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About the Author

Dennis Latham has published stories in The Palmer Writer, Live Writers, VietNow, Byline, and Deep Outside SFFH. His novels, The Bad Season and Michael In Hell, are currently published by Page Free Press as CD ROM books. A Marine Vietnam veteran, he writes a bi-monthly newsletter for combat veterans, The S-2 Report, dealing with VA benefits and the psychological affect of war. He is working on a third novel, Something Evil. He has been among other things an ironworker, a bar bouncer, and a lead singer in a professional road band. Entering the University of Cincinnati at age forty, he graduated as an English Major in 1992. He lives in Guilford, Indiana, where he is at work on his next novel.

Jumpers

by Dennis Latham

     Waiting...
     At the brink of a wide concrete bridge pier high above the river, David Bean squatted, his arms around his knees and boot soles half over the edge. Glass tower buildings on either side reflected the fading red sun behind his back. The dark green river lay flat and calm. Traffic pinged across the bridge. A siren wailed.
     A slight warm breeze shifted his black hair and the hair tickled his nose. He ignored the itch, rocking carefully back and forth on the balls of his feet, concentrating on how it would unfold, if, and when, he made the move.
     All I have to do is close my eyes and lean forward, he thought. He had played it over and over in his mind until he had mapped the entire fall. He just couldn't create the impact; couldn't create the end. Not yet.
     "Hey, what are you doing?"
     The voice had come from up on the pedestrian walk. David shook his head, backed away from the pier edge, sat and straightened his legs. Looking up, he saw a fat man lean over the railing.
     "Are you going to jump?" the man said.
     David rubbed his legs, then pulled a cigarette pack from his shirt pocket, lit one and inhaled. "It's amazing. People will find you no matter where you go." He stared up at the intruder as he exhaled smoke.
     The fat man frowned and tugged at his right ear. "I'm not here looking for anybody."
     "Maybe you're a cop trying to use reverse psychology on me," David said. "I've seen it in a million television shows."
     "Do I look like a cop?"
     "Some cops try hard not to look like cops."
     "I was thinking about jumping."
     David blew smoke toward him. "Find another pier."
     "Don't want to," the fat man said. A belching diesel truck vibrated the railing. "I picked this one."
     "I might have been gone if you didn't interrupt me," David said.
     The fat man wiped at his face. "Then you are going to jump. I figured so." He glanced over his shoulder. "It looks like about forty-five minutes until dark. Could I have one of those cigarettes?"
     David shrugged. "I'm not bringing it up there."
     The fat man eased over the railing. A horn blew and someone yelled, apparently startling him. "Idiots," he said. His shaking legs made his pants ripple like a flag. When he reached solid footing on the pier, he released the bottom rung of the railing, used his feet to clear a space of dirt and small concrete chips, and sat down. "My name is Carl Mesher."
     David smiled as he groped for a cigarette. Carl's burgundy dress pants were too short. Waiting for the flood pants, he thought. Carl's yellow shirt had front pockets stretching down to his waist. His short, wheat stalk hair had been forced up and back by some kind of grease. He wore black wing-tip shoes. This man does not attract women, David thought.
     After lighting a cigarette, Carl frowned. "You look pretty happy for a guy about to jump."
     "I'll bet you're one of those studs who hang around the dance clubs and get all the women." He offered his hand. "I'm David."
     Carl's hand felt hot and wet. The fat man hissed smoke as sweat trickled down the side of his face.
     "Was that an insult?"
     David pulled his hand away, took one more drag, and flipped his cigarette so the wind blew it back under the bridge. "I didn't mean anything."
     "I know my pants are short," Carl said. "I just didn't figure it mattered. Besides, you have holes in your jeans and a big rip in the back of your shirt."
     "These are my work clothes," David said. "I didn't go home tonight." He stared up river, and when he glanced back at Carl, the man looked past him toward the city.
     "You know, I wish I could paint," Carl said. "I would have loved to paint the way the sun reflects in all those windows. It would make a great oil painting."
     David glanced at the flat green water. "What the hell are you doing here?"
     Carl flipped his cigarette and they watched it fall.
     "I'm dying."
     "You look healthy to me."
     The fat man stared at his hands. "I've got brain cancer."
     David squinted. Up river, a barge, shaped like a small cigar, plowed toward the bridge.
     "I found out two days ago," Carl said, massaging his eyes with his right hand. "I started getting these bad
     headaches and went to the doctor and he did some tests. He told me they can't fix it, too far gone."
     "Maybe the tests were wrong."
     "Right. The doctor will call and tell me that it was a big mistake and I'll lose weight and become President."
     "It's the American dream."
     "I should have known," Carl said. "My mother died of brain cancer. I can't go through what she did."
     "Maybe we won't have to jump," David said. "Maybe that barge coming toward us will hit the bridge. That way, you won't have to worry so much about jumping?"
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     David brushed a strand of damp black hair from his forehead. "If you were ready to jump you would be at peace with yourself."
     "And I suppose you are?"
     David picked up a small pebble, studied it, and flipped it away. "I'm just like that stone. I don't feel anything about anything. When I jump, it will be over. Like I never existed. Just like that rock is now gone forever."
     "Could I have another cigarette?"
     As David cupped the lighter for Carl, he could see the physical pain in the man's green eyes. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to have a tumor eating him from the inside out. As he lit his own cigarette, he had a fleeting thought that he could understand Carl. His own life had been like a cancer for a long time, eating at him until he was beyond any physical control. He belonged here, waiting for the end. He listened to the traffic slap the bridge, and the smoke burned his throat, spinning his thoughts in a new direction. Why not tell all when it no longer mattered?
     "Have you ever been in love, Carl?"
     Smoke drifted slowly from Carl's nostrils. "No. I'm twenty-four years old and never had one damn date."
     "I've been married for three years and my wife doesn't love me."
     "I wouldn't know about stuff like that."
     "It's bad. I have a lousy job and we're always broke. People just use each other."
     "I don't have anybody," Carl said. "My father died last year. He was all I had left. I've been living off his life insurance. At least, you have somebody."
     David flipped his cigarette, watching it fall. "Not any more."
     "She left you?"
     David clasped his arms around his knees and stared at the river. The green color was turning black as the sun faded. For a moment, he struggled with the idea that he should keep quiet, but decided it didn't matter. The river would keep the secret.
     "She's been going out on me for a long time now. I just found out last week. She said she wanted more than I could give her. Even then, I was willing to work it out. But she came home about five this morning and started screaming she wanted a divorce."
     "So you walked out?"
     "So I shot her."
     Carl dropped his cigarette over the edge. "You mean with a gun?"
     "No, with a rubber band. Of course, a gun."
     "Damn."
     "It happened fast. She stood there like she had something else to say and couldn't remember, and then she died. I was so mad I didn't even know I pulled the trigger. I didn't know what else to do so I left her there and went to work." From the corner of his eye, he saw Carl's face drain of color, his mouth opened as if in shock.
     "Why didn't you just leave her, David?"
     "I don't know. I gave my whole life to her and she was killing me inside."
     "But murder?"
     "She was a predator. The city is full of predators."
     "Maybe you can say it was an accident."
     "I've been in prison. This time I'll get life."
     "Why were you in prison?"
     "For killing my first wife."
     "You're kidding me?"
     "Jumping is the only way out. I'm not going back to prison."
     Carl breathed deep. "I can't imagine being mad enough to kill someone."
     "It happens more than you can imagine. Sometimes it goes just beyond being mad. It's a need."
     "Didn't she know you killed your first wife?"
     "Yeah, I told her. I also told her I felt she would be a better wife and if she wasn't I might kill her, too."
     "Did you really?"
     David squinted and shook his head. "Of course not." He heard Carl clear his throat, and when he glanced sideways, the man's face had turned red.
     "Well, I don't know about stuff like that," Carl said.
     David pulled out two cigarettes and tossed the pack off the pier. He handed one to Carl.
     "Last two," David said. "The condemned always smoke a cigarette before facing the firing squad."
     Carl nodded and stared at the sky after they lit the cigarettes. The slapping traffic noise on the bridge remained constant. A horn blew and tires squealed. David stared at the scattered cloud wisps, which seemed to be frozen in place. They appeared to be paint splashes across a huge canvas, fading from white to dark charcoal with the dying light. He used to see shapes in the clouds, back when
     he could let his imagination run free. Back in the innocent days before cruel reality took over.
     "I wish we were facing a firing squad," Carl finally said. "Then I wouldn't have to jump. I don't know if I can do it."
     David came back from the clouds and glanced at the fat man. "Maybe you better go on home."
     "I can't. I don't want to."
     "There are other doctors."
     "Right. And maybe you dreamed of killing your wives."
     "It wasn't a dream." David took a long drag from the cigarette. "Nothing is a dream anymore." He stared at the flat, almost black river. "I fell into a ravine when I was a kid, maybe a hundred feet. I still don't know how or why I survived, but I blacked out on the way down and it was like a dream. I could hear everything going on around me, but it was like I wasn't there."
     "How did you fall?"
     "I was on a rope swing. I just slipped. I don't know what happened. I do know that once you fall it's out of your hands and your mind takes over. The hard part will be to force your mind to accept the jump. The mind can always find
     a reason to live. You have to force it do what you want. Unless you fall by accident like I did."
     "You mean I'll black out?"
     "Probably, if you don't give it too much thought. If you just up and jump before your survival instinct can take over. Then your mind can't stop you. It will take over and make you dream."
     "I want it to be over tonight," Carl said. "My mother went crazy and suffered so bad. I don't want to rot away and go crazy. It's the most horrible thing that could happen to anyone."
     David glanced up river. The barge was close now. Three rusty metal hulls, stacked one behind the other and stuffed with coal, driven by a churning tugboat. The river foamed and swirled behind it, sending huge waves toward the shores. David watched until the barge passed beneath them before turning toward Carl. The fat man had smoked his cigarette down to the filter. He started nibbling his right thumb and appeared to be staring at his knees.
     "Well, Carl, it would have been easier if that barge had slammed into the bridge. Maybe it would have knocked us off here."
     "I don't think I have the nerve to jump. Help me."
     David took a final drag then flipped the cigarette. Sitting up straight, he scratched his scalp. "How could I help you? I was hoping you might do something for me."
     "Like what?" Carl said.
     David bit his lower lip. "I could stand on the edge and you could give me a light push. I wouldn't have time to think about it. You know, it would catch my mind off guard, like I just talked about."
     Carl grunted and shook his head. "I couldn't do that. I would be killing you."
     "Not really. You would have my permission."
     "I couldn't."
     David shrugged and slowly stood up. "I've made up my mind, one way or the other. Be quiet so I can concentrate."
     Carl grabbed his trouser leg. "You can help me."
     "How?" David said.
     "I'll stand on the edge and you push me. You've been through it before. Do this one thing for me."
     David stared into Carl's watery green eyes. The man looked so damned helpless. He did have more nerve. Having faced death before, he could trick his mind. Maybe if
     Heaven existed, he would get credit for ending Carl's suffering.
     "All right," David whispered. "If that's what you want."
     "Yes," Carl said, releasing David's leg. He grunted with the effort to rise. "I can't go on like this."
     "Stand on the edge."
     Carl nodded, glanced at the city lights and the sky, then stepped near the edge. His huge back quivered. "I'm scared," he said.
     David tasted copper on his tongue as he pushed. Carl tottered on the brink and half-turned, his arms flailing as if to stop himself. "Oh-god," he said, and was gone.
     The tingling forced David to his knees. He wondered if in that last moment, Carl had noticed the smile. The tingling became unbearable, rising and blurring his vision, making him stiffen as he watched the fat man tumble end over end. Carl's body smacked belly first, split open, and slipped away. David screamed at the warm release and leaned back from the edge. It felt good. Better than any sex could.
     Horns honked and tires squealed above him on the bridge as David stared at the night sky. The wife story worked. That David had surfaced down river weeks ago. Jumpers always had such wonderful sad lives. He climbed up over the pedestrian railing and walked toward the city jungle. Next time, he would be Carl, a man dying with brain cancer.


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