New River Gorge Bridge
“I drove here from Arizona,” Rodney said to the stranger who had appeared out of the darkness and introduced himself as Dennis. “Four thousand miles.”
“There are suicide bridges on the west coast closer to your home. Why the New River Gorge Bridge?” The chill night air crept under Dennis’s collar. He twisted the knitted scarf tightly around his neck.
Rodney’s hands gripped the damp railing. He leaned over the rail and peered into the inky darkness shrouding the gorge. He had done his homework. Unlike the others he had visited, the New River Gorge Bridge was an ideal site for a jumper. Relatively isolated, lacking a high, protective railing. No barriers impeding the descent.
Rushing waters of the New River intermingled with the whooshing sound of vehicles speeding on Route 19. The airstream lashed long, greasy strands of hair across Rodney’s face.
Two loose ends of Dennis’s scarf fluttered like the hands of an invalid. “Night’s not best. For a good look, Rodney.”
“Earlier, I walked to the overlook.”
“Sort of takes your breath away, don’t it? The view.”
“A perfect Eden.” The steel-arch bridge spanning the sparkling New River. The churning, white-water rapids. The lush, variegated greenness of the steep canyon’s vegetation tinged with the first hint of autumn color. Rodney stepped back from the bridge’s low railing.
“Felt the pull, did you? A feeling you didn’t get from any of those other bridges.”
“Listen, man. What the hell do you know about anything?” Rodney jabbed a finger into Dennis’s chest. “About the urge to jump?”
“More than you might imagine,” Dennis said.
“I worked on the bridge’s construction crew. Back in 1974.” Dennis gazed skyward as a meteor’s flashing tail arched and burned out in the star-sprinkled night sky. “Hired on as a welder.”
“A dangerous occupation,” Rodney said.
“Heights never bothered me.” But every time he climbed the scaffolding and began welding the bridge’s girders, Dennis felt the irrational pull.
He shivered. “My dad was a third-generation coal miner. Dead set against the idea. ’Digging coal below ground, Dennis, is safer than thinking you can soar with the angels.’”
“Didn’t stop you, did it?”
“Young. And bull-headed.”
People flocked to watch the progress. “On his way home from the punch-hole operation where he worked, dad could have stopped.”
“Never did, huh?”
Dennis shook his head. “Kid sister rode her bike out. Snapped hundreds of pictures. With an Instamatic camera I’d bought for her thirteenth birthday.”
“Saw black and white photos covering the walls in the Visitors’ Center.” Rodney turned up the collar on his jacket against a chill gust of wind.
“Every stage of bridge construction was filmed, photographed documented. Proud achievement—this bridge—for West Virginias.”
Rodney fumbled in his camo jacket. “Jeeze, I need a smoke.”
“How about that coffee?”
“It’s after midnight.”
“All-night café north of here. In Fayetteville. We could talk.”
“You a goddamn shrink?”
“Shrinks don’t conducted sessions on a bridge, Rodney.”
“Christ! Professionals require appointments, insurance, regular office visits.” Rodney leaned with his back against the bridge’s rail and watched vehicular traffic whizzing past. Where the hell are all these people going? “Wouldn’t have a smoke, would you?”
“It’s all gone to hell, you know?”
The tightness between Dennis’s shoulders eased. The guy might
open up. Start talking. “A wife?” he asked. “Or a girlfriend? Family who’ll miss you? Forever wonder if they could have prevented your senseless death?”
“Someone who’ll grieve? If I jump?” Rodney leaned over the edge and spat into the wind. “Once, maybe. Now, not sure.”
Rodney’s Mother was too busy with her clubs and committees, and playing grannie to four grandchildren. “Never been close. Parents divorced after I was born. I was an unwelcome leftover from the life she’d rather forget.”
“Fiancé publicized our break-up on every social media site known. Returned by registered mail the engagement ring.” Rodney swiped his lips with a balled fist. He’d pawned the ring to buy heroin. “Friends got fed up with lending me money, listening to my complaints, and bailing me out of jail.”
“Burned all your bridges?”
“Yep. No going back.”
“Could move forward.”
“What are you? Stupid? Or some sort of Messiah?”
“Someone who wants to help you. You could start over.”
“A new beginning? R-i-g-h-t.” Rodney’s face crinkled in a sneer. “No job. No money. Hooked on drugs.”
“A new beginning’s possible.”
“Unless I jump.”
So, Dennis, how many people have committed suicide on the New River Gorge Bridge?”
“National Park Service maintains this area. Authorities don’t publicize the total number of deaths.”
“No sense encouraging some would-be jumper to decide he or she will become number fifty or one hundred or one thousand. Right?”
“Something like that,” Dennis said. He wanted to keep Rodney talking. “There was a double suicide last month. A woman. And a member of a famous male gospel quartet. Jumped in tandem.”
“Misery loves company, hey?”
“Possibly. Maybe one of them was trying to prevent the tragedy.” Dennis rested his hand on Rodney’s sleeve.
Rodney shrugged off Dennis’s hand. His laugher rumbled like thunder in his throat. “So much for good Samaritans,” he said.
“I’m hankering for that cup of Joe. Dennis turned. “Mertie keeps a fresh pot going.”
“You’re giving up on me, too?”
“Been an hour. “Dennis twisted his neck and looked back at Rodney. “Time’s up.”
“Man, you’re sounding like my goddamn shrink. ’Well, that’s all the time we have for today, Rodney.’ She’d uncross her legs, smile, close her notebook, and walks me to the door.”
“Guess she figured her time’s valuable.”
“Are you saying her time was too valuable to waste on me?” Rodney’s voice rose in anger.
“Probably lots of troubled people needed her help. I’m going. Coming?” Dennis walked south along the bridge’s narrow edge.
Rodney cursed the retreating figure fading into the darkness.
“Coffee smells good, Mertie.”
The usual?” The waitress at the Rocky bottom Café reached for the carafe sitting on the warming burner. “Fresh brewed.” A carload returning from the outdoor theater at Grandview State Park stopped in and drained the last of the old.
Officer Kirkwood nodded. “Officer Symes is on patrol with me tonight, Mertie.”
“Takes four creams, if I recall.” Mertie poured steaming coffee into two large Styrofoam cups.
Officer Kirkwood carried the sturdy, cardboard coffee holder to the idling patrol car.
Patrolman Symes shifted gears and backed into the street. “We’ve been dispatched to the bridge. Call came in reporting a man’s been spotted on the east side talking to himself.” Symes drove along Court Street, turn right at the light onto Route 19.
“Haven’t had a jumper in a while.” Officer Kirkwood pried off the white lid from his cup and sipped the scalding brew.
“Poor sod,” Office Symes said. “If he hasn’t gone over, maybe, we can talk him down with a cup Mertie’s coffee.”
“Heard your coffee’s fresh.”
Mertie smiled at the customer. “So’s the apple pie,” she said.
The man wearing a camo jacket closed the door and gazed around the deserted Rocky Bottom Café.
“You looking for someone, mister?”
“Thought he’d be here.”
Mertie watched her customer peer at eight poster-sized, glossy black and white photographs mounted on the wall.
“Nice composition.” Rodney slid into the booth. “Who took them?”
“Strictly an amateur.” Mertie poured the coffee, and, on second thought, sliced the apple pie. Poor man looked half-starved.
“Shows an eye for detail.”
Mertie’s face brightened. She carried the plastic tray to the booth.
Rodney looked at the generous wedge of pie.
“On the house,” Mertie said.
“Why don’t you join me?”
“Well, can’t see any harm. I’ll fix me a cup of coffee.”
“Missing the most important photo, Mertie,” Rodney called. “Of the center beam being lowered into place at the top of the arch.”
Customer’s rarely noticed. Mertie overfilled the cup and coffee flowed onto the counter.
Mertie grabbed a towel and sopped the brown liquid. She
wiped her fingers on her apron and carried her cup to the booth.
“You took those pictures, didn’t you, Mertie?”
Mertie sat opposite Rodney and reached for a paper napkin from the metal dispenser on the wooden table. “I was a kid. My brother bought an Instamatic camera for my birthday. On the day the last section was being lifted into place, he fell.”
“You saw the accident?”
“At the time didn’t know it was him. Saw the body. . .sort of gliding through the air.” Mertie’s bony shoulders slumped. She wiped tears from her cheeks.
“Talking helps. Helped me.” Rodney patter her hand.
Mertie’s eyelids flickered. “Someone talked you out of jumping? From the bridge?”
Mertie shredded the napkin and scattered the tiny, white pieces. “You’re not the first,” she said. “People come here. Mostly late at night. Wanting coffee. And looking for a stranger they met on the bridge. He talked the out of jumping.”
⇑click here to hide text