Body Found in Monument Creek

The body lay in the creek amid the swirling and sloshing of broken sticks and plastic bottles that had accumulated between two large rocks. There was no blood, no sign of foul play – just the body of an older white or Hispanic male in a brown jacket, underdressed for the mid-March weather. He lay face down, caressed by the swirling eddies of the mountain snow-melt currents.

Crouching down into the current, I managed to get enough leverage to grip him beneath his arm pits and pull him up and onto the sand bar. As I turned him face up, it appeared that the bloating had dulled his features, as if the man had left the body long ago. I imagined him to be in his late fifties, perhaps of some Mediterranean descent, underfed, and judging by his over-worn boots, much traveled. I searched his pockets for ID, finding nothing but a tarnished silver ring and a laminated 1979 ski lift ticket from a resort in Vermont.

Soon the coroners arrived. “Third one this month” said the first. “It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” joked the other as they began to position him for transport. I left them with the requisite indignities of their occupation.

Following a crude path of sand bars, exposed tree roots, and stepping stones, I made my way upstream about a mile to where I knew there was a small homeless camp – a few plastic tarps cleverly draped and fastened among a stand of young poplars within the shelter of a steep bank. As I approached, a grey-haired, toothless woman peered at me suspiciously from behind a flap. Excusing myself and holding out the lift ticket and the ring, I asked her if she knew the owner. She glanced at the ticket, her eyes darting away, as if she had seen something fly across the stream. She stared blankly into that space for some time, then uttered almost imperceptibly, “Donny.” There would be no last name offered, only a long silence.

“Wait” she said at last as I turned to leave. The old woman limped over to a shopping cart full of god-knows-what, and began to dig through its contents. She returned to hand me a translucent plastic bar soap container, which was very heavy for its size. Waving me off, she disappeared within the tent. After a few steps I could hear the muffled sounds of sobbing or laughing, I could not tell which. A hundred yards downstream, I heard a piercing wail – the unearthly voicing of utter despair. At the same moment a great blue heron flew up from a cove on the opposite bank.

It was dusk by the time I returned to the scene, the western sky fading to a dull ember upon the ashes of the night. I stood on the bridge above where the body had been discovered and, under the yellow street light, opened the soap dish.

Inside was an old car key, a Chevy, from the ’60s or ’70s I guessed. Then there was a necklace with a pendant inscribed with the American eagle. Beneath the necklace were two photographs. The first appeared to be a senior picture, cut out of a yearbook, of a slight girl with very large round eyes, a small pointed nose, and a mouth that seemed to smile sadly. The other picture was 30 years older, a black and white shot of a man in a U.S. Air Force uniform posing by a picnic table in some park. He seemed very relaxed, aloof, somehow gently humored, and probably tipsy, judging from all the beer cans on the table, and by the way his hat was cocked oddly to the side of his head.

There was a 2nd place ribbon from a high jump completion at the New York State track meet finals in 1975. Under the ribbon were two folded up pieces of paper. The first was an old prescription for Haldol, but the date and both patient and doctor names were indecipherable. The other was a page ripped out of a book with a disturbing poem called “Eating the Birds” by Margaret Atwood. Last was the most beautiful and unusual miniature snow globe I had ever seen. It was larger than a giant marble, egg-shaped. Its transparent, light blue-hued exterior served as a kind of protective shell for the figure inside – a brilliant red heart in the center of a pair of wings that flapped gracefully and powerfully through the gentle snowfall as I turned it in my hand toward the light.

It has been three years since I found the results of the high jump competition, which identified a Calvin Crow as the second place finisher that year. More research revealed that Crow had died in 1984 in a climbing accident on Mount Marcy in upstate New York. I have tried several times to contact family members, but have received no reply, except for one anonymous letter, which urged me to please stop digging up old graves.

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Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.