Friday, September 29, 2017

33. The Bridge

The same day that baby rock lizards started hatching on Tea Kettle Island, Derek received an email from Michael that contained no word of Mimi.  This omission reminded him that it had been a long time since he had heard from her in any way.  It seemed she had given up, and now Michael had given up too.  Derek wasn't sure he was happy about this.

Michael wrote that one of his duties as Senior Fisheries Warden was to attend the annual conference of the International Union of Fisheries Biologists, which this year was to be held at the Hopkins Marine Laboratory in Monterey.  He said he would be able to take a couple of extra days to visit, a year since Derek had been hit on the head, two years since Michael had found Derek's hopeful inquiry in his email inbox. 

With some reservations, Derek was thrilled.

With none whatsoever, so was Michael, who had last seen his friend prone, half-paralyzed, as inarticulate and swollen as an eggplant.  "What a good-looking man you are!" he exclaimed when they met at the front desk of the Hyatt on Drumm Street.  "What a sight for sore eyes!"  He looked back and forth at Derek's two eyes.  "Damn!" he said, "truly a miracle!"  His voice reverberated throughout the cavernous lobby.  Derek was made uncomfortable by the close scrutiny and the inevitable stares, but loved being with Michael.  Tears welled as his hands were mauled in a monster handshake.  He received the bear-hug too, which was almost too much.  It made him wish he had taken his pills.  He decided not to, because he felt obliged to have a few with the big beer-drinking man.

Michael had traveled all over North America and Europe, and thus was not unaccustomed to large cities, despite having spent the great majority of his life on a sub-tropical speck.  But still, like almost everyone with any aesthetic sensibility, he was moved by the magic of The City.  "Magnificent," he said.  "Who could've conceived of this?"

They took the cable car from Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf, and from one of the piers gazed west at the bridge.  They slowly walked the waterfront to Ghirardelli Square, where upstairs in a bar Michael showed photos of huge Baby Derek being held by an exhausted Evie.  Derek shook his head.  Then Michael pointed at an old photograph hanging on the wall.  "I see why you love that bridge," he said.  "It's a work of art."

“It is that,” Derek agreed.

“Does it have a footpath?  Can you walk on it?”

“Of course.”

“Magnificent.  I would love to do that. Let’s go.”

Derek hesitated.  Michael seemed so thrilled by the idea, like a big kid.  “Okay, we’ll do it,” he said, ignoring the tingling in his lower leg, a sign he was overdoing it.  "Let's walk across the bridge."
           
They took a cab to the drop-off point and started across.  Michael charged ahead, as if magnetically attracted to the southern tower.  "Yes," he declared, dancing on the sidewalk, "this is truly one of the most beautiful man-made objects on Earth, and what a color too!  Orange!"  Derek walked as fast as he could with his cane as Michael raved, "So huge!  So high!  So orange!"  This was entertaining.  For once Michael was the right size.  Everyone else seemed tiny, as if there had been a horrendous miscalculation on the blueprint for the bridge, but Michael fit perfectly.  If Michael had been a bridge, he would have been enormous, tall, and orange. 

Slightly south of the mid-point his leg became rubbery, forcing him to stop.  He thought that maybe this was far enough, because little flashes of light were jumping in front of his eyes.  He closed them, waited ten seconds, and opened them again.  The flashes were gone, and Michael was next to him.  He saw the puzzled smile, then pulled on Michael's sleeve like a child.  "The middle!" he said.

They stopped just shy of the middle, where the parabola of great cable swoops down to the traffic deck, Derek pointed to the features of the bay.  He named the islands: Alcatraz, Angel, Belvedere.  He indicated the cities in the East Bay: Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany with its hill, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland.  He indicated where he had once lived, high in the Berkeley hills, with Laura.  "In a different life," he said.  He turned and pointed southwest across the traffic, to where the Farallon Islands would have been visible were it not for the nearshore fog-bank rolling quickly toward the gate.  Then he stopped talking.

Michael surveyed the city.  "My, my, my," he said.  He shook his head, and said, "Inconceivable."  Derek was peering nervously over the railing and wondering how anyone could possibly be desperate enough to jump from this thing.  Then Michael said, "I want to tell you something.

“Yes?”

“You are like a brother to me. A skinny, yellow-haired, white-boy brother.”

“Um, thanks.  You’ve been a great friend to me too.”

“No Derek.  Not friend, brother. There’s a difference. Do you understand?”

“Okay, yes,” said Derek. “I do.  You’re like a… big, strong, black-guy brother.”

“You’re not the first one.”

“The first what?”

“Skinny, yellow-haired, white boy brother.”

"Oh," said Derek, wondering where this strange, sentimental yet racist conversation was leading.  He looked down at steely ripples, which were probably quite impressive waves, visible between the feathery tendrils hurrying ahead of the body of the fog.     

“First one was Terry Nelson.  He was my boss.  He held my job before me."

"Where did he go?"  Derek guessed that Terry Nelson was a young, vigorous man who had left Bermuda for a job in the larger world.

"Gone," said Michael. He waved his hand.

"Oh, sorry," said Derek, suddenly suspecting Michael meant 'dead'.  He was slightly nauseous from looking down, so looked over at Berkeley, which made him feel worse.  He could see the Claremont Hotel, a big white blob, and the Campanile on the campus, a fragile stick.

"Do you remember one time you asked me who 'Fisheries One' was?"

Derek remembered.  Michael had said there wasn't a 'One,’ that he used 'Fisheries Two' as his radio call-name, so not to sound conceited.  He now understood, Michael had been pulling his leg.  "Fisheries One was Terry?"

"Terry," said Michael, nodding and smiling.  "Terry was Fisheries One, and I was Fisheries Two, and he was a wonderful friend.  A wonderful brother.  I called him 'One', and he called me 'Two,' all the time.  'Hi One -- How's the fishin' Two?'  That's what it was like."  Michael's eyes were becoming misty.  Derek was now certain Terry Nelson was dead.

"So you couldn't take his radio name, after..."

"He died," said Michael. "Disappeared, while on patrol, two years before you visited us.  He vanished from his boat."

"Oh," said Derek.

Michael tensed, then sighed powerfully.  "You see, I would've found him.  Even if he'd been swallowed whole by a tiger shark, I would have found the parts of him that came out the other end.  I searched every square inch of the platform.  I didn't stop looking.  Even after the coast guard gave up, I kept looking.  It's all I did, day after day."  Michael seemed to shrink.  "Someone took him away, took his body away.  Terry was murdered, I'm absolutely certain."

"Really," said Derek.  He wanted the conversation to change to something else.  He also wanted to go back now, because it was cold on the bridge, and because he needed to urinate, and because he had never been fond of heights.  He now knew that he never would have jumped.  He would have stared down, become dizzy, turned around, and gone back home, which was what he wanted to do now.  "We should get going," he said, and pushed away from the rail, but Michael held his arm and squeezed.  Derek understood that they weren't going anywhere until Michael finished his story. 

"Want to know why he was murdered?" said the big man, not waiting for a response.  "He was preventing the development of a lovely large patch of mangrove swamp, along the northwest shore in Somerset, and things got very dirty.  Almost everyone in the Bermuda Nature Foundation gave in to the prospective developer, everyone except him and me.  He was a stubborn man, a strong man -- he loved to take them on!"  Michael smiled at a private memory.  "He was the strongest one.  When he disappeared, I couldn't..." his voice trailed off and his face changed.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I knew who killed him, who had him killed, and there was nothing I could do about it." 

"Why not?"

Michael glared down on him, to warn that the other shoe was about to drop.  He said, sharply, "Here's a hint.  Those two men, the ones who attacked you during the meteor shower, guilty as sin, were released the next day.  Scott-free.  No charges."

Derek said nothing.

Michael's voice was low and his words came out slowly and dangerously, "Do you understand?"

"I think so."

"You know who did it too, don't you."  Derek's arm was throbbing beyond where Michael squeezed.

"Yes."  He understood, and was frightened.

"Tell me who it was." He squeezed harder.  "Tell me who murdered my brother."

"Why?"

"Tell me!"  Michael released the arm, only to bunch the front of Derek's jacket in his fist, and lift him.  He shook him, and he yelled, "Tell me!"  Michael had turned into a maniac, very large, very strong and very fast-moving, 230 feet above the water.  He dropped and leapt behind slow-moving Derek, curled enormous arms around him, and squeezed hard, the bear-hug again.  In his ear he said, "I want you to tell me."

Derek grunted, "The... Admiral," and as a reward was released against the rail, but with a hand on his shoulder.

Michael said bluntly, "He deserved to be shot." 

Derek saw spots, and tried to step away, but the hand shifted down his arm to pin his hand on the railing, like a bug beneath a brick.  The body of the fog had breached the gate.

Michael said, "I've never mentioned any of this to anyone, and I want you to know I'm telling you now, because I think it's time you stopped punishing yourself over it and got on with the important things in your life, number one being learning to love yourself.  You need to tell someone about it, and it might as well be me, right now, on this beautiful bridge you seem to spend so much time thinking about."

Derek said nothing.  He had been keeping his secret for too long and was confused by how Michael was bullying him.

"Okay then, here's how it seems to me.  You tell me if I'm wrong."

He had it figured out perfectly.  Mimi had told him that the tank probably contained the legendary treasure, which would have explained why the Admiral ventured out in the middle of a hurricane.  "He being the greedy old fiend he was, wouldn't have dared wait until the end of the storm when other people would be on the island again, and it would've taken him only half an hour to race to Tea Kettle, grab the gold and hurry back, which should have been possible during the eye of that storm.  He was too experienced a seaman to get caught out on the water as the eye wall passed over, to turtle his yacht, or simply fall overboard."  The students scoured the tank the day after Dexter, but found only sunken beer cans.         

Michael said it all came together for certain with the discovery of the headless corpse.  It would've had to have been a head injury, because apart from fish bites there were no marks on what was left of him, and, according to his physician, his cruel old heart was as sound as a depth charge.  "It made perfect sense," said Michael, "he'd been shot in the head."

There was a long pause, during which Derek listened to the wind whining through the wires and cables.

"I would wager there was only one person in all of Bermuda who could've shot someone in a boat offshore, in a hurricane sea, in the head, someone who could shoot a kiskadee perched at the top of a bobbing casuarina branch straight through the eye.           “When I recovered the gun, it had been recently fired.  The last I saw of you, night before the storm, you were cleaning it."  He waited, but Derek was scrambling to conjure a lie, here, above the clouds.  He said, "Tell me really.  How did you get a fractured skull?"

The half-formed lie disintegrated and the truth spilled out simply.  "He tried to kill me.  He smashed my head with a rock and tried to drown me in the water tank after he took out the treasure.  There was gold.  There was a lot of it."

Michael was amazed that he had finally found the right words.  "There really was a treasure?"

There was. It belonged to Bob and Reggie.  That’s why they hung thereI think they were there at the end too.” 

“You saw them?”

“I think I heard them.  They wanted me to shoot him.  Maybe I did.  I tried to, I think.  It's hard to remember, like a fuzzy dream, like it wasn't even me, but I know it was.  I don't know for sure if I hit him.  I could barely see."  Then Derek said, "He really had no head?"

Michael dug deep in a pocket, then after a flurry of massaging motions opened a hand flat on the railing.  The tarnished shell from a .22 rolled in his palm, tiny and harmless, like a dead beetle.  "This was in the soil, near to the water tank, where they found you."  He spun it to his fingertips to deposit it in the pocket of Derek's jacket.  Then he released Derek's hand and stepped away.

Derek extracted the shell.  On the bottom was a small, semi-circular dent from a firing pin.  "I don't want to be a murderer," he said.

Michael swung back behind and, reaching around swiftly, closed his right hand over Derek's to entomb the shell within a hand within a hand.  With his other hand he clamped onto the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and pulled himself hard against Derek, using stomach and hips to pin him there, above the fog.

"Mike!" Derek gasped.  Michael had known all along it was possible to walk across the bridge and had wanted Derek to lead him here.

"No more of your useless guilt," the voice growled into the back of his head.  The dark hand was squeezing hard.

"Stop!" he pleaded.  "What are you doing?"  Where were the other pedestrians?  Wasn't someone going to intervene?

"Guilt extraction!"  He crushed harder with his body and hand.

Derek grunted.  Stupid tourists.  Tourists don't intervene.  They gawp.  They take videos.

"All your guilt, boy, guilt you definitely don't deserve, we're going to squeeze it all back into where it came from, back into the little old shell-casing in your hand."

"That won't work," said Derek, but Michael crushed him harder , hand and body. "Oh shiiiiiit," he groaned.

"Put it back in there!  Get it in!"

"Ow - no," said Derek.

"Yes!"  The shell bit into his palm. "All the guilt, get it in, push it in, all of it!"

"OKAY!" Derek shouted.  Enough was enough.  He would go along with anything to make the big crazy man stop.

But he squeezed still harder, grunting between bursts of words.  "Get it in!  All of it!  No more guilt!  Force it in!"  To emphasize, he was pushing hard against Derek's back, pinning him against the railing, hurting him, crushing him.

"O-KAY!” he wailed, breathless.  His tears dappled the orange.

"IS IT GONE?  ALL OF IT?  IS IT ALL GONE?"

"YES!  IT'S GONE!  IT'S ALL GONE!  GOD, PLEASE STOP!"

"Good," Michael whispered.  He cradled Derek as the cane slapped to the sidewalk.  He could no longer see the bay, or anything.  As always happened at coma awakenings and other rebirths, he was a big squishy wreck.

Breathing hard, sniffling, Derek used his left hand to pry open the compressed fingers of his right.  The shell was imbedded in his palm, which was bleeding from a circular wound, a delicate cookie-cutter mark of precisely-known diameter.

Michael sniffled too and smiled at the shell.  "Astonishing that so much could fit in so small a package."

 Derek wondered what he was supposed to do.

"Go on, get rid of it.  You don't want it to start leaking back out again, do you?"  He lifted Derek to the railing.

"No," Derek said, quickly, and with his left hand threw it away.  With a weak, wrong-handed throw, it was gone. 

Michael said, "That'll do, just fine."  His voice was high and tight and he seemed lost for a second, but then he grinned widely with closed eyes and hugged the skinny white boy again and couldn’t stop hugging until his fierce affection found release in a rolling laugh sent across the bay, over the fog.  "Look, Derek-boy," he said, "Look where we are.  Look at this place.  This was your home.  You belonged here, but for whatever crazy reason you decided to go to the little island where I live and there you did a wonderful thing.  You removed a demon that had plagued it for years.”

Derek had no reply.

"You'll never know how much good you did.  You dropped in from the sky like an angel and you did a very good thing, a beautiful thing!  And then you disappeared."  Michael added quickly, “No one else knows you did it.  We don't even know for sure, with the head gone."  Then he said, "Some things we are never meant to know."

Derek studied black eyes that had seen everything that could be seen on the world's most northerly atoll.  "You think?"  He was embarrassed being referred to as "like an angel," but truly the words were a comfort.  Hundreds of times he had contemplated ending his turmoil here, on this bridge.  He never could have imagined it would be this way, with only a feeble toss of his wrong arm.  All gone.  All better.  There were the other words. He asked, "Why did you say, I ‘belonged here?'"

Michael slapped his shoulder and hugged him again.

"Michael?" he pleaded, "could you please stop squeezing me?  I..."  He was about to say that he needed badly to pee, and explain that his bladder couldn't sustain the compression of Michael's hugs, but the words turned into balloons and floated noiselessly from his mouth as the view in his eyes, the East Bay, was devoured by the exploding back spots.  His feet no longer touched the ground and air whistled past his ears as he plummeted through the fog, following the needle-thin path cut by the falling shell.  At any instant he would break into clear air, and then the waves of cement. 

The first reaction of tourists who had not previously witnessed the abnormal behavior of Michael and Derek was to laugh at the big man running along the sidewalk with the other cradled in his arms, eyes open, mouth agape, flopping like a dummy.  But when they saw the big man's face and the cane tucked beneath his arm, mirth was traded for concern or shame.  More alert bridge-crossers pushed others aside to let them pass.  Deflecting a pedestrian to either side, traffic or rail, wouldn't have slowed him a bit.

Derek tried to focus muddled thoughts.  He understood he was still on the bridge, not falling from it.  He knew he was being carried, and could see the bunches of weight-bearing cables flashing past like telephone poles, which seemed to bring back the spots, and again his eyesight failed.  But he could hear the pumping of Michael's lungs and heart and wasn't worried.  He closed his eyes and concentrated, as a seasick person tries to will nausea away, and when he reopened them his sight was back.  He was floating horizontally, bouncing, rising and dropping next to the railing.  People pressed against it were multi-colored blurs, their shapes becoming clearer as Michael's breathing faltered and his foot-falls slowed.  Derek wanted to tell him it was okay, he could stop running and put him down, that it was only a seizure, which had happened because he hadn't taken his pills, that it would pass.  As he fought to find the words, two more figures appeared against the railing, looking out peacefully over the bay.  They were wearing blue, tattered waistcoats, coarsely-woven pants, scuffed boots, and round-brimmed straw hats.  Derek heard one say, "Beautiful".

The other responded, in a British accent, "No, t'is bountiful."

He struggled to reach out to them, to call their names, but couldn't move his arms or find his voice, and was carried away.  Fifteen or twenty footfalls later Derek was suddenly, fully awake.

"I'm okay now," he said.

"Huh?"  Michael gasped.  He stopped.  They were above land, above the girdered archwork built out from the Presidio.  Derek pushed off and Michael released him onto his feet.  "You're okay, mate?"

Derek eased down to the sidewalk with his back against the railing.  Michael sat beside him.  "What happened?"  He wiped his brow with a forearm.  "I thought I killed you."

"A small seizure.  I forgot to take my pills."  He tried to stand.  Michael lifted and held out the cane.   

Tourists had followed, wanting to help or out of stupid curiosity, like sheep examining something fallen off an airplane.  They filled the walkway leading back across.  This angered Derek, who was attempting to peer past them.  He wanted to get a long view to see if Reginald and Robert were still there, or if he had imagined them.  The crowd was too thick, obstructing everything.  "There are too many damn people on this bridge!" he said.
"Come on," said Michael.  He smiled at the lovely faces.  "Let's go home." 

"God do I have to pee," said Derek as they walked to the taxis.

Continued...



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.