Jim Bates

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles, will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.

The Bridge

Norman smiled as he stood on the bridge. He loved the light breeze blowing through his thinning hair. He loved hearing the rapids of St. Anthony Falls thundering one-hundred feet below him. He loved the first rays of the sunrise warming his face as it rose above the buildings of downtown Minneapolis. He loved it all, especially the feeling of being free of the group home he’d been living in for the last two years of his life.

            Held prisoner was more like it in his mind. After he’d lost his wife and son and daughter to a head on collision with a drunk driver on interstate 35W, he’d gone into a deep depression. He was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and sent to the West River Road Group Home just south of downtown Minneapolis where he was put under the care of a kind and understanding psychiatrist whose kindness and understanding had been unable to make much of a dent in healing the broken-hearted man. Nevertheless, Norman found a way to integrate into the daily life of the home. He had his own room, three healthy meals a day, group activities, medication for depression and group and individual counseling sessions, all under the watchful eyes of three orderlies Norman referred to as Huey, Dewey and Louie. Most importantly, he had the ashes of his family in an simple brass urn placed prominently on this dresser.

            On paper, all should have been fine. He was being given a chance to heal and begin living a healthy, happy and productive life. But life wasn’t easily confined to a sheet of paper. The point of the matter was that Norman missed Ann and Ethan and Leslie so much no amount of counseling and therapy and drugs was going to help alleviate the pain he endured in his heart every day.

            He’d tried to escape once, but only got as far as sliding down a steep embankment near the group home to the Mississippi River where he was just about to make a swim for freedom when the speedy Huey, Dewey and Louie had captured him.

            Another time, a few months later, he’d hitched a ride on the back of a sanitation truck only to be discovered by the driver at the next stop half a block down the street and unceremoniously returned. In retrospect, it had not been his best nor most well thought out plan.

            So, Norman decided to try a different approach and passed the winter laying low while waiting for another opportunity to escape. But it was hard. He so badly wanted to see his family again. Sure, he had photographs of vacations and holidays and times of just plain goofing around, and those photos brought back wonderful memories that he cherished. And, of course, he had his treasured brass urn filled with his family’s ashes.

But he wanted more. He wanted to be free to be on his own outside in the natural world so he could connect with his loved ones and be with them the way it used to be. Like it should be. Like he knew they wanted him to be. To join them on some sort of spiritual level, if that’s what it was called, away from the confines of the stifling group home atmosphere. He’d didn’t know exactly how to articulate it; he only knew he needed to try something. He had to see them and be with them again.

            By spring, Ann and the kids had been gone for over two years, and he couldn’t wait any longer. He snuck out in the middle of the night, clutching his urn to his chest, and made his way north along the west river road high above the Mississippi River, hiding in the bushes whenever he spotted an approaching car or person. Two hours later, without incident, he’d made it to his destination, the Stone Arch Bridge.

            Built by a railroad entrepreneur in the 1880’s, the iconic bridge was a two thousand-foot long structure spanning the Mississippi River connecting downtown Minneapolis on the west side to the warehouse district on the east side. After falling into disrepair during the middle of the twentieth century, the entire area on both banks, bridge included, had under gone a thorough reconstruction and renovation. The distinctive bridge, built on twenty-three arching stone columns, still connected both sides of the waterfront of downtown Minneapolis and the warehouse district, but now it was only used by pedestrians for walking, jogging and bike riding.

Because of its uniqueness, going to the bridge had been a favorite family outing and Norman and Ann had taken the kids often. Ethan and Leslie loved to watch the six-hundred-foot-wide Mississippi River streaming over the falls of the dam at Lock Number One, and Norman and Ann enjoyed looking at the skyline of Minneapolis on one side and the warehouse district on the other. They often had lunch at one of the nearby sidewalk cafés where they spent many a leisurely afternoon watching the mighty river, enjoying the beauty of the scene and the joy of being together. Nothing but good memories. And it was those memories that brought him back at dawn on a quiet spring morning.

            From the river road Norman took a foot path up a switch-back series of steps and onto the bridge, where he walked to the middle feeling with each step that he was being drawn by an invisible force, and that this was where he was meant to be, right here and right now. There were only a few people out and those that were paid him no attention. It was like he was in his own world.

            With the rays of the new day’s sun warming his face, he leaned on the railing and listened. Above the roar of the rapids, along with his memories of being here with his family, he was sure he could hear Ann’s voice. It was like she had been waiting from him to appear and was now standing right beside him. He looked around but couldn’t see her. What was she saying? He couldn’t quite make out her words above the sound of the thundering river, but he responded anyway.

            “Oh, Ann, my dear, it’s so good to hear you.” He spoke quietly, reverently, “I love you so much. I miss you every moment of every day.”

            He listened but the river drowned out her voice as mist from the swirling rapids rose in the air and swept over him like a soft sun shower. He didn’t notice.

“I’m having trouble hearing you, Ann. Are you doing okay?” he asked. “How are Ethan and Leslie?” A tear formed as he remembered his soccer loving kids. Ann had been driving them home from practice when the drunk plowed into their car. At the time, Norman was in the kitchen making a special spaghetti dinner for them as a treat. But there would be no more treats after that fateful day. Life as he’d known it had changed forever, and he had been challenged to go on living alone without his adored loved ones. A challenge he had to admit he was not rising to very well at all.

            “Ann,” he whispered, wiping away the tears now beginning to flow freely, “Ann, I can’t live without you anymore. I want to be with you. I want hold you in my arms again and feel the warmth of your body next to mine and the touch of your finger tips on my skin.”

            Norman was now weeping openly, his heart breaking more and more as the pain of his loss became overwhelming. He almost collapsed as he staggered, nearly falling to his knees, but didn’t. Instead, not noticing the small crowd that had begun to gather, he gripped the steel railing and stepped up onto a brace at the bottom of it. He teetered for a moment, clutching his urn, and was beginning to swing his leg over the top when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Ann? He turned, eager to see her smiling face. But, no, it wasn’t Ann. It was a young man with dreadlocks, his face serious.

            Calmly, but firmly, he said, “Hey, there, buddy, let’s get you down from there, okay?” He pointed to the deadly rapids far below. “You don’t want to do that.”

            Beside himself with grief and weeping over the loss of his family, Norman fell into the young man’s arms.

***

Later, back at the group home, his words filtered into Norman’s brain, ‘You don’t want to do that.’ Well, the point of fact was he did want to, but maybe now just wasn’t the right time. He looked at the urn keeping him company on the dresser. Maybe he’d just wait. After all, the young man, who’d introduced himself as Frankie, said he might come by and visit sometime. That could be nice, maybe, to have a friend other than the crazy patients at the group home.

            Norman sighed, frustrated. Why was this so complicated? The third one’s the charm the saying went, and he’d almost done it. He’d almost gotten free from the group home. At least, he’d made it to the Stone Arch Bridge where he’d relived some wonderful memories and even had a nice talk with Ann. It could have been a lot worse.

He lay back and closed his eyes, the meds along with the shot they’d given him were beginning to take full effect now. It had been a long day and he was exhausted. The memory of the morning on the bridge was quickly fading, but he knew one thing, he still had to get away. He still had to get free of the group home and get out into the world and be with Ann and his kids. He’d almost done it this time.

He rolled to his side and pulled a blanket up as he felt himself slipping into sleep. Drifting off, his last conscious thought was, Next time. Because for sure there would be a next time. His family was out there waiting for him and he was coming. Ann and the kids could count on it. He’d get to them. Somehow. There was no doubt in his mind about that. None at all.

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