“People want to hear stories about good men doing great things. Or they want bad men to be broken down by the great ones. The very edge you can push people to, is to give them a story about bad men who get pushed, by pure circumstance, to do something not too horrible. I heard one, about these punks were house robbers, and they come across this little girl in the road been got by a hit-and-run, and these two punks get the little girl to tell them where her parents live and they take her there and drop her. Bad men, pushed by circumstance to do something that wasn’t too horrible.
“But I don’t have any stories like that of my own. In my stories, the stories I know, people are just people, and they do things just because they seem like the thing to do. They just do the thing that comes next.”
All of that, though, probably wasn’t no comfort to the boy I walked up to, sitting on the edge of the bridge scaffolding, with his legs hanging over the edge and dangling about a hundred feet above the Alleghany River. He was a young kid, maybe twenty, twenty-five at most, but when I stepped out onto that ledge beside him, and my shoes clanged as they hit the steel of the support beam, he looked up at me and, my god, if his face didn’t look a decade older than mine.
“Hey, there,” he said, voice shaking, just ever so much, “you got to wait your turn,” and he smiled, like this was something he had been rehearsing saying, just in case he did see someone else up here with him.
“Oh, no. Not me,” I said, and raised my hands up in front of my face. “I’m not jumping today.” And it was the truth, too.
Now the boy frowned, hard. “You seen me from the bridge.” He paused, bit his lip. “You can’t stop me. Don’t you try to stop me.”
I shook my head. “Wouldn’t dream of it, son.”
“No offense, but you try to stop me, and I’ll just grab on and pull you down with me.”
“Would be the justifiable thing to do, if the situation arose.”
He considered me a moment, maybe trying to see if I was being honest or being a smart-ass—and to tell the truth, it was just a bit of the both—and then, finally settled on my sincerity and nodded. “Then why you up here?”
It was a hell of a question, that’s for sure. “The weather,” I said to him after a moment of thought, and I smiled, as best I could. “You go up, say in an airplane, and it almost seems like you’re above the sky, in a way. And that’s good sometimes. But other times,” and I let my voice trail away, watched as it leapt from that bridge and landed atop a cloud, started hopping from cloud to cloud all the way to the edge of where my eyes could see. “Other times, I think, it’s better to kind of…sneak up on it. Come up under the sky, you know?”
“No,” he said, his voice quiet, and full of something like wonder, and something else, too, that I couldn’t quite put a name to.
“Do you mind if I take a seat?”
“You’re not going to try to talk me out of it?”
I sighed. “Hell son, you don’t listen too good, do you?”
I walked over beside him, placing my feet carefully. Even though the steel beam we were on was a good two feet thick, I still felt, with every step I took, like I was about to lose my footing and plummet down into the waters below. When I reached his side, I sat, and let my legs, like his, hang over the edge. After a time, I said, “Quite a beautiful day to end your life, don’t you think?” It was nearing one in the afternoon, the sun hitting us both square on in the face, and the clouds that had earlier carried my voice across the sky dotted here and there; they were large, white, puffy ones, the kinds without a hint of darkness in them.
“I tried a few other times,” the boy said. “Always dark, or raining, or the wind’s blowing so hard you can barely keep your balance.” He paused. “No, I think this is the way it should be. I’d always wanted to die on a warm day.”
“I can see the attraction of that.” I looked down, into the water of the Alleghany below. “Though I figure drowning won’t be too pleasant.”
“Oh, no,” he said quickly, like this was something he’d thought a lot about. “You wouldn’t drown, hitting that water. This high up, a body’d pick up enough speed to crash against the water surface like landing straight on concrete.” He followed my eyes downward. “No, you’d be dead before you completely went under.”
“Well,” I said, looking back up. “Thank God for that.”
We didn’t say anything to each other for several moments. He hummed to himself, a tune I recognized but couldn’t name. And I listened to the sounds of traffic traveling on the bridge above us, wondered with all those cars going by, how many noticed there was the two of us sitting down below. Surely, some of them had to notice. For a moment, I had this image in my head of, one-by-one, people parking their cars just off the bridge and traveling down where me and the boy were, just to see what was going on, until there was a long line of us, sitting side-by-side on the edge of the bridge. Twenty sets of legs or more, hanging out over the Alleghany River.
I reached into my pocket for my cigarettes, took one out of the pack and lit it. As the smoke wafted over to right, I wondered if it was bothering the boy, and then nearly laughed at the thought—like he’d be concerned with something like that now. Still, I said, “Hey, this bothering you?” He shook his head, and I nodded. I puffed a few times on my cigarette, then had a thought: “You want one?” I asked. He nodded again, and I fished another out of my pack, lit it off my own cigarette, and handed it over.
“Thanks,” he said. “I left mine out in the car.” He ashed over the edge. “I was afraid if I went back for them, I’d lose the nerve to come back down.”
I frowned, cigarette hanging out of the side of my mouth, and then I took it in my hand. “You know those people, say they don’t want sex taught in the schools because they’re afraid their daughters will all get pregnant?” I looked over, and he nodded. “Kind of thing makes me want to say that if your faith can be shook so easy, then maybe it wasn’t too strong to begin with.” I frowned. “Though I figure there’s some shit in this world no one’s built to stand tall against.”
“You’re damn right,” he said, his voice slinking out in a whisper. Then, he smiled sideways at me. “You know Job’s story, right?”
“Course,” I said.
He shook his head. “A goddamn bet,” he said, then went quiet.
I didn’t quite know what he meant, but I didn’t push the issue. I thought of my own parents, both in the ground. Mom from lung cancer. And Daddy, we lost him in the war. We never got his body back. It was mighty strange, having a funeral without a casket, like a barbecue without coals, a bar without beer, a bedroom with no bed.
The boy said, “The Devil went up to Job, and he said he bet he could tempt even the most faithful to stray from God, and God took him up on it. So they struck down Job’s livestock, torched his farm, killed his whole family—first his sons, then finally his wife.” His voice was shaking a little. “Wonder how Job took it, you know? Everything he cared about is dead, and God just comes down and says, ‘Don’t worry, Job. It was just a bet! A friendly little bet!’” He looked over at me. “You figure that’s what he said?”
I didn’t answer at first. Then, I shook my head, slowly, and I said, “Don’t figure he really said much of anything, because I don’t figure he really existed.”
The boy’s head snapped over to look at me. “I would’ve guessed you were a religious man.”
I smiled. “Thank you, I think, but no. Not me.”
I didn’t have anything to add, but the boy kept staring at me, as if he expected me to go on.
So I sighed, and I said, “I look around me, I see the way things go, this way and that. The way things change. Big prayers ignored, and small ones answered.” I nodded, slightly, toward the water. “When horrible things happen to decent folks. And when evil men never have to pay for what they done to others.” I took a breath. “It’s all so…ordered, in a real ironic sort of way, that I figure there’s got to be someone in control of it all.” I paused. “Don’t know I’d call it ‘God’, though. Don’t know I want to give it that sort of credit.”
“That’s the funny thing,” he said, so suddenly it was like he was picking up in the middle of a thought that had started in his head. “I still can’t stop believing. I’ve made up my mind to do it, you know, but I can’t quite go the last part, because I’m afraid of hell.”
I nodded. “You kill yourself, you go to hell.”
“Yeah,” he said, then paused. “Yeah,” he said again.
We smoked our cigarettes. He threw his over the edge when he was done. And me, I was only halfway through with mine, but I threw it over right after he did his, for some reason I can’t quite figure. Almost immediately, I took the pack out from my pocket again, looked in to see how many I had left: eight cigarettes. For a horrible second that I’m none too proud to admit to—though I guess I must admit it if I’m to tell the whole story here—there was this dim hope, flew through my head…this hope he’d jump before we ran out of cigarettes, because I didn’t want to stop for another pack on the way home.
I had my eyes closed, trying to fight off what I guess you’d call a bout of vertigo, when the boy’s voice traveled through the fog of my head. “Thanks,” he said to me.
He hesitated a second. “For not trying to talk me out of it.”
“Said I wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, but…just the same.” He paused, like to consider some great thought that just wouldn’t quite come, and then he just said, “I was afraid you would, is all.”
I leaned back, best as I could, against the steel beam at my back, and I put my hands behind my head, locked my fingers through one another. “Way I figure it,” I said, “A man’s got to make his own decisions. Don’t matter how big or small they are. What day you go to the grocery store, or what you buy when you go there. Or even something like who to kill and why you do that.” I put my hands back down on my lap. “That’s when you know you’re a man, you know. Don’t have nothing to do with getting a job, a house, getting married. It’s all about making your own decisions, knowing that if you fall on your ass the only one to pick you up is you.”
He nodded at me, slowly, and his eyes told me that this was the first time he’d ever heard such an idea. They were wide, grateful eyes, and I felt a bit ashamed, because, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I wasn’t really communicating what I thought to be any big and great world view. I was just talking out my ass, because even though I didn’t know how this situation—horrible way to describe it, I know, but there you go—even though I didn’t know how this situation had gotten to the point it was at, I felt like I just had to keep talking, as much as I could, until a solution made itself known, or until it resolved itself.
“You know,” I said, just to fill that silent void with some sort of talk, “I killed a man, once. When I was about your age.”
His mouth opened a bit, but no words came out at first. Then, “Really?” His voice was soft and quiet, like a child’s voice, like a boy scout sitting around a campfire, leaning in and hearing the scoutmaster tell a ghost story and then the little kid goes, Wow.
“Sure did,” I said.
“You…Was it in war?”
I shook my head, and smiled at the air. “No.” I shook my head again. “No, I missed that boat. No, I was about your age, though. Man comes into my house, dead of night, intent on robbing me blind. I shot him in the back, after I had him drop his gun.” I raised my hand in a mime of a gun, pointed it out over the Alleghany. “He was trying to leave, the man was, and I just shot him in the back. He was a black boy, and people where I’m from didn’t have much regard for them years ago, so I think that’s why the police, when they got there, just kind of looked the other way.”
The boy took it all in, and I wouldn’t have blamed him a bit if he’d thought me a monster. To his credit, though, he just bit his lip, and nodded, once. “I don’t think I could ever kill someone,” he said.
“That’s good,” I said, and I meant it. “I’ve known a few people who have killed.” I nodded at the boy. “Most of them were in war. They’d always said it changes you, in so many ways.” I took the cigarette pack out of my pocket, opened it, looked inside, then replaced it back in my pocket without taking one. “But the biggest way, they always told me, that it changes you, the most…affecting way, is that, after you kill someone, the first time, you start to see how easy it’d be to do it again.” I looked over at the boy, full on. “And you know? They were all right. If it’s going to break you, it’s going to break you the first time. Because after that, it’s bike riding.” I blinked. “Haven’t killed no one since,” I said, after a time. “But I get the feeling I could, pretty easily. If I had to.”
We smoked another couple cigarettes. When he smoked his down and sent it over the side of the bridge, we both watched it fall, and I imagined its form as the form of a man—a man with hands clasped together in prayer, with tears rolling down his cheek and a smile on his face, saying Thank you, God, Thank you, God, Thank you, God.
The cigarette disappeared into the water, and slowly, I let my eyes come back upward, to the boy. And he looked right back at me. And as our eyes caught each other, there was almost this…current, running through the space between us. Twin snakes and streams of electricity, tracing through the air, until they both set on one another, and caught, and held. And the boy understood what I was saying, before I even knew I was saying it, and he nodded, one time, just a single dip and rise of the chin, and he let out a noise, that was like a whisper, coming from his belly and raising up through his body and sneaking out his throat and hissing into the air. And me, I sighed, deeper than I ever sighed before, and I scooted over closer to him, until I was pressed up right against him. I raised my arm, and I put it around his shoulder. His head, it started quivering, and I said, “Your God. Have you made your peace with him?”
His voice came out like it was trapped in a box somewhere far, far away. “Didn’t see how I could.”
“Well, you can now. You can now.”
And the shaking of his head fell down into his shoulders, and they started quivering, too, and then the movement traveled, gradually, through the rest of his body, and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I saw his lips moving, and whispers came out, slow at first, then getting quicker, until his lips were moving so fast my eyes couldn’t keep up, and all I could do was hold on tighter with my arm around his shoulder, until they finally stopped, and he said one word: “Okay.”
“God keep your soul,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“Don’t fear what comes next,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t say that.”
“Do you believe in bright things?” he asked.
I leaned in, closer, my mouth right up to his ear. “I have to,” I said. “You have to believe in bright things, even if it’s not in this world where you get to see them.”
And he nodded, like this was the answer he expected, like it was the one he wanted.
And I took my arm from around his shoulder, leaned my elbow down against the small of his back, put my palm against the back of his head, and I pushed.
He pitched forward, spun around as his body was in the air, and he looked up into my eyes, and that current came back, and it was nearly enough to make me jump after him. He didn’t scream, didn’t make a sound, didn’t look scared at all. And a second later, he closed his eyes. A second later, he was too far away for me to really see his face good anymore. A second later, the Alleghany took his body.
Still, I stared, for a long, long time, into that spot in the water where his body had hit. And for a moment, the water turned from the unhealthy green it usually is into the clearest, most goddamn alive blue my eyes had ever seen, and my breath caught in my throat, because I saw that water not as a green, grimy, oily river of filth, but as God’s eye, and I thought of the boy, falling into it, passing through the mind of God on his way to the throat, traveling down His windpipe and coming to rest in His belly—and I thought, My, but that’s got to be just about the warmest, safest place a person could ever hope to find. And for a moment, I felt almost jealous, of that warm, bright place the boy had found.
The man said, “Mr. Fluharty?” and Patrick looked up. “Would you like to hear the tape?”
Patrick shook his head, slowly. “No, sir. I trust it’s all still my own words.”
The man frowned. “The gist of the tape, then, is you pushed him?”
That wasn’t it at all. Of course that bit was in there, but it was just a part of the story. Like the name of an avenue, it’s a necessary detail to understanding the whole, but is by no means the whole itself. But looking up at this man, with his pressed suit, his tired eyes, Patrick knew it would do no good to try to explain that which is unexplainable but by seeing.
“Yes, sir, I did,” Patrick finally said. “I pushed him.”
The detective looked around the room, then came over to Patrick’s side and knelt beside him. “Mr. Fluharty, I’m going to have to arrest you now,” he said, his voice flat, devoid of either compassion or malice. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
The detective sighed. “Okay,” he said, and stood up. He took a step back, and crossed his arms around his waist. “Okay,” he said again.
In Patrick’s mind, the blue eyes of God in the Alleghany River swirled like a whirl pool, then came to a focused and still stop.
“Is there anything else?” the detective asked him.
“No,” Patrick said, and when he smiled, it was not a wide smile, but still full of more joy than any man, woman or child had likely ever felt. “I reckon there’s not.”
Joshua Mattern earned his M.A. in English from Marshall University, and in 2006 served as editor-in-chief for Marshall’s literary journal, EtCetera. He is a past contributor to political magazine Culture 11, and was a regular for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s Weekly Surge magazine. His fiction appears in Sleet magazine. He lives in Huntington, West Virginia, working as an advocate for the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.