He Died in the River by Ruth Z. Deming

Some names have been changed

A good man is dead. They found him in the river. I knew him. How long had he stood on the bridge before he jumped? What were his thoughts? Did anyone see him?

I met Vinnie by sheer chance. From my home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, I backed out of my drive, glancing at my yellow house, admiring the red poppies and green hostas, and drove off to Titusville, New Jersey, home of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, who would publish for free my mental health magazine, The Compass.

All I needed to do was find the damn place. I knew with near certainty I’d get lost. This is why I left at ten in the morning. I had told Ed Quispe, the Peruvian-born printer, I’d be there at one. Turning on the classical music station, I drove through the resort town of New Hope, where my late father had owned a legendary “head shop,” then crossed the clattering chain-link bridge into Lambertville, New Jersey, and drove down scenic River Road – Route 29 – following directions until, as always, I strayed onto a lonesome back road and stopped the car. I was lost.

I found myself in a little village of quiet houses right on the Delaware River. What a wonderful place to live, I thought. To have a view of water would be ecstasy. Of course, I was getting a bit anxious now since I was on a mission. Emerging from my little white Nissan, I stretched my legs and arms. I’d have to do the serious business of finding out where Janssen was. My notes read: 1125 Trenton-Harbourton Road. I’d been there four times before. What a beautiful campus it was, a little city, a gated community with countless security guards. Directly across the street was a farm, where cows peered from beyond the fence with their big soft eyes.

There must be someone to ask for directions.

It was sandal-wearing weather, so I walked rapidly down the street of pastel houses, feeling the cool breeze of the spring day, and watched for moving objects.

Was that a noise I heard? I saw a small white house which seemed to have another, smaller house, in front of it. I bravely walked up the sidewalk. A white-haired man was working in what must be his work shop. His back was toward me and I thought how easy it would be for a robber to grab him from behind. He was so vulnerable. I stood a moment and then said, “Hello?”

Vinnie dePasquale turned right around and smiled.

“I’m lost,” I said. “Can you tell me how to get to Janssen Pharmaceutical?”

“You’re not far,” he said.

I told him I had to be there at one and it was already 12:05.

“Oh, you’ll be there in no time. I’ll meet you in the house. Have a seat in the kitchen.”

The house was neat and tidy. It was as if I were a little girl, lost in a fairy tale, who had wandered into this perfect little house, with no wicked witch to gobble me up. In the entrance hall, a few of Vinnie’s shoes sat by the door and above that, hooks upon which his jackets, sweaters and caps hung. A strange feeling ran through me. It was as if I actually lived here. Did I detect a woman’s hand? Not at all. So, Vinnie was a bachelor. A man who appeared to be well into his sixties, about six years older than me. The pretty little cottage was fairly bursting with miniature lighthouses. I wandered about the living room looking at the collections on the shelves and mantelpiece. There were even lighthouses on the towels and potholders and cups in the kitchen.

When he joined me in the kitchen, he asked what I’d like to drink. He opened the refrigerator and I stood next to him, gazing inside. There was a carton of eggs, bacon, some leftover rotisserie chicken, and a carton of Tropicana orange juice

“Is that bottle of Diet Pepsi open?” I asked.

He pulled it out.

“I’ve always preferred Pepsi over Coke,” I said.

“Me, too,” he said. “It’s sweeter.”

I didn’t even have to ask him for ice. He knew.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked while sipping our Pepsis out of tall amber-colored plastic cups. He surprised me by saying he was married. His wife, Kathy, was in Arizona, visiting her daughter. No, he said, he didn’t particularly miss her, and, yes, all the lighthouses were hers. I told him about my Compass magazine, that we had articles by psychiatrists who I’d interviewed and one long story explaining genetics. People with depression and bipolar disorder, like I had, wrote articles on their condition and what helped them manage it.

“Best of all,” I said, “we have a section called ‘The Purple Pages’ – Janssen uses lavender paper for us – and it’s filled with poetry.”

As we sat together at the table, I heard the loud ticking of the clock and looked up at it.

“You’ll leave at twenty of,” he said. “It’s right up the road.”

He wrote down my name and phone number and said he’d be in touch.

Then, in the course of my busy life, as director of New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones, I forgot all about Vinnie.

A couple of weeks later the phone rang. “diPasquale” read the Caller ID. My heart quickened. He’d remembered me. As is my habit, I took the phone outside and walked up and down my street while talking to him.

“When my wife’s not home,” he told me, “I’d like you to come down and visit again.”

“Vin,” I said. “I’d like to. But I’ve gotta tell you one thing. I… I’m not going to be your girlfriend.”

He laughed.

He treated me like a queen when I drove back to his sleepy little village. That strange feeling came upon me again as if I’d known the man all my life, that we were old buddies. He drove me to a nice restaurant, his car crunching on the red gravel in the parking lot. Inside, he told me to order anything I wanted. He suggested the trout almandine, which was delicious.

Afterward, since it was Friday night, we met his friends at a bar. The place was packed and I could barely hear what people were saying at the bar. Mostly, I just sat and nodded my head, taking occasional sips of my Seven-Up. His friends made conversation with me but even when I stood up and went over to hear them, I was stone deaf with all the chatter and music in the background.

Vinnie saw me yawning and suggested we call it a night.

He invited me to sleep over but I said I hadn’t brought my pills with me and I would leave right now and drive home.

A couple of weeks later I was back again.

In my traveling bag, I not only brought my medication and a book for night-time reading, but also my bathing suit. Vinnie had told me we’d swim in the river. He loaded me up with a couple of thick towels and gave me a pair of little white plastic beach shoes to wear in the water.

To get into the river, we walked down a couple flights of wooden stairs. He showed me the mark on the railing where the Delaware had flooded the year before. I pictured him as an old sea captain out of a novel by Melville.

Together, we waded into the swiftly moving currents. Despite my little white beach shoes, the rocks and pebbles stung my feet.

The water was freezing cold. Swimmer that I am, I breast-stroked quickly through the rolling brown water, gradually warming up, then swimming back and forth for twenty minutes or so. I couldn’t believe my luck, actually swimming in the Delaware.

Vinnie looked good in the water, with his trim body, silver hair plastered on his chest, and silver mustache. After we swam, we hung onto a canoe, kicked our legs to stay warm and talked. He told me he wished I could come down for the fireworks on Independence Day. We’d sit on his front porch and watch their thunderous explosions over the Delaware.

As we swam back and forth around the canoe, I learned more about this retired steelworker who had worked at the old Fairless Hills steel mill. After we walked back to his house, he showed me lots of photos, stored in his work shop, from his days as a foreman at the mill. Because my late father had been a businessman his whole life, who hired people to come out to the house to fix things, I’ve always admired men who can make things work with their hands.

I told him my big Jewish family – we’re originally from Cleveland – had taken a vacation to Detroit. My parents and my four little sisters had piled into the Ford Country Squire and drove up to “The Motor City.”  On our itinerary was visiting a steel foundry.

“Vincent, you do not know the meaning of ‘hot’ until you walk into that place. You think you’re gonna catch on fire.”

“I know, I know,” he laughed, holding a color photo of himself and his men, lined up like in a classroom picture.

“When I worked, goggles were mandatory,” he said, tapping his eyeglasses. “You also wear special gear to protect you from the heat and the sparks. OSHA regs,” he said. And, yes, he admitted he and his buddies had gotten singed and burned many a time and sent to the infirmary.

When night arrived, we sat outside on his front porch. A dozen steps made it rise above the street. We listened to the sounds of the night, the crickets and cicadas, and watched the flashing fireflies as they seemingly competed with the glittering stars overhead. I had my Diet Pepsi on a little table beside me, while Vinnie was sipping on a beer. After a while, his neighbors got wind of us and half a dozen came over to chat, some sitting on the stairs, others on the wicker chairs on the porch. They asked about me and how we met. I let Vinnie tell the story. One man asked if I were going to be his girlfriend.

“Nah,” I said. “Just a friend. A good friend.”

The man seemed disappointed.

We must have sat out there until two or three in the morning. I refused to look at my watch. I can’t bear the passage of time, for I know where it leads to. The five inescapable letters that drive us onward.

Vinnie walked me upstairs to the spare bedroom with its twin beds. The blinds were drawn, but I peeked out to get my bearings. The Delaware River was glimmering under the stars.

“You sure you don’t want me to join you?” he asked.

“Positive,” I said. “But I like you and I’m flattered you asked,” I said, knowing how hollow the words sounded. He’d told me previously that he and his wife didn’t see eye to eye but there was no way he’d ever divorce her. The bedspreads had a feminine floral pattern and the pillows were enclosed inside a floral coverlet. Someone had taken great care to make the room homey.

I asked how to turn the reading lamp on and off. No matter how late it is when I fall into bed, I always read at least a page until the words swim before my eyes and dreams overtake me. We said goodnight. I slipped into the cold sheets and drew the lightweight blanket over me. Was it right to be sleeping in the house of a married man? It felt strange. The whole neighborhood knew, and I decided never to do it again.

Vinnie told me later that when his wife came home, she had searched my bed, looking for signs of co-habitation.

When I awoke the next morning, I smelled bacon. Sure enough, Vinnie had a full-course breakfast ready for me. Scrambled eggs, bacon, buttered English muffin and a large glass of Tropicana OJ.

Did we hug goodbye? I honestly can’t remember, but, knowing me, I probably just stuck out my hand to shake his.

Over the next few years our relationship stayed strong. Vinnie would call me and I’d take the phone outside and wander around my tree-filled back yard and listen to him tell me things he never told another soul. I am a psychotherapist, after all, and sometimes I think I have a mark on my forehead reading: Tell me your secrets.

He told me about his growing up years far from Titusville, about his relationships with women, his years on the job, his retirement and his passion for American history. Today, some twenty years later, I can’t remember a single word he said. All that good talk, swallowed like buried treasure on the bottom of the sea.

When he next called me, it was to say his daughter, Michele, by a prior relationship, was getting married to an architect.

His voice simply oozed pride and love.

Shortly thereafter, our relationship was over. I ended it. I’d called him one time and the dreaded wife answered the phone. I tried to be friendly but her voice was like an icicle drilling into my forehead. I’d gotten into the habit of sending postcards, innocuous missives, which I often ended with “Say hi to Kathy for me.”

Vinnie was excised from my life. And forgotten.

So it was quite a shock when, a decade later, I received an email from his daughter Michele in May of 2014. Somehow, she knew I’d been one of his friends and told me, in her brief email, he’d been missing for nearly a week. We emailed back and forth. I suggested perhaps he had early dementia and had wandered off. But, no, she said. Alcohol had been a problem, on and off, for years. Alcohol is a depressant. Makes you see life through a glass darkly. You hate yourself and your life. Think you’re a failure.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” I wrote Michele, “but might he have jumped into the river?”

I had a picture in mind of a bridge that Vinnie and I had walked across. A manic-depressive like myself always thinks of jumping to her death from a bridge she’s walking or driving over.

We don’t know how long he stood there. We don’t know what he was thinking. We don’t know if he planned it or if it was spontaneous. When the “missing man” article appeared in the local Jersey paper, it said he was five-feet four, 72 years old, with hazel eyes. A photo showed a smiling man in glasses and a plaid shirt. That was my Vinnie, all right.

The arms of the river received this good man. It swept him away. His body ran with the currents, his thin hair streaming behind him, his eyes open but seeing nothing, visible only to the fishes and the hawks high above. He was a fisherman and a lover of the sea.  He had sat on the front porch of his Titusville home nearly every day of his life, gazing into the mystery of that sea. This would be the kind of death that made sense to him. No one knows the reason why, nor shall they ever know. No one, that is, but the river. She knows all.

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About the Author:  Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes poetry, nonfiction and fiction from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry has been published in journals including Metazen, River Poets, Bellowing Ark and Innisfree.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ray’s Road Review, Haggard and Halloo, Creative Nonfiction and Writing Disorder. A mental health advocate, she is director of New Directions Support Group of Abington, PA, for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.