The Old Stone Bridge
It had not been a good morning. As Nick approached the narrow, single lane, bridge, he slowed his pick-up and pulled to the side of the road. He opened the door, slid off the seat, let his feet hit the ground and walked out onto the dirt shoulder of the road. Tiny puffs of dust were thrown up from the hard heels of his cowboy boots. Hooking his thumb in his belt, cocking one hip out he affected what he styled his personal pose, the same one he saw his dad take so many times over the years. It could have been genetics or imitation, maybe something his Dad took from the movies. He didn’t know. And it didn’t matter. It just seemed to help him think better.
He looked over to the other bank of the dry river bed spanned by the Old Stone Bridge. Before he left that morning, his son had said, “It’s ok, Dad, no big deal.”
Well, it felt like a big deal. All-star games for 12-year olds don’t come that often. Nick had said all the right things, the encouraging things, the praise and platitudes about what a great accomplishment to be picked for a team of the county’s best players. And, yes, he told his boy he wanted to be there, really wanted to be there, but the big ranch accounts, all those orchards, the thousands of trees, had to be served and it was just a “have to take care of it” thing he couldn’t get out of and he wished he could, but he couldn’t.
And his son, nodded again. “It’s okay, Dad, seriously.” and then the boy had walked off to his room. And closed the door.
Nick had looked helplessly at his wife. Without raising her head from clearing the breakfast dishes, she smiled sympathetically. “He’ll be okay. He understands.”
So here he was. Leaving on a trip he didn’t want to take. And this evening, he would be hours away and his son would be playing an all-star game. He would be the starting pitcher for the county all-stars. And Nick would be meeting with his accounts supervisor and planning the inspections, the spraying, and pruning schedules by the dozen crews he would be overseeing for the next several weeks in every corner of the San Joaquin Valley. But right now, here he was just south of town standing by himself along the side of the road. He had taken this route because the other way was much quicker and more efficient, and he didn’t feel like being quick or efficient right now.
Nick looked at the Old Stone Bridge. Not much of one. A simple stone and rock structure spanning a creek or what maybe once was a creek before they put up the dam thirty miles to the East. Not much more than a trickle at the bottom of a dry river bed now.
There was nothing ornate about the bridge. It was serviceable enough to allow cars, trucks, an occasional hiker, one at a time, to traverse the gorge from either direction. Nick didn’t know if the county maintained the bridge or whether inspectors regularly examined it for defects or faults. Neither he nor anyone, he suspected, knew if all the bolts on the bridge’s understructure were tightened (were there any bolts?) and in good shape after having stood sentry over the gap through decades of hot afternoons and freezing nights, storms and rain and humidity. The bridge was still standing after having been repeatedly battered. Sometimes by drunks bouncing their Fords or Chevys or Buicks into its sides; other times absorbing the rumbles, screeches and squeaks from rogue trucks hauling weight in excess of the state allowed maximums and using backroads to avoid weigh stations and the highway patrol.
It was just there. Always. Everyone just accepted the bridge as part of the landscape. Predating all of us. Like the huge boulders lining the creek and from which the bridge may have been quarried. No maintenance, no governance and no officious inspectors, probing this pylon, testing that span. If the bridge swayed, cracked, fell, it would simply be part of the natural order. And everyone knew that too. Inevitable, inspected or not, repaired or not, it must end someday at the bottom of the gorge.
Nick, stepped back, opened the door to his pick up and grabbing the side of the steering wheel pulled himself up on the running board and to the seat. Starting the engine up, he idled forward and drove slowly across the old bridge, listening to the creaks and the thumping of the tires on the wood pilings.
That morning, when his wife said his son would be okay, she wasn’t looking at him. She never looked directly at him much anymore. Not unless she was telling him again about her mother. These days it seemed to be all she talked about. and Nick didn’t like talking about mothers. Not hers. Not his.
Her mother had died when she was a child. Left her with a Dad who cared deeply for her and did his best to make sure she had a full life. He largely succeeded. But lately, she had been haunted by memories, vague, inchoate, but there, of a mother figure. At times her mother was a faded memory. Other times, she said, her face seemed so clear and so near. As if his wife was again a little girl sitting on the floor playing with dolls and there was her mother’s face as she bent to pick up an errant doll shoe and place it gently on her little play table. And how she smiled.
“I just wish I could have known her more. What she thought was funny. What she liked the most. I mean Dad just always avoided any detail. I’m not sure if it hurt him too much to talk about her or if he just thought, it would make me sad. I just never asked. I don’t know anything about her. I wish I did.”
“Everybody says she was a nice lady. Real classy person.”
“I know. It makes me feel proud. But then I think how can I feel pride in someone I only vaguely remember? Maybe I’m supposed to feel this way because we shared DNA or something.”
Nick knew this was bothering his wife much more than she said. There were too many times he saw her standing in the kitchen and staring into space or found her next to the hutch she inherited from her mother and looking out the big living room picture window. At nothing. Her eyes unfocused. Her vision directed inward at some interior landscape, he couldn’t see.
All the wondering and questioning was starting to affect their relationship. It had become an obsession. And her distraction was leading to misunderstandings and the misunderstandings were leading to corrections and corrections to arguments. Over things they had never argued about before. Over things that did not matter before but seemed to matter now. Things that seemed to generate sharp voices, clipped, sarcastic words and hurt deep enough in the soul not to see, but which wounded and felt like a dull ache for days and weeks. But this morning, at this place, feeling alone, he wondered if the conflicts were rooted in his memories not hers. Of his own mother, not hers.
As his wheels touched the blacktop on the other side of the bridge, the ride smoothed out and he accelerated toward a far corner of the road as it turned back into the forest. Nick thought how all the country around these parts seemed just the same as it must have always been. Unlike all the new development back on the other side of the bridge, where he lived and from where he had just come.
He had been driving through this area at least once every couple of months for the three years they had lived near the bridge. They had moved to the small house on two acres next to the river, having sold their home which had once been out in the county, but recently had been annexed, along with neighboring parcels, into the city boundaries. Most of his business accounts took him back to the part of the county where he used to live. In the direction away from the bridge. He usually took the highway. It wasn’t that often that he came in this direction.
This way was a slower, the roads and bridges slowed you down. Made you’re your trip longer. The state highway on the other side of the county and now bisecting the city made travel faster, easier and more convenient. Certainly, Nick had never stopped on a drive-through in this part of the county. It was poor, sparsely populated and, of course, no orchards to speak of, certainly none as large as the accounts he serviced. There was never a reason to stop. No business here and no customers. He had no acquaintances on this side of the bridge.
But the rare times he came this way, each time he passed over the Old Stone Bridge and down this road, he thought it was like a memory or a dream. It was similar to a place he knew. He couldn’t place it for a while and then it came to him. Last month.
Arkansas. This country reminded him of Arkansas. The woods coming right up to the road. The abundance of water with creeks and ponds and lakes visible in the distance off through the trees.
Nick had visited the state. Arkansas was where all his folks, his parents, had grown up, got married. On the visit he made, Nick had stayed with his stepsister. He was glad he had the opportunity. She had passed away a year later. And he was glad he got to explore the country around her place with her as a guide. The falling down buildings, the dirt roads, the woods, all places which held, he learned, a lot of his family history.
He had been impressed with the beauty of the place. And the wildness. It was not like California, where even the national forests had a planned community feel to them. Where the fields of the great San Joaquin Valley, viewed from a high hill or from the sky, were a mosaic of farming factories. Like the orchards, walnuts, pistachios, citrus, all operated by big multi-national companies, all accounts he serviced. Family farms in California existed only in someone’s imagination or as a scam for tax breaks.
But here on this side of the bridge the trees, woods, and thick impenetrable undergrowth were not ordered at all. Creeping right out to and onto the road. No matter which way he looked, critters moved in his peripheral vision too quick to observe. But the shakes and and moves in the underbrush and the flash of furry legs confirmed their presence.
Wondering why he never just stopped and looked over the similarities before on his infrequent drives through the area, he pulled his pick-up to the side of the road, by a rotting fence, which appeared like the bridge, to have grown out of the ground in some natural process. He got out and wandered around the back of the pick-up and over to the fence and put his right boot up on the bottom rung of the fence, rested his elbows on the top of the fence and looked across a meadow into the trees, thinking about his dead father. Twelve years gone now.
In Arkansas, his Dad had grown up in a place just like this. He left home when he was fourteen. Bummed jobs around the country, came home, got married and fathered children. Two dead wives and a dead son before his marriage to Nick’s mother. Nick’s mother had been younger than the other wives. Ten he said, (she always said fifteen) years younger than his father. Tall and slim, not like the diet obsessed women Nick knew from town but slim and angular from never having quite enough to eat, always being a little hungry. His mother had a full head of hair and, though her mouth, even in repose, always had some tension, she was capable of a hearty loud laugh at a joke or saying, especially if a little off color or tinted with a touch of irony.
As a girl, she had wanted away from her own family and out of the house where she grew up and Nick’s Dad, older, worldly to her from tramping around the South, was the ticket out. At home, the only girl of ten kids the drudgery mostly fell to her. Drudgery she longed to escape, but which as long as she stayed home, imprisoned her. It was a girl’s lot back in those days to be relegated to the kitchen, laundry, hoeing in the garden patch. It was work, hard work, performed unendingly by the women in a large family back up in the woods. Still, she could run and climb and fight as good as her brothers.
He thought about the pictures of her from those times, framed on the wall in the living room, so skinny. All bones, arms and legs. Like, he thought, the woman he could now see in the distance across the meadow by an old weathered barn.
The woman seemed to be pulling hay off a stack and throwing it over a fence into a trough. He was perplexed. He had not noticed her or the barn behind her before. It was like they had not existed before he looked, but they had, they were just coming out in the light against the dark woods behind and the lake just beyond. With the sun at its peak this time of day everything became clear and visible.
“Aren’t you Art’s boy?” The voice startled him. Standing just a few feet away, a man in coveralls and a farmer’s hat, wide droopy rim, leaving the face partly in shadows. The voice was familiar, and he looked closer as the man stepped forward and the high sun caught more of his face.
“Uncle Silas? I didn’t know you still lived around here.” Nick had a vague memory of hearing that Silas got cancer, moved from California back to Arkansas, and passed away a couple of years ago. Whoever told him that must have been mistaken for here he was leaning on the fence.
“Why sure. I’ve been right here most of this life on God’s green earth. Lots of time I’ve spent in these parts. Lots of memories. Heard about Art’s passing. Sorry I couldn’t make the funeral.”
“That was some time ago.”
“Tell you what though, everyone can still remember what a ball player your Dad was. Could throw the ball harder than anyone I ever knowed or heard tell of. And he was strong. Not big or at least not tall, but I seen him throw both games of a double header one time, middle of summer. They got one hit, never scored a run. He just kept winding up and letting it fly. One of those Canton hill boys started razing him from the dugout. Trying to get him distracted. Then he came up to bat and got too close to the plate and your Dad put a fastball right between the eyes. Ball bounced right over the backstop. He was out of ’t cold. They carried him off and Art, he just keeps winding up and let ‘in ‘re fly.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”
Nick turned his eyes back to the woman. She was next to a well, with a pulley and rope and was lifting a bucket off the pulley and splashing the contents in a washtub. She turned in profile to him, conjuring up the memories, reminding him of the pictures of his mother, young, so pensive. He had wondered sometimes, if the ironic smile on her face in some of those old faded pictures was from escaping from the washing and cleaning for nine brothers only to find herself doing the same work for her new husband father and his parents, and his kids he had by the wives now dead and buried.
And that was the other thing. Still a girl herself, inheriting two daughters, Nick’s stepsisters, two girls, one seven, the other nine, from the deceased wives that preceded her. She was too young, just two young to be a mother to two girls half grown.
She once said that was harder because Dad’s farm was even more poor than the one she left when she married him.
He looked back at uncle Silas who had now moved over to the fence and was leaning his arms on the top rail, looking at Nick with amused eyes.
“Did you ever know my mom back in those days?”
“Now she was a corker, your mother. She coulda’ been in track and field that one. Never knew anyone could beat her in foot race. Never knew anyone who could even stay even with her. Hair would stand straight back from her head she was running so fast.”
“One time, her brother Joe, was worrying her over some Bo of hers. May have been old Art for all I can ‘member. Anyways, Joe, he was pushin’ and pullin’ at her, being mean and ornery and laughing out loud about Art being too old to “plant a post in soft ground” and all. And she just up and grabbed a bucket like she’s hoisting over there by the barn and she hit him right between the eyes. And he went down like a sack of feed being throw’d from a truck. And the blood spurtin’ everywhere. And here come old Pappey George and the rest of the boys out of the house and across the porch. And George hollerin’ and Joe moanin’ on the ground . . .”
Nick listened fascinated. But had he heard him right when he said she was over there? Mistaken. He turned his attention back to his uncle.
“And she was howling out laughing and hollered “the bastard had it comin’, he had it comin” and old George, he hollerin’ “and you got a beaten comin’” and the boys all started running at her and she took off. Whoosh! Those feet like they were never even touching the ground. The old man just stopped. He knew she couldn’t be caught. The boys chased after her for a while, but they gave up soon enough. And you could hear her for an hour out there hollerin’ “how it feel there, Joe. You gonna plant that big knot I give your noggin’ in the soft dirt. You bastard. All you bastards.”
“She ever come in?”
“Oh yeah, sure, after a few hours. She was tough though. Scratching and biting and crying as old George give her a good beating. Smacked her around pretty good. She left those folks soon enough after that. Married your Pop. Moved in with him and hissin’.”
Nick looked across the meadow. The barn, the well, and now, he could see, a little way behind, an old run down ramshackle shack with a wide wood porch like the rest of it, at first unnoticed, but now in the mid-day sun all appeared to be closer. As he watched, the slender woman turned full face to him and there was that pensive smile from those pictures of her taken so many years before he was born. He had seen that smile a few times in his own life. When she spoke of the baby, Dobie, the dead brother he never knew.
Dobie, was a tow head, prettier than any baby from those parts, she said, who would sit on his Daddy’s lap and sing nonsensical songs. And in her eyes, in that half smile turned back in on herself, he could see nothing but regret and resignation for the future awaiting her.
“Uncle, tell me, I’ve heard stories, but never really wanted to ask too many questions, how did Baby Dobie die?”
“Sad. Everybody loved that kid. Always running after Art. Hanging on him. Climbing on him. And your mom. She doted on that child. He was her’s own. Oh, man, how she would laugh at his cut-ups. Every care seemed to leave her when she was laughin’ at somethin’ he done. And the little boy knew it and would cut-up just to get her laughing.”
Nick said, “She always got quiet when she talked of him. Never remember her laughing about the things he did.” Nick didn’t say what he mostly remembered was bitterness.
“Oh, she’d laugh alright right up until that time he came down with the croup. We all thought it was pneumonia. He couged so bad. Poor little fella. They said it was the diabetes. Wasn’t though. Anyways, one night he’s just sitting there on the porch, kinda sittin’. More like half sittin’. Leanin’ sideways. Anyways, he starts throwing up. Coughin’ and throwin” up. Your mom yelled at your Dad, we got to get him to the hospital. The only hospital was over in Mr. Ida. Twenty Six miles away. Your Dad never liked to ask for help so he doesn’t say anything. He got no way of gettin’ him over there. Few around these parts had cars then. So he doesn’t say anything.
Ignoring the reference to location, Nick asked, ”So what happened. What did they do?”
“Art is ignoring her sayin stuff, and suggesting this or that. A cold compress, some tobacco they tried on his chest. Don‘t recall. Anyways, she starts in getting loud and its “By God this” and “By God that”, so pretty soon he sees the writin’ on the wall. “OK, he says, I’ll go see if Uncle Moses will take us in his car.” And she says, “do it now. Dobie is sick, he’s real sick.”
“So your Dad, takes out walkin. It’s a mile or two over that hill there,” Silas said, pointing off in the distance. Nick looked that way, and saw he thought, but not so sure, a rise in the land.
“Anyways, he crosses over and finds old Uncle Moses out the back of his place. He tells him, “Moses, my boy’s sick. Can we get you to take him over to Mt. Ida to the hospital?”
“Moses, as most folks around here will testify, is a tight old man and he tells Art, “My car gotta’ have gas to get that far. I’ll need a dollar for the gas to get there.”
“That’s the story I heard”, says Nick, “when I was little.”
“Anyways, he says got to have that dollar. Art doesn’t have anything, no money at all. And he tells Moses that. But he tells him he will work it out or go over and work the dam project and will pay him back, it’s just that Dobie is sick now and he got to go now.”
“Old Moses just looked at him, spit out a little tobacco off the porch, puts his hands down low in his pockets of his overalls and stares at your Dad. Didn’t say a word back. Art told me later, he knew then, there was no help and he said that walk back over the hill to tell your mother was the longest, and worst he ever took.”
“Well, anyways, it didn’t take long. Little Dobie was gone two mornings later. County coroner came out. He said it was the croup that got him. Not sure anymore, but he was gone, died trying to get a breath, and over the lack of a dollar for gas. That’s for sure a thing.”
“How did Mom take it?” Nick asked. While he waited for Uncle Silas to spit his tobacco juice and prepare his reply, he looked back at the woman who now was lugging the bucket of water toward the house. And as he watched a little boy with yellow almost white hair boy come running out of the house to take hold of the handle of the bucket like he was going to help his Momma. She looked down at him and her shoulders seemed like the weight lightened up a little.
“She took it bad.” Uncle Silas said. “Blamed it on Art for the longest time. He had to leave home a while. But he come back after a few months. They still had the other two kids. And that was before they moved to California and you came along.”
“Well, anyways,” Silas said, “I need to get over and see my Missus’. before she sends out the county sheriff. You all take it easy and fine and let your kin’ know I said, Hey.”
NIck watched Uncle Silas amble off toward the woods. As the old man stepped into the trees, Nick couldn’t see him anymore. He turned back and looked across the meadow. The sun had moved behind some clouds and the old ramshackle house and barn, set back up against the trees of the forest, just this side of the lake was barely visible in the shadows beyond the rise, it all appeared abandoned and empty.
Through the dimming light, he could just make out the figure of a young boy, a tow head, standing silently just inside the door frame, looking his way, and just behind him, the figure of a slender woman in the shadows, her hand just visible in the sun as it rested on the boy’s shoulder.
Nick walked back to his pickup, fished the keys out of his pocket and swung up into the seat. He looked again off through the woods. Maybe it was the long afternoon shadows from the trees and the hills, but almost nothing was visible anymore across the meadow except the trees and the lake just beyond
He started his pick-up truck, sat and listened to it idle for a few moments, thinking of Dobie, the dead brother he never knew. It made him feel sick inside. There was a longing there, something desperate about it, something compelling, that made him need to go home to his kids and his wife.
This business trip could be delayed a few hours. He could wait until after the game. He could watch his boy play ball and then go do the business late. He would call ahead. The supervisor could meet him later tonight or early in the morning. He could make up the time lost by going the other way, by taking the new highway. He pulled out, turned the pick up around and drove back across the Old Stone Bridge and toward home.