A Conversation at the River's Edge
from The Resident archives

A breezy October day in Cocoa Beach.

Three men --- a CITY PLANNER, a BOEING REP, and a LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR --- sit on Adirondack chairs looking out on the Banana River. The yard is lush, densely planted, well-fertilized: palms, ferns, frangipani. A crushed coquina path meanders through shade toward a two-story house. Not fifty feet from the men, the water is boiling and frothing.

CITY PLANNER (slightly overweight, forty-seven, healthy, thickly maned, in a neatly pressed Dillard's button-down): Just look at those menhaden. A feeding frenzy! Whoever said this river was dying was yanking our chain. (He takes a pull of beer.) A hoax! A handshake 'tween a scientist and a newspaper man. I tell you what, gentlemen, the river looks just fine and healthy to me.

BOEING REP (thirty-seven, blonde, an ex-college pitcher, Nordic, clean-shaven, schooled at Duke, slightly bored, corner office man from the Melbourne division of Boeing Missile Systems): It's beautiful, that's what it is.

CITY PLANNER: Yes, that's what I meant to say, beautiful. Like snow on the water.

BOEING REP: I don't mean the surface, man. I mean below it. The predatory snook, the shine of teeth and scales, the clash and slice of flesh, the twirling clouds of blood. There's an aesthetic to war, really, when you contemplate it from an elevated perspective. (He glances meaningfully at the LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR.) It's why we'll never rid ourselves of it.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (sixty-four, white-locked, round, ruddy, full of power and contained energy, an evangelic lilt to his voice): Everything under God's kingdom is made beautiful from a distance. From up on the mountain of Hebron, what was the war between Joshua and the Jebusites but an assembly of His flocks? War is as natural as the shedding of leaves in autumn, or the molting of hens. Just one of His methods. A way to communicate His word to us.

CITY PLANNER: I tell you what, fellas, the water looks clear enough from this angle.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR: Last night after dinner I sat down to Isaiah, seventeen. "See, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins. Her towns will be deserted forever; they will be places for flocks, which will lie down, and no one will make them afraid."

BOEING REP: Amen to that, Pastor. (He raises his beer.) If Obama was really a Christian he would hearken to Isaiah. Send a few Tomahawks into Syria, speed along the prophecy.

The LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR takes a sip of his drink (ice water with a slice of lemon). The CITY PLANNER raises his own beer, sucks it down, cracks another.

CITY PLANNER: It's a moral issue. Do we, as Americans, want to live in a world where mass murder goes unpunished? Or do we make the murderer pay a penalty?

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (easing back, grinning): And what penalty would you impose? Maybe some kind of fine, like a parking ticket?

BOEING REP: That's it. Send him a parking ticket from the City of Cocoa Beach. Twenty-five bucks. See, Pastor, here's what it comes down to––if the President of the United States says we need to strike, then we better damn well strike.

CITY PLANNER: There's truth to that. Like if a contractor says he's going to build a road, he better get on a dozer and build that road. Bang! Get 'er done.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (shaking his head): My, my. And me sitting here thinking you boys were Republicans.

BOEING REP (straightening his back): Excuse me Pastor, don't mistake me. No, no, I'm not like this one (thumbing out the CITY PLANNER), an Obama supporter. No sir, I'm a Republican, a Republican to the bone!

CITY PLANNER: Hey, I never said I supported the President. You're the one. You're the one who supported him!

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (chuckling, tinkling his ice): Well, I suppose even Republicans reserve the right to stand behind the President sometimes.

The river has stopped churning and has gone iridescent, oil-slick, decorated in scales and rainbowed bubbles. The men sit and admire the sheen.

CITY PLANNER: I voted Romney like everyone else. I just think a man should say what he means. That's all. Is it too much to ask for a man to say what he means?

BOEING REP: Bush would have gone in. Hit 'em where it hurt. He was a businessman. Came from a family of businessmen. If nothing else, he recognized what it took to keep a factory running. He understood production potential, net operations. Shit, ol' Jeb came and visited when we unveiled the new Laser Small Diameter Bomb last year, didn't he? Excuse me, Pastor.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (with mocking reproach): It's all right.

CITY PLANNER: Here's something I never understood. Why did we plant the Jews in the Middle East after World War Two? I mean, couldn't we have relocated the whole business to Cuba? Sent the tribe of Israel to relax in the Caribbean? Hole up the communists in the Middle East, let Castro sandbag it with the Arabs for a while? Would have been the wise thing to do. Build a stucco Wailing Wall in Havana. Imagine, round-trip weekend cruises from Miami Beach to the Holy Land.

BOEING REP: Now you're onto something. See Pastor, I told you we come here for a reason.

CITY PLANNER: What a shame, with all those Jews down in South Florida, just aching for a spiritual home.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (muddling the lemon against the side of his glass with his finger): In Revelations, boys, they talk about the New Jerusalem. "And there will be no need for a temple, for the temple will be the Lord God Almighty."

CITY PLANNER (standing, pulling a cast net from under his chair): Let's see if I can catch me some menhaden. (He begins untangling the weights and netting.)

BOEING REP: Hey Pastor, did you ever hear the joke about the heathen and the missionary?

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR: Can't say if I have.

BOEING REP: So the heathen says to the missionary, "Father, if I never knew about God and sin, would I still go to hell?" "No," the missionary says. "No, not if you didn't know." So the poor heathen looks him hard in the eyes and says, "Father, oh, Father, why did you tell me?"

The CITY PLANNER's net describes a high spinning arc over the river, splashes down in a perfect circle. The brownish water bulges up as if to meet it, then sucks the net downward. The rope unreels with violent speed from the CITY PLANNER's hand. The BOEING REP, sensing something wrong, leaps from his chair to assist… the whole of the river lenses inward, as after a whale dives deep...

The LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR stands to his feet just as the CITY PLANNER and BOEING REP leave theirs. A spout of white water shoots heavenward as the men soar against the backdrop of the mangroves like giant mullet.

The LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR stands wide-eyed at the edge of the dock as the BOEING REP and CITY PLANNER vanish into the bubbling river. He waits a long time for someone to surface. No one does.

LIVING SPIRIT PASTOR (his voice trembling): And the water covered the path, and the chariots, and all the armies of Pharaoh. Father, oh Father, why did you tell me?