for years, I envied my friend Jeff Conklin, who, at the age of
eleven, found a dead guy.
We were in Grade 6, in Mr. Findley's class, and most days we walked
home together, Jeff and I, but this particular day my mom picked me
up after school not only because it was raining pretty hard, but
also because I had a checkup booked with Dr. Murphy, our family
dentist. Jeff didn't have the kind of mom who cared about picking
him up at school when it was raining, so he struck out for home, no
umbrella, no raincoat, stomping through all the puddles in his
At one point, the heavens opened up and the rain came down so hard
the streets flooded. I remember as we were pulling into the
dentist's parking lot you couldn't see past the windshield, even
with the wipers going full blast, thwacking back and forth on our
1965 Dodge Polara. It was like we weren't in a car, but in the Maid
of the Mist, right under Niagara Falls.
Meanwhile, the worst of the rain had let up a bit as Jeff, now as
wet as if he'd done ten laps at the community pool, rounded the
corner onto Gilmour Street. Up ahead there was a blue Ford Galaxie
pulled up close to the curb, and stretched out on the pavement next
to it, on his stomach, was a man.
At first Jeff thought it was a kid, but kids didn't wear nice
raincoats or dress pants or fancy shoes. It was a very small man.
Jeff approached slowly, then stopped. The man's short legs were
stretched out into the street, shoes angled awkwardly, and from
where Jeff stood, it looked like his head was cut off at the curb,
which really creeped Jeff out.
He took a few more steps, the world engulfed in the sound of rain,
and shouted, "Mister?"
The little man said nothing, and didn't move.
"Mister? You okay?"
Now Jeff was standing right over him, and he could see that the
man's chest was positioned over a storm drain where water was
coursing around him and disappearing. His right arm and head were
wedged into the drain. Now Jeff could see why it appeared that the
man's head had been cut off.
"Mister?" he shouted one last time. Jeff confided to me that he wet
his pants then, but it was okay, because he was already soaked and
no one would be able to tell the difference. He ran to the closest
house, banged on the door, and told the elderly man who answered
that there was a dead man's head in the storm sewer. The old man
had a look at the weather and decided to call the police rather
than conduct his own investigation.
As best as the police could tell, this was what happened: The
man--his name was Archie Roget, and he was an accountant--had left
work early and was planning to run a few errands on the way home.
He could tell by the approaching clouds that the light rain was
about to turn into a deluge, so he pulled over to the curb to get
his raincoat out of the trunk. (His wife told police he never went
anywhere without a raincoat in the trunk, or a cushion on the front
seat to help him see over the steering wheel.) He opened the trunk
with his keys from the ignition--this was in the days before remote
trunk releases--slipped on the coat, and slammed the trunk shut.
Then, somehow or other, he lost his grip on the car keys, which
slipped between the iron bars of the storm sewer grate. It was the
kind that hugged the curb, where there was a broader vertical
opening wide enough to slip an arm in, at least.
Roget got down on his hands and knees, must have been able to see
his keys, and reached in. But his arm, like the rest of him, was a
few inches too short, so to get a bit more length, he wedged in his
head, which was, like the rest of him, tiny.
And his head got stuck.
And then the downpour struck.
Just as the wipers on my mom's car couldn't stay ahead of the rain,
the storm drains couldn't empty the streets fast enough. They
backed up, and Archie Roget's lungs filled with rainwater.
The circumstances of the man's death were so bizarre that the story
made the papers, even hitting the wires. Jeff was interviewed not
only by local reporters, but by newspapers from as far away as
Spokane and Miami. He was, at least at Wendell Hills Public School,
a celebrity. And if it hadn't been for my dental appointment, I
might have been there to share the spotlight. This was my
introduction to the cruelties of fate.
I moped around the house for nearly a week. How come I never got to
find a dead guy? Why did Jeff get all the breaks? Everyone wanted
to be his friend, and I tried to bask in his reflected glory. I'd
tell my friends at Scouts, a different group of boys from my school
friends, "You know that story, about the guy who drowned with his
head in the storm drain? Well, that was my best friend who found
him, and I woulda been with him, but I had to go to the dentist."
No cavities, by the way. A perfect checkup. I could have skipped
the appointment and it wouldn't have mattered. The ironies were
enough to make an eleven-year-old's head spin.
My dad felt there was at least one lesson to be learned. "When you
grow up, Zack, you remember to join the triple A. It's like
insurance. If that man had belonged to the auto club, someone else
would have come and got his keys for him and he'd be alive today.
Don't you forget." This may have been when I started developing my
lifelong obsession with safety, but more about that later.
The reason this whole thing with Jeff was such a big deal, of
course, is that finding a dead body's not the sort of thing that
happens to you every day. Other than Jeff, I can't think of a
single friend or acquaintance who's ever stumbled upon a corpse.
Not that I've asked them all. It's hardly necessary. If one of your
friends finds a body, chances are good that the next time you see
them, they're going to mention it. Right away. It's a great
conversation starter. As in: "Oh my God, you won't believe what
happened on Friday. I was taking a shortcut, that alley behind the
deli? And there's these legs sticking out from behind a garbage
There are some body-finding circumstances I don't count. Like if
you go to check on your ninety-nine-year-old Aunt Hilda, who lives
alone and hasn't answered the phone for three days, and find her
rigid in her favorite chair, the TV on, the remote on the floor by
her feet, the cat climbing the curtains in hunger. That kind of
thing happens. That's natural.
And there are certain lines of work where discovering a dead body's
no big thing. Police officers come to mind. A lot of times, they're
looking for a body before they actually find it, so you lose the
element of surprise. Finding a body when you're already looking for
a dead body isn't quite the same as when you're just out for a
stroll. "Finally, there it is. Now we can get some lunch."
I'm an unlikely candidate to find a body. First of all, I'm not,
unlike a police detective, in a line of work where finding a victim
of foul play is a common occurrence, unless you know something
about science fiction authors that I don't. And second, when I
found a body, I wasn't living in some big city, where, if you
believe what you see on TV, people come across dead people about as
often as they go out for bagels.
I found my body in the suburbs, where, although I do not have
actual statistics to back this up, people are more likely to die of
boredom than run into someone nasty. I came across a corpse in as
tranquil and beautiful a spot as you could hope to find.
Willow Creek, to be exact. Where my wanderings often take me.
Listening to shallow water cascading over small rocks can clear the
mind and help one work out plot problems. But when you're engaged
in thoughts of interplanetary exploration and whether God can
spread himself thin enough to oversee worlds other than our own,
there's nothing like finding a guy with his skull bashed in to
bring you back to reality.
He was face down, in the creek. And, unlike your typical Law &
Order extra who comes upon a stranger who's had a date with
destiny, I actually knew who this man was, and who might actually
want him dead.
A couple of things. Despite how I envied Jeff as a kid, I'd have
been happy to go through life without ever finding a dead guy.
Because this discovery didn't come with the kind of notoriety Jeff
received, but did carry with it the burden of adult
And here's the other thing. If this body had been the first and
last I'd ever come upon, well, this story would be much shorter.
There wouldn't be all that much to tell.
But that's not the way it turned out.