The River by Night
I go down to the river at night. Weather permitting. Or often when not permitting. I usually head out quite late, when most neighborhood residents are off the streets and tucked safely away. They obviously don’t suffer from my kind of restlessness, my kind of pressure.
I move through the park—black except for the glow of an occasional lamp along the way—down the path, through the underpass, down stone steps, then more path, to at last the embankment. Standing by the railing, I lean over, rest my elbows, look out at the black water and the lights twinkling here and there on the far shore. I breathe in the river. It clears my head, fills my body. I can almost taste it.
I might follow a boat passing by, usually a yacht of some sort, ghostly white, its cabin lit, specks of occupants barely visible. But mostly I just stare out at all the darkness before me, at all the nothing, and wait.
They say the park is dangerous at night. That it’s even worse down by the river. Because if you’re in the park and sense a possible attack you have at least a chance of getting out before any damage is done. But if you’re all the way down by the river there’s no immediate escape route. The park rises up behind you, dark, hilly, forbidding, and you have to negotiate its entire width before reaching an exit.
I take the warnings seriously. As well I should. There have long been reports of late-night muggings and stabbings. Once even a combination rape-murder apparently occurred—of a young jogger, who foolishly believed her dog would protect her. These incidents understandably make visitors wary and cause them to vacate the park as darkness falls, leaving it to derelicts, criminals, perverts, creatures of the night. Even the police avoid the area at this time—why look for trouble, they probably reason, let these hopeless dregs mingle freely, and, with luck, attack and destroy each other.
You would think that a logical, normal, law-abiding person like me would keep clear of the place. Instead I am drawn to it, as a moth is to a flame. But I am tempted by darkness not light. And I recognize the danger of such an attraction. There are, however, other considerations.
As I descend the steep, near-empty streets leading to the park, leave behind the brownstones that line the blocks, leave behind signs of life, the lighted rooms, the bluish-white glow of television sets, leave behind shelter and safety, my heart beats faster, and when I reach the vast black space, see the silhouettes of trees set against the night sky, approach the beckoning entrance and begin to smell the river beyond, my whole body pulsates, comes fully alive, in a way it never does during the day.
Which is not so surprising. Why would my pulse quicken while reading and correcting copy under florescent lights from nine to five? And although I’m in a cubicle on the far side of the office and as such have a window instead of merely another partition, the view—of an office building very much like my own—is uninspiring, an enormous, meaningless grid. Workers sit at their desks, just as they sit in my office, get up and move about, just as they do in my office. Nothing particularly odd or interesting ever happens. Sometimes, when the lack of incident becomes maddening, I imagine disruptive, even sordid scenes. A worker suddenly collapsing from a stroke or heart attack. Co-workers arguing so heatedly they exchange blows. Or, at the other extreme, growing so lustful and uncontrollable they ravage each other atop a desk.
When I return home I feel terribly drained, though I’ve been sitting for much of the day, having risen only briefly to go to the copier, filing cabinet, drinking fountain or restroom. I used to give in to the fatigue and spend the night not doing much of anything. I believe that Julia considered me a defeatist. She certainly hinted on more than one occasion that I was terminally lethargic. We’re getting nowhere, she’d say. (Though just where we were supposed to be getting I couldn’t fathom.) We’re losing the few friends we have. We’re becoming shut-ins, she’d say, or something to that effect. All our days are the same. Nothing is happening anymore. Nothing worth remembering.
So one day she made something happen. She got up and left me. We’d been together two years, though she said that it’d seemed more like four. The last I heard she was seeing an air-traffic controller or pilot or balloonist—in any case, some fool intimately involved with the sky.
I suddenly found myself alone. As a result I started to concentrate on myself, perhaps too fully. The impulse seemed unavoidable. No longer was this other body present in the evening, this other person who would speak to me, who I’d hear moving about the rooms, opening and shutting doors, running water, flushing the toilet, talking on the phone to a friend or relative.
I soon realized how little I was comforted or entertained by my own company. And watching television or reading a book or newspaper or listening to music wasn’t enough to distract me from myself, to allow me to temporarily disappear. The hours of evening relaxation, which I’d always regarded as a necessary winding down after a day’s labor and which had never bothered me as much as they had bothered Julia, began to seem indulgent, even a bit pathetic and pointless. All I was doing was squandering time, filling it with trivia, basking in passivity. I hadn’t really done much else when Julia was present, but at least I’d been able to shift my focus to her and not dwell on possible failings. She was the one who eventually brought up those failings. Yet I’d taken her words only half-seriously, as if she were complaining rather idly, for want of anything else to do. I now believe that she was really chastising herself as well. Yes, I do believe that she was as frustrated and disappointed with herself as she was with me.
Though I hated her for abandoning me, I also envied her for taking such a step. Because she had changed her situation, broken a pattern. Whether she would now prosper and find contentment was anyone’s guess. But it was undeniable that she had taken the initiative by leaving me. Unfortunately I couldn’t follow suit. I mean to say, I had no one to leave. And, of course, I couldn’t leave myself. Nor was I in a financial position to give up my job or look for a new apartment. As I saw it, the most I could do at present to alter my situation was to get out at night. Admittedly it was a minor move, just an alteration in routine rather than a radical revamping of a life. But at least it was something. And it was different. If I couldn’t leave myself, then at least I could leave the place in which I seemed to be most haunted by me.
So after a modest, makeshift dinner or a container or two of cheap take-out food, I’d head for the street. I’d usually begin my wanderings just as evening was giving way to night. Since I now had to rely on one salary rather than two, I was forced to maintain an even stricter budget than before and as a result could hardly indulge in costly entertainment. Indeed, I was so worried about my meager savings and my high rent that I decided to limit myself to free or at least inexpensive activities, feeble though they were.
I’d go from store to store, usually just window shopping, but sometimes actually setting foot inside when an item would catch my eye. Card shops were particularly good for browsing. I’d examine every card that tickled my fancy and imagine sending a well-chosen, carefully considered Hello, how are you? card to a friend or relative who would truly appreciate the gesture, and not consider it out of character or just plain weird. I preferred those cards with drawn images rather than photographic, which tended to look unimaginative and cheesy no matter what the subject. My least favorite were glossy photos of flowers and calendar-like pictures of mountains and streams.
For obvious reasons, I avoided perusing the love/romance variety.
When I’d tire of the card shops, I’d explore the neighborhood drugstores and food and vegetable markets. On occasion I’d roam about the big bookstore in the area—though this didn’t give me much pleasure for I’d had my fill of words at my job, and I hardly needed to add to my already ample home library, which I seldom consulted anymore. But sometimes I’d be tempted to linger in the store to hear an author read from his or her newly published work. My curiosity, however, was rarely rewarded. Listening to discussions of bipolar disorder or the Napoleonic Wars or the social life of the elephant proved counter-productive, underlining how sad and needy I’d become, like some pitiful senior citizen desperately determined to fill his uneventful, solitary life.
Although relatively young, I was feeling and even behaving more and more each day like just such a citizen. At the height of this strange transformation, or deterioration, I began to comparison shop, an activity I’d always thought appealed chiefly to old buggers. But I must admit to experiencing a certain thrill and chill when I discovered a drugstore selling my favorite mouthwash for almost a dollar less than the store I usually shopped in. Or when I found a market selling a bag of hearts of romaine lettuce for $2.99, a full 51 cents cheaper than the same three-lettuce bag being sold at the allegedly cut-rate market just four blocks away.
Fortunately I was jarred back to my senses one summer evening when I took a break during one of these ridiculous shopping excursions. I was sitting on a wooden bench on a traffic island that divided the main avenue. A plastic bag containing the bananas I’d just purchased in a super-sale at Vegetable City rested by my side. As I looked quite mindlessly at the headlights of cars traveling downtown a small old man, dressed in a shapeless, badly worn plaid sports jacket and moving with obvious effort, shuffled past me and sat down at the far end of the bench. He too had a Vegetable City shopping bag.
“Did you buy the tomatoes?” he suddenly asked in strained, hoarse voice as he pointed to my bag.
“Bananas,” I answered.
“I bought both. Can’t beat their prices. You should get the tomatoes. Cheapest in the city. Eighty-nine a pound. It’s unheard of. ”
“I’m not much of a tomato eater,” I said, though it’s beyond me why I felt the need to report this fact to a perfect stranger.
“You should change your ways. Tomatoes are one of the essentials. They’re loaded with potassium.”
“So are bananas, as far as I know.”
“This is true. But you can never have too much potassium.”
I doubted the information, but choose not to debate him.
“The older you get,” he added, “the more you need.”
I wondered if the old man also needed new eyeglasses. Because although it was still fairly light out and I was positioned just a few feet away, he apparently saw me as someone old enough to have to worry about potassium levels.
He then started to discuss his various ailments—pains in his back, bad veins in his legs, serious bouts of incontinence—at which point I’d had quite enough of being regarded as a kindred body. So I glanced at my watch and feigned surprise, explaining that my wife had expected me home some fifteen minutes ago.
My wanderings, I concluded as I walked back home, were merely an illusion of change and escape, that all I had done was substitute one inconsequential routine for another. Although I was no longer plagued by the indoor me, I was disturbed by the trajectory and implications of this outdoor character I’d become.
Descending the very steep street, I stared ahead at the park, which was at the bottom of the hill and just two-and-a-half blocks down from my building. During the day it appeared harmless, a pretty stretch of foliage, a tree-filled oasis. Julia and I used to stroll through it when the spirit so moved us on certain afternoons. We’d even go all the way down to the river. After a while, however, we began to take the park for granted. Perhaps because it was so nearby and accessible. It seemed to have lost its initial appeal and novelty. I, for one, finally regarded it as nothing more than background.
At night, of course, the park took on an entirely different aspect. Then it became a place to avoid. It was still background, but with an ominous edge. As I approached my building on this night and focused on the park I thought of it as a peculiar sort of end point, an expanse of wilderness in an area tightly packed with houses, a space left raw, undeveloped, essentially untamed. And this notion unexpectedly excited me as did the park’s reputation as a forbidden zone.
I was removing my keys from my pocket when I suddenly felt a soft breeze, which carried with it the smell of river, quite pungent and unmistakable. What a shame, I thought, to have to resist its presence, to not be able to see the river by night, to stand by it, to take it in.
Perhaps I’d been overcome by some sort of spell because I found myself walking past my building, crossing the street, and moving steadily down, until I was on the final block leading to the park. When I reached the corner, I crossed over to the park side. Except for an occasional car passing along the street and the leaves on the trees stirred now and again by the erratic breeze, the entire area was silent.
At the entrance I paused to look down the winding concrete path, illuminated at various intervals by the park lamps. After several twists and turns it would eventually end at the promenade by the river. The path now seemed innocuous and also rather inviting despite the surrounding darkness and the dangers possibly contained within. As I took my first steps forward, the spell I’d been under seemed to fade and I became increasingly conscious and concerned about how vulnerable I was at this point and how much more vulnerable I’d be if I continued on. This is absurd, I thought, I’m completely exposed, a perfect target, a blatant victim. But whatever fear I felt was eclipsed by the thrill—so rare, so unfamiliar—of behaving with sheer recklessness.
I moved on, wondering if I possessed enough courage, or madness, to attempt to reach the river below. The path began to curve towards an underpass, a brief tunnel that I’d have to walk through. This semi-circle of blackness struck me as menacing, a prime site for an attack, and I slowed my pace to such an extent that I advanced only a very cautious foot or two at a time.
My heart beat more rapidly now, as if I were under an imminent threat. Yet the only discernible life in the park were the insects that flew crazily about the park lamps, looking like flecks of dirt or paper and creating the illusion that the bulbs were flickering. I tried to see beyond the lighted path, to my left, my right, tried to penetrate the darkness, but the most I could make out were the blackened forms of bushes and trees. No more than a quarter moon hung in the night sky, doing little to help illuminate the landscape.
The smell of the river was stronger than before. So near and yet so far, I thought, such a potentially perilous little stroll.
Nevertheless I probably would have continued had I not caught sight of a shadow of sorts suddenly emerging from the tunnel ahead. I thought it might be a person, but it seemed to retreat before I had a chance to determine exactly what it was.
I stopped short and stood very still, though my entire body was tingling. Yes, tingling. It was an oddly wonderful, energizing feeling. And I wanted it to increase, as if I’d been given a mood-altering drug but needed to take more to experience its full power.
The summer night was so very mild, yet here I was with a chill running through me, and inexplicably enjoying that chill. I kept staring at the entrance to the tunnel and tried to detect any movement within the blackness.
I wanted to take the gamble. Because if merely the desire to put myself at risk was so thrilling, then actually going ahead would feel absolutely fantastic.
But I wasn’t prepared to act quite this foolishly. I at least had to increase the odds somewhat, give myself a fighting chance. I decided that I had gone far enough for this night. So I turned round and retraced my steps, listening carefully for anyone or any thing that might attempt to sneak up behind me.
As I exited the park I promised to return on another night, only this time I would be carrying a weapon.
When my father died I inherited, among other things, his bait box. Yes, Dad was quite the fisherman. Sometimes he’d take me with him. We’d go to some bay or lake, some pier or jetty, you name it, and we’d kill fish together. The man was merciless—he’d hook them, yank the hooks from their mouths, batter whatever life remained in them as they’d desperately wiggle and flap about. I’d follow his lead, but I took no joy in it. Even back then I was rather meek. I should have foreseen my future.
He would prepare for the day’s slaughter by removing from his bait box a leather holder containing a large knife with a serrated edge. He’d attach holder and knife to his belt, in the event that he’d want to cut a line, slice a worm or blob of clam, or just practice a little scaling.
This was the weapon that now hung from my belt as I made my nightly visits to the park. Of course even in hot weather I’d have to wear a jacket to hide what amounted to a kind of holster. I realized that the knife wouldn’t be of much use if a gun were aimed at me or if I were surrounded by thugs, but it did make me feel less defenseless. And I trained myself to remove it in a flash and plunge it into a potential attacker before he could do any harm.
When I first began my regular trips to the park, I’d leave my building as soon as it was dark. But I discovered that in the early part of the night there were still some respectable stragglers in the park—the occasional dog walker, a jogger or two, a few couples concluding romantic strolls. Frankly, their presence was off-putting. They were intruding on my experience, ruining the setting, sharply reducing the tension and uncertainty that seemed so necessary, so invigorating.
I therefore started to go out later and later, until I was quite satisfied that the park conformed to its frightening reputation. I didn’t attempt to reach the river immediately. Had I done so and succeeded I wouldn’t have had much to look forward to in the way of suspense. Such early success might have given me a false sense of security, caused me to relax my guard, to take my future visits in stride. So a gradual build-up seemed most appropriate.
Following this plan of action, I advanced only a bit deeper into the park on each visit, all the while poised to pull out my knife in the event of an encounter. In fact, on the night I first entered the tunnel, I actually removed the knife from its holder and held it at my side, prepared to deal with any assailant hiding in the shadows. My heart was racing so rapidly I feared I might have a heart attack. I was trembling. I was terrified. But I also was enlivened, aroused. And I was prepared.
For a moment I thought I detected footsteps, but then realized that they were simply my own echoing steps. I moved through the tunnel without incident and emerged on the other side. Before me the path continued its winding downward course to several stones steps—which I remembered Julia and I had descended on at least a few of our afternoon strolls. From those steps I would have to walk only several more yards to reach the river. But I decided to save this goal—my final destination—for another night. I told myself that I had pushed my luck far enough. Yet at the same time I confess to having felt a bit let down by my journey, by the absence of any real drama. Obviously I had chosen an atypical night. For some reason the usual creatures had stayed away or else had congregated in a different part of the park.
The next two nights were equally disappointing, though I did descend the stone steps and could have, if I’d wished, continued on down to the promenade and the river which were now spread out before me. I expected the same lack of incident on the third night. But just as I reached the bottom of the steps I heard movement on the little hill to my right, possibly caused by someone walking slowly through the grass. Suddenly a tiny reddish orange glow appeared in that area of darkness, resembling the tip of a lighted cigarette. The speck disappeared, then reappeared several seconds later. It seemed a little larger now and more defined, as if this phantom smoker were moving forward as he took another drag.
I slowly opened my jacket and felt for the holder at my side and then for handle of the knife. But although I had been imagining a situation such as this and although I was so incredibly alive and alert in these moments, so aware of crossing a barrier, approaching the brink of the unknown, of the unknowable, I just couldn’t manage to stand my ground. I wasn’t as ready as I’d imagined. I tried to steady my tremulous hand, contain my fear. But instead I backed away, then turned and retreated as fast as I could. At least I didn’t actually run off, which is what a pure, totally shameful coward would have done. This fact, however, wasn’t very consoling. For once outside the park, resting under a street lamp that coated my body in soft white light, I cursed myself for my behavior, for not having the necessary strength to follow through.
Yes, my failure angered me, but fortunately it also inspired me to be more forceful and determined on the visits that followed. And just a few nights later, despite a lurking shadow here or there, I boldly walked down the entire path without hesitation, reached the promenade and stood, at last, firmly and proudly by the river. I’d somewhat convinced myself that my main objective in being here was to see the river, appreciate its beauty at night. But as I stared at this great expanse of black water, then at the wavelets just below me that were lit by the light from the looming lampposts lining the promenade, and at the buildings that were vaguely visible across the river—some completely black, others with a number of lighted windows—I had to admit that this view, these features, though impressive, would quickly wear thin, that I hadn’t really expected much more than I was seeing now, and that this whole business was rather more complicated than my taking pleasure in a nocturnal setting.
Just the other week, on a night of intermittent drizzle, my river routine, which was by now becoming predictably mundane, took what appeared to be a promising turn. As I was leaning on the railing and looking at the river through a fine mist that had settled over the length of it, I happened to notice out of the side of my eye someone on the promenade steadily advancing towards me. Since it was well past eleven o’clock and the weather was so miserable I concluded that this person—a man, I assumed—was here because of some criminal urge or unsavory need.
This is it, I thought. This is more of what I’ve imagined. And so I grasped the handle of my knife and waited as the figure approached and took clearer shape.
When he stopped just a few feet from me I realized that this wasn’t a threatening individual at all but rather just a skinny, bland-looking thirty-something jogger wearing shorts, a sweat-shirt and a baseball cap. He took several deep breaths before he said hello and then went on, without any encouragement, to report what a fine, gloomy night it was, how he loved the park on nights like this, so empty and peaceful, assumed that I shared these feelings since I too had braved the weather.
As he chatted on like a naïve, wide-eyed out-of-towner, I kept hoping that he’d shut up and go away. An annoyingly amiable stranger was not what I’d had in mind at all. You’re destroying the situation, I wanted to tell him. Ruining its potential, turning it into a farce.
“Don’t you know this place isn’t safe at night?” I remarked instead, quite coldly.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “someone mentioned that after I started running here. I just moved to the city a couple of months ago. Anyway, I figured that if I was already coming to the park and nobody was bothering me, I might as well continue. I think all those stories are exaggerated.”
“They’re not,” I said emphatically.
“Well, then, why are you here if it’s so dangerous?”
“I’m with the police,” I told him. “Did you ever hear of a decoy, a sting operation? Well, that’s what’s going here. So I suggest you move on, get out of the park. Things could get ugly.”
“You’re joking?” he said with a little laugh.
I didn’t answer, but I just stood glaring at him with angry eyes. Perhaps my officiousness frightened him or perhaps he suspected me of being deranged, but whatever the case he simply said “Okay, right,” and jogged away up my favorite path.
Go stuff yourself with potassium, I shouted out to him in my mind. It’s one of the essentials.
I eventually left the river and the park in disgust. The fool had unwittingly killed the mood for the night.
I seemed to be losing faith in my visits. The thought of returning to the park, of what might be awaiting me, wasn’t quite affecting me as strongly as it had earlier. Anticipation was, you might say, on the wane. Perhaps that jogger had been right. Perhaps the tales about the park were merely myths. In any case, my workday, which had become more tolerable because I had the park and the river to look forward to at night, was beginning to feel quite oppressive and hopeless again.
But then one morning as I was preparing to leave for work the news came over the radio that a body of a man had been discovered in the park, or more accurately just by the park, floating directly below the promenade. Initially it was thought that the man might have been a suicide or else done in on a boat and then dumped in the river. But then the police found traces of blood in the park itself and concluded that the man had been attacked and killed there and then thrown over the promenade into the river.
Later, when I was in my office, I found it difficult to concentrate on work. The park had come alive for me again. And it seemed to be calling me. It was as if I were destined to return. It so occupied my mind that my attention repeatedly strayed from copy and I allowed obvious grammatical errors to go uncorrected. At the end of the day my boss chided me for doing such a poor, lackadaisical job.
That night there was a strong police presence in the park as the investigation into the crime continued, and I walked away as soon as I was aware of the situation. I feared that the police might decide to patrol the park in the future. And they did, in fact, station some men inside for several days after the incident.
But, mercifully, their concern was short-lived and once again the park was left unguarded and free to become wild.
I return to the park and the river as often as I can now. And with the knowledge that the park’s nighttime reputation is truly justified, I feel very even more stimulated than before.
There are times, rare though they may be, when the stimulation has nothing to do with an impending encounter, nothing to do with an act of violence. Yes, I sometimes look out at the river and think of my father and I in our fishing days and I feel like a young boy again and imagine that when I leave the park I will retain this youthful spirit, even consider the possibility of beginning anew, revising my life entirely.
But more often than not I look out at the river and the surrounding darkness and menace and feel that my time has passed and that my story, such as it is, will soon come to an end. I reach for my knife every so often, check its position, check on its readiness. And I think, sometimes gladly, sometimes sadly, any night now.
ContributorRonald De Feo
Ronald De Feo has published fiction in The Hudson Review, Transatlantic and The Massachusetts Review, among other journals, and reviews, mainly of European and Latin American literature, in many periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The New Republic and National Review. He served as a senior editor of ARTnews magazine, and for many years was on the editorial advisory board of Review, the literary and arts publication of The Americas Society. He has recently completed a novel, Krull.