It was a technician’s job, but techs were scarce. The highway department’s vacancy rate stood at nineteen percent and the state had earmarked technicians’ salaries for sexier undertakings like spaceports and business incubators and a shiny Gulfstream for the governor. Thus did the section chief–forty seven, sporting a master’s degree and twenty-two years of experience–find himself alone and clambering across the unstable scree of a precipitous embankment, here to perform a structural evaluation better suited to a trade school dropout or a well-trained orangutan.
Protocol demanded two-person teams for bridge jobs like this, and the chief knew it. He knew the procedures manual like the back of his own eyelids. Unlike his eyelids, however, the manual was suffused with paradoxes, including stipulations that two-person teams of non-existent technicians perform federally mandated checkups on highly existent bridges. This demanded a creative interpretation of certain rules, but not the federal ones (which came with fines attached), and the bridge in question was twenty-four hours shy of its U.S. Department of Transportation inspection deadline. So, the chief was going solo on this one.
Fortunately, the bridge was on his way back–sort of–from the division meeting at HQ, which meant he could get the job done within the constraints of the state’s miserly overtime rules. Plus the fresh air and exercise would help clear his head. It still buzzed with the career implications of the disastrous meeting, which had entailed discussions of budget cuts and asphalt durability factors so savagely tedious that the chief, in hopes of staving off sleep, had taken to doodling. The undersecretary of transportation, one Curtis Agee, upon glimpsing an unflattering (although excellent, anyone would agree) caricature of himself in the margins of the chief’s field notebook, snatched the paper from its spiral binding and thrust it under the chief’s nose.
“What in the actual hell, McKenna?” he sputtered. The chief’s last name was McKinley, but it seemed impertinent in the moment to point out the error. “Cartoons? You think I’m funny?”
A few seconds passed, and the chief realized that Agee was waiting for an answer.
“No, sir,” he said. “Not particularly.”
This elicited a stifled chuckle from the other attendees. Their eyes, glazed with boredom a few minutes earlier, now twinkled with interest.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll all have a laugh when I write your ass up for insubordination,” Agee said. “I’m the undersecretary and you’re…what? Section chief for bridge inspection? Section chiefs do not draw cartoons of their boss’s boss’s boss!”
He wadded up the offending paper and threw it at the white-board. It fell short by a couple of feet, caught in a chance air current, and landed on the green, Astroturf- like material that passed for carpet at HQ.
“Is that how you want to be known around here, McKenna? As the cartoon guy? The highway department doesn’t need cartoonists–it needs team players!”
To which the chief retorted, in a fit of ill-advised pique, that real teams were supposed to include technicians, weren’t they?
The chief reveled for a moment in this act of self- assertion, then recognized it for the career-scuttling torpedo that it was. He mumbled an unconvincing apology and, unsure whether to go or stay, opted for the latter. He had spent the duration of the conference holding an agenda in front of his ruddy face like a racketeer on a perp walk.
So he wasn’t a team player. He calculated that his chances of promotion were already hovering below thirty percent on account of misdeeds predating the caricature incident, including but not limited to: Snide remarks about the aforementioned overtime policy in the comments field of his time sheets; the prominent display of a cubicle poster comparing highway department culture to that of a whorehouse; and an indelicately worded memo to HR outlining the reasons why sexual harassment avoidance training in a division consisting entirely of straight male employees was a waste of taxpayer money. The chief therefore reckoned that attempts to play ball with management at this point would be correctly viewed as mercenary and disingenuous. So why bother?
The chief’s failures as an office politician belied both his capabilities as an engineer and his dedication to the state’s critical infrastructure. In three years as chief he’d nailed every inspection deadline. He planned to keep his record intact on the bridge looming before him now, a simple span of pre-stressed concrete, designated No. 1744 and load rated for 32.4 metric tons. Tucked in a mountain range far from the mildew funk of HQ’s green- carpeted conference room, it crossed a one hundred eighty- seven-foot pavement gap over an on-again, off-again arroyo, or gulley, now frothing with a six-inch flow of murky run- off.
It was meltwater from a recent snowstorm, so temperatures were far from freezing. Still, the Indian summer afternoon was giving way to chill. The sun crept toward the crest of a butte to the west, and off to the east the chief noted a buildup of gray clouds that foretold more snow. A fresh wind cascaded down the juniper-studded ridge to his right, whipping up a gust of grit that sprayed him full in his reddening face. His glasses, already milky with scratches, took the brunt of the sandblasting but a few grains slipped past the lenses. Rubbing his eyes, he halted his traverse of the jagged, melon-sized boulders that served to stabilize the embankment. The cold penetrated his shirt and, across the widest part of his shoulders, the heat radiated from his back like steam from a lake. His jacket, a toasty Carhartt (purchased with his own money due to cutbacks in the agency’s uniform allowance), had been superfluous a mere ten minutes ago and remained stuffed behind the seat of the truck.
No sense going back for it now. Besides, he came equipped with his own insulation, about fifty pounds worth. The interview committee, when he’d presented himself as a candidate for chief of the inspection group, had expressed concern that the physical demands of the field work might be more than a man of his girth could manage. Their apprehensions were not without merit. Gasping in the thin mountain air, he resumed his hike and angled up the slope, picking his way among the loose stones toward the underside of the bridge. A misstep dislodged a rock, sending his feet backward in a downward slide. He leaned forward to counter gravity’s pull but–overbalanced by his prodigious gut–toppled face-first onto the rocks.
“Dammit,” he said. He dragged himself to his knees and inspected his glasses for damage. Finding none, he checked for witnesses to his graceless belly-flop. The remoteness of the location and the corresponding lack of traffic ensured that his secret was safe. He stood up, brushed the dust and gravel from the front of his jeans, and continued the hike.
Awaiting him at the top, about fifty vertical feet above the stream bed, was an abutment crazed with tiny surface cracks, but none so large or deep to cause alarm. The abutment was good. The approach slab looked good, too. The chief plucked a flashlight from his back pocket and shone it at the underside of the superstructure, playing the light between the box beams. There was the usual collection of spider webs and abandoned birds’ nests, and the paint was scabbing off the surface like a bad case of psoriasis. He jotted a mental note to request a paint job that probably wouldn’t get done. The maintenance crews were overextended. What’s more, the head of the maintenance section, a scowling half-wit named Ray, didn’t like the chief for reasons known only to Ray and always consigned his work orders to the bottom of the stack. It was a figurative stack, as the work orders were digital now, but the new electronic system had been an upgrade in name only. Ray, a committed holdover from paper-and-pencil days, used computers grudgingly when he used them at all and blamed software glitches for his sluggish responses to the chief’s appeals.
The chief, mulling the advisability of submitting a work order at all, jerked his head up as a truck–the first vehicle he’d seen in at least half an hour–rumbled overhead. The bridge shuddered, dust descended from the beams onto the chief’s hardhat, and there was a tiny flash of light from above.
That got his attention. He gazed upward and saw it–a gap between the pile cap and the girder where the fill dirt had spilled out over the abutment, creating a void beneath the deck.
The bottom of the asphalt roadbed, visible through the void, appeared to have a quarter-sized hole in it. The perforation allowed a narrow shaft of light to penetrate the deck, with dust swirling in the beam like smoke. It was a miracle the whole approach hadn’t crumbled and taken the bridge with it.
The chief’s heartrate, already brisk, tacked into the red. A glaze of sweat formed above the wiry curls of his untrimmed eyebrows. This was an emergency.
The chief had never encountered a bridge emergency in person, although he’d seen the aftermath of several, mostly involving trucks too tall to clear the overpasses under which they’d barreled at seventy miles an hour. Faced now with an impending structural collapse, he experienced a temporary paralysis–of thought, of reason, of his arms and legs. Everything shut down to allow total fixation on that hole in the asphalt.
Or was it a hole? Was it even the underside of the asphalt? Maybe his eyes, peering through lenses as thick as industrial prisms, were playing tricks on him. Or just failing like everything else on his fiasco of a body. In any event he needed a closer look.
That would require a spirited climb farther into the recesses of the understructure, and he’d already clambered about as far as gravity and his doughy legs would allow.
He gave it a go nevertheless, scrambling up the rip-rap until the steepness of the ascent, combined with fatigue and his own top-heaviness, halted his advance.
Wheezing, he leaned back to gaze up at the girders. The small boulder on which he perched wobbled beneath his boots. And then, with a heavy clonk, wasn’t there at all.
The ensuing fall was nothing short of spectacular.
Like a bowling ball bouncing down a flight of stairs, the chief caromed with crushing heaviness against rock after rock, arms and legs flailing. Each bounce was a symphony of pain and noise: The whap of flesh against stone mingled with a series of gasps and groans (these attenuating as the blows to his trunk beat the air from his lungs). It seemed like a long time before the slope gave way to the stream bed below.
He came to rest there, supine in frigid water not deep enough to cover his face but plenty deep to saturate his clothes. The flashlight was gone, dropped somewhere along the way. He’d lost his hardhat, too, but his spectacles, cracked and mangled, somehow remained affixed to his face. Through a kaleidoscope of shattered glass, he watched a lazy curl of his own blood eddy past in the current of the icy stream. His ample stomach protruded from the water like a volcanic island.
This is exactly the reason why you weren’t supposed to inspect a bridge by yourself.
The reports would all say the same thing: that he had ventured here in violation of safety protocols. That his death, far from an accident, was the logical outcome of a cascade of mistakes, poor judgements, and bad decisions.
Like a plane crash. Or his career. Scenes from training videos wafted through his concussed brain: “Don’t let it happen to you. Don’t be a statistic. The life you lose could be your own. Go home to your family tonight.”
He didn’t have to worry about the last one. Nobody was waiting dinner for him. No photos of wife or children bulged in his wallet. He was a lifelong bachelor with no prospects. Fat, myopic, pallid, with a Brillo pad of wiry red hair thinning atop a pumpkin-shaped skull–these were not the boxes to check on the sperm bank application.
It was all moot now, he reckoned. His premature death would ensure, more than even the most unforgiving of female predilections, the termination of his lineage. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. To burden some unsuspecting embryo with his genetic material seemed cruel at best.
Sterilization by death would at least spare his offspring the indignities visited upon him in his own childhood, an accounting of which could fill a therapist’s notebook.
Most of these degradations were too embarrassing to share with anyone, regardless of credential, although the chief recounted them in his own head with self-loathing abandon.
A favorite source of shame was the incident, in a middle-school restroom, in which a fellow student had peed on the back of the future chief’s leg while he had tarried in front of a urinal. Not an incidental, sorry-about-that splash, but a gleeful and premeditated hose-down to which the chief responded with (depending on one’s perspective) either stoic equanimity or cowardly quiescence.
The genetically well-endowed were not subject to such humiliations. The chief, propping his leg on the edge of a sink in a clumsy attempt to soak the crisscross pee patterns on his pants into a patch of general wetness (explainable, perhaps, as the result of a perilous ditch- crossing), was certain of this. He suspected that someone like, say, Brad Sharp, all a-swagger with a future quarterback’s confidence, would navigate the entirety of his middle school career without once feeling the warm urine of a stranger soaking through his corduroys.
Brad Sharp and the chief went way back. In the third grade the chief was a regular at Brad’s house for sleepovers and stood with him in the outfield of elementary school kickball games, marveling at the young man’s moxie in eating Doritos while he played. Sometimes he even shared a few. Could such a bond, forged in this unorthodox mashup of mealtime and recess, ever be broken?
It unequivocally could. During the first month of middle school, Brad contracted what could charitably be referred to as selective blindness. Although he could navigate without cane or dog the school’s charmless cinderblock corridors, and even read (though he seldom did) without the assistance of glasses or contacts, he could no longer see the chief. Brad’s once-friendly countenance had morphed into the blank stare of puberty–a gaze that could not encompass the unathletic, the uncoordinated, or the unattractive.
The malady became evident one pleasant autumn day on the quad. Brad, his golden hair edge-lit in the afternoon sun, stood in a cluster of hormonally endowed fellow travelers, discussing the previous night’s episode of Magnum (and taking a deep analytical dive into the cleavage on that one chick in the bikini in that one scene on the beach). The chief smiled as he approached, comforted to see Brad’s familiar dimpled face among the countless hostile strangers funneled here from alien feeder schools. Then he realized, with a dread that foretold a long adolescence, that something was wrong. Brad, this trailblazer who had shown him the joys of lunch al fresco, was ignoring him. More than that – he refused to even see him.
Or so it seemed. The chief’s unacknowledged eye contact notwithstanding, it was possible that Brad, holding forth about Magnum’s island exploits, was merely preoccupied.
This hopeful assessment dissolved soon thereafter.
It was on the day, also seared into memory, that someone in algebra (probably that asshole Vince Burgarello, but there was no shortage of suspects) taped, with SEAL-like stealth, a “kick me” sign to the chief’s back. It was just as class was letting out and so, exiting into the Darwinian free-for-all known as passing period, the chief found himself almost immediately surrounded by a jeering mob, five or six of whom commenced to boot him repeatedly in the hindquarters. It was an attack the provocation for which he could only guess, and the kicks that landed were not playful ones. They were savage jolts delivered at full strength by bigger boys, empowered to cruelty by a scrap of paper.
He whirled in place, dodging blows and blocking what he could with his hands. His notebook, overstuffed with loose homework assignments, hit the floor in a spray of paper. Backing himself into a pillar to protect his backside, he felt the sign on his back crumple against the concrete. He snatched it off and the mob’s abuse terminated as abruptly as it had started, as though the paper itself was an on-off switch for savagery.
His eyes murky with tears, he studied the words–scrawled in bold Magic Marker for better readability–and understood the proximate cause of the attack. Then he glanced up and saw, among the encircling onlookers, the square-jawed, azure-eyed face of Brad Sharp. He offered the chief no words of consolation or reassurance, just the hint of a smirk. It crossed his handsome visage in shattering confirmation of the void that now existed between them. Brad had ascended, during the summer between fifth and sixth grade, to another plane–one where the unpopular could not co-exist with the chosen.
From the chief’s vantage point in the nether realms (he was not at the lowest level, at least, the one reserved for spastics and the profoundly “special”), he watched as a coterie of former friends took their places among the pretty. Fate denied full admittance to some, casting them into a purgatory of identity-seeking. They adopted new manners of dress, and the afro-perm became a fashion statement among aspiring stoners. The chief might have found his place among these future freaks, but a druggie lifestyle–even a pretend one–was out of the question.
He took his Sunday school teachers seriously at that point and didn’t want to risk hell fire by polluting with marijuana the misshapen temple that was his body.
Although the chief’s faith had since diminished in fervor, prayer now seemed in order if he were to escape this freezing ravine. Whatever his injuries were, they’d left him virtually immobile. Only God could help him now, and he doubted that God, even if fervently petitioned, would go to the trouble. In fact, it was God’s reliably disappointing response to his adolescent prayers–for acne relief, for a girlfriend, for his mother to stop taking Valium, or at least so damned many of them–that had first led him to question his belief in a loving God who could intervene in the affairs of men. Forget the Holocaust, Pol Pot and those kids on the Shriner’s hospital commercials–what about the score on his geography quiz? If God couldn’t find Sri Lanka on a map, it seemed unlikely that he could manage the heavier lifting of cancer cures, world peace or riparian rescues.
Numbness infused the chief’s extremities, and waves of searing pain radiated from below his waist, suggesting a fractured pelvis. Anchored to the stream bed, the best he could do was turn his head from side to side and wave his forearms feebly in the air like the appendages of a tiny T. Rex.
It occurred to the chief, as the light faded and the cold spread from his limbs toward the core of his trunk, that God might actually want to help him but couldn’t.
Having created a universe in which freedom of volition was an immutable aspect of the human condition, He couldn’t very well go around handing out miracles willy-nilly. That would constitute a quid pro quo–belief in return for favors–and present humanity a less-than-fair choice in deciding which faith tradition, if any, with which to align itself. Free will would fray around the cuffs and elbows with every answered entreaty and then unravel like a consignment shop cardigan.
Prayer not being the answer, the chief took stock of his predicament. He did have his cell phone with him; it jabbed his shattered hip through the fabric of his jeans. It was probably smashed and almost certainly soaked. But it might be worth a try, if he could will one of his T. rex arms to retrieve it.
Numb fingers fumbled hopefully, probing beneath the water and attempting to pry the device from its hip-pocket hideaway. This required the chief to lift his smashed pelvis from its resting place on the stream bed in an agonizing thrust. Up went his ass, just an inch or so, and out came the phone, slippery as a salamander. A half- suppressed scream accompanied the move: pain amplified by the fresh fear of dropping the thing in the river. Slowly, after blurry visual confirmation that his fingers were wrapped securely around it, he raised the device to his face.
The cracked screen, in defiance of all odds, flickered to life. An almost-grin tugged at the chief’s lips.
Shoving his glasses up his forehead and holding the phone almost against his eyeball, he could see the battery at fifty percent.
Unfortunately, the phone–owing to its sheltered location deep in the arroyo–was out of signal range. The chief’s nearsighted survey of the screen revealed no bars. He stabbed 9-1-1 on the keypad anyway, like a gull pecking an empty clamshell. He got the expected result, then ejaculated a stream of despairing expletives into the ever- darkening sky.
A feeble voice in his head countered the outburst of profanity with words of hope. “Don’t give up,” it said. “We can get through this.” Like the guy in that documentary about the climbing accident, the guy whose buddy cut his rope in the storm and sent him plunging into a crevasse. That guy had crawled out of the goddamn Andes on his hands, dragging a mangled leg behind him for three miserable days, and lived to tell the tale–and probably make a little money off the book he wrote about it. Or that other guy, the one whose arm had got stuck in the rock for a hundred and twenty-seven hours until he finally amputated it with the lid from a tuna can or something.
Had those guys given up? No they had not.
Maybe they had more to live for.
The pain was subsiding, replaced by a sort of tingling that extended all the way up into the chief’s cranium. It tickled his brain and told him it would be perfectly O.K. to just fall asleep. Spots danced beautifully in front of his eyes, and the sound of the stream in his ears became a pleasant, calming babble. It talked to him in a rhythmic mantra. Just relax. Let it go. Let it all go.
Heeding the stream’s voice, he closed his eyes.
Then he opened them to another sound: the distinctive doppler whoosh of an approaching vehicle. He looked up at the bridge, which was almost completely in shadow. Seconds from now, a car or truck would cross it. He snatched at his phone (which he’d left resting atop the island of his stomach) with hands as dexterous as spatulas, fumbling for the flashlight button. If he could aim the light at a conducive angle…somehow get the driver’s attention…
The phone, rather than emit a lifesaving signal, somersaulted out of his frozen hands. It seemed to float for a moment in the mountain air above his head, then plunged into the stream behind him with a heavy ker-sploosh, like a clown stepping in a bucket.
The phone was lost. All was lost. The yellow glow from a pair of headlights preceded a three-axled dump truck onto the bridge’s eastern approach. The chief flapped his hands in unintended imitation of a fat baby splashing in the bathtub, hoping to catch the driver’s eye. But his position relative to the road, coupled with the gathering darkness, ensured his invisibility.
“Help!” he cried, then snorted at the absurdity of having done so. The sound of the stream alone (still entreating him to stop this ridiculous struggle and just fall asleep) was sufficient to drown out his feeble wail, with the diesel roar of the dump truck’s engine drowning out the stream in turn.
The truck, traveling at sixty-three miles per hour, covered the length of the bridge in about two seconds and was about to trundle out of sight forever.
Then, it reached the place where the deck met the road on the western side. The place of the void beneath the asphalt. The place of the chief’s hole. Thirty-thousand pounds of dump truck rolled across a three-inch thick layer of tarmac shored up by nothing but air and wishful thinking.
The front wheels cleared the danger zone. But the rear wheels, on their tandem axles, were not to be denied. They plunged through the pavement like a fisherman falling through the ice and caught on the lip of the hole like a tail-hook on an arresting cable.
Thirty-thousand pounds came to an abrupt stop, generating sufficient force to separate the deck from its anchorage in an explosion of dust, asphalt, and flying metal that echoed through the canyon like a Howitzer shot. A chasm opened between the road and the bridge; the truck pitched backward into the breach, its engine box rising Titanic-style to meet the sky.
The truck, almost vertical now, slipped through the hole, an express elevator down an asphalt shaft. Its tailgate struck the embankment, excavating a narrow shelf for itself, and the entire vehicle balanced erect on the rocks for what seemed an improbably long time. Finally, with a seismic rumble, it fell over sideways and barrel- rolled down the slope to land in the stream bed right-side-up on what was left of its wheels. A geyser-like splash jarred the chief loose and floated him, spinning, a few feet downstream on the crest of a wave.
He came to rest and looked up, blinking, into the glare of the truck’s still-glowing headlights. He was close enough to read, through a veil of spurting steam, the red-and-silver Kenworth emblem on the grill.
And then, nothing. Just a silence long enough to suggest that the driver was either dead or unconscious. It was all the same to the chief.
He closed his eyes again, ready to accede to the stream’s persistent babble and fall asleep for good. But for the second time this evening, a hopeful noise aroused him. A distinctive rattling had commenced from inside the truck’s cab, consistent with the sound of someone grappling with a jammed door. Finally, a booted foot burst through the honeycombed glass of the driver’s-side window. A gloved hand cleared the remaining shards that clung to the edges of the opening.
Like a racer at Le Mans, the driver hooked his hands over the edge of the window and dragged himself out of the cab, nimbly clearing his legs and dropping with feline grace to the streambed below.
He sploosh-strode through the shallow current and, bathed in the light from the truck, went to one knee at the chief’s side.
“Holy shit, buddy, are you OK?” he asked. His soft, azure eyes met the chief’s teary gaze, and held it. “Were you up there when I beefed it? That shit was fucking crazy!”
“Crazy,” croaked the chief.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” said the man. “We’re gonna get you out of here.”
He was young, about thirty, with edge-lit blonde hair glowing like a halo around his dimpled, square-jawed face.