Twenty years ago when this happened I didn't tell how I smashed my hand; I'm not going to say anything about that now, either. I was eighteen and a dumb-ass, and I wrapped a dish towel around the hand and jammed it deep into my coat pocket. The last I'd looked at it, I saw knucklebone through a flap of skin.
It was mid-morning on a March weekday, a time when most people who had someplace to go were already there, and the stretch of Route 20 I'd made it to was bare and lonely. There was a thin overcast that hinted at nothing. The cornfields were snow-crusted to the hills, where trees looked like beard stubble. I made up a reason for hitching for whoever picked me up. To visit my girl at the college. If I could get a ride to the city, where the state university was, then I could walk to the garage where my cousin worked. He'd put me up for a while until things sorted themselves out.
For a while I did have a girl in a college—in a different city, and she wrote me after a month to say we were heading in different directions and that she met someone. So while I stood blowing into my cold-stiff good hand, I was wishing it was true that I had a girl waiting for me. Occasional pain shot up my arm from my bad hand to my shoulder, but I'd played football and knew about hurt. A couple of cars passed going the wrong way. Finally, a car spotted with primer was headed west and eased over after it passed me. The front passenger door opened and a thin-necked guy with a buzzcut leaned out. "Hurry up," he hollered, "it's god-damn cold!"
I got in the back. Because the inside handles were missing, I had to pull the door shut from the top and yank my hand in quick. The upholstery was torn, but the car didn't smell any worse than any other old car, a combination of mildew, oil, and exhaust. The guy in the passenger seat turned and looked me up and down. "Where you headed?"
"To the city," I said. "The college—to see my girl." The guy's nose looked like a vegetable an animal had chewed. A few days of silvery growth covered his jaw. I tried to not stare at his nose. He smiled at me with his mouth open.
"No college for you?"
"No," I said. "Working man. Taking a vacation. Service station. I pump gas mostly." All of which was true, but it was a lot of information he hadn't asked for.
"Hear that, Bob?" the guy said to the driver. "A working man on vacation, just like us." The driver peered at me in the rearview. One of his blue eyes might have dragged a little behind the other. His copper-blond hair looked dyed and hung just over the collar of his leather jacket.
"Un-hunh," he said. He gripped the wheel at ten and two. Crosses were tattooed on the backs of both his hands.
"I'm Trudeau," the guy in the passenger seat said. It sounded like "chewed nose." I told him my name. "Glad to meet you," he said. "What're you hiding there?" He nodded down at where my hand was stuffed into my coat pocket.
I hadn't planned what to say if I got asked about my hand because I'd hoped it wouldn't be noticed, but before I could say a word, Bob swore and stared in his mirror, and Trudeau looked past me out the back window, and we were slowing down to a stop, pebbles from the shoulder pinging against the car's underside. I turned and saw a black state police cruiser, lights flashing, right behind us.
"Picking up hitch-hikers is a federal offense," Trudeau whispered with a smirk, then looked through Bob's open window at the mirror-glassed trooper who stooped to look us over. I waited for Trudeau to tell him we were working men on vacation, but the trooper spoke first.
"Morning," he said. "Heading to the Interstate?" It hadn't occurred to me that we might be—the state route we were on was just as direct and didn't have tolls.
"We were just deciding," Trudeau said. "We're going to see our aunt." He was grinning.
"It's Aunty Anna's birthday," Bob said, his gaze through the windshield. He didn't release the wheel. "She's ninety-five. Folks are coming in from all over."
"She's got emphysema from smoking," Trudeau said confidentially. "Doesn't look like she'll make it to a hundred. But then it didn't look like she'd make ninety either. She's on oxygen—got a tank she rolls after her like a dog on a leash."
"Un-hunh," the trooper said. "Good wishes to her. But you've got to stay off the Interstate if she lives west of here." He paused while another state cruiser flew by, then another, both with lights flashing. "We've got a bridge collapsed, looks like from the rain and snowmelt. Breaks the highway right in two just before Exit 38. Or just after if you're coming from the west."
"Christ," Bob murmured and glanced at Trudeau "That's Aunty's exit."
"Jesus," Trudeau said. "But everybody except us is coming tomorrow, thank the Lord. What's the story, officer?"
"Caved in. Got reports of several cars driving in and falling a hundred feet down into the creek. At least one tractor trailer." The trooper's lips were white and wax-smooth. His voice was somber, but excited. "I'm on my way to the scene now. Reports are not encouraging."
Trudeau shook his head. "So—there's just a big hole?"
"Opened up just before dawn. Emergency teams are down there now. We're blocking off everything." I felt his eyes on me through his mirrored glasses, so I frowned and shook my head. I worried that blood had seeped through my coat pocket, but it hadn't. "Can you imagine?" he nearly whispered. "You're driving along, and the road disappears underneath you? Maybe you're alone—but maybe you've got your family along. Jesus—" he paused again. "I spend my life on the highway." He cleared his throat. "So you boys stay off the Interstate. Entrance'll be blocked, anyway. Listen for updates on the news. Best to your aunt." And he was gone before he could have heard Trudeau's "Yes, officer, be careful, sir."
As the trooper drove off, Bob started us up and revved the engine. "Jesus," he sighed tragically, and looked at Trudeau. "Can you imagine? Road opens up, and down you go, like you're a turd that didn't know you'd been flushed."
"'Stay off the Interstate, boys'" Trudeau mimicked. "'Best to your aunt!'" He turned to me. His chewed up nose was bobbing, he was snickering so hard, and I smiled at him. "Careful boy—stay away from the hole!"
"Big mother hole," Bob said as we accelerated. "You got cars rolling in, trucks, motorcycles, kids on bicycles—" He hunched his shoulders up under his leather jacket as he took a deep breath, and grunted. "Got trains running straight in!"
"And planes—" Trudeau added through his titters.
"Yeah, planes and helicopters flying down to see what's what, they get sucked in. Noah's god-damned ark, camels, ostriches, circus clowns leaping in, for Christ's sake—"
"Godzilla, King Kong—"
"—in the hole. God-damned hole's got magnetic powers," Bob declared.
"Bob," Trudeau said after a minute—he was pinching his red-raw nose while he spoke—"We got to see the hole for ourselves. It's a natural wonder of the world!"
Bob nodded. We were tearing through farmland, patches of snow yellowed like nicotine stains. Then Trudeau's eyes were on me again, and they slipped down toward my pocketed hand, which was throbbing because of all the excitement. "You in? You want to see the hole?"
I nodded. I did, too. Who wouldn't? I wasn't worried anybody I knew had fallen in. Nobody I knew was going anywhere.
"Now, what's that you said you got there?" Trudeau asked. I could see the bumps and hollows of his skull through his buzzcut.
By then, I'd figured out what to say. "Messed up my hand," I said. "My uncle's dog got a hold of a frozen pack of sausages. I didn't want him to choke. Didn't want to lose the sausages either," I grinned.
"Kinda dog?" Bob asked. "Shouldn't be taking food away from a dog no matter what kind." He was serious.
"Husky mix. Bad-tempered, too, but I thought he liked me."
"No such thing as 'like' when you're talking about a dog's dinner," Trudeau said. "You wash it out good? Your mom ever tell you that human germs are worse than dog germs? Maybe so, but that doesn't mean a dog bite's healthy. I had an uncle lose an arm gone gangrene from a dog bite."
"I washed it good and put antiseptic on it and wrapped it up." I'd started to believe the truth of everything I said, and my hand hurt less. I was picturing the collapsed bridge, the pavement breaking off in the middle of the air, the opposite edge a cliff, like a chunk of chocolate cake, and I wanted to look down into the hole to see how deep it was, to see the glitter of twisted metal. I wondered if there'd be any visible blood.
"That's good. Safety first," Trudeau said.
"We can get pretty close on back roads," Bob said. He was talking about the bridge collapse. "We get to a certain point, we'll get out and walk. Probably be a little muddy."
"Your girl won't mind if you're late?" Trudeau asked, grinning like a panting dog.
"It's not every day you get to see a wonder of the world," I said.
Bob pulled off the state route onto a farm road, paved but unmarked, and we drove for a while in silence. The pair up front saw the van in the ditch before I had any idea why we were stopping.
"Looks like she's not going anywhere for a while," Bob said. By "she" he meant either the blue van, which was tilted in the ditch at a crazy angle, it's roadside wheels off the ground, or the young woman, who had the hatch open and was sitting on the van's bumper with a fat baby bundled up in a red parka on her lap.
She stood up when we stopped, the baby's arms and legs spread stiff like a teddy bear's on her hip. Trudeau rolled down his window as she approached our car. "You got some trouble, miss?" he asked. "That's a cute little guy you got there. Don't you have a better coat?"
The girl bent down to talk, and when she did she stuck the baby in front of my window like I was watching him on a TV screen. He wasn't that fat—most of him was parka. His cheeks were rosy from the cold, and his eyes were the clear blue of a spring sky. Snot had crusted around his tiny nostrils. He barely had eyebrows, but he frowned like he was watching me, too, like I was in a fishtank. Or he was looking at his own reflection in the glass. From inside, I couldn't tell.
His mother couldn't have been any older than me. Red-orange hair poured out from her grey hoody and she had freckles, nice white teeth, and green eyes. Trudeau was right that she wasn't dressed warm enough—her sweatshirt didn't cover the arms, also freckled, wrapped around her baby's middle.
"I was in a hurry—I thought I had a coat in the van," she said. "Then when I got going it was too late to turn back. But I had the heater on and we were toasty-warm."
"Looks like you got yourself good and stuck," Bob said. "It's lucky we came along."
It didn't take long to get the whole story. Her name was Dolly, the baby was Brad Junior, or just Junior, and she was driving "like a maniac" across the state to the army base outside the city because Brad Senior, her husband, was flying in from his overseas tour. "Coming back from Desert Storm," she said. "All the way from the other side of the world. He's never seen his own baby." While Trudeau offered her a ride to the base, I watched Junior, who had a snot bubble that grew and shrank with each little breath.
When she walked back to the van to get her diaper bag and shut the hatch, Junior still slung over her hip, I noticed that she had on dressy black pants and open cork-heeled shoes. Her toenails were painted pink. She must have been freezing, but she wanted to look nice for her husband. She tiptoed back because the ground was softening into mud, then stopped short and rolled her eyes.
"Hold him," she said to Trudeau, dropped the diaper bag outside my door, and stuffed Junior through Trudeau's window. The baby floated toward his big hands like an astronaut in a spacesuit, arms and legs splayed. Then Dolly minced back to the tilted van, reopened the hatch, climbed in on her hands and knees, and emerged lugging a plastic car seat.
"It's against the law to have him in a moving vehicle without his seat," she said as she opened the door next to me, and I slid over behind Bob. There was something sticky on the ripped vinyl I shoved onto, but I didn't say anything. I forgot to protect my hidden hand and my eyes teared up from squashing it against the door which, like the other side, had only an empty socket and screw holes where handles should have been. Trudeau bounced Junior on his knee while Dolly tried to figure out how to secure the carseat. My hand issue kept me from helping.
"Those belts are broken back there." Bob was watching Dolly in the mirror. "We've been meaning to get them fixed, but first thing's first." Dolly stopped fiddling with the belts she'd been unable to match up and rocked the seat twice. Her fingernails were painted the same pink as her toenails.
"I guess it's pretty steady," she said. "There just has to be one in the car, I think. Give him here." Trudeau passed Junior, who glided like a skydiver into his mother's hands. "I'll hold him for a while. He'll probably want to nurse soon. I did his diaper before you came along, so that shouldn't be a problem for a bit. He likes to sleep in the car. You're going to meet your daddy today, little man," she said to her baby, propping him up, then folding him into her lap. She smiled over at me with wet anxious and excited eyes.
"I don't know how I missed the turn for the Interstate," she shrugged. "Probably when Junior was crying. It's distracting."
"Hmm," Bob said. From my new seat I had a direct line on his face, and his eyes were fine; I don't know why I'd thought one was off. "Your little boy there probably saved your life." There were new smells, like sweet talcum powder and sour pee. Maybe something milky, but I was probably thinking of Dolly needing to nurse the baby. She was smiling still, but her brow creased.
"What do you mean?"
"He means we're with the state highway inspection department, and there's a situation," Trudeau said, turning half way so his bad nose was in profile. "There's a bridge out, and the Interstate is closed. But if you'd been on that road at the wrong time, God knows how you might have wound up. There's a lot of people dead. We're on our way right now to check out the catastrophe. I'm afraid that's our number one responsibility."
"Maybe I'll set him down—fresh air made him sleepy," Dolly said, hoisting up her baby and leaning with him toward the seat between us, but still riveted to what Trudeau was saying. "You can't take me to the base? I thought you'd be able to take me there straight. Didn't you say it was on the way?"
"Well," Bob said, "The truth is, we've got to see the hole first. We've got to do an assessment. It's our job and a heavy responsibility. Just like your husband, your baby's daddy, had a responsibility to fulfill, we've got our duty, too. Let us do our job, and we'll get you to the base alright."
The baby was in his seat now. His arm was stuck toward my face. His hand was so small it looked fake. He was buried in his parka, so all I could see were his nose, a cheek, and one blue eye that didn't seem to be looking at anything. His mother sniffed a few times, thinking. "Won't take too much time?" she asked.
"Just enough to inspect," Trudeau said. "And it'll take us a little extra to get around these back roads."
Dolly tugged the baby's hood back, exposing red curls that matched her long hair. I finally admitted to myself how pretty she was. She would have been the prettiest girl in my high school.
"You might find it interesting," Bob said. "It's tragic, but something you don't see every day."
Now that she'd settled herself and her baby in, Dolly tried to catch up. "So what exactly happened?" She was looking at me when she asked. I made big eyes, like, "Oh, boy, it's trouble." The baby was cooing, and Dolly automatically gave him a knuckle to suck.
"Bad," Trudeau said. "A bridge on the Interstate collapsed. Cars and trucks from both directions drove off to their doom." He paused and turned around, looking worried, his nose never uglier. "Your fella, he wasn't driving to the base, was he? Military convoy?"
The baby was asleep and Dolly slipped her finger from his lips. "Nunh-unh," she said, "thank God for that. Those poor people. Bradley's flying in on a transport. He's supposed to be in by five. What's it now?"
Nobody in the car was wearing a watch. If there was a dashboard clock, neither Bob nor Trudeau consulted it. "Little past one," Bob said. His neck under his dyed copper hair was burnt red. Nobody from around here would have a neck like that this time a year. I hadn't noticed their plates when they picked me up. But he seemed acquainted with the roads. "That gives us plenty of time to do our job and get you where you're going. You hungry?"
Dolly was looking over her sleeping baby at me, and I smiled. "Nah," she said. "I ate a sandwich and some Chips-Ahoys just before you showed up. Junior'll let me know when he wants to nurse."
"That's good," Bob said. "Cause we had a big breakfast at the diner where the troopers found us and told us about the bridge. The place was in a panic—some of the folks in there were worried that they might have lost people."
"Good pancakes, though," Trudeau said. He half-turned and winked at me. "And some of us got extra sausages."
We were passing through some low farm land and patches of scrub oak where water had risen from ponds and creeks almost to the level of the road. Bob chose each turn without hesitation—either he knew every road or had an instinct for it. It was quiet for a while, and I got used to riding in the car. Everything felt familiar, as if I'd known these people forever. Like we were all related. Like maybe Bob and Trudeau were my uncles, and maybe Dolly and I were a couple and the baby was our baby. And I felt a thrill when I remembered where we were headed. I don't know what I expected to see. I don't know why I wasn't more worried about Bob and Trudeau and the stories they were making up. They were like bedtime stories, and I felt if I could be part of one of them, then maybe I could be anything. Maybe it was having a baby so close that made for that kind of atmosphere.
"Little Junior's got a nice look to him, a little mischievous, even in his sleep," Bob said. He'd been watching the child in the mirror. "Kind of like one of those little Cupid babies."
Dolly smiled. Her green eyes had gotten lazy-lidded and dreamy. "Got his daddy's eyes. I have to keep reminding myself that that's where I'm going today. You think somebody from the base will help with the van?"
"No question about it," Trudeau said. "The military goes out of its way to help young wives and mothers, as I understand it." Then he slapped Bob's thigh, and Bob shot a look at him. "You know," Trudeau said, "it's not Junior that's the Cupid. It's me and you! We're the Cupids, taking Dolly to meet her knight in shining armor. We're in the business of uniting lovers." At that moment Bob half-winked at me in the rearview mirror, like we were sharing a secret, and I guess we were, but I didn't know which secret he meant—that the Cupids, unbeknownst to Dolly, were also delivering me to my lover? That none of us was a bridge inspector? Of course, there wasn't any girl waiting for me anywhere. Just a cousin, if I could find him.
"Baby's so cute, I could just eat him all up," Trudeau said, and we all looked toward Junior, who was smacking his lips and making little grunting sounds. "Your mom ever say that about her grand-baby, that she could just eat him all up?" he asked Dolly.
"Un-hunh," she said, blushing under her freckles. She fussed with the hood of Junior's parka. If I went to the prom, I thought, I would have wanted to go with her, and I would have wanted her to wear a bright green gown that matched her eyes and showed off her red hair and freckled arms. I would have worn a pale blue tuxedo and shiny black shoes.
"Why don't you tell Dolly what almost ate you all up," Bob said. He was talking to me, but his eyes were on the road, which was narrow and headed straight through some fields where bare stalks rose through acres of standing water. We hadn't seen any houses in a long time. The water was the color of slate, which was the color of the sky. I didn't know what Bob was talking about. Dolly was looking at me with a waiting smile. Her husband was a lucky bastard. I wondered how they met.
"Yeah, tell her about what got at your hand—" Trudeau said. Dolly looked me over. The way I leaned on my stiff arm I covered the door handle, but not the hole for the window crank.
"A dog." I cleared my throat. I hadn't said anything in probably an hour. "A husky mix."
"Think he'd know better than to try to take a bone from a dog's mouth," Bob said.
"But it was a chicken bone," I said. "They splinter up. They say they'll get stuck in a dog's intestines and kill him. I thought it was an emergency." I coughed into my good hand.
"They say a human being's saliva's got more germs in it than a dog's," Dolly said.
"That's a fact," Trudeau nodded.
"Un-hunh," Bob agreed.
"What time is it now, you think?" Dolly asked. And then the baby started wailing.
You'd have thought a police siren had gone off. Junior flung his arms and legs out straight, and his face was crushed up like a fist and turning red. He was screaming so loud the car seemed to buck, as if Bob was riding the brakes. My hand started aching, and Trudeau hung his head over his seat, his nose like the last rotten apple left on a leafless tree.
"He's a little alarm clock," Dolly said over the din. She shifted around, not meeting anybody's eyes, finally pulling down the zipper of her sweatshirt. "I'm going to have to nurse him, gentleman," she said, and the way she added "gentleman" put things in order before she lifted Junior out of his car seat and folded back his hood so his curls glowed at us. She lifted one side of her pink t-shirt over her plump, white breast, on which the nipple had risen into a hard brown knot. I'm pretty sure I saw a drop of milk on its tip before Junior's head obscured my view.
"Hungry little guy," Trudeau said. He gazed through the windshield. Junior slurped a little while he nursed.
"Not too long now," Bob said. "Couple of miles. You can't see it, but we're near the creek that flooded. Only thing is, we're going to be at the bottom. We'll be where all the cars and trucks wound up. Emergency operations'll be under way. Would have been nice to see it from the top."
From above—on the edge—was the only way I'd imagined the scene. I hadn't thought about being in the middle of it. Dolly, her gaze maybe out the windshield, maybe at Bob's burned neck, wasn't really curious about the news. Maybe she was thinking about her reunion with her husband, maybe she was off in the place mothers go when they nurse their babies. It seemed very quiet without Junior's screaming. You could hear the tires whooshing along the road and the baby sucking.
"Un-hunh," Trudeau said. "But being down is better, because we can do our inspection from the car. We want to do our job, not interfere. Better if we stay out of sight completely." We came to a spot where the road crossed what looked like a lake but was really a flooded field. There was about a hundred feet of rusty guardrail on either side. Bob slowed to a stop. It felt strange not to be moving. Trudeau was staring at me, his eyes and mouth dead serious.
"Okay," he said, "since you left the clipboard with the specifications and the checklist back at the diner, you've got to memorize the extent of the damage here so we can have a complete report on all the structures in the adjacent territory." Bob had set the car in park, and he shoved his door open and stepped out. He looked over the guardrail at the endless water, put his hands on his hips and stretched. He was shorter than I'd thought he was, and some of his stomach showed beneath his leather jacket when he opened my door. It was cold outside, but not freezing. Dolly looked out the door for a second, but Junior kept nursing and she shielded him with her arm. It wasn't until then that I realized with a sinking heart that I was meant to leave the car. I wasn't going to see the hole from the bottom or top.
"Check out each weld of each bolt for structural integrity." Trudeau said. "They're all numbered just beneath the bolt head, so you memorize the bad ones. We'll be back in about a half hour, give or take a few minutes." He looked at Dolly, who was a passive witness to my departure. "Baby's going to see his first disaster," he said.
Bob was waiting for me to get out. He was looking up and down the road. What I did next was lean over the carseat, which was hard to do with my stiff arm and my hand in my pocket, and I looked close at the back of Junior's head. The red curls had gold in them, like coins scooped from a treasure chest. Just then he turned a little, and I saw his lips part, saw a line of milky spit connect his mouth to his mother's nipple. And I bent down further and kissed his soft cheek, just a peck, but I felt its warmth pass into me. Then Junior latched on again, and when I pulled back, Dolly was smiling at me with the purest, most serene pride I would ever witness.
Then the next thing, I was watching the car disappear down the farm road, billowing exhaust hiding plates I'd never know. I stood between the rusted guardrails and licked my lips to see if I could taste the baby, but they were too cold, and if there was anything to taste, I'd lost it.
Twenty years, and my hand still won't close tight around a wrench or a bottle. I try to use it anyway, and sometimes a hammer will slip or a glass will drop on the floor, and I've got to apologize. Did you ever wait for something without anybody knowing it? Maybe it's a pretty woman about your own age. Maybe a red-headed young man with blue eyes, and you listen to hear if somebody calls him Brad or Junior. You have thoughts that would fit in a picture you'd hang in the big empty space on your wall.