I’m driving on the New York State Thruway into the blackness of well past midnight. Driving alone, to keep an appointment I have in Rochester tomorrow morning at 9:30 with a man I barely know about some numbers I’ve compiled concerning his liquor business. The figures are in a briefcase in the trunk of my car; I haven’t thought about them in miles. The car’s a rental, a white Honda Civic, 6138.7 miles. I wouldn’t dare drive my own car on a long trip, especially late at night. I know too much about what could go wrong, what has gone wrong. I picture us—the car a lifeless chunk of metal, me hovering beside, dumbfounded, while traffic whizzes by at speeds that threaten to suck me off the shoulder through the holes they smash in the air.
I’m smashing my own hole through the star-freckled night, nothing around to be sucked into my trail except a few small animals that trickle out of the humps of forest the highway splits. They squat on the pavement, transfixed by approaching headlights. Assuming that only humans can contemplate their own mortality, I imagine the deaths of these creatures for them. The radio wrings only static from the air. I have no CDs for the CD player, but its slot reminds of the black boxes salvaged from the wreckage of downed aircraft, the mystery of “what happened” locked within them.
The engine hums through the night air. My headlights cast an apron of light that extends my isolation only about a hundred yards against infinity. The broken white line flashes from the darkness like grains of rice. With each slight bump the blue digits on the clock trace a blur in the air.
Without warning, I am weightless—falling or flying. The humps of forest have collapsed, and the chill black sky is now beside and beneath me. Balancing on the broken white line as if it’s a high wire, the Honda carries me from stripe to stripe. I flatten the accelerator, desperate to cross a bridge I can’t see. The hairs at the back of my neck tingle at the rumble that follows me. The car and I dive for land, and the forest’s solid darkness embraces us again. I’m convinced that the bridge I’ve crossed has disappeared.
“FFFF . . . .” A sigh of relief from the figure in the passenger seat—the ghost of my mother. Occasionally she joins me for stretches of time along the night highways. The bright numbers of the clock frosts her in blue. She clutches her sweater to her throat.
“These bridges, Jackie,” she sighs. She is wearing one of her better wigs. “When are they going to stop frightening you, hmm?”
“I don’t know, Mom.” I sigh too, partly out of relief, partly at having to admit my fear to my mother. I don’t know how her ghost winds up in my car. Strictly speaking, it couldn’t be her ghost, since she’s not dead yet, which may be why her appearance never frightens me. She doesn’t acknowledge these nocturnal visits when I see her and Dad three or four times a year “Why don’t you fly?” she asks then if I complain about my lonely drives. My mother’s ghost would never ask such a question. Flying is even more frightening than crossing bridges—it’s a long, long trip over a bridge of air.
Ghost Mom is wearing her glasses, the wig, and a wool suit she reserves for special occasions. Together we glide along the highway.
“Nice car,” she says. “When did you buy it?”
“Never,” I answer. “Rental. You know I rent for these trips.” She’s got something else on her mind, I can tell.
“Of course you rent, dear. That just makes you a little harder to find is all.” I don’t ask why.
“It’s chilly in here.” She gathers her sweater more tightly about her with bony fingers worn so smooth they reflect the clock’s blue glow.
“Air conditioning, Mom.” She and Dad hate air conditioning. They claim it makes their noses run. “Do you want me to shut it off?”
“No, no. Don’t make yourself uncomfortable on my account.” I turn off the air conditioning. I roll down the window, and the blackness slops in, splashing onto my lap like warm ink, puddling around my feet and the pedals. Darkness pours over my crotch, and the puddle rises over the edge of my shoes. My legs become sluggish. Mom dabs at her nose with a lace handkerchief.
“Aunt Anna died,” my mother says. I barely remember my mother’s aunt. When I was a child she was already so old that I was more annoyed than embarrassed about accidentally walking into the bathroom when she was on the toilet. She’d already stopped counting, even to children.
“She was 97,” my mother says. “Died in the nursing home. They say she was senile.” My mother speaks the word in a whisper, rhyming it with “kennel.” Mom mispronounces many words that make her uncomfortable, like “gynecologist” and “semen.” “Isn’t it a shame she couldn’t have lived another three years?” Mom asks. I don’t answer. The question feels like a trap.
Black air rushes through my window and down my neck and chest. The tail of some slippery night creature smacks my jaw, flops in my lap, and joins its mates below my knees. Now and then one rubs against my calf like a cat.
Outside, the dotted line penetrates our apron of light like a cartoon gamma ray. Inside, my mother’s glasses absorb the clock’s blue light. Her legs stir the deepening night; it splashes faintly against her door.
“Your father read an article to me about a bridge,” she begins.
“Mom, come on . . .” My hands crowd midnight on the wheel, fists together, index knuckles targeting the pulsing white line.
“Now, dear, there’s nothing to cross between here and Syracuse, for goodness sakes,” she says. Then, comfortingly, “Don’t I feel what you feel, honey? And please don’t roll up the window. The air feels nice. I really don’t know what air conditioning does to my sinuses.”
The black tide rises above my seat and leaks under my thighs, soaks my butt cheeks and edges up my spine.
“Some major highway somewhere—not too far away, I don’t think—” Night, warm and tasteless, lolls beneath my lower lip; a swell covers my mouth, and another takes my nose and ears. Finally, my eyes. Submerged, I peer at Mom, who’s also under, all but the very top of her wig. She glows blue in the night air. Tiny bubbles of light shimmer off her lips when she smiles.
The white line, now blue, strikes relentlessly. Gliding shapes glide leave trails of iridescent bubbles about my face. Everything seems soft and comfortable in the night air.
Mom settles into her story, I think of the books she read to me when I was little, how I recognized the letters and studied the pictures, but only her voice gave them meaning. Something like that is happening now.
“There was a bridge, an overpass, above a little stream. With all the rain, the stream swelled and weakened the supports that held the overpass up. Then, just like that”—she snaps her fingers with an explosion of bubbles—“the bridge collapsed! Just dropped straight down, maybe 50 feet, right into that flooding stream.” The lenses of her glasses throb with blue light.
“Right off the bat, about ten cars drove in, nine cars and one tractor trailer. Seems like only one car tried to brake; only one set of tires left marks.”
I am inside each of those cars, falling, wondering, screaming.
“Somebody watching from a local road down by the stream—it was just about a river now, roaring right along—he saw what happened and rushed up to the highway and started waving at traffic. On his way up he saw two cars plunge in.”
I see a heavy man in a plaid shirt and worn overalls waving at me from the side of the road, and I worry at how desperate he looks and I consider stopping to help him, but I don’t.
“The troopers took days to find the bodies because the water was moving so fast. They’re still only “reasonably certain” how many victims there were.”
I see pictures, as if from a children’s book. The cars are vintage, red and blue and mustard yellow. The truck is a moving van driven by a man in a neat uniform who a few pages previous would have carefully packed a worried child’s teddy bear in corrugated paper. The warning man is a round faced farmer whose grandson and granddaughter, waiting safely on a high bluff, had earlier in the day learned about chickens and milk cows and who will, by their story’s end, receive the kitten of a farm cat to take back to their suburban home.
“The police waited to get word of missing people—folks who didn’t get to where they were supposed to or return from wherever they’d been.”
A slender blond woman wearing a blue apron holds a telephone to her ear. One of her penciled eyebrows arches. A blond, pink-cheeked girl wearing an identical apron frowns at her mother’s side. She holds a blond, blue-aproned doll under her arm.
On the facing page is a bald man with a black mole centered on his forehead. Bristles protrude from his wide nostrils. His upper lip sweats. He also holds a telephone and glances through thick glasses at his wristwatch. Beside his desk are boxes marked with the brand names of vodka. The headline of the newspaper on the desk has a single decipherable word: “BRIDGE.”
“Your father said it was a good thing the bridge didn’t go down at night. Nobody would have seen the stream then, so there wouldn’t have been any warning. Cars from both directions might have kept driving off until dawn. Your father said that after a while the cars would have piled up so high that maybe folks would be able to drive right over them instead of falling in. Isn’t that a terrible thought?”
“Mom,” I whisper, “that’s enough.”
“You’re probably wondering about the police,” Mom says. “Your father thought about that too—if this had happened at night, I mean. Maybe the toll collectors would have noticed that nobody from past a certain point was coming through, and maybe they’d call the troopers. So a few police cars from either direction would be sent. And they’d fall into the stream! When they weren’t heard from, a few more would get sent. Same result. Then so on and so on until morning, when someone finally noticed.”
The round-faced farmer and his grandchildren stare at a glittering mound of automobiles towering over the level of the absent bridge. Cars spill onto both sides of the highway. Here and there men and women jut out form the wreckage, unbloodied, Xs where their eyes should be. A few wear police caps.
“Oh, it’s just your father’s morbid story—something to pass the time.” Mom’s sweet, youthful voice reaches me in popping bubbles. The steering wheel squirms out of my grasp and loops around my wrists. I squint against a blue glare. My mother is no longer visible. I feel her, though, as if I’m an egg waiting to hatch. We fly backwards on the highway: the car spits blue-white dashes into a single beam. My eyes close. I’m floating. My knees bump my forehead.
“Mom!” I cry, “What about Aunt Anna?” But I lie in the soft curve of time’s arm, my words lost in a baritone lullaby, and I am one rock-a-bye away from sleep.