The Canal

by Isaac Blum

The body washed up against the banks of the canal.

It was an almost objectively gorgeous day: clear, crisp, with a calm but steady autumn breeze. Young go-getters jogged down the asphalt path that followed the canal along the edge of town. Professionals strode to work, shiny leather briefcases reflecting the morning sun.

Tracy was walking Joe DiMaggio, and it was Joe who found the body. He tugged Tracy off the path, toward the water. Tracy, who was losing patience with Joltin’ Joe’s need to sniff everything, yanked him by the collar, but the lab-mix usually got his way, and Tracy wound up on the concrete embankment, staring into the vacant eyes of a very dead and very bloated man.

Tracy’s first thought was to wonder whether or not this would get her off work. And her next thought was guilt for the first thought. Her third thought was to call 911, and she tapped the numbers into her phone with trembling fingers. “Yes,” Tracy said, “I’d like to report a…drowning.”

“What’s your location ma’am?”

“On Holt, at the canal. The 400 block.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to check the individual for a pulse.”

On another occasion, Tracy might have laughed. It was like one of the corny jokes they wrote into CSI episodes. The real Joe DiMaggio was more likely to have a heartbeat. The dog Joe DiMaggio inched closer and closer to the water, stretching his nose toward the dead man’s balloon head. “He’s not breathing,” Tracy mumbled, and she hung up the phone.

On the one hand, Tracy wanted to go home. She wanted to shower, to scrub off the goosebumps that snaked up and down her arms. But on the other hand, this was almost certainly the most interesting thing that would happen to her in the foreseeable future, and she found herself squatting down at the edge of the canal to get a closer look at the man.

Or boy. She hadn’t realized how young he was, or had been. It’s hard to tell with people who’ve been soaked in canal water for extended periods of time, but with her face only a few feet from his, Tracy could see that this boy couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen.

An overwhelming sadness seized Tracy from the inside out. She stared into the young man’s eyes. He stared at the sky, and Tracy watched him watch the sky until the ambulance arrived.

The ambulance was followed by two police cruisers and a small crowd of people, mostly runners, some of whom continued to jog in place as they watched the emergency crew hustle toward the water.

A middle-aged officer broke off from the main group and approached Tracy. He absentmindedly twirled a walkie-talkie in his hand. “These joggers need to be more careful,” he said. “Always falling in.”

“Seriously?”

“Of course not. He was probably tossed in somewhere further East, not weighed down properly, and a day or two later, here he is. ‘Good morning, everybody.’ Happens all the time. Well, not all the time. But more than you’d think. You find him just now?”

The officer spoke with a combination of boredom and amusement, and Tracy was a little taken aback, and a little envious. “Yeah, I was…” Tracy began, “Well, my dog found him. I wasn’t looking in the canal.”

“Don’t worry. You’re not a suspect. Young white girls don’t stab people to death and throw them in canals, statistically speaking.”

“Do you need a statement or anything?” Tracy asked.

“No. Nothing to state. You all right?” The cop asked, his bored face gone, replaced by a well-practiced veneer of concern.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” Tracy told him, and it was true when she said it. But as soon as he was gone, she wasn’t fine.

There were three distinct groups standing between the walking path and the water: the emergency responders, who milled around the dead man; the bystanders, who bystood in a tight circle, texting photos and messages to their friends; and Tracy, who squatted next to Joe DiMaggio, using the big black dog to hide her tears.

Tracy had never been that kid on the playground: the one who didn’t fit in. Until recently, until she’d finished college, until she’d moved to the Midwest, she’d always been part of a crowd of one sort or another.

This feeling of isolation was new to her. And it wasn’t just here, in the patch of grass between the path and the canal. At the coffee shop, she and Jordan were friends, but not good friends. At home, Tracy and her roommate got along well, but it was hard for Tracy to crack her way into Megan’s established circle. It was like Tracy was too buoyant. No matter how hard she threw herself into the water of the social world, it always found a way to sort her right back out.

Here, it was like people didn’t see her. And it wasn’t them. The people here were friendlier, nicer than they’d been in New York. It was Tracy. She was oil to their water.

New York had been her place, and she knew how to carry herself there. She knew how to walk the street in such a way that people noticed her, and thought to themselves, ‘There’s another New Yorker.’

But right after college she’d felt a change. She and Mark had broken up. She had no job, no internship. She’d felt lost, and had blamed it on the place. She knew now that it had never been the physical place. It had been her place in life, and changing cities hadn’t fixed a thing.

 

Joe wanted to inspect the various scents of the bystanders’ group, but this time Tracy was forceful. She dragged him across the walking path, across the street, and up Walnut toward her apartment.

Tracy was going to text her manager, but she thought that the wavering in her voice would make her excuse more convincing, and she dialed his number.

“You’re calling to say you’ll be in on time, no complications, no illnesses, right?” Boris was Russian, but only barely. And you could only really hear his accent after he told you his name was Boris.

“I saw a dead man in the canal.”

“What was he doing in there?”

“Being dead.”

“Being dead almost seems like an oxymoron.”

“Boris, you’re giving me a hard time and I haven’t even told you what I want yet.”

“As an entrepreneur, one has to anticipate. And I know—”

“You’re not an entrepreneur. You own a coffee shop.”

“And café. It’s also a café.”

“I don’t think I can come in to the coffee shop and café today, because I found a dead boy in the canal, a poor, bloated dead boy, like a human puffer-fish. And he was alone, just bobbing up and down, lapping against the walls of the canal.”

“Would you have preferred if he’d had company?” Boris asked, and to Boris it was a joke. But Tracy considered the question carefully. “Look,” Boris went on, “we’re not going to pick up until eleven, anyway. So why don’t you relax, do whatever cathartic shit you need to do, and get in here around eleven, when people start ordering paninis? That work? Trace?”

“I think I would’ve preferred if there’d been two of them. Does that make me a bad person?”

“Were you listening?”

“And I’d have preferred if somebody had found him with me. Or if the police had wanted to talk to me. Or if the kid had been somebody I’d known, somebody I’d seen around somewhere, at the gym or the grocery. Or if he’d come into the shop.”

Tracy took the elevator to the fourth floor. The call was lost on the way up, and she called Boris again as she tossed her keys onto the kitchen table. “Do you ever feel very small?” Tracy asked him, by way of greeting.

“I’m a very big man.”

“What about oil? Do you ever feel like you’re one of two liquids that do not mix, and you—”

“That’s too abstract. And let me be frank, and say that I’m really only interested in knowing if or when you are going to come to work.” But Boris’s tone made it clear that he cared at least a little bit about Tracy’s emotional state, and that little bit went a long way. At the very least, it saved him from having to find somebody to cover Tracy’s shift.

“Yeah, okay, you Russkie prick. I’ll see you at eleven,” Tracy said.

“Thank you, kind benevolent Boris,” Boris mocked, “Thank you for being so flexible.”

“Fuck you,” Tracy said. She threw herself on the couch, and the phone onto the coffee table. Her gaze followed it as it slid across the glass surface. The discarded phone looked up at her, surrounded by Tracy’s own warped reflection. Her eyes were red, bloodshot, full of zigzagging veins, crawling like spiders around the surface of her whites.

She stared into her own eyes in a way she hadn’t done in quite a while. She marveled at her eyes’ ability to focus, to lock on to their own reflection. The boy’s eyes hadn’t focused, and she’d told herself when she’d first seen them, that this was because they no longer looked in the same direction, as live eyes did. But now she saw that it wasn’t as simple as that.

Proponents of intelligent design often use the eye as a talking point. The eye is too sophisticated, they say, to have evolved naturally.

The eye symbolizes life itself. Tracy thought of the movies and television shows she watched. When they wanted to show that a character was dead, truly, fully dead, they showed the dead’s unseeing eyes. Or they showed the deceased’s friend, closing the man’s eyelids for a final time: a final farewell.

The eyes can cry. They can smile. They can express indignation, and arrogance, and love. And they’re the first to express death. Sure, the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the pancreas stops doing whatever it is that the pancreas does. But it’s the eyes that say for sure. It’s the eyes that say goodbye.

The only other dead eyes Tracy had seen up close were her grandfather’s. He’d died a year before of an aneurism of some kind. He had been one of Tracy’s favorite people. Their relationship had been pure in a way that was difficult to replicate with parents or friends or boyfriends. All they’d wanted from each other was to spend time together. He’d cultivated her love of autumn, and her passion for baseball, and her obsession with the New York Yankees. Joe DiMaggio had been his favorite player, and, she suspected, his favorite person: a god of contact hitting and Italian-Americanism.

 

Joe DiMaggio joined Tracy on the couch and jolted Tracy out of her trance. She rested an arm on his back, grabbed the remote with her other hand, and flipped on the tube. On the local news, a man in a gray suit was reporting the discovery of a dead boy in the canal. He was warning the audience that the photo of the deceased might be “graphic.” But it wasn’t graphic. The boy looked like a piece from a wax museum, sculpted by hand. His face was just a big face, without the shocking lack of life that Tracy had seen and felt.

Tracy picked her phone up off the table to call somebody else. Jordan would be at the coffee shop. Megan would be at work. She considered calling her mother. Her mom might be working also, but she’d answer a call from Tracy.

But Tracy didn’t want to talk to her mother. She wanted to talk to the boy’s mother.

Tracy didn’t want to be the anonymous woman who’d found a son’s body, just as she didn’t want the son to be simply the anonymous boy she’d found in the canal. She imagined a trade between the boy’s mom and her. “I’ll trade you ‘Tracy’ for whatever your son’s name was. I’ll tell you what I felt when I watched him watch the sky, if you tell me what music he listened to, where he went to school, how he got mixed up with the kind of people who stab teenagers and let them float down canals.”

Tracy was sad. But she was tired of being sad. She wanted to grieve.

When Tracy’s grandfather died, she’d stood in the crowd of black-clad people, staring at the coffin. And she’d felt sad, a kind of empty, all-purpose pain. But she’d wanted to feel something more. She’d wanted happy memories and the loss of future possibilities to tear her apart. And she’d cried, but not for anything more interesting than the simple loss of life.

Tracy laid the phone back on the table. Her goosebumps were gone, but she took a shower anyway. She dressed slowly, and headed to work.

The coffee shop—and café—was the same as always. A late coffee/early lunch crowd sat at small circular tables in the front of the store. There were business people in dark suits, legs crossed, eating in small groups; twenty-somethings in plaid, sipping espresso, reading alone. Further back, some regulars stood at the Italian-style counter, chatting with the staff: Jordan in her stained apron, Aaron in his creepy sweater-vest, Boris in his shirt and tie. Boris was laughing a false laugh and tamping an espresso shot when Tracy squeezed her way behind the counter, on the way to the storage room.

Boris followed her into the back, leaned against a stack of paper-towel boxes and watched Tracy throw on an apron. “I give preferential treatment to those who’ve recently witnessed murder,” he said, with the boyish grin that endeared him to customers, but infuriated Tracy.

“I didn’t witness the murder.”

“Okay, to people who witness the aftermath of—”

“Not everything’s a joke.”

“Sorry. Do you want the usual? Paninis and sandwiches in the kitchen?”

“No. I’ll run the machine at the counter, if you don’t mind.”

“Seriously? You hate that. You say it’s like—”

“Preferential treatment or not?”

Boris didn’t respond directly. He called Aaron away from the counter and told him to man the Panini maker. “I don’t know if you can man anything. But, you know, make Paninis,” he said.

Tracy took the order of a grizzled-looking man, probably in his sixties. He wanted a cappuccino to go. Boris would have refused, and given the man a lecture on the travelling potential of various coffee drinks. He’d have strong-armed the man into a latte. But Tracy just pulled the shot and foamed the milk, enjoying the rhythm of the well-practiced motion, and the predictable whirring and clicking of the machine. As she poured the drink into a paper cup, she turned a surprisingly genuine smile on the man, and asked how his day was going.

The guy looked impatient, but Tracy withheld the drink, taking her time capping it, until he responded. “Just like any other,” he said.

“And that’s…”

“It’s just fine.”

Tracy took his money, handed him the drink, and watched him leave the café. He took long, purposeful strides. Her eyes followed him as he crossed the street and disappeared into the office building on the corner.

Boris always chatted with his customers, but when he did so, he wasn’t really Boris. He put up a façade that suggested levels of expertise and generosity that he didn’t actually possess. He did this for business purposes. And he was good at what he did.

Tracy didn’t like to interact with customers. They came in. They went out. And the selves they presented weren’t their true selves, or so she felt. Why make an effort to get to know a false representation of a person?

But as Tracy served her next customer, she took an interest in guessing. Before the young intern came in for the office coffee, what had she been thinking about? Where would she go home to? And to whom?

The lives she imagined for these people were probably far from the customers’ realities. And that was not a pleasant thought. But it was same the other way around: they only saw barista Tracy, a young brunette with too-curly hair, and a habit of sideways-pouting that made it look like her face perpetually leaned left. But they didn’t know about her interest in entomology, or her love of Yankees baseball, or her hatred of coffee.

When she handed a non-fat latte to a young lawyer type in a sharp suit, she initiated eye contact with him, and their eyes remained locked for moment or two. Tracy tried to delve into him, to see if she could see something more: whatever this man was hiding behind the suit, and the good posture, and the well-manicured beard. But she saw nothing, and was fairly sure that he saw nothing of her, if he was looking at all.