The drawbridge was long, with four full lanes of traffic. One day every summer the city shut the Saint Matthew Bridge down for a charity walk to combat the homeless/cancer/AIDS problem – it was that kind of long. The speed limit was high, and the rushing cars caused a draft that could push a pedestrian along the barricaded sidewalk.
The pedestrians were well protected from the one ton killing machines averaging 60 miles per hour, but the wall stopping them from falling into the river was short. There had been some talk in recent years of making it taller. There hadn’t been an epidemic of suicides, but better safe than sorry, especially now that the casino riverboat was making regular stops in Tanbury.
When one was walking across the Saint Matthew Bridge and contemplating one’s life choices – and coming out on the losing side of that argument – that low wall could be quite the temptation.
Stuart Vining was having one of those back and forth “You’re an idiot” conversations with himself as he walked along the Saint Matthew Bridge on this beautiful day in July. Not that he noticed the weather. There could have been a rainbow shot through with a lightning bolt and a shooting star piercing the arch at midnight and Stuart wouldn’t have seen it.
The morning had started out like any other. Stuart had woken to his alarm at his usual time – slapping it off of the side table again – before stumbling to the kitchen and his pre-made coffee. He enjoyed that hot cup of heaven on the balcony as he read over stock reports. He didn’t have to be in to work until noon today, and he intended to enjoy the leisurely morning.
That bit of leisure had been interrupted by a knock at the door and some of the best news he’d received in quite some time.
“I’m not expecting anything,” Stuart said through the closed door. He checked the peephole and the person did indeed look like a courier.
“It’s from Bancroft, Marshall, and Whitney,” the courier said, and added, “the law offices of.”
It took Stuart a moment to remember. Of course! The class action lawsuit. How could he have forgotten? Stuart had been in a minor fender bender earlier in the year. His air bag had deployed though it had been a low impact collision. Come to find out his air bags were part of the major recall eighteen months ago, and Stuart’s name had been added to a class action lawsuit that had recently been settled.
Stuart unchained the door, flipped the deadbolt, and opened the door. “Thank you for bringing it. I wasn’t expecting a courier.”
“To be honest, man, my bosses just want this thing done. It cost their client money, and when the client isn’t happy, well, neither are my bosses.”
“They’re collecting fees, I’m sure they’re fine.”
“Whatever. Sign here.” The kid pointed, Stuart signed, and their temporary alliance was complete.
The sun was shining upon the balcony and Stuart wanted to enjoy it while he looked at the check. The amount was probably going to be small. He hadn’t died, or been injured, and his insurance company had covered everything else.
A decent job with a higher than middle class wage had given Stuart a nice nest egg, and he lived a comfortable life. He was a Gen X’er doing well for himself. Whatever amount this check was, it would be straight fun money. No bills to pay, no goals to accomplish, no guilt.
“Enclosed please find a check for the total of $8347.16 …”
“Blah blah blah,” Stuart read, and then he did a double take. He whistled softly. “Eight thousand? No one said it would be eight thousand. That’s damn near a down payment on a decent car or shitty house.”
The envelope dropped unnoticed from his hand as Stuart stared at the check. Had he ever held this much money in his hand at one time? He didn’t think so. Yes, his bank account held that amount and then some, but this felt different. This felt special.
“Fun money,” his whispered, “how in the hell do you spend eight k in fun money?”
A horn bellowed in the distance. A deep horn, not a car or semi-truck, Stuart realized. The sound came from the direction of the river and that’s when he remembered The Queen of Hearts had added Tanbury to her stops.
A riverboat designed to fit into Mark Twain’s era, the casino boat had been making regular jaunts up and down the river for the past six months. As part of a work party Stuart’s architectural firm had taken everyone on the inaugural trip.
Not much of a gambler, Stuart had taken a couple hundred and dropped it at Blackjack. He’d spent the rest of the ride hitting on a lady from, where had it been? Oh yeah, Littlefield & March, a competing firm. It hadn’t worked out with Melissa, but it had been a fun few months.
If he remembered correctly, there was a high rollers Craps table. And if he listened hard enough, Stuart could hear it calling his name. After considering the idea for less than thirty seconds, Stuart could feel the pull – a magnet to his urges. Why resist?
After clearing the dishes from his balcony, Stuart went to his bedroom and perused his closet. “What would a high roller wear?” He considered his options and closed the closet doors. “Apparently that’s not the kind of high roller I am,” he chuckled.
He ended up in jeans and a t-shirt from a television show he particularly liked. The TARDIS was blowing up, which Stuart considered symbolic as he planned on blowing up the Craps table.
He swiped some gel through his dark brown hair – while checking for grey and finding none, checking the hairline and finding it still firmly in place – and considered himself ready to go. A quick call to let the boss know he wouldn’t be in today and then he’d be casino bound. But first a stop at the bank, the tallest building in Tanbury at five stories.
The building owners had redesigned the upper floors into condominiums and Stuart had considered purchasing one of those before he’d discovered the loft condos across town. The balcony was twice the size, and there were actual storage areas, and those two amenities had won him over.
“This is not the kind of check you drop in the ATM,” he muttered, and went in the doors. He expected the teller to flinch when he requested eight thousand dollars in cash, but she didn’t even blink. It took less time than Stuart had expected for him to walk out with a thick envelope.
Though he had missed the boat on it’s first go-by of the day, the schedule indicated it would be back in about forty-five minutes. Stuart decided to wait on a bench instead of going into the cafe for more coffee. He didn’t want to spend most of his time on the boat checking out their restrooms.
There were a few other people in the waiting area, including something/someone Stuart had never seen in his small town before. A homeless person was sleeping on a bench against the wall, their belongings tucked in tight beside them. A small breeze kicked up and suddenly Stuart could smell them. He casually switched benches and found the air to be a bit fresher.
He made eye contact with an elderly woman across the way, and she nodded at him. Then she winked. Stuart grinned and crossed his eyes back at her. She sniffed and turned away from him. Whatever, her loss. A weird faces contest would have helped pass the time, and with her wrinkles she’d have been a sure winner.
The envelope of cash felt heavy, and he’d have random moments of panic. Were people looking at it? Was someone going to take it? What kind of an idiot walked around town with an envelope with this much cash in it? He deserved whatever happened to him.
Fortunately nothing did.
Eventually the boat arrived and Stuart gladly boarded it. He made his way straight to the remembered Craps table. $500 Minimum sounded good. To start.
He was so intent on reaching his destination he didn’t notice the gaudy decoration, or the many other people blowing some of their savings – or worse, their rent or mortgage money – at the slot machines or Blackjack tables.
No, he only saw the Craps table. The dice were shining, singing a Siren’s call.
“Best. Idea. Ever.”
Three hours. That was all the time it took. Three hours to lose the entire eight thousand.
Stuart could remember none of the actual events or rolls. Highs and lows. Winning streaks had him up to fifteen thousand at one point. Losing streaks had him down to his last five hundred. It had been a yo-yo, and Stuart was now a spinning ball resting at the end of the string.
He exited the boat in disbelief. The reality was that Stuart had lost more than the eight thousand.
Stuart vaguely recalled going to the cashier stand, and arranging a transfer. He’d had to sign some paperwork, and they’d had to call the bank to verify funds, but he had definitely gone back for more money at one point.
His car sat in the parking lot. Stuart walked by it, completely unseeing. His mind was reeling. His stomach felt like he’d filled it with lead. Had he left himself enough to cover the mortgage?
In a daze, Stuart began walking across the Saint Matthew Bridge. Maybe if he walked across and back – a total of 1.56 miles – he would feel closer to normal.
His cell phone burned in his pocket. Stuart had an app for his bank on the home screen. With a few simple taps he could discover what kind of financial hole he had just dug for himself.
He tried to hold off. Stuart walked with his head down in more of a trudge than a walk. His shoes had scuff marks on them, and they were dragging.
Unable to take the not knowing, he removed his phone and checked his balance.
The good news was that he had indeed left himself a mortgage payment in there. One mortgage payment, and that was it. In a panic now, he checked his credit card apps as well.
Wide-eyed, with a throbbing headache starting at the base of his skull, Stuart stared at the screen.
When had he done that?
“Jesus Christ, why don’t people warn you that gambling could ruin your life? Best idea ever, my ass.” He slid the phone back into his pocket. When he reached land, Stuart flipped direction and began the long walk back.
At the halfway point he stopped, and turned to look out over the river. In the distance he could see the ass end of The Queen of Hearts. She was working her way up the river to mercilessly take more suckers’ money.
It was hard to judge how long he stood there, watching the water and world pass him by. The light changed from the brightness of noon to the dull heat of the afternoon. Stuart was hot in his jeans, but the breeze offered constant relief.
His elbows rested on the concrete barrier, and he leaned forward to look down. Water was soothing, or so Stuart had always thought. When he was troubled, a shower or a swim often cleared his mind.
Perhaps a swim was a good idea now? The drawbridge was twenty feet above the river. He could dive that easily, then swim to shore, retrieve his car, and go home to figure out what the hell he had done to himself, and how he was going to fix it.
Stuart leaned out a tad more. The water moved quickly here, and he could see small eddies at either bank. That was okay, though, because he was a strong swimmer, he reminded himself.
There was a tug at the hem of his t-shirt. “Hey, mister, are you okay?”
Stuart looked down and saw a young girl. She was maybe seven years old. Cute, with pigtails and a small overbite. She had one of those toy grocery carts with a stuffed pig dressed as a baby tucked into a blanket in the seat. The pig wore a bonnet. So did the little girl.
There was a basket in the carrier section, holding dandelions and other wildflowers.
“Um, hi,” Stuart said. He looked around and saw a weary woman pushing a large stroller that held twins just down the sidewalk a bit. She must have fallen behind the girl on their walk. “I’m okay. How are you?” He kept his distance lest the mother think he was up to anything nefarious.
The young lady cocked her head, and her bonnet slipped to the side. “You don’t look okay. Were you gonna fall in the water? Did I save you? Momma!” she called, “I just saved him!”
“No you didn’t,” Stuart objected, “I wasn’t going to fall. I was going to dive in and swim over to there.” He pointed in the general direction of his car.
“The sign says No diving, No swimming, No fishing,” parroted the girl, quite seriously.
“You’re right. I should follow the rules.” Stuart checked on her mother’s progress. She needed to hurry. Stuart wasn’t good with kids.
“Are you sad?”
“A little.” Stuart shrugged. “I just spent all of my allowance and now I won’t have any for a long time.”
“Sometimes Mom lets me sell lemonade to earn money. So I ‘perciate my toys.”
“Appreciate?” Stuart corrected.
“That’s what I said. ‘Perciate. You could sell lemonade.”
Stuart smiled. “I’m afraid I don’t have any. Not on me.”
The little girl thought for a moment, and turned to her grocery cart. She sorted through the flowers carefully. Finally she selected one. After a moment of debate, she added another, and then another. Finally she had created a bouquet of dandelions. She turned back to Stuart and offered the bunch to him.
“You can sell these. I can pick more on the way home. There were lots.”
Tears. Instantly hot tears filled Stuart’s eyes. “Thank you, very much.” He sniffled.
“You’re very welcome.” The little girl nodded her head, patted his hand, and began pushing her stroller once more.
Stuart stared after her, without seeing. What was I about to do? There’s no diving off of this bridge for a reason … Jesus, that little girl really did just save my life.
Stuart’s limbs shook. His brain reeled. Adrenaline coursed through his body. He pushed back from the low barricade until his back pressed against the tall concrete wall blocking the pedestrians from traffic.
The mom with the twins in the stroller went by him without making eye contact. Stuart blurted to her back, “Your daughter is amazing.”
The woman stopped and turned, stared at him. “I don’t have a daughter. These are boys. See the blue shirts? You should get a job and stop doing drugs during the day.”
“I’m not on drugs!” Stuart protested. “She just talked to me and handed me these flowers.”
Stuart looked down. His hand was empty though curled into a fist that could be holding an imaginary bunch of posies.
“Go sleep it off,” the woman said over her shoulder as she picked up her pace, “and then pull yourself together. Enjoy your day.”
“Yeah,” Stuart mumbled, “sleep it off. Sounds good. So good, in fact, that it may be the next Best. Idea. Ever.”
Stuart Vining went home. He made a call to a counselor and set an appointment, and then he did indeed take a nap.