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Body in the River

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At the little dock below the Michigan Avenue bridge, a drowned man lay floating face down in the river. Two divers struggled to slide him onto a tray suspended just above the water by several straps held by a group of fire fighters. Reporters, photographers, and police clustered around them on the walkway just above the river. Behind them a crowd was gathering, they hung over the water from the walkway, lined the steps leading up to the bridge, and stood two and three deep along the bridge's rail.

The drowned man was being uncooperative. One diver had managed, with great difficulty, to hoist the man's torso onto the tray, but the other couldn't swing the man's legs around the straps. The first diver paddled over to help the other with the man's legs, only to have the torso slide off the tray and into the water. The legs remained caught in the straps.

A long, disappointed "Oooh" came from some in the crowd, as though a juggler onstage had dropped a ball.

The first diver tried again to lift the torso onto the tray, and, that accomplished, the other again tried to lift the legs around the straps. Successfully clearing the straps, he flung the legs onto the tray--sending the body rolling off the other side and into the water again.

"They're a bunch of idiots down there!" said a man on the bridge.

Another agreed: "Why don't those two in the water just lift him up and a couple of them fire fighters pull him out?"

"He couldn't have been in long, 'cause he ain't all blowed up," one man with an authoritative air said to those around him at the bridge's rail. "And he's still floating. When they been in the water a long time they get blowed up and they don't float like that."

"Well, all I know is, that ain't healthy!" said a bike messenger to general laughter.

"Do you think he jumped?" a woman asked the man beside her.

"Maybe he was pushed," he shrugged.

"What's happening?" called out a woman walking past the crowd.

"Body in the river."

"Oh?" The woman pressed into the crowd for a look.

While the divers were grappling with the body, the man's worn blue sweater had risen up to his chest, and his baggy pants had slid down, revealing a wide expanse of the man's bare back. His skin was a mottled white and appeared extraordinarily soft. He wore no shoes, only torn black socks through which his white heels and toes poked.

The first diver again shoved the man's head and shoulders onto the tray, and his face lolled into view. A few gasps were sucked in. The face was the same bloodless white as the rest of the body, although his features and hair seemed to be those of a black man. His eyes were closed, the swollen skin around them a smear of dark red, as though he had been struck in the eyes. With the next shove from the diver the face rolled down onto the tray and out of sight.

On the steps leading down from the bridge to the dock a young man asked a cop, "How many bodies in the water?"

"One," said the cop.

"Just one?" asked the young man, scanning the crowd.

"Just one?" The cop elbowed the little white-haired man beside him. "Listen to that! He asks if there's just one body!"

The young man tried to protest: "Now, that's not what I meant--"

The cop turned back to him.

"One body's not enough for you? How many bodies do you want? Two? Three? Ten?" The cop shook his head in astonishment, "Just one body."

The divers carefully slipped the legs through the straps and onto the tray, and then gently slid the man's torso on, as though helping an old man into bed. The drowned man was on the tray at last. A satisfied, inaudible sigh seemed to wash through the throng.

The fire fighters jerked up the straps.

"Look out!"

"It's gonna fall!"

The tray spun over, and the body dropped into the water with a flat little splash.

The divers spoke with the firefighters. The trouble, it seemed, was that the tray was imbalanced. A diver began adjusting the straps.

After several failed attempts, the divers once more managed to load the body onto the tray. Again the fire fighters jerked up the straps, and again the body tumbled into the river.

The diver's argued impatiently with the fire fighters, and the drowned man lay floating against the tray, momentarily forgotten. The crowd watched silently, now twice the size it had been only minutes before, and it was growing all the time.

On the third attempt, the divers, after maneuvering the body yet again onto the tray, gripped and steadied the tray while the fire fighters slowly lifted it from the water.

The divers and fire fighters shouted at each other.

"Pull up on your side!"

"The right side! Lift!"

"Careful! Watch it!"

"Lift up your end! Lift! Lift! Lift!"

The police rounded up the onlookers behind the dock and herded them back onto the steps, while the tray rose from the water with its sodden cargo lying facedown, its arms hanging off the sides.

"Careful!"

The tray swung and tipped, but the divers grabbed and steadied it. When it came level with the dock, the fire fighters hauled it in. They laid it down, then lifted it again and carried it to the steps leading up to the street. The crowd on the steps fled.

The fire fighters carried the tray to the waiting police van, the doors shut, and the drowned man, whoever he was, was driven away. The fire fighters hopped on the fire truck and followed. The massive crowd that had gathered vanished. All that remained was a trail of water-splashed pavement and wet footprints.

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