MYSTERY AT SNAKE RIVER BRIDGE
My name is Ron Riley, Jr., but no one except geezers call me that. I'm known at school as Kodak because I always have a camera hanging from my neck. Why? I’m a reporter/photographer at my old man’s weekly newspaper, The Harker City Bugle.
Is this a job I asked for? Guess again. I mean, it makes me totally un-cool. Tell me, what chick drools over a doofus who stands on the sidelines snapping pictures of jocks scoring touch downs and baskets? I might as well be gay.
You’re thinking, hey, your old man owns a newspaper, and that’s choice, right? We’re not talking the New York Times here. Heck, we’re not even talking The Wichita Eagle Beacon.
Fact, The Bugle’s circulation is a whopping fifteen hundred and seventeen, the exact same number of souls who went down on the Titanic.
Another fact, slaving at The Bugle is a lot like being on a sinking ship. Over the last few years Dad has lost serious advertising money because half the stores in town have gone belly up since the railroad folded.
After Mom died -- she penned the “Family Living” section of the paper -- Dad couldn’t afford to hire someone new, so guess what? Yours truly had to go to work for less than minimum wage.
But there is one cool thing I’ve discovered with this gig. I like words.
I groove on hooking them up like box cars on a train and seeing where they take me.
My main man, Fart Bomb, calls me Word Nerd because I’m always looking up new words in Webster’s.
Here’s the hitch. When you live in Snoozeville like me, where pretty much everyone goes to church on Sunday, and most adults are grey gray hairs living on the Security, juicy scoops are about as common as Beluga caviar. How am I suppose to strut my writing stuff when I’m forced to cover “stories” like the bingo wins down at the VFW hall on Saturday night? The killer adjective or action verb only goes so far at sexing up an article titled “Highlights From the Lutheran Church Talent Night”.
So, when it comes over Dad’s police scanner that a car was found under Snake River Bridge, my ears whip around like Rhubarb's, my cat, when she hears a mouse scratching under the fridge. Dad pushes his chair back from the breakfast table. He, my big sister Melissa, my only sib, and I have been chowing down on that lumpy oatmeal she makes every morning.
“Ron, fetch my boots and load up the camera,” Dad croaks in his bullfrog-deep voice. “Melissa, put my coffee in the Thermos.”
I snatch up Dad’s scuffed Red Wing field boots from the back door mat and haul them over to him. “If a car went through the Snake River Bridge railing, that’s at least a fifty foot drop.”
Dad nods. “Would be a miracle if anyone survived that fall.” He struggles, reaching over his girth to tug his left boot on, so I bend down and pull with both hands on the boot tops. That’s right, Dad’s a porker. At almost three hundred and fifty pounds, he’s been a black hole of food consumption since Mom died. He snarfs more calories in a day than Melissa, Rhubarb, our garbage disposal, and me combined. And that's saying something because my sister is no twig, and I used to be fat myself. More on that later.
I clear my throat as I lace Dad’s boots. “How about if I shoot this one for you?”
He shakes his triple-chinned head when he heaves himself up.
“But you promised me I could help out on the next big story, remember?” I’m told I have a doe-eyed look that would make Jesus himself feel guilty, I use it on him.
“Haven’t you heard of post-traumatic stress disorder?” my sister says in her helium-sucker's voice. “After a person witnesses a horrific event, like a car accident, they can suffer from depression, nightmares, even phobias for years.”
“Too late, I’m already living with you.”
“That’s enough,” Dad barks. “Apologize to your sister, right now.”
She turns away, folding her arms over her chest.
After Mom died, Melissa dropped out of K-State, where she was an honors psychology major. She moved home and became the self-appointed family caretaker, making the meals, clipping grocery coupons and nagging us about every little thing, like not taking off our shoes when coming into the house, leaving my bed unmade and my dirty clothes on the bathroom floor. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. On July 4th Sis is to tie the knot with Brandon Miller, Dickerson County Sheriff's Deputy extraordinaire.
“Look, Dad,” I barter, “I’ll cover next week’s city commission meeting if you’ll let me go with you this morning.” This stops him in his tracks like I knew it would. Dad gets bored at the city meetings and often falls asleep. Afterwards, he has to trail around after the commissioners to find out what happened.
“Oh, all right. Get your camera. I’ll be out in the truck.”
My sister’s tarantula-leg-like eyelashes flutter at me in disgust. “Why do you want to photograph a gruesome sight so badly?”
“Because I’m a psycho pervert.”
“I think you have serious unresolved issues about Mom’s death.”
My photography knapsack swings from my neck as I book it out the back door. It isn’t even eight o’clock on this June morning and it has to be eighty degrees out. Wispy white clouds streak the blue sky like talcum powder on our bathroom floor. I throw open the passenger door of Dad's Chevy pickup. Behind the wheel, he’s nibbling on a dark chocolate Hersey bar. I sink into the seat with its busted springs as he starts the engine. The C.B. radio squelches and scratches.
“I want you to be nice to your sister,” he scolds between bites. “She’s under a lot of pressure with the wedding coming up. Do you understand me?”
Dad believes she’s spazzing out lately because she has to organize the whole nuptial shindig herself. I believe diet pills have a lot to do with it. She is desperate to drop 15 pounds for the Big Day, so she’ll fit into Mom’s old wedding dress.
We cruise through the empty streets of Harker City, the burg where I’ve lived all of my seventeen years, with its limestone courthouse, two banks, two gas stations, two grocery stores, three bars and eight churches. You’ve probably never heard of Harker City, and for good reason.
Speaking of Casey Coyote…when Dad swings us onto Trapp Street, I’m surprised to see her blue Chevette parked in front of the Lutheran Church parsonage. Casey babysits for Reverend Mike and his wife a lot, but at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning?
We zoom past the Dairy Queen and drive east onto Highway 76, heading out across the pancake-flat prairie.
Dad lowers his visor to block the morning sun and says, “Covering car accidents is the one part of my job I dread.”
“Then give ‘em to me.” I reach into my knapsack and take out my Kodak camera. “If I cover another quilting bee or 4H livestock competition, I’ll go bonkers.”
“Son, by focusing on local events The Bugle serves an important function in the community. It gives people’s lives meaning. If it’s in print, it’s important.”
So you know, Dad repeats this mantra about once a week. It kinda freaks me out he doesn't remember saying it. Alzheimer’s Disease? Self-Reassurance Disease? Either way, he's become quite philosophical since Mom died.
After a few minutes, Dad turns north on the roller coaster, deeply-rutted Snake River Road. Rocks crunch under our tires and ping against the undercarriage as we bounce along.
So, here it is 1990. Major stories are breaking all over the globe. Nelson Mandela freed from a South African prison, the Berlin Wall has come down, American troops are invading Panama. But you wouldn't know any of this reading the The Bugle. Me, I want to be a legit word nerd. I want to cover the stuff that matters. Maybe win a Pulitzer some day. And, I know what you're thinking, Yeah right, kid, the Pulitzer. Dream On.
Well, get this. Hemingway began his career as a newspaper reporter right here in the Midwest, less than a 150 miles from Harker City. Okay, he worked for the Kansas City Star and not The Bugle. Still, it’s a start.
Dad double-clutches into low gear as we struggle up a hill. We dip into the valley, and I see the red flashing lights of emergency vehicles. My pulse kicks up a notch. Ahead, the rusted trestles of the Snake River Bridge remind me of my old erector set.
Dad slows to a stop behind the sheriff's cruiser at the east end of the bridge. “Just stay out of the way and let me do the talking.” He reaches into the glove compartment, crammed with Hershey bar wrappers and yellowed gasoline receipts, and takes out his black reporter’s notebook.
Camera in hand, I trail Dad along the side of the road. Police radios crackle in the humid air. For once I feel like a real journalist covering a real story.
Up ahead, Ed Sanders, owner of Ed’s Tow Service and Auto Repair, leans his wiry body against the front fender of his wrecker. He looks totally zoned out while dragging on that cigarette.
“What do we have, Ed?” Dad calls out
Ed’s green eyes check us out from under the blue bandana wrapped pirate-style around his forehead. “One known fatality. Appears the driver missed the bridge at the curve and shot down the embankment right into the river.”
“Who’s the victim?” Dad asks.
Ed shrugs. “I just got here. Say, Ronny,” Ed drops his cigarette to the dirt and grinds it under his boot heel, “I’m almost done with your Ford.”
“Great. When can I pick it up?”
“Swing by the garage Tuesday.”
Dad and I walk past my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Brandon, on his hands and knees in the thick grass, so absorbed in whatever he’s doing there he doesn’t notice us.
We hurry by the idling ambulance, lights flashing, the back door open and the gurney missing. In the center of the narrow, one-lane bridge, Sheriff Gerald Bottoms stands squinting through binoculars like a general at D-Day. The old wood planks creak and groan under foot, and between them the river below rushes by. Usually a trickle this time of year, the water is moving fast due to the recent heavy rains. My gaze follows the river upstream to the big Harker City Lake Dam, water gushes from the overflow outlet in the shape of a rooster’s tail.
I lean over to the bridge railing. A car is upside down and half-submerged in the murky water below. To the left, two paramedics struggle to pull an object from the water. The object is a woman, floating face down, her red dress fanned over the water like a flag. The way her head bobs up and down in the current, it looks like she’s nodding. The shock of discovery hits me full force, and I’m too freaked out to do anything more than stare. I haven’t seen a dead person since Mom was laid out in her casket two years ago.
“I see we have a fatality, Gerald,” Dad says, snapping me out of my trance.
The sheriff lowers his binoculars and turns to us. A caterpillar-like eyebrow arches and he smirks at me. “Your dad letting you cover the big stuff these days?”
“Said he wanted to come.” Still gasping from the walk to the bridge, Dad dabs his sweaty forehead with a white handkerchief.
“Well, I’m glad he did. Brandon dropped our new Minolta into the river a little while ago.”The sheriff sighs and shakes his head. “Ronny, I’d like for you to get some shots of the car for my report, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem, sir.” I walk to the railing and snap pics of the death scene below. I adjust my focus. One of the men in waders is Allen Flood, the local mortician who is also an EMT.
“Body thrown at impact,” the sheriff says. “She didn’t stand a chance.”
“Who’s the victim?” Dad asks.
I spin to the sheriff. “Reverend Mike’s wife?”
Sheriff Bottom nods grimly.
Dad shakes his head.
Unbelievable. How can Mrs. Crawley, a mother, a preacher’s wife, a special ed teacher at the high school, be floating dead in Snake River on a Sunday morning? It makes no sense. I saw her a couple days ago at the parsonage when I went for a run with her husband. Everyone liked Mrs. C.
“Is Reverend Mike in that car?” I ask.
The sheriff shakes his head and tucks a toothpick into the corner of his mouth. “No. Appears she was alone. Reverend called my office just shy of midnight reporting her missing. What a shame, huh?”
Dad’s voice cracks, “On the Sabbath, no less.”
The sheriff eyeballs the east entrance of the bridge. “Drivers never slow down at that curve. I’ve asked the county to put up one of those ‘dangerous curve’ signs, but the commissioners don’t move unless it’s an election year.”
“Have you told Reverend Mike?” Dad asks.
“Yeah. He should be here any minute to identify the body.”
The EMTs lift a stiff Mrs. C. onto the stretcher. I zoom my lens on her, opening the aperture two stops. Her color-drained face is swollen like a melon. Her pale, unblinking eyes seem to stare right through me. With her blue lips and matted wet hair, she looks like the mannequin we used to practice CPR on in health class.
“Is this blood?”
I lower the Kodak. Dad points at some brownish red-spots on the railing.
“Looks fairly fresh,” Dad observes.
A trail of red dots run along the floor of the bridge toward the west end.
The sheriff nudges his hat back. “I had Brandon collect some samples of it for the lab.”
Dad also leans on the railing. “What do you make of it?”
“Not much.” The sheriff returns to looking through his binoculars. “People fish off this bridge all the time.”
I clear my throat. “Isn’t that a lot of blood for a fish?”
Dad glares at me as if to say, Didn’t I tell you to let me do the talking?
“Junior,” the sheriff says into the binoculars, “I’ve caught channel cat in this creek that bled like a slaughtered heifer.”
He straightens his spine, spins the focus wheel on his scopes, and says in a serious whisper, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Adrenaline courses through my body.
“What is it, Gerald?” Dad asks.
The sheriff hands Dad the binoculars and points. “There are two quartering pheasants over by that fence. What I wouldn’t give to have my twelve gauge right now.”
I follow those bloody dots to the entrance of the bridge, snapping photos as I go. They form a kind of trail down the rocky bank to the water’s edge.
“Ronny, make way,” Mr. Flood shouts as he and the other guy struggle to carry Mrs. Crawley’s bagged body up the embankment.
I hike back over to where Dad and the sheriff, and now Brandon, stand together on the bridge.
“I didn’t find any skid marks at the curve,” my sister’s fiancée reports. “Which leads me to believe she didn’t attempt to stop before she went over. Another thing, her headlights were off.”
The sheriff stares at him, chewing his toothpick. “I’m sure the paramedics cut the battery cable first thing. That’s standard operating procedure.”
Brandon shakes his head. “The headlight knob inside the car was switched off. The medics told me they hadn’t touched it… Maybe we should seal off the area.”
“What the heck for?” the sheriff asks.
“On the off-chance this wasn’t an accident.”
The sheriff shakes his head. “You’re thinkin’ this was a suicide?”
My future brother-in-law shrugs. “That could explain what she was doing out here alone after dark.”
Sheriff Bottoms stops chewing and stares at his underling like he is a zit on the end of his nose. “Mrs. Crawley was one of the happiest people I’ve known.”
A familiar, beige Buick LaSabre drives up. The driver’s door flies open, and out steps Reverend Mike, my triathlon coach and our family’s minister. He looks totally spent, unshaven, with dark bags under his light-blue eyes. Sheriff Bottoms leads the Rev to the back door of the ambulance. Mr. Flood, ever the solemn mortician, unzips the top of the body bag. It seems so wrong to see someone as tall and strong as Reverend Mike break down like a scared little boy.
I’m not one who cries at the drop of a hat, like my sister does, but let me tell you, I have to bite my bottom lip to control the sobs.
“I-I don’t understand.” Reverend Mike wipes tears with the back of his hand.
“This is one of the most dangerous roads in the county,” the sheriff says.
“She dropped me off at church last night,” Reverend Mike says, “but she never came home.”
Dad pulls a white hanky from his pants pocket and hands it to Reverend Mike. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Reverend.”
Brandon ambles over. “Reverend, I hate to do this now, but I need to ask you a few questions for my report.”
“That can wait,” the sheriff snaps.
“It’s all right,” Reverend Mike says, “I’d rather get it over with.”
Brandon whips out a tiny notebook from his shirt pocket and clicks his pen like he is some kind of FBI bad ass. “Did your wife’s car have mechanical problems?”
Reverend Mike shakes his head while blowing his nose in the hanky.
“Do you, uh, know if she’d been drinking,” Brandon asks.
Sheriff Bottom glares at Sis’s squeeze. “For crying out loud.”
“She had one beer with dinner,” Revend Mike says, “but that was around seven o'clock.”
Brandon clears his throat. “I’m sorry to ask this, Reverend, but was your wife depressed?”
Sheriff Bottom stares daggers at Brandon. “Thank you for your time, Reverend Mike. You best go on home to your daughter. We’ll take care of things from here.”
Reverend Mike slumps toward his car, and I hot foot it over to him. “Uh, Reverend?”
He stops and looks at me, all red-eyed and sniffling.
“How about I drive you home?”
“That would be nice, Kodak.”
Reverend Mike is one of the few adults in my life who calls me Kodak. And I like him for that reason alone
Richard Uhlig needed time, and distance, to find the perspective on his small-town childhood that would allow him to create the funny, aching, quirky characters and scenarios featured in his novels and films. A professional screenwriter, Rick now lives in New York City and counts film noir, Russian novels and "deliciously dark comedy" among his literary influences. Married to his high school sweetheart, Rick is an international traveler and a devoted father of two.
Find Richard here:
Please visit these other sites and leave a comment to win a $10 GFC to Wild Child Publishing.
Critters at the Keyboard . . .
Blog by Imagine
Highland Rogue Writing
There is no Spoon
Shadows of the Past