It was the time of the big boom and everyone figured the prosperity would last forever. There had been other booms before, but those had always been followed by calamity—a bust that took away everything the good times had given, then kept on taking. This boom would be different, people said. The Transamerica Pyramid at the end of Kearney seemed almost to glow, and the bankers who worked inside issued a stream of proofs and prognostications. Meanwhile the streets swelled with new arrivals. The old-timers found the new enthusiasm insufferable, but the old-timers found everything insufferable. The truth was, you could see a certain gleam in their eyes, too, and at night the streets along North Beach echoed with the sounds of pleasure: from Tosca’s to the Cafe; Sport to the old U.S. Restaurant. The lines were long and there was a restive, animal smell. Those with pressing reservations left their cars along Kearney, double-parked, to be fetched from impound in the morning by couriers who specialized in the service. Such behavior did not seem extravagant under the circumstances. The bounty of the moment was infinite, after all—if only you could reach out and extend your grasp.
Meanwhile it was still possible—strolling down Columbus, perhaps, or turning a corner on Grant—to meet the plaintive stare of someone not sharing in the general prosperity. Sometimes at night, alone on your mattress, you might hear a soft cry. If you went to the window, though—nothing.
Just the fog and the darkened row houses and the arc lamp casting its blue light on the corner.
It was possible to experience doubt at such moments, of course, even if you realized such doubts would inevitably give way in the morning to the knowledge that the old order was evaporating. That soon everything would be transformed. If you continued to doubt, all you had to do was glance at the Pyramid for reassurance. Or at the newspapers. Or at the people absorbed in their handheld devices. So, after a while, if you heard those soft cries at night, you did not go to the window. And walking the streets, you did not meet those plaintive glances. You did not notice. Just as no one noticed, this particular evening, the corpse floating in the water.
The corpse surfaced at the end of the pier, floating in the manner that corpses float, face down, arms dangling. The corpse wore a silk blouse, the pearls still about the neck, the skirt ballooning from the flesh.
There were a number of people out strolling, stopping at the railing, gazing at the bay, at the numinous reflections skittering across its black surface. But no one noticed the dark form in the water, or if they did, they did not attach to it any significance. Perhaps their eyes were focused on the distance, on the lights glittering on the horizon. Or perhaps on something within—some notion they could not quite possess.
Meanwhile, a steamer passed, and the corpse rocked with the swells, the head gently thudding against the pilings. Sometime in the morning, just as the sky was graying, the body submerged again, not wholly, but just enough to slip beneath the pier. The morning crowds came. They disembarked from the ferry, walked along the wooden planks, ate on the benches. The corpse floated beneath them, lodged on the piling, just out of view. A stench rose—masked in part by the water, it was true, by the smells of the bay—but no one went to look. Perhaps no one would have discovered it at all if not for a fisherman—a boy, really, a kid from the Chinatown projects—who two days later got his line, his favorite lure, tangled in the darkness beneath the pier.
Copyright © 2006 by Domenic Stansberry