This call came right after dinner. Martha would wrangle the little girls to bed, I could go do the coroner business and keep being a doctor in the morning. I was chipper.
I didn’t have to go far. It was dark, still late winter but not snowy or icy. We were in a thaw that teases the trees and bushes about spring.
This is a small town, and this scene was just about two miles from my house. The roads were wet but no ice. It was just off the two-lane highway heading to the eastern county and four blocks or so off the north south highway. These are two lane roads, no interstates in this country. But they were highways, nonetheless.
Martha and I used to live over here when I was trying to get into medical school. This is some thirty years back. I didn’t know much about this house where I was going, though. We had known some neighbors, but not here.
This area was called “Swede Town” by the old timers. Frame houses 80 years old, some without foundations. Great for renting to students, back when such housing was affordable.
I wasn’t looking for the shiny thing when I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I truthfully, had no idea of the incredible income of physicians. A high school girl friend had a doctor as a dad, and they were sure better off than we were, but not lavish. Then I learned more in medical school, and still. Maybe shiny things draw us. Even when we don’t look to the shine.
I must have looked away from it. I chose the lowest paid specialty in the medical field, though I had all the credentials, scores, recommendations for the top paid ones. Sometimes that shiny thing repulses us. Sometimes it draws us to it.
Our old Swede Town house had wool carpets that got moths in them, and in the winter the walls dripped condensation behind the posters we put up. When it got real cold the electric wall heaters ran nonstop. We loved that place. Our first little baby was born into that hovel.
We liked the little home, and the rent was what we could afford. It was a happy time in our young married life.
This house looked like a rental too as I parked. I found a spot in the alley behind a patrol car. There were two, both city cops here in town. A patrolman was by the door. The house had a board porch, soft and rotting I could feel, and the paint was peeling. But with some work it could have been nice. It seemed to have a foundation.
“Detective Frye is inside.” I went in past the uniform at the door.
All the lights were on, and the unkempt home gritted under foot. The linoleum crackled, though the floor didn’t seem springy. I saw two uniforms in the main room and Detective Frye talking with them. He turned as I came in.
“Sorry to get you out this evening.” He smiled. He and I went way back.
“I wasn’t doing anything. What have we got?” We become four men, listening to one tell the tale.
“The deceased is in the basement.” He gives me the name and age. “Seventeen-year-old male.” I don’t know him, at least by his name. But neither could I remember the names of most the patients I had seen today in the clinic.
I think I decided to forget names early in this small-town practice so that uncontrollable reaction of recognition wouldn’t betray me in idle or stupid conversation. Maybe that’s just my excuse for bad memory.
My medical school board scores refute that. I can remember long lists of nerves, muscles, bones and body parts and I can tell you just how they are connected. But I can’t, or don’t remember the names of the patients I see. I need analysis.
“It seems there was some partying here tonight. There were four, maybe five people here. They have all corroborated the story. We’ve gotten their statements.”
“Four or five?”
“Yeah, it seems one person left before this went down. We have her name. We’re tracking her down.”
“You know these folks?”
His thin-lipped smile again. “Yeah.” And nods.
“So, this is a party house.”
He shifts. “Kinda. We haven’t gotten anybody out of here for selling, but we know these folks use. And we know the deceased from prior interactions.”
“What are they using?”
The smile again. “Lots, doc. Mainly meth, but marijuana and some heroin. Pills. You name it.”
My old neighborhood.
He pauses. I appreciate when someone is trying to develop a narrative. It can’t always be done.
“Well, they were partying here. There were the three folks who live here, maybe about 6 o’clock. The deceased came in and they all described him as kind of jittery, anxious, high strung. They smoked some dope to try to mellow him out and he seemed to relax they said. Then the girl came in.” He gave me her name, but I didn’t know it, or remeber it either.
“They were all talking and being friendly, but the kid started bugging the girl and she ran out.”
“Was she his girlfriend?”
“Not according to the three guys. We haven’t talked to her yet.”
The weak couch is behind us, dirty and saggy. The corner has a lamp and there is a low cheap coffee table strewn with life and death and garbage. There’s a dirty soft chair in the corner, and another chair, not very comfortable against a wall. I can kind of see the scene.
“So, what happened?”
Detective Frye winces. Like his narrative might be weakening. We all wait. “The guys say he seemed to snap. He grabs the gun…”
“Oh yeah, I forgot to say. They all described that they, one of the guys, had a gun he kept on the coffee table there.” He gestures toward the strewn low table.
“So, he grabs the gun?”
“Yeah, he grabs the gun and runs down the hall.” He gestures again, to our right. “They all thought he was pulling his usual drama and kind of laughed about it. Then they heard the shot in the basement. And called us.”
“They didn’t go down there?”
Detective Frye nods, acknowledging he has pushed the narrative. “Yeah, one guy went down and looked at him and that’s when we got the call.”
“Let’s go look.”
He leads me down the hall and down the stairs. Few houses in Swede Town have basements. This one was small and dank, as might be expected. It’s wet outside, and the ground is not fully frozen. But there was no water to walk in down here, no pools, just the damp smell of wet concrete below grade.
There was a bathroom down here. The original builder must have seen some value in excavating so far down. For the deceased young man was sitting on a toilet seat, lid down, in a dank well-lit bathroom, now splattered with his brains and blood.
A large caliber shiny revolver laid on the concrete floor.
He was reclining back toward the toilet tank, his arms relaxed by his sides, like he might be at peace, except the top of his head was gone.
I looked closely at what was left. It looked like he might have had curly blond hair, since the front of his scalp remained. The eyes might have been blue, though the lids were half down. Around his mouth there were short, linear lacerations radiating outward.
I turned to Detective Frye. “How do you read this?”
He shrugs. “He came down here and shot himself.”
“Can you see that he put the gun in his mouth?”
He leans in and looks closely. “Yeah, I can see it. There’s that hole back there in the back.”
“Can you see the stippling around the entrance wound? That’s from the powder from a near contact wound.”
He looks at me and looks onto the open mouth again.
“See the splits on his lips? That means he closed his mouth around the barrel and when it fired, they were blown outwards.”
He looks again and nods.
Might as well share what I have learned. It’s not shiny or bright, this business of investigating death. The revolver sure was, there on the cement.
“You can clear that.”
The detective has his vinyl gloves but looks up. “I’ll have to go get an evidence bag.”
A patrol officer had followed us down. He moves behind and points to a defect in the lousy tile above the toilet. “I think I can get the slug out of here. See, I think it’s imbedded.”
Detective Frye tells him to do his best, then heads up to do his business. I stand upright.
“I’m not sure what that slug will tell you. I can call it. We’ll get blood for tox, but I don’t see the need for an autopsy. I’m going to go now.”
The shiny revolver lays on the damp floor, splattered with just a bit of blood.
“Yeah, doc, you can go.”
Cause of Death: Gunshot wound to the head.
Manner of Death: Suicide