Second prize winner of the 9th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest.
Uncle got crushed beneath the Pattullo Bridge. The office is just upstream, next to the houseboat that got busted for the grow-op though no one admitted who owned it. As a surly teenager sitting at the reception desk, I learned the traffic patterns along Front Street. Rush hour and train traffic. “You watching the show,” the voice on the phone, me watching the unusual gridlock. “Jumper on the Pattullo, and you got front row seats.”
Bodies are nothing new. Caught up in the dock, between the tugs and the pilings. Bloated. Murdered, fell. Great-grandfather drowned in the Fraser, but with the family history you never know if it was push or slip. New West is still a frontier town, though it’s as much pawnshops and wedding dresses as drugs and accidents.
Uncle didn’t jump. It was mid-June and freshet had swollen the river up to a kick. He’d taken the Sea Cap III out to assist a barge. Tug caught the current and flipped, he went down with life jacket hooked on something, had to rip it open to get out. Two minutes underwater, and that after being pinned up against the barge. “Good thing you had one of those old piece-of-shit life jackets on,” I say later.
Cousin is the first to show up at the hospital. When the nurse asks if there are any other conditions, Cousin says, “He’s got a fake leg.” The nurse balks. “Take it off him and hide it. Make it harder to escape.”
When I arrive, everyone is standing around the cot like they’re at a funeral. Mother introduces me. Uncle looks at her, surprise processing through the drugs. “I know.” Then to me. “You in Montreal still.” “Yep.” “You moving back.” “Nope.” There is a plastic bottle half full of dark liquid draining from his punctured lung. He is unnatural under the thin sheet, skinny like a mannequin. Older. I see Grandfather in him. In both of them. Same face Uncle, Mother—blank eyes, straight mouth. They run on the energy of cornered rodents. You’d think they weren’t paying attention but they are. Uncle shifts but can’t, ribs busted all down his spine, collarbone broken.
The deckhand from the barge comes in, all fear sweat and trauma. Smell hollows my guts. “Jesus,” he says. “I didn’t think you were coming back.” Uncle relaxes, straight line broken into smile, eyes twinkling. They go through the details. The deckhand is fucked, breathing shallow, guilt and dead panic still hunched in his throat. For Uncle it’s already a story, another for the Uncle-of-a-thousand-lives. He’ll get one of those new plastic hundred-dollar bills, put it in with the rattlesnake he keeps in his office. Talk about being trapped underwater while the guys eye the money, all dared up by his story. The nurses have the shots, they’ll think. Could be worth it.