On a Bridge Over the Homochito

     More than half a life-time away, and even now his mind wanders back to a weekday morning on a bridge in 1948. He was unemployed then, the only time in his working life that he wasn't at a job on a weekday morning, and walking along Postal Route 31 with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, alone. Twenty-six years-old and a veteran, still humbled by the things he saw in Germany and Poland at the end of the Hitler half of the war. He hadn't seen much combat himself, but he knew then, as he knows now, that what he saw as part of the 222nd infantry, 'The Mop-up Crew,' as he called it, could never be compared to shooting at people or getting shot at. Human beings who didn't look like people, shriveled hands grasping and fisting, like the tiny fingers of dolls, and sometimes, but not always, ditches of bodies. A place called Nordhausen, where he and another soldier found the corpse of a pregnant woman in a bloody latrine. An army interpreter told them that an SS had forced the birth by stomping on her with his boots. They didn't find the child. He and the other soldier, whose name he never knew, buried her. The other soldier said a prayer, which he repeated.

     A year and a half after, there he was—amazed that such a thing like quiet could exist again in the world—rambling down Route 31 in Meadville, Mississippi, two towns over from his town, McCall Creek, in the middle of the morning. He took long walks that year, mostly to think about the things he'd seen and to get out of the house, away from his mother's hasty breathing and droning. Someone who's done for country as you've done deserves to rest, and don't for twelve seconds believe you're lazy, or not worthy, or that you haven't done your share. Fists jammed into pockets, surrounded by the desolation of home, the woods, the gurgle of the Homochitto River. He turns off the road and begins to cross a bridge. A simple, twin I-beam girder, wood-planked, about the width of a truck and a hundred feet long. Back then it was still some architect's fancy. A little bridge to nowhere really, no houses up the hill that way, just a dirt road that ended a hundred feet from the end of the bridge on the other side of the river. Beyond the end of the road, woods and a steep grade upward, what his father used to call Steve Glowers Hill. Maybe they'd planned to do some building up there, but that never came to pass.      Nothing is left now but the crumbled ruins of the two arches of a bridge that's fallen into the river.

     But that morning long ago, he'd stood at the railing of the little bridge, his chin resting on the backs of his hands, and looked down at the water and dreamed of a girl, not a particular girl, not one he could describe or name, but a formless one, hair and smile, quick-tongued and laughing. He saw her and didn't see her and it was safer that way. But then, as if nudged out the woods by the finger of God, she came out of the trees up river, naked and white as vanilla pudding, followed closely by a man, dark-skinned, but not black, Indian maybe, naked too. For a moment the girl looked familiar, a little like his cousin Jackie, the one with all the curly sticking-up hair everybody teased her about, but this one was older than Jackie, maybe a lot older. This girl could have been thirty. It was hard to tell from up there. He watched her step fast across the rocks by the water's edge and plunge in with a wordless shout. With much more hesitation, the man followed her across the rocks and stepped off, without a peep, into the water. Neither of them looked up at the bridge. Maybe for the same reason he didn't look away. Who'd have expected the other? Who'd be standing on a bridge that didn't lead anywhere? Who'd be swimming, naked, in March? He watched her breasts float above the water; he watched the man watch her, not smiling, as though he was already counting the seconds he had left with her, with this woman who was so obviously—even from up there on the bridge—someone else's wife. (Her flailing joy in the water too free to be everyday.) Which is why both men, the man in the water and the man on bridge, stared with such useless desire. Tne couple didn't speak. This he remembers, cherishes, really. That neither of them succumbed to the temptation of lying about what they didn't have. Just the heavy pant and flap of swimming in the wrong season. He remembers the pressure of his erection and the awkwardness of walking away with it down the road. He remembers the man's hands as they reached out over the water and how for a single moment he wanted nothing more than to murder him so those could be his hands.

     And he remembers remembering this. In 1977, driving through a snow storm in St. Louis at 2:00 in the morning, and he's standing on the bridge. No trigger, no reason for her to come to him. Nothing in that blinding whirl to take him so far back. But there she was, amid the battering plunk of the flakes on the windshield: the way her wet hair twisted around her neck like a scarf. The sweep of her thin arms. The way she ignored men and the cold. Another time, eating with Manda and her father in some hoyty toyty place in Atlanta, putting a forkful of steak in his mouth, and again, for no reason except maybe the happiness of that food, the river. Again her emergence out of the trees. His wish granted and ripped away the next moment; the dark man's head and shoulders appear. What you wish for and what you can never have—both come out of the woods at the same time. You didn't fight a war. You cleaned up after one. Still, you're your mother's hero. You don't want to work right now. You want to wander the old roads. You want to stand on the bridge and watch.