This month, Akashic Books releases the short-story collection Richmond Noir, edited by Andrew Blossom, Brian Castleberry and Tom De Haven. The book features 15 hard-boiled tales taking place in the darker corners of our fair city, with contributions from local authors such as De Haven, David Robbins, Richmond magazine's own Anne Thomas Soffee and Dennis Danvers, whose story "Texas Beach" is presented here. Signings featuring Richmond Noir's editors and various contributors will be held at the New York Deli on March 4 and at the Libbie Place Barnes & Noble on March 13, with additional events planned. For a complete schedule, visit akashicbooks.com.
He lies sprawled facedown in the water just short of the beach as if he tried to swim across the James and came up short. I turn him over, pull his upper body out of the water, then discover his lower torso hasn't quite turned with the rest of him. He couldn't have been swimming anywhere like this. His pelvis is crushed. He's dark, probably Mexican or Guatemalan. He has on one battered leather garden glove, on his right hand. His left hand is bent at an odd angle, and a bone protrudes from his left forearm.
I throw up in the river and call 911.
I'm at Texas Beach, I tell them, on the water. There's a dead man here. They tell me to stay with him. I say I will. That's what I need. To sit with a dead man. I've come down here to wallow in grief. My old dog whose favorite haunt this was when she was alive died a couple of days ago, and I've been pretty much useless ever since. I was almost on top of the dead man before I realized what I was looking at. It's early Thursday, the sun just coming up. I haven't slept much.
His feet are still in the water. He's wearing heavy, oil-stained work boots, almost cracked. His jeans have ridden up on his oddly pale shins. Something floats out of the top of one of the boots, and I grab it before it drifts off. A wood chip. I put it in my pocket. It could be evidence of something. I pull him the rest of the way out of the water. More chips spill out as the jeans catch on the sand and unfurl, covering his shins.
When I moved to Richmond from Texas twenty years ago, I missed seeing brown faces. Richmond was a town in black and white. That's changed since NAFTA, like the rest of the country. When I was a kid walking across the bridge into Juárez with my parents, there'd be kids my age standing in the tarnished water of the Rio Grande, their hands uplifted for pennies tossed from the bridge. This man, the dead man, has gray temples, crow's feet. He could be my age, sixty. He could've been one of those kids half a century ago.
I wonder how he ended up here — not in Richmond, I understand those economic realities well enough — but here, washed up on the shore of Texas Beach, almost broken in half. I wonder if he was the victim of a hit and run. I wonder if he was murdered. When the sun shines upon his face, I take pictures of him from several angles.
I sit with him another fifteen minutes, absorbing what I can. I've probably disturbed the body too much already. I want to look in his pockets, but I resist. They appear to be empty.
Pretty soon there's a crowd. I hear one of the guys tending to the body telling another to be careful because "his midsection's smashed up pretty bad." The cop who's going to question me keeps me waiting while he gives the relevant facts over the phone to some anxious superior somewhere: a presumed illegal, no identification, appears to have died elsewhere of undetermined causes. He ends with, "Yes sir, I will, sir," repeated several times like a ritual response.
Most everyone else has gone with the body back through the woods and over the bridge spanning the tracks and the canal, up a steep trail to the parking lot. Off in the distance you can hear someone shouting, "Watch it! Watch it! Watch it!" We're standing on the beach beside where I found the body.
The cop asks me what I know, and I tell him. I tell him about the wood chips. He doesn't seem particularly interested. "Do you think it's a homicide?" I ask.
"We haven't ruled it out. We plan an immediate autopsy to determine cause of death. We don't want any idle speculation in the press."
"What happens if it is homicide?"
"Since we don't know who the man was, the investigation would be difficult. We hope someone will come forth with information, of course. It's not likely in my experience, with cases like these, but you never know."
"Cases like these?"
"Victims from the illegal immigrant community. They fear bringing any scrutiny upon themselves. Understandable. Times like these. To tell you the truth,
I doubt anything will come of it. We've got nothing to go on."
Times like these. I suppose that phrase means the strident debate over "illegals," as if that's the single quality that matters.
I would share with him what I think of these times, but what point is there telling a cop what you think of the law? He's only entitled to one opinion. In the silence between us, I hear the river. It's never completely silent down by the river. Dog and I used to sit on the beach and listen, or maybe for her it was the smells. Whatever it was, it always made her smile.
I walk home across Byrd Park where dog used to retrieve Frisbee, ball, stick, anything, until she got too old. I imagine, if she were here, I'd talk it over with her. She'd agree, I imagine, that I can't just let this thing go. She had a highly developed sense of fair play and a good heart. Concern for the law, not so much: no dogs are allowed in Byrd Park. The signs are everywhere, right next to the ones fantasizing about the speed limits. A few blocks away is a drug-free zone, in case you're in the market.
By the time I get home, I'm pissed off. Nothing to go on? Why isn't a dead man enough to go on? Anger seems to take the edge off the grief.
I sit in front of my computer and try to write for a couple of hours with a negative word count of 325. I quit while I'm behind. I call a former crime reporter I'm friendly with. He was recently downsized in the local newspaper's successful attempt to make itself even more fluffy and irrelevant than before, while retaining its essential reactionary character, a task I would've thought impossible. I ask him if he can find out what the autopsy turns up. He calls the dead man "Juan Doe." Ha-ha. He's kind of a macho jerk, but a good reporter.
He calls back Friday evening. Usually dog and I would be out walking. I'm just sitting around thinking about that. My wife's upstairs in bed, crying or sleeping.
He tells me about the dead man: "Crushed by something big, probably a tree, causing massive trauma. He was dead before he went in the water. Accidental death. The tree did it. Case closed."
"You're sh---ing me."
"The wheels of justice, my friend."
"How did he get in the water, when he was pinned under a tree with massive trauma?"
"Undetermined. The river did it. But he died on dry land, and he died slow. Somewhere between forty-five minutes and ninety minutes between trauma and death. He bled out. Within twenty-four hours of when you found him, probably less."
"The river level hasn't changed in a week."
"Nobody wants this one. It's got a bad smell to it. This way it goes away. Another illegal dies in a work-related accident. Tough break. Adios."
Sunday morning I'm back at Texas Beach. Dog and I used to go upriver from here all the time. About a half-mile up, the outflow from the canal cuts off easy passage. The rocks are slippery as hell, so you can either trespass on the railroad tracks or wade in the shallows. It's chilly, so I illegally trespass. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I suspect the dead man was dumped in the water somewhere on the north bank and floated down to Texas Beach. I guess I'm looking for the killer tree. Then maybe I'll interrogate the beavers who chewed him out from under the killer tree and dragged him to the water after the muskrats emptied his pockets.
This is the wildest stretch of the park, spectacular towering pines, sycamores, oaks, and hickories. Woody Woodpecker and his girlfriend swoop through here often. It's just a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the James and the CSX tracks. The old Kanawha Canal runs on the other side of the tracks, cutting off easy access. Dog and I spent many a wilderness hour here. I reach the end of park property, just opposite the three-mile canal locks and the old pumphouse, which have their own park.
Unfortunately, the only way to proceed west is to continue trespassing across the tracks. There's a break in the fence, familiar to dog and me, a short jog away. She hadn't been able to make the dash in a while with her stiff hind legs, and it turns out the fence has been repaired. I jog a little farther and scramble up the embankment into Pumphouse Park. The always short-handed Richmond police used to have undercover cops working the park looking to entrap gay men back before the Supreme Court decided homosexuality isn't illegal after all. Amnesty for nature. What is the world coming to? Sunday morning, there's nobody around but dog walkers, and they won't care.
The canal continues west from the park all the way to the water treatment plant, the old towpath alongside it. It's not clear to me who owns the canal and the towpath. They belong to history would be a truly Richmond sentiment. CSX, however, seems to be the ones putting up the No Trespassing signs. There's a verse of "This Land Is Your Land" not sung much around the campfire that points out there's two sides to such signs, the side saying nothing being the one belonging to you and me. I wanted to quote that neglected verse as an epigraph in a novel of mine a few years back, but I was told I'd have to pay the owners a few hundred bucks or it would be illegal. Woody Guthrie was dead by then. I'm sure he would've been amused at the ironies.
Stretches are overgrown with greenbriers, but I've brought a folding handsaw and gloves. Dog hated greenbriers and slunk along reluctantly when I'd get one of these bushwhacking urges, but slink along she did, through damn near anything. Dogged, they call it.
By the time I pass under the spectacular railroad bridge Richmond likes well enough to use on its logo, the worst of the greenbriers have thinned out. I've reached the limits of any exploration dog and I ever made. Before 9/11 my wife and I paddled a canoe up the canal, right through the water treatment plant. With a couple of portages we made it the length of the canal. Land passage is trickier, especially with a dog, but I'm dogless now, so I persist. The way becomes increasingly obscure and likely even more illegal, but I'm determined to find the truth, if not necessarily eager to confess how I get there.
I smell it first, the scent of fresh cut wood. A dozen trees of various sizes are scattered about like jackstraws. It doesn't take long to figure out why. A house as grand as its view of the James stands on the bank above me. These trees were in the way. There've been a couple of cases in recent years like this: rich folks on either side of the river cutting down trees to get the view they paid for, willing to pay the fine and repent, claiming ignorance of the law. The rich don't read the paper apparently. You see, it's illegal to f--k with the watershed like that. Who better to do an illegal job than an illegal?
Every level of the house has a grand balcony of some sort. Windows gleam in the sun. All empty. No eyes at home. Maybe they're looking to heaven in some slate-roofed church. I climb among the fallen trees. There's sawdust everywhere. I approach a fallen sycamore trunk lying flat that comes up to my chest. About ten yards from the water, a hollow has been dug out of the sandy soil beneath it. I stare into the shallow recess, and I can hear the shovels hitting the dirt to make this hole with quick, frantic strokes. I buried dog in our tiny backyard. It's probably illegal. I fought with my wife about it. She was probably right. I can't say it's actually delivered on the promised closure I've heard others say it gave them. Maybe I don't want closure.
I crawl into the hole to see the underside of the sycamore, like a beached white whale, and there's blood, has to be, soaked into the bark. The tree indeed did it. There are at least four distinct shoe tracks on the beach, not counting mine. There's a furrow through the sand to the water. A beaver maybe, or a man's heels. In the grass beside the furrow, I find an ordinary work glove like the dead man was wearing. A left. The river had
It doesn't take long to find out who owns the house. I even have a nice Google Maps photo of the place from space taken back when there were trees along the river. Naturally, I've heard of the guy. If you're rich enough to have a big place on the river, chances are you've made a ripple. This guy's more like a deep current. Lately he's been riding that current right into the legislature. Illegals are his hot-button issue. His TV ad promising he'll get tough on illegals has him in front of St. John's Church where Patrick Henry made his treasonous speech.
I call up the cop who questioned me, leave several messages. I'm sitting in the backyard beside dog's grave, drinking a beer, when he finally calls me back Monday evening. I tell him what I've found out. He tries to talk me out of it meaning anything.
"What about the glove?"
"And what links the glove to the victim?"
"The matching glove on the victim?"
"There was no glove on the victim."
"What are you talking about? I saw it. There was a glove on his right hand."
"I'm telling you. I've got the file right here in front of me, and there's no glove."
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you whose house it was right off."
There's a silence I take to mean I'm supposed to think he's offended. "I assure you we will investigate as we deem appropriate. I suggest you leave this matter to the proper authorities. And I remind you that trespassing on private property is a serious offense and potentially dangerous to the trespasser."
He hangs up.
I check the photos I took of the dead man. I must've thought I was doing a portrait study or a mug shot. None of them show his right hand.
Next morning I'm at the corner of the Lowe's parking lot where I've seen brown men gathering looking for work. A dozen or so guys cycle through, hired by circling SUVs and pickups with law-abiding citizens behind the wheel.
I show the workers pictures of the dead man, talk to them in my awkward, rusty Spanish. They're nice to me, patient. They admire my white beard. Señor Barbas one of them calls me. Mr. Whiskers. I figure they think I'm a cop, INS, or a crazy street person, but
I hang around anyway, boring them with stories about my travels in Mexico.
Another man, however, who's been in Richmond awhile, gives me the nickname that sticks. "General Lee," he says. "El hombre a caballo." The man on horseback. We're only blocks from the statue, and he isn't the first to note the resemblance, especially if I haven't been eating enough fiber or I've just watched what passes for the evening news. I was once mistaken for a Lee reenactor while walking past the Confederate Chapel on my way out of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The city's full of memorials to the leaders of the armed rebellion against the legal authority of the United States — the same one nation under God indivisible that the devoted admirers of those memorials like to wax pious about with a mystifying lack of irony.
The conversation turns to politics. They have questions about the Civil War. Mexicans understand revolutions, revolutionaries. They're curious why the losers got the statues. It's complicated, I tell them. Fortunately, they understand class and race too.
I get a few odd glances from the people looking for workers. A neighbor from a few blocks away whose name I can't recall spots me, and he seems genuinely alarmed to see me sitting on the fence with the Mexicans. I approach to reassure him or to offer to do light carpentry, I'm not sure which. He only knows me because dog and I used to walk by his house, but she hadn't been able to make it that far in over a year.
"How's your dog?" he asks me. Of course he's going to ask me. Everyone's going to ask me. He just happens to be the first.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"She lived a good life."
He tosses his head toward the workers. "You doing research for a story or something?"
"We were just talking about the Civil War. Can't become a true Richmonder, become assimilated as it were, without talking some Civil War trash, right?"
It's supposed to be a joke, but he doesn't crack a smile. "Do any of these guys do
I get out of the way of commerce. Antonio, who's hung around for the whole General Lee gringo show and looked stunned when I first showed him the pictures of the dead man, asks how old my dog was. "Quince,"
I say. Fifteen.
"My oldest sister," he says in English. "She have a dog. In Kansas City. She crazy about that dog."
I give him the pictures of the dead man. I've written my phone number on the back. "I found him, okay? I pulled him out of the river. I have to do something. Maybe you know someone who knew him. Maybe someone else will know."
As I walk home through the Fan, the word sticks in my mind, a quick, stabbing chant, quince, quince, quince. When I get home there's a message from my ex-reporter friend who kayaked over to see the site only to find there'd been a bonfire, still smoldering. Teens, they're saying, drinking, getting out of hand, or maybe homeless. Or illegals. Damn them all to hell!
I walk through the house with a garbage bag, gathering up every tennis ball, veterinary prescription bottle, squeaky toy, busted leash, food dish, rawhide, etc., getting down on hands and knees if necessary until I'm sure I've found them all, then I put the bag in the trash can in the alley.
My wife returns home from work desolate and exhausted from having to hold it together all day at some inane training about terrorism. We have a quick dinner, narrate the fragile bones of our days, and go to bed early. She wants to be more engaged by my story of trying to help the dead man, but neither one of us has anything left. "Be careful," she says, and falls asleep. I lie awake awhile and finally get out of bed.
A little after midnight my phone rings, and I take it. I'm at my computer, staring at the screen, at the Google photo of a time when the dead man was still alive. It's Antonio with an address out Jeff Davis Highway, a trailer park. Can I come now? Some of the people I need to talk to just got off work. Others have to go in early. Two men are arguing in the background in rapid-fire Spanish too faint and fast for me to track. Sure, I say.
It's a grim, tired place, but affordable. If it has a name, I don't see it. There's a certain coziness about the old trailers crammed in close together, the sounds of TVs and radios, cooking smells. I roll through slow, my General Lee beard must look like Casper floating by. A woman watches me pass through a tiny trailer window. She must be bent over her kitchen sink.
At number seventeen, several somber men are waiting for me. We go inside where there are several more men and a single woman packed into what is likely the largest living room in the park. The men whose voices I recognize from the phone continue their argument. Not everybody thinks inviting me was such a great idea. Enough, several say. Let the man speak. So I tell my story. They're not taking any chances on my Spanish. A woman named Irayda translates.
Then they tell her their story, and Irayda tells it to me, though I get the gist in Spanish. They were working with Felix — Felix is the dead man — when the man who hired them — the man who lived in the big house up above — showed up to hurry them. People were coming to his house, and he didn't want anyone to see them working, but it was a big job and dangerous because there were some large trees and not much room to get out of the way if anything went wrong.
The big white tree came crashing down on Felix while the man from the house was there shouting at them. He told them not to call 911 or they'd all be arrested and deported, and they could dig Felix out and take him to the hospital just as fast themselves. They started digging. They didn't have enough shovels for everyone. One of the men went back to the truck to get some more, but they couldn't get Felix out before he died. The man said he'd call 911 after they took off, so they wouldn't be arrested. They had left the man alone with Felix's body Wednesday night. Then I showed up at Lowe's the following Tuesday with his picture. Antonio stayed with Felix's son when he first came to Richmond. His son was killed in a robbery last year.
Irayda says, "They appreciate what you've done for Felix, but they would like you to stop now. If it was only them, it would be different, but they must consider the welfare of others — their families, their neighbors, their children. They know whose house it is. Things are hard enough already, the way things have been lately. You understand?"
I wish I didn't, but I do, so I don't give her any argument. I shake hands all around. She leaves when I do, driving to a more affluent part of town. Probably here legally, well-educated, from a prosperous family back home in Mexico or Guatemala — maybe she knew Felix, or maybe she just wanted to help.
I miss my turn, or something inside me refuses to take it, and I head for the house of the man promising on the radio to keep America safe for Americans or some such gibberish. I twist and turn through streets all named with a bit of the lord-and-manor about them. Once you get anywhere close to the river-fronting properties, the roads are all private. If I hadn't pored over the Google photo, I don't think I would've known which one to take. I roll right up front. I'm surprised there's not a fence or something. Maybe there's a virtual fence, like the one in Arizona. The lights are on. Someone's home.
And quite a home it is, stretched to make room for windows on one side and plenty of pavement on the other. Several cars much nicer than my Civic are parked here. They're all wearing the host's bumper sticker on their ass. Sounds like a party going on, people talking and laughing over Cuban jazz. Campaigning must make for some late nights, or maybe he just can't sleep. The air is heavy with the smell of charred wood. Must put a damper on
I button up my shirt and tuck it in, ring the bell, and smile into the camera. General Lee calling. The candidate himself opens the door, and I tell him I'm a constituent wanting to discuss the issues. He has to shake my offered hand, an old white man, and I hang on, pumping his hand, so honored don't you know, herding him inside. He can't stop me. It's not nice to body-block the elderly. There are a dozen or so folks, still all dressed up for a fund-raiser, standing around having a nightcap with the candidate. He has to make nice with an audience present. Virginia politicians know all too well a cell phone can bring down a senator.
A couple of big-chested fellows are eyeing me. Security obviously. Can't have too much of that. Everyone else is watching to see if I'll be amusing. There's a black Lab sitting at the end of a long empty sofa. It's porcelain. Behind it is a wall of windows. "Would you look at the view?" I say. It's a dark night. The room is lit up bright. All there is to see is a bunch of white people reflected in the glass against a black backdrop, like a painting on black velvet of white-faced dogs playing poker.
"You can't really see anything with all the lights on, I'm afraid," says my host, chuckling amiably, professionally.
"It's always something, isn't it? Trees. Lives. Bright lights. I just came by to tell you I'm not voting for you. I don't like your stand on the issues — immigrant labor and watershed management in particular."
The two security guys have been moving in until they're standing on either side of us like we're about to huddle. One reaches inside his jacket and keeps his hand there. His right.
The candidate turns off his bright smile, so I can see inside, where he's actually a good deal meaner than he might first appear to be. But I already knew that. "I'm afraid it's late Mr. ... ?"
"Mr. Lee. Perhaps if you'd come by my office we could discuss the matter further."
I have to let it go. I have to consider the welfare of others. "I'd rather not." I give it one last look, and they all follow my gaze, all of us glancing back. Mr. Whiskers looks like a faux full moon in the foyer. "Killer view."
He's standing right beside me. He makes a little grunt like I hit him in the gut. Nothing like the sound he'd make if I actually hit him. Nothing like the sound Felix must've made when several tons of tree came crashing down on him. But something.
I show myself out. The security guys watch me drive away, back to the public roads on the other side of a virtual fence, keeping the borders secure.
When the key turns in the lock, I still expect to hear dog struggling to her feet. Before she died I thought this silence would be better than listening to her gradual decline. Not so. Not yet, a little over a week now.
My wife's up, watching a muted television. Wal-Mart is cutting prices.
"How you doing?" she asks.
"Better, I think. What about you?"
"Someone asked at work today how my dog was doing."
"What did you say?"
"I said she had a good life."
"That's what I said too."
"Did you find out anything about the dead man?"
"His name was Felix."
I sit down beside her, and we hold each other in the silence and manage not to cry. ■