At the trial, Vernon would deny befriending RT just to get access to the bridge controls. Admitting it, even to himself, would be admitting he had used RT, planned things ahead of time, and that was something he couldn’t accept. RT was just a nice old guy he met one evening while strolling across the Highlands Bridge, ice cream cone in hand, trying to decide what to do about Cindy.
It was one of those glorious late August evenings, the sky over the Atlantic a swirl of red and bruise-purple clouds, the breeze still warm but free of the day’s dog-breath humidity. As he walked, melted rum-raisin dribbling from the soggy tip of his sugar cone, his eyes traced lines between the stones in the concrete that made up the bridge deck. Visualizing paths between points was something he had done since he was a kid in school, when he would spend half the class randomly dotting his notebook paper and then looking for patterns, for meaning, in the act of connection. The rough surface of the bridge scuffed under his flip-flops, and he found himself whistling a tune. Something by Springsteen, one Jersey boy at least who’d made good.
Vernon trailed his hand along the railing and looked down at the choppy water, where sunset-limned waves flickered like a million opening and closing mouths. Passing the drawbridge control house, a squat, obelisk-shaped tower to the side of the bridge deck, he noticed the door was open. On impulse, he stepped inside. There was a humming in the air, as of distant machinery, and the smell of salt water-swelled wood.
“Hello?” he said.
Floating down a spiral staircase from the second floor, a raspy voice called, “Hello. Can I help you?”
He didn’t have an answer. Could anyone help him? That was self-pitying, melodramatic bullshit, but he wondered. His best friend was in the desert on his fifth tour, dodging IEDs and trusting that Cindy was waiting at home, and Vernon had just learned she was sleeping with some guy she’d met in a for-Christ’s-sake chatroom. But the worst part, the most disgusting, gut-wrenching part, was that he wished she was cheating with him, instead.
“Can I come up?” Vernon asked.
A moment later, a pair of bait-spattered work boots appeared through the open hatch in the ceiling and started down. Vernon saw fish scales and what might have been the puckered disc of an eye dried on the toes. The man wore a tartan cap pulled low over his gray hair, and an unlit pipe protruded from between his teeth. He got to the bottom and extended his hand. “Evening. Name’s RT.”
“Hi,” Vernon said. “I’ve walked past this place hundreds of times since I was a kid, and I’ve always wanted to come in and see how it worked. You mind if I take a look around?”
“Not a bit,” RT said. “You from around here?”
“Sea Bright. Born and raised.”
RT brought Vernon upstairs to see the control console. While they were at the board, a sailboat approached from the Sandy Hook inlet to the east and blew its airhorn twice. RT responded with three slow blasts from the bridge’s horn, using a large black button polished smooth by seventy years of palms. He flipped a switch that started a yellow-to-red sequence on the bridge traffic lights and motioned to Vernon. “Help me swing the gates across the deck and I’ll show you how I open it.”
The two sets of heavy iron gates, painted red and splotched with rust, turned on pivots and locked together in the middle of the road. Once those circuits were connected, RT was able to use another panel of buttons just inside the tower doorway to open the bridge. Vernon stood with his new friend and watched as the arms slowly rose, imagining the huge cement counterweights tracing opposite arcs beneath the bridge. It was only as the boat glided through, its thin, fragile mast visible through the cross-hatched metal decking, that Vernon remembered Cindy’s new sugar daddy, the Asshole from Asbury, owned a sailboat, too.
Ian Breen lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine and Storyglossia and is forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.