The shadows were yielding to dawn when Karl Hendrick left the house that Wednesday morning. Much of the year he walked in total darkness, but this was late June, a few days past the solstice. He hardly needed his long-sleeved shirt, but would be glad for it once immersed in conditioned air.
He was a bus driver, headed to the terminal. In seven blocks, at West Boulevard, he would catch a ride on the overnight bus headed back from the airport. Downtown, he would climb into his own bus and head back through these familiar streets, by then grown commuter-clogged.
Thanks to the brook and paved sidewalk, it was a serene walk even on gloomy winter mornings; this morning was gorgeous. From their houses on the east side, Karl and his neighbors could not usually see the watercourse itself: It shrank in dry seasons, like this, to a shallow rivulet down in a gully kept steep-flanked by occasional hurricane rains.
If one crossed the street, as Karl now did, one saw that even at its shallowest the brook sustained shoals of tiny fish that attracted an aviary of rattling kingfishers, quacking mallards and honking herons, joined by colorful smaller birds whose morningsong rang loud. One occasionally saw rabbits, chipmunks, even muskrats. It was almost bucolic.
At either end of this unspoiled residential stretch, the brook coursed through busy commercial strips, each with a few good restaurants and a coterie of less sophisticated fast-foods and bars. Some habitués of the latter would occasionally, in mild weather, wander out to pee in the brook, and – blessedly rarely – might follow the brook into these residential blocks, calling attention to themselves with too-loud conversation or even ribald song.
Some householder (or several) would then call the police, who corralled the inebriates and shepherded them back to the bars or, in worst case, to a jail cell to sleep it off, restoring the neighborhood to sylvan sounds.
In this morning’s dim light, it took Karl a moment to realize that there was a man down there beside the brook, sprawled out with one foot almost in the water, face down, wearing a hoodie that made it impossible to guess his age.
Karl considered scrambling down to be sure the man was merely sleeping off a drunk. He was slightly overweight, though, with a bum knee, corollaries of a sedentary lifestyle. And he had to catch that airport bus. Charlie Purvis would wait at the corner if he saw Karl coming, but otherwise would drive on, so he’d have to walk back home for the car, complicating both his life and his wife’s.
He might at least have phoned police, but Charlie was in fact waiting, with a long narrative about a lost passenger. The moment passed.
When Shirley Burris stepped out of her house an hour later, the sun was just up, casting the shadow of her tall chimney the full length of her driveway. She, too, crossed to the brookside, and she too saw the hoodied figure beside the brook.
Her nurse’s instinct was to climb over the low wire and go see if he needed help. She was in her starched uniform and white shoes, though, on her way to the hospital. Clambering down the muddy bank would surely have resulted in a trip back to the house to change into a fresh uniform, making her late relieving Sharon Miller in the intensive care unit.
So she just paused long enough to assure herself that the man wouldn’t drown if the brook rose a little, and went on to the bus stop. She started to get her cellphone out of her purse to call 9-1-1, but the bus arrived. As was often the case, it was her neighbor Karl What’s-his-name behind the wheel. She might have asked if he’d seen the figure in the gully, but there were people behind her, so she let it go.
Someone ought to check out that man by the brook, though, so as soon as she found a seat, she got her phone out. No signal, the screen said. Perhaps it was being inside the bus, or maybe they were in an area with weak or no coverage. She kept the phone out so as not to forget. Reaching the hospital, she found a bench, sat down and finally made the call.
Police Corporal Harold Bailey got there in less than ten minutes, muddying his uniform to skid down the bank. He took one look, felt a wrist, and called headquarters. “He’s lost a lot of blood, Pete,” he told the dispatcher, “and I can’t find a pulse. Better get an EMT team out here.”
“Got it. Ambulance on the way in a minute.”
“Pity no one noticed him earlier,” Bailey said.
Both Karl Hendrick and Shirley Burris learned of the death via the evening TV news, which quoted the police officer’s regret that no one had noticed the man in a timely way.
Karl sensed immediately that this wouldn’t be a one-night story. Sure enough, as he set out next morning, he saw at least one television truck up near the bus stop. He turned in the opposite direction, and briskly walked the extra four blocks to catch his bus at the next stop inbound.
Shirley Burris, unhappily not so foresighted, was met at the bus stop by two TV news teams looking for people who might have seen the man down by the brook. They were thrilled to find the very person who had phoned the police, but were relentless in asking why she hadn’t made the call right away, or gone down to the brook to put her nursing skills to work.
There are few even skilled public people who can weather that kind of questioning without appearing defensive and somehow guilty of something; Mrs. Burris had no experience or skills with the news media.
She insisted, at dinner that night, that they skip the television news.
Published by MacQueen’s Quinterly in August 2023