Bridges

Hendricks flew across the old bridge, his legs pumping. They felt strong against the gradual rise of the pavement, good in the heat of summer. Sweat rolled down his calves and dried. It sprang out and dried in the folds of his eyes and the edges of his ears.

He caught and passed the tour train, the people sitting like marrionettes in their seats, sweat sticking to the plastic seats. They sat and watched the world move past them. He ran and moved past the world.

He was thirty minutes in and had another ninety to go. Thirty minutes is the sweet spot, your muscles warm and full of energy, feet floating above the ground. You felt like you could go on forever when that high snuck up on you. Like a machine, well-oiled and gleaming in the sun, all systems check, gears humming.

He splashed through a puddle, feet barely landing, leaving behind his ex-wife’s grating voice to drown in wet footprints. He danced over the edge of the trail onto grass and back again, laughing in the face of his bosses rigid adherence to rules. Rules meant nothing when you were flying. Nothing touched him. He left them all in the fading beat of his footsteps as he blew by them, and he left himself too, six years old and carrying bruises he didn’t want to see.

Hendricks ran and as he ran he lost himself in the feeling of efficiency and eager muscles.

The high carried him back and forth over the bridges that crisscrossed the river. It fed his feet as they flew over the pavement, his head high and straight. The river below him had diminished since spring but still frothed as it passed over unseen obstacles. He passed over it and out into the city, feet landing hard on concrete, noise and exhaust in his face as people rushed by to meet their deadlines.

At last he went down and came to the river again and the trails that followed it for miles. Here the dirt and trees came up to greet him and the fumes of the city fell away. By bits the steely fingers in his mind loosened. The chatter slowed and stopped, and for a while he was just there.

He finished his run back at the old bridge, his legs shaky, their strength sapped by Bloomsday Hill. He put his elbows on the polished metal railing that stood back from the original, embellished ironwork. Once people had strolled in the summer and looked over that railing at the rushing water. Now rust had left only stragglers of turquoise paint on the railing. Beyond the bridge the water rushed by, churning and angry, while swallows swooped above it having lunch.

The railing under his elbows gleamed in the sun. It was a plain rectangle supported by rectangle posts and steel cable. Probably had an error factor of a millimeter or less. Made by robots, cut by computers. Hendricks looked at antique railing, the railing made by real, human hands, cordoned off limits by machined fences and fabricated signs.

The joyful efficiency of his run faded and he slumped, tired. Office meeting today. Gotta hit those numbers. Run, work, eat, sleep, like clockwork.

He slapped his palm against the steel railing, listened to its hollow tone, the same hollowness that he felt in his chest. He imagined the feel of his palm against the old railing, the sting of his skin against solid metal with no give. The dull thud absorbed by the unflappable mass. Once things had weight. Once, people did too.

Why had they put the new railing up anyway? Was it to protect the railing from us? Look but don’t touch, all that human hand oil is ruining the patina. Another way of separating humanity from the things they love.

He listened to the water roar, seeing the edge of the bridge, knowing what lay beneath. He could feel that sirent call, even on the days when he could escape for a two hour run, his calendar frowning at him while it blocked out the rest of his time. He felt it now, and he knew that that was the real reason for the railing. Too many had been drawn over the edge, seeking freedom. No, the steel railing was a guard, a tricky device to separate people from the pull of liberation. Obedience was about convenience. People followed physics, sought the easiest path, like electricity.

He’d looked over the edge of other bridges. He’d spent time leaning against the railing wondering what the leap would be like, imagining himself diving off, casting it all to the wind and becoming a kid, soaring on the updrafts, gleeful and free. Taking back his life, and at the same time ending it.

He looked at the water where it kicked and churned, driven by rocks too deep to see. It rolled over them, its course changed forever. Hemmed in by black basalt cliffs, it moved out and away from him with a roar, passed under another bridge, and with one more great protest, promptly fell out of sight.

People were meant to be something more than cogs. He watched them move past him with fast strides, each one alone, heads down. Human life should be about stories, not functions.

Far downstream on the other bridge, Hendrick’s watched a figure in a black shirt and jeans clamber up onto the wide cement railing. The figure just sat there, but already Hendrick’s feet had begun to move. He took two steps, moving impossibly slow. The figure sat, legs dangling, shoulders heaving. Four steps. Hendrick’s arms were pumping, his breath like a bellows. The bridge sat empty but for its lone occupant. Eight steps now, and his eyes moving from pavement to bridge and back. He needed two minutes minimum. The figure stood. Hendrick’s feet crunched on pine needles, hands slapping at rough bark. Then there was pavement again. He didn’t feel the burn in his lungs, the protest of his tired legs. What he felt, as the young man stood, arms wrapped his middle, was the siren call and the fear in his throat. Hendricks turned the corner and sprinted onto the bridge. Its heavy weight swayed with his pounding steps. One hundred feet. The man held his arms wide and looked up into the sky. His hair was black in the sun. Hendricks flew down the wood planks. He was shouting now. A wordless roar of defiance, of rejection of things. Fifty feet. The man crumpled in on himself, folded up in the middle, leaned over, and dropped off the edge of the bridge.

Hendricks’ roar turned to a bitter cry that was drowned by the rushing water. He collapsed on the bridge, his palms and his knees scraping on the worn, splintered wood. He hammered his fists down with great strikes, but the wood was unrelenting.

When his arms had no more strength they fell useless to his side. His head hung low and heavy and rested against the planks. His forehead touched blood from his fists and he felt it warm against his skin, the wood hot from the sun. Empty sobs fled into the air and left the hole in his chest bigger than before.

The sun was hot on his back and still the water rushed by.

Later there were sirens and fire trucks. The bridge blocked off by tape. There was the sound of a mother, and the yellow jackets of the search crew.

“Get some rest.” Someone said.

The air in his car was hot and pressed on him. He rolled the window down and drove. When he got home his front door groaned. He turned on the AC and lay down on his bed.

The next morning the mailman delivered the mail to an empty house, as he always did. He paused. The front door was open. He hesitated and then knocked. No one answered. He called out but the house was silent. A gray lexus sat in the driveway. That was wrong. The gray lexus was only there on Saturday’s.

He dailed 911 and waited while the police came. They went inside and saw that the bed was made. Clothes were in the closet. An officer went through the mail.

“Hey,” he said, “isn’t Hendricks the name of that guy that saw that was at the bridge yesterday?”

After that there were more yellow jackets at the river and more police tape. But they didn’t find Hendricks there. Hendricks was sitting on an airplane, his hand wrapped carefully around a gin and tonic in a plastic cup. He looked out the window at the clouds and tried not to think of bridges and hollow things and six-year olds with bruises.