At Risk of Drowning

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt


risk of drowning

I love this road. Its metropolitan name, Fifth Street, belies its rural character. Just past the Rainbow Oaks—a favorite of truckers and bikers, which means good coffee, ample servings and a bar—acres of plants potted for sale line the road’s borders. Rustic fences, never-mowed yards, overhanging trees. And it has a wonderful dip, to accommodate a creek that becomes a roiling river when we have the rare downpour in San Diego County.

After the dip, littered today with nature’s refuse, is the shop where students stop in to buy tamarind and chili candies. Then there’s the one-school district campus, still so waterlogged from the unusual days of rain, the kids are having recess in the county park next door. Some of the children are my eighth-grade students, most of whom want to go to college, so they allow me to teach them how to write, which I also love. My weekly visits to Rainbow, California are pretty sweet.

Not today, though.

Heading home from the writing class, mine is the only car on the road, but I don’t appreciate the solitude, the familiar beauty, the remnants of a storm glistening in leaves turned to the sun. Instead, I’m grinding my teeth to yet another reminder of a hideous presidential campaign, a hateful first week in office, a regular barrage of ugly pronouncements; to the narcissistic rhythm of a Donald Trump and Theresa May press conference on the radio; to insipid declarations of the greatness of their new “special relationship.”

If Trump weren’t such a risk to the nation—to the world—the description’s dissonance between today and when Winston Churchill first uttered it would be laughable.

But I’m not laughing when I notice the orange-vested men down the road by the dip and slow my car to an idle, although I’m grateful for the distraction from my grinding rage.

One man approaches with a labored gait—as though he’s lugging something—but all he has is the SLOW-STOP sign dangling unused in his hand, flapping with the breeze of his movement.

He makes eye contact before I can turn off the radio and get my window down. His look is not bold, not scolding for some error I might have unintentionally committed. He’s not smiling nor scowling. He looks … sad.

“It’ll just be two or three minutes,” he says. “You can wait here. If you want.”

This is not the sort of traffic directing I’m used to.

“It’s up to you,” he says.

“I can go around the back way, no problem.”

He looks at me.

“Or you can wait. It’ll just be another two or three minutes.”

He wants me to wait. He’s sad and he wants me to wait.

“OK. … How’re you doing today?” I ask.

“Not so— We’re conducting an investigation. It’s, well, it’s rough.”

He looks at me, still.

I recall the local news, diminished by Trump’s devastating executive orders. The storm-driven river rampaging through Rainbow. An older driver and a five-year-old boy. The days-long search.

“Oh,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

“The boy didn’t drown,” the man says. “We found him in the brush. His little arms were wrapped around a tree. Waiting for someone to rescue him. Can’t tell how long he’d been there. Just waiting. And a seventy-three-year old driver. Should’ve known better—with a five-year-old in the car. What was he thinking, trying to go through it?”

The man pauses, takes a weighted breath.

“We see a lot of dead bodies. Intoxicated, distracted, drowsy. All ages, but a lot of kids, teenage males speeding, kids texting. But that boy, holding onto the tree. …”

His two-way radio sputters. The two or three minutes are up.

He looks at me, still.

Through the window, I take his hand.

“I’m sorry you have to do this,” I say, “but thank you.”

He lifts his eyes, glistening leaves turned to the sun.

I roll away from the man and reach for the radio, but I can’t turn it on. I drive through the dip, under the trees, past the potted plants, the Rainbow Oaks, turn left on Old Highway 395, and pull over. I cry for the man, for the boy and the driver, for their families, for my nation at risk of drowning.



About Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Spawned by a Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, K-B inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them. As a result, she’s a feminist writer, she supports unrestricted access to affordable abortion and other reproductive health services, and she’s an immigration and LGBTQ rights advocate. She also birthed a child of color, who’s taught her a lot about white privilege and intersectionality. An erstwhile political columnist with an MFA in Creative Writing, K-B is a Women’s Studies lecturer and a founding editor of

Photo credit: Helen White via a Creative Commons license.

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11 replies
  1. Shraddha Knight says:

    …oh KB…your beautiful metaphor of the mans eyes and glistening leaves~breathtaking…and just cried my eyes out with your last paragraph…

  2. Sharon Lynne Thompson says:

    Simple and stunning, a hard-truth that wraps itself in a metaphor we all sense so deeply. The art of the ‘essay’- if that is what this is (it feels both non-fiction and fictional in it’s clarity and beauty) brings tears to my eyes. Brief, touching, wonderful. Thank you, K.B.

  3. Kim Kinman says:

    I’d put off reading this. I was afraid I knew what the subject would be. Every time I think of the little boy – in his red tennies, with the Great-uncle he adored, my heart breaks a little bit more. I hope your writing reaches the man with the sign and the family of the boy and his uncle. I think they’d be so moved.