story by eric m. martin
Photos by cassandra douglas
Gary wasn’t a big reader, but he’d read enough books to have come across stories of olden-day American preachers who baptized people in the river. It was always a river. Never a creek. Maybe creeks were too shallow. Didn’t have the same effect.
That was a hundred years ago. But there he was. A preacher in the river.
Gary was on his bike going home, passing through a park near the downtown area. The park was right on the edge of the river, which was empty nine months of the year. During summer, boats would zip along with people in tow, balanced drunkenly on skis.
It was too cold for that now, though it was not yet winter. Gary wore a t-shirt and long pants with one leg rolled up. He’d lost enough pants to the bite of his bike’s gears to learn to roll up one leg.
Not thinking about anything in particular, he was making his way through the park. Then he saw a man in a brightly white, but frayed-looking, robe-kind-of get-up, standing on the edge of the river, waist deep in the slow moving water.
Gary always thought the river was deeper right there. He slowed down on his bike.
“Come over here, son,” the man shouted.
Gary was fifty feet away. He got off his bike but didn’t approach the man. It’s too late for this, he thought. A hundred years too late.
“Come over here. I won’t bite.”
Gary pulled his bike up the little hill above the bike path and laid down his bike. Sitting down next to it, he faced the man in the worn-out, super-bright white robe.
The man looked at him but didn’t call out again. Gary waved one hand just above his head in a gesture intended to say, “I see you over there and I’m staying where I am.” The man seemed to understand.
Gary wanted to see what would happen.
Patrols came though this park every hour, cruising slow in big-engined squad cars that purred like hippos. Gary thought he’d wait and see if one came.
Two women who looked to be in their thirties appeared around the bend of the footpath a couple hundred feet away. You can tell age from far away like that most of the time. They were walking a dog, a white one. The preacher guy spotted them and looked back up at Gary then turned back to wait for the two women.
They walked slowly.
Is this how they did it a hundred years ago? Gary kept looking at the ragged white figure, waist-deep in the river. Back then the rivers weren’t so filthy. At least they had that going for them. Maybe people trusted the eccentricities of strangers back then. Now they only trust them if they’re on TV.
Did they stand and wait for random passers-by back then or put up flyers around town? They must have done something besides just stand in a river. This was no way to build a crowd.
The women’s dog noticed the preacher and started pulling at its leash as if the sight of the man in the water proved something to the dog.
It had been lied to all these years. You are allowed to go in the river.
Without barking, the dog strained at its leash. The women stopped walking and looked amused. They were still fifty feet away from the man in the river.
“Come on over here, ladies,” the man said. “I won’t bite.”
His repertoire was not especially rich.
The women looked at each other and patiently allowed the dog to wear itself out against the leash. The preacher turned to Gary. Gary waved again with the same wave, just above his head, his right hand moving once to the left and once to the right.
Pulling the dog away from the water, the woman holding the leash backed up the slope above the path. Her friend did the same and the women walked toward Gary, keeping their distance from the man in white. The looks on their faces said they were going to ask Gary what was going on.
“What’s going on? Who is that guy?” the woman with the leash asked him.
The dog had no interest in Gary. It sat down on the ground.
“I have no idea. I’m just waiting to see what happens when the cops show up.”
“Why? Did somebody call the police?”
“Not that I know of,” Gary said, “but, you know, they come through here a lot.”
The second woman chimed in, “I wonder if that’s legal, standing in the river.”
“Seems like you’d need a business license or something,” the first woman said.
In short shorts and tight shirts, the women looked very much alike, but the woman with the dog had stronger looking arms and darker hair than her friend.
“You’re welcome to join me and enjoy the show,” Gary said. He said it without any real energy. Sometimes being neutral puts people at ease.
The women looked at each other with a similar neutrality then looked back down at the preacher who was looking up at the three of them.
A jogger caught the preacher’s eye. A man was coming from the same direction the women had come from, moving swiftly but looking like he was tired of running.
He was going to pass right in front of the preacher.
The preacher raised his arms so that his sleeves fell back. Gary could see dark splotches of color on the inside of each of his biceps that were probably tattoos.
“This is the hour!” the preacher shouted.
The jogger slowed down when he heard that and stopped in front of the preacher. Looking at his watch, the jogger shouted the time at the preacher.
“No, this is the hour! The hour.”
The jogger shook his head. He was tired. He bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees, breathing hard.
Gary couldn’t hear what the preacher said then and he couldn’t tell if the jogger was saying anything. He could just see the preacher’s mouth moving and see that the jogger was looking at the preacher and kept shaking his head.
The preacher must have looked in Gary’s direction because the jogger suddenly turned around and looked up at Gary and the two women. Right then the women began to move.
They walked down to the path and pulled the dog along with them. Before they were out of ear-shot the dark-haired one with the strong arms turned back and smiled at Gary and said, “Let us know what happens.”
Then they were gone.