The Floater

Everyone always said i was bound to find a body in the river. They were right.

It happened on May 4, a spring day so sweet I felt only the smallest twinge of guilt for blowing off a looming deadline. My neighbor Cory and I had spent the afternoon fishing for smallmouth on the Mississippi River. A little before six o'clock, we were casting plugs about a mile above St. Anthony Falls when the Patrick Gannaway, a towboat, came chugging upriver with two barges.

Suddenly, the pilot of the Gannaway was squawking on the loudspeaker. It was difficult to make out exactly what he was saying over the roar of the Gannaway's twin diesels. Something about the Broadway Bridge. Something about a person in the water.

Once it sunk in, I fired up the motor and we boated a short distance downriver to the bridge. I could see an ambulance and a few police cruisers, cherries flashing, lining West River Road. There were about two dozen people spread across the sloping, grassy hill that leads to the water's edge. They looked like bird dogs, their eyes all fixed on the exact same spot in the middle distance. When I followed the invisible line from their eyes to the river, I saw what they were all looking at. A man was floating facedown, just the top of his head and the nape of his neck breaking the surface of the water, about 30 yards from the shore.

I motored closer and stared. I felt squeamish. I looked to the nearest shoreline and saw a Minneapolis police officer. I asked what I should do. He said a search and recovery crew was on its way. I took this to mean that we should leave the body where it was. Maybe this was a crime scene and shouldn't be disturbed, I thought. There didn't seem to be any urgency from anyone. No frantic waving of arms. No shouting. No one jumping into the water to drag the body to safety.

As we drifted slowly with the current, I looked more closely. He was an older man--Latino in appearance, heavyset with thinning white hair, bushy black eyebrows, and a thick moustache. He was dressed in loose-fitting pants, black slippers and, I think, a polo-style shirt. I was paralyzed.

For several years now, I have spent so much time tooling around the river that friends have often said that it was strictly a matter of time before I came across a body. I always laughed at such jokes. I made the cracks myself. When it was happening and I was trapped in a moment that felt so unreal and hyper-real at the same time, of course, it wasn't funny.

I don't know how much time passed. Maybe it was 30 seconds. Or a minute. Or two. I remember looking downriver and seeing an approaching boat. I figured it was the rescue boat and I felt relieved. As the boat came into view, I determined that it was just an old fiberglass jalopy, probably out on a pleasure cruise and almost certainly oblivious to what was happening.

Then I thought, after too much hesitation, What if the guy isn't dead yet? We motored next to the body. Cory--who in the past year lost his leg to a motorcycle accident and his father to a heart attack--is one of the more unflappable people I know. He just plunged his hand in the water and grabbed the guy's collar. He turned the body faceup, and held tightly as we trolled toward land. There were no signs of consciousness or life--just a faint, white froth on the lips.

When we got to the shore, the cop I'd spoken to dragged the body onto the sand and flipped it over. Just as I was thinking that it sure seemed like everyone was dawdling, I heard Cory shout loudly: "Get a medic down here! Now!" A few EMTs, toting a stretcher, made their way down the hill and, after putting on their latex gloves and mucking around with their gear, began administering CPR. Cory and I sat in the boat and watched.

When I looked up at the crowd on the hill, I noticed Dan Corrigan, a Minneapolis rock photographer and longtime City Pages contributor, and his wife Rebecca. Dan was shooting pictures of the grim scene. I heard a cop yell at him to stop and to show some respect for the dead.

Then another cop summoned Cory and me to a different spot on the beach, 20 yards or so from the body. He asked to see our driver's licenses, and scribbled some notes into his pad. He offered a sliver of information: He told us that a passerby had called 911 after seeing the man leap from the Broadway Bridge. Then he said we could go.

We pushed the boat back into the current, and slowly floated downriver until we were 10 yards or so from the EMTs, who were still pounding on the man's chest. We stared, until another officer said, "Thank you." It was one of those Thank-yous that suggests by its tone and inflection the opposite meaning: "Move along. Nothing to see here. Don't be a morbid fucker."

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