He was an old man by the looks of him, crabbed over in the shadow of Abram’s Bridge. I nearly didn’t see him at first. Great, I’d thought, perfect. I’ll go back and say sorry, guys, old man Groves ain’t sleeping under the bridge tonight. Maybe tomorrow. But he looked up at me then, and the movement caught my eye. He was crouched down at the creek’s edge with his head so close to the water that he could stick his tongue out for a drink.
“Hey,” I said. I was glad I was on the other side of the creek. It was just a hop over and he’d be on me, but the distance made it easier to talk. “You’re Joe Groves, right?”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“Anyone else live under Abram’s Bridge? Now shut up, kid.” He turned his attention back to the water, and I shut up, watching him. Groves stared into the water like he could see anything down there, not just murk and the reflection of the moon. After a moment or two, his hand shot down into the creek, splashing water up his dirty shirt and onto his chest. When he pulled his hand back out, he was holding something dark and wriggling. “You interrupt a man’s dinner, you have to wait. Who are you?”
“Uh. Harvey,” I told him. Mike had shouted at me not to be a pussy as I walked towards the bridge, but it was only now that I felt like I needed the advice. “Harvey Roselle.”
“Harvey Roselle,” he repeated, throwing his catch into an old bucket and slamming a plywood board over top of it. He sat down on his bucket like it was a throne and stared up at me with eyes like little black beetles. They glinted in the light of the full moon. “Why’re you here, Roselle?”
“Say hello.” I shoved my hands in my pants. What did you say to a crazy man who lived under a bridge? “What’re you doing down here?”
“Waiting for you to climb back up the bank so I can eat my crayfish.” Groves sighed and stared down at his hands. “You got any smart questions?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know it ain’t. You wanna know why Joe Groves’ wife ran off with Pete Lacy and now Joe lives under a bridge. That’s what you kids always wanna know.”
“Hey, I never came down here before.”
He rolled his eyes. “You think you’re the first one to come out here to the edge of town? First one to come talk to crazy old Joe and laugh your way back home?”
I hadn’t thought about it one way or another. I never really thought about Groves at all until Gary said we should go talk to him and then Doug volunteered me to go do it. So I shrugged. “You gotta be good at explaining it by now, right? Since you get so many visitors.”
“You listen here, sonny,” he said. He shook his finger at me but couldn’t uncurl it entirely. His hand was claw-like, with scarred, weathered skin that looked too tight for the bones underneath. “You and your punk-ass friends don’t know shit. You’re standing around, drinking beers and throwing them at the horizon, and you think nothing’s ever gonna get hurled back at you. Come out here to see the crazy motherfucker lives under the bridge, huh? You stupid kids are all the same.”
“Fuck you.” I could taste the alcohol on my tongue . Old Groves wouldn’t shut up if I told him he was wrong, it was a bottle of Jack we were passing around, especially since it usually was beer. Gary was shipping out in the morning to Vietnam, so we’d sprung for something better than a case of Pabst. “Answer the fucking question, old man. What the fuck are you doing down here?”
“Listening,” he hissed, and I stopped in my tracks. I hadn’t even realized I’d taken two or three steps toward him, just at the edge of my side of the creek. The quiet of the night fell on me then, just how still everything was beneath the sound of the water running between us and the far-off howl of a coyote. I stared at him.
“To the darkness. You want to know why Lillian left? Why I haven’t seen my little girl since she was ye high?” He gestured vaguely with one hand. “Because I can hear them out there. They’re waiting for me.”
“If you never heard them, you’ll never know. But you listen sometime, Roselle, when everything’s quiet. You see if you don’t hear something in the darkness.” Groves stood up. “Now get the fuck out of here. And don’t come back.”
I never went back to Abram’s Bridge. Well, not under it, anyway. I drove over plenty of times on my way to Fairview and anywhere else I needed to go to. But I never skidded down the edge of the embankment, nearly into the creek, and went looking for the man living with the crayfish down in the shadows. I’m not all that bright, but I know how to do what I’m told.
They found Groves’ body under there a year ago. Mike Hepworth’s a policeman these days, and he told me about it over a beer at the corner bar. He’d been torn to pieces. Big ones, which Mike said was lucky, since it made identifying him easy, but not more than an arm or leg attached to anything else. An old woman a mile off found his left foot while she was taking a walk and nearly died of a heart attack. The official word was that coyotes finally got him and made themselves a nice little meal, since they never found some parts of him.
I ain’t so sure about that.
When I’m lying in bed next to Sue, after she falls asleep and lies there with her mouth open and an arm over her eyes, I know the whole house is asleep but me. Maybe the dog’s up, but Scottie’s only two, and he goes down right after dinner. Everything human in the house is done for the night, waiting for the sun to rise and make it worthwhile to do more than dream again. And it’s when I’m the last one up, especially when we had a shitty day at the garage and I’m tired down to the bone, that I hear them.
My head’s full of static like snow on a TV screen, but there’s a sound beneath it as wispy and formless as cigarette smoke. I ain't thinking the words, or at least I hope I ain't, but there they are anyway, as sweet as a lover inviting you closer. We see you. We want you.
We’ll come to you.
Nights like this, I wait as long as I can. I tell myself I’m crazy and tired and need to put it out of my mind and get to sleep. But it’s impossible to cover your ears when the whispering is soundless, and they don’t like when you ignore them. I wait until I can’t see straight for trying to ignore the way they call to me, until I’m shivering under a cold sweat with thoughts of what they might sound like up close. And then I get up as quiet as I can and sneak down to the car. And I drive.
I wake the dogs up when I go. They cry all along Main Street until I’m out of town, and then their howling echoes along with the whispers. I tune the radio to static and crank it up until I’m cringing at the sound, and I drive out into the desert.
You have to understand, I’ve got a wife now. I’ve got a little boy who listens to ball games with me and can count to ten. I can’t wait for someone to hurl something at me from the horizon and hope I’m the only one who gets hit.
I’ll hurl myself at the horizon first.