You See This All The Time in Providence
At 7:00, I left off my contemplation of the Providence River Bridge's faux art deco stylings and the Portuguese men with trucks parked half up on the sidewalk, blasting Latin pop music while they caught fish over the side, and the young professionals and club kids and gangsters strolling past on their way to the waterside bars, and I walked westward to India Point Park.
The water had taken on that particular bright, silent blue that melts into it sometimes at dusk, if there aren't many clouds. A small group of stationary motorcyclists revved their engines at each other and laughed. People walked hand in hand, or smoked marijuana on park benches, or slept in their cars on the side of the road.
I've never been scared to walk alone in Providence. It's not the sort of place where you get raped, I think. Plus, I have a stun gun in my purse.
The north entrance to the park is a wide pedestrian walkway crossing I-195. I leaned against the cement wall under this bridge for half an hour, as if I was taking cover from rain, and read a few chapters from Wolf Hall. The author makes Thomas More look like an annoying jerk, which is not what you'd expect if you've seen A Man for All Seasons. When it got dark, I tied my hair back and used my cell phone as a flashlight to read by.
They say life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. These days, I think, I've been living life backwards, and not understanding it at all.
My father didn't love my mother, so it was a weird marriage. But she loved him—a lot—and I guess he liked to have sex with her, and since he's good at cooking, but she's bad at it, and she loves to clean, which he hates, it must have seemed like a pretty good deal.
Also, he got me and my brother Taylor out of it, and I know he loves us, so there's that, too. He used to teach us the opposite of whatever they said in school. It was his third hobby, he said, after cooking and boning my mom, and was good motivation, because the better our teachers were, the more he had to study. He actually enrolled in a community college night course one time when he found out I had gotten Dr. Roseman—with his PhD from UMD and work history with NASA—as my physics teacher.
He showed me some things about Copernicus that year that almost nobody knows. And when I was a little kid, we would dance in our pajamas to Weird Al's Everything You Know Is Wrong.
The Washington Bridge, at the other end of India Point Park, has four lanes for cars and then a whole separate bridge for pedestrians, and even the pedestrian bridge has a lane just for bicycles, so the area underneath is wide and dark. The city sometimes parks heavy machinery on the stretch of flat, hard-packed earth between the start of the bridge and the water's margin.
That's where I found Eric that night. He sat cross-legged on the dirt with his head tilted back, his long blonde hair making him look a little like David Foster Wallace, if David Foster Wallace never bathed.
“Hi, Eric,” I said. He looked at me, but otherwise didn't react.
“Are we okay?” I asked. Two weeks before, I had shocked Eric three times with my stun gun under the Henderson Bridge, about a mile north of where we were. He didn't say anything. I got out Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library and offered it to him. He rummaged in his backpack and came up with the copy of Endless Night I had loaned him. We traded, wordless.
I sat next to him and waited.
After a long time—and I mean more than five minutes—he said, “Every stone.” Then he paused for another long stretch of time.
“Every stone up there is held in place by him thinking it should be there. That's all it is.”
“I know,” I said.
“No,” he said. “No, there's nothing in between him and those stones. You keep acting like there is, but there isn't.”
“I believe you,” I said, “but what happened to Taylor? Where is he?”
I had asked him this question so many times. It's why I came to Providence.
“Everybody is in the same place,” he said.
“That's not an answer. Tell me about Taylor.”
He looked at me, sadly, then looked away, and didn't say anything more that night, no matter what I did. Eventually, I left. He would remain there until the police made him leave, and then he would find another bridge to sit under.
When I was twenty-five and still lived in Maryland, my father told me why Eric had missed his first semester of college.
“They told him they'd charge him with obstruction if he didn't cooperate. And your mother and I, we said that was okay with us.” He was drinking spiced rum out of a coffee mug. “All the other kids made statements, but he wouldn't say anything.”
“Why didn't you tell me this?” To me, Eric had just been a cool older boy from across the street. I had touched his penis once, after a Halloween party, but nobody knew that. It was a shock to find out he had been involved in the Taylor tragedy.
“The detectives were sure Eric had nothing to do with it. All the other kids' statements agree that he was with the group the entire time. Left the campsite once to pee on a tree. Bobby Johnson heard the piss splatter. And anyway, we wanted people to be talking about Taylor, not Eric.”
“Why are you telling me now?”
“I guess you're not on Facebook much. Eric has lost it, honey. Totally bats.”
After his 90 days in jail, Eric had double-majored in biology and philosophy, gotten a PhD in computer science, and had a book deal in the works, when—a few months before this conversation—he had apparently stopped communicating entirely. His final tweet was a picture of a bridge from below. The location given for the tweet was Providence, Rhode Island.
“I've changed my mind,” my father said, “on the subject of whether he knows something
When I finally located Eric, he was living in a way that seemed too purposeful to be the result of a mental illness. It was as though he was playing a game only he knew the rules to, and if he explained, he would lose. He had a job in the back at Savers—a thrift store—which I guess he could do without speaking, and the rest of the time he was at the shelter or under a bridge.
It's not that he never talked. It's that he never talked about what you wanted him to. You would offer him a book, and he would wait ten minutes, then wonder aloud why the sky was round.
Because he spoke so rarely, and what he said was such nonsense, I used to record it all, looking for a secret code. The following, for instance, is what he said to me under the Henderson Bridge, verbatim, just before I cussed him out and shocked him with the stun gun:
“See, in between every second and every other second, there's a discontinuity, like a jump cut in film, or the double-slit experiment. Things are cut apart, and each gets its own idea, his idea of it, and each of them moves according to that idea. Talk is mostly a human artifact. If I could just master the art of breathing my last, every time, I would understand better.”
My mother sold very fancy dresses over the Internet. I think she was sorry that I was more interested in reading than clothes. We hardly ever talked. And Taylor was interested in ants—any social insect, really—so that was a dead end for her as well.
Not for my father. The ant thing was a triumph for him, even if other kids could see how creepy it was. Half of Taylor's room was given over to one monstrous habitat, in which multiple species and hives interacted in ways that were fascinating to Taylor, but invisible to the rest of us.
So on a normal night, Mom would construct clothing in one corner of the den, while Dad and I read books or argued in the other and, Taylor hid in his room and stared at ants.
“Remember Camp Daddy Allen?” I said, the next time I talked to Eric. “You taught me how to do a bowline, and a double figure eight, and a trucker's hitch. I forget them all.”
“Clove hitch,” he said. I raised my eyebrows, excited. It was almost like a real conversation.
“Yeah, the clove hitch. I can't do them anymore. I just remember the names.” We were under the Crook Point drawbridge, an amazing, rusty hulk, stuck in the up position, that I didn't like to visit because so many high school kids went there to have sex. When he didn't say anything more, I asked him again about Taylor, expecting blank silence. But this time, he turned to me with a different look. Like something had opened up, and his eyes were pools of clear, shining water that went down to a perfectly empty bottom.
I stood up, shocked.
“I'm serious,” he said. “All this can be undone.”
Some boys had gone into the woods. They had all come back except for Taylor.
That's all. That's the whole story. No matter how we arranged and rearranged the boys' half dozen confused accounts of doing dumb boy stuff in the woods, we never found a way to make it add up to more than that he was there, and then he just wasn't.
Afterwards, my mother gave herself a buzz cut in the garage, and then whenever I came home from college on break, I found her tattooed more and more like a lizard. In my graduation photos, she's wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck to hide the detailed green scales, but I couldn't convince her to take out her reptile eye contact lenses. I'm standing between them because, by that time, my father wouldn't even touch her.
I found him again, a few days after the marriage proposal, under the Providence River Bridge, among the Portuguese fishermen. He was looking up but standing in the wrong place to see the flamingo pink and bronze and purple sunset.
I sat down and gave him Wolf Hall, and he returned The Body in the Library. I imagined there was a companionable silence. The sun went down, and a line began to form at one of the bars.
“If I married you,” I said at last, “would you tell me everything you know about Taylor?”
He turned his head and stared at me for a while, with a look in his eyes that I couldn't understand. Then he tilted his head back up and fixed his gaze to the underside of the bridge.
When, after ten minutes, he still hadn't answered me, I repeated the question.
Ten more minutes went by.
“I'm leaving,” I said, and got up.
Now that I think about it, telling your kids that boning their mom is your second-favorite hobby, after cooking, would be pretty heartless if she didn't know it was a joke. It's the kind of thing that would traumatize someone. But I don't think he was like that, and my mom didn't seem traumatized until after Taylor's disappearance, so maybe it was all more complicated than I thought.
Sometimes I think we'll find Taylor in the woods somewhere, elbows-deep in an anthill. Sometimes I dream about it.
Sometimes I dream about Eric, and he opens his mouth and orchestral music comes out. One day, the Providence River is going to drain away and the shoal of sunken ships and rotten pilings in the water south of the city is going to be visible at last, glowing like bones in the moonlight.
Matthew Talamini is a writer, web developer, long-distance runner and musician. He lives in an underwater labyrinth just south of Providence, Rhode Island, and has an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. This is his first published piece.Visit him at www.matthewtalamini.com.