I need to tell you about the time I found a body.
That’s right, a human corpse, hidden neatly by trees and dying bushes on the embankment next to the tracks. It was twenty feet from a residential road, a stones-throw away from where children played street hockey, lying there between the flora where they sometimes played tag.
The man we found went by the sobriquet “Tex”.
It happened 18 years ago, on a brooding October night in the exurb of southeast Mississauga. Fall had arrived. The streets smelled of the new season; crispness, damp leaves, smoky breath.
I was 17, a bit drunk, a bit more high, slumped against a sofa in the basement of a friends house. There was a group of us down there. We drank, talked about girls, smoked and cursed. It was during a lull in the conversation that our buddy Mike (RIP) told us of something strange he had seen not long before.
A few days earlier, on a walk home from the beer store along the tracks, he saw the outline of what he was sure was a dead body.
No one believed him. How did he know it was a dead body? How did he know it wasn’t a dummy, or someone lying there, passed out?
“Guys,” he replied, unblinkingly. “It was the smell.”
Apparently, an odor that overbearing, that possessed that kind of static pungency, could be nothing other than rank outcry of death.
He goaded us into trekking out to the spot. We needed to do this together, he said. We needed to confirm his suspicions and see it for to see for ourselves. The supposed dead man was a thirty minute walk away at the border of Lorne Park and Port Credit.
We acted mobilized, acted fast. I grabbed some beers for the mission along with a few flashlights. We took bumps of coke and ketamine, but just enough to give us courage. We had to be sharp. Walking the tracks was dangerous, and to do so too wasted was deadly.
We arrived at the scene after thirty tense minutes of travel. Mike led us down the hill, pushing aside bushes and branches as he went. The beams from our flashlights danced through the woods, twigs crunched underfoot like tiny bones. We reached a small opening, and there, stretched across the ground like a man in deep sleep, was the body.
Have you ever seen a body in the midst of decomposition?
The nails and hair continued to grow postmortem. Tex’s hair was long and ragged, like straw. His face was without flesh, but the scalp still remained in stubborn patches, refusing to cede ground to the tireless advances of decay. His nails were a bizarre sight, thick, gnarled, like the claws of an animal, and his hands were bloated, green and yellow. The scene looked staged, almost artificial, and if it weren’t for the smell, I would have sworn that a group of pranksters had stolen a composite skeleton from a classroom and threw it into the bush, fitted with clothes, claws, and a wig.
We started to speculate.
How did he die? Could he have froze? Not possible. It wasn’t cold enough. There was a microbrewery across the street. Empty bottles littered the area like toppled headstones. We decided that he must have drank himself to death. That made the most sense.
My friends wanted to check his pockets for cash. But thankfully their superstitions won out. They feared that stealing from a body would invoke the fury of a vengeful spirit. A couple of bucks wasn’t worth a lifetime of haunting.
Next came the quandary of whether to call the cops and report the finding. We hated the police, and they hated us, but we knew that little kids played in these bushes, and it was a miracle that they hadn’t stumbled upon the body yet. We didn’t want a child to see this. So I made the call to 911 and waited for the cops to arrive. My friends evacuated. Some were out past curfew, in violation of probation.
I knew the first officer to arrive at the scene. When I saw him, he looked at me and said, “Nils, what the fuck did you do this time?” The area was taped off. I was dragged into the precinct for hours of questioning. Mike, being the first person to discover the body, became the defacto “prime suspect”. The police had yet to rule out foul play.
I made it home that night stunned, the thought of the body pulsing through my minds eye. I was particularly distraught by the sordid image of his faceless skull, by the empty cavities where there once would have been eyes, and by the nameless, isolated quality of the scene where we found him.
The next morning, we found out that the person we had discovered was the local drifter, “Tex”, a homeless man who had won big money on a scratch lottery ticket. Authorities concluded that he had died of cardiac arrest.
Tex was a thing of mythos. I didn’t know him, but I always knew of him. He was the moneyed drunk. The lucky sot who struck it big in the lottery but still opted to live out of a car. He was another character, a strange man in the long list of strange men that occupied the Lakeshore West corridor of my youth. Most neighbourhoods have a Tex. The “town drunk”, the local misfit that brings a certain verve to an otherwise unspectacular community. I spent a lot of time wondering whether Tex had a family or friends who mourned his loss. It’s a question that remains unanswered.
Local news covered the finding. I held onto that newspaper clipping for many years. It was tacked to the wall of my bedroom, on display like a badge of honour. It guess it acted as a reminder, documentation of the surreal morbidity of that night, and the misadventure that followed. But it was a tiny, colorless story, hard news, no more than 120 words. It did nothing to capture the quality of the event, the texture of the air, the feelings and thoughts it inspired in the lives of those who made the discovery. Curiously, the reporters never reached out to us for comment.
I’d like to chat with my old crew about that night. I’d like to pick their brains and ask them how they feel when they think back on the sight of Tex’s body. Some of them have moved out of the province or country, one of them died of the same scourge that has claimed the lives of many of my old friends and family, and the rest, I’ve just fallen out of touch with.
Yet I’m still left to wonder about Tex; about the body and the bushes, the train-tracks and the bottles, and about isolation and loneliness, the unflappable bedfellows of death.
Nils is a writer and photographer from Toronto, Ontario. He writes on his experiences, which deal chiefly with the themes of addiction, loss, and the human condition at its most raw. He writes honestly, in the hopes that the reader can identify something of depth and value in the messages he conveys.