A bend in the river that often caught miscellaneous garbage and flotsam one day found on its shore the quintuplet corpses of the Johnson’s Westies. Apparently, Liz Johnson was walking Trixie, Pixie, Mixie, Moxie and Kixie on a special made leash with five leads when Mixie tugged the leash out of Liz’s hand, and as she chased the twenty little legs, Westie Pixie slipped on the embankment and her four siblings followed—plop, plop, plop and plop. That night, over tears and a nice glass of Torrontes wine, Liz told her friend Francesca she had been distracted as her husband had informed her the night before that he would most likely be included in the next round of layoffs. He told her that with their debt and his prospects of finding another job, let alone one at the same pay, he was already looking for a bankruptcy attorney. And so Liz’s grip on her comfortable life was in danger, and as a consequence her actual grip less vigilant.
Due to the density of the trees, the violence of the water, and the steep cliff leading to the bend, most of the town shook their heads at the poor drowned creatures and were content to let nature take its course. In the town’s long memory, no one had ever retrieved anything from that remote and impossible to access beach. Maybe, if they were lucky, the Fall rains would clean the bend of the five puffy clouds of dog.
Next, it was coach Carre’s recliner. Some football players with an axe to grind over some surprise searches of their lockers snuck into his house one night and tossed the recliner in the river where it ended up on the bend. The crime was never solved and the team had a 7-5 season.
The day after the recliner, 3,103 sparrows for some puzzling reason all drowned themselves and also floated onto the beach. Mrs. Graham, ten miles upriver, saw them, “It was like a black cloud crashing into the water,” she told reporters. Bit by bit, every sparrow ended up on the bend in clusters and clumps. A local Ornithologist counted each and every sparrow as part of the investigation; and a teenage girl named Laura claimed the sparrows’ arrangement on the beach spelled her name, which sounded really interesting until someone pointed out there were six Lauras in their school. The Ornithologist said the birds spelled nothing except the eventual decline of humanity due to global warming, but could not explain why.
Over the next weeks, more and more refuse than ever before washed up on the bend, old tires, two giant umbrellas, sixteen pairs of women shoes, and dozens of Styrofoam chunks, which only seemed to mock the Westies’ ever increasing shades of brown. There were lamps and awnings and hundreds of beer bottles. There was also a truly peculiar amount of plastic fruit—mostly lemons and bananas—and one mannequin, which Mr. Hawn noted, while looking through binoculars, had “Nazi Fuck” carved into its chest.
The town was titillated with this unexpected bit of weirdness in their otherwise quiet little suburb. Soon the local newspaper began to cover the story with weekly installments, featuring photos of the most striking of items. The first week, there were two opposing op eds: Mr. Harris claimed this was God’s way of saying we shouldn’t let China do all our manufacturing, as all the items, he claimed, except the Westies and sparrows, were made there; the other article, put forth by Mr. Lee, was that the bend was the closest thing the town had to an attraction and a committee should be created to figure out how to access the possible tourist dollars, as all the jobs were going China anyhow.
Then the babies showed up. Three white baby corpses washed up one Tuesday morning. Naturally, something had to be done. No more ignoring the issue. So the town hired several mountain climbers with three miniature cadaver bags to rappel down the cliff. They brought back the babies but none of the three could be identified. No one in any county one hundred miles on either side of the river reported any missing babies.
Two days later, six more dead babies washed up on the shore along with four dachshunds. Enough things were decomposing down there that four dachshunds were not worth any trouble, but naturally the six babies had to be retrieved. Yet again, no identification and no missing babies. Rumors flew around that none of the babies had bellybuttons, creating wild theories from river sprites to government labs. Church groups held tearful vigils. And Mrs. Grimes, who always longed for a child, wept on the opposite shore for two days.
Then twelve dead babies washed up on the shore along with what looked like six Chinese women. Also, that same night, sixty red plastic ice cube trays and three aluminum ladders floated onto the shore. Mr. Harris popped up once more about God’s judgment and Chinese manufacturing, but no one paid him any mind.
Something was happening and the national and international news agencies were there by that night. The government got involved, putting up search lights up and down the river for a hundred miles; The idea being this was an elaborate and diabolical crime spree. FBI was everywhere. Strangers showed up with signs warning of Armageddon. Groups of people were now driving into town to witness this phenomenon. The hotel booked up completely. Mr. Lee gloated over his foresight, and the local hotel let him eat at the breakfast buffet for free. Poor Mrs. Grimes had to be led away for a 72 hour involuntary mental hold after she stripped naked, slashed herself with a steak knife and ran toward the river bathed in tears—“Those poor babies. Those poor babies.”
The mountain climbers were sent down again, two more than before—again, no identifications and no Chinese ladies or babies reported missing. While speaking to Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, the mayor stupidly said, “certainly someone would be missing a half-dozen Oriental workers.”
The next day, eight dead babies and twenty four women—mostly Chinese, but some, as noted by an anthropology professor, were identified from their garb and complexions as Bangladeshi.
Naturally, the team of mountain climbers were sent down, but this time the cliff gave way and all seven were buried underneath tons of dirt and boulders. Rescue efforts were put into full throttle, but engineers said the cliff was too unstable to risk more mountain climbers. The river, always tumultuous, had never been so dangerous. Two Zodiac rescue boats that attempted to cross were tossed, and three of the six men were smashed and killed against the boulders. Due to the height of the trees and fierce winds, helicopters were determined to be out of the question. So with heavy hearts, it was decided the mountain climbers had to stay, along with the women and babies, all the sparrows, the Westies and Coach Carre’s chair, which he mourned as if it was baby, mostly due to hurt feelings over his players’ betrayal— but he was sensible enough to keep his grief to himself.
The town was inconsolable by what the bend had come to represent. Newscasters didn’t know how to frame the story. “Something must be done,” Nancy Grace lamented, “A nation is watching you, Mr. President.” A Million Baby March was held in New York, and the Chinese ambassador called for action in the United Nations. But the wind and river wouldn’t calm, and the authorities could not risk more lives.
A sigh of relief a week later when no new babies and no new foreign women washed up, even though the sight of the existing corpses was disturbing, particularly as they were surrounded by thirty seven cats that had washed up, all calicos. “The trick,” the mayor said stupidly, “is not cleaning up down there. No clean up, no more dead babies.” The City Council forbade him from speaking to any more reporters.
Not many people were driving to see the bend anymore. Mr. Lee shrunk back into his two bedroom bungalow. The hotel let the new hires go. News coverage thinned. Joan, who worked at the Slurp and Gas, said she heard a camera man for Fox say, “Dead babies are sexy news. Dead cats aren’t even newspaper news.”
The bend in the river was quite a sight with the thousands of sparrows, all the dogs and cats, the one cow, the human corpses—both large and small—the other baffling debris, and the human mountain climber leg of Cal Sharp sticking out from the cliff’s remains, identified only because of his boot. This was also quite an ordeal as every mountain climber’s wife had to be asked if the boot was her husbands. Going rogue, the mayor told the local news it “was the worse, goddamn Cinderella story ever.”
The world took brief notice once more when a giraffe washed up, its broken neck making a giant V, its long tongue laying over the face of baby Vincent, the name the local Catholic parish gave Baby Seven after Nun Viv said this particular baby had “a meditative expression,” apparently knowing very little about Van Gogh. Though the giraffe was quite “sexy news,” it was impossible to film the story without also showing Vincent or any of the other decomposing corpses, and so very few news stations put these segments on the air.
For a few weeks, ad hoc funeral services were constant, for the babies, naturally, for the Chinese (and other women), and the various endangered species. The Audubon society had a little ceremony for the sparrows, and not to be outdone a local shelter held an elaborate service for the cats and dogs, where a man named Cliff, who raised bloodhounds, showed up with six of his best. Conducting with a bone, he led them through a howling, soulful lament of Amazing Grace. Afterwards, each dog slobbered in anticipation of its savory reward, but Cliff made them wait until no one was looking.
And the river kept bringing more. One day it was five black men and seventeen computer monitors. The day after it was an entire boy scout troop, uniforms and all. Again, no one reported any missing boy scouts or black men, though someone claimed ownership of a Schwinn bicycle. A Mr. Jay Dorn became the object of much scrutiny as he was the first person to claim anything on the bend since the Johnsons’ five Westies.
“I didn’t even know my bike was missing,” he stupidly told a reporter for the local paper after six hours of interrogation by the FBI. The investigation stopped after his bike was discovered hidden in his attic with a sheet over it.
And so people lost interest. Or lost heart. The candle light vigils stopped. The call to bury or memorialize the dead stopped. The babble of scientists stopped. The bombastic blaming of the Chinese and global warming and the government stopped. Even the government’s efforts to make sense of it diminished. No one could come to terms with the mountain of refuse and bodies, and the people in town did not eventually get used to the smell. The town emptied so quick the mayor called the Guinness Book of World Records, but they were too focused on Jan Jones of Missouri who could squirt milk from her eyelid fourteen feet, three inches, basically making previous record holder, Ilker Yilmaz of Turkey, who could only squirt nine feet, two inches, look pretty stupid.
The only the thing the government left was a watch tower where one man, Justin Pank, photographed and catalogued the bodies and flotsam that continued to gather. For five months, between the hours of eight and five, with an hour for lunch, Justin focused a telescopic lens on the various new items. He indentified each as specifically as possible and wrote it down in his log book, which he numbered. He had 9,136 entries. He estimated the refuse on the beach to be forty feet high.
One Wednesday, Mrs. Grimes drove to the abandoned Chiropractor’s office, climbed on top with her husband’s hunting rifle, and, using a wind meter and the rifle scope to gauge distance, shot Justin Pank while he stood in his tower. The bullet went through his abdomen and it took him twenty minutes to bleed to death. During those twenty minutes, he wrote two words in his own blood on the wooden floor, “Soup dust.” Everyone was certain he meant something else, but that’s all anyone could make of it. Later that day, when Mrs. Grimes was taken into custody, she told police it was “a sin to count dead babies. You have to love them. Every one.”
Justin Pank’s wife, Janie, was flabbergasted and inconsolable for about a year. Her children, Karen and Randy, did not comprehend what was happening and when they eventually began to understand the loss, many years later, the pain was small, dull, and easy to disregard, especially as Janie had already remarried Stephen Tinsley, a local dentist. He bonded with both children as they did to him. The family moved to Seattle and years later Karen went off to college where she studied Puppetry Arts. Randy started a landscaping business, and when he was twenty-seven he met Tina. On their second date, he began to tell her his life story. And then, when he couldn’t remember his father’s name, he fake cried in hopes it would lead to sex.
A.W. Marshall’s work is published or forthcoming in Red Wheelbarrow, Fiction Attic,Austin Review, theNewerYork, Appalachian Heritage and Vestal Review. In 2005, he wrote and directed the professional theater production of his play, Pan, with Long Beach Shakespeare Company. In 2003, his play, Emptier, was produced at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood and directed by Kristin Hanggi. He lives in Tulsa, OK, but grew to adolescent adulthood in the Los Angeles area. Currently, he is writing a novel about a half man, half rabbit in 1850’s California called Hendo.