My first feeling when I see her crumpled there is embarrassment that the carpet she is pressing her olive cheek so deeply into is dirty. I want to apologize. I had noted on my way out the door to work this morning that the rug badly needed a vacuuming, hadn’t had one since last month’s film club meeting. I have never seen her before. I have never seen someone’s arm bent quite that way before. The only other time this dirty carpet had been such a spread of shards was during a controversial club night, when the group went to pieces during the discussion time. I always clean the whole house before it’s my turn to have the guys over, but this is the first impulse I’ve had to apologize. Besides to Jenson, the Englander whose houseboat bobs next to mine in Sausalito’s torpid waters, because he’s the only one who notices.
Her V-neck-jumper-and-pencil-skirt getup did not do the best job of cradling her after she landed, the orange of the jumper so committedly orange it drains color from her tanned skin. Confidently braided chocolate pigtails draw arcs from a skull that appears untouched, seamless. I avoid looking at her face, and so do not find the thread of blood from her ear until my third slow walk around her; she has been splayed here long enough for it to crust. I lose track of how long I have been circling her here—my workbag is sore on my shoulder, and the only light comes from the bulb I left burning in the bathroom this morning out of hurry.
On my fifth loop, I finally look at her eyes. It’s like they cracked open on impact. A course of needles dashes down my spine, this time not from the injury I got in a similar way to this young woman, who maybe jumped and maybe landed on my rug. “I’m just as stunned as you,” I say. Brown and thick as industrial paint, her eyes. I have to imagine what it would look like for actual vision to be coming from them. I trace her vacant line of sight to the bottom few titles of a carelessly stacked tower of bridge-design textbooks under the couch.
My doorbell jolts me only slightly less than the girl’s eyes.
“Gus? I heard a crash,” says my next-float neighbor. His voice ebbs as he notices her.
“I didn’t…I…it’s not…” I flap and clasp my hands, running one of them between his stare of horror and the girl. “I found her this way, too,” I say.
“This way?” Jenson clutches his stomach, gills going green.
“I didn’t…I don’t have a clue what to do,” I say.
“Have you rung the patrol? Who is she?” Jenson leans as if to step inside. His knees quake.
“It isn’t as if she’s got ID just hung neatly around her neck,” I say, tossing my hands up. “First girl that’s been over at my place since I inherited the damn thing.”
“But clearly you phoned the police,” Jenson says, turning to the siren sneering up the pavement just before the shore.
“No,” I begin to say, but two officers are already lockstepping toward the dock and calling for us to remain visible and stationary. The lake heaves under a touring ferry, the deck tilts up and rocks down with a clap and I’m on my knees and palms in a chunky, tawny pool. The salty wind ripens the rotting-fish reek and I retch again.
“Did you not hear me, sir? I said be still,” one officer says in an unexpectedly low but thin voice and raps her service baton flatly into a slender palm.
“Can’t you see the boy’s ill?” Jenson’s voice is tinny, far off. Still, a welter of simultaneous annoyance and gratitude catches me in the throat and I choke up again. It’s nice to have been adopted, sort-of adopted, even when I’m objectively too old for that kind of thing, and even when it’s probably clear that I’m not constitutionally equipped for life in this community—for life on water. Not even with my civil-engineering job, not even though I know how to do things like certify that a bridge is seismically sound. I would like to do the normal thing of going to bars with actual people, and not just because the bottles at bars get cleaned up. But this, I think, is life as it happens to people who know how to discuss life as it happens, not just life as it’s filmed.
Fragments of conversation slip in and out between the sounds of bobbing boats, and when Jenson’s apparently relayed all he knows, which is all I know, to the officers, I’m aided to my feet on my swaying deck. I point toward the girl on my not-quite-white carpet, then feel rude for pointing and wave my hand in her direction, then feel even worse for seeming so dismissive. Jenson’s pressing one of his hands into the depression between my shoulder blades, which he usually does when he’s concerned I’m not eating enough, and directing the officers with his other hand around my home: stocky bookshelves; Grandpa’s old maroon corduroy recliner; abject wood slab of drink support angled off snug to the cobalt eight-seater; the girl-shaped skylight; the ragdoll of girl as still as the female officer commanded me to be.
“I thought you said this was about an attempt?” The female officer does not turn around.
“Who?” Jenson straightens my vision with his now bloodless face.
“The caller said this was about a possible attempt.” The female officer spins around finally. “As in,” her coworker said, kneeling by the girl’s tectonically jutted shoulder, “not a completion.”
From a great distance, I’m watching myself watch two squatty, stern-clad medics waste no motion untwisting her jumper so they can cleanly load and roll the girl out of my house. Even strapped down, she’s bobbing like she might spring free any moment, her stitch of a mouth starting to fray, her skin natally translucent under straight-down sun, her rigid digits flicking with gathering undertow. Jenson and I are to trail the cop car to the precinct to make a report. After completing a strangely taut argument about which of our beaters to run and get, I bound back to my theater room to collect my things and myself. The heel of my loafer snags a black, plaited cord on its way back out the door with me and drags out a black purse the shape of an oversized pocket. The seed-beaded, sharply red rose that’s hanging its head to let out a trail of increasingly small tears is loose, clearly not done by machine. In my hand, it feels like it contains a mélange that I don’t have Jenson’s patience to sort through so I pick up the pace and stuff the bag awkwardly into my coat’s inside compartment.
“I’m in no particular favor of this dragging through the whole day,” Jenson says as we join the traffic on the way to the station. I nod. The air is thick inside Jenson’s well-used clunker, which he insisted we take since he’s only comfortable driving his baby of 20-plus years, and he’s decided I am too shaky to drive. I feel sweat start to glue the back of my legs to the age-shredded leather of the seats. I have to pant like a dog to breathe, and Jenson is nearly incapacitated. Heat sighs up from the surrounding car hoods slashed with sheer sun. The pines lining the road tremble their tops in each other’s shade, planks of light barreling through their branches and, no matter how I lean, straight into my eyes.
The air is scuzzy. We wait for a quarter of an hour before being permitted to provide names, addresses – current and previous – proofs of identification, and rights to our firstborns, before we are directed to a waiting corral with cop cubicles. The dying-orange hue of the carpet in this room is a fatigued version of the orange Jumper put on for her last outfit. We are surrounded by bafflegab that could have been lifted from any cop movie. Seconds, then minutes ooze out. When I, fidgeting for a comfortable position on this shaky, backless bench I’m sharing with Jenson, remember the purse in my coat, I rise to find the restroom.
I’m carefully extracting an address scrawled in mirror writing with glinty purple gel; three turquoise barrettes, one broken, and other hair fetters; a singular fat red ribbon, maybe from a ballet shoe; a striped black-and-white bow tie; a notebook with a jumble of phrases written at all manner of angles, several crossed through, some crossed out, some underneath a smart, courteous checkmark; a picture album holding layers of smiling, wallet-sized youths in 30 flippable pages; melting lavender ChapStick; a pair of rough-draft earrings with minute, miraculously uncrushed origami cranes impaled on thick metal strings; and an expandable red glasses case, empty. I cannot recall whether she wore glasses. It is not a matter of fascia obscuria; I simply do not remember Jumper’s face, though freckles and well-calmed hair will probably swim in the backs of my eyelids until time dies, too.
I snap the teal hair traps between my thumb and pointer. I de-cap the gloppy stick of lip balm and don’t need to lift it to my nostrils before I’m back—for only a minute, maybe—twenty-plus years, on mom’s parents’ fertile farm in New South Wales, where they had enough light and love to tend lavender sprigs on the side of their beef business. My mom bought me bright plastic shovels and rakes and buckets. When we vacationed there in summer, I was allowed to tend the “practice” rows my mom had instructed her dad to prepare for me in their sandbox. While my much-older brother exercised the horses, I watched all the old films—made before they invented color, I thought at that age—that Grandpa fell asleep to in his diluted-red recliner.
I’m not feeling like a nosepoke until I open the notebook strewn with circled/lined/scribbled-out sentences, and I’ve been absent suspiciously long at this point, so I repack all of Jumper’s only next of kin that I know about. I can’t help it: on my way past the mirror, I hold up the purple address. Rural area, not close. I’ll need at least a day to get there.
“Still ill?” Jenson is standing near the aged magazine clump, drumming his socked toes against a stout sandal strap.
My head shakes. My hand rushes to my side, instinctively, to protect Jumper’s leavebehinds.
“Well, they’re anticipating a far more enlightening story than mine from you,” Jenson says.
“What on earth would you even have been able to tell them?”
“I’m hoping not as much as you will be, or we’re certainly liable to be detained here far past my son’s arrival time this evening.”
“That was today, yes,” I say, regretting immediately not apologizing. All I say is, “We should have driven separately. Then you’d be, as you are now, I presume, free to go,” before I’m called back to a room with no windows and a skinny mic sprouting from a stern slab of overly sanded cedar.
An officer who was not either of the ones at the scene bowls in, barely managing to open the door in time for his squared-off rectangle of fresh-pressed uniformed body to get through the doorway. He claps his clipboard down to the table and grittily clears his turkey-wrinkle throat. A black ballpoint hovers over the clipped-in legal pad below his hand.
“You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for you, you have the – ”
“Excuse me, but if I am under arrest, I have the right to be informed of the probable cause, I believe,” I say.
“Jared Jones?” The officer does not look up.
“No,” I say. “August Engelton.”
“Ah,” the officer says, without variation in tone or pitch. “Wrong script.” A smile briefly strings his face. The officer scoots through the crisp leaves of paper trapped to the clipboard, rips one out and slowpitches it to the mesh wire basket in the corner. He inhales and forces his throat clear again.
“You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. We are required to inform you that you are being audio recorded for general and transcriptive purposes. This tape is admissible in any courtroom settings, be they pending or possible, now and in the future up to the statutory limit of three years depending on verdict returned, if applicable.”
“Sir, you’re aware that I did not commit an actual crime?” I clutch Jumper’s purse under my coat to stabilize at least one of my hands.
“A jury may be requested if said verdict is not swiftly reached with all present evidence at the time of hearing or trial. You are being questioned for the purpose of collecting some of said evidence. First question: When was the first time you saw the subject?”
“Might I ask,” I say slowly, “that you define who said subject is?”
“Indeed, as opposed to object, right?” The same stringy smiled pulled on the officer lips, this time for slightly longer.
I affect a chuckle and nod. “Right.”
“The subject is the girl taken in a gurney from your home at approximately 5:32 this evening pursuant to a call presumably made by you.”
“Oh, no, I hadn’t made a call,” I say.
“That was not my question, sir. And sir, please keep your hands where I can see them for the remainder of this interview. Customary protocol, you know.”
“Yes,” I say, loosening my fingers laced with each other and settling the more flexible bundle on the scratched surface a few inches in front of me.
“So my question, if you’ll recall, was when you first saw the subject.”
“When she was lying on my carpet.”
“Before or after she died?”
I pause, evidently for too long.
“The question was, again, sir, before or after she died?”
“I…I…technically, I don’t know. The hole in my roof was already there, if that's helpful.” I gradually begin pushing my hands closer together as braces for each other.
“Sarcasm, for one, is not,” the officer says, looking up for the first time since latching the door. “Your final answer, you do not know?” He does not break gaze.
“The recorder, I’m sure you’ll understand, cannot hear body language. You’ll have to speak up.”
“My final answer is that I technically do not know, yes, sir, correct.”
“Mockery, for another, is not helpful, either. Third question,” he continues before the next syllable can round my lips. “What was she wearing?”
“I’m uncertain if you really expect sartorial detail from a guy here, but will she was mostly covered in orange suffice?”
The officer stands and shoves the cedar slab with his belly. “I’m going to give you one more chance to answer that question free of sarcasm,” he says, his volume squealing in the mic.
“She was in an orange jumper and white skirt,” I say, cutting off the threat he’s coiling his breath to make. I lean back to keep “orange as anger” away from the mic, holding my eyes hovering just above his.
The officer’s stance remains up, his eyes down. He nods once. “Fourth question: where did she come from?”
“Somewhere above my roof is all I can presume, sir,” I say, draining all sardonic tension down through crowded, inward breaths to leave only sincerity.
“Fifth question,” he says through clamping teeth, “did you see her anywhere above your roof?”
“I did, sir, already answer that.”
“Negative. I had not asked this exact question until just now.”
“But you did ask when the first time I saw the subject was and I answered on my floor. So not before her breaking my roof, not when she was somewhere above it, only on my floor.”
“We have five customary questions left, Mr. Engel. Your choice whether we make it more.”
“Can it be less? I really don’t have any information beyond this and was sort of hoping to get some from you.” I tear strips of my lower lip off with my top teeth, resulting in striations that will surely signal to Jenson the brewing of another crisis and ramp up his already fairly frequent check ins. He stopped asking about family after its closest member, Wallace the brindle boxer, died, and started assuming that role without comment. He may have been going for older brother knowing that I only talked with mine about houseboat logistics.
“From us?” The officer bunches the corners of his nostrils like he smells rancid milk and peaks one half of his furred, forehead-long eyebrow. “You are entitled to exactly no amount of information about the subject whatsoever.”
“But she was found in my house,” I say, the reins of my voice sliding through my fingers.
“Yes, indeed. Which, if anything,” he says, heaving his padded chest toward the ceiling, “makes you rather a suspect. Sixth question: how long was the subject in your house?”
“Sir, I could not possibly know that.”
“Well, how long were you present with her in your house?”
“It might depend on precisely what you mean by ‘present,’ but I don’t think I could even guess at that, either.” I dig my eyes into the insect eye of metal that caps the mic.
“You can’t tell me how long you were present with her in your own home?” The officer shifts his feet hip width.
“How long I was present to her, well, I suppose not more than 15 minutes. At least until it was not just me and her any longer. But then, the whole time, it could have just been me.”
“Mr. Engel, this is neither time nor place for philosophitries. Seventh question: what was your first response?”
Hot, miasmic sadness. “Stunned, definitely,” I say instead. “I was rather tasered.”
“Do I look like a therapist to you? What was your first action taken?”
A paced, circular investigation. “I walked around her.”
“Eighth question: what were your observations of the subject upon your initial survey?”
“Initially? Well. Let me go back. Losing color fast, which just made the orange that much more maddening, too young for there to be any comfort at all in a list of goals reached or accomplishments made, and I wished to the ends of green earth’s God I had vacuumed my damn rug. Her cheek deserved cleaner.”
The officer sighs through his teeth. “Ninth question: did she leave any artifacts in your home?”
Breath latches in my chest, tumbles up my windpipe and trips over my larynx.
“It’s not difficult, Mr. Engel. Yes or no: did she leave any artifacts in your home?”
“Ton,” I say.
“That is neither yes nor no. Did she leave…”
“We have been here for thirty minutes longer than I’m ever in this room, Mr. Engel. I haven’t got time for such specific nitpicks. I’m going to take your obstructive delay in responding to my very simple, yes-or-no question as a yes, she did, in which case, I will be issuing a search warrant.”
“There are no artifacts that I know of in my home, sir.”
“Well, we’ll best be making sure of that. Tenth question: who called us?”
“I would love to know,” I say, shaking my head with each staccato word. Crashes of either many heavy pieces of furniture being moved or what is likely to be a row of a thunderstorm grumbling not far enough away.
Jenson does not have time to help me comb my theater room for additional evidence to turn into the police. Plus, he always gets amped up about picking up his son, so I don’t bother trying to negotiate with his anxiety to ask for help. I don’t suppose I have ample time, either. I fan my arm, shoulder to middle fingertip under my couch, rug nipping the length of my arm. The only trinkets that show themselves are what you’d expect from a guy who has lived alone for more than five years and hasn’t had a serious enough relationship for anyone to bring any personal effects over. Wallace’s old moldgreen chew pickle that has lost its squeak; corners of a sleepy blue fabric I intended to patch jeans with before I forgot; stacks of VHS tapes I keep meaning to get converted; and the candy-red sauce dishes from my study abroad year in Shanghai are the only objects produced in this frenetic sweep.
There are a few things I find behind the screen, which has Morgan Freeman’s head thrown back in laughter paused on it, that I don’t recognize. It’s been too long since the days of shared living spaces for them to belong to a former roommate; it’s always been formidable for me to clarify whatever is mine regardless. I don’t remember starting to watch The Shawshank Redemption, let alone pausing it zoomed in on Freeman. Jumper’s purse seems to be all I have. All I have from her. Clearly nothing under either Ikea Poang chair; nothing could be under the thoroughly sagged recliner. Nnothing on the table, nothing perching the mantle, nothing behind the TV. I leave on my coat with Jumper’s purse in it and wait.
The patrol doesn’t find nothing. All my pantheon of possessions, all my home, all of me, is suspicious. Millions of tiny insects are crawling from the back of my neck and into my ears and across my face. The two law representatives cull it all, theater room, two adjacent rooms, bathroom and superjacent sleeping loft. They chip, nick, draw, prod and scrape samples of everything. If I believe that everything they showed me they were claiming as exhibits was really everything they actually took, Jumper has left nothing beyond what I already have.
A runnel of a woman follows me around my home as I plod through the scene I found when I came home to discover Jumper. Although her colleagues’ examination clunks about my house, it sounds like she is taking notes directly on my eardrums. She is writing all I’m saying and much more. The only thing sharper than the balls of her steel-soled service boots on my hardwood floor and the ball of her pointed pen in my ear are her questions. Until the last one, which is in slightly lighter black:
“Where would you like to be while your roof is being repaired?” Her scribble screech pauses and she looks up over her glasses.
I open and close my mouth. I look around at these rooms made strange by all this law enforcing.
“Do you have a friend who can take you in? You want to try to stay here or shall I put in a board order? Sir?”
“Can I stay here?” The idea of staying with Jenson tickles my awareness briefly. We’ve known each other long enough that he’s probably foreseeing a request of that sort, but it’s just too close to home to not be home.
“Hey Copper,” she yells to the redhead, though, of course, they both turn around. “We got a brave one.”
The redhead shakes his head. “Good luck, son.” The insects stop crawling and start biting.
“So you’re just going to be even more walled off in your own house—I mean, from your own house, then?” Jenson is furious when I recite the ordeal and my decision to stay.
“Not walls,” I say, patting the moist air between us. “Plastic window tarp device things. I’ll be able to see everything.”
“You’ve never been able to see everything.” His words echo.
“Then I’ll at least see what I’ve always seen.” It’s hard to tell if the little arcs of light are playing on the lake or my mind is making them up.
“Is that why you’re not miffed by this inconvenience?” Jenson crosses his long-ago-wrestler’s arms high on his chest. “Because nothing’s actually changing?”
“Everything is always-” I have to draw more air before I can finish “-changing,” I say. “That’s why nothing ever does.” It’s more than just the dishwasher-level humidity that’s slowing up the air as it resists entering my mouth.
“What is this actually about, Gus?” His volume drops sharp as the cliffs dwarfing us on all sides.
The little arcs have fattened now, crowding out the lake and the zoom-in of Jenson’s face. I shake my head. Jenson sighs, flinging a few stray shaggy black hairs about his forehead. He steps back, drops his fists to his hips, looking at me the same way he did in the hospital the night I jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the two percent of people who survive that fall, managing only some major bruising and a fracture in my low back.
“Are you just really interested in construction?”
“The constructive process anyway,” I say. “I’m an engineer for a reason.”
Jenson’s akimbo arms say he’s mad but his voice says, “I’m just a dock away if the banging chases too much of your sleep away.” He strong-arms his lips into a smile. “Which, don’t think it’s slipped by me, you don’t get enough of already.”
The song of repair, renewed every morning, is too loud for movies, even after Jenson helps move my screen up to the loft. The nice folks down at the insurance company say that Jumper’s fall was not an Act of God. In other words, not an accident. It’s not that I don’t have the money to pay these friendly guys for fixing everything up. It’s that the money won’t fix everything. Maybe the strata of messes I’ve stopped trying to keep out of the way of the work crew, but so far, I’ve got Jenson for that. When he knocks his heel into the bottom of an empty wine bottle, I audibly flip through a Rolodex of explanations; most contain gradients of truth.
Jenson holds up a hand. “If you’re hurting again, Gus, let me lift you to the doctor.” I strain to remember if hardness has always been rusting the top layer of his voice; I consider worrying about why I can’t remember.
I try not to flinch while finalizing the placement of the screen. “It doesn’t matter,” I say, staring into the black yawn of the television.
“They’ve helped you before.” Jenson lets his side of the screen go. I want to dive into the blackness. “Right? They’ve helped you before. Gus.” He doesn’t seem to be breathing right. “Right?”
“I can’t move.” I’m bent over like I’m standing on a diving block at a swim meet just before the gun goes off, except that I haven’t raised and tightened my arms to squeeze my ears yet.
“You’re twitching like a horse’s coat on a hot day.” But then he leans over before I can avert my eyes. “Oh.” He sharply draws a breath and tries to cover his gasp with a few coughs. “You’re going dark again, Gus, black as your screen.” He inhales like there’s more words coming.
“I shouldn’t have, I’ll be okay,” I say and put one palm on the back of the other hand, interleaving my fingers as I stretch up to the only ceiling in my home that has remained whole.
I get home from work on yet another Thursday, thinking the work should be completed. A contractor decides to breach the weirdly natural barrier between people who live in houseboats and the people they hire to keep them up. He’s heard I’m an engineer “or something” and – he’s sorry, the curiosity is finally just too much for him – wants to know “the formula” for “drilling a hole in a roof with a feather.”
“Aren’t they supposed to be damned solid?” he says, meaning roofs, having built or restored “dump truck upon dump truck” of them.
“It’s got to do with the strength of the wood thirty-ish years ago versus today,” I say. “When I was born, people were using old-growth lumber because it was stronger. That’s not available anymore, as we all know, so the roof overhead we all are programmed to want is weakening year by clear-cut year.”
The contractor nods by shifting ball to heel, ball to heel. “Moral of the story, then, is that older is better, then.”
“Fiercer anyway,” I say. “At least when it comes to forests.”
“Ah, well. S’shame.” He revs a hand drill’s motor and taps his goggles down between his eyes and me. “Nothing lasts forever, especially not age, eh?” He waves me past him as he turns on his toes back to work.
“Mercy, I hope not.”
It’s Sunday. Jenson manages to get me out for some coffee. As we walk back to our dock, clouds ready the sun for landing. Jenson’s talked to the workers too, he says. He can assure me that—
he even verified with the foreman—the contractors don’t work at night. But wrenches clang off the counter in the dark. Wood still snaps in and out of place. One midnight, I’m sure I see a gossamer girl slip around the bathroom door. Jenson moves some bottles from my house into our dock’s recycler. He takes a few full ones home with him.
“It’s flooding,” I tell him at his next check-in mere hours later.
“Your head?” He collects an empty bottle and wags its neck at me like an irritated mom whose tongue clicking is really more a nervous tick by now.
“My house.” I salute it. “Everything is orange.”
“Gus.” The irritation is gone, replaced by the same deep-creased look from the last time I hit so much dark.
“Orange and red. Scorched,” I say. “Scorching.”
Jenson props his bag against one of the bookshelves he helped me bolt to the wall when I first moved here. He’d carried the amateur ones you assemble yourself that my brother gave me on his way back to Sydney to the same dumpster he’s now filling with bottles. “Gus, have you not been sleeping again?” He lays the back of his hand on my forehead. His eyes shock. “You’re burning.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” I say. “It’s hell here.”
“For you or…” Jenson seems to wish he’s not saying it: “her.”
“A man hanging on like a severely loose tooth in a holey obstacle course of floating home would clearly not be hell. So, of course, I’m joking.” My stomach turns in a full, slow circle.
“Seems to be for you.” Jenson snatches the bag and flings it over his shoulder, grunting as the bottles butt against his back.
“And anyway, there’s no more time for her,” he says and heads toward the recycler.
“I know,” I say after him. “Sure as the day dies, I know.” I stay in the doorway of my hatless home; sometimes, holes must get bigger before they can fully close. “Why must they swallow up so much in the process, though?” I say. “All that’s left is her purse.”
I pat my sides. I’m not wearing my coat. Several large-winged creatures rush up my throat and don’t land until I run inside and see that Jenson has moved my coat to the armchair I’ve made asymmetrical by accidently falling asleep in it too many times, always somehow slumping over to the right. Jumper’s purse remains in its front pocket.
I think I hear a drill buzz; it could be a far-off lawn mower. The crashing could be the lake on the shore or my deck but it sounds like it’s coming from over my head. Glass shatters over my nerves. I think I hear an Avocet call but maybe it was my friend. We humans don’t seem to recognize each other if we’re too far away.
Jenson had moved the chair with my coat with the purse with that address in it to make room for the widescreen in the loft. It was now just under the metal pole he helped install for the retractable screen the film club watched its movies on. I rest my hands on the back of the chair and Jenson comes running at me. He hooks his shaking hands around my shoulders and barely keeps from knocking me down. He’s been yelling “stop” since before he touched me.
“I was just going for the purse.” I shrug my shoulders free. “I really don’t need any more sudden movements.”
“The purse? What is so earth-shatteringly special about this damn purse?” He’s red as war but he’s got the hospital look.
“I don’t think I can explain it,” I say and look down. I don’t remember how Jenson learned about the purse.
“Is there anything you can explain?” His teeth clap rapidly and he rubs his palms on his jeans. “Anything.”
“Yes,” I say slowly. “Yes, one thing. How unbelievably nice it would have been,” I say from my knees, “had someone, when I was at my lowest, which is to say literally the highest, just said, ‘I get it.’ Not, ‘things will be okay,’ for you couldn’t conceivably know that. Not some brimstone menace. Just, ‘I get it.’”
“Brimstone menace?” Jenson flares his hands and straightens his spine. “Like your bloody house?” His step towards me rocks me back to my heels.
I hear my infinite guest twirling electric cords, the un-thatching of repair, the hucking of plier and plank. “You’re right.” The un-thatching is the part I imagine looks most like me. I stand. “I have to go.”
To get out of the corrugated-metal-enclosed carport assigned to our dock, number four of seven, and into the roadway system, you have to shunt around half the dappled cellophane of lake my life floats on. It’s a betting day today; those who can’t find races or games stack up money for or against the weatherman. I’ve stacked zinc oxide next to an opaquely blue sunshade on top of a stack of green plaid blankets. Decaffeinated tea is too strong for me these days. Apple slices and Oreos are probably not enough food for a whole day. But it’s what Jenson dropped off a few mornings ago when he noticed I’d stopped restocking my food supply. If he’s so concerned about me, he should have brought more.
The typical trips to the pub to play darts when Jenson’s son comes to visit are one short this circuit. Just as well; I’ve been unable to stop the momentary flashes I have of my face on the dartboard, the tip of my nose as the russet center of the target. I cannot explain this, though, any of it, to Jenson. He’ll just hear me pardoning a barbed and selfish and cowardly act even if I could explain how specifically uncowardly it is to override millennia of evolutionary conditioning and biological imperatives that throb survival on the cellular-guts level. Or how it’s not selfish to want your friends to have easier, happier lives, which you, the jumper, believe is only possible without you. It’s not Jenson’s fault. Belief is the kind of friend who will hold your hand all the way down.
There are about twenty houseboats on my side of the lake. I haven’t counted the other side’s dwellings, though I’ve lived here long enough to know how many there are. The lake is stretched out enough to contain an island that itself hosts likely more than double the homes on the lake, and I have had trouble with vastness in the past. And odds. Vast problems and small odds. In a fall from a height, are they smaller for perishing or for surviving with brutalizing pain from, say, a permanent back injury? Was my shackle-shingled roof chosen? Why? There are sturdy, accessible heights above three-fourths of the houseboats on the lake; was it a diceroll? Or did Jumper hit her mark?
No rain. I’ve lost count of both the sick days I’ve called in and the wrong roads I’ve driven the length of. Dry pines lining all of them, still trying to show me how to keep out of the light. A flood doubled over on these panting tongues of land not long before I was born; it was only enough to drown the livestock. My water-resource-engineer colleagues say the reason for the desiccation here is that the water wasn’t still enough for long enough to sink deep enough to stay. I wonder if Jumper’s story would have read differently had she hit water so deep it buried the ground instead of my intrusion of house. I wonder if I might be lost or how I would know or when I should start suspecting that I am. I wonder how my roofers are coming along at closure.
Jenson’s son is studying comedy in Chicago, and he’s got me hooting so hard, I take some balsamic vinegar to the sinus cavity, clearly losing to our third battle of wine. The waitress tries to catch my wine glass but, for all her hurry, wasn’t fast enough. Some still grabs a swatch of the white sock of a neighboring diner. Jenson’s son fights back a laugh until he sees the sock owner’s face. Jenson searches for a window or an interesting painting on the wall.
“I’m having trouble finding what is so funny,” he says, glaring at me like sun during rush hour.
James drops eyes and hands to the table. I shiver. “We can’t have just one offhanded dinner every now and again?” I say.
Jenson pings the sweet slope of wine bottle neck with the nail of his middle finger. “Certainly,” he says. “We do all the time, you might recall. Usually, there’s a lot less time between the previous now and the next again.” He presses his slender pillows of lips toward each other as if to stop himself from saying, “Perhaps because one member of the dinner party bolts away on day-consuming trips chasing after wind.”
“Wrong addresses,” I say. “Chasing after wrong addresses.” I’m unable to dull my undoubtedly garish grin.
“Wrong how?” Jenson says. “Go ahead, Gus, tell James how.”
I feel like I have spaghetti ends tied to my tongue and teeth like tassels. “Wrong as in vacant,” I say. “I mean, absent. You know, not there. I drove around long enough to have found it had it been there. She wrote the numbers backwards, I think. Or something.”
“And what was it that wasn’t there, Gus?” the table asks me in Jenson’s voice.
“See, now, that’s why, precisely why I was out there at all to begin the first place,” I say. My nervous system is telling me I’m at home during a squall.
“And your boss let you off to begin the first place, did he?”
“It’s a little thing called personal time bank, Jay.” My smile has crossed over to crazed clown at abandoned circus, I can feel it.
“You didn’t eat through all that laid up waiting for your back to heal?”
“I’d still be waiting, but it’s not like there’s been no time since then for reaccrual.” It takes my full concentration to keep the room steady. “Besides, I think my team can handle the calcs and drawings of a few bridges for a day or two.”
James flexes his jaw, as if gnawing the unyielding, silver silence. When what he measures as enough time passes, he speculates about the quality of sea glass this particular bottle will grow up to be. I laugh and point at my toppled glass and have trouble keeping him and his father straight visually and the table seems to be lengthening out in all directions while the universe circles the end of my nose. I think it is Jenson who has stood after rubbing the crimson carpet with a previously pallwhite napkin. It is, in fact, Jenson, who says, “Look, Gus, I care, really. And I want to figure out that girl’s story just as much as you do. I’m just very unclear if doing so is helping you. Or if this is helping you.” He gestures to the bar.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “We haven’t even played darts, yet.”
Jenson leans on his heels and mutters something to the sock-stained diner, offering the pinot-stained napkin.
“I suppose, in all seriousness, it would be useful for me to be of some directive here,” I say. I feel my head swishing like wine in tasters’ glasses. “It’s only that I don’t know at all about what helps. I have a hard time parting just with furniture. You remember.”
Jenson’s eyebrows furrow deeper and he says, “That’s quite clear” in concert with his son saying, “That girl?”
This time, I find it. Jumper, I presume, had written everything backwards in the address but the sixes. The grass has been mowed at a precise angle and it looks like it’s blushing; the dyed-red dirt from an exactly oval track has been blown all over it. The stable’s layered with it, too, as is even the air. There’s a cedar smell snapping in the breeze when it switches directions; the stable must be newly built. A bouquet of massive balloons, each a different shade of orange or red or purple, bobbles on the just-painted gatepost of the fence. But there is no pomp, only circumstance. I can drive right up to the stable but I don’t, opting to park and approach in the reverent way a three-thousand-pound machine cannot.
The brown-hinting-red stable feels somehow rickety once I’m in it. I slap at bugs crawling on me but the clap is so harsh against the air, which is the kind of blazing hollow of being freshly emptied, that I feel like I should stop. I keep thinking I hear pieces of straw snapping, leaves trembling. I whip around to the door to make sure the scuttling on the back of my neck is not me being watched.
A cookies-and-cream Appaloosa tugs at a thin, black lead, flapping blueblack lips toward stray straw. Strung like the smile of a dying person above its head is a lightly purple banner: HAPPY BIRTHDAY written in mirror, though not Jumper’s, handwriting.
I feel my heartbeat in my teeth. Clenching my jaw only makes it louder. The mare stops straining briefly and sees me. She almost seems to shrug as she lowers her head and pulls the muscles in her neck taut in the hope of hay. She does not spook at my steps in its direction; I nudge a bundle of chaff toward her with my toe. When she finishes, she keeps her head down and her mouth open. I scoot some more hay her way, into her mouth. We repeat, now alternating between tufts of hay and her jiggling the stall door with a few sideways jerks of her head. My grandparents sold the farm before I was big enough to be safe on a horse. I manage to get my hand around the lead’s knot before she jumps back and freezes, half-chewed hay dropping from its mouth. We stop, two stone monuments to a world that has rushed us by.
The Appaloosa’s lead was tied so tight, it was cutting into her and wouldn’t come undone, even after me breaking three nails trying. When she moves at all, she backs up slightly, leaving me less and less slack. Finally, I start into the rope with my car key. I don’t expect it to give so quickly and by the time I’ve thrown my hand out to catch the other end of the lead, the horse is up on hind legs, pinwheeling her front legs. Braying through her teeth, she sends plumes of dust up as she plants hooves back down and jets through the door. I don’t know how long I was stunned in place but when I reach the door, the horse has made it into the air far above the fence, a wide, bloodred ribbon braided through its tail loosening into the sanctified antiphon of sky.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve got four dilapidated bridges to run numbers on by end of business tonight, and I’m certain I saw more than their fair share of filled sleeping bags under them on my drive home last week, and my head is knocking for want of actually hydrating liquid, and the smell of coffee lapping around the office is rocking my stomach like a lake—but my desk is a mess. I haven’t made much of a dent in prioritizing the two weeks’ worth of work orders when the lead of our design teams politely places his knuckles against the outside of my door. We’ve acclimated this no-need-to-invite courtesy into our office space so I have time to blink and inhale before Tim is on the other side of my door, pulling it till it clicks.
“Bill needs to shift your gears a bit, Gus,” he says. “Hope you’re feeling better, also.”
I shrug. “Eh, better.” Except for the closed-door-assignment situation.
He hurries through a hushed explanation of my top priority, needed by 5:00 if we care at all about quelling a lawsuit threatened against the city. He claps a rigid hand on my shoulder, rocking me forward and catching my bad ankle and staggering stomach off guard. I bite the insides of my cheeks so I don’t groan.
“Hey,” he drops his head and raises his eyes, arranging me at what feels to be a great height above him. “You steady?”
“Just need some coffee, I think.” Tim holds eye contact for long enough to indicate that he’s trying to decide whether to believe me. I reinforce a smile, draw my hands to my plexus.
“Really,” I say, “that will drop this barnacle queasiness away like sleep.” He nods and bows his lips, turns toward my door to walk out.
“Oh, Tim?” He faces me. “What bridge is this for again?”
“Number Four A.” He does not leave my door open when he leaves.
The controversial movie about suicide our film club watched, the one that we
broke glass over, was the first in a series of documentaries, and we had to stop it halfway through. Specifically, the story—for the guys were all contractors or contractors or engineers—was about suicide barriers, the social action behind them, the logistical and engineering snags in installing them. About “means restriction” and how effective it is in preventing suicide. The research says that means restriction works – so much so that failing to make efforts toward it may hold water in a courtroom. But if you’re one who allows your plans to be foiled that easily, some of the film club guys said, then maybe you’re just crying wolf. I was quiet for the whole argument. Jenson stopped talking after one of the guys said, “You either have to be sure enough to actually go through it for people to take you seriously, or you have to quash your human need for attention.”
I freehand the guide to building the barrier with a fat-tipped granite stick. Means restriction was originally about saving lives, not sorting out the ‘fakers.’ The barrier on Number 4A will go like this: straight, strong and slashcold, the keeper of untethering souls. Too high from the pedestrian strip lining either side of the street’s whir to be easily breached, this will be the deterrer, the curator of agony, at least if you’ve selected this particular bridge’s height to collect into yourself. This is, my breath stops before it gets all the way down, “This is the bridge directly over my house,” I say, inhaling to comfort the screech filling out my low back.
Fitstarts. I almost sleep, get up, pull my feet from my bed, flatten them to the floor one by one down my dock and up the hill lined with dry, off-white weeds to the train station. I’ll have between four and twelve minutes, usually, to eat the cranberry scone I’ll grab at the snack hut in the middle of the waiting around before boarding the train that crosses two bridges to get to my stop. I walk under another viaduct, work, maybe eat again. I wonder what Jumper would have had for lunch. I wonder if I should look for the Appaloosa I accidentally freed. I’ve been on that end of a rope before; I supposed I would have wanted to be found even if, maybe because, I knew where I was the whole time.
Bridges somehow seem thicker, sturdier on paper, where I can instruct their builders what to do, than when the job is already done. I should ask if someone’s run the numbers on Number Four A recently, then decide to just do it myself. We had a bridge snap like a femur around this time last year. No one was hurt, but at least two engineers were fired because they each thought the other one had run the numbers. Calculate twice, build once.
I start to roll the drawing back up to turn in, almost forgetting why I was given this stack. I unfold it gently across my desk, tapping it with a finger, watching the slow revelation of concrete car support in stayed, frozen flight. The lake, the cliffs, all that uncollected height, my home, nowhere here. I scoot a ruler to the railing and draw a full but, as always, erasable, red line.