Authors: John Grisham
arly Tuesday morning, a D.C. police boat was cruising near the inlet to the Tidal Basin on the east bank of the Potomac. An officer noticed something unusual. A closer look revealed a body, bleached white, bloated, and snagged in some undergrowth at the river's edge, a stone's throw from the Jefferson Memorial.
Mark was still asleep when Detective Swayze called. He described what they had found and said he had just talked to Mr. Tanner, who was back home in Martinsburg along with Gordy's mother and the Karveys. Neither Todd nor Mark had spoken to Brenda or her father or the Tanners since their unpleasant meeting Saturday afternoon. Apparently, at some point Monday, the families had decided they could accomplish nothing by waiting in D.C.
Mark called Todd and Zola with the news. They agreed to meet in Zola's apartment in an hour. Ten minutes later, as Mark was sitting on his sofa in the dark, sipping a cup of coffee, his phone rang. It was Gordy's father. Mark stared at it, and, out of sympathy, reluctantly took the call. He offered condolences and was running out of things to say when Mr. Tanner said, “Say, Mark, could you do us a favor?”
Instinctively, he almost said no, but couldn't at that moment. “Well, sure.”
“Could you and Todd go to the morgue and identify the body. I just can't make that drive over, not for something like this.”
Mark was stunned. Three days ago the families were blaming him for Gordy's death, and now they were asking him to run the worst errand imaginable? When Mark didn't respond, Mr. Tanner said, “We're just too upset right now, Mark, and, well, you and Todd are right there. Please. I know it's an awful thing to ask, but it would help us tremendously.”
Somehow, Mark forced himself to say, “Sure.”
THE BODY HAD
been taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner which also housed the morgue. Todd parked on the street beside the modern glass building and they found the entrance. Detective Swayze met them in the lobby and thanked them for coming. He looked at Zola and said, “I really don't think you need to see this.”
“I'm not going to. I'll wait.”
“Good. There's a waiting room over there,” he said, nodding, and Zola walked to it. Todd and Mark followed him down the stairs to a wide hallway. They stopped at a metal door beside a sign that read, “Body Storage.”
Swayze said, “It's cold in there but this won't take long.”
“How often do you do this?” Mark asked.
“Twice a week. The room holds two hundred. We never have a shortage of bodies here in the District.”
A lady in a white lab coat met them at the door and opened it. “Tanner, right?” she asked the detective.
“That's right,” Swayze said. They stepped into a large, sterile cooler filled neatly with organized metal racks holding dozens of body bags, all navy blue, all zipped tightly from above the heads to below the feet. They turned a corner, passed more racks with more bodies, and abruptly stopped. A tag attached to a body bag gave the name “G.Â Tanner.?? Drowning.”
Mark glanced around and saw another tag. “Unknown. Gunshot.”
The lady took the zipper above the head and slowly pulled it down. She stopped at the chest and opened the bag. Gordy's eyes were wide open, lifeless, as if he'd been screaming in horror as he hit the water. His skin was as white as new snow. By far the most gruesome feature was his tongue, thick and balled up and protruding grossly from his mouth. There were abrasions on his cheeks. His thick blond hair appeared to still be wet.
Mark leaned on the rack to steady himself. Todd mumbled, “Shit,” and bent over as if to throw up.
“Is this Gordon Tanner?” Swayze asked casually.
Mark nodded as Todd backed away.
The lady zipped him up again and picked up a small plastic bag. She said, “There were no shoes, socks, pants, or underwear. This is what's left of his shirt. There's nothing else.”
Swayze said, “That's why we couldn't do a positive ID. We figured it was him, but his wallet, keys, everything was missing. I'm sorry.”
Mark closed his eyes and said, “So am I.” For some reason, he touched the body bag around the ankles and gave it a pat. “So amÂ I.”
They followed the lady out of Body Storage. In the hallway, Mark asked the detective, “So what happens now?”
“The family has done the paperwork. Their funeral home will come get him. He'll be transported in a couple of hours.”
“Nothing else from us?”
“No. Thanks, and again I'm very sorry.”
They sat with Zola in the waiting room for a long time. Things were quiet and somber until Todd said, “Let's get out of here.”
Outside, Mark stopped and said, “I guess I need to call Mr. Tanner.”
FOR THE REST
of Tuesday and throughout Wednesday, Todd and Mark stayed close to Zola. She was unable to work and lost her job as a temp with the accounting firm. It was seasonal anyway. When Todd put in a few hours at the bar, Mark stayed with her. They took long walks around the city, hanging out in bookstores, window-shopping, and thawing out in coffee bars. When Mark puttered around Ness Skelton, Todd took her to the movies. They stayed in her apartment each night, though she assured them she was fine. She wasn't. None of them were. They were sleepwalking through a nightmare and needed each other.
As other law students drifted back to town, they wanted to talk about Gordy, conversations the three preferred to avoid. On Thursday night, one carload drove to Martinsburg for visitation at the funeral home, but Mark, Todd, and Zola decided to skip it. A party materialized later that night at a popular sports bar, and they spent an hour with friends. They left when the beer was flowing and their fellow students began offering toasts to Gordy.
Mark was relieved when Brenda did not call. He did not want to speak at the funeral, and knew it was unlikely anyway. Neither he nor Todd was asked to be a pallbearer, another relief. The service would be dreadful enough. They planned to stay away from the families and watch it from a distance, if that was possible. There was even talk of not attending, but that would have been wrong.
On Friday, Mark and Todd dressed in their nicest suits, white shirts, subdued ties, leather shoes, their best “interview uniforms,” and picked up Zola, who wore a long black dress and looked like a model. They drove ninety minutes to Martinsburg and scoped out the church, a pretty redbrick building with lots of stained glass. A crowd was already milling around the front steps. A hearse was parked at the curb. At 1:30, they entered the vestibule and took programs from an usher. On the cover was a handsome photo of their friend. Mark asked the usher about a balcony and he pointed at some stairs. It was still empty when they sat down in the rear pew, tucked away in a remote corner of the sanctuary, as far away as possible from the pulpit.
Zola sat between them and wiped her cheeks with a tissue. “This is all my fault,” she said and began crying. They didn't scold her and they didn't argue. Let the grieving run its course. There would be plenty of time to hash it out later. Mark and Todd felt like crying too but managed to keep their composure.
The church was beautiful, with a wood-paneled choir loft slightly elevated behind the pulpit and a massive pipe organ to one side. Behind the loft was a painting of Christ on the cross. Stained-glass windows lined the walls and provided plenty of light. Four sections of pews formed a semicircle around a center aisle. As they waited, a crew of solemn men set up dozens of flower arrangements on both sides of the pulpit.
The pews were filling quickly and soon there were others in the balcony. The Tanners and Karveys had lived in Martinsburg for generations and an overflow crowd was expected. Mark was reminded of his little fictional scenario when the town learned that one of its favorite sons had run off with an African Muslim, jilting his childhood sweetheart. Jilting everyone who knew Gordy. It was almost humorous a few days earlier, but not so much at the moment. Fortunately, the town would never know. If things had gone as planned, in about four months Mark and Todd would have been standing down there as groomsmen watching Brenda walk down the aisle. Now they were hiding in the balcony, paying their respects while trying to avoid the family.
An organist took her position and began playing a quiet dirge that seemed perfect for the occasion. After a few minutes, the choir filed in from a side door and filled the loft. It was obvious that Gordy's farewell would get the full treatment. The mourners kept coming and were soon standing along the walls. The balcony was packed and the three squeezed together to make room for an elderly couple. At 2:00Â p.m., the pastor appeared and settled in behind the pulpit. According to the program, he was the Reverend Gary Chester. He raised his arms and everyone stood. The casket was rolled down the center aisle with four pallbearers on each side. Behind it, Brenda walked alone, erect and steadfast. Mr. and Mrs. Tanner were behind her, then the rest of the family. Gordy had an older brother and a teenage sister, and she was struggling. Her brother had an arm around her shoulders, helping her. When the casket, mercifully unopened, was in place beneath the pulpit, and when the family took their seats, the Reverend Chester motioned for the crowd to sit.
Mark glanced at his watch: 2:12. How long would this last?
After a lengthy prayer by the reverend, the choir sang four stanzas of a hymn. The organist followed with a piece that could not have been more depressing. When she finished, several women were sobbing. Brenda's brother stood, walked to a lectern near the piano, and read Psalm 23. Chester returned to the pulpit and began his homily. Evidently, he had been there for a long time because he knew Gordy well. He told stories of watching the kid play football and baseball. Without using the word “suicide,” he dwelled on the mysteries of death and its often confusing forms. God is always in control. He has a plan for everything. And while we are left to question death, and especially tragedies, God knows what he is doing. We may someday understand why Gordy did what he did, or we may never know, but God is the supreme architect of all life and death and our faith in him is never ending.
Chester was reassuring, a real pro. At times his voice grew weak, and he was obviously suffering. Given the impossibility of his task, he gamely offered words of comfort.
Jimmy Hasbro was Gordy's favorite childhood friend, and Mark and Todd had partied with him several times during law school. His was the first of two eulogies. As a kid, Gordy was fascinated by snakes and liked to collect them. His mother, with good reason, banned them from the house. It was a cute little hobby that came to an abrupt end when a copperhead sank its fangs into his right knee. The doctors even considered amputation. Jimmy did a fine job with the story and brought some humor to the occasion. As teenagers, their favorite cop had been an old guy named Durdin, now dead. Late one night Durdin's squad car went missing. It was found the next morning in a pond just outside town. How it got there was a great mystery that had never been solved. Until now. With a flair for drama and humor, Jimmy told the story of Gordy “borrowing” the car and driving it into the pond as Jimmy watched. The church exploded with laughter that went on for several minutes. What a perfect time to reveal what really happened after all these years.
When the laughter passed, Jimmy grew somber again. His voice cracked when he described Gordy's loyalty. He called him the epitome of a “foxhole buddy,” the guy you want beside you in a fight. The guy who always had your back. Sadly, though, some of Gordy's friends had not been so loyal. When he needed them the most, when he was suffering and in need of help, some of his friends had not risen to the task.
Mark flinched and Zola grabbed his hand. Todd glanced over. All three felt sucker punched.
So this was the narrative in Martinsburg! Gordy wasn't responsible for his own actions. Brenda played no part in his crack-up. No, sir. Some friends in D.C., his law school pals, had neglectedÂ him.
His pals sat in stunned anger and disbelief.
Jimmy finally choked up and couldn't finish. Wiping his eyes, he stepped away from the pulpit and returned to his seat in the third row. The choir sang again. A kid from the church played the flute. A friend from Washington and Lee delivered the second eulogy, one that did not include finger-pointing. After fifty-five minutes, the Reverend Chester gave the closing prayer and the processional began. With the organ roaring, the congregation stood as the pallbearers rolled the casket down the aisle. Brenda, sobbing now, dutifully followed. There was a lot of loud crying, even up in the balcony.
Mark decided that he hated funerals. What purpose did they serve? There were far better ways to console the loved ones than gathering in a packed church to talk about the deceased and have a good cry.
Todd whispered, “Let's just sit here for a moment, okay?”
Mark had the same thought. Brenda and the families were outside, wailing and hugging as they loaded Gordy into the hearse, which they would then follow to the cemetery down the road, where they would gather again for the burial, another gut-wrenching service the three had no plans to watch. And Jimmy Hasbro would be in the middle of it. If Mark made eye contact with him, he might throw a punch and ruin the day.
As the balcony emptied, they watched the same crew hurriedly gather the flowers and whisk them away, no doubt headed for the cemetery. When the flowers were gone, and the sanctuary was empty, they sat, waiting.
In a low voice, Mark said, “I can't believe this. Everybody's blaming us.”
“That son of a bitch,” Todd said.
“Please,” Zola said. “Not in church.”
They watched a custodian remove some folding chairs near the piano. He looked up, saw them sitting alone in the balcony, and seemed curious about their presence. Then he returned to his job and left the sanctuary.