[Iowa Review, Fall 2011]
It’s a small thing that holds me.
On the sign that reads Last Death from Jumping or Diving from Bridge, June 15, 1995, it’s the or I can’t shake. Why fuss with ambivalence when real mystery abides: here stood intolerable grief or failure. Sheerest abandon, joy in a long summer evening. A dare. Need for adventure/a history of. Why work at precision when, hitched as they are to Death in this fragment, both Jump and Dive convey a misjudging of depth, of current, ignorance of rocks below the dark water, and, with “June” added, an insistent sun peaking the river with camouflage ripples. And isn’t it Death that I, passerby, secret entertainer of edges and precipices, should instead linger over—approaching, riding, then putting behind me the impulse as I cross the bridge, daily, this winter?
Someone thought to be personal about it, not slap up an ordinance “By order of” and “with a $$$ fine.” No organization (Bridge Jumpers Anon) claimed the sign; it’s not a fraternity service project or probationary do-good feat. That unadorned “Death” is no stat-like “fatality.” “Or” is a move to cover the bases, and observed here, now, mid-February, the slightest warmth coming on, barest inflection of sweetness in air, the river still frozen—it opens up all kinds of questions.
Imagine the onset of summer in Iowa, each day in June the light and soft air a surprise, a relief from the long winter’s cold. It’s been twelve years now since the sign’s announcement. The bare facts are holding, but time folds the story back into “the past.” None of my friends here remember the death. When I stand on the bridge thinking “twelve years ago now” the form of an actual body in air, in water, is vague, and the best I can do to buoy the body is shirt-puffed-in-wind, corona-of-hair-floating-behind.
Twelve years ago now. Where’d the story go?
One in which no one moved quickly enough. Because he was the athlete. Because she, such a practical joker, would surface any minute, any minute for sure. No one moved off the bridge, tearing a path through the tangle of milkweed and blackberry to plunge in and help. Or everyone tried, but she was under too long. Or he stood by himself in the early pink dawn, and the act, intended to purify—the cold water awaken, silence exalt—was planned as a private moment.
Around the sign, around the inconclusive or—because of the or, the pause it stirs, the space it opens—fragments and conjectures gather:
The last person was drunk. The last person, despondent, tied a brick to her ankle. The last person could swim but not well and didn’t account for the rain-swollen currents, for a current at all, it looked so mild, as it does now, even in February. The last person was pushed, wasn’t ready and twisted around to protest. The last person hit her head on the railing, unconscious before she entered the water. The last person trusted his body, young as it was and accustomed to pleasure. And below were the snarled, sharp nests of dumped cable. Roots of river plants tough as rope. She cut her arm on a broken bottle and fainted and fell. He misjudged the spans’ distance and clipped the concrete. She didn’t imagine construction debris. She thought the vertigo was over for good a long time ago. He looked up to say he was fine, just fine, but his mouth filled with water and he panicked and choked. She jumped, but mid-air turned it to swan dive—wanting the grace to set her apart, and to best all the plain summer cannonballers.
I’m not doubting it happened; I believe someone died. It’s just that the sign complicates, suggests many competing things at once: by “last death,” that there had been previous ones (but those aren’t listed). And how to be sure if the sign-maker kept up with the project, if “last” means “final” and not “last recorded”? Or if the span of twelve years suggests precautions were taken—and they worked, problem solved. You might even assume, if you’re inclined to optimism, that the sign, in a crude and grim sort of way, is reassuring: that it’s now very safe to jump. Or—given the sign’s plain-spokenness, its weird departure from officialese—someone got fed up with the jumping and used the occasion to blunt-force the message, to speak to kids “in their own language,” and “to this day” (see how solid that phrase is, how it makes time behave and ties up the story) the tone is off-kilter and not to be trusted, since, as kids know, authority keeps its ear to the ground and cooks up new methods of sounding native. And so, ahistorical and inconsistent, chummy in ways that feel fake, the sign frays and unfocuses; offers, then snatches away. Which accounts for the queasiness I feel standing before it.
Without a story, the fragments won’t settle.
Possibilities crowd in and distract.
Without the stability of a tale-handed-down, one rushes to make things, rushes the blankness as if it were naked, suddenly stripped—indecent, embarrassed. In need.
Stances take root.
Here’s one now, a very unpleasant stance that I’d rather let go—but I’m trying to stay alert, catch the forms of response coming in. So, though I’m cringing, I’ll present it in full: there on the banks, in the sun, in June, however enticing, I’d have been careful. Judged correctly the depths. Known my strength and its limits. I’d never have taken such a stupid risk. Because look, right below, how the eddies gather. Anyone could see that means sunken stuff’s present. It might have worked as a simple jump (I’m leaning over now, calculating: a feet-splayed or bicycling-around kind of jump, to soften the impact) but not as a dive. No way a dive would’ve worked—and here comes the stance’s fullest expression, I feel it, the coo, the assuring, calm sense of righteousness-and-exemption firming up: she must have been drunk. That’s the kind of dumb thing you do when you’re drunk—just jump, crash through the conventional—childish, careless...
...as if I’ve never been careless, lit, held by an ocean, a force late at night erasing my path, rolling it, sealing it up behind me: just come. As if I’ve never been successfully beckoned. As if I’d never beckoned myself, oceanically forceful, convinced by desire and absolved by it, sharply alive and powered by very pure, bright shots of impulse.
Such a sign, in all its uncertainty, opens up another way, too, so I might look again at the riverbank, how green and sweet, and tangled with blackberries. The milkweed taut and near bursting (I’m working toward a new attitude here, a mildness I hope to cultivate), the sun releasing the loamy, rich scent of days ripening fast. There’s been rain and the river’s high and quick, and only a little silty. Breeze lifts my hair, my shirt, reaches around, I’m in summer’s good hands and some hasp is removed, latches unclicking, sun unfolding white handkerchiefs on water and other commodious tricks of time, flexing, cajoling here, enter here...