A Purpose In Liquidity

by William G. Schweizer

part 1 of 2


One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
Sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
— Rupert Brooke “Heaven”

Terminal moraine. Not a disease, but a geologic formation of which Long Island is surely the world’s finest example. The result of the Wisconsin Glacier, the last great ice cap to descend over North America, moving relentlessly south and east across the top of the continent at a foot a day over thousands of years, twelve thousand years, plowing ahead a mound of gravel and silt.

At the ocean, the glacier halted and a brief several thousand years later, retreated, leaving behind a long gravel strip. The ice behind the moraine ultimately melted, forming a grand lake, which became Long Island Sound. The sea then alternately rose from the melt water and fell as the long ice-covered earth rebounded.

With the dropping of the sea level, barrier islands emerged south of the moraine. Stretching from what one day would be Rockaway Point to the Hamptons, these islands formed a stringy archipelago of elegant dune-bordered beaches.

While the glacier brought the gravel, the sea and the tides made the clay. Behind the barrier beaches and in front of the gravel moraine, marsh grass and bamboos began to thrive and die and decay, creating hassocks of spongy black mud upon which floated carpets of grassy wetlands teeming with fish, clams, crab, mussels, eels, and burrowing worms.

A mere ten thousand years ago, paleo-Indians, the first humans to arrive, prowled these marshes, gathering shellfish, trapping small animals and birds, and possibly even tracking the great mammoth whose teeth have been found on the ocean floor a mere seventy miles from Times Square. Leaving scant trace of their existence, these early people barely disturbed the soft black marsh clay, which lay just beneath the grass and the water.

Twice each day channels in the barrier beaches admit the waters of the Atlantic to the wetlands with the waters rising and falling relentlessly in tidal currents as swift as a river and sometimes varying by six feet in calm weather when the moon is full or new. When the tide is dead low and the mud is exposed there is a pungent smell of wet and weeds and fish and crab.

I remember that smell hung in the air heavier than I’d ever noticed before, the day I found the body.

It was no ordinary day from the beginning. I woke with the euphoria felt by a born procrastinator who by accident finds himself mysteriously caught up with everyone and everything. I had an easy afternoon of classes ahead, and the morning to do as I pleased. I considered driving to the City and back, just to kill time, but the smell of the tide drew me to the public docks a few hundred yards down-channel from my house.

The docks were deserted and, no boats were in sight. The tide had receded so low that the channel itself was reduced in width by half with wide strips of mud exposed on each side. I walked along the docks slowly, drinking from a mug of instant coffee, and looking at the underwater debris temporarily exposed.

I had been taught and I believed that in the evolution of humankind the sense of vision developed to detect the unfamiliar and the sense of hearing to detect the familiar. In the forest a shape or color out of place signifies danger, but the usual sounds of the forest are comforting and a sign that all is safe, perhaps explaining why the furniture and pictures grow tiresome but the old songs sound better with age. Maybe this is why, among the expected rusted bicycle wheels, coat hangers and cans, I saw the boots immediately. Or maybe I was supposed to see them all along.

Just to my left and below the catwalk I saw the soles of two booted feet sticking out of the mud as though someone had dived headfirst into the mud from a ten-meter platform. What was visible of the boots, the lower six to eight inches, looked new and dry.

I postponed even considering an explanation and dealt with the emergency first. I climbed down carefully, dropping lightly on the mud, which had the familiar initial spring to it before it sucked on the soles of your feet. The water hadn’t been out long. I tugged on one of the boots, and it came away revealing a clean pale human foot much too small for the boot. I took a long deep breath of oxygen and awe and then pressed the foot for a pulse. I thought I felt a beat, but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my own pulse.

There being no way to dig without help, I climbed up and got in the car, but on second thought went to the trunk. I found a lump of blue chalk in the toolbox, which I used to draw an arrow on the road pointing to the location of the find.

I raced home, called the police, and raced back alone, wasting less than ten minutes. I had not seen a single person along the way, which might have interested me, had the situation not been so urgent. By the time I got back, the water of the rising tide had begun to cover the mud and, when the police arrived, which seemed almost right away, the water had risen to cover the whole channel bottom.

“So where’s the stiff?”

“Where the blue arrow is pointing. Six feet from the catwalk. ”

“I would guess your diver is drowned by now.”

After pulling on hip boots, the officers just jumped in from the catwalk and started wading around and feeling with their own rubber booted feet. First they moved randomly and then set up a grid, across which they moved back and forth methodically.

One asked for a metal rod, which he pushed gently down into the mud every few inches apart. Each time it went down easily and came out smeared with only greasy mud residue. No blood. The water was still shallow but getting slowly higher. When the water got to be knee high they gave up.

Then one of the officers reached under the catwalk. “Found him, boys. We’re too late. No need to call the Medical Examiner. He’s definitely dead.” There was a moment of quiet and then, with surprising ease, the cop heaved a big object up onto the piling. It was a big burlap dummy, stuffed like a scarecrow with an arrow protruding from its head and scrawled in alternating black and orange letters on the chest the words “Stomp the Owls.”

“Yeah guys, we’re too late. Looks like William Tell’s other son. You know, the one he used for practice. Ha, ha. Thanks for the tip, kid. We need the participation of concerned citizens if we’re gonna stop crime in this city.”

Another five minutes of jokes and then all the cops were gone but one, a big guy in a hunter’s coat.

“Sorry my colleagues doubted your intelligence. No one wide-awake is going to mistake that dummy for a person. I believe you saw something that was there before the water covered it, and you did right to call. Now we need to decipher what you saw. I’m convinced that will require both of us to do it.”

“You think so?”

“No doubt in my mind. I’ve learned to take nothing at face value. You think about it, and so will I. Call me later and we’ll compare notes. Here’s my card. Detective Mike Sharff, with two f’s. And don’t lose that card. It’s my last one.”

“Do you need a ride?” I didn’t see any other cars nearby.

“No problem. My car’s parked up at the Ranger station.” He took off, walking fast.

Darned if I understood what Ranger station he was talking about, cop talk maybe, but he was gone before I could ask.

I stuck the card in my shirt pocket and then sat in the car wondering whether to tell anyone about all this and wondering why I hadn’t seen the usual morning fishermen on the docks. Then I remembered the dead low tide and figured they were waiting for the incoming tide to get started. Turning on the ignition, I decided I could still make my two o’clock theater history class.

The Professor was four minutes late for class; I was five. The lecture hall was a galleried amphitheater, and I took a seat in the highest row with the dreamers and hecklers.

The penalty for arriving late was to be noticed.

“Thank you for favoring us with your presence. If it’s not too inconvenient, would you mind giving the class a synopsis of today’s play.”

“Not at all inconvenient.” Savoring the rare opportunity to play the conscientious student I flipped open my notes. “Sheridan’s School for Scandal was first performed...”

“We appreciate your eagerness but we don’t get to Sheridan for two weeks. Can we concentrate on today’s assignment, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi?”

I turned back several pages. I had four pages of lecture notes of The Duchess of Malfi with professor’s jokes quoted in red ink in the margins. I read them verbatim.

The Professor shot me a quizzical look “You’ve stolen some of my thunder. Maybe we’ll get to Sheridan sooner than expected. Your presentation was otherwise flawless. For now let’s talk a little bit about the character of...” He continued lecturing and I wondered how I already had notes for the next two weeks of classes. I checked my calendar. If this was October 1st, why had I drawn red x’s through today and the next thirteen days as well?

After class, I went to a pay phone in the lounge and called the Detective’s number. A female voice answered and I asked for Detective Sharff. “On vacation Hon’. Camping upstate. Back in ten days.”

I grabbed a copy of the student newspaper from a table dated two weeks ago or at least two weeks ago to me. I looked in my shirt pocket for the Detective’s card. Still there. I looked in my other notebooks and saw notes up to the 15th. Even so, the newspaper and radio and drama classes were all pretending it was the 1st.

When I returned to my car I threw my books on the back seat right next to what was obviously a slightly muddied black western boot.

That night I checked the tide tables. The fifteenth would be a new moon and low tide at 9:30 a.m. I checked the sports page. East Rockaway would play the Lynbrook Owls on Saturday. I tried the detective, again with no luck, and then two or three more times, increasing the urgency of each message. Then I gave up.

When the fifteenth came, I returned to the Channel, counting the pilings to find the right spot. The tide was low but not too extreme, and the water of the Channel never completely receded. When the tide turned back, so did I.

I showed the boot at a couple of shoe stores, learning nothing. It was a cowboy style boot and, although new-looking, one salesman thought it might be twenty years old.

I lost the Detective’s card and forgot his name, and, after a while, I lost the boot.

Eventually, I almost forgot about the mud burial, although at a law school party I saw a woman wearing boots, which brought back a fuzzy recollection. I asked her where I could find boots like that, and she told me hers came from a second-hand clothes store near campus and were probably one or two of a kind.

Periodically, my Mother would ship out some of my things with people who happened to be going to California, and, in one such shipment, amid old books and magazines and clothes, was a canvas bag containing a single black boot. It was in pretty good shape except for a gray powdery ring around the middle, which I knew was dried marsh clay. And from time to time when cleaning or moving or searching for something lost, the boot would turn up. I would put it in a box, label the box with a marker, and then lose it again.

“Who’s Jake?” My secretary tossed a personal letter onto my desk, preopened of course. She asked again in a tone suggesting she would go on asking until she got a response.

“Is it important for you to know?”

“Well, I didn’t get much information from his letter.”

“I’ll make a photocopy for you after I’ve read it, thank you.” I opened the preread letter and a news clipping fell out. I read the clipping first.

Long Island Family Welcomes Stone Age Neighbor

Oceanside, New York — The Rossetti family of Oceanside, New York gladdened the ranks of the world archaeological community when they unearthed Paleolithic remains in their back yard Thursday. Digging for piers to support a backyard pavilion, Oceanside resident Dante Rossetti found human bones, which at first were suspected to be evidence of a possible homicide.

The Nassau County Medical Examiner cooperating with the Anthropology Department of Adelphi University determined the remains to be those of a four- to seven-year old child dating to Paleolithic times. The Rossetti land was made from material dredged from East Rockaway Channel, which is thought to be the original source of the remains.

Also discovered was a characteristically chipped arrow point called a Clovis point, which experts agree validates the age of the skeleton. The excavation also yielded a small stone engraved with decorative scratches or glyphs, which Adelphi’s Professor Steven Malcolm believes may have been a charm to guarantee safe passage over the water.

Professor Malcolm surmised the remains were those of a child who died by accident, as Paleolithic humans rode the fast tidal currents that flow back and forth in the East Rockaway Channel. Professor Malcolm was particularly excited by the arrow point, which is inferential evidence that a settlement existed along the channel seven thousand years ago.

Ironically, the Rossetti dig yielded other artifacts dating to more modern times including a cowboy boot. Professor Malcolm was noncommittal as to whether there might have once been a cattle ranch in the area but quipped, “Ah reckon it’s a possibility.”

Then I read Jake’s letter:

Hey Bill:

Check out this article. Some Professor at Adelphi thinks that Neanderthals once lived in East Rockaway. Reinventing the wheel again. Ha-Ha. Didn’t you tell me that you once found a boot out near the Channel? What’s going on? Cowboys and Indians on the Island? Maybe you should investigate when you come to New York next week. I’m the same as always,

Jake

For sure I would investigate.

My appointment was not on Long Island but upstate in Saratoga, where five lawyers were to convene for the deposition of an expert on lupus. I wondered when lupus first arrived in the New World. Maybe an archaeologist would know. I doubted that our expert would.

The deposition was set for the following day, so when I got off the plane I rushed through the car rental and then hurried straight to the Rossetti house. It was seven a.m. when I got there, so I waited until a reasonable time to ring someone’s bell. A young woman answered.

“Who is it, Tina?” A voice from another room.

“Another cop, I think.”

“Tell him to come in. I’ll be right there.”

“I’m not a policeman.” I gave her my card.

“A lawyer from California? What’s this about?”

From my brief case I gave her the boot.

“Wait here.”

She returned with the mate to my boot, a mirror image.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by William G. Schweizer

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