Bridges are places of edge and I miss them. I was once a bridge builder, and the things people threw off of bridges, and the reason people threw things off bridges, always fascinated me. There is something final about tossing something over a bridge, and something equally if not more final about committing that something to the water, to have it swept out of mind if not truly out of sight. Like the people who toss pennies into fountains the people who toss things off bridges all do so for their own reasons and sometimes, for no reason at all.
The people who build bridges find the trash, the discarded appliances, the beer cans, the deer carcasses and the old tires, not pennies. We find the dogs and cats people leave to die there, or whose bodies have been discarded there. Someone tossed out some kittens near a bridge just west of Hahira a few years ago and I tried to catch them. Remarkably, they were done trusting humans. The area flooded shortly afterwards and that was that. To people, bridges represent links from the present to places their lives no longer bear any responsibility for whatever they leave behind. I’ve never found a body near a bridge but I have met men who have.
A man named Dennis found the body of a little girl under a bridge, wedged under a rock under the water. This was back in the early 60’s, in poor South Georgia, and both wives and children were considered more or less property, but you still couldn’t just up and kill a child like that. The Sheriff thought it odd the parents didn’t report her missing for the better part of a week, and decided, after Dennis pestered him about it a couple of times, to look into things. The father fought against the deputy speaking to the dead girl’s mother, but in the end, once they got the wife away from the husband, she told the story of how the little girl had broken a window in the house, and the father had stuck her in the head with a shovel for it. Windows were expensive and children, especially girls, were expendable. The young mother of the child bore the marks of lesser evils, and the unmistakable scar of having watched her husband murder her only child. Whether that woman ever found her places of edge I cannot say.
Dennis helped pay for the funeral because the family was so poor, and he went to the funeral, even though at that time whites never went to the funerals of blacks. I asked him about it, when I first met him decades after the murder, and the funeral, and he lied to me, and told me it was someone else that had found her. He was never there, he told me. But Dennis didn’t like me. I was young and I was new. Dennis had started building bridges when he was fourteen and got paid a dime a day. Grown men got forty cents. This was just after World War Two and Dennis hadn’t gone to fight because he was too young, but he was old enough to hold his own on a bridge crew. There were no safety rules, no environmental rules, no laws protecting workers, no sick days, no holidays with pay, and they quit work when it rained hard enough to hurt the concrete. Dennis had started out on a wooden bridge on a county road and had helped drive creosote soaked piles into the water. Fifty years later he would replace that old bridge with a new concrete bridge and he said he had the oddest feeling seeing those old piles sitting in the water rotting. But that wasn’t like the feeling he got when he found the body.
Many years later he told me he never spoke of her with strangers, and wouldn’t have talked to me about it at all, but he felt bad about lying to me when I knew he was.
It was an odd thing, Dennis said, to find the body of a child, and he said when he first saw the body he thought it was just something in the water, discarded clothes, and it didn’t occur to him it was a dead body but then he smelled it. The crew he was with was still getting their equipment ready, and this was back in a time when there wasn’t a way to just pick up a phone and call 911, so he loaded his crew back up and went back into town to use the phone to call his boss, to see what his boss wanted him to do. His boss said to call the law, because if they didn’t someone might think they did it, so the man called the sheriff and a deputy met him down at the bridge site.
Sometimes, when they build a new bridge they’ll build it right beside the old one, and after the new bridge is built the old one is torn down, and this was the case here, so the deputy told them just to keep working and they would send someone down to get the body later. The only black funeral home in town came down to get the body, and a deputy came down with them to take a look to see if there was a drowning or a murder, and it was pretty clear a five year old didn’t put that rock on top of herself in a swimming accident. One of the men from the funeral home had a cousin that lived nearby, and he thought the little girl might have been the daughter of the cousin. In a small county with a small town as a county seat, and a small population where everyone knows everyone else, there aren’t that many five year old little girls. The deputy seemed a lot more interested in the bridge than the body, so the man from the funeral home didn’t say anything else.
Dennis went into town to eat lunch a couple of times, something he didn’t normally do, and when he was in town he would stop in the Sheriff’s office and ask about girl. There wasn’t a lot of crime in a place that small and folk were beginning to talk about the murder. Finally the Sheriff called Dennis in and asked him for a statement. Dennis was asked to write down what he found and when, and he was asked if he wanted to go to the trial as a witness, if they decided to have one, and he told them he would check with his boss, because that was how it was done back then. Being a foreman meant something, and it meant you never caused trouble when you could walk away from it.
There wasn’t a trial because of the wife’s statement against her husband, and the fact that the father of the child faced a quick and certain ride in the electric chair if convicted by a jury that was likely to sentence him to death than anything else. A guilty plea and a life sentence took less than two weeks, and in the meanwhile a white man attended the funeral for a black child and he never spoke of it again to strangers. He and I were on a bridge project together and I had already heard most of the story, most of what you’ve heard and I knew what Dennis had told me in the beginning had not been true, but I also knew why he had lied, and I didn’t blame him a bit. The South was once a very ordered and strict place. The line was never crossed by anyone for any reason, and there weren’t too many people who did and then talked about it.
“I found that girl” Dennis said one day when we were pouring concrete, just out of the blue, no reason or rhyme to why at all.
“I know” I said back to him and there wasn’t anything left to say, I thought.
But then between trucks he told me the story you’ve heard, most of it already told to me in bits and starts, the way you’ve heard it, and that’s why I’ve told it this way. It was odd because he was telling me because he had lied to me, and that had been a big thing to him. We weren’t close at all, had never eaten together at lunch or spoken after work, but it meant something to him to have lied to me. He felt like he owed me the truth so he told me everything he knew about the investigation and the funeral. He said there was some small backwoods country church without so much as a ceiling fan and it felt hot and stuffy in the place. He had never been in a black church and he was amazed that it was very clean inside and beautiful in a simple way. The people there thanked him for being there, and even the murderer’s family spoke well to him. He said there were things he had said and things he had thought and things he had done all his life that came back to him in that church and he sat red faced for it. Dennis told me that he didn’t think if he was him, in his church, he could have gone over to a black man and thanked him for being there. He looked at me when he said this, and he stopped talking for a while. I wasn’t going to ask him anything else, and I didn’t think he would say anything else at all. But…
Dennis told me he felt her there, at the bridge, when he found the body. He said you couldn’t tell there was a body, really, but there was a smell. She was still there after they took the body away, and he told her he would take her back to her family, and he said she stayed with him until the funeral, and during the middle of the funeral, she just got up and left. She never saw her, but he said he felt here when she was there and then didn’t feel her anymore when she left. I wasn’t sure then if I believed the story, not that he was lying again, but rather it was his mind doing that to him, that being in that small simple church with those people with their grief and their manners, and having to deal with what he had seen and felt, pushed his mind into dealing with it the way he had. I do not know. But I do know that was when I starting thinking about bridges being places of edge.