Officer Alex recalls a moment when the meat counter came to mind.
Tonight’s customer had fallen asleep (passed out?) on the railroad tracks behind the Emma Wheeler Homes. The scent of unemployment and apathy was balanced by the squealing laughter of children, and they made coming in here a joy despite the daunting clouds of an angry sky.
The rain had been steady and it was cleverly working in concert with the wind to ensure its delivery was complete, so much so I stopped cringing at the water running down the center of my spine and began thinking of it as an old friend.
While the relative warmth of the downpour was a factor, that wasn’t what was allowing me to remain so calm about it as it began to soak me in ways my own bathtub couldn’t compete with.
I was distracted by the effect the water was having on this gentleman’s severed legs (or what we in law enforcement refer to as “the likely cause of death”—his legs having been cleanly amputated halfway down his thighs by a passing train).
For all the times I’ve seen torn flesh (industrial, accidental and man-made), I’d never seen one devoid of blood like this, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t remind me of the meat counter at a local grocery store. So uncomfortable. I felt so…very…uncomfortable. The body was being constantly washed clean.
“Pretty weird, huh?” my partner mumbled around the butt of a cigarette. He was trying to play it off, but although he didn’t notice his cigarette had long since been extinguished and turned brown from being soaked with rain, I did. Inexorably, my eyes returned to the display before us.
“Remind you of anything?” I asked.
“Don’t go there man. Don’t.” I sensed his weakness and the Inner Dude in me cried out to exploit this fracture, but truth be told, I still wasn’t ready to divide my attention between the scene at hand and my partner’s humility. We continued to stare silently.
“You call the M.E.?” I asked. He nodded. “Think it was a suicide, maybe?” I continued.
“That’s a bottle of Burnette’s vodka sticking out of his coat pocket,” Joyce said. “That’s not the liquor of a happy man. He’s also wearing sandals and a coat. I think he’s a vagrant.”
“Or a radio talk-show host,” I submitted. (No response.)
Detective Joyce usually rattled on nonsensically. Any idea of getting a word in edgewise was an exercise in futility, so this made it all the more uncomfortable a scene for me, because yet again an uncomfortable (and rare) silence was settling between us. I needed to leave.
“Listen, this seems to be pretty well locked down,” I offered. “The train master is clear on keeping this track free until we say so and the crime scene boys are here. I’m headed back to the car.” I paused. “Oh, and we found the left calf.” I pointed in the general direction of another flashlight in the distance, and my partner nodded in acknowledgement.
I walked off and Joyce lingered a bit longer, but he eventually plodded down the tracks behind me to the access road that was the point of our egress. He seemed haggard, but it was probably only because this was the first real work he’d done in weeks. Any other time he would be behind a desk entertaining himself, but the rain and gravel and the dark must have dulled him.
Well, that and the dissected vagrant we were standing over like two dogs in a butcher shop waiting to be beaten by our master for so much as looking.
“We should eat,” I told him. “I’m thinking a nice big ribeye. You?”
His face involuntarily frowned and flexed, and I’ll be damned but if he didn’t just have a productive burp (the cousin to vomit). “We talked about this, man” he muttered.
I smiled; now his job was done as well as mine.
I plopped into the driver’s seat of my government ride and drank in the comparable silence of being out of the rain at last, and let my hand linger on the shift lever while I pretended I didn’t still have the images of those severed legs in my mind.
I pulled the lever down into drive and moved forward, because that, too, is what I do. But I don’t drink Burnette’s.
That’s not the liquor of a happy man.