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.
He then

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
(half-lifted

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
and pulls

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,
the Potomac

doubles as a morgue—it lacks liquidity.) The helicopter pilot and paramedic search
repeatedly

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
written on

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
quickly morphed

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
violently

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
for death,

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
calculation.”

He was “the best we can do,” as one journalist will describe him. All of Washington
was submerged,

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
anyone with

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,”
“Recovered Friday.”

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
switching parties

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
for hope.

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”
them from

a struggling costume store. (The car, too, is pinched.) Posing as a man of faith,
a professional,

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
a derangement

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
on replay.

The coffee remakes itself; it’s as fresh as formaldehyde and smells nearly as clean.
The carpet begs to be

dissected.
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,
the Vixen

Break, the Section High-Alpha Pass. What he can do with grief! Picture taffy in the sky,
reason bending

into faith. The man could sell P.T. Barnum the afterlife! The reverend ushers mourners
out into

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.
He did.”


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