(Flickr/Kurayba)

Down to the River

A short story

A month after Putin invaded Ukraine, a retired Air Force colonel I knew flew her SUV into the Greenglass River. I didn’t see it happen. I was stuck mid-pew, stalled by all the churchgoers in town for Parents’ Weekend. When I finally escaped to the parking lot, a woman tugged at my sleeve to ask if I’d just seen a big white car flying in reverse. Bewildered, I shook my head no.

The woman who grabbed my sleeve was stout, with a too-short haircut and sensible oxfords. She was bewildered too. “It was Veronica. I watched her get in the driver’s seat.”

I didn’t know Veronica well, but I knew that she was one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq. “My God. What happened?”

“She looked like a bird. Like a seagull.”

I grabbed her forearm. “Is she still in the river?”

She waved dramatically with the other hand: “Swept away.”

By then folks were scrambling down the bluff as they heard the news. Veronica had parked on a patch of grass over by the old residence hall. I’d parked back there myself once and never again, because just beyond the narrow strip of macadam is the steep bank down to the river, with no guardrail. When it’s hazy or foggy—it’s always hazy or foggy in this sad river town—it’s hard to see where the road ends and the bluff begins. You have to cut the wheel sharply.

But come on. An Air Force pilot? It’s the late Mass-goers who park back there, and a career military officer would not have been late. She would have picked the spot early. A pilot would have put her RAV4 safely onto the roadway, turned in the right direction, fog or no fog. She could have done it in her sleep. She must have known exactly what she was doing. She must have sat in back so she’d be the first out the door. Pressed her foot hard, aimed for the one open path between the scraggly river oaks and pawpaws. Because the bank drops so steeply, the SUV shot out as Veronica must have intended—but just before it descended, it lost speed and caromed off an uprooted trunk, then backflipped into the river.   

The stout witness who told me all this looked unhinged. She’d run over to the riverbank as soon as she saw Veronica flying, but after she called for help, what could she do? Other stout women pulled out their phones to flood 911 with redundant reports of the airborne combat pilot at the controls of an SUV. Young assistant professors slid down the wooded bank, hoping to act the heroes. But the snow had been melting all week and the river was churning. The woman with sensible oxfords was right––the RAV4 was completely submerged, vanished.

I couldn’t fathom, though, why she thought to say that SUV looked like a seagull. I suppose she was alluding to Chekhov; she must have known somehow that I teach Russian literature. She must have known that allusion would appeal to me, because it so conveniently removed me from the scene.

 

I’m always surprised to find myself in that parking lot, much less that Mass. I’m not a believer. I feel some kinship with secular Muslims who fast during Ramadan and atheists who attend seders, who keep the rituals to connect themselves to their tribes. In a town filled with colleges, including a Famous Catholic University, mosques and synagogues and churches tend to have multilingual liturgies and cerebral sermons punctuated with poetry. I suspect they have unbelievers like me lurking about, too. This church was on the grounds of the Catholic women’s college, its pews sprinkled with nuns who founded health clinics in Uganda, who taught at the college, who visited prisoners on death row and met regularly with our appalling congresswoman to shame her into some action. They’re a dwindling crew, aging themselves out of existence, but every now and again they sign up a novice, a student at one of their colleges in Bangladesh or Botswana, and then the whole order perks right up.

The other Mass-goers—I can’t call them parishioners because it isn’t, strictly speaking, a parish—are the kind of Catholics who, if they didn’t have this community where they can count on someone to pray every week for union organizers or LGBTQ rights, might abscond to the Episcopalians, the kind of Catholics drawn to apophatic theology and social-justice movements, Catholics who have their doubts but just can’t let go.

 

Camus says it’s the only question, whether we choose life or death. A couple of my relatives have made feeble attempts at suicide and my cousin actually shot himself––dead, I mean. That’s a story in itself, devastating to tell. That’s all I’ll say about that.

This is a town where no one else wants to talk about suicide, either. The paper treated Veronica’s flight as if it were an accident on a foggy day. At the wake, women whispered that it could have happened to any of us, that the poor nuns were distraught. Every member of our creative nonviolence reading group showed up at the funeral home, wondering whether the family would sue over that missing guardrail.

We scrutinized the scant remnants of Veronica’s family. Her brother was also retired, a naval captain wearing a pigeon-gray suit and a strange half-smile of regret. He introduced Veronica’s daughter, who might have been in her twenties or thirties: “This is Ronnie, my sister’s only child.” The phrase made her blink. She had one of those haircuts, spiked here and buzzcut there, that could have signified her sexual preferences or meant she fancied herself some kind of free spirit. Despite the young people in my classrooms, I have trouble reading the cultural signposts.

I was surprised to see a daughter. I told Ronnie that I’d known her mother from a reading group, which was true. I also said that Veronica had mentioned her, which was not.

“I’m gobsmacked to hear it,” Ronnie said dryly. “We haven’t spoken in years.”

Caught at the lie, I squirmed, hearing the bitter lines my mother and I once flung at each other. I went on compulsively: “It was a nonviolence reading group. We were intrigued to have an ex-military officer, but she was so private I never asked her about that. None of us did.”

“Maybe she stayed in the Air Force for the pension.” Veronica’s daughter, looking judgy with her one raised eyebrow, turned away to speak to her next interrogator.

 

I find that I do want to talk about Sonny’s suicide after all. Maybe I have to. I can’t talk about the Greenglass River without talking about my cousin.

Sweet, tongue-tied Sonny. When he was still small, my aunt gave him a buzz cut that made him look like a miniature Marine recruit, as if she wanted to ensure he’d grow up to be a soldier. Aunt Tildy was a single mother with a studio apartment, so when Sonny came to our house it took him half an hour to close his mouth at the sight of our latest acquisitions. He played Final Fantasy on my brothers’ new Game Boy, listened to Blue Öyster Cult on my new boombox. He defended me against my brothers, who called me Fatty Patty, and my mother, who barked if we sat too close.

When my mother asked where Sonny got that dirt mustache, Aunt Tildy answered: “I guess it’s the grit in the river.”

Mother raised herself off her kitchen stool for maximum drama. “You let him go in the river?

Every child in town knew that the Greenglass was only placid until it wasn’t. When it was angry or petulant or spiteful, it could sweep us away even if we were only wading, and besides, it stank of industrial waste. We weren’t to go anywhere near the river unless we were in the company of sober adults, and Aunt Tildy was rarely sober.

“For crying out loud, Marlene, you think I could stop him? He’s got enough sense not to drown. He just stands there to cool off.”

But a dirt mustache meant Sonny wasn’t just standing in the river, he was sticking his whole face in, swimming out into the swift current. I lost sleep, imagining him swept away. My mother paid Sonny’s tuition at Our Lady of Mercy, where we were in the same class, but she was always threatening to stop writing the checks if his grades didn’t improve. All through grammar school, he practiced spelling and multiplication tables with me; he knew the twelve-times long before I did but barely passed the test. His favorite assignment was memorizing a psalm: he picked How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? He had it down cold in five minutes and crowed it so many times that I learned it too, but when he stood to recite, he couldn’t get past that first lament. From the back of the room I whispered: How long will you hide your face from me? but Sonny was too flustered to see.

I heard how that must have sounded to him: me, back home with my PhD to be a professor at the Famous Catholic University; him, back on parole, loitering in the drugstore.

My mother gave up on Catholic school and sent us to Greenglass Central High, but in freshman year she caught us in my bedroom making out, the one and only time we did such a thing, my blouse on the floor and Sonny so high he couldn’t stop laughing. She banished him forever. I protested that I was the one who did the unbuttoning, so I was the one who should be banished.

My mother said: “Believe me, I’m tempted.”

We were in different tracks at Greenglass Central but Sonny winked, passing me in the halls, and sometimes he reached out a hand to graze mine. He grew the buzz cut down to his shoulders.

Is it any surprise when boys who live with their mothers in one-room apartments drop out after junior year, or join the Marines when a war starts, or deal fentanyl when they get home? Sonny had finally passed his GED when the cops arrested him, in the parking lot of the technical college, his pockets full of pills, his gun in the glove compartment. He might as well have laid it out for them on the front seat.

After Sonny was paroled, I ran into him in the drugstore. I was guilty about not driving out to the bleak state prison after my one awkward visit, but I called his name and he loped down the aisle to squeeze me tight.

I said: “Can you imagine, the two of us back in this sad-sack town?” I heard how that must have sounded to him: me, back home with my PhD to be a professor at the Famous Catholic University; him, back on parole, loitering in the drugstore. Aunt Tildy had called him Sonny after the character in The Godfather, as if she knew how louche he would look that day: to me he was one of Isaac Babel’s Odessa gangsters, slumming in the twenty-first century.

“Town looks good after that hellhole. Some of those motherfuckers were mean, man.” The childish sound of mean, coming from a combat vet, confused me.

That very night, Sonny went down to the park and crossed over a footbridge to the little island where he could clamber down into the river. It must have been a shock, how much the banks had eroded while he was doing time, sycamores bending every which-a-way, the river churning. We had record heat that night and he stripped naked to swim out into the current. He didn’t drown himself, though. He’d heard his parole officer was looking for him and he left his gun on the bank. After he hoisted himself back up, dripping and stinking of river water, the homeless guys who camped on the bank heard the shot—it only took one. The cops told Aunt Tildy that Sonny’s hair was still wet when they got there. They also said a Glock was the weapon of choice for suicides.

“Sonny was always impulsive,” my mother said. “Reckless.”

I wanted to kill her.

 

During the pandemic, the creative nonviolence reading group grew sick of Zoom meetings, and so we took a long break. By the time we were ready to meet in person, the war in Ukraine was already raging. The invasion had unleashed our most murderous instincts, so we decided to go around the circle in Zita’s living room to express our darkest thoughts, as if that might get them out of our systems.

“I picture bombers strafing the convoys.”

“I’ll admit I fantasize about an assassination.”

“I could engage in hand-to-hand combat right now.” I felt there was special discomfort at my words, perhaps because these women knew how I loved Russia. In the summertime I often traveled with a group of students to St. Petersburg, where we’d read Dostoyevsky and stay up late in the white nights. I would tell them how guards had led the young writer out of his prison cell and tied him to a pillar to face the firing squad: a mock execution. My students could not fathom such cruelty, and who can? I’d escaped my own death sentence from cancer and knew how miraculous every blade of grass looks when they untie you from the pillar. But I told my students that Dostoyevsky, for the rest of his life, would transmit despair through his writing the way a wire transmits electricity. We’d travel next to Odessa, to walk the back alleys where Akhmatova and Babel, no strangers to violence, were born. On we went to Kyiv, where Bulgakov witnessed his own war and dug the morphine needle into his vein. At night the students danced in Kyiv clubs to work all that darkness out of their systems. I don’t suppose Putin ever stayed up late, reading Akhmatova. I don’t suppose he ever danced his darkness away.

Most of us in the reading group have been trying to practice nonviolence for decades, standing for hours in slush and blazing sun, hoisting placards in witness against a long list of American wars. But every woman there believed that Ukraine had to defend itself—the only question was how that could possibly be achieved with nonviolence. We were powerless under the weight of our own study. I wasn’t the only one anxious to hear what Veronica, with her eyewitness knowledge, had to say. When it was her turn to speak, though, she cast her eyes down and remained silent. Zita said: “Ronnie?”

She looked up at that. “I prefer Veronica.”

Zita apologized and, after a long awkward pause, filled the void: “It’s Hitler and the Sudetenland all over again. I mean, the challenge to nonviolence we thought we were finished with.” That let loose a flood:

“We’ve had plenty of challenges. Syria? Burma?”

“Ethiopia. Yemen. The Uighurs!”

“Yes, but those weren’t invasions of sovereign countries.”

“Oh well then, let’s not worry about the Rohingya.”

“You know I didn’t mean––”

“The just-war boys in my department are all rattling their sabers. I don’t have the slightest idea how to refute them. Sanctions? Give me a break.”

For this session, we’d read a highly technical academic book on smart sanctions. Now, like our students, we left the text behind. We grew angrier than we’d been when we started. All the while Veronica sat, eyes cast down, silent and still. She’d made good contributions to the Zoom meetings: about the training that desensitizes combat pilots, the tonnage of bombs dropped in Iraq, the number of civilians killed. She never told us why she’d joined our reading group. It was entirely unclear whether she was distressed by her combat experiences or curious about nonviolence or eager to have her career choice ratified by our ineffectual gestures.

That afternoon at Zita’s was the only time I ever spoke to her in person, though I’d seen her in church and of course on Zoom, where she spoke with authority, her ruddy cheeks devoid of makeup or humor. A group of smart women reduced to sputtering shouldn’t have shut her down, so after we rose for a coffee break, I made a point of hanging back to say: “It’s so hard to know what to do.”

“Is it?”

She already had one arm in her coat sleeve and left without saying goodbye to anyone, including me.

 

When Sonny died, I hadn’t stepped foot in a church in twenty years. Not to get married, not while I was going through chemo, not when my husband left me. I expected no solace from a funeral Mass, but I had to say goodbye to Sonny. As the family waited on the steps of Our Lady of Mercy for the other mourners to be seated, my mother said: “He was never the same after Iraq.” This was the same woman who said he’d always been reckless, but short of running down the church steps screaming, I had no way to escape. I squeezed in the front row between her and Aunt Tildy, who’d taken a nip or two of Scotch to get through the Mass.

I twisted around to look for sympathetic faces, but the sparse mourners in the pews behind us looked like they too were avoiding their parole officers. I faced front again. When I was a child, I’d loved staring at the big crucifix above the altar, pondering Jesus’ acceptance of nakedness and torture. Now I could not raise my eyes. My mother’s contradictions echoed. Never the same. Always reckless.

Aunt Tildy trembled beside me, but she wouldn’t cry. I was the one who wept, before the Mass started and straight through to the final blessing. I could see Sonny’s dirt mustache clear as if he appeared in a PowerPoint slide projected on the altar. I watched him clamber down the low crumbling bank to the brown Greenglass. He honked at the bleating geese, unbuckled his grimy jeans, stripped naked. In the bright day I conjured, he was pale as moonbeams, wiry and perfect. Sonny, liberated from the one-room apartment, from classroom recitations: he was every man detained by the Indiana Department of Corrections, wading into the restless water. I began to sob with such abandon that my mother put her hand to my shoulder, but I shrugged her off, furious still.

I kept showing up—full of bemusement, resentment, and a generally bad attitude––but present, at least in the flesh.

 In the months after, I found myself wandering into Masses all over town until I found the Sisters. I don’t know what I was looking for and I don’t know what I found, except maybe those familiar gestures, that poetry punctuating the sermons. Then I kept showing up—full of bemusement, resentment, and a generally bad attitude––but present, at least in the flesh. Veronica showed up too, but after the blessing she was out the door like a shot, as if she were afraid someone would talk to her, as if she were afraid someone would say: It’s so hard to know what to do.

 

The priest who said Veronica’s funeral mass looked like a character out of Tolstoy, copious wires springing from his ears, large black mole painted mid-chin, white vestment hovering uneasily on his stooped back. When it was time for his sermon, he began: “Once we would have denied a suicide a requiem,” and because the congregants were used to provocations—the nuns chose which priests to invite—no one blinked. He pushed harder. We all knew it was a suicide, he said. It was no use pretending. It must have been his insistence that caused rustling in the pews.

It was another small gathering, studded with military uniforms. Only an ancient priest would ramble on like this about suicide in front of the family. That was when I realized Veronica’s daughter wasn’t sitting in the front row with her uncle: he was the only family member present, a civilian now in that pigeon-gray suit. From my oblique angle I could see his strange half-smile.

I panicked that the priest might want to explain why Veronica had killed herself, might list causes delivered incontrovertibly as the times tables. Rational reasons, as if there were any, to fly an SUV into the river. I was having more and more trouble making out his quavering voice: static buzzed in my left ear like electricity and in my right I heard different words entirely: Akhmatova’s “Requiem.” How long till execution? I didn’t feel removed from the scene, I felt submerged. How long, Lord? I felt again my mother’s hand on my shoulder. It weighed a thousand pounds. How long must I carry sorrow in my soul?

The static now droned in both ears. I rose and women all around me—women from the nonviolence reading group, women who taught at the college—turned in curiosity. I retreated with as much dignity as I could summon. As soon as I pushed open the back doors, I flew past the vestibule, through the parking lot, across the narrow roadway. The snow had melted away but still I slipped and slid my way down the bluff, the leaves underfoot slick with decay. A goose at river’s edge, hearing my clumsy descent, puffed himself out and hissed. I unbuttoned my peacoat and tossed it on a broken limb. The suffering in Ukraine was unfathomable. I wanted to pour Akhmatova down every Russian soldier’s ear. I wanted Putin to see what he had wrought. I wanted to drive through the bleak Indiana countryside to the prison. I wanted to see Sonny’s face and I wanted my mother to see it too.

From above I heard someone call. I twisted my ungainly body to see the woman with sensible oxfords who’d witnessed Veronica’s suicide, the stout woman––though, let’s get real, I am stouter still. I couldn’t make out a word but I could see her broad gestures, dramatic as my mother’s. I knew her, without her name, and she knew me.

But I hadn’t reached the bottom yet, and the river held a cold allure. How long till execution? On the placid surface of the Greenglass I saw a host of soulful Ukrainian faces born under the boot of the Russian empire, and there in front were my darlings: Ahkmatova, Babel, Bulgakov. Sonny, floating along behind them, winked in my direction and regarded my writers with wry forbearance.

Veronica’s eyes, above the steering wheel, focused on the river in her rearview. I heard myself moan, but it wasn’t enough to silence the sounds of dozens of stout bodies struggling down the riverbank. I didn’t need to twist around to know it was an army of women, come to rescue me.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 
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Valerie Sayers, Kenan Professor of English Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories and six novels.

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