Let a Good Thing Happen
I spent the hottest day of 2015 by myself searching Mount Tamalpais for my first, legitimately weird dead body™. Rather, where I encountered my first, legitimately weird dead body™.
Dead bodies are inherently weird. The lights go out, the last note of the song plays, and the decay begins at a rapid pace. Some bodies are inanimate and at peace. Some are dramatic and visceral, like hands grasping for anything as the soul is forced into the infinite. On Mount Tam, I sat on the top of the slow downward curve of a hillside. I hid in the grass, ate a peanut butter sandwich and reminisced.
In early 2012, I was a law enforcement park ranger. A couple foraging for mushrooms had discovered a body in a car at the bottom of an untravelled gulley. Once I arrived, I saw multiple agencies on scene. The location of the car was a contentious debate, because the investigation had to be managed by the appropriate jurisdiction. I did a quick look around and immediately recognized that it was not within my property lines. The correct agency was determined, and five of us hiked downhill to assess the crime scene.
The hillside was soft woodland grasses that changed into a small grove of redwood trees. Once inside the stand of trees, I saw a late model white Mercedes Benz sedan. The car was covered in a heavy layer of dust, and the windows were clouded over. One of the other officers ran the license plate and learned that it belonged to a suicidal man reported missing on the same day one year prior. The man was reported missing on the night of his birthday.
I approached the area with hesitation. Someone leaned in toward the driver’s side car window and exclaimed, “Look at that shit!” I was distracted by a cigarette lighter and a t-shirt on the ground covered by leaves and duff. The others gathered to peer into the car, and many walked away muttering a series of expletives. I leaned into the driver-side window and saw the shape of a human sitting in the passenger seat. The clothes were sunken against the remaining form of the skeleton. The hair, long and intact. The face a downey orb of white fluff. The entire face and ears. The neck. All of it replaced with soft white. I looked above the corpse and saw a single hole above the body, which extended out from the roof of the car. I lowered my gaze again to what was the remaining face on the body. The breeze that came through the hole stirred the tendrils of the white. The larger arms of the fuzz looked like an anemone.
We all walked back up to the roadside and the group talked about their disbelief in what they saw. I believed what I saw. I had no reason to disbelieve decay. My mind was focused entirely on his intentions. If his intent was to terminate his life by driving into a gulley, then he not only failed, but he failed spectacularly. His car had maneuvered around every single tree to the base, and came to rest in the peaceful quiet of the gulley. I imagined him, arms crossed over his chest as the car tipped off of the roadway, and I think of him hoping for good things in his life. He’s praying for a good thing to happen. He’s anchored every wish on the end of his life as the car picks up momentum into the night.
I finished my shift and immediately went home. I laid in bed and waited for sleep, but all I could think about was the overwhelming sense of failure that man must have felt. I empathized with that failure. I considered every intense failure in my life and amplified the scenarios to tip the edge of those failures into oblivion. To put such devotion into terminating himself only to wake up in the bottom of his figurative pit of despair surrounded by a literal pit of despair. I got out of bed, dressed myself, and walked to the Bridge Theater on Geary Boulevard for a midnight show. I stopped at a liquor store on the way and bought a fifth of Jack Daniels. I stowed the bottle in the sleeve of my coat, bought a ticket and settled in for whatever was playing.
Cowboy Bebop came on the screen and I cautiously opened the noisy bottle cap during the jazzy skronk of the opening song. I slid down in my seat and tipped back heavy gulps to ease my mind. The first episode was titled Mushroom Samba, and my mind instantly flashed back to the downy fluff of that man’s face.
I drank more and imagined touching his face. I pictured my hand, as a child, caressing the surface of a dandelion. The concentration involved in not disrupting something so fragile. I pictured my hand as an adult touching soft cheese, like brie, and then disappearing inside the carcass. I pulled my hand back toward my chest and saw it covered in dryer lint.
I woke up as the lights came on in the theater. I tucked the remaining half bottle back into my sleeve and left.
During my slow walk home, I recounted a trip I took to Detroit at the beginning of the century. I was in the midst of a college course on the works of the artist Thomas Hart Benton. It was spring and my peers were scheming trips to the many beaches of the gulf coast during the upcoming break. Instead of sun and fun, I chose to drive by myself to frigid Wisconsin and then Michigan in search of some of Benton’s more elusive works.
Before departure, I was contacted by an old friend from high school who wanted to wish me a safe trip and to give me a present. On my way out of town, I briefly met with him. He gave me a blank journal bound within an old college spelling textbook and a shoebox tied shut with twine. The top of the shoebox read, “Open once out of the state.” I gave him a hug, thanked him for the presents and set about on my trip.
Loneliness is discomforting. It always has been, and it always will be, for me. But, I’ve developed a strange fascination with the anxiety that loneliness produces. The sensation is similar to standing in front of a multi-paneled changing room mirror, or amidst a large body of calm water. The soul that looks out of the eyes escapes the self and is met with the reflection of the host. And only the host. At every angle the host. And there’s no escape. Humans are like thrift store puzzles. There are always pieces missing. You put the whole damn thing together, and the parts absent become the most significant. And amidst that loneliness, you scrabble together resources to fill in the blanks of the puzzle, or you lay down paralyzed by the absolute dejection and inability to cope.
The shoebox sat in the front passenger seat alongside me amidst a collection of roadworthy CDs, mostly Fleetwood Mac and 10000 Maniacs albums. After driving six or so hours, I pulled into a rest stop to sleep for the night. I grabbed a peanut butter sandwich from the back of the car and ate. While humming along to Verdi Cries, I glanced over and stared at the shoebox. I placed the uneaten half of the sandwich on the dash and tugged at the twine. With the closure loosened, I pulled off the lid and saw the desiccated corpse of a squirrel. Alongside the squirrel was a note that read, “A companion for your adventure — Chippy.” I tossed the box lid in the floorboard, mentally catalogued the remains of the squirrel and ate the remainder of the sandwich.
Night came on early. I lowered my car seat and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I stared at the corpse of the squirrel. I rolled onto my back and smoked a cigarette. Between occasional drags, I would glance over at the squirrel. I could not escape the persistent image of that dead thing in my car. I clenched the cigarette in my teeth, put the lid back on the box and placed the box on the hood of my car. Back inside the car, I finished the cigarette, but continued to stare at the box. My mind like an X-ray scope displayed the contents, and the mental image of the squirrel appeared far worse than the actual dead squirrel. I rolled on my right side and stared at the empty place where the box had been before falling asleep.
I awoke to a rush of noise from outside. Two raccoons were on the hood of my car prying open the shoebox. I leapt from the car and shooed them away. I grabbed the box and returned it to the passenger seat. I looked at my watch and then back at the box. 0415. I flipped the lid off the box into the floor, looked head on into the dead beast and yelled, “FUCK!”
From that point on my sleep and stimulant addled brain became friends with Chippy. I anthropomorphized Chippy. I found myself talking to him amidst the freezing cold of spring in the northern countryside. I shared with him my frustration upon finding that every work of art I had hoped to encounter on my trip had been warehoused. I shared with him my fear of growing up and my fear of growing up alone.
The nights had become too cold to sleep in my car and I rented a hotel room somewhere around Ann Arbor. I sat hunched over in the bed eating a fast food cheeseburger while Chippy took over the other half of the bed in his box. We stayed there, odd couple that we were, and watched the evening news before falling asleep.
That night I dreamt about Chippy’s last hours of life. In death, he was frozen into a convulsive pose, claws clenched inward toward his chest and with a terrified look on his face. I thought of him spritely dancing amongst the branches of a tall oak tree. The first rays of humid summer sunshine illuminating the leaves, his face fat and full, his coat supple and luxurious. The camera shifts up, away from the tree and the branches are barren amongst the sunshine. The leaves now gone, Chippy stares down at the water surrounding the tree and creates his last memory of what he looks like. With his inventory of failures fully itemized, Chippy falls asleep to his gaze on the water, and I wake up, and he’s there completely and perfectly dead.
The drive home was slow amidst a snowstorm that blew in from the north. I made a beeline for my friend’s house where I left Chippy to be later rediscovered. That friend and I have not since talked, and I have no doubt that Chippy was thrown in the trash amongst many other bad jokes and exhausted novelties.
I returned home from the movie theater and drank myself to sleep. I woke up late the next day, which was a day off from work. I spoke to the man I was dating at the time about the body in the car, and he directed the conversation to the sadness of his grandfather dying a few years back. Grandpas die and become dressed like wax figures in a satin-lined box, or a box to be placed on a mantle or discarded in the sea. Few sit in a pit of despair and rot into a orb of fluff. This man and I would not be friends in four years.
And I’m laboring over all of this while sitting at the top of a gulley, drenched in sweat and stink, eating the last pieces of a peanut butter sandwich. The dead squirrel and all of these dead men and all of these dead friendships. I have sought them out in the heat and loneliness of my present tense.
I pulled my arms in tight and rolled down the hill and imagined my entrance into oblivion.