The Bridge Cleanup

“Behold I will feed this people with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.

Artemesia sat on the ground tugging on her boot, pulling on it with both hands.

“Hey Mugworts, I told you don’t get them wet.”  Walek teased her. “If you get them wet you’ve got to take them off.”

He called her Mugworts because she liked Harry Potter and thought her long black hair looked like her favorite character.  She called him Walek because that was his name, or at least his last name.  Nobody knew his first name since he insisted on being called World Peace – which nobody would – so they called him Walek.

Mugworts gave up.  “I give up.” she said and stared at her boot.  “I’ll have to cut it off.”

“Blisters?” asked Walek.  “Do they hurt?”

“Does your face hurt?” replied Mugworts.

Walek nodded.  “K.  Whatever.” He fluttered his hands.  “Where’d you sleep?  In the ditch?”

“Fuck you!” said Mugworts Idly. “Why are we even here?”

“We’re supposed to clean up the bridge.  20 more hours and I’m done.”

“Til next time.  I bet you get time, next time.”  She tugged at her boot again.  “What’d you nick anyway?”

“Nick?  Who’s Nick?  Your moms?”  Walek asked it with a sneer.

“Fuck you.” Mugworts said idly.  “What did you steal?  You’re the one going to hell.”

Walek held up his hand and made a hanging gesture.

After a minute, Mugworts kicked her boot with the other boot and pried at the heel.  She stopped.  “Is he coming or not?”

“Who? The Doctor?”

“Ha ha! Yes the doctor.”  Mugworts laughed.

“He said he was coming.” said Walek.  “He said he was going to bring his chainsaw and his girl and cut down all these goddamn power poles.” Walek said. “They spoil the view I guess.”

“Then he’ll be doing service… Do you think that’s why he does this, or is he banking it against the time when he does… need to be of service… to service.” Mugworts trailed off and stared down the dirt road.

“Doc?  Nah, Doc’s got his own thing.”  Walek shrugged. “Where do you think he got that Cadillac?”

“What about Duke?” asked Mugworts.

“What about Duke? How the hell should I know?  I don’t keep up with that bald bitch anymore. You ever do peyote, Mugworts?   Did you ever do the peyote?  Goddamn!  I didn’t know you could get that fucked up.”

Mugworts stirred and got to her feet.  “I wanna get gone.  I’m not waiting another night for Doc.”  She walked down the road to the bridge. On her left a sign cratered with holes named the stream and the bridge.

The bridge was old steel and rotten with rust.  The red dirt ran road ran straight over it into the forest beyond.   A few  railway ties poked up through a thin layer of concrete and dust and on either side the ground plunged steeply down to the sound of running water far below.  Kudzu climbed up out of this ravine and twined itself through the beams of the bridge.

On the far end  an old masonry structure, like a fort with loopholes for arrows, or an embrasure for guns, covered half the hillside.  Rebar rose out of the top – skinny sentinels forever watching those who crossed  to the other side.

“We have to wait. We can’t do anything without Doc.” Walek shivered.  “This place is creepy.  It’s like that gross movie with Tom Selleck.”

“Who?” said Mugworts.

“You know. The Smokey and the Bandit dude. Can’t you hear the banjo play?”  Walek accompanied himself with the air-banjo.  Walek loved old movies.

Mugworts hobbled out to the middle of the bridge.  Looking through a hole in the concrete between the old ties, she could see angry water far below, bumping stray logs together.

“How are we supposed to clear this shit anyway?”  She yanked on the kudzu that hung from the stout crossbar over the hole. “Why are we even here? Did you actually see Doc this time or Bunny?”

“No.” said Walek. “He called. He said to wait for him.”

“Here? You’re sure it was here?” Mugworts gestured all around at the road, the bridge the trees. “Why here? What’s so great about here?”

“I’m sure. He said to wait by the tree.” Walek pointed to the enormous oak that Mugworts had been sleeping under. “He said they lynched a guy there”

“What for? I don’t see no rope.”

“Not now.” said Walek. “Way back when. He said to wait.”

“Maybe it was another bridge.” Mugworts spat reflectively through the hole in the bridge and the two crumbling boards that lay next to it.

“So you think he’s helping us?” she continued.

“You heard him – just like me.”

“Yeah, about that.” Mugworts smiled. “I was kinda fucked up. What did he say?”

Walek snorted. “You know… the usual. He’d put in a good word. He’d sign our sheet. How much time do you have left?”

Mugworts stared at him and adjusted her breasts. Something had gotten twisted in that ditch. “I ain’t doin’ no time. I just woke up here.”

“Yeah.” Walek shook his head. “You’re so tough.”

Mugworts looked at him and pulled her hair back out of her face. “What if we forgot all about this, Walek. What if we threw our sheets through that hole and just went back home. We could hitch a ride back to where it’s not so fucking hot and just… it never happened you know. A do over. Get away from this fucking hanging tree that doc has sent us to.”

Walek laughed. “You crazy. I wanna be done with this shit and you should too.  They’re just gonna find you sooner or late.”

Mugworts spat again, over the rail this time, letting the drool descend slowly on a long string until it snapped and fell into the river below.

Walek started up from where he had been sitting, shaded his eyes and stared down the road. “Someone’s coming.”

“Are you sure?” Mugworts limped up next to him.

“Look can’t you see the dust.” Far down the road in the shimmering heat, a great cloud of red dust approached, fronted by the wavering white bar of a car.

“Thank God.” Mugworts spat on the ground. “I’m gonna stab him in the face when he gets here. Bastard.”

The cloud got larger and larger, drifting over the trees lining the dirt road. Walek squinted. “It’s not him.”

“Who in the hell is it then?” Mugworts kicked her boots. “Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit. I’m so tired of this bullshit. Is it cops? Should we hide?”

“No worse. It’s Duke!” he said. “God I hate that man.”

“Wait. I thought he didn’t drive.” said Mugworts.

“He doesn’t. Look he’s standing up in back. The Chinese chick is driving.”

Moments later the big white convertible ground to a halt in the dirt, executed a three point turn and fell silent facing away from them. The man in the back dressed all in white with a white hat holding a half-empty bottle of whiskey in one hand and a joint in the other stood up – from where he’d fallen down – took a swig of  whiskey, a drag on a joint and started to speak. He stopped, took another pull on the bottle and wiped his mouth.

Walek cursed and picked up a rock. “Fuck me! Why do you keep following me around, dude! You’re over the fuckin’ edge.”

Duke raised both hands. “My people…” he began and neatly dodged the stone aimed at his head. “I have been sent to encourage you. Do not waste your time in idle discourse! Do something, while you have the chance! It is not every day that you are needed. Not indeed that you are needed indeed… personally needed. Indeed others would meet the case, if needed…” he trailed off and dodged another stone as Walek screamed at him.

Mugworts sat down and put her hand up against the sun.

“Mankind cries.” Duke swayed and grabbed the back of the seat. “Those cries for help were to all mankind and…ring in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, us is all mankind… WE are all mankind. Whether we like it or not. Make the most of it, before it is too late!”

“Represent!” A dirt clod Walek had dug up hit him squarely in the chest leaving a red stain. He took no notice, intoxicated well beyond pain. “For the rude brood to which a cruel hand fated us! When with folded arms we hang the pros and cons we are a DIScredit to the species. The tiger bounds in the new year, or else us he devours. We have not reached a conclusion.”

Walek kicked the back of the car. “Fuck off man. Just fuck off. You’re the fucking reason I’m here dickhead. Get out of the car…”

Duke shook his head seeing Walek for the first time. “Backward devils… what?”

The Chinese woman started the car suddenly and lurched forward. Duke bobbled and almost fell off the back. Recovering his balance he put one leg up and raised the bottle dramatically. “Drive on pig!” he yelled, tilted his head back, and took a bubbling draw off the bottle.

The car revved and bolted back down the road leaving Duke sprawling on the trunk, hanging on for dear life.  Soon it was just a fading cloud of red dust.

Walek stamped up and down in front of the sitting Mugworts, swearing. “Let’s go. Come on. Let’s go. It’s just two miles back to the road.”

Mugworts looked up at him and laughed. “You go. I’m staying.”

“You’re staying now.” Walek smacked his palm to his forehead. “Why are you staying now? A minute ago…”.

“Yer right when yer right.  We gotta get done with this. If we stop now it just doubles up.”

They waited the rest of the day, in the shade of the old oak, as the sun beat the old bridge, wilting the kudzu that covered it. The dirt road stretched out behind them shimmering like water. On the other side of the gorge it climbed steeply through an eroded cut with boulders. No car passed.

The sun began to set; the moon began to rise and Walek’s phone buzzed. He stared at it.

Mugworts stirred. “What’s he say.”

“It’s off for today.”

“What’s off?” asked Mugworts.

“The cleanup.” said Walek. “Doc’ll be here tomorrow first thing.”

“Fuck.” Mugworts threw a stick at the road. “Did he come today?  Are we even in the right place?”

Walek tapped out a message. The phone buzzed back.

“He says the hanging bridge with the tree. So yeah we’re here.”

Mugworts held up a hand. “Wait you said this was the hanging tree. This is the hanging tree with a bridge not the hanging bridge with a tree.”

“Whatever.” said Walek. “It’s got to be right. He’ll be here in the morning.”

“How many things do they hang people from around here anyways?” mused Mugworts.

Walek laughed. “You better watch out, if the heat doesn’t get you the lynch mob will.”

“That’s not funny.” Mugworts threw a stick at him.

This morning dawned just like the last one – a carbon copy of yesterday, frayed on the edge, missing details. By the time it turned yellow, the cicadas were hard at it, terrifying the forest folk as they streaked across the road with  long, angry rattles.

When Mugworts stirred and closed her cracked lips around her swollen tongue, Walek was already awake, squatting astride the hole in the center of the bridge staring down at the swirling water below. She sat up. Her head was congested and her eyes bleary. She thrust her tongue between her lips, vainly seeking moisture. Her throat was sore inside and out and she rubbed it, sitting slumped in the dewey ditch. Wearily, she crawled over to her pack beneath the “hanging tree” and took out the last bottle of bitter and black water, turned it up and drank in a long series of bubbles.

Her eyes cleared and she tried to clear her tightening  throat.

It was still and hot; already her forehead was covered with sweat and the sun hadn’t even broken above the trees that lined the road. The kudzu covering the bridge, shone bright green in the morning. “Triffids.” thought Mugworts.

“Hey!” she yelled, but it came out like the call of a crow.

“Hey!” she tried again. Walek didn’t look up but he did shrug. “Have you heard anything? What time is it anyway?”

Walek shrugged again. “Phone’s out. We won’t hear anything.”

Mugworts shook her head. “What time is it?”

“Time has stopped.” said Walek, raising both arms skyward.

Mugworts stood up. “Ugh. So negative. What do you mean the phone’s out? You keep a spare battery, right?”

“Yeah. But it quit working, nothing in or out – and the clock changed.” He paused and looked at the phone. “Right now, it’s 2:00 in the morning… a week ago… or next year.  I don’t know…”

She stepped out onto the bridge. “Goddammit! It’s this fucking place. It’s this fucking bridge.”

“What are you gonna do.” Walek shrugged again and threw a pebble into the hole in the bridge. “We gotta wait for the ride out of here anyway.”

“We can walk.” Mugworts stared down the road, looking for a cloud of dust.

“We could, but we wouldn’t get anywhere. If we walk out we’ll just have to come back and do it anyway.” He lifted his head and she noticed how tired and ragged and old he looked. “We’ve got to do it sooner or later right? The bridge won’t clean itself.”

“Who cares?” stormed Mugworts. “Seriously. Where are we anyway? Nobody cares about this bridge.”

Walek shook his head. “This bridge is all bridges, Artemesia. It’s all the same.”

Walek’s phone rang.  He stared at it in disbelief.  It rang again.

“Answer it Walek!  Put it on speaker.”

Walek poked at it.  “Is it Doc?” he said wonderingly.

A voice came through oddly loud and clear over the cicadas.  They both groaned. It was Duke.

Walek yelled.  “Dude come get us.  Duke!”, but the mechanical voice carried over him.

“There is such a quantity of tears my lovelies..  The world weeps for both of you my little sparrows.  They take it in turns – not the sparrows of course.  Don’t speak ill of the millenials, Artificia, they are just as happy as everyone else….”

Walek and Mugworts screamed together.  “Duke!  Come and get us.  Come get us!”.

Duke stopped.  “I’m sorry, but you are entangled in strings – a net of your own design.  It is a net woven with your cleverness and you have fallen in.  One day you were born and one day you will…”.

Walek dropped the phone into the hole in the bridge and it fell down, down to the waters below.  They watched it drop and it resurfaced briefly, swimming frantically away from them with the current.   They ran to the side of the bridge and watched it out of sight.

Mugworts laughed.  “Shit. So full of shit. Is there anything to eat? I’m starving… or drink?”

Walek shook his head and stared down at the logs in the stream far below. “There’s nothing to eat any more and not much to drink.” He looked back. The sun was just beginning to crawl across the red dirt road. “We should probably worry about the heat.”

Mugworts rolled her eyes.  “The heat! Yeah I’m worried about the heat. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m here.”

“You know why you’re here?”  Walek feigned surprise. “Cool, dude!”

Mugworts sat down on the wooden platform of the bridge and twisted off a piece of kudzu. “Seriously, is Doc coming or not? I swear to God we’re not in the right place.”

Walek lay back on the bridge. “Can you hear the wind in the kudzu? The leaves all talk at once.”

“They’re just whispering to themselves.” Mugworts replied.

“Can you hear what they’re saying?”

“No. It’s like the river.” said Mugworts. “It sounds like something you understand but you don’t. They’re not talking about us, that’s for sure.”

“Then why are we here? If I don’t care about them and they don’t care about me, why don’t we just leave?”

“Where would we go Walek?” asked Mugworts.

“You’re the one who wants to walk out.” he replied.

“Yeah… but I know I’m not going anywhere. Everywhere we go, there we are.”

Walek sat up. “I thought Duke and that Chinese chick would come back anyway. She leads him around like a dog. Wait… Look!” He pointed.

An enormous cloud of red dust billows down the road toward them, rising into the beautiful, blue sky, and in front of it, a white truck like the angel from a fever dream.  The truck comes on, shimmering in the heat rising from the dirt road.  Even though this emissary of civilization means a long day’s work ahead, they caper for joy.  All the waiting has paid off and at least now they know where they’ll sleep tonight – not in a ditch that’s for sure. They stand at the edge of the bridge applauding furiously as the truck stops.

A crew in spotless orange coveralls  jumps out with shovels and shears and water – delicious, clean water – and food.  The air cools and suddenly the morning is brisk and crisp, and full of  snipping, as vines and branches fall into the river below. From beneath the twisted green kudzu monster the outline of the bridge begins to appear – weathered to be sure – but still true.

How beautiful it is after all the anxiety of waiting. They step forward to clasp the tools offered to them and the heat beats the back of their neck, the dust chokes them and the sun blinds their eyes.

Artemesia sighed.

Behind her the thick, hairy arms of kudzu climb vigorously out of the gorge,  strangling the bridge. Walek is gone, stumbled away – gone to the other side, climbing up through the cut toward the top of the ridge, where the black bodies of the trees form a straight line blocking out the sky.

Artemesia stares down the empty road.  Nothing moves even the cicadas have stopped flying.  With a long look over her shoulder, she tears herself away, turns and hobbles after him over the bridge and past the bullet-ridden sign that announces this is the crossing of Owl Creek.

6 thoughts on “The Bridge Cleanup

  1. The dialog shifts in tone from trying to be realistic to trying to be surreal. It’s odd to lift speeches in their entirety from other works. It reads like one of those song mashups.

    My note would be to take the core idea and bring it way forward and let the other stuff fade into the background – particularly Duke and Honey (and Doc and Bunny).

    I get what you want to do but it’s heavy-handed. If a joke needs explaining, it doesn’t really work. –me

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