The lethargic river drew children like a porch light sucks in bugs on a humid summer night. We knew the rule that no one played near the water, but sometimes kids have no clue. Besides, if we were extra careful who would know?
The remnants of the dam left by a mill that vanished generations before created some of the best fishing. The moss-covered cornerstone boulders placed prominently between land and water beckoned us, and a short climb down the brier-infested bank gave us a vantage point. No spot along the winding creek that drained the valley could compare to big-league river fishing.
The downriver side of the dam spewed roiling cauldrons of frothy water. Anything we dropped into those whirlpools disappeared. Mark, the wisest among us with his two extra years in fifth grade, told us about the passage under the river bed that carried water miles downstream beyond our line of sight. We believed him. No one had evidence to the contrary.
Our familiarity with the river washed away our trepidation. We’d caught barrels of fish and twittered away carefree hours. Life on the rocks was good.
The mine reopened and dozens of dads returned to work. New kids joined our classroom as a fresh load of hopeful families arrived to build a future. Jessie’s family crammed ten kids into three bedrooms. His well-worn clothes had covered his older brothers long before Jessie got his turn. We became friends. His last name, one letter ahead of mine, put his desk in front of mine in our classroom. My family was only slightly better off with a few less bodies in our home, but that sort of judging was years off for kids who rode the bus into town.
As the school year oozed like chilled molasses toward June’s freedom Jessie and I passed our lunch period under the shade tree behind the slicky-slide. We talked about fishing, and Jessie confided that he often went to the boulders after school. Most of us tossed our fish back, but Jessie’s catch added cheer to his family’s dinner table.
The news about Jessie left my insides hollow, and his empty desk sucked the happy out of me. Mrs. Shank, sympathetic to my grief and wrestling with her own, rearranged the classroom. I helped Cecil the janitor carry the desk to the storage room.
I’ll never know what happened. Was Jessie fishing on the downstream side of the dam? Did he hook one of those man-sized catfish rumored to live there? Were his worn-out tennis shoes a bad mix with slick rocks, or had he forgotten to be careful?
The volunteers from the rescue squad found him, not miles away, but tucked under the largest boulder.
I guess the river knew he was a good guy and tried to toss him back.