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Bridge of Sighs: A Novelby Richard Russo
First, the facts.
My name is Louis Charles Lynch. I am sixty years old, and for nearly forty of those years Ive been a devoted if not terribly exciting husband to the same lovely woman, as well as a doting father to Owen, our son, who is now himself a grown, married man. He and his wife are childless and likely, alas, to so remain. Earlier in my marriage it appeared as if wed be blessed with a daughter, but a car accident when my wife was in her fourth month caused her to miscarry. That was a long time ago, but Sarah still thinks about the child and so do I.
Perhaps whats most remarkable about my life is that Ive lived all of it in the same small town in upstate New York, a thing unheard of in this day and age. My wifes parents moved here when she was a little girl, so she has few memories before Thomaston, and her situation isnt much different from my own. Some people, upon learning how weve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them that it has been both, their smiles suggest weve been blessed with self-deception by way of compensation for all weve missed. I remind such people that until fairly recently the vast majority of humans have been circumscribed in precisely this manner and that lives can also be constrained by a great many other things: want, illness, ignorance, loneliness and lack of faith, to name just a few. But its probably true my wife would have traveled more if shed married someone else, and my unwillingness to become the vagabond is just one of the ways Ive been, as I said, an unexciting if loyal and unwavering companion. Shes heard all of my arguments, philosophical and other, for staying put; in her mind they all amount to little more than my natural inclination, inertia rationalized. She may be right. That said, I dont think Sarah has been unhappy in our marriage. She loves me and our son and, I think, our life. She assured me of this not long ago when it appeared she might lose her own and, sick with worry, I asked if shed regretted the good simple life weve made together.
Though our pace, never breakneck, has slowed recently, I like to think that the real reason weve not seen more of the world is that Thomaston itself has always been both luxuriant and demanding. In addition to the corner store we inherited from my parents, we now own and operate two other convenience stores. My son wryly refers to these as “the Lynch Empire,” and while the demands of running them are not overwhelming, they are relentless and time-consuming. Each is like a pet that refuses to be housebroken and resents being left alone. In addition to these demands on my time, I also serve on a great many committees, so many, in fact, that late in life Ive acquired a nickname, Mr. Mayor—a tribute to my civic-mindedness that contains, Im well aware, an element of gentle derision. Sarah believes that people take advantage of my good nature, my willingness to listen carefully to everyone, even after its become clear they have nothing to say. She worries that I often return home late in the evening and then not in the best of humors, a natural result of the fact that the civic pie we divide grows smaller each year, even as our communitys needs continue dutifully to grow. Every year the arguments over how we spend our diminished and diminishing assets become less civil, less respectful, and my wife believes its high time for younger men to shoulder their fair share of the responsibility, not to mention the attendant abuse. In principle I heartily agree, though in practice I no sooner resign from one committee than Im persuaded to join another. And Sarahs no one to talk, serving as she has, until her recent illness, on far too many boards and development committees.
Be all that as it may, the well-established rhythms of our adult lives will soon be interrupted most violently, for despite my inclination to stay put, we are soon to travel, my wife and I. I have but one month to prepare for this momentous change and mentally adjust to the loss of my precious routines—my rounds, I call them—that take me into every part of town on an almost daily basis. Too little time, I maintain, for a man so set in his ways, but I have agreed to all of it. Ive had my passport photo taken, filled out my application at the post office and mailed all the necessary documents to the State Department, all under the watchful eye of my wife and son, who seem to believe that my lifelong aversion to travel might actually cause me to sabotage our plans. Owen in particular sustains this unkind view of his father, as if Id deny his mother anything, after all shes been through. “Watch him, Ma,” he advises, narrowing his eyes at me in what I hope is mock suspicion. “You know how he is.”
Italy. We will go to Italy. Rome, then Florence, and finally Venice.
No sooner did I agree than we were marooned in a sea of guidebooks that my wife now studies like a madwoman. “Aqua alta,” she said last night after shed finally turned off the light, her voice near and intimate in the dark. She found my hand and gave it a squeeze under the covers. “In Venice theres something called aqua alta. High water.”
“How high?” I said.
“The calles flood.”
“Whats a calle?”
“If youd do some reading, youd know that streets in Italy are called calles.”
“How many of us need to know that?” I asked her. “Youre going to be there, right? Im not going alone, am I?”
“When the aqua alta is bad, all of St. Marks is underwater.”
“The whole church?” I said. “How tall is it?”
She sighed loudly. “St. Marks isnt a church. Its a plaza. The plaza of San Marco. Do you need me to explain what a plaza is?”
Actually, Id known that calles were streets and hadnt really needed an explanation of aqua alta either. But my militant ignorance on the subject of all things Italian has quickly become a game between us, one we both enjoy.
“We may need boots,” my wife ventured.
“We have boots.”
“Rubber boots. Aqua alta boots. They sound a siren.”
“If you dont have the right boots, they sound a siren?”
She gave me a swift kick under the covers. “To warn you. That the high waters coming. So youll wear your boots.”
“Who lives like this?”
“Maybe Ill just sit in the car and wait for the water to recede.”
Another kick. “No cars.”
“Right. No cars.”
“No cars,” I repeated. “Got it. Calles where the streets should be. No cars in the calles, though, not one.”
“We havent heard back from Bobby.”
Our old friend. Our third musketeer from senior year of high school. Long, long gone from us. She didnt have to tell me we hadnt heard back. “Maybe hes moved. Maybe he doesnt live in Venice anymore.”
“Maybe hed rather not see us.”
“Why? Why would he not want to see us?”
I could feel my wife shrug in the dark, and feel our sense of play running aground. “Hows your story coming?”
“Good,” I told her. “Ive been born already. A chronological approach is best, dont you think?”
“I thought you were writing a history of Thomaston,” she said.
“Thomastons in it, but so am I.”
“How about me?” she said, taking my hand again.
“Not yet. Im still just a baby. Youre still downstate. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“You could lie. You could say I lived next door. That way wed always be together.” Playful again, now.
“Ill think about it,” I said. “But the people who actually lived next door are the problem. Id have to evict them.”
“I wouldnt want you to do that.”
“It is tempting to lie, though,” I admitted.
“About what?” She yawned, and I knew shed be asleep and snoring peacefully in another minute or two.
“Promise me you wont let it become an obsession.”
Its true. Im prone to obsession. “It wont be,” I promised her.
But Im not the only reason my wife is on guard against obsession. Her father, who taught English at the high school, spent his summers writing a novel that by the end had swollen to more than a thousand single-spaced pages and still with no end in sight. I myself am drawn to shorter narratives. Of late, obituaries. It troubles my wife that I read them with my morning coffee, going directly to that section of the newspaper, but turning sixty does that, does it not? Death isnt an obsession, just a reality. Last month I read of the death—in yet another car accident—of a man whose life had been intertwined with mine since we were boys. I slipped it into the envelope that contained my wifes letter, the one that announced our forthcoming travels, to our old friend Bobby, who will remember him well. Obituaries, I believe, are really less about death than the odd shapes life takes, the patterns that death allows us to see. At sixty, these patterns are important.
“Im thinking fifty pages should do it. A hundred, tops. And Ive already got a title: The Dullest Story Ever Told.”
When she had no response to this, I glanced over and saw that her breathing had become regular, that her eyes were closed, lids fluttering.
Its possible, of course, that Bobby might prefer not to see us, his oldest friends. Not everyone, Sarah reminds me, values the past as I do. Dwells on it, she no doubt means. Loves it. Is troubled by it. Alludes to it in conversation without appropriate transition. Had I finished my university degree, as my mother desperately wanted me to, it would have been in history, and that might have afforded me ample justification for this inclination to gaze backward. But Bobby—having fled our town, state and nation at eighteen—may have little desire to stroll down memory lane. After living all over Europe, he might well have all but forgotten those he fled. I can joke about mine being “the dullest story ever told,” but to a man like Bobby it probably isnt so very far from the truth. I could go back over my correspondence with him, though I think I know what Id find in it—polite acknowledgment of whatever Ive sent him, news that someone wed both known as boys has married, or divorced, or been arrested, or diagnosed, or died. But little beyond acknowledgment. His responses to my newsy letters will contain no requests for further information, no Do you ever hear from so-and-so anymore? Still, Im confident Bobby would be happy to see us, that my wife and I havent become inconsequential to him.
Why not admit it? Of late, he has been much on my mind.
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