Fiction: Twenty-Four and a Bottle of Rye

I’m going to destroy myself with booze.

Why the hell not? In every bottle there are a thousand dreams. Dreaming is a lost art these days. That’s why I drink. To make the alien familiar again.

Call me Maxwell. I pull bodies up from the bay after they fall off the Golden Gate Bridge. You’d think it’s disturbing, but it’s not. I understand why they do it, the jumpers. The world is becoming a labyrinth. For some of them jumping is the only way they can find peace. The fall, of course, is terrifying. The few who have survived all say that. But there has to be something about dying with the most beautiful city in the world staring you in the face, something spectacular that makes it worth it in the end. Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep doing it. Twenty-four a year.

I don’t think of the rest of them as often as I should when I drink. They were people, too; beautiful, each an endless library of stories, of dreams unclaimed. When I do remember the others, bloated and pale as the moon, it isn’t pain or regret I feel… only a fleeting curiosity. None of them could be talked out of it. The ones who can don’t jump.

At least, that’s the way she explains it.

I’ve been a Marin County Coroner for six years. I’ve worked the Bridge for three. I don’t remember the faces, except for one… hers. You may find that odd, but the reality is one human face becomes hard to distinguish from the next once it’s been in the Bay for more than ten or twelve hours. I’d like to say we find them all, but the ocean was the first god of this world for good reason. It has a will we can’t comprehend.  They wash up on the rocks, Fort Point, or Crissy Beach. Sometimes they sink and get swept out to the Pacific side if they’re still alive after the initial splash. It’s hard to tread water with a shattered spine.

They belong to all walks of life. Whites, blacks, Asians, park rangers to hedge fund managers. They all come here to jump. To leap off into that blue abyss and feel true flight for the very first time, the liberation that always outran them in the labyrinth.

Her words, not mine.

Usually the crotch of the pants gets blown out on impact. Hitting water from that high up is, after all, like diving face-first onto a highway from a mile above. Not with her. She was naked when she jumped. SFPD found no signs of foul play. She had her bottom lip pierced with a ring, and barbells through her nipples and clitoral hood. She had big bedroom eyes and shoulder-cropped hair dyed neon blue. Pulling her onto the sand was the only time I can remember in the last three years that I’ve physically cringed in the field, like that deep first swig after you haven’t had a cold one in months that still burns you on the way down because you weren’t fully prepared.

She chokes up a laugh when I ask her why, says: “I was never meant for the ground. A free bird needs to fly.”

It always feels wrong I can’t see her breath. She was so cold. But the water running from the corners of her mouth… that seems right. The oily sheen on her skin. The Bay is as toxic and polluted as you can imagine, so the dead it gives back after they’ve fallen or jumped off the Golden Gate are usually well-intact and untouched by sea creatures. Her hair, matted and stiff like frost… her eyes. Oh God, her eyes. I prayed for a year about those eyes. The Catholic Church has made a fortune in quarters off those eyes.

When I catch them in the mirror, I start to wonder about her, I ask her things. Her eyes don’t track their subject the way a living person’s do. Like mannequin’s eyes, they’re just plain old-fashioned matter, nothing to animate or summon them to motion. And they’ll always be there. Dead-straight and set on me, shining from a frigid, dune-white face. As predictable as the ratio of jumpers to months in the year. She watches from every mirror, every pane of every window, every puddle after it rains, every background of every call I make through Skype.

My wife gets nervous when I talk about her.  “Max,” she says (always with the Max), “You’re scaring me. I think you need AA.”

And I’ll say, “I don’t have the time. Within a week I’ll have another jumper to deal with and I’m not even close to done booking the last one.” As cyclical as a Bridge suicide, this argument unfolds. My wife can’t see her. Part of me knows I can’t either, in reality. But that doesn’t make her disappear.

My wife hasn’t seen what I have, doesn’t know what’s down there in the depths of the drink. My wife didn’t pull a young girl out of the bay with black pools in her eyes and a lifetime of laughter silenced in a single gout of seawater trickling from her lips. My wife doesn’t believe in ghosts.

There are wet footprints darkening the floor. I tell my wife I took a shower and didn’t dry off well enough. I tell her the footprints are mine.

She asks, “How much have you had, Max?” to which I chuckle, then start to cry. She tells me, “This Hell you’re in, you do it to yourself.” Then she gets up to leave to go to the grocery store, says she needs to clear her mind.

And maybe she’s right. Maybe I did ask for this, for the Bay to spit back its jumpers into every crack of my waking reality, when I chose this as my profession. But maybe it was the other way around; maybe it’s they who chose me. They will still be there when the booze is gone. In the fleeting traces of my dreams, the flames of the church candles, in the ruddy silence of a long drive. It’s only in drink that they come out into the open to tell me their reasons. And I will listen. Hers in particular, her with the piercings and the dyed-blue hair.

She’s beckoning to me now, watching me from the door in the pale bloat of her eyes, a mere two steps away from where my wife just stood. She’s been watching me the whole time, with a sad fascination in her gaze. She doesn’t understand, I realize. Doesn’t know why I try, or my wife puts up with it. Dead matter sees the world in ways the living never could.

She beckons again. She wants me to come with her. She wants me to fly.

“Free birds know secrets the caged ones don’t,” she says, a spray of oily black bay water spilling from her lips onto the floor. There is no wind in her voice box. Her voice sounds like a poem recited under the surface of a pool, vague and stutter-stop.

“No,” I tell her, taking one long, last pull off the bottle. “You were already dead. You were already dead…”

The tears begin, a deluge, as they always do, the denial inherent in the rivulets drowning my stubble forested cheeks. I don’t know. I never did. I don’t understand any of it. Any of it, at all.

“Leave me alone. Just leave me. The fuck. Alone!”

“Max? Who are you talking to?”

My wife’s face peeks in the door. She was waiting outside, eavesdropping, or maybe she forgot her keys. The dead girl vanishes back down the neck of the empty glass bottle.

“Nobody,” I slur. I kick the empty bottle under the bed.

“You’re scaring the hell out of me.”

“Go to the store.”

“Whatever you say…”

“Go. To. The. Store.”

My wife’s face disappears and the door clicks shut.

“Max.” I hear the dead girl say, clotted words drifting through water. The pressure pops in my ears. She’s close. I feel cold bay water running through my hair and down the side of my face when she speaks. “Maxwell. Maxwell. Come fly with me, Max. Come fly.”

I fish the empty bottle out from under the bed and put in the recycling bin outside. I puke on top of a mountain of empty bottles. The dead girl doesn’t speak any more for now. But I know I will see her again. And the others. Every one for a different bottle. The invitation of a hundred pairs of sightless eyes.

I’ll go to work tomorrow nursing the hangover I’m brewing, trying to push the images of her purple lips and pale gel eyes out of my mind so I can focus on booking the latest poor soul who thought four seconds of free fall could make them free.

Then, in a week or two, another one will jump and I’ll have to pull them from the steel blue maw of the San Francisco Bay. When it comes to bodies, the Bridge is an infinite giver.

Twenty-four a year. Twenty-four drowned deep in their bottles of rye. Twenty-four who fall because free birds should fly.

(originally published in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #20, April 2014)

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