The minicam vans had gone away. They had rumbled across the craters of Frontage Road and angled away from Spike, her liquid yellow eyes watching, her ears erect. The vans rolled off, back to their garages 45 miles away, on McClurg Court, at State and Lake, in the Merchandise Mart.
And the police cars had gone away. Gone was the Shorewood cop who smelled of pipe and the state troopers in their big Illinois highway cruisers.
But just when Spike was getting back to her watchdog duties, maybe snapping at a butterfly, hounding a duck, it suddenly began to look like things might get good again. Two Will County Forest Preserve cops rolled up and parked their squad near the place where Spike had recently taken Woody, the collie.
Spike loves things that are alive and trying to get away. She loves the soft body of a woodchuck–the oiled coat, the dampness of river water, the black eyes rolled back in terror. It seems the only thing Spike likes better than something alive, trying to get away, is something dead.
Spike barked at a woodchuck. The two forest preserve cops were down behind the spreading limbs of an ash tree. One of the cops had been off for a couple days. He had come just out of curiosity; he wanted to take a look at the six-foot-long hole in the ground he had heard all about. Spike barked at the woodchuck again.
Long tired of the hole, she barked and barked at the woodchuck. The officers, trained observers, noticed the barking and thought it might be significant. They walked away from the interesting hole in the ground. They walked over to Spike, their holsters glistening in the July sun. They gazed down at Spike. She gazed down at the woodchuck. It would never make a dog bark ever again.
Spike’s short life has not been without its worries. As a pup, she was held on a woman’s lap in a smoky Joliet bar. Spike was just hours from being put to sleep when the bartender took her from the woman and found her a home. And after that, she was enlisted to replace three pit bulls as the watchdog of an auto-body shop. She’s pint-sized–a scrawny little runt of a dog, really–and the shop is surrounded by acres and acres of woods and fields. Every square yard of it teems with butterflies and beetles, every patch of prairie plants is stained with the odor of woodchuck and rabbit.
Spike knows all too well that tempting, slow movement of the swallowtail butterfly–its wings, painted with gold and coal, rise and fall so slowly as it rests on a clover blossom.
And she knows the frustration of trying to lift a water beetle from the concrete floor of the auto-body shop. No matter how hard she tries to bite the beetle, her teeth can’t quite get it. Her lips are too fat. For many long minutes, wandering out to the edge of the attention span of a dog, she tries to give that beetle what it deserves. Then she gets bored, goes on to new business. Behind her she leaves a ridiculous dog-spit stain on the concrete.
As far as Spike is concerned, the only thing better than something alive, trying to get away, is something dead. One night recently when Woody, the collie, came to visit, Spike showed him something she had found. It was something the likes of which Woody had never seen before. It was down the road, beside a fence, beneath the sweeping branches of an ash tree. It was the biggest dead thing Spike had ever found. It was five-foot-ten and wearing black Reeboks.
Spike and Woody looked at it for a while, until Woody’s master came and called them away. Standing on the road and whistling for Woody, the master never saw what they saw.
Rhonda Bly is probably Spike’s best friend, but not her master. Spike’s master is George Henriotes, Rhonda’s boyfriend. Rhonda has one of those dream-charged minds that sometimes rages like an electrical storm when she sleeps. She tells George all about her dreams. He always listens.
About the time that Woody and Spike disappeared down by the fence, beneath the sweeping branches of an ash tree, Rhonda had a horrible dream. She dreamed that she and George found a child crushed beneath a concrete block in a parking lot. George lifted the concrete block and she took the child up in her arms. She wrapped the child’s limp arms around her neck. With the child at her breast she started running across the parking lot, George running beside her. They ran and ran, looking for help, but they found no help, anywhere, and bullets started flying past their heads, and a storm was brewing, and the sky suddenly opened up and the clouds dumped out their rain as the bullets just kept flying. Then Rhonda woke up. She told George about the dream when he came to pick her up for work in the morning.
The morning after that, Rhonda and George’s brother, John, stood in the gravel parking lot of the auto-body shop and looked at a long, elegantly curved bone that Spike had been dragging around. They were very interested in it. The bone, somewhat blackened, was about a foot long.
“It’s from a deer,” said George’s brother.
“It’s from a dog,” said Rhonda.
In the coming weeks, they would think back to those minutes and to that bone, searching their memories, trying to be certain, truly sure, that neither of them had touched it.
On those early July days, Rhonda liked to sit in the giant doorway of the auto-body shop and look out across the parking lot to the woods. From somewhere down near the river she could hear the mournful cry of an owl. She always looked for the owl, but she never saw it. And she would think about George, and how hard it was to get his business going, and wonder if they would ever have the money to think seriously about getting married.
In the auto-body shop behind her, George moved a disc sander across a welt of Bondo on the side of a car.
About 45 miles away, in a Chicago police station, in a file drawer, was a missing persons report dated April 14, 1987.
Rhonda spent a day last month painting a new sign. She took automotive pin-striping tape and outlined AUTO BODY in two-foot-tall letters against a yellow background. Then she started filling in the letters with red paint. She filled in one of the words, and then took a long break. For hours, from Interstate 55, the billboard read BODY. It looked like only Spike got the joke. Spike stood beneath the sign, wagging her tail. “We’re going to take her to the vet tonight. We think she’s got worms. She’s so skinny,” Rhonda said.
Rhonda whistles; Spike, setting her own agenda, ignores her. On that day in Will County, a cabbage butterfly felt a succession of hot blasts of breath as Spike’s jaws snapped shut three times behind it.
As a puppy, Spike was known to cower in the presence of boys and men. The history of the first two months of her life is vague and shrouded, but those who know her well are certain that she was beaten as a puppy, and that she was beaten by a man. Up until a few months ago, if you lifted your hand and raised your voice Spike would pee.
Spike used to be called something different, but it was more of an emblem of her abandonment than a name. She was called “Dee Oh Gee.” She was named late one night, in a Joliet bar named John Russells, owned by George’s brothers, John and Russell.
Near closing time one night last summer, a man and a woman sat at the bar. The woman held a puppy on her lap. The man told John, tending bar, that they were going to take the puppy to a vet in the morning and have it put to sleep. John, an animal lover, wouldn’t hear of it. He had plenty of pets, what was one more? John took the puppy, spelled her name D-O-G, and gave her to George to keep at the auto-body shop for a while. John said he’d pick her up in a few days.
When it became apparent that John was never going to take Dee Oh Gee away from the shop, Rhonda went out and bought her a leather collar with chrome studs on it. Rhonda thought it looked delightfully butch on the little dog. That’s when Dee Oh Gee’s name changed.
Spike no longer answers to Dee Oh Gee. It’s as if she has forgotten all about that earlier life, that orphan’s life and a smoky night in a Joliet bar. But then again, she doesn’t answer to Spike, either.
Spike is enraged. Her canines flashing, she crashes through the brush like a boar. “You’re on the trail of something!” Rhonda yells. A rabbit sprints across the road to the river side. Spike stays on the other side, running in tight circles. “Didn’t you see it go across the road?” Spike sails into the air, a full three feet, clearing the tops of the prairie grasses–absolute ballet, the pure joy of dog. Rhonda walks down Frontage Road, leaving behind Spike, her nose full of the scent of hare. The rabbit is long gone.
Frank Brazier got to work at the auto-body shop first on July 9th. He unlocked the gate, swung it open, and pulled into the parking lot. Spike was occupying herself nearby, tending to the business of a guard dog. Frank parked his car and walked back to the gate to check the mail. At about a 45-degree angle from the door to the mailbox was a human skull, a short train of vertebrae lined up behind it.
His friends say that Frank has that laid-back quality because of the southern blood in him. They say it’s because his family is from Tennessee, or Missouri, or wherever it is.
Frank walked back up to the shop, picked up the phone, and called George. It is George’s shop, after all.
George told Frank to shut up and quit the shit.
Frank said he was serious, there was a human skull next to the mailbox.
So went a few exchanges. Eventually, George came to believe Frank. He told Frank not to touch the skull and by all means not to call anybody until he got there. “This could be bad for business,” George said and hung up the phone.
George called Rhonda at her dad’s house and told her he was coming to pick her up. And he told her about the skull. She was ready when he pulled up.
They drove down potholed Frontage Road toward the shop. Frank, being laid-back, was up in the shop. George pulled his gray Chevy pickup up to the gate. He stepped out of his side, and Rhonda stepped out of the passenger’s side. Frank walked down from the shop, pointing. The Chevy’s motor was still running and, except for patches of primer, it sparkled in the morning sun.
Frank, Rhonda, and George stood at the gate, looking down. The skull lay in short-cropped grass in the shade of a 20-foot mulberry tree. Rhonda could plainly see that the cheekbone had been broken clean through. George was thinking, “This isn’t that grody, really.” With the toe of his Reebok, he gently rolled the skull over. A patch of hair was still clinging to the back of it.
Something had dropped the skull at the gate. Something that loves to dig, loves to get into things. Spike was nearby, “playing” as Rhonda puts it.
It was 9:45 AM when George called the Shorewood Police. Perhaps George did not make himself clear to the dispatcher. Or perhaps the dispatcher did not make himself clear to the patrolman. Whichever the case, George, Rhonda, and Frank had some time to kill before the police arrived.
A tow-truck driver hauled in a car and they took him down to see the skull beneath the mulberry tree. He was pretty impressed. He drove away, went back to his garage, and called the Joliet Herald News.
The first police officer rolled into the parking lot about an hour after George first reported what he had found in the grass next to his mailbox. George came out to meet him. The police officer casually asked what was up. George and Rhonda showed him. They couldn’t believe the look of surprise on his face when he saw it.
They told the cop that they had seen some other things around, too. Some things that Spike had been dragging around the past few days. The cop said he had to stay next to the skull until Chief Lattin got there. But he told George and Rhonda to see if they could find anything else in the parking lot.
The first place they looked was around Spike’s doghouse. They found some terrible things.
In the corner of the auto-body shop’s parking lot is an odd little plastic Christmas tree, a three-foot-tall blue spruce, bent at a crazy angle to the ground. Rhonda and George set it there, when it still stood straight, to make the place nicer, to cheer it up a little. But one day Rhonda and George were arguing. The pressure can be tough–the hours are long in the auto-body shop, and the money isn’t that good yet. Rhonda was driving; she pulled into the lot and George stepped out of the passenger’s side of the car. Without pulling on the parking brake, Rhonda stepped out of the driver’s side. Their argument stopped when the car began to roll slowly backward, aiming for their little Christmas tree. The car bent the Christmas tree, and now, months later, it pointed to a pathologist, in a white lab coat, squatting beneath the mulberry tree.
The pathologist had a little trowel, which he was using to poke at the skull. He looked up at Rhonda, who was watching him. “You better keep an eye out for the jaw,” he said. It was not where it was supposed to be. Rhonda looked for Spike.
The Will County coroner had come and gone. He went to organize a search party to scour the woods and roadside for the rest of the body. “He was gone a long time,” Rhonda said, “because all the guys in the search party had to go home and put on their overalls.”
The morning began to pass. George drove off to the bank. A pathologist and a county cop walked up and down the dirt road. Spike occupied herself.
Walking down the dirt road, the county cop and the pathologist were getting very close to where Spike had taken Woody, the collie, just a few days before. The direction of the wind was such that the county cop and the pathologist knew that they were getting close to something.
Another county cop pulled his squad into the lot. He had driven right past the other county cop, who, along with the pathologist, had gone back into the bushes, along a fence line, beneath the sweeping branches of an ash tree.
Rhonda and the cop walked down the road to where she had last seen the other county cop and the pathologist. The men stepped out of the bushes. They said that a search party wouldn’t be necessary. They had found what they were looking for.
George drove back from the bank. He and Rhonda stood on the road near the body, telling a cop what they knew. They didn’t think twice when the cop asked them for their driver’s licenses. He looked at the licenses and wrote something down on his report. The mood of the afternoon took a bad turn when the cop said to George and Rhonda, “If you know this person at all, when he’s identified, you will have to go under extensive questioning.”
George walked around the shop the rest of the day, working on his customers’ cars, shaking his head, muttering, “I don’t even believe this, I don’t even believe this.”
The pathologist found the pieces of the long, elegant bone that Rhonda and George’s brother had been looking at. She had said it was the bone of a dog, he had said it was the bone of a deer. The pathologist said they were both wrong.
Back along the fence line, investigators hacked at the ash tree. They would scour its branches for threads of clothing, strands of hair. They stripped away thistle and milkweed, looking for bootprints, things that had been dropped. One thing they found was an electrical cord near the body.
It took no fudging to call this a shallow grave. The toes of the Reeboks were sticking up out of the ground.
A few days later, George looked at the grave, one edge of it defined by the fence line. “If they had just thrown him over the fence before they buried him, the dogs never would have found him,” he said. As if to show him up Spike appeared at that instant, on the other side of the fence.
On a lovely summer day, Rhonda stood in the shade of an ash tree, one hand on her hip, the other wrapped around a bottle of Diet Coke, her toes at the foot of the shallow grave. Over her shoulder, on the river side of the fence, a cowbird perched on the limb of a tree and looked at her. The cowbird had a grasshopper clenched in its beak. The legs of the grasshopper were perfectly still.
At the four sides of the empty grave the coroner’s spade had sliced off roots as white as worms. Rhonda, with her strawberry blond hair pulled back and held by red combs, took a swig of her Diet Coke and said, “You really are taking your chances to dump out here. There’s a $500 fine.”
Spike maneuvered nearby and took a snap at a butterfly. Rhonda walked up to her and ordered her to sit and then lie down. Obligingly, Spike gave Rhonda a paw. Up in the shop, George sanded the side of a car.
Rhonda’s grandfather was the chief of police in Lockport. He used to say that Will County was the dumping ground for Chicago’s mob. Like a human wrist, Lockport is a place where lots of arteries come together. There the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal runs alongside the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which parallels the Des Plaines River and Fraction Run. With all this water in one place, it is not surprising that there are locks in Lockport.
While he was chief, Rhonda’s grandfather used to gather up a crew of scuba divers every now and then to search the locks for bodies that had been dragged out of the trunks of hit men’s cars that had driven out from Chicago.
A cop rolled by in a squad car, so close to Rhonda she could have reached up and set her Diet Coke on top of the mars lights. The cop had a huge belly and puffed away at a curved Sherlock Holmes pipe. He rolled slowly over the craters of Frontage Road and didn’t even glance up at Rhonda.
George once went to a meeting of the village board of trustees to ask why police only cruise the road once or twice a week. He has property there, tools and customers’ cars.
Once or twice a week? asked the mayor, obviously miffed. Why, they’re not supposed to go down there at all.
What is now potholed Frontage Road used to be the main road from Shorewood to Plainfield. That was before they cut I-55 through the farmlands north of Joliet. And things change. Just up I-55 from the shop is an expansive prairie-flat field of blond-tasseled corn. In front of it is a sign: “For Sale, 1,000 Acres, Industrial Site.”
Although Frontage Road still runs clear through from Black Road to Troy Road, the county put up Dead End signs at each end because it cost so much to maintain. But there is nothing worse for business than a Dead End sign at each end of your access road. One of the signs got taken down in the night. The pole was cut clear through, apparently with a pipe cutter, just the kind of tool you’d find in a body shop.
At night the road is deserted. The auto-body shop is the only building out there. Sometimes, after a late night at the shop, George and Rhonda roll past couples parking. “I imagine some of them are husbands,” Rhonda says. “We see a lot of people ducking when we drive by.”
In the daylight, an American goldfinch lights on the road. It is a male, burning brighter than a candle flame. Rhonda knows it as a wild canary. She used to call it a goldfinch, but her father corrected her. She doesn’t argue with him anymore.
The Friday night after Spike dropped the skull next to the mailbox, Rhonda stood in the large doorway of the auto-body shop. She was watching a storm working itself up out beyond the river. George was working behind her.
The western sky was darkening, swelling up black and ominous. She listened to the solemn owl that she had never seen. The hollow calls were coming from down by the river. And that night, for the first and only time, the owl, pale and monstrous, rose up from near the shallow grave and flew off, white wings flashing against a storm-sky background.
Four days after that, a week after the body was found, there was something terrible out in front of the auto-body shop. George passed by it on his way to the lot to test-drive a Monza he had been working on. The thing in the gravel was the color of salami. Spike leaned against the wall of the auto-body shop, panting. Whatever it was, she had already grown tired of it.
“It’s the jaw,” said Rhonda, holding a Diet Coke.
George put a handful of tortilla chips up to his mouth, pulled out a couple with his teeth, and said, “Call the police.” He got into the Monza and drove off. Rhonda moved upwind.
“I guess these things don’t bother me anymore. I’m getting used to it. Maybe it’s because I took biology,” Rhonda says.
A friend in a yellow Honda rolled into the lot. He got out of the car and was tugging on his pants and walking straight toward the salami-colored thing when Rhonda called out to him. He froze mid-stride, mid-tug. He looked down. He made a face that expressed just how awful the world can smell.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s the jaw,” Rhonda said.
The friend found a probing tool, a stick, and proved to Rhonda that it wasn’t the jaw. “It’s the woodchuck,” she said.
The friend took the stick and wormed it under the thing. He lifted it as carefully as Rhonda lifted the child in her dream. He slowly carried it around the shop, past the bored dog, past the primer-gray hulks of Barracudas and Camaros, and lobbed it over the fence. It sailed on a lovely arc into a field of soybeans. “The making of McDonald burgers,” the friend later said about the crop.
“That’s the color things get, black like that,” Rhonda says. “They say the human body has a lot of oil in it, and when the sun gets on it, it turns black.”
The friend grabs Spike’s needle muzzle and kisses it.
“How could you kiss her?” Rhonda asks.
The friend smiles. His thumb is covering Spike’s nose. He had kissed his thumb. Spike’s eyes are rolled back. She screws her head free of his hands.
Spike has a good nose. That’s the beagle in her. And she is aggressive. That’s the german shepherd in her. And she has terrible breath. That’s the human in her.
Spike had spread the bones around a bit. The coroner will not release details of the find until after the inquest. But by George and Rhonda’s recall, there was the skull by the driveway, the arm bone in the parking lot, and a couple ribs and vertebrae by the doghouse.
Rhonda looks at a milkweed plant and thinks about growing up. It is still early summer, months before the milkweed pods will be filled with the cottony parachutes of seeds. As a little girl she used to rip the pods open and let the seeds ride off into the air. She hasn’t done that for years.
If George took a membership at the Joliet Health Club he could look like Richard Gere in no time. He has lush dark hair, and brown eyes set close together. He’s been doing auto-body work for seven years. “It’s not easy, doing body work,” he says.
Rhonda works in the shop for nothing. George sees to it that she has money for what she needs. She sees her work as an investment. She looks up toward the shop and sees George moving around the battered cars. “I know the payoff,” she says.
You can see his shop from I-55, so you know there must be a road. A stranger, say, from Chicago, could see the shop and know the area would be deserted. If the car was coming from Chicago, it would exit beneath a giant billboard of a spade shoveling dirt. “Breaking New Ground,” the spade says. “That’s a sign for the funeral home,” Rhonda jokes. In little print beneath the spade, it says “Joliet/Will County Chamber of Commerce.”
“I came out here and it was kind of a big move for me. It’s not easy getting business out here,” George says.
There is a fence around his business. Every night George and Rhonda put Spike inside the fence and close and lock the gate. Every night, as they drive off down cratered Frontage Road, Spike gets out and chases the gray Chevy pickup. Eventually she trails off, stops, and turns around. She knows where her home is. She has a duty, after all.
“I used to have three pit bulls out here to protect the place. But somebody stole them, or they ran off. I think they probably turned them into fighters,” George says. He comes from a large Greek family that is woven deep into the fabric of Joliet. “He has 14 uncles,” Rhonda says. “Some of them are dead, they’re so old.”
George and Rhonda’s father get along better now than they used to. Rhonda’s mother is dead, and her father is protective. “I’m his daughter, you know.”
George took an apartment near Rhonda’s father’s bar, called Bly’s. She lives at home with her father. When George picks her up in the morning, she tells him all about her dreams.
After Spike found the body, they rushed home to see themselves on TV. The minicam crews had been out there all day, interviewing them, filming the shallow grave. That night, when George and Rhonda flipped through the channels, Two, Five, and Seven, all they saw of themselves was their legs.
“We went out that night,” Rhonda says. “We thought it could be good for business. George could pass out cards. Right when we walked up to this one bar where some of our friends go, George’s friends walked up and said, ‘Nice legs.'”
The next day, Rhonda heard Channel Seven was coming back a second time. She wasn’t going to have just her legs show this time. She put on a white dress. Her car tires crunched onto the gravel lot at the shop and pulled up next to the minicam van. It was summer and sunny and she looked lovely. The engine of the minicam van turned over just as she stepped out of her car, and the reporter and the cameraman and the sound man all drove away.
And that was that. Business didn’t change much. A police squad now bumps along the craters of Frontage Road a bit more often. But there are no promises of getting the road repaired. There is still one Dead End sign standing. Maybe not for long. And George and Rhonda are waiting to get married, waiting until business takes off, until they have the money to do it right.
And Spike seems to have only one thing on her mind–whatever is moving.
George and Rhonda have a videotape they made of the newscasts that showed their legs. For a week or so they kept the clippings from the Joliet Herald News for friends to see, but Rhonda threw them out when she was cleaning the shop office.
This is what one of the clips she threw out read:
A decomposed body unearthed earlier this week in Shorewood was identified Friday night as a Chicago man described by police as an entrepreneur missing for nearly three months.
The body, which was dug up by a dog Wednesday along the Interstate-55 Frontage Road was identified through dental charts as David A. Wolfson, 31, of 452 W. Roslyn Place, Chicago, said Will County Chief Deputy Lt. Coroner William Ferguson.
“We really don’t have a definite cause of death,” Ferguson said. “It’s being treated as a homicide. There was no indication that he was shot or stabbed. If he wasn’t killed somebody took a lot of time to drive out here and bury him.”
Wolfson was reported missing April 13 by his parents who live in Cleveland, said Chicago Police Sgt. Marvin Werner, who investigates missing people on the city’s north side.
“We kind of felt that the man was dead, but we didn’t know how or why,” Werner said.
Shorewood Police will work with Chicago Police to find Wolfson’s killer . . .
He was buried near the base of a wire fence which separates Shorewood and Hammel Woods, about 25 feet west of the Frontage Road near Black Road and Interstate-55.
A small dog named Spike who lives at a nearby auto body shop uncovered Wolfson’s head last Wednesday morning. Frank Brazier, who works at the auto body shop, found the head when he went to pick up the mail. He called police who found the body buried about a foot deep beneath the ground.
Wolfson may have been buried there since he was missing, but police do not believe he was killed there . . .
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.