Lester was so casual standing in the middle of the Bald Crown Bridge, tying Birdy to a six-foot fence post he’d plucked from the ground using a tow chain and his 2004 Malibu Maxx. The span was still used to get rail cars across the river just like it was back in the day, there just weren’t many trains traveling through anymore, particularly not at 5:52 in the morning. His little brother Dennis watched as Lester lashed the man at the waist to the six-foot length of lumber, still attached to the bulb of concrete that had anchored it.
Dennis asked him “You don’t think a cinder block would do the trick? You can get those anywhere.”
Lester chuckled, finishing off a sheet bend knot with one final tug to demonstrate how much more impressive it was than some pedestrian square knot. He wasn’t going to bother explaining how good a knot it was to Dennis, but he looked up from his handiwork and noticed Birdy was not phased. It’s not like he was chipper, tied to post at the top of a bridge overlooking dead-black water. But he wasn’t squirming and crying and to Lester that was bothersome, so he said to Birdy “You’re not gettin’ out of that.”
“Oh, I know,” Birdy replied.
It was probably true. Lester had brought enough rope to wrap him three times around the waist and at least three times diagonally across the chest in both directions before securing the knot high around the back, between the shoulder blades. Dennis thought it peculiar that Lester didn’t feel the need to bind Birdy’s hands.
“He’s not getting that undone behind his back,” Lester told him, “Not underwater, not before his lungs give out.”
Dennis shrugged and said “Maybe he’s a diver. Maybe he has extraordinary lung capacity.”
Lester considered it for a moment then asked Birdy, flat out, “Hey guy, are you a diver?”
Birdy said “No, I’ve never been into the water activities, really. And actually, I’ve never really taken a measure of it but I’d guess that my lung capacity is low to middling at best.” He said to them “I gave up smoking six years ago, but I never really quit.”
Lester was smiling, validated by that answer, while Dennis felt even more perplexed. His expression made clear he was working it in his head, thinking: A man tossed to the bottom of the bay, tied to a weighted post, would attempt to free himself, wouldn’t he? And maybe there was no chance in hell he’d be able to undo Lester’s exceptional knot, but why leave a guy with a shred of hope? Why not tie the hands, just for show? Let me know he’s done for, so the guy doesn’t have to spend the last minute or two of his life failing.
Meanwhile, Lester was still pondering how curiously cool Birdy was for someone about to be dropped off a bridge attached to fifty pounds of concrete and a hefty hunk of pressure-treated wood. He finally asked him “You think this is some kinda ruse, my friend?”
“No,” Birdy said. He was quiet. He kept looking out past the tree line as if he could hear the sun creeping up behind them. “No,” he continued,” I can tell you’re quite serious…Lester, is it?”
“My name doesn’t matter,” Lester told him, “we won’t cross paths again.”
Birdy said “Fair enough,” and pointed to the small bag slung around Dennis’s shoulder. “You have a pack of cigarettes in your man-purse, don’t you Dennis?”
Dennis huffed and held up the bag, saying “Lester makes me carry a lot of shit.”
“No one’s judging here, my man,” Birdy said, “I just figured maybe I had a minute or two for one last smoke.”
Dennis looked to his big brother for the nod, which he got but Lester had to add “I’m judging a little.”
“Like you judge a banker or a business-CEO for carrying a briefcase?” Dennis snapped, pulling a hard pack of Camels out of the front pocket of the satchel and handing one over to the guy. Birdy waited patiently with the unlit cigarette ready between his lips.
Lester said to Dennis “That’s no briefcase,” and he snatched the lighter away to get Birdy lit.
“Thank you,” Birdy said, taking a long pull and attempting to crane his neck around to look over the rail of the bridge at the water below. He looked back to Lester and asked him “So this is your spot, Lester? How many more like me down there?”
Lester let out a pretty obnoxious guffaw and told the guy “Nobody like you, my man. You’ll have plenty of company, though. I can tell you that.”
Dennis looked over the side, asking his brother “What does that mean? Nobody like him?”
Lester didn’t respond, so Birdy finally said with a smirk “I’m a very bad man, Dennis.”
Dennis looked back at Lester, who was rolling his eyes, noting how far gone Birdy’s cigarette was. “I don’t know how bad a man you are,” Lester said, “but you earned your spot down there with the rest of ‘em.”
This guy didn’t seem like anything special, Dennis thought. A couple hours before, when they snatched him out of bed, he’d come willingly like he was half expecting them. Birdy was careful not to wake the lady who’d been sleeping beside him, barely kissing her on the cheek, then the forehead before quietly tiptoeing out ahead of them and heading to the car. He didn’t even bristle when they finally arrived at this spot, stopped at the edge of the bridge and Lester told him that this was as far as the car would go. That he’d be carrying the uprooted fence post the rest of the way, complete with the attached concrete bulb that had once anchored it into the ground.
Dennis asked Lester first, “What are we talking about here?” then he said to Birdy, “Something big time. You stole something?”
Birdy shook his head and said, “I am the overnight baker at an Einstein’s Brothers Bagels, my friend. I’m not a thief.”
“Well,” Lester interjected, without pausing from lashing the man tightly and gratuitously to the substantial piece of lumber, “in a manner of speaking…”
Birdy shrugged at Lester and said “Okay. In a manner of speaking.”
There was a long silence as Lester watched Birdy drag the cigarette down to about the halfway point. The two eyed each other until Dennis finally demanded: “Well look: if there’s a story here, I got half a pack left.”
“Hell with that,” Lester said. “Let’s get this done and hit the Village Inn. The fight for truth and justice can exact a heavy toll on one’s body, and I gotta get my skillet on.”
The guy shrugged and Dennis begged “Lester, you wanted my help making this world a better place. Don’t I gotta know what sorts of ills we’re curing, and whatnot?”
“What do you want from me?” Lester asked Dennis, “You saw everything you needed to see in that bed.”
“What?” Dennis asked. “All the dog hair?”
Lester said, “You think excessive amounts of dog hair in the bed might have something to do with this, what we’re doing right here?”
The guy chimed in to say “Listen, for the record: not my dog, not my bed. The hair bothers me, I’m not gonna lie, but…” Then he dropped his eyes to the ground, and told them “…love is worth having to maintain a steady supply of Zyrtec, don’t you think?”
It was then that Dennis finally came around to it, picturing the dog hair, the bed and, “The girl?” he asked.
“The girl,” Lester responded.
“Redhead,” Dennis said, “hell if I could see anything else. She was kinda buried under there. And I looked, cause as it happens I like the redheads with lotsa freckles.”
Lester was looking off, out over the river at the morning just starting to saunter its way in, thinking “This is not the way to execute a mission.” He didn’t like all the jibber-jabbering, wasting time having some laughs and letting the sun get hold of the situation. But Birdy was keeping his head down and his chill just bugged the hell out of Lester. He was thinking back now on however many villains he’d vanquished on this bridge, however many guys (and one gal) had gone over that rail attached to a fence post, and he couldn’t think of one that hadn’t asked to get a pass. They offered money, a guy offered his house once. Two of them (neither was the gal) offered sexual favors, to Lester’s disgust, with a promise to leave town forever. He’d never dawdled like this before, and he’d certainly never left a mission incomplete. But here he was, wasting minutes. In front of Dennis, no less, who now he was thinking might be part of the problem because since when do we come up here to chitchat and make friends?
“Her name is Rachel,” Lester told Dennis. “The girl in the bed…her father reached out to me. That’s all you need to know, right?”
Dennis thought on it for a minute, saying “There’s more, though. Right?”
Lester shot a look and said “her father was concerned because his son-in-law is out of town all week. He went over to check on her…” all Birdy could do was smile. It wasn’t a smarmy smile. Just at the mention of her name, his eyes got to glistening and he beamed like one of those crazies that see the Madonna in a water-stained ceiling tile.
“Oh. Okay,” Dennis said. He stood silent, then said, “she’s a very pretty girl; she’s lonely.”
Lester said to him “You don’t have to know what this is all about, Dennis.”
“Right,” Dennis said, “But come on, she’s a grown woman…”
Lester nodded and interrupted to say “She’s a grown woman with obligations,” and he bent down to lift the bottom of the post, prepping the guy for the drop. He waited, crouched down with his hands on the concrete base. Dennis didn’t move. Lester told him “I can do this myself, I’d just rather not screw up my back since I went to the trouble of lettin’ you tag along all night.”
Dennis crouched down, grabbed the bottom of the post and looked across to Lester, whispering: “Seems a bit much, don’t you think?”
“A wrong must be righted,” Lester said to him, ”End of story. You wanna be part of this team, there are no grey areas.”
Dennis looked up at Birdy, then back at Lester, saying “Yeah, but…why can’t we just kick the bejesus outta him and be done with it?” He started to turn back toward the road, saying “Come on, I got my bowling pin in the car…”
Birdy raised his eyebrows and asked, “You got your what?”
Dennis put his hand up, shushing him and looking back to Lester for the go-ahead. But Lester just closed his eyes and sighed.
Dennis shrugged, explaining what he figured was the obvious: “It’s my thing. My signature hero-weapon,” he said, “I’ve got this bowling pin I use, like a club. Ya know? People see me coming, they’re like “Fuuuck….that’s the bowling pin guy.”
“Who has ever said that?” Lester asked him.
“Nobody, yet.” Dennis responded, “I just started.”
Lester shook his head, braced himself to lift and said “On three. One…”
“Lester…” Dennis said.
“What about his last words?”
“You gotta be kidding me,” Lester said.
“We don’t do that?”
Dennis looked at the guy and said to Lester “Don’t you wanna know why he hasn’t so much as whimpered since we picked him up?”
With that, Lester released. He didn’t stand up just yet, but he looked at the guy and then back to Dennis, then back to the guy. He really did want to know. He actually preferred it when they begged, when they apologized and promised to change their ways when they claimed innocence when he already knew damn well they were guilty. Somewhere deep in his demented brain, Lester saw it as important that his victims acknowledge their fatal missteps as if his mission was unfulfilled if they didn’t. He looked the guy dead in the eyes, put a hand on the post and said: “I never come for anybody that didn’t earn this.”
Birdy smiled, sensing Lester’s apprehension, and said: “She’s not mine.”
Lester nodded as if the admission helped. Dennis watched the exchange then said to Birdy “Rachel. You mean Rachel?”
Birdy shrugged and with a tilt of his head said to Dennis “She’s not mine. Never was, never will be.”
Lester all the sudden realized what this sounded like and wasn’t having it, putting his hand up and saying “No…no…that’s not what this is. Don’t try and Romeo and Juliet this situation, motherfucker. You’re here because…”
But Birdy was unmoved and said to Lester “I know exactly why I’m here, Lester. I deserve to be here. Like you said: I earned it.” He looked down the bridge and saw a set of headlights way up the road but headed toward them, and he said: “There’s a car coming.”
Lester spotted the lights and dropped back down to the foot of the post. Dennis hesitated, still not ready to concede that this wasn’t all too much. After a few moments, though, he crouched down with Lester.
Lester didn’t bother with the countdown, and just said “Three!” They heaved the Birdy up, perching him on the rail with his feet and the chunk of concrete hanging over the water.
Dennis’ mouth was all scrunched up with things he wanted to say, but all he could manage was to ask Birdy “Hey, man. Was she worth it?”
Birdy smiled and took a deep breath, and upon exhaling said: “She’s like oxygen for my soul, man.” He recited it almost like a line of poetry, so Lester rolled his eyes and Dennis went to work inside his head trying to figure out if the soul did, in fact, need oxygen.
“Shit,” Dennis said, as the sentiment started to land, “I heard that. I took this gig because my lady wants another kid, and hell if working as a floor manager at Best Buy was cutting it even for one kid. But you know…she’s my darlin’, so I’m gonna give her what she needs.”
Lester says to him “Can we finish the last words thing, cause…”
“Village Inn,” Dennis says. “I know.” He turned back to Birdy and said “But you knew who she was, didn’t you? You knew her situation?”
“Yeah,” Birdy said. “I knew who she was the whole time.”
“There you go then,” Lester said. “You coulda shut it down but you didn’t. And that is why we are here.”
“I couldn’t,” the guy said. “I can’t. And that, my friend, is why we’re here.”
“We’re here,” Lester said, his voice clicking up a decibel for a second before he reels it back in, “We are here, because of all the beautiful women in the world…”
The car was coming closer, looking tentative as if the driver wasn’t sure where the road led. They, all three, watched to see if it was going to make its way down toward the bridge or turn around. Lester had quit mid-sentence, so Birdy seized on the opening.
“She’s got the only key, Lester,” he said. Lester took his eyes off the car, and the guy kept talking, saying “I was just goin’ about my life, you know? Coasting along, pretty indifferent. I never smiled. I never laughed. I always wondered why that was…figured I was just destined to be the resident malcontent; you know? I’m a cliché: all the potential, none of the fire, wasting away on some sticky barstool. I’d played that role really well since I was a kid. That’s how people knew me. Why disappoint them if they already knew how my story would end?”
Lester was squinting his eyes, taking Birdy’s story in, and Dennis reached one hand across and put it on his brother’s shoulder, to say “We all wear masks, Lester.”
Lester shook Dennis’ hand off immediately, saying “Fuck off, with your metaphors,” and he turned back to Birdy to say, “What is your point here, about the key? What, you got a safe or some kinda lockbox and you need her to get in there?”
The guy laughed softly and said “Yeah, Lester. I guess it’s like that. A lockbox. I didn’t even realize it was there, or I forgot about it. I don’t know. But then Rachel comes along and…” He stopped, and Lester could tell that Birdy was slipping into that delirium that afflicted most folks when they came to this moment.
Lester softened and said to him “I get it. And you coulda gone your whole life not knowing, but along comes this little lovely…”
“…who cracks it open,” Birdy said, “and there’s laughter, and smiles…ambition, optimism, passion.”
Dennis, who had gotten pretty well lost quite early in this part of the conversation, says “Oh yeah. A lockbox…” and then after a moment asks “What’s in the lockbox?”
Lester looked back at the car. It had stopped down at the foot of the bridge, next to his Malibu, with its headlights shining up toward them but not quite reaching. And now Dennis was totally dragging this conversation out by missing the point. But Lester was there and tried to bring Dennis up to speed by saying “He’s speaking figuratively, dumbass. Didn’t you hear him?”
“Oh,” Dennis said, completely unsure of what ‘figuratively’ means, then asked, “Where is the lockbox?”
Birdy was feeling Lester’s frustration. “In my heart, Dennis. Maybe my soul.”
Dennis was quiet. He stared at the guy, trying to untangle his brain and said, as if to stall “Okay.” After another long pause, he asked again “What’s in the lockbox?”
The car door opened and they could see someone get out, but the figure was still hard to see clearly. Lester said, “We gotta do this.”
“Dude,” Dennis said to Birdy, “Just say you’re done with Rachel and you go out to Texas or Oregon or some shit and find you some other little darlin’.”
“That’s not how it works,” Lester said.
Birdy smirked and said, “That’s not how it works, Dennis.”
The figure was running up the bridge now, coming toward them, her red hair unmistakable in the dim glow of morning. Lester muttered “Shit-balls” under his breath and said to Dennis “Go deal with that.”
Dennis hesitated a moment, wondering what he should say to Birdy if he should say anything, but he just turned away and started hustling down the bridge to intercept Rachel. Balancing the post and the block of concrete on the rail by himself now, Lester looked to Birdy and said: “You brought this on yourself, you know.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“You earned this,” Lester assured him. “You knew. You shoulda left her alone, and you didn’t.”
“Well,” Lester said, “that’s a problem for you.”
Lester and Birdy watched as Dennis grabbed Rachel halfway down the bridge. She thrashed and hit, screaming up toward them, but Dennis outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds and kept her in place.
“You see this? You see how she is? If I were to let you go, if you’re out there somewhere,” Lester said, “It becomes a problem for her.”
“I know,” Birdy said.
Lester let go and Birdy teetered for a second. Then the weighted end took over and the post plummeted into the bay. He vanished in seconds, with barely a splash as the concrete sank him and anchored firmly to the bottom.
Rachel was squirming and kicking and biting so much that Dennis had crumpled her onto the ground, where all she could do was exhaustedly sob. He had a hand on her, pinning her to the pavement, but as Lester looked back down the bridge at them he could tell it was done. He eased his hold on the girl, and she sprang up immediately and sprinted to the rail.
There was nothing to see. The water was motionless and black. Lester stepped toward her and in his best big brother voice — which amounted to a terribly weak impersonation — he said to her “Your dad wants the best for you, Rachel…” to which Rachel responded with a backhand across the side of his face that echoed up and down the span of the bridge. A not overly impressive ruby ring she’d gotten as a gift from Birdy left a nice sized gash across Lester’s cheek. She spat in his face and when he lost it and came at her she backed up and was well away when he came to his senses. He checked himself and calmly said to her “Listen, let’s get you…” But he couldn’t finish because Rachel attempted to scramble over the rail and dive into the water. Lester had her before she could get the second leg over, and upon prying her fingers away started dragging her back toward the car. Dennis rushed over and helped restrain her; before long she went limp.
It was considerably colder down at the bottom, but Birdy found himself upright just as Lester had intended, like some kind of submerged scarecrow looking out across an underwater field. He didn’t even bother with the knot; he had better things to spend his last moments thinking about, like Rachel calling out to him.
Like the fact that she showed.
Birdy knew Dennis would hold her, and if not it didn’t really matter. He just thought about how he left her all those hours ago, how warm she was when he brushed the hair away from her cheek to kiss her and how she smelled. He could smell her still, even down there in the depths, even as his oxygen started to run out and the murky bottom of the bay grew even murkier. Some fifteen or so feet away from him, he swore he could see the silhouette of another person. A woman. It was hard to know for sure if her hair was red, but she seemed to be standing there waiting for him so he was content to believe that it was. Maybe he’d forgotten, or maybe in those last few moments, he simply didn’t care that Lester had been planting unlucky dopes like him down there for years. He reached out to her and inhaled deeply.