FICTION: The Ambivalent Bridge

The novelist stewed in the Florida heat. It was a typical Florida summer, mid-afternoon. Soon the Florida storms would roll in and the Florida rain would pour for ten solid minutes before the thunderheads cleared and the Florida sun once again beat down on the novelist, who, by the way, was at the beach, or a theme park, or a retirement home, or watching a shuttle launch, or wrestling an alligator, or circling the knotted streets of a gated subdivision.

Florida is known, the novelist wrote in the opening lines of his debut, as the Second Chance State. Like most Floridians, the novelist was from somewhere else. He used to be an insurance salesman, or a line cook, or a conquistador, or a serial killer, or a railroad magnate. His first book sold well in Florida. So did the next thirteen. Populated by deranged governors and dumb criminals and dead tourists and man-eating panthers and deranged retirees and dumb astronauts and dead orange groves and man-eating manatees, the books were too farcical to be categorized as Mystery or Crime or Noir.

Over time, the novelist developed a cult following. They referred to his books as The Gospel of Florida. At their commune in Micanopy, they staged nightly readings from the novelist’s canon and practiced free love into the morning hours.

When the novelist ran out of ways to use “Florida” as an adjective, he retired from writing and opened a chain of seafood restaurants or airboat tours or shooting ranges or pain clinics. Now a businessman, he rubbed elbows with the very developers and governors he’d vilified in his fictions. But the novelist could not be disliked. At parties, he deployed an arsenal of anecdotes, all of which featured punch lines referencing the penile shape of his adopted home state.

Naturally, a slew of mimics emerged in the novelist’s wake, writing similarly Floridian tales of et cetera. Their books sold well and were well received by everyone! Except, of course, the cult.

Over the years, the cult had grown in size and nefariousness. They considered the mimic novelists heretics and heckled them at book signings throughout the state. Notorious among booksellers, they slipped books from The Gospel of Florida into the jackets of their subpar knockoffs. Many served time for crimes ranging from petty theft to the serial murder of bookstore cats.

Books like those written by the novelist and his mimics had gone critically unmolested for decades, but the hubbub with the cult caught the attention of a critic from a New York-based website that reviewed literature and technology and restaurants and think pieces and cat videos. This critic decided, despite the fact that “Florida Literature” was not really a thing, he would take the genre down a peg.

What is Florida Literature? the article began. Let’s pretend for a minute that you care. Irony and satire and the social novel (and the novel in general) have long retired to a condo in Boca, the critic wrote. Like these aging tropes of yore, the novelist’s books have no teeth. And so on.

When the novelist read the article he was, as I mentioned, stewing in the Florida heat, sitting on his porch overlooking a golf course or in his hammock by the lake or on his jet ski bobbing in the Gulf.

Yes, he was bobbing on his jet ski in the Tampa Bay, just beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, when his friend the governor sent him the link. The governor was scaling one of the Skyway’s thick cables, commando-style, so he could eventually reach its apex and jump off––not to die, but rather to free fall for a moment before releasing a chute, unsheathing his Remington, and picking off seagulls as he floated toward his private island.

I watched from atop the Skyway’s east tower as the novelist read the article. He seemed to chuckle and shrug before speeding off and leaving the bridge in his wake, and the governor, and also me, and also the cult members, who were lined up by the dozen along the guardrail far below. They’d kidnapped the New York critic to take part in their ritual suicide (murder, in the critic’s case).

The bridge was famous for suicides, or, I should say, the Florida bridge was Florida famous for Florida suicides. I’m working on my phrasing. I am going to be a writer of Florida Literature.

Starting now.

My windbreaker wheezed in the high wind.

The bridge groaned.

I looked down. Through the feathers of vacated seagulls, I watched the cult, one by one, defect from reality. The silhouette of the governor slid across the moon. The novelist was home, reading the newspaper in bed, sipping margaritas or margaritas or margaritas.

The cult members did not die. They hit the water and turned into manatees and mermaids and gators and dolphins. No, let’s not kid ourselves. They died. And the water remained. And the bridge remained. And I, remained.

It is important not to romanticize the bridge.

I assure you it is just a bridge. It does not speak. It does not judge. The bridge accumulates barnacles and birdshit. It symbolizes nothing. End of story.

Ryan Rivas has work in Lit Hub, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, decomP, Prick of the Spindle, Paper Darts and elsewhere.

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