Every light at the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza turned red as Cathy approached except the one on the far right. She slid across ten lanes. There were no other cars.
She had no quarters, felt out a dollar bill from the bottom of her purse, handed it to the attendant, a being of indefinite age and sex, the booth unlit.
— If you want to give God a good laugh, the attendant said, tell Her your plans.
— Thank you, give me my change.
The right lane curled beside marsh weeds, trash, jetsam of the bay. Where it started to curve right, lifting off the flats onto the bridge proper, a woman stood, thumb out.
The body doesn’t speculate, no matter what the mind may do. The body flees from danger, runs to aid, lets the mind figure things out later.
Cathy’s body braked the car, swerved over a truck-tire peel, gravelled to a stop while her mind said no no no. But the body cannot stop.
Not when it’s your mother.
Her mother ran forward in the brake-light glow, Cathy watching in the rearview mirror. Her mother rapped on the passenger window. “Mom?” said Cathy, leaned over, unlocked the door. Her mother got in, pulled the door closed.
It was not her mother.
“Oy,” said the woman, “this is a bridge you shouldn’t walk.”
The oy was comforting; the basket in the woman’s lap, however, was the size of a human head.
Cathy’s mind took charge, decided she was safer in a moving car on the bridge than stalled in an empty lane by a wasteland verge.
“You going to San Francisco?” she asked, which was stupid since from there the Bay Bridge went only to San Francisco, so she added, “You live around here?” Equally stupid. The bridgeway lifted beneath the car.
The woman pointed outside the window and down.
“You live under the bridge?” Just kidding, folks.
“This is a bridge what shouldn’t be here,” the woman said. “These men with their steel and chutzpa and big ideas. ‘We’re in a hurry to go from here to there, we can’t wait: build a bridge.’ Do they ask permission? Feh!”
“Ask permission from who?”
“The water, who else? The Bay. The earth with its San Andreas Fault like a tickle up its nose. What is their gontser macher bridge on top of that? A bug, a flea, potch! Gone.”
Ok, she’s not going to kill me.
“You know what I think? I’ll tell you what I think. The steel changed them. Before steel, in the old days, they made bridges of stone, wood, they have a relationship, these builders, with the over-what, the on-what they are putting these things. You quarry stone from the mountain, you cut trees from the forest, this takes time. You got time to talk, consult with the material. The river, the stream, it says back, ‘You want to go from here to there, good. You want your commerce, your vacation travel. You want to feel safe. Mazel! So what do I get?’”
“And?” to be polite, to show she was paying attention.
“‘We got gold, silver, goats, sheep,’ says the builder. No. The river, the earth has got gold and silver, has got goats and sheep. Feh! We, the natural forces, want what you got what is most precious to you. You think the cooperation of natural forces comes cheap? Are you some kind of schnorrer? What we want is children.”
“‛Only two. One under each end of what it is holds the bridge up. Then we know you are sincere.’ So do they. Two, three, a lot of thousand years.”
“Schmagens, Christians, anybody what builds bridges. London Bridge already. Then comes along steel and what thinks the mamzarim? No more deals. We put one end here, the other there, who cares?”
“The water,” said Cathy, dutiful student.
“We do. Trolls. That’s our habitat.”
“You’re a yiddische troll?”
“I am not your mother. Your mother, I should add, is not so reliable she should show up when you need her.”
And true, Cathy’s mind had not said: It’s the middle of the night on the approach to the Bay Bridge, therefore that woman on the side of the road cannot be my mother. And she did need her mother, she didn’t know why. They neared Yuerba Buena Island.
“On the other hand,” said the woman, “You know what is under this end of the bridge? The biggest military prison in the Bay Area. So who says nobody sacrifices the kinder to improve their sense of security? Anyway. Enough with the troll-business. Why did you pick me up?”
You picked me up. I thought you were. Cathy compressed her lips, bit them, stared at the swooshing-past green Naval Station sign, gnawed her lips, sighed, adjusted her position, changed hands at the wheel to brush back some loose hair, checked the rearview mirror, scratched her nose, was emblazoned by tunnel-light as they drilled through Yuerba Buena, looked at her passenger, who didn’t resemble her mother at all. Now.
“The toll lights,” she said. “You looked—” Never mind. “I don’t know. I have no idea.”
“Now you are making sense. What is it you have no idea about?” She waited. “Because. What it is you have no idea about, that’s the thing that is the problem. Now we are progressing.”
Oy, thought Cathy, a Freudian yiddische troll. Already.
“Schmoidian,” said the troll. “You look like a woman who is making a decision about something she does not know, maybe not even the topic.”
“You’re saying I don’t know what I want.”
“NO. NoNoNo. What you want you know. You want a good night’s sleep. You want to get laid. You want a bagel with lox and cream cheese.”
Which was true. Wow! These psychics are something.
“‘I want humdahumdah,’ you say, and you always know what is the humdahumdah. You don’t say, ‘I want, uh, the whatever it is I have a want for.’ I want world peace. What you got is a need. Needs are what you find out later you had to have.”
“Because they’re unconscious.”
“Did Schmoid fuck everybody up? Unconscious is when you’re hit on the head with a brick. Unconscious is when they operate on your gall bladder. Nonconscious maybe. Unconscious no. Will you listen? We only got to the end of the bridge.”
“You feel restless, itchy, a fault about to slip, you don’t know what is this feeling about. Then one day, you do something you don’t understand, something you didn’t plan — God gets no good laugh. Maybe what you do looks like a want. You think, I want a car. A Mercedes 230SL, just kidding, a car you can afford. But you are not buying a car to get a car. Later, very much often later, what does it turn out why you got that car? You needed it to drive away from something. Or somebody. Or to someone or somewhere. Or you don’t buy a car. You blurt out the truth you didn’t want to.
“And no one is surprised as you. Who could be surprised by satisfying of a want? I want a hi-fi, I buy a hi-fi, big surprise. But a need? They pop up like trolls at a toll booth.”
The City phosphoresced before them.
“You want example? I give you. 1963. You want a dress. You take the IND downtown to Macy’s with your best friend whatsher”
“Right. You find the dress, a beautiful dark mossy green, nu? Back home, out of the Macy’s bag, natural light, the color is shmutz. All a sudden, the Bronx looks like shmutz, a good place to run away from. You’re 19. Am I right? You want you want you want you want. To end racial discrimination. You want to help Negroes in the South, nu? You have this feeling, this funny feeling, you have lost something you never had. Never in your life did you have this thing and you lost it already. How can that be? But it’s true. Not like virginity. Virginity you had, you lost it, that was a want. That’s the summer you’re making up dirty words to songs and you’re singing Shut up and shove it up, remember?”
She did, and San Francisco seemed no closer.
“The loss of a thing you never had, that’s a different horse. You go to Mississippi to help Negroes. Did you help Negroes?”
“Little bit,” said Cathy.
“Little bit. A want. Which was right. On the other hand, did you find, did you discover in finding it, something you lost what you didn’t know you needed, what you never had?”
Yes, yes, yes.
“So we aren’t what we want, nu? We are what we find out later we needed. Turn off at Bryant.”
The billboard said Dean Martin would soon appear at the Sands in Vegas. They were on Bryant Street, the passenger door opened.
“Wait,” said Cathy.
A week later, at the apogee of summer, Cathy, having sucked Jimmy’s cock to a glowing fever, lay back and raised her legs, displaying upon her upper thighs an array of thumb and fingerprints put there by a man not Jimmy. Jimmy’s cock demanded he do what he was about to do, then ask. After, he rolled on his side and inquired with astonished grace as to who might have left those fierce prints on her beautiful legs.
No one was as surprised as she.
“DC,” she said.
No one was as surprised as Jimmy to say, “I don’t have a right to be outraged, do I?”
No one was as surprised as both to find themselves agreeing to separate “for a while” from the person each loved more than anyone — the other — over so surprisingly inevitable and mutual an event.
Meshugge, that’s what everybody said.