WARNING: This true story contains graphic depictions of death, violence, and suicide. Some details have been modified or omitted to guard privacy.
The call from Hal came at around midnight and half an hour later we were on the road with a blizzard howling at our backs.
New Hampshire is a sparsely populated state, a bit more than one million people sprinkled across a granite riven slab of mountains and ice cold rivers that reaches toward the Canadian border. I was a college student at Keene State, a small school which at the time had a middling reputation suitable for a kid like me, who barely scraped his way through high school. I enrolled as a film student and quickly learned during my freshman year that I hated it, my unexpected lack of enthusiasm met by a true absence of skill when it came to anything production-related. When I took a psychology 101 course as an elective my education dramatically veered. One year later I had changed my major, and had signed up for an introductory criminal justice class after my psych instructor talked about his experiences as a forensic psychologist.
Hal was my criminal justice professor, a retired police officer who made the jump to the New Hampshire Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. When he announced to our class he was accepting interns for the semester, I jumped at the possibility. I was 20 years old and forensic psychology sounded cool, something I had never been, and criminal justice seemed to match that. I had never seen a dead body before, and now I was going to shadow someone who conducted autopsies for a living.
Working as an intern with a medical examiner meant keeping odd hours, and meals were an important part of the experience. Hal ate like a cop, with a fondness for lunch buffets and Dunkin’ Donuts sandwiches. We bonded over our love of Chinese food, and soon we had mapped out all of the best restaurants in the cluster of towns surrounding my college. I was one of three interns and on office days, when all of us gathered together to help process evidence and catalog prescription medications seized from accident and death scenes, we would have lunch together.
It was one of the best, strangest jobs I’ve ever had.
It was around 1:00am when we drew close to our destination. As Hal drove down the pitch black highway the road ahead was clear, but I could see through the back window the snow swirling in our tail lights. A promise of crusted ice and salt stained pavement for the coming months.
The police were already parked outside when we reached the apartment complex, the type of place that feels like it’s held together by luck and penny nails. The building was a plywood frame wrapped in Tyvek, sheet rock, and nylon siding, the interior studded with ugly light fixtures and blanketed by cheap wall-to-wall berber carpet. A veneer of overpriced lower middle class life offered by a two-bit predatory property management conglomerate.
Some handshakes with the cops and words about the weather and we were waved into the apartment with a warning: “watch out for the top of the stairs.” If Hal knew more, he wasn’t ready to share.
The apartment opened into a cavernous, beige living room. Putty colored carpet and walls, a cream colored loveseat. Surround sound speakers in every corner, a massive subwoofer next to the couch. A new tv, enormous for the time. A web of speakers with seating in the center.
We approached the stairs and Hal went first, but I was close behind. The scene at the top was shocking. A short hallway and two doors to our left, and a thick crimson trail of drying blood, as if a giant had dragged a paint brush the size of a tree trunk from the entrance of one of the doors to the head of the stairs.
We entered the bedroom and Hal told me not to touch anything as he walked me through what he saw.
A man came home from the bar to the apartment he shared with his female roommate. Just a friend, although a possibility of past romance was floated by the cops. He was drunk and depressed, and she, an action movie junkie, was focused on her newly installed speaker systems. She didn’t want to talk, wasn’t interested in dealing with his problems. He went upstairs and closed the door.
Hal helped me trace the bullet’s trajectory and showed me where it had embedded itself in the ceiling. Patiently, he showed me how to investigated the bed spread and how to identify which bits were plaster and which were fragments of skull.
We checked the dresser and Hal said we had a problem. In amongst socks and random unfired bullets was a live hand grenade. This was unusual, and it would require a careful response. Hal alerted the officers downstairs; this wasn’t a part of the death, and wasn’t something we were equipped to handle, so it became someone else’s job.
Hal pointed to the blood at the floor. “What do you think?” he said, and I could tell he was angry. I stood for a moment looking at it and it made no sense. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea,” I said to him.
Because of the nature of the job, medical examiners work odd hours. While I’m sure now that Hal had shifts during which he was actively working, he always seemed to be on call, and he never seemed to take a day off.
This is true for a truly enormous range of jobs and professions. When white collar office workers go to bed, others rise. Cab drivers, truckers, flight attendants, hotel workers. An entire world of life and activity, during a time society has designated as being essentially off limits to business. Those people all need to eat.
When COVID-19 shut all of the bars and restaurants this year it had a surprising impact on fast food franchises. As it turns out, late night orders are a time of significant profit for brands like Taco Bell. The thing is, those orders are typically regarded as being placed by bar goers and late night partiers.
But what about shift workers, and the people who keep things running after the lights go out? With most other restaurants shuttered at night, fast food plays a significant role in their lives. You might look at a place like Dunkin’ Donuts as a last resort for dinner, but it fulfills an important function in many people’s lives. After all, a dead body won’t wait for the morning, and the number of dead is truly shocking. Every time you leave your house, every day of your life, you pass someone who has died. Someone attends to that body, and that person needs to eat.
Sometimes, when someone dies, the body is collected before the medical examiner has had a chance to process the scene and is transported to a morgue, mortuary, or crematorium, where it can be examined in an environment designed for evidence collection and autopsy. Picture stainless steel metal tables, bright white lights, and industrial drains and shower heads and you’ll more or less have the right image in your head.
When the man’s roommate finished her movie she knocked on his door, and noticed the blood slowly seeping through the carpet into the hallway. Panicked and beyond distraught she called the police, who called us. But before we could get there, workers from a nearby funeral home contracted by the state arrived at the scene.
Most of the time the civilians we interacted with were extremely professional. The most compassionate, best run, and cleanest facility we worked out of was a crematorium set back behind an industrial park, run by a former Vietnam war medic. It was spotless, and he offered services compatible with a number of faiths and belief systems. In New Hampshire, a state in which racism and xenophobia is a feature of daily life, that’s unusual.
On this day, the funeral home workers who arrived couldn’t figure out how to place the man’s body into the body bag that they had brought with them. And, rather than do work that is tedious and dirty, they simply dragged his body off of his bed and pulled him, feet first, down the hallway. The trail of blood was from where they dragged his corpse out of the room and down the hall, into a spot where it was easier for them to position him into the body bag.
Hal told me how their negligence would ripple out in countless ways. When the man’s roommate would eventually return home to retrieve her belongings, there would be no way for her to get to her room without having to cross the trail of blood. Assuming, of course, she was capable of entering the home again. When her roommate died the sound of his gun was masked by the surround speakers she had installed, and hours had gone by before she went upstairs. The discovery was an utter shock, and that tragedy had now been amplified, spread, by two men too lazy and poorly trained to consider how their actions might impact others. The carpet would never be cleaned, couldn’t be cleaned; it would have to be ripped up.
The man’s body awaited us in the basement of the funeral home, the shabbiest, dirtiest place I would work during my time as an intern. Ancient equipment, inadequate lighting. As close to a bare, dangling lightbulb holding off the monsters as you would ever hope to get. Hal arranged for the body to be transferred to somewhere better and after gathering some initial evidence we wrapped up our work for the evening.
It was around 4:00am when we pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, and Hal encouraged me to eat. I ordered a steak and cheese breakfast sandwich on a bagel. “Steak” was aspirational naming for the thinly sliced circus meat on the listless doughy round they were calling a bagel. Heat via microwave before the sun even had a chance to rise.
But it was hot, and outside the snow had caught up with us. The cheese was molten and white as the fresh snow on the ground. And it was 4:00 in the morning during a time of year when the sun simply seems to lack the desire to rise on time, or to stay in the sky.
Dunkin’ Donuts exists because shift workers exist, because cops and EMTs and nurses and truck drivers and medical examiners need somewhere to be open and serving food during a time most people would never voluntarily be awake. Life doesn’t stop just because it’s time for bed, and the same can be said for death. When “good” isn’t an option, “hot”, or “filling”, can be an acceptable substitute.