Joyce Carol Oats - Because I Am So Bitter Because It Is My Heart
little Red" Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he'd been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It's the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.
Hammond, New York, Waukesha County, sixty miles south of Lake Ontario, is a city of thirty-five thousand inhabitants, a place of Ice Age terrain, saw-notched ridges, hills steep as attic steps. As it approaches the river valley the land gives a sense of hunching down, 3 preparing for a drop. There are hills in Hammond where drivers are obliged to park their vehicles with the front wheels turned sharp against the curb and the emergency brake on full force and other hills where no one in his right mind would park at all. Fog and mists appear to ooze upward out of the earth, concentrating in the lowlying areas.
This morning, April 3, 1956, 8A.M the mist above the river is chill and clammy as the interior of another's mouth.
The fisherman, elderly, stands with his gear on a six-foot concrete abutment above the choppy water, staring, as the shreds of mist shift and eddy and coil about, teasing the eye.
A bundle of rags, maybe.
Dead dog or sheep carcass. He's seen them before.
A freighter passes out in the ship channel bound for the lakes and there's a damp yeasty-tasting wind from the factories upriver and the chalk-colored chimneys of Diamond Chemicals & Plastics on the farther shore and a part of the fisherman's brain is rehearsing what he will be telling others for the remainder of his life..
. how he'd come out to fish, he hadn't come for trouble. Fishing this stretch of the Cassadaga below the railroad yards and close by the colored section of town, fishing to fill the long hours of the morning, small enough pleasure, God knows. And now this morning this terrible thing. This thing floating in the water amid the river debris and froth with a look delicate as lace, and the goddamned gulls, the garbage birds, flapping and struggling above it. Even before he understands what it is, the head, the human head, the upside-down face, a hand, outstretched fingers, arm caught in a snarl of rusted cables, even before the sight of it is unmistakable, his bowels begin to clench, he feels the first stabs of panic. For like calls out to like, in the extremity of terror.
He snatches up a loose chunk of concrete and pitches it at the gulls.
"Get out of there! Get! Get."' he shouts. "Filthy bastard things."' It could be his own son there, he's thinking. Though his own son is a grown man living five hundred miles away and would bear no resemblance to that body at all.
* * * 4 Ieys Diner the proprietor Al Neeley calls police headquarters 00 rt the body in the river, reading off the emergency numbers a grimy card affixed to the wall and dialing as if this is the sort of ching he does all the time. But his deep voice quivers a little: Hello?
Police? We need some help down here, there's a dead body in the river off Pitt Street." This time of morning, the diner is crowded with customers. All the stools at the counter are taken.
Most of the customers are men in work clothes but some are older men, white-haired, solitary, like the fisherman, time on their hands. Two young nurses from Hammond General are having coffee together. The fisherman is being asked questions: stammering as he tells them what he saw, first time in his life he'd seen a human being in the Cassadaga, he can't seem to catch his breath from hurrying here and there's a roaring in his ears and Neeley's voice rises impatiently: "White, or colored? The dead man.
The fisherman blinks dazedly, as if for an instant he doesn't know the answer. But of course he does.
By 8:30 A.M. the sky above the river is blue as washed glass, rippled with vertical wisps of cloud. At the foot of Pitt Street a small crowd has gathered to watch a police rescue squad lift the body from the river. It's a delicate procedure, involving a hook; not raw flesh but something neutral like clothing must be snagged. If a body has been in the water for some time the hook sinks into flesh like soft bread dough packed onto bone.
A human body being pried out of a knot of fraying cables and river filth is a powerful sight. All vision is narrowed to a tunnel. You can t look anywhere else.
"This isn't any show!" Patrolmen are warning people off.
In the water, rocked by the waves, are three police officers in an outboard motorboat marked HAMMOND POLICE DEPT. At the end of the concrete abutment another officer stands calling instructions through a bullhorn no one on shore can hear clearly.
There's an ambulance waiting, motor running.
There's a vehicle from the Hammond Fire Department.
A growing crowd, even children. Teenagers on their way to school.
Fifty yards olf, in a weedy lot just below the Northern Pacific railroad yard, a half dozen Negroes stand contemplating the scene but don't come any closer.
A police photographer stands on the abutment, one foot on a post, taking photographs.
"Who is it?"
'Jesus-is that a body.a" "Somebody drowned?"
There is a collective sigh as the body is lifted toward the boat but then it snags on something and falls back. Little Red was a husky boy with a heavy head and thighs like hams, and his lips in the rigor of death are stretched in a leering smile. He gives the impression of resisting these many hands without being able to see them.
Then he's in the boat. The body's in the boat.
Then on shore. A dead weight leaking filthy river water.
Then it's being lowered onto a stretcher by three grim-faced uniformed men and covered with a khaki-colored blanket.
To shield it from so many eyes.
A Dixie cup, very white, is blown across a stretch of pebbly ground.
Up on the access road, a car radio is playing a snatch of bright brassy music somebody shouts for it to be turned off. A photographer for the Hammond Chronicle, hair slicked back against the curve of his skull, plastic raincoat flapping around his legs, is taking pictures one after another after another... as if the fact of a body, a body where no body is supposed to be, has made the day special.
Underfoot is coarse large-grained sand that has blotted up all color.
Chips of mica glint in it like millions of tiny eyes.
"Oh, my God who is it?"
There are two Garlocks waiting to make the identification and to ride off sobbing with the corpse.
Not Little Red's mother, who is known to be sickly and erratic 6 in her Ca"'ion not right in her heau"'and not Lrtt'e Reii's father, who isn't living with the family on Gowanda Street though he is known to be in Hammond somewhere. Instead it's Little Red's older brother Morton, married, with small children of his own, and a nineteen-year-old woman named Edith, one of Little Red's young aunts or cousins the Garlock household, or households, contains many relatives.
It's that kind of family: the father, Vernon, brought some of them up from West Virginia to do defense work in Hammond, back in the early forties, and other Garlocks followed. And they've had babies since lots of babies.
Little Red: must have been five feet eleven, one hundred eighty-five pounds, thick neck and thick arms and shoulders, fatty muscle, small glittery slate-colored eyes and a sly moist smile learned from the movies... and his hair wasn't red, not since he'd been a baby. He wasn't retarded, but slow-seeming as if on purpose, to antagonize, to tease and worry.
His real name is Patrick Wesley. This name he'll be identified by, properly, beneath an old photograph of him that will appear on the front page of the next edition of the Chronicle.
Morton Garlock and Edith Garlock are crouched over the dead boy. The crowd is very still, listening to their sounds: the words are impossible to make out, but the sounds are unmistakable.
Out in the ship channel, a freighter passes slowly, immense washes of water behind, rocking and shuddering against the pilings.
The gulls keep their distance.
The night before, Little Red hadn't shown up at the house on Gowanda.
No one reported him missing because no one had thought of him as missing exactly... he stayed out sometimes all night; he was hard to manage... and it's that kind of household, the Garlocks, nine children, different-age children, and other relatives, and their wives or husbands or lovers, spilling over into two or three rented places so no one is ever certain of another's whereabouts unless they are together in the same room. Poor Mrs. Garlock has been beaten so often... the police don't trouble to go down there any more; it's risking your life, to set foot in that door...
she's a vacant-eyed worn-out woman of forty whom neighbors sometimes find sleeping in their cars parked at the curb or, wrapped in a blanket.
know that Little Red was missing, Morton Garlock is telling police, she'd be thinking... if she was thinking... he was in school, this time of day.
Though Little Red had quit school on the day he'd turned sixteen.
The newspaper photographer continues to clamber about taking pictures.
In the next edition half the front page will be given over to the local murder: sixteen-year-old boy, corpse in the water between six and nine hours, probable cause of death multiple blows to the head by a blunt instrument or a rock. A photograph of the stricken Garlocks and a photograph of the crowd of spectators.
like clumsy mourners at a funeral, not knowing exactly who is being mourned or why they are there.
By the time the body is borne away in one of the official vehicles, the Negroes watching up in the railroad yard have vanished.
There remains nothing to be seen. But people stand around, vague and waiting. For as the wind picks up, and the sunshine is chill and veiled and gritty-tasting, there is a slow realization that this will be an ordinary day after all... an ordinary weekday.
Tuesday. A long long stretch ahead.
There's Officer Furlong, Eddy Furlong, from upper Pitt Street himself, talking with some neighborhood men. Haugen, Lukacs, McDermott...
they all know Vernon Garlock, he's the kind of guy you shake your head over, a hard drinker, hot-tempered, always in some sort of trouble or other... and his kids, his older boys especially, everyone knows what they're like.
("White trash," some Hammond residents might say, but not these: these are neighborhood people whose judgments are more subtly calibrated.) "Better not speak ill of the dead."
"Yah. Any damn dead."
They're working their way toward mirthful grimaces. But they keep their voices low, lowered.
Furlong clears his throat, tries not to sound official, merely curious.
'Any of you guys know anything? I mean this... that happened..
. any idea what's behind it? Who?"
The men shake their heads.
Somberly, not quickly, they shake their heads.
There's a smell here like rotting fish. A shiver walks over them.
When they leave here, the waterfront at the foot of Pitt Street, when they go off to work, and later back home, how will they be able to explain what it's like to someone not here?
Haugen shudders. "Hell of a thing. Some people.
the most shitty luck."
"Who's gonna tell her? The police find the right people for that?"
And a shiver walks over them another time.