Suddenly we’re all sitting in our homes, chewing on our fingernails as we watch the red dots spread out on the computer screen map like seeping bloodstains.
No one is attending school. No one is going to movies. No one is seeing concerts. No one is working out at the gym. No one is going to work…
…except for me.
(and the grocery store clerk at New Seasons)
I left for work today a luxurious 20 minutes later than usual because I knew there wouldn’t be any traffic. But as far as I can tell, it’s pretty much the only GOOD thing that’s happened as a result of this shit show.
That’s right, the medical examiner’s office is open with a vengeance. It is said that the only thing for certain in this life is death and taxes. And it’s entirely possible that taxes will be waived for the year as more and more clamor rises from the masses. No one can afford to pay their rent… let alone their taxes- so who knows. Taxes may be optional this year.
The downside is, death is still a thing. As the panic surrounding the COVID pandemic really begins to pick up avalanche momentum, The medical examiner’s office is only one cubicle away from where the shit show is really on display- I’m not gonna lie, the Public Health people are having a much worse time than I am… so far. When I saw the county epidemiologist today, she told me that she’s been snorting No-Doze and it’s been 19 days since she had the time to take a shower.
The medical examiners office is doing ok, but we’re starting to feel the strain as well. It’s only a matter of time before the fatalities really start piling up. And I don’t just mean the folks who die of the virus. I’m talking about the people who freak out from the social isolation and anxiety and kill themselves. I’m talking about the families that are already hanging on by a very thin thread suddenly having to spend weeks quarantined together… all angry atoms vibrating together in an enclosed space, hovering on the edge of detonation. I’m talking about all those assholes who think it’s fucking anarchy out there and start driving around drunk- assuming the police have better things to do than pull them over. I’m talking about riots as people become more and more desperate, stupidly believing that the only thing standing between them and complete annihilation is a roll of fucking toilet paper.
It’s so maddening that all I can do is say the F-word…
I arrive at work. I’m nervous. The magnitude of the corona virus hasn’t quite hit the ground yet, but we’re beginning to sense that it’s a much bigger problem than anyone thought. Businesses have started to close down. Most notably, my gym has closed down leaving me with an overabundance of nervous energy. I feel as edgy as a downed power-line, snapping and crackling on the pavement, daring anyone to come closer.
The first thing that happens is Henry tells me that a body arrived at a funeral home with “corona virus” written on it. I’m not altogether sure what he means.
“Was it like… a sticky note or something?” I ask him.
He doesn’t know, all he knows is that the funeral home employees are losing their minds with panic and don’t want to touch the body. Henry is talking about having to track down who the hell got the rumor started that the dead body was a COVID-19 victim. I shake my head in disbelief.
Then I get a call from the grandmother of one of my decedents from last shift. Specifically, it’s the grandmother of a dead baby. It was awful. This infant was found deceased in bed next to his mother. It’s a co-sleeping death- which is something I know no one wants to hear, but it’s true. Babies and parents shouldn’t sleep in the same beds and the repercussions of doing so are sometimes deadly.
But putting THAT debate aside for another day….
Then problem is, someone from the funeral home has called the family and told them that the baby tested positive for COVID-19. The funeral home is now refusing to let the devastated family come in and view their deceased child one last time. The funeral home is also refusing to touch the baby or proceed with any burial or cremation arrangements.
Then the grandmother tells me that the baby’s father (her son) had to tell his work that it is believed that his child died of COVID-19. His employer has freaked the fuck out and refused to let him come in to work until he can provide documentation verifying that he does NOT have COVID-19.
The grandmother is sobbing this whole story out and asking me why no one at our office told the family that the baby died of COVID. I do my best to tell the grandmother that no one mentioned this to them by virtue of the fact that it isn’t fucking true. The death had nothing to do with the corona virus and I have no clue where the funeral home got that idea. Nor can I imagine why they didn’t bother to confirm it with our office before they brutalized the family in this way. I tell her I will get to the bottom of it and I call the funeral home with the light of righteous indig-fucking-nation blazing in my eyes.
The funeral director tells me that he got the information from the transport crew that they hire to pick up bodies for them from the morgue. He claims that if there’s a problem, it’s not his fault, it’s the fault of the transport company. They’re the ones that said the baby had COVID. So I call the transport company… completely prepared to tear them limb from limb. However, the transport company swears they got the news from the morgue employee who released the body to them. So then I call the morgue, where the state morgue attendants claim that absolutely, under no circumstances did anyone tell anyone that this baby had COVID. In fact, the morgue folks are downright offended that I dare suggest such a thing.
Ultimately, I talk to the pathologist who did the autopsy. He informs me that recent guidelines mandate a COVID test for all pediatric deaths in the state. So the baby was tested for the corona virus and that test came back negative.
I backtrack through the phone calls and graciously disperse this information to all involved parties, not one of whom is willing to admit that they’re the asshole that started the rumor that this kid had the corona virus. Ultimately I talk to the family and assure them that their home is not ground zero for the latest outbreak. The problem is, now there’s no help for the father who has been ordered to stay home from work. He can’t prove that he doesn’t have this illness because he can’t get a test. Right now, there aren’t enough tests available and the Health Authority isn’t willing to burn a test swab on someone who isn’t showing any symptoms and has no known contact with a verified Covid case.
So he’s screwed.
Then I get a call from the local hospital. It’s a nurse calling to report the death of a known COVID victim. It’s the first confirmed corona virus death in our county. It’s starting.
He doesn’t know what to do. But I can’t really help him. I tell him that the death isn’t reportable to our office since the decedent has been in the hospital for over 24 hours and the cause of death wasn’t a matter that required investigation. I tell him that the attending physician should have been briefed on which agencies to call and who to alert in this situation.
“Yeah,” he says. “The attending doc told me to call you.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”
“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?”
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?”
“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”
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?”