Joseph Salame’s Long, Big,
Thin, Sideways Glass of
It was a pleasant, thundery morning, the first of May, when Joseph Salame decided to drink the Potomac River. It wasn’t the most appropriate day to start such a project. The rolling thunder hinted at the invention of new gods, and it looked like rain. Perhaps not enough for a flooding of the river, but certainly a swelling. The best estimate puts Salame at his car, parked in front of a fire hydrant in an upscale residential neighborhood west of Georgetown, at about 10:12 in the morning. From there he walked down to a rocky outcropping of the riverbank somewhere between Chain Bridge and Key Bridge. It is believed that he did have a plastic straw on his person, but also that the straw did not once leave his back pants pocket. He simply cupped the water into his hands, ferrying it into his notorious maw, and got a taste for it. Later methods and contraptions—scooping up river water with a sports bottle, the man-sized straw, the pump-hose apparatus ending in a custom-made, mouth guard-like aperture—were weeks and months away. As is more generally remembered, the first significant aqueous depletion of the soon-to-be Can-yon of the Potomac did not begin in earnest until two days later at the mouth of the river, Salame rolling it like a rug from Chesapeake Bay on up. But it was at this more secluded, homier spot, surrounded by an audience of incurious water birds, that Salame first discovered what his destiny tasted like. As it turned out, it did not rain that day, nor for several weeks afterwards.
Never was a calamity so well-timed.
What Salame did the next day (the only day off from drinking the Potomac River he would indulge in for the next four years) is not well-recorded, and I would invite the reader to speculate. What might have gone through his head—what ruminations did he struggle with, or enjoy? What was his plan? His doubts? Or was he untroubled by either? Examination of his home personal library and his complete internet search history reveal no interest in the topic of the Potomac, watersheds, or alluvial science in general. Nor were there any salient inquiries into the human renal system and its capabilities. Retrospective tracking of his incognito habits, provided courtesy of the NSA, indicate little: Salame did once click on a golden shower video, but exited the browser tab within seven seconds of opening it. Still, tracks can be discerned beneath the heavy snow. Salame was known to brag—in bars, on his Twitter feed, on custom-printed t-shirts—that there was nothing to hold him back anymore. When asked held back by what exactly, he would reply with an air of deniable irony that his throat was horribly parched and he wanted to do something about it. Several neighbors and friends have since (credibly) admitted (upon coercion) that he had been neither shy nor underhanded about his exciting new urge. Some maintain that they contacted the police beforehand, but a perusal of the record indicates plainly that they are lying. Regardless, how or why the relevant authorities (FBI, National Park Service) failed to act against such an explicitly articulated threat is as unknowable as it is reprehensible.
Salame toiled for about two weeks before his efforts began to attract attention. By that time, there was a gap of about ten meters from the tip of Point Lookout and the avant-garde of his greatest progress inland. A quaint pace, really. Perhaps you can look back upon such figures and smile bitterly to yourself. I admit that I do. However, keep in mind that the Potomac is miles wide as it meets the Chesapeake. At first, a pedestrian or two enjoying the peace of Point Lookout Sanctuary would stumble upon Salame, down on his knees and drinking up the river with shocking greed. But after the rumors peaked, a crowd amassed a safe distance away from the waterline. Some brought coolers filled with water bottles, beers, juice boxes. Others lugged gallons of water they had just bought at the store, asking—Are you just thirsty? We have some- thing you can drink. You don’t need to get yourself sick on that dirty river water. You must be really thirsty. But Salame couldn’t talk; he only drank.
It was a naïve time.
Who was this man drinking the entire Potomac? Joseph Salame was not quite a drifter, not quite an itinerant, but a worker who could never settle into any single kind of work. He was a failed electronic musician, a butcher of pork, a programming consultant, the ex-mayor of Augsburg, Illinois, the distinguished two-term sheriff of Navajo County, a bag boy, a lumberjack, a street sweeper, a living statue, a marriage counselor, a hair stylist manqué, an Air Force brigadier general, a Youtuber, a co-author of English textbooks for Japanese schoolchildren, the foreman of a factory that made flags and pantyhose, and the last great double agent of the ice cream van turf wars—purportedly in that order.
Two years before his rise to fluvial prominence, Salame was supposed to move along with his family—one wife and one child, thoroughly normal and lovable in their needs and desires—to a shag-carpeted apartment in the D.C. area, but at the last minute completely forgot to bring them. For years, their whereabouts was the holy grail of Salame-biographers. I am pleased to report that this researcher not only located them but had the privilege of an audience in Salame’s former living room. Unfortunately, the interview quickly careened into fiery confusion. Salame’s wife had trouble remembering her own surname, and when her attention was drawn to Salame’s pictures on the walls and clothes in the closet, she behaved as if she were the victim of a malevolent magic trick. The boy, too, playing with toy submarines in the bathtub, could make nothing of my gentle questioning. When I left the little ranch house, the look in the woman’s eyes was one of pro- found pity for me, which she could not know how strongly I reciprocated.
At the time, Salame considered his relocation a brilliant (later, a dumb) career move: Washington is, after all, primarily known as the World Capital of Electronic Music. But Salame failed to make a splash in the local scene. The lone flyer printed for his solitary concert appearance has unfortunately not survived, forgeries on exhibit at the Library of Congress notwithstanding. But neither was Salame a complete shut-in. He was known by sight if not by character at all the weekly trivia nights, open-house think tank panels, and two or three of the nicer churches that never wanted for congregations. His main hobby was un- successful party-bowling, and his well-acknowledged enemy was the ocean. If the Potomac, languidly flowing past old-growth forests and marble monuments alike, was a particular source of irritation or anger to Salame, he confided in no individual known to modern scholarship. That is all to say that during his quiet years, no observer could have especially picked him out from amongst the countless outlaws, lawmakers, scandalcrats, carjackers, cat fanciers, pillow-stealers, and software-dentists trapped cheek-by-jowl within the Beltway.
In retrospect, should we have been in any way surprised that he drank the whole Potomac?
After three months of hogging the world’s biggest drinking fountain, he had advanced his technique enough that he could suck up about a mile of river a day. Before long, he was gaining on Washington itself. What was left behind him was a damp, muddy scrape of earth, a waterless fjord sprinkled with the sun-bloated, beak-pecked, fly-harvesting corpses of fish, frogs, turtles, dolphins, and sharks. People started to think of him, for the first time, as a threat.
Every day while he was drinking—gulp gulp, glug glug— he was surrounded by teeth-gnashing protestors, soccer moms and baby-bjorn daddies with irate signs and chants. The post office wouldn’t process his mail; Trader Joe’s wouldn’t sell him his frozen hash browns or tinned dolma; not a soul spoke to him at Russian Language Nights. His music career was wrung dead at the neck: his albums, released in 2005 and 2007, were scrubbed from Spotify (where they had begun to attract a Mansonesque listenership). And when it was discovered that he had accidentally qualified for the Maryland Bar while registering his change of address at the DMV, he was disbarred with an audible snapping sound (although the record is unclear whether he was ever aware of either his meteoric rise or fall in the legal field). The city council even passed an emergency ordinance banning the sale of all biscuits of an excessive dryness, whether restaurant or retail.
Naturally, Salame was arrested several times for tampering with a public water system. But no matter his place of incarceration (including US military prisons on Guam and Guantanamo Bay), the Potomac went on receding, and the prisoner was always discovered with an impossibly long straw stuck into the grout between the bricks of his cell, inhaling mouthfuls like a desperate smoker. Law enforcement eventually decided to cut him loose. All they had done was waste taxpayer money by providing him housing as he drank.
Meanwhile, in a rushed, graceless pivot, local environmental groups put out public apologies for their Potomac- conservation efforts of the past two decades, which had been famous for rehabilitating a disgusting muck-trap into a clean and enticing body of water. They had not meant to turn the river into a tasty treat. Likewise, good citizens rued every candy bar wrapper, geriatric liquor bottle, sun- bleached soda can, and used needle they had sifted out of the river and environs. Locals began—first as one-offs out of anger, and then in organized civic groups—to dump their trash and waste upstream of Salame. Great caravans of big yellow dump trucks dropped literal tons of salt, bags and bags of the pellets meant for water softeners. But no matter how putrid or saline the water became, Salame’s thirst did not slack. He drank regardless, double-time when it rained. Flooding, among much else, was a thing of the past.
Everybody tried some angle or other to stop him. Snide dairy men tapped him on the shoulder, bribed him with tankards of milk. He would only shake his head, his cheeks pouched with Potomac, leaking dribbles of the suddenly precious stuff. Wise men came to reason with him, singly and in groups, and when he did not listen, they attacked him with guns and bricks or with their hands and teeth. But they could not pull him away. He crippled them all without once dropping the straw from his mouth.
One question fascinated laymen and experts alike: where did all the water go? Forget jiggling water weight or dihydrogen monoxide-poisoning; anybody could see that somewhere there should have appeared another stream, as voluminous and forceful as the former Potomac. Headlines blared: WHERE IS THE YELLOW RIVER? Locating the site of release became the highest priority for Salame-watchers. He never slipped away from their surveillance—he never even tried—and there simply was no new well- spring, no Second Columbia or Neo-Mississippi, certainly no American Huang He steeping the watersheds of this or any other continent.
Some of the more spiritually-minded amongst the populace came to believe that Salame’s micturition took place on another plane of being, in the form of a pure (i.e. watery, clear, and blue) substance that facilitated transportation to the divine. Adherents of this new ferryboat-cult could soon be found in all fifty states. Another sect, a gaggle of Arizonans, preached that Salame was storing up his titanic beverage for a future day when he would saunter across the continent (In how many steps? Two? Three?) and replenish the decimated Colorado from his all-powerful bladder. The Hoover Dam would be swamped to collapse, the water table blessed for a thousand years, the Sea of Cortez transformed into a great and fecund delta, and, in the best judgment-day tradition, no Californian permitted a single drop. In confrontations with the press, Salame always seemed the most amused, in the judgment of this writer, when asked to ponder other people’s intense interest in his elimination. I don’t like to think about it too much, myself, he would say with a tight grin on his face.
Nor could anybody re-create his feat. The poor, wannabe copy-cats who were deluded enough to try—at the Potomac itself, at the Nile, at the Cooum—were lucky if they escaped dysentery with their lives.
During the height of the media frenzy—that is to say, when the river began to disappear from under the eyes of Congress, K Street, and the Post—many average Americans got it into their heads that Salame’s big drink was some kind of protest against the government. Why else pick the Potomac, a river without any symbolic connection to the American imagination other than our collective civic delusion? Such was the logic of these counter-protesters who met the anti-Salame demonstrators with picket signs of their own, explicitly filtering Salame’s senseless, unquenchable, rapacious slurp through muddled ideas about income tax and individual liberty. Oblivious to all political viewpoints, Salame rolled right on past Washington, slurfing his long slurf upstream, past all those who cheered or jeered him. He didn’t have time for them.
Frankly, he had a lot left to drink.
But of course, the whole world doesn’t revolve around such a regrettable scoundrel as Joseph Salame. He engrossed himself in taking his rubber eraser to a line that only he had the eyes to see as aberrant—a task which demanded perfect devotion but promised the filling of all his life’s hollowness. Yet, his removal of an entire ecosystem unleashed a chain of events that grew exceedingly com- plex in a microscopic stretch of time. The trees that lined the riverbanks died and crashed in every direction—the forests grew thinner and browner for dozens of miles—the bald eagles, deer, and squirrels that once thrived in the locality were driven away north and south, as if belatedly repelled by the Mason-Dixon line.
Neither did people just sit there gawping at the new emptiness, the fresh scar across the land. Once the shock wore off, many began to develop motivations and inspirations of their own. Some eyed the new land like slices of cake, with the same settler-mindset that had once carved a country ex nihilo from the world of the Native Americans. These modern Pilgrims swooped into the canyon with its rich silt soil and shaded coziness. Thus were new settlements founded, new societies forged in the loamy wake of Salame’s super-hydration. To these hard-scrabble villagers, Salame was only a silent, pre-creative figure, upon whom no more thought was to be squandered than upon a boulder or a mild earthquake. As soon as the first dwellings were raised, Salame was already beyond examination or remembrance.
Developing the canyon was a controversial practice. Those who chose to remain “on dry land” libeled, mocked, spat on, militated against those who forged their calamitous new beginning down in the ex-riverbed. What the settlers found down there only exacerbated the tensions. Not just sunken Spanish galleons and shards of indigenous pottery—although these items did garner much needed capital as museum acquisitions—but secrets united by their need to stay buried: epic poems composed by dinosaurs, Joseph Smith’s rough drafts on lead, woolly mammoth algebra, concrete bunkers of extraterrestrials, burial mounds of fly-fishermen killed as a simulacra of human sacrifice.
The rest of the country could not remain the same as before, either. Even Americans not at all materially affected by Salame’s guzzling rampage began to reconsider their own thirst. It became a virtue to give up drinking as much as possible, out of symbolic solidarity with everything that Salame’s enterprise offended inside of them. Tea and alcohol were foregone. Water was merely nipped at. Dairy farms sold all their cows for beef. Cotton-mouthed men and women the nation over pricked themselves with home IV kits once per day to have done with drinking altogether. Others were less literal. They bought fewer consumer products, used less gasoline, even drained their loved ones’ emotional resources less vampirically.
This was all so much meaningless noise to our Joseph. In the time that others spent talking, Salame became a craftsman, a statesman, a dean, a senior executive of his singular life task. Even when he got depressed—when he started seeing a therapist and would talk for hours with her about how he sometimes regretted his watery commitment, how he missed his family, how he realized that drinking the Potomac did not make him happy—he did not stop. Around when he got to the mountainous panhandle of Maryland, the stock to the state’s oddly Uzi-like shape, he lost himself in a spiritual quest of great depth. He lived the life of an ascetic, wandering the mists and dales of the Appalachians, traversing the minefields of his soul, uprooting his conception of the self, and refashioning his understanding of the cosmos and mankind. He meditated on the vanity of worldly pursuits and the irreality of all material and consciousness. He renounced his short-sightedness and his arrogance and his smallness and his meanness. But still during all that time, he did not stop drinking. He drank like an engineer. He drank like a madman. He drank like a criminal. He drank like a leader. He drank like a schlub, like a hired hand, like an artist. But always he drank and drank.
Between the day that Salame sucked dry the source of the South Branch in Highland, Virginia and the final victory, the end of all things, when he descended upon Fairfax Stone Historical Monument Park to scuff out of existence the very inchoate tip of the North Branch, the first departments of Salameic Studies were inaugurated in liberal arts schools and technical colleges the world over. To this day, scientists and critics study him as a phenomenon, a plague or a gift that came once to the eastern seaboard and whose libational heirs could emerge anywhere, anytime again. Salame himself, however, is on the record as stating that he did not believe that he was some new type of person. He was always quite forceful about this. His statement on the matter was very clear, if people would only take the trouble to parse the record: I am not different from the rest, not fundamentally.
What shall we make of this?
When he finished, on that cold, lonely evening up in Fairfax Stone, there was nobody crowded around him.
Nobody astonished. Nobody angry. Nobody inspired. The Potomac had vanished from memory by this time, the former river having had no effect on anybody’s life for years, and so it happened that the actual completion of his project was of no public interest. Salame wiped his mouth with his sleeve and looked around. He felt a chill. There was no liquid anywhere. It is generally accepted that he said: I’m glad I did it, but I’m never doing something like that again. But I cannot bring myself to endorse the consensus view. Not fully. I believe in reality he said something more like: I knew from the beginning I should have stopped.
And truly, beyond the limits of knowledge or desire, I believe he could not have stopped.
As for where he is now, there are only questions. Nobody remembers what he looks like. He might have stayed where he was; he might have left. He might have killed himself, or he might have died trying. Perhaps he became something new, or maybe he was only just beginning. Those in the Canyon of the Potomac care not, because they live in their ditch, attending to their runes and idols, and they will not risk their necks searching for a man who does not know what to do with himself anymore.
Ankur Razdan grew up in Arizona and now writes in Washington, D.C. His short stories have appeared in Rabbit Hole Mag, Oscilloscope, Quail Bell, and 34th Parallel. You can follow him on Twitter at @mukkuthani.