From the height of the bridge, her elbows on the railing, Maggie gazed down into the churning river with its curlicues and froth, its hypnotic swirl of green. When she twisted back to the roadbed, the glare on the roofs of the cars driving home cut her eyes. Swaying from the wine she’d been drinking all evening, she turned to the water again.
Ben was dead and buried, and she had been alone for two years, the pain sometimes as keen as the first day. More. That first week she had been numb, but now she knew the pain rationally and intimately, and the pain knew her as well.
She had left her car on the street and slipped on the fallen leaves wet from the afternoon rain and soon to molder away into nothing.
“You should go home.” Ben’s voice behind her startled her. “You’ll make your cold worse. You’re shivering. You know better than that.”
In that instant she sensed his specter and took in a wild breath. “Are you a figment of my intoxication?” She swivelled around and saw the asphalt of the roadbed, the pillars, the metal suspension cables, and, in the distance, the setting sun spilling onto the western edge of the city. Right there, an arm’s length away: Ben, tall and straight, his brown hair curly, his green eyes inquisitive; wearing jeans, his favorite plaid shirt, and the windbreaker she gave him for his twenty-fifth birthday a few years ago. “It sounds like you, Ben.”
Ben coughed, as if he had her cold. “Don’t be shocked. I’m glad to see you.”
“I’m a little drunk.” The brilliant sunset was spreading on the water. It could not, however, hold her if she accidentally tipped over the railing. “I feel like a dropped glove.”
“Hey, hey.” He stepped toward her and looked her up and down as if she were a child getting ready for school. “We can’t have both of us dead, after all. One dumb husband to die is enough death in the family.” He offered to drape his windbreaker around her.
She waved away his grim joke and the windbreaker. “I’ve got a sweater in the car.”
“You always were dramatic, Maggie. I loved that about you, but it was hard to live with sometimes.”
“You weren’t always easy to live with, either. Leaving your socks all over the apartment. You would pull them off and shuffle away from them, while you were dreaming up new bridges. Just the way you died–walking into that garden supplies truck. You scared the driver. Did you know that? He was new on the route, just a student with a part-time job.” She shook her head. “Here I am, reliving that again.” A tractor-trailer roared by, its wind pulling her hair over her face.
“I didn’t know that. Is the kid all right? I had gotten that note from the boss about my plan going over the cost estimate, and you and I had been arguing about money.”
“I remember.” She reached to embrace him, but her hand went through his chest. She touched warm mist, spring rain, although it was the end of October. She knew she would weep again, but now on the far bank and hill, the golden sun silhouetted the trees. “The kid moved away.”
“I can stay a while.” He gestured toward the beams and girders and said proudly. “I ordered up the materials for this project the month before.”
“It was a small part of the entire project, but I was honored to be associated with it.” He looked at his watch as if he had somewhere to go and then up at the cables. “So much strength and beauty. The secret is the arches and material. The bridges that the Romans built, the aqueducts, the roads are still in use after twenty-three centuries.”
“That kind of longevity means nothing to me, my dear. You were the one who meant everything. Just you.” She felt herself swaying and touched the railing, which seemed slippery.
The late light settled around his face, making him beautiful. “Have there been other men since I. . . died?”
“I thought you would know.” She sniffed and took out a handkerchief.
“When we come back we know only what we knew before.” He sneezed and took out his handkerchief. “Have there been others? I’m not resentful. I’m interested, not jealous.”
She remembered Ed, but he had moved to another city, and it had been nothing, just the wisp of an attraction, had never amounted to a flirtation even, though she felt guilty about it when she thought of Ben. “Nobody. Nobody now.”
“It would be all right with me. I want you to be happy.”
She nodded. The wind blew a scrap of paper past her feet.
“Did you get the promotion? Did your school hire a new principal? Are you still playing the banjo?” Ben looked at his watch again. His forehead was taut, but he had a smile on his lips. “Has the little bridge by our apartment been replaced? How is your Aunt Margaret? Are you happy?”
She cleared her throat.
The traffic light changed to green, and a row of cars drove by, their roofs flickering in the waning light, and then the cars were gone into the distance.
Two boys–they appeared to be about twelve–walked past. They both wore Superman tee-shirts and bath-towel capes One was reaching for a bug. He cupped his hands. “Got it,” he said in triumph.
“Aw, let it go,” the other boy said. He was short and thin.
“I’m going to squash it.”
“My sister told me about reincarnation,” the shorter boy said. “Leave the moth alone. It could have your great-grandpa’s soul.”
“In that case, I’m really gonna squash it. I hate my relatives.”
Maggie looked to the spot where Ben had been standing, but he was not there to take care of this problem. A full moon was rising over the river. She turned to the bigger boy. “Let the moth be. It’s just a little critter trying to make a living.”
“Leave me alone, lady. You’re a bug too.” The boy brushed his brow with the back of his hand, and the moth fluttered up, but he didn’t try to catch it. He stuck his tongue out at her and ran toward the far side of the bridge.
The shorter boy shrugged at Maggie, arranged his cape, and walked toward his friend.
“That was good of you,” Ben said. “I remember the time when we honeymooned in Sewanee and went to the hill where the moths swirled at night. So much life whirling and trembling around the light, so thick and useless.”
“You sound depressed.”
“I loved you,” he said.
“How are you?” he asked.
“What are you doing on the bridge?”
“It’s your beautiful bridge.” She made her voice chirpy.
“What are you doing on the bridge?”
“It’s a lovely autumn night.” She could see fallen leaves floating on the water until they circled out or sank. “It’s our wedding anniversary.” She crossed her arms and looked aside.
“What are you doing on the bridge?”
Twilight softened the air and the streetlights came on, small but insistent in the blanketing dark. “I’m not fine. You and I used to rake the leaves together. I can’t bear another winter. You and I used to watch the snow pile up outside the window. You and I used to watch television and sip cider. I’m alone.”
“I want you to live. Your Aunt Margaret wants you to live. You’re her namesake.”
“Aunt Margaret doesn’t want anything anymore. She died yesterday.”
His voice dropped. “I liked her.” His eyes reflected the light of the low sun. “She would have wanted you to live. She made it through two bouts of cancer.”
“But not the last one. Nobody makes it through the last one.”
“Are you sick?”
She let her breath out. “I can’t afford to buy a house. It’s our anniversary. You’re gone. Nothing makes sense.”
“Did you think the world was perfect?”
She felt something soft, like butterfly wings on her cheek. When she was little, her mother played that game with her, fluttering her eyelashes against Maggie’s cheek and giving her a butterfly kiss.
High above them, a plane flew, its lights flashing, but she couldn’t hear its roaring engine.
He said, “Remember the time we got lost when we drove to the Fourth of July fireworks and we wound up at a different fireworks–smaller and better?”
“Remember when we got separated at the airport during the tornado warning and we found each other again?”
“Yes. I was so scared that I would die without seeing you. That was a silly fear.”
“Not silly. We found each other again.”
“Will that happen again? Will I find you, Ben? Will it be soon?”
A shadow passed across his face. “I don’t know, Maggie.”
A car drove by, music floating out the open window, Earl Scruggs playing the banjo. Ben watched the car drive to the end of the bridge and disappear. “What do you call it when you have a banjo buried up to its neck in the sand?”
“Not enough sand. That’s a lawyer joke.”
“I’ll try another. A musician – this is a sad story– left his car unlocked with his banjo in it. He was gone only a short while.” Ben wiped at his eyes as if there were tears. “When he came back he found”–Ben sniffed sadly–“ a second banjo.”
“I’ve heard that one too. Funny, though.”
“Are you still playing the banjo?”
“No. Not since you. . . Not since our band broke up.”
He nodded. “I can tell you another banjo joke.”
The sunset melted purple and gold on the horizon and flowed over the rooftops of the city, promising a clear night. “Enough,” she said.
“You should start up your band again. Call it The Dancing Remains.”
She made a mocking pout. “You ain’t the boss of me.”
“Really, it’s all right with me.”
“We met at that dance, the fund-raiser for the humane shelter.” She lifted her chin to the sky. “Remember? The theme was The Future.”
“And after that we drove out to the countryside to the star party to watch the lunar eclipse.” He drew a star and a moon on the railing with his finger. “The ancient Chinese and Scandinavians supposed it was a dragon devouring the moon, but the moon always returned. There we were, the two of us, newly met in a population of, at that time, six billion-plus. Remember when you pointed to the Andromeda galaxy and said you’d like the myth better if she saved herself instead of waiting for a prince to do it? I thought, this woman is my hero. I thought of all the pinpricks of light above us. I thought how we too sent off reflected light, traveling 186,000 miles per second to the edges of the universe.”
“The universe is expanding, apparently.” Her voice broke. “Moving toward an ice death.” Her fingers thrummed on the handrail, above the foaming water.
“Maybe not,” he said. “Maybe it will be a compression, huge heat, and a big bang again. Maybe all the interwoven, chaotic, galactic stew will start again. Maybe you’ll get your promotion and buy a house and find a friend and a new husband, a better one.”
“I don’t want a better husband.”
“A worse one then. Someone to accompany you to the fireworks and star watches, to argue with you and walk in front of trucks.”
“I already had one of those.”
“Then try another. One who’ll walk with you on bridges and tell you jokes and applaud your banjo playing and not walk in front of trucks.”
She held her head. “I’m going to be sick tomorrow.”
“And many days again.”
“You make me smile.”
“From beyond the grave, I can still make you smile. I must’ve been some husband. You have to admit that. When I was alive, I was someone you loved.”
“You were.” She sighed. “Yes.”
“I’m gone now. Dead and gone. That was wonderful, what we had.” He looked at his watch. “I’m leaving now.” He walked toward the column of the bridge and stopped under the light pole. He turned to her. His eyes were sea-green. He lifted his hand in farewell.
She felt a butterfly kiss on her cheek.
A train shrilled at a crossing. The boys wearing their Superman shirts ran back on the bridge, this time laughing. The lights of houses and skyscrapers gleamed on the water. She thrummed on the railing as if it were a banjo. She could not see the stars because of the city lights, but the stars were there.
Cezarija Abartis' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Per Contra, and New York Tyrant, among others. She participates on Fictionaut.com, ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/