Listen, this is a true story. More or less.
This was on the evening news: slightly more than an hour ago a mousy thirty-five year-old woman walked into a convenience store and met her demise at the business end of a Winchester pump. It nearly cut her in two. She, of course, is not the only one to die at the hands of some idiot with a gun, lots of others die in shootings everyday. But this story is about her.
People die in this country via gun violence in staggering numbers every day, nothing seems to stem the body count. The Coroner comes to the scene, makes a quick examination of the victim in the shooting and verifies that, yes, the victim is indeed dead. The body is then loaded into what in some circles is called the meat wagon, to be taken to the Coroner’s office so to verify what is so painfully obvious, in this case: death by shotgun blast.
The Coroner’s examination of the body in a shooting is perfunctory at best - really, it’s obvious what the cause of death is and the body isn’t a birthday gift package with a surprise inside: a cherished keepsake or the keys to a Porsche convertible waiting to be unwrapped, or even a sweet puppy. I mean, whenever they operate on a gun violence victim they always find the same things - a piece of soft lead, maybe a ton of lead pellets or other pieces of shrapnel. Very few surprises, in other words.
At this particular Coroner’s inquiry something interesting was discovered. The woman besides being filled with enough buckshot to be considered her own lead-filled toxic waste site, was jammed filled with tumors of every size and description. Small ones, large ones, and every one cancerous. There were tumors in her stomach, in her breast, in her liver, in her intestines, and even in her brain. When the pathologist cut open her skull, she gasped. “Oh, my God!” because what she found was simply frightening. She found a honeycomb of tumors that had inched their way into her brain like a swarm of bees escaping a nest after being struck by a baseball bat.
And this is when the scientific observation comes in: if this woman had not been cut down by the punk in a convenience store robbery, she would’ve collapsed in a few days and surely be dead within a month, tops. The coroner read the police report about the robbery and found out the woman had for an inexplicable reason thrown a can of soda at the creep with the shotgun. According to the store clerk the robber hadn’t seen her until the soda can whizzed by his head and he reactively turned and leveled her, jacking in another round as he returned to the clerk.
Miraculously, according to the clerk, after the robber ran out the door only to be cut down by police, he could see the woman as she lay smiling on the cold concrete floor waiting for death to take her. She didn’t say anything, she just smiled an enigmatic smile at him until all life faded from her.
The coroner started to speculate about the woman. Was she totally out of character when she tossed that soda at the robber just doing an incredibly stupid thing? Or was such a brave act - she did after all save the clerk’s life according to police - totally within her personality waiting to come out at an opportune moment? Did she know about the numerous tumors in her? Did she have blinding headaches and intense dizziness that would soon go away? In any case, when the woman’s husband came to identify her at the morgue, the pathologist had a difficult dilemma on her hands, should she reveal the discovery of the tumors or should she stay silent and only offer stock condolences as she often did in these situations?
The husband asked the usual questions, “Did she suffer?” “What do I tell the kids?” “She wasn’t a brave woman, what was she thinking going up against against a man with a shotgun?” and as he started to cry. “I don’t understand, ” he said, barely audible as he lay his face into his hands. “Why?”
- - -
A few weeks later the coroner did something she’d never done before, she went to the funeral of the woman. She thought she might offer the husband and his children the answers to the why…
Among the family and friends of the husband and wife the funeral also became a place for the mayor and chief of police to what these situations demand: to make a public statement about their joint plan to curb violent crime and to step up enhance efforts to stem the tide of gun violence. The husband couldn’t care less about their empty promises. He stood with his children as person after person offered a hand, or a hug, or when they gently kissed him their condolences pouring down on him like rain.
The pathologist watched all of this unfold before her eyes. She debated telling him the truth about his wife’s death, the real reason why she did what she did. She stood up and walked toward the family and at the last moment, she turned, mumbling, “No. Let the mystery be.” And she left the funeral without a word.
- - -
Some people commit suicide after someone close to them passes, others turn to religion, and there are some who sit in their offices making adjustments to the notes they’d previously written about an autopsy they’ve performed so some future examiner of the record will know the truth about a death.
Far from that office a man wonders why a death happened - a mystery unanswered. Others he does not know, in this world, past and present, wonder the same about the mysteries in their own lives.
Jake James is a writer who is a looooooong way from the Hot Valleys of California.
*The title of this story comes from the great Iris DeMent song, "Let the Mystery Be"