On Belle Isle

On Belle Isle

 On Belle Isle, Detroit

I had a history with the Yacht Club. My mother waitressed there in the Eighties and I sometimes made myself useful by folding napkins into swans, placing floral arrangements as big as my head on tables, setting their signature glassware on the bar. Once the evening began, I’d find a corner to sketch the women in their ball gowns, furs, and brilliant jewels, the men in tuxedoes with their shoes shined to a patina, musicians setting up on the dance floor, silver platters filled with food I couldn’t name. That sort of night was less common now, but Detroiters had grown adept at slipping on blinders along with formal attire.

The boat slips were empty today, but light traffic circled Belle Isle. The arboretum had reopened, and cars were parked outside the Casino, a venue where seniors played cards, sold discards and crafts, chatted over sack lunches. Parking in the almost empty lot by the DYC, I waved at the porter, Stan Horsham, who knew what I was up to. Checking things out before an event was essential. Sometimes furniture critical to an event got moved around; last year’s bare windows could now be covered in heavy drapes. More than once I’d found a name spelled wrong on a wedding cake or a bar set up for a Baptist wedding. Shooting an event in aging buildings presented certain problems: how to avoid photographing rusting pipes, spackled plaster, and cracking linoleum. Such was Detroit.

“Doing the Janda party, Vi?” Stan asked, drawing closer. The workforce was minimal weekdays, but Stan was always around in his stiff uniform, his hair slicked back, his hand cupping an ear.

“Karolin’s marrying a state senator. Mrs. Janda’s become my constant companion.” I waved my phone.

“The kitchen brought a guy in from Hamtramck to oversee it.” Stan made a clucking sound. “Like any Detroit chef doesn’t know how to turn out pierogis and sernik.”

After making a few notes—and yes they’d recovered the valances—I took off. On impulse, I decided to circle the island before heading home. I still had dreams of leaving bar mitzvahs and weddings behind, of photographing the places or people that made up this city. Detroit had the media’s attention for almost flaunting its decay. It was hard to avoid seeing denuded landscapes, windowless buildings, pot-holed streets as potential art.

I stopped near a wooded area. Violent crimes on Belle Isle were few—the island had its own police station— and today it was nearly deserted. Trash and overgrown shrubbery increased as I moved further from the road. I’d slipped a new battery and memory card into the camera in case a subject caught my eye. I didn’t mind using digital for certain kinds of work.

I stopped abruptly, my sneakers protesting in the wet grass. A grey, bulky object lay not thirty yards away. I approached it cautiously, convinced I’d found a body. My stomach pitched with fear and excitement as I inched along. Such a find deserved more than a digital, though I certainly couldn’t have set up the Deardorff out here. Why was I thinking about art when I should be dialling the cops?

No, it wasn’t a body, I realized with inappropriate regret. It was nothing more sinister than a large grey bag, probably filled with sand.

“It’s a geobag,” said a voice behind me.

I swivelled around. It was a kid—or close to one—standing with his hands on his hips. He wore a weirdly formal blue jacket, a torn tee shirt from an old Stones concert, paint-stained khakis, and a pair of army boots, scuffed and lace-less. I had to stop myself from lifting the camera.

“Parks Department uses ‘em to prevent erosion,” he continued. “There’s dozens more down by the water. I drag it up here to sit on. Bet you thought it was a body though.” He giggled. “Week or two back, a rookie cop darted over here, hand on his holster.”

“Don’t they get used to seeing the bags?”

“Not here. About once or twice a week, it gets moved back to the shore though it weighs a friggin’ ton. Can’t figure out why anyone would pay it so much attention with the shit needs to be done.”

We both looked around at the chaotic scene.

“They only pick this place up on Arbor Day. People come in from the ‘burbs to help out. Long time between Arbor Days though.”

I picked up the tune. “Brag all year about how they care about the city—out there in Bloomfield Hills. How they do their part to maintain it.” I was starting to like this kid.

“Right.”

We exchanged smiles. “You just sit here and look at the water?”

“Mostly, I plan my sculptures or snag stuff I find.” He rubbed his hands up and down the sides of his jacket nervously.

“You’re an artist?”

“Sculptor,” he said with a half-shrug. “Or try to be.”

“Have any pieces on hand?” I looked around as if a portable gallery might appear.

“Not here. It’s a great spot for junk getting stuck in the weeds. I construct the pieces in a different place. I’ve been assigned a spot actually.”

“Assigned? By whom?”

“The City. Got tired of tearing ‘em down and they gave me my own playground. My sculptures sit on the shoreline until they wash away or fall apart. Or till someone knocks ‘em down.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“You’d be surprised. Naturalists don’t like my work—not one little bit. The boat people too—I get in their way. I got my fans but not many.”

Boat people? For a minute, I thought he meant the Vietnamese.

“And kids get a kick out of destroying shit. Remember?”

“I think that’s a guy thing”

“City said I can keep at it if I stay on that one shoreline and keep my work under a certain size. I’ve been known to go overboard, but pretty soon a suit or uniform comes to remind me. I’m a pain in the ass, but after Guyton—you know.”

Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project had been a blocks-long display of found objects, artfully installed, which the City had mostly pulled down. Pieces were now in museums or in the private collections of the wealthy

I nodded, impressed despite myself. He’d managed to get some respect. Maybe his work was outstanding. I was rooting for it to be but also jealous. City-sanctioned was a kind of patronage. I could use some of that validation.

“You know when you were headed over here and spotted the bag, you didn’t look all that spooked,” he said, toeing a half-buried license plate.

“I’m always looking for interesting stuff. Kind of like what you’re into. Or what I think you’re into.” I paused before laying my biggest piece of information on him. “I’ve been photographing dead people lately. You know, at a mortuary?”

“Wow.” He blinked a couple of times. “You’re pretty out there.”

“The portraits— well, they’re very— respectful,” I said, sounding ridiculous even to myself. “The people, you know— their families— they really love having one.” I was making it sound like an altruistic act and not a pathetic attempt to make death into art. Well, it some way it was—making a final photograph of a dead loved one beautiful. Let’s face it, I didn’t have a handle on my intentions myself. “The mortician sets it up.” I could have added that the mortician was my boyfriend.

“I’d sure like to see one.” When no offer came, he continued, “Well, I can call you if something turns up. A body, or more likely a body part. That what you mean, right?”

“Ever come across one?”

“Nah, but I’ve found some pretty cool things. Once an ear, nibbled a little, but you could tell what it was. Another time, a dog’s head. A boxer’s.” He shrugged.

“I got my card in the car,” I said. If he hung out on Belle Isle, something was likely to turn up.

“Found a cool item to install a few minutes ago.” He pulled a piece of metal shaped like a rocket from his jacket. “Hood ornament. When I go home I’ll check it out on the Internet. Find the car model it came from.”

Then he did live somewhere. I felt better.

He was struggling to keep up with me. “Got one going right now—a sculpture, I mean—one this doodad will look awesome on.” He flew it around like a child might. “Don’t find stuff this good much.”

This good.

“Hey, don’t scoff. Some of these hood decorations are worth hundreds of dollars.”

“I’ll have to come over to see your work soon.” I felt a bit deflated, wondering if the sculpture site might only exist in his head.

But if there was a chance he’d come up with something, it was worth a risk. We reached my car and I opened the door, taking a card from the purse I’d left under the seat, remembering too late it was probably not a good idea to show him where I kept it. He could grab it and run. Push me inside and rape me. Hell, he could grab the keys and steal the car.

But he didn’t do any of those things, and I knew he wouldn’t.

“Violet Hart,” he said, looking at the card. “I’m Derek Olsen. Down here most days. My mom—she likes me to get out of the house.”

As I drove across the bridge, I caught sight of him. He was standing on top of a structure that was mostly concrete I’d guess. It was big though—I wondered about the limits the city had set. He was probably placing his hood ornament at the pinnacle now. From the distance, he looked like an explorer who’d discovered new land and was planting a flag.

***

A few weeks later, the machine on my landline was blinking insistently when I walked in.

“It’s me. Derek Olsen.”

A long pause followed—as though Derek thought I might not remember him.

“Guy you met on Belle Isle, right? Look, I think I have something. He chuckled. “Not home, huh? I don’t know why, but I always picture you out on the streets, turning over trashcans or rocks, looking for the nasty. Anyway, why don’t you come down early tomorrow? Dawn maybe. Bring a little light along too. Enough light to shoot with.”

Well, how could I not go? What did he have secreted away? The sad thing was—it was probably nothing. I’d show up and be treated to a closer look at his work. Or some other inconsequential thing. But still, it wasn’t like I was pressed for time. He was a city-sanctioned artist after all. I was a mere wedding photographer. I was lucky he remembered me.

***

The sky was an olivish pewter when I crossed the bridge. The island smelled clean if a little sulphuric in the aftermath of an early thunderstorm. Perhaps the goose dung, littering surfaces lavishly and indiscriminately, had been neutralized by the rain. The birds themselves were shadowy spectres along the shoreline.

As I drove around the southeast tip of the island, I saw a line of parked cars. A race? A religious service? A fraternity rite? My lights picked up people inside the cars: a few in pairs, others seemingly alone, some appearing to be asleep, a few in an embrace. I looked away, catching something too private perhaps. It was so eerily quiet despite the crowd.

What did they want? Drugs? Hookers? Homosexual partners?

A man, youngish and underdressed, came walking along, head down. Headlights flashed from several cars, but he didn’t look up. Whatever mission he was on, it wasn’t here or wasn’t this. A muted beep, a foghorn on the river, a birdcall, and the young man disappeared into a passage through the dense green shrubs.

Now it was my slow cruise drawing interest. Catcalls and invitations erupted.

“Hey, baby,” one man called, throwing open his car door. “Got something fine here to share with you.” He laughed raucously. “Bet you thought I meant my dick. But it’s NZ Green! I got the good stuff.”

I picked up speed, wondering how to capture this scene, this procession of parked cars, warm desire, fluid bodies, desperation, loneliness. But it occupied a place I couldn’t touch with my camera.

Derek waited in the same spot, holding a lantern that bounced light off both our faces.

“Come on,” he said, motioning. “It’d be best to get this done before it’s too light.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but maybe I was still spooked by my journey along the river. “I didn’t really expect to hear from you.” My feet seemed unwilling to move.

“Hey, come on or don’t you want to see sick stuff today? Still taking pictures of dead bodies, right?” He stopped, putting the lantern down, wheezing. “Sorry, night air makes my asthma kick up.” After a few puffs on his inhaler, he added, “Whew.”

“Do you sleep here?”

“No, I told you before. I sleep at my mother’s.”

He put the inhaler away. “She doesn’t kick me out till morning.” He saw my look. “Okay, she doesn’t actually kick me out. She just likes me to have—activities—in the daytime. Right now she thinks I’m on my way to deliver flyers.”

“Deliver flyers? Do you get paid more than a pittance for it?”

“Nah, and you have to get yourself to where they pick you up damned early. If you get chosen—boy, that seems like a funny word to describe it, right —anyway if you look fairly clean and sober they dump you and the flyers miles away from here. No one delivers flyers in Detroit. Only ones I’ve tossed here were for gambling addiction and cancer of the mouth. Probably from that damned incinerator.” Before I could answer, he continued, “Sometimes, vans pick you up at the end of the day. But not always. Some drivers think it’s funny to leave you hangin’. Or maybe the drivers only get paid for half-days.”

He’d recovered and we started walking. “Once I got sent downriver, and neither the other guy nor me knew how to get back to the city. Wyandotte, Lincoln Park—one of those downriver ‘burbs. Other guy was a hardcore druggie and in need of a fix. Shaking, sweating, and swearing his head off. I managed to hitch a ride, but the trucker wouldn’t take him.”

“So you left him there?”

“Lucky thing for him I did.”

“Why?”

“Truckers get lonely and horny. They want you to blow them while they drive. Fellate them, I heard a guy call it that on a cop show. The polite word for somethin’ that ain’t too polite. Does fellate sound any better than blow to you?”

“So did you?”

Derek grinned noncommittally. “Those truckers—they’re flying from doing speed in those rigs, and wanna drive with your head in their lap at eighty miles an hour.” He turned around, making a face. “Most of ‘em got crotch sweat from bellies hanging over their balls all day long. A real bad smell when you get up—or down—close.”

I made a gagging sound. “Enough.”

“Well, you asked.” He slowed to a standstill. “Now, what you’re gonna see here is probably the start of something. A vendetta maybe—or a gang war. That’s why I called you down early. Before other people got tuned in.”

“You’re talking about a crime?”

He nodded. “Have you gotten cold feet since you said you wanted to see a body? ‘Cause this is a hell of a lot worse.”

Worse than a dead body? But my tongue moved faster than my brain. “I’m ready.”

As the light sharpened, and I began to see better, Derek led me to his sculptures—or whatever they were. Up close, I could see hundreds of objects attached to each base: it was kind of a Clutterhenge.

“I got another flashlight around here,” he said, hunting through a pile of paraphernalia. He came up with one and tossed it. “Point the light there.”

I pointed, but all I could see was a doll’s head. Its curly blonde hair and staring blue eyes gave me a start. I’ve never been crazy about dolls—or that’s my excuse.

“Oh man, if a doll’s head freaks you out—we got a problem. You talk a good game, but you’re a girl at heart.”

“I was startled.” I looked again. Below the doll’s head were several tiny, gleaming objects. Teeth?

“No, not there, for fuck’s sake.” He grabbed my arm again, moving it right. The light shone on two hands and two feet: all four—and they were big ones—were fastened to the structure with huge iron nails.

“What the hell, Derek. Are they real?”

It had to be a prank. Derek had found a life-sized doll and amputated the plastic hands and feet.

“‘Course they’re real. Shouldn’t be any time at all before the head washes in. Found them on the beach night before last—they were scattered but easy to spot. Took me a half-day to get the nails and install them. Never hung pieces this big and heavy before. Had to go out to Home Depot to get special nails.”

I shivered at Derek’s practicality—going to Home Depot to get the tools to finish his grisly task. Probably by bus. Oh, he couldn’t be sane to be this blasé about it. Why did his mother let him roam Detroit? Even the sanest person can get into trouble.

“What about the torso?” Walking closer, I flinched.

“Yeah, awful smell. May have to throw bleach on ‘em. Rest of him will wash up too, I bet. Just take longer. Although a freighter might push the torso or head upstream. They could’ve already gotten trapped on a rock or a tree limb. Hair snaggles easy. Neighbour of ours, out walking alone, fell in a couple years ago. Never found him. Shaped like a saucer farther east— once it turns into a lake. Easy to slip in, hard to climb out.”

He continued to talk, but my eyes were glued to the crucified feet. Big feet with nails needing trimming. Nature didn’t put feet so far away from the eyes, nose, and mouth by accident. They were damned ugly.

“So do you want to take some pictures—when the sun comes up?”

“You don’t think you can keep these—appendages, do you? You have to report this.”

The hands were better cared for than the feet. Each nail cut squarely—like they’d been trimmed moments before. Maybe someone gave him a manicure. People are more likely to be able to identify hands. This guy cared about his hands—or the murderer had cared about what those hands gave away and hacked them off. Or maybe the dead guy’d been stuffed in a small place before he was dumped. A space so small, he was dismembered to fit.

“I know I gotta call the cops, Violet, but I thought you might want a picture first. I promised you right? If I have to give ‘em up, at least I’ll have a picture of it too. Wasn’t this the sort of thing you had in mind?”

I considered the situation, pulling out my camera and taking a look. “I’d like to wait a bit.” It was too ludicrous. The two of us standing in front of this installation. Both with a cell phone but not using it. Both selfish in the way artists are selfish.

“I’m in no hurry.” He sat down on a camp chair and pulled out a crumpled pack of Salems. “It’s up to you. If you want to risk being around when the sun’s up. Soon as someone catches sight of this, there’s gonna be a shitstorm here.”

“Is smoking good for your asthma?”

“Only smoke one or two a day.”

I’d heard that line before. “You have to call the cops this morning. What you’re doing here has got to be some kind of crime. Withholding evidence at least.” I looked at the hands and feet again. “And tampering with it, Derek. You probably destroyed some valuable forensic evidence hanging those body parts like that.”

But, boy he had done them up good. The nails he used must be the biggest Home Depot carried. Jesus nails.

“They’ll take ‘em down soon as I call, Vi. How would you like cops to mess with your work? I think of them as mine. Had to swim fifty-feet out into that pisspot of a river to grab the second foot. And if the smell seems bad now, well, it was much worse back then.”

“Well, sure they’ll take them down,” I said, fanning the smoke. “It’ll help them to I.D. the victim. They can probably match up a weapon with the cut marks. Sure to be a lot of other evidence. I’ll have to call them if you don’t.”

“Go ahead,” he said. “But if you’re gonna tattle, don’t take a picture.”

“Why? Taking a picture won’t hurt your work. You said you wanted a record yourself. I thought that was why I was here.”

“Why should you get to make your art if I can’t keep mine? Why should you get to profit from my hard work, my find? You wouldn’t know about any of this if I hadn’t called you.” He stubbed his cigarette out. “They’ll find the rest of him soon enough. Then they can identify him.”

“You don’t know that. The rest of him might have been dragged out into the Great Lakes. Bet he’s decapitated too. If hands and feet are used to identify a body, a head would be more important with teeth and recognizable features.”

I walked over to Derek’s sculpture again. No rings: nothing special on the hands and feet. Or at least from what I could see.

There was a considerable amount of dried blood on the ankles; it looked like the job had been inexpert or hurried. Or maybe the tool hadn’t been heavy-duty enough. The murderer hacked away at them. The skin colour was impossible to assign. Greenish-greyish, he could be white, black, Asian, Hispanic. No telling what the dirty river water would do to colour.

“Probably there’s not a person in the world I could identify by their feet.”

“I think I’d know my mom’s feet,” Derek said, stubbing out his cigarette. “She hardly ever wears shoes inside. Her toes point up—like a kind of leprechaun. Well, you can’t take a picture if you’re going to call the police today.”

I started to raise the camera, and he made a lunge, nearly knocking it out of my hands. “Are you going to call ‘em?”

I shook my head. “Not just yet. Hey, let me use a couple of those lanterns, will you?”

I angled them to provide some oblique illumination, wanting those iron nails to show up. Once again, I wished I’d brought a better camera along. I gave some thought to setting up a sort of tripod, but there was no time. It’d bring too quick a response if someone saw me trooping through the park with something larger. If the light was too bright.

“We really have to call the cops.”

“Yeah, I know,” Derek said, adjusting something.

I started snapping pictures from far enough away to get the whole sculpture in, closing in on it slowly. The close-ups were amazing.

“I guess there is no way to cover it—just for a day or two. A drop cloth?”

I don’t know who said that. It could have been either of us. We both looked at our work, admired it, thought about how to make it better.

A few hundred feet away perhaps, a head and torso floated into the tanker lanes.

Patricia Abbott's stories have appeared in more than 100 print and online journals. She is the author of two ebooks: MONKEY JUSTICE and HOME INVASION. Two print books are forthcoming from Polis Books: CONCRETE ANGEL and SHOT IN DETROIT. She lives six blocks from Detroit.

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