Standing in six inches of the summered Rogue River, outside Grants Pass, Oregon, I listen to my best friend, Tim, argue with his girlfriend about squirrels and the plague while a boy in red trunks gingerly enters the water next to us—“We shot every damn squirrel on our farm,” Tim’s girl says—and in my periphery, a silver flash catches my eye, and I swing around to see a flat-topped teenager in a black shirt level a shiny revolver at the still-dry chest of the nearby, red-suited boy.
Without prompt I feel my leap into the water, and I watch the green-brown murk swirl for what feels like a minute before I lift my eyes above the surface and take it in: the teenager still aiming the gun, curse-screaming, shaking the barrel left and right. And the targeted boy, near death, shins deep in the cold water, stares straight-faced calm into the firearm. It’s all wrong, and I want to yell at the boy, to tell him to take this seriously; I want him as scared as I am of bullets in the afternoon; to respect fear, as I had learned to do as a boy his age, and yet he stands there under the summer sun, blinking into obscurity. The first shot sends me back below the water, and this time I keep my eyes closed and feel the river’s current on my face, my throbbing neck, and through the porthole of my oxygen-deprived mind I relive my red-eyed father at the edge of my mother’s deathbed, beckoning me to touch her. Convulsing for air as I crest the surface, I see the gunman and victim both standing, both whole. Somewhere, a bullet hurls its way toward the Pacific. I feel Tim’s girl press up behind me as the soft white smoke from the gun dissolves into the sky. Suddenly, the gunman turns and dashes to his idling car—a brown Geo Metro, California plates—and spins out, fires another shot into the air, and disappears. As the river-goers emerge from their feeble hiding places no one approaches the boy in the river, who opens his mouth and slowly touches his stomach and swimsuit-covered hips. We half surround him from afar and shake our heads, but no one goes near, no one asks if he’s okay, no one questions what all of that was about, until someone says, “Will he come back?” and the boy says, “Yes.” And then he sits in the shallows like a bathing child and cups the river water to his face.
I beg Tim to drive faster, and he does. We screech up to the first payphone we see and I dial 9-1-1. I give it to the operator as fast as I can: revolver, shots, swimming hole, boy still there, brown Geo Metro, California, 5’6’’, flattop, coming back, death, help, now, help. The operator thanks me, but there’s something in her voice that isn’t catching all of this, so I ask if the sherriff is on his way and she says no, they don’t have enough people to respond to every emergency.
“The gunman will come back!”
“I’m sorry,” the operator responds, “Yours is not an emergency.”
I picture the boy sitting, playing in the water, alone at the deserted swimming hole, as the brown car pulls back up to finish the job.
“This is insane. You can’t be serious,” I say, and slam the receiver down after the reply.
On the winding drive back into town we’re all silent. Tim keeps it under the speed limit, and the wind blows our hair through the open windows. I try to calm myself, and I look at the rocky hills and old, run-down houses that flash by. I realize that this is the first time I’ve dialed 9-1-1. I think of times when I didn’t:
when my mother’s dialysis machine broke open halfway through a blood cycle, and I saw her dark blood on the tan carpet, so I ran to the kitchen and called the manufacturer of the machine because I was twelve and didn’t know better.
after I cut out holes in tennis balls and stuck them onto the feet of her walker so she could slide it on the kitchen floor, but she slipped and fell hard because I cut through worn, slick tennis balls, instead of newly opened neon felt.
when my father asked me to rise from my hospital chair and come touch my dead mother “because it’s just skin son, a shell” and I looked at my young hands and I couldn’t get my legs to work and I knew I was going to need help doing anything from then on.
Outside Tim’s neighborhood, he swerves the car to avoid a suicidal squirrel and his girlfriend brings up the plague again, how some idiots let the little devils eat from their hands, and she pantomimes getting bit after trying to feed a nasty plague carrier. Even after the act, her hands rattle in her lap. She reaches for the radio, but pulls back. Tim leans his head back on the driver’s headrest and the car quiets again, as silent as the phone line after my mother’s death, when I asked Tim to tell my teachers I wouldn’t be in the next day.
As we round onto Tim’s street, we pass a police car, lights off, patrolling the safe avenue, and I can’t help but wonder what he’s waiting for, what would get him to flick on the siren and fly to the rescue. A mother’s eyes closing for the last time? A 17 year-old boy bowed in grief and loss? I wonder where he’s driving as he heads east, away from the dusty swimming hole, and if he’ll be the one that’s forced to call in the divers to scrape the Rogue for the boy we left alone.