copyright © 2006 by Richard S. Crawford
“I fucking hate bridges,” Bill said.
Zoe and I looked at each other. Bill’s statement, like always, was a non-sequitur, unrelated to the conversation we’d been having. The three of us had been sitting around the coffee table, talking about baseball or whatever the hell it was the Giants were playing this year. And because it was Zoe’s apartment, Dropkick Murphys was playing on her stereo, the shelves only shaking mildly to the punk beats and bagpipe riffs. I was stretched out on the couch, feet on the table. Zoe was stretched out on the same sofa, her feet on my lap. She’d painted her toenails to match her hair; currently a bright green, almost emerald. I wanted to reach down and rub her feet, but I kept my arms safely on the back of the couch.
Bill said it again, this time with an accent. “I fookin’ hate britches.” When drunk, Bill was Irish; when sober, a geek. I preferred the geek. The geek didn’t have a fake accent that would make a leprechaun squirm.
He reiterated: “They suck.”
Zoe poked me in the rib with her big toe and winked. “Go on, Nicholas. Your turn.” Her accent wasn’t fake. She really was from England.
I smirked and took another swallow of my beer. “Okay, Bill. Tell us why you hate bridges.”
I saw Zoe wince and realized I’d misinterpreted her wink; she’d wanted me to get us back to baseball, not follow Bill’s tangent. Figures. The two of us were divided by the unfathomable abyss of our common language.
“I hate bridges ’cause you never know where you are with them.”
“What?” Zoe looked confused. Zoe always looked confused, even when she was in charge of things, which she almost always was. It was an act. I knew it was an act. “Of course you know where you are. You’re on a bloody bridge.”
“No,” Bill said. He swallowed some more Jameson’s and winced. Irish Bill couldn’t handle Irish whiskey. “That’s the whole point of a bridge, see? It’s not a place, it’s just a thing to get from one place to another place. I hate them.”
I laughed. “You’re insane.”
Bill snorted. “No, it’s true. You know that painting? By that guy? You know, this guy’s on that bridge and he’s going like this.” He put his hands flat on his cheeks and dropped his jaw, like that kid from Home Alone.
“The Scream?” Zoe said. “By Munsch?”
“He’s not really on a bridge, you know,” I said. I glanced at Zoe and winked. “He’s on a road, next to this fence. By a field.”
“Yeah,” Bill said dismissively. “You know why he’s screaming, that guy? It’s because he’s fucking confused. Which way do you go? Do you go forward? Do you go back? Or do you give up and just jump the fuck off? You know?”
“You go on to where you were going,” I said. “That’s the point of a bridge.”
“No, no. Like that bridge between Salt Hill and Galway. I mean– I mean– Fuck.” He finished off his whiskey, winced.
“Bill,” Zoe said, giggling, “you’re completely mad. You’re drunk, and you’re completely mad.”
“I’m not drunk.” He hiccuped. “Come on, I’ll show you. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” I asked him.
“To a fookin’ britch,” Bill replied. “The big one. The Emperor Norton. I’ll show you something you never ever knew.”
What the hell. The night was young, according to some interpretations, and it was either this or back to the books. God knows I didn’t want that.
Since she was the only one who hadn’t been drinking, Zoe drove. She drove like she did everything: precise, measure, and very carefully, because she was still getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. Even so, though, when I glimpsed her profile from the back seat, I could see a manic intensity on her face; the way she kept darting her eyes from side to side made me think that at any moment she might decide to veer off the road, into the dirt at fifty miles an hour because she’d seen a Patwin arrowhead or something.
She’d called Bill mad. Pot, kettle.
We got to the Emperor Norton Bridge. It had been built back in the 60’s, when it had looked like San Augustin was going to be the next San Francisco; they’d even named it after San Francisco’s most famous historical crazy person. And here it was, a wonderful six lane bridge that was usually, by this time of night, empty.
“Stop here!” Bill commanded suddenly. We were halfway across.
Zoe slammed her foot on the brake and her old Hyundai screamed to a stop.
“Come on,” Bill said. He unfastened his seatbelt and jumped out of the passenger. Zoe laughed and did likewise. I wanted to consider things, at least for a moment, but I didn’t get a chance. Annoyed, I got out of the car too.
Bill waved his arms expansively. “You see? Right here in the fucking middle. Where the fuck are you?”
Zoe and I looked at each other. Then we looked back at Bill.
“We’re in the middle of the Emperor Norton Bridge,” I said. Zoe looked like she wanted to start in on one of her lectures, and I figured this was a good time to forestall that. “Can we go home now?”
“No. Come on, guys. Just wait.”
I sighed, and turned to Zoe. She was staring down at her jeans, scuffing the soles of her flip flops on the concrete beneath our feet.
A strong gust of wind blew in from the bay. I swayed on my feet, momentarily unbalanced. A car sped past us, and I reflexively put out my hand behind Zoe’s back, just to keep her from slipping backwards into the traffic. My palm touched the thin material of her shirt, and I felt, for just a moment, the smoothness of her skin brushing underneath it.
Zoe said nothing.
I glanced to my right. San Augustin was a big city, and its lights tinted the sky above it orange. To my left were more roads which just led to a bunch of small towns. So Low. Snowy Rock. Whatever.
Another gust nearly knocked me over onto my ass, but Zoe and Bill were unaffected.
“Feel it yet?” Bill said.
I felt nothing but cold. “No, I don’t–“
Zoe interrupted me. “Yes, Bill. I can feel it.” She stepped forward and stood next to Bill, and put her arm through his. “It’s like… Like…” Her voice trailed off.
The two of them looked out over the bay.
The bay just stank. Another breeze blew in, and I shivered. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
“Yes,” Zoe said. “We should. Come on, Bill.”
The two of them stood for a moment longer. I decided not to wait, and just climbed back into the back seat of the car. A few moments later, Bill got back into the shotgun seat and Zoe slid back behind the wheel, graceful as always. The two of them sat next to each other as we drove home, carrying the silence from that place on the bridge.
Me, I didn’t know where the hell I stood.