Murky Waters

On a cool autumn afternoon, four boys mysteriously drown in the Schuylkill. A terrible accident? Foul play? Eight months later, police and the neighborhood are still battling over facts, meaning and the truth.

FOUR BOYS ON bikes journey down to the river on a sunny fall day. There is a factory. a weed patch, a rock. The waters part. Then everything is as it was. There lie the bikes. white, red. blue and black, placed like markers …along the bank. Next to them. a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, some sneakers. Soon it is late and the light goes out of the sky. What happened to the boys? The question, ignited simultaneously in four homes begins to spread, house by house, block by block, until it is everywhere. Even after the bodies are recovered, nothing is certain. What happened? Days pass. Then weeks. Then months. Evidence is scarce, coming in stray patches that often contradict each other. So the question remains, settling corrosively on every surface, every thought. Explanations of one kind or another from the forensic to the supernatural are offered – sometimes forcefully – but they do not even begin to make the question disappear. What happened to the boys? It’s late in the afternoon and the long, wide streets of the neighborhoods bordering Lindenwood and South 53rd streets in West Philadelphia are vital and full of voices. Now that spring’s almost here, there’s enough light after school lets out at 2:30 for hours of blacktop basketball for the older boys, tag and caps for the young ones. On most blocks a makeshift backboard nailed to a phone pole serves as a social center of gravity. While players bang it up, onlookers clap and laugh, the scratch and snap of sneakers and the flow of trash-talk mingling and rising in the air. But as 53rd  meanders southeast toward the Schuylkill River, things change. There aren’t so many voices or children. Beyond Woodland Avenue, there are none. To cross the avenue is to breach an invisible barrier and enter a dead space. Evening is approaching and the light is fading fast but here it is already gone, sucked right out of the air. With the exception of an orange fireplug on the corner, South 53rd at Lindenwood is as void of color as a photographic lamp in every room of every home has been turned on, but the light somehow stays inside; each rowhouse seems disconnected and distant from its neighbors. You need not have heard of the four to know that something terrible happened here.

A young woman dashes from a doorway and disappears around the corner. These days, when the people who live here visit neighbors after dark, they run. They can’t tell you why.

"What you want?" The voice, and then the teenager, emerge from behind a wall. He’s got a downturned mouth and an indecipherable face. There are others with him-dealers, the block’s new proprietors. Several months back, when everything changed and the children stopped coming outside, they sensed a vacuum and moved in.

Another voice beckons. "Psssst! Over here!" Justin Bovell gesmres with one hand while holding his front door with the other. Once inside, he fastens the deadbolt. His mother, Christine, a native of Trinidad, eyes her son’s guest and, in a beautiful singsong voice, asks for identification.

"I check everybody out these days," she says, reading the business card. "How about a picture ID?"

 A driver’s license is produced.

"Don’t you have no ID with a picture and your magazine name?"

"Mom," says her boy. "All right, then. Sit."