July 26, 1980
“It’s quiet here today,” Old Ben said, making me jump from his suddenly speaking behind me.
He had waited for me to finish the chapter and close the book, as I routinely do when I come here other times than when I jog. Sometimes I just stare out at the falls, thinking of how good I have it even when I don’t have much in the way of material goods.
Ben had come up behind me like an Indian, his steady step avoiding twigs or loose stone, not meaning to sneak up.
I looked at him and grinned as he sat down beside me on the red stone that stuck out at the edge of the falls like a pointing finger.
“Sometimes we get mornings like these,” he said, pulling out his pipe from his pocket in a ritual so familiar I could predict every gesture with my eyes closed, his patting of his pocket for the pouch that held the tobacco, his slow opening of this, his pinching out the appropriate amount, then stuffing this into the bowl. Then, he would repeat patting his pockets until he found matches with which he lit the piped, and puffed.
After a few powerful tokes, his face was surrounded by smoke, this peeled away today by a strong breeze from off the river.
“It’s on mornings like this that the cats come up to feed,” Ben said, meaning catfish, not feline cats, fish that usually linger in the mud at the bottom.
Ben pointed a bony finger towards the shallow water.
“Can you see them?” he asked. “It’s those fish with the chicken wire for backs.”
All I saw were humped black shadowy shapes moving just under the surface of the water, wraiths that caused ripples, but little more.
“There’s carp, too,” he said, his finger moving towards the top of the falls where fish flipped to keep from falling over the lip, large silver shapes catching the sunlight as they plopped back into the brown water and swam back up stream.
We both laughed, the way we might watching clowns at a circus.
Ben knew this river just about as well as anyone did; he knew its quiet moments and its music, it loud voice and the whispering, seductive voice that lured younger people like me to this place. He knew the old raven that lived in the metal web of support beams under the Parkway Bridge, and the host of strange duck-like birds that devoured the offerings of cracked corn, cornmeal bread and popcorn offered up by the river lady up stream.
“She’s a strange one,” Ben said “But I guess that can be said about anyone of one of us, eh?”
He gave me an odd look, his white brow rising over the eye nearest me.
But today, he didn’t seem so mischievous as he sometimes did, merely thoughtful, as he looked out at one of a new visitor to this part of the river, a white swan stark against the brown water and reeds near the far side, a swam that floated majestically down the smooth surface of the river like an ice skater with no ice, its twin reflected in the brown water.
“But the river lady is stranger than most of us,” he mumbled. “She loves this river and hates to see it change, and so she and her husband hire a bunch of lawyers to keep the state from doing anything. She’s even sued the state for not doing anything about the polluters, like that could do anything to move those corrupt people.”
He spat out a bit of tobacco, but it was the bad taste he was trying to get rid of.
“The river lady ain’t rich,” Ben said. “Maybe they win some of those lawsuits, I don’t know. Maybe that’s how they can afford to keep feeding all the birds, and other things, all year long.”
Then, Ben fell silent, as if hearing his own voice wearied him, and he squinted to make out a shape on the far shore, a shape of something living, but I could not tell if it was a bird or one of the other riverside inhabitants that wandered in and out of the reeds, making their living off the fish that came too close to the surface. But I knew Ben was really lost in some memory, one of those tales he wouldn’t tell, left out from all those he often told, too tender or painful to reveal to even someone as sympathetic as me, part of some truth about himself or his life that time had finally revealed to him, but shame or embarrassment would not allow him to speak of openly.
So he saw there with his pipe bowl cupped in the palm of his hand as he puffed, his gaze shifting from spot to spot, on the swan, then on the parkway bridge, and then on the carp leaping or the catfish in the water near our feet.
When he closed his eyes, he seemed to listen to the whisper of the falls, that siren’s call he could not yet respond to, birds screeching over the white tumult, birds seeking the silver fish to help fill the raging hunger in their bellies.
“We need to listen to this place better,” Ben suddenly said.
And then he fell silent again, and so I stayed silent, too.
The river did the talking. The river said all that needed to be said.
Upstream, the geese honked and flapped their wings for takeoff.
Upstream, others fed off another one of River Lady’s free meals, grateful for her charity for as long as it lasted.