On the River  by Anna Marie Laforest


     Cobwebs between the side-bars of the car ferry glistened from the sun that followed a soft rain, and the metal floor of the barge felt slippery to the drivers who were sensitive to their tires, those not distracted by their various rush-hour news or music devices.  Sheila put her car in neutral and pulled up the hand brake.  She was in the left lane of cars, those who would be let off last when they got to the other side.   Oblivious to the melee of sounds coming from open windows on three sides, Sheila stared through the wet webs between the bars at eye level and out beyond to the grey-green water.  She felt like she was in a floating box.


     Streams of bubbles in little lines created by the lazy ferry engine popped, and sent the dank smell of southern river water to her nose.  She unfastened her seat belt in case – God forbid - the barge should tip over in a freak accident.  She had heard that the river was only 10 feet deep at its middle, but still, she wouldn’t want to be pinned in a seatbelt if she needed to climb out and stand on top of her car until help arrived.   


     Well, she had an overactive imagination, Sheila knew that, her husband mentioned it often enough.  Let’s see, what sorts of other mischief, short of tipping over, could the barge get into before they  reached the other side.  The ferryman knocked on her passenger window for the fare, and Sheila had to put the key into the ignition to roll it down.  The man’s arms were leathery in contrast to his baby smooth chest, which she could see as he bent for her ticket.  She watched him move to the car in front of hers.  His legs were wiry but not tan, indicating that the shorts were only a sometime thing for him on the barge.


     Someone could overpower the man and rob him, she supposed.   She looked about at the cars near her.  Who would do it?  The man in shirtsleeves in the MG with his suit jacket slung over the passenger headrest?  No.  The young lady in the Mazda 3 reading the Economist?  No.  The woman in the SUV shushing four kids?  No.  Sheila herself?   No.  Well, maybe.  Yes, she could do it if she had to.  If a global charity called her and said - come up with $1000 by tomorrow morning and you achieve world peace, then she would do it.  His wiry legs were no match for her solid piano legs, stronger than mahogany and fast, yes she could be fast if need be, if it meant world peace for real.


     Or another passenger might suddenly decide to climb the flagpole and jump to his death.  She looked up.  There was a finely stitched, if weather-worn, flag up there, “Jubal A. Early” and an insignia, “Served under Stonewall.”   Probably with a flag like that, the person who wanted to jump to his death would change his mind and climb down.  Sheila yawned and went back to staring through the cobwebs at the river.  The water was blacker now, clouds had come over, and without the sun the line of bubbles was invisible.  She wondered if the other drivers in the left lane were looking out through their cobwebs, and if they’d seen the bubbles disappear.   Would it mean anything to them?   Dark and more dark.  We assign our own meaning to things, she decided.  Bubbles may be joyous to one, frightening to another.


     Just as she thought her eyes were lulled enough to be stuck on the river, the clouds broke and there was a sudden and severe downpour.  Windows were zipped up, drowning the various news voices and radio melodies that had been circulating.  Sheila let her window stay open until water started to pool in the indent of the armrest on her door.  The rush of cleansing air felt good.   Soon they would be on the other side and have to slosh out of the barge.


     She could barely see the river now; the rain came down in a curtain.  She’d heard that expression, “a curtain of rain,” but had never seen it before.   Surely the cobwebs were washed off the bars in the first few seconds, and the rain hitting the river was making its own giant bubbles.


     She felt the ferry bump against the bank, and she started up the wipers on her car.  But the cars in the middle lane, usually the first to get off, were not moving.  The ferry man and two other men were standing at the side of the barge, gesturing toward something downriver.   The rain had slackened, and Sheila got out of her car too, on impulse.  There was a capsized canoe about 200 yards away, and two heads bobbed a short distance from it.  She ran to the men and heard them debating how and if to help.


     “They look like they know how to swim, all right.”


     “I think there were only the two of them earlier, on the canoe, but I’m not sure, might’ve been three.”


     “Can you tell if they’re waving for help or to say they’re okay?”


     “Shouldn’t someone make a call on their cell phone?” Sheila asked, but she wasn’t sure she said it loud enough, for the men did not answer her, even though she was flapping her hands excitedly above her head.

     She went back to her car, but on the way asked the man in the MG shouldn’t someone call someone?   He did not answer her.  The middle lane was moving now.


     She got back in her car and let herself be funneled off the ferry.  Then she turned into the little lot next to the bait and tackle shop on the bank that sold sandwiches to the river commuters.   She waved her hands about again, and made a fuss, and was reassured that a call would be made.  There were probably only the two in the canoe, but just in case…


     That night, watching the late news before turning out the light next to their bed, Sheila’s husband said to her, “isn’t that near the river ferry you usually take?”   And… “sounds like someone called in the nick of time.”


     “Probably someone with a Bluetooth in their car on the ferry,” Sheila said.  Someone who would have known who to call.  Someone who knew real river rules and did not just fantasize about possible crises while watching little lines of bubbles go pop.