Emerging Writers. The River, by Angela Rieck.
Editor’s Note. The River, take two. Written last year as the first chapter of a novel by the same name, Angela Rieck has completed writing her book. Earlier this year, Angela talked about her process, including changes made to her original first chapter, in her post The River—Back Story. Here is the revised story—so you will be ready for more that will follow.
The River. Chapter 1.
The rhythmic grumbling of the powerboat motor disrupted the stillness in the air. Its sound lingered, suspended in the heavy, late April morning atmosphere. The humidity forecast a hot and sticky day, a day that they called “close” on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
The blue-gray river wound leisurely around the green patches of cattails emerging on its sandy banks. The cloudless, pastel blue sky was motionless except for a lone osprey circling overhead. Another soft, lazy day on the Miles River.
“Look, look, there are menhaden! Can you see that churning in the river over there? Do you see the little silver fish flashing? Those are the menhaden. And do you know what that means?”
“Not exactly,” said Rachel knowing that any response was irrelevant.
“It means that the river is warm enough for the crabs to begin their migration from Chesapeake Bay. The crabs will be here this week; they might even be here now!” James excitedly pointed to a tumultuous three-foot diameter circle on the river. “Those are the menhaden. The English called them alewives.” He proclaimed with a wide grin. He slowed the power boat to allow Rachel to see the circle of thrashing and splashing tiny silver fish that resembled sardines.
‘Oh, joy,’ thought Rachel sarcastically, instead she gave James a smile, grateful that her designer sunglasses hid her expression. She returned her gaze to the flat monotonous river and glanced at the McMansions that usurped its shoreline. The houses looked the same; grand and crisply painted, featuring long docks with shiny white sailboats and motorboats, swimming pools, gazebos, gardens, anything broadcasting wealth. She tried to calculate how many homeless could have been fed from the money spent on the gazebos alone.
“Let’s put the crab pots out when we get back,” announced a smiling James.
“Sure.” She tried to sound interested, not that it mattered, James was too excited to notice her feelings. Her gaze hadn’t left the muddy gray river as she watched the early morning rays glitter on the tiny waves.
A briny smell started to circulate into the warm, thick air, signaling that they were nearing the Chesapeake Bay, getting closer to their Tapper’s Island destination. The scent of salt-water did not break up the tedious landscape, still the same marshy grass, occasional sandy shoreline and woodlands edging the dull gray river.
“Look, there’s another one, do you see it? See the silver flashes churning in the river? Those are the menhaden!” James pronounced proudly as he pointed to another patch of turbulent water.
“Oh, sure, I see it.” But she didn’t even turn her head to the direction he was pointing. Just another endless, nondescript day on the river.
“Well, summer is officially here!” he proclaimed triumphantly. “Don’t you just love it?” James could not contain his pleasure at the prospect of the rivers teeming with rockfish, bluefish, perch; but mostly crabs. He hadn’t noticed that the anticipated summer bounty held no joy for her. “I’ll get some salted eel and chicken necks at the store next to the dock.”
Yes, she thought, these creatures prefer eel or chicken necks to what they are eating now, does he even think about what he is saying? “Sounds good,” she said aloud; she knew that he was too captivated to notice her. And restaurant, hardly, it was a dive where people got eggs and scrapple and for dessert, dry Smith Island cakes thickly layered with white, Crisco, sugary icing. To James, this was living; to her it was a purgatory.
Rachel could not believe that her life had come to this. Sixteen years ago, she met James at a club in NYC, when they were just starting their lives. James was an investment banker in a prominent firm, she was a social media consultant for a group of clubs. James was her ticket. She knew it the moment she met him. She was from Short Hills, NJ and she could smell success. And James had that smell all over him. They quickly fell in love with each other and with the rich, NYC life. They moved to the Meat Packing District before it was cool and enjoyed all of the fantastic things that NYC had to offer.
James had been candid from the beginning. He was going to make his money on Wall Street, retire at 40 and return to the Eastern Shore, where he had grown up. He was going to buy a house on the Miles River, not the Choptank, not the Wye, but the Miles. Because to James, that was the best river. She had agreed because she didn’t think that he would actually do it.
So she was surprised when, at his 40th birthday party, he leaned over and whispered to her. “I am ready.” She thought that he had been swept away by the richness of New York City; but he had kept his promise to make them rich and now it was her turn to keep hers.
“It will be great,” he said. “You can write the great American novel and we can start a family. I’m going to apply for a job as a ranger with the Division of Natural Resources, and I’ll get to spend my days on the river, keeping poachers and cheaters from stealing from my Chesapeake Bay. Next weekend, we’ll look for houses.”
“I never knew that I wanted to write the Great American Novel, nor can I remember our discussing having children,” but, back then, her tone was curious, not surly.
“Well, you’ll find something to do, you are so creative and so much fun, you can find fun anywhere.”
He was right, of course, she had a knack for making things happen, she threw the most interesting parties, met the most interesting people, she would be able to charm the Eastern Shore the way she had sliced through Manhattan. So she agreed, in principle, still hoping that it wouldn’t happen.
But it did. And now she was trapped on the Eastern Shore, disgusted by the gun culture, dismayed by the absence of intellectual curiosity and completely bored with the tedious conversations about tides and crabs and weather. All they cared about were crabs in the summer and oysters in the “R” months. And drinkin’ beer and huntin’ and fishin’ (because that is how they talked) for rockfish (which were really striped bass). And just being on the river…she never understood the lure of that thick, muddy gray waterway, where she could only see a couple of inches below the surface. The sunsets were stunning, but really, sunsets vs. culture and excitement, not even close.
But she kept her promise, which was why this Sunday morning they were headed to Tapper’s Island to some dive to eat a greasy breakfast with his best friend, Dale, and Dale’s asshole wife, Shari. And he and Dale and Shari were going to spend the hour talking about the weather and the tides and the crabs, always the crabs, and Rachel would sit there with a wan smile and no one would care.
She had an open mind when she moved here, she really did. She thought that she could find peace in the banality of this world. Certainly James had never been happier. But she couldn’t relate—to the people, to the river, or to the culture. The locals took pride in their ignorance, dismissing climate change while complaining about the retreating shore lines. (“Those liberals want to tell us it is global warming, hell, it is just erosion, dumbasses.”) And their hick accents and silly words…bass are rockfish, jimmies are male crabs, sooks are female crabs, it went on and on. To them, a foreign film was a Mission Impossible movie set in a foreign country. No clubs, no theater, no culture, just the boring river and endless flat landscape, scarcely relieved by woodlands and green rows of farm crops. And James was now Jimmy, and his friends sniggered when she defiantly called him James.
“I’m going to bait the crab pots first thing when we get back. I’ll bet we will have crabs for supper.” He glanced at Rachel. “Don’t worry, Rach’; I’ll do it, you won’t have to get your clothes dirty.” He turned his head to skillfully steer the boat, his tanned face radiating pure happiness at the helm. His short, curly light-brown hair hidden by his now ubiquitous baseball cap; his body lean and tanned. His handsome, Kennedy-esque face relaxed and healthy.
Rachel stared ahead. Supper, when did that become a word? And who wants to cook crabs, listening to their struggle to escape while they are being steamed to death? No, Rachel wanted her meat in nice containers far away from its original inhabitants. She returned her gaze to the houses, listening to the whining of the engine, staring at a landscape devoid of people, culture and life.
Out of nowhere, five boats appeared in the distance, skimming the river at breakneck speed; all the same, carrying uniformed people. Two of the boats carried single passengers who appeared to have hoods over their heads. In an instant, the boats turned and disappeared into a cove.
“What was that?” Rachel asked, for the first time interested in her journey.
“Oh, it’s a CIA safe house.” James said blandly, staring straight at the river with an inscrutable expression. He didn’t look at her, just continued to navigate the boat through the wake.
She turned and stared at James, but he didn’t change his expression as he slowly negotiated the small wake, his eyes fixed on their destination. Was there was something about his tone? Bits of divergent information began coming together. How he had insisted that they keep a gun in the house and that she learn to fire it; even though he knew her disdain for weapons. How his friends were surprised at how quickly he secured a coveted job. How swiftly he was able to move from NYC. How he occasionally went out overnight, telling her that he had to lie in wait for poachers. James remained expressionless as he maneuvered the boat into the slip on the Tapper’s Island wharf. Was he hiding something or contemplating the best bait for crabs? She didn’t ask; she could no longer trust the answer.
She returned her gaze to the river, but the river had changed. And this time she saw the menhaden, the circle of silver fish churning in the river, serving up a tiny clue about the river’s secrets.