Friday, August 16, 2013

The Bridge by Jim Bartlett

Jim Bartlett's character is having a very bad day in this innovatively told tale.

May 12, 2010
7:37 pm Wednesday

"Nine one one, what is the nature of your emergency?"

"There's someone about to jump at the Carlton Canyon Bridge."

"Oh... my. Which side of the bridge is this person on, sir?"

"The city side. I think that's south?"

"Okay, good. Just a moment, sir. Fourteen fifty-seven, respond code two to Carlton Canyon Bridge. Possible attempted suicide... sir, is this a man or woman and can you describe the individual for me?"

"Well, let's see... I'm wearing light tan slacks, chinos, actually, and a dark blue shirt -"

"Wait... hold on there. Sir, excuse me, but are you describing yourself? Are you telling me that you're considering jumping?"

"Nope, not considering. Doing. Goodbye."

The sound of rushing wind roars into the dispatcher's headset. It lasts several seconds - seems an eternity to her - before coming to an end with a sickening thud and a loud crack. Then, only silence.

"Sir! Sir! Oh, no, no, no... fourteen fifty-seven respond..."



7:18 pm Wednesday

Finding a spot where the graveled shoulder widens, Ron pulls over and turns off the Lexus. He places his hands on the wheel, staring out at the bridge less than a hundred yards away. Although the setting sun dusts it with hues of amber and red, the calculating engineer in him marvels instead at this monolithic concrete and steel structure that stands as a symbol to man's superiority over nature's obstacles.

He steps out into a forceful breeze and heads for the bridge, a crunch of rock accompanying each step. Stopping just at the point where the concrete meets the asphalt road, he risks a quick glance over the edge - he'd never been one for heights - into the craggy ravine. Five hundred feet below the Crescent River rages, relentlessly carving into the canyon walls.

Knees buckling, he can taste the bile at the back of his throat as a touch of vertigo washes over him. Scurrying away from the ledge, he turns and looks toward the Lexus. A brief thought of locking it with the remote quickly passes... why bother? Tossing the key in the general direction of the car, he steps up onto the foot-high abutment running the length of the bridge.

There, he continues along the narrow embankment, being careful not to let his eyes stray over the knee-high tubular railing into the depths below. Not more than ten feet in he stops.

He looks up and down the highway - there's not a single car in sight. The wind has settled into a dead calm. Even the river below seems to wait in silence.

Chills race down his spine; the hair rises on the back of his neck. He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and continues on. Reaching what he deems to be the midway point he stops and turns toward the rail. With eyes closed he looks inward. Is there a God? If so, why has this happened to me? Will He judge me for what I am doing? For what I NEED to do?

Moments pass, his questions remain unanswered. He opens his eyes and looks down. The whitewater rapids of the river call from below.

Yes? No? Does he really even have a choice? In that moment of indecision he pulls up his cell, a last minute urge to reach out. But his fingers remain idle and he finds himself staring down at the phone.

With no one to call, he simply punches nine-one-one.



6:29 pm Wednesday

He pulls into the driveway tired and beaten. A headache drums against his temples - he'd spent most of the drive on the phone fighting with his bank over fraudulent credit card purchases. Even worse, there were charges and foreign transaction fees resultant from someone using it for hundreds of visits to an Internet porn site.

The final straw came with being distracted on his cell phone and failing to see the Highway Patrol officer.

For several minutes he lays his head back against the seat, trying to imagine what twisted crimes he may have committed in some former life to warrant things coming to this point.

A deep sigh follows several before it. What will he tell his wife?

The truth. He will tell her the truth. Maybe they can find strength together to overcome these... challenges. That's what they are. Challenges.

He exits the car making his way to the front door. Oddly, today's mail remains untouched in the mailbox. Of more concern, he notices the front door slightly ajar.

Initially frozen by the discovery, a wave of panic forces a thaw and he quickly shoves the door open - only to find a barren front room. No furniture, no plants, no pictures on the wall. Each echoing step farther into the house reveals that the dining room, kitchen, and bedrooms are all similarly void.

His shoulders sink.

"Shit, I've been robbed. Just freakin' perfect."

Yet, as he looks once again around the emptied room, something doesn't sit right. "Why the hell would they take the crap off the wall... and that stupid cracked plant vase?"

Then it catches his eye. A single sheet of stationery - a style he recognizes his wife using when writing to her Internet-phobic aunt - is taped to a kitchen cupboard. With a sense of dread, he pulls the note down and begins to read:

Dear Ron,
I know this is somewhat of a surprise, yet surely you must have seen it coming. We've grown apart over this last year and, while I want to say "significantly", maybe even that's an understatement. Nevertheless, I simply cannot go on this way. I recently met someone, and she and I have decided to make a new life. Once I've settled in a bit I'll be in touch to discuss the divorce.
Teresa


Ron's knees give and his butt slams to the floor, while the paper floats featherlike to his side.

She?

Overwrought, he lays his face into outstretched hands seeking relief in the form of tears. But none will come.

He sits dazed, no thoughts, no emotions, just staring into the nothingness that suddenly makes up his life.

The answer, a ball of clay taking shape as his mind sculpts it into perfect form, finally comes to light. What brought him to this point was no longer of consequence, he was there. And now, there is no other choice.

He stands, takes one last long look at the room, and walks out to the car. Carlton Canyon is only a ten-minute drive from here.



2:14 pm Wednesday

"Now what?" Ron stands back looking the tiny display on the pump.

SEE ATTENDANT

Jerking his credit card from the slot he marches into the mini-mart. He pushes his way through the door nearly bumping into a young Hispanic man who's waving a twenty-dollar bill and speaking in rapid Spanish to the unshaven clerk behind the counter. The attendant finally nods, takes the twenty, and pushes some buttons on the register which sends the young man on his way.

"Yes?" asks the clerk.

"It says 'see attendant' when I tried my card," says Ron.

The clerk takes the card and swipes it. "Pump?"

"Four."

His head bobs and he makes a grunt. His eyes stay intently on the machine's display.

"Rejected," he finally says.

"Rejected? What does that mean?"

"You have to call your bank. It's no good, man."

"What'dya mean it's no good? I paid that..."

Ron's voice trails off. He snatches the card and, slamming the store's door behind him, trudges back to the car. Forgetting entirely about the pump's nozzle head still poking out from the gas fill on his car, he drives away.



1:44 pm Wednesday

"Ron, can you step into my office, please?"

Ron looks up from his desk to see his manager, Thomas Watts, standing in the doorway. Tall, well dressed, fit and tanned, Ron thought he always walked with purpose. Today, however, his shoulders slump and he leans against the door for support. Ron watches him turn and head down the hallway, each step nothing more than a dragging of one foot after the other as if the force of gravity had suddenly doubled.

Ron, already on the verge of defeat from his day, follows Thomas, his pace matching that of his manager's. He steps into the office and Watts closes the door before sitting down. Definitely not a good sign.

Thomas Watts shifts in his chair.

"Ron. I'm not going to sugar coat this. The company has decided to move their engineering team to our overseas branch. Our entire department is being canned. They're even selling the building."

Ron opens his mouth, but only stunned silence finds a path out.

"I'm sorry, Ron. You've worked hard and deserve better."

Words finally form, "How long?"

"This Friday is your last day. I'm only here until the end of the month to give everyone the bad news and freakin' turn out the lights. Pretty shitty, huh?"

"I... I don't know what to say."

"Not much to be said, Ron. Why don't you go home? Nothing more can be done here."

He doesn't remember leaving the room, the office, or even starting his car. He just suddenly finds himself standing at the gas pump.



11:37 am Wednesday

"Ron Campbell." Though in mid-step heading out for an early lunch, Ron catches the phone on the second ring.

"Ron, Julius here. Look, I've got some bad news. You been following that Allied Bankcorp scandal on the news?"

"Julius, no more bad news, okay? I'm still stinging from that Stallion Investments Group -"

"No, you don't understand. Allied also owns Mountain Mortgage. Your loan is through them."

Ron's thoughts drift to his mortgage. With less than perfect credit Ron's only shot at buying a house came with some unorthodox arrangements with Mountain Mortgage.

"So... what does that mean?"

"It means you're screwed, buddy. The loan is null and void. They took you for a ride. You're probably going to lose the house."

Dropping the phone back into its cradle Ron sinks the heels of his palms into his eyes. All that has already happened this morning... and now this?



10:17 am Wednesday

Charlie Duncan steps into Ron's cube and flops into the extra chair. With zilch interest in work, Ron sees Charlie as a welcome sight. Until he catches the look on his face.

"Ron, we're in deep shit. The blame for the collapse of that Ascot Bridge framing has fallen on the engineering team. We're gonna be subpoenaed to testify before the Grand Jury next week." Charlie abruptly stands, throwing his arms in the air. "Subpoena hell, it's a damn inquisition. Someone's gotta hang for those two workers' deaths, and, baby, they're looking straight on at you and me."

"Come on, Charlie, we both checked the numbers! And reviewed the stress loads!"

"OSHA says we were off. Now I think they're looking to set some examples after all those crane failures earlier this year."

Ron stands, preparing to argue out the point, but, realizing the futility, drops right back in the chair, hands covering his face. "Okay, what do you think we should do?"

"Ya got those reports? Let's review 'em one more time."

With heads bent over the spreadsheets they run the numbers again. And again. After a full hour Charlie abruptly stands.

"Shit, Ron, there ain't nothin' here gonna save our asses."

Before he can say anything in reply Charlie throws up his arms and storms around the corner.

Ron sits dumbfounded for a moment before deciding it might be a good time to step out to lunch and maybe find some solace. How could this day get any worse?

Just then the phone rings.



9:12 am Wednesday

Settled into his cube, it only takes Ron a couple minutes to check for voicemails and sift through his unread email. Nothing on the Ascot Bridge Inquiry. He'd been sure today would bring an end to that mess.

Disappointed, he shifts over to his CAD program and pulls up a current job: footings for a multistory building being built on clay soil. Wesley Deumar, his geologist advisor, would have to be involved.

He turns, but before he can pick up the phone to call Deumar, it begins to ring.

"Ron Campbell"

"Ron, Mark Lewis here"

"Hey, Mark. Looking for a sympathetic ear on your stock market woes?"

"I only wish, though that is bad enough. Say, did you see the news on the Allied Bankcorp scandal this morning?"

"Yeah, some big FBI investigation. Looks like a lot of folks stand to lose their savings."

"Exactly. Ron, here's the problem... Allied ran Stallion Investments. Ring a bell?"

"Uh, they handle my 401k, right?"

"They sure did. Right over to the Cayman Islands. The money's not there, Ron. It's all gone."

Ron waits for Mark to say "just kidding" or "gotcha!" but he knows it's not coming.



8:05 am Wednesday

Ron sits at the breakfast counter dividing his attention between the paper and the bright sunny day dancing through the window. He sips on a home brewed cappuccino while nibbling on a freshly heated bagel.

He tries to slide back into his routine, be as normal as possible. His first day back to work after taking some time off for his brother's funeral, killed two weeks past in a motorcycle accident, and he still remains shaken. That, combined with an ongoing OSHA investigation into a bridge construction accident and a recent distance from his wife, have made for some troubling times. But, he's convinced it's all behind him now. This day starts things anew. The investigation will clear him, leaving him free to focus on straightening out his home life. Maybe they can finally talk about having kids.

He looks back down from the window to the paper. A lead story follows a FBI investigation into a banking conglomerate: Allied Bankcorp. Three of their top executives embezzled most, if not all, of the company's investments and fled the country, leaving little hope of ever recovering the funds. Thousands of ordinary investors saving for their retirements lost every dime.

Man, and he thought HE had troubles!

Taking one last long sip of the cappuccino, he wipes his mouth and marches through the door. Just outside, the promise of the day awaits.

19 comments:

  1. just when you thought it couldn´t get any

    worse.....nicely told and clever tale Jim,

    especially the in reverse idea

    i really liked the descriptions in 7.18pm Wednesday
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much Michael Coming from a master such as yourself the words are greatly appreciated!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not an easy read. All the inevitability of Greek tragedy, but turned on its head so we can see the origin rather than the outcome. I thought it was skilfully handled, if predictable towards the end.

    ReplyDelete
  4. An excellent story. There was no element of surprise after the first section was over, but backward in time story telling was very effective -- it pulled me in. I also think that in this case present tense worked really well. It felt natural, which does not often happen with the stories told in the present tense.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bruce and Irena - thanks so much for reading and the comments. And on both counts, I LOVE a surprise or twist at the end, and usually try to work my stories in that direction, so that was definitely something this one missed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nevertheless, this is a very effective story and refreshing in its approach. I think it missed nothing -- it was different, that's all.

      Delete
    2. Many thanks for the feedback, Irena!! Happy reading...

      Delete
  6. Poor Ron! I like a story told in reverse. Yes, you lose the element of surprise, but there's such pathos in the ending/beginning when he's setting out with such optimism. I think lots of us can identify with that sense of having come through a bad time, thinking your troubles are over, but they're not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comments, Annecdotist! And thanks for the read. I guess the lesson here is never ask how things can get worse...most certainly you will find out in a hurry ;-)

      Delete
  7. This is a well written story & is true to life. I've know people in my life who have face many of these situations, not all in the same day. Non the less 2 of them chose to take there own lives. The others made it through with their strong faith in God, & support from family & friends. Ron didn't know if there was a God, or if there was, why He would allow all these things to happen. He was crying out for help, even if it was just a 911 call. Great story Jim, to make us all stop & think: What would I do if I lost everything? One of my older friends Martin, a cancer survivor once told me, "Where there's life, there's hope."

    ReplyDelete
  8. Many thanks for the comments. And taking the time for a read. Indeed, where there is life there is always hope...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great job Jim. I think anyone who reads the story will take the time to reflect on their personal lives and contemplate what life and its purpose is all about.

    Doug

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Doug. Great insights! Appreciate your comments and taking a couple of minutes to read the story.

      Delete
  10. You are a fantastic writer Jim. Your stories are clever and twisty. Love to read them. Keep up the good work. Hope you surprise us with a book someday. I want to be the first to request a signed copy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're much too kind, Kathy! I really do appreciate the comments and the read!! A book, err, ah, um...geesh, getting through a short story and keeping the errors under a thousand is a Herculean effort in itself! I can't imagine the sweat and tears over a book. Thanks again!!

      Delete
  11. I love the reverse chronology. Even though the end of the story is clear because it happens in the first section, there is tension throughout. Keep up the good writing.

    Cliff ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Cliff! Appreciate the read and you taking the time to comment. I'm definitely keeping up the writing...the good, however, comes and goes ;-)

      Delete
  12. Great read. I like the way it was told in reverse. The next time I think my day is bad I'll remember it could be worse! -Jason

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comments, Jason! Hope your day is always better!

      Delete