This was a final project for a creative writing class, but I'd like to see what you guys think of it in case it can be refined even further.
The old stone bridge a couple miles outside of town is one of the world’s quiet places. It’s about half a mile long, but you might think it was endless from driving on it without a glance at the odometer. Road grows out from the centerline in both directions like a cell in the middle of splitting apart, with three-foot-high stone walls acting like bookends. And sometimes, early in the morning, the sun will hit the river and the fog will rise and the bridge will disappear into the mist. Unless, that is, you’re on the bridge when the fog’s up. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when the world goes away. And then there’s only the bridge and its two lanes on each side and you’re moving forward but you might as well not be because you can no longer see how far you’ve come or where you’re going and the only things in the world are the ones you’ve brought with you.
The bridge had been like that when I took the photo of my father I’d been staring at. He was standing by the wall, with the fog behind him and a soft smile on his face. He’d taught me to fish off the side when I was a kid. I remember sitting on the wall, bottom sore from the stillness, calves chafing from rubbing against the stone, fingers bloody from accidents born of inexperience with the contents of an oversized overcomplicated tackle box. I never complained. My father made me quiet.
He had been mountain of a man wrapped in a craggy face and a stone-grey beard and anchored by limbs like tree trunks. He had been a mechanic, a handyman, a fixer of broken things. Not like me. He’d had had a kind of quiet confidence to him that made everything he did seem like a part of the natural order of things, like that was how things were supposed to be. He had been the type of person you’d have found a picture of in the dictionary next to words like Patriarch
, if the family had ever gotten bigger.
He had been
I closed the album. I was wasting time, searching through it and reminiscing. Getting away from the plan. I was supposed to skim through the albums to see if they were mine, to see if they were worth taking. There was a schedule to keep. I placed it in a cardboard box along with some other odds and ends and memories. It barely fit, and when I sealed it up I had to fold the lid around a memory-sized bump.
I looked around the living room at the half-dozen similarly bulging boxes and realized I had more things than places to put them. I’d have to make a run to the hardware store. I didn’t really want to do that - didn’t want to be around people. Or didn’t want them to be around me, I’m not sure which. But if I had to make human contact, I could probably do worse than the guy who ran Denton’s Hardware. I passed an old framed picture of three smiling faces and the closed door to my wife’s bedroom on the way out of the house.
The bell at Denton’s Hardware had fallen off its mounting months ago, and nobody had bothered to replace it. Why would they
, I thought. It wasn’t as though it got enough use to justify its existence.
Besides, Jack Denton had never seemed to need it. He’d taken over the shop from his dad about ten years ago, and had apparently inherited the old man’s sixth sense for customers, the one that let him instantly spot my father when he would walk in to pick up supplies. Any time someone needed something from him, Jack was just there, sporting a frown that screamed let’s get this over with so I can get your money, you can get what you want, and we can get rid of each other.
Not me, though. Not anymore. For me the frown said get out. Get out and go get yourself some help.
“Hey,” I murmured as Jack appeared out of the shelves.
“How’s Meg?” he asked.
He sighed and shook his head. “What do you need?”
“Boxes. Big ones.”
Jack closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, they had a kind of focus I’d never seen from him. I wasn’t entirely sure what he was thinking, but I could guess, and I thanked him for keeping it to himself.
After a moment, he spoke again. “It’s like that, then?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How many do you need?”
“Don’t know. Five ought to be plenty.”
Jack grunted and disappeared into the aisles again and returned carrying the requested boxes folded up under his arm. He handed them to me as I was pulling out my wallet to see if I even had the five bucks I was about to owe him. “Take ‘em,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. I’d known Jack for decades, ever since my father had started taking me with him to the store, and I’d never seen him or his old man give so much as a discount. Not even on those little impulse-buys he keeps up at the front.
My eyes narrowed. “I don’t want charity,” I said.
His expression was a wall. “This ain’t charity.”
That hurt a little. Jack and I were hardly what anyone would call friends, and while I appreciated his attempts to salvage my pride, I didn't want to be in a position where it needed salvaging. But there I was. And I still needed the boxes. I took them and turned to leave.
“Adam,” said Jack. I turned to look at him one last time. “I’m... I’m sorry things worked out the way they did.”
My eyes narrowed. I wanted to throw his pity back at him. Or at someone else. Just so long as it wasn’t aimed at me. I wanted to grab him by the throat and spit what do you have to be sorry about it’s not your fucking fault
in his face.
It was four in the afternoon when I got back. Meg had left her room and was sitting in the kitchen in the clothes she’d slept in, staring at the wall with a cigarette in her mouth and a tumbler in her hand.
“Hi,” I said. I was met with silence concrete enough to be a response in and of itself. I went to the fridge and took out the remnants of last night’s dinner. Plain pasta. It was about as much as I knew how to throw together - that had always been more Meg’s area than mine. “You want anything?”
Ice rattled around her glass in response. Of course not
. I shrugged and began to scoop the pasta out onto a plate.
“It’s James’s birthday today,” she said. Said may be the wrong word, actually. To me, said implies tone. Implies the existence of an emotion behind the words. What was coming out of Meg’s mouth was more like sending audible email, where the words are there but the feeling is stripped away.
“Who?” I asked.
“James Gardner,” she sent. “Evan’s friend. You remember him.”
Oh. That James.
“Evan always went on about –”
“Meg,” I said, putting the pasta plate in the microwave.
“Every year it was always about how everyone would be there, how it would be the most important thing to happen in his entire second grade -”
I slammed the microwave shut and shouted, “Meg!”
She stopped speaking and turned her head around to stare at me. I took a few moments, then walked over and sat down in front of her and put my hand on hers. She looked away.
The microwave counted down as the hum filled the vacuum between us.
We’d been discussing this for some time. I was going to go live with my brother for a while, to see if the separation might help us figure things out. God knows I needed all the help I could get. She thought I was trying to wall myself off from the memories. I thought she was trying to drown herself in them. “So, tomorrow then,” she said.
We looked at each other again, and then I walked away. There were more boxes to fill.
I left the town I’d grown up in behind without looking in the mirror once. It wasn’t the time for regrets or sentimentality. Right now, it was seven in the morning and I had three states to cross to get to my brother’s place.
The buildings I knew like the back of my hand passed by the same way they did on any other day of the year. As they grew thinner and shorter, the road widened and I began to see green. There was nobody else on the road - nobody else comes out here. I had the dull blurry noise of the engine and the road for company.
After a few minutes of quiet I noticed the fog wall that marked the river and the bridge. And a few minutes after that, the world went white. I kept driving like nothing had changed. Wheels locked straight, speed locked at 35. The only thing coming out of the fog was the road, and all I could see was the road and my car and my hands on the wheel and I could feel I was moving forward and knew
I was but was I?
And then the road wasn’t the only thing in the world anymore, and I found my head whipping around to look at what I could have sworn was a boy walking along the top of the bridge’s stone wall on the opposite side from me, with his arms out like little kids do when they’re trying to be an airplane. He was wearing a white sweater and green corduroy pants and I got maybe a two second look before the kid left my little bubble of existence but I could have sworn he looked just like Evan. And that was enough to distract me. I caught myself pulling to the right, dangerously close to the wall, and instinctively swerved away, swerved too hard, and then no matter what I did the car was just spinning, around and around and the tires were shrieking and I couldn’t stop it and couldn’t see a thing except for fog and road and wall and car.
When I came to a halt in the middle of the bridge I just sat there for a moment looking around trying to figure out where I was before my brain started working again and I realized that there might have been a kid alone out here. I killed the engine, then practically tore my seatbelt off and half-stepped-half-fell out of the car into the fog.
“Hey, kid,” I yelled, “you out there?”
“Kid!” I yelled. “Anybody there?”
I started to walk down the road after the kid – back towards town, the same way he’d been headed. I was about fifty feet from my car when I realized that I’d gotten too turned around to know which way I’d been coming from and which way I’d been going.
I walked to the side of the bridge and looked out at the endless field of grey, now dotted with the tops of dead trees. I thought of my father, the quiet certainty coming off him like the fog comes up from the river, showing me step by step what to do. I thought of my own fumbling attempts to do the same years later, and Evan’s nonstop complaining when the fish weren’t biting and pure elation when they were. I thought of Meg, sitting alone, staring at the bones of an empty house. I thought of all the pain that was waiting there to retake me.
I got back in the car, turned it on, and began to drive through the wall to see which side I’d end up on.