Coroner Story: Alone

I often seek solitude, but it’s always temporary. I lived very isolated for a couple years and I got a clear sense what it was doing to my psyche. So, I jumped back into the world. But I still tend to isolate.

This lady was not like me. Or maybe she was in her way. But I appreciated her fortitude. Some call that stubbornness.

I got the call on a cool fall weekend when I thought I could get something done. Maybe I was painting or finishing sheet rock or tearing out walls. I don’t really remember those details. But it was a sheriff’s dispatch call into the county so I paid as good attention as I could to the directions. I made notes. They were long.

I told Martha I was heading out and went to the old Hilux. The differential had been howling recently, but it would make the twenty miles, I hoped. I got gas as I headed out of town.

It seemed more quiet than usual. Maybe there hadn’t been a football game here this weekend, I didn’t know. The sun was heading southwest, and the golden harvested fields glowed. We’d had frost this morning. Might get cold again tonight.

I hadn’t been out these roads. I knew the main roads, but there’s little sense going out all these little back roads unless you live here, or you get a call.

After the second turn I started to worry I was on the wrong road, but the third turn came as the nice dispatch lady had described and now it was gravel. So, I kept going.

That is my nature, to keep going. That is why, when I felt that danger of solitude and I dove off back into people, it was a significant move. I can keep going, even when I think it’s wrong. Unless, for some reason, I don’t. Driving unknown roads makes we wonder these things.

The road narrowed and climbed. There were occasional driveways off into the trees, but mainly just gravel and cutbanks. I knew this direction was toward the mountain that dominated our prairie.

On the turns one rear tire would slip and spit gravel. Everybody else has four-wheel drive. I just wished Toyota gave me a limited slip differential. I downshifted and kept on, now very unsure. I was entering a bit of a canyon. Not like the red rock of the southwest, but what we have out here on the edges of the Palouse. Steep hillside with timber, absent from the windblown rolling hills. These canyons usually have a stream, while the undulating prairie just has mud.

I pledged to do another two or three twists before I headed back.

But there he was, Detective Earl, my hero. I felt relief to see him here. I don’t always get along with all the sheriff’s staff.

I parked behind his rig as far off the road as I dared, given the drop off.

“So, Earl, what have we got?” I walked up toward his Ford Explorer. The rear hatch was up, and he had his camera gear all exposed.

“I’m not sure Doc. That’s why I wanted you to come all the way out here.”

We stood shoulder to shoulder with our backs to the Explorer, facing the uphill cutbank.

“Do you have a name?”

He exhaled and shook his head. “Yeah, but I’m not sure that’s going to help you much.”

He told me what he knew. She was a 63-year-old lady who seemed to live out here on her own. The neighbor would see her walking into town once a week, then walking back. She seemed to always do this on Wednesday. She’d come back with bags in her hands. They didn’t seem to know where she lived, just that she walked up and down this road on a weekly basis. They didn’t know her name, nothing about her.

But a guy had gone down to the creek down below in the draw this week looking for his dog and come upon her. She’s dead. So, we called you.

And that is the definition of the coroner job. Dead, call the coroner.

“So, Earl, how do you know she’s 63? You got ID?”

“Yes, we looked through her stuff and found her ID.”

“Foul play?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Let’s go look.”

He turned and I followed. He hit a trail off the downhill slope that should have been obvious to anyone walking, looking. But left-hand drive vehicles kept the driver away from this perspective going up, and most folks going up this road would be alone in their rigs, no passenger. Going down, you wouldn’t catch it, watching the curves and road. Within twenty yards of where we dropped off, we were near the creek and coming to an overhang.

She had a decent spot. There was the creek down below, running even now in late fall. And the outcrop of granite sheltered her home. I could see her back there in hollow, curled up under a couple blankets. The charcoal fire pit before her was modest. She kept a neat camp.

“We haven’t moved her. I got all the pictures I need.”

I stood on the rocks and looked at the creek, the slope opposite. There was no elk stag looking back, no cougar poised, no drama. Just the dark hillside under trees.  I panned down and up, taking in her panorama. It was quite beautiful if you are OK with closed in places. I prefer a view of the distance. I walked around some before going to her. I found her latrine, quite neat. She had buried her cans and garbage in a couple spots downstream.

I walked back toward Earl. “So, why’d she die?” I ask the detective. 

He smiles his soft smile. “That’s why I called for you, Doc.”

I hesitated to look at her. I kind of knew what I would find. And just how little that would tell me. I stood by Earl and scanned her abode. Small axe and saw, a shovel leaned against the rock wall. There were a couple long gnarled sticks leaned up there too. Walking sticks, maybe, but too short for that. And I saw a pile of rocks build up to cover over stuff on the upstream side. She was keeping varmints out of her vittles.

“She’s got the tools she needs.” I nod toward the implements. “Those are too short for walking sticks.”

Earl smiled. “My wife uses those to dig camas.”

I nod.

I finally go up to her bedroom, under the overhang. As I do I feel the chill of the downslope breeze curling down mountain. It is still light above, but soon will be dark. How many of these sun downs has she seen?

She is close to desiccating. Her eyes have melted, and flies have laid eggs. But they are all gone now. I pull back the dirty blankets. She lies on her side with hands tucked under her cheek. Her knees are flexed, like the Buddha’s in his death pose. Or like you might for comfort as the cold comes toward you. No signs of struggle, no trauma. Earl takes pictures.

“She just died.” I say.

“Hypothermia, you think?” Earl asks as he snaps shots.

“Can’t call it that. The state codes hypothermia as an accident. I think her death was pretty natural.”

“Can’t get much more natural than this.”

“I’ll ask around. Maybe somebody knows her in the medical community.”

“Autopsy?” They always want an autopsy.

“No. I can call it.”

I found her in the hospital records. She wasn’t in our clinic files. She’d been admitted about a year ago, maybe earlier. The hospital records were very uninformative. Suspicion of pneumonia. She’d collapsed in the rural town and been brought in by ambulance. Recovered in a day. The attending physician had ordered a bath. She had left the next day before he could see her. I gave him a call.

“Oh yes, she was very interesting.” This doc was very thoughtful. I liked the way he would consider things.

“Can you tell me anything about her?”

“Well, she told me she had worked as a technician at the vet school over in Pullman for a while. But she had quit that.”

“Did she tell you where she was living?”

He paused. “You know, she was actually pretty evasive about that. She said she lived by herself out near Troy.”

“Did she mention family?”

“Yeah, she did when I asked.” He kind of chuckled. “She said her family didn’t approve of her. She didn’t talk with them anymore.”

I wished I had gotten to talk with her.

“Did she seem paranoid? Delusional?”

He hesitated. “Not really. I just got the sense she liked to be alone.”

I paused, “Thanks.”

At this point, after all these years calling deaths that I knew would not fit the boxes of the Department of Vital Statistics, I knew I needed to make something up. I wanted to submit the cause of her death as solitude, but I knew that wouldn’t fly. And solitude can restore. But most of us take it in shallow draughts, not swim in it.

I’m getting too metaphysical here, I know. Just do your job. Check the boxes, fill out the forms.

No expensive autopsy would add any insight. Nor any dignity to her life or death. So, I faked it. All alone, all by myself.

Cause of Death: Pneumonia

Manner of Death: Natural

About ddxdx

A Family physician, former county coroner and former Idaho State Senator
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