Editorial Note: Unlike most of the other content on this site, this piece was not originally written for Work Stew. Writer T.J. Mitchell posted it on his blog earlier this year and, when I asked if I could re-publish it for Work Stew’s readers, he graciously agreed. To me, it’s an illuminating glimpse into Mitchell’s work, his wife’s work, and their many collaborations, both writerly and domestic.
Judy and I collaborate by e-mail. The raw material for the book “Working Stiff” is her ten year-old journal, chock full of medical and law enforcement shorthand and jargon. We can never work on the writing face-to-face, because whenever we are together with each other we are also with our three children. They are not especially demanding children, but that’s like saying salmon is not an especially fishy fish. Leave it out on the counter long enough, and you’ll smell it. Leave our kids together in the house long enough, and you’ll hear some demands.
So my working day consists of the child-free hours between my dropping the last one off at school, and picking the first one up. During those same hours Judy is at work herself, so I email my questions to her, and she answers them from her laptop during lunch break. I crafted one such email while I was putting together the chapters on what an autopsy consists of, and how exactly she performs one. My questions about the science tend to be interrupted by more mundane musings. Here is the email I sent my wife, verbatim:
1) What’s the most money you’ve ever pulled off a corpse? How about jewelry, electronics? Is it your responsibility to take charge of loaded guns that might be on the body but were not used?
2) Review for me briefly what you do when you find a huge wad of cash on a body.
3) Don’t mention the fleas to your mother any more. She’s driving me crazy. She refuses to believe her dog could have fleas, so she contends that Dina’s picking them up in the sand at the playground. I don’t know much about fleas, but I do know they like warm, furry animals. I doubt very much they hang around in cold, damp sand waiting for furless little girls to come along. Even if they did, they wouldn’t last long on Dina’s skin. Your mom’s now insisting we get an exterminator to examine the kids’ rooms while we’re away next month. Would you please keep an eye on the flea bites, examine Dina nightly, and don’t talk to your mom about it. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway—the dog is on flea medication and its owner is in denial. We don’t even know if these bites are from fleas. This note has nothing to do with the book, but your mom just interrupted me in order to raise the subject, again, so I want you to know. Back to business.
4) I just now had a flashback to my days as a secretary at Carolco Pictures, trying in vain to spell RESERVOIR DOGS correctly. Day after day I’d type it RESEVOIR DOGS. It would seem that thanks to my native Boston accent, that interior ‘r’ is not only silent but also invisible. Now I’m working off your journal, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the computer kept telling me I was mis-spelling “paraphenalia.” I swear it has never occurred to me that this word is spelled—or pronounced—”paraphernalia,” with two r’s. OK, now back to business, I promise.
5) I think I got the description of removing the kidneys the way I like it. You can check it tonight. Do you remove the adrenal glands from the kidney or leave them on? Please describe the physical appearance of the adrenals.
6) You wrote that you reach way down into the retroperitoneal cavity and pull out the bladder, uterus and rectum all at once. Don’t you have to sever the rectum from the anus first? How do you do that?
7) I conclude the section on organ removal with the following; is it accurate?
We’re now finished eviscerating the patient. Everything I’ve described, from Y-cut to testicular replacement, only takes about half an hour and is the easiest part of an autopsy.
8) Did you know that “raspberry” has a silent ‘p’ in the middle? I didn’t, not until the spell-check caught it. Fascinating.
9) Make sure you buy two or even three of those cleaned Dungeness crabs again tonight when you go to the Cal-Mart, and have them put ’em on ice. We’ll have them for dinner after you get home with Leah. Don’t forget to buy milk, too. Do you find me highly distractible? Did you know “distractible” is not technically a word according to this e-mail program’s spell check? Maybe I misspelled it and it’s supposed to be “distracterble” or “distractspible.” Again, fascinating.
10) When you take a nerve tissue sample from the stock jar, which nerve do you cut? Does the tech put the sample in formalin immediately, or does it just sit there in the jar until you’re done with the autopsy?
11) You have in your notes:
Breastplate goes back in abdomen, or back in place in chest.
What does this mean, “back in abdomen?” Do you try to cram it into its proper place, and if it doesn’t fit you just plop it on top of the bag of organs and sew the whole mess up? That’s all for now.
T.J. Mitchell is a San Francisco-based writer and stay-at-home dad. He has worked as a screenwriter’s assistant and script editor since 1991. Working Stiff, which he is co-writing with his wife Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist, is his first book. For book updates, check out Working Stiff’s Facebook page.