by Kim Trevathan
You think about him each time you do it:
of your uncle, who jumped from a steel girder
bridge like this one on a sunny November
morning. You like to think it was a stunt gone
wrong, but you know better. Fishermen found
him weeks later, miles downstream, and
nobody mentioned the word “stunt.” You have
no memory of the funeral, but you were there,
along with the rest of your family, everyone
stunned, at a loss, non-family cautious,
avoiding the obvious question: why? Maybe you
knew a little, but you wanted to know more.

You started jumping off quarry ledges a few
weeks after the funeral. You liked the look of
the girls at the top screeching and dancing
around after you surfaced. You loved the blue
silence just before that. Sometimes you’d go
back under and ponder the uncle’s last words to
you, his last words to anyone: “No, I don’t,” in
answer to your asking if he needed help.

You graduated to high jumps off bridges. Off
you went from the top of girders into lake
channels at night, always at night. No life
jacket, no lights, a small drunken audience. You
made two hundred for one jump. Got a hundred
for the one that killed your uncle. You did that
one early on, nothing strange about it, you
thought, except he entered your dreams and
looked distressed.

After you’d done ten, you heard the law was
onto it. Girls who had been curious now avoided
you, and guys kept their distance. You’d be
hard pressed to say why you kept on. But you
did. Alone, you drove farther and farther to find
new bridges, and this one you’re driving across
now would be the highest, over the biggest
water yet.

You got some of your uncle’s stuff: a pocket
knife, a small brass deer he used as a
paperweight, the snow globe you loved when
you visited his home that always smelled of
ham. He smoked them out back and your aunt
served them sliced on a platter, beautiful meals
in front of a picture window that looked down at
what passed for a valley in western Kentucky.
You got a document from his days on a ship in
the South Pacific, a certificate from the Neptune
Society. Your uncle had crossed the equator
during a world war, and they celebrated it by
initiating him into “The Solemn Mysteries of The
Ancient Order of The Deep.” You heard nothing
about the war. He died with his stories and left
you with this document, a drawing of trident-
bearing Neptune at the top, mermaids gracing
each corner.

You park behind a boarded-up visitor center
and walk to the middle of the bridge. No cars
coming. Up you climb to the top, forty feet
above the road. Below, in a shaft of moonlight,
the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. In
the daylight, you could see the blue of the
smaller river joining the brown of the greater.
Now, it’s too dark to see colors. You strip and
bundle your clothes with your belt. Lean
forward into the breeze, soothing on this hot
night. Whirlpools writhe and suck, circles
flashing in shards of moonlight.

You were the last one to see your uncle. You’ve
been over and over it, but now you’ve forgiven
yourself, and him, and you’ve begun to
understand what he did and why. Maybe, by
now, you understand it more than he did. But
you can’t tell anyone, not your parents or your
aunt. They think you’re a drug dealer. And the
bridges, they are a drug stronger than anything
you’ve ever tried.

A fish breaks open a smooth spot, and on each
side the banks lie quiet, moored barges solid
shapes against the forest. Doubt creeps up your
legs and settles in the pit of your stomach.
Maybe it’s time to stop this, to move on. Maybe
you should sail across the equator and join the
Neptune Society. Perhaps that was the
beginning of your uncle’s spiral. Not a good
place to be, the South Pacific, not in the forties,
for a country boy from Kentucky. You couldn’t
imagine. And now you would have to imagine it
because nobody told you.

You’re at the point of backing out of this one,
but in the next instant, you’re leaning forward
and your feet have left the flaking paint of the
bridge, and in your flight, your uncle, boot
propped on the bumper of the car that he’d
polished with his handkerchief that morning
gleaming in the autumn sun as he spoke to you
and you all but snubbed him, tired, like
everyone else, of his glumness, his depression,
now he salutes you and says your name: Joel.
Then you feel the sting against the soles of
your feet, a good landing. Once again, you’ve
hit nothing solid, though your descent is long,
and at the bottom of your plunge, you wonder
if you split the brown and blue, like you’d
planned. You wonder how long your uncle lived
after impact, and you hope that he did not
suffer. Some might think this suffering, the
pressure on the ears, the urgency to breathe
when there is no air. The utter darkness.
Something bumps your leg and your kick
misses it.

An eddy twirls you upstream and you see the
shape of the bridge passing above you and the
split of the current, where one river becomes
another. Your uncle’s up there on the surface in
work boots that ripple where he steps, like flat
stones dropped onto a pond. He motions for
you to join him, up above, and you kick and
you climb. He’s grinning as he gestures, at ease
in the pontoon boots. You pause in your climb,
between the currents—one rich with earth, the
other mineral—and consider how much longer
you can wait to rise into the world anew. How
long until the next jump.

"I grew up in Murray, Kentucky, near the confluence of the Ohio
and the Mississippi, though I spent most of my fishing and
boating time on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. I teach
fiction and nonfiction (including journalism and freshman
writing) at Maryville College in East Tennessee. My books are
Paddling the Tennessee River: A Voyage on Easy Water,
Coldhearted River: A Canoe Odyssey Down the Cumberland, and
Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, all published
by the University of Tennessee Press. Next spring, when I turn
60, I'm going to canoe the length of the Tennessee once again
with my dog, Maggie, but this time I'm going upstream instead
of downstream.

"I've been working on this story for a few years. Part of it is
based in fact. When I was a teenager, my Uncle Ed, whose
factory had been on strike for a long time, did commit suicide by
jumping from a bridge over the Tennessee River, and I was the
last one to see him alive. Recently, after my Aunt Robbie, his
wife, died, I received some of his mementos, including the
strange Neptune Society certificate. I added that to the short-
short as background.