Wednesday, September 7
BEYOND THE BRICK WALL bordering Harvard Yard, four tall chimneys and a gray slate roof with white-painted dormers peek through the branches of hardwood trees.
The Georgian building is a welcome sight no more than fifteen minutes ahead as the crow flies. But walking wasn’t smart. I was foolish to refuse a ride. Even in the shade it feels like an oven. The atmosphere is stagnant, nothing stirring in the hot humid air.
Were it not for the distant sounds of traffic, the infrequent pedestrian, the vapor trails overhead, I might believe I’m the only human left on a post-apocalyptic earth. I’ve never seen the Harvard campus this deserted except maybe during a bomb scare. But then I’ve also not been witness to such extreme weather in this part of the world, and blizzards and arctic blasts don’t count.
New Englanders are used to that but not temperatures edging past a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is molten in a bone-scrubbed sky that the heat has bleached the blue out of as I’ve heard it described. The greenhouse effect. Global warming. God’s punishment. The Devil’s in his workshop. Mercury in retrograde. El Niño. The end times.
These are some of the explanations for one of the worst heat waves in Massachusetts’s history. Business at my headquarters, the Cambridge Forensic Center, has gone through the roof, and that’s the paradox of what I do. When things are bad they’re normal. When they’re worse they’re good. It’s a gift and a curse that I have job security in this imperfect world, and as I take a shortcut through the center of the campus in the stifling heat, I tweak the talk I’m going to give at the Kennedy School of Government tomorrow night.
Cleverness, a play on words, provocative stories that are real, and maybe my sister Dorothy isn’t the hopeless tool I’ve always believed. She says that I have to be entertaining if I’m to get an auditorium full of jaded Ivy League intellectuals and policy makers to listen. Maybe they’ll even walk around in my shoes for once if I share the dark side, the underbelly, the scary basement no one wants to enter or acknowledge.
As long as I’m not expected to repeat insensitive jokes, certainly not the ones I constantly hear from the cops, rather dreadful slogans that end up on T-shirts and coffee cups. I’m not going to say our day begins when yours ends even if it’s true. Although I suppose it’s all right to quip that the more dire the straits the more necessary I am. Catastrophes are my calling. Dreadful news gets me out of bed. Tragedy is my bread and butter, and the cycle of life and death remains unbroken no matter our IQ.
This is how my sister thinks I should explain myself to hundreds of influential students, faculty, politicos and global leaders tomorrow night. In my opinion I shouldn’t need to explain myself at all. But apparently I do, Dorothy said over the phone last night while our elderly mother was ranting loudly in the background to her thieving South American housekeeper, whose name—no kidding—is Honesty. Apparently Honesty is stealing vast amounts of jewelry and cash again, hiding Mom’s pills, eating her food and rearranging her furniture in the hope she’ll trip and break a hip.
Honesty the housekeeper isn’t doing any such thing and never did or would, and sometimes having a nearly photographic memory isn’t to my advantage. I recall last night’s telephonic drama, including the parts in Spanish, hearing every word of it in my head. I can replay Dorothy’s rapid-fire self-assured voice advising me all the while about how not to lose an audience since clearly I will if left to my own devices. She told me:
Walk right up to the podium and scan the crowd with a deadpan face, and say: “Welcome. I’m Doctor Kay Scarpetta. I take patients without appointments and still make house calls. Wouldn’t you just die to have my hands all over you? Because it can be arranged.” And then you wink.
Who could resist? That’s what you should tell them, Kay! Something funny, sexy and non-PC. And they’re eating out of your hand. For once in your life you need to listen to your little sis very carefully. I didn’t get where I am by not knowing a thing or two about publicity and marketing.
And one of the biggest problems with deadbeat jobs, no pun intended, like working in funeral homes and morgues, is nobody knows the first thing about how to promote or sell anything because why bother? Well, to be fair, funeral homes are better at it than where you work. It’s not like it’s part of your job description to make a dead person look presentable or care if the casket is pretty. So you have all of the disadvantages of the funeral business but nothing to sell and nobody to say thank you.
THROUGHOUT MY CAREER as a forensic pathologist my younger only sibling has managed to equate what I do with being a mortuary scientist or simply someone who deals with messes no one else wants to touch.
Somehow it’s the logical conclusion to my taking care of our dying father when I was a child. I became the go-to person when something was painful or disgusting and needed tending to or cleaning up. If an animal got run over or a bird flew into a window or our father had another nosebleed, my sister would run screaming to me. She still does if she needs something, and she never takes into account convenience or timing.
But at this juncture in life my attitude is the two of us aren’t getting any younger. I’ve decided to make a real effort to keep an open mind even if my sister might be the most selfish human being I’ve ever known. But she’s bright and talented, and I’m no saint either. I admit I’ve been stubborn about acknowledging her value, and that’s not fair.
Because it’s possible she really might know what she’s doing when she mandates that I should speak less like a legal brief or a lab report and more like a pundit or a poet. I need to turn up the volume, the brightness and the color, and I’ve been keeping that in mind as I polish my opening remarks, including cues such as underlines for emphasis and pauses for laughter.
I take a sip from a bottle of water that’s hot enough to brew tea. I nudge my dark glasses up as they continue to slip down my sweaty nose. The sun is a relentless blacksmith hammering in twilight’s fiery forge. Even my hair is hot as my low-heeled tan leather pumps click-click on bricks, my destination now about ten minutes out. Mentally I go through my talk:
Good evening Harvard faculty, students, fellow physicians, scientists and other distinguished guests.
As I scan the crowd tonight I see Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, mathematicians and astrophysicists who are also writers, painters and musicians.
Such a remarkable collection of the best and the brightest, and we are extremely honored to have the governor here, and the attorney general, and several senators and congressmen in addition to members of the media, and business leaders. I see my good friend and former mentor General John Briggs hiding in the back, slinking low in his seat, cringing over the thought of my being up here. [Pause for laughter]
For those of you who don’t know, he’s the chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the AFMES. In other words, General Briggs would be the forensic surgeon general of the United States were there such a position. And in a little while he’s going to join me during the Q&A part of the program to discuss the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.
We’re going to share what we’ve learned from materials science and aeromedicine, and also from the recoveries and examinations of the seven astronauts’ remains that were scattered over a fifty-some-mile scene in Texas . . .
I HAVE to give Dorothy credit.
She’s dramatic and colorful, and I’m somewhat touched that she’s flying in for the lecture even if I have no idea why. She says she wouldn’t miss tomorrow night but I don’t believe her. My sister’s not been to Cambridge in the eight years I’ve headed the CFC. My mother hasn’t either, but she doesn’t like to travel and won’t anymore. I don’t know Dorothy’s excuse.
Only that she’s never been interested until now, and it’s a shame she had to choose tonight of all nights to fly to Boston. The first Wednesday of the month, barring an emergency, my husband Benton and I meet for dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club, where I’m not a member. He is and not because of his FBI status. That won’t get you any special favors at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other Ivy League institutions in the area.
But as a consulting forensic psychologist at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in nearby Belmont, my FBI criminal-intelligence-analyst husband can avail himself of the most marvelous libraries, museums, and scholars in the world anytime he wants. He can help himself to the Faculty Club to his heart’s content.
We can even reserve a guest room upstairs, and we have on more than one occasion been given enough whiskey or wine during dinner. But that’s not going to happen with Dorothy flying in, and I really shouldn’t have said yes when she asked me to pick her up later tonight and drop her off at her daughter Lucy’s house, which will get Benton and me home after midnight.
I don’t know why Dorothy asked me specifically unless it’s her way of making sure we get to spend a little alone time together. When I said yes I’d come and Benton would be with me, her response was, “I’m sure. Well it doesn’t matter.” But when she said that I realized it does matter. She has something she wants to discuss with me privately, and even if we don’t get the chance tonight, we have time.
My sister left her return flight open-ended, and I can’t help but think how wonderful it would be if it turned out I’d always been wrong about her. Maybe her real reason for venturing north to New England is she feels the same way I do. Maybe she at long last wants to be friends.
How amazing if we become a united front when coping with our aging mother, with Lucy and her partner Janet, and with their adopted nine-year-old son Desi. And also their newest addition Tesla, a rescue bulldog puppy who’s staying with Benton and me in Cambridge for a while. Someone has to train her, and our greyhound Sock is getting old and likes the company.