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.