About four years ago, I was invited to a cabin at Lake of the Woods with a couple of close high school friends. We had just graduated from Balmoral Hall that year, and we were celebrating (for the 238th time) out by Kenora.
After a boat ride from the marina, a glance at the crystal clear water, and a trek up to the rustic, wooden castle, I collapsed in the basement with a screwdriver, three great pals, and a controller for Mario Party 3.
A few hours later, my friends and I were beckoned upstairs to the kitchen, where we crammed around a circular table tucked away in an intimate cubby, popped a bottle of wine, and began laughing with the other dinner guests. I smoothed out my men’s boxers and oversized, beer-sponsored, 1980s concert sweatshirt (my lake uniform) and made myself comfy.
Our hostess made beef tenderloin so delicate that you didn’t need a knife to cut the meat. The two inch slab sat beside BBQ grilled caesar salad with homemade croutons, and for dessert, there were Belgian chocolate brownies with homemade ice-cream & whipped cream and freshly picked raspberries.
After drinking my fair share of grown-up grape-juice, a fourth bottle of wine was opened, and my friend grabbed the white from the centre of the table, holding the label up to her nose. A sauvignon blanc.
“Sau… Sau… Sauvin… SOH-win-YO…” She eyed the bottle, squinting helplessly a the lettering as she ‘struggled’ to read.
“Black. Blank. Bank?… Blahhh-nk. Nope! I’m out. I’m illiterate.”
The table laughed and I joined in, grabbing another empty bottle, wrinkling my nose as I pushed the glass against my forehead.
“Well, I guess you wasted your god damn money sending your daughter to BH all these years,” I laughed to my friend’s dad, who poured another glass to the guest on his right. “We can’t even read.”
The table nodded in agreement, my friend’s dad leaning back in his chair with his own glass of white.
“Steph, you hear that? Don’t let any of these girls into Red River.”
The words ‘Red River’ made my heart skip. I had just been accepted to the Creative Communications program out of high school, and was about to start my 2 years at the University of Winnipeg before I headed over to the Princess Street campus.
Stephanie Forsyth laughed. The president of Red River College laughed.
I felt nauseous.
Forsyth and her partner were down for the weekend, enjoying the scenery, the beautiful weather. Shopping in Kenora’s local boutiques, enjoying lake-side mimosas. Going for boat rides and sunset-stricken hikes. Drinking wine with an underage, potentially illiterate teenager in a beer sweatshirt that just got accepted into an extremely competitive program at the college where she was the president.
I realized my mistake and quickly shut up, pouring myself another glass of wine before shrinking into the seat behind me.
I didn’t want to draw attention to myself anymore. I would eat my unbelievably decadent dessert, sip on my troubles, and mentally comment on the roundtable conversation from the sidelines.
But when Forsyth’s partner started talking about her job, I couldn’t stay quiet. After all, it’s not often you get to have uncomfortable dinner with someone who delicately slices people open for a living. A real, live ‘cutter’.
“What’s the most fucked-up thing you’ve seen?” I asked her quietly, climbing over my friend Amanda who was busy dissecting her brownie.
At first she was reluctant to tell me, almost waving me away with caution of the ultimate gross-ness of the crime.
“No seriously!” I reassured her loudly, clapping my hands together before opening them in the middle like a folded book. “I read nasty stuff all the time- true crime all the time. I read gross stuff all the time!”
Amanda looked up from her dessert and nodded.
Apparently, a man had decided to shoot heroin one night, then drive out to the forest a few miles away. After exiting his vehicle, he found the tallest, sturdiest tree he could, grabbed a rope from the trunk, and somehow managed to make his way to the highest branch before hanging himself for the whole forest to see.
A few days later, some hikers spotted the corpse billowing in the wind like some muted, bloated wind chime.
The rest of the table agreed that this was not dinner conversation.
I loved this chapter of Homicide. In my first blog post, I talked about Simon’s attention to detail, and his ability to use colour appropriately and liberally without mucking up the pacing of the story.
He made something sterile and boring so full of life (HA), talking about forensic pathologists like some elegant body-whisperer, being able to crack the cadaver code, no matter what the entrance wound.
“Given a gunshot wound, a medical examiner can determine from the amount and pattern of soot, burned powder, and other debris whether a particular bullet was fired at contact range, close range or a distance grater than two and a half feet… Give that same doctor a knife wound and you’ll learn whether or not the blade had one edge or two, was serrated of straight…
Then there are blunt trauma injuries: Was your victim hit by a car or a lead pipe? Did that infant fall in the bathtub or was he bludgeoned by his babysitter?
In either case, an assistant medical has the key to the corporeal vault.” (401)
Simon also breaks up the dense morgue description in the chapter with a little bit of humour, but keeps it related to the complexity of the job of the cutter.
One moment in particular involving Garvey and Worden made me smile. While in the autopsy room, Smialek, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, asks Worden in front of a group of medical students whether he thinks the wound on a fresh body is an entrance or an exit wound.
“Worden looks down at the dead man’s chest. Small entrance- big exit is the rule of thumb for most gunshot wounds… At close range, it’s never easy to say for sure.
‘Those,’ said Smialek, turning to the residents with proof of a police detectives fallibility, ‘are exit wounds.’
Garvey watched the Big Man go into a slow boil.” (403)
I really liked chapter eight of Homicide, because it made me feel like I was in an actual morgue, shadowing a cutter as he “makes a Y-shaped incision across the chest with a scalpel” (407), “[lifting] the organ tree out as a single entity” (409).
Just like during Forsyth’s partner disturbing dinner-table talks, I felt like I was there, staring at the corpse hanging from the tree.
I loved the imagery of the bullet ricocheting around someone’s body cavity, the dissection of the internal organs, and the striking mental picture of so many bodies, that some would have to be on the floor.
I also loved that Simon talked about how the detectives dealt with the dead, and how all of them, no matter how tough and authoritative they were, had something about death that bothered them.
After all, we’re only human. We all have our limits.
(We also all make mistakes, just like I did when I wore a moustache-rides shirt while I ate breakfast across from Forsyth the morning after)