Dead Fish Jumping On The Road
June 9th, 1966—my very first dead body—as an adult. Norma Jennings drowned off Roach's Point in Rattlesnake Bay. Aged 22, she stood five feet three inches tall, weighed 118 pounds and wore her long blond hair in a ponytail. Norma had fallen out of a speedboat, a Shark 235 with twin Johnson 75's. The boyfriend drove. They'd been fooling around.
Norma rode the bow backward while dangling her feet in the water, letting her heels kick up from the hard surface not suspecting that tragedy would strike. I pictured her smile and the brightness of her eyes, heard her brazen laugh. She wore a white bikini that barely covered her ample figure—a cheerleader's body. The boyfriend, Blake Rothwell, spun the boat's wheel at full speed, pushing it to 22 miles per hour, slewing through the waves at blunt angles. What a blast, he might have thought, high on the motion and velocity and thrill of doing something dangerous, something far out on the edge. Just the look of her made him push it to the limit. He wanted to be bad without knowing or caring or even understanding what bad was. Bad was in that summer.
Norma teetered this way and that, moving with the motion, still laughing, grabbing at the edges and missing, breaking a brilliantly lacquered nail, too drunk to be afraid. She held a Mickey of scotch in her left hand and tilted it to her lips as Blake continued to throw the boat around in its own wake. I could picture the heave of her white bosom, the pout of her full lips and see how she wiped her mouth after each pull on the bottle. I heard her titter as the liquor ran down her chin and dribbled into her cleavage. Her shrieks of laughter brayed out harshly over the wind and currents.
I could imagine Norma on that boat but in my real life I reported the facts. Five foot ten inches. Black hair. Blue eyes. One hundred sixty-pounds soaking wet. Twenty-six years old. Pugnacious attitude. Scarred childhood. That's me, Joe Simpson, reporter. How mundane it sounded. Just the facts, please, just the facts, bud. How many times I'd uttered that dreary phrase and how the facts as I often knew them, bored me to tears. But then, some stories came along and changed all that. I tried to escape from just such a story that had no ending…and then I landed in Applewood. Only partially on my feet.
Boyfriends named Blake always screwed up. The whine of the powerful outboard screamed in his ear. The boat slammed into a massive roller thundering forward like an avalanche. The Shark's hull dipped dangerously to the starboard side, slipping down to the varnished gunwale. Water the colour of slate licked the polished chrome fittings as, suddenly, Blake stared at an escalating mountain of boat over his left shoulder. He fought the rising motion for balance, struggling to keep the boat from flipping over and threw in a prayer for good measure. After a suspended eon, the Shark's hull leveled out with a thump slapping the water like a surfboard riding a high curl and that's when he grabbed the throttle and cut it dead. Blake felt victorious. He’d conquered the Bay and filling his lungs let out a piercing rebel yell. What kicks, he thought. But then Norma had gone. She'd gone for good. He hadn't even heard the splash or seen the upturned kick of her pretty white legs. Afterwards, we found broken shards of the mickey stuck into the surface of the polished hull dripping traces of her blood. AB positive.
The water lay 94 feet deep where Norma disappeared, too deep for the divers to have any chance of finding her but they went out anyway knowing all along it was useless. Roach's Point is a rocky knoll thrusting outward into the Bay. A flat shelf of granite extended out seventeen feet where the water stood waist high but dropped off crazily. Not a few had stepped off it into oblivion, hence its name, Dead Man's Plank. Blake's boat tore up the water no more than 35 yards offshore. But the night had been balmy and rough, the wind at 14 knots with swells of two and a half to three feet rolled in and pounded the beach. The water temperature leveled off at seventy degrees Fahrenheit—skin puckering cold. Currents moved in a vicious counter-clockwise vortex sucking up everything in their path, then spewed their miserable victims on to the pebbled shoal.
And that's what happened to poor Norma. She'd been sucked down to the bottom. Her tangled, semi-nude body rested peacefully at the water's edge as if the Bay had vomited it up whole. The Bay embraced her, swathed as she was in lacy strips of weed and marsh grass. Black clay and snails and leeches filled her cheeks, minnows kissed her eyes and lips and in her tightly-closed fist we found half a translucent clam shell. I still have that shell. I keep it as a sad and angry memento, the single remnant of a lush young woman who died foolishly. It was kicks too, she'd thought. And that seemed to characterize the atmosphere all that summer.
In the bleak dampness of an early June dawn, grey-coated shapes hovered around her, moving and talking mechanically, wishing they were somewhere else. They longed for a joke, a ray of light and for an easing of their burden. I'd gotten a call at 4:32 am. It was Hal Bigelow, one of the local cops.
"Norma's washed up," he said softly, and gave me the location. Then he hung up taking care not to bang the receiver in my ear.
Under threatening skies, the four men seemed anonymous, squinting into the weak light, their hats and faces slick from the moist Bay air. As I approached, Doc Seaton bent low over the body, no mean feat for Doc since describing him as rotund was being generous and he looked to be at least eighty years old. I saw him remove and wipe his gold wire spectacles with a handkerchief he'd managed to tug out of his back pocket. Having finished scrubbing the shiny lenses, he stuffed the soggy rag back into his coat. The others stood stock still hanging their heads, hats in hand, like members of a funeral procession waiting for the corpse to descend into a freshly dug grave.
I picked out Hal Bigelow's enormous bulk right away since he stood six feet eight. Beside Hal, primping like a prissy, pampered mouse, perched Alistair Macafee, the mortician’s sleek assistant. Steff Randolph, the mortician, stood looking like an upright cadaver himself. Steff had brought the hearse. He and Alistair waited on Doc Seaton's say-so, then they'd slide a gurney out of the hearse and artfully arrange Norma's broken body on it. After which, she'd be transported to the Applewood town morgue where Doc would perform his standard autopsy, producing the standard results. Blake Rothwell reported Norma missing six hours after she'd sunk into the still, frigid waters of Rattlesnake Bay.
Standing with the group, we'd become five faceless citizens witnessing a little bit of horror together. I thought I caught Alistair smile ever so slightly as Doc gingerly probed one of Norma's shoal-scraped breasts and I wanted to flatten his smug, oily weasel face. But Doc wasted no time.
"Okay boys," he said. "You can load Norma up now." Doc stood up groaning and stepped back from the body. "Oh, hello Joe. Didn't hear you come up."
Doc puckered his lips, then clasped his hands on his round belly, clucking like a desiccated turkey.
"Such a shame, a pretty young woman like that." He reached into his trench coat and fished out a packet of Sweet Cap's and offered them around. Hal and I each took one. Steff and Alistair busied themselves with the details of collecting their newest client. Steff brought out some threadbare field blankets and neatly covered Norma up, working delicately as if she were merely sleeping and he didn't want to wake her accidentally. Hal extended his lighter and we all drew from it.
"I delivered her, you know. I delivered a lot of them. And sometimes, I get them back. Kicks," Doc snorted, blowing smoke. "Makes me sick."
Doc and I felt the same way about it. But then every town boasted a fast crowd and Applewood crowed as loud if not louder than most.
"Cause of death, Doc? " I asked sheepishly.
"Accidental drowning," he drawled.
"You can get the blood alcohol reading from the police report," Hal said to me from behind a paw as he dragged on his smoke. I nodded, pressing my hand in close so that the stub almost burned my nose. The smoke brought quick tears to my eyes. It was the smell of her, like soft, rotted flesh decayed into a jellied tub of corruption. To my everlasting gratitude, Steff and Alastair lifted the stretcher and picked their way carefully over the wet stones to the hearse. I spotted a flash of muddied, yellow hair, just before the door clamped shut. Steff gave us a flagging wave, showing his exuberant side, then he and Alastair climbed into the impassive black machine. They drove slowly off down the sandy, pitted track toward the main highway back to town. Hal flipped the collar of his coat down onto his shoulders, unbuttoned the front and looked skyward.
"Looks like it's gonna be a decent day, after all," he said.
"Sassafrass!" spat Theodore Graff, as I bulled my way into the meagre offices of the Applewood Gazette, paid circulation 12, 331, balancing a cup of coffee and an apple danish in one hand and a brownie bag containing all my writing stuff—pencils, pads, erasers, and leaky pens in the other. At short arm's length, Teddy, who wasn't tall but almost excessively squat, blew out his apple cheeks, pursed his thick lips and scrutinized the front page of the afternoon edition as he leaned over the composing table in the middle of the room. By the severity of his scowl, I could tell instantly he disliked the results.
The cigar he'd been sucking on for the past week jutted from his rubbery lips as he closed one eye and stared hard at the page, then did the same with the other.
" Crooked," he muttered disgustedly. Then roared at the top of his lungs, "Stumpy!"
"Hi Teddy," I said.
He swiveled his thick head about to unleash a blast in my direction. Just then, however, Stumpy Butler, the ancient, wizened pressman, his Popeye-like forearms hanging helplessly at his sides, black ink smeared up to the elbows, leaned in from the composing room.
"You called, Teddy?" he asked in a querulous, innocent voice, as if he might have heard someone call him from a long distance off but wasn't sure and decided to check, just in case. Stumpy owned about three teeth and appeared frequently bamboozled if not drunk. The typesetter broke down the week before and while repairs were effected, Stumpy knocked in type the old way, by hand. Except. With Stumpy, that word lay there, except.
"Crooked again, Stumpy," Teddy growled at him, doing his best to snarl and curl his lip upward.
"How do you mean?" Stumpy asked in his quavery way.
"The type is crooked, goddammit. It's very simple, Stumpy. It isn't straight. How can I get out an edition when the type is all over the place, man? We'll drive our readers to blindness. We've got standards of excellence to maintain. Get it?"
"Do it, again. And I want absolute precision."
While following this riveting exchange, I managed to sling my coat over a chair, dump the bag onto my desk, take a bite out of the Danish and get in two or three slurps of coffee, steeling myself for the wrath of Teddy; whole rage fomented out of him because it could. The image of Norma fractured my mind and I thought simple, mundane tasks might wipe it away. Warily, Stumpy ducked back into the composing room to give the type another go. I could hear him whacking the letters into place.
Teddy leveled his bushy brows at me while I continued to consume breakfast. "Where the hell have you been? We’re on a deadline here."