Suddenly we’re all sitting in our homes, chewing on our fingernails as we watch the red dots spread out on the computer screen map like seeping bloodstains.
No one is attending school. No one is going to movies. No one is seeing concerts. No one is working out at the gym. No one is going to work…
…except for me.
(and the grocery store clerk at New Seasons)
I left for work today a luxurious 20 minutes later than usual because I knew there wouldn’t be any traffic. But as far as I can tell, it’s pretty much the only GOOD thing that’s happened as a result of this shit show.
That’s right, the medical examiner’s office is open with a vengeance. It is said that the only thing for certain in this life is death and taxes. And it’s entirely possible that taxes will be waived for the year as more and more clamor rises from the masses. No one can afford to pay their rent… let alone their taxes- so who knows. Taxes may be optional this year.
The downside is, death is still a thing. As the panic surrounding the COVID pandemic really begins to pick up avalanche momentum, The medical examiner’s office is only one cubicle away from where the shit show is really on display- I’m not gonna lie, the Public Health people are having a much worse time than I am… so far. When I saw the county epidemiologist today, she told me that she’s been snorting No-Doze and it’s been 19 days since she had the time to take a shower.
The medical examiners office is doing ok, but we’re starting to feel the strain as well. It’s only a matter of time before the fatalities really start piling up. And I don’t just mean the folks who die of the virus. I’m talking about the people who freak out from the social isolation and anxiety and kill themselves. I’m talking about the families that are already hanging on by a very thin thread suddenly having to spend weeks quarantined together… all angry atoms vibrating together in an enclosed space, hovering on the edge of detonation. I’m talking about all those assholes who think it’s fucking anarchy out there and start driving around drunk- assuming the police have better things to do than pull them over. I’m talking about riots as people become more and more desperate, stupidly believing that the only thing standing between them and complete annihilation is a roll of fucking toilet paper.
It’s so maddening that all I can do is say the F-word…
I arrive at work. I’m nervous. The magnitude of the corona virus hasn’t quite hit the ground yet, but we’re beginning to sense that it’s a much bigger problem than anyone thought. Businesses have started to close down. Most notably, my gym has closed down leaving me with an overabundance of nervous energy. I feel as edgy as a downed power-line, snapping and crackling on the pavement, daring anyone to come closer.
The first thing that happens is Henry tells me that a body arrived at a funeral home with “corona virus” written on it. I’m not altogether sure what he means.
“Was it like… a sticky note or something?” I ask him.
He doesn’t know, all he knows is that the funeral home employees are losing their minds with panic and don’t want to touch the body. Henry is talking about having to track down who the hell got the rumor started that the dead body was a COVID-19 victim. I shake my head in disbelief.
Then I get a call from the grandmother of one of my decedents from last shift. Specifically, it’s the grandmother of a dead baby. It was awful. This infant was found deceased in bed next to his mother. It’s a co-sleeping death- which is something I know no one wants to hear, but it’s true. Babies and parents shouldn’t sleep in the same beds and the repercussions of doing so are sometimes deadly.
But putting THAT debate aside for another day….
Then problem is, someone from the funeral home has called the family and told them that the baby tested positive for COVID-19. The funeral home is now refusing to let the devastated family come in and view their deceased child one last time. The funeral home is also refusing to touch the baby or proceed with any burial or cremation arrangements.
Then the grandmother tells me that the baby’s father (her son) had to tell his work that it is believed that his child died of COVID-19. His employer has freaked the fuck out and refused to let him come in to work until he can provide documentation verifying that he does NOT have COVID-19.
The grandmother is sobbing this whole story out and asking me why no one at our office told the family that the baby died of COVID. I do my best to tell the grandmother that no one mentioned this to them by virtue of the fact that it isn’t fucking true. The death had nothing to do with the corona virus and I have no clue where the funeral home got that idea. Nor can I imagine why they didn’t bother to confirm it with our office before they brutalized the family in this way. I tell her I will get to the bottom of it and I call the funeral home with the light of righteous indig-fucking-nation blazing in my eyes.
The funeral director tells me that he got the information from the transport crew that they hire to pick up bodies for them from the morgue. He claims that if there’s a problem, it’s not his fault, it’s the fault of the transport company. They’re the ones that said the baby had COVID. So I call the transport company… completely prepared to tear them limb from limb. However, the transport company swears they got the news from the morgue employee who released the body to them. So then I call the morgue, where the state morgue attendants claim that absolutely, under no circumstances did anyone tell anyone that this baby had COVID. In fact, the morgue folks are downright offended that I dare suggest such a thing.
Ultimately, I talk to the pathologist who did the autopsy. He informs me that recent guidelines mandate a COVID test for all pediatric deaths in the state. So the baby was tested for the corona virus and that test came back negative.
I backtrack through the phone calls and graciously disperse this information to all involved parties, not one of whom is willing to admit that they’re the asshole that started the rumor that this kid had the corona virus. Ultimately I talk to the family and assure them that their home is not ground zero for the latest outbreak. The problem is, now there’s no help for the father who has been ordered to stay home from work. He can’t prove that he doesn’t have this illness because he can’t get a test. Right now, there aren’t enough tests available and the Health Authority isn’t willing to burn a test swab on someone who isn’t showing any symptoms and has no known contact with a verified Covid case.
So he’s screwed.
Then I get a call from the local hospital. It’s a nurse calling to report the death of a known COVID victim. It’s the first confirmed corona virus death in our county. It’s starting.
He doesn’t know what to do. But I can’t really help him. I tell him that the death isn’t reportable to our office since the decedent has been in the hospital for over 24 hours and the cause of death wasn’t a matter that required investigation. I tell him that the attending physician should have been briefed on which agencies to call and who to alert in this situation.
“Yeah,” he says. “The attending doc told me to call you.”
I mean, I KNOW what happened because I was there and everything… but … I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m sick, maybe it’s because I’m tired.
Or maybe it’s because I’m starting to lose my touch…
But then again, maybe I’m starting to FIND my touch. Maybe it’s the healthiest reaction I could have had, given the circumstances.
Anyway, I’ll stop being vague and just tell you.
I cried on a scene on a recent shift… something I’ve NEVER done before. I don’t cry at work. I’m the fucking medical examiner, I hold it together when everyone else falls apart. I’m the carved, granite face of control and professionalism when the cops are puking, the chaplains are cussing and the funeral-home employees are averting their eyes with disgust. I don’t cry…
And I wish that was all, but I did some othershit that I’ve never done before. Stay tuned.
So, to be fair to myself (something that never happens) it was a really fucked up call. It was a baby death that, as far as we can tell right now, is completely unexplained. They used to call such an event a SIDS death, but there is a push in the medical community to move away from that term. For anyone who doesn’t know, SIDS stands for “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” and that moniker is problematic because it gives people the impression that there is a diagnosis to be had.
The word “syndrome” sounds like a legit, defined disorder or disease process. It sounds like something that can be seen under a microscope. “Syndrome” sounds like a fully researched pathology with a list of risk factors, symptoms and treatments. It sounds like the kind of thing an autopsy would explain.
But sometimes autopsies don’t explain shit.
SIDS deaths are the absenceof an explanation. No one knows why these babies die. That’s why the modern term for these events is now SUDI: “Sudden UnexplainedDeath in Infancy”. And that phrase is only assigned to a death when every test and exam has been done and we still don’t know what the hell happened. Maybe someday, the great culprit will be found. Some researcher somewhere will see the altered morphology of the heart tissue. Someone will uncover the faulty gene sequence. A dude in a lab will take a look at a petri dish full of cells and figure it all out. Until then, we’ve got jack.
Which isn’t really the point. I just tend to ramble about academic drivel when I don’t want to remember what happened.
It was awful, really awful. There was absolutely no reason for this little girl to be dead. Even as I was talking to the neighbors… the police… the parents… I’ve been in this line of work long enough to be able to pick up on the sense that there wasn’t going to be any solid ground at the bottom of this hole. It was a SUDI. I knew it. But still, I investigated my ass off and prayed like hell that I was wrong and that any answer at all might explain why this girl had just stopped breathing. I know what the lack of answers does to the parents of a deceased baby. I’ve had that conversation several times. I will call up devastated mothers and fathers to give them autopsy results, and then have to admit to them that there aren’t any. They sit there on the other end of the phone in complete silence, waiting for me to say something more. It’s as though I’ve reached through the phone line and slit their throat. They can’t comprehend that the excruciating void of their loss has no resolution. It’s awful. We can collect all the facts and still have nothing to show for it.
The more and more information I gathered on this investigation, the more I suspected that there would be no answers. The child had been carried to term and born at 40 weeks. Uncomplicated pregnancy, uncomplicated birth, no risk factors, no illness. She had been loved and well cared for. Now, like a wisp of smoke or a popped soap bubble, she was simply gone.
The father asked me if he could hold his daughter before I took her.
I used to be a real stickler about those requests. I thought that letting parents hold their dead infants would compromise the whole investigation. It would muck up trace evidence. It was unprofessional. And to a degree, all of that is correct. There have to be limits, but these days- a decade into my profession as a deputy medical examiner, and a… a… witness to all of the realities surrounding death- I wasn’t about to tell him “no”.
The mother wasn’t sure if she wanted to see her daughter- which is fine and normal. Not everyone needs that moment of seeing their loved one’s body. I know I don’t. When my Dad died, everyonetold me that I should view him before he was cremated. But I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I was already a medical examiner by then and I didn’t want to remember looking at my dead father every time I walked into a scene. So I told everyoneto fuck right off and leave my over-worked psyche alone. Grieving people don’t need or want your instructions.
Quick public service announcement: thinking that someone isn’t reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is a shitty, self-righteous projection. And telling someone that they’re not reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is basically taking that shitty, self-righteous projection and beating them over the head with it… So don’t do it.
Anyway, I led the father into a separate room and then brought the girl in to him. He smoothed her tousled head of feather-fine curls. He kissed her cheeks and then clutched her to his chest and sobbed convulsively… animal-like… as though his bones were being pulled out of his body through his skin, one by one. “I was worried about paying for her wedding…” he gasped out, not necessarily to me. “Now I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for her funeral…”
I swallowed, I pinched the web of skin between my thumb and my index finger. I breathed in for 6 seconds and out for 8. I internally shouted at myself: HOLD IT TOGETHER!!! YOU FUCKING HOLD IT TOGETHER. YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL AND YOU DON’T CRY. But it didn’t matter. My surroundings went watery in my vision and with one blink, the tears tipped from my eyes on to my cheeks. I was crying. For the first time in 10 years, I was crying.
Okay, so not so much crying, but I was sniffling. And the first couple of tears laid the pathway for several more to slip down my face before I could collect myself enough to take the tiny, cold form back from her father. I left for the morgue, skirting past the police officers and curious witnesses, doing my best to hide my face as I went. I placed the little body on the front seat of the truck beside me and took her away.
The morgue isn’t scary, even though I always feel like it should be. For some reason, anytime I take a body to the morgue, it’s always dark outside and I’m always the only one there. Even though I’m on shift for 48 hours and people die all the time, for some completely inexplicable reason, I never end up at the morgue during normal business hours. But you get used to it, and so far, the dead have never hurt me. There are several security doors and passcodes. The lights are always on and as soon as the slithering whoosh of doors sucks you into the cooler, you’re immediately saturated in the sickly-sweet odor of decomposition. The cooler is always crowded with bodies, most of whom are still in rigor-mortis and frozen in whatever position they died in. They’re also covered in sheets or wrapped in white bags. A limb is held aloft here or there. Perhaps a hand protrudes from the edge of a sheet. The end effect being they look as though they were all engrossed in some elaborate interpretive dance and froze in place, mid-gesture, when I entered. That night was no different, except for the fact that I simply couldn’t shake my sadness. Generally, when I’m working, I have what I refer to as my “brain condom”. While on shift, without even trying or realizing it I view the endless march of tragedies through a nerve-dulling membrane. I can see what’s happening and I can acknowledge with deepest sympathy that it’s sad. But it’s never really sad to me. And while I’ve recognized what a shame it was that this person or that person was dead, I’ve always known that my feelings on the issue certainly didn’t matter, so why open up my coin purse of emotional nickels and start feeding grief’s hungry slot machine?
Except tonight. Except her.
I put the little girl’s tiny form on the scale and found myself irrationally outraged at the fact that it read a diminutive “17 lbs”. That scale wasn’t supposed to spit out numbers that small. Normally it read “185 lbs” or “250 lbs”. I stared down at her and felt angry… and confused… and incredibly sad.I hated that I was going to have to put her on a gurney that was 10 times bigger than she was. I hated that I was going to have to wheel that gurney into a cooler full of corpses in various states of decomposition… most of whom were probably assholes. I hated that I was then supposed to just shut off the lights and leave her there. I hated thinking about her parents cleaning up all the baby stuff in their house. I hated thinking about them having to explain to their other child that he wasn’t a big brother anymore. And then having to explain it again because he wouldn’t understand.
I hated thinking about her autopsy.
I’m not religious. I used to be, but not anymore. I’m not saying that I don’t believe in God, but I am saying that I don’t much like church or a lot of the people you’ll find there. In my experience, they’ve never much liked me either. I was a weird kid and I grew up to be an even weirder adult. Church just felt like a continuation of the exhausting work and irretractable rejection I dealt with at school and home. There was always some task that I had failed to do… always some social maneuver that I had failed to navigate. Being “Godly” seemed to go hand-in-hand with being popular and beautiful and I was never either. And, church aside, after almost 15 years of witnessing people’s seemingly pointless and random suffering, followed by the gut-punch of my own cancer diagnosis… Well, I just wasn’t altogether sure what I thought of God. More importantly, if God existed at all… I wasn’t sure I could be convinced that God necessarily gave a shit about us.
Case in point… why the hell was this kid dead? What purpose did it serve? How did it fit into God’s plan which I had heard so fucking much about as a child? As I stood there, looking at her little dead body, I could hear all the empty platitudes: God works in mysterious ways.
I guess resurrection was on the brain.
A couple of shifts ago, Henry had a family lose their shit on him because their brother was autopsied before they could pray him back to life. No shit, they called and specifically asked that we delay the autopsy for 3 days so God could work the resurrection. Then they freaked out to learn that, through an array of miscommunications, their loved one was autopsied the same afternoon that he was found dead. They believed it was our fault he didn’t come back to life. We fucked up their miracle by being too efficient. At the time that all this had played out, Henry and I had sat on the curb outside our office, passing a Marlboro Red between us and cackling with laughter between drags. But tonight it seemed less funny…
I put my hand on the little chest, feeling the cool, smooth velvet of her skin. I put my other hand on her head and closed my eyes.
God? I took a deep breath… Um, hi. I know I haven’t talked to you for a while and I don’t know what to say. I know that this isn’t something that you do anymore…maybe you never did. But if you ever did… how about now? If it ever occurred to you to bring someone back to life… if you ever had it in your head to take something back… how about now? Why not this one? Please? Just this once… it’s not for me… please?
I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen. But yeah, I prayed for God to bring her back to life… probably prayed harder and with more sincerity than I’ve ever prayed for anything…which has to be the definition of PTSD or unprofessionalism. I must have broken some rule somewhere…
Not to mention the fact that when it didn’t work and the wave of sadness receded, it occurred to me to consider the real-life, practical implications of what I was asking. Namely, what the hell would I have done if it had worked?
For starters, it would have scared the shit out of me… which raises the question of which do I believe in more? God or zombies? Secondly, what the hell would I have to say for myself? How would that phone call to my supervisor have gone?
“Hey… soooooooo… ummmmmmm… that baby that I just took to the morgue from that scene? Yeah, I think I’m going to have to bring her back?”
The sheer ridiculousness of the thought snapped me out of my existential stupor and I laughed out loud right there, alone in the morgue. Alone except for my story, my work, and a God that may or may not have anything to do with us.
When I wheeled her into the cooler, I made sure to keep her away from the addicts and the homicides. I tucked her into a corner next to an 11-year-old boy who’d been hit by a car. I told her to keep him company and I asked him to look out for her because she needed a big brother. I shut the lights off. I closed the door. I went home.
I have no idea what any of this means. Is it a good thing that my emotions surged to surface with such force that tears and prayers came out? Does it mean I’m losing my mind? Am I burned out? I don’t know. Maybe this is the beginning of the end. Maybe it’s time to move on to something else.
But on the other hand, maybe it’s time to take a step back from the traditional standpoint of utter stoicism and indifference. A military veteran friend of mine who has some extensive PTSD told me once that trauma tends to pick off your emotions, one-by-one, until all you have left is rage and contempt. And if you stick with your trauma long enough, even those will disappear… leaving you a hollow, dead-eyed golem… Dragging onward toward your last paycheck. So if I’m crying… I’m still there, right?
Or maybe this is happening because child deaths have started hitting me differently. After quite the unexpected turn of events, I’m about to acquire 2 young stepkids who are already dearer to me than I ever could have imagined.
I’m a stepmom.
I don’t remember the last time I was responsible for kids who were ALIVE.
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.