The sixteen year-old who dodged a dog and ended up plunging her father's car in the Detroit River was Justine Tinsley: a sweet faced, pudgy teen who lived on the second floor of her father's bar, Tinsley's Tip Up. A few years before earning her enduring label “the girl who plunged into the Detroit River,” Justine's friends thought of her only as the ardent animal lover who once stood up to her mean-eyed German neighbor and won a small victory.
Armed with raindrop-sized tears, bloodcurdling screams, and fistfuls of rocks, Justine had empowered her otherwise soft eleven year-old frame and ended up saving a rabbit's life, a rabbit she dubbed Dinner. Justine proudly carried this mark like a crown until the night the chilly water of the Detroit River swallowed the rusty, kick-dented front of her father's antiquated Volkswagen Bug.
The day Justine squared off with Schultz, she was peddling her banana yellow Huffy bike to the scrubby fields to launch a paper kite she had just bought from Rexall's Drugs. Justine would have made it but for the unexpected, desperate, and throaty animal screams pinging off the battered, paint-peeling structures that lined the rocky alley. Feeling like Harriet the Spy, Justine's most favored book heroine, she followed the sound, pumping her legs furiously, until she reached the stout German's garage.
She arrived in time to see sweaty Schultz loop a short length of brown twine around the back legs of a patchy black and white bunny. With one beefy arm, Schultz lifted the bunny from the ground and dangled it by its back legs. Wide-eyed and unable to breathe, Justine watched as the rabbit thrashed wildly. The rabbit's pink eyes rolled back in fear, and foamy froth dripped from its muzzle. Justine raised her hand to interrupt, but before she found her tongue to speak, Schultz clubbed the bunny behind the ears with a piece of pipe. The sound it made was oddly like the ping of a bat against an incoming softball. The rabbit's body performed a terrible death's dance as it writhed before going still. Justine screamed—her voice fueled by all the air her lungs once held. She sounded like a ferocious tomcat defending its territory. Throwing her bike down, she began to pummel Schultz with the oily rocks she blindly grabbed from around her sandaled feet. Schultz cursed as he tried to dodge the rocks.
The sound of their scuffle drove Schultz's skeletal wife from the relative safety of her kitchen. She ran trailing the strings of her flowered apron behind her like the kite Justine was planning to sail moments before into the cloudless, sapphire blue summer sky. "Enough! Enough!" Schultz's wife puffed between clenched teeth as she ran. She stopped Justine's one-sided rock war by waving her boney arms over her head ? "Little girl," she spat with feverous looking eyes, "these hares are for meat. For meat, I say!"
Now between her husband and Justine, Schultz's wife drilled her narrowed eyes into Justine's while she continued to explain. "See, Schulzy's been laid off from the McClouth's Steel Mill for so long. The money's run out. Times are tough, little girl. Tough! He's butchering the rabbits so we will have something to eat! To eat, I say, little girl!"
Justine was as immovable as the congealing blood pooling in Schultz's driveway. She looked beyond the pair and locked her eyes on the rabbits packed into tight little pens in the shadowy depths of Schultz's garage. The acrid stench of the rabbits' fear mixing with the filthiness of their cages wafted toward Justine's nose. It was the stink of misery, and it only nourished her desire to free the bunnies from Schultz's deadly clutches.
Following Justine's intense gaze, Schultz's wife ended the standoff by stomping over to the nearest set of cages. She swung one of the doors open, thrust her impossibly thin hand into the jumble of rabbits, and pulled from it a plump, tan bunny with too short ears, and caramel-colored eyes. She dangled the bunny by the fatty nape of his neck. "Here," she said. "Take him and go! Leave us, little girl. Go! Leave us. Go!"
The sight of the kicking bunny disengaged Justine's thick, short legs from their fixed stance. She eagerly embraced the bunny while her tears washed the rabbit's stinky fur. Balancing bike and bunny, she peddled back to the Tip Up taking her new pet home with her.
Dinner was the last in a parade of rescued animals nestled into makeshift cages that littered the Tip Up's backyard. Dinner outlived all of his predecessors. He fared better than Justine's ill-fated collection of injured birds whose broken wings she tried to mend with splints fashioned from swizzle sticks and dental floss. Birds that, despite Justine's loving tenderness, would soon perish in their shoe box homes. Dinner outlasted the skeletal orange kitten Justine found cowering at the side of the railroad tracks. Barely able to walk and weak from starvation, the poor creature died just hours after Justine found it, perhaps from starvation.
Bunny-hugger, bird-lover, and mother to all strays was how Justine was known until, at sixteen, she gladly took the keys and jumped into the sagging driver's seat of her father's VW Bug. Old man Tinsley hadn't worried about sending his newly licensed daughter out unsupervised on a chilly night to the Seven Eleven. Tinsley had a growing crisis on his hands. The Tip Up had run out of light cream for Jazzy Johnson's White Russians. Old Man Tinsley hated to say no to a pretty lady about as much as Jazzy despised leaving the Tip Up only half sober. Jazzy punctuated her need for more White Russians by pressing her feminine assets to her advantage. Captivated by the magic of Jazzy's sexy pout, Tinsley didn't have the heart to tell Jazzy "there was no cream in the inn." Instead, he called for Justine to run the errand Tinsley should have run or delegated to one of his hurried bar staff -- a hindsight idea that didn't occur to Tinsley at the time. As Tinsley later said in a voice choked with remorse, "the joint was jumpin'. I needed everyone who was workin', workin'!"
Besides, sensible Justine gave Tinsley little reason to worry about her driving skills. She'd just sailed through driver's education. Her instructor had called her one solid student driver. The day she graduated from driving school, the instructor shook Tinsley's liver-spotted hand and said with a tone of envy, "I sure wish there were more kid drivers like her!"
Everyone knew Justine was a girl who posed a level head and calm nerves -- except, of course, when it came to animals. And yet . . . Justine was just sixteen. So, despite her grounding common sense, she was just irresponsible enough to take advantage of her newfound driver's freedom. She piloted an indirect route to the Seven Eleven and ended up spinning what should have been a five-minute trip into a twenty-minute joyride through the deserted, rain-slicked roads of Elizabeth's Park, forgetting the desperate need for cream back at the Tip Up.
Justine had the car's radio tuned to WRIF, Detroit's home of rock-n-roll, and by the time she hit the park's entrance, she was drumming her fingers along to her favorite song. The song was reaching its thrumming electric guitar apex. Clouded by the music's pounding passion, Justine stomped her foot down onto the gas. The little car surged ahead. Because Justine had her eyes slightly closed and her mind focused on the song's lyrics, she didn't register that the little car was now doing a heart-stopping 40 miles an hour—a speed much too fast for the curvy, elevated slope of the park's riverside road.
The sudden appearance of a rain-soaked, rangy dog resurfaced Justine's mind back to earthly attention. Seeing the dog, she gave a scream while jerking quickly on the wheel. What happened next was typical for Justine. Rather than worrying for her own safety, Justine's mind zeroed in on the pull of Dinner's large, wet, and grateful eyes. Her hands began to sweat. Her stomach lurched.
Pressing on the first pedal available to her fumbling feet, Justine pumped the pedal she thought was the brake. The VW's engine roared as its wheels bumped up the curb. The unexpected, jarring impact pitched Justine's forehead into the stiff steering column. Darkness swallowed up the sight of the car smashing through a few feet of stiff, brown brush before it plunged into the icy cold river—another animal saved.
Amy E. Ochterski grew up in down river Detroit. She moved to Upstate New York, attended and graduated from nursing school, and wasn't more than a week into her student career as an RN when she realized that the pen was mightier than the bedpan. However, mother was ultra persuasive, so she completed her degree and still works in the field. While working full-time as a nurse, she obtained her BA and MA in literature from SUNY Brockport. She now teaches writing full-time at Corning Community College, Corning, New York. She has been crafting stories for years, but never had the courage to send her work out for public review until she saw Joyce Carol Oates lecture at Ithaca College last fall, who inspired Ochterski to get off her duff and send her works out for review.
Copyright 2004, Amy E. Ochterski. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.