A Head is Highly Portable

Chicago: Winter –1970

The itinerant huddled at the front of the Madison Street liquor store. Any minute now he knew he would be asked to leave, but it was bitter cold outside. It was one of those below zero Chicago nights with just enough wind to make sleeping outside a roll of the dice with the grim reaper. Cold enough that a handful of his less fortunate peers would not make it through the night. He was drunk and he knew the Mission down the street wouldn’t take him. That was one of their two conditions, sobriety and the patience to sit through a sermon of sorts in exchange for some hot soup and sleeping space in the giant second floor hall. In his inebriated state it would not be an option for him tonight. Still, he had some money for wine and a sheltered place to sleep.

The man behind the register was glancing at him now. In another minute he was certain he would be asked to leave the warmth of the store. He dug into every pocket and collected an assortment of lint, tobacco shreds, coins, scraps of tissue and a key to a long forgotten door. The cashier was staring now and the bum made his move, slowly, towards the cash register. He dumped the pocket debris onto the counter.

“A pint of Richard’s.” he mumbled. His blood alcohol level prevented him from counting, but it looked to him like he had more than enough for a bottle of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose. The man took a bottle and a brown paper bag and placed it on the counter. Then he slid several coins through the flotsam and looked expectantly at the customer. There was money left.

“And some Camels.”

One, two, three, four cigarettes were counted out.

“Matches?” asked the clerk.

The bum nodded and one of the cigarettes was replaced with a pack of matches. He retrieved the key from the counter just before the clerk swept the remaining mess to the floor with his hand. The key was precious and would be used for his next encounter with the police. (I gotta a place officer! I gotta a place to stay. See, here’s my key!) Sometimes it worked. But tonight, he headed out the door hoping to avoid the police altogether, clutching his purchase: a pint of fortified wine, three cigarettes and a pack of matches.

Outside the liquor store the 12th District wagon was making its hourly pickup of curbside drunks. If he went to jail now, he’d lose his wine. He stepped back into the doorway and waited for them to pass. Then he took a long drag on the bottle inside the brown bag and stepped out into the night. He lurched down the street and took a left on Peoria. A block to the north was a lot full of abandoned semi-trailers. They were largely inaccessible with their rear doors flush against the brick wall of the next door building. But several weeks ago he had pried some rusted sheet metal out of the wheel well of one of the trailers and managed to climb into most spacious sleeping quarters. He stumbled around the lot, numb with cold, and after a while he found the unit. Once inside he took another long drink of Richard’s and lit a cigarette. It was pitch black but the light from the match provided amazing illumination, revealing a few empty boxes and pieces of a wood pallet.

He wrapped himself in the cardboard and assumed the fetal position but the metal floor and walls of the trailer seemed to suck any remaining warmth out of his body. He had never been so cold in his entire life. He struck another match and lit a piece of cardboard and attempted to warm his hands over the flame. The heat felt good. He added some more cardboard and then some wood from the pallet. He was finally beginning to feel warm and he moaned softly. He didn’t notice the smoke gathering along the ceiling of the 18 foot trailer. His giant bedroom began to fill with thick acrid smoke from the ceiling downward, but by the time it reached floor level the alcohol and carbon monoxide had done its job. He was spread-eagled on his back, totally unconscious.

The fire struggled inside the enclosure, fed oxygen sparingly from the wheel-well, venting furtively from some broken seams in the metal body. Eventually the heat melted a small hole in the fiberglass roof and suddenly air streamed in from the wheel-well and out the opening above. In seconds the interior of the trailer became a raging inferno. It would have melted the entire roof and the aluminum walls, but as quickly as it started, it ran out of fuel. With nothing left to burn the fire extinguished itself, save for the smoldering silhouette.


Wednesday, April 9th, 1970

Nathaniel Horton felt good. He was rich! Nate had worked every day this week and after getting totally drunk tonight he still had $24 in his pocket. He was intoxicated and he had money, so he knew he was vulnerable. He couldn’t spend the night at the Mission and the Union Hotel would cost him $6. But no need. It was a beautiful spring evening and if he could just find an isolated spot to sleep he would awake with his $24. At Peoria and Randolph he spotted the lot full of trailers. It was dark and the lot was poorly lit but he found a hole above one of the wheel wells. He scrambled into the darkness and promptly passed out.

Thursday morning dawned sunny and bright. Nate awoke staring at an almost blinding patch of bright blue sky visible through the large hole in the roof of the trailer. He rolled to his left and began to focus on his surroundings. Instantly he was awake. The grotesque, mummified body was between him and the wheel-well exit. He had no choice but to climb quickly over the remains and beat a hasty retreat.


Sunday, April 12th, 1970

The rookie detective reported to Maxwell Street Homicide for the afternoon shift. He checked the assignment sheets and discovered he was working with the senior detective, Big Andy. Andy was a large, amiable old timer. His partner must have taken the day off, thought the new guy. Good. He had only been working homicide for two months and his chances of drawing a homicide assignment would be better working with Big Andy. The new detective had seen very few actual murder scenes. Still, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, what were the chances?

The newbie stood at the open window of the Area Four Homicide office looking north across Maxwell Street and towards the flophouses of Roosevelt Road. Andy walked over and stood next to his partner for the day.

“When the wind is right, you can smell the piss from here kid.” he rasped in his gravel voice. “Come on; let’s see if we can find you a body!”

Well, even if we don’t draw an assignment it’s going to be a good day, thought the rookie. Big Andy is a character with a wealth of war stories. And Area Four was nicknamed “the murder factory.”

Once out on the street it proved to be extremely quiet. The radio was nearly silent. There were two follow-up interviews on some older cases and then they found themselves cruising the west side with Big Andy giving the young detective a richly narrated tour of previous homicide scenes.

“Seventy one o-three.” The dispatcher broke the radio silence.

“Seventy one o-three, go” answered the Area One Homicide unit.

“See the beat car at 626 West Randolph regarding a human head”

Damn! thought the rookie. That’s an Area One assignment. We can’t even feign an assist to satisfy our… well… my curiosity.

“Sure glad that’s not our case,” said the rookie weakly.

“Take it easy kid,” growled Big Andy. “That’s the edge of our area and a head is highly portable. They might try to shift it to us.”

Twenty minutes later Andy’s prediction came true.

“Seventy-four-twelve,” said the dispatcher, “Meet the Area One homicide car at 626 Randolph regarding that human head.” The rookie detective stifled a fake yawn and slouched slightly in the seat trying to look nonchalant. For an instant, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught a hint of a grin on Big Andy’s face.

Andy and the new homicide detective walked into the Working Man’s Tavern on Randolph, now bereft of customers save one, but crowded with curious uniform officers, detectives and crime lab technicians. Sitting on the bar resting on a crumpled newspaper was a blackened mummified human head grinning out at the nearby empty tables. In a corner wringing his hands was Nate Horton.

“Can’t you move that thing?” whined Nate as Andy and the new detective approached the table.

“Hey Andy!” one of the Area One detectives greeted the Area Four Team. Everyone knew Big Andy. “This guy brought that head in here and he claims he found it your area. He says he’ll take you to the rest of the body.”

Once outside a grisly cortege proceeded west on Randolph. An unmarked homicide car was in the lead, the rookie sitting straight now, his mind racing to catalog the details of the unfolding investigation. Nate was in the back seat and his mood also had changed. He was relieved to be removed from the gaze of the head and he leaned forward in his seat giving directions. Immediately behind was the crime lab sedan with a trunk full of cameras and forensic kits. Grumbling along at the end were two wagon men with a cargo of a human head… in search of a body.

On the way back to the trailer Nate repeated his story.

“When I woke up Thursday with that thing I ran like hell. I came over here to tell my buddies and they just laughed at me and told me I had the DT’s. We sat around drinking and they kept ragging on me. I was really getting pissed. When we ran out of money, I went back to the trailer to get some proof for them. I poked at it with a stick and head just fell off, so I wrapped it in newspaper and brought it back to bar. But my friends were gone.”

Andy was distracted by traffic and there was a moment of silence. The new kid’s mind raced; Say something… for god’s sake say something, you’re a homicide detective in the second largest city in the country. Contribute something!

The new detective finally asked a question: “Ya but that was last Thursday,” “It’s Sunday afternoon now! Where has that head been?”

“Well, when I found they were gone, I took the thing outside to the empty lot next door and set it up against the wall,” said Nate. “Then this afternoon when they came into the bar, I went out and got it.”

“You mean that head sat out in that lot in downtown Chicago for four days?” asked Andy.

“Well I had it wrapped real good,” said Nate. “Turn here! Turn here at Peoria!”

The macabre procession pulled slowly into the lot full of abandoned semi-trailers. The fire department peeled back the side of the abandoned truck like a giant tin can. Lab technicians and detectives examined the soot blackened scene. The charred body would yield no fingerprints. The scorched key in his front jean pocket bore no identifying information. As the fragile body was gently removed, the floor of the trailer revealed a bright silhouette where the bum once laid. In the center of the image was a pristine pack of matches from a Madison Street liquor store. The wagon crew reunited the wandering head and its lifeless body and delivered one complete corpse to the morgue.

Back at the Maxwell Street station in the Area Four office, Big Andy slipped a form into the typewriter.

“Primary Classification?” asked the first box. “Death Investigation”

“Secondary Classification?” “Accidental (pending autopsy)” typed Andy.

“Well kid,” smiled Big Andy, “It’s not a homicide… but it’ll be a good story to tell your kids years from now.”

“Yes it will,” said the rookie detective. Yes it will!


4 Comments on “A Head is Highly Portable”

  1. Chris Padar says:

    For anyone who has heard me tell this story and now sees something different in this version (I’m looking at you, Dan), I share these words from the late, great Douglas Adams writing about the history of his famous five and a half book trilogy:

    “The history of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is now so complicated that every time I tell it I contradict myself, and whenever I do get it right I’m misquoted. So the publication of this omnibus edition seemed like a good opportunity to set the record straight – or at least firmly crooked. Anything that is put down wrong here is, as far as I’m concerned, wrong for good.”

    • jim brown says:

      Lee ws a very funny guy and a good guy. He always had a story of the old days at Hudson Ave. Very nice and interesting story. jim brown

  2. nonya says:

    Jim – You are a great writer. I’m just a random civilian who found you through secondcitycop. Your skill at weaving your memories into a full story is superb.

  3. JOHN MANOS says:

    The finder, who had recently saw Spencer Tracy in the movie “Northwest Passage” thought the head was one of those tasty Abenaki Indians. Area One sensed the west side aroma and successfully punted it to Jim and Big Andy who immediately downed it and cleared it the next play.

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