Wild Things, “The Man Who Jumped”

Author: Jaimee Wriston Colbert
Publisher: BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City)
Publication Date: October 15, 2016
Type: Short Story Collection
Ordering: SPD Books in Berkeley, Amazon
Social Media: Poets and Writers, Author Website

Excerpt from the Wild Things collection, from the short story “The Man Who Jumped”

(First published in Jane’s Stories IV: Bridges and Borders–winner of the Jane’s Story Award.)

All night and into the morning and throughout the lengthening spring afternoon, the roar of the rescue boats, airboats blown across the swollen Susquehanna River, swarming like black flies, searching for the man who jumped.  I slept uneasily, fitfully, waking at one point to what sounded like a train wreck, then a tornado, the howl of engines battling the near flood-stage currents.  Ruth sleeping still as a rock beside me through all of it, and when she finally wakes she tells me she’s going back on antidepressants.  I can’t bear it anymore, she says.

Bear what? I ask.

She frowns, shakes her head, her exasperated shrug.  Try this, she says.  How can we call ourselves lesbians if we don’t make love?

I study her, her long, sleep-tussled hair the rouge-black color of currants, imagine snaking my fingers through it, twirling them up in it like vines.  Do we call ourselves that? I ask.

I share a bed with you, Janis.  We have to call it something.

I think about the man who jumped.  News junkie that I am, I had checked the news at regular intervals for facts, stats, photos, the what and why, but the news had nothing.  Only that he stopped his car in the middle of the Four Corners Bridge around 9:30PM, got out and without hesitation, witnesses said, climbed onto the concrete railing, perched there for just a moment like some night bird, like he belonged, opened his arms and plunged.  He was a blond, somebody said, or maybe he had white hair.  It glowed in the lights from the bridge.

Later, as the boats continue their trolling back and forth and walkers poke about in the mud, the reeds, the banks of the river below us, I wonder what it was he could no longer bear?  Just this week the Chinook salmon suddenly vanished from the northwest.  Frogs, salamanders, amphibians in an extinction disaster the world hasn’t seen since the dinosaurs, with 3,000 more species expected to disappear in our lifetime.  Honeybees, butterflies?  Going, many of them already gone.  The Western states have become a killing field, open season on wolves, baby buffalo.  And cattle, it turns out, are a significant contribution to greenhouse gasses with their farting and belching.  Will we start offing them too now, the ones we don’t target for our sirloins, our happy meals, our McDonalds’?  In one week a typhoon in Myanmar followed by an earthquake in China and 200,000 people eradicated, over 5 million homeless.

Maybe his own house went victim to the real estate crisis, the mortgage disaster, another statistic from somebody else’s greed.  A wife leaves him, a daughter grows up, abandoning the house that is (now?) no longer theirs.  Who sleeps in their bed and what can he name it when the bed no longer has a bedroom?  Recently I read that with so many houses foreclosed on and so many jobs lost, people are living in those steel storage containers they rent to store their stuff, slide open the door and a bed’s set up, breakfast table, a lamp, just like home.  When they can’t afford to pay for even that anymore their belongings are auctioned off by the container full.  Baby-faced soldiers ordered back to Iraq and Afghanistan again and again.  This week the price of fuel at the gas pumps hit $4.00 a gallon and nobody, not even the president, pretends that the economy isn’t in a recession.

So I do it.  Reach out and stroke Ruth’s hair that is as velvety and sure as the undersides of leaves.

Day Two and no “victim” as they politely refer to the jumper, they’ve called in forest rangers, more police boats, two helicopters.   A rescue worker said he thought he heard a cry for help, saw a blond head for a moment—the way the light shone, he said—but let’s face it, a blogger on the newspaper website writes, nothing out there anymore that could call for help.  Ruth stands at the aluminum sink chopping a 10 mg Lexapro into quarters, then fragmenting these into eighths.  Just a tad, she says, to take the edge off.  I think such bleak thoughts, she says.

Can a pill stop your thoughts? I ask.  A sudden image of the fandango pink hoodie on the evening news a while back, found by a pack of stray dogs, belonging to a missing girl.  Nobody claimed to know anything about it, but a person who lived in the vicinity speculated that somehow the whole thing smacked of drugs.  See? Ruth had said, you can’t really disappear.  People will make up your life whether you have one or not.

Now Ruth shrugs, smiles—but sadly, I’m thinking.  Pills can stop anything, she says.

He crouches on the concrete railing and the night dissolves around him to mere flickers, gleamings of nickel colored lights reflected in the surging river below.  He can’t take much time to contemplate what he’s about to do, what with having to park on the two lane bridge and the cars all piling up behind honking.  (The survivor of a jump off the Golden Gate, interviewed in “The Bridge,” said people saw him standing there on the water side of the railing and nobody tried to stop him.  The last straw was when a German tourist asked him to take her picture.)

Just do it, he thinks, slip like a fish out of this world and into the next, brown water cold as a fish’s heart (did you know it still pulses for a while, this quivering little organ, even after the fish has been caught, clubbed and sliced open?  Life wanting to live).  The moon’s reflection in the rolling current ripples like a cloud, and maybe he imagines for the second or two he’s airborne that he’s not really jumping into a river, rather it’s the sky he soars to in a burst of glory, extinguished like a shooting star.

Airboats growling and the helicopters hovering below the canopy, perusing the river as it becomes calmer now, the fill of it easing down, the rains having stopped and no more snow melt from the mountains.  We learn on the third day he was a young man, younger than her own son, Ruth says, if she had a son, if she had at least done that.  Although, she tells me, if it had been her son now captive in the river, perhaps trapped under a tree branch, or even someone’s refrigerator, refuse from the floods, from the things people do to get free of their waste, well how would a mother live with that?  No, she shakes her head, chopping up the Lexapro on the cutting board like it’s cocaine, licking her finger then driving it down into the powdery mess; it’s better not to have children, she says.  They’d only remind you of the ways you failed them.  I think about the age of the jumper, barely an adult, too young to have become so certain that nothing can change.

The first time my marriage failed I fled to San Francisco and took up with a cocaine dealer who drove a silver BMW and saw me only at night, late, my apartment.  In the morning, after a quick peck on the cheek he’d take off, leaving the sweet steamy scent of his shower, from soaping off any traces of me, and a finely chopped and ready to snort line of blow wrapped neatly in paper.  Payment.  Services rendered.

A neighbor who knows the jumper’s family got the inside-scoop, she tells us, says it was an argument, maybe even a suicide pact but the girl chickened out.  The young man, his girlfriend.  They had been drinking, funneling, she whispered—what they do, these kids, to get the alcohol from point A, the bottle, to Point B, the bloodstream, as fast as possible—dumping the stuff into a funnel stuck down the throat.  She said she heard how some even do it in an enema, gin, whiskey, whathaveyou.  If you squirt it up there, if they make you take a breath test you pass, she said.  The young man parked his car on the bridge and told his girlfriend: You’re not going to like what I’m about to do.

Later, a mid-afternoon nap, Ruth with her spring allergies snoring gently beside me to the rhythm of the airboats whining up and down the Susquehanna, I close my eyes and follow the path through the woods, down the hill to where the red winged blackbirds sway upon the shallow shore reeds, and I dive—the river in the afternoon sun shining darkly in its turbidity, down to the junk-strewn bottom, the silt, the rocks, the sunken things, cars, houses, a city block, lampposts, neon signs, a barn, somebody’s horse, hoses, plumbing fixtures, metal cans, a pizza oven, plastic this and plastic that, the decay of what was, and miles of toxic chemicals IBM spewed from their plant, suctioned into the river through rusted pipes, where the fish bellied-up even before the two recent floods-worth of more and more and more things that do not belong (the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor is on an island in the Susquehanna, river like a blood vessel, bearing what it’s given until it bursts?) to where he waits for me, he and the rest of them over the years, the ones who gave up.  I’m sorry, I tell them, but I can’t save you.

From all over the region they come, a pilgrimage to ground zero, Grippen Park where their boats are launched–volunteer firefighters, EMTs, Elks Club, Shriners, Truckers For Jesus, folks from the Department of Fisheries, anybody remotely having to do with river anything, trawling it for his body.  With flood-stage receded and the currents calmer, they’re using sonar to try locate him.  He has a name and a family, a history, a place in the land he left.  An aunt quoted in the newspaper called his “A useless death.  No reason for it,” she said.

A shroud of fog hovering over the Susquehanna and Ruth asks if I could love her a little.  It’s not like I’m mentally ill, she tells me, palming the bottle of antidepressants.  We’re standing at the kitchen sink staring out toward the river.  It could be I’m just sort of emotionally…compromised, she says, her sharp eyes, the pupils black and round as olives, now scouring my face.  Independent woman seeks female companionship, share home; light housekeeping a plus, her Craigslist ad had said.

Ruth dumps a Lexapro onto the counter, little chopping motions with the paring knife and again I’m reminded of cocaine, chopping it, rolling up a dollar bill and snorting it way up to where it smarted and burned and your teeth, your tongue, the roof of your mouth felt tangy and switched on, and later stuffing cotton balls up your nostrils to staunch the bleeding from all that snorting, cocaine, cocaine, more and more.  Once after my creative writing class, back when I was a student, when I thought I was headed toward a journalism career—Journalist Janis, a made-up title as if in a dream, pictured myself jetting all over the world, Geneva, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, wherever news broke I would be there to hunt down, expose and document its truth for posterity—another student seduced me with it, after I had defended his story, insisting to the others that the writer wasn’t a misogynist, even though his character was; that the writer wasn’t his character.  A couple of lines and some painfully rough sex, my head slamming down on his concrete floor, I knew this wasn’t true.  Real journalists aren’t for sale.  Everything I touched in those days went wrong somehow.

Journalist Janis, a byline for the pseudoscience column I inherited in the local rag, Our Magical Universe!  “Fun” factoids about the natural world for people with no working knowledge of astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, or anything theoretical, until it was pulled along with the print version of the newspaper.  I stroke Ruth’s triangular little face, the perfect shell shapes of her cheekbones.

And still they search.  When do they tell the family we’re sorry, but….  When is one corpse no longer worth it?   69,000 bodies buried under the rubble of their former lives after the earthquake in China.  78,000 dead in Myanmar.  In Chicago a cougar is discovered wandering through a neighborhood, hanging out behind a school playground like all the pervs do.  No registering this one though.  Bang!  And the crippled wolf out West, Hoppy they named him; blasted him too.  From the bedroom window I watch a blue jay light upon the feeder, then soar up in a flash of indigo and disappear into the white pine.  For a second I think of those Carolina parakeets, the jewel colors of their feathers, but of course these are long vanished.  Once we saw a little gray bird hunched under the mountain-laurel bush beside the feeder, glassy eyed and shivering, and we noticed he had no tail.  What’s a bird without its tail? I asked Ruth.  Grounded, she said.  Every day spring pops out a little more, more green on the trees, chickadees chattering their mating songs.  During the 1990’s famine in North Korea you couldn’t hear any birds because all of them had been caught and devoured.  PBS called it a massive human tragedy, and it was, of course, though I couldn’t help but think it: what could it be worth to wake up in a world without the impassioned song of the scarlet cardinal and some horny finch warbling his aria?

Ruth on the bed curls into herself like a snail.  Helicopters darting about the tree line, gigantic mechanical crickets, circling round and round over the river, drifting, dipping, cruising like sharks.

Hawai’i, 1958, Billy Weaver, a winsome young lad from a popular O’ahu family was attacked by a shark and 690 sharks were slain to avenge his death, some so rare they had never been seen before in Hawaiian waters.  A list from just one of President Roosevelt’s safaris to Africa, 512 animals shot from his train.  King George V was said to have killed a tiger and a bear with the right and left barrels of his rifle simultaneously.  He was one of eight guns that brought down 2,190 game between 9AM and 4PM, and one day he shot single-handedly a thousand birds for the sport of it.  During the reign of Titus Vespasian, 9000 animals were killed at the games honoring the completion of the Coliseum in A.D. 80, and 11,000 were slaughtered to celebrate one military victory a few years later.  Now the big mammals are disappearing from the world, at different rates but all of them on the clock: great apes, elephants, polar bears, the large cats, wild dogs, giraffes, the massive and intelligent animals of the sea.  A scientist on the CBS Evening News said: ‘We are facing the largest extinction of mammals in general and primates in particular in history.  Half of the 634 species of Primates are in danger.’ What they can capture they lock up in zoos, barred environs that at their best try to mimic the land they were stolen from, but in miniature, of course, like crawling into a painting of a landscape and trying to live there.

On the seventh day it is quiet, only the constant low rumble of the expressway in the distance, like thunder that never quite becomes the storm.  I wonder if they found it? Ruth says, referring to the body as it.  I don’t tell her the truth, though I know this in my heart, that they finally gave up, let the river claim its own.  She refuses to get out of bed today, and later I will go to the field behind our house and pick wildflowers, arranging them in a vase on the table beside her where maybe their fragrance will remind her of something, who knows, a triumphant day let’s imagine, long forgotten.

Yesterday in the field I came upon a yearling turned loose by her mother, the does ready to give birth to the next round.  She didn’t know yet to be afraid.  She watched me, those unblinking eyes, all the while her jaw was working something, back and forth, up and down, like chewing gum.  Fur taut, her long graceful neck, tawny and right.  Come November, December, the killing season, she’ll be fully grown and a target, but in the meantime there are green things to munch on, and that good hard sunshine on her back.  I think about those zoo animals, pacing, eating, sleeping, their hours defined by these things that prove they are not gone yet, their patient, ponderous, futile wait to go home.

Spring keeps filling out the forest, hiding the dark river below.  Soon we will not be able to see it at all but for the occasional watery glint, back lit by a setting sun, glowing through the trees when the wind moves their branches just so, and only for that moment.

***

This collection of ”linked, rural-noir” stories depicts endangered humans in endangered environment. Jaimee Wriston Colbert has given us a story collection for our times. In Wild Things, Colbert’s human characters face displacement, just like the tropical alligator who appears in New York’s Susquehanna River. They face sheer desperation, like that of an ohia tree clinging to solid lava on a Hawaiian volcano. In an environment where good-paying factory jobs are an endangered species, Colbert’s protagonists confront such post-industrial predations as meth, homelessness, and the ghosts of lost dreams. Their survival is their triumph.

***

Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of Shark Girls, a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year and USABookNews.com Best Book awards; the linked-story collection Dream Lives of Butterflies, a gold-medal winner of the Independent Publisher Award; a novel in stories, Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize; and the story collection Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Tampa Review, Connecticut Review, and New Letters. Originally from Hawai`i, she is professor of English and creative writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.

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