The Cutoff Bridge

Deanna Northrup

Deanna Northrup

My mother never liked Uncle Jimmy. I guess she had his number, even though we never told her about any of his crazy stuff, like what happened when he took us fishing. Jimmy had stopped by on Saturday to ask Dad to go fishing, but he was at work so Jimmy offered to take my brothers and me. At five, and the youngest, I expected to be left out but, surprisingly, Mom said we could all go.

“Shotgun,” Rex called out, as we piled into the car. Rex was the oldest and biggest, so Dean and I didn’t even think of arguing. As he drove, Jimmy told us he was headed for the cutoff bridge.

“What’s a cutoff bridge?” I whispered to Dean. He shrugged and moved forward, as though to ask, but then he didn’t – probably feared sounding stupid, same as me. He rested his chin on the back of the front seat and listened to Jimmy and Rex talking about cars. Older guys were always talking about cars. I looked out the window and thought about the cutoff bridge, wondering if it was a bridge that hadn’t been completed or one that had fallen down in the middle.

Jimmy drove into the country and turned onto a bumpy farm lane that crossed over the railroad tracks and then followed the tracks for a time. He parked in the weeds at the end of the lane and we followed him up onto the rail bed. There were two sets of tracks close together, so we couldn’t walk between them because the rocks were too big to step on comfortably. After a while, the tracks on the river side curved over and joined the other set so there was only one.

“This is where the tracks cut off for the bridge,” Jimmy said. Dean looked back at me and we both nodded. Most of our questions were answered that way. We only had to wait long enough.

Jimmy easily took every second tie, carrying my fishing pole, along with his own and a tackle box. My brothers balanced on the tracks, pretending to be tightrope walkers. They bobbed up and down, falling and hopping back on, each carrying a fishing pole, which they repositioned frequently, in a search for balance. I had to watch my feet and take long steps to make sure I stepped on each tie and not on the big pink rocks that we called dinosaur eggs. I wished I could stop and search for smooth, round ones, but didn’t want to fall behind, so I trudged on. I had been entrusted with the pork-and-beans can full of worms. Every time I peeked inside the can I stumbled over a tie or a rock, but I kept looking because I worried that the worms would crawl out onto my hand and slither up my arm if I didn’t keep track of them. The greasy, tarry smell of creosote filled the air and made me breathe through my mouth.

Dean pointed down, following something with his eyes as he passed it. I veered to avoid stepping on the dead animal. It looked like a fox or a cat, death pulling its mouth into an evil sneer that stayed in my mind after I looked away.

Eventually, Rex asked, “Are we going over the bridge?” I stopped and looked up. Just ahead loomed a long, narrow railroad bridge meant for carrying trains over Prairie Creek, at the point where the creek emptied into the river.

“Yeah,” said Jimmy, glancing back. “Keep up, Mark,” he added, seeing me standing still.

Dean held back until I caught up with him. We both looked behind and ahead, uneasily scanning the horizon for trains, before following Jimmy and Rex onto the bridge.

“Are you sure it’s okay to walk here?” Dean asked.

“Sure,” Jimmy said. “Why do you think they put up the guardrail and made the walkway?” He gestured toward the three feet of rock-covered boards that outlined the tracks. Little cracks of daylight showed between the boards in areas where the rocks were thin. It did not look like a walkway to me.

“Right here’s good,” Jimmy said when we were about a third of the way across. He set his gear down and explained to Rex how he should squeeze under the guardrail and shimmy down the angle iron to the cement platform under the bridge. “I’ll hand down the poles and tackle box. Now watch him, boys, then it’s your turn.”

Dean’s eyes met mine, briefly. We watched as Rex wrapped his legs around the angle iron and easily navigated the eight feet to the bridge piling and then reached up to catch the equipment. I wondered if he had done it before. Rex was gone a lot, doing things with his older friends.

“Your turn, Dean,” Jimmy said.

I saw the fear in Dean’s eyes as he sat down near the edge and wriggled slowly under the cross railing. I wanted to tell him not to do it, but I didn’t have the courage. What if he lost his grip and fell, glancing off the cement with his head and shoulder and splashing into the swiftly moving brown water below? But before I knew it, he was on the platform with Rex, huddling over the tackle box.

“Why are you shaking your head?” Jimmy asked me. I hadn’t realized I was.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m not big enough.”

“Sure you are,” he assured me. “Dean’s not that much bigger than you and he did it. Tell him how easy it was, Dean.”

“It was okay,” Dean said, but there was no confidence in his voice. I backed into the track and nearly lost my balance, still shaking my head. After looking at me sternly for a moment, Jimmy told me to sit and straddle the upright post on the railing and watch the rest of them fish. To my surprise and relief, no one teased me about being a baby.

I didn’t mind much that I wasn’t able to fish. It was fun watching the others and listening to Uncle Jimmy’s jokes. From where I sat, I could see the mouth of the creek, the river, and across the river, a little park with a boat ramp. I watched as a pickup backed a small boat slowly into the river. It looked like the truck would be swept away by the current. After it escaped from the water, the truck pulled the trailer away and a man and a boy got into the boat and disappeared around the bend in the river, leaving a curious quiet behind them. I speculated about the boy for a while after they were out of sight. From across the river he’d looked about my size, maybe even smaller. Was that his father? How many times had he been in a boat? I had never been in a boat and thought I probably never would. It made me dislike the boy with an unwarranted intensity.

Trees surrounded me overhead and the water moved darkly below. At times, I thought I could see fish beneath the surface but I couldn’t be sure. Tree limbs reached out over the water, casting loosely woven shadows that waved and blinked. I was staring, nearly hypnotized by the water, when I heard a subtle change in the sound of the day. It was a quiet, vibrating sound at first, like a hummingbird, or maybe the boat returning already. But then it changed and it was a sound I heard at home every day. It was the distant rumbling of a train. Then it was the wooing of the whistle. It was a sound of home, familiar and benign at first, until I turned and looked down the tracks and saw it. I stood and shouted, “Uncle Jimmy, a train’s coming! What should I do? Should I run? What should I do?”

Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, Dean and Rex stared up at me. Frozen for a moment, Jimmy suddenly became charged with motion. He dropped his pole and scrambled over to the edge of the column, directly below me, and raised both arms, stretching his hands toward me. “You can drop down to me,” he said. “I’ll catch you, I promise.”

The whistle blew again, louder. The train was straight ahead. When I kept my eyes on it, it didn’t look like it was moving, but when I looked away and looked back, I could see it was closer. I was engulfed in fear, my head turning in jerks and feet thumping the ground with wanting to run. Still, I looked down at his arms and said no.

“Okay, okay, sit back down like you were and hold on to the railing as tight as you can,” Jimmy shouted, because the noise was bearing down on us. “Do it now!”

Somehow, I did as he said. The whistle was loud and persistent.

“Now, look at me, Mark.” Jimmy’s voice was as urgent as the train whistle and his forehead was wet. “Don’t let go and don’t look at the train. You’ll be okay if you just stay put. Keep your eyes on us.”

I wrapped my arms around the railing and held on with all my might. Though I tried not to look, I could not resist turning my head as the train bore down on me like thunder.

Immediately, I regretted it. The faces of two men gaped at me in horror, from the window of the engine, as the whistle shrieked, non-stop. I turned and pressed my forehead into the railing, where it vibrated against the metal. My teeth clicked like a woodpecker. Hot air sprayed my neck with sand and my shirt flapped. I opened my eyes and saw the fear written on my brothers’ faces. Jimmy’s mouth moved urgently, but no sound reached me over the crashing and screaming of the train. When I closed my eyes against the gritty air, I couldn’t get the picture of the faces of the two men out of my mind. The train seemed to go on and on and I thought it would never end. But then, abruptly, the wind died. As the shrieking abated and the roar receded, quiet moved in. I turned my face toward the departing train in time to see a man standing at the back of the caboose, looking at me. My head rang like a telephone.

No one spoke, at first, as if reluctant to break the unnatural silence.

“That’s enough fishing,” Jimmy said, eventually. “We better get going.” He helped Dean and Rex shimmy back up to the bridge and handed them the gear.

“You okay?” Dean asked, breathless and red-faced.

Rex patted my back and said, “Man, I thought you were a dead duck.”

What was it like to be dead, I wondered.

After he pulled himself back up and led us off the bridge, Jimmy stopped and kneeled in front of me. He carefully took something out of his shirt pocket, where he usually kept his cigarettes and matches. “Look what I found,” he said, in a voice that was shaky around the edges. I could almost see my father looking at me through Jimmy’s eyes. His cupped hands slowly opened to reveal a baby bird, covered with gray feathers and down. Its head rose toward me and its mouth opened wide to make a hoarse little squawking noise.

“It’s a pigeon,” Jimmy said. “You can have it if you promise not to tell your mother about the train.”

“Okay, I said, my voice sounding unfamiliar to my ears. When I reached out to take the bird, my hands trembled as though the bridge was still vibrating. It sounded like a fair trade, though, since I hadn’t thought of telling anyway.

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