Under the Bridge
June 4, 0003 PPE: rural Kansas
Kansas used to be prettier than this.
Bill sat on the dirt bank under the bridge twirling a seedy stalk of grass he didn’t quite dare to put in his mouth. The sun was coming up over miles of stunted yellow corn across the riverbottom, unbearable to look at already so early in the day, and his bedroll lay behind him, ready to be spread over the dusty earth. Bill’s bones ached from walking all night and the magic hour of sunrise was over: he was looking down into riverscum and litter, watching what was left of the river meander through a channel it had made in its own silt.
Pa would point it out every time: how the topsoil eroded from the fields and silted the rivers, tons of it every year, because the natural drainage of the land was altered to grow so much corn. Papa was always finding places like this along the highway to show Bill and Lance. “So you can see a little nature,” he’d say gruffly, “the kind the TV cameras tend to miss.” They’d seen some disasters in progress, but never anything as bad as this.
“You can just begin to picture it the way it was,” Papa would say softly, “when the first settlers came. Wild and free and in perfect order with God’s creation. Animals and savages and every wildflower in its place.”
Lance would already be catching a frog or skipping a rock or trying to start a scuffle, but Bill would ignore him like always and sit down on a rock and slowly remember how to breathe again, taking one long double-lungful after another while the beauty around him sank slowly in, and he began to remember: solitude. Here he had to take care not to breathe too deep— the rocks were coated with brown slime, and a collection of floating trash caught behind a stick advertised a dozen different brand-names. He missed the frogs and crickets; he saw nothing alive down here except a dragonfly, or rather two dragonflies mating. But when it landed close by he saw that it was one dragonfly after all— one horribly malformed dragonfly.
Bill dug his journal out of his backpack and took a note. He had some stale breadsticks from a restaurant and a moldy cheese the waitress had slipped him, a picnic worthy of the scenery. But his mouth was dry and he’d lost his appetite. He took a small careful sip from his waterbottle.
Two years on the road and most of it, true to his casual prediction to his Mom, walking. But Bill’s fake ID was up to date and he had just enough credit on his ComCard to stay out of jail: if that meant starving while he walked, he would starve. Wherever the rumors of work led he would follow, hitching a ride when he could, traveling cross-country under the stars when he had to, camping under some friendly overgrowth where he could find some and once in a while, like this morning, a bridge.
He was grateful to find it after his all-night hike— but glad now that the sun was up that he had been too weary to try to splash his face in the dark, he might be growing his own coat of brown slime by now. He started thinking about Margie then, her bright blue eyes that saw but didn’t understand, her ears that registered the sounds but didn’t understand, her mouth that laughed so easily but didn’t really understand. Was that why she was the only happy one in the family?
He needed to call home again, a need ingrained and unconscious as the buried thirst that all his measured sips of water barely wetted the lips of: Momma’s birthday was coming up this month, and he hated to call her collect. Mom followed Newsworthy as religiously as her daily scripture-readings, surely she knew there was almost nothing out here in the way of work for an able-bodied man who carries his own shovel and is willing to live in a a rusting abandoned taxicab, a 36-inch drainpipe, a looted convenience store collapsed in the Quake— but not the infamous “Welfare Warehouse.” Or would they put a thing like that on the news?
And the kinds of work you could get: last time they’d talked, at New Year’s, Momma asked what he was doing to earn the magical digits he had sporadically e-mailed to her account and Bill didn’t know what to say. Burying people was hard work, with the Missouri earth frozen and gas for heavy machinery so scarce, wearing a wet bandana across his face because the medics still weren’t sure what the new disease was— though it was better in certain ways than shoveling the stiff little corpses of dogs and cats into the incinerator under last summer’s record heat. He’d told her he was digging ditches for irrigation.
Gradually, out of the ripple of the water, a ripple of voices: a hallucination that grew distinct and was suddenly real. He scooped up his bedroll, his long-handled spade, his waterbottle, his pack and umbrella and retreated up the bank to the crumbling foundation of the bridge to crouch between two rusty steel rafters and listen. The voices were clear, a dozen or so, chattering and laughing far too cheerfully for this hour of the day— it couldn’t be six yet— as they started across the bridge. Bill wished he knew more Spanish. They were on their way to work somewhere, that much he knew. Bill was brown enough above the collar and below the cuffs to fall in with them and find out where: but white enough under his jeans and checkered shirt to think first of his three faltering phrases, then of last week’s “racial incident,” as Newsworthy liked to call the territorial wars of street gangs, a fresh one almost every time he overheard the news—
The voices were only halfway across the bridge when he heard the coptor. Something changed in the tone of their banter, an argument broke out, then the voices fell silent and he heard the far-off whipping rotors and the scrape and shuffle of feet. The thudding engine grew louder and louder, echoing off the water under the bridge, until gradually it blotted out everything.
Bill huddled closer to his pack, hugging his bedroll as the racket reached an intolerable crescendo and began to die away; he could look out over the river bottom and see the shadow stretching for miles across the corn, its rotors still losing momentum, blue lights flickering on the water.
“This is National Security Incorporated,” a bullhorn announced, “legally contracted to maintain security on the property of TransCorp of America. Anybody here speak English? Norteamericano, anyone? Habla American?”
The chorus of voices broke out again, not one in English that Bill could hear.
“Fuckin’ mexies. Hold it down, hold it down, now I want to see all of your working cards, one by one. ID, si? Proof of address, proof of assets. Single file, step right through the gate, single file!”
The voices subsided to an anxious murmur, so close that Bill heard one whisper to another at the end of the line, and the reply: a stifled sob. God of the godless.
“You! Lively now, your turn.”
The high-pitched stream of desperate Spanish seemed to be answering Bill rather than the goon: he caught the word Dios several times. A young one, he thought. Prayer of the prayerless.
“Sergeant?” Now they had turned off the bullhorn. “Think we got one, sir.”
“This one? What’s he got?”
“Well, his card looks legit. But Data Central has no record of this address.”
“He got any assets on his account?”
“Twentyfive dollar fine. Write him out a ticket.”
“Exactly what for, sir?”
“Insufficient address’ll do it. Process the ticket. Then count his assets again.”
A pause: then the shrill young voice burst out again, angry and scared.
“Sorry, kid. Your assets
are insufficient under the Human Welfare Act of 2002. We’re going
to have to take you over to the Welfare office in Lawrence.”
“You-all want to come along?” Bill couldn’t see the gesture that accompanied and instantly translated the threat, but all the voices ceased abruptly except one, the youthful one, and it was wordlessly crying. The coptor engine started beating again, slowly gaining speed as the shadow-rotors sprawled across the corn began to turn. Silence fell while the racket increased once more to the point of intolerability and after a minute of all-consuming noise, the shadow-coptor lifted off and swept away.
The voices did not resume until the racket was a distant insect-buzz.
“Jorge,” said one, sobbing out the name, then “Jorge!” A wail.
“Dios,” said another. “Dios.”
“Bastards,” said a third voice. So one of them knew a little American after all.
The little knot of men began to move again, but no one else had even that much to say. Bill breathed again under the bridge.