By Drew Roberts
I’ve seen dead animals on my runs. It’s inevitable. An overambitious cat underestimates the speed of a moving truck and you can figure it out from there. Never in my life had I seen a dead human. That was until this morning.
I woke up from my Poutine-Burger-induced sleep refreshed, invigorated. Nine hours uninterrupted was never typical for me, and its effects were certainly working their magic. It was the day of the midweek long run, a chance to truly open up like a stallion in a commercial for an overpriced car. Teeth were brushed. Bed was made. Shoes were tied. Down to the track I went. The fog obfuscated my view of anything over 100 meters ahead of me. The stadium lights of the track were doing their best UFO impression as they peeked from behind that thick mist. The team was having their usual pre-run nothing conversations. I can’t for the life of me remember what was said. It all seems so irrelevant now.
We began the way we usually do, away from the pavilion, down the sidewalk and into the moist asphalt of the street. It was a sleek blackness like the River Styx. We were walking on water. A slight wrench was thrown into our route when we discovered that a portion of Orr Park had flooded. I mimed a Michael Phelps dive a few inches from the water while keeping my feet firmly on the pavement. It got a few chuckles, but nothing uproarious. We continued on.
Looking back now, our entrance into the neighborhood was cosmic. Before we had entered, all of us were blessed with a blissful naivety that had featured death in the far-off distance, something to be known, but not understood.
We passed a house. The house. JoePa and I stopped immediately. Everyone else did the same. I could see a lump connected to two white appendages that I assumed were legs lying in the grass. It must be a Halloween decoration, I thought to myself. A very convincing decoration, but a decoration nonetheless. As we got closer, my assumptions battled with reality. The legs were even whiter up close. It must be a mannequin. I stayed in that comfortable thought for only a second. Everything changed when I saw his head. Unmistakable follicles of human hair dotted the roundness of it. My heart rate was only 114 while running, but I was sure that it was at 180 now. In the window of the house, a figure loomed. Joking or curious, we didn’t know. We pointed to the man on the ground. The figure rushed outside immediately.
“I’m his roommate,” he said, his voice breaking like a crushed soda can. He placed one hand on his roommate’s pallor skin. “Aw no. He’s cold as a wedge!” By now, the street was populated with 40 half naked runners trying to get a glimpse.
“Does anyone have a phone?! Someone call 911! I know one of y’all has a phone!” Cole pulled his out and dialed the three numbers one hopes they’ll never have to. The man stated his address. Cole stuttered with the operator while Kendall took over.
“Sir, I’m a CPR certified beach lifeguard. I’m gonna flip him over now, is that okay?” The man nodded. “Drew come help me with this.” He handled the torso while I handled the legs. As we pushed him over, his legs remained splayed out in the same manner they were when he was prone. It was then that we knew he was gone.
I can’t describe the feeling of placing your hands on dead flesh. The skin of that man took away the warmness of mine. The phantom feeling lies on my fingertips even now. Even after washing it to the point of absurdity, I can’t get the corpse off of it.
He was wearing a blue New England Patriots shirt, but his arm was bent across his chest like a T-rex, causing the shirt to read New…iots. His face still lingers in my mind. It looked like clay squished in the hands of a toddler. His tongue stuck out awkwardly as if it were sewn to his lip. I could bear to look no longer.
“Everyone, go. There’s nothing we can do,” Kendall commanded.
I didn’t speak much for the rest of the run. What could I say?
Red ambulance lights cut through the remaining fog. There was an abyss as deep as Tartarus in my stomach. My face felt a few inches in front of where it actually was. It was a mask of not sadness, but shock; pure, unadulterated shock. A droplet of water hit my face and traveled down my cheek, as if God were giving me a tear to cry when I had none of my own. When the run was over, I didn’t take the mask off. I couldn’t rip off the glue. Moving passively through endless drills, I was simply on autopilot, a shell of a human operated by inflections in the brain.
“How do you feel?” Coach Barksdale asked.
“I touched a dead body,” was the only appropriate response.
In my room, I turned the shower to its highest setting, and held on to the oft-neglected handicap rails. It needed to be scalding. I had to get the coldness out of my body, but alas, nothing changed. My showers are usually accompanied by music, but silence was the only thing that made sense. I didn’t want to listen to any music for a while, except for one song.
In a coincidence of cosmic proportion, the word of the day was Dirge. A dirge was only fitting. I hit play and the soothing inotations of Paul McCartney’s singing put me at ease. The tears came naturally then. I had no idea who this man was, how old he was, what he did. What I do know is that I touched him. Just as his mother had touched his soft infant skin. Just as his father had hugged him with pride. Just as a girlfriend would hold his hand for comfort. I had touched his lifeless skin and received an echo of who this man was, and the silent, tangible conversation we had has not left me since.
Let it out, and let it in.