Swing Time (VIII and final)

It was only four or five minutes later when the first several police officers, accompanied by several members of the Hadley Fire Department, a handful of paramedics, and an assortment of squawking radios, burst through the brambly growth at the edge of the bluff, cut, cursing and panicked. They saw the rope, now dangling peacefully from its impossibly high anchor site. The end of it hung limply over the water, pointing down like a weak, accusatory finger. The surface of the Kiddamoosuc mocked them with its calmness. And that was all.
Then the radios started jabbering in earnest, and didn’t stop for several hours. It seemed like a long time before the first State Police Aquatic Rescue Unit (otherwise known as a boat) arrived on the scene. By then, national networks were already receiving the incredible footage of the daredevil jumper from small-town New Hampshire and dressing it up with appropriately somber voice-overs.

An exhausted Greg Drumb emerged from the shadowy waters of the Kiddamoosuc forty-five minutes later. Over three-quarters of a mile from the panic and clamor and flashing lights, he pulled himself up on shore and crawled under the shade of an elm. He was hundreds of yards from any road – that was the thing about the Kiddamoosuc; it teased Hadley rather than joined it, and was really only visible from major roadways for about a half-mile stretch downtown, still two miles south of where Greg, looking like an alien, took refuge in the shade of a particular tree and, fighting off the urge to fade into unconsciousness, began stripping off his scuba gear.
Bill Conroy was not with him. But a rigid-limbed figure in a black dry suit floated facedown in a small cove less than a hundred feet from where Greg lay. Greg had made sure it was out of sight.


It was only four or five minutes later when the first several police officers, accompanied by several members of the Hadley Fire Department, a handful of paramedics, and an assortment of squawking radios, burst through the brambly growth at the edge of the bluff, cut, cursing and panicked. They saw the rope, now dangling peacefully from its impossibly high anchor site. The end of it hung limply over the water, pointing down like a weak, accusatory finger. The surface of the Kiddamoosuc mocked them with its calmness. And that was all.
Then the radios started jabbering in earnest, and didn’t stop for several hours. It seemed like a long time before the first State Police Aquatic Rescue Unit (otherwise known as a boat) arrived on the scene. By then, national networks were already receiving the incredible footage of the daredevil jumper from small-town New Hampshire and dressing it up with appropriately somber voice-overs.

An exhausted Greg Drumb emerged from the shadowy waters of the Kiddamoosuc forty-five minutes later. Over three-quarters of a mile from the panic and clamor and flashing lights, he pulled himself up on shore and crawled under the shade of an elm. He was hundreds of yards from any road – that was the thing about the Kiddamoosuc; it teased Hadley rather than joined it, and was really only visible from major roadways for about a half-mile stretch downtown, still two miles south of where Greg, looking like an alien, took refuge in the shade of a particular tree and, fighting off the urge to fade into unconsciousness, began stripping off his scuba gear.
Bill Conroy was not with him. But a rigid-limbed figure in a black dry suit floated facedown in a small cove less than a hundred feet from where Greg lay. Greg had made sure it was out of sight.

The search and rescue teams combed the Kiddamoosuc all afternoon and into the early evening, without success, of course, since Greg had done their work for them already. They all knew the jumper, as they called him, wasn’t going to turn up alive. Rope or no rope, dry-suited or buck naked – no one could survive a drop of that magnitude. Owing to surface tension, hitting the water from such a height was, at the moment of impact, qualitatively little different than hitting concrete. Their efforts were duly filmed by circling TV helicopters: a tragic exclamation point for the evening stories. If only they could catch someone fishing a body out of the drink.
In spite of themselves, more than a few of the rescue workers found their eyes drawn not to the choppers, but to the branch far, far above, and could only shake their heads in something that was more raw admiration than consternation.

Bill stayed in the maple tree at the top of the bluff for a long time. He had a lot to reflect on.
Things had gone so smoothly it was if a celestial puppeteer had guided the proceedings. Rigging the mannequin he’d obtained through Randi with a dry suit took little ingenuity, but the frequency-modulation-controlled clasp connecting the mannequin’s “hands” to the rope could have given way at any moment – or not at all. Instead, it had let go just at the right moment, when Bill had slapped the button on the remote control he held; at the height of the show, as it were. And he had little doubt that Greg had successfully culled the evidence from the Kiddamoosuc. But Bill was too busy being pensive to pat himself on the back.
He couldn’t help but think: What if he himself had been clinging to the end of that rope?
He thought he very likely would have frozen, only to…then what? Crash into the sandy bank like a failed biplane pilot? Swing to and fro like a child’s toy until his exhausted arms gave way, sending him whirling through the air toward an imprecise but deadly destination?
Bill had never felt so alive.

Ultimately the rescue personnel picked up their toys and left, and Bill came down. He felt a peculiar lightness to his step at a time when he should have felt cramped, exhausted. He imagined he’d have a lot of explaining to do at some point, and grinned.

A year later on the Route 4 Bridge.
It was another scorcher. Bill and Greg drank Mountain Dew and Yoo-Hoo, respectively, but the real tonic of the afternoon was reflection. Gazing out at the vista that had made Hadley famous for a day, the casual observer would have noted nothing out of the ordinary except that absurdly oversized tree. They knew better, of course. Besides the tiny swatch of rope that they could just make out that still clung to the massive branch, they were looking at a locus of untold power. Perhaps even now it still harbored secrets.
“Do you think,” asked Bill, “we could ever do it again?” In the initial uproar the previous year, he’d been charged with everything from reckless conduct to disturbing the peace to malicious mischief to things he’d never even heard of. All the charged were dropped in exchange for one hundred hours of community service, to wit: helping the chain gangs paint this very bridge.
Overall, his reputation in the aftermath of what some rudely called a “prank” had only prospered. He’d answered some questions for that Imus fellow, but had turned down requests from David Letterman, People Magazine, and others. Having just completed his first semester as a four-point-oh environmental engineering student at the state university, he was moving beyond the event that threatened to define him.
Greg knew what his friend meant. It was more a metaphysical question than a practical one, answerable only with the aid of retrospection. “I think,” said Greg – now over one year sober and an assistant manager at the Texaco station – “that we’ll never have to do it again.” His role in the “prank” had never even come to light. And that’s just how he liked it. Fooling all of the people some of the time was work best done anonymously. God knew he’d been on the other end too many times in his life.
Greg drank in the sight of the oak tree, so majestic, everlasting. It was time to go.
“Bill,” he said, “I think the rope swing will always be there. Won’t it?”
His friend, smiling faintly at nothing, gazed over the waters of the Kiddamoosuc River – turned a rippling gold-russet under another fine summer sunset – and said: “Yeah. Yes, I think it will.”
They stayed quite a while. When the shadows began to grow long, they left, and waited for the day to catch up once more.