9 January, 2017
The river stands still, a mirror for the full night sky and the clouds passing, turning by degrees from black to gray to flat white as they move in front of the moon and take in her light. Even the river’s main channel, the parent bed over whose banks the water poured when power dams were constructed at each end, lays without its current and shift. Below the surface, deep where it is not visible, the sloughing and renewal go on as always. But where eyes can see, the channel and its long expanded banks are one and the same. To those who do not really know, the river is called a lake or sometimes even a pond, a wide plane half a mile across and three meandering miles long, speckled with houses, small beaches and short crops of forest not yet developed.
I grew up on this water, came home from college to live again where the sound of small wind across the surface guided me toward sleep and spend a week here each summer with my two children so we can visit Grandma and Papa. My son prowls the shore fishing, catching frogs, getting covered in mosquito bites and wearing a smile every second of our visit. My daughter follows me around complaining about the bad cell phone service and refusing to swim because the river bottom is too mucky, but she loves the raspberry patch and listening to my dad’s stories of when I was younger. We all slow
down and breathe here. One night I listen to him tell her the story of our water search from years ago. He has judged that she is old enough at fourteen to hear such a tale and pauses in his rocking for just a moment to look across the darkening porch. When I meet his look, I assume this is his way of asking permission and I nod, wondering how different our memories and details of this night will be.
Over the years we haven’t spoken of it often or in detail, but what I remember is our house crouched close to the water’s edge one late spring night as I lay twisted in the damp sheet of my bed, wishing for a breeze and working hard to find a comfortable position. I was twenty, and as usual, had been fighting with Dad about the bills from my semester abroad, my major, how I would find a job when I graduated next year; it never took much to set us off.
Inch by inch my body loosened toward sleep, eyes slack; a dot of light played across the back of my eyelids like a sing-along bouncing ball, my ears just losing contact, and then I leapt from the bed with my chest a fire of adrenaline. Again I heard it, a voice out the open window, then splashing, swimming. But it was only May– too cold for anyone to be in the water; the panic in the voice cut away my grogginess. I leaned closer in the dark with my ear pressed against the fine rasp of screen.
“Help, help, fuck, help me…” went the voice, too real, yet out of place in the hidden arms of the night. I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Dad?” He was at the phone, but spun toward my voice, stared and gulped, then continued to beat desperately at the instrument in his grasp.
“Someone in the river,” he kept fumbling, now in a panic at the useless phone. “Can’t get through…”
“I heard it too.” I went immediately to the window to listen again.
“I wasn’t sure… like I was dreaming. Jesus…”
“Help… help… can’t. I’m…fuck,” came the voice from the water, echoing everywhere, vibrating off houses, until it seemed to fill the backyard, the kitchen. It was difficult to get a sure sense of distance or direction; he sounded right in the backyard. I had been a lifeguard for five years, so I tried to mark a location in my mind and called out.
“We’re on our way. Try to stay calm.”
“I can’t… I’m going…”
And then another voice, “Hey, hey, Ray… Rayyyyy.” This one fainter, further.
“Keep talking. We’re coming.” I ran from the window, spewing instructions at Dad. The last voice had confused me, but I knew we had to get out there.
“Tell them Norwood Beach. Meet me at the rowboat…”
Leaving the kitchen, I ran into my mom.
“Someone’s in the water, I said. “Get Dad’s clothes.” Less than a minute later, he tripped down the basement stairs and out the back door behind me. Our neighbor, Mike Bodette met us at the beach.
“Jeannie woke me up,” he explained as he grabbed onto the rowboat’s stern.
“Pull the end around, now push,” Dad told us both. In a blur we shoved it across the cold sand and leapt aboard. I took the bow, scanning, yelling, and Dad landed in the center, arms rowing as soon as he sat down. Mike sat huddled in the boat’s stern, amidst two beer cans and an empty Styrofoam container for night crawlers.
“Can you hear us? Answer.” I cried in rhythm with the creaking oars, but the silence now surrounding the boat and our thumping hearts was eerily complete. We listened to the slap of water and counted the passing minutes. It had to be at least ten since I had heard the voice through the screen.
“He could be down.”
“What d’ya see?”
Floodlights on our back porch beamed into the heavy night air. I shivered and tried to ignore my feet, soggy in three inches of recent rain. The oars’ squeal was followed by a resounding, hollow splash whenever they dipped into and pulled out of the water. I kept scanning in front, and Dad rowed, following my directions as I tried to remember out loud where the voice had been.
“Little left, ok, now steady. Near here.”
Thud! We jumped; Mike screamed, quietly, but hysterically and then sat embarrassed in the stern.
“Back up.” On my command Dad reversed the oar motion. Something scraped along the boat’s keel, screeching like fingernails across glass and then bobbed free. I
leaned over and plunged my arm into the late May cold of the Raquette River. I was breathless, heart like a heavily pounded bass drum, as I felt around in the blackness. Would I pull up an arm, touch a clammy hand? I jerked back, sudden and fearful, then plunged again.
“Stick.” I was sorry and grateful at once. Mike sighed and gave a little whistle as if luck had found us, and Dad’s back relaxed as he pushed out his pent up breath and prepared the oars. A few pulls later, we hit another obstacle, a longer stick that the boat drifted over in a series of sickening, empty knocks; I searched again, the frustration and relief increasing.
“I’ll need help lifting if we find him. You know CPR?” I asked Mike. He shook his head no. “Dad?”
“For work. Years ago. Not sure what I remember.” It had only been a few months for me, a Saturday morning renewal course, blowing into the vinyl mouth of the CPR dummy, counting and compressions. I could hear my instructor pointing out that the first compression would break ribs. “It always surprises people,” he had said. This memory seemed impossible to connect with the cold and wet of a body pulled into a boat in the dark.
“Just be ready. I’ll get his head. You flip the rest of him up.”
Mike continued to look cold and dazed, torn too early and unwillingly from his bed.
“Ok?” I broke through his bewilderment for a moment. Dad looked at me sharply, but then stayed silent.
“Sure,” Mike said. And we continued to move slowly toward the area I had mapped: a roughly drawn circle, about fifty yards from the river’s main channel, out of the soft current and just east of the center. I believed in this assessment, or tried to. It had all happened so fast. We didn’t mention the second voice, now quiet.
“I was confused. Asleep. Can’t really remember,” Dad admitted. Those fumbling unsure seconds, ancient moments when I had tumbled the noise toward sleep and dreams; it didn’t seem like a real memory, but I didn’t know what else to go by.
“Never really heard it,” Mike said. “Jeannie had me running before I ever listened.”
“A little left,” I said.
Sticks, huge weed clumps and other debris filled our path, each startling and bearing potential. My arms grew icy from frequent dives into the unyielding blackness.
“Shit floating from the weekend.” Mike and I shook our heads in solemn agreement. It did not seem only two days ago that we had scurried around the sand picking up clam shells, rocks and broken beer bottles heaved into gaping holes by uncaring ice fishermen. Just before Memorial Day each year, the power company in control of the river’s dams drains the water to a hundred yards off shore so summer beach cleanup can take place. The whole weekend is then given to collecting, raking and socializing up and down the river’s edge; sunburned and excited by the freshness of water on toes newly bare, neighbors salute and gossip to the noise of piling rocks and the smell of burning brush. The ritual weekend heralds the water-centered existence of the summer more clearly than holidays, lilacs or the end of school. But on Sunday, when the river
slowly fills up its bed, the neighborly length of shore vanishes, and the water lifts all the weeds, dead fish and other refuse to the surface where it bobs like vegetables in a boiling stew.
I had stood on the bank with my parents and sisters only two nights ago while the water chewed away the shore, erasing from view whatever dangers they had missed and bringing, with the once a year tide, the full summer season. It always takes a few days for the river’s current to cleanse its surface and send the junk over Norwood Dam to become someone else’s problem. It was this dirty froth of waste jarring us to hope and terror as we cautiously worked the river, asking it to yield up the body that belonged to the screaming voice.
Red lights and a siren, hollow in the still night air, drew our attention to the town beach directly across from the boat. We were about two hundred yards from shore, still circling, calling, trying to hope.
“Ambulance. We should go over. Tell ‘em what we know,” Dad said. The first light was followed immediately by others, a sudden cavalcade of official vehicles, gathering in the black space I knew to be the beach.
“But what about…”
“They’ll have light, better equipment.”
“He’s right,” said Mike, and I slumped in a pout, not wanting to abandon our personal search. The compromise was to continue checking every bump and knock on the way across. So by the time we got close to shore, an entire battalion of uniformed men had formed a semi-circle on the beach’s damp sand, holding notebooks and huge
black flashlights, more like clubs than devices to illuminate; they glowed, a spectral assembly in the foggy light, thrown from vehicle headlights parked directly behind them. All stood: volunteer firemen, policemen, weekend trained EMTs, around two figures on the water’s edge.
One was a female, huddled in the sand, hair stringing in her face, disheveled, out of control. Above the girl, a young boy, his hand protectively on her slumped shoulder. His head jerked from person to person, his eyes flashing questions, terror, demands to the group gathered about him.
“He’s out there, just find him,” I heard him say as the rowboat scraped the river’s bottom. We stepped from darkness into the circle of light. The crowd turned in unison toward us, their blank waiting faces like toy moons.
“He’s right, he’s out there. I talked to him. I can give you directions.” I stepped toward this group of men and announced myself.
“Hold on,” said one of the notebook holders, back in control. No doubt he saw a young girl in wet shorts. “We have some things to find out first. Now who made the call?”
“There isn’t time for that. I talked to him. He was…” The voice sounded again in my head, its eerie closeness, a conversation to be held between neighbors across back lawns.
“I made the call.” Dad said.
“So what led you to suspect…”
“He doesn’t have time.” My voice was desperate. A second note-booked official stepped up to whisper to his companion.
“Ok, let’s get looking.” He turned to the girl still in a pile on the sand. “Where’d you say he went in?”
“Somewhere up river a little,” the boy answered. “She said they crashed at the big curve just past Farrell’s house. He got out and ran toward the river.”
She looked up then, pushed away her straggling hair and agreed. A dark spreading spot crossed her forehead and ran down the bridge of her nose, blood black as river mud against her white skin.
“The girl’s hurt,” Dad said to the cluster of gawking men. They continued to look unsure, awaiting the official command to action, and then several of them in orange jumpsuits carried a first aid kit over to her and bent down. The movement shook the others awake and, all at once, orders began to snap through the air. They quickly hauled two boats off trailers and set up spotlights attached to tripods in both bows.
Within moments, the first boat’s motor spit into the night and began revving upriver carrying two firemen and an EMT. The spotlight swiveled methodically, from shore to open water, lighting river garbage and casting long shadows.
“They’re going the wrong way,” I yelled from beside the boat where Dad had pulled me to “let the men get to their work.” Nick Bartell, the fire chief and only man who had not run in the direction of a task, walked toward our boat, speaking several times into a hand radio.
“Appreciate your help Bruce.”
“They’re going wrong. I heard him out just past our house. Down river.” I couldn’t stop myself from blurting this out; the need to force the boats in another direction was more than I could stand. At that moment, four firemen hustled from the parking lot onto the beach, their yellow coats filling out behind them as they moved, like phosphorescent, giant squid. On the sand, they walked in slow motion, heavy, booted feet and concentrated steps, making their way as if underwater.
The group converged as Nick began to answer me. “Noise carries funny on water, at night, half asleep. His accident was way up there,” he pointed in a long, dramatic arc. “Couldn’t have made it out to you.”
“Nick. How’s it going? Bad one eh?” They all arrived with their interruptions.
“I know where he is.” I tried again.
“You should go home, get some sleep. We’ve got it,” Nick leaned forward as if to pat my head, his teeth flashed with a polished, efficient white, clear as a new bar of soap. I flinched away and almost took a swing at him; my fingers dug into my thighs as I stood there waiting for Dad to say something, anything that would back me up.
“I don’t need sleep. Tell him.” I stepped back to offer Dad the central position in the tight group. The assembled men waited for him.
“You heard where we found the car. You still sure where you heard him?”
“Beth!” Dad cut me off. I watched him struggle, could imagine him sifting through his memory of those terrifying moments, the ripple of water, those desperate words. Where did such a voice come from except a nightmare? What picture of those
moments did he hold in his mind? He knew this place better than I did. Our family had lived within the lapping sound of the Raquette’s waves for fifteen years, but he had grown up on this body of water, this river, as it wove its way through St. Lawrence County and eventually out to sea. The group continued waiting, but shuffled now in the sand, a rushed cough and the plastic flap of a raincoat. He closed his eyes to think again, and then looked around at the people gathered. They were familiar to both of us from town. Dad probably knew most of them, at least their names and faces, knew they volunteered to take diving classes, knew they fished the water or ran their boats over its surface. On summer afternoons they waved past our house with out-of- town friends in tow on the end of a water ski line, or putted quietly over the surface with range finders to spot the deepest walleye holes. Many of them had lived here longer than I had been alive, knew, as he did, of the murky hidden currents and dead cars beneath the river’s surface. Depth, chance, luck were all a part of living on this water; he had always been strict about respecting its power, never letting us swim without someone watching or allowing us in boats without life preservers.
In that moment, all I could focus on was being surrounded by men who did not take me seriously. It made me want to shout, to lash out at their patronizing attitudes. Dad had to back me up. It was what I told myself as I watched him, waited for his support. He turned his eyes from me to the millions of lit sand sparkles, oblivious on the beach. I knew how heavy the moment was for both of us; its weight connected to all we had argued and remained silent about since I had gotten home. Those years between teenager and adult are never easy, and I wouldn’t choose to return to them now, to the
tension I felt always when I was home. When it seemed I was never right about anything, I became more determined to be right about everything, no matter what. With my own kids I see it coming, their burgeoning independence and unmasked disdain for my knowledge, advice, direction. I bristle with each roll of their eyes and hear the voices of my parents echo in my head.
The second boat’s motor started up while they waited for Dad to speak again. Nick issued a terse, quiet command into the radio and the engine closed down.
“We’re wasting time. You sure or not?”
“I guess,” he raised his eyes to Nick’s, a ridiculous word: sure. “I guess you boys know what you’re doing. I coulda heard wrong.” His head dropped again. He let my knowledge go, and his words fell flat between us.
I don’t think he regretted them, did not wish to take them back, but I didn’t hide the fact that he hurt me. In my helpless, quiet fury, I counted off the days I would go without speaking to him, the ways I could avoid him. This was a new wound I would make him take credit for. The dark closed in again; the knot in my chest tightened. Had the river outsmarted them or me; who was right? It mattered, this knowing. He had not dared to support me and what I was sure I knew.
Nick immediately snapped another command and the craft sprang to life, headed upriver toward the other patrol boat. Still staring at the sand, Dad mumbled, “I don’t think she did.” But, it was too late. The orders were in. His chance to back me up, gone.
Halfway across the beach, Nick turned and nodded at us both, “The divers are good. We’ll find him.”
Mike cleared his throat, once, twice. “Might as well head off.” Dad looked at me, and I turned my face away, slammed myself down in the bow of the boat to stare across the water.
“No. We better keep looking.” I didn’t shift my stony glare, wanted him to know he was wasting his breath. Without further argument, we set out the way we had come. I refused to speak as we criss-crossed the river for the next several hours, stopping at each obstacle in our way, tirelessly maneuvering in small circles all around the area. After a while, Mike offered to row, so Dad took the stern, rubbed his aching shoulders and we both peered over the side into a mirrored vision of glinting black. We no longer jumped when something cracked against the bottom of the boat; I searched briefly and shook my head.
The temperature dropped, clouds dissolved like soap bubbles and the moon reached its pinnacle, a full light making it easy to see shapes along the bumped surface of the water. After a futile two hour, upriver search, the patrol boats meandered slowly toward us, lights swinging like pendulums. Their arcs eventually cut through the rowboat. After such a moment of full, piercing light, Dad caught my eye as I sat shaking and curled on the boat seat. We were long past hope.
“Switch.” He stood low in the boat to take the rowing seat. Mike passed him in the center and slumped into the empty spot. Immediately, Dad turned the boat’s nose for
shore, plying the oars quickly. I was too tired to argue, just stayed curled around myself, a twitch now and then, like a flipped beetle too weary to turn over.
The boat ground against the shore, and still none of us spoke; Dad tried to help me up the hill, but I shrugged off his hand. Mike chattered a hurried goodbye and started across the street for home.
“Thanks,” Dad called to his fleeing back. “Have a drink, you earned it.”
Mom heard us coming up the cellar stairs and met us at the door with two blankets.
“It’s after four. You must be frozen.” Her first worry was for our safety. Then, “Did you find him? Coffee’s on.”
“She got really cold. Maybe just put her to bed.” But I walked into the kitchen and sat at the table, looking out the picture window into the night. This window had framed our vision for every family meal, study session, life discussion of my childhood. Dad dug out an old bottle of Southern Comfort from the depths of the liquor cabinet, grabbed two juice glasses, and sat at the table. He had designed this house specifically to look out over the water in as many rooms as possible. From this position, we had all watched the sun rise and followed the seasons, counted the flocks when they flew by, noticed the formation and melting of ice each winter. The river was our nearest neighbor.
The sun was just beginning to turn the low horizon to dull, graying pink when I got up to use the bathroom, still wrapped in the blanket my mother had put around my
shoulders. He was sipping the whiskey and watching the patrol boats prowl when I came back in.
The other glass had been filled about halfway and waited on the placemat where I always sat, the river to my right as we ate dinner. I took a small sip of the whiskey, just letting it kiss the edge of my lips and stared at the water in the creep of morning light, while the search boats continued their slow, inexorable circling.
“I was most afraid of finding him,” I said. And tears finally burst forth. “I didn’t know what I’d do if I reached down and touched him.” I put my head down on my arms and cried.
The bottle slid across the table and I heard the gentle fall of liquid. When I looked up he was moving the drink again to his lips, but stopped and nodded at me, raising the glass just an inch or so in tribute.
“I was afraid of that too,” he said.
I picked up my drink and couldn’t believe how heavy my arm felt. I was too small for the decisions of this life, the constant weighing and juggling of facts, emotions, people. At the time, I couldn’t really think about the reality of this loss, the grief people would face. The young girl on shore with her bleeding forehead was a face I would see whenever I thought about that night. It was frightening and sad, but the thought I kept coming back to as I sat in the growing dawn was my dad not listening to me, not trusting me.
The boy was dead, and years later, that fact sits more firmly with me, a reminder of mistakes that demand a heavy payment, the pain for those left behind, the phone call
his parents received. This was not something I cared enough about in the moment. As a mother now, I have asked myself what I would want my children to take from such an experience, what knowledge would I insist on pressing into them. We found out the details over the next few weeks: he was nineteen and had been drinking with his girlfriend at a friend’s house watching play-off hockey; he took the corner too fast going home. An off-duty policeman stopped at the scene and got out of his car, still in uniform. The boy ran, no telling why, just left his girlfriend and bolted toward the water. I had always known the river’s patterns, respected its surfaces, but never had it drawn me so personally into its killing power. I have never forgotten the knocking, hollow call of all those dead branches. Dad clinked his glass against mine across the table.
“I knew you’d handle it if it happened.” I’m sure he meant what he said, but it instantly made me angry.
“Then why? You knew I was right,” a gunslinger’s challenge. The self-righteous power of my rage was without limits.
“You probably were.”
“Why didn’t you back me up?” Like the fight we had been through earlier, I wanted to cast away everything he said, make him see how ready I was to make my own decisions and how wrong he was to even think of questioning me. I grabbed the bottle, poured a full glass, at least three shots, and sat down. It was a little scary, yelling at him this way. In the silence, he watched me sink lower against the chair back, drawing out the moment when he might choose his own anger to combat my outburst. We sipped and stared away from each other. For many minutes the stubborn misunderstanding was
strong between us. He did not defend himself; I could not look past the humiliation of being ignored.
I am older now than Dad was that summer. Would I trust my son or daughter with judgement in a life and death moment? It is almost funny how quickly I reject such an option, how many excuses I can create for doubting them. Does it mean my father made the right choice that night on the beach, surrounded as we all were by the uncertain surfaces of the river? I have no idea why we have never talked about it. And hearing his version of the night, the details he shares with my daughter as she eats a bowl of ice cream my mother has brought her, I realize he has forgotten or left out all but the ghost story elements of voices and noises in the night. He ends with a version of my courage, pointing out to her that I faced a frightening situation. He leaves the grief and loss for me to tell and maybe the anger, if I choose. So I remember out loud for her:
“We sat and watched as the boats circled around in the dawn light. Right out beyond Papa’s dock, they dropped a rake, eight feet wide and strung on thick cable. Divers dropped down into the water too, and the boat moved along the surface. By the time the sun was up, they found a body in jeans and a New York Rangers jersey.”
“Did you cry?” Claire asks, and I hear her feet on the porch floor as she moves to me in the dark. Her arms slide around my neck and her warm cheek presses mine.
“I don’t remember,” I say, hugging her back and pulling her onto my lap where she barely fits.