The Bridge

(Tom Craig - Gallery Stock)
By Ellen Gilchrist
Sunday, February 8, 2009

The river was smooth and clear because it had rained the night before. The storm had come in from the north and knocked down power lines all the way from Greenville to the Grace post office. It was 1944, and people knew what to do when that happened.

Even before the lights went out, Jimmy's great-grandmother got out six lanterns and set them in a line on the dining room table. She filled them with oil and lit them with long matches carved out of fat pine.

Jimmy took the cushions from the porch furniture and carried them into the front hall and then stood with his grandfather in the door to watch the rain watering the fields. They needed a new roof for the house. If the cotton made, they could buy asphalt shingles. If not, they would patch the roof with long flat tiles made of cypress. Jimmy had helped fell the big cypress tree they cut last summer. He had heard it fall and felt the soft delta earth shake beneath his feet as it did.

The night's rain had been enough to fill the river. He was standing above the river now, on the long silver bridge built by the WPA. Before the bridge was built, you had to drive all the way around three plantations to get to Mayersville. Before it was built, Jimmy's grandfather had to stand on his side, and their neighbor, Mr. Anderson, stood on his, and they yelled news to one another. Now they just went across the bridge to get to the Andersons' place or to Esperanza or Grace or on to Greenville.

Jimmy was on the bridge with his cousins and the Anderson boys and their cousins. The river was deep and clear and fast-moving. Safe to jump. After you jumped from the bridge, you could swim downstream to the pier at the store and climb up the ladder and shake the water from your hands and watch it fall in diamond shatters in the sun. You could wave to the bridge and watch the next boy jump. You could watch him hesitate and gather his courage and then leap into the air.

It was summer and the rains had come, and there were enough boys on the two plantations to have baseball games in the pasture in the late afternoons, and cut open watermelons, and run races on the flat brown road, and watch to see if the girls from Esperanza would come walking down the road in their blue and pink and yellow dresses. Sometimes, in daydreams, Jimmy would reach out and touch the dresses. When he was 15, he would go to cotillion dances and put his arms around a girl, but not yet. Although he had danced with Cecelia Alford at a wedding when he carried the ring and she was the flower girl. Her dress had felt stiff and fluffy, but underneath her body was as soft as a flower and as alive and wild as his.

He didn't have to worry about Cecelia Alford now. All he had to do was stand on the bridge and wait for his turn to jump.

"What if you hit an alligator?" Jodie Myers whispered to him. Jodie was only 10 years old. He said anything he thought up.

"What if I did?" Jimmy answered.

"You'd crack open your head."

"I would not. I'd knock that old gator to hell and back. Besides, there are no alligators in this river. Danny said so."

"There're snakes and gars."

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