The Body by the Canal

“There’s a dead body by the canal.”

I glanced up at my brother Fernando.  A couple of hours ago I had let him go across the breezeway to Speedy Espericueta’s apartment, just to get him out of my hair.  It was Friday, but there was no school, so I was stuck babysitting an 11-year-old who seemed to relish getting himself in trouble.

Now here he was, sweaty and out of breath, feeding me a ridiculous line of crap.

“Nando, what the hell, man.  I told you not to leave the complex.  Mom’ll kill me if she knows you went to the canal again.”

“You didn’t hear me?  There’s a body there, Oscar.  A dead one.”

“Yeah, sure there is.  Why don’t you take a shower or something.  You stink.”

He shut the door and walked over to the sofa.  I dog-eared my book and really looked at him.  There was fear in his eyes, genuine horror like I hadn’t seen him show since dad left.

“Dude,” he said, his voice hoarse, quavering, “I’m not messing with you.  We went down to go fishing, me and Speedy.  Then we saw them—guy’s legs, sticking out of the weeds.”

That final detail convinced me.  Trying to stay calm, I grabbed the phone and dialed 911.  I rattled off a summary of the situation, and the dispatcher said the Pharr PD would send someone by.

Fernando and I went outside.  We lived in the projects across the street from the Pharr Community Center, a block of section-8 apartments, the last refuge of the disposed and discarded.

That’s what we are, I thought as I looked over the railing at the motley assortment of clunkers in the pitted parking lot.  Discarded.

“We shouldn’t call mom?” Fernando asked.

“No.  Last thing she needs is more stress.  Don’t want her freaking out and leaving work.  She’d probably call in sick at the other job, too.”

We need to get out of this place, I didn’t say.  And for that we need every dime she can scrape together.

My little brother just shrugged and waited silently by my side.  I’d pretty much been his surrogate dad for the past four years, and though he preferred to be all independent, he tended to follow my lead.

A squad car pulled up and we went down the steps to meet the officer, a short, balding man named Acosta.  I recognized him from the anti-drug lecture he had given us sophomores a few weeks ago.  He didn’t seem to remember me, even with my long hair and torn jeans.

Acosta put us in the back, and peering awkwardly through the grilling, Nando guided the cop down to Ridge Road and up the dirt path that led to the canal.

“There it is!” he finally called out. The patrol car bumped to a stop, and Officer Acosta let us out.  The heat of the Indian summer made everything hazy, bled color from the vegetation, leaving the meager brush pallid and dead.  The hollow whine of cicadas drowned out all other noise—an ominous, predatory rattle. I wiped sweat from my face and followed Nando as he took a few hesitant steps away from the car.  For a moment my eyes were overwhelmed by the dusty brightness, but I squinted painfully as my little brother froze up.

And then I saw it.

Thrusting out dumbly onto the hard-packed gravel were two lifeless legs: pale, thin, coated with wiry black hair.  One foot was covered by a black nylon sock; the other was bare, and I noticed with a strange sort of nausea that the man had not clipped his toenails in some time.

Acosta quickly turned back to the patrol car, leaning in and grabbing his radio.  As if from a great distance, I heard him call for an ambulance and additional officers.  The dull hum of the cicadas filled my ears, thrummed in my skull like the low growl of some unseen machinery or massive beast.

I took another step.  Nando put his hand on my arm, but I pulled away, closer to the body. I could see more of him, nearly all of his torso.  He was wearing black briefs and a white undershirt.  Sickly weeds obscured his arms; his face was covered by the low, knotty branches of some thorny bush.

This is death. Abrupt. Meaningless. Dumb. A body, discarded, swallowed by the gaping jaws of nature.

With a superhuman effort, I turned my back on the body, grabbed my brother by the arm and herded him back inside the car.  In a few minutes the area was swarming with cops and EMTs.  Acosta drove us back to the projects, jotted down Nando’s statement.  Then he drove away, and that was that.

We learned weeks later that the dead man had been a teacher with AIDS who had nonetheless continued collecting lovers as if such a thing could extend his life.  Some of them had learned the truth, and together they had killed him, dumping his body by the canal afterwards.

The sordid details meant nothing to me.  They still don’t. I close my eyes and I see those legs, that dusty, weed-entangled torso, and I wish that I could tell you that the body sits up, a zombie, hungering for my flesh…

…but no, it still lies there in my mind, discarded and forgotten, and in the unbearable silence of that inevitable death the body by the canal devours my very soul.

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