At 4 AM we were still passing around the perforated juice can, trading our jivey tales of horror and dread. Guys huddled around a makeshift bowl at such an hour often turn to boasts of asses kicked, money made, or babes scored; noncontenders in these categories, we three bragged instead of weirdnesses witnessed and chemicals ingested. We threw down stories ever more lurid, ever less likely. Drug-induced brain damage, criminal trespassing, and supernatural menace all crept into the fray. Finally I played my trump card.
Have you ever seen a dead guy?
Well. I have. "Right." No, really. "Where?" The Volo Bog. Laughter. Pause. "Really?" Really. "When?" Well, the last time I saw him was...Easter. Silence. "The last time. That means..." Right--as far as I know, he's still out there.
"Can you find it again?" said one guy. "I'll drive."
"Probably," I said, hesitating.
"I want his head," said the other. "Big pair of hedge shears should do the trick."
It was my apartment, so that was that. I kicked them out and told them I'd have to sleep on it. As it happened, I didn't have to give it much thought: the next day I got a breathless call from Eric.
"You better turn on the news, mister." As the green of forest and swamp came into focus, framed by yellow police tape, the newscaster's voice wafted from the television, saying something like this: "The Volo Bog is said to contain natural mysteries hundreds of thousands of years old. But today the Lake County police, acting on a phone tip, discovered a mystery of a very different kind..."
In the 80s and early 90s, greater McHenry could be a bleak place for the wrong sort of kid. If you were into sports, organized or freestyle--by which I mean snowmobiling, BMXing, jet skiing--it wasn't so bad. If you fit in with the in crowd there was a floating party scene that moved from parent-free house to parent-free house. But if neither described you, there really wasn't much to do or much of anywhere to go beyond a long stretch of strip mall parking lot, where you could pop the hood, assume a badass pose, and wait for something to happen. (Eventually a pool hall with an arcade would set up shop in the strip mall, institutionalizing the gearhead miniculture that had taken root on the bleached asphalt.) And if you were a pale, skinny kid like me, slipping into the modified gothdom of the late 80s, or any other kind of alien, there were also two diners you could pretend were cafes.
These were the Reagan-Bush years in a largely rural Republican county that wouldn't benefit much from the votes it delivered, and which the rising tide of the new service economy wouldn't really penetrate till the Clinton era. Crystal Lake is sometimes called the "last suburb of Chicago" for its position at the end of Metra's northwest line; McHenry is 10 or 15 minutes farther north of there, depending on how fast you drive. So far north it might as well be southern Wisconsin, and known as the gateway to the Chain-O-Lakes, McHenry lay atop the ghosts of several cities: The farming community built around a dead-end depot, blighted by the decline of the railroad and eaten away by residential encroachment. The small-manufacturing center buried by recession and globalization. The Fox River resort town transformed by urban flight, its summer-cottage "suburbs" like Wonder Lake and Lakemoor converted to seedy year-round villages. Nothing much was going on, and the prevailing mood was a reactionary surliness.
A lot of greater McHenry's homes featured a Camaro in the driveway, a boat on the lawn, and multiple mullets--the area burned with a brawny yahoo fatalism. Every winter brought several snowmobile decapitations and thin-ice disasters, every summer another spate of drunken marine collisions off Blarney Island. The countryside still echoed with the countless teen deaths of the 70s and early 80s: Illinois raised its drinking age before Wisconsin did, leading to accident after accident as road trippers made their way back south. As much as we felt some bureaucratic mistake of fate had deposited us there, my friends and I couldn't deny the appeal of its death's-head machismo.
The sparsely populated regions surrounding the city proper are a gorgeous expanse, hillier and wetter than most of Illinois. To any kind of outdoorsman, the creeks, lakes, and wooded prairies offer an affordable slice of heaven, especially its state nature preserves, Moraine Hills and the Volo Bog, oligotrophic marsh-forests situated amid the two-lanes that crisscross the Lake-McHenry county lines. Most nights, thick one-story fog would roll in off the lakes and swamps, soaking the countryside, making for endlessly picturesque, ridiculously dangerous midnight drives.
When properly combined with beer and marijuana, these two, the parks and parkways, were a teenager's best friends. Slip out the basement window, roll down the driveway in neutral, throw the Skinny Puppy tape into the stereo, light up, start up, roar off into the night. OK, past the last speed trap, around the corner one, two, five miles an hour faster than last time. Down the dirt road, headlights killed, the rest of the way on foot, on into a perfectly dark nothing.
That was more or less what we did: drive around at night, and periodically invade the parks, cemeteries, and wildernesses surrounding the city itself. A speeding ambulance or police car easily qualified as an event, and we'd pursue it to the crash site. Riddled with preposterous hairpin curves on tree-lined lanes, greater McHenry produced wrecks that were frequently spectacular to behold. Sometimes the cops would even forget to hassle us and just recount what they knew with a kind of awe.
We were obsessed with slasher flicks, the emergent comedy-horror genre, glossy images of violence and death. We did dangerous things just to do them. We were always trying to freak ourselves out. But eventually we wised up to the fact that most of the tragedies we hunted out involved people who, like us, had been drinking and driving, and that holding your liquor was academic if the other guy was wasted. And then our friend Jim got an apartment.
The "studio" was a converted chicken coop on a defunct farm off Sullivan Lake Road, just shy of Route 12. By this time I was in college, but summers and breaks left me back at home, with Jim's coop the only escape from a time bomb of a family dynamic. Jim had moved to this place, straight across the Volo Bog from his parents' fabulous Ingleside manse, when they'd tired of his slacker eccentricities; for the rest of us, it was a welcome hangout. Jim's charming crone of a landlady, the widow of the farmer who'd owned the land since before the Depression, lived across the driveway. Sometimes we'd chat with the beekeeping octogenarian on our way in, or with her grandson, a gentle giant of a man-child who played the stock market by mail. We called it Castle Zoom.
Jim, a smoldering longhaired Michael Hutchence-gone-worse, was the crowd's token freak, I its token smartie; I wrote poetry in the coop and he recited his own, neither of us suspecting how ridiculous we were. I was just figuring out that my rock-star notion of a poet wouldn't really work without horses, capes, rapiers, parapets; he spoke in a bad British accent most of the time and threw knives, having recently joined the Bristol Renaissance Faire in truly committed fashion. Another friend joked that to Jim the Renaissance was the time "when dragons roamed the earth."
Whatever else you might say about Jim, he walked his talk--a vaguely communist share-and-share-alike ethic symbolically tied to the simple, bygone Ways of the Renaissance. I've never known a more generous hippie. Castle Zoom quickly evolved from a place to get high into a bizarre salon and cramped hotel for a rotating cast. At one point four people and several beasts were domiciled in the tiny shack. It finally became an all-purpose den of curiosities. There you'd be, chatting with a chain-mail "artisan," when Jim or one of his buddies would tromp in, covered in mud, from a nocturnal bog hike.
By the fall of 1990, when I was a junior in college, Eric had moved in with Jim, and come Thanksgiving break I wasn't home more than a few minutes before he called. "What's up?" Nothing. "Wanna go for a ride?" Sure. "Well, all right then, there's something you've got to see."
Eric, formerly a crypto-party-kid from the fringes of the athletic scene--think soccer--had mutated into a sort of double-agent Deadhead over the last couple years: neatly attired in tie-dye and headkerchief, a crystal dangling from his neck, he had the manner and pointy good looks of a giant, faintly sinister pixie. He handed me a bowl as soon as I got in the car. "You are not going to fucking believe this." What is it? "I don't know whether to tell you or just show you." Tell me, then show me. "Do you know that Forrest guy?" Who? "Forrest--wears camouflage shit all the time. Worked with Jim at Gander Mountain." Oh, Forrest. "Well, he moved in a couple weeks ago." And?
I had hung out with Forrest at the coop. He was from the gun-nut corner of the Castle scene; he wore camo ensembles, for God's sake. He knew Jim from a hunting store.
"Forrest was out hiking the other night, and he found something." What? "A dead guy." Shut up. "No, really." A dead guy? "A dead guy." Really. "Yes."
We pulled off the road about a half mile before Castle Zoom, near one of the chained-off service roads that feed into the back of the bog, and started walking. The air was crisp, the late-afternoon sun warmed us. It was a good ways back, and the path dwindled until we were waist-high in the thinned-out remnants of the summer's growth of reeds and underbrush. Several overlapping clumps of trees jutted out ahead of us, and Eric considered them carefully. He raised one hand, pointed. "That one." The treetops swayed in the distance, beckoning us across the matted, inches-thick carpet of necrotic vegetation.
As we approached, the nature of the terrain grew clearer. Each clump was actually a single vast willow tree, as big around as it was tall. Gnarled, primeval organisms, they towered over the marshy prairie. The ground sloped down as we drew close, the virtual floor gurgling louder, the sinkholes multiplying.
We neared our target, and the landscape changed again. A perfect circle of slender birch saplings made a perimeter, and beneath the overhang of ancient branches there was less plant life. Fallen timber was everywhere, in every phase of rot. Blackish brambles and withered, looping vines formed organic halls and arches, everything encrusted with preternaturally green, almost glowing moss. And the tree itself, at close range an impossibly hoary, wheezing beast of a thing, looked to have died several times over and yet showed no sign of dying anytime soon--cancerous boughs growing through one another, baby willows sprouting from its moribund sections.
The collapsed branches had knit into a knobby curtain that only after prolonged staring revealed a way in. To find the dead guy, it really seemed as though you'd have to have been looking for him. Even Eric fumbled to find the right vein; but then he had it, and we descended.
The dirt around the tree trunk was packed down hard, blanketed with fallen leaves. The whole area was slightly depressed, a pit with a concave latticework roof. It was hard to see in the hazy sunlight and shadows, but after a few moments I realized I was looking straight at him: his feet were inches from mine. A huge segment of the trunk had separated and fallen, but its thick, lightning-blackened base arched over his head before it hit the ground and disappeared in the surrounding growth. Forming a kind of awkward lean-to, it looked like the worn-in heart of the layered shelter and the main support for the brittle roof of outspread kindling.
He was already pretty far gone; what was once undoubtedly a grisly scene had faded into cool decay. He wore a dark windbreaker, jeans, and T-shirt. One side of his chest had been hollowed out and licked clean by animals. His knees were raised and he reclined against the tree, his wasted arms planted in support. The muscle and skin of his face had fused into a single crispy layer that had separated from the skull, which peeked out from the eyes and mouth. A handful of stringy hair clung to a bald pate. Except for the bullet hole, his brow was smooth in the flickering light.
By his side were a pair of battered tan cowboy boots and a dark brown vinyl binder containing a note. "Dear Maureen," it began. It appeared that they'd broken up and he'd asked her to meet him here one last time. All things considered, it seemed like she hadn't shown. The letter was signed love, with a postscript along these lines: "I took my boots off because my feet were sore from walking all the way up here. Ha ha ha, you never did understand my sense of humor anyway."
We stayed an hour, maybe two, silent, gaping. I picked up a stick and poked him once, in the time-honored manner of stupid people everywhere, making sure he was still dead. Then we headed back to the car.
Eric filled in the details. Forrest had found the body, then shown it to Eric and Jim; Forrest had then picked up the weapon, a .22--along with a lighter--from the deceased, and shot off a couple rounds. (We agreed the lighter was more disturbing, as he could only have taken it from the front pocket of the dead guy's skintight, rain-shrunk jeans.) Eric's girlfriend, Rachel, knew, and now I knew, but that was it.
The decision was already made, but we talked about it anyway. It was clearly a suicide. He was long dead, and we didn't believe in a higher power, spiritual or temporal. The drugs, the inevitable questions, the fucking prick cops. If we reported it he'd just be buried somewhere else anyway. Truth was, we'd found our Holy Grail. He looked like a grinning, teasing zombie in the manner of all skeletons, but the lyricism of the story, the pose--shoulders jutting up, head thrown back and to the side like Jesus or JFK--somehow made him the perfect emblem of our aimlessness and anomie, our household saint. Only a fool would tell anyone.
Christmas break rolled around and on New Year's Eve I headed to Jim's. I would've been headed there anyway, but of course the dead guy was in the back of my mind.
It was bitter cold, but Castle Zoom was warm as could be. Someone must've paid the bill--the coop was traditionally oven heated. Jim was there, along with Bob, Eric, and Rachel, and we all started catching up. After graduation Bob had moved to North Carolina to live with his dad and hadn't been back much since, but Eric had already filled him in. Bob was pretty far into a rigorous 40s-50s trip, sporting fedora, trench coat, and Sinatra haircut, which gave his sporadic exclamations of "DEAD GUY!" a funny noir feel. After talking a while we decided to drop--I can't recall whether it was real acid or Robitussin DM--and an hour or so later we piled into the car.
Rachel, who wasn't tripping, drove. The rest of us were reduced to several pairs of eyeballs swimming through a shared, murky self. Parking on the shoulder on a holiday evening would have been a red flag for anyone on patrol, so, promising to come back and check for us every ten minutes, Rachel dropped us off at the end of the service road, and we stumbled into the snowy, wind-whipped desolation of the bog.
The moon was full that night, a huge icy orb hanging low in the sky, which along with the frozen ground and snow-matted vegetation should've made navigation easy, but the paths had apparently multiplied and the handful of trees seemed even more alike for the change. We took it in stride, loping weightless across the snowcapped humps of bent-back bog weeds that would normally stand six feet high. Thanks to whatever we were on we felt completely immune to the weather and equal to any puzzle the haunted spirit of the bog could throw at us--that, and a wild exhilaration at how unlikely and dangerous it all was, how perfectly framed by gnarled branch and starry sky, how young and alive we were, stalking the whispering wastes. Something was finally happening to us.
We spread out, somehow having the sense to keep one another in sight, and didn't wander long before Eric called out.
We jogged over, and he pointed the way. As we approached, Eric and I both noted the changes: whole chunks had been broken off the collapsed part of the tree, leaving the dead guy far more exposed than he had been--other people were coming here. His cocoon was more like a baroque Texas Chainsaw piece now, his withered body framed by a corona of screaming branches, the pale semicircle of moonlit saplings embracing him from behind. He seemed to have shifted slightly; otherwise he looked about the same, save for the little piles of snow on his brow, shoulders, and knees, and the dazzling whiteness where his skeleton showed through the separated husk of leathery flesh.
"He's beautiful," Bob said. And there we stood, sharp-toed goth, faux Deadhead, and would-be Bogart, steam pouring off our heads, lost in thought over a frozen, anonymous corpse.
Eventually we stirred ourselves and staggered back to the road, suspecting our extremities were damaged. Somehow Rachel was waiting, and somehow we were fine. We sat up talking the rest of the night at Jim's, horribly pleased with ourselves, still high on the fumes of the experience, still uneasy at having discovered our competition.
I told a few acquaintances back at school about the dead guy, adding the spine-tingling revelation that a rival gang of creeps was visiting the corpse as well. After a few months two friends convinced me to go out and show them, so on a blustery late-winter afternoon we trudged into the bog. We searched for hours, unable to find the guy, but we encountered sign after sign that untold others had been here too. The sky turned green and purple, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, and the wind blew up, throwing sheets of rain at us, a banshee's howl following behind. Finally we gave up, fully expecting to be arrested or struck by lightning as we fled.
On Easter, I took Greg, another friend from high school, to the bog. Maybe the last visit's production values had been too good; maybe having a normal in tow finally made me step back. The dead guy was drier, smaller, plainer now, the good and bad magic of the whole thing seeming to have vanished; after the earlier, abortive effort, it was satisfying to see him again, but that was all.
The story broke just a few weeks later, on April 17, 1991. In the days that followed, the cops scrambled to identify the dessicated corpse, the gang at Castle Zoom scrambled to cover their collective ass, and I talked to Eric daily, anxious to know how close the investigation would come to me. Within 24 hours Jim, Eric, and Rachel had all been interviewed by detectives and come more or less clean. I figured I had to be next. And given the stern pronouncements pouring from the press, I expected the worst, even though a frustrated state's attorney had already admitted we hadn't violated any statutes.
But the cops were not dicks, disappointing expectations a lifetime in the making. All they wanted was the gun--no questions, no names--but this posed a small problem. After Forrest had stolen it from the dead guy, Eric had stolen the gun from him. Following our New Year's visit, he'd sold it to Bob, who'd taken it home to North Carolina. The police, who were talking mostly to Rachel, gave us something like 48 hours to get the thing to a station in North Carolina. Eric got in touch with Bob, and he raced across the state to deliver the goods. This conjured a picture I can still call up of Bob, hat pulled low, stopped for speeding, telling the cop in a clipped Edward G.: Don't slow me down, flatfoot--I've got to be at that police station yesterday. This never happened, of course; the gun showed up on time and without incident.
By the 18th, police had Forrest in custody. By the 20th, the body had been ID'd. His name was Dennis Bruce Jones, age 38, approximately six foot five, approximately 180 pounds, and in the words of Lake County sheriff's detective Lieutenant Chester Iwan, "somewhat of a drifter." The results of the autopsy, performed a day after his discovery, were the big news. Jones had died of two gunshot wounds, one to the head, the other to the chest. When asked if a man could shoot himself twice while taking his life, Lake County coroner Barbara Richardson said, "It is not an impossibility." But to us it seemed like quite a trick.
A .22 is a pop gun, a purse gun, and you could conceivably make a second go if the first shot weren't immediately fatal. Still, we felt much less sure that we'd been visiting a suicide.
But chances are it was. Jones likely went for the heart, missed, then sealed the deal with the second shot. The unmolested crime scene was utterly convincing, and the offbeat pathos of the note seemed beyond Forrest, who wasn't exactly a man of letters. If it was a homicide, some supercriminal had fabricated the scene, and Forrest had stumbled into it. But while we waited for the official verdict, we feverishly built our case against him, savoring the thrilling possibility that we'd hung out with a murderer and squirming with a belated sense of responsibility. If we'd helped cover up a slaying, even inadvertently, we were all guilty.
In August, the coroner's jury of six--the same as our number, better qualified but working with less--reported that they'd failed to determine the cause of death. Meanwhile names were put to parents, girlfriend, sister.
Eric, Rachel, and I got together at the Castle later that summer. Jim had left to follow the Ren Faire circuit, Eric and Rachel had transformed the coop into a cozy little love nest, and as we sat there playing cards we reconstructed the mystery. We talked about the whole new idea of the dead guy having relatives: still too young to really appreciate the injury and yet to experience such a loss, we nonetheless exchanged a lot of sheepish looks. Eventually we hiked out to the site.
The bog is a jungle in the deep summer, reeds and grasses rising taller than the average man. We slogged our way to the tree, but it was so overgrown we couldn't see a thing besides the police tape, bundling the overgrown weeds into a giant sheaf. Eric snagged the tape, and we split it into pieces back at the Castle.
Twelve years later, I'm embarrassed by our precious self-involvement. We wrung every bit of drama we could from the dead guy, fetishizing both his death and our invisible role in its aftermath till the bitter end. Only then did we even begin to consider that there might be people who cared about him, or how our silence would color his memory.
But however lost Dennis Bruce Jones was when he reached the end of the line, fate gave him a strange second life with us. Still years from getting our acts anywhere near together, we felt just as lost ourselves, and presumptuous as it was, we loved him, as we felt no one else could.
We were wrong, of course, drug addled and withdrawn, but when I revisited the site earlier this spring, it wasn't hard to recall the mind-set. The canopy of branches was gone, but otherwise everything looked exactly the same, just as eerie, as shiveringly pretty as on the first occasion. It still felt almost, well, hallowed, like time there had simply refused to start back up once events resumed their normal course, and the public fact of the death caught up with its physical accomplishment.
For more on driving for fun in McHenry see the Vistor's Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Christiane Grauert.