On Water’s Edge

On Water’s Edge

“Take me down to the river…”

It was all he would say, laying there dying with a clear blue light in his eye.

Some people never really seem to age. They hang on to youth involuntarily. Warriors especially, forever young from the flash frozen shock of battle.

But what was to be seen at the river anymore? Most of the frontage had been bought up by baby boomers hungry for a view of the water, spending most of their time hollering at their kids to stay away from it. Don’t mess with a river. Ask Mark Twain.

The river deceived. In summer it hid its strongest currents. In winter it disguised its thinnest ice. I had been raised to believe there were more ways to die on it than could be counted—like the guy who got trapped upside down in the kayak down the falls, the kid who swan dived thirty feet onto a rock that wasn’t there the day before, the child swept away by a mysterious wave.

If you were really exceptional at things like meditation and time travel, you could imagine quieter times—an Indian village perhaps, carved out of the forest blanketing both sides of the shore. If you really knew your history, you would know those Indians were Iroquois —the kind who liked to play football on Sundays with the heads of their enemies. Historic nostalgia is not always everything it’s cracked up to be, nothing if not a double-edged sword… or multi-purpose tomahawk.

“I want to walk the old path with Chester,” said Uncle Tony. “The trail that runs through the woods and along the water.”

Chester was his dog, dead seventy years now, a Springer Spaniel by all accounts. One who couldn’t bird hunt for a damn but made up for it in loyalty and companionship.

Uncle Tony was a widower. We didn’t know much about his deceased wife Amelia, dead almost as long as Chester the dog. She died only one month into their marriage, and a year before Tony went to war in Europe. An aneurism took her down in the middle of supper, face down smack on the table, my mother said.

Uncle Tony didn’t talk much about Amelia. He didn’t talk about her at all, or his short married life. But we talked about it all the time, about how it had shaped him—a man who never remarried but never complained or drank over his losses either. He lived with us for over thirty years in the back room off the kitchen. He insisted on doing the dishes, cooking a few times a week, even ironing in an apron. On Sundays he went to Mass across town at St. Barnabas; the old Latin Mass with incense, lots of candles on the Altar and an off-tune cantor in the loft.

“We need that old tuneless coot” Uncle Tony would say. “Can’t have High Mass without the Chant.”

Some days he would simply disappear with the latest incarnation of our family dog. And—yes—we even lost one to the river when he swam too far out for a stick and was pulled under by the current. We found his bones and collar a year later hung up on a log on an offshoot of the river.

“My mother used to give me tea and toast,” said Uncle Tony. “It’ll cure anything. Probably even cancer if you do it right.”

“Medicine has come a long way, Uncle Tony,” I said. “Nobody writes prescriptions for tea and toast anymore.”

“-And ginger ale! That was a great cure all. Ginger ale could raise the dead!”

“You want a ginger ale?”

“Hate the stuff. Always did. I’d rather die.”

“You’ll have to settle for these pills,” I laid them out on the lap table next to him on the bed.

“Sure. Two hundred dollars worth of pills. You croak. They make money.”

“You got time left, Tony.”

“Let’s hope not.”  He chased the pills with water from a glass held in a blue veined hand and looked out the window toward the river again. I looked with him, or tried to. In the old days you could see the water. Now a scattered red wood blockade of ten-foot-high privacy fences masked the view.

“Just take me down to the river,” he said again. “I want to walk with Rhemus.”

“Rhemus is gone, Tony.” At least he hadn’t asked for Chester. He was making an effort.

“Oh, you know, I mean what’s his name… Callie.”

“Callie is gone too. Two years ago.”

“Callie the Collie?”


“Whose the new mutt? I forgot.”

“Beeswax. The Chocolate Lab.”

“Beeswax? Who the hell names a dog Beeswax?”

“Your great-grand niece.”

“Well… okay. That’s okay. But chocolate? A chocolate dog? You ever see a chocolate Sheep Dog?”

“They only come in vanilla, Tony. Get some sleep.”

I left him gazing out the window, trying to conjure the river. You couldn’t see it but you could feel its presence; there past the short sloping yards, plastic swimming pools, wooden decks and gas grills. You could hear it if you listened hard enough. The river has a pervasive force that no amount of civilizing the shore can subdue. Especially at night, when you can almost hear the fish jump in the moon-spattered current.

We were thankful that he could not simply get up and walk. The thought of my old Uncle Tony wandering the backyards of the river in his pajamas was too much; screaming children, barking dogs, SWAT teams…the stuff of urban legend. The River Ghost roaming the land.

“He wants something,” my wife said at breakfast. “But nobody knows what it is.”

“I think he will go in his sleep one night soon,” I said. “At least that’s the way it should be.”

“My grandpa spent three years in bed, without hardly speaking a word.”

“He was tough, I guess. Didn’t want to let go.”

“Some people have things they want to settle with God,” she said. “Even if it is deep inside them, things nobody knows about. They lay there day after day and work it out in their souls, and then they can leave.”

“So I guess you’re not the world’s biggest fan of euthanasia.”

“Not as long as I still have things to figure out between me and the heaven I’m trying to reach.”

My wife, the theologian.

“Anyway,” she smiled, “I’d like to linger just to stick it to those thieving bastards from the insurance company.”

I take that back; my wife, the Bonnie Parker of the hospice set.

A few mornings later I checked on Uncle Tony to make sure he was okay. But I never found out.

The bed was empty, made up army style. You could bounce a quarter off it. I was impressed.

We never found him. A guy down the block with an open path to the water said he thought he saw someone pass by his window but couldn’t be sure.

The legend began. Some say the river took him. Some say you can see him on nights of a full moon, wandering the riverfront… in his pajamas.

As for me, I still take the long walks by the river, hugging the shore, stepping over lawn furniture and kiddie pools, on the prowl with our Chihuahua mix, Bugsy—whom we consoled ourselves with after Beeswax tried to play tug of war with a Water Moccasin.

We head into the unimproved swampland, picking our way along faded paths and always looking for a sign. Whenever I come home without finding one, I always breathe a sigh of relief. Let him be where he has gone. Only the river knows. Only the river.


About the Author

Ennis James Sheehan is one of eleven children of a small town pediatrician and sainted mother from the suburbs of NYC. His "life resume" includes factory worker, US Merchant Marine, itinerant hitchhiker around the USA, school bus driver, local newspaper reporter (Brooklyn and NYC), Los Angeles TV producer/writer for countless shows over 25 years from News and Entertainment to True Crime and the Paranormal; History Channel, Paramount TV, Animal Planet, Hard Copy, Science Channel, CNN, KNBC to name a few.  A sometimes guitar, saxophone and piano player with a BA in history from Holy Cross College (Worcester MA). He is currently living in Manila, Philippines with his wife Susan (an attorney and native of Quezon City) and a little white dog named Colette.


Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash