Regarding Henry

  • So… Henry. You remember Henry.
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.
they’ll be back for me any second now…
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.
just another day at the office
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.
Your physical exam has determined… you are NOT the mother
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.
Yes, these are my children… they look like their father… I assume…
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?” Still nodding. “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…”
Your Dad posted bail… you can go…
…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. Like teeth. 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. “Wow.” “Yup.” 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.
it’s beginning to look a lot like… ummm…
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?” “No.” 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.

Fun With Law Enforcement

The other day, driving home from my latest nuclear melt-down at the radiation oncologist’s office, Husband and I happened to pass an Oswald County deputy on his motorcycle.

It hadn’t been a good day.  In fact, that day was just the latest torture-tipped taunt in a string of miseries that, had the experiences taken on a physical form, I have no doubt they would have uncannily resembled a length of barbed wire.

I was sporting a thick, papular rash all over my face which gave me the overall appearance of a medieval plague victim.  Additionally, I was sporting a fiendish, oozing radiation rash all across my neck and “decolletage”, which gave me the overall appearance of a medieval plague victim who fell through the space-time continuum and landed at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.  (Of course I had opted to accentuate my old-testament-style suffering by wearing a long, black dress topped off by a hooded, black leather coat… and, naturally, I kept the hood up and my head down so I could just barely be glimpsed giving the world a shifty-eyed glare from deep within my torment… I could have taught a class to teenage goths.)

Anyway, I had just howled my latest “What-the-fuck-have-you-DONE-to-me” at my terrorized doctor, who responded by throwing his hands up in a defensive block and telling me that my complaints were actually NORMAL and EXPECTED side effects in a treatment regimen such as mine.  I had responded by wiping my nose, snapping at the nursing staff and stomping out of the office with Husband apologizing in hushed tones behind me. I flung myself into the passenger seat of our car and proceeded to wallow the whole way home with such flair as is only seen in Greek tragedies and swimsuit season.

It was then that I spied my cohort, the Oswald County Sheriff’s deputy cruising along on his county issued motorbike… just going about his business… just doing his thing.

I stared, wistfully, at him for a moment and felt my outrage and discomfort dissolve into a bitter longing.

“I miss the cops.”  I found myself bemoaning to Husband.

“I REALLY miss the county deputies.”

It’s true.  I miss the Oswald County Sheriff’s deputies.  I’ve often remarked on how much I like the deputies.  But in that moment, and since then, I have to admit that I really, really miss those guys.

So in their honor, two small songs of heroism and humor that have, thus far remained unsung:

-I WAS HOPING FOR A HEAD-

I love to snoop.

I count myself extremely lucky to have landed a job in which I am paid to go through other people’s stuff.  There are some who feel as though snooping is an unforgivable offense and they will end a relationship if they find that snooping has taken place.  To those people I tend to say “snooping is only wrong if you DON’T find anything.” As evidence, I offer the fact that, by snooping, I discovered my one-time fiancee was cheating on me.  Did I feel guilty about it? Fuck no! Did he try to turn it around on me and make it seem like I was the one in the wrong for going behind his back and invading his privacy?  Of course he did.  Did I point out that he had been invading the “privacy” of his alleged EX-GIRLFRIEND roughly 3 times a week since we had gotten engaged? At the top of my lungs, I did.

Anyway, these days, I get to go through everyone’s stuff because it’s an integral part of understanding who they were, and therefore, why they’re dead.  It’s also lots of fun… except for when it’s dangerous… then it’s downright exciting.

I had been called to a scene in which the deceased was found flat on his back in his bedroom with a large supply of methamphetamine nearby.  The Sheriff’s deputies knew it was methamphetamine, in part, because they had one of those little drug-testing kits in their car.  They also knew it was methamphetamine because both our dead guy and his brother looked like they had just walked out of a concentration camp.  Meth tends to inflict a very specific array of symptoms on its users.  They tend to be extremely thin with dull, flaking, pock-marked skin.  The eyes are shrunken and recessed back in the orbits. The cheekbones are sharply pronounced with folds of soft tissue hanging limply from their crests.  Most notably, the teeth look like shriveled up crisped-rice cereal.  This dude and his sibling (who was standing on the front porch with a cigarette and forcefully disavowing ANY knowledge of his brother’s drug use) the two of them were like the freaking “Doublemeth” twins.  The only symptom they DIDN’T have in common was the fact that one of them wasn’t dead.

Anyway, the deputies and I were busy tossing the house for any other illicit substances when we noticed the dead guy had a small mini-fridge placed next to his dresser in the corner of his bedroom.

The mini-fridge had a pad-lock on it…

a BIG one.

Now, if there’s a heaven for law enforcement and investigative professionals, then that heaven is a magical place- full of rusty safes and suspicious lock-boxes.  Every corner of this paradise is crammed thick with file cabinets of questionable character and glove compartments of ill-repute.  When such an inquiring saint enters the into this happy hunting ground, they are greeted at the gates, not by Saint Peter, but by Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost items.  Saint Anthony hands each of these souls a bright shiny pair of golden bolt-cutters or a chrome crowbar and whispers into their ear: “Gooooo…. FIND IT!”

It makes my heart hurt a little, just thinking about it.

Anyway, when we spied the little fridge, squatting there with an impish little smirk on its face, both the deputy and I caught our breath a little. We glanced surreptitiously at each other for a moment.

“Do you think we should open it?” the officer asked, only partially joking.
“Oh, you bet your shiny black pistol we’re opening that thing.” I crowed.

None of the police at the scene had a pair of bolt-cutters and so we raised the fire department on dispatch and had them roll over in their truck with the required equipment. When the hose-haulers showed up, they were followed by no less than 3 other local police officers who had heard the call for bolt-cutters go out on the radio. It seemed our pad-locked mini-fridge was the hottest thing going that night… and everyone wanted to see what was inside.

Since the bolt cutters were the property of the fire department, it was generally assumed that they would be the ones doing the honors. And with much acclaim, the ranking lieutenant stepped into the bedroom brandishing the massive tool as though he was carrying a sacrificial knife up a Mayan pyramid or something. It was at that moment that suddenly, my survival instincts kicked in. Drug addicts tend to be… unpredictably unpredictable. On one hand, you can pretty much count on them to chase their particular fix with a mindless, dogged drive. But that’s really the only generalization that can be made. Some drug addicts can be woefully dull creatures of habit, or, sometimes they can do some really crazy shit- and there’s not really any way to predict what could be coming. In that moment, as the fireman knelt in front of the mini-fridge, a tiny little flare of alarm shot off in my head.

If this guy was careful and industrious enough to keep something in a locked refrigerator, who’s to say he WASNT paranoid enough to also booby-trap that refrigerator?

I’ll admit it, this was kind of a silly thought. But all the same, I’ve seen some pretty wacky shit as both a paramedic and a medical examiner…. so in the split second as the fireman positioned the clips around that pad-lock, I vaulted over the futon that was in the middle of the guy’s room, leapt over the dead body and dove behind the fireman who appeared to have the most body mass and would therefore make the best human shield.

(What was even stranger than my sudden outburst, was the fact that no one in the room seemed at all surprised or taken aback. I figure either they all had the same nagging fear and I was the only one who acted on it…. or nothing I do or say shocks these people anymore.)

There was no explosion, obviously, and the lock gave way with a loud “SNAP”.

The fireman looked around at the gathered company with a grin and swung open the little door to reveal….

… a six-pack of Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

In less than 5 minutes, I was once again alone in the apartment with the dead guy and the original deputy who had discovered the existence of the offending mini-fridge with me.

I was finishing up my photos and already had a funeral home on the way to transport the body, while the officer was investigating each soda can to make sure that none of them was one of those novelty decoy cans with the un-screwable bottom so you could further conceal your loot.

“Man, what a disappointment…”he grumbled as he scowled repeatedly at the dead guy on the floor, who was probably having a really good laugh at us… wherever he was.

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I totally thought there was gonna be a head in there or something.”

“Me too,” the deputy pouted, “or at least…. a chemistry set… or a cat… or something.”

“Well, they can’t all be Freezer-Frank.” I said, in reference to a gentleman who had been found, dismembered, in a freezer chest in his garage last year.

The deputy sighed again and glanced at the ginger ale in the ‘fridge, then he looked at the floor. Undoubtedly, he was mulling over the rest of his night, and how nothing fun or interesting had happened and, now, probably wouldn’t. He glanced back at the dead guy, gazed back into the ‘fridge and then I heard him mumble, “Man…. fuck this guy.”

Then he proceeded to remove every can of soda from the fridge, shake each of them up as hard as he could, then put them back.

-Strike A Pose-

I was going to die,

I was pretty sure.

I don’t even mean in a sudden, crazy “what-if-the-mini-fridge-is-booby-trapped” kind of way, or “Oh-my-God-I-have-cancer” kind of way.

I had put some serious, rational thought into it and came to the conclusion that I could actually be driving to the scene of my own death.

I had gotten a call from the local city police force (NOT the county deputies) and they had asked me to do a death notification for them. Now, this might not seem like an unusual request, seeing as how I’m the Oswald county medical examiner, except for the fact that Lincolnville police officers always did death notifications themselves. What’s more… the death notification that had to be done was IN Lincolnville so it’s not like they had to go out of their way to get it taken care of.

Confused? So was I. The call I received went something like this:

“Hey this is the medical examiner returning a page.”

“Um… yeah, this is the Lincolnville P. D. staff sergeant. I was wondering if you could do a favor for us.”

“Sure, man, what do you need?”

“Well… did you know about that officer-involved shooting we had last night?”

Although I had not been working, I had heard about it during shift change. A car-full of guys had been pulled over and when the Licolnville P.D. started making moves towards searching the vehicle and running the identities of the occupants for warrants, some dude in the backseat burst out into the street with guns blazing.  The Lincolnville officers put him down in a matter of moments and that had been that.  Except for the fact that, apparently, the dead guy’s family had not, yet been officially notified of his death.  It was entirely possible and even likely that they already knew…. but that didn’t change the fact that someone official had to look them in the eye and deliver the news.

Apparently that “someone official” was going to be me.

“You see, the thing is….”  the staff sergeant stuttered uncomfortably as he revealed the situation, “we don’t think Lincolnville P.D. should be the ones to notify since… well… even BEFORE this happened, we kind of have a bad history with this family…  We think they would react with a lot of hostility if a Lincolnville officer came to the door….”

I couldn’t believe it.  “So wait…” I stopped him, mid-sentence. “YOU guys killed this dude in a shootout…”

“Well… yeah…”

“But even before that, Lincolnville P.D. had history with this guy and his family.”

“Yeah.”

“But you want ME to walk up to their front door and tell them that their boy was killed in a fire-fight with Lincolnville P.D. …”

“Yeah…”

“… because you guys are afraid of what they’ll do TO YOU…”

“You should take a chaplain along,” the sergeant continued as though there was nothing at all unreasonable about this request.  “And maybe a county deputy or two.”

So THAT’S how I found myself on my way to my own death.  I had arranged for a sheriff’s chaplain and the recommended “couple of deputies” to meet me in a parking lot near the family’s house so we could all touch base and figure out how best to minimize casualties.  And a few minutes after everyone’s arrival, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one without a bullet-proof vest. Admittedly, I had driven by the house in question on my way to the rendezvous point just to check and see if there was an active wake taking place at the locale- complete with drunken mourners shooting guns in the air and everything.  Our decedent’s family home had been dark and quiet…. but that could have been because they were in the basement, plotting t blow up city hall.

“Ummm… so….” I announced as I approached the deputies.  “As I understand it, we’re all about to die.”

“Yeah!” shouted deputy Scheller.  “Talk about getting thrown under the bus!”  -and THAT’S how I knew it wasn’t just my own suspicion and it actually WAS total and complete bullshit that Lincolnville had chickened out like that.

“I don’t suppose you guys have another vest in your trunk or anything, do you? I’m feeling a little…” I shrugged, “… left out.”

The other deputy, Dobber, shrugged.

“I have one, but it’s a tactical vest… it’s for SWAT.  I doubt it’ll fit you, but maybe you can cover it with your coat.”

The tactical-grade vest was marched out and the deputy strapped it on me.  I went from “business casual” to “storming the gates” in about 15 seconds.  The vest itself was massive, easily doubling the circumference of my torso.  Furthermore, I had wrist restraints, flares, tear-gas cannisters and extra ammo all hanging off the front of my chest.  I definitely looked less, “I’m-here-to-convey-the-county’s-regrets” and more, “I’m-here-to-escort-your-convoy-to-Falluja.”

“Uh…” I grunted as I tried in vain to look downward at my whole…. situation, I realized I strongly resembled the character of “Randy” from the movie “A Christmas Story” in that I was so packed into my armor that I couldn’t quite put my arms down.  “I think this might send the wrong message…”

I glanced up at the deputies and the chaplain, all of whom were valiantly trying not to laugh out loud.

“Would you mind taking a picture for my mom?” I asked them.

And the next thing I knew, all four of us were doubled over, laughing our assess off.  Dobber pulled out his cell-phone and , obligingly, took about a dozen photos of me doing my best “America’s Next Top Shooting Victim” as I used Scheller and the chaplain as props.

In the end, I doffed the vest and opted to stand behind everyone else as we knocked on the dead guy’s door to deliver our unfortunate news.  It turned out okay.  The house was, in fact, the residence of our dead guy’s ex-wife and she was able to give us the location of the decedent’s actual blood relations…. all of whom lived out of state, so we got to pass the buck on to another law enforcement agency.  Therefore, we all got to live to see another day…

… more importantly, I got to live to see the email appear in my inbox- the email which opened to reveal the fruits of my very first, on-the-job photo shoot.  And when I look at those photos, I can still hear the hoots of laughter and the shouted coaching from my “artistic director”, Deputy Dobber:

“Okay… now show me ANGRY!  YES! That’s it… You’re ANGRY that you have to do this notification… okay now cheat your face to the left a little…. PERFECT!”