What the Hell?

Poor Henry.

I know that I frequently talk about Henry as though he’s some kind of investigative super-giant mega-hero… and he is.  Henry has been in the game since before it was a game.  Henry was death-investigating when Cain killed Abel. I’m pretty sure that as soon as that little sibling rivalry crash-landed into its inevitable end, Henry rode in on a donkey, took one look at the carnage and said something like, “Behold! Verily I say unto thee, thine sons hath argued and alas, one hath bashed the other about the noggin with ye olde rock! Thus goeth such travesties betwixt men and I heartily declare the manner to be a homicide! The first of its kind! Now where are my cigarettes?”

I’m not gonna say Henry’s older than dirt, but I will say I’ve seen his apartment and some of the coffee mugs in his sink haven’t been cleaned since a mass-casualty incident known as The Donner Party staggered in from the cold.

Every time I see him at shift change, I’m awash in a salty wave of sympathy co-mingled with fear. Because Henry is scary when he gets off shift… as scary as a gnarled old tree, alone at a crossroads, bereft of leaves or birds… twisted and malformed as it struggles toward the light… while smoking a Marlboro red and grumbling that Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.

God, he looks tired… I always think.  When I see Henry at the end of his 48 hour shift… which actually marks the beginning of mine… he’s always sporting a scraggly grizzle of a beard and clothes that look like he’s just fought his way up a volcano to dispose of a cursed ring. He looks kind of like a brillo pad that’s been used to clean a barbecue.

We smoke together at the end of his shift, it’s the only time I do so anymore. The two of us leave the sterile blue maze of cubicles and meander across the street for caffeine and nicotine.  And to be fair, I don’t actually smoke so much as I take a few drags from his cigarettes as we loiter juuuuuust outside the boundaries of what’s considered “county property”. I tell Henry about my latest dating misadventures and he offers me nuggets of wisdom which he mined from his three marriages. Then he fills me in on whatever lunacy happened during his shift- thereby preparing me for the screwball calls I’m going to get over the course of my shift. 

“Some dumbass gave the family of this suicide victim our cell phone number so be prepared to deal with that… they’re doing the typical bullshit, claiming that someone must have murdered him and then forged the note…” he’ll tell me.

“This doctor is refusing to sign this death certificate. Or rather, his STAFF says he’s refusing to sign the death certificate.  See if you can actually get the doc on the phone because his secretary is a moron.”

“This funeral home is saying they don’t have this guy’s wedding ring and they claim he wasn’t wearing it when he came in, but its right there in all our scene photos so tell them to check their employees pockets again and quit blaming their fuck-ups on us.”

And so it goes.

For the most part Henry’s hand-off reports tend to be pretty standard. But as you may remember from previous tales. Henry is the king of weird shit, the Mayor of crazytown… the crowned prince of “what-the-hell”?

Some mornings Henry is particularly quiet.  He smokes his cigarette in sullen contemplation as he threads through exactly how to explain the sordid tale he’s about to tell me.  Because the fact is, sometimes shit goes so screwy on Henry’s shift that it defies description.  But he has to describe it to me, since I’m the one batting clean-up.

“Listen,” he said to me one morning.  He had been standing on the curb, silent for the last 10 minutes, thoughtfully examining the glowing ember at the end of his cigarette.  “You might get a call from a guy today…”

“Okay…” I said carefully.

“He called yesterday and wanted to talk to our supervisor about the suicide prevention program…”

“Okay…” I said again.  We get calls from time to time on our suicide prevention program.  It’s considered groundbreaking amongst our profession and our office has managed to quantify the suicides we’ve curtailed as a result of our policies and practices… which sounds great to say, but it looks even better on paper.  Other agencies call from time to time asking for information and training- hoping to implement our program into their region so that they might have to deal with fewer suicides.  Which I don’t mind telling you are probably the most prevalent non-natural deaths that we medical examiners see.  I know shows like “Criminal Minds would have you believe that the United States is just writhing like an ant-hill with serial killers at any given moment.  But the fact is, the biggest killer of people in America is themselves… followed closely by big pharma and doctors who prescribe too many goddamned narcotics.

Anyway, Henry rubbed his forehead in consternation and the lines around his eyes deepened.

“This guy… he called wanting to talk to Ken about the suicide prevention program… because he wants to commit suicide.”

“Ummmm… what?”

“Yeah, he called and said that he was planning on committing suicide and he wanted to talk to Ken about suicide prevention.”

“I don’t understand… did he want help or something?  Like was he looking for mental health resources?”

“Nope.”  Henry shrugged.  “He said he had decided to commit suicide and he wanted to know the best way to do it. He also said that it wasn’t going to be anytime soon, but it was what he’d decided to do and he figured he also had some insight that might be helpful to our program.”

“Wait… he called to find out the best way to commit suicide?”

Henry nodded.

“I told him that our program was suicide PREVENTION. And was there anything I could do to help him other than help him kill himself.  He said ‘no’ and insisted that he wanted to talk to Ken.”

“What the hell, man?” I marveled as I throttled back a laugh and plucked Henry’s cigarette out of his hand. I took a deep drag and handed it back. “What did Ken say?”

“Well… Ken didn’t know what the fuck to make of it so he called up HIS supervisor, who called the head of Health and Human Services. They called the police shrink and adult protective services before the whole shit-parade marched right in to county council…”

“Jesus, it went to county council?”

Henry nodded emphatically as he sucked the last gasp from his cigarette and lit another one. Just to be clear I’ve never actually met anyone on county council. I’ve never even seen them. They’re like this mystical panel of administrators who convene in a big mahogany room decorated with brass light fixtures and maps. They all sit in big-ass leather wing-baked chairs and decide shit as they swirl around big snifters of brandy. And much like the gods on Mount Olympus, it’s never a good thing to be on their radar unless you’re one of their illegitimate children… even then it’s a dice roll.  

“So what’s the word from on high?” I asked

“So… basically…” Henry looked up and met my eyes for the first time that morning. “They said we can’t do a damn thing about him.  He’s perfectly sane and he’s not an ‘immediate’ danger to himself or anyone else.  We can’t put him on a mental health hold or make him a ward of the state.  All we can really do is hang around and wait for him to kill himself. And County Council is telling Ken not to talk to him.  No one who has an office wants to get blamed for failing to intervene when this dude finally decides to lay down for the long-dirt nap.”

“Fuck me, seriously?”I spat through my mouthful of coffee.

Henry nodded.

“So… anyway… he might call during your shift. Good luck.” 

Well, the good news is he didn’t call… and the bad news is he didn’t call. Nor has he turned up dead in our county, and no one has spoken a word about him since Henry gave me that hand-off report.  It seems to me as though if we were serious about suicide prevention, we might actually follow up with this guy and see if there’s anything we might do to… you know… PREVENT HIS SUICIDE.  But it appears that everyone would much rather swirl the brandy around in their glasses and discuss policies without ever actually implementing any of them.

Ahhh, the life of a politician.

Meanwhile, scrubs like Henry and I are flailing around in the quagmire of human existence and dealing with situations like this one:

I was out with a few of the local deputies and we may or may not have been drinking adult beverages when one of them blurted out to me. 

“So, I hear anal kills!”

“Uh…what?”

“Anal!” He hollered at me over the jukebox. “You know, like anal sex? Anal kills!”

“Dude,” I hollered back at him, “Is this like a PSA or something?”

“Was this not your case?” 

“Jesus… no! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “Maybe it was Henry, I don’t know but there was some death with anal sex.”  Then he continued drinking his beer like he’d never said a thing and didn’t bother to tell me what curiosity drove him to yelling “ANAL KILLS!” in a crowded drinking-class bar that was full of off-duty dock-workers and cops.

So, the next time I saw Henry, I got the real story. And I elicited it from him in much the same way that it was presented to me.  The two of us were sitting down to lunch in a local restaurant and I didn’t even bother wait for the waitress to finish taking our drink orders.

“So, I understand anal kills…”

The waitress didn’t bother giving us the day’s specials and hustled away like a scolded puppy.

“I beg your pardon?” Henry said, daintily dropping his napkin in his lap and pulling out his glasses to examine the appetizers. I could have just said, “Looks like rain” or “I hear there’s a meteor hurdling through space at our heads and we’re all going to be dead in 36 hours.” It wouldn’t matter.  Henry is unfalteringly Henry, regardless of the current crisis. 

“Anal, Henry” I pouted.  “Anal sex killed someone recently and you didn’t even tell me about it.”  I sighed with a wounded air and gazed sadly into the middle distance, feeling as though something had gone tragically wrong in our relationship if Henry neglected to tell me about an anal-sex death.

“Oh, that…” he said, flatly. He folded the menu and leaned back in his chair, pausing to remove his glasses and polish them on his shirt. “I mean it wasn’t anything too outrageous.”

“How could an anal-sex death not be outrageous?”

“So… this dude was having his 50thbirthday. He finally talked his wife into trying anal sex.  I’m not sure who she asked about it or who she was talking to, but I guess she went into Sneakers adult store and the guy there gave her some poppers.”

“Poppers?”

“Yeah… poppers. You… you… do KNOW what poppers are, right?”

For a second I considered playing it off.  I like to think I’m fairly in-the-know when it comes to kink and I’ve, like… you know… been to Burning Man and stuff.  But I’m a shitty liar and Henry has been an investigator sniffing out lies longer than I’ve been alive so what was the point?

“Do you mean like nitrous?”

“No, poppers are amyl nitrite. They sell it in little vials at sex stores, it’s supposed to relax the sphincter to make anal sex easier or something.  But you’re supposed to inhale it. This woman was so freaked out about anal sex that she went to get some of it.  The guy at the shop told her to inhale it, NOT drink it. There were two warning labels on it that said ‘Do not drink’. But guess what she did.”

“Oh… she drank it.”

“Yup, at first she just thought she felt sick after they… you know…But she started vomiting and he found her on the bathroom floor a couple hours later.”

“Ooof”

“Yup,” 

“Anal kills.”

“Yup,” Henry sighed. “So have you tried the Hungarian mushroom soup here? It’s supposed to be pretty good.”  

But that’s Henry: Completely unflappable and utterly placid.  Nothing ripples his surface… or rather, almost nothing.

There was one morning that Henry and I went out for our traditional coffee and cigarette meeting and he seemed particularly unnerved. I would even say “spooked.”  That morning he scorched through his first Marlboro red with distracted agitation. And rather than press him for information, I waited until he was ready to talk.

“Yesterday.” He rubbed his hands together nervously and looked up at me. “I went to the death of a younger guy, 34. He didn’t have any history other than feeling sick and missing work.  His brother found him when he went to check on him.  The guy hadn’t been answering his phone for a couple of days. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing suspicious.”

“Okaaaaay…” I said carefully.

“Thing is,” Henry continued. “I was on-scene in his apartment for almost three hours.  And when I finally came back out again… the entire family was there.”

“Oh god, that’s never good,” I responded.

And it isn’t. The arrival of an “entire family” as Henry had put it, generally heralds a shit-show of epic proportion.  Don’t get me wrong, we have no issues with people wanting to support each other and say goodbye to their deceased loved one.  The problem is, that’s NOT what they’re doing when they show up on-scene.  Families that show up on-scene are flipping the fuck out.  They’re screaming and crying, not only at the death itself, but also at each other.  All of the latent family-issues and quiet resentments start tumbling out like a goddamnned clown car and as the medical examiner, you’re the fucking ring-master.  Everyone is full of outlandish demands and truly baffling misinformation that they gleaned from watching CSI. And it doesn’t take long for someone to pull out the blame-gun and just start firing it off in every direction. 

“So, what happened?”

“Well,” Henry muttered, rubbing his face with his free hand and flicking the ash from his cigarette. “They prayed.”

“Huh?”

“I came out of the apartment, and the entire family was on their knees on the front walk, praying.”

“Do you mean…” I balked to say it out loud. “Were… they… praying for him to come back to life?”

Henry pointed at me with his cigarette. “Bingo.”

“Oh, shit!” I gasped

“Yeah, and I had to tell them that I was taking him in for an autopsy.”

“Oh, fuck…”

“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”

“What?”

“They said they wanted me to postpone the autopsy for three days.”

I blinked in disbelief. “You mean… like Jesus Christ? Like… they think he’s going to come back to life on the third day?”

“Yep. And so, I called Dr. Stone and she was like, ‘Fuck it’ we’re too busy anyway, tell them we’ll wait if that’s what they want.’”

“So… so… wait, that message that I picked up this morning on the office phone before you got there…” I HAD picked up a message on the office phone.  Henry had been a bit late so I was killing time with checking voice-mails before he showed up to hand off the shift. One message had been some frantic-sounding guy, asking that we wait to talk to him before doing his brother’s autopsy.  I had been planning on calling him back later on in the morning.

Henry nodded. “The family wants to go to the morgue and pray over him one last time before the autopsy.”

“Ummmm, what are we going to tell him?”

“aw… dude, you’re too late. We already gave away your clothes!”

I was fairly certain we weren’t going to accede to that request. One of the many features of the medical examiner’s office that TV gets wrong is the highly dramatic “body identification” scene.  You know, the one in which a dead person’s family stands there while the body is rolled out on a table and everyone has their poignant last goodbye? Well that doesn’t happen.  The medical examiner’s office is a secured facility that doesn’t allow visitors for any reason.  And if we don’t allow people to come in to identify a body, we sure as hell aren’t going to allow them in to pray over one.  Not that it mattered in this case.

“It’s too late.” Henry said, cringing.

“Well… I know that.  But what are you going to tell the brother?”

“No, no,” Henry shook his head.  I mean it’s TOO LATE.”

“What do you mean?” I was still confused.

“It’s too late.  Dr. Stone said she’d wait to do the post mortem.  But Dr. Gillis came in and saw how slammed Dr. Stone was.  So he went ahead and started doing autopsies on Dr Stone’s cases. He started cutting people up like fuckin’ Hannibal Lecter before anyone could stop him.”

“And Dr. Gillis… “

“Dr. Gillis did this guy’s autopsy two days ago… literally 4 hours after he was found.”

“Oh shit…” I gasped again. “So this family has spent the last 3 days thinking their son was going to come back to life.  And he’s… he’s…”

I didn’t have to say it out loud.  We both knew because we’ve both seen autopsies.  This family’s son had been completely dismantled like a stolen car. I mean, I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that his brain was now in slices and wrapped up in a plastic bag inside his abdomen.  And, I mean…theoretically, if God can bring someone back to life BEFORE their autopsy, what’s to say he can’t bring them back AFTER it. But still, I’m not sure if there’s a statute of limitations on miracles.  And I have to assume that putting all those organs back together in their original order would be a pretty hefty favor… one I doubt the almighty would be willing to undertake even for the Pope, let alone some dude named Craig with bad tattoos and an uninsured Hyundai. 

Henry sighed miserably.

“Dude…” despite my horror, or maybe because of it, I had started giggling.  “You have to call this family and explain to them that we ruined their son’s resurrection by doing his autopsy 2 days early?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”

“Yeah.”

I shook my head. “What the hell…?”

It’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen Henry scared. Which is pretty impressive considering he’s only about 2 years out from retirement. I have no idea what he’s going to do after that, maybe finally wash his dishes. But until then, you can catch the two of us, standing on a curb passing a single cigarette back and forth like the baton I’ll eventually take when Henry decides to move on. We’re pretty careful about what we say when other people are within ear-shot, but if you sneak up on us, you might manage to catch snatches of conversation that go something like this:

“-took his head clean off like a dandelion…”

“-so I told her, ‘ma’am you can’t bury him in your backyard, no matter what your shaman told you…’”

“-an entire crate full of dildos under his bed…”

  But that’s all you’ll get.  Henry will likely catch sight of you and the two of us will clam right up until you walk away.  And as you do, you might overhear us saying something to the tune of :

“That guy was listening to us.”

“Yeah, he was.  How much do you think he heard?”

“I don’t know. God, people are so weird.”

“I know, right? I mean who wants to hear stories like ours? What the hell?”

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.

You Know You’re a Medical Examiner When…

In continuation of the last installment of Dead Men’s Donuts-

ACT II

 

So, after I removed the dead mini-coop driver from the scene of the MVA, I had to take him to a local funeral home where I could do a good, thorough exam before contacting the forensic pathologist to discuss an autopsy. Seeing as how the scene was overrun with cameras and reporters, I wasn’t about to spread our decedent out on the side of the road for God and everybody to see. Nor could I just take him into the office since our doctors REALLY don’t like having bodies show up un-announced.

 

Unfortunately, a change of venue was not going to make this poor guy’s death any less… gruesome. A human body is pretty much just a big sack of fluids that are kept in place and prevented from free-flowing all over the floor by a fairly complex and delicately balanced system of tubes, pumps and valves. When that system stops functioning properly… or stops functioning at all… it’s just puddles everywhere. The fact that this guy had a wide array of holes in his fluid sack only made matters worse. Every time I had to maneuver his body around to document yet another fracture or laceration… the movement flicked blood here and there until the floor around me looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Although working on an ambulance made me as nimble as Neo from “The Matrix” when it came to dodging airborne body parts and fluids (blood, vomit, amniotic fluid… teeth… you name it) I was unable to completely avoid all of the spatter. (Imagine hugging a basset hound without getting drool on you… It just can’t be done.) While I left the exam with a complete index of all our dead guy’s injuries, I also left sporting a liberal sprinkle of his blood on my right thigh.

 

Blood on your clothes is an unavoidable part of being a medical examiner. However, if/when you DO get blood on you, it’s considered very bad form to just LEAVE it there.

 

As I left the funeral home I stared down at the spray of blood and frowned. I knew I really should go home and change clothes, but on the other hand, the accident involving the owner of that blood had already eaten up a good portion of my day and I had a million things to do… including run down to my ophthalmologist’s office for a brief exam to make sure my eyes were healing properly after my lasik procedure. I was sorely overdue for my three month follow-up and they said that, today, if I could make it into the office before 2 p.m. they would just squeeze me in for a quick look. I glanced at my phone and noted it was 1:30. I had a half hour before my window closed and I would have to put off the appointment until God-knows-when. Coordinating the office’s schedule with my own had been a huge problem and they didn’t really have any appointments available on my days off until next month. I glanced down at my pant-leg again. The blood wasn’t too obvious. If you squinted, it almost looked like soy sauce… That was it! If anyone asked, I would just tell them I had Chinese for lunch.

 

Twenty minutes later, I was kicked back in an exam chair, waiting for the doctor to come in and take a gander at my dead-lights. My relief was palpable. I was getting things done. I was the picture of productivity and time-management… I was … wearing someone’s blood on my pants… but nobody else needed to know that.

 

“Hello hello, Grace,” the doctor chirped as she walked in. “I’m so glad you could make it in today! You’re overdue!” We exchanged the typical pleasantries as the doctor seated herself and wheeled up to me to stare into my eyes. “So your eyes are healing beautifully,” she gushed as she swung a variety of machines and devices in front of my face. I was staring through a series of lenses and reading letters when it happened.

 

“Okay!” The doctor was saying as I read letters off a screen. “It looks as though your left eye is a … little..bit… um…” Her voice trailed off. I glanced away from the big metal machine the doctor had positioned in front of my face, to find that she was staring at the blood flecks on my thigh.

 

Now, I could have played it off like it was soy sauce on my pants like I had planned. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can lie like road-kill when I have to (To this day, my parents still have no idea what really happened to the living-room carpet when I was 13).  But in this case I didn’t see the point. Doctors know blood… even if they haven’t seen it for decades, a doctor will always know a blood stain when they see one. Hell, sometimes when I’m walking around downtown with Husband, I’ll point out all the bloodstains on the sidewalk, just to horrify him.

 

The doctor coughed and regained her train of thought while I, without stopping to consider, blurted out the first, idiot thought that streaked through my mind:

 

“Oh… ha! Don’t worry none of that is my blood!”

 

I added the laugh in the hopes of lightening the whole blood-thing a little bit, but in retrospect, I suppose it probably sounded more maniacal than nonchalant.

 

You know you’re a medical examiner when you think people will be reassured when you tell them that the blood all over your clothes isn’t actually yours.

 

 

The Greatest Show on Earth?

So an actor died this past week… You probably heard.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and I’ve decided I want to talk about it… But I’m not going to mention his name because… well… because I don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked his movies, and from what I have heard, he actually seemed to be an okay guy as far as actors go. He didn’t get married and divorced multiple times, he didn’t inflict a chaos-infused personal life on the general public. The guy made movies, acted in plays and he was really, really good at it. That said, I didn’t KNOW him. I never met him, he wasn’t my hero and I can’t say I knew anything about him at all. So I don’t want to talk about HIM so much as I want to talk about us… as a society… as a people… as a species, and how we react to the deaths of people we don’t really know.

Just to get it out of the way… We suck. And this actor’s death once again brings that sad fact into painfully sharp focus.

The truth, dressed in it’s most modest clothing and standing quietly in the middle of the information freeway, is this:

If someone’s life was none of our business… their death is certainly none of our business.

There are a few exceptions, but not many. Perhaps I should say: “-their death is none of our business unless it’s a matter of public health, or their death in some way affects our civil rights.” Otherwise, just shut up about it okay? SHUT UP!

I’m not certain why we can’t seem to grasp the whole concept of privacy in death. But I have a few theories. We really love to be informed. I agree with most folks that it’s a good idea to be informed- violence, superstition, corruption and tyranny flourish in societies where the general populace is intentionally kept in ignorance. So, to a degree, information is something of an inoculation against such evils.

The problem is, we’ve taken this idea to the extreme and created an intellectual climate in which we believe we are self-righteously entitled to absolutely anything we want to know. If a president has a dog, we want to know it’s name. If an actress has a baby, we want to know if she’s going to breast feed. If a celebrity has sex, we want to see the video… hooo boy do we EVER want to see THAT video.

If someone dies, we want to know why… and we want to see the body… naked, if at all possible. We want to jam our noses into their mortal wounds and take a good long whiff of their viscera. Then we want to finger the embalming holes in their skin, trace the Y-incision from the autopsy with our tongues and then tweet about our self-indulgent devastation. We’re not actually going to GAIN anything from it… we didn’t necessarily KNOW this person… but we still want to see… and judge… and comment.

I’d like to blame the media, but I can’t really say it’s all their fault. One could argue that the whole media monster evolved to fill a need that we already had… the need to know. But the media, in it’s most common incarnation these days, isn’t about feeding a need nearly so much as it drives to create one. And we help them by consuming the quivering slop that they dish out and call “journalism”.

I don’t know where the phrase came from: “The public has a right to know…” or whatever the fuck their utterly-bull-shit-self-justifying line-of-drivel is these days. But the media convinces us that we want to know something. They convince us that we have every RIGHT to know something- and they are working… nay, they are FIGHTING for our right to know… they are our advocates in the war against ignorance! Hell, they’re our champions!

Except they’re not, especially not when everyone wants to know about YOU.

I’m getting off track.

The afternoon that this actor was found dead, I went to an exercise class. During warm-up, the instructor mentioned that the actor had passed. Instantly everyone was abuzz with comments. When did he die? Where did he die? What did he die of? And, naturally, somebody decided to go ahead and spray this shit all over the room:

“They say he was found with a needle in his arm!”

I grit my teeth and spoke up. Because whenever anyone starts talking about the mechanics of death, I tend to feel like something of an authority.

“They can’t possibly know that with any certainty,” I snapped. “The media makes up lies all the time and then publish it in the hopes that they’re right. I’ve seen it happen.”

Naturally, the people who didn’t shoot me a “what-the-fuck” look simply sighed with exasperation and continued on with their speculations about what they had now decided was the actor’s lurching monster of a heroin addiction. I was just that weird girl in the back of the room… the one who touches dead people… like… on purpose.

If they would have bothered listening, I would have told them the story of a happily married couple in Maine who had their deaths crucified, spread-eagle on the internet by that oozing legion of shit-smearing monkeys known as the media.

I had been called to the tidy little suburb by local police who had been contacted by the local mailman after he found a note in the mailbox belonging to this couple. (Lets call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones for the sake of clarity.)

The note was from Mr. Jones and, admittedly, it initially seemed to indicate the worst had occurred. In this note, he basically stated that both he and his wife were now deceased in their house and would someone please call the police.

This note seemed consistent with the behavior of a man who had first killed his wife, and then himself. I have no problem admitting that. Initially, we treated the situation as a murder-suicide. Of course, we didn’t call the fucking reporters in and tell them so… no way. But naturally, when the police cars started showing up, some local dim-wit of a housewife decided to ring up the local newspaper and the next thing you know, there was a swarm of buzzing insects… all with questions and cameras and the utterly ludicrous claim that the “public had a right to know.”

Now, no one who was actually a part of the investigation even bothered to make eye-contact with these ass-holes. But the neighbors apparently weren’t the type to learn from example- strange, since all of their houses looked equally boring and every single one of them was wearing the same goddamned yoga pants and Uggs- you’d think that blind imitation was the language of the realm.

Anyway, as soon as the news vans rolled in every single local came prancing out of their homes, full to bursting with comments and sound-bytes for the reporters, because after all…. why stay at home and WATCH television when you can be ON it?

I remember one woman stood in the middle of the lawn across the street from the Jones’ home and squealed with melodramatic torment to anyone within ear-shot that “… they were such NICE people…” and she “… just couldn’t BELIEVE that HE would DO this…”

Mind you, no one official had actually SAID that Mr. Jones had killed Mrs. Jones and then himself. But it appeared that when the officers had asked the neighbors when was the last time they had seen either Mr. or Mrs. Jones, everyone correctly surmised that they were both dead… then INCORRECTLY deduced that Mr. Jones was an enraged murderer, I guess because that’s how these things go on TV.

This was where everything really started to get fucked up.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones had two adult sons whom we were trying to reach to notify them of their parents’ death. Ideally, we would have dispatched uniformed officers to either their homes or their places of work so that they could be notified in person by someone who had been briefed on EXACTLY what information we did and DID NOT have at that time.

Of course, we never had the chance to perform this task in such a respectful and compassionate manner, because before I had even entered the house to completely document the scene, someone ELSE had already contacted the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones on facebook to ask him about the death of his parents.

Yes… on facebook.

Apparently, this person had seen the “breaking news” reports claiming that Mr. Jones had murdered his wife and then himself. Seeing the Jones’ house on the television, this “friend” realized exactly to which Mr. and Mrs. Jones the news report was referring. Rather than stand at a respectful distance and wait to see how the whole situation unfolded, this numbskull jumped on facebook and started assaulting the Jones family with queries as to what happened, then updating his own status to read that he was “shocked and saddened” by this whole turn of events…

… so shocked and saddened that he obviously had no choice but to treat the whole calamity as though it was a delectable, high-school rumor. It wouldn’t surprise me if this dip-shit posted a “selfie”, wiping tears from his eyes and wearing an expression of bewildered misery.

I was halfway through my scene assessment when my pager started beeping incessantly, Mr. Jones Jr. was calling every public service office in the county, trying to get anyone to tell him what the hell was going on.

In short order, he was directed to the Medical Examiner’s office and ultimately, to my pager, at which point, I had no choice but to call him and let him know that I really had no information to give him just yet because we had literally JUST ENTERED THE DAMN HOUSE! He asked me who told the news-reporters that his dad had killed his mom if no one had any information yet. I had to tell him that I had absolutely no idea where that report had come from. But the media does what they want- and in the absence of actual data, they just started making shit up.

It wasn’t until the next day, when Mrs. Jones autopsy was completed, that the truth of the matter came to light. Mrs. Jones had died of a brain aneurysm… a big, fat blood vessel in her head had burst and killed her. Upon finding her body, Mr. Jones was so incredibly devastated and disoriented that he hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

The local newspapers completely dropped the story at that point. The big, front-page-domestic-homicide-horror-show had dried up and they moved on to the next, fresh corpse. Mr. Jones was never publicly exonerated for killing his wife. No retraction was issued. No one apologized to the sons for spreading such a deplorable lie. No one cared, the media got their story, they got their ratings, they got their web-site hits… and that’s all that mattered to them. The neighbors got to see themselves on the nightly news, wailing like a bunch of Old Testament mourners. As far as the world knew, the man was a murderer… and that was that.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. Everyday I’m approached by a swarm of curious, smut-seeking lookie-loos every time I park my truck.

“What happened,” some bulging-eyed onlooker will demand as I climb out of the driver’s seat. “Is someone DEAD?” They glance at the “County Medical Examiner” printed on the door of my truck and then peer suspiciously around us, wondering if they may have overlooked some spectacular carnage.

Generally, I’ll reply: “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine,” or, “It’s not really my place to talk about it,” or I’ll say, “Dude, I’m just here to get some groceries…” because, yes… that happens.

I’ve had to herd spectators away from car accidents… people who crossed police lines and slyly sidled past fire-engines in the hopes of getting close enough to actually SEE some free-range gore.

I’ve dragged family members into bathrooms or stuffed them in that very same truck and driven a block away from a scene rather than leave those ravaged souls on display for a gaggle of neighbors whose capacity for compassion or tact seems to have evaporated out of their gaping mouths.

I’ve seen people pull out cell-phones and take pictures of blood on the pavement.

I saw one guy lift his tiny-toddler son on to his shoulders so that the little tyke could get a better view of a suicide victim who had plummeted off a parking garage at the mall… apparently, defending his boy’s right to see splattered brain tissue before heading inside to get a cinnabon.

We are over-exposed. We are over-indulged. We are over-informed. We still want blood-for-sport, just as much as the thronging crowds of the Roman Coliseum. Only now we want it in high-def surround sound on the nightly news. We want to see bodies, we want to gorge ourselves on bereavement, we want devastation and tragedy. We all want a piece of everyone’s big, fat death pie.

Why?

Why is it so hard to accept that some things really are private? Why have we all forgotten how to avert our eyes for decency’s sake?

I don’t have the answer.

All I can do, is shake my head, wave the gawkers on and say with as much pleading conviction as possible,

“Please, move along…. there’s nothing to see, here.”