On the Stone Bridge

 
 
His decision fixed firmly in mind, Chris Satterfield crossed the dimly lit lobby, pushed open the heavy glass door, and stepped onto the sidewalk. Once there he paused to glance up at his third floor studio apartment. There might as well have been, Chris thought, a banner above the window reading, “Loser.” For that, he had determined, was what he was. Another failed job interview, body and mind worn down; he judged his life to be at a dead end, shorn of all meaning. It was not easy being him.

He’d been alone for a long time and disappointment had become his frequent companion. Screw them all. He was tired of lost causes; tired of failed efforts. He deemed the world a rotten place where appearance counted more than reality or truth; where knowing the right people trumped skill and hard work.

His mind-set notwithstanding, Chris hardly had the appearance of a prospective bridge-jumper–if such there was. A thirty-five-year-old man nearly six feet tall, with a firm stride, he had on chinos and a button-down shirt, topped by a crew-neck sweater and an upscale windbreaker. His attire appeared to be a carry-over from college days. His beard and ash blond hair neatly trimmed, Chris exuded an intelligent and educated appearance. He might well have been any one of the young men who populated the offices of local insurance companies and financial institutions.

No matter; he would end it all—now, today. Head down, hands thrust into his pockets against the early evening chill, Chris set off on the ten-minute walk to the old Stone Bridge, one of the town’s venerable landmarks. With River Road closed for construction and traffic re-routed, surely the bridge would be deserted.

His action would astound no one. After all, people had gone off the bridge more than once. No one remembered their names; no one would remember his. The span rose eighty feet above the water; far enough to do the job. But he would have to choose his spot with care. He’d heard one jumper had missed the water and plummeted onto the railroad track that paralleled the river.

That possibility perturbed him; Chris wanted to slice cleanly into the water, like a high diver with barely a splash.

November twilight embraced the town and intermittent wisps of snow wafted down. Chris waited for a traffic light to change and smiled inwardly. Given his purpose, why not just walk in front of an oncoming car and hasten the process? Nonetheless, he waited. Force of habit, he supposed. And he worried. What if he might survive badly injured and permanently disabled?

Chris glimpsed his reflection in a store window. Distorted, he thought, just like his life. He passed the coffee shop where the week before he’d been humiliated when the manager rejected his credit card. Here and there the street surface, black and wet, glimmered with light reflected from just lighted shop signs. Chris passed a pay day check cashing facility. He had no checks to cash. He passed a Goodwill store. Good will; what a joke.

The park that lay above the river stood empty. The bare branches of its oaks formed a ragged latticework against the gray sky. In summer Chris had spent days there lingering on benches, struggling to conjure up ideas that could retrieve his life; ideas that could give it meaning. He had failed. No job, no girl, no hope—zilch, nada, nil. The park now struck him as nothing more than a burial place for unrealized dreams.

Ahead, in the settling darkness, he discerned the bulking form of the bridge. Constructed in the 1890s, three stone arches, once white, now gray-brown, spanned the river. Perhaps 200 feet across and barely wide enough for two opposing lanes of auto traffic, the bridge restricted pedestrians to a single walkway. Rusting guard rails lined both sides of the structure.

Incongruous light standards, topped with spherical globes, dated from the 1930s. Several of the lights had burned out. None had been repaired; those that remained shed vague, uneven, illumination. They almost seemed to absorb light rather than emit it.

Chris had resolved to march straight onto the span; he’d waste no time and be done with it. But that resolution proved to be less firm than he had hoped. The closer he came, the more questions plagued him. When I do this, will it really be the end?

Is there to be nothing more?

Immersed in such ruminations, he maneuvered around a yellow and black striped barrier and set foot on the bridge walkway.

Immediately below a freight train rumbled by. Although solidly made, the bridge trembled.

Distracted by the train, Chris hadn’t noticed her. Now, under one of the sputtering lights, he spotted the shadowed form of a woman—or girl. He couldn’t be certain. Damn. What was she doing there? Just when he intended to . . .

It looked as if he’d have to abandon his plan and come back later. Chris started to turn when, Jesus, the girl began to climb onto the rail.

“Wait,” Chris called out. “Stop.” The words spilled out spontaneously, as did his hurried pace in the woman’s direction.

She pivoted toward him. “What do you want? Why are you here?”

He halted a few feet away. “I was just going to . . .”

“Didn’t you see? The bridge is closed. Go back.”

As best Chris could determine in the spare light, the woman was tangle-haired and young. She appeared to be ill-served by a thin cardigan sweater over a blouse of some sort. Her skirt ended above her ankles. She wore sneakers.

Each troubled by the presence of the other, neither one of them spoke. Only the fading clatter of the train, replaced by the gurgling and trickling water moving below them, interrupted the silence.

“Can we talk?” Chris said at last.

They were empty words, but all that came to mind. He would encourage her to leave. She posed an obstacle to his plan. But, the notion barely formed, it gave place to an overriding sense of obligation, obligation to prevent this person from taking her life. Like a pastor who’d abandoned his faith, the would-be jumper still felt compelled to preach redemption to another.

“There is nothing to talk about,” the woman said. She sounded dispirited.

In the uneven light he could just make out her face.

“You have a nice voice,” he said.

“A nice voice? What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just what I said.” Almost a hurting whisper, at the moment her voice also came tinged with irritation.

“Do you have any idea why I’m here?” She seemed as mournful as the dying light of day in which they found themselves.

“I can guess. Things haven’t been going so well for me either.” Should he tell her more?

She now confronted him. “Stay where you are. And don’t get any ideas about butting in.” A brisk wind ruffled across the river and played along the banks.

Without uttering another word, the young woman again gripped the rail and appeared ready to climb up. This time Chris rushed forward, grabbed her sleeve, and pulled her back.

“Nothing could be that bad,” he said. These words, it later occurred to him, came from someone who moments before had concluded things could be that bad.

She sniffled; perhaps she’d been crying or perhaps she had a cold. “Let go.” She tried to tug free.

“Promise to stay where you are and I’ll let go,” Chris said.

“Okay.” He still gripped the sleeve of her sweater. “I said, okay.”

“You have a name?”

“It’s Maura. As if that means anything now.”

“Maura?’ First time I’ve heard that. I’m Chris.”

She looked over his shoulder toward the end of the span. “Wouldn’t you know it?” she said. “Here comes somebody else.”

An elderly woman emerged beneath one of the lights. Wrapped in a nondescript coat and scarf and towing a little two wheeled shopping cart she plodded toward them. The woman had trouble maneuvering her cart as it tipped from side to side on the uneven surface.

“First you, and now her,” Maura said. Nothing works. I can’t even jump off the damn bridge. Story of my life.”

“Just act like we’re chatting,” Chris said. And so, side by side, elbows on the bridge rail, they positioned themselves like friends talking and gazing down at the river.

The woman shuffled by them mumbling to herself. From the invective she spewed, their presence, indeed, their very existence irritated her. Her breathing labored and her progress slow, her journey across the bridge seemed interminable. She finally vanished at the other end.

“She probably wondered what we were up to, standing here,” Chris said.

“Well, what are we up to?”

By now night had drained the sky of light. And here and there a few forlorn reflected lights flickered on the river like water-hugging fireflies.

They stood silently, each wrapped in his or her thoughts. When Maura finally spoke, Chris thought he detected a mood change. Her tone seemed less urgent, more contemplative.

“The reflections down there look as if they are floating on the water,” Maura said. “Do you think they look as beautiful from below?”

“The image evaded him. “How do you mean, from below?”

“If you are sinking under the water and look up, can you see the reflections?”

“I don’t think . . .”

“I’m sure you can see them. Then as you go down, deeper and deeper, they gently fade away. Don’t you think so?”

“I don’t know.” The question baffled and troubled him. Was she still determined?

Once more they stood without speaking. It was a moment that lasted a long time and for no time at all.

“If you go, you can’t come back, you know,” Chris said.

“I don’t want to come back,” Maura said. “The people I cared about are already gone. I’m just left behind.”

Another train rumbled past below them. “You get on that train, you’re gone. This is no different.”

“Why struggle?” she said. “I’m so alone–just so alone.”

Some heavy sadness of memory plagued her. “Everything about me is pathetic. Nothing works. I feel like I am climbing a ladder and somebody steps on my fingers at every rung.”

“Oh, I don’t think . . .”

“I am a sad person,” Maura said. “That’s me– a sad, useless person.”

Chris had encountered a person as joyless as he. He wondered: did he come across that way? Pathetic?

“I think I understand,” Chris said. “Really I do.”

“You don’t even know me. I’m poor. Food stamps, the whole nine yards.”

“Well, a lot of people have trouble making ends meet.”

He realized he’d never required any social service assistance. Well, except unemployment. And that, he reckoned, was really insurance.

“You look rich.” Her voice struck him as condemnatory. “I bet you have a nice apartment.”

“No. It’s just a studio and . . .”

“But you have a place to live. Right?”

“Well, yes, but . . .”

“What’s your problem then?”

In her eyes he clearly wasn’t really that bad off. Well, she just didn’t understand. Or did she?

“Family?” She continued her interrogation. “You got a family?”

“Yeah. Parents. A sister. They try to help, but . . .”

“But you have a family. Right?”

“Well, yes but . . .” He realized this young woman was homeless and alone.

“What I thought,” she said.

“Are you warm enough?” Chris said. “Would you like to borrow my jacket?”

When she did not reply, he stepped closer and draped the jacket around her shoulders. It was, he supposed, a gesture that could go astray. She neither welcomed nor rejected it; she simply continued to gaze down at the water.

Impulsively he took her hand in his own.

“Still trying to stop me from jumping?”

“No. I just thought a little human connection might be good.” He realized it was something he himself wanted.

“Are you a nice man?”

“I hope so.” Long wallowing in discontent, he felt uncertain what kind of man he was. He’d once believed himself to be an all around good guy. Despite the scrim of misery that shrouded him, perhaps he could still be a good guy; help this troubled girl.

A voice, raspy as an old gate hinge, penetrated the gloom and seized their attention. “Hey, man, can you spare some change. I gotta get something to eat?”

The speaker was a guy about Chris’ age, disheveled and ill-at-ease. He shivered in a light weight, baggy sweat shirt. A glint of light revealed hollow eyes above a straggly beard. His slushed speech evinced a shortage of teeth.

“Another one,” Maura said.

Chris anticipated the girl’s exasperation; she’d likely declare the fates conspired against her.

Ignoring her words, the panhandler said to Chris, “You look like a good-hearted person. All I need’s enough for a burger.”

“Come on, buddy, we’re no better off than you,” Chris said.

Then, to Chris’s surprise, the girl said, “That’s not true.” Irritation vanished from her voice, replaced by sympathy. “He’s a human being. I bet you can give him something.”

Gaunt, his body trembling, the guy really did appear to be in bad shape. His claim not to have eaten recently came loaded with credibility.

“Okay.” Chris fished a ten-dollar bill from his pocket. He had more, but said, “Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“Thanks, friend. God bless.”

“Here’s a little more,” the girl said. She handed the man some coins she extracted from a skirt pocket. “Good luck.”

Inspired by Maura’s gesture, Chris retrieved another ten and put it in the man’s shaking hand. “Here you go pal.”

“You folks have a nice night,” the man said. Then, murmuring something to himself, he shambled away and disappeared like a melting shadow into the darkness.

“I didn’t think there’d be anybody here tonight,” Maura said.

“I didn’t either.”

“It’s like a damn parade.”

“Kind of ironic, I guess.” Chris couldn’t help but smile.

“Yeah, maybe somebody up there is sending us a message. Anyway, it’s nice to be able to help somebody else, don’t you think? Kind of a last gesture, you might say.”

In the thin light, Chris caught a half smile on her lips.

Having mustered a bit of compassion for someone perhaps even less fortunate than herself seemed to have buoyed her spirits.

Although Chris would have been reluctant to admit it, Maura’s reaction in turn buoyed his spirits. Chris experienced a spark of warmth in what he’d considered an otherwise empty life. Only vaguely aware he was doing it, he groped toward a fresh realization, the essence of which was that life might still be worth living, that each of them possessed value as a human being.

“I guess I’m glad you came along,” Maura said. “It’s kind of nice to see there is still some good in people.”

“Yeah, maybe we both need to think some more about what we had in mind.”

Chris briefly lost her response in the grumbling of another train passing below.

When the noise subsided, he heard her say, “I was pretty low. I can’t forget them. But I guess we gotta keep trying. Keep on living.”

“I didn’t think so. But, you know, maybe you are right.”

“It was a dumb idea,” Maura said.

“Yeah. A dumb idea.”

“I guess I didn’t really mean to . . .”

“Yeah. Sometimes we do weird things,” Chris said. “I can’t find the right words, but . . .”

“I was really afraid to jump,” Maura said. “I only pretended to climb up when I saw you coming.”

“Well, to tell the truth,” Chris said, “I expect I’d have chickened out myself.”

Maura took his hand in her own two hands.

“Thanks. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“That’s good to hear. I sure hope things work out for you.”

Chris could think of nothing he’d said that might actually have influenced her. Still it comforted him to believe he had possibly steered her in a more positive direction. He figured that when somebody is not doing well and needs help, any small gesture is a good thing. And, when he got right down to it, he felt better about himself.

She released his hand. “I better go, then,” Maura said. “I’m staying at the West End Shelter.”

“I know the place. But isn’t it kind of far?”

“Oh, I can walk. Anyway, you might say I gave away my bus fare.”

“Actually I still have a few bucks. Why don’t you take them?”

“No, it wouldn’t be right. I got you to give your money to that guy.”

“Then, would you mind if I walked with you?” Chris said.

“Well, no reason for you to . . . But if you want to that would be okay.” She paused. “No, it would be nice, real nice.”

“Maybe you’ll even let me buy you a cup of coffee,” Chris said.

Chris and Maura walked two blocks and went into the neon-lit Bridge View Diner. They had just climbed up on a pair of counter stools when they heard sirens. First one police car and then another shot past in the direction of the bridge.

They were still savoring the aroma of steaming cups of coffee, when a cab driver rushed in. Excitement laced his voice when he told the apron-clad manager, “There’s been another one.”

“Another what?”

“Didn’t you hear the sirens? Must have gone right by here.”

“Yeah, I heard them. So what happened?”

“They say some old woman went off the bridge. Panhandler said he saw the whole thing. Claimed he was too far away to stop her. He said she was barely able to get over the side. Climbed up on some little cart and kind of rolled over. Dropped like a stone.”

“Who’d have thought anything could be that bad?” Chris said.

“Yeah. Who’d of thought . . .?” Maura said.