'The Bridgetender,' by Joy Williams
A short story by Joy Williams that will appear in <i>The Visiting Privilege</i>, which will be published by Knopf in September.
This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
I am trying to think. Sometimes I catch myself saying just those words and just in my head. It seems I got to start everything in my head with something in my head saying I am trying to think. I remember how it begins but can't remember how it ends. Even though it's over now. It don't seem right that it could be over and me back where I've always been not even knowing what it was she gave me or what I should do with it.
Because the bridge is still here and the water and the shack. And though I haven't been to town since she disappeared, I imagine the town's still there too. Her fancy car is still here sitting on the beach, though it seems to be fading, sort of like a crummy photograph. It's a black car but the birds have crapped all over it and it's white now like the sand. Sometimes it hurts my eyes. The chrome catches the sun. But as I say, sometimes I can't hardly make it out at all. It ain't really a car anymore. It wouldn't take nobody anywhere.
What it is I think is that before she came I knew something was going to happen and now that she's been, I know it ain't. She didn't leave a single thing behind. Not a pair of panties or a stick of gum or nothing. Once she brought over a little round tin of chicken-liver patay. Now I know I've never eaten chicken-liver patay so it must be around here somewhere, but I can't find it. My head's fuller'n a tick on a dog. Full of blood or something. And my prick lies so tame in my blue jeans, I can't hardly believe it's even gone through what it's been through.
She was like smoke the way she went away. She was like that even when she stayed. She'd cover me up, wrapping herself around me tight, tasting sweet and as cool as an ice cream cone, smelling so good and working at loving me. Then she would just dissolve and I'd fill right up with her like a water glass. I can't recall it ending, as I say, but I know it's stopped. Black rain at four in the afternoon like it used to be. Black trees and empty sky. And the Gulf running a dirty green foam where it turns into the pass.
But I can think about it beginning. So. That first morning I come back to the shack to get a bottle of beer and there's a big brown dog sitting there drinking out of the toilet bowl. He'd drained it. And looked at me as though it was me and not him that had no right being there. Drained it and sat and stared at me, his jaws rolling and dripping at me. Now, I like dogs all right but I could see this one was a bum. In the Panhandle, I had two catch dogs that was something to watch. Them dogs just loved to catch. They was no nonsense dogs. But this canlicker was a bum. Somebody's pet. A poodle or something. The big kind. Before I got around to giving him a good kick, he pushed the screen door open with his paw and left.
I was so mad. It ruined my beer because I drank it all in one swallow and it was just too hot for that. I got a headache right away. And an ache around my ribs. So I got another beer and drank it real slow, thinking of how I could really cream that dog. I figured I wouldn't hunt him out. I got better things to do than that, I hope. But I'd coax him along and then push him off the bridge and that would be one sorry dog when he finally dimed out. And I was thinking and figuring how to get that brown dog, not even thinking then how queer it was that there should be any dog at all, because I hadn't seen a thing for six months around the bridge or on the beach except wild. And I hadn't seen another person in that time either and then as soon as I remember this, I see the girl walking along the beach with the dog.
She's in a bright bikini and long raggedywet hair and I remember how long it had been since I'd seen a girl in a bikini or any girl at all because my wife had left me a long while ago, even then having stopped being a girl in any way you could think of, and went back to living in Lowell, Massachusetts, the place she come from and left just to plague me. Somewhere, in that town, setting on a lawn outside a factory, is or was a chair fit for a giant's ass. Forty or fifty times bigger and crazier than a proper chair. And she come from that town. And she sold off my dogs to get back to it on a one-way ticket on a bubble-topped Trailways.
I never knew her real well. She wore more clothes, jesus, you'd think she was an Eskimo. Layers and layers of them. I never knew if I got to her or not and she'd be the last to tell me. She never talked about nothing except New England. Everything was better there, she'd say. Corn, roads, and movie houses. The horses ain't as mean, she'd say. The bread rises better up North. Even the sun, she'd say, is nicer because it sets in a different direction. It don't fall past the house this way at home, she'd say. I was a young man then and I never cheated. I was a young man and my balls were big as oranges. And I threw it all away, god knows where. She caught my stuff in her underwear and washed it away in the creek.
When I think about what a honey bear I was and how polite and wonderfully whanged and how it was all wasted on a loveless woman... She had a tongue wide and slick as a fried egg. And never used it once. I guess that's what I was waiting on but I might just as much have hoped for oil in the collards patch. She said she was a respectable woman and claimed to have worked in an office in Boston. But she didn't have no respect for the man and woman relationship and she didn't have no brain. She couldn't bring things together in her head. I'd bring her head together all right if I ever see her again. I'd fold it up for her so she'd be able to carry it in her handbag. Selling the best catch dogs in the State of Florida for a bus ticket.
So. I see the girl in the bright bikini and all I can think of is the old lady. It'd been so long and all I could think of was that witch I once had or maybe never had. I spent all this time here over the water not imagining anything. I just see that when I see the girl. And I got scared. I felt as though I caught myself dying. Like you'd catch yourself doing something stupid.
I walked across the bridge and climbed up into the box and got the binoculars. They belong to the state but they're mine as long as I leave them here. And, I figure, the girl's mine as long as she keeps herself in range. She's walking down the beach, stopping every few yards and squatting down and setting out a stick. She's got a bathing suit on that's like two Band-Aids. Promising but not too promising. She had a knife strapped around her waist and wore a big wristwatch. She also had a notebook.
It wore me out watching her. She'd squat down and write something and then spring up again so graceful like she knew someone was watching her and gave the bottoms of her bikini a little flip with her finger. I watched her for a long time, but she didn't do nothing spectacular. I was real happy just watching a near naked woman move. Every once in a while she'd go into the water and swim out a few hundred yards, that damn dog swimming beside her barking like hell, and each time when she come out it was like that bikini had shrunk a little bit more and she was falling out of it every which way all plump and bubbly white.
I watched her until she got out of sight, around a bend in the beach, and then I started looking at other things. Mess of birds in the mangroves. Mullet boats way offshore. And what I'd later know was the girl's car parked on the hard sand under some cedars. A weird-looking vehicle. I know right away it's from Europe or someplace foreign. A mean car shaped like a coffin. But it reminded me of sex too, you know, though I never seen a machine that reminded me of sex before. But that car set me to feeling things, like the girl, that I hadn't felt maybe never. Though I knew what they were. And it felt so good feeling them.
I finally put up the binoculars. Wiped them off. The glass was getting milky from all the wetness in the air. As a matter of fact, I think they was shot from my never using them, never caring for them at all. Lots of things are like that. Life, you know, it begins to rot if you don't use it. Everything gets bound or rusted up. Tools especially. Gear. My tool. Ha ha.
It worried me a little about the binoculars since they belong to the state. They could hassle me about them. Like they could about the bridge. Because the bridge sure ain't being what it's supposed to be. If a boat ever wanted to come through and I had to wind this devil back I believe it would just fall apart, the whole apparatus, like one of them paste and paper bridges you see blowing up in war movies. But no boats come through anyhow. It just ain't a proper waterway. The channel needs to be redug or a good hurricane's gotta come through here and clean everything out. A pretty beach. Good fishing but no boats come and no people either. Something happened here years ago, I heard. A sickness or something. In the water. An attack or something coming in on the tide. Somebody died or got hurt. You know the way these things are. People remember bad news even though they might never have heard it in the first place.
So the state has let it slide. Though you never know when they'll show up and raise all sorts of hell because things ain't how they want them. But it was them and not me who built this crazy beach and it was me and not them who saw, on my first day on the job, the sign just above them rotting joists around the crank that says caution when installed proper this sign will not be visible.
Well, it ain't my concern. And I'll tell you I never really expect the state to come and hassle me. They know they got a bargain. It takes a special man to put up with living out here. I don't think anybody will come at all. Though I'd been waiting on this girl. It sure is easy to see that now.
So. After she got out of range, I went back to the shack and took a shower. Goddamn frogs come out of the wood and sat there while I did it. Like to have broke my neck slipping on them. Put on clean clothes and cut my nails. Prettied myself up like a movie idol. Had a beer and fell asleep right in the chair in the middle of the day. Which was unusual. And when I woke up it was practically black out and the girl was there looking at me.
She was feeding Corn Flakes to her dog. Piece by piece. My Corn Flakes. She was so brown from the sun, she was shining. And she was so warm-looking that I started to sweat. And she started right in, hardly saying anything but chatting like we were old pals. Then she come over to me and darn if she didn't sit on my lap and blow in my ear. God, she was warm. It was like being baked in a biscuit. And chatting all the while. I'd forgotten, you know, it's a whole new vocabulary with a good woman.
So the first night went by and the sun come out. The dog was still working on his balls over by the sink. And my baby tickled me up with a pink bird's feather. Bright pink like it come out of a cartoon. A roseate spoonbill feather, she said, for her specialty was birds. Ha ha, I said. Because I knew where her talent was.
But she was a nut on seabirds. She talked about them all the time she was frying up breakfast. Eggs and side meat and pancakes. She made up the best plates of food every day she stayed and we fed each other up. But that first day she entertained me... honey and butter dripping all over. Like I had died and gone somewheres a lot better than heaven.
But when she wasn't tending to me and making up inventions, she was always going on about them birds. She had a canvas bag she was always toting around and damn if inside there weren't two dead birds, perfect in every way except for their being dead. She didn't know what kind they was and she was toting them around until she could find a book that would tell her. And there were little speckled eggs in that bag too, no bigger than my thumbnail, with a hole in them and all the insides gone. And other crap she picked up along the beach. And the knives. Dinky little things. She said they was for predators on land or in the sea but they couldn't do no real damage, I told her that. Do in a splinter is about all.
What she was doing with them birds was making a study on how they copulate. And what I learned, I'll tell you, is that them terns are dumb. They don't know what they're doing because all they're really thinking about is making nests and eggs. This is because, the girl said, they don't have the time. Their hearts beat so fast they don't live long and their heads are only full of getting food and keeping alive. But I never seen anything sloppier with screwing. No wonder I never noticed them doing it in other springs. It don't look like nothing at all, not even the big birds, the pelicans and whatever.
But that girl's big pretty eyes would fill up with tears when she talked about them. She told me to respect them because they live their lives so close to dying.
OK, I said. I understood that.
But it's the inventions she made up that I can't quite puzzle out. And she started in on them the first day directly after I lapped up all them pancakes. She never made me pretend to be things I wasn't. Only things I was. But I believe we went through a hundred changes the days she stayed with me. We didn't have costumes or nothing naturally but it was like we were playing other people doing things. Though all the time it was us. I was a gangster and she was the governor's daughter, you know, or I was a bombardier and she was the inside of the plane. Or I was a preacher, maybe Methodist, and she was a babysitter. And even her dog did it because sometimes he was like a whole other object, you know. Or like he became a feeling in the shack and quit being a dog.
She messed up time and place for me. And just with her, I felt I was loving the different women of a thousand different men. We just went on for five days with them inventions and never did the same one twice. She'd go off sometimes in her fancy car, I don't know where. I'd lie there while she was gone, not even able to move hardly nor sleep neither. Lie there with my eyes open, trying to think what was happening, listening to the sound her car made traveling over the bridge, and it was like the bridge went on for miles, it was the only car I'd heard traveling for so long. There were four silver pipes sticking off the end of that car. I never seen anything like it. I was trying to think, but never once did I think about her not coming back. She always come back.
On the fifth day, I went down with her to the beach. First time I been out of the shack. Hotter than a poor shotgun. No wind. We was walking over the bridge to the beach when she said, This isn't a drawbridge. It's a solid piece. There isn't any grid. And so what do you tend, I'd like to know?
Well, of course it ain't a drawbridge. Did she think I'd been here for all these years paid by the country, here every day with no vacation and never no real quitting time without knowing that the goddamn thing wasn't a drawbridge?
I didn't say nothing but just gave her a look telling her that she should tend to what she knows about and I'll tend to what I know about.
The beach was full of eggs. She kept steering me around so I wouldn't step on them. All them eggs cooking in the heat and the birds going crazy over us as we walked along. Diving down and screaming, shitting on our heads. I went down to the water to get away from them. I was still put out with the girl and wasn't paying her any mind. She was trotting up and down the beach, slaving like a field hand, writing things down in her book. Finally she run right by me and fell in the water. Tried to tease me in. Took off her suit and tossed it in my face. Skin there like the cream in a chocolate eclair. But I paid her no mind. That day was so white my eyes ached. I was floating and felt sick. All that sun, it never bothered me before. She come out and sprinkled water all over me from her hair and even that wasn't cool. It was hot as the air. I was mad because I felt she was thinking my thoughts weren't real. But then I said, Come on, I been without loving too long. Because I thought her loving would pick me up. And we went back to the shack, me with my eyes closed and my arms resting on her because it hurt so bad looking out on that day. It ain't never been that bright here before or since.
So we went back. And I was a lumberjack and she was a dancehall cutie. And I was a big black lake and she was a sailboat coming over me. But that night she and that dog was gone.
There are sharks, I know. I seen them rolling out there. And the bars sometimes are tricky. They change. Fall off one day where they didn't the day before. But it don't really seem dangerous here. I just don't know where she went to. Leaving nothing except that car, which like I say is sort of fading out. Rats building their nests beneath the hood. I hear them in it when I walk close.
So it's over but I can't help but feel it's still going on somewheres. Because it hasn't seemed to have ended even though it's stopped. And I don't know what it was she gave me. Maybe she even took something away. And I don't really even know if she's dead and it's me sitting here in the pilothouse or if I was the one who's been dead all the while and she's still going on back there on the Gulf with the birds in the sun.
This story will appear in The Visiting Privilege, to be published by Knopf in September. © 2015 by Joy Williams