn’t have to say it out loud. We both knew because we’ve both seen autopsies. This family’s son had been completely dismantled like a stolen car. I mean, I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that his brain was now in slices and wrapped up in a plastic bag inside his abdomen. And, I mean…theoretically, if God can bring someone back to life BEFORE their autopsy, what’s to say he can’t bring them back AFTER it. But still, I’m not sure if there’s a statute of limitations on miracles. And I have to assume that putting all those organs back together in their original order would be a pretty hefty favor… one I doubt the almighty would be willing to undertake even for the Pope, let alone some dude named Craig with bad tattoos and an uninsured Hyundai.
Henry sighed miserably.
“Dude…” despite my horror, or maybe because of it, I had started giggling. “You have to call this family and explain to them that we ruined their son’s resurrection by doing his autopsy 2 days early?”
“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”
I shook my head. “What the hell…?”
It’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen Henry scared. Which is pretty impressive considering he’s only about 2 years out from retirement. I have no idea what he’s going to do after that, maybe finally wash his dishes. But until then, you can catch the two of us, standing on a curb passing a single cigarette back and forth like the baton I’ll eventually take when Henry decides to move on. We’re pretty careful about what we say when other people are within ear-shot, but if you sneak up on us, you might manage to catch snatches of conversation that go something like this:
“-took his head clean off like a dandelion…”
“-so I told her, ‘ma’am you can’t bury him in your backyard, no matter what your shaman told you…’”
“-an entire crate full of dildos under his bed…”
But that’s all you’ll get. Henry will likely catch sight of you and the two of us will clam right up until you walk away. And as you do, you might overhear us saying something to the tune of :
“That guy was listening to us.”
“Yeah, he was. How much do you think he heard?”
“I don’t know. God, people are so weird.”
“I know, right? I mean who wants to hear stories like ours? What the hell?”
There’s no other word for it… except maybe “dismal” or possibly “tragic.” Never is human nature more painfully on display than on “Tinder” or “Bumble” or “Match” or fucking “Coffee Meets Bagel” for Christ sake… all of which I have attempted to use in the aftermath of my divorce, which was over 3 years ago now.
3 years… Jesus Christ.
My ex-husband got himself into another committed relationship less than 2 weeks after our divorce was finalized. He buried his dysfunctional head in that woman’s lap while the anthropomorphized corpse of our marriage was still twitching… and as far as I know he’s still there. It stung a bit, but namely because he claimed he was still trying to work things out with me while he was doubtless cultivating another bed to lie in. Honestly, she’s welcome to him. I certainly don’t miss having custody of an overgrown adolescent who’s life revolves around binge watching Netflix every night and pouting about being asked to vacuum the goddamned carpet.
Since then, I’ve had a handful of relationships. I think 4 or 5. It’s been kind of a shit show, but mostly because I had to overcome my habit of staying in unhealthy situations for no other reason than I felt obligated not to hurt anyone’s feelings or I just couldn’t cope with another break-up. A few of those relationships were the result of dating apps… the weirder ones:
– One dude I dated didn’t have a car. I didn’t think much of it. I live in hippie-ville USA. Lots of people don’t have cars around here because they don’t believe in capitalist, fossil-fuel consumer culture. But about a month in, it came up that he also didn’t have a license. When I probed a bit further, he admitted that instead of a license he had a DUI.
He should have known better than to be demure with that information. Because once I sense I’m being told a half-truth, I turn into an 11th century inquisitor. A few phone calls and an internet search later, and I had collected 7 different mug-shots of my new suitor…
One of which was for domestic violence.
– Another guy I went out with neglected to mention that he was a polyamorous, “sex-positive”, dominant… which was his multi-syllabic way of saying he wanted to fuck anyone and everyone that moved. He would have fucked a shrub if he thought there was a chipmunk in it. Naturally, he didn’t tell me any of this until AFTER the 6th date. You know, AFTER my affection had begun germinating with all the vengeance of a spring cottonwood tree. Now I don’t have any judgement toward the poly community, and I think people should enjoy sex with whatever consenting party they choose. However, the way that this dude went about it felt like a pretty under-handed bait-and-switch, and his sex drive was so prolific that he would sometimes shame me for wanting to go to sleep. But I liked him, so I agreed to give the whole “open relationship” thing a whirl and lasted exactly 1 week. I remember looking at him while we were having sex the last time, his eyes closed and his head kicked back like a baby-bird, gobbling the shadows off the ceiling. “I could be anyone right now, and it wouldn’t matter… he wouldn’t even notice.”
The thought was as relentless as a car alarm.
– Yet another dude met me for drinks and literally talked about his divorce and custody battle for 3 hours straight… 3 HOURS STRAIGHT. My attempts to re-direct the conversation to, literally, ANYTHING ELSE were ignored. He couldn’t be steered off those rocks. I should have charged him $150 and taken notes.
– Still another invited me out for drinks and showed up 45 minutes late. I would have gone home but for the fact that while I was waiting at the bar, I made friends with the most marvelous gay man who was blithely drunk and began referring to me as his, “Ivory Wench.” When my “date” finally did arrive, he didn’t even bother to buy me a drink and yammered on in a self-important manner about the lack of masculinity in our town. A few weeks later, without any contact in between, he texted me: “Busy tonight?” Because apparently, modern masculinity can’t be bothered with complete sentences.
I didn’t respond.
– There was one dude that I was really excited about. We had a lot in common and he was very sweet and generous and obviously super into me. I was on cloud 9 about him, right up until he told me that he was still married. “Technically” still married. They hadn’t lived together for a while, but the paperwork hadn’t been filed or anything. And it’s not like there were kids involved. Nor was there a complicated settlement to argue over. He and his wife simply hadn’t bothered to make it official. When I asked him if it occurred to him AT ALL that maybe he ought to take care of that whole divorce thing before he started dating, he stared at me blankly. “No,” he said. That’s when I knew we were on different wavelengths… specifically, I was on the “don’t-start-dating-until-you’re-actually-divorced” wavelength.
And in between these, more painful and ridiculous experiences, there was the array of average non-starts that sort of characterize the indolent buffet of faces that flips past us in the new left-or-right swiping dystopia. It reminded me of sitting around, flicking away at an empty cigarette lighter. With each dry scrape of the flint that failed to spark, I became less and less hopeful about my chances. Sure, every now and then something seemed to catch, a playful conversation, a tangy flirtation that hinted at a date, but they rarely unfolded into an actual invitation. On the rare occasion that I actually did meet someone for coffee or a drink, I would find myself overwhelmed with ennui and dread before I even left my house.
Fortunately, I’m a deputy medical examiner. And in any terrible situation where everyone is miserable, I have the home court advantage….
I was going to meet a guy- or should I say ANOTHER guy. He’d been floating around my Bumble account for a few rotations and I hadn’t really made a decision on him. His profile said he was Middle Eastern and he appeared attractive enough. And since I hadn’t been brutally disappointed in almost a week, my faith in the human race had regenerated enough to make me inexplicably optimistic about a coffee date.
We had agreed to meet up for a non-committal test-drive at a local Starbucks in my county… which was not only low-pressure but also well-lit and I knew that at any given moment, the neighborhood would be teeming with my esteemed law-enforcement colleagues if I found myself needing back-up. Not only that, but if I ended up having to break the dude’s arm, I knew that my people would nix the assault charge and take my side.
Of course I failed to consider one of the drawbacks of meeting someone for a date in my jurisdiction… that drawback being, I know WAY too much about any given location. Seriously, whenever I drive down the main drag, I’m compelled to take my passengers (either living or dead) on a guided death-tour. I’ll point out which hotel has had the most suicides… which corner was the location of a grisly 3-car pile-up… which house is populated by overdosing crack-heads. So, when I pulled up to the Starbucks, I was compelled to note that the coffee shop was located right next to a park that boasts a man-made pond with a rather dubious history.
Specifically, we think there’s a human head in it.
Quick recap: Some drug-dealing dude killed some woman over a money dispute… or something like that, we’re really not sure. Anyway, once the deed was done he was faced with the age-old problem of how to dispose of a body. I’m not going to tell you what he should have done because I don’t want to be responsible for your delinquency. I will, however, tell you that he did it wrong. Our knuckle-dragging friend decided that the best way to get rid of this body would be to dismember her- as smaller pieces would, theoretically, be easier to hide, transport and discard. While the logic here was sound, the criminal-mastermind really shot himself in the foot when he called a friend for assistance in disposing of the victim. This friend decided that he wanted NO part of this debacle, cashed in his gangster-card, and called the police. Shenanigans ensued that I won’t detail here. Suffice to say that the body was discovered, identified and the perp was arrested while attempting to flee from the police in the afore mentioned park. Of course you’ll note that I said the body was discovered. In reality, only most of the body was discovered. The killer had apparently been watching a lot of “The Forensic Files” or something and decided that he needed to remove the decedent’s hands, carve out her tattoos, and remove her head to prevent police from being able to identify her. Of course, once again, Moriarty here totally fucked himself because– while the head and fingertips were never found– it really doesn’t help to carve out someone’s tattoos when you just take that epidermal tissue and throw it right back into the same goddamnned bag with the rest of the body.
Anyway, as I pulled up for my more-or-less blind date, I noted the pond was being drained and I remembered that I had gotten an email from local detectives, alerting us to the possibility that the dead woman’s head was in there… having allegedly been chucked in the pond while the killer was running from police. In the email they wanted to give us a heads up (heh) that the draining process would take a while and they would let us know if and when they found anything. As I walked into the Starbucks, I noticed the pond was almost 2/3 empty and soon we’d know if the wayward noggin was to be recovered.
Not the typical way to walk into a date, but whatever. I breached the front doors and charged in, determined to be out-going and charming… and …optimistic and… shit….
Like so many app-dates before him, this guy greviously over-estimated a great many things about himself. For starters, his height. Pretty much every dude that I’ve actually met from dating apps has generously bolstered himself by an additional inch or two. And if this guy was 5’9″ as he claimed, then I’m 6’3″ and I print money out of my ass. The other thing that he over-estimated was his fascination. Over the next hour, he behaved as though I was a fawning magazine journalist doing a feature story on him. He prattled on and on about his acting career, his modeling career, the screenplay he was writing. I did my best to be polite… you know… seem interested and supportive like my debutante mother trained me to be. Unfortunately my good manners only encouraged him in his delusion that he was an irresistibly charismatic, up-and-coming screen-writer. Because the next thing I knew, I was reading the opening scene of his painfully lame action movie.
He had it on his phone. Who the hell does that?
And that’s how I found myself staring out the window of the Starbucks, wishing I could be slogging around in the mud looking for discarded body parts with my own kind. I wasn’t sure my “date” could even remember my name, let alone anything else about me… seeing as how I could barely get a word in edgewise and he hadn’t bothered to ask me anything about myself. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of an obliging manner in which to extricate myself from the conversation and take my leave. My mother’s etiquette lessons never included a module on how to gracefully get the hell away from a tedious jerk-off who cannot hear enough of his own story. Probably because it would be considered “rude.” But the fact is, this is a different time and I’m a different woman. I’m constantly having to remind myself that, despite my sexist, puritanical, Judeo-Christian origins… it’s a new day up in this bitch and it’s not my fucking job to be pleasant and accommodating. So I tossed the notion of being obliging or graceful… and I aimed right for the head.
“Hey,” I abruptly said to my coffee companion, cutting off his monologue. “Do you know why they’re draining that pond?” I asked him, gesturing toward the park… where something that was actually interesting was going on.
He glanced out the window and shook his head, apparently taken aback that I had interrupted him… or maybe he was astonished to discover that I could speak- who knows.
“They think there’s a head in it… They think there’s a murder victim’s head in the bottom of that pond…”
Five minutes later I was walking back toward my car… having effectively rendered my date utterly speechless by dropping the ultimate conversational cinder-block on the whole pointless endeavor…
Or rather, I shouldn’t say pointless… I mean, after all…I got something out of that date. And no, it wasn’t a cup of coffee. I had to buy that myself. After that date I decided to completely abandon app-dating… and rightly so. I just don’t have time to waste on that kind of bullshit, sitting around acting all demure and impressed and interested. Additionally, it gave me something to write about I guess- because even tales of death and dismemberment can get a little redundant and I imagine you guys want to hear about something equally horrifying. So here it is: Dating in 2019 is a disaster. The only thing worse than being single is trying not to be single… and I’m starting to think that maybe I should write a fucking screen-play about this shit…
I talk about Henry a lot. It’s hard to avoid. He’s kind of like my Dad in this profession, but not like the Dad who actually fathered me. That distinction belongs to Tina- my handler from my internship when I was first learning the ropes as a medicolegal death investigator. Henry’s like the dad that decided to adopt a surly foster kid whose family dropped her off at a bus-stop and never came back.
Henry took me under his wing and helped me go from being an intern to being a real deputy medical examiner. Not that he had much choice in the matter. I more or less imprinted on my first day and now I call him at least once per shift. Typically I’m frantic for help because some situation has arisen that’s so far outside of my realm of experience that the only way I can think of to deal with it is to set the office on fire and leave town. Other times I call him simply because I’m lonely and I’m looking for someone to commiserate over the idiocy of funeral home employees or the unbridled, moronic bravado of fire-fighters… or I need someone to empathize with the incredibly fucked-up death scene I just handled. And Henry can always empathize… he’s seen it all.
Seriously, the other day I was binge watching “Criminal Minds” on Netflix when I realized that the premise of one episode was actually one of Henry’s calls from a few years ago. He told me about it. Some woman had shown up at the hospital ER with a newly delivered infant. She claimed she had just given birth at home and needed assistance. The pediatric department took the baby while the ER staff assessed the mother. A few minutes later, the ER staff called the police because they quickly ascertained that the woman had not just given birth to anything except maybe her own delusion. Yet, she was in possession of a fresh-out-of-the-oven infant and no one knew where she got it.
It turns out, the woman had been crazy with grief over the loss of her own child. I’m not sure what happened- whether this woman’s biological kid had died or if she lost it fair-and-square to child protective services. Regardless, she felt entitled to another one. She contrived a plan in which she posted an ad, claiming to be selling newborn baby clothing on Craigslist. Then she waited for some thrifty mom-to-be to take the bait. When one such woman, who was days away from delivering, came to the crazy woman’s home to check out the baby clothes, the crazy woman killed her. I don’t recall the specifics, but the crazy woman managed to extricate the baby from the deceased mother intact. Then this nut-job took the newborn to the hospital, convinced she could pass the child off as her own. Pandemonium ensued… and now I never buy anything off of Craigslist. That’s not the point. The point is Henry has seen it all, so much so that primetime procedural dramas use his stories as plot-lines.
That said, even Henry get’s stymied sometimes. Even Henry’s occasioanlly speechless.
Speaking of babies
The other day, Henry and I were having coffee during shift change. It’s our little ritual, we meet up at the office and then meander off to the closest Starbucks. We never sit outside, rather we get our drinks and then go hover at the edge of the parking lot so Henry can smoke and we can unabashedly talk about work without anyone overhearing. It’s not uncommon for Henry to be bit a low-energy at these times. When we do shift change, he’s been on shift for 48 hours and any number of ludicrous situations may have come his way. But this one day, he was even more incredulous than usual when I asked him how his shift had gone.
“Well,” he said, sucking on a Winston cigarette and staring at the slow march of cars grinding through the Starbucks drive-up window. “You know my last shift, I had that woman with the psych-history? The one who killed herself with pills?”
“Yeah,” I said, sipping my coffee. “She was pregnant, right? She had all those suicide attempts? Like she tried to jump off a building… then she tried to cut her wrists…”
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Henry sighed. “I got a call from her husband. He wanted to know if we had the baby…”
“He wanted to know… wait… what?”
Henry nodded. “Yeah, he called me up and was all, ‘I’ve heard that, you know… when a pregnant woman dies, sometimes you can still save the baby… so… Do you have the baby?'”
I stared at Henry in disbelief. “He wanted to know if the baby was alive and if we had it?”
Henry nodded again.
“But she was dead for like, a day before she was found…” I said, working through the logistics in my head.
Henry nodded again.
“-And she died… last week.”
Henry was still nodding.
“So he wanted to know if the medical examiner’s office has had his baby for the last week and just forgot to call him?”
“What? Did he think we put it in the safe or something?”
Henry shrugged. “Definitely the first time I’ve ever had to have the, no-we-don’t-have-your-baby conversation. I mean, I’d thought I’d heard it all…”
…which is saying something about the nature of our work and the fact that, even after 25 years on the job, even Henry never really knows what a shift is going to throw at him.
During another morning coffee break, Henry told me about a call that he’d had on his shift in which a woman was found deceased in her room by her roommates. She was in her late 50’s and had a wide array of medical problems. Her death appeared to be natural as far as Henry could tell. Everything seemed fine until he was helping the funeral home lift the decedent off the floor and on to their stretcher. It was at that moment that Henry noticed that there were small objects on the floor that looked like… wait, are those? Nah… couldn’t be… but… hang on, yeah. Yeah, I think they are. Fuck, me those definitely are…
“Teeth,” Henry said to me. “Her teeth were on the floor of her bedroom.”
“You mean, like her dentures?” I asked.
“No, I mean like her individual teeth. Like, with the roots and everything.”
Henry had been confused. He had noted that the decedent was missing her front teeth during his exam of the body. But nothing suggested that she had been assaulted or fallen or suffered any kind of trauma that would knock her teeth out.
“She didn’t have a mark on her,” Henry told me. “No blood, no bruising or scratches… nothing”
“Weird,” I commented.
Henry nodded and then explained how he approached the roommate to ask him about the decedent’s dentition.
“Oh, yeah…” the roommate had said. “She had all kinds of problems with her teeth! They kept falling out so she would stick ’em back in with superglue, but they never stayed for very long. Usually just a day or two. Then they’d fall out and she’d stick ’em in again. I told her to go see a dentist but she wouldn’t…”
“Wait, she’d stick her teeth back in with superglue?” I asked, coughing up a liberal swallow of coffee
“Apparently,” said Henry.
But probably my favorite of Henry’s stories is… well…
Like me, Henry is a transplant. Before coming to our distinguished jurisdiction, Henry worked in a state where there was what can only be described as a wide array of lifestyles. And one night, Henry got called to a scene where the decedent and his family engaged in such a lifestyle.
Henry had been called to a mountainous region to investigate an apparent natural death of a middle-aged man. It was evening and as Henry drove further and further into the forest, the light faded and Henry realized that the area where he was headed was completely foreign to him. He had never been to this little corner of his county before and was somewhat surprised when he passed through the gates of a small community that called itself by some quaint, unassuming name, “Shady Acres” or “Sunnybrook” or something like that. The light was fading as Henry wound his way into the mountainous neighborhood, he noted that the homes were pretty widely spaced. Each plot of land boasted a few acres and it wasn’t uncommon for the houses to be a good mile apart or so. Furthermore, as Henry passed each home, he noted that the residents were extremely friendly. They would come out on to their porches as he motored by, or they would smile and wave from their windows. Henry also couldn’t help but notice that every last one of them was buck-naked.
Henry’s decedent was a nudist… as was every one of the decedent’s neighbors and family members.
Upon finding the address in question, Henry entered the home to find himself surrounded by a bunch of sobbing naked people, and a couple of clothed police officers who were barely holding it together. They introduced Henry to the widow (yup, not a stitch of clothing) and she directed Henry to the decedent who was laying on the living room floor. When Henry told the family that he needed to perform an external exam on the decedent, everyone except for the widow left the room. She staunchly refused to leave her husband’s side. Normally Henry would have absolutely no problem insisting that the wife remove herself from the death scene. But seeing as how she was both crazy with grief AND naked, Henry didn’t feel comfortable looking at her long enough to have that conversation… not that his discomfort in any way mattered to her. As Henry was on his knees by the body (who was positioned in a corner of the room) the wife continued to animatedly describe the evening’s events leading up to her husband’s collapse. She was gesticulating wildly and inching closer and closer to Henry. Her pendulous breasts were swinging in his face as he knelt on the floor next to the decedent, and she seemed to be completely ignorant of the fact that she was coming dangerously close to actually striking Henry across the face with her lady-bits. Henry continued backing further and further away until he was, quite literally, cornered by this naked woman who bore down on him like an angry, hairless bear.
Behind the woman, Henry could see the two deputies barely containing their laughter as they watched him bob-and-weave in an attempt to avoid actual physical contact with the naked woman.
To hear Henry tell it, they never let him forget the incident… not that he could have. I’m convinced it’s why he left that god-forsaken county for someplace a little more civilized… and clothed.
Henry’s 62 now, almost 63. Our other co-worker, Scott, mentioned Henry’s imminent retirement recently, and I snorted at the idea. Henry’s never going to retire. He’s going to die doing this job… and guess who’s going to find him?
I try not to think about it, but Henry recently caught a gnarly virus and for the first time in my memory, he actually took some of his accumulated sick days (I think he’s easily got a few hundred years saved up. Even God allegedly rested on the Sabbath, but not Henry. While God was kicking his feet back, Henry was mopping up the whole Cain and Able debacle.). When two days had gone by and no one had heard from him, my supervisor and I exchanged a rather… nervous… phone call.
“Hey, have you talked to Henry in the last couple of days?”
“No, have you?”
We didn’t say it but I know we were both thinking it. Henry is solidly in his 60’s– an era of life that I frequently refer to as “heart-attack-country.” Henry smokes a pack a day and has three divorces under his belt. In the last few months, we’ve noticed that Henry has stopped doing his filing. He takes weeks to turn in his case files and gets strangely defensive when anyone mentions these things to him. There’s a stack of un-read police reports in a filing box in the corner of our office. He stubbornly refuses to pass on to anyone how to do the supply ordering and he hasn’t gotten his hair cut in who knows how long.
Something’s going on but no one wants to discuss it.
“I’ll call him right now,” I told my supervisor that morning.
When Henry answered the phone, he sounded awful… I mean, like plague-victim bad. I apparently woke him up and he growled some incoherent epithet at me and I fell all over myself apologizing. I called my supervisor back and told her that Henry was still alive… and that was enough for the moment.
But still, we all know what’s coming. It’s our job to know. We all know that some morning, Henry won’t show up for shift change, and one of us (probably me) is going to have to go over to his apartment and do the deed- have the cops break in and confirm what we already know. That Hank has gone the way of our clients. He probably won’t get an autopsy because his cause of death won’t be a mystery. Furthermore, he’ll go to our favorite funeral home… the one with all the cookies.
I’m ready for it the same way I was ready for my father’s death. That’s the hidden benefit of this job, it’s brutally hard and incredibly traumatic, but it’s taught me to be prepared for anyone to abruptly disappear from my life. It’s taught me that you never know what’s going to happen, but you can guess and guess with a pretty impressive degree of accuracy. So, I tell Henry that he’s wonderful, that he’s smart, that he’s taught me everything that I know and he ALWAYS has the best stories. And when it happens it will be a surprise but not a shock. I’ll be heartbroken but not devastated. I’ll do my best to remember his stories and invest in someone the way he invested in me.
I’ll miss him
Death, it’s what we do…
all of us…
sooner or later.
It was another first for me in my medical examiner career.
I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, though I had been told by all my co-workers that the day was coming. They had spoken about this upcoming miracle with such certainty, such assurance. Still, right up until the event occurred, I assumed it was nothing more than a pipe-dream, a myth that had been concocted by our betters to keep us all faithfully believing.
Kind of like the rapture or the second coming of Christ as it was preached by my childhood church, I had been told that these events were imminent. I dutifully believed in them with all the starry eyed faith of an uncorrupted child. But here I am, 40 years later and if the rapture happened, I can only assume that it was something like every cool-kid party that ever took place in that I was not included among the chosen.
And then it happened.
We got a new truck.
I was astonished.
In the past, whenever it was suggested that the county spend any money on the medical examiners at all, the prospect was always met with an attitude of incredulous ire. One time my boss suggested that maybe I should get a “personal day” due to the 4 infant deaths I had handled that month. The county commissioners balked like she had asked them to put a wet-bar in the morgue. Another time I was awarded a $1000 scholarship to attend an out-of-state training on clandestine graves and buried bone retrieval. Everyone with any authority in the matter said I couldn’t go because the county would still have to throw down the money to fly me there and find a couch for me to sleep on.
So I literally choked with excitement the day I pulled into our parking lot to find a brand-new, glistening white, extended cab USS Enterprise parked in the spot where our old, beaten-up Millennium Falcon used to be.
Henry was beaming with glee when I dashed into the office to find him for shift change and to get the specs on our new ride. It had bluetooth, a USB port and air conditioning like a wind-tunnel. The light-bar atop the cab flashed strobes with enough intensity to permanently sear out your retinas. We had a remote-controlled spot-light. We had a back-up camera. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it felt like I was piloting a top-of-the-line cruise ship. The odometer, adorably, read a measly “000053”.
I spent my morning blissfully puttering around, toying with the power windows and waving and shouting things like “FUCK YEAH!” or “DAMN RIGHT!” every time I passed a cop who flashed me a thumbs-up upon seeing my pimped-out body-hauler. I was in the middle of programming all the pre-set buttons on the radio when I happened across a station in which the morning deejays were describing an article that they had found online. This article listed the 10 dirtiest surfaces that people touch everyday. I paused to listen as they mentioned things like hotel remote controls, shopping carts or buttons on the ATM. Unsurprisingly, money has been found to be utterly filthy, as well as computer keyboards. I couldn’t help but think of myself and my co-workers as this list went on. Of course we’ve all been trained to wear gloves when we’re handling the dead, but I couldn’t help but think of all the filthy homes, all the hospitals, all the hotels, even the funeral homes that we entered everyday. We touched dead people’s clothing, their phones, their floors, their drugs… And when was the last time we had thought to wash the cell phone? The computer? God… the computer charging cable? How often had I staggered into my apartment after a long day of trudging through crack-houses and slums, walking through horrific crime scenes and car accidents. And how often did I remember to leave my work shoes outside? I mean, honestly, how many times did I just lurch into my bedroom and collapse on the bed without even taking them off?
I shuddered, but reminded myself that the truck was brand new. The steering wheel and door handles were, as yet, unsullied. We could start over. We could do better. This would be the dawning of a new era. We were going to be clean!
I was deluding myself with these thoughts as I pulled off at a Starbucks to get some coffee.And as I returned to the new truck, I realized there was something on the passenger side of the cab.Was it bird-shit? God, someone hadn’t already chipped our paint with a careless door swing, had they?As I got closer, I realized the passenger-side door was liberally smeared with… son of a bitch… I tried to convince myself it might have been a splash from Henry’s hot-chocolate.Or maybe he had spilled soy-sauce.But there was really no mistaking it.It was blood.The passenger side door of our brand-new truck was gaily decorated with someone’s blood.
In my excitement over the new truck, I vaguely remembered Henry saying something about going out on a gnarly car accident the night before.
…and I briefly considered calling the radio show and telling them this tale… and about the kind of shit WE find on OUR surfaces at work, but I doubted they would appreciate the irony.
People don’t generally find blood spatter funny.
Our job is gross… really gross. Distressingly gross. But I’ve gotten used to it. In fact, I’m so desensitized that I find blood spatter, among other things, funny.
One of the funniest things I run into is squeamish men.I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten called by a clearly rattled law enforcement officer who simply couldn’t handle standing in a room with an overripe corpse.
“Uh, hey Grace.” They’ll say, “we have a dead body here. Uh, it’s a… male.Date of birth: 5/10/43. Uh, name of John Smith. What info do you need?”
“Well,” I’ll respond. “What do we know about this guy? Do we have any history? Does he appear to be injured?”
I’ll hear the shrug through the phone. “The neighbor called in a welfare check.”
“Um, there are newspapers piled up on the front step”
That’s when I’ll hear the sound of passing traffic through the phone, indicating the officer is probably calling from the curb outside the home.
“You didn’t go inside the house, did you,” I’ll ask with the I’m-so-disappointed-in-you tone.
“Do you need me to come to the scene and save you from the stinky dead body?”
They don’t even try to play it cool anymore, which I appreciate.They know they’re being ridiculous and they own it.Even when I arrive and call them a bunch of delicate flowers.They don’t give a damn what I say, so long as they don’t have to actually go into that house and view the oozing remains of a man who has been marinating in his bathtub for the last month.
Firefighters are far worse though.Seriously, you’ve never seen a more melodramatic squad of prima donnas.
One time I was called to a death scene that turned out to be a parking lot in one of those multi-building apartment mega-plexes.Some dude had commit suicide in his car in the parking lot.Before he did the deed, however, he somehow secured a canvas car cover over the vehicle so no one knew he was in there.Days passed, maybe even a couple of weeks.The only reason he was discovered was the parking-lot was being repaved.Residents had been warned to move their vehicles to make way for the work and when the decedent’s car didn’t move, a tow-truck was called.The poor tow-truck driver arrived and pulled the cover off the car to hook it up and haul it away… and … well… you get the idea.
The decedent was not only morbidly obese, but also bloated and well into the decomposition process.The car was a tiny two-door hatch-back and the dead guy had fully reclined his seat prior to abandoning the mortal coil.His massive, seeping torso almost filled the passenger compartment and he was wedged in there tighter than a chunk of half-chewed gristle between your teeth.We were going to have to call the fire department to cut the car apart to get him out.
Predictably, when they arrived the local heroes took one look at the half-melted body in the driver’s seat and began suiting up as though they were mounting an expedition to cut open a space shuttle.Out came the self-contained breathing tanks, the masks, the double-thick gloves, the heavy-duty fire-retardant boots. But best of all, out came the full body, white plastic suits.They donned all their gear with grim resolve and set out their tools on the pavement with the precision of a surgeon arranging scalpels before surgery.
“What the fuck is all this?” I murmured to Detective Labrecht, who was watching this scene unfold as incredulously as I.Labrecht snorted, both of us thinking the same thing.We weren’t inside an enclosed space with a rotting cadaver that was emitting noxious gasses, we weren’t stomping through a burning building that was hazy with toxic smoke.We were outside.The early summer day was clear and sunny with a light but constant breeze dancing playfully through the air.This was going to be nasty, but it wasn’t like we were trapped in a sealed compartment with an ebola victim. Why the fire department was convinced they needed their bottled air was a complete mystery to everyone who had experience with death investigation.While a rotting body is inarguably vile… it’s certainly not any more infectious than your run-of-the-mill dude with a cold on the treadmill next to yours at the gym.I mean, sure, it made sense they needed their turn-out gear for the heavy machinery.But the hazmat suits and oxygen tanks seemed a little… I don’t know… excessive.
“Jesus,” I muttered. “Look at them, they look like fucking space-men.Did someone tell them we found a dead body on the moon?”
Labrecht snorted again as we both pulled out our cameras.I stepped forward and joined in the melee, making sure I got some clear photos of the decedent and the interior of the car just as the roof was pulled off.As for Labrecht, he got a wide array of shots, featuring me directing the removal of the body from the car.He showed me the pics afterwards. They’re pretty funny.I’m in a full-on action pose, perched on the gaping hood of the car like Washington crossing the Delaware in my sensible business-casual clothing and sturdy shoes.As far as protective gear, I’m wearing gloves but that’s it.And all around me are a bunch of anonymous, hooded, bulky white figures… dutifully pulling chunks of metal off the car and breathing their canned atmosphere for fear of inadvertently contracting a zombie virus.When they finished, they packed up their toys with an offended air and scurried back to the safety of their station for a critical incident debriefing and a group hug.
Okay, okay.I know you’re probably going to give me a ration of shit for being so critical of the fire department.But someone needs to do it.Otherwise they would all continue on in their group-delusion that they can do no wrong and every woman in the world longs to suck their collective cocks right before cooking them brownies.
I want some motherfucking brownies for once.
And to be completely honest, I’m not above the Tyvekk suit myself. Though I’ve only donned one once… a scene which was, by far, the most disgusting thing I’d ever encountered.
Our city has a massive homeless population.Everywhere you look there’s another tent-city popping up like a weed from between the cracks in the sidewalk.There are stretches of road in the dead center of town where it isn’t safe to walk because the entire thoroughfare is thick with ramshackle cardboard structures and ratty tents that house belligerent panhandlers.The streets are lined with permanently parked cars and broken down campers that serve as domiciles for some of these characters, and it was in one such vehicle that I truly hit my gross-out limit.
No one was sure how long the RV been parked there.All anyone could say was that our dead guy hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks, maybe more. In the heavy heat of a coastal summer, the odor of decomposition came on gradually, yet unmistakably.When someone finally thought to call a welfare check, it was because the rest of the homeless population had vacated the block on account of the smell and an oozing pile of some unnamed goop was seeping out the side door.
When investigating police called me they weren’t only NOT in the RV, they weren’t even within eyeshot of the thing. But they could smell it.
I pulled up to the scene and as soon as I opened the door to my truck I could detect the stench of human decomposition.As reported, I approached the RV and noted that there was a suspicious bubbling brown puddle forming beneath the side door which led into the camper. As I got closer, I realized the puddle was literally alive with a writhing colony of maggots.
“We saw him through the windshield!” Hollered one of the cops who was standing by his car which was parked a good foot-ball field away.I circled around to the front of the camper and climbed up on the bumper.Deep within the bowels of the camper, I could glimpse the legs and lower torso of the decedent, laying on the floor of the camper with the head and upper torso hidden within the stairwell leading from the kitchen area to that seeping side-door.Our guy was essentially tiled downward, head-first into the stairwell, and that was how he died.I gulped.
“Okay…” I said to the lone police officer who had ventured forward to observe me looking in the RV. “That’s… ummm… wow.”
He nodded. “We were waiting to break in until you got here.” And with that, he pulled out his baton-sized flashlight and bashed in the driver’s side window of the cab.The smell that wafted out nearly knocked both of us to the ground.
“Oh my fucking GOD!” I gasped.The cop was covering his nose and mouth as he nodded and reached in the shattered window to unlock the door.
This was the moment that I decided to break out the Tyvekk suit.My eyes were watering as the scent of advanced rot filled the air around me, a pungent vapor, thick with flies. I ended up having to vault into the RV and sift through the decedent’s belongings in an effort to find anything that might give us an idea of who he was and why he was dead. I crawled over the crumbling mosaic of empty beer cans and empty food containers the get a look at our guy. His head was hidden in the shadow of the stairwell and his torso was swollen with bloat.Spidery black veins threaded the surface of his thinning skin.His fingertips had hardened to wood-like points and blebs of fluid collected beneath his epidermis, threatening to burst open like water balloons with even the slightest movement.I perched over him and heaved the side door open with my shoulder in an attempt to gain better access to a physical exam.When the door finally gave way and crashed open… his head tumbled out into the puddle below with a hollow, wet thud.
The cops gagged and I nearly fell on the body. I hurdled myself over him and landed in a bush just clear of the head and the puddle beneath it.I sprang up to check myself for injury and filth, then glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed my acrobatics.I noted that now I was not only being observed by the police, but employees from the business across the street had decided to take their lunch-break walks… which was actually just an excuse to come outside and see what was going on.
“Hey,” I said to one of the cops as I ambled back over to them to report on my findings. I had managed to locate a wallet, a few prescription bottles and a truly prolific collection of empty liquor bottles. “Who are those people, “ I asked as I gestured to the clean-cut parade of 9-5ers that all marched past the scene with their hands over their noses and mouths.They would glance erratically at me and the cops, but didn’t make eye-contact and there faces were contorted into expressions of profound disgust.
“Those are the people that called this in,” the closest officer told me.They were complaining about the smell and someone finally called in a welfare check.”
“They work across the street?”
I watched as they all trooped back into the front doors.The building was a tastefully rustic edifice with a massive, glass-walled foyer.A huge sign above the door proclaimed “*Ubiquitous White Guy’s Name* Ministries” I’m not omitting the name just to be nice, I honestly don’t recall the dude’s name. But it was his building, and apparently, “ministries” is what they did there.
I turned back to the cops.
“So… who is that guy,” I asked, gesturing to the sign.
“I dunno, some televangelist or something. I guess this is his headquarters. I’d never heard of him either.”
“They’re some kind of evangelical ministry and some guy was dead in a Winnebago in front of their building for a month and they only called because of the smell?”
People frequently ask me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.Usually these people are morbidly curious voyeurs who want me to regale them with tales of severed heads and murder scenes that look like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.And I mean, I tell stories like those on this blog sometimes.But I like to think that more often, I hold up humanity’s dark mirror.I like to show us the truths that I have learned about people by investigating their deaths.
So try this on for size…
I once had a friend tell me that people are disgusted by maggots, flies, cockroaches and other vermin because we don’t like to be reminded of how dirty we are.We tend to despise the things that clean up after us.And while I suspect my friend had probably smoked a little too much weed when he evolved this theory, I think there maybe a bit of truth to it.We don’t like to see the reality of our own filth.And as I watched all those “evangelists” avert their eyes and scurry back into the safety of their designer, glass-walled palace, I decided I had a new answer for the next time someone asked me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen… and it wasn’t the rotting guy in the RV.
In short order, I loaded the dead guy (and his head) into the back of my truck and was almost ready to go when the cops approached me again.They told me that they had gotten ahold of our decedent’s family, but they were all out of state and wouldn’t be able to make it into town for a couple of days.
“So, I guess we’ll just leave the Winnebago here.I mean, the tags are current and it’s a public street.It’s perfectly legal for it to be here.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I mean, after all… if you’re going to be giving the keys to the family when they get into town, it can stay here until they figure out what to do with it.”
The officer glanced at the RV, with it’s smashed front window and the frothy puddle of decomposition beneath the door. “In any other circumstance, I’d have the fire department come here and hose down the street, but there’s no drainage at the bottom of this hill. It would just turn into a swimming pool.”
“Sounds fine to me,” I said. “Leave it.”
As we all went onward into our days… me to deliver our decedent to his autopsy, and the police to govern any number of other catastrophes that might occur… I think all of us thought it, but no one said anything.
Let the smell stay there.
Let it stay. Leave it. The storefront full of missionaries could sit there and smell the scent of neglected human life and death until the weather washed it all away.
While it may have been our job, mine and the police, to pronounce the decedent and figure out why he was dead, it certainly wasn’t our job to save these people from the repercussions of their actions… or lack thereof. I wouldn’t say that this guy’s death was on their heads, but it certainly happened right under their noses… And none of them gave a shit until they were personally inconvenienced by it.
It’s the worst thing that I see. It gets under my skin more than the crushed bodies of car accident victims, more than the SIDS babies, more than the brutal homicides.
People who die and no one notices or cares until they start to smell.
This is our mess… the one that no one wants to clean up. This is the stinking rot at the core of our existence. This is the thing that no one wants to look at or consider… because we’re too disgusted with ourselves to face it. We forget people. We dismiss one another. We ignore each other. We avert our eyes.
Well, take a long look. draw a deep breath.
We need to see it.
We need to clean it up.
We need to take care of it…
… or the maggots will do it for us, and it won’t be pretty.
We, the medical examiners of America… we are a junk drawer.
To date, there is no prime-time television show about medico-legal death investigators, and as a result, nobody really knows what we do. (And in case you’re asking, no, CSI, Dexter and Rizzoli and Isles don’t count. Nor does any incarnation of Law & Order. Dick Wolf can suck a big fat one) It’s a shame. In my opinion we MDI’s (Or deputy medical examiners… or whatever) are actually a pretty fun bunch and I think we’d be a big hit if any network producers ever decided to take a chance on us. (I’m available for consultation and script-writing… you know… if you happen to BE or KNOW a network television producer. Forget what I said about Dick Wolf sucking a big fat one)
Anyway, because no one knows what we do, we are frequently asked questions. People call our office all the time and lay a wide array of dilemmas at our feet. Folks seem to think that if their conundrum involves a dead person in any way, it must be the medical examiner’s responsibility.
I’m guessing that, in the continental United States, the following exchange takes place every 0.3 seconds:
-SOME DUDE- He’s dead. What do we do now?
-SOME OTHER DUDE- I don’t know. Call the medical examiner.
We do what we can. We do what we should. We often take on puzzles that are decidedly not in our job description because we’re civic-minded folks and we want to help. BUT a lot of the time, we punt these problems right back into people’s faces… because their dead monkey isn’t a part of our horror circus. My coined phrase when I get these calls is this:
“Well, jeepers! This sounds like a whole lot of ‘not-my-problem!'”
Don’t believe me?
Well take a gander at this-
We have a hospital in our county that doesn’t have a morgue. I’m not sure why. No one has ever bothered to explain this architectural feature to me and all I can say is that I really admire the hospital’s optimism. But sadly, their faith in their capacity to treat and save every life that walks through their doors is unfounded. People die there. It’s a fucking hospital.
Most often, when people die there and it’s not a death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office, the decedent is removed from the hospital room by a funeral home that’s selected by the next-of-kin. Simple.
Sometimes non-jurisdictional deaths happen at this hospital and the dead person has no next-of-kin. This is when the hospital staff starts calling our office, attempting to coerce us into taking the body. The conversations go something like this:
-ME- Hello, Medical Examiner’s Office
-HOSPITAL STAFF- Hi, we have a deceased person with no next-of-kin.
-ME- Ok… ummm… is this death a medical examiner case?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (confused) He… has no next-of-kin.
-ME- Right, I heard you. Does anything about this death make it a medical examiner case?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (louder) HE HAS NO NEXT… OF… KIN.
-ME- Why exactly are you calling me?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- Well… you need to come get him.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… you’re the medical examiner. …
-ME- That’s not what we do. If the death isn’t a medical examiner case, we are not involved in the disposition. We’re not your storage facility.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… what do I do with him? We don’t have a morgue!
-ME- Listen, I don’t know how many times we have to tell you this, but just because someone has no next-of-kin does NOT make them a medical examiner case. It’s not our fault that you don’t have a morgue and we’ve told you several times that hospital administration needs to come up with a plan for when this happens.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (sniffling a little bit) Well… can you just come pick up this one?
Now I’ve worked here for almost ten years and the answer to this question has never changed. They always want us to take their dead bodies and we always say no. They also want us to take the dead person’s stuff and then find the person’s elusive, long-lost family.
Speaking of family…
I get a lot of questions from families, too. And I try to be kinder to them than the hospital staff, who in my opinion, have no excuse for their dumb-ass calls. But answering questions from families is far more explosive and complicated, despite the fact that I try to be as delicate as an ice dancer with these interactions.
First of all, when I talk to families, they’re (justifiably) hysterical and only hear a fraction of what I say. This means that they will frequently call back with a jumbled knot of misinformation in their heads. They will claim that they were lied to. They will claim that nothing that they’ve been told makes sense. They’ll call me names. They’ll threaten.
I was a paramedic for a long time and I’ve been mother-fucked by a wide array of people in the back of the ambulance. I’ve learned not to take it personally. But still, it wears on you. I think what’s so hard about it is the seemingly universal assumption that the medical examiners are all malicious ass-holes who are always trying to hide something. We never get the benefit of the doubt. People never seem to consider the possibility that, in their devastated, grief-stricken state, maybe they didn’t hear me quite right…
My last shift, I investigated the death of a woman who choked to death. It wasn’t awesome. She was developmentally delayed and had been in the care of an adult day-care program. They take these folks on field trips to the mall or the park. It’s a chance for these folks to get out and socialize and it gives their families a break from 24/7 caretaking. This group had been picnicking on the shores of a local lake when this woman choked on her lunch. No Heimlich Maneuver or chest pumping could get the piece of meat out of her airway and she was pronounced at the scene. (It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea.) The following day, the decedent’s sister called me up and the second I answered the phone I could tell she was primed for a fight.
“My sister died yesterday and we just don’t feel like our questions are being answered!”
“Okay,” I said. “How can I help? What do you need to know?”
She delivered every question as though she was kicking me in the shins as she spoke. She was using the you’d-better-not-mess-with-me voice as though I, inexplicably, intended to mess with her. I gave her all the same information I gave her the day before, hoping that maybe this time she’d remember. Things seemed to be going well right up until she hit me with this one:
“Why wasn’t my family notified that my sister would be going to the lake?”
Now. let’s all remember that I don’t work for the adult day-care program. I am completely ignorant of their policies and I cannot answer questions on their behalf. I didn’t have any fucking clue why the family didn’t know that a picnic at the lake was on the docket for the day. But I understood that they had been blindsided by the death and wanted an explanation for every detail. But that didn’t mean I had one for her.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I don’t work for the day-care program and I don’t know anything about their policies. I’m thinking you should probably get in contact with them because I don’t feel like I can speak for them-”
And she hung up on me.
Also, on my last shift, I had a guy who was electrocuted while installing lighting in a commercial space. That whole situation was just dodgy as fuck because as far as I could tell no one bothered to turn off the power and the dude had minimal experience with electricity. But it’s not my place to say what should or should not have happened in that situation. Imagine me as Dr. Bones on Star Trek- “I’m a medical examiner, not an electrician!” And I certainly don’t regulate safety practices on electrical jobs. But that didn’t stop the family from demanding that I explain why the decedent wasn’t wearing “appropriate safety gear” (as they put it)
Honestly, how am I supposed to answer that question? I have no idea what’s considered “appropriate safety gear” in those circumstances, nor do I have any clue why he was or was not wearing it… but that didn’t stop them from being plenty pissed when I told them so.
“What the hell are you people DOING out there? Why isn’t anyone doing their JOB?”
I don’t blame them for wanting answers. I really don’t. I don’t want to sound glib or calloused. The fact is, I wish I was MORE calloused. When families lose their shit on me, I feel a completely unreasonable sense of guilt. I stare into the hungry, chomping mouth of their grief and wish I had something to feed it other than, “We’re doing what we can.” That answer felt so insufficient to me for such a long time that I nearly killed myself trying to satisfy people’s insatiable need for an explanation for their tragedy.
But sooner or later, in this job, you have to learn some boundaries and understand that you don’t owe every question an answer…
I had a funeral director call me other day…
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- So, we have a decedent here and I’m doing his death certificate. When we picked him up, You guys told us he was transient.
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- Well… if he’s transient, what do I put for his home address?
-ME- Well, I expect you’d put “transient”
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (huffing indignantly) Don’t you have anything else?
-ME- If he’s transient, then I suppose you’d list transient as an address on the death certificate. It’s how we complete our case files. Why? Is that not allowed?
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (eye-rolling) WELL, I was hoping you could offer a little guidance…
-ME- Listen, we medical examiners don’t fill out death certificates. I have NEVER filled out a death certificate in my life. You know why? Because that’s the FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S JOB. I have no idea what state vital records will or won’t accept for a decedent’s address. I only know what they will and won’t accept for cause and manner of death because that’s the MEDICAL EXAMINER’S JOB. Maybe try talking to your manager.
The idiot funeral director hung up on me… I guess because she was insufficiently trained and I refused to do her job for her.
I’m not sure what the hell is going on. But apparently this is a growing trend. People are more and more in the habit of asking the wrong people the wrong questions.
Today while I was working out at the gym, one of the televisions above my treadmill was tuned to “The 700 Club”. If you’ve never heard of it, this show is basically an Evangelical Christian version of a news program. Something like 20/20, but for religious fanatics for whom Fox news isn’t quite skewed enough. I’m familiar with this program because I was raised in an Evangelical home in which my mother watched “The 700 Club” all the damned time… when she wasn’t attending prayer meetings and casting demons out of our appliances (not joking).
So, much like rubber-neckers at the scene of an accident, I just couldn’t bring myself to look away as the program entered it’s Q & A segment. During this time, the quintessential old-white-dude televangelist answers questions that viewers have emailed in. Typically, the questions are about theology, scripture, ethics, etc. etc. Also people ask him how he managed to fit all those animals on to one boat… because this guy has GOT to be as old as the flood.
So, imagine my surprise when THIS little gem flashed across the screen. Some blithering moron sent in the following question:
“Dear Pat, If we say grace over our food before we eat it, asking God to nourish it to our bodies, do we still have to be concerned with the sugar and cholesterol in it?”
I didn’t see Pastor Pat’s answer… probably because I nearly fell off the treadmill in astonishment that Pastor Pat somehow managed to get an email from the Dark Ages. Honestly , this reminded me of centuries ago when people sincerely believed that the Eucharist (the wine and communion wafers of Holy Communion) LITERALLY turned into the body and blood of Jesus Christ… Making early Catholics a bunch of zealous cannibals who didn’t know the meaning of a metaphor. Even more so, I was reminded of those charismatic nut-bags who demonstrate the depth of their faith by dancing around, waving poisonous snakes in the air. It’s right up there with “praying the gay away,” I was legitimately astonished that someone out there was asking this question of a televangelist as opposed to… say a nutritionist or a doctor. And I was even more astonished that the producers of this show thought this was a legitimate enough question to put it on the air. Never mind doctrinal issues like predestination or the cannonization of scripture. People want to know if they can pray their way out of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
I barely had time to stomach this whole situation when the next question flashed across the screen:
“Pastor Pat, Why is it that some dead people look really terrible, while other dead people look normal and healthy… almost as if they’re still alive?”
I couldn’t help it. Right then and there I actually went to the 700 Club website, and then looked up this “Pastor Pat”. I wanted to see if he had any kind of advanced degrees or training that might qualify him to answer such questions. There wasn’t a thing about medicine or death investigation… nothing to indicate this guy knew anything about human physiology in the living or the dead.
I watched in amazement while Pastor Pat reeled off some drivel about how morticians put make-up on dead bodies to make them look more alive… which is true. Morticians do that. HOWEVER, there’s a little more to what, exactly, makes dead people look the way they do. So many factors affect post-mortem changes that you see in a dead body. The body’s position, the post mortem interval, heat, air-movement, fat-to-muscle ratio… not to mention the fact that if people don’t look great when they’re alive, death probably isn’t going to make it any better. Pastor Pat totally copped the fuck out of that question… a question to which I could have actually delivered a concise and thoughtful answer, based in both personal experience and science.
But of course, nobody asked me.
So from here on out, I’d like to offer my services to you, your televangelist hero, your wacky podcast… whatever. If you have a MEDICAL EXAMINER question. Feel free to ask it. And if you’re not sure if your question is a medical examiner question… you can ask me that too, and I’ll tell you. Just stop asking people questions that they’re not qualified to answer. And if you’re not qualified to answer a question… don’t just answer it anyway
The hardest days are usually the ones when my own life is in such profound turmoil that the added load of doing my job makes me feel like an old world martyr, being pressed to death in the town square. Every ring of the phone, every scene investigation, every page of paperwork is like another boulder that’s being piled on my chest as bystanders look on in morbid fascination, wondering how much more i can take before I finally stop breathing.
So when the call came in that I was being dispatched to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who was in foster care, I almost stopped breathing. I was already buried beneath a pile of unfinished reports. And I was being dive-bombed by an angry, buzzing swarm of unreturned phone calls.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the fact that, in addition to the daily onslaught of deaths and death related tasks, I was still frozen in an icy block of anguish from the happenings of the night before.
I had broken up with someone… Again. Which may be why I’m so comfortable in working with the dead. I’ve had so many horrible endings in my own life that I subconsciously realized that I should just start making living off everything going to shit.
Anyway, I broke up with him. Which, theoretically is supposed to feel empowering… I guess. You know, being the one who calls it off means you win, right? Except I didn’t feel like a winner at all. It was a complete catastrophe.
I had found emails in which my boyfriend had been corresponding with his high-school girlfriend. And it wasn’t your typical “Hey, how have you been.” Unless of course I’m mistaken and guys regularly check in with their exes to let them know that they miss holding each other’s naked body. Is it typical for dudes to ask their married-with-two-kids high school sweetheart if she thinks about him when she masturbates? Because that’s the kind of email conversation they were having when I uncovered it. And, I mean, maybe I’m way off base here, but I had lunch a couple of years back with my high school ex and, somehow, the subject of masturbation never came up.
All that was bad enough, but I suppose I could have let it slide. I’m not too proud to admit that I’m in the habit of taking WAY too much douchebaggery from the men in my life. But I hit my douchebaggery overflow valve when I noted that the two of them were pointedly making plans to get together during a period of time when I would be out of town.
I was a perfectly cool girlfriend, he told her, but no one would ever matter to him like she did.
I woke him up to confront him. Because at the time, he was of course sleeping in MY bed-in MY house- like a drowsy little self-satisfied, narcissistic house cat. He maintained that he “never cheated”, then tried to deflect his own guilt by acting wounded and outraged that I had snooped in his email. In response, I couldn’t help but point out that he had given me the password back when I had disclosed my trust issues due to cheating exes.
“Check whenever you want!” He had confidently bade me at the time.
Well, I did.
Anyway, I had stuffed all his belongings into his arms and shoved him out the door. Then when I noted his towel was still hanging in my bathroom, I set it on fire in the dumpster down the street.
Now, at work, I was fielding the phone calls, conducting scene investigations and feeling like my heart had been replaced with a mace-and-chain that bashed against the inside of my rib cage every time I moved. And in between all of that, I couldn’t get the cacophonous birds in my brain to settle on one side of the fence or the other: had my response been justified or had I overreacted?
Maybe committing arson had overshot the limits of reasonable behavior juuuuuuuuust a hair.
Anyway, I certainly didn’t feel up to fielding the suicide of a 13 year old foster kid, not when all I wanted to do was lay down and die myself.
But that’s the nature of the work. When you’re on the clock, you’re on the hook and no one cares how you feel. Back when my father died, I was allotted exactly one shift off to attend his funeral and not a second more. I spent the next month sobbing my eyes out in the county truck between calls. Every death that I attended to raked across the raw nerve of my own loss to such a profound degree that I staggered home from each shift, exhausted and numb with despair. When I went to Human Resources, desperate for some kind of relief… maybe the emotional equivalent of “light-duty…” the flat eyed desk-jokey told me in a voice, caustic with sarcasm, “We’re not going to give you time off just because you’re sad.”
So, I knew that I had to lay my own misery aside and squire this, latest decedent to the afterlife with stoic decorum. It was going to be a rough ride, I knew. The death of a child is always dicey and complicated. The death of a child in foster care would only be more so. Every aspect of this child’s life and death would be meticulously dissected, re-examined, argued over, theorized on and criticized. Every agency that ever had a hand in the decedent’s life would be frantic to prove that they weren’t the ones who dropped the ball when it came to her welfare. Whose head was on the proverbial block for this death?
Well, it wouldn’t be mine. I buckled down the rattling baggage of my sorrow and told myself that I was going to document the fuck out of this investigation. It would probably take hours, but nothing about this kid’s death was going to get by me.
When I rolled up to the scene, I noted a spread of no less than three squad cars on the block, in addition to a couple of vehicles that were quite obviously the “unmarked” units used by detectives. As I got out of my truck and turned to regard the unassuming ranch-style home, I noted a hand-wringing, middle-aged man, pacing in the driveway. He was portly, rumpled and had hair as thin as a bad alibi which was becoming more and more disheveled every time that he ran his stubby fingers through it. He eyed me worriedly as I walked past him, but I ignored him as I stepped up the walk. Whatever his story, I would get to him later.
“That’s the foster-dad,” said the uniformed officer posted at the front door, nodding in the man’s direction. “I guess he’s the one that found her. He called 911… maybe about 3 hours ago now. We’ve been here since then”
This information didn’t surprise me. When it looks like a death investigation is going to be a fiasco, police and detectives usually spend a couple of hours freaking out before they think to call me. On the rare occasion that they call me before they’re done freaking out, I’ve actually told them to get their shit together and get back to me in an hour or so when a plan has emerged.
As I stepped into the house, I noted that I had an array of maybe 5 cops and two detectives in attendance. And just a few feet inside the front door, laying in the middle of the living room floor, was my dead girl. She was smallish, maybe five feet tall. She was laying on her side with her long, frizzy, dark hair covering her face. She wore jeans, a hoodie, sneakers and her backpack lay on the floor nearby. I glanced around the room, taking in the suburban-normal of the couch, a couple chairs, a TV- all of it completely unremarkable except for the dead body and the police that crowded the small space.
“Hey Grace!” I heard a voice call from the kitchen.
“Hey man!” I called back as I made my way past the living room and found Detective Labrecht chatting with a patrol officer by the sink. “What’s the story here?”
Labrecht sighed. “Well, it’s a suicide. This girl has a history of cutting and self-harm. I guess school counselors told the foster folks to remove all the sharp knives from the home recently. Foster-mom saw her this morning as she was leaving for work and our girl was getting ready for school. Mom and the other foster kids left before she did. Foster dad comes home around four this afternoon and finds her like that.”
“Foster dad found her like that?” I squinted at Labrecht and turned to re-examine the scene. “So, what exactly makes us think this is a suicide?” I wasn’t trying to be contrary, I was legitimately curious because the whole thing just didn’t seem… right… to me. When I had been to previous teenage-girl-suicides… hell, when I had been to any suicide, the scene had always been carefully “staged” by the decedent. Usually there was a note in a prominent place. The decedent was typically sitting or lying in a deliberate fashion. Often we find a stack of important paperwork or instructions left for emergency responders or family. Once we even had a dude video-record himself on his ipad, stating that he was going to kill himself, providing date and time and then showing the gun he intended to use. This girl looked like she had literally been walking out the door to go to school when she suddenly remembered she had forgotten to commit suicide- Then she decided to do so right then and there without bothering to take her jacket or shoes off.
“We’re not sure how she did it yet. Probably pills of some kind but we don’t know what. There’s nothing in the house but some over-the-counter stuff. And, we found a note in her bedroom over there.” Labrecht gestured at a door in the nearby hallway and an officer standing there beckoned me in.
“It’s right here.” The officer handed over a piece of spiral notebook paper that had obviously been crumpled up and spread back out again. I squinted as I read the words scribbled on the lines. Something about how no one loved her and everyone was prettier and smarter and better than she was. She wished she was dead etc. ect. And although she said “I’m sorry” several times in the note, it didn’t explicitly reference an intention to kill herself, nor was it a blatant good bye to anyone. My brow puckered in doubt but I opted not to disclose to the officer that this “suicide note” bore a striking resemblance to my own rambling journal entry that I had blearily scrawled just last night in the aftermath of my relationship Armageddon. Furthermore, it pretty much echoed every thought I’d had about myself during the day… thoughts that, even now, were barely being kept quiet below the rippling surface of my composure.
“We also found these.” The officer motioned to the bed where two spiral notebooks were laid open. Both of them were filled with page after page of feminine handwriting. And each page was another diatribe about how much our decedent believed the world sucked, her family sucked, foster care sucked, school sucked and she, herself… sucked. I paged through them wordlessly, remembering my own struggles with junior high school, puberty, boys, friends, parents, teachers and the eternal mystery of myself. Who was I? Who cared about me? Why was I so sad? When would it ever change? Again, I didn’t say anything to the officer who was clearly proud of his incriminating evidence in favor of suicide. But I wasn’t convinced. As terrible as it was, all the girl’s musings honestly seemed to be standard-issue adolescent self-loathing with a healthy dose of family trauma smeared on top.
“Okay, where did we find this?” I asked the officer as I straightened up and once again addressed the crumpled up “suicide note”.
“It was in the waste-basket.”
I felt the scowl crawl across my face. This was making less and less sense. Suicide notes are typically left out where people will find them. If this was a suicide note, and that was a big if, it would have been displayed. It would have been obvious. This was… this was…
“Hey, did she just breathe?” An officer’s voice floated into the bedroom.
“WHAT?!?” I barked. I turned and sprinted into the living room where five cops and two detectives were all frozen, staring at the inert body on the floor.
“Seriously. It… it looked like she just breathed.” stuttered an officer.
I scrambled to the dead girl’s side and pulled her hair off of her face as I rolled her on to her back. Her skin was pale and cold but she wasn’t in rigor mortis at all. And she should have been. By all reports she had been dead for anywhere from three to eight hours. Unthinkingly, I groped for the girl’s wrist and ten years of paramedic experience guided my fingers to her radial artery… where she had a thundering pulse.
“YOU GUYS, SHE HAS A PULSE!” I announced to the utterly stunned room of officers, all of whom had stopped breathing and were likely without pulses of their own at that moment.
“Call 911!” I yelled at them, before realizing that I was yelling at a roomful of uniformed, on-duty cops to call 911 when we actually were 911. “Call an ambulance!” I corrected myself as I reached into my bag and pulled out a CPR mask that I always kept there, never believing I might someday use it. I tossed the mask to Labrecht to assemble and quickly raked my knuckles over the girl’s sternum as hard as I could.
She gasped. She flailed. She opened her eyes.
“Um… hi…” I said to her, suddenly unsure of what to say. I mean, I would frequently talk to the dead, but I never expected any of them to answer. “Hey, so, what’s your name?”
“Sabrina,” she mumbled softly, looking around at the assembly of people around her, most of whom were policemen who stood, transfixed by her resurrection. Already I could see the wheels turning in their heads. Someone was going to get blamed for this utterly disastrous debacle, and how could they ensure it wasn’t them?
My pre-hospital career was coming back to me as I helped Sabrina to her feet and guided her over to sit on the couch. I took a cursory look at her and established that she was free of any injuries. I asked her a few questions but she was disoriented and spacey. The pulse at her wrist was stable and strong but unbelievably fast. I was mentally flipping through my index of possible reasons for her unconsciousness and rapid heart rate when an ambulance showed up and I handed Sabrina off to the medic crew who seemed just as baffled as everyone else at this turn of events.
“This is Sabrina, She’s been unconscious for at least the last three hours. She awoke to painful stimuli and is disoriented to place and time. There are no visible injuries to her head or thorax. She’s got a rapid radial pulse and is a suspected suicide attempt—“
As I reeled off the information, everyone in the room seemed to be moving at half speed. The paramedics fumbled with their EKG, the police all shifted uneasily and Labrecht meandered back into the kitchen to call a supervisor. Yet above everything else, one thought drowned out all others as I watched Sabrina get escorted to the stretcher and loaded into the ambulance:
I didn’t have to write this report anymore.
I DIDN’T HAVE TO WRITE THIS REPORT ANYMORE!
During the next few minutes that I stayed on scene, I was downright jubilant with glee. Sure, my personal life was, literally, a dumpster fire. Sure, I was still facing hours of paperwork from my other investigations that day. But I didn’t have to write up the novel-sized case file that would be required by a foster kid’s suicide. Hell, this shit show suddenly had nothing to do with me. Even better, the scene had started with a body count of one… and now the body count was zero! I was so good at my job I brought the dead back to life!
I blithely watched the police argue over who was the primary officer at the scene and who actually pronounced Sabrina dead in the first place. Then I watched as they all made excuses as to why none of them had bothered checking for a pulse themselves. I watched as Labrecht deftly slipped out the door, probably hoping no one would remember he was there. And I watched the ambulance pull away from the house as the foster dad stared in relieved astonishment.
In the following few days, the police department evolved a story in which at the time of their arrival, Sabrina’s pulse was too faint for anyone to feel. Furthermore, the first officer at the scene swore up and down that the girl was super cold to the touch and that’s why he opted to cancel the initial medical response. (If paramedics had initially come to the scene, they would have put the EKG on her right away and the whole crisis would have been averted.) My theory is simply that cops are shit at taking pulses. But it’s okay because it’s not actually their job and they’re not trained to do it. I’m sure if I tried to arrest someone, I’d fuck that up, too.
I later found out that, at the hospital, Sabrina admitted to taking half a bottle of extra strength Tylenol the night before with the intention of committing suicide. When she woke up the following morning she threw her farewell note away, figuring she failed at everything, even killing herself. Little did she realize as she got ready for school, that the Tylenol had gone to work at annihilating her liver while she slept. This explained why she suddenly got dizzy and passed out in the living room on her way out the door. If much more time had passed, she would have suffered irreversible liver damage and possibly death. But yours truly pulled her back from the abyss with a classic sternal rub.
I think about Sabrina a lot. I wanted to try to connect with her after she got out of the hospital, but when I told the story to a more cynical friend of mine, she told me not to bother. “Her life is shit,” my friend had told me. “It’s never going to get any better. She’s screwed.” Moreover, a couple other people told me that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for me to contact her… whatever that means. Besides, if I did manage to get in touch with her, I can’t fathom how a conversation would go. I’d probably lose my nerve and end up saying something that sounded like a greeting card or a facebook meme: “Hang in there!” or “The hour is darkest…” or some such bullshit.
But the thing is, I know what I want to tell her. I just wouldn’t know how to do it without sounding crazy. I want to tell her about the day I was having. I want to tell her about sitting here, still in the devastated wreckage of a heartbreak that runs far deeper than I’ll ever let on. I want to tell her about realizing that if he loved me at all, he loved me like a child loves his second favorite toy right before he pulls it apart to see how it works. Then, bored, leaves it in the yard to rust with gears askew and springs sticking out of its belly like hands reaching out for rescue. I want to tell her about a lifetime of feeling as though happiness was a bowl of candy that was empty by the time someone thought to pass it around to me. I want to tell her about all the times I’ve looked at myself and said “My life is shit, it’s never going to get any better, I’m screwed.”
And I want tell her a story that was told to me, by an artist who was once asked to illustrate the laws of physics for time magazine. And he told me that when an electron passes through the nucleus of an atom. That electron ceases to exist and is reborn out the other side… and I think that we are all those electrons and that nucleus is simply the pain inherent in living… we get pulled into its orbit until we have to pass through it… again and again.
Things are tough all around, kid. And at 13 you are only ankle deep, wading into a rising tide that’s aiming for 10 feet above your head. And you will spend your life feeling as though the devil has his hand in your pocket, demanding that you pay for sins you never committed. There will be times when your enemies will tell you that you are a worthless failure and you will agree with them. There will be times when screams will fill your throat like dirt as you’re being buried alive from the inside out. And there will be times when people you dearly love will tell you that you never really mattered.
You will enter it
And you will cease to exist, it will feel as though the nucleus of your grief is unmaking you,
You will dissolve into a nothingness so hollow that light will invert itself and every waking dawn will break as black as death into another day without hope. And you won’t want to move
I know because I don’t want to move. Days like this I don’t believe in God, love, humanity, fate, logic, wealth, power, family, friendship or fairies. I don’t believe that I’m special because I’m not and I don’t believe that everything is going to be okay because it isn’t. After cancer, divorce, miscarriages, betrayals, deaths… days like this I wonder if the future I imagine gleaming on the horizon of this wasteland is only a fluorescent light, glinting on the edge of the razor I’ll use to slash my wrists when I get there. Sometimes, the only fuel I have left for my journey is the knowledge that I have to keep going. I have to. To remain motionless is to allow defeat to swallow me like weeds swallow an unused road. And I want to be reborn. I want to stumble out the other side of my sorrow, blinking and bewildered that I’m still alive… just like you were. Just like that day when I felt your heart with my fingers, pounding from inside your flesh like an angry fist, demanding a recount. And I realized that, despite my own fucking problems, I would have to carry on so I could show you that it can be done… So I could tell you you’re life isn’t shit. It is going to get better and you’re only screwed if you give up.
You have to keep going. You have to make a habit of survival. You have to learn to love despite the pain. You have to learn to find someone to trust in a world full of assholes. You have to learn to forgive people who will never be sorry. And you have to be willing to enter despair in order to pass through it. I may not believe in anything but I believe in the other side of the nucleus and I intend to meet you there. I want to feel the grip of your hand in mine and I want to see your face. I want to be able to tell you that the 27 years between your age and mine are going to be worth it and it’s going to get easier. You’ll learn to thank the devastation, you’ll learn to love the loss. You’ll learn to shrug in the face of heartbreak and say I’ve survived lots of tragedy, this is just the latest one.
I’ve asked Labrecht to look up her case. He’s reluctant to do so, probably because no one wants to remember that we were involved in something so embarrassing. But I’ve kept at him. I’m not sure what I’ll do, probably call up child protective services and just ask if she’s ok. They might not be able or willing to tell me and I’m not sure what I’ll say if they ask me why I’m interested in her. Should I tell them she’s the one that got away? That I feel responsible for her? Do I tell them that I owe her? That I want to keep an eye on her?