I always walked by her on my way to work. I went over the Shelby Street Bridge, crossing over the murky Cumberland River with a horde of other pedestrians every day at precisely 8:30 am. She was always there, standing still in the middle of the length of the bridge, her arms spread wide and resting against the white metallic railing. I’d been keeping track. She was there every morning I walked the bridge, and gone by the time I returned every evening. In the middle of December she’d have a heavy coat draped across her sagging shoulders and big wooly gloves, the kind where the fingertips were exposed unless the wearer desired to make the gloves into mittens. In the summer she’d be carrying the coat, the sweltering humidity and heat from the sun deeming outerwear useless. Instead she’d wear only a pair of jeans and a baggy t-shirt commemorating the 2002 Country Music Marathon. She didn’t look like she was old enough to have ran in the thing, her shiny, light brown hair and smooth skin giving away her youth, although her apparent life circumstances seemed like something no one so young should have to deal with.
It was a baggy t-shirt weather type of day that I first noticed her there, grungy floral carpet bag at her feet, coat flung over the rails, and trinkets lined up on the surface of the bridge’s larger-than-life bannister. Now I noticed how every time I passed her, there were new objects lined up next to the old ones. At first it had been a small wooden cross, a dilapidated address book with what looked like two pages left inside, and a diamond ring. I assumed it was real, the ring, though I’m unsure why I thought that. It was grungy, like the girl and her possessions, but that diamond in the center shone like none I’d ever seen before. If I ever got off early from work and headed home under the noon sun, she’d be there – and her diamond ring could blind pedestrians from miles away. I wondered on occasion if she was sending out some sort of signal, casting a coded message off to someone somewhere in the sky. Maybe it was her engagement ring. Her beloved had died in a plane crash, and she now perpetually waited for him, sending signals out into the universe with the very ring he had given her as a token of their love.
But that’s just the romantic in me, and most of the time the ring wasn’t out anymore when I passed her by. Now there was a set of Matryoshka dolls in its place next to the cross, but only the largest and the second-to-smallest were ever present. They’re faces were always set towards the water, only the exuberant red, green, and blue swirls of their sarafans visible to those walking the bridge. I liked to think the ring was still there, hiding inside the tiniest doll that could still be opened. Perhaps she had given up on ever finding her Pilot lover and had decided to waste away gazing at the skies in which he had plummeted to his demise
For the last several months that had been the extent of her inventory. The wooden cross and the two Matryoshka dolls. There’d be an occasional locket, a belt buckle, or an old cloche hat in the mix every now and again, but those two dolls and the cross were a constant. I assumed that she was religious. The cross was hardly there as a fashion statement, not worn on a chain around a person’s neck and not the type to be hung on a wall or enshrined in any way. It was rough and looked like it would give whoever touched it a splinter, too large to be jewelry and too small to be much of anything else.
She stayed that way for the longest time. Those same items stacked neatly on the railings of the bridge, their owner standing solemnly behind them, arms spread out and leaning into the breeze. I walked by her every morning at precisely 8:30 am, entering into the workforce, and she was gone by 5:00 pm when I crossed back out of it. That’s the way it was from July into August, into September, into October, into November.
Until November 30.
It was the day after Thanksgiving – that horrific day Americans call Black Friday. The day everyone arrived at a retail store and got everything they ever wanted at a fraction of the price and left with only a fraction of their dignity remaining.
She was there when I passed over the bridge at 8:30 am, her dolls all lined up in a row and the cross sitting patiently beside them. This was the same. I never knew if she was there on Thanksgiving Day, or any holiday really, but her persistence during the rest of the year left me thinking she alone in life just as she was there all alone on the bridge. I passed her by in much the same way as usual. It was difficult to tell her emotions, though I always tried. Her face was always wrinkle-free and serene as she gazed out on the muddy, sometimes rough water. Her hands were turned towards the river, leaning against the white railing, the weight of the world resting upon each and every finger.
It was on the way back that I noticed something different. For one thing, she was still there, her shiny hair blowing in the chilly winter breeze. She was still, there. Watching the ripples in the water far below, the grey clouds move across the sky, and the streetlights slowly begin to blink to life. The cityscape seemed barren on this particular day – the usually bright lights in the city’s many skyscrapers dimmed on what many considered a ‘reserved’ holiday. The tall Batman building lent to the eerie feel. The town felt like a dingy Gotham from the movies.
I barely noticed her at first. Every morning I took mental stock of my surrounding, and she was always a part of that. Now as I did the same thing crossing back over the bridge, I realized that one of these things was not like the other.
It was her.
I went right by her, passing by her humanity as I always tended to do. A gust of wind came up and blew my coat tight against my body. I turned to look back, and noticed the tear streaks down her cheeks reflecting the light of the setting sun.
I wrung my hands and turned back without giving it a second thought.
“Hi.” She didn’t even turn to look at me. “Are you alright?”
She still didn’t turn. I stood there for several minutes feeling the icy air hit my nostrils, sending tiny daggers of chill into my bones every time I took a breath.
“Every day I wonder what it would be like to jump.” Her voice didn’t match her appearance. Precise and even, every syllable in its place. “Have you ever attempted suicide?”
She turned to face me now, her eyes steady on my own.
“No.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Me either.” She turned back to the water. “I just like to come here to think.” I could hear the catch in her voice at this line. “Sometimes I wish I could just turn it off. The thinking, that is.”
We were both silent for what seemed like an eternity. Her gazing into the river thinking of death while I stood patiently behind her, wondering what words would come out of her mouth next.
“Well, if you’re alright…” I wasn’t sure she was, to be honest, but the tone of her voice made me think she had a level head on her shoulders.
“I’m just gonna…” I let the sentence trail off as I turned away from her chunky gray-coated self.
“Would you like to get a coffee?” The question surprised me. I turned back and there she was, still standing there, but packing up her Matryoshka dolls as if she already knew the answer.
“Sure.” I indulged her and accepted the offer despite her seeming to know what I’d say.
After she was done packing up, she made her way off of the bridge, walking right past me – burgundy and purple carpet bag in tow. I tagged along, my feet dragging along the rough cement. I felt like a child chasing after their older sibling.
“There’s a great one right on the corner of Broadway.” She flung her hair over her shoulder and looked back at me with eager eyes. “They have the best mocha lattes!”
I followed behind her the entire block to the coffee shop, wondering whether I was going to have to pay for hers or not. I was still behind when we arrived at the café, called Brewed Remarks. There were several people scattered throughout the lobby wearing skinny jeans and flannel shirts, all seated at the place’s numerous stainless steel tables. By the time I made it through the door she was already at the counter and paying for two large mocha lattes.
I went and set down my bag at a booth covered in antiqued wood. The seats looked like old church benches, all lined up waiting for the congregation to come and sing a hymn, say a prayer, and leave to go on with their week not remembering a single note from the song or a word from their plea. I shrugged off my jacket and placed it on the bench, covering the old, worn surface with purple, waterproof polyester.
The woman from the bridge picked up two steaming cups of chocolatey coffee drink and joined me, placing the cups on the table and sitting down with a swoosh on the steel chair across from me.
“You are going to love this!” she exclaimed, pushing one of the paper cups in my direction.
Be Kind to the Earth. Recycle Me. was scrawled across the bottom in bold green type. I glanced across the table as she took a sip of her mocha latte, then sat it quickly back down and waved her hand back and forth in front of her mouth. “Oh boy, that’s hot, but oh so good!”
She took another sip, this time more slowly, sticking her lips out and slurping the liquid in. Her cup had Annalise written on it in black, loopy script. I spun my cup around to see that it said And Friend in the same hand.
“So what why are you always on the bridge at precisely 8:30 each day?” She put down her cup and placed her hands on the table, each finger intertwined with its other-handed counterpart.
I glanced down at the uniform that I was wearing, the Cracker Barrel logo embroidered on my button down. I’d never seen her look my way once when I crossed the bridge. I figured she could figure out why I was always there, though.
“Cracker Barrel, huh?” she took the plastic top off of her coffee and blew on the hot liquid, sending little swirls of tan foam swimming across the surface. “I always liked their meatloaf. It gets such a bad rep these days, meatloaf does, but it’s delicious. A complete and nutritious meal all in a convenient loaf form.”
She took on the persona of an infomercial broadcaster on that last bit and I laughed.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you smile once out of all those days you’ve crossed the bridge Ella. “ I stopped laughing at this.
“How do you know my name?”
Annalise motioned to my nametag with a smile.
“Just a good guess I suppose.”
I finally took a sip of the mocha, now lukewarm. I watched as she removed her coat and draped it across the back of her chair. She did the same with her scarf and then rummaged through her carpet back looking for something. She finally settled on a folded up piece of paper.
“You dropped this the other day, and I’ve been meaning to get it back to you.”
So that’s what this was all about.
“Thanks.” I couldn’t even remember what the paper was. I took it from her and opened it up, beginning to read. “It’s my song...” I opened my purse and grabbed my wallet, looking behind my ID. It was missing. “How did this happen?” I folded it back up neatly and tucked it next to the leathery wall of the ID pouch.
“It’s good, you know.”
Of course she had read the lyrics to my song. The one song I had actually finished since moving here six years ago. To this God forsaken place where little country seedlings went to grow into huge Tennessee magnolias.
“I’m glad you liked it.” As if her opinion counted. She didn’t look like a good gardener.
“It really is good. Have you tried to put it out there?”
I’d tried, tried, and tried again. But Magnolias weren’t the most common tree here. They’re actually quite hard to come by. And a Magnolia in full bloom, well, that’s just about as rare as a White Peacock.
“I know somebody. We could send it to him and see what happens…”
A homeless woman who had connections in the music world? Well, that might just be rarer than a White Peacock.
I stared at her for a moment. She was once again blowing on her coffee, though I was sure that by now the temperature must be more to her liking.
“What’s with the Matryoshka dolls?”
“The what?” She look at me quizzically, her eyebrows squished together and low on her forehead.
“The Russian Nesting Dolls. You have them out every day when I walk by.”
“Oh. Huh. That’s what those things are actually called?” She dug around in her carpet bag once more, grabbing the large one and pulling it out. She placed it on the table with care, both hands caressing the polished wooden exterior. “When I was younger, my dad brought a set of these dolls home from one of his business trips.”
Her voice grew soft and quiet; I could barely hear her with the din from the cappuccino machine in the background. She opened the large doll up and removed the smaller one, setting it next to its larger counterpart.
“I found this set at a consignment shop a couple blocks away. “ She paused a moment and bit her lip, stroking the tiniest doll with her thumb and pointer finger. “I guess it’s not even a set, really, is it?”
“Part of a set.” I didn’t want to tell her that there were at least three other dolls missing. It didn’t seem right.
She opened the little doll and removed its contents. There it was, the ring.
“My mom’s engagement ring.” She slipped it onto her left ring finger and twirled it round and round. “Memories of days gone by, I guess.” She sniffed. “That’s what’s with the Matryoshka dolls.”
“Oh.” It was all I could get out.
“My parents got divorced.” She looked me in the eyes now. “Well, if you could even call it that. My mom left. I guess she was tired of being a mother.” We were both silent a moment before she continued. “I found out last year that she died. Some sort of car wreck. She had another family that took care of the burial and funeral proceedings.”
I stared at my hands, folded up neatly on the table top. No jewelry or adornment, just bare fingernails and dry skin. Waitressing will do that to you, all the hand washing. The wrinkles on my knuckles were pronounced and deep because of it. I glanced up at Annalise and noticed her wiping her eyes. I handed her a napkin, its course recycled-paper material seeming inadequate for helping with the tears.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered it, almost wishing she couldn’t hear.
“That’s alright. She’s not the only one who moved on without me.” She ran the napkin underneath her eyelashes. “And to Cincinnati of all places!” She laughed and placed the crumpled up thing inside her coffee cup. We both watched as the liquid moved up and through the napkin, eventually finding its way to the very top, causing it to collapse against the side of the cup.
“So what’s your story, Ella?” Annalise re-fastened the plastic lid of her coffee cup and looked at me expectantly, no trace of the tears from a moment ago remaining.
“My story?” I questioned, unsure of what bits and pieces of life made up one’s story.
I pondered it a moment. My life. My story. It wasn’t anything unique. As a matter of fact, it was decisively generic in this town. Heartbroken song writer waiting for her big break, only to find herself stuck waiting tables, wasting her college education and youth on mediocrity.
“I’m a failure.” The words came out before I could stop them, and suddenly, I understood. The reason Annalise had so easily noticed I never smiled is because it was the truth. A truth I had somehow denied even to myself, a truth I had never even noticed about myself.
“Oh, come on. I highly doubt that.” Annalise grinned and shook her head back and forth, her green eyes never leaving my face.
“Well, it’s true. I’ve been here six years and have absolutely nothing to show for it.”
“I highly doubt that.” She said it again, and this time it was like the sound of screeching brakes.
“Well you better believe it.” I knocked back the last of my latte and grabbed for my coat, shrugging the waterproof material over my shoulders. “It was nice to meet you Annalise. I’ll see you next Monday, bright and early.” I gathered my purse and scooted out of the church pew booth seat, wondering the whole time why I’d decided to come here in the first place.
“Do you believe in God?” The question came out of nowhere and stopped me in my tracks. This place really was like a church.
“I don’t give much thought to God.” At least this was something that I knew about myself and had come to terms with. I knew that God wasn’t real to me. If he was real at all, he seemed only to care about a select few individuals out of the seven billion or so on the planet.
“Well, I think he brought us together today. I thought I needed you, but it looks like you need me more. You need him more.” Annalise moved her hands around in little circles as she spoke, and raised her eyebrows high, up to heaven, on that last sentence.
“That’s nice. I’m gonna leave now.” I didn’t need to hear any of this garbage. I got up and swung my bag over my shoulder, ready to depart for good this time.
For some reason, I stopped, yet again, and waited for her to speak.
“Here. Take this.” Annalise pressed the worn wooden cross into my palm, folding my fingers around every splintery bump and crevice. “He brought us here for a reason.”
I looked at her for a moment, her hand still pushing the ancient wood into my skin. She looked so peaceful, despite the traumatic life experiences she just shared with me. I nodded, and grasping the thing for myself, gazed at the object as if it held some sort of mystical power.
And then I left.
When I came to the bridge that next Monday morning, she wasn’t there. I examined her usual spot with scrutiny, noting her absence and the fact that now the entire walkway seemed bare. The railing she usually leaned against was empty and cold. City employees were hard at work decorating every lamppost with red and green tinsel. Banners hung down from the lights with images of brightly decorated trees or wreaths and lights were wrapped around each pole.
I walked over to Annalise’s spot and stood there a moment, staring out at the river below. The water was moving quickly on this particular day, and the wind whipped my hair about in a frenzy. What was it she saw here, of all places?
The gray sky opened up and dropped fat flakes of icy white snow atop my head and I turned to pull my hood up, tightening the little elastic drawstring that secured it tightly around my face. Every time I breathed, little puffs of steam dissipated in the cold air, like the smoke from a locomotive coiling off into the atmosphere.
I put my hands in my pockets and felt it there. That dingy little cross still left in the coat as a reminder of my odd encounter with a girl named Annalise. I pulled it out and ran my gloved fingertips over every crevice. I had forgotten it was still there.
The idea of God was a funny one. I guess I’ll never understand it. I’ll never understand people like Annalise who believe so faithfully in something that seemed more or less like a fairytale. I rubbed the small trinket for a moment more, and then lifted it to my lips, giving it a kiss goodbye.
“Farewell, God.” I raised my arm up over my head, winding my aim back like a baseball pitcher ready to throw a curveball. I was about to release when I saw it. That blinding glare that shone like none I’d ever seen before.
I lowered my hand and stared at the spot for a moment. It was a rather plain old spot on the bank of the river, the grass all crinkly and yellow with mud mixed throughout just for good measure. But it was shiny. I moved my gaze back to the river for a moment. It was still moving quickly along, little ripples of brown water rolling under the bridge. Then I moved upward, to the sky overhead. It was still gray, and delicate flakes of snow still fell on my face. When I looked back the glimmer was gone. There was no more blinding shine coming from the yellowed grass on the bank of the Cumberland.
I remembered the cross still lodged in my hand, and decided that maybe God should stay. For now.
I placed the ancient wood back in my pocket, where it seemed to belong at the moment, and continued on my way to work.
I never saw her again.
Addey Vaters is a student and writer from Colorado. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Addey’s work has been published in riverrun Literary and Arts Journal, Sleet Magazine, Miss Milennia Magazine, and Odyssey, where she was not only a contributor but an editor. She is currently the Poetry Editor at borrowed solace and works in higher education. She loves anything and everything related to cats and/or folk music.