The Hanged Man
By John F.D. Taff
“Escape?” said Tony, piling macaroni salad into a wet and glistening mound on his Styrofoam plate. “What’s that story got to do at all with escape?”
Big Jim McBrewder—who at various points in his life had been called Jimmy, Big Jimmy, Big Jim, Jimmy Mac, Officer McBrewder, Sergeant McBrewder, Lieutenant McBrewder, Lieutenant Mac, and now just Jimmy or Dad or Grandpa—swiveled his thick neck toward the youngest of his sons.
“The one I send to college doesn’t understand my story, Doris,” he said, looking at his son but talking to his wife, who hovered just out of view, moving food from the charcoal grill to the table.
Doris, unseen, fluttered away to grab a pitcher of sun tea sitting on the deck railing, shrugged at her husband’s words.
Tony shoveled a forkful of dripping macaroni salad from his plate into his mouth. Some of it dribbled down his naked chest. His shirt hung behind him, drying from when his older brother, Ray, threw him into the above-ground pool earlier.
“Dad, what does a kid who watches his mom stab his dad at the Thanksgiving dinner table, then eats the bloody pumpkin pie while the police haul his mom away have anything to do with escape?” he asked.
“Don’t talk with your mouthful,” Doris said, slapping her son playfully upside the head as she set a plate of hamburgers and bratwursts, steaming and redolent of charcoal and lighter fluid, onto the crowded table in front of him.
Jim speared a bratwurst from the plate and wiggled it onto his own, dropping it next to a mound of cottage cheese, an ear of corn that had been broken in half and a perfectly circular slice of homegrown tomato, covered in pepper.
Doris looked ruefully at the bratwurst that now lay on his plate seeping its blackened grease onto the pristine white of the cottage cheese.
She said nothing, but Jim saw the look in her eyes.
“Aww, jeez, Dorrie,” he grumbled. “You gonna deny me a single brat? I can’t sit here while we’re grilling out and eat frikkin’ cottage cheese and tomatoes.”
“You know you’re not supposed to eat them.”
“I’m not supposed to do a lot of things these days. I’m not even supposed to be alive, so what the hell.”
He wrestled with his knife and fork, spent the uncomfortable silence that followed slicing the brat into very small pieces.
“There are plenty of other things to eat here on the table,” Doris said, talking to the top of her husband’s lowered head. “Try the macaroni salad.”
Jim didn’t raise his head from his task. “I can’t eat that crap. It looks like…crap.”
Both Tony and Ray burst into laughter at that, and Jim did look up, initially angry. Then, his bluff Irish face broke into a huge grin.
His face was so thin, though, that the grin, which made his cheeks sink away and his teeth become larger, looked like a rictus, a death mask.
The laughter faded.
“It’s all about escape. Fucking escape,” he growled, his face still lowered over the now completely dissected bratwurst.
“Jim,” Doris tsked.
“It’s true, Dorrie, it’s true. People spend their lives escaping one thing or another, all the time, every day. That’s what the story’s about, Tony. A boy trying to escape the reality of what he’d just seen.”
Ray looked at Tony, but Tony shook his head.
“Everything isn’t about escape, dad,” Ray said. “Everyone’s not trying to escape.”
“No?” Jim asked, lifted his fork slowly and slid the thin wafer of bratwurst into his mouth. At this first bite, he knew that he would be unable to finish the entire bratwurst, and that knowledge, as small a thing as it might seem, flashed into an immediate and childlike anger.
He closed his eyes, hoping that his family might not see this anger; might instead think he was really, really enjoying this small bite of a forbidden food.
His one secret, the secret he would keep from them at all costs, carry with him to the silence of his grave, was his anger; how deeply, profoundly angry he was—at his illness, at himself, at them for allowing it to happen—and how it seemed to be growing within him day by day, side by side with his disease, nourished by the same blood.
“No, huh?” he said again when he’d managed to swallow the morsel. “Ray, where’s Tammy today?”
Color flooded Doris’ face, and she brought her napkin up to wipe away an imaginary smear of grease on her lips. Tony’s eyes became unfocused as he stared out into the yard, past the pool.
Ray chewed his mouthful of food considerately.
“I told you, dad,” he said, his voice low and confidential. “She had to stay home to clean up things for the garage sale tomorrow.”
Jim nodded, but did not lower his heavy eyes from his son’s. “Yeah, that’s what you said.”
Another silence followed, and Jim slid a wedge of tomato into his mouth, closed his lips and sucked its cool, sweet, peppery juices down his tight, parched throat.
Ray set his fork and knife down, lowered his eyes.
“And you, why are you still living here?” Jim asked, swiveling himself fractionally toward Tony. “Why don’t you have an apartment of your own? You’re graduated. You’ve got a good job.”
Tony, who flinched when his father’s attention turned on him, rolled his eyes at his mother. But both parents saw the flush of red that traveled up his exposed chest to his neck and cheeks.
“Escape,” Jim breathed, swallowing another piece of tomato. “It’s all escape. People don’t know how to face up to where they are, what they’re doing. I seen it all the time.”
Doris lowered her napkin too primly, settling it atop her plate with the finality of a sheet draped over a corpse.
Jim looked at her, found her eyes, and they locked.
But he said nothing to her. He didn’t need to.
She knew, and she looked away, looked at her hands, looked at the thick, heavy wedding set that encircled her aged, wrinkled finger.
Jim looked away, feeling a splinter of guilt prick his heart.
“I got another story, if you want to hear it,” he said, grunting himself away from the table a bit.
No one spoke to deny him or agree with him, and so he took this as permission to tell his tale.
“It was back in ’61 or ’62, I’m not sure now,” he said, closing his eyes and letting the details of the time and place wash over him. “But it was hot, damn hot.”
It was 1963, so Jimmy was close, and it was hot, all the more so back in this time when air conditioning was a novelty. The air outside was heavy, languorous. It was like moving through the waters of a heated swimming pool. Breathing was like taking in lungfuls of hot syrup, thick and sticky, making every breath an effort.
Jimmy remembered this clearly, and the smell, wet and fetid, like the city was a huge, panting dog, stunned by the heat.
As the proverbial Irish cop, Jimmy was not genetically suited for life in a hot, humid climate, and his baby-white skin turned pink and sweated gallons during the hot, long summers patrolling alone in his black-and-white, the windows cranked down.
But no air conditioner. No, he wouldn’t drive a squad car with that feature for another ten years.
He’d received the call over the radio, the call no officer wanted to hear, especially in the heat of summer.
“One Mark 17, One Mark 17. See the owner of the Munich Arms Hotel, 768 North Broadway. Report of a suspicious odor coming from a guest room. Over.”
Big Jim, for this was before he was a sergeant or a lieutenant, sighed and acknowledged receipt of the call.
Suspicious odor? Jesus tap dancing Christ.
He turned the car around in a lazy arc, then sped back the way he’d come, thumbing the squad car’s lights and sirens on.
The Munich Arms was in the northernmost tip of St. Louis, a mostly German area that was quietly going to seed. The place had been a hotel at one time, but had fallen first into a sort of stately disrepair, then into the seedy squalor that it currently wore.
It sat between a gas station and an empty lot choked with weeds and large chunks of whatever building had stood there previously. Its front entrance was overhung with a slanted, rusted sign that proclaimed, in half-burnt-out neon letters, “Munich Arms, Vacancy.”
Jim snorted as he parked the squad car and turned off his lights and siren.
“I bet there’s plenty of vacancies,” he said, grabbing his hat.
He climbed out of the car, saw that another squad car was already there.
Why would they need two cars here, unless…
In those days, there were no county medical examiners, no morgue officials, no separate ambulance service for dead bodies. Police officers presented with a dead body were expected to remove it themselves, place it in their own cars and escort it to the nearest hospital.
It wasn’t a detail of the job that any officer enjoyed. You spent your entire day in your car. It became your office, your home, sometimes your bed, often where you ate your meals. The last thing you wanted to do was to stink it up with a dead body, particularly on a day as hot as this.
Jim wiped the heel of his hand across his forehead, flicked away a spray of sweat.
Inside the Munich Arms was only minimally cooler than standing outside under the full sun. The lobby of the hotel, really a flophouse if there ever was one, was marked chiefly by scuffed, yellowed linoleum that had seen a great many feet lurch over it.
Big Jim stepped into the darkened lobby and let his eyes adjust to the lack of sunlight. A few sunken couches, looking like broken down, sway-back horses, clustered near a huge black-and-white console TV with a small, wavering screen. On the couches were three or four older men, unshaven, droop-faced and wearing stained T-shirts and worn pants.
They took no notice of Jim as he entered.
He sniffed the air. Even with the front door wide open, it was close and stale, with dust and mildew and the tang of unwashed men. There was also the unmistakable odor of tobacco and alcohol ground into everything, the dark, scarred woodwork, the threadbare furniture, the dingy floor.
A small reception desk squatted to his left, and the man behind it, also wearing a torn T-shirt, smoked a cigarette. He watched as Jim approached, said nothing.
“Someone report a strange odor in a room?”
The man behind the desk, a thin, slick, weasel of a character from whom the smell of alcohol rolled in powerful waves, snorted.
“Whatchya smell down here, now that’s a strange odor,” he said, then jerked his head up toward the ceiling. “That smell up there, it’s got strange beat all to hell.”
“Another officer already here?”
The man shook his head, took a drag off his cigarette.
“Yep. Been up there a few minutes. Fifth floor.”
Jim nodded. “Where’s the elevator?”
The man smiled, bearing tiny, crooked, yellow teeth that made him seem even more like a weasel. He pointed to a sign that said, simply, “Stairs.”
“Great,” Jim sighed. “Thanks.”
He thumped the desk with the flat of his hand, hard enough to rattle the weasel’s ashtray and make him jump a little, then he moved off toward the stairwell. It stretched above his head in the darkness, and more odors swirled here, chiefly garbage and a whiff of urine.
Jim took a deep breath, mounted the first stair.
By the time he reached the top, he was thoroughly winded. He was a young man still, years away from his first child, but it was hot outside and several years in a squad car had already taken their toll. Besides, the stairwell was closed in, and the temperature was stifling here, much hotter than outside.
Breathing heavily, he gained the fifth floor landing, paused to catch his breath.
And wished he hadn’t.
The odor was faint here, but unmistakable. It was a sweet and greasy smell, equal parts of decaying fruit and bad pork. It oozed on the hot air, almost visible.
Jim swallowed uneasily. He’d seen death in a lot of different forms in his few years on the police force, and it was never easy. They said you get used to it, but Jim suspected that this was a lie. He knew older officers, officers who had decades on him, who were still not used to it.
He walked a few steps down the narrow, confined hallway, followed it as it jagged to the left. Around this corner, the smell became more pronounced, and Jim closed his nose off and breathed through his open mouth.
At the last doorway, he saw Sergeant Beedle. Beedle was at least 20 years older than Jim.
He was a fairly affable officer, if a little seedy, fairly overweight and, most often, drunk.
He nodded to Jim as he turned the corner.
“Hey, boy. Ain’t it your lucky day to get stuck in this shitpile with me?”
Jim laughed, careful not to draw any air in through his nose.
Beedle chuckled. “What the fuck do ya think is up, boy? We got a guy in there puffed up like a dead dog in the sun, is what’s up.”
Jim put his hand on the doorknob.
“I wouldn’t be advising that,” Beedle said, raising his eyebrows.
But Jim wanted to see what they were dealing with.
The smell that had been a patina on the air outside was, inside the room, a muscular and forceful presence. It struck Jim like a physical blow. He barely had time to notice the swollen, misshapen body on the bed, the loud buzzing of flies everywhere in the room before he bent over as if taking a bow at a grade school play and vomited his burger-and-fries lunch all over the floor inside the room.
Still bowed, his stomach clenching and unclenching, he yanked the door shut, backed into the corridor.
“Coulda told you that’d happen,” Beedle chuckled, patting Jim’s back. “Did it myself, there’s no shame. About as bad as I’ve ever seen…or smelled. Musta been in there for a week or so. And in this heat.”
As they stood there, Jim still hunched over and willing his stomach to stop lurching, Beedle with his hand on Jim’s heaving back, there was the sound of more footsteps on the stairs.
“Mary mother of God, how many men do they think we need?” Beedle said.
Jim stood in time to see another officer coming around the corner, this one someone he didn’t know.
But Beedle did.
“Tommy Frisella,” he boomed. “And what do you think you’d be doing here?”
The young officer, younger still than Jim, stood up straighter. As seedy as Beedle was, he was still a superior officer.
“Responding to a call, sir,” he said, then sniffed the air uncertainly. As he realized the situation, his face fell, its freshly scrubbed color going with it.
Frisella, unlike Big Jim, though, listened when Beedle told him he didn’t think opening the door to the room and looking in was such a good idea.
“Well,” asked Jim, scratching his head. “I don’t want to stand in this hotbox all day. How are we gonna get that guy out of there and downstairs?”
Beedle’s bushy eyebrows lifted as if he had not even considered this.
“Well, I know one thing for sure,” he said. “I’m not touching that motherfucker, much less carrying him down the stairs. One of the perks of being a sergeant, boys.”
Jim sighed, while Frisella, still dealing with the heat and the smell, took a moment longer to realize what Beedle meant. When he did, Jim saw Frisella’s face turn even whiter.
“Sarge,” Jim said. “There’s no way either of us is going to be able to wrestle that guy downstairs. Aside from Tommy here fainting, I’m thinking Chuckles in there’s about ready to pop like a balloon.”
Beedle blinked at Jim, unsure of what the younger cop meant; only sure that it had better not involve him.
“Got another idea, kid?”
“I got a tarp down in the car. What if we bring it up, wrap him up, then carry him down?”
“A tarp, huh?” Beedle said, a far away look in his eyes and a slow smile working over the features of his fleshy face
“I know just what we’re gonna do, boys,” Beedle said, drawing them in close. “Big Jimmy, you get your tarp. Tommy, bring some rope from your car.”
Big Jim found himself, minutes later, standing in the alley behind the Munich Arms, looking up at the flat, featureless back of the hotel. He had taken a large canvas drop cloth out of the trunk of the squad car, spread it on the broken concrete of the alley directly under the window of the room where the swollen, flyblown body lay on the bed.
Jim had taken his hat off, and his hair was sweat-matted to his forehead. He could feel little streamers of sweat run from the back of head, down his neck and back, to be soaked into his undershirt, then his uniform shirt. He could smell his own perspiration strongly, but it wasn’t strong enough to mask the slick, ripe odor of that decaying body, a presence even here, five stories down in an alley.
He stood with his head raised, looking for some sign in the distant window that things were going as Beedle had lain out. He tried to imagine the two of them, the nervous Frisella and the overweight Beedle entering the room, swatting away the cloud of flies to reach the bed.
Jim was sure they would have to pause as Tommy contributed the contents of his stomach to the room, just as he and Beedle had done before.
Despite himself, he tried to picture the two officers, one on either side of the bed, trying hard not to breathe through their noses, not to look to closely at the grisly body that lay before them, knowing that they were going to have to move it, touch it.
Somehow, they were going to pass a rope around the body, underneath its arms, then loop it back and knot it. Beedle assured them that he knew how to tie a knot that would hold.
Big Jim and Tommy Frisella could do little but trust him. Besides, the alternative was that the two of them carry, actually carry this rotten melon of a body down the Munich Arm’s close, stifling staircase, with Beedle chuckling all the way.
Jim shivered as he imagined what that would feel like; a scarecrow filled with dense, warm pudding that smelled of mildewed cabbage. He felt his gorge rise again, and he dismissed the thought.
As he waited, he heard a car pull into the alley.
Swallowing, he put on his cop face, prepared to shoo anyone out of the alley. Surely, no one should watch the three officers do what they were going to do.
His confusion mounted when Sergeant Manconi stepped from the car. Short of stature and temper, Manconi was like a small dog; easily excited, he snapped and bit at anything. He had dark, slicked hair, what Jim’s mother would have called “Dago hair,” a thin, black mustache that would have been stylish 20 years earlier. Between his teeth, he had clamped a long, thin cigar of the cheap dime store variety. It wasn’t lit.
“McBrewder?” he growled, his voice thin and reedy. “What the fuck is going on here? Why do we have three cars here already?”
Jim fought back a stupid grin. He towered over the sergeant by at least a foot and a half, but Manconi was one of those men who had absolutely no idea how ridiculous he seemed to others.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said. “I’m taking orders from Sgt. Beedle.”
At the mention of Beedle’s name, Manconi rolled his eyes, crunched his teeth down on his cigarillo. “Beedle? Kee-rist! That rummy’s here? What’s the situation?”
Jim motioned up to the fifth floor window with his head, preparing to explain to Sgt. Manconi what was transpiring.
He did a double take, though, when he glimpsed something in the window.
His mouth fell open, and he looked from the sergeant to the tarp that lay on the ground and back to the window.
Manconi saw it, too, and his cigarillo drooped.
“What the fuck is that?”
Big Jim looked back up.
Framed perfectly in the window, which was now completely open, was the figure of a man. He appeared to be standing on the windowsill. A rope cinched around his chest, dangled down to his legs and disappeared behind him.
Instead of picking the dead body up, Beedle and Frisella had opted, instead, to push the entire bed to the window, then upend the mattress, hoping to slide the body out the window like a dump truck disgorging its contents.
Jim realized that he and Manconi had looked up just as the two officers upstairs had lifted the mattress into place, just before the body tipped forward.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Manconi said. “The fucker’s gonna jump!”
Neither men moved, but their mouths fell open in unison, as if pulled by the same string.
The swollen body hung there in space for a second, its arms outstretched, its right leg crossed over its left at the knee, as if it had been sitting with its legs crossed.
Then, slowly, it pitched forward, not from the waist, but from the tips of its toes, like a diver falling forward into a long, slow arc that would bring him to knife cleanly into water.
The body’s feet didn’t leave the ledge until its head had reached nearly the same level. Now, the feet slipped away, too, and Jim saw the rope uncoiling behind it, snaking out from the darkness where the mattress had been, as if in a cartoon. Beedle and Frisella had obviously lowered the mattress back to the bed and were now grabbing the rope to stop the body’s fall.
Jim watched the body gracefully dive headfirst toward the alley floor. Five stories is a fair distance, and something this unusual, when watched, seems to take a long time to fall.
The rope unfurled like an umbilicus until the body’s head reached the level of the top of the second floor. Then, with little warning, it snapped taut, actually lifted the body back up as if it were connected to a rubber band, to the top of the third floor.
Where an amazing and altogether unexpected thing happened.
The rope had slipped down the body, to about the level of its distended waist. When it had reached its length and pulled tight, the rope contracted around its midsection. But it was not up to being so roughly used. Inside its loose and sloughing skin, it was little more than mush and bones and a rank miasma of gas.
The skin tore, gases escaped, and the body pulled into two parts. The waist and the legs parted from the upper body, which continued downward faster now, unencumbered by the rope.
There was a ripping sound as it parted, horribly wet and intimate in the alley. This was followed by a patter of what sounded like rain onto the tarp and the concrete of the alley, which was covered over by the impact of the upper half of the body as it struck the tarp.
Still neither Jim nor Manconi moved, and the body struck the pavement with a sound not too unlike an entire bathtub full of water hitting the ground from high up. No, different than that. It was thicker, like a bucket of Jell-O upturned from the roof of a house and striking the ground.
Or it was unlike anything that Jim had ever heard before or ever would again.
Manconi, who was standing somewhat in front of Jim, winced as the body struck the ground, then turned to Jim.
His face was powder white, and there were gobbets of gore hanging from his dark hair, his little mustache, the entire front of his dark navy uniform. A long string of something grayish pink was dripping from the unlit tip of his cigarillo.
Jim also saw that the little man was shaking.
“You…you guys…are fucking insane,” he said, his breath coming in short little pants. “Fucking insane. I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
He turned to his car, which was still running, climbed in and back erratically out of the alley.
Jim ran his hand down his own uniform and was relieved to find no slick spots. He looked at the tarp and saw a wet, glistening pile that was mostly unrecognizable. Streamers and spatters of it covered the tarp and spread out onto the alley like a bomb had exploded.
Looking up, he saw two things. First, he saw the trunk of the body still dangling from the rope, the legs hanging straight down now, the feet pointed out, rather than down, as if they actually stood on something. Jim followed the rope up and saw the surprised faces of Beedle and Frisella staring back at him with eyes that were as wide as Jim felt his own were.
Then, the rope slid away, and the two legs twisted through the air, held together only by the pants they were encased in like sausage skins. They hit the ground and split apart, popping like water balloons and leaking their contents onto the ground with the rest of the gore.
As Jim watched this, Beedle began to laugh high above him, dark and fulsome and entirely out of control.
Jim looked on the scene before him, stepped away and began to laugh, too. Then, the odor hit him, even stronger and riper, and he backed into the opposite wall of the alley and vomited again and again, until nothing came up but clear mucus.
But in between the bouts of retching, he laughed and laughed and didn’t know precisely why.
Jim finished the story, but left out the part about the laughter. It still made him feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly guilty, though he didn’t know precisely why, even 40 years later.
And no, it wasn’t because he’d been laughing at the dead man or his peculiar fate. No, it was somehow deeper and yet more on the surface than that.
He realized that he’d been looking at the table the entire time he’d told his story.
Tony laughed. “Other than being gross, I don’t know what that story has to do with escape either.”
Jim blinked back a tear, but another plopped into the pink liquid left from the tomatoes that floated atop the Styrofoam plate.
“A kid eats a bloody pumpkin pie and a dead guy explodes in an alley,” Tony continued. Jim absently heard the sticky-kissy sound of his son shoveling more macaroni salad into his mouth as he spoke and thought, despite how upset he was, that he was going to be sick.
“I mean, Ray, do you…?” Tony continued.
Jim burst into tears, as extravagantly, as loudly as a baby denied its desire.
Doris’ face fell. “Tony!” she admonished.
Ray stood quickly, knocking the chair over behind him, off the deck and into the yard. “Dad?”
But Jim saw nothing through his tears, just a curtain of blurs, like figure seen through the frosted glass of a shower door.
“Get me outta here, Dorrie,” he cried, large, man-size tears rolling continuously down his red, corrugated cheeks. “Get me outta here.”
Ray backed away from the table as his mother skirted around him, fixing Tony with a hard, angry stare. Tony looked uncomprehendingly at his mother’s red-rimmed eyes, shrugged.
Doris took hold of the handles of Jim’s wheelchair, unlocked the wheels, yanked him back, then thrust him forward in the direction of the back door to the house.
Ray picked up the chair he’d knocked over, set it back at the table, sat down. He and his brother didn’t look at each other for a few minutes. The sound of their father’s weeping floated on the summer air, the same summer air they might have heard the ice cream truck’s music years before, or the sound of their father’s eight-track stereo playing Neil Diamond or Creedence Clearwater Revival as he washed his car.
As they sat there, the rain began. Just a few drops at first, but then it picked up in intensity until it was a full-fledged downpour. Both brothers jumped up, grabbed what they could from the table.
They made their way to the sliding glass door that led from the deck into the house. Ray was in the lead, balancing the plate of bratwursts and burgers, as well as several bottles of condiments.
He stopped with his hand on the door handle, turned slowly to his brother.
Tony looked at him questioningly, then heard it.
It was the sound of their father’s laughter now, short, harsh barks of it, uncontrolled, rolling out of him as easily as had the sobs moments ago.
And underneath it, barely audible through the patter of the rain, gentle weeping…their mother’s gentle weeping.