The Floating Bridge

The Floating Bridge


When I was a baby in the early seventies, my father used to rock me for hours in his rocking chair. Once, while drinking his second forty ounces of malt liquor he puked on me, and I jumped down from the chair and ran into the kitchen. “Mom, Dad spilt on me.” I don’t remember the actual incident, but I recall my mother telling the story as a cute family anecdote. Later, it became a harsh addition in her portrayal of my father as a drunk, a drug addict, a man damaged by a hard childhood. It became another example of why she left him.

Another story she tells less often, is how I barely survived an accident at the base of the hill we lived on. My parents briefly had a Volkswagen bug. As they drove down the hill, someone racing across the hill plowed into the car. My mother, who held me on her lap, smashed the windshield with the crown of her head. Somehow, the force of the crash threw me clear of the wreck and into a maple on the corner. I don’t know who was at fault in the collision. I don’t even remember jarring loose from my mother’s lap and floating through the air and passing through the branches until I stuck like a stray kite. I do remember my mother sometimes pointing to the maple. “There’s the tree that saved your life,” she said.

We lived in a starter house on Southwestern above Lincoln Park in West Seattle. The house sat on the side of the hill looking over the Duwamish Valley and toward the hazy, white caps of the Cascade Mountains. My mother painted the kitchen with brilliant orange and yellow latex. On my bedroom wallpaper, animals caroused in a psychedelic jungle. We moved out of the place in the early seventies, against my mother’s wishes, to a rundown Fall City farmhouse that my father had found in a cedar thicket fifty miles away from Seattle. We kept the place in West Seattle as a rental. My father was too nostalgic and too thrifty ever to sell anything with memories and future equity. Much of the house rotted during the damp Pacific Northwestern winters when my father’s first tenant handed it over to his dealer as a flophouse. My mother called it a flophouse, now it would be called a crack house. Same thing. Junkies rather than drunks stored themselves there while they got stoned and used the toilet when they weren’t constipated. There were similarities between all of my father’s houses and a crackhouse. A house my father lived in and a flophouse were both places to contain bodies and keep them out of the rain; they were cold storage for stoned bodies rather than homes and places to live.

I don’t remember the city house as any place except as the place I’d lived when I was a baby. I have photographs of myself in the house and photographs of my mother and father, both much skinnier and younger than I am now. I have a series of photographs of my father making saucy eyes, his emaciated, pallid chest brushing up against the orange walls. In one picture, he wears a white terry-cloth bathrobe and has a bushy mustache and bushy Beatlesque hair and leans forward and pouts at the camera. My mother, too, is young and silly and smiles comfortably rather than with her current faint, stressed mock smile. In one photograph, my mother wears a thick fake fur coat she says she found at St. Vincent de Paul. She has wire-rimmed glasses and a toothy smile and displays a sleek, nylon-clad leg. In these photographs, my parents are young and at times stylish and urban and, well, happy.

Maybe happiness depends on wholeness. All I can see in these photographs is evidence of the impending fracture. The roots of what would make my parents unhappy were there already. However at twenty-four and twenty, things like his hangovers and his limited nature and her erratic depression and her constant dissatisfaction seemed like small things, irrelevant things, actually, compared to a tidy little house on a hill overlooking Puget Sound and the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges, a newborn and a good enough job as a waitress and a short order cook. This was just the beginning. Life was bound to get better from then on. On the ground floor, life promised to be a vast mansion they could get lost in.

I guess they got lost.

The succession of houses alternated between my mother’s houses and my father’s houses. Looking back now, it seems we lived in a dizzying succession of places. Each house looking back now seemed to be a place where either of my parents’ method of handling their curse gained the upper hand. My mother tried to exert strict control. My father, though, just wanted it to all go away. With each move, it would seem that we had finally settled, that this was it, this would be our last move and our lives could finally progress. After the West Seattle house, we lived through most of the seventies in a country house in a little town just below the Snoqualmie Falls. This house, hidden at the end of a macadam road in a clump of cedar trees, was my father’s house. It was a place people had trouble finding by the address. It required the driving directions, go down the Fall City Preston road until you come to the pink steel girder bridge (someone had painted it with Army surplus paint) and then take the next right and drive to the end of the road. Our house is just below the pasture with the white ten by one fence. We moved from this house in 1981 to a suburban house near the interstate. This was my mother’s just constructed two-story house with outdoor lamps, a two-car garage, a dining room, a recroom, the smell of new paint and carpet. My father prevailed after we had lived in the house for only two years and moved us to another farmhouse set back from the road out on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie. When Mom left this house, she didn’t take my father or us with her.

After we moved to the country, my father sometimes took me to Seattle on his motorcycle in the mornings while the streets were still damp. I had a white helmet with a leather buckle and the snaps were so tight, when I pressed them together my fingers ached and then the chrome tips bit together. Mom had bought the helmet in a thrift store in Renton, a white one for me and a green one with metal specks for my brother. I wore a sweater and a jeans jacket. My father’s motorbike wasn’t like the colossal chrome machines my father’s biker friends drove, hogs or horses his friends called them. Dad never mentioned to them that he had a motorbike as well. He kept his Honda hidden under a blue tarp. The Honda made a steady hum like a newly tuned lawn mower. In the fresh morning rain, I sat behind Dad clutching his waist, my nose buried in his leather jacket, shedding specks of leather. I had to be careful of the long muffler because it raised blisters if I brushed my calf against the blue hot chrome. I put my boot sole on it. I kept my eye on it. We raced down the hill and the bike made a whirring noise and then, as it picked up speed, the whirring dropped down and we raced over the freeway, our feet inches from the flickering cement. On the floating bridge, moss grew over the concrete. In the puddles that collected on the worn shoulders, I could see the tiny agates and feldspar in the old cement. The lake smelled of open water and seagulls and fish and diesel fuel and then we passed through a tunnel with totem poles pressed into the cement and the words Portal to the Pacific, and that meant we were in Seattle.

The excitement of racing to Seattle clutching my father’s leather jacket dropped off when we went up a row of bungalows and stopped, not at the freshly painted houses with the swing set visible in the back yard, but at the house with the dog crap studded yellow lawn. A bleary-eyed guy met us at the door and we all sat down in the living room. Dad sold him lid and smoked a joint with him while I waited on the couch. Afterwards, it was easy to talk Dad into stopping at a hamburger place and getting fries and a milkshake and we ate them from the bags. Sometimes, we bought fried chicken and Rainier cherries from the International District and then drove down to the waterfront and ate them in the grass between the Alaskan Viaduct (a hissing double-decker cement eyesore and rebuttal to the Kool-Aid blue Sound and the hazy, snow-capped peaks of the Olympics) and the waterfront that had ships unloading crates as well as the long warehouses being converted into restaurants and retail stores.

In the middle of the Seventies, my father sold dope mostly to his friends, people he’d known for years. Usually, they arrived on Saturday before my father went to work in Seattle where he was the Copper Kitchen’s night cook. His friends knocked on the door and always seemed to have spontaneously come out to the country. They sat down and Dad asked them if they’d like a joint. “Sure. What a good idea,” his friends said. They passed the joint around and their talk slowly drifted away. They grunted and wheezed and my dad put something on the record player. “I know this. I know this. It’s what’s-his-name.”

“Yeah,” Dad said. And finally after the smoke started to drift out the windows they said, “This is good shit. Do you know where I can get some? It’s dry in Seattle. Dry as a bone.” And this made everyone laugh and cough at the same time. And Dad grabbed a baggie from the crumpled brown paper bag he kept in a kitchen drawer next to the potatoes. They handed him a folded bill and he handed them a lid and then a few minutes later they stood and stretched and said, “It’s been a blast.”

Dope then had a benignly illicit quality, similar to jaywalking or California stops at stop signs. Everyone my parents knew had a stash and everyone, it seemed, referred to the police as pigs. People smoked dope in parks and at concerts without huddling furtively around their pipes. They brought out thick, heavy joints and tossed the roaches into the ditch. Weed, everyone knew, wasn’t addictive. It wasn’t even a real drug. But in the late Seventies, the pigs had begun to crack down. They changed the sentencing laws. They officially designated marijuana a gateway drug, a door to the criminal underworld. But the hip had already moved through the gateway to the real stuff, and the unhip had moved on to houses and careers and PTA meetings. My father found himself selling the weed he didn’t manage to smoke himself to a dwindling roster of friends and finally to a high school aged dealer who drove a blue-glitter ’57 Chevy.

My mother asked Dad to stop selling. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “For your own use is fine. But they’re taking people’s houses now. If you keep dealing, I’ll leave you.”

She didn’t get out before they busted him. In 1978, my father sold a grocery bag of dope to an FBI officer and ended up in jail. He spent three months on a work release program and then had to see a probation officer once a month for three years. My father spoke of his probation officer with not a little pride. “I’ve got to go see my PO,” he said. He had places to go, people he had to see.

Mom felt his conviction was a good thing. She thought they could discard my father’s rural, dope dealing fantasy and begin to live their real lives. Mom went to Bellevue Community College and when she graduated, she found a job at Boeing, earning twice my father’s pay. Within six months, my father found a new job as a county bus operator earning slightly more than Mom. At my mother’s instigation, they bought a new house in a subdivision on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River.

The new house had a garage built on a cement slab. The new house had two stories. The new house had a dining room with a chandelier that required special light bulbs shaped like candles from the True Value Hardware. The new house had three bedrooms, a laundry room, and a connection to the city sewer. My father stood in the driveway and muttered that the neighbors were close enough to hear him take a crap.

As soon as we moved, my father rented the Fall City house to one of my father’s long-standing customers, Mark McGregor. Mark sold fake and real marijuana at concerts and had been an intermittent heroin junky and cokehead. Except for the selling of catnip and rosemary, he had everything else in order–a steady job as a cook and a twenty-two year old girlfriend. To mark the occasion of the rental, we went out to dinner with Mark and his girlfriend, Trudy, to a Mexican restaurant in Bellevue. My parents knew Trudy from before Mark. She’d been a young waitress at the Copper Kitchen.

We waited on the red tile and listened to the business men eat their late suppers. We (the landlords) were going to sit down and have a nice business-like dinner with our new tenants. My mother had already noted that we could deduct it as a business expense.

Trudy was on cocaine. This has the feeling of an accusation now. She was coked to the gills. I was eleven years old and already nervous to be with my parents in this den of 1980s new and affluent Bellevue. Trudy laughed with the sound of a manic jug band singing saw player, the noise splitting from her rack of crooked teeth. The sound vibrated and warbled through the room. She wore long black leather boots with thick square heels and a skirt that left a band of skin exposed at her calves and a white blouse with a black tie around it. Her hair was long, but her face came out of the hair with its long broken nose, stark black eyebrows, black eyes, and swollen lipsticked lips. Mark McGregor had hooded eyes and leaned forward to eat his refried beans and smiled to himself as we talked. Trudy told long stories I couldn’t follow. At eleven, I could only follow the sound of her laugh cutting through the room and people looking over at our table. It seemed almost as if they stood up and circled our table and stared, but really I suspect they just glanced in our general direction and perhaps wondered after Trudy laughed if a sewer cap had blown free and was rolling down the street.

On the way home, my mother was pissed. She didn’t want to rent to them. She thought they were disgusting and grotesque and low-lifes. She was glad she and Dad had put their lives in order.

“At least they’re real people,” my father said.

When my father’s probation ended in 1983, he bought two halide lights, a bucket of white paint, and a pallet of plywood. He converted the garage into a growing room and understood now, after meeting knowledgeable marijuana cultivators in jail, how to start from quality seeds and how to trick the female plants into bearing sticky, heavy buds. The air in the garage filled with steam and spores. The industrial lights gave off a heavy, constant bass hum. Unlike the ragweed he’d been growing before, which he’d been able to smoke every couple of hours, when he sampled his new crop, his face slacked and he stared into space for a while and finally, lazily stood. After harvest, he sold his entire crop to a distributor. Whereas before he had a kind of hobby of growing dope, he now had a small business.

It didn’t take long for him to want to move again to more remote digs. The neighbors around here are nosy, he said. They don’t mind their own business. The neighbors are always watching us. We rented out the new house and bought another old farmhouse, leaving behind my brother and my own bedrooms, leaving behind wall-to-wall carpets, abandoning any sense that things would ever get better. The new house was tiny, with an attic that had been converted into two small bedrooms. An adult couldn’t stand up there, but my brother and I could stand in the center of the rooms. The main amenity was that it had a gigantic, windowless basement. My father bought two more halide lights and filled the basement with a dense jungle of bloated THC bearing plants. My mother reminded my father of her promise to leave him if he continued to sell. He just shrugged. This is who he is. The underlying tension between my mother and father had been present from the moment my father moved her out to the country. It had been something my brother and I had just grown up with.

Mom wore a turquoise suit, black nylons, and high-heeled shoes that came down to dime sized points. She clipped on her Boeing badge, displaying her wide, toothy smile. She left the house in a flurry at five thirty in the morning and when I woke to get ready for school, I could still smell her new perfume hanging in the air. Her shoes left divots in the hard wood floor as if someone had taken a ball peen hammer and played war drums from the bedroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the front door.

My father drove the bus at night and woke during the day while I was at school and then didn’t come home until I had gone to bed. He had low seniority and so rarely had weekends off. On his days off, he wore a blue jeans jacket with the fleece lining coming out at the collar and cuffs, a plaid work shirt with his ZigZags and Zippo lighter in his breast pocket, and rawhide work boots from the bus company store. He wore his long hair wrapped in rubber bands. His ponytail hung down his back.

My brother and I rarely saw our parents together, then. In hindsight it might seem they had already separated.

One day, Dad noticed the dime-sized holes my mother’s heels had left in the floor. He called my brother and me downstairs to explain ourselves.

“I didn’t do it,” my brother said.

“I didn’t do it,” I said.

And then he looked at the marks. “That fat bitch,” he said.

During spring break, my father took his vacation and instead of spending time with my mother, he took my brother and me up the Elwah in the Olympic Mountains. We camped the first night at the Anderson Farm, which had posters on the outside that said, “Do not sleep within a hundred yards of this historic shelter.” We slept inside it on the hard wood floor. In the morning, Dad heated coffee on his propane stove and we hiked for miles through the forest and finally turned around on a bridge over some tributary to the Elwah, miles up the trail at the base of a mossy cleft.

We came home the Sunday before school started again. There was no sign of my mother except for the divots in the hardwood floor. She had moved out.

On Monday, I woke and showered and put on my clothes. My brother stayed in his bed. “Aren’t you going to school?”


I waited at the bus stop alone and when the bus came, I sat down at a seat near the back and looked out at the swamp near the house and then the bus went down the road and over the Middle Fork Bridge and then the North Fork Bridge and then finally over the Snoqualmie River Bridge where the bus pulled into the elementary school yard. I just kept staring out the window at my faint reflection in the glass. I glanced at the other kids to see if they knew. They were talking, and when the bus stopped, everyone stood up and shuffled out of the bus. I didn’t get up until they were almost all out, and then I went inside to the classroom. I could hear them outside playing soccer in the damp field. Mr. Johnson sat at his desk drinking coffee. He didn’t look up. “It’s still recess,” he said.

I sat at my desk and took out my homework.

It had finally happened. That was all I could think. It had finally happened, this thing that happened to other kids had happened to me. An enormous gap had opened up. My life had seemed complicated enough–all the complications of my reading group, of my friends, of the kids I didn’t get along with, all of that, the constant struggle just to get through the sixth grade, a grade I had been looking forward to since kindergarten when in general assembly the sixth graders stood against the wall at the back of the gym. The boys even had slight mustaches. They all wore blue jeans and jackets and whispered through the entire assembly. They could do pretty much what they wanted except not come to school. Sixth grade, for me, hadn’t been simple like that. It had involved at first moving into the old farmhouse and then this.

Coming home after school had meant returning to an empty place. My brother came usually home on a separate bus. When I came home, I would cut myself some Tillamook cheddar and watch the League of Justice. When I came home today, my brother and Dad sat in the kitchen. Mud and moss covered their jeans. They had been hiking. My father asked me why I went to school. I’d been looking forward to falling into my old, reassuring routine and now that was gone just like everything else was gone.

“Today is a school day,” I said.

“Don’t you know what’s happened?”

I shrugged. I knew what had happened. Mom had left. She was gone when we came home from the Olympics. She left as though she had just been visiting. She had been saying she was going to leave and now she had done it. It was clear what had happened. I just couldn’t really understand all of it. For instance, why did her leaving mean not going to school?

“She left me for some guy she met at her job,” Dad said. “Some pencil prick.”

I went upstairs and played video games.

After a while, my brother came upstairs and lay on his bed with his hands folded on his chest and stared up at the sky out of his bedroom window. I stopped playing my game and then lay on my bed and looked up at the clouds, too.

“Are you going to school tomorrow?” my brother asked.

“I’m not sick,” I said.

“I’m staying home with Dad. He needs me.”

My father transformed into a sniffling and humble man. He didn’t smoke or drink anything for the two weeks Mom was gone. He listened to my brother and me. I thought maybe this had really scared him. Maybe he had really stopped smoking and then maybe Mom and he would get back together? On the phone, it sounded like Mom was just about to come back. She talked to us and told us how much she missed us. She talked to Dad and he said to her, “I love you, too.” And then finally he said, “Well you know I’ll say I’ll quit but when it come down to it, once I get the girl back, I’ll have the girl and the dope. You know, that’s just how I am.” They talked for a little longer, but Mom never did show up.

At last, they met at Denny’s to talk about what was going to happen next. Mom sat under a wall of brass sculpture. She had a TAB soda can. Dad sat down and we sat down and they began to talk. It seemed like maybe somehow they had worked things out.

“I’ve been so upset,” Dad said. “I haven’t been able to smoke or drink in two weeks.”

“You really have stopped,” Mom said. “I can tell.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Mom told Dad that my brother and I would go to live with her after the school year. My father shook his head. “You’re going to take them away from their home?”

“I don’t want to go,” my brother said.

“I don’t think you can take them away from their home,” Dad said. “To live with you and your boyfriend.”

“Do you really want to get legal about this? A convicted drug dealer who has a basement full of pot is telling me he can keep my kids.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“I’m just telling you, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

“It’s not like you didn’t profit from it too. You are just as guilty as I am.”

“You promised me you wouldn’t grow it again after your probation. Look, Ron,” Mom said. “I’m not going to do anything. You can do whatever you want. The children can visit you. But they aren’t going to live in that house anymore.”

“You left me to sleep with that guy and then you try to cast me as the bad guy?” His emptied an ice cube from his water glass, rolled in his mouth and then crushed it.

Dad had stopped going to work. I could see him struggling with his family curse as my mother has struggled with hers. We went to the King County Pool in Issaquah to swim every other night. On the drive there, Dad listened to a tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and shook his head. “This used to sound good,” he said. “This used to really be something when I first heard it.” And he kept listening to the album on the long drive from the house to the pool. We left at dusk. Fog lay out on the road from the rivers and floated in from the dairy fields. When we parked at the pool, it seemed like everyone had gone elsewhere and we were now alone in the world.

Once inside, I could smell the thick chlorine and hear shouts that echoed up against the tiled walls. I changed in the locker room and pinned the bright orange keys attached to safety pins to my shorts. The pebble floor felt rough and knobby on the soles of my feet. My father swam laps while my brother and I horsed around in the shallows and then when I tired of the shallows, I climbed up onto the diving board. The wobbly platform hung over the chlorinated steam rising from the pool. I cannonballed into the deep end. I performed loud, ominous plunges into the water until my back turned red. Bubbles swirled around me forcing water into my nose until the space behind my eyes ached.

Originally appeared in Split: Stories From a Generation Raised on Divorce, McGraw-Hill/ Contemporary Books, ed. Ava Chin, 2002

Written by mattbriggs

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