The Truth of The Matter: Acting Out Part 3

When last we left our ignoble heroine, I was laying in bed, trying to sleep when my husband stumbled in. He had just let me know that there was a homicide in our jurisdiction and I was probably going to get paged to the scene in the near future. if you recall the previous incarnation of the acting out series, (https://deadmensdonuts.com/2021/04/06/the-truth-of-the-matter-acting-out-part-2/ ) I had just worked a gnarly day, and was hoping to sleep through the night. Alas it was not to be.

All thanks to the love of my life, who was just trying to be helpful. Jerk.

I kid. I kid. Mike really is great. Even when he tumbles into bed, telling me that I’m going to be called to a homicide scene at some point in the next 3 hours… he’s still great. He’s patient and thoughtful and kind…

But I’m not.

I’m not gonna lie. I have a mouth on me when I’m feeling saucy and it’s not a secret to anyone. Our office recently hired a new chief deputy medical examiner for our program. That’s right, I have a new supervisor. And he knew me for approximately a week before presenting me with a t-shirt that read: “I’M TOO CLUMSY TO BE AROUND FRAGILE MASCULINITY.”

You know, it’s SO important to feel SEEN by your co-workers…

So, compared to the kinds of atrocities I regularly visit upon my husband, I really have no room to be complaining about a little lost sleep.

Don’t believe me? Hold my beer and watch this:

It may surprise you to know that the medical examiner’s office only goes to the scenes of roughly 50-60% of deaths in our county. Years ago, I interned in a city that demanded scene investigations and autopsies for virtually EVERYTHING, but these days I find myself in a jurisdiction that happily gives its death investigators just enough rope to hang ourselves. Let me explain. At any given time, there is exactly ONE medico-legal death investigator on duty for a county that contains over 600,00 souls. While many deaths don’t have to be reported to the medical examiner’s office, we couldn’t possibly do a scene investigation on every death that DOES have to be reported. (I mean, we probably could if we had to, but no one is going to approve that kind of overtime.) So, what these deaths look like is this: The cops get to a scene, get a good description of what’s going on, then call the medical examiner’s office to report the death and the circumstances of that death. If there’s no suspicion or evidence to suggest the death is an accident, homicide or suicide, the deputy medical examiner will write up a brief case file and give their blessing to release the body to a funeral home. (There are a lot more nuances to these scenarios but that’s it, in a nutshell.)

This means that, quite often, the number of death scenes I have to go to during a given shift depends upon how well the cops do their job. If a police officer calls me from a death scene with an incomplete, confusing or suspicious story, I’ll veto the release and come out to the scene myself to make sense of whatever has happened there.

“You should probably come out to this one, I’m PRETTY sure it’s not a natural death…”

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s all we’ve got. I function in it the best I can. But it can be a little crazy-making when I’m already elbow-deep in work and some lazy officer calls with a half-cocked report that really leaves a lot to be desired. Now, I’m not saying that sometimes these officers do shitty work on purpose because they want me to come and take the investigation off their hands… actually, that’s EXACTLY what I’m saying. Sometimes the officers do shitty work because they’re hoping I’ll come and take the investigation off their hands.

Knowing this, I recently employed a new tactic, hoping to encourage more thorough work from the boys (and girls) in blue.

The idea came to me a few weeks ago when I was buried with paperwork and the pager kept going off, heralding more and more death scenes. For a while, I would tell dispatch that I would give them a dollar if they told everyone on a death call to just keep doing CPR until my shift was over. But since that wasn’t working, I upped the ante.

“Hey, listen…” I had said to the officer who had just paged me with another death scene. “I’m really dying today. I have a ton of cases and I really don’t need another complicated story. So I’ll tell you what, if you can make it so I don’t have to come out to this scene, you can punch Mike in the dick.”

I was referring, of course, to that officer’s co-worker and my darling cop-husband. If you recall, Mike and I met on the scene of a death and our relationship has been both the delight and curiosity of the entire department. I say “curiosity” because when Mike and I first got together, apparently the entire police force was asking him if my home was decorated with torture devices and skulls.

I could hear the officer perking up on the other end of the line when I made him this offer.

“Really?” he asked

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“Okay!” he responded. Then he proceeded to give me perhaps the most concise and complete scene report I’ve ever gotten from an officer. He practically counted the cracks in the sidewalk in front of the dead guy’s house. I deemed the death releasable. The funeral home came and got the body. The officer and I wrote up our reports and we all went on our merry way. I was so pleased with how the whole scheme turned out that I used the same tactic a few more times before my shift was done, telling officers that they could punch my husband in the dick if they did a good job reporting their death scene.

In my defense, I knew I was totally joking. I don’t presume to have authority over Mike’s dick, even though that is a common assumption about the husband/wife dynamic. While we’re absolutely monogamous, our marriage isn’t necessarily “traditional.” When asked, we’ve compared our union to that of a couple of feral cats living in the same dumpster. We come and go on our own schedules and sleep together every now and then. We love each other but we certainly don’t answer to each other.

So, you can imagine my surprise when Mike came home a few days after that evening and confronted me.

“Did you tell Gardner that he could punch me in the dick,” he demanded as he dropped his gear and put his hands on his hips.

“What?”

“Did. You. Tell. Deputy. Gardner. He. Could. Punch. Me. In. The. DICK?”

“Oh… Jeez. Maybe? Probably? Why, what happened?”

And Mike launched into his story. By his description, he was hanging out at the precinct, talking to the guys. All of a sudden, Deputy Gardner ran up beside him and gave him a very enthusiastic junk-fist right to the nuggets. Then Gardner ran away, yelling over his shoulder: “YOUR WIFE SAID I COULD!!!!!”

“Oh my god,” I snorted. Then I told Mike the etiology behind the attack.

“Jesus, babe! How MANY people did you give permission to punch me in the dick?”

“Ummm, Five? Six maybe? I’m really not sure.”

“I have to worry about five or six people just… spontaneously punching me in the dick?”

“Calm down,” I said, trying to choke back laughter. “I never told them you weren’t going to hit them back!”

“Christ.”

On the upside, only one other deputy has cashed in on his reward for a death-well-done. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t do any permanent damage.

All this simply to say, comparatively speaking, I really can’t complain. Mike has never told anyone they have free rein to assault my genitals in order to make his workday easier. And he really thought he was doing me a favor when he warned me there was a homicide coming down the pike. Maybe it really was a favor. After all, I wasn’t filled with rage and anxiety when the pager went off at 6 a.m. That ship had already sailed. I was already awake and waiting for it.

“Hey Grace,”

It was my good buddy, Detective Labrecht, on the line when I called the flashing phone number on the pager. I love Labrecht. To say that he and I have been thorough it together is an understatement. He and I have been shoulder-to-shoulder, on our knees in blackberry brambles, picking up pieces of a weathered skeleton that turned out to be a missing young woman who died of exposure in the woods. Labrecht and I were also together on a scene in which the “dead body” sat up and started talking to us. (She wasn’t dead, she had simply been “pronounced” by someone who was shit at taking pulses.) Hearing his voice on the line made the call-out a little easier. Death is always more fun when you do it with friends.

“You have a homicide,” I said to him, more a statement of fact than a question.

“Sure do, all the preliminaries are done and we’re ready for you to come do your thing.”

“OK man,” I yawned. “I’ll pull myself together and see you soon.”

Mike didn’t stir at all as I lurched out of bed and quietly dressed in the work clothes I had laid out the night before. I stopped at Starbucks for a quick jolt of caffeine and arrived at the scene a few minutes later: A better-than-average hotel in the big-tech part of town. I was slightly surprised. Most hotel deaths happen in seedy, little, no-name holes- the kind that rent rooms by the hour and no sane person would walk across the floor barefoot. This place was nice… or at least nice enough to have working smoke alarms.

I pulled into the parking lot and quickly spotted the nest of police cars at one end of the building. I parked nearby and scooted under the crime scene tape, pausing to tell the roster officer who I was and why I was there. I was directed in a side entrance and into an open hotel room that had been converted into a base of operations.

“Hey Grace!” Labrecht called from the couch of the suite. “Come on in and let us brief you on what’s going on.”

I greeted the other officers and detectives.

“How’s Mike doing?” a few people asked.

“Oh, he’s good.” I casually responded. “He’s tied up in the basement with a ball-gag but I let him out once a week so he can call his mom.”

Some of the officers sputtered with shock, but the ones I’ve known for a while just chuckled and kept talking. As it was told to me, our decedent was a young woman who was in one of the rooms across the hall from our makeshift headquarters. Labrecht escorted me back into the hallway and gestured through the open door and there she was, laying face-up on the carpeted floor of a better-the-average hotel room, where things like this aren’t supposed to happen.

I silently took the scene in from the doorway, noting the dark pool of blood beneath the decedent’s torso. Resuscitation equipment was scattered all over the floor. Bright yellow crime scene placards punctuated certain items: a bullet casing here, a cigarette lighter there.

“So… just so you know,” Labrecht was saying. “These other rooms…” he gestures toward the two closed doors in the bank of rooms in the hallway in which we were standing, “… they have people in them, other hotel guests.”

“What, you mean like they’re still in there?” I asked.

“Sure are,” Labrecht shrugged. “Once we figured out they didn’t have anything to do with our homicide, we asked them to stay put if it was at all possible- basically, if they decided to leave their rooms, they wouldn’t be able to come back until we’re done. Legally, we can’t hold them in their rooms if they want to leave. But we also can’t have them going in and out of the scene.”

I glanced at the closed hotel doors, noting that each of them had a little peephole in them. I had absolutely no doubt that at that very moment, curious eyes were pressed against those peepholes from the inside looking out. This was the kind of stuff you only got to see on TV, and here, the occupants of these hotel rooms practically had an all-access backstage pass to the entire investigation. In fact, the doors were set into the hallway at an angle, so while I couldn’t be sure, I suspected our uninvited audience could actually see right into the room where our dead body lay. I pointed at one of the peepholes and looked askance at Labrecht.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know. We were thinking of putting sticky notes on there or something. No one has any.”

Irritated, I glanced back at the peepholes. It was somewhat reminiscent of the nosy news cameraman from the night before. Once again, I don’t blame people for their curiosity. But I was about to handle the still-warm body of an actual shooting victim. And while the cops and I make jokes and tease each other mercilessly, being present at these moments is earned. You have to prove that you know how far is too far, you know where the joking ends and you know that, in reality, this is no laughing matter. You don’t get to sit and soak up the scene of a violent death just because you happened to get a particular hotel room.

“Hang on a second.” I dropped my scene bag to the floor, intending to pull out a sharpie and just layer some permanent marker over the little glass eyes. But after digging for a minute, I had a much better idea. My hand had closed over a little plastic bag full of dental hygiene items that I had put in my jump-bag a few eons ago. It’s not uncommon for us to go all day without a break and for about a month there, I had been inordinately concerned about my teeth. Of course that phase had passed, but the dental kit had languished, unused in my bag… until now.

I pulled out the bag and removed the travel-sized tube of toothpaste. Opening it, I squirted a liberal dollop of Crest Whitening Formula onto my index finger and smeared it over the glossy, round eyes that stared out from the hotel rooms.

actual scene photo

“There!” I said. “All better! But Labrecht has to lick it off when we’re done!”

“We’ll call the fire department and make them do it…” he clapped back.

Predictably, about 2 minutes later, the occupants of these rooms poked their heads out, saying that they wanted to leave now. So the investigation briefly ground to a halt while we escorted these concerned citizens out the front door of the hotel.

All things considered, the rest of my shift went off without a hitch… which is probably a good thing. It kind of sucked staying on the scene a good 2 hours past my off-time and then having to write up the whole thing on my own time. But that’s not actually the issue.

I don’t know.

The death was a gunshot wound. She was young and by all accounts, it sounds like the whole thing was a stupid accident: a bunch of kids goofing around in a hotel room, getting high and fucking with a gun when it went off and hit our girl right in her center mass. I tried not to do it, while I was conducting my external exam on the scene, but I couldn’t help myself. I looked into her glassy, dilated eyes and imagined her last moments- everyone screaming or crying. Her falling to the floor, probably shocked… maybe in pain. Who knows? Who knows if in that moment she wasn’t just so confused she didn’t feel a thing. I wondered if she knew she was dying. I wondered what she saw. I wondered what she felt? She probably thought about her little toddler daughter, the pictures of whom we found in her phone.

I bet she thought: This can’t just be it.

I mentioned all of this to my therapist, with whom I actually had an appointment that same day. And it felt really weird to just walk straight from a homicide into a therapy appointment with no decompression time in-between. It was like going from your lover to your wife without even pausing to take a shower. Or maybe going from a blasting site to a beauty pageant. Going from screaming to silence.

It felt scary to turn inward with all of my amour still on… and to sit in my therapist’s warm, colorful, womb-like office with blood on my shoes.

I’ll admit it, I freaked out a bit… probably because the juxtaposition was too much. But also maybe because I still had a 27 year-old mother’s ghost clinging to me, asking me what happened, where she should go next, what happens now.

Maybe there were tears.

But I’m certainly not going to admit it. Not me.

I’m a brash, smart-mouthed, quick-tongued hot-shot…

And this shift… these deaths… don’t even come close to what’s really bothering me.

NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.

Stay tuned, I’m almost ready to talk about it.

Letters From the Front: The Truth of the Matter.

So… here’s the thing.

There has been a lot of misinformation out there- a lot of conjecture and even more speculation. If we are living in the “Information Age”, I think 2020 probably should be dubbed- “The Year of Over-Information” And 2021 is already setting itself up to be “The Year Every Asshole Decided to Make Their Opinions Known Online.” But that doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily, and probably won’t look good in the history books. I’m imagining the conversation now:

“Grandpa? Do you remember ‘The Year Every Asshole Decided to Make Their Opinions Known Online?'”

“I sure do, kiddo. Everyone knew what was going on, and yet NO ONE knew what the fuck was going on. It was a very confused time. Nothing like today- thank goodness for the invention of fact-checking shock-collars!”

“Wait, you mean back then people could just post whatever they wanted online?”

“They sure could, little buddy. But we learned our lesson! Now, you get 10,000 volts right to the jugular if you try to spread unsubstantiated hearsay. I tell ya, it’s a GREAT time to be alive!”

“Tell me again about the 2020 riots, Grandpa!”

So, I suppose I’m just another asshole, making my opinions known. Except for the fact that if you’re reading this, I’m YOUR asshole… or rather, I’m one of your assholes. And for some reason, you’ve decided to listen to what I have to say. So, before I get fitted with a fact-checking shock-collar, I’m gonna go ahead and tell you what I know.

This is the truth of the matter-

COVID-19 numbers are being grossly miscalculated.

Hang on to your butts, people. Because this is the real deal coming right from the grim-reaper’s scythe.

In my county, the medical examiner’s office is this weird little abortion of a program. We’re the janitors of public health. We’re vitally necessary and yet no one wants to actually see us at work. They’d much prefer if we just staggered in after everyone else went home. As a result, county administrators have never really known what to do with us. For a while we were part of the Vital Records department… then we got shifted over to EMS. Most recently, we were absorbed by county epidemiology which is probably our best fit. Not because our function has a lot to do with county epidemiology, but rather because (much like the medical examiner’s office) county epidemiology is populated by overqualified smart people who like to ask uncomfortable questions. Voila! A match made in cubicle-purgatory!

Anyway, the other day the chief county epidemiologist handed me a list of all the people who had allegedly died of COVID in our jurisdiction since March of 2020. She explained to me that this list had been produced by the state health department and she wanted to double check the numbers. However, as the county epidemiologist she didn’t actually have access to our state’s death certificate database. This meant she was unable to views these people’s death certificates and verify whether or not they had actually DIED of COVID. (Side note here- I have no IDEA why the county epidemiologist wouldn’t have access to the death certificate database… but that’s government work for you: A whole lot of rules- about half of which make sense. ) Anyway, she asked to me to check this COVID death list against the actual death certificates of each person.

(It’s okay. All pandemics end eventually. Sooner or later we’ll run out of people)

“I want you to tell me if COVID-19 actually appears anywhere on these people’s death certificates.” she instructed with grave severity.

I didn’t have much going on that day and the county epidemiologist is my goddamnned hero so I buckled right down. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to tell you this, but what I found was a little unnerving. Of the names on her Covid-19 death list for our county… about 2/3 of them listed the coronavirus somewhere under “cause of death”. The other 1/3… were a total circus. Some of the deaths were due to car accidents or heart disease and COVID was nowhere to be found. A few of them weren’t actually deaths in our county so I don’t know how they made it to our list. Some of the death certificates didn’t have ANY cause or manner listed yet because they were recent enough that the signing doctors hadn’t filled them in yet. Still others didn’t have a death certificate at all- as in… no death certificate in our state, let alone our county.

When I presented my findings to the county epidemiologist, she nodded grimly.

“Shit, that’s what I suspected.”

And when I asked her what she meant, she explained:

“Public Health isn’t actually confirming that these people died of COVID. They’re looking at the COVID cases and assuming that anyone who tested positive for COVID and then died in the following 3 months -MUST HAVE died of COVID. So even if those people were bludgeoned in their beds by a stray asteroid, they’re till being documented as COVID deaths.”

“Oh… shit…” I murmured.

“Right?” she nodded.

So there you have it. COVID deaths are being OVER-reported.

Now, here’s where I feel I should pause because I can hear a bunch of you hollering things like, “Conspiracy!” “Agenda!” “REVOLUTION!” Put on this shock collar and sit the fuck down. Because the truth behind these skewed numbers isn’t what you think.

I recently ran across Hanlon’s razor- which reads: “Do not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

And I think the best place to apply this little slice of wisdom is in the realm of government. Yes, sometimes the government is malicious… but more often it’s stupid. The American government is incredibly inefficient and riddled with flaws and selfish pricks who think they know better than anyone else. Having worked for this county for over 10 years now, I can say with great authority- this miscalculation in COVID deaths is stupid. Clearly, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and both hands are missing their thumbs. Our county, our COUNTRY does not have the time, staffing, infrastructure or general intelligence to mastermind a bake sale, let alone a global pandemic. So calm down, all you Qanon whack-a-doodles out there. Keep your tinfoil hat on and keep reading.

COVID-19 deaths are also being UNDER-reported.

Having done death investigation for over a decade, I can tell you that there are LEGIONS of people out there who never go to a doctor for ANY reason. The only reason they have contact with any medical establishment at all is because they’re dying of a well-earned heart-attack and someone called 911. I know this because when these people die, they come across my desk. So believe me when I tell you that innumerable people out there have COVID and are not seeking out testing or treatment. They feel a little under the weather and decide to take a few swigs of NyQuil and sleep it off. Some of them survive, some don’t. And the ones that don’t… well… they might get an autopsy. This autopsy might include a post-mortem covid test… but neither of those procedures is guaranteed, nor are they altogether accurate. I’ve heard wildly varying reports on the reliability of post-mortem COVID tests. And autopsies aren’t a silver bullet. I’ve eye-witnessed plenty of autopsies in which all that could be said was: “Well- they weren’t murdered. *shrug*”

(“Well… I’m not sure if he died of cholera or dysentery, but on the upside, we’re wearing fabulous hats…”)

But that’s not the half of it.

The global pandemic is claiming thousands of lives of people who were never infected at all.

In the course of my work, the up-tick in ALL deaths is sobering and extreme. People are neglecting to take their prescribed, life-saving prescriptions because they don’t want to risk COVID exposure by going to their doctor or pharmacy. People are cancelling things like breast cancer screenings or colonoscopies for the same reason. People can’t go to dialysis because dialysis centers are petri-dishes for all things contagious. I had one guy who was a paraplegic who needed to get his wheelchair cushion refitted because it was shaped wrong and giving him pressure sores (decubitus ulcers). He couldn’t get in to the wheel-chair specialist because their office was shut down. He ended up dying of sepsis because of the resulting infections. These deaths aren’t listed as COVID deaths- but the pandemic is still to blame.

On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic has placed a mighty strain on the mental health of our population. Every problem feels 10 times worse right now. We are all suffering in different ways and not all of us are dealing with it well. People who were managing their unfortunate coping mechanisms well enough before are now circling the drain. I mean… I realize we’re all having a rough time because movies and concerts aren’t happening right now. But you know what else isn’t happening?

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings…

Group therapy for trauma survivors…

In-person counseling appointments…

I recently went to a scene where a 26-year-old managed to drink herself to death in the space of 9 months. She and her partner had been polishing off a handle of Vodka per night. When I asked the partner why, she basically said the two of them had been numbing themselves against the excruciating drone of idle depression. Their school was cancelled, their jobs were cancelled. What else was there to do but drink?

My last shift, I had a man die by self-immolation. That’s right. The mother-fucker lit himself on fire. It turns out he had been laid off and wasn’t paying his mortgage. A family member had co-signed on his house so their credit was ruined as well. Dude had been trying unsuccessfully to find a job and finally just said “fuck it.” He went out to his garage with a gas-can and a book of matches, right after checking to make sure his life-insurance policy was up to date and covered suicide. Again- not a COVID death… or was it?

(“Dude… haven’t you heard Amazon is hiring?”)

Perhaps last of all are the random acts of violence. Our collective grief and frustration is so acute that people are acting out like toddlers who need some applesauce and a goddamned nap. Domestic disturbances are at an all-time high. People are getting in fights because they’re bored and pissed off and don’t have any means to discharge all that energy. They’re fighting their spouses, their kids, their friends, the cops etc etc etc. All too often, someone ends up dead.

“But what does it all MEAN?!?!?” I can hear people asking. “Pandemic deaths are being both OVER-REPORTED AND UNDER-REPORTED! Who’s screwing up and WHO’S TO BLAME?!?!”

NO ONE!

EVERYONE!

If nothing else, it means the human race is one big organism. The actions of everyone on the planet are interconnected and everything that we do in an effort to make things better is taking a toll that we never considered. It’s the action and re-action, the push and pull, the uncounted cost.

And it’s not malicious… it’s just stupid. People are doing their level best and it’s just not good enough.

But, running around with a fistful of hate and a mouthful of accusations isn’t slowing down the death toll- I can tell you that first-hand. And I’m talking to every side in every fight- News-flash, assholes, your bull-shit, self-righteous, violent extremism hasn’t saved any lives.

Look, tomorrow is Inauguration Day here in the United States. My law enforcement husband has asked me to stay home so he doesn’t have to worry about me inadvertently getting wound up in a demonstration/riot/whatever-the-fuck. My friends on the riot squad are making a list and checking it twice- not because they want to, but because they’re going to have to try to make sense of it all when the Molotov cocktails start flying.

Could we just not do this? Could we take that energy and apply it towards helping one another survive this shit show? Maybe take a breath and realize that we’re ALL triggered and traumatized. Maybe we all need a snack and a hug more than we need to punch someone in the face?

Maybe just put down the fucking bottle of vodka, America.

Get it together.

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-BTW- if you still need a laugh-

When I was running this whole blog post by my husband, we riffed for a while on the “fact-checking shock-collar”. He thought it might be funny to have an implant placed in people’s butts that would give them a jolt when they spread erroneous lies.

“You mean… like… a fact-checking anal-stimulator?” I asked him.

It was then that we discarded the idea because there would be some people who would walk around lying all the time… just for fun.

More so than usual.