Death of a Talisman
A Singular Tale of Bush Droppings
“A dead body was discovered on the peninsula this morning by early arriving Caltrain commuters. The body was curled up on an oak-stained bench inside the cozy, historic San Carlos Caltrain station.
Police are listing the 50ish white male as John Doe. Though he had two satchels with him filled, ostensibly, with his belongings, police discovered no identification papers. Police also report that no one on the peninsula fitting the description of the deceased has been reported missing.”
I was at the bar at the Sundance Tavern in San Francisco, a not uncommon perch for me at 4pm on a non-descript Wednesday. Not much on the tube at this hour, part and parcel why I’d usually stroll the two blocks from my apartment to chat with Alvin the bartender and see how dry he could mix my martini.
Alvin and I were watching the local news.
That report caught my eye if for no other reason than San Carlos was my hometown, and rarely did news occur in it that warranted coverage on television. I wrote it off to a slow news day, ordered another Tanqueray martini, and suddenly leaned back and looked up at the slowly rotating ceiling fan.
Al set my fresh drink in front of me and I nodded. He rapped his knuckles on the bar and said, quietly, “On the house.”
My nod morphed into a full-fledged grin. We spoke a paragraph without words or sound, and then he went back to his newspaper.
Of course, being a retired columnist, I knew what ‘ostensibly’ meant. I was trying to fit it into the context of the news report.
Guy was dead. Curled up in the fetal position apparently, as we all should be when we go, you ask me. He had two bags nearby. Loaded with stuff. His stuff? Perhaps not to assume so directly, an editor or producer had inserted ‘ostensibly’ into the female anchor’s text.
I couldn’t get it out of my head what was in those two bags. I wanted to know.
I still had a contact over at the station and called him on my cell. He was able to connect me with the anchor who’d read the piece on air. I could hear her inhale and then exhale a plume of cigarette smoke as she picked up the phone. “Doreen Simmons.”
Her voice only barely resembled that of which she used on the air. The woman on the phone had a slight rasp, an almost hoarseness to her timbre.
I explained to her what I was looking for, and why. The ‘why’ was a lie I made up on the spot, of course, because I simply didn’t know why.
I pulled a small pad and pen from my jacket pocket and began scribbling as she read off from her notes what the police had told her about the contents of the deceased’s bags.
Two DVDs of “Inside the Actors Studio”; one with Robert Redford, one with Paul Newman.
Three CDs; a live Jimmy Buffett concert and Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits. The third CD was not labeled nor in a plastic case.
Clothing, mostly shorts. One pair of black flip flops. One neck tie embossed with a drawing of “The Thinker”, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture.
A CA driver’s license with a photo of a black woman on it.
Four books, all paperback. “The Prince of Tides”; “Ball Four”; “Maybe, Maybe Not”; and “Kitchen Confidential”.
I set my pen down for a quick sip of my drink. She continued to rattle on. This was more detail than I’d hoped for. Must of have been a slow crime day as well for San Carlos’s finest.
Two 8x10 color photographs, folded in half. Apparently two separate wedding day shots. The deceased was in both, but the wedding gown-clad women were different.
I asked her if she could ballpark guess an age difference between the two photos. I heard her lighter click to life and light something that would eventually take her life. She again blew smoke out audibly. “Maybe 15 years. But I’m totally guessing. Did you used to be in the business?”
I told her my name and she laughed. “When you retired, I’d heard you went to Mexico or something.”
”I did. Now I’m back. Working on a book.”
“Yeah, well, keep my name out of it.”
”Can’t promise Doreen, but it’s tempting.”
Again with the gravelly laugh, then right back to business.
A small felt covered jewelry box designed to hold one ring, but this one held two diamond wedding rings. She said the cops said they looked real, and might be worth some serious scratch.
I finished my drink and in the age-old gesture to have it replenished, merely slid it to the back of the bar, just in front of the narrow well. Wouldn’t even need to catch Al’s eye. He could hear it, like all good bartenders.
She mentioned that the cops found it interesting that there were none of the electronic accoutrements so ingrained in today’s era of computerized everything. No cell phone. No iPad, no laptop. He wasn’t even wearing a watch. In fact, other than the two diamond rings, there was no other jewelry, either in his bags or on his person.
One rolled up porn magazine. Usual stuff, no children or animals.
A framed photo of the deceased, standing alone in a tuxedo, in front of a black Corvette, his arms outspread, grinning smugly at the camera. Could be another wedding photo, but no way to know.
A mini bronze statue, about 4 inches in height, of “The Thinker”. Found rolled up in the clenched right fist of the deceased. Ok, we were beginning to sense a theme or a pattern here. Doreen made no comment and moved on.
A bottle of drinking water, no label or embossed logo on it, half filled.
A postcard from Paris, depicting the requisite Eiffel Tower photo, with the simple declaration: “I left you a kiss in front of The Thinker”. And signed, ‘Love Rebecca’, with no comma.
Was this guy a Rodin scholar? A pottery buff? A fan of The Renaissance?
There was a tale to be told here. I could feel it.
The next morning I drove down the peninsula to the San Carlos Police Department.
Of course, after cooling my heels for 45 minutes in the lobby, I was shuffled around to 3 officers before being presented with the officer involved with the case. I showed him my still legal press pass, and he answered my questions by rote, giving nothing past the bare minimum. I remembered how cops were. I wasn’t going to get anything unless I pried it out of him.
“So tell me about this little statue in his right fist.”
The cop, a young guy, maybe late twenties with a neatly trimmed goatee, pushed his hat back up on his head and leaned back, casually crossing his ankles on his desk.
“The Thinker. Yeah, I took a couple of years at Cal before bouncing around and ending up here. I know this Rodin guy.”
Except he pronounced it literally, with the short “i”, not unlike when Manhattanites get asked where Houston Street is by a stranger who pronounces it like the city in Texas. Dead giveaway.
I nodded encouragingly. I didn’t care if this guy thought he was educated or not. I was looking for data.
He continued. “Yeah, so the interesting thing about that is, when I pried his hand open and removed the statue, his palm was all bloody. Like he’d gripped it so tight it cut into his skin.”
“It was his blood?”
The reporter in me hadn’t died, apparently.
“How the hell would I know? I assume it is, or was. Not worth getting the lab guys out of bed to verify it. Just another stiff in a train station. Another homeless guy whose ticket needed punching. We call ‘em Bush Droppings around here. Byproducts of W’s collapsed economy.”
I wrote it down. Bush Droppings. Nice. Possible title, even. I thanked the cop for his time, shook his limp hand and drove back to the city. Straight to the Sundance.
“Alvin my good man. You know what I want, you know I want it drier than Noel Coward, and you know I want it yesterday.”
He’d heard that exact opening gambit from me before. This time as I strode in like I owned the place, I was performing it for the two strangers I noticed at the end of the bar. A dog pees in the corner to own it…I establish immediate kinesis with my bartender to prove I belong. Sue me.
Drink in front of me; I wave at Al not to retreat. I tell him of my little trip. He remembers the telecast we watched together yesterday as well. Thinks it’s an intriguing story. I tip him a ten, just for being Al. Money well spent, as any drinker knows.
I pass the next hour silently, mulling over the exact direction I want to take the story. There are two or three ways to go with it, and I finally narrow it down to one, just as my third martini finishes its job.
The next morning, I plop myself in front of my computer, something I did every morning, but usually only to check email.
I wasn’t really writing a book. I lied to Doreen. Again, sue me.
This morning was different. I told myself email would have to wait, maybe even employ it as the carrot at the end of the stick. I wanted to get this all down on paper. It had incubated well overnight, culminating in an early morning dream of a bus station and a lonely old black fellow limping through it, scuffed black leather suitcase looking like the face of an old Negro Leagues baseball player from the 40s dangling from his right hand; a tan, equally scuffy satchel hanging on his opposite shoulder. A Satchel carrying a satchel? Hmmmmm.
A rare dream in that I remembered every detail when I woke up. Still not trusting myself, I immediately wrote it all down.
I booted up and opened a new Word document. The cop had unknowingly supplied me with the title.
When a man reaches the end of his rope, he often has no idea how close he actually is to the abyss. Whether he is moments away from his heart attacking him, or a sinister visit from Senor Stroke, or just a messy old Crosstown #11 face-planting its grill on his face, sending him on his way to the big Porta Potty in the sky looking like an omelet, it is not uncommon for people to die with a look of utter incredulity on their face.
But this death was different. No one will ever know if it was sudden, if he knew he was being taken out of the game, or did Dr. Death creep up on him in his sleep, and simply add the word “Big” to it.
He remained unidentified for weeks, and ultimately, was never identified. A pauper’s grave for him. Probably was destined for it from an early age. Most of them are.
Some curious soul at the coroner’s office was assigned the task of disposing of his belongings. After a moment of hesitation, he went through the two meager satchels that were found next to the man’s body. He also had a copy of the police report, stapled to the death certificate, and destined to be filed with the city in some obscure cabinet. He placed his Diet Pepsi can on the folded open police report and read it slowly as he removed the items one by one.
He decided to go in order of the way they were described on the report, as opposed to his more random choices as he emptied the sacks. He even got his own pad and pencil and took some notes:
The DVD’s are interesting. A Redford and Newman fan, one might confidently surmise. One could make worse choices for heroes. Two points for John Doe.
CDs…hmmmm. Two crooners; one who could sing, and one who can’t. Maybe he had these with him simply to convey his eclectic tastes? Minus one point for ole JD.
Clothes reveal little. Maybe an affinity for warm, tropical weather? Would go along with the Buffett CD. Maybe a beach bum in his day? Plus one point for possible link to CD.
The driver’s license presents a conundrum. If it came into his possession after he’d hit the skids, it could simply be a hooker’s DL. Assumptive and racist maybe, but it’s only speculation. If he’s had it forever, no explanation presents itself. No points.
The books are intriguing to me. I have read all four. What are THOSE odds? “Prince of Tides” is one of my favorite all time books. “Ball Four” is a timeless non-fiction baseball tome that is required reading for any baseball fan over the age of 18. The Fulghum book, “Maybe, Maybe Not” is most intriguing. Even I know it is an acquired taste and stands out in this group of four like a sore thumb. “Kitchen Confidential” is a must read for all those chefs to come, those Food Network junkies who have grown up on the televised art of cooking. Just like how every young Korean girl has a golf club in her hand by the time she can walk. Great cross section of books. Would love to know his thought process when he chose these four to bring along. Ten points for the dead guy. Might even have to give him a name now.
The wedding photos, though self explanatory are heartbreakingly poignant. The couples in both look radiant. Who feels more on top of the world than a couple on their wedding day? And yet so many tumble down that mountain and end up a bloody heap at the bottom. Wedding videos and photos have always been bitter sweet to me. Five points for a man who clearly was divorced at least twice, yet still clung to his idealistic day in the sun.
Same theme with the wedding rings. I’m surprised some sticky fingered cop hasn’t stolen these already. This guy clearly missed having someone by his side. Five more points for the dead and lonely guy.
No hardware, just the cops interesting, almost sociological commentary on his report about the lack of electronic gizmos. And no watch, either. Guy probably felt like time had stopped for him. Two points for the dead guy for staying old school to the bitter end.
Porn? No comment. It is what it is. No points.
This next photo is intriguing. Looks very wedding-ish, but why the Corvette? And the tux looks the same as from the 2nd, or most recent wedding photo. But where’s the new bride? Was the guy more into his ride than his wife? Could this photo have foretold the beginning of the end…on his wedding day, no less? Ten points for an obvious broken heart.
The water bottle adds nothing to the tale, though no label is interesting…No points.
The post card makes me wince. Was Rebecca one of the two brides in the photos? This little card raised many questions. It was so intriguing as to be a story in and of itself. And no comma…between Love and her name? Doesn’t that turn it from a salutation into a request? Twenty points for outright intrigue.
The final item, combined with the cops addendum on his report about the guy’s hand being bloody as they unwrapped the clenched fist and removed the small bronze statue of “The Thinker” from it, sure looks like a link to this Rebecca woman. Did he squeeze this talisman so tight when he died that he screamed out? Fifty points for having never let go of Rebecca, even if only figuratively.
One hundred and four points for my dead guy. I put the report back into the manila envelope and sealed it. I refilled the two satchels with the man’s belongings, careful to place the blood stained statue in last, on top of the clothes.
I looked back over my notes. Nineteen items, with the clothes counting as one. A total of thirteen questions raised by this man’s final belongings.
We push so hard in life to find answers, but I fear we all end up, when we die, full of questions.
Boy, did I need a fucking drink. I saved, logged off, and walked quickly to the Dance, as I liked to call it.
Alvin was in rare form and had my martini in front of me before I got back from the men’s room. I drank half of it in one swallow. Al stared at me? “Goin’ to the electric chair, Herbie?”
I grinned. And boy did I need to feel that grin spread on my face. The snowballing grimness of the story I’d just written had touched too many tender spots.
“Ever hear the term ‘Bush Droppings’, Al?”
“Nope. Never heard it.”
“Yeah,” I said, finishing the last half of my drink and sliding the glass toward him. “Me neither.”