Tuckahoe, New York, Fall 2020—I’m walking home from the Bronx River; it was one of the last clear days of the season.
I lived on a hill and would walk that hill daily, down and back from the shops, the train station, the park. Every day I passed a long-standing mom-and-pop store called Epstein’s Dry Goods. It sold everything from backpacks to books.
I never went in—I had this weird aversion to opening unknown doors at the time—merely glanced through the big store windows and caught sight of mothers helping their children try on sneakers. Older couples browsing the merchandise. Family. It made me feel unbearably lonely to see them.
But this day was different. The door was open to the bright sunny day, and there was a large sign reading, “Closing Sale” in bold red letters. I hesitated at the doorway for a heartbeat before drifting inside.
For some reason, I believed that anywhere I went, people could tell I didn’t belong and would ask me to leave. It never happened. But still, I gripped my backpack straps tighter, sweat gathering at my temples from my mask, breath fogging my glasses, and braced for a confrontation.
The old man behind the counter greeted me in a detached voice, barely looking up from his book. I didn’t wonder until later if he was Epstein. He was sad enough for that to be true.
I looked over belts and shoes, feeling silly, feeling guilty—why had I not come in sooner?
Logically I knew my business would not have been enough to make a difference in Epstein’s fate, but there was a kernel of responsibility lodged in my throat. I slipped towards the door with nothing in my hands, unable to face the man at the cash register.
That’s when I saw the books. I missed them on my way in, too worried about someone telling me I wasn’t welcome to see the one thing that could always make me feel like I belonged. My gaze jumped from title to title and then to the hand-written “FREE,” sign taped to the little trolly. These stories no longer had a home.
If I had the space in my backpack, in my arms, or somewhere to put them besides a muggy shoebox-sized room, I would have scooped them all up. But I could not. I picked up the first one that caught my eye.
It had a torn, scuffed jacket depicting a few trees on a beige background. It was warm from the sun and textured with age. The inside cover read “Mark Epstein,” in blue pen, underlined. The title read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I didn’t know anything about the book, but I knew it was meant to come home with me.
“This is free?” I confirmed. My voice felt strange and far away—I usually did not speak aloud to anyone on the weekends, didn’t have the chance.
“Yeah, sure.” the man said.
“Thank you.” I held the book closer to my chest. “I’m sorry.”
I don’t know if he heard me—masks and all—but I hope he did.
I resumed my trek up the hill. Up the porch stairs, up the house stairs that curved strangely and were far too narrow, unlocked my bedroom door, and fell into Tinker Creek with Annie Dillard.
Between 12-hour+ work days, grocery trips, and commuting, I would escape to Tinker Creek, savoring a few pages at a time. I didn’t want to finish it too quickly—it felt essential that I crawl through it line by line. On the weekends, sometimes, I would bring it with me and sit by the river and read it, looking around at the forest and riverbank with new eyes as Annie showed me a miniature world at our fingertips.
The way she wrote about nature and the change of seasons made me feel like everything would be okay so long as there were rivers and creeks, birds and minnows. I once stayed so still on a fallen tree that a chipmunk almost hopped into my lap. There were at least three of them darting around the underbrush, playing. Soon the frogs and toads poked their heads out of the silt, too, bubbles clinging to their knobby heads. A squirrel watched me from a low-hanging branch before vaulting to the nearest tree trunk.
I believe that river and that book had a hand in saving my life. If I can find a river, I know I will be okay. There has always been a creek, a river, or a stream, to bring me back to myself no matter the circumstance. Today is no different.
I still have that book; I haven’t finished it. I read a few pages some mornings out on my deck with a mug of something warm, squinting in the early sun. It clenches my heart and eases my mind simultaneously.
I’m halfway done and still not ready to set it down for good. But I will. My bookmark is a dried willow leaf and almost crushed into nothing.
But part of me knows I won’t ever really put it down; part of me will always be reading at Oval Park with the ground squirrels, no matter where I am.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a river equivalent in your life.