Justice Rolling Down

If anyone ever deserved a little break, I thought as I drove to the Muskegon River after school that Friday afternoon in October, I was the one. In the past week, I had faced more work than I thought three skilled people, working feverishly, could ever complete. But I had managed to finish all the work up on my own. The effort, though, had left me so tense that the muscles along the back of my neck felt braided.

At breakfast, Wanda had said that it was time that night for her and some friends to have a chick-flick festival. So I was on my own, and when I can do as I wish, I usually choose to fish. Since the king salmon run was near its peak, I had packed my waders and salmon gear in the car before I left for school.

As I cleared the heaviest city traffic, the muscles in my neck gradually loosened as I realized that the weather was perfect for salmon fishing–it was cool, it was overcast, it was misty. By the time I got to the access area, I had relaxed enough to feel drowsy. But the carnival in the parking lot woke me up: Vehicles were jammed everywhere, even on the path to the outhouse. “How unfair would that be,” I thought, “if I couldn’t find a place to park or stand in the river?” But I eventually found a parking spot and decided to put on my gear and hope for some room on the water.

Once in the water, I looked upriver to the overhanging cedar that was doomed someday to be undercut completely and swept away by the current. I gave a little victory whoop when I saw that no one was fishing the gravel bed that extended out from the exposed roots of that tree.

I hurriedly pushed upstream. In the river in front of the cedar, a small ledge of what looked like limestone extended downstream on an angle and then back upstream, forming an irregular but easily noticeable V. Within this V was a large bed of perfect spawning gravel. Below the V was a pool darkened by thousands of zebra mussels on its bottom, a pool where salmon could rest out of the heaviest current. Best of all, over time the rock at the base of the V had been eroded into a gap, and this gap formed a natural gateway from the resting pool to the spawning bed.

Whenever I had fished this spot in the past, it had been easy to hook fish. I would cast from above the gateway, let my fly drift down into the gap, and hold on. It didn’t even matter whether the salmon were actively feeding or not. Once they were positioned in or just below the gateway, they were so intent on what they were about to do up on the gravel that they would snap at my fly just to get it out of the way.

That afternoon I had so much fun fighting salmon that I stayed longer than necessary to sort out three silvery fish to take home. In fact, by the time I turned downstream, it was past dusk, and I had forgotten to pack my headlamp. So I moved back downstream taking baby steps, and my dark-water shuffle kept me from pitching over a submerged rock and let me savor the wonders of the trip.

In such a mood, once I had left the landing, I decided I should not just head back to the freeway and blast my way home. I turned onto a slower road south, a county highway skirting scrubby cornfields, set-back homesteads, and dark woodlots.

A few miles down this road, I found the Blue Lake public radio station. “Next,” the announcer said, “we’ll hear the Houston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus.'”

As the music intensified, my throat constricted, and my nose got runny. I had started to weep. Not loud, chest-wracking weeping, but the quiet weeping that comes from serenity that has surprised. As the sopranos surged, I pulled up to a stop sign.

I have been back to that intersection in the daylight, so I know what was there that night. To my right was a hedge of bushes about five feet high. The trunks and thicker branches of these bushes were black with bark. But the smaller branches were crimson. Behind these bushes and to the side was a pole with a powerful security light.

What I saw as I glanced to my right that misty evening was backlit silver-sheathed red and black tendrils branching and extending boldly against the void. Before pulling away, I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. “My God, my God,” I murmured, “it is almost more than I can take in. What did I do to deserve this?”

Add this image to what was already in my mind–the phrases from Mozart and the memories of fighting powerful fish–and the rest of the drive was mainly reverie.

Just as I signaled my right turn onto our street, though, I was startled. A short man wearing a green hooded sweatshirt, having left the sidewalk to my far left, was crossing the street toward me. As I went into the turn, in fact, he was only six or eight feet off my door. But I completed the turn and dismissed him.

I pulled into our driveway, got out of the van, opened the garage door, got back into the van, pulled into the garage, and then grabbed some gear to carry into the house. As I bumped the door open with my elbow and pivoted, I almost stepped right into the man who had been crossing the street. He was standing in the shadows between the van and some bicycles and was aiming an automatic pistol at my chest.

Suddenly I was taking my pulse with no hands. And I can remember feeling three emotions at the same time: frustration, because my plans for the rest of the night were shot; anger, because I had been careless enough not to check my rearview mirror as I came down the street; and terror, because I was absolutely choiceless. Plus, the hole on the end of the pistol was bigger than I ever imagined it could be.

“Shut up! Shut up! Don’t try anything stupid! Do exactly what I say!”

I hadn’t said a thing, so it frightened me that he was so jittery. I thought of drugs. The sooner I can give him whatever money I have, I thought, the better. I wasn’t sure how much money I had.

But he didn’t ask for money: “Keep that hole in your face shut, and listen. Get back into the driver’s seat and reach across and open the passenger door.”

I turned and climbed back into my still-warm seat, opened the passenger door, and wondered if Wanda was home and, if so, what she was doing. When he got around to the other side of the car, he surprised me: He didn’t climb into the passenger seat but reached through the open door and opened the sliding door to the rear of the van. Then he started to climb into the back.

But the three salmon I had caught were lying on a newspaper on the floor right next to the door–I had taken one of the rear seats out. “Damn!” he said as he slapped the fish back under the rear seats. “Now I’m going to stink like a fish.”

I hoped that I had left some hooks lying near the salmon. “Sit down hard on a treble hook and see what happens”–I could at least think boldly.

“Don’t turn! Don’t look at me!” He banged the pistol on the back of the seat in front of him. “O.K., you mother. We’re goin’ for a ride.”

It was then that I knew I could no longer do what he said. I was almost lightheaded imagining all the things he might have in mind, and every one of them was costly, kinky, or deadly. Then the little knowledge I had of similar situations kicked in.

A couple of years earlier I had heard a story about our former provost driving downtown with his wife. When they came to a stop sign, a man jumped into the back seat and told them to drive on. Gordon thought otherwise: “Mary, get out right now!” he shouted, and both of them jumped from the car and half-jogged away. Gordon took the car keys with him. The man fussed for a while under the steering wheel but then climbed out and vanished into an alley.

“Get it together,” I thought. “If there’s any spark of speed in you, use it now.” And I silently slid the keys out of the ignition, threw open the door, bolted toward our house, lunged against the side door with my shoulder, stumbled over the rug on the landing, turned around, slammed the door, locked it, turned off all the lights in the kitchen, yelled for Wanda to turn off the lights around her
and get down, and called 911.

But I was panting too hard to put words together. And I was afraid the guy, in vengeful fury now, would come and start shooting through windows. So it took me a few minutes, huddled under the kitchen table, to explain simple things such as what my name was, where I lived, and why I was calling.

Two policemen arrived in less than three minutes. They came in fast and quiet, no lights. Out of their cars, they advanced on the garage. As soon as they were certain that the guy had fled, they knocked on our door and beckoned me outside. We stood in the front yard, and the one whose name badge said Simon asked the questions.

“What did he look like?”

“He was short–about five foot two or three. I don’t think he expected such a tall guy to get out of the van. If he hadn’t had that gun, I would have tried something, and I think he sensed that. I had rakes and a spud leaning against the garage wall.”

“Skin color?”

“Not sure, but pretty dark.”

“African-American?”

“I think more like Hispanic.”

“How about his hair?”

“Couldn’t really tell–he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.”

“Anything else distinctive? Glasses?”

“Yeah, I think he was wearing glasses. Why can’t I remember better? Did I tell 911 that he was wearing glasses? I think I told them he was wearing glasses.”

“You were out of your van when he confronted you?”

“Yeah, I took a step or two, almost right into him.”

“And then he forced you back into the car?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s kidnapping then. What all did he say when he was in the car?”

“He was, like, ‘come on, you mother, we’re goin’ for a ride.'”

“And that’s when you ran?”

Just then another squad car pulled up, this one with “Canine” written on its side. An officer wearing a bulletproof vest stepped out and released from the back seat a German shepherd straining against a thick leather leash.

“Where?” that officer asked Simon.

“The garage.”

The dog didn’t even have to enter the garage and smell the van. He sniffed the driveway leading to the garage, ran to the fence on the west side of the backyard, waited for the officer to lift him over the fence and climb over himself, and then ran off down the street to the woods along Plaster Creek. The officer who hadn’t been interviewing me ran after them as backup. Simon trotted to the squad car and said he was going to follow them, keeping tabs on their location via radio.

After they had left, I stayed outside; I was afraid that if I went inside, I wouldn’t be able to make myself come back out. I sat on the front porch and tried to remember what the neighborhood used to look like.

After about twenty minutes, the officers and dog came back in Simon’s cruiser. Simon walked over to me on the porch.

“It was weird,” Simon said. “They had a strong scent for a while, and then it went across Union Street and just disappeared. Sorry. He might have had a car parked there, or he might have jumped some driver.”

I was surprised how strongly I was coming to believe that things would be close to right again if they could catch the guy.

“Remember anything else while we were away?”

“No. I guess I’m not trained for stuff like this.”

“Well, if anything comes back to you, here’s my card. And we’ll let you know if anything develops overnight. You think you’re going to be O.K.?”

“I hope so.” I didn’t say that I was sure the guy would be coming back after me.

Wanda had already been in her pajamas when I came crashing into the house, so she had stayed inside when I had gone back outside. From my 911 call, she knew most of what had happened, but I had to fill her in on some details. I knew I would have to wait until daylight until I went back to the garage to get my gear. I also knew those three beautiful salmon were going to start to rot since I wasn’t going to have the nerve and energy to retrieve them and filet them that night. Wasting them was its own crime.

After I had taken a long shower, and while we were lying in bed, Wanda asked if I thought I would be able to sleep.

“Well, most of the adrenaline has worn off. I’m not quite as jumpy. But some stuff sure is knocking around in my head.”

“What stuff?”

“Well, all my life I’ve heard about God’s sovereignty, His control, not a hair will fall–all that. So this last week looks like a big set-up–wear me down, bring me way back up, and then slice my guts out.”

“I don’t know for sure about all the theology. Maybe God allows some chance in the world. Or maybe being sovereign means that once He allowed the possibility of sin in the world, he had to allow its effects to play themselves out. Or maybe He has some deep design with pain that we won’t know about for a long time. But I do know all this: You had a chance to wade a river and do what you love, you could have been shot but weren’t, we didn’t lose a single possession, this probably messed with your head but everyone we know will be eager to help you get over that, and now your head is on a pillow next to mine. Plus any guy desperate enough to chase someone into his garage is going to do more risky stuff soon and get caught. If you didn’t have angels watching over you, I wouldn’t know who did.”

I didn’t have the strength to argue. Without having faced what I had faced, I thought, she couldn’t really know what I was feeling. But in every detail that I was ever able to check on in this world, it turned out that she was right.

William J. Vande Kopple is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.