Winner, 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
dead weight /noun/ˌded ˈweɪt/
1. the heaviness of a person or object that cannot or does not move by itself.
2. a heavy or oppressive burden.
With my arms wrapped around your shins, I lift, releasing the slack on the noose you looped around the branch late last night. The firefighter, stretching from his ladder perch, now has enough room to work, and furiously saws the nylon rope with a knife. I grip your legs tightly, knowing when the last thread is severed I’ll be the only thing preventing you from thudding to the ground. I know it won’t hurt, but you’ve been through enough today already.
Your family is only a few hundred meters away, their view of our work obscured by this patch of suburban forest, thick with its summer leaves. Your father lives in this neighborhood. I parked in front of his house, a modest single-story home, a few addresses over from this wooded band which separates the neighborhood from the noisy commercial street on the other side. I bet you knew these woods well, exploring them as a boy as you hunted for bugs and old bottles.
It was your father that found you. When he awoke around nine this morning, your car was parked in the driveway, yet he couldn’t find you inside the house. Confused, he pinged your phone, as he’s done before when he’s worried about your whereabouts, as fathers are wont to do. Except this time, it led him here, to this quiet spot in the woods. Wearing a well-worn Washington Nationals T-shirt stretched thin around his expanding belly, now he stands, stoic, awaiting instructions, at the edge of his neatly kept yard. He seems reluctant to step a foot off his property, as if it’s an island of normalcy in an ocean of chaos and heartbreak rising from just beyond his rose bushes.
Your family knows you’re dead, but I feel their anxiety. As if now that the professionals are here, we might see something they overlooked. A pulse. A twitch. Something. We don’t. The stiffness in your limbs says you’ve been dead for hours.
Of course, my job as a death investigator is to make these observations. Rigor mortis, latin for “the stiffening of death,” is the chemical change that occurs after death resulting in the rigidity of muscles. Although highly dependent on the temperature in the surrounding environment, the presence or absence of rigor mortis can provide an estimate as to how long a person has been deceased—the postmortem interval or PMI, as it’s referred to by us in the business.
The first time I encountered rigor mortis I was seven. Tucked in my bed one night, I awoke to hear my pet hamster unleashing mayhem in his cage. Weary of this disturbed rodent’s nightly dramas, I clamped my hands over my ears and willed myself back to sleep. The next morning, I was horrified to discover that he’d hung himself in his cage. For reasons unknown, he’d climbed to the top of his prison and worked his head through the bars. His cheeks still packed with seeds, he wasn’t able to free himself—greed, his ultimate undoing. I reached into the cage, hoping for any signs of life. Beneath the soft blonde fur, his tiny body felt as if it was carved from stone. Leaping back like I’d received an electric shock, I ran wailing to my mother. It was she who wrestled the lifeless creature from the cage, while I, thanks to my early Catholic training, suffered my guilty conscience at school. Was he depressed, I wondered. Or was he trying to escape me?
Looking away from the gathering crowd, my eyes trace the shapes made by fallen trees deeper into the woods. Birds chatter in the canopy overhead and I make out the faint hum of a lawnmower nearby. If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re gathered here today to cut you down from a limb, it’s a peaceful July morning. A car’s honk reminds me that thousands of vehicles have driven past in the time you’ve been here, the occupants oblivious to you, silently waiting for me.
In a few hours, I’ll be right there with them, crawling towards home at 20 mph, frustrations rising. Given my line of work, I should know that the dishes in the sink and whatever weight the scale reported that morning do not matter. But I worry about that shit constantly. Thank you for reminding me that I shouldn’t.
I’ve been to thousands of death scenes. I knew what your family would say even before they found you. I know you’re the third suicide that this firefighter has seen this week. I know that your actions up until your death will seem normal, more or less. Last night, you stopped by your sister’s house. She was surprised but happy to see you. Then you went to Walmart, where you purchased the nylon dockline currently suspending you, as well as a single bottle of water. That bottle is still mostly full, balancing on the stump next to your phone.
The firefighter is almost done. Before I worked in forensics, I never realized how often firefighters attend scenes that have nothing to do with an actual fire. With their ladders and fancy saws, their assistance is often requested at crime scenes. The firefighters radiate their own energy, far different to the cynical swagger of the detectives, or the wide-eyed eagerness of patrol officers. They seem to radiate a light of warriors passed, lit from within by a confidence that only comes from realizing your true purpose in life. Lucky bastards.
“Here we go!”
I brace. Hugging your stiff body to mine, I struggle to keep you upright while a detective, wearing the blue latex gloves I loaned him, reaches for your armpits. You only weigh about 160 lbs but it’s true what they say about dead weight. Considering my petite frame, any heavier I wouldn’t have been able to hold you.
I’m reminded of a similar scene from several years ago. He was also in his twenties, and just like you, he chose to hang himself in the woods behind his parents’ house. However, their property was on a slope, a pleasant suburban two-story home that sat above a wooded gully below. As we’ve established, dead bodies are extremely heavy, and to carry one a few hundred yards up the embankment would take the strength of three or four men. Someone called for an ATV, which arrived with a rescue sled, not unlike one you’d see ski patrol towing when a broken leg has cut someone’s weekend at the slopes short.
With his body strapped onto a gurney, and then to the sled, the driver began to gingerly make his way back up towards the house. A patrol officer and I stood on the ridge watching, our own bodies conveniently creating a screen between the family on the driveway and the activity below. Everything was going as planned, until the ATV hit a steep section and had to make a sharp maneuver, tipping the sled over and the body to the ground. The officer and I side-eyed each other, but our faces remained otherwise frozen, as to not betray our colleagues now quickly trying to remedy the situation before anyone else notices. You will suffer no such indignities today, I promise.
Together, Det. Hiller and I lay you down on the body bag. He’s gentle as he helps me adjust your position so I can photograph your eyes, your neck, your palms, chest and finally your back. You could be brothers, you and him—both slim but muscular, with blue eyes and straight teeth that look even whiter against your summer tans. You are 21 years old to his 30, and wear sneakers, khaki drawstring pants, and a navy t-shirt, while he’s predictably in his uniform of a dark suit, white shirt, blue tie. In one ear, you wear a stud that sparkles as I remove it, turning it over to Det. Hiller. Not to get sentimental but I always wonder, when you dressed this morning, did you know this was the last time you’d tie your shoes?
With my examination complete, I return to your family to get their side of your story.
Did he drink? Or smoke? I’ll ask. And what medications was he taking?
Your family will be surprisingly calm, considering. They’ll focus on my questions, trying to get their answers exactly right. He has a history of depression, they’ll say. He’s on medication—Wellbutrin. Has he tried anything like this before? Emphatically, they say no. But do they know? Your sister repeats that she found it odd that you came by her house last night. But you seemed well, and she went to bed unconcerned for your welfare.
Why didn’t you leave a note? I think your family will obsess about this oversight.
The body removal company arrives. I smile, because I like this driver. Damon’s not much older than you. He’s here to take you to Baltimore, specifically to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
A handful of body removal companies contract with the State of Maryland for this purpose. Owned and staffed mostly by Black men who’ve found their niche transporting the deceased to their next port of call, whether the funeral home or OCME, they arrive at each scene well-dressed and well-spoken. Seemingly unaffected by death’s gruesome realities and much more reliable than squeamish patrol officers, they’re often my only willing partners to lift and photograph the body when we encounter maggots and other hazards of the job.
However, as we exchange paperwork, Damon doesn’t seem like himself. He’s sweating through his white collared shirt. Before I can ask if he’s OK, he ducks behind a police cruiser and retches in a neighbor’s grass. Squatting down between him and the officers milling around, I pretend to organize my equipment bag, blocking their view of Damon’s heaving shoulders. I don’t want the officers to see him vomit—I know it’s not because of the death scene. Yesterday, he and I wrestled a decomposing alcoholic out of a basement, the type of scene where the flies cover the windows and the thick, sickly smell of death clings to your hair, clothes, and the inside of your nose for the rest of the day.
I offer Damon my water bottle, and he grabs it, sucking down the tepid liquid. Before he finishes the bottle, he pauses, locking eyes with me to ask, Cool? I nod. After his nausea passes, we strap you into the gurney and lift you into your spot in the van. There are already two body bags neatly tucked inside, so you’ll have company. This makes me happy.
“Girl, I better go before the traffic on 95 heats up.” Damon flashes me a quick smile before jumping into the driver’s seat. I make a face, scrunching up my nose. You’ve all got a long drive up to Baltimore, and getting trapped in D.C. rush hour in a van along with multiple bodies is best avoided, especially if one happens to be a decomp, but I think you’re safe today.
“Feel better,” I call after him. After Damon drops you off, he’ll drive back towards D.C. He might even do another run up to Baltimore, depending on how busy it gets today. You’ll stay in Baltimore, because in the morning, you’ll have your autopsy. Don’t worry—the technicians who run the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are characters. I expect the Motown will be blasting, while they laugh, teasing each other, getting you and the others ready in the morning. And the new building’s beautiful—there’s even stadium seating where students and visitors might watch the medical examiner untangle your body’s secrets from behind an elevated wall of glass.
Back at my car, I peel off my gloves and root around the backseat for something to drink. I select an opened bottle of lemon-flavored sparkling water from my stash. It’ll do. Years prior, I worked in the Bosnian countryside excavating the unmarked graves of civilians killed in the Balkan Wars. One brutally hot day, one in which I also happened to be marvelously hungover (thanks to the previous evening’s host insistence on sharing his homemade šljivovica), I made a miscalculation, and ran out of water. Too ashamed to beg for rations from the Bosnian work crew, I suffered, willing my body the stamina to avoid passing out before we made it back to town.
Now, I never run out of water.
Your family is still here, watching, waiting for you to go. I decide it never gets less weird to meet people on the very worst day of their life. Your sister is crouched in the street, as if the strength it takes to stand has abandoned her. You were at her house last evening, she keeps repeating. You seemed fine. But the Walmart receipt in your pocket proves you purchased the rope around midnight, after you left her house. I expect she’ll wonder why for the rest of her life.
Sipping my water, I remember that along with the rope, the Walmart receipt documenting your last purchase included that single 12 oz. bottle of Dasani water. No candy, no beer, and not a “whelp, may as well” bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Were you just thirsty? It seems odd that you’d acknowledge the need to soothe your body’s thirst while simultaneously preparing to end your life. Or were you playing games with the Walmart check-out clerk? Sort of like while underage, I’d add a few extra purchases—mints, ooh, and maybe an iced coffee—trying to distract the cashier from carding me as he rings up my two packs of Camel Lights.
My stomach growls, reminding me that it’s now long past lunchtime. Before I can consider which drive-thru is speaking to me, my phone rings. Oh no. I flip it over to see the screen flash “Communications.” Another incident call, this time a car accident, which means no time for lunch. The scene is 20 miles away, and it would take me an hour to get there without even factoring in the extra snarl caused by the very accident I’ve been assigned to work.
When I get home tonight, I’ll peel off most of my clothes on the front porch, my version of passing through Pluto’s Gate, shedding the fumes of the underworld so I can return to the land of the living. I’ll walk through the house in my bra and underwear, greet my prancing dogs, and shove the clothes in the washer plus a triple dose of detergent. I’ll hear the husband’s keys clicking on his keyboard down the hall from his office.
As I shower, I’ll have the depressing realization that for my contributions today, I’ll earn $200, and even worse, after taxes and expenses, only take home half that. Not that I’m in it for the money, but still. Unfortunately, I also can’t imagine doing anything else.
Replaying the scenes of the day, I wince when I get to the car accident’s witness statement. The look on his face. With blank eyes, he described trying to help the other driver, but couldn’t—she was trapped and frozen in shock—and he backed away, and helplessly watched as the car disappeared into flames.
The hot water pummels my shoulders, and I rest my head against the glass block shower the husband built himself. I concede that I am still alive. And although it doesn’t feel like I do, that must mean I still have choices.
It’s a human failing it seems, to not realize the power we have over our own lives. I don’t even know it yet, but a few days from now, I’ll attend my last death scene. And a few days after that, I’ll drink my last drink. A pair of identity-defining behaviors, so entrenched over the last 15 years, without them, I’m scared I might cease to exist at all.
But tonight, after I feed my dogs, and do those dishes in the sink, I’ll write the day’s case reports, then upload them along with my photographs into the OCME’s record system. Only then will I allow myself to pour a third of a bottle into an enormous wine glass, which I’ll refill until the bottle is gone.
When it’s your turn tomorrow, your assigned medical examiner will have context on how and where you were found, your injuries and your health history. They’ll issue a death certificate, and when your family has made the arrangements with a funeral home, they’ll take it from there. And that’s it. This is where I leave you.
I hope you enjoy the Motown.
 Decomp, or a body in late stages of decomposition, is often characterized by skin slippage, bloating, the presence of maggots and the kind of smell that makes even seasoned pros gag.
Actually, my research has shown there is no amount of šljivovica–or Bosnian bathtub plum brandy–that does not cause a hangover.
This story was the grand prize winner in our 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction.