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The Bridge

Point your toes when you hit the water or your feet will split open, peeling the flesh up around your ankles. If you don’t bend at the waist once you go under you will sink to your knees in the mud on the bottom and drown before you can free yourself. The distance from the apex of the bridge to the water’s surface is 66.6 feet. All sorts of rumors and horror stories surrounded the San Bernard river bridge. Some were loosely based on fact. Tommy suspected that most of them were old wives’ tales, the nightmare spawned fodder that made jumping from the high concrete bridge a death defying act of bravado for teenage boys. Supposedly, a boy from Sweeney had jumped from the bridge a few years ago and hit a submerged log, splitting his body in two. Preston Clinton was the only boy who had dived head first from the bridge and lived to tell about it. His dad was the preacher at the Church of Christ. He believed in predestination. He would neither confirm nor deny the act. When asked, he simply said, “I know the river I was baptized in would not take my life.” Supposedly, Ronnie Goolsby had counted out loud to 14 from the time he jumped until he hit the water. Tommy doubted Ronnie could count to 14 under stress. He was as dumb as a mud fence. What he lacked in brains he made up for in size and meanness. Tommy hated him, and maybe feared him a little too.

Highway 288 crossed the San Bernard river bridge on the way to Four Forks. Four Forks was a four way stop with three churches and two liquor stores. Tommy crossed the bridge with his dad on a regular basis, not for church. The little stop was just across the county line. Tommy’s family lived in Brazoria county. Like many counties in Texas, Brazoria county was dry. You could buy beer in the county but if you wanted wine or liquor you had to go elsewhere.

The area under the San Bernard river bridge was beautiful, a lush flat grassland with abundant wildflowers. Wild onions grew in thick patches. The space was several acres and well maintained by the county. When they mowed  the aroma of the onions filled the air with a promise of summer. It was only a few miles from home and Tommy frequently rode there on horseback with his family. They would pack a picnic lunch and swim in the river while the horses grazed on the lush vegetation. They never jumped off the bridge. Once, before Tommy was a teenager, some boys he didn’t know were jumping from the bridge. Tommy’s mom was horrified.

“Don’t ever even think of doing something that stupid!” She scolded. She had no need to worry. Tommy was terrified of heights. It had taken him a full six hours to work up the courage to climb the 10 foot ladder into the tree house they discovered in the back of their pasture even after his little brother and sister had shimmied up the ladder and taunted him.

It was a steaming hot July day when Tommy was out riding bikes with Jack and Mack Henson. They were twins but they didn’t look anything alike. Mack was thin and pale with an abundance of freckles. Jack was muscular and bronze with a measured way of moving. Mack was loud and challengingly rowdy. Jack had a dark, disturbed quietness about him that would push him to take his own life several years later. Today they brought their little sister, Rochelle. She had stringy black hair and green eyes. Her puffy pale skin seemed to always be fighting a mild case of acne. At fourteen, she was couple of years younger than her brothers and a year behind Tommy. Normally she would have been hanging out with Tommy’s sister, Marcy but Marcy had gone to Houston with her Aunt Lois to shop for school clothes. Rochelle’s thick legs were having trouble keeping pace with the boys. She had started whining about it, threatening to tell her daddy that her brothers abandoned her. The boys were forced to wait so Mack and Jack could avoid a severe beating. Eventually the group found themselves at the San Bernard river about 4 miles from home. They were soaked in sweat. Since it was broad daylight skinny dipping was out of the question. The boys shucked t-shirts and jumped in with their shorts. Rochelle was wearing one of those frilly blouses that made her look even puffier than she was. She finally lost the blouse and jumped in with her shorts and bra. Tommy couldn’t help but notice that the bra was too small. Rochelle’s pale freckled skin was squeezing out in all directions from the dinghy white harness. He tried to look away when she caught him staring but all he could do was scrunch up his nose.

“That looks uncomfortable,” he said.

“It is. I bet you’d like me to take it off,” she replied.

“I really don’t care.” He thought of Rochelle mainly as an annoyance that he had to tolerate because she was friends with his sister. Still, his body was responding to the conversation in a way that made his shorts feel too small. He was glad to be shoulder deep in murky river water.

“Let’s jump off the bridge,” Jack said.

“Dad will kill us if he finds out,” Mack cautioned.

“Not if the bridge beats him to it.” Jack was out of the water, sprinting up the embankment.

“Okay, I’m in,” Mack said. “Tommy, you coming?”

“I don’t think so.”

“He’s a pussy,” Rochelle giggled and released her bra from underwater, tossing it into the grass.

“Are you chicken?” Mack asked. Jack was halfway up the bridge.

“I don’t know. A chicken is a bird, a pussy is a mammal,” Tommy said. He wasn’t exactly blinding them with science.

“You should try it,”  Mack hollered back. “It’s fun, better than a roller coaster.”

“You don’t even know what a pussy is,” Rochelle whispered from just behind Tommy’s ear. Two soft pencil erasers grazed his back. He stiffened, trying not to flinch and searched for words. No sound came out. Rochelle swam away.

Jack had reached the top of the bridge. Instead of climbing over the rail and standing on the concrete ledge, he was atop the metal rail. He wasn’t looking down at the water. He was peering straight ahead to the horizon, his future. Without warning he sprang high and away from the bridge. As he descended he stretched his arms wide and tilted his head back slightly, like a crucifix. Just before impact he brought his arms up and slipped into the water making barely a ripple.

“Show off!” Rochelle screamed. “I bet you can do better than that,” she told Tommy.  He felt the nipples again. This time a hand was on his waist then slipping down the front of his abdomen. She touched it.

“Whoa! I guess you’re not queer after all,” Rochelle whispered, “or maybe you just thought Jack’s jump was beautiful.”

Once again no words came to Tommy. Rochelle swam away. Jack surfaced.

“Oh my God!” Jack exclaimed. “Tommy, seriously, you have got to try that! It’s like flying, maybe better!”

Mack was at the top of the bridge. He stepped over the rail and stood on the ledge. He looked at the water and quickly sat down on the bridge rail. He looked at his brother who was observing him without expression. He stood, looked down again and jumped. Arms tight to his side, eyes closed, he looked like a stick falling through the air. He tilted slightly backward before hitting the water and shot back out of the water feet first a few yards away. Jack swam out to meet him.

Tommy felt the breasts pressed firmly against his back. This time her hand found it’s mark without delay. Her chubby little fingers gave a firm squeeze.

“Make the jump,” she said. “I’ll show you what I’ve got.”

Tommy was headed for the bridge. What exactly she meant by that he wasn’t sure but he wanted to know the answer. As he climbed up, the bridge kept getting higher. The water was so far away. At the peak he stepped over the rail and sat. He looked down. Dizziness and nausea overcame him. No way he could do this. He was about to turn back.

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” Three voices in unison chanted loudly. He looked at Rochelle. She was standing waist deep, her chubby little hands supporting her breasts as if offering a prize.

Tommy sprang forward flailing in the air. Halfway down he remembered, toes pointed, legs together. That was all he had time for before the impact stung the underside of his arms nearly ripping them from his torso. He was a spinning mass of arms and legs. His right foot and elbow touched mud. He panicked, began swimming toward the light. Was it the surface or The Light he had read about? Just before his lungs burst he reached air. His ringing ears heard a distant cheer.

He swam frantically to shore and lay gasping. His arms and shoulders were on fire. A grin came across his face as the endorphins negated the discomfort.

“Ready to go again?” Jack asked.

“Maybe later,” Tommy replied.

By the time he regained his composure and got back in the water, Rochelle was securely harnessed in her bra. He spent the next half hour trying to decide how to approach her about claiming his prize.

Jack made three more identical jumps. No one else jumped again. Well before dusk they put their shirts back on and headed for home. They had not made it more than a mile when Rochelle started whining about being left behind. Tommy realized he didn’t even want the prize.


Tony Burnett is a member of the Writer’s League of Texas and anaward winning songwriter. He writes a science and nature column for a regional Texas newspaper. His fiction has appeared in national literary magazines.


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