Some stories are so much a part of a place, that the place is singed, stained, impressed with their very particular light. A story gone to lore constructs atmosphere, makes up “the place where X happened” and people will, or decidedly won’t, say they live near it. Will or pointedly will not tell such a story. Such a story is very much like the biggest tree in the yard, voicing weather, dropping its envelopes of light through windows and onto the living room floor—you own it but don’t think in those terms, until someone says “that’s a nice tree you have” and then it hits: how strange to consider “I own a tree,” a presence you live with, beside, under. Are shadowed by. That shadows you in. Real lore, I mean. Not like the characters and their spectral antics you hear about on touristy ghost walks in old port cities—stories a guide tells for a fee. Of ghosts, I imagine, who are worn thin (thinner than usual ghost-gauziness) by the same nightly shtick, the guide’s delivery paced to group shuffling, mystery dosed out, creepiness tuned to hang in the air: “and to this day, no one knows exactly where X...” Stuck in a story gotten not-at-all-right, night after night, ghosts who would otherwise knock about and rattle some rafters for kicks, might think it best to stay quiet.
So how to read a sign like this, bent on recording and telling something, but not a story. And even now, if I say “recording,” I realize how careless the sign is with facts: if it listed fatalities over the years, with zeros included to account for times when no one went over, then it would be clear: someone was watching, the toting up would be real. Ongoing. Believable. And “June 15” would register relief, and be more truly a memorial. But the sign is so sketchy, it feels, instead, like attention dropped off and interest waned. And in that way, the jumper/diver, the subject of one particular moment—a moment en route to being tale-worthy—passed out of mind.
But it hasn’t passed out of mind. Not for me. The moment, the story, the last death has been nagging.
It’s June now. Four months have gone by since I first stood on the bridge and imagined some stories, tried out some stances. The sign’s small, no bigger than a sheet of paper; its simple red letters on white metal, its modesty and starkness read differently early or late in the day: when strolling and I know to anticipate it; when hurrying past and it startles. All this time I’ve been thinking it over, trying to figure out how to read it, trying to locate what’s been lost and unsaid.
To that end, my field research might go like this:
As soon as I jumped, I regretted it. I could hardly breathe and kept last-ditch praying: “Please be over, please be over.” The freefall was awful; it went on forever, though it must’ve been only seconds. I felt my brain rise against my skull. I felt my ribs shift, my stomach unmoor, my cheeks go loose. I teared up and couldn’t see. I heard nothing but wind and couldn’t scream.
Or: As soon as I jumped, I hoped it would last. The freefall was amazing and over too soon. The horizon appeared; we regarded each other as brief, still points. I thought here comes the water, then everything went blindingly white in sun, the water met me, and disguised as silver pleats in air, waves of late afternoon held aloft, that steepest, most restorative time of day took me in.
Let me assure you, I did jump (or dive, specification is no longer the issue), but not like this; I didn’t go over. That used to be me. I used to jump in all kinds of ways, from trees and roofs, into slippery scenes, off edges of the known world thinking let’s see what this brings. But this isn’t me now.
I jumped anew. Really far in. I figured the story itself, if found, would offer some solid occasions for reviewing stances I never imagined. Which is really what’s most at stake when standing before a story. So to that end, here:
Students used to leap off the bridge all the time, then swim over to a dilapidated dock outside a boathouse on shore and dry off in the sun. The grounds manager I talked with at the university tells me the kids felt it was a romantic, collegiate kind of thing to do, a rite of passage. But the dock was a mess, falling apart, and students kept tripping as they hopped from the dock to the bank of the river. One day, years ago, while taking a walk, the president saw this going on and ordered the dock removed. It was never replaced, but the bridge jumping continued. And one summer someone did drown. My contact doesn’t know who. But in trying to think of how to stop the jumping, someone (also unknown to him) came up with that sign as a deterrent. Now that I reminded him, he said, since it is in kind of bad shape, he’d talk to maintenance and see if there’s a value in keeping it up there or not. He didn’t know why kids kept bending it. Why were they so drawn to it? he wondered aloud.
And here’s the story I was most looking for—the one that ought to overcast the bridge, crackle down doom like a slash of lightning over the spot, accompany the hunger of overhead ravens, plait through passersby with the threads of fear, loss, gratitude. At least a small wire of sadness ought to work its way in, or breeze lift hair and chill necks, or scent settle into everyone’s sweater to mark the occasion: the story of June 15, 1995, from the Daily Iowan, written up the following day goes like this: At 5 p.m. in the afternoon, Jonathan V., 19, was hanging out on the bridge with friends. He left his work boots and tie-dyed Doors T-shirt on the bank and went up and jumped. When he didn’t surface, a friend leaped in to save him, dragged him toward shore, but lost his grip in the steep drop-off close to the bank. Jon was a roofer and lived with a friend’s parents, who treated him like their own son.
He sort of filled in for the one who died huffing butane.
He liked adventure, poetry, art. Was kind to the children. One of the girls in the family spoke for the friends, that crowd on the bridge, laughing and drinking in the late June, long summer afternoon, and gathered again at his funeral (which took place, I checked the weather report, on another perfectly composed day). She said that, to everyone there on the bridge, “it seemed like he could get out of the river if he could get in.”