Three people stood on the south bank of the Bitter River. Two of them, a petite woman and a stocky man, had stationed themselves near the water but the third, an older and even bigger man in a long black overcoat and a brown flat-brimmed sheriff’s hat, was positioned halfway up the steep slope, a spot that granted him a more generous perspective. All three looked anxious, uncomfortable, as if they weren’t quite certain what to do or how to be. Motion was their preferred state, action was how they defined themselves, and this interval—this standing and waiting—was unusual. It made them feel clumsy, pointless. Their arms flared out slightly from the sides of their bodies, hands retracted into fists that they held next to their thighs. Each wore a pair of dusty black boots. Their feet were spread a little wider apart than normal, to help them keep their balance on the riverbank.
It was a cold, dry Thursday morning in early March. The occasional cloud sliding by was difficult to distinguish from the sky surrounding it; both were flat and gray and featureless. Here on the ground, though, there was a sharp-edged clarity to things, as if the shapes had been carefully traced and then cut out with a new pair of scissors and arranged for maximum dramatic effect.
The call had come in just after sunrise, when a passerby spotted what would prove to be the roof of a car in the river. As she moved closer, the caller said, she had noticed the rhyming ruts leading to the water’s edge. It wasn’t unusual to glimpse junk dumped in the river—tires, old washing machines, and beer cans led all categories—but when the object was big, as big, possibly, as a car, people liked to have the law check it out. The investigation had been delayed until Leroy Perkins could get here with his rig.
Right now, Leroy was up to his biceps in the greenish-black water, cursing in a low continuous mutter—his mutter seemed to mimic the river’s steady rustle—as he tried to attach the big rusty hook under any part of the car. The hook bounced and joggled at the end of a greasy black cable. The cable stretched its way to a winch on Leroy’s truck, which he had backed down the riverbank as far as he could safely go. The truck was pale blue and on the driver’s-side door, in flaking white letters, were painted the words LP TOWING HAULING & SALVAGE, and on the next line ACKER’S GAP WV.
The river wasn’t forbiddingly deep here. The current was more of a frisky scallop than the thunderous wallop that would come later, after the water had twisted around the mountain and picked up speed on its way to the mighty Ohio. There was no real danger. But retrieving the vehicle was proving to be a tedious and cumbersome task, and Leroy was ticked off.
“Damnation,” he sputtered. He was a big-nosed, medium-sized man, compact and balding, with a horseshoe of curly gray hair that looked as if it had been perched on his ears like a commemorative wreath. His denim coveralls were permanently stained with grease and muck, and his thigh-high rubber wading boots—not currently visible, submerged as they were beneath the viscous liquid constituting the Bitter River—were dark green, with a thin line of yellow piping around the tops.
“Damnation,” he repeated, grabbing at the hook, having missed the back bumper yet again. He had meaty, callused hands that clearly had done this sort of thing many times before. “I’m tellin’ you, Nick,” he complained, “this ain’t as easy as it looks.”
Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the big man in the long black coat standing higher on the riverbank, nodded. “I hear you, Leroy,” he said.
Greg Greenough, one of the two deputies, turned and looked up at the sheriff. His expression spoke for itself: Maybe give him a hand?
Fogelsong shook his head. No. Leroy was the professional. The sheriff didn’t want his personnel interfering. One slip of that winch, one errant swing of that big hook, and Deputy Greenough’s head would open up like a melon dropped on a sidewalk. The sheriff had seen it happen before. Twenty years ago, as a young deputy loaned out temporarily to another county, Fogelsong had investigated a felonious assault allegedly perpetrated on a coal barge, and while he was ambling around the deck, kicking at coils of rope and kneeling down to run a thumb across motley stains on the pitted wood, he watched a six-year-old kid—the son of the barge owner—get his scalp ripped off when he blundered into the path of a swinging hook. Everybody was sorry, everybody felt terrible about it, but those torrents of emotion and regret couldn’t bring back Chauncey Simms, who had bled out in minutes, his small body twitching on the deck like a caught fish.
That was the kid’s name. The sheriff hadn’t realized until now that he still remembered the name, all these years later. Seeing the big hook had jarred it loose from his memory.
He wondered what the boy’s father had done with his grief and his guilt—and his love for his boy. Where had he put them? Had he carted them around with him, all these years, like extra cargo on the barge? Or had he been able to unload them somewhere along the way?
“Hold up, hold up,” Leroy called out. Groping under the water, he’d come to the open window on the driver’s side, and that was when his probing fingers had encountered something. Something that didn’t feel like part of a car.
Fogelsong shoved his memories aside and bucked forward, almost toppling on the sharp-angled bank; he’d momentarily forgotten where he was. He righted himself and kept going. Greenough and the other deputy, Pam Harrison, let him pass and enter the water first, then followed right behind.
“Just a sec,” Leroy said. “Lemme get this out of the way,” he added, meaning the big hook. He backpedaled, securing the hook between his hands for safekeeping, and gave the sheriff a clear lane to that side of the car.
“Shoulda brought your hip waders,” Leroy lectured amiably, watching the water fill in around Fogelsong’s churning knees and then his hips and his waist and his chest as the sheriff moved forward, his big black coat spreading out around him like a water lily.
Fogelsong didn’t answer. He was reaching under the river’s surface, feeling for whatever had caught Leroy’s attention. He couldn’t see his own hands—the water was alarmingly cold and dark, the start of the massive spring runoff from the mountains—and he was aware of the spongy river bottom below, sucking at his boots.
He located the window frame. Let his fingers inch hurriedly around the curve, like a blind man trying to read a face. He reached in.
And then he found it. He waited a second or so, to let the human being part of him register the shock before the sheriff part of him—the professional part—kicked in.
Instantly, he knew what it was.
And he wished like hell that he had access to something more profound in his inventory of verbal responses. A poem, maybe. Or a line from a hymn. Something dignified. Something commensurate with the enormity of what he’d now be forced to reckon with.
As it was, he said the first word that came to mind.
Copyright © 2013 by Julia Keller
JULIA KELLER spent twelve years as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune, where she won a Pulitzer Prize. A recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, she was born in West Virginia and lives in Chicago and Ohio. Bitter River is her second adult novel.