by Ralph James Savarese
1. The Man in the Water
It never seems more than a few days before the contention, the bickering, the tugging at the idol begins.
—Washington Post editorial
Amidst the haze of falling snow and failing light, only the tail of the 737 is visible
above the waterline.
An elderly gentleman, a bank examiner, helps a woman to tie a rope around her waist.
courteously passes it, once the helicopter has returned, to a fellow survivor. This
passenger, the pilot
will later report, “seemed the most alert.” After three of the five have been rescued
from, half-pulled across the shattered ice), the man points to another woman who has
swum away from
the bobbing tail. Like a mother seal protecting its infant cub, the helicopter follows
her to safety as well. When, at last, it is his turn to be extricated, the bank examiner
has disappeared into
the river’s vault, into one of its many safe deposit boxes. (In winter, under Reagan,
doubles as a morgue—it lacks liquidity.) The helicopter pilot and paramedic search
for the man. “We looked in the water,” the latter will say, “in the wreck, everywhere,
but he was gone….
The people who were saved owe their lives to him.” The debt might as well be
their lungs, for breath itself is a predatory loan.
To skip the snow fantastic—that’s
what the passengers
of Air Florida Flight 90 wanted. A little sun, a little surf…. Because takeoff so
into landing, because the sky so quickly became a bridge and then a body
of water, they
did not receive their formal summoning—the way the hero does in Everyman,
that quaint 15th-century
morality play. Or the way I did once on final approach to Warsaw when the jet shook
in a thunderstorm. The flight attendant said, “Make sure your seat-backs and tray-
tables are in
their fully uptight and locked position. You’ll be in the ground shortly.” Unprepared
the survivors were unprepared for wild generosity. The bank examiner wasn’t counting
assets. He wasn’t determining
risk. No, he had renounced what that German duo called “the icy waters of egotistical
He was “the best we can do,” as one journalist will describe him. All of Washington
and he was rescuing us from our own insolvency. Days pass. I cling to the story,
as to an inflatable raft
or to the very cross of Christ—until, that is, the divers go to work and they can’t find
water in their lungs. Surely but surely, the dead are raised—I drive down to watch.
The paper keeps
track of the salvage operation: “Recovered Wednesday,” “Recovered Thursday,”
I can almost see Lazarus unwrapping that pun. The light is a haughty pathologist who
takes pride in
her accomplishments. The first fifty perished from blunt force trauma. Like a politician
to win an election, the city turns on the phantom do-gooder. Our Johnny-on-the-spot
is now an
illusion akin to what the dying see at the end of life. “Yet what about the pilot and
paramedic?” someone asks.
Well, they were mistaken. Even if the “Man in the Water” did exist, he was too
hypothermic to think
clearly, too dazed to be given credit for what he did. The skeptics are like sloth bears
who eat their
young not twenty minutes after birthing them. Eventually, a suitable candidate emerges
from the murk,
but he has a beard. The “Man in the Water” did not have a beard. Then others are lifted
from the Potomac, and
the experts alight on a bank examiner from Atlanta. How odd to look to the drowned
2. The Convict-Priest
He has a history of showing up at disaster scenes. He gains the confidence of the relatives and later burglarizes their houses.
–Police officer quoted in the Washington Post
Upon hearing of the crash, having already decamped from a prison in Danbury, CT,
he drives down
to D.C. and rents a cassock and collar. I say “rents,” but what I really mean is “pilfers”
a struggling costume store. (The car, too, is pinched.) Posing as a man of faith,
someone well-versed in the predicament of the drowned, he will set up shop at a hotel
where the relatives
of the un-aired have gathered. The lobby has become a small chapel—no, more like
park or carnival. The check-in lady sells tickets while the bellhops push mourners
around on luggage
carts. Wailing goes wide in the end zone and drops a pass over and over—football is
The coffee remakes itself; it’s as fresh as formaldehyde and smells nearly as clean.
The carpet begs to be
When the convict-cum-reverend arrives, Mary and Martha demand to
know why he didn’t appear
earlier. It’s been two days since a giant loon took a nap on the floor of the Potomac;
their brother is
inside. They need the reverend to wake it. To them, his arms—and cross—look like
cranes. “The soul
is a simple balloon,” he says. “A child walks on the beach and mistakenly releases it.
Do not grieve;
watch it soar into the atmosphere. Its string is the scribbling hand of God.” His words
are like little
white pills or a fresh coat of paint in hell—he is the Willy Loman of the limbic system,
the Martha Stuart
of less-than-optimal interiors. The man is fake, but his words are not, or, rather, his
words are fake,
but their effect is not. Martha and Mary and Joan and Jill are moved. The reverend has
his own runway
now, and he gathers speed. It is like being at a Blue Angels show: the Double Farvel,
Break, the Section High-Alpha Pass. What he can do with grief! Picture taffy in the sky,
into faith. The man could sell P.T. Barnum the afterlife! The reverend ushers mourners
the hotel parking lot. “Behold the river,” he says. “Sometimes the saddest dead are like
geese. Flapping and
flapping, they struggle to rise, but they do—eventually. Can you see them?” he asks.
“There’s one over
there. Her wings are still wet.” Below, of course, the passengers remain in their seats,
as obedient as
ever—the loon hasn’t yet taxied to the gate. (“A little longer, folks. There’s some
congestion on the river
bottom.”) That evening, the reverend appears on television: Nightline with Ted Koppel.
He has the slick,
metallic skin of an airborne eel. His warden recognizes him, sends out an APB,
at which point
he is apprehended—like a dog in a neighboring town or a prayer spoken aloud. The
former is put back in
its pen; the latter, its mouth. The point of this parable? If it flies, it’s false. (The framers,
after all, owned
slaves; the husband or wife commits adultery….) And yet, when asked about the eloquent
impostor, Joan will
say, brought low by material fact yet nevertheless insistent, “The guy really helped me.
RALPH JAMES SAVARESE is the author of two books of prose. He has published poems and essays in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ploughshares, Fourth GenreRattle, Seneca Review, Sewanee Review, Southwest Review, and other places. He lives in Iowa.
Photo: “Lake Jigsaw” by John W. Iwanski