– 1 –
I was with my sister the first time I jumped from the trestle. We were too young to drive, but she was pretty enough to have a boyfriend with a dented orange truck that smelled of vinyl and wintergreen chewing tobacco. It had a Confederate flag sticker in the corner of the back window. My dad had lectured the boy about the sticker on multiple occasions, because it was racist, first of all, not to mention utterly incongruous with 1990s Seattle. The boy pretended to take my father seriously, but he never removed the sticker. I was sitting across from Ty in the truck’s backseat, counting the stars on the flag and registering the boom of the speakers beneath me as we rattled down the gravel road toward the river. When we parked, my sister’s boyfriend told us to go on ahead. He and my sister were going to hang out in the truck for a bit. Ty smiled at me because we both knew what that meant. Then he caught himself and shrugged apologetically, because he was my best friend and the girl in question was my sister.
It was hot for June, probably close to triple digits, and the rocks on the riverbank burned our bare feet as we walked. The water passing beneath the trestle was green and slow moving and seemingly benevolent. We climbed the slope that led to the base of the structure, the railroad tracks above us projecting slats of sunlight on the shaded dirt below. “Fucking hot,” Ty said when we got to the top. “Should have worn our shoes.” He looked like a fire-walker as he tiptoed along the tracks in front of me toward a group of shirtless boys dangling their legs over the edge.
I decided to let Ty go ahead of me. I wanted to wait in the shade and rest my feet before attempting to cross the hot railroad ties. I looked away from the river, toward the thick forest that had long ago swallowed what was left of the railroad line. A cloud of bugs drifted through filtered sunlight. I watched them move in unison, the whole thing so well orchestrated that I could hardly see beyond them to where the tracks disappeared around the corner toward points unknown. Then I noticed something beneath the bugs, some kind of carcass I could not identify. As I walked into the shade of the trees, the object began to take shape. It was a dead cow. The animal was clearly malnourished before it died, its ribs showing through its brown and white pelt. I stood over the cow and looked at the spot where its eye used to be. The smell was awful, an evil presence amplified by the heat, but I couldn’t make myself turn away.
I heard shouting behind me. I turned around and saw that some of the boys were taunting Ty. He was hesitating on the lower level of the bridge, unsure of himself as he prepared to jump into the river. I left the cow and walked back toward the trestle. Instead of climbing down to the overhang the boys were jumping from I climbed up the steel beam that stretched at an angle toward the trestle’s highest point. When I got to the top they were still shouting at Ty. He was giving it right back to them, making excuses about how he was just waiting for his friend. That’s when he saw me standing on the beam above them. He gave me a look but didn’t say anything. When the boys saw him looking up at me, they turned around and looked as well. I peeled off my t-shirt and let it fall to the tracks below. I felt the sun on my bare chest as I climbed to my feet and jumped, without hesitation, into the merciful sky.
– 2 –
My sister had an abortion a few months before the second time I jumped off the trestle. There had been no drama. The baby was there inside her, and then it was gone. I don’t know if she ever told my parents. I found out through someone at school, a friend of the boy with the dented truck, but I chose not to ask my sister about it. She was broken in ways I didn’t understand. We were friends, I suppose, both of us tried to connect, but we always seemed to be talking past one another into the void that expands in the wake of all shared childhoods. Let her take it to her grave, I thought, but by this time I was barely thinking at all. In those days I was a blur at the edge of my own vision, more concept than person. Things could not happen fast enough. Girls, canned beers, friendships: I was burning through everything.
I pointed my hobbled sedan down the gravel road, trying to remember the last time I was here. I could barely picture the younger, less tragic version of my sister that existed back then. Who knows where she was now. Probably with a boyfriend somewhere. She was almost never home anymore. A quickly passing rainstorm had left beads of water on my car’s windshield, and the motion of the car on the gravel caused the beads to tremble in a way that made me sick. Ty was riding shotgun. He took a sip of beer. “River’s going to be cold,” he said. I burped. “I mean it’s always cold,” he continued. “But last time it was so hot outside we didn’t notice.”
“Fuck it,” I said, even though I knew he was right. There were no other cars parked where the road ended. It was cloudy and cold. I couldn’t remember why we’d even bothered to come all the way out here. I was scared this time climbing up the side of the trestle. Something about the extreme heat had made me reckless last time, dulling my awareness long enough for me to act impulsively, without asking myself any of the questions that were now flooding my head. What if I don’t clear the ledge? What if I slip and crack my skull open on the tracks? What if the water isn’t deep enough? I stopped for a moment when we reached the main part of the structure. I looked toward the forest and remembered the cow. Its image still came to me randomly, I’d see its face in my mind and wonder how it ended up on the tracks. I imagined it slipping through a broken fence and mindlessly following the railroad line for miles toward some unknown destination that never materialized.
“We going to do this thing or what?” Ty said. He was waiting at the edge of the beam that rose to the top of the trestle. I nodded and followed him up the beam. We crawled out to the middle and sat there for few minutes with our legs hanging over the edge. I stood up first. Then Ty stood up and we looked at each other for an uncomfortably long moment. No words passed between us, but something was said in that silence, I think, and we both turned toward the water and jumped, the fall a sort of timeless vacuum that ends in rush of sensation, you are moving until you stop and before you know it you are back at the surface and your best friend is gone, he’s drifted off and started dabbling with drugs, first cocaine, then heroin, and pretty soon he’s dropped out of school so you don’t really talk anymore, and the final time you see him there’s nothing to do but shake his hand and make small talk like strangers before you hug your dad and fidget with your tie and make bad jokes to keep from crying at your mother’s unfathomable funeral.
– 3 –
Mom was four years gone when I jumped off the trestle for the third time. I was twenty-one, too old to be up jumping off bridges, but I was on a date that was going well. It was nighttime, and we were drunk, this girl and me. We were singing karaoke at some awful wood-paneled bar, and then some guy with gargantuan arms tried to pick a fight with me so we left. It was the middle of summer. It hadn’t rained for weeks, and it was hot although you could see the clouds sneaking up on the nearly full moon. When we stepped outside the bar, I could taste the rain coming. It made me think of my mom, because she was the only other person I knew who could taste the rain in advance, the only other person who even knew what that meant. To stop myself from ruining a good night, I dared my date to do something crazy. “Fine,” she said. “Like what?” First thing I thought of was the trestle.
It took us almost an hour to drive out there from the city. Halfway there she was dozing off and I was starting to think I’d come up with a really bad idea, but then the radio took on an increasingly optimistic tone, and one after another we were hearing songs that seemed meant for the occasion. By the time we hit the gravel road we were both singing along, or yelling actually, and implausibly large rain drops were finding holes in the foliage that encircled the roadway, splattering on the windshield of the same shitty sedan I’d been driving the last time I came to the trestle. I parked near the river and shut off the engine. We sat for a while listening to the music compete with the rain falling on the roof. When the song ended, I kissed her for the first time. It surprised me that I didn’t feel like trying anything further. Just being with her was enough.
Finally, the rain let up, and we got out of the car and started walking toward the trestle. We couldn’t see a thing. There was no light anywhere except for the intermittent moon and the embers of our cigarettes, and we both kept falling over as we attempted to navigate the big rocks on the river bank. We were laughing the whole time, predicting certain death. I didn’t say anything about the cow when we got up on the bridge, but I did look into the darkness of the forest, half expecting to see a purple ghost cow munching grass on the side of the tracks. The river seemed louder this time, maybe because we couldn’t see it. I couldn’t convince her to jump from the upper portion of the trestle. She told me I was crazy for even suggesting it and insisted I join her on the low overhang, which I did because I was really starting to like her. We held hands and jumped, the fall seeming much longer in the dark. She resurfaced. I resurfaced. I helped her to shore. Then I did something that wouldn’t have made sense to any other girl I’d ever met: I went back to jump from the top.
It occurred to me years later, after I had married this girl and had children with her, that her tolerance of me that night was practically heroic. I left her alone on the dark riverbank so I could jump again, and she didn’t encourage me but she didn’t protest either. “Go ahead,” she said. “Jump. I get it.” She didn’t get it. But from then on I loved her. I climbed and stood again at the highest point of the trestle. I couldn’t see her sitting on the rock where I’d left her. All I could see was her cigarette bobbing orange. It was there, and then it was gone. I yelled at her but didn’t get any response. Then her face flickered into being as she lit another cigarette, and everything was okay for me. I jumped and felt nothing the whole way down or in the few seconds I was underwater. My senses came back to me when I resurfaced. What I felt most was my ribs throbbing because I’d hit the water at an awkward angle. I tried to ignore it but she could tell I was in pain, she was concerned and then we were laughing about it and then the moon was gone and it was raining again and we were naked together on the riverbank and you couldn’t tell where the sound from the rain ended and the sound from the river began.
– 4 –
The fourth and final time I jumped from the trestle, it was calculated. My wife and kids and I were sitting at the breakfast table and I saw a brief article in the paper that said the trestle was set for demolition. It was an environmental and safety hazard. I mentioned this to my wife and she acknowledged me but didn’t seem to think much of it because she was attempting to discipline the kids, who at the time were toddlers with zero regard for crumbling railroad structures. I chose to let it be, but I kept picturing some big piece of equipment tearing the trestle to shreds.
I threw my swimming suit and a towel in the trunk and went off to work. I cut out early and drove up there. It was fall, the leaves were just starting to turn and the clouds that day were smudged and black. I sat in the car in the parking lot and called my sister. She’s a wife and mother now, along with being a good cook and a Sudoku fanatic and an avid jogger, though she’s still tinged with a melancholy we’ve never spoken of. I called because I wanted to tell her I had come to the trestle. I knew she would remember the place, would remember that first time, and more than that I wanted to tell her that I loved her and hoped she was well. I found myself feeling relieved when she didn’t answer. I hung up without leaving a message and stored away the silent hope that one day there would be more to say.
Some kids were fishing from the riverbank, but the trestle was empty, no one was jumping. I asked them if they knew about the demolition. They shrugged. “The thing’s falling down anyway,” one boy said. It was a pain in the ass climbing up there. Part of the problem was I wasn’t all that flexible anymore, but also the authorities had attempted to restrict access to the structure by roping it off. The kids on the riverbank kept looking up at me in between casts. They were shaking their heads like I was crazy. But they didn’t know.
And then, as I had been three times before, I was standing atop the trestle. Again there were things I was suddenly aware of. The sky can be colorless. Clouds can move lazily or timidly or ecstatically. They appear from nowhere and are constantly remaking themselves in ways that do not seem random. The sound of chirping birds is not always pleasant. Cows do not die pretty. Aggressive boys are cruel to boys who act tentatively. Rivers are hypnotic. Looking down on sun-flecked treetops in autumn, seeing the yellows and greens and browns collect light, is like watching God’s stupid hippy ponytail shimmer as he walks away from you. My father does not know anything; my mother did not know anything; my sister does not know anything. No one truly knows anything, but all of us must pretend we do. Like any symbol, the Confederate flag has no innate meaning. It’s just a piece of cloth. Within that context, it is an aesthetically pleasing image to study while riding in the backseat of a truck rattling down a gravel road. Orange trucks die and railroad lines die and unwanted children die and friendships die and mothers die and heartbreak dies and not every death is an occasion for sadness. Rust flakes off. It makes no attempt to hide its intentions, and it is both active and passive in carrying out these intentions, and none of this is in any way profound or noble or even worth talking about. It is lonelier than I expected up here on this crumbling bridge, and I do not expect this loneliness to diminish no matter how long I stand here. These are some of the thoughts I noted while standing above a slow-moving river. Then I let them go, because I did not know where they came from and I did not need them to jump.