by Joseph S. Pete
Claude pulled back for a slap shot in the ice-slicked basement of the abandoned Detroit warehouse. He braked crisply with his skates kicking up a little spritz of ice and had a clear lane to the unpadded goalie, a kombucha brewer who had exhibited his grayscale photography in a few galleries and likely wouldn’t risk a bruised rib or broken bone to block any shot on goal he couldn’t glove or bat away.
His hockey stick hovered frozen mid-air when he caught sight of the human legs jutting out of the wall of ice in the elevator shaft, protruding like popsicle sticks. He blinked and squinted at the odd sight, his stick cocked back in statis as though he was holding a pose for a yearbook photo. Eduardo suddenly slammed into him, sending them both skidding a long way into the concrete wall.
Claude spit out blood, and pressed his tongue against a wobbly tooth. His breath misted foggily in the wintry air.
‘Good goddamn,’ Eduardo cried out. ‘Is that what it looks like?’
‘Hell if I know.’
The urban explorers, who started an impromptu hockey game after discovering the basement of the former Detroit Public Schools book depository was frozen solid, skated up to the elevator shaft and saw it was indeed a body encased solidly in ice, with only calves and ratty gym shoes left exposed. The protruding legs had a rigor mortis-like rigidity.
‘We can’t call the police,’ said Claude, who hailed from Belgium. ‘We’re trespassing. They’ll revoke my student Visa. I’ll get deported.’
‘We’ve got to call somebody. We can’t just leave him here.’
‘The hell we can’t,’ Claude said. ‘You saw all those homeless guys huddled around the burn barrel on the first floor. It was a whole encampment. What’ll happen to them if the police get involved?’
Vince the goalie skated up to the scrum of tangled limbs.
His friend knew a reporter with the Detroit Intelligencer. He could get the story out. That way, the death was at least reported to someone, and they had no reason to feel guilty.
A day later, columnist Harry Gerst answered the phone in the half-empty newsroom, littered as it was with empty cubicles, the carnage of a terminally ill industry.
‘What? Where is this? How long has he been there? Do you know anything about what happened? Where is it again? I’ll be right over.’
Gerst hung up the phone and called out for a photographer. None were left in the building.
Half an hour later, he ducked under a bowed fence and made his way into the decrepit warehouse, which had been rotting away for about a decade.
‘You got any smokes?’ Loco Bob asked.
‘Nah man, but I got this $5 bill if you lead me to the dude buried in ice.’
‘Buried in ice?’
‘You know what I’m talking about.’
‘Okay, come with me.’
They made their way to a spectral, shadowed stairwell.
‘Why didn’t you call the police?’
‘Do I look like I have a phone man? I smoke butts I grab out of ashtrays. I once fought a seagull for half of a sandwich on Belle Isle. I can’t afford no phone.’
‘Damn,’ Gerst finally exhaled when they came upon the inert ice cube of a corpse, who was an opaque abstraction distorted by a brick-like wall of ice he had been entombed in for months.
Gerst immediately started typing out the story in his head, how tens of thousands of homeless were discarded in Detroit every year, how people no longer cared about their fellow man, and how lives were so disposable now strangers had no qualms about playing pickup hockey around a deceased man who hadn’t even been given a proper funeral.
His prose grew loftier and loftier with each subsequent draft. The warehouse became of symbol of a forsaken bygone Detroit, while the frozen man was reduced to a metaphor about how cold the world had growth.
After filing his copy, Gerst sighed that he needed a drink and headed down to Thirst for Justice, a cheesily legal-themed dive bar near the newsroom that was also near the federal courthouse but was inhabited by more stewbums and sadsacks than lawyers. He paused, wondered if that man encased in ice had been a drunk, if that’s how he ended up on the street, or what kept him on the street. He knew it was often mental illness, or at least mental illness in tandem with substance abuse, but wondered how many drinks he was away from ending up on those cold, unforgiving streets himself, how many drinks before he was just another forgotten corpse.
He paused at the bar’s entrance before turning around, getting back into the car and driving home.
At home, he reflexively shambled over to the fridge and grabbed a can of beer. He was up to about six a night, almost every night, which had to be taking a toll on his body, the calories alone. Gerst was hung over almost every morning. It took him a few hours after he awoke to feel like he re-entered the world of the living. He sometimes overdid it, and ended up puking or with a nasty headache that made him want to call off work. He considered that Loco Bob might have drank himself out of house and home, that the dead man might have done the same, that all these beers might be leading him down a ruinous path.
He thought he was just overreacting and cracked the can open. It felt cold in his hand, like the chill that pervaded that forlorn warehouse, like the dead man’s pale flesh through the opaque lens of ice.
After a moment frozen in place, he poured the beer out in the sink.
‘Not tonight,’ he thought. ‘The world won’t end if I skip a night. I’ll just see how I feel tomorrow.’
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Indiana University graduate and a Pushcart Prize nominee. He was poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Chaucer chump never accomplished. His work has appeared in more than 100 journals, including The Offbeat, Cabinet of Heed, Dogzplot and Tipton Poetry Journal.