Gravity: The force that pulls bodies to the center of the earth.
Earth: Terra firma that we dig holes into so we can lower caskets towards the center of the planet, and say proper words as we fill up the holes with dirt. Solemn words spoken with what else? gravity.
From this place nothing returns.
Oh, Death where is thy sting?
Mark Fletcher learned about the sting on Laurel Street Bridge. June 1986. Four PM.
He was dating Gina, the nutty Napolitano he’d caught nude descending the dormitory staircase after an encounter with an unexpected cold shower. “Jesus! Doesn’t anything work in this place? What the hell…my parents pay good money for a private room and there’s no hot water? What’s next? Gruel in the cafeteria? Well, don’t just stand there, jock-strap, can’t you see I’ve got goose pimples and I’m locked out?”
He could see she needed romance. Quiet walks on the beach at sunset. Gallons of Chianti. Afternoon strolls around the lily pond in downtown San Diego’s Balboa Park.
The bridge was the last leg of their journey to Mark’s Subaru, and the babbling brunette was in the middle of a rant about professor Durning dinging her two points for a misplaced comma. Mark had tuned her out, although he occasionally nodded politely and said, “Yeah,” when she paused for a breath, and turned his attention to the other people on the bridge: a black woman ahead who was pushing a stroller, and two Navy guys in white uniforms. And the scarecrow coming towards them, the weirdo with long hair and wearing jeans and a tee-shirt two sizes too big.
Mark moved to Gina’s right so he’d be between her and the guy when he passed them, watching the guy closely. Was his wary stare threatening? Did positioning himself as a buffer appear menacing?
“No! No!’ he yelled when the man scaled the safety fence. He took off running towards the spidery climber. “Don’t do it!” Below, the freeway was clogged with eight lanes of commuting cars. He jumped up to grab a leg—a foot—but the man reached the top, standing tall like an athlete readying for a dive. Gina screamed. The sailors rushed across the street and the black woman stopped and turned around, paralyzed, shading her eyes with her hand. Five strangers who became an ad hoc rescue team, transformed into an instant audience for a spectacular, flawlessly executed swan dive.
Gina ran to Mark whose fingers were locked around the chain link so tightly the sailors had to pry them loose. “Did you see that?” Mark whispered to them. It was a stupid question. Yet, maybe he’d imagined it.
“Yeah, I saw. I’ll never forget it either,” the tall sailor said. The shorter one had his arm around Gina’s shoulder. She was crying into his body. The black woman approached them slowly, wiping tears from her cheeks.
“Oh my God,” she said as she peered over the side. Sirens screamed louder. The sailors and the women formed a semi-circle around one of the cement lampposts. Mark staggered to the edge of the sidewalk and sat down, his legs extended, his face buried in his arm.
Maybe that’s why the squad car didn’t slow down. The officer said he wasn’t sure if the jumper was a suicide or a murder victim. He kept his eyes trained on the people semi-circle. Had they cornered someone? It was a freak accident. He’d raced towards them, running over Mark’s legs, pinning him between the wheel and the curb, severing the femoral artery.
The sailors used their neckties as tourniquets. The cop called for en EMT. A baby’s blanket cushioned Mark’s head. And Gina…she stared at the traffic snarl below. Headlights, like a lighted snake, inched by the circus vehicles parked along the freeway. A black SUV with a shattered windshield was being loaded on a tow truck-bed. She stared into the hole in the ground as Mark’s casket mechanically descended towards the center of a rain-soaked earth. And the black woman struggled to push a stroller through the cemetery grass sprinkled with fallen leaves.