I would be hard pressed to adequately describe the holidays in the medical examiner’s office.
Right about mid-October, the almost imperceptible mist of madness begins rolling over the populace. Someone not well acquainted with the particular scent of human irrationality might not notice it, but it’s there. Some people say the air smells “crisp” or they talk about the aromas of autumn… burning leaves and apple cider. People wax poetic about the changing colors of the foliage, or they go bonkers because the Pumpkin Spice Latte has made it’s triumphant return to Starbucks. But not me… I walk outside after the first frost, take a long, deep breath of that brisk fall breeze and I think:
“Yup… crazy is coming.”
And I don’t mean old St. Nick… although maybe that could be a whole new way of interpreting the mythos surrounding the arrival of that “jolly old elf” on December 25th. Perhaps “Santa Claus” is just a metaphor for the arrival of mid-winter meltdowns, cabin fever and psychotic episodes. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m tellin’ you why” Is just a whimsical way of saying: “batten down the hatches, people… madness is coming… total and complete madness.”
It started on Halloween Eve when I was called to pluck some drunk guy’s brains out of a really nice topiary after he rolled his car about 4 times and came to a halt on the front steps of a local landscaping business. I had literally been pulling my covers up over my shoulders in bed when the pager went off, announcing that my work day was by no means over. I called the phone number on the pager and found myself on the phone with Sgt. Wallace of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Dude, WHAT?” I barked at him, as I blearily shoved the blankets off of me and reached for my notebook. “What do you want? I literally just got into bed.”
“Look,” he countered quickly, and with the tone of someone who was trying to soothe a berserk horse. “It’ll take an hour, tops. This guy was drunk, he rolled his car. Witnesses saw the whole thing. It’s all nice and simple.”
“This is bullshit, man.” I grumbled. And in the background I heard a deputy make some crack about how it was only 11:30 pm.
“SHHHHHHH!!!” I heard Sgt. Wallace hiss at the wise-ass in the peanut gallery. “Her head had just hit the pillow, man. Don’t poke the bear! Don’t poke the bear!”
As I pulled my clothes back on and dragged myself back out to the truck, I contemplated the whole, “don’t poke the bear” thing. Specifically, I wondered if ‘poking the bear’ was just a commonly used platitude and the police threw it down in any situation where someone insisted on making a bad scene even worse… OR I considered the possibility that the local law enforcement officers had this little gem reserved especially for me… on nights like this one.
I was the bear… I AM the bear
The rolled car guy took a lot longer than an hour. He actually took about three, but that’s only because at some point during the rotation of his vehicle, his head and upper torso came out the window and we THINK the car actually crushed his cranium… at least that’s what the blood spatter seemed to indicate. That and the fact that when you looked through the shatered windows into the car, you could also look through the open-vault fracture in the guy’s skull… clear through to his cranial floor. So the ACTUAL distribution of time spent onscene figured out to about one hour of everybody taking turns, marveling at the complete lack of brain matter inside the dude’s head… and two hours spent collecting bits of said brain matter out of the decorative foliage that framed the doors of the business’s greenhouse in a quaint and welcoming manner.
… and just as I was pulling back into my driveway after rolled-car-guy was squared away… I got paged to a baby-death… about which there really isn’t much to say. Except that I saw Sgt. Wallace as I was arriving onscene… the very guy who said I would be back home in an hour… three hours ago. I stared him down as I walked in the house. He flinched.
After that, things start to get a little blurry. The shifts began slipping into each other and the cases all tumble together into one long, technicolor parade of chaos. A ER nurse from the other side of town overdosed on pain meds that he stole from work… along with some heroin that he managed to order online. When we asked his girlfriend, she told me and the detectives that he got the heroin from the “deep web”. Which all sounded very mysterious and threatening. I don’t know about the detectives, but in my mind the phrase evoked images of some wiry, unshaven guy sitting in front of a gigantic, blue-lit computer in a barren, concrete room… at night… in Estonia… filling orders for drugs and pausing to cackle wickedly every few minutes and swallow a shot of bath-tub vodka. After some fiddling, we managed to burrow our way into this “deep-web” and we found the website-in-question on our decedent’s computer. It was disappointingly un-glamourous as far as design went. But to our sickened astonishment, we discovered that one could not only order a slew of illegal consumables, but also all kinds of firearms and explosives. So that was… exciting.
Somewhere in those weeks between Halloween and New Year’s, I also ended up going to a few homicides… “a few” as in, “more than two”. Which is incredibly excessive for our sedate little county. It seems a lot of men decided they simply couldn’t stand the thought of their girlfriends leaving them. So out came the guns… and out came the bullets… and out came the blood… in waves and puddles and fountains. On Thanksgiving morning I was called to the scene of one such shooting that had begun as a stand-off between police and some guy who had decided he wasn’t going to tolerate being kicked out of his suddenly EX-girlfriend’s home. Of course, by the time I got there, the stand-off was over and all that remained was to pick up the bodies… one of which was that of the girl who was shot by this would-be ex douchebag as she was trying to escape out the back door. The other body was that of the douch-bag himself who didn’t realize until it was too late that simply being broken up and homeless would have been a much better deal than the future he faced as a convicted murderer. So he blew his brains out. Problem was, the police didn’t know that both the suspect and his hostage were actually dead until AFTER they evacuated the neighborhood, fired tear-gas canisters through every window in the place, flattened the backyard fence with their tactical tank and stormed the house like they were expecting to find Osama Bin Laden sitting in the breakfast nook, surrounded by over-priced kitsch from “The Pottery Barn” and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade.
All this is to say that I spent Thanksgiving much the way I spent Halloween: elbow deep in brains and covered in a flurry of shattered glass. Of course Thanksgiving had the special, added ingredient of tear-gas – which takes for fucking EVER to dissipate when it’s fired into a building. Even hours after the breach, everyone who went into the house came back out with red, watery eyes and snot dripping down their faces, heaving and hacking away like they had just watched “The Notebook”.
In the midst of all this carnage, I recall going to see my chiropractor. I had absent-mindedly pulled on my work shoes when I left for the appointment and as this practitioner was gripping my shoulder and preparing to give my shoulder joint a much-needed CRACK… I happened to glance down at my feet.
“I wonder whose blood that is…” I said distractedly, observing a generous splash of some poor soul’s bodily fluid, smeared all over my shoes.
Fortunately, my chiropractor knows what I do for a living and not much that I say really shocks him anymore. Not even that time when he overheard me ask the police to pretty-please put their tazers to the media before I could arrive at the scene of a car accident.
And there were suicides. Dear GOD were there suicides. Messy ones. People shot themselves in the head… or in the chest. They opened their arms with box-cutters, they overdosed on medications. they hanged themselves from anything that could hold a ligature. They left behind inane apologies in the form of notes… professing their undying love for the people who now had to worry about how much it was going to cost to get all the blood out of the carpet. Or they left no notes or reasons at all, condemning their loved ones to a lifetime of unresolved grief and devastated confusion.
At one point, I was in a local shopping mall where some dude decided to kill himself in a bathroom because… well… I’m not really sure why. But his text messages to his sister would indicate he was pissed off that the only work available at the mall was all seasonal and with no benefits. Since he didn’t leave any other sort of note or message, I could only guess at his intentions. Regardless, I hadn’t slept in nearly 30 hours and since I was at the mall… it seemed like a perfect opportunity to run by the Starbucks and caffinate. Of course, I didn’t count on the effect that my attire would have on the holly-jolly public as they went abut their Christmas shopping. Unthinkingly, I meandered into the Starbucks wearing my official, county-issued, bright-yellow neon coat that had “MEDICAL EXAMINER” printed across my back in all caps. Not only that, but additionally, I was carrying my gigantic scene-bag that was overflowing with latex gloves and little yellow envelopes, marked “EVIDENCE” in big, red letters.
Of course I was oblivious to the effect my appearance was having on my fellow customers. I was standing at the counter, bouncing on my toes and quietly singing along with “Tiffany’s” rendition of “I think we’re alone now” that was liltingly playing over the coffee shop’s sound system. I was just about to rock out the dance routine I had choreographed with my Jr. high school friends back when Tiffany was wow-ing the feathered hair off of every little 80’s wannabe in the mid-west, when some random woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… are you HERE here, or are you just buying coffee?”
I stared at her in confusion for a moment- trying to understand exactly what sort of existential-hippie nonsense she was pushing on me. I was here with a VENGEANCE. Nobody could live in the moment like I could. As a rule, I considered myself more thoroughly aware of life’s fragility and the need to embrace the now than anyone I knew. Who the hell did this woman think she was, walking up to a complete stranger and challenging their “carpe” on this, particular “diem”? I was seizing the day with the impending aid of a quadruple espresso thank-you-very-much!
Then I noticed her staring rather pointedly at the big, shiny “COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER” badge that I had clipped to my bag, along with the bright-yellow, “lookit me” vibrancy of my coat that proudly proclaimed that someone nearby was assuming room temperature.
“Oh, right,” I said, reining in the go-fuck-off speech that had almost tumbled off my tongue when she had interrupted my teeny-bopper nostalgia. “Well…” I said, weighing the options. fuck it I thought. I was tired and really, really slap-happy “All I can say is this,” I leaned forward conspiratorially, “Don’t go into the south bathrooms for a while.”
Her eyes widened and she nodded emphatically as I toddled on out the door with my SUPER big americano in hand, singing out loud because I didn’t give a shit “I think we’re alone now! There DOESN’T seem to BE anyONE arooo-oound!”
Things seemed to slow up a little bit over the week of Christmas. I didn’t work the actual holiday and managed to engage in the requisite family dysfunction along with the rest of the world. I celebrated the birth of some dude to a teenage girl in an ancient middle-eastern town two millennia ago by eating dead animal and arguing politics with my SUPER right-wing family… You know… The people who think that a woman with a job is a complete waste of a perfectly good uterus along with a lot of dirty dishes. It was a Christmas. What else can be said?
…Except that there was no getting off THAT easy. While I managed to avoid Christmas pandemonium, naturally New Year’s had it in for me.
On New Year’s Day, I was called to an officer involved shooting, which is and was absolutely terrible. In recent weeks, the uproar surrounding such events in Ferguson MO and New York has made a(n even BIGGER) nightmare out of any situation in which a police officer puts their hands on ANYONE for ANY reason. It’s all a fucking mess as far as I can tell, and I can’t tell much. I wasn’t in either of these places when the proverbial shit went down, nor am I familiar with the over-all socio-political sentiments in any of the involved police departments.
This shooting was a complete disaster, but it also wasn’t. The way the whole situation played out kind of reminded me of back home. In the southwest, every summer there would be a period of time that could only be referred to as “wild-fire season”. The days would grow long and the sun would hover over the high tundra as relentlessly as a fretful mother. Sooner or later a lightening strike or a careless campfire would set the entire state of Arizona ablaze… as if it wasn’t hot enough already. The parched foliage would ignite and propagate, the flames as quick as a dirty rumor… leaving nothing but a wasteland of blackened terrain that looked like nothing so much as some hostile alien world from a science fiction movie. The aftermath could be devastating. You would be driving through some rural area after the roads had been opened back up and you could only marvel at the destruction. Maybe you’d pull over and get out of your car in a reverent gesture of grief- kneeling down in the midst of the ashes and wondering how anything could ever be beautiful or vibrant again. But inevitably, some “expert” in such matters would always come forward and declare that such occurrences were a part of life. And as hard as it was to imagine that anything would ever be okay again, such fires were an ecological eventuality. Burning away the old made way for the new, no matter how horrible or all-encompassing or lethal the fire was, the land could recover… it WOULD recover. It always did.
The shooting was kind of like that…
I was called there a couple of hours after it all went down, in the early morning hours of a new year. First and foremost, I had to wait around forever for the crime scene folks to show up- then we all had to wait for the detectives to arrive. THEN we all waited for a million other things that I couldn’t even begin to list, but a lot of working an officer involved shooting is simply sitting around and waiting. I’ve often reflected on these crime investigation TV shows- rather than show a bunch of sleek, coiffed actors and actresses delivering their witty banter over a badly staged dead-body- the cameras ought to flip around and get a good long shot of the director, the production crew, the extras- all sitting around for hours and hours, drinking bad coffee, waiting for all the pieces to be put together before anything can happen… THAT’S a far more accurate depiction of a REAL crime scene…
Anyway, finally the moment arrived and the crime scene technicians, the detectives, the district attorney and I all filed into the house to take a gander at the guy who’d been shot down by a local officer who had been responding to a domestic disturbance. Long story short- there was ample evidence to indicate the dead guy had been up to no good and he had, doubtless, been brandishing his 9mm at officers when they came into the house. None of this was a shock to anyone, but we went through the requisite motions- because that’s what you do in officer-involved shootings. Then I split off from the crime scene and went to talk to the dead guy’s wife, who had been camped out in a neighbor’s living room since shit got real.
She was roughly my age and it was more than just a little weird talking to her. Typically, when I am called by police to domestic disturbances, 9 times out of 10, the woman in the scenario is the dead one… a fact that wasn’t lost on HER either. Even though it had been hours since the original incident, her eyes were wide and dilated with panic. Her breathing came fast and jagged as she walked me through a story she had already recollected for about a dozen officers and detectives.
“He hhhad his hands around my th..th..throat,” she stammered, dazedly. “He told me if I ever did it again, he was going to k…kill me.”
(I could divulge what she did to illicit this warning, but it doesn’t matter. Understand? It DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER!)
“He threw me into the corner, I hit the china cabinet and it fell… I tried to grab the cordless phone, but he got to it first and threw it against the wall. It broke. So I grabbed my purse and ran into the bathroom. My cell phone was in it.”
There’s no way to adequately describe how it looks, how it FEELS to have a woman describe such a scenario to you. The word “haunted” comes to mind. So does “vacant”. She looked the way I imagine a ghost would look, one that was newly dead and following its own empty body from place to place… like it couldn’t quite believe what just happened and wasn’t sure what to do next.
“The dispatcher told me the police were at the door and could I get out of the bathroom and let them in. I told her I could and I ran down the hall. When I passed Wayne’s study, I saw him in there. He was loading his gun, he looked up at me when I saw hhim and he said… ‘I’m g…g…going to k-kill you'”
She broke her distant stare out the window as she spoke and she looked at me, tears streaming down her face.
“He said he was going to KILL me… and h…he MEANT it. He was going to… and now he…he’s DEAD!”
… and with that she burst into a deep, gutteral keen. She wailed. She wailed like a cold mountain tunnel cutting straight through her chest.
I generally avoid physical gestures of comfort when I’m working. It’s not that I’m opposed to hugging or hand-holding… it’s just that… everything has to be exactly right. It has to be the right person and the right pause, YOU have to say the right thing and go in for the hug the right way… It can go well if all of these variables line up just so… but if you misjudge the momment in any way, things could go really badly… REALLY badly.
In this instance, however, I dropped the professional decorum. I got up from my seat and crossed over to where she was sitting on the couch, I plopped down next to her and took her by both shoulders.
“You absolutely did the right thing. YOU DID THE RIGHT THING. You defended yourself, and you’re right, he WAS going to kill you. But you’re okay. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay…”
I put my arms around her and hugged. And she sobbed, leaking tears and snot and what-all into the shoulder of my filthy coat that probably has the blood of a dozen slain wives and girlfriends on it. But I didn’t think about it, I didn’t care. I just kept repeating, “I’m so sorry… it’s okay… you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”
… and I thought of people, kneeling down in the midst of the ashes and wondering how anything could ever be beautiful or vibrant ever again…
and I wonder, was I talking to her… or myself…
… or you.
You’re going to be okay.
We’re going to be okay.
We can recover… We WILL recover. We always do.
Happy New Year