It had been a slow, dark, cold drive back from the city and I wasn’t in the mood for any shit.
I’d been stuck following a snowplow through most of Fairfield County. I spent the whole night looking at taillights but whenever I turned a corner my headlights lit up the snow-banks in bursts of white and shadow, like a photonegative image of mountains. At a wide spot in the road the snowplow finally turned around to go back over its route. I sped up for a second, then swore under my breath and slowed down again. Up ahead two cop cars were parked on either side of the road leading across an old iron truss bridge.
I don’t like cops. I’ve hated any sonofabitch in uniform since I was in the Army but I hated cops long before that. They’re a bunch of bastards. Don’t believe all that line of duty, protect and serve, hero horseshit you see in the movies and on TV. Only an asshole would want to spend their workday telling people what to do. If every cop in the world got the shits and fucking died on the can it would be fine with me.
I pulled up between the two patrol cars and waited. A couple cops were standing around stamping their feet and blowing on their hands. They’re both wearing gloves but they keep blowing on their hands, like it’s going to make a difference. They were wearing those special issue peaked hats with the earflaps, too. Fucking adorable.
One of them noticed me idling there and waved me through but he did a half-assed job so I stayed where I was. Let him earn his pay. He waved me through again, this time with both hands. I kept my foot on the brake because, you know, fuck him.
Finally, he came over and shined his flashlight through the windshield. Then he came along side, put one hand on the roof of my car and lowered his face so I could see what a stupid, fat bastard he was. His face was a study in circles: round, pudgy, bulging circles of fat. He looked like an oversized baby. Officer Tidee-Didee. Officer Gerber.
He rapped on my window with the gloved knuckle of his index finger then made a spinning gesture with his wrist. I rolled down the window.
“What?” I said.
“Get a move on,” he said.
“What’s it all about?” I asked and nodded toward the bridge.
He told me some poor slob had drowned in the river and they were trying to pull the body out before the snow started up again and the river froze over.
“But the bridge is still open,” he said, “so you can drive on through.”
Like it was a big treat for me. Like I’d just won first prize at the county fair.
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
“You’re holding up traffic.”
I made a big production of looking back over my shoulder and seeing nothing and nobody. Then I said, “What traffic?”
He was done being friendly.
“Just get a move on, this ain’t no parking lot.”
I moved but I went slow. You got to be careful. Like the sign says:
BRIDGES FREEZE BEFORE ROAD
There were three more squad cars on the other side of the bridge. Five cops were standing next to the railing with their hands tucked into their armpits. They were taking turns leaning over the side, looking straight down, then shaking their heads.
The whole thing pissed me off.
I drove across the bridge, then parked in front of a bar a few yards down the road. Some place called Mick’s. A dozen or so old-timers had come out to see what was going on. I told them about the body in the river and then we all walked back towards the bridge, lighting cigarettes and grumbling about the cold. When we got there the same five cops were still leaning over the rail but now they were all shining their flashlights on the body at the same time. I pressed up against the rail and took a look. The body was down there all right, face up and splayed across a rock in the middle of the river. One leg was tucked back under the body and one arm was bent at a crazy angle.
The cops all stood around doing what they do best, which is standing around trying to figure out what to. One of the guys from the bar yelled out, “Hey, how many cops does it take to get a body out of the river?” We all laughed. Then someone else yelled out an answer that made everyone laugh even harder but I couldn’t hear it.
We all stood around getting ten minutes older.
Then an old red pickup truck with a spotlight and a generator in the back pulled up. Some geezer wearing a hunting cap and a flannel jacket got out of the truck and ran round to the back. He cranked up the generator until it started humming and then tried to point the spotlight down at the river but the stand wasn’t high enough to get the right angle.
Then some other fat cop with a big moustache he couldn’t stop stroking rolled out of his car and decided to take charge. He must have been a lieutenant or maybe a captain. I couldn’t see any stripes on his shoulder because he was wearing a big leather bombardier jacket. Christ, he might have been the goddamned chief for all I know. Whatever he was, he was a big goddamn deal. Officer Bigshot. Officer Smugfuck. He barked orders. He took his nightstick out and waved it around. He strutted back and forth and pulled his belt up to his big, fat belly. He looked like some farmer’s pregnant grandmother. Then, after he’d thrown his weight around for awhile, he picked out the biggest cop of the bunch – a huge, dopey looking dumbshit with a head like a Yule log – and told him to hold the spotlight over his head with both hands while everyone else got a rope and pulled up the body. The big guy didn’t look too happy about it but he did what he was told.
Meanwhile three or four of the other cops tried to figure out how to tie a slipknot. Finally the old codger who had brought the generator went over and showed them how it was done and then they spent the next five minutes throwing the rope down at the body. The big cop with the spotlight started yelling about something but no one could understand what the hell he was trying to say.
“Just keep that light steady!” Officer Smugfuck shouted.
“But someone just stole my wallet!” The big cop yelled.
“I said keep that light up,” Smugfuck shouted back, “we’ve almost got him!”
I saw the whole thing. While the big cop was standing there holding the spotlight over his head with both hands, some wise-ass had come up behind him, reached in his pocket, taken his wallet, and walked off.
Funniest damn thing I ever saw.
The cops had managed to get the rope around the body and were hoisting it up using a pulley the old man had rigged up to one of the vertical girders. Even so they were having trouble. One of the cops saw us all standing around and said, “why don’t some of you Lookie-Lous give us a hand?”
So we all put our cigarettes in our mouths and started clapping.
A couple of the cops swore, then gave a big heave-ho and grunted so you could see their breath. The body shot all the way up past the safety rail until it nearly banged up against the pulley.
“Hold it there,” Officer Smugfuck yelled, waddling back and forth and looking up at the body. “Just hold it there!”
One of the cops had the bright idea to tie their end of the rope to the bumper of a squad car, so the other three pulled back on the rope while he scrambled to back up the car.
In the meantime the rest of us got to take a good long look at the body. Nothing special from what I could see. A man in his thirties, maybe early forties. Average height, though he might have shrunk in the cold. His white skin was shriveled. At least, I assume he was white once. Hanging there in the dead of night with the spotlight on him and water dripping from his arms and legs, he was as blue as a bishop’s balls.
It wasn’t until someone mentioned the strange tilt of his head that we realized they’d looped the rope around his neck.
“Is he still alive?” One of the cops asked after they’d tied the rope to the bumper and stepped back to take a look.
“Well, if he was he’s goddamned dead now,” someone called out, “seeing as you hung the poor bastard!”
Everyone laughed at that, even a couple of the cops. Then there was a dull snap and, a second or two later, a splash down below. The head had popped off and the rest of the body had fallen back into the river.
The head just hung there in the darkness for a few seconds, blue and bloated, then tipped forward out of the noose and bounced off the railing and onto the road. It settled on its side. A bluish ear poked out from dark, matted hair.
For a few endless seconds we all just stood there looking down at it. Then the old man in the flannel jacket snapped a wool blanket out in front of him and gently let it fall over the head like he was afraid it might wake up.
There was quiet for a few seconds, then some wise-ass said “Looks like we got a little a head of ourselves.” Everyone laughed but we all knew it was time to leave and we turned away and walked back to the bar.
I ordered a whisky sour.