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His name isn’t important. Maybe for someone, maybe once, but not for us, not now. There are times when it is just plain hard to tell what is important. Sometimes it’s something so simple as getting a job done right.
He’s a neat little man in blue jeans and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, and he’s very fresh; you don’t have to touch him to know that rigor hasn’t set in. But you know he’s dead. The dead have a special stance, a stillness so implacable their very substance seems renewed. They have passed into a world of peace and mystery and very often seem pleased to have done it.
There is paperwork the cop must do, there are people he must notify, there are boundaries he must mark off with that yellow plastic tape that says “Police Lines, Do Not Cross.” Before the cop even parks he is running through a checklist long ago committed to memory.
This happens in a picnic grove, at the very end of the grove, where the road makes a turnaround, a usually busy spot where people sometimes drink beer in their cars and sometimes meet other people’s wives and husbands, and sometimes just pull up to wait. People wait a lot in places like this. If you want to know why, you will have to ask them.
But not today, not this morning after a long hard rain. The only vehicle the cop finds today is a yellow maintenance truck with two laborers, waiting.
They are waiting for him.
The cop takes their names, addresses, telephone numbers, notes the time, writes into his notebook with meticulous care. A second officer, the supervisor, has already parked and gone straight to the body, bending to touch that spot where the carotid throbs. Throbbed. Not five minutes ago the cop and this supervisor, an affable graying man with a tendency toward hypertension, were sipping that good coffee they make in the White Hen.
Two things when a body is found. Make sure the subject is dead. The cop can almost hear his instructor at the academy. “You don’t want the poor sap waking up at the morgue with a bunch of stiffs laying around.” No, you wouldn’t want that. Make sure he’s dead and then–but don’t for a minute imagine this is secondary–protect the scene.
Protect the scene! Protect the scene! Protect the scene! They drill this into you. They really mean it.
The tape must be stretched. No one to step over, nothing to be touched, certainly not the little man in the Harley-Davidson shirt, nothing to be moved, taken, dropped, no footprints, fingerprints, cigarette butts, candy wrappers. Do not even breathe on the scene. And when the detectives arrive and when the evidence technicians arrive and when the supervisor’s supervisor arrives and when all the other nosy cops who heard it go down on their radios arrive, none of them, not a one, gets beyond that tape without the cop records each name, star, and time. Log it all, everything. The report the cop writes will go on file. Two years from now, five years from now, ten years from now, if someone wants to know, it had better be there and it had better be right.
But he does step closer and have a better look for himself. Bodies no longer frighten or disgust him. All the same, he’s glad this little man is so fresh and clean.
What he looks for, because he’s curious like everyone else, is the wound. A man in his 30s, he just doesn’t wander into a picnic grove and die all by himself. A bullet hole. A knife wound. The cop remembers a body that had both. The throat slashed. A bullet through the teeth.
Not this neat little man. He is lying half on and half off the curb and there is no visible mark on him. Perhaps the wound is underneath. It will have to wait until the evidence technicians arrive to turn the little man over.
The cop joins his supervisor a safe distance beyond the tape. A few moments of speculation, trying out tomorrow’s war stories. “I knew he was dead the moment I saw him.” “They must have killed him somewhere else and dumped him here.” Why else no blood? Or did the rain wash it away?
The laborers are sent to block the main gate while the cop and his supervisor wait. Both regret that coffee, so hastily left behind. The cop remembers another supervisor who sent for a hot dog and ate it in the presence of a man with a hole in his head. It’s not that you’re insensitive. It’s something more subtle. Death, when you see it like this, how should you behave?
It’s something the cop would like to discuss with his supervisor, who is not a philosophical man. This little man, dead, no different than the squirrels you see run over, the raccoons, the deer, all those expressway dogs. No different than your mother’s Dickie-Bird canary. Dead like Uncle Al in his brass coffin and Aunt Mary who was beautiful at 89. What are people who no longer pray to do?
Meanwhile, the sky has cleared and the dead man’s clothing is steaming in the sun.
But it’s just as well there is no coffee. The detectives are on the scene so quickly it could never have been finished, and it wouldn’t have looked good, nah, it sure wouldn’t, to greet them with a cup in your hand.
The detectives are veteran cops in suits and ties; relaxed, confident. They step over the tape and carefully photograph the body, touching nothing, moving nothing; that waits for the evidence technicians.
It’s hard to explain why anyone would want to be an evidence technician. True, there are people who become proctologists and periodontists and urologists, and who would want to do what they do, but at least they earn money at it, real money, and at least the flesh they touch is living. Your ET, he’s just a cop and he makes a cop’s living and a job like this, this neat little man, freshly washed in the rain, is almost too nice to be true. They appreciate this, you can see they do when they arrive with their little satchels and cameras. It is clear now that there are no bloody knives, no spent shell casings, no matchbooks with the murderer’s telephone number written inside the cover, no clues at all, only this little man in the Harley-Davidson shirt. Now the cop steps over the tape and watches the ETs work. It is time to find out who this little man is and if he is going to be somebody and something important.
Somehow the cop is beginning to doubt that he will be. Not even a biker. You can buy a shirt like that at K mart. The cop is thinking about a hospital on the other side of the road. Mental patients wander out, end up in the picnic grove. “Check his shoes,” the cop suggests, but he can see for himself that the little man is wearing tennis shoes and not hospital-issue slippers.
From the little man’s pockets, the ET removes the usual stuff. Cigarettes, a butane lighter, coins, keys. Also a Medicaid card that identifies the bearer as an outpatient at the hospital. Aha! They all stand straight, the cop, the supervisor, the detectives, the ETs, and look across the busy highway.
His name isn’t important. But let’s call him John. There are lots of Johns in this world and maybe a few of them will end up on their backs in a parking lot. “This is him,” the ET with the Medicaid card says. Cops are like that, make instant judgments and never take them back and almost always are right. Cops know about the real world. Let someone else write for the movies.
“OK. Let’s turn him over.” The ET draws on plastic gloves, gently takes the little man by the shoulder, and rolls him on his stomach. “No trauma here,” the ET says, almost talking to himself now. He pulls up the Harley-Davidson shirt. The little man’s back is clean and white, not a trace of fat, the body, as far as anyone can see, in perfect condition. The ET rubs the little man’s head with his gloved hand, fingers the scalp through the slightly thinning curly hair. “Skull’s in good condition. What do you think? Look at his hands.”
The cop sees that the little man’s hands, left and right, are scarred between the fingers with old cigarette burns. Old scars. And fresh burns. Here is a smoker who has nodded off many times and not even awakened for pain. “No tracks. What do you suppose he was on?” The ET shrugs. There are so many substances on the street. So many cheap ways to die.
So he’s nobody, this little man we are now calling John, not even a murder victim. just an outpatient at the hospital, a charity case, overdosed and couldn’t make it back to the ER. Took a wrong turn in the rain. Nobody will ever know exactly why or how he came to be in this place at this time.
You expect an ambulance. That’s what you’d think if you didn’t know better. That’s what you see on television. Grim-faced cops carrying the body into an ambulance, or at least a police wagon. Not out here. Out here you don’t even see the television crew and their minicams. Too early in the morning for them, or maybe somebody called in sick, or maybe the producer decided on some other kind of story for the day. Understand, they can get a dead body story any time they want one. But it would serve them right if this guy turned out to be an underworld kingpin or a Russian spy. No chance. Just a guy named John. And he doesn’t even get an ambulance.
The body man pulls up in a brown Ford station wagon. A beater, no less. Just one more car on the road, nothing to tell you it transports bodies. The body man doesn’t even wear a white coat.
He’s a cheerful fellow who swings open one of the back doors, explaining that the other is jammed and has been jammed since somebody rear-ended him a week ago. The cop tries to imagine this, some foolish motorist rearending the body wagon. Was it carrying a body at the time? The body man doesn’t say. He pulls a gurney from the wagon and rolls it close to the little man. Does he appreciate this nice clean body? You bet he does. “You should have seen the last one. Must have weighed 250 pounds.”
It’s time for the little man in the Harley-Davidson shirt to start on his last journey. The ET gives him one final affectionate pat on the fanny, rolls him on his back, the gurney is lowered to ground level, and the lift is made by the body man and one of the detectives. The cop manages to take hold of a leg but this is just show; his help is hardly needed. This little man, the body guy could do it all by himself. He wraps the little man in plastic, wraps the plastic in a sheet, straps everything in place, wheels the gurney back to his station wagon, and slides it in. But wait. One more thing.
“Better take him over to the medical center and have him pronounced.”
All bodies must be pronounced, even bodies that are little more than bones and fall apart when they are lifted must be pronounced dead. A layman cannot do it.
The cop, the supervisor, the detectives, the body man, and the man we have chosen to call John all arrive in the emergency room parking lot at the same tithe. John stays outside while the others go in, looking for a doctor.
She’s a young woman with a strong serious face. “You want me to do what?”
The officers explain. They have this body outside. Would she please look at it and say it is dead?
Nurses and aides have begun to gather around the emergency-room desk. They examine the papers the cops have taken from the little man’s pockets. “Why it’s John! John! We know him! He was here only yesterday!”
The nurses trail into the parking lot, following the doctor. She pulls the sheet back, looks into the little man’s face. Yes, he is dead. She remains a serious efficient professional woman. But the nurses cry out in shock and delight. “It’s him! It’s John!”
This is a thing the cop remembers later. A year later he will remember it. Ten years later he will remember it. How pleased and delighted the nurses were. Not pleased that John was dead. No, they were sorry to see that. They had brought him back from death more than once and felt as you might feel to see the battle finally lost. But they were pleased that they could say I know him!, that they were part of this little drama, that they had one last part to play before this neat little man was taken off to the morgue and the medical examiner’s scalpel.
It’s little things like that a cop remembers. The nurses and the steam that rises from a dead man’s clothing when the sun comes out and that final affectionate pat on the fanny from the evidence technician.
Is death so terrible? Maybe not, the cop decides. But first he is going for coffee.
Rick Edwards is a pseudonym.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.