By Michael B. Tager
It’s been raining for weeks, a cold rain that blocks the sky and welcomes vermin. The raccoons are feral here, mean and savage. They gnaw on wires and get under trash can lids and spread our refuse on the street to mildew under the cold rain. They stink nostrils until they bleed.
I haven’t been dry since the winter and I’m not getting any younger. Weeks like these, when the days stretch long and unencumbered by joy, it feels like Indiana.
The body lies beneath a willow tree. The blue sequined dress is plastered to gray and puckered skin, skin bloated from gas and the incessant rain. When I snap pictures, the flash glints off too-bright teeth, mouth open in a grimace. It was once a woman, before it became a body, a rotting, expanded husk devoid of anything except marks of violence. Even the knife wounds, tattooing its back like Tic-Tac-Toe, are bloated.
No one told me about the bloat. Couldn’t someone have told me about the bloat?
After my third picture, the cop puts a hand on my shoulder. “Time to move along, Shauna,” he says. He’s got a roll of tape in his paw.
I attempt a smile, but it comes out sideways. “I got a right to be here, Dave.”
He rubs his bald head. “This ain’t the time for the rights of the press.” He checks his watch.
I disagree and he disagrees but I step back while we go at it, our normal song and dance. Normally I win, because most of the time, the Pawnee Journal gives me puff pieces, nothing the police want to impede. Not long ago, I did a front page story on a possum. If he was stonewalling on that case, I wouldn’t push. But with a real case, something important, I can dig in.
“Come on Dave. This girl was young. She could have been me. She could have been your girlfriend.”
“I ain’t got a girlfriend.”
His face hardens and I realize I’ve said the wrong thing. “Hell Dave. Look at her. She’s small, she’s skinny. She could have been me. This could be me,” I say and when I say it, I realize it’s true. What was once a woman is slender with dark hair, maybe the same age. I don’t recognize her, but it still shakes me and I lose my grip on the pad of paper, sodden with rain. It falls into the mud.
Dave’s mouth is open when he freezes and turns back to taping off the area. The yellow is so garish in his hand. I’m about to press when I hear a voice yelling at me to fuck off, and turn to see what Dave saw over my shoulder: Trumple coming through the park. He’s got a look on his face that I just know is going to be trouble. I make my excuses and exit stage left. I’ll follow up later. I know how to make him crack.
The car idles and the wipers zip back and forth, my windshield buzzing with pulsing blue lights of six, now seven cop cars. I’m not sure which way to go and the story’s only getting older.
I pick up my phone and scroll through all the numbers. There’s hundreds in there, every citizen of Pawnee, it feels. I ignore the ones with an asterisk beside them. Mark Brandanawiz. Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. Howard Tuttleman. Bill Dexart. Former lovers, all.
Finally, I see the name I’m looking for. The one who saw the body, who phoned it in. I dial and the phone rings and rings and it’s the sound of death I’m hearing. I know it sounds just like that. I just know it.
The phone clicks and at first there’s silence and then a woman’s voice. “Who is this?”
I pause and realize I didn’t have a plan B; I didn’t expect the mother. “Mrs. Pikitis. This is Shauna Malwae-Tweep. I’m calling about,-“
“I know what you’re calling about, Shauna. What the hell? My boy is traumatized by what he’s seen. He saw a dead body, bitch, and you want a scoop?”
I breathe. “Mrs. Pikitis. This is news. I’m just trying to find out-,” I say, but the phone clicks and I realize I don’t know what else to do. So I go home to my tiny apartment and I make myself a roast beef sandwich. I eat it in darkness and breathe.
The next day comes and goes and the police release nothing resembling a statement about the murder. I call Dave and he doesn’t answer and I call again and this time I ask for the receptionist, who tells me he was just moonlighting for a long weekend. Evidently, he’s now back out west with his reserve unit and he won’t be taking any calls. I smell something.
I call Trumple next and he barks, “No comment” and hangs up. I call again and it rings and rings until it clicks and that’s that. I check the nightly news and hear nothing new about the girl, nothing new about Pikitis. The whole thing sits with me wrong like salmonella so I leave the house to get a bottle of vodka and I drive past the Pikitis house and it’s dark and there’s no car in the driveway and I wonder and I wonder.
On Friday, Trumple stands before City Hall in the ever present rain before me and a half-dozen of my compatriots. We’re all holding pathetic Styrofoam cups of coffee.
The spires and cupolas of City Hall are slick. Trumple’s rain coat is slick. So are his hands when he grips the burnt-out microphone, “The Pawnee Police Department is determined to find the cause of this tragedy. Our best men are on the case.” He pauses and wipes his brow of wet. “In case you’re worried, this will in no way have any bearing on the upcoming Harvest Festival.”
There’s muttering but no one says anything so I call out, “Why do you bring up the Harvest Festival? What does that have to do with this murder?”
Trumple scowls. “No further comments. More details will be released.” He thanks everyone and disappears into the bowels of town government.
I follow him inside, grateful to find relief from the rain. It’s hot inside, humid. I immediately sweat and the drops of water falling from my hair mingle with it. I follow Trumple’s gray head.
There’s too many people and I’m small and they bump into me and I pinball from one to another/ I fall to the ground and when I rise, Trumple is lost among the twists and turns of government. I search for him, turning and turning and soon, I find myself before the office of Parks and Recreation. Maybe they’ll know something.
The department head’s office door is closed, but there’s no receptionist so I open it uninvited and slip inside.
The man behind the desk looks up from a crossword puzzle. His entire face frowns. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m investigating the Ramset Park Murder,” I say, clicking on my tape recorder. It’s heavy, damp. It feels like a sad hand job. “Do you have time to comment?”
His moustache quivers. He stands. “I’m going to have to ask you to go, ma’am.”
“I’m not a ma’am,” I say. “You know me. I’m Shauna Malwae-Tweep and this woman was killed in your park, left for the rodents. No one found her for three days. What about your staff? Could one of them have seen something?”
“My staff is six people and-,” He shakes his head. “You need to go. I won’t be talking. I have nothing to say.” He sits and rustles paper, his pen marking the crossword puzzle seemingly at random. When I don’t move immediately, he says, without looking, “You media and your ideas of freedom. You don’t know what freedom is.”
Eventually, when security escorts me out, I’m told that the city manager will hear of this. I refuse to cringe. What’s a reprimand against the truth?
I drive and drive, circling the town. I can’t stop thinking about her. I can’t stop thinking about the way her heart will never beat again, how whoever it was who snuffed her out is probably walking around Pawnee. Maybe he’s sitting at the same diner that I frequent. Maybe he’s my neighbor.
Of course, it’s a “he.” I’ve rarely been more convinced of anything.
I find myself back at the park. The body is long gone, but the police tape remains. I duck under it, my shoes slipping in the mud. Is there blood mixed in? I don’t want to know. I slide around the cordoned off area, searching. For anything.
I find nothing and I slide against the rough trunk of the willow. The rain beats on my head, running down my cheeks like all the tears I’ll shed are coming out at once, like the tears I’ll shed for the end of innocence for my hometown. Pawnee, Indiana: where dreams die.
I can’t tell if I’m crying, but I know I’m ready to leave. I stand, my shoe kicking something half-submerged. I dig it out of the muck with cold, nerveless fingers. A single red poker chip with $1000 on it. I brush it off until I see the inscription: the name of a casino. My hand tightens and I kick at the area where it had been, uncovering three more.
I make an anonymous phone call to the cops. The chip in my hand, I slip into my pocket and let the three on the ground belong to the earth, for anyone who cares to find them.
I park my shitty car in the crowded lot of the Wamapoke Indian Casino. There’s a puddle in every parking spot and it splashes brown water. The rain still hasn’t let up. I see signs for the Harvest Festival plastered on lampposts. The Wamapokes are sponsors. Everyone’s a sponsor. I want to know who cares about Festivals when there’s so much death?
The rain doesn’t answer me and soon I’m inside. The casino is filled with sounds of money being wasted. I recognize a few faces, but not as many as I’d expect. Maybe Pawnee is bigger than I am.
An Indian finds me. He’s young and handsome and any other time I might chat him up, but now’s not that time. “I need to talk to your boss.”
“Who’s that?” the boy asks. He’s playing with me and I let him know it.
“Just give me Chief Ken Hotate,” I say. “He knows me.”
The boy inspects my credentials, the lights of the casino framing his chiseled jaw. He’s taller than me, serious. He grabs a Walkie-Talkie from his belt, mumbles into it. There’s a response I can’t understand because they’re not speaking English, but the language of their heart. I only understand “Ramset Park,” but it’s in Ken’s voice. I want to grab the walkie from the boy’s hand and talk to Ken myself because I understand Ken’s tone, even though machines and time and distance. His tone is nothing but pain.
I grab nothing and the boy ends the call.
“I’m sorry,” he says, but his head shake says more. His eyes are a thousand yards away and I know he knows something. But what am I to do? I’ve already lost.
He slips me a coupon for a free burger at the Paunch Burger franchise on the casino grounds. He says he can’t do anything else but he hopes I come back soon.
I eat the burger in the rain. It tastes like ashes.
The next morning, I stop at the office. My deadline is up and I’ve scribbled some nonsense that doesn’t even catch a whiff of reality. My manager is waiting in my office. He doesn’t say hello, instead shoves six individual Post-Its two inches from my nose. He screams, “What are you doing?”
I tell him I’m doing my job.
He tells me that the police chief, the city manager, Ken Hotate, even the head of the Parks Department all have called to complain. They say I’m out of my element, that the Harvest Festival is just days away and that I need to get off their backs so they can do their job. He continues to yell that I’m not an investigative journalist, that I should stick to my fucking job or, “better yet, just get fucking pregnant and die.” He tells me I’m back on possums and beauty pageants from now on as he snatches the “story” out of my grasp until I’m holding only air and severed dreams.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this screed. It won’t be the last. It’ll blow over, but I know what it means.
It’s night. I’m at the Lounge, three drinks in. The bartender fills me up when I lift a finger. She knows me. “Thanks Lucy,” I say. “It’s fucked up out there, you know? There’s a dead woman and all anyone cares about is this silly Festival.”
Lucy mouths something but I don’t need bullshit words of comfort. “It’s just so sad,” I say. “She was just lying there in the mud. No one saw her. No one noticed she was missing. She just lay in the rain and the mud growing colder and more wet and alone and now no one wants to do anything.
The drink before me is full and I take it down and Lucy pours me another and I drink that too. By now I’m slurring my words but I squeeze my heart and my soul and I said, “I’m already tired and the woman is dead and the rain just won’t stop coming. I can’t change any of it, can I?”
Lucy pours me another but it can’t fill the hole that hurts me with every breath. I grab her hand with my own. “Why is it all so hard?” I ask, but she doesn’t answer.
The taxi drops me off. The darkness hides the rain, but I feel it running down my cheeks. I stagger to the door of my shitty apartment building. I fumble at the keypad until it buzzes me in. The lobby is empty, dark, black-and-white marble tiles scuffed. I find the stairs and stumble up them until finally I’m at my apartment.
When I touch the door, it yawns open.
Everything is overturned, pictures smashed cushions slashed open. A steaming pile of crap in the middle of my carpet. I can’t fathom it all and when I see what’s left of my cat, I can’t hold my stomach together.
There’s a note on ym bedroom door. I can’t read it in my current state and I just hold it in my hand. My heart won’t stop pounding.
I wake up to the sound of thunder, still dressed and make my way to the shower. I turn it on and hop in, peel my stinking clothes off layer by layer until the hot water cauterizes the stink. When I’m dry, I brew coffee and look at the note. Stay the fuck out of this or I’ll gut you like a goddamned sturgeon. I’ll play in your guts and wear your head like a crown. Leave this alone. Leave the Festival alone. I’ll eat your goddamned face.
I remember the woman, remember how no one spoke for her. I know I’m terrified but somehow, I can’t feel the danger. I crumble the note and stare out the window at the wasted city. It breathes the stink of dragon at me. In the distance, where I can’t see it, a festival to life and birth is being raised. There’s something wrong with it. I feel it in my bones.
I have one week until Harvest Fest. I have until then to find the answers.
Michael B Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. Likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince.