04/26/2013 07:38 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

River Road


I'm already late to open the shop when I see that there's a police barricade down the road; sheriff's cars with swirling lights are parked at odd angles. At least a couple of times a year, divers have to go in after a suicide, or a drunk driver, or a stupid jerk who takes a curve too fast. About a dozen cars with their engines off are lined up on either side of the barricade.

Most of the drivers are out of their cars and clustered in the grassy area that leads to the riverbank. I'm sort of antsy to get to the shop to open it, but I do like situations like this because it seems as though it could be a good way to meet my next husband, the one that will be my real husband.

"How did you meet?" We'll be asked over and over during the course of our marriage.

"Well", he'll say preparing the listener for a long story, "I was on my way to work at the fire house (ideally, he would be a firefighter, or an MD, maybe, if he wasn't too full of himself), "and Rosie was on her way to her little shop when some bozo ran off the river road in his Hyundai..."

I scan to see if the man who will be my husband is in the cluster. There are a couple of old Asian guys with fishing poles; a few teenagers busy with their cell phones; a burly guy in a sleeveless plaid shirt, showing off some ratty tats; a bearded guy with mirrored shades in a chef jacket and jeans. I realize I have seen this guy before but can't place him.

I turn my engine off and join the people. I approach the one woman in the group. She is standing with her hands on the shoulders of a little boy as though to keep him from running off. He squirms under her grip and eyes me without returning my smile.

"What happened?" I ask. The woman is my mother's age, I guess. She is squat, like my mother - well, like me for that matter -- but my mother and I know how to dress for our shape. This woman is in Capri's, which emphasize her thick ankles. The boy must be her grandson.

She looks at me and shrugs her shoulders.

"No English," she says. I speak a little Spanish. Everyone who does commerce around here needs to know some, but I speak shopkeepers Spanish. Whatever she might tell me about this situation would be beyond my vocabulary so I don't try. The boy looks at me. He probably speaks English, but he says nothing. Children don't like me.

The man in the chef jacket has overheard. "Hi, Rosie. I'm Lee. I work at the restaurant." That's where I've seen him. My store is next to the restaurant and I know everyone who works there, usually by name. Lee just started and I know I heard something juicy about him, but I can't remember what at the moment.

"What's going on?"

"Well, it's a car in the river, but we don't know what happened yet. Either the cops don't know or they're not saying. Look at these guys," he says, tipping his hand in the direction of the cops. "They're babies."

I don't like the implication that Lee and I are in the same age range, together looking at the cops like they're kids. He has grey in his beard and in his thick black hair. I got carded well into my thirties and I barely look older now.

The guy with the tats joins us. He is not a contender for my future husband with his wispy goatee and biker do-rag. His look definitely says "asshole". The Asian guys aren't candidates because they're old and they're smokers.

"This is awesome, dude," the tats guy says, addressing us both. "The divers are coming up. Look at those fucking skid marks." He points to a dizzying swirl of black that goes from the river side of the road toward the fields on the other side and back toward the river.

The three of us go over to where most of the cops are standing. One of them turns around. He is too young for me, I have to admit. His face is pudgy and a little splotchy and he has no detectable facial hair. "Please stay back," he says, spreading his arms out. We can't see much of what's going on in the river. Men in yellow slickers are standing in two rocking sheriff's. I assume that whatever they're looking for is between the two boats, but the line of cops on the bank is blocking the view. A side view mirror is on the ground beside the young sheriff casting a reflection of sun off toward the far bank of the river.

"Can you tell us what's going on?" I ask.

"No I can't ma'am." I'm embarrassed that he's called me ma'am in front of Lee. There was a time, I firmly believe, and not that long ago, that the little boy cop would not only have told me what's going on, but would have personally escorted me down the riverbank to see for myself.

"Can you tell us how long before we can get through?"

"No I can't." Now he's sounding annoyed.

"We need to get to work," Lee says to the back of the cop's head and this time, the cop doesn't even turn around. "We have jobs." The cop is not moved in any detectable way. In a monotone that he probably thinks makes him sound professional, he says "need to leave lanes open for emergency vehicles."

"Do you have a phone I can use?" Lee asks me. "I gotta tell them I'm gonna be late."

I dig for my phone in my purse and hand it to him. He walks off, leaving me with the tats guy. I walk to my car, not interested in a one on one conversation with this dude.

My store -- my divorce settlement present to myself -- has hours posted, but most people know that they're approximations, give or take an hour on either side. I put a big round schoolroom clock without hands on the wall above the cash register. A sign underneath says "Delta Time". People who live on the Delta believe they live with no hands on the clock; summer people, my patrons, buy stuff in my store they don't want or need because they believe they can take home a little piece of a not-giving-a-shit mentality.

So, I'd like to say this delay will hurt my income, but it won't. I only make real money on the weekends, when the restaurant has hour-long waits for tables and the customers browse with drinks in their hands, everyone in a good mood. I was only going to spend the morning rearranging displays and changing outfits on my two dummies. Still, it's already getting hot, I'm not impressed with the husband potential, and if the road doesn't hurry up and open, I'm going to have to pee real bad.

I sit in the car and turn the radio on, leaving the door open so it won't swelter. There's almost no shade except right on the bank, and the cops have that blocked. On the other side of the road is a field of tomatoes that goes on forever. They're beginning to turn, with an orange tinge of promise. The smell that comes off them is pure dirt and leaf. I close my eyes to get a better grasp on the smell, but when I concentrate on it, it disappears.

Howard Stern is wrapping up his show. It always makes me a little sad after I've spent the morning with Howard, like when I was very young and stayed up watching TV until the star spangled banner played behind a waving flag, and I knew what followed was just some noisy snow until morning. My ex turned me on to Howard, the one good thing he left behind when he raced out of our marriage, that and a decent payout.

I see Tats walking toward me. I wish Lee would finish his call. Why is it taking him so long just to tell Chef Michael he's going to be late? Maybe he took the opportunity of having my phone to make a bunch of calls. He looks like the type that might have a slew of women.

"What did you say your name was?" Tats asks me.

"I didn't, but my name is Rosie."

"I'm Duke," he says. I want to point out to him that Duke is usually a dog's name, but I really don't want to get that involved.

"You're listening to Howard. Awesome." I have learned brush-off behavior, how to let someone know you're not paying attention without actually having to be rude, looking straight ahead when someone speaks to you, not nodding or smiling. You have to do this when you're a girl, alone. People, men, might see a girl alone as an opening to talk, to take up her time, as though she's there just waiting for some company. I'm not a girl anymore but there's still a need for the occasional brush-off.

A Metro Fire truck weaves around the parked cars and pulls up close to the sheriffs. Maybe this incident will have some promise after all, not that I wish ill on anyone who may have driven into the river, but I do like firefighters. I stand up outside of my car door to see who's coming out of the truck. Two really young guys emerge in full regalia. They must sweat so much under all of that clothing that they always stay slim. If I were married to a fireman I'd have to really watch my weight so that we didn't end up being one of those couples with the skinny guy and the fat wife where everyone feels sorry for the husband. And, it's a fact that strippers call in fires sometimes just to get the guys to come in to their clubs. They're never charged with false reporting; in fact, sometimes the guys take the strippers for a ride in the truck if it's really late at night. So a fireman's wife can't just sit on the couch eating potato chips.

The young firemen join the line of police blocking access to the riverbank. I'm pretty sure they're below my age limit -- they're kids like the cops. The cops seem to spring into more action when the firemen show up.

The waiting motorists have come together from their various spots and stand behind the line of uniformed guys. I point to the gathering crowd to get Duke to walk over there and leave me alone. At the same time, Lee approaches and hands me my phone. His sunglasses are off and I notice that his eyes slope toward the side of his face, making him look sad, but they're very blue against his dark skin.

"I'm in deep shit," he says. He doesn't sound as though he's exaggerating.

I want to know what kind of deep shit he's in, but before I can ask, I hear the sound of a chopper getting closer and it drowns out any possibility of conversation. I get out of my car and go to join the others. I turn to look at Lee, wanting him to stick with me to ward off Duke. His chef jacket is crisp and clean. He looks cooler than any of the rest of us. I wonder if he ironed it himself. He has unbuttoned the top button exposing soft chest hair above a thin white undershirt.

The chopper hovers in one spot. We see that it's an orange and white sheriff helicopter. I can't tell what it's hovering over, but the blades stir up the water, making the calm river wild. And then we see a man being lowered out of the chopper door.

"This is fucking insane," Duke screams into the air. Lee has moved off to sit under a lone scraggly tree a few yards away. He sits with his head folded into his raised knees so that his face isn't visible. Is he sick? Is he about to get fired?

I am curious about Lee, but I don't want to miss what's happening, even though my view of the real action is blocked. I try to remember what I know about Lee. There's always lots of talk at the marina. Everyone knows everyone else's business, some of which is true and some of which isn't. At the beginning of the season, there's always buzz about the new people hired in the restaurant or the bar, or the new bands. And then everyone starts partying together and new stories get told. I rarely party with them, but I know there are stories about me anyway, about how I got my money -- such as it is -- and who I got dumped for and blah blah blah. Just last week, two years after the fact, an old guy in a bad Hawaiian shirt came into the store holding a beer and when he brought his trinket up to the cash register -- a frog shaped purse that he probably hoped would get him laid later-- he said, looking in my eyes: "Oh you're the one with the husband that knocked up that waitress that used to work here. Cute little kid they had. I ran into them in town the other day." I had never seen this guy before. It's not that he was trying to get a rise out of me. He thought I'd be interested. But the nice thing about the marina is that you don't have to dig very far to find dirt on anyone, so my story is no worse than the next guy's.

Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure Lee's story involved prison. It probably didn't make an impression on me when I first heard it because a lot of the restaurant staff and the year-rounder's on the island have served time for Meth or at least been jailed for a DUI, so everyone dishes without judging too harshly.

I look back and forth from the river to Lee. It's still morning, but just standing in the sun, I can feel a line of sweat down my back and between my breasts. When I crank up the air conditioning in the store, I'll be a sticky mess for the entire day.

I go over to where Lee is sitting and kneel next to him.

"So, what's the deep shit?" I ask right in his ear so he can hear over the noise. He turns around and our faces are close. His eyes survey my face.

"You haven't heard? It's not in wide circulation on the island?" I tilt my head to indicate I've heard a little bit, but no big deal. He seems to get my gesture.

My knees ache from kneeling. I want to stand up, but I don't want to draw away from him.

Someone is speaking through a megaphone. It's not clear where it's coming from or what's being said; it's just more noise. The cops must understand, because several of them leave the protective line and disappear down the bank.

The crowd moves as a mass closer to the bank. Two TV trucks arrive at the same time and cameramen lug their equipment as close as they can to the action. It's too much commotion for Lee and he stands up, putting his hand out to help me stand. His square jaw juts out as though he has made a decision that will propel him forward. I want to see what's going on and walk toward the cluster of people. He walks with me.

"I really am in deep shit," he says in my ear. "I'm not sure what to do."

I can't recall anyone ever having looked to me for advice and it sounds as though that might be what Lee is about to do. I find the prospect of a confidence of some kind exciting, but it is competing with the action on the river. Lee seems to be able to ignore that he is on the scene of an incident. I can feel him looking at me while I watch the river.

Sometimes customers spill their guts to me, particularly if we're the only people in the store. I can be sitting behind the counter doing nothing while a customer strolls through the store, picking up a clear blue glass boat or looking at the sayings on the X-rated T-shirts and out of nowhere, the customer might say, "yeah, my mother left everything to my brother and now I have to take him to court." Then I have to calculate the risk of asking a follow-up question, factoring in when the next customer might come in and relieve me of the conversation and how interesting the story could possibly be and whether or not this customer is likely to spend any money. "That must be tough" I'll say, or "Were you close to your mother?" I have heard some intimate details, but they're not told to bring us closer; they're told to unburden the customer.

Though we can't see what's happening, the chopper is loud enough that I don't have to say anything to Lee. My heart is pounding and I'm not sure if it's because of Lee wanting something from me or because of what's happening in the river. Of course, we could go to my car or his car and start it up. We'd only bake for a couple of minutes before the cool air took over. And then he could tell me about the deep shit. But, the crowd seems to sense imminent action; no one moves from the edge of the bank. I wonder if they can see something I can't. Now I have to know what's going on in the water.

The man being lowered from the helicopter disappears from our view. A woman shrieks. It might be the woman who speaks no English. A child cries. Could it be the boy? I get as close as I can to the line of cops. Lee does not join me.

The firemen and most of the cops have moved down toward the river at this point, letting the onlookers move closer to the edge. I see that the pack has grown as more cars have had to stop. This is going to be a bust of an event for finding a husband; still, it is a story, a good one to take to the bar, maybe to tag-team tell with Lee.

One cop is still yelling, "Stand back, stand back", even though the only way any of us could interfere would be by jumping into the murky water and no one's about to do that. When I crane my neck, I see emergency personnel dotting the steep slope down. In the river, a piece of the grill of a vehicle - maybe a jeep -- can be seen on the surface of the water. Some of the cops stand with their hands on their hips; they are only observers like the rest of us. The two Metro Fire guys get close to where the water meets the rocky bank, but they too are useless.

A diver springs out of the water holding something. No one in the crowd moves. We stand shielding our eyes. I can smell cigarette smoke, but I'm not pissed; who can blame the Asian guys for smoking at this moment? I turn to where I thought Lee was standing and notice he's gone. I can't look for him now. The diver is busy attaching something to the harness that hangs from the helicopter. We can't see what he's got, but after a minute, he stops whatever he's doing, and paddles with the small thing over to one of the sheriff boats. He hands the small thing -- and now we all know it's a child -- to one of the sheriffs and gets in the boat himself. The crowd has gasped and if anyone is saying anything, or crying, or moaning, they can't be heard over the helicopter which quickly pulls in the rope, rises, and moves north.

There are still divers in the water, but I don't want to see anymore. It must be noon by now. Maybe there's a customer peering in my shop window, wondering why she can't come in and browse. I go to my car. Lee is leaning against it; it must be sizzling. He has taken off his chef's jacket and is just in the undershirt. He looks as though he's worked out for many years.

"Did you see it?" I ask.

"I didn't look," he says. "I've seen enough bad shit." He waits for me to respond, but I'm looking behind him at my reflection in my car window. I'm startled by the deep creases by my mouth.

"I know they're going to can me."


"I've only been there a month. They were taking a chance on me with a 12-year gap in my experience. And one of those little asshole cops standing over there that gets free meals all the time was probably the one that told them about me." The cops are making arm gestures to break up the crowd and though I like cops as a rule, they do appear to be assholes.

The Spanish speaking woman and the boy come toward us. Her eyes are red and wet. She holds the boy in front of her like a shield.

"What happened?" the boy asks in a quiet voice. His t-shirt says "Rio Vista Bad Boys" above an X made out of baseball bats. His face is soft and bewildered. If I look at it, I will never forget it so I turn toward the tomato field across the street.

"It was an accident," Lee says. The boy translates and they walk to their car, the woman probably still thinking she'd understand what just happened if only she spoke English.

Lee looks at me. I can see he is about to tell me about the deep shit. And I haven't figured out yet if I want to know. I am wondering: Did the driver plunge the car into the water on purpose? Was it the child's mother or father or maybe grandmother? Are there more children still strapped in their car seats? When you drown, does the water in the river just merge with the water in your body so that the dread only lasts a moment? How alone does that child feel when he sees that the person who was meant to protect him is drowning too? For how many seconds?

"I'm just out of Folsom," he says.

"I know," I say. I think I would like to cut him off.

"My ex old lady and her daughter made accusations. The two of them fucking lied."

"OK. OK."

"I'm not into kids." He waits for me to say something, but I don't.

"Really, I'm not."

Across the road, it appears that heat is rising from the tomato fields. Tomorrow, the tomatoes will be a shade riper.

People are walking around randomly, impatient and agitated. Everyone is glistening with sweat. I see Duke get on his bike and rev it up, though he's going nowhere yet.

"They pulled a baby out." I say. "A fucking baby." Lee hesitates a second, and then he grabs me and hugs me. He is sweaty, but then so am I. His smell mixes with the tomato field and the hot asphalt and I want to get my nose in closer to his neck.

"See you down there," he says when we separate our bodies. "Wish me luck." He turns and walks south down the river road toward the restaurant, toward my gift shop. It will take him hours to walk and the heat will be brutal. Maybe he knows, as I know, that when the barricade is removed, I'll head down the road and pick him up wherever he is. We'll drive there together.