RiverFest

An excerpt from a new work…

 The old truss-style bridge had been built around the turn of the last century with great fanfare as a permanent link to connect Millport and Riverton on opposite sides of the Monongahela River. “Permanent” was emphasized at the time of construction because the first bridge that had been built a little ways downstream to connect what were not yet the two towns went up the year after the Civil War ended and, regrettably, down again into the river less than twenty years later.

The sidewalk on the bridge ramp glittered in the late morning sun. Most sidewalks in town glittered and dazzled in the sun-a feature of the glass flecks that were added to the concrete back in those days. “They paved our streets with diamonds!” he remembered his grandmother telling him once when they left Mass at old St. Francis one sunny Sunday eons ago.

The walk up the ramp on the Millport side was not a long one. It seemed that on this side-the low side-there was barely enough room for train cars to pass underneath. There was plenty of room actually, but it seemed so much lower on this side as every step across the span was uphill. The climb was gradual enough and the span was long enough that it went almost unnoticed unless one was walking across the bridge as Jake was now. As the sweat began to bead at his temples and between his shoulder blades he knew that the walk across was also a walk up. Happily he wouldn’t be going the whole way over.

Jake knew-not “knew of” but knew personally-three who had jumped off of the Riverton Bridge. Their intention in making their respective leaps could be judged by the end of the Bridge that they used as a launching point.

A leap from the Millport side was clearly less a suicide attempt than a cry for help or attention. Usually one hit the water on this side of the river, bobbed to the surface and swam to shore more often than not having to run away from the cops who were called. Eddie Figges had taken that leap in a moment of panic or weakness twenty years ago. He was now an insurance man over in the Riverton Hills section of town having done quite well for himself.

Jake couldn’t recall the name of the kid-was at his table in shop class-who had gone over the rail on the Riverton side. He didn’t bob to the surface. He didn’t see the light of day again until a grappling hook snagged his belt and pulled him up a mile downstream and two days later.

Then there was “poor Sally” which is how his mother referred to her when it happened. Either she couldn’t swim and feared drowning (which is odd when you think of it) or she didn’t like the whole uncertainty of the river. So she shattered herself on State Route 437 which ran under the bridge on the Riverton side. He remembered people complaining that they had to shut down the road for a period of time making them late for work, ultimately costing them an hour’s wages in some cases and why was her problem theirs?

The burning sun, last night’s whiskey and beer, and the exertion of the walk had the sweat pouring off Jake as he reached the middle of the river. There was a quick bleat of a horn from a passing truck and he turned to see if he recognized someone-or someone had seen him but was blinded by the sun at his back. The beep-greeting probably wasn’t for him anyway. Most of the people he knew in town were either gone for the weekend or still in bed.

He leaned against the railing and looked down just as a speedboat popped out from under the bridge and continued to cut its way upstream. There-less than half a mile away-he could see the carnival rides of RiverFest beginning to crank slowly to life, awakening as the first shift crowd made its way into the make-shift park. Every year the festival got bigger. What had once been a fireman’s fair in the ball field with barrel battles and softball games was now a full-blown water carnival complete with rides trucked in from somewhere in Ohio, speedboat races and what, from where he was, looked like a couple of Viking ships.

He looked down at the zig-zagging boats, jet skis, pontoons, two or three coal barges in sight up and down and wondered if he would reach the river in his final leap or come crashing down through the roof of some unsuspecting pensioner’s cuddy cabin.

Speedboats always reminded him of his mother and that summer years before when she had returned from wherever it was that she went periodically. Of course he knew now that she had another life out East, that she and the old man had effectively broken up before Jake started grade school but nobody talked about it then.

He did remember this one summer though-when she had come back and suddenly had a new circle of friends outside of the whole Riverton/Millport crowd.  He remembered being out in what he thought was a speedboat with these people pulling a skier. The guy was small and wiry and fast back there on the skis-slicing from side to side, jumping wakes,  exhilarating in each and every moment behind the boat-giving the impression that he had mastered something that nobody else had-that was beyond the scope of anyone else’s talents.

And Jake’s mother on the side bench opposite him, looking back and-in turn-exhilarating in every movement the little guy made. Her cigarette, with the blur of red lipstick around the filter, was in her left hand and a look of steely, determined contentment was fixed below her button nose and the huge cat’s eye sunglasses which were the rage back then. Her head ticked side-to-side as she watched the skier slice the water.

Her one-piece red suit was cut low and high; her impossibly tanned legs glistened in the sunshine and spray. She caught his eyes riveted on her thigh and smiled too-widely. “You having fun baby? You like this?” She slurred slightly and he never remembered if he’d answered her or not.  “Well, enjoy it while you can because you’ll never get anything like this around here. With him.”

He watched the first pair of eight coal barges slip below his feet. They were pushed by the “Mary Sullivan” a coal company tow boat that worked the up and down daily and was impossible to miss if you spent as much time around or on the river as Jake did.

He reached into his back pocket for some reason thinking there would be cigarettes there even if he hadn’t bought any for two days. He remembered bumming a few last night…Jesus-he couldn’t even think of bringing a cigarette with him? The closest store was the Speedy-Mart on the Riverton side. He’d keep walking, buy a pack and have a smoke before. Just like every guy in front of every firing squad in every old war movie he grew up on.

He knew from the moment that he started across the bridge that he wouldn’t be jumping. At least not today. Probably not. He used the bridge and the walk up and over as a release for himself-something of a coping mechanism though he’d never call it that. But when things got to be a bit much-when the ringing in his head became too loud to drink away and the voices from the past too shrill-he would stand at the railing of the Riverton Bridge and watch the river flow by, imagining the feeling of the wind fluttering his cheeks on the way down. It wasn’t a self-dare as much as a reminder that if he thought that he really, really didn’t want to deal with it all anymore-he could opt out right here. He found a perverse peace in that.

All-in-all his river dreaming was a far healthier option for contemplating his own ending than his pistol had been. There was the one night with a bottle of bourbon inside of him that Jake had taken the idea of playing Russian Roulette with himself to heart and had managed-he still couldn’t figure how-to blast his dresser mirror to pieces with his .308. The shattering report brought the old man wheeling out of his room into the hallway with his AK fully locked and loaded thinking they were under attack.

He thought of the impact too-what it might feel like to hit the water from that height. If his aim was truly to put an end to himself he would lay flat and allow the whole of his body absorb the impact. It would crush him as surely as flopping onto the asphalt of Route 437. Having jumped from enough barges, piers and abutments in his day he knew that entering the river standing with his toes pointed offered his best chance for survival-providing the water was deep enough and he didn’t stick himself into the muddy bottom like a tent peg.

The “Mary Sullivan” passed below and Jake was pushing off the rail when what looked to be a twenty foot open bow flashed below. It was bright yellow carrying too many people as the pilot turned it into the Sullivan’s wake. He, of course, was looking for the slam-slam-slam of his bow crossing the towboat’s waves but Jake knew that the boat’s speed-even as loaded as it was-would make for a rough landing. “Too fast…” he thought.

The boat hit the crest of the first wave and slammed hard into the trough behind. Everyone in the boat popped up in the air to come crashing down into their seats. Except for the little girl in the back. The impact threw her higher and being in the back, the boat slid slickly out from under her. She hit the river in the wake as everyone in the boat, eyes forward, flew toward the next wave.

“Hey!” Jake yelled to nobody really because he knew that anyone on the boat would have trouble hearing him if he was sitting beside them. But he yelled again-“HEY!-THE GIRL!” and waved his arms. Behind him a car beeped in reply. The child wore a florescent pink swimming suit and no life jacket. As the waves began to flatten she turned over onto her back and with one tiny arm either reaching up or waving goodbye she slipped easily under the surface trailing a cape of jet-black hair as Jake watched.

“You better hurry”, a voice behind him said. Jake turned quickly and was again blinded by the sun. He thought he saw someone standing there-a wild corona of hair seemingly surrounding the sun’s searing light-but couldn’t be sure. He looked away blinking and back down into the water. The child was still visible-a tiny pink smudge-getting smaller under the surface. “You better hurry.”

“Fuck me”, said Jake putting both hands on the top of the railing. In one smooth and surprisingly athletic vault he was airborne, carefully pointing his toes toward the river and keeping his eyes on the pink spot.

 

© TDR-2014

 

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