It was hot…
Dear GOD it was hot.
That was the first thing I noticed as I walked into the tiny little garage where my dead guy could be found.
August in Maine.
It was overcast, which only made the heat more oppressive. Rather than provide respite from the relentless sun, the mid-summer clouds lay heavy over the sky like a downy blanket, trapping the heat as thoroughly as a closed oven door. Humidity hung lazily over us like a sagging, moist towel. All of these combined factors turned the decrepit, crumbling structure into a suffocating sauna filled with trash and… ants.
“So this guy is on a whole mess of prescription pain medications…” gasped the county officer who had the misfortune of being the closest available deputy when this call came out. “His mom says that he would sometimes crush up his drugs, mix them with that trans-dermal gel over there and rub them on to his skin so they would work faster.”
Only about half of this information was able to puncture the haze around my miserably over-heated brain, but I heard drugs and trans-dermal- which snagged my attention. I looked around the utterly squalid garage that our decedent had turned into his bedroom and saw that there was a space-heater positioned in the corner…
… and it was on. That was the second thing I noticed.
I picked my way through the maze of empty pizza boxes, dirty clothes, piles of be-grimed papers and switched the space heater off. Along the way, I noted that the dead gentleman had evidently been using a bucket by the door for all of his… biological functions (third thing). After ineffectively attempting to do something about the room temperature and succeeding only in acquainting myself with the decedent’s odious bathroom habits, I turned back to the deputy. “Soooo… wait, um… what?”
The deputy swiped his arm across his forehead in a desperate, futile gesture. There was no helping him. I had it bad enough in my long-pants-long-sleeves business casual that I am required to wear on the job. The poor deputy, on the other hand, was clothed from head to toe in his county-issue, double-knit, polyester uniform… beneath which he wore a kevlar vest. If I was miserable, he was on the verge of 1st century martyrdom.
“Drugs!” the deputy wheezed, “He has drugs on his skin, Morphine, they said.”
“Ohhhh. Okay” I glanced back at the dead body and noted that there was a milky residue all over his arms. I also noted that the ants in the little living space had already congregated on the dead man’s exposed skin and they had set about the immense task of devouring him, one miniscule bite at a time. The officer kept talking to me about the circumstances, the guy’s criminal history and his crazy sister who kept insisting that we allow her in the room so she could collect all our dead guy’s morphine. Unfortunately, all of this information completely drifted by me because I was too busy staring the ants who were mucking about in all that transdermal morphine as they crawled across the corpse. Those ants have got to be so fucking high right now… I thought to myself. But then it occurred to me that I wasn’t even sure if ants could get high. So after my shift was over, I scoured the internet and found a study on how ants have been found to display a preference for a food substance that has been infused with morphine, as opposed to a control food substance that was free of morphine. So it would appear that ants can get high… and that they actually prefer to get high when it’s an option…. which led me to wonder if ants could be weaned off of morphine… or if they just remain little ant junkies for the rest of their tiny lives… bailing out of responsibilities, embarrassing their parents and hanging out in lousy neighborhoods, looking to score. Ants and morphine… it’s a thing, apparently.
It’s just one example of the strange ways in which animals are part of our lives… and our deaths.
I come across a lot of animals at work. Which is nice because I like animals. They’re… simple. They don’t lie. They behave in a predictable fashion which is completely unencumbered by things like guilt, shame, resentment or social consciousness. They seem to be more or less governed by two principles: “yes” and “no”. They either will or they won’t. They either cooperate or they don’t. They’re either interested or they’re not. They either like you or they don’t… and they don’t feel compelled to offer any explanations. Moreover, while all the people that I meet are usually dead, the animals are always alive and generally engaged in doing what animals do around a dead body– which is to say they either ignore it, or try to eat it.
One of the weirdest ways in which this axiom has manifested was when I discovered that ants aren’t the only insects that have a thing for dead people. Of course flies and maggots are a foregone conclusion. But also, strangely enough, bees seem to have a pathological attraction to blood. It’s the weirdest thing in the world, but when I’ve been on outdoor deaths in which there is a large amount of blood, there’s always a huge gathering of bees… all of them humming happily as they swoop in on the sticky, red substance, gather up arm-fulls of the stuff then go do whatever the hell it is they do with it. As I understand it, the honey produced by a hive will generally taste vaguely of the flower pollen that they used to make it… which makes me wonder if honey infused with the blood of the dead tastes subliminally of steak tar-tar.
Then there’s the police dogs. While police dogs are often present at the scene of a death, particularly a death where drug use is strongly suspected, police dogs don’t give a toss about dead bodies. In the mind of a police dog, a dead body is furniture. It’s fascinating to see these animals at work because they’re so completely focused on scent-searching that, like those morphine addicted ants, they will bypass everything in their quest to find illicit substances. I’ve watched dogs walk all over dead bodies in order to sniff out their pockets or get a better angle on the couch or chair beneath the decedent. I imagine their internal monologue sounds something like this: MAN, I just can’t WAIT until I find some DRUGS! Drugs are my favorite thing in the world and now, I’m looking for them! This is the best day EVER! I have a job and it’s DRUG-sniffing! I LOVE looking for DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS! Tails wagging, tongue flapping in the breeze. Drug-dogs are the happiest people on Earth.
Not to say that other dogs are any less enthusiastic, the family pets are just excited about different things. Some dogs are utterly delighted to have a whole slew of strangers come into their home because they perceive the cops as an entirely new index of people with whom to play fetch. Other times, the family dog can be found contentedly devouring the dead body. These animals have astutely observed that the soul that made up their master has departed the premises and generously left his delicious meat-suit behind to thank the loyal canine for years of service. I’ve walked in on dogs eating their dead owners and these dogs will blithely wave their tails in greeting and prance up me as if to say: “Hey! You’re just in time! My master died but he left me a GREAT dinner! I saved the kidneys for you, dig on in!”
Cats don’t give a flying fuck about dead people, or about living people, really…
I guess that’s what is so cool about animals, but also what’s so goddamned painful about animals… Their raw indifference, they just do what they do. It’s natural, I suppose. I shouldn’t take it personally or try to interfere. It’s much the way I have to view my job- which isn’t to say that people are animals. I mean, I guess we are, but I have to remember that lives will do what lives do. People will die regardless of how I feel about the justice or fairness of this process. I shouldn’t take it personally, or try to interfere. But I do sometimes… in the most minor and insignificant ways, I interfere.
I’m not sure how much sleep I’d had. All I know was that the shift had been horrid. My last call had been one in which a 19 year-old new mother had died in her home after bleeding out from her uterus. It was perfectly natural- which is to say, these things happen. Naturally, the first thing the young woman’s family asked me was weather or not the death could have been avoided. I never know what to say in those circumstances- or rather, I’m not altogether comfortable with the fact that I often lie through my teeth in those circumstances. The fact was, this girl’s death (because that’s what she was… a girl) was so … random, that it was impossible to separate her demise from her behavior. Maybe if she hadn’t been doing laundry she wouldn’t have hemorrhaged. Maybe if she hadn’t been up and walking around so soon … maybe maybe maybe… or maybe there was no way to avoid it. Maybe those vessels would have popped no matter what she did or didn’t do… there’s really no way to tell. So I told her family, no, there’s nothing anyone could have done. I don’t know that for certain, but what the hell if it makes them feel better.
Problem was… I didn’t feel any better. I felt awful, to be honest. I was haunted by the sheer animal nature of this kid’s death. All I could think about was her glazed eyes, staring blankly into the fluorescent lights of the ER… the 10-day-old daughter that would never be held by her mother… the fact that her death certificate would say “natural”… because it was… perfectly natural. And that’s the amazing and terrible truth about our world…. our animal world. People die… even young people die- in a fashion that utterly offends the higher sensibilities of us, sentient, mammals. But we’re still animals, at the mercy of biology, physics and a cold, indifferent bitch known as “chance”. I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I got home and leashed up my little dog for his morning potty-walk. I dragged him around the apartment complex a few times and as I began walking the stairs back up to my place, I couldn’t help but notice a little animal drama going on in the corner.
There was a bug of some kind… a winged bug. It was caught by one leg in a spider web, and there sat a little, fat spider… watching… waiting. The bug was too big for the spider to just jump on and kill, the spider was out-weighed by probably 4 to 1. But that didn’t bother the spider. It seemed to know that all it had to do was wait. So that’s what it did. The spider sat there, patiently crouched in his web, eying the bug as it frantically struggled to free itself. Occasionally, the spider would creep forward and give the bug a poke, just to see how worn out it was. And this action would start the miserable little bug flailing about again. It writhed and folded in on itself. It twisted around that caught leg, flapping it’s little wings.
I told myself that I was curious and that I wanted to see this scene play out. I’d never seen a spider perform a kill before and, all things considered, a little cruel reality seemed the flavor d-jour considering the mess I had just seen at the hospital. I sat down on the nearest step and resolved to watch the bug’s final moments before the end closed in. And there we were, the three of us… (four if you count my dog, who sat there whining for his breakfast while I got all existential and shit) the spider, the bug and me… all playing out our roles in this, the mortal coil. But I had overestimated my own indifference. As I sat there, watching the bug’s agony, I thought of the empty stare of the young girl I had just escorted off the mortal plane. I thought of the bodies left vacant… the carnal fight and eventual surrender to that inevitable mouth that seeks to devour. I thought of my own life, my cancer, my prognosis… the nasty little spider that waited in the corner for me- every now and then crawling forward to give me a poke so I’d remember he was there.
If I had been an animal, I suppose I would have passed the whole scenario by, I would have chalked it up as just the way things are… but something in me couldn’t stand one more death that morning. I carefully reached down and plucked the little bug from the web, taking care to brush the remnants of the silvery threads from his leg. The spider scurried back into the shadows and the bug stumbled away for a few seconds before taking to the sky.
It’s entirely possible that by saving that bug I set a series of incidents into action that will one day destroy the entire planet, but I don’t really care. As much as I love animals, sometimes I’ve had enough of their stark instincts and base business.
“Not this time, you little bastard,” I heard myself mumble to the spider. And I felt his predatory eyes on me… all eight of them, as my dog and I turned back towards home, slamming the door behind us.