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Don't look now

They say you aren't supposed to offer instructions with Don't in front. "Don't look down!" And you instantly look down because your brain is completely focused on the looking down part and the why not to do it part. They say you are supposed to say what to do instead. "Look up!" is supposed to be a lot more successful. But we keep saying "Don't look down."

Daphne du Maurier had that in mind when she wrote her creepy short story, "Don't Look Now." That story is what I call a train wreck tale: you can't look away. The movie, even more so. Does anyone remember that movie? 1973? Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a young, grief-stricken couple who encounter psychics, ghosts, and serial killers in Venice? du Maurier could do Gothic. And creepy. It's kind of everyone's worst general fears all in one tale.

Isn't the creepiest thing of all when you watch a person in an everyday thing -- something you might do? -- and you know something bad is ahead?

"Don't look now!" You know something creepy this way comes. Of course, in movies and books there is clever foreshadowing, mood music or scenery, special angles, and other warning signs. Building the tension.

I'm always listening for warning signs in life -- ominous music, coincidences, irony. Somehow, though, those warning signs don't always work in real life. It can be an ordinary thing on an ordinary day, and despite signs, you miss the warning because you’re so focused on what you expect: a normal day, the same as every other time.

That’s how it was for me, yesterday, when my dog and I left our house in the morning for our usual walk. "Just once around the block, down to the park for a quick run, and straight back!" I told him. My mother was visiting for the holidays and my sister and her family were due to arrive by lunchtime. My neighborhood park is an easy jog down my street, so he and I set off.

A man stopped us and said, "Are you heading to the park?"

He was a stranger, I didn't know him or why he was asking.

"No," I said, lying.

"Good," he said, "Don't go there. Don't look." Then he left, quickly.

How odd, I thought. Of course my brain immediately did what human brains do and fixated on going to the park and looking.

As we approached the park, a police car sped by.

How obnoxious, I thought. They ticket us all the time, they should obey the laws too.

The car went by again. And again.

Then an SUV marked CSI sped by. And again, and again.

How weird, I thought.

When we arrived at the park, I realized it had not been the same cars going by -- it had been five separate police cars, a CSI truck, and an unmarked white detectives car.

My dog started to automatically cross the street, but I paused. I looked at the police, detectives, and CSI lady. She's so tiny, I thought. How funny that she's so very petite. But maybe, I thought, she just looks super tiny next to that man. He's so tall, such a really tall, tall man. How odd, such a very tall man. I kept staring. They stood in a cluster, right across the street from me, by the playground equipment where I'd brought my children to play this same time yesterday. I hadn't brought them today. I was in a rush.

The police stood together, the detective in a button up shirt, tie and trousers, writing on a big black tablet, the police standing more to his left, in uniform, and the CSI lady by the very tall man on the right. The tall man kept looking down, never looked up.

Who is he, I wondered, and why was he so casual, no uniform, just a t-shirt, athletic bottoms, and fanny pack. Did they call him in? Why the fanny pack?

Some movement further down caught my attention, two men, one dressed like the detective, the other in dark blue uniform, walked past the boy scout hut to the water's edge.

Oh no, I thought, another alligator? Another kayaking accident? Not graffiti again, or even vandalism of the benches on the dock -- too many police for that.

None of the police moved with any urgency, though. Whatever it was, it was -- past tense. Done, finished.

The police blocked the path and anyway, it didn't seem wise, after all, to take my dog for a run in whatever it was. We curved to the left and looped through the neighborhood, instead.

Arriving home was a flurry. I pulled my husband aside and said, "We need to do a big redirect for the kids, away from the park. Let's not say no park, but just say let's stay home." I knew the kids, after their cousins arrived, would be eager for a park outing. "There's a lot of police, something going on, I don't know what," I explained. He nodded and I repeated this to my mother. Shortly after that, my sister arrived. While walking out to greet her, my neighbor passed by.

If I hadn't been so distracted, I would have caught her demeanor, but it was another clue I missed.

"Were you and your dog just at the..." I gestured. She nodded. "Did you see the..." I gestured. She nodded. "Do you know what..." I gestured. She nodded. "Can I come in a sec and..." I gestured. She nodded.

After greeting my sister and her family, I darted over to my neighbor's house. She was distraught. This is my unflappable neighbor. A local leader. A voice of reason. She saves me from snakes, lack of recycling, and too much red.

"Are you okay? What happened?" I asked. There was a tragedy, a man had hanged himself at the playground. She saw it. I mean, she saw him.

A little thought niggled the back of my mind -- but she'd gone out at least an hour after me, how had she seen him but I hadn't?

"I didn't realize," she said, "I was just going to talk to the police, I knew people would ask me, you know?" Yes, I knew. We all expect her to know, also she's in leadership position, which adds to our expectations.

"I was going to ask what happened, how long the park would need to be closed, let them know I could contact people," she explained.

There was no crime scene tape, nothing blocking her access, not even the police. They waited for her to walk up to them. They stood there, by the tree, on the path.

"That's where they were when I went by, but that was nearly two hours ago now," I exclaimed, "How very odd!"

"Well the coroner just now arrived," she told me, "Just now."

"So, the hanged man, he was there, hanging, all morning? Didn't they, you know, take him down?" I asked.

"No, he was there when I walked up. They were all standing there," she said, describing the same group exactly that I'd seen. "I just thought he was a tall man. I mean, the t-shirt and fanny pack seemed odd, but I thought he was just a tall man. Until, you know I walked up to them all and...and he wasn't tall."

"Oh, oh no," I said, reaching out to her, "Oh you saw, I am so, so sorry. Are you okay?"

"Yes, yes," she said, and her husband stood there, staring down, and I felt glad he was there. She said she'd be taking it easy that day. I expressed my sympathy again, and we shook our heads over the tragedy. A young man, she said, maybe even someone home for the holidays. So sad, so very tragic. We both felt horrible for the family, for the tragedy.

"Well," I said, wondering how to end a conversation like this. "I better get to my family, they're all here..."

"Sure," she said. And we both swore it would be a while before we'd feel okay about the park.

I started to say goodbye but instead said, "Wait, a tall man, who wasn't tall -- you said he was a man, you thought he was very tall only he wasn't tall...why wasn't he tall?"

She stared at me for a minute then said, "He wasn't tall, because he was hanging. From the tree, the big one, by the path, that the kids play on -- that tree. He was hanging, not tall."

A tall man, a very tall man, who wasn't tall. Because he was hanging. From the tree. By the path. Where the tiny CSI woman, who wasn't tiny, was standing. By the man who was hanging, not tall.

"In a white t-shirt, with a fanny pack, like he was out jogging, or walking a dog..." I said.

We stared at each other, and she confirmed it.

Don't go to the park. Don't look now.


kat said…
Oh Julie, I'm so sorry you saw that. I'm so sorry anyone saw that. I'm so sorry the not-tall man with the fanny pack thought that was the only way.

I'm just... so sorry. :(
Yolanda said…
The content, is wrenching. (I have had my own encounter with a dead body in an public place, but it's not the time or place to tell it.) But I wanted to compliment the narrative, above all else. Because sometimes the retelling is merely cathartic. But then there are times like this, when it is keenly crafted. and I, as a reader, am left a bit breathless, with my heart pounding, by the revelations in the final paragraphs.
Anonymous said…
Oh, I'm sorry. That poor man and his family. And you. Your neighbor. Death is not an easily assimilated image. I had an unexpected encounter as a young teacher that stayed with me for a long while.

Take care and go easy for a while.
Alexander Wolfe said…
One of my neighbors committed suicide about three weeks ago (coincidentally, also in a park very close to my house.) Her intent seemed to be to hide herself away, and she was not found until a day later, and only then by people searching for her. I knew her and had spoken to her many times, though I did not know her well and so have not grieved for her personally. But the hardest thing for me to come to terms with is the manner in which she killed herself. She overdosed on medication, and then hid herself away near a creek bed in the park, and so she died alone, on the ground, on a chilly afternoon. No one should have to die that way, let alone choose to die that way deliberately, and it saddens me immensely that someone could be in so much pain that they felt that they deserved to die that way. What can bring someone to do such a thing? How can there be no one to help them? I don't know the answer to either of those questions.
Kat said…
So sad when people are so desperate that suicide is the only viable option in their minds.

So sorry that you saw that, Julie. Your written account was riveting.
ewe are here said…
Terribly sad... my mom's brother took his own life ... it's a terrible, terrible tragedy when people feel this is their only option...
Magpie said…
So eerie that you saw and didn't see. Peace, J. And to the tall guy.

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