Bridge Work

by RS Deeren

Bucky's Bridge spans Scott's River on a wooded and mosquitoed stretch of Outer Road not too far from where they found that naked girl a few summers back, not half a mile from my thirty acres. I always said that she come from under the bridge that night. I told the police what goes on under that bridge isn't no hoochy-coochying but does anybody wanna listen to ol' Levon Cutler? You're sure as shit they don't. So not too long after they found that girl, I took it upon myself to head out to the bridge every night. Just to look around. Keep an eye on things. My wife, Marcy, thinks it's because I like to keep moving. "Moseying" she calls it. I can hear her joke on the phone when one of the girls calls. I like to think I'm doing what needs to be done. Either way, she likes it and I like that she likes it. Most nights are the same; I throw on a jacket, kiss the wife, grab the flashlight Uncle Sam sent home with me, and when I'm out the door, I tuck my jeans into my socks. Poison oak throughout the summer, you know. I go out when the night starts getting blue from the stars, when the whistle of river frogs mixes with the mosquitoes droning around my head. I keep my light low and red just in case I do reach the bridge and there's people under there. Pretty standard but I sleep better because of it. This one night, though, I get to the bridge, at the end of a twenty yard streak of red, I see it.

Funny how blood looks under a red light. Not "ha-ha" funny, just different funny, like molasses spilled on the kitchen floor. I followed the streak until the red light faded and I was too scared to flip on the bright beam, to see more than just a slumped shadow in the dark. That's when the smell hit me. Musk, river mud, burst guts. I knew it, I said, Sonuvabitch. My throat began aching up from my chest and I froze. There ain't no breeze here in August so I'm anchored on this bridge with the smell, and the sound of river frogs screwing, and the thought of something horrible going on just below me. Like a murder or one a them satanic love-ins trying to summon up ghosts.

I moved on closer to the heap. Them cops didn't ever listen I held the light steady and I swear to God I haven't walked so painlessly since '67. I felt it all, I tell you: fear that I was right, pride that I was right, shame that I was proud that I was right.

"Hey, you alright?" A stupid question to ask on a bridge especially with so much blood but what else was I supposed to say? I was all up on myself as I crept towards the heap. This is it. That girl and now this, I heard gravel crunch behind me and I flipped the high beam on as I pivoted on my heels, flooding the span of the bridge, wishing at that moment that the army had sent me home with a rifle instead of that flashlight.

"Who's there," I said. I strained my eyes as if someone or something would just appear on that empty bone of a road. There was nothing there but my nerves. A dog barked off somewhere as I turned back to the heap and my light reflected off the sparkling eye of dead deer. My stomach loosened and, mostly, I felt relieved it wasn't a person but a man still hates being proved wrong.

Now the problem with road kill around here is the road commission won't clean it up. Something about saving the budget for salt in the winter. But with the smell of that deer and the heat we were having that year, whew, forget about it. So I set to hauling it up against the barrier so I could toss it over into the river. Wasn't that big but I still wasn't gonna kill myself dragging the thing all the way up the road. I ain't stupid and I ain't young. I hunkered down and pulled its legs up close to the body. Using the barrier, I inched that damned deer up, its head prodding my chest and its face looking up at me. Its grey, dead tongue licking with every heave I tried my best to keep the thing belly up, to keep the guts inside him, to keep him whole, but damned if that thing didn't weigh as much as me. He rolled a bit and I felt his innards soak my coat. Jesus, I thought and I knew Marcy was gonna kill me when I came home streaked in red and green. I gave up, panting, and let the thing slump back to the concrete.

I passed my light back along the bridge and noticed a car parked at the far end. Walking up to it, I felt my leg start popping like it does when I work it too much. I thought about the surgeries and the rehab and I tell you now that if I had known what was waiting for me out in that shit jungle in Vietnam, I woulda hoofed it down to Blue Water and crossed to Canada. Maybe Bucky had the right idea if not totally the right...well I guess execution is as good a word as any. Anyway, I come up on this sedan, one of them Japanese things—and I hate to admit this—but boy did it look sharp. New and crisp except for the front driver's side. A crunch of metal and plastic caked in fur and half-digested corn. There was no one inside so I called out again thinking the driver was probably taking a piss in the woods. Nothing. I walked around the car a bit, shining in. A crack veined across the windshield. Hamburger wrappers and beer cans littered the floorboards. Drinking and driving on a Tuesday night, some people live a charmed life.

"You can't leave this car here," I called. I heard a rumble of stone and a splash from under the bridge. "I hear you down there." A coughing fit answered me. By God, I tell you that I was rearing to teach whoever was down there. Teach 'em good. I made my way around the end of the bridge following the sound like a coyote to a sick rabbit. The mosquitoes fell in love with me as I pushed through the brush and I'll admit now that trying to toss that deer had been a mistake. I was starting to ache but not in the good way. Takes a mighty man to admit he's weak.

I made it through the brush and came out on a slab of granite which was caked in mud and bird shit. Candy wrappers and broken glass filled the cracks. Someone had set fire to a tire somewhere along the river and the remains had washed up under Bucky's. It was like a catchall for the remains of good times, a garbage dump of memories. I could barely make out the river, the trees just suck up the moonlight the farther down the riverbank you go. I flashed down the piles of granite and fell upon someone hunched on up on a flood boulder. A kid.

"What you doing down here, boy?"

He looked up and his eyes reflected back at me like the deer's, only redder. Snot ran to his lips and he had puke down the front of himself. He was a real mess, this kid, a right sight against the white rock, like a popped pimple left to ooze. A semi ran lonely way out on the highway. I thought about my wife and how she'd be lying in bed.

"I ain't asking again, son."

"Don't tell my dad," he said.

"Who's your dad?"

"Michael Wordsley," he said

"Don't know him," I said, "can't tell him." The kid just stared at me and started coughing again. A real dry fit, specks of McDonald's flew from his lips. Jesus, I tell you this kid really had himself wound up, like a rubber band ready to be shot. He stared down at the crawling river. Aw shit, I thought. My shoulders slouched and whatever I had been feeling above the bridge was washing away underneath it. I walked over to him and slipped on the red film so's not to blind him. Standing over him I didn't have any words. No fooling, I raised three girls and didn't have practice with this sort of thing. I just stood there, covered in deer gunk, staring at this kid covered in himself.

"You been drinking, son," I said.

"Please, man, don't tell my dad."

"I told you I ain't telling nobody. What brought you here?"

"Just wanted to get away, I guess. For a night." He stopped coughing long enough to wipe the snot from his nose.

"Whose car is that?" I stared at him hard. He averted his eyes. I can put the fear of God into a body when I want to and here I had some kid in my neck of the woods. My stretch of road. "Wait, don't say it. If your daddy is any kind of man, he's gonna wring you dry when you get home. I know that's what I'd be doing." I lied. I never even spanked my girls but he didn't need to know that. A lie is handy tool you keep in the bottom of your toolkit just in case, like a starhead screwdriver. Not good for most things but sure as shit handy when you need it. I set the light down on an overhang and sat down on the granite next to him. He smelled as bad as the deer, as bad as me. A pool of vomit slid down the rock face and out of the circle of light. A muskrat slipped into the river and away from us. The kid and I watched from where the sound was and I saw him seeing the thing cutting through the current. I couldn't see past the red light but I knew; it looked effortless as if it were part of the river itself, able to come and go, run or hide as it saw fit.

"Why are you out here, man," he asked.

"That's what I asked you, boy," I said. He wasn't much past fifteen.

"My dad just bought that car last month," he went on, "barely has a thousand miles on it."

He wasn't drunk anymore, not with all of it washing into the river at our feet.

"I live around," I said. "Nasty shit happens out here. Cops don't come out as often as they should. I keep an eye out."

"Tough guy," he said. I held back the urge to cuff him across the back of the head. Little punk, I thought.

"Name's Levon," I answered, "you'll do well to remember that." He looked at me from the corner of his eyes and sniffled.

A car roared from a ways off. Late at night you can hear a car coming from two miles up the road and this one was booking it. More kids hotrodding the back roads. We heard it rumble up above us and then screech to a sigh, its radio shook the bridge supports. My stomach knotted and the kid stared a hole up through the bottom of the bridge. Time slowed as we listened for someone to get out. I heard a crash of glass and someone holler. The tires burned and whoever it was was gone. The boy buried his head in his knees. We sat a while in the red and blue, stinking to beat hell.

"You know why they call it Bucky's Bridge," I asked.

"Yea," he said.


"Some guy named Bucky jumped off it forever ago," he said, "heard it was because he was gay and couldn't deal."

I frowned. Funny how a moment in time changes the older it gets. Not "haha" funny, just sad funny. It becomes something more than just the facts, and the event of telling the story becomes larger than the event itself.

"He was a couple years behind me," I said. "I didn't hear about what happened until I came home from the war." I took a moment. I was just trying to give that boy something to listen to. Crashing your daddy's new car isn't much when you think about people dying. And this kid wasn't dead. "He just wanted to get away, I suppose."

"Sounds about right," he said.

The heat that summer, I remember, kept Marcy and me inside during the day. She didn't put in a garden that year saying that it was so hot that either the plants or her woulda dropped dead. So she stayed inside doing crosswords and watching her programs. The AC was murder on my throat but heaven forbid she drop dead from heat stroke. Anyway, there I sat in all the day's heat that Bucky held up underneath him along with the trash and the graffiti and the mosquitoes. Bucky had been one a them kids that preferred to run with the older kids instead of his own, like he preferred playing the younger brother. He couldn't buy the beer—didn't like it, he said, drank Vernors ginger ale instead—but we kept him around to make us feel superior. Plus he always had a few extra bucks on him to chip in. He was a right helpful kid.

Marcy had me on a string before the war, before she became the wifemate. She put me in some sort of way and you know how girls give a guy a little something just enough so the next roadblock takes them by surprise. Well Marcy was a pro roadblocker and had all seventeen of my years barking and pulling on their chains. I was about to cut myself loose but there's Bucky and he tells me, You gotta tell her you love her. It hit me that I'd never thought of that; 'course I wouldn't'a told him. Well I said it and I've been somewhere around fifty years with her now so I must've been telling the truth. Bucky was a good guy like that.

I pulled my hand down the back of my neck, feeling the sweat run and I looked over at the kid. He started coughing again and I slapped him on the back, you know, get whatever was in him out. Not too hard but enough to set him straight, or straighter than he was. He had a peace about him after that, like one a man gets when he knows he's got some answering to do.

"C'mon," I said, "least you can do is help an old man clean up after you." He looked back out towards the river, towards the cement legs that moored the bridge and, I swear, for a second, the air smelled sweet, like Vernors. He took a deep breath and nodded. We clamored past the remnants of questionable goingson, through the thick brush, and back out to the road. Busted beer bottles speckled the windshield and suds streaked down the hood. He walked right past it without so much as a wink, like he knew it wasn't nothin' compared to the car's front end.

"Just need a little more umph to get him over," I said. We walked up to the slouched carcass, batting away flies and the smell.

"I got him pretty good," he said.

"Yep, you busted him up." I got down again. "Grab his back end. Don't let him spill out."

He rolled up his sleeves as if he wasn't already filthy. I picked up my end and tucked the snout under my chin and crossed the front legs over his chest, like I was placing him in a casket. The kid was having a time getting the rear up but he mustered it. The deer bled a little on the concrete but it blended in with the graffiti and as we got him up to the top, I felt his insides shift and pull away from us, like whatever was left inside him wanted to jump. It was almost like he flew from our hands. Watching him fall through the blue, hearing the thwack of him hitting the water, I thought of Bucky.

"Shit," the kid said, "the thing bled on me." He held his hands away from like they were radioactive.

"Things bleed," I said. I slid my hands in my pockets.

I got the kid back into his daddy's car. He grabbed a handful of the burger wrappers from the floor and tried mopping his hands up. He didn't say nothing but looked up at me through the window. He crooked his lips to the side and nodded to me as he started the car. Bits of glass spilled onto the road and I heard something drag from the undercarriage as he pulled away. I watched as the red eyes of his taillights fell behind a rise in the road. The wind kicked up as I turned home, taking that sweet ginger smell with it. I looked out from the bridge and wondered if the blue was what Bucky saw from the edge. If the river frogs screeched as he flew down to the water. I pictured him diving into Scott's River, turning into a muskrat as his body went under. Turning into a muskrat. Ha, people are funny sometimes.

BIO: RS Deeren’s short fiction appears in Botticelli Literary and Arts Magazine, Cardinal Sins, and the National Day on Writing. His short story, "Apres Moi le Deluge," won the 2012 Tyner Award for Writing Excellence. He spent a large part of his adult life working in the rural Thumb Region of Michigan as a line cook, a landscaper, a banker, and a lumberjack before moving to Chicago to work on his MFA at Columbia College Chicago. He is currently writing a novel in stories about the mundane and meth addiction in backwoods Michigan.