REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2007

Volume 2, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2007/luce.htm




KELLY LUCE

 

Jumper


Jazz Winters throws his right leg over the metal railings that crib the bridge. When his sneaker hits the chord, a metal girder jutting out a couple feet beyond the walkway, he brings the other leg over carefully. There is no fog and Jazz has a perfect view of the blue-black water below. It looks peaceful, a few brushstrokes of white daubed on its surface, and it is hard to believe the impact of his body on that rippling sheet would kill him. He turns and loops a rope around the railing, then wraps it around his right wrist five times. He doesn’t want to fall accidentally, doesn’t want his motive misread. Jazz is a month shy of thirty years old and for the first time in his life, he has a plan.

It is only then that Jazz notices the trembling. The iron bars at his back quiver minutely, like a frightened animal. He realizes the shaking comes from speeding traffic, but that doesn’t stop the thought from occurring to him: the bridge is afraid.


***


They’ve all heard the stories. Body washed ashore and a note in a Ziploc bag: “If one person smiles at me while I walk across the bridge, I won’t jump.” Or the one about the guy who had stood at the railing for an hour, crying, when he was finally approached by a German tourist – and asked to take a photo. He wiped his nose and took the picture, then climbed over the railing. His last words were, “No one cares.”

Dell Buchanan has worked Golden Gate Bridge Patrol for twelve years. Day-to-day there’s a bit of repetition, but he keeps it interesting. “107,772 inches across,” he likes to tell tourists. “That’s what you get for hiring ants to do the surveying.”

Of course, the jumpers add a touch of excitement.

Dimples form when Dell smiles, which the higher-ups think can’t hurt in a workplace where, one day out of twenty, a member of the public attempts to die. People seldom ask about that on the bridge. It’s as if simply mentioning it might be enough to knock them over the edge.

Dell is straddling the seat of his bicycle, watching the clouds at the south end of the bridge, when a voice bursts through the low static of his radio: jumper, mid-bridge, East side.

Here we go. He pumps the pedals, adrenaline firing.

First things first: the guy doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to hit the water. For one thing, he’s tied himself to the bridge. And judging from the message on his yellow T-shirt, he's seeking attention, the attention of one person in particular.

Carrie, wherever you are, I hope you’re listening to the radio, Dell thinks. He wonders about that T-shirt. Are those iron-on letters?

The north end patrolman joins him and together they crouch on the concrete walkway a few feet above the jumper’s head.

“Hello there,” Dell says. “My name is Dell, and this is Raymond. What’s your name?”

The first thirty seconds of the conversation are critical, Dell knows, for setting a tone of empathy. He wants to demonstrate this to Raymond, a younger guy with less than a year on the bridge.

The man peers at them. The way he’s gripping the iron bars below the handrail, he could be a jailbird. To his back, Dell is amused to note, lies Alcatraz Island.

“Jazz,” the man says finally.

“Jazz! Is that short for something?”

“Short for Jasper.”

“Well, that makes sense. Jazz…” his voice rises.

“Winters.”

“Jazz Winters.” He glances at Raymond, who takes his cue and slowly backs away, speaking into his radio. The SFPD will contact hospitals and the DMV to find out more about the guy.

“It’s a beautiful day out, Jazz. Would you like to come up and talk with me?”

Jazz looks out across the water and shakes his head. “I want to talk to Fox News. The sooner they get here, the sooner I come up.”

“Fox News, eh? Well, we’ll see what we can do. First, though, I just want to chat a little bit. No pressure. Is that okay?”

Raymond rejoins them and while they run through the familiar list of questions, using the careful phrases taught in the patrol crew’s monthly “crisis response” meetings, Dell’s mind wanders and lands abruptly on last Friday’s poker game. He played with a bunch of guys from church, and lately the Hold ‘Em games had been intense.

“I’m making a point.” Jazz rubs the fabric of his shirt between his thumb and forefinger as he speaks to Raymond. “I screwed up bigtime, so I need to do something bigtime to prove I’ve changed.”

Dell has relived the hand a thousand times: he’d limped in with pocket kings and with his small bets had managed to draw in a challenge from Scotty. The flop showed seven, four, and another king to match his pair. Three of a kind virtually guaranteed the pot, unless aces came up. A three came up on the turn, and he played it tougher, sucking Scotty into the pot until they were both in for over a grand. Fifth street was trash – the ten of spades, and Dell knew that he had him beat. He couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. The only way for Scotty to win would be a lucky straight, three through eight, and there was no way he would’ve gone in for so much holding a five-six.

But Scotty had. He’d read Dell’s face like a cue card.

Raymond says, “You’re not alone in feeling down sometimes.”

“Yeah, but I’m done messing around. I finally know what I want,” Jazz says.

Dell lowers himself to the concrete so he’s eye-to-eye with Jazz. “Which is what?”

Jazz shakes his head. “I want what I had. I thought I wanted a divorce too, ya know, it was my idea at first. But last night, she calls me talking about attorneys and moderators and says she’s been talking to a lawyer friend, and I’m like, since when do you have a lawyer friend? I was just trying to screw up my life or something. But now I know, man, I want a family, I want to prove to her that I’m in control of my life.”

Raymond is nodding, but Dell doesn’t see how standing on the edge of a bridge demonstrates control of anything. It’s like going all-in without looking at your cards – hotshot, but dumb.

“Why don’t you tell us why Carrie is so important to you. How did you meet?” Raymond is buying time. He knows the stats: the longer they wait, the less likely it is they jump.

Jazz presses his face to the bars. “We met playing hallway Frisbee in our dorm at UC Santa Cruz.”

Dell sits up straight. “You’re a Slug too?”

Jazz’s face lights up. They could’ve been sitting at a bar in the Mission. “You went to UCSC? When’d you graduate?”

Dell glances up at Raymond, who is leaning on the railing, fiercely interested. Dell knows what he’s thinking: anything to keep him talking. Suddenly his radio crackles. Nodding to Dell and Jazz, he steps away.

“Well, I would’ve finished in ’93, but a year before that my dad retired from the patrol here….” Dell smiles. “And who could turn down a job like this?”

“I guess we just missed each other. I graduated in ’98, but I think I’d rather have gotten a cool job and ditched the school thing.”

Dell nods and stands up slowly. Jazz’s words stick in his ears: “We just missed each other.” The phrase smacks of familiarity, as if they weren’t strangers but long-lost brothers reunited.

It's a challenge to the pride he feels in his undeniable sanity, in the professional divide between he and they. To his mind, jumpers are like regrettably dealt cards even a beginner would toss down. When Dell looks at Jazz Winters, he sees a two and a four, unsuited.

***


The Bay Bridge strings across the water to the east. Dell has, a few times, skimmed a web forum for the suicidal, and among other things he has come to understand that the Golden Gate is attractive to jumpers because of its beauty – the elegant orange cables curving like a necklace over the simple geometry of beams below. Jumping from the dull gray girders of the Bay Bridge, wrote the poster Next2Go, is tacky. Dell remembers that whenever he sees the lesser bridge across the bay.

Raymond approaches on his bike, face like a wet blanket.

“What’s up, big guy?” Dell asks in a low voice.

Raymond is pale. “They found his car,” he says. “There’s a car seat in the back, and a My Little Pony doll.”

Dell’s stomach flips. “Oh, shit.”

“Guy’s got a kid.”

A daughter, Dell thinks. He knows plenty about My Little Ponies.

He has to say something to Jazz, so he pulls on a smile and spins around. “Anyway,” he says, rolling his eyes, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in college.”

“Me neither, man. I was a drama major and now I teach outdoor ed.”

To Dell’s relief, Raymond joins in, asking Jazz where he teaches, isn’t it rewarding to work with children.

Guy’s still a drama major from the looks of it, Dell thinks, and turning away from the railing, he frowns. What if Abby had to grow up without him? Suddenly it's hard to breathe. Jazz hasn’t even mentioned a kid.

Dell strolls casually. The pedestrian walkways have been closed to prevent a crowd from gathering and because Jazz is hardly visible from the road, they’ve managed to avoid a rubberneck there as well. Dell wants to keep it that way.

Beyond the lanes of traffic, the ocean broods. The clouds have drifted, forming elderly versions of their former selves: stretched, sagging, and limp.

That night at Scotty’s, Dell was in shock as his friend raked the pile of cash toward him, shaking his head with a close-lipped smile. Dell wanted to reach over and break his arm, judo chop the table, accuse him of cheating. Instead, he’d shaken his hand and joked that he was a bastard.

Yesterday on his lunch break he went to the bank. Filling out the withdrawal slip for Abby’s savings account was harder than he’d expected. His fingers jerked as he filled in the rectangle at the bottom of the blue slip: 5000. He stared at the number, finally adding a comma. 5,000.

Margie won’t notice, he told himself; she never looks at the accounts anyway, and Abby is years from college. By then, poker would have tripled this loan. The bad luck last Friday was a fluke.

After signing his name, he stood in line until he began to shiver. It was taking too long. He finally ducked under the retractable barrier, crumpled the paper in his fist, and shoved it in his pocket. Outside, he leaned against the terra cotta wall of the bank and closed his eyes. The armpits of his shirt were soaked through and the cold cotton clung to his ribs. Later, he thought. I just need a little more time.

“Life is long,” Raymond is saying. “A lot of things change, if you’re willing to let them.”

“Life’s too long to live it without her, and that’s that,” Jazz says. “I’m here to make a point, not get free therapy. I’m done talking.”

Ray looks like a kid who’s just knocked over a crystal vase.

For once, Dell has nothing to say. Vertigo grips him, and he feels he’s the one on the edge – not standing but dangling, using all his strength simply not to fall.


***


Jazz hadn’t anticipated so many questions, and he can’t bring himself to ignore the cops, or officers, or whatever they’re called, who have such kind faces and concerned expressions. They ask about his job at the park, his parents, and all about Carrie.

He is tired of talking. He wants the cameras to get here so he can make her understand so she’ll come back to him and he can get off this bridge. He snaps at the younger one, and they finally give up and drop the psychiatry talk, instead perching above him at the railing, awkward, like father birds left to guard a nest.

San Francisco is dazzling white in the sun, and Jazz realizes: this is my city. I put myself here. I am on the edge of the most beautiful bridge in the world.

Boats drift in slow motion across the bay, but he knows that close up, they are cutting through the water like knives. His family rented a sailboat once. His dad spent the day fiddling with ropes while he and his mother played Yahtzee. For lunch they ate cheese and sweet pickle sandwiches that Jazz – “Jasper” to his father – had kept on ice in his Scooby Doo cooler. Some of the bread had gotten soggy so they fed it to two seagulls, one of which was missing a leg. It had followed them the rest of the day. They’d named that bird, Jazz recalls now, but he can’t remember what.

When Dell, the rosy-cheeked officer, asks him to step back onto the walkway and use a cell phone to call Carrie, he considers briefly before catching himself. He has a plan.

“No thank you,” Jazz says. Dell looks so disappointed that Jazz feels he must explain again.

“I want her to see my face when I tell her I’m ready to be her man, and a father, forever.” The words sound beautiful to him.


***


“Do you think that will solve your problems?” Dell is fighting sarcasm and takes a deep breath. Don’t bring up the kid. Guilt is the last thing you want here. No matter how selfish he is, now it’s more important than ever that you get him back up here.

“It’s what I want. This is the first time I’ve ever really wanted something. I’m actually happy to finally give a shit, ya know? I mean, for a lot of people, they don’t even have to think about that. Like, I bet you’ve never felt like this.”

Dell stares. Who does this guy think he is?

“You have a family, right? What’s it like to have a wife and kids?”

Dell wants to yell that he has worked hard to create a life that looks good, better than those around him, like an unbroken seashell on a well-traveled beach. His wife, Marjorie, grows cilantro and basil in the garden and brings baggies of both to neighbors; on Sundays she dresses Abby in green ribbons that glow against her strawberry blonde hair and the three of them go to Faith Lutheran, where Dell has perfected the art of shaking hands firmly yet graciously, and appearing content in an unconscious manner, two marks of a man who is going straight up to heaven.

Dell wants to tell him nothing, that his family is none of his business, that his life is in no need of examination. But the feeling of the hot terra cotta wall on his back is at the forefront of his mind, and for once he feels like he owes something to someone.

“I have a daughter, Abby. She’s six. She loves to roller bade. My wife, Margie, we met in college. She plays the piano. She’s a good mom.”

Jazz sighs. To Dell’s ear, it is melodramatic. Jazz says, “It sounds so great to have people around who’ll stick by you.”

Dell says, “I have a good life.” But if I went back tomorrow, I could go through with it, he thinks. I just needed to think it through a little more. I could make my good life even better. But Margie – if she found out, it’d be over.

“You ever think about getting divorced?” Jazz asks.

“You’re getting a little too personal, buddy.”

Raymond’s eyes widen at Dell’s bluntness. He opens his mouth to say something, but Jazz has moved on. He wants to know if the news crew is on its way.

“Oh, well, you never know with the media,” Raymond says. The truth is, no one has called Fox, and no one will.

“We try not to invite media attention unless we have to,” he explains.

“Well, they’ll find out on their own,” says Jazz. “I know how it works.”

Raymond hasn’t been around for a standoff with a jumper that’s lasted this long.

Most of the time, they either jump fast or they climb back over, scared shitless.

Dell kneels down next to the railing. Even through his thick trousers, the pocked concrete digs into his knees.

“Look. You and I both know you aren’t doing any jumping today, except maybe for joy at being alive and watching what’s shaping up to be a beautiful sunset.”

Jazz narrows his eyes.

Dell reaches into his jacket. “Here’s my cell phone. You call her and tell her you need help.”

Jazz shakes his head. “I’m not gonna ask her for anything.”

“Fine, tell you what,” Dell says. “I’ll call her. I’ll tell her you’re here, tell her what you told me about getting your shit together and knowing what you want. Coming from me it’ll sound better. Trust me.”

Jazz stares at him for a long time. Finally, he nods. Dell flips open the phone and Jazz recites the number.


***


Carrie answers on the first ring. Dell introduces himself and says, “There’s a bit of a problem.”

“Oh, no. Tell me this is a joke. Please tell me this is a joke.” She must already know.

“I’ve been talking with Jazz for the last” – he checks his watch – “twenty-five minutes.”

“He’s the one on the bridge, isn’t he? Goddammit.”

Dell waits, but she doesn’t say anything else. “He’s the one,” he says. “And I’ve never seen anyone so unwilling to jump. He’s an easy out, a classic case of calling out for attention. Honestly ready to change his life.”

Silence.

Dell continues, “This must be a shock to you. You have every right to feel angry. But the bottom line is, there’s a man here who needs your help. That’s why I’m calling.”

“Of course I’m angry. This is the last straw in a long line of selfish B.S.”

“I have an idea of how you must feel. But you should also know that you are what we call a beacon – the things in life that can still offer hope to people who have become suicidal. Now, I don’t know exactly what happened between you two and it’s not my business, but I can tell you I’ve never seen anyone more sincere about anything than he is about you.”

“That’s very sweet. A touching story. Let me guess, he made a sign for me?” She speaks quickly, like a nervous actor.

Dell clears his throat. “Well, sort of. Actually, he’s wearing this T-shirt. It says, ‘One More Chance, Carrie.’”

She sighs and he waits for another outburst. It doesn’t come. Instead she begins to cough or sob, he can’t tell which, and when her voice returns, it is muffled and weak. “Well, if it’s any consolation, he won’t jump. Remind him he has a two-year-old who needs some sort of father figure in her life, even if it is just on the weekends.”

Dell’s head pounds. He lowers his voice. “Please talk to him. I don’t know what else to say. He’d listen to you.”

She says nothing for a long time, and then, weakly: “Please don’t let him jump.”

“We’re doing all we can, I promise you. I’m going to hand you over,” he says into the handset as he steps toward Jazz.

Jazz gazes down at the phone. It is hot in his palm. For the first time, the words he’s rehearsed ring sour; instead of dignity they now smack of something suspicious, like milk gone bad. “I love you, and I’m ready to jump off a bridge to prove it.”

Suddenly he understands – it is ridiculous. His knowledge of her breaks through like a rock crashing through a ship’s hull. He can hear her already: “If a hundred people a year jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”

He is trembling. Before he can bring the phone to his ear, it slips from his hand, thunks against the chord and skitters along the edge of the metal beam. Jazz drops to catch it – catch her – and when he does, he loses his balance.

There are no last-second epiphanies, only images, as if someone thrust a Viewmaster to his eyes: his daughter in a diaper, wearing oversized headphones, the one-legged seagull hovering above his mother’s head, the single bed, smothered in pillows, of Carrie’s college apartment.

He falls backward from the beam, squatted down like a sand crab. He grabs handful after handful of empty air. The force of his weight on the rope tied to his wrist snaps the threads like a thousand pieces of taffy, and Jazz drops toward the waiting water.


***


Dell is leaning on the railing, watching Jazz fumble, but it happens so quickly that his outstretched hand doesn’t come close to touching him. Raymond shouts something.

A hot streak of bile shoots into Dell’s throat. Jazz hits the water in a white puff and disappears.

Dell stares downward. He is frozen solid, unable to breathe, unable to blink. He waits for Jazz to surface. The water is smooth, as if nothing has happened.

Though somewhere in his mind he understands he won’t find it, he feels around for the phone in his jacket pocket. There are things he should be doing right now, things that on any other day with any other jumper, he would be doing easily. But today he needs to hear Margie’s voice, even if just on the answering machine. His hand hits a tightly crumpled paper ball. The withdrawal slip.

He takes it out and smoothes it flat on top of the hand railing. What a stupid thing to have kept. If Margie found it, there’d be hell to pay. She could call him a compulsive gambler with this as proof, take Abby away, take the house and the money too. There is so much to lose these days.

With a flick of his thumb and forefinger, he sends the slip over the edge, where it flutters prettily on the breeze, as if it just might stay aloft.


 

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