Ehrlich was not an unhappy man. It had been an easy morning commute, the Pacific air rinsed clean by an early rain. A cheerful few hours at his desk, all good news, even the stock market up, and his day had moved peacefully along through a clear spring afternoon. A cancelled appointment, no more meetings—why lean over the flat screen, read e-mail when he had been so obviously beckoned to obey the impulse? Leave early—get out of the office! Thirty-five years in the navy, retired or not, he had earned the right to exercise a little prerogative, and damned if he would give it up to satisfy a civilian job where nothing mattered except someone else’s profit. Screw ’em—take that quick slide home. See if you can get the roses trimmed. His wife would be pleased.
But nothing is ever that easy. On the ramp up to the bay bridge, traffic muscled in and slowed him to a walk. Probably a stalled vehicle. Maybe one of those drivers who find themselves too alarmed to continue, so high above water. He tried to sidestep his old Corolla into the clear lane, but a truck the size of a landing craft pinned him in. He thought, life in the slow lane. Jim Ehrlich, trapped in the fucking slow lane. Of all the luck.
He had to stop.
Twenty feet ahead, a young woman stood behind a deep green vehicle at the edge of the bridge, a Jeep, jammed into a concrete barrier. A fender bender. Nothing more. Ehrlich thought, this sort of thing happens all the time. People know what to do. He put on his turn signal, hoping someone would let him get going again. A silver Mercedes slowed, flashed its lights. He could have rolled on over the bridge to the island and home. But he put the Corolla in park, set the brake. He would never know why.
She was a young woman with short, blond hair cut high over the nape of her neck, her hands jammed into the pockets of a dark blue jacket too light to keep anyone warm. Tight black jeans, her waist at the top of the concrete barrier between her and a fall. She looked down toward the water.
Ehrlich killed the car, took his keys. A pretty girl. Early twenties or younger. A semitruck in low gear struggled past them. The bridge trembled. She leaned forward, placed her hands palms down, then her foot flat on the top of the barrier. A dancer’s move.
“Hey! Hey, wait!”
Her shoulders jerked. Her foot twisted and slipped off. She folded down into a half curl, then straightened, stared at him. “Stay the fuck away from me, Fucker.”
“Sure,” said Ehrlich. “No sweat.”
The roadway was littered with bits of plastic, sheered steel, glass. The scent of oil. Tar. She had smooth, browned California skin. Her cheeks were wet. When people this young worked for him in the navy, Ehrlich had always kept a box of Kleenex on his desk.
“Here.” Ehrlich fumbled in his pocket. “I’ve got a handkerchief. Take it.”
The girl turned to face him. Big, narrow-set eyes, a piece of glitter on her nose. She said something angry, but he missed it in the rattle of a passing car with a bad muffler. Maybe it was just an accident. Someone in the opposite lane leaned on a horn. She wiped her nose on the arm of the thin jacket, slipped herself up to sit on top of the barrier, another graceful move. She turned her blank face to the road. Closed her eyes. Then, ever so slowly, she seemed to lean backward.
“No. Wait. You don’t understand . . . ”
She froze, mumbled something. He couldn’t tell what she said, and he reached down into his chest for his command voice. “Listen. Get down off that wall. Now.” He started to move toward her, his hand out, the handkerchief clenched in a fist.
. . .
Read the rest of this story in the Kenyon Review Mar/Apr 2015 issue, on sale now!