Read an Excerpt
THE BRIDGE (Chapter 1)
It was tradition on the bridge for each member of the paint crew to get a nickname. It was tradition that the name be pulled out of the air, and not really mean anything. It was just what you go by at work. But Baby’s name was different. Baby’s name was a special case.
Union Hall had sent him up when W.C. retired last summer. Although he’d been working high steel a few years, Baby was young, about twenty-five, but looked younger. He was long and skinny, with wide hands that dangled by thin wrists from his too-short sleeves. He had a buzz-top haircut that made his ears stick out. His face got blotchy and pink in the sun. He was the youngest in Bulldog’s crew by twenty years. His first day, when Bulldog brought him to the crew shack inside the south tower and introduced him around, you could see this boy sizing up the old-timers, calculating the age difference in his head and grinning about it. He tossed his gear into W.C.’s old locker and flopped on the bench next to it. He pulled out a Walkman and started fiddling with the earphones. And while the crew was getting down to first things first, discussing a nickname for him, he let out a phlegmy little snort and muttered, Well, geez, just don’t call me Kid. Then he turned on his Walkman, opened his mouth, and shut his eyes. Bulldog and the crew regarded him for a moment, this skinny, openmouthed boy stretched out on W.C.’s bench, his big, booted feet bouncing fitfully to the tinny scratching of music coming from his ears. The painters then returned to the matter at hand. They would not call him Kid. They would not call him Sonny or Junior, either. They would go one better. With little discussion, they decided to veer from tradition just this once, and Baby’s name was born.
Being new to bridge painting, Baby is still getting the hang of things, with his partner, Whale, telling him to check his harness, to yank on it at least a hundred times a day to make sure it’s fast; to check that his boots are laced up, because there’s no tripping allowed, not up here, the first step is a killer; and to always attach his safety line, to clip it onto anything and everything. Baby listens, but under duress, rolling his eyes and muttering, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it, I got it, which sets Whale off. But Bulldog and the rest of them tell him to take it easy. They are old hands at this, they remind him. They are cautious and patient men, and Baby’s just young, that’s all. He’ll learn to slow down, as each of them learned; he’ll learn to get used to the steady and deliberate pace of their work, what Bulldog calls the Art of Painting a Bridge: degreasing a section of steel first; sandblasting and inspecting for corrosion; and after the iron crew’s done replacing the corroded plates or rivets or whatever, blasting again; sealing the steel with primer one, and primer two the next day; then top coat one the day after that, and top coat two the day after that.
Whale doesn’t like working with Baby, but he’s partnered with him. So the two of them are under the roadbed, up inside the latticework. They go from the joists down, moving east to west along a row of crossbeams on the San Francisco side of the south tower. Whale is blasting rust out of a tight spot behind a tie brace, and Baby moves in to spray primer one, when suddenly his paint gun sputters and dies. He yanks off his noise helmet, shouts at Whale over the wind, and unclips his safety line to go look for the kink in his paint hose. Pissed off, Whale yells, Goddammit, but it’s muffled under his helmet. Baby clunks down the platform in his big spattered boots. His line trails behind him, the steel carabiner clip skittering along the platform grating.
He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head—a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold cable. He reaches up, stands on his toes, and leans out a little, his hips high against the railing. He grasps the hose, snaps it once, twice, three times until it clears. And just as he’s turning around to give Whale the thumbs-up, a woman appears before him, inches from his face. She passes into and out of his view in less than two seconds. But in Baby’s memory, she would be a woman floating, suspended in the flat light and the gray, swirling mist.
The witnesses said she dived off the bridge headfirst. They said she was walking along when she suddenly dropped her book bag and scrambled onto the guardrail, balancing on the top rail for a moment, arms over her head, then bouncing once from bended knees and disappearing over the side. It happened so fast, according to one witness. It was a perfect dive, according to another.
But her trajectory was poor. Too close to the bridge, her foot smashed against a beam, spinning her around and pointing her feet and legs downward. She was looking at Baby as she went past him, apparently just as surprised to see him as he was to see her. She was looking into his face, into his eyes, her arms upstretched, drawing him to her as she dropped away.
And wondering how you decide to remember what you remember, wondering why you retain the memory of one detail and not another, Baby would remember, running those two seconds over and over in his head, her hands reaching toward him, fingers splayed, and her left hand balling into a fist just before the fog swallowed her. He would remember a thick, dark green pullover sweater, and the rush of her fall bunching the green under her breasts, revealing a thin, pale waist and a fluttering white shirttail. He would remember bleached blue jeans with rips flapping at both knees, and basketball shoes—those red high-tops that kids wear—and the redness of them arcing around, her legs and torso following as she twisted at the hips and straightened out, knifing into the bed of fog below. But what he could not remember was her face. Although he got a good look at her—at one point just about nose to nose, no more than six inches away—it was not a clear, sustained image of her face that stayed with him, but a flashing one, shutter-clicking on and off, on and off in his head. He could not remember a single detail. Her eyes locked on his as she went past and down, and Baby could not—for the life of him, and however hard he tried—remember what color they were.
But he would remember hearing, in spite of the wind whistling in his ears, in spite of the roar of traffic, the locomotive clatter of tires over the expansion gaps in the roadbed above, in spite of the hysterical thunking of the air compressor in the machine shed directly over him—Baby would remember hearing, as she went past, a tiny sound, an oof or an oops, probably her reaction to her ankle shattering against the beam above less than a second before. It was a small, muted grunt, a sound of minor exertion, of a small effort completed, the kind of sound that Baby had associated—before today—with plopping a heavy bag of groceries on the kitchen table or getting up, woozy, after having squatted on his knees to zip up his boy’s jacket.
Whale drops his gun and goes clomping down the platform after Baby, who stands frozen, leaning out and staring down, saying, Man oh man, man oh man oh man. He gets to him just as Baby’s knees buckle and hooks his safety line first thing. He pulls him to his feet, pries his gloved fingers from around the railing, and walks him to the other end of the platform. He hangs on to Baby as he reels the scaffold back under the tower, too fast. The wet cables slip and squeal through their pulleys, and the platform jolts and shudders until it slams finally into the deck with a reassuring clang. He unhooks their safety lines—Baby’s first, then his own—and reaches out to clip them onto the ladder. He grabs a fistful of Baby’s harness, and eases him—limp and obedient—over the eighteen-inch gap between the scaffold gate and the ladder platform. He puts Baby’s hands on the first rung. They brace themselves as they swing out, the gusts always meaner on the west side of the bridge. The shifting winds grab at their parkas and yank at their safety lines, the yellow cords billowing out in twin arcs, then whipping at their backs and legs. They go one rung at a time, turtling up the ladder in an intimate embrace—Whale on top of Baby, belly to back, his mouth warm in Baby’s ear, whispering, Nice and easy, Baby, over and over. That’s it, Baby, nice and easy, nice and easy. Halfway up, they can hear the Coast Guard cutter below them, its engines revving and churning as it goes past, following the current out to sea.
They knock off a little early. In the parking lot, Baby leans against his car, smoking another cigarette, telling Whale and Bulldog and Gomer that he’s okay, that he’ll be driving home in a minute, just let him finish his cigarette, all right? Whale looks over at Gomer, then takes Baby’s car keys and drives him home. Gomer follows in his car and gives Whale a ride back to the lot.
Suiting up in the crew shack the next morning, they ask him how he’s doing, did he get any sleep, and he says Yeah, he’s okay. So they take this time, before morning shift starts, to talk about it a little bit, all of them needing to talk it out for a few minutes, each of them having encountered jumpers, with C.B. seeing two in one day—just hours apart—from his bosun’s platform halfway up the north tower, first one speck, then another, going over the side and into the water, and C.B. not being able to do anything about it. And Whale taking hours to talk one out of it once, and her calling him a week later to thank him, then jumping a week after that. And Bulldog having rescued four different jumpers from up on the pedestrian walkway, but also losing three up there, one of them an old guy who stood shivering on the five-inch-wide ledge just outside the rail and seven feet below the walkway, shivering there all afternoon in his bathrobe and slippers, looking like he’d taken a wrong turn on a midnight run to the toilet; and after standing there thinking about it, changing his mind, and reaching through the guardrail for Bulldog’s outstretched arm, and brushing the tips of Bulldog’s fingers before losing his footing.
Nobody says anything. Then Bulldog slaps his thighs and stands up. But that’s how it goes, he says, and he tells everybody to get a move on, it’s time to paint a bridge.
At lunch, Baby is looking through the paper. He tells Gomer and C.B. and the rest of them how he hates the way they keep numbering jumpers. She was the 995th, and he wished they’d stop doing that. And when they’re reeling in the scaffold for afternoon break, he turns to Whale and tells him—without Whale’s asking—that the worst thing about it was that he was the last person, the last living human being she saw before she died, and he couldn’t even remember what she looked like, and he didn’t need that, he really didn’t.
And that’s when Baby loses his noise helmet. It slips out from the crook of his arm, hits the scaffold railing, and lobs over the side. It being a clear day, they both follow the helmet all the way down, not saying anything, just leaning out and watching it, squinting their eyes from the sun reflecting off the surface of the bay, and hearing it fall, the cowl fluttering and snapping behind the headpiece, until the helmet hits with a loud, sharp crack, like a gunshot. Not the sound of something hitting water at all.
At break, Baby’s pretty upset. But Bulldog tells him not to sweat it, the first helmet’s free. Yeah, Red says, but after that it costs you, and Red should know, having lost three helmets in his nineteen years. But Baby can’t shut up about it. He goes on about the sound it made when it hit the water, about how amazing it is that from 220 feet up you can single out one fucking sound. He’s worked up now. His voice is cracking, his face is redder than usual. They all look at him, then at each other, and Bulldog sits him down while the rest of them go out to work. Baby tells him he’s sorry about the helmet, he really is, and that it won’t happen again. And that’s when Bulldog tells him to go on home. Go home, he says, and kiss your wife. Take the rest of the day, Bulldog says, I’ll clear it with the Bridge Captain, no sweat.
Everybody’s suiting up for morning shift. It’s a cold one today, with the only heat coming from the work lights strung across a low beam overhead. They climb quickly into long johns and wool shirts and sweaters and parkas. They drink their coffee, fingers of steam rising from open thermoses, curling up past the lights. They wolf down doughnuts that Red brought. Whale is picking through the box, looking for an old-fashioned glazed, and C.B. is complaining to Red why he never gets those frosted sprinkled ones anymore, when Baby, who hasn’t said a word since coming back, asks nobody in particular if he could maybe get a new nickname.
The painters all look at each other. Tradition says you don’t change the nickname of a painter on the bridge. You just never do that. But on the other hand, it seems important to the boy, and sometimes you have to accommodate the members of your crew because that’s what keeps a paint crew together. They watch him sitting there, concentrating on re-lacing his boots, tying and untying them, saying, It’s no big deal, really, it’s just that I never liked the name you gave me, and I was just wondering.
So they take these few minutes before the morning shift to weigh this decision. Whale chews slowly on the last old-fashioned glazed. Bulldog pours himself another half cup, and C.B. and Red both sit hunched over, coiling and uncoiling safety line. Gomer tips his chair back, dances it on its rear legs, and stares up past the work lights. The boy clears his throat, then falls silent. He watches Gomer rocking back and forth. He follows his gaze upward. Squinting past the lights, peering into the dark, he listens to the gusts outside whistling through the tower above them.
THE BRIDGE Copyright 2011 by Daniel Orozco.