Brian Leung was a fairly young man when he wrote this story, which was first published in Story magazine in the late 90’s. It's important to mention this fact because it indicates his talent to accurately convey emotion, describing it clearly, finely and nonetheless powerfully, as if it were part of his own life experience, as if it were part of the bridge built across the waterfalls in the story. "Six Ways" is a story about old grudges and guilt, hope and regret, the fear of losing people and the people you’ve already lost, the profound and pathetic solitude of an aging man, the loneliness that he blames himself for, and about the inability to live with mistakes despite the strong will to turn back time. It's a story that stirs my emotions and makes me wiser every time I read it, and one which resonates strongly as the years pass and I begin encountering those kind of moments more often.
Understand Blue Falls, how it got its name, how in dry years, in autumn, water slips over a flat edge, sheer and perfect, a wide liquid sheet reflecting a clear day—blue as an unraveling bolt of satin. But most years are not dry and most days are not completely blue. Not this morning, certainly, as Parker Cheung leans on the railing of the deck behind his home where he sees the falls and the observation bridge bisecting the line of water. Today is misty and the falls are loud, full after three days of rain. And there are people on the bridge. Parker counts four, one of them the sheriff, Katie Buckle. Someone’s gone and jumped again, he says to himself. He takes a last drink of tea and walks inside, shaking his head.
Parker considers his dark living room, the National Geographics and Reader’s Digests stacked everywhere, the mugs with their various levels of evaporating green tea. The answering machine in the corner blinks a single unchecked message. It could be his daughter, Susan, but he’s afraid it won’t be and so he’s left it alone all morning trying not to think about it, Parker looks outside at the bridge, searching for the sheriff again. She’ll be around soon to ask what he knows. At first he doesn’t see her, but then she’s back on the bridge, a brown and khaki thickness with a heavy walk. Maybe I’ve still got lime, he thinks, turning to straighten the room, something he’s still not used to even though it’s been two years since his wife died. This was her part of their marriage, running the house, raising their daughter. He took care of the egg ranch, Cheungs’ Eggs, “Something to Crow About!” But now that his wife is gone, he’s shut down the business, and he hasn’t spoken to his daughter in nine years. But there is the message on the machine that came while he was showering and it could be Susan. She might have remembered today would have been her mother’s sixtieth birthday.
Parker starts by collecting the dirty cups, setting them in the already full sink. He turns on the tap and hot water sputters out. The kitchen smells like fish, more so than usual, and he remembers last night’s meal. He lifts the lid off a cast-iron pot, the head of a small red snapper offering a milky stare, a xylophone of bones strung behind. He throws the fish out the kitchen window and watches for a moment as three cats that he insists are not his, fight over the carcass. Beyond them is the bridge from a slightly different angle. Everyone has left except the sheriff. She is facing away, toward the falls, resting both hands on the railing. That’s not the side people usually jump from, Parker thinks. It’s too close to the falls. The water isn’t shallow enough for death and no one jumps off Blue Falls Bridge just to get seriously injured.
The first one to go over was Jason Glass, He was sixteen. Parker saw it, too. It was in the evening, he remembers, after dinner. They had steamed salmon dumplings and bok choy. He was full and walked out on the deck while his wife and daughter cleared the table. The night was cool and it now seems an important detail to him that it rained the next morning and didn’t stop for three days. It was dusk and the bridge looked like something etched a sequence of thick black lines. He saw someone pacing, not someone, actually, just a form moving back and forth. Finally the figure stopped, and a voice cracked through the twilight air, the form boiling across the bridge. It was running, yelling “I’m Superman” as it pushed off the rail.
Parker shuts off the water until there is just a small whining stream for rinsing. He starts with the silverware because that’s how his wife had always done it. The water is warm and the wetness makes his hands look almost young. He thinks again of the Glass boy. He has never forgotten the sound of Jason’s body hitting the rocks, the solitary thump, barely a sound at all. Now, remembering, it is not important to him that he ran inside and startled Annie and Susan, could hardly produce words, nor that he somehow called the sheriff. It is the sound of Jason’s body meeting ground, how his life ended as a whisper, in a riverbed, the almost powdery tenor of it, as if the world couldn’t care if he was a boy or a sack of flour. A reporter for the Northwest Trader asked him to describe what it was like to see the young man end his life. Parker watched the reporter’s hand scribbling notes on a small pad. How could he describe a person’s life dissolving into night air, the shocking lack of reverberation? He was quiet for a moment, and the reporter stopped writing, his pencil a fraction of an inch from the paper. Finally, Parker spoke. “It’s, like reading a sentence and arriving at a comma with nothing after it.”
Later, it turned out Susan knew Jason. She was a year behind him in high school. In the four days before his funeral, she didn’t go to class, stayed home, took meals in her room where she and her mother talked for hours. Once, Parker heard her crying alone. He stopped and knocked on her door but she didn’t answer. “I just want you to know,” he said, speaking into the wood frame, “there was nothing you could do. They’re saying it was drugs. He was causing his parents a lot of trouble.” She began crying louder and he put his hand on the doorknob but did not go in. Instead, he waited for his wife to get home.
Now, he has a message on the machine. There’s no reason to think it’s Susan except that it’s his wife’s birthday and no one ever calls. And why would she want to talk now after all these years? Parker isn’t even sure of what he should say. There are ideas, forms of apology that sift through his mind nearly every day, but they all seem vague as the reasons he and Susan stopped speaking in the first place.
As Parker washes die dishes, he keeps his eye on his sheriff. He watches her pace slowly as if she’s trying to figure something out. But, as far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing to figure out. They should just tear down the bridge. Aren’t six jumpers enough? Building it had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now . . . Parker remembers when it first went up, before that too, when the chamber of commerce held a meeting in the hall, well before Seattle had its Space Needle. There wasn’t any reason to come to Washington then, unless you liked lumber, or perhaps cared to see the Columbia covered by a flotilla of logs. He remembers how Joe and Ruth Kent took a summer road trip in their Thunderbird and came back with pictures of gigantic concrete cows, the name of cities painted on their sides, invariably followed by slogans beginning with “World’s greatest” or “World’s largest.” Either that, or it was the home of something or die birthplace of someone. He recalls the chamber president passing around postcards and salt and pepper shakers the Kents bought, all of them hearing the name of a town. There was a picture of a huge ear of corn weighing down a pickup truck. From Las Vegas, they brought hack a pair of plastic slot-machine shakers. They said Blue Falls needed an identity, a reason to come and spend money.
Parker feels the edge of a chipped cup and for a moment, considers throwing it away, about as long, he thinks, as it took to decide on building the bridge. Parker remembers that was a dry year and everyone had fresh in their minds how simple and beautiful the falls were, how glassy and reflective. Everyone thought people would certainly drive to see them. Mildred Thomas was even smart enough to recommend they hire a photographer to take pictures before the bridge went up because that would be better for postcards. By then, Parker had only owned the egg ranch a few years, bought it with money he inherited from his father, a purchase he knew he would never have approved of. His father never wanted Parker to do any manual labor.
With the last of the inheritance, Parker put up most of the money for the bridge and he remembers how everyone started calling him by his first name, or tried to. That was when he still wanted people to use his Chinese name, Pak. Only Annie called him Pak, and even she preferred her American name over Ling. He remembers she wanted the bridge too, even proposed to the chamber that they write Pat Boone to see if he would dedicate the bridge when it was done. Her accent was still so thick then, he had to translate what she warned.
We were all a mess, Parker thinks, searching the dishwater for any stray silverware, almost laughing. Pat Boone never wrote back, and Parker’s wife stopped playing his records, Worse, though, after all the money invested in postcards and plaques made from diagonally cut pine limbs, no one could ever say for sure if even one extra person had come into town because of the bridge, though Parker did report he spotted a family on it one summer a couple years after it opened. For about a week the people of Blue Falls allowed themselves to feel vindicated.
Now, forty years later, just as many people know it as Jumper’s Bridge. Parker watches the sheriff tap her hand on the railing. It won’t be long before she’s knocking on his door.
Parker notices the deeply stained bottom of one of the cups he has already washed and stares scrubbing it again. He looks at the age spots on the back of one of his hands. Old, he thinks, returning his attention to the cup. He considers what he remembers about last night so he’ll have it all straight for the sheriff, though he’s sure there was nothing out of the ordinary. He wonders who jumped this time, what was the reason. Sometimes you have connections with these people. Like Jason Glass. It wasn’t until years later, months after Susan moved to Los Angeles for college, that Annie turned to him in bed one night, shook her head, and told him the truth. It had come out of nowhere. “Remember Jason Glass?” Her hair was still long and black then, just starting to show a few strands of white.
Parker nodded, a bit started. He was halfway into a textbook on light therapy and he set it on his lap. “Of course, the one Susan knew.”
“She his girlfriend. They fight over his drugs.”
He didn’t know what to think. “Why didn’t one of you say something?” He looked at his wife. “I could have talked to her.”
She sat up in bed, her face tightening. “No. You wouldn’t. You always too busy with the egg ranch. That your problem. Always your problem.”
His wife stayed mad at him for days, which seemed unreasonable to him. Susan had gotten over Jason, hadn’t she? After the funeral she started working a few hours a week at the ranch as a candler. That first week, he’d asked her as she inspected the bark-lit eggs running by on a conveyer belt, “Are you okay?”
Susan did not look up from the eggs. “Fine, Pop.”
“Good.” Parker walked away. Now he thinks he should have said more. But she did seem fine, busy, occupied at least. And hadn’t they later chosen a good career for Susan when she went away to study engineering? She’d even met a nice Chinese boy. At that point, at least, everything seemed okay. What more could they have done for her?
As he dries his hands, there’s a knock at the door and he knows it’s Katie. Parker goes to open it and catches a glimpse of him self in the dusty hallway mirror. He’s still in his terry-cloth robe, the sleeves rolled up for the dishes. The thin rim of his white hair bristles out all over.
He greets Katie with a calm smile.
“There’s been another one, Parker.”
He nods but does not invite her in. “I saw you over there.” He and Katie go back a long way. When she was sixteen, working at the egg ranch was her first job. Parker made her an egg candler too, but she complained after only a day about the boredom so he moved her to the chicken houses, gave her a boy’s job to teach her a lesson. By the end of the summer, she’d become his best worker. It wasn’t long before he had her supervising other employees, including Susan. Even though she’s in her forties now, thicker, her blonde hair cropped long ago, it is not hard for him to believe this woman with the gun at her side is the same Katie.
“Not this time,” Parker says, looking beyond her to see what she’s staring at. The ranch is wet and shiny, the spring weeds in his wife’s old hyacinth bed are bent over from early morning rain. “I really should get out here and do some yard work,” he says, but there’s no conviction in it. There would never have been flowers at all if not for Annie. He remembers how mad she was one year when she asked him to bring home lavender hyacinth bulbs, not the packaged kind, the bulk, so she could pick out good ones. The next year the whole bed came up white, though he swore he double-checked the bin label. Of course, he hadn’t. It never mattered to him.
Katie shakes her head and scuffs a boot into the dark, wet ground. “Your cats are looking a bit scruffy.”
“I don’t claim them. They claim me.”
“Not very smart cats,” Katie says, turning around. “Doesn’t seem right the way the place is all closed down.”
“A man can’t work all his life.”
Katie smiles and takes off her plastic-covered hat. “You? Work?”
Stifling a smile and crossing his arms, Parker leans against the door-frame. “As I remember, I spent most of my time picking up after you.”
“Listen you old coot. Gonna invite me in or not?”
Parker finally smiles and gestures her inside. “I suppose you’re operating on that permanent warrant you keep telling me about.”
She sits on the couch, lays her hat on a stack of National Geographics. “Jesus. So this is where the old-growth forests are ending up.”
“Got ‘em at Henderson’s yard sale. I like to read.”
“I remember. But your taste used to run a little more sophisticated. And Jesus. Do you read with night-vision goggles?” She leans over and switches on a lamp.
Parker sits in his recliner, the arms so worn the frame shows in places. “Donated my books to the library.” He sees the answering machine, the red light blinking over Katie’s shoulder. I can open the curtains.”
As he gets up, Katie says, “I’ve seen enough of the bridge, thank you.”
It is dark in here, Parker thinks, turning on a reading light. It casts Katie’s face in a dim yellow, accentuating the wrinkles around her eyes. He measures her expression. She’s not smiling anymore. “Was it bad?”
“It’s always bad. But this time the body floated downstream and some kids found it.” She pauses and leans forward. “Anything unusual at all last night? No lights? Voices?”
Parker thinks about the previous night. He had gone to bed early, had lain awake a long time thinking about Annie, about the next day being her birthday, and he was a bit ashamed he remembered the occasion now that she was gone. When she was alive, Susan had to remind him almost every year. He recalls being awake long enough to watch the moonlight shift across the room, long enough to notice the clouds roll in. He’d fallen asleep to the sound of rain. “Nothing,” he says, glancing again at the answering machine.
“This guy didn’t leave a car or a bike or anything. He went out of his way to get to the bridge. We’re just trying to make sure he jumped on his own.”
“Maybe he isn’t a jumper at all,” Parker said, “Just some unlucky guy who fell in.”
Katie has already started shaking her head, “I’d like to think that too, but he’s pretty bashed up and we can see where he hit. Headfirst. Left half his skull behind.”
“No ID. But he was wearing a hunting vest and work boots, so he’s from not too far.”
“I don’t understand how they get so crazy.” Ed Cane had gone over something like this, Parker remembers. Got fired from his job as a welder at the Bonneville dam three weeks after his wife and kids moved away to Idaho. He just drove out to the bridge, weighed down his pink slip and divorce papers under a rock, and jumped.
It was summer and hot and everything smelled like burnt pine. Parker had gone out for firecrackers for the Fourth of July picnic. When he came home, Annie rushed out to the truck to tell him. One of the workers saw Ed jump. Said he stood on the rail, shrugged, and dove straight as a pencil.
Katie checks her watch. “You got any coffee, Parker?”
“Just instant.” Parker begins to get up but Katie stops him.
“I’ll hunt around for it,” she says.
He listens to Katie filling the kettle with water, opening the cupboards and drawers, looking for coffee, sugar, and a spoon. He could easily tell her where to look, but he likes the sound of someone else in the kitchen. Annie had always risen a half hour before him and he sometimes stayed in bed just to listen. Even when Susan was born, he didn’t mind the sound of her crying late at night. It was what made the house alive, these sounds coming from upstairs or somewhere down the hall, the comfort of hearing his daughter brushing her hair, the repetitive wisp of it, and the early clack of pans and breakfast dishes, how he could tell just by sound, before he left their room, whether they were having eggs or pancakes, sausage or bacon.
Even in those later years before Susan left for college, when they rarely spoke, Parker could listen to the house and somehow that was enough. How many times had he come inside from work and heard Susan playing too-loud music in her room and said nothing? Now he’s beginning to believe that was a mistake, to be the father without a voice. Today, the answering machine blinks silently in front of him while Katie rummages around the kitchen and Parker is still looking for words. If it’s Susan, he hopes she’s left a number. Twice he’s hired people to find her in Los Angeles.
Parker waits until he thinks Katie is done. “Find everything?”
“Just fine,” she says from the kitchen. “Maybe they just need a little hope, Parker.”
“That’s not it. Hope means you know you’re missing something.” After Annie started sleeping in Susan’s old bedroom, he believed for a long lime she would think better of it and return. But she stayed there, died in that room, too, during her sleep.
Katie sits again, holding her coffee with two hands. “In a way, Parker, I think you’re worse off than the rest of us. We’ve got the guy this morning and those other two with no witnesses, but you’ve actually seen it happen. You saw the Glass boy before I was sheriff, and the Silva girl.”
“That was awful,” Parker says. Of all of them, Rebecca Silva’s death bothered him and Annie most. She was just twenty-three, the same age as Susan. The jump first looked like an accident, but later, her parents found a note. Her father was a Baptist minister in Tacoma. The newspaper photo pictured her as fair skinned, with red hair and a wide smile that only showed her upper teeth. The story that ran with it reported she was three months pregnant. Parker saw her sitting on the rail. She was wearing a white sweater and jeans. It was late afternoon in autumn. The falls were beautiful and though he was concerned at first, he thought she looked relaxed because she was swinging her feet, staring at the water. Suddenly, she leaned back-ward and was gone. “Annie was upset for a long time over that one, “Parker says,” She wanted us to move after it happened.”
“I remember. She went around trying to get people to tear down the bridge, too.”
Parker looks at Katie, surprised. “I didn’t know that.”
“Oh sure. After the Silva girl, Annie tried to convince anyone who’d listen that we should wrap some explosives around the braces and blow it up.”
“She had a point.” Parker wonders though, if it was really the bridge she was concerned with. When the Silva girl jumped, Annie was already upset because things were going bad already with Susan. She had quit school. There had been a letter, a note really. Parker even recalls the color of the ink, a thick green that soaked into the open spaces in her handwriting. It said Dear Mom, I’m leaving school. I can’t be an engineer. All I’ve learned is how nothing lasts. The next day, Rebecca Silva jumped, and Annie was on the phone with Susan, crying, making plans to fly to Los Angeles.
Katie sets her coffee down and walks lo the long curtains covering the sliding glass doors. She pulls the cord and they shimmy open, gray light wedging in with each pull. She steps outside onto the deck. Mist has settled among the tops of the pines. It makes Parker think of altitude, as if they are much higher then they are, as if his house is on some elevated precipice.
Parker walks outside, tying his robe tightly around his waist as Katie lights a cigarette. The falls are percussive and the sun, a disk beyond the clouds, silvers the bridge. “Sometimes it can be beautiful.”
“That’s the bitch of it. It’s not the bridge.” Katie crushes out her barely smoked cigarette. “It’s just where they decide to stop being alone. That jump begins a long time before they make it out here.”
“I can’t figure why they don’t snap out of it when they look down at the rocks.” As Parker says this, he remembers that Jason Glass had gone over in the night and Sarah went backward. They didn’t see where they were falling. What does that feel like, he wonders, the few seconds of going somewhere else before meeting the ground? And what if there is even one synapse of regret, a spark of mistake?
“You need anything else?” Parker says, the urge to check the message growing stronger.
“Guess not,” Katie says. “I actually thought we could do it over the phone this time, but you didn’t pick up.”
“This morning. I left a message.” Katie points inside. “See, it’s blinking.”
Parker hesitates, “I know,” he says finally. “I thought it might be Susan. I was waiting until you left.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Parker. You two still haven’t spoken?”
“She doesn’t want to talk to me,” Parker says. He catches the sharpness in his voice and takes a slow breath.
“Jesus. You can’t let that crap go on forever.”
“I don’t even know where she is. The last time I spoke to her she told me not to call.”
“All I know is that I’ve got Jacob off to college and Jamie still at home, and I couldn’t live without either of them,” Katie smiles and pokes Parker in the side, “Their father’s a different story.”
Parker does not smile back. He wants to tell Katie how the silence is his fault, how when Susan dropped out of school he would not speak to her. Annie wanted the two of them to go to Los Angeles together to bring Susan back, or at least make sure she was okay, but he refused to indulge her throwing her life away, refused to leave the egg ranch unattended. And he never spoke to Susan, maybe kept a vague tab on her trough his wife, but didn’t even know her phone number. When Annie returned from L.A., she moved into the other bedroom where she’d stayed for all those years. And when she died, he couldn’t reach Susan, couldn’t find her listed under the name of Cheung, not under any of the Cheungs he called. There had been the funeral, the white roses over the mahogany casket, everyone from town. He had hoped that somehow Susan would have found out, that his wife had made some plan. But no, there was that whole quiet service without her in the little wooden church he helped paint every five or six years. She called a few weeks later and hung up on the news. “That’s why I don’t sell the place,” he tells Katie. “That’s why I bought an answering machine.”
But Katie is quiet for a few moments. “I’m just small potatoes, but I could call L.A. again for you.”
“I don’t think so. You already did what you could.” Parker’s voice is suddenly soft and resigned. “It’s my mess.”
Katie offers an understanding nod. “So, what am I going to do about all this mess? It’s only every few years, but they many as well’ve jumped in the same week.” The two of them stand silently. “Well,” Katie says, pulling up on her belt, “I should get going. If you think of anything, I know you have the number.”
Parker walks her through the house. He stands on the front steps as she opens her car door. “Maybe this was the last one,” he says.
“I’d like to think so,” Katie says. “But there‘s more than six ways to jump off a bridge.”
Parker listens to the snap of wet gravel as she pulls away. Then it is quiet except for a few, sparrows quarreling in the trees. He looks at the three large chicken houses, still and long as docked ships. The old delivery truck with faded lettering and flat tires sits near the fence, two seasons of unpruned blackberry vines already overtaking the front bumper. It is all so different now, so hushed, no gurgle of chickens working through the tin buildings, no one walking around with cardboard flats or running one of the small egg collectors, no one at all. Parker stopped that just after Annie died, laid off people he’d known longer than his own daughter.
He sits in his recliner and focuses on the answering machine’s small red light. He watches until it begins to move in tiny circles. This is what it comes to, he thinks. It’s not at all how he imagined this stage of his life when he first came to the United States with Annie and they started the business.
Parker takes a quieting breath and swivels around to face the open glass doors and looks out at the bridge. He closes his eyes but it is still there, only in his mind it is even clearer and the sound of Blue Falls becomes the sound of rain, becomes something even softer, the sound of a body dropping through the air. It is like some improvisation of wind. And there is Susan’s face, tenuous as a thread of silk beaded with water, glistening, drops falling and again the sound of rain, something more, pushing off, letting go. Parker thinks that this is the sound of decision, what it’s like to hear someone jump when not a word is spoken. It is not an act of abandonment. That happened long ago and it was mutual, and no one listened anyway. No one notices unless we’ve made it all the way down, he thinks. No one hears until we are completely quiet.
Now Annie is gone and unless Susan calls, she’s gone, too. All that ignored intuition, Parker thinks, those families of the people who jumped missed it completely, all that pointing to the spot on the rail where they jumped. They got it all wrong because it happened well before that. When it comes to the final moment, its already too late. It started for Ed Cane when his family moved to Idaho. Parker thinks, and when Jason Glass didn’t get relief from twenty bucks worth of plastic bag slapped in his palm. It started when Rebecca understood a fetus would mean punishment for the rest of her life. These are the irrevocable moments when we can’t see we’ve already in midair, when we push our daughter so far away she is lost to us, and then our wife goes too and we are alone. Parker imagines a blue descent, mistakes peeling off his shoulders, and finally, in one simple trajectory, the lightness he’d sought after all that awkward navigation, the relief that surprises even him. I’ve wondered all along, he thinks, and suddenly I know that this is what it feels like when you’re falling.
*Featured image Adrian Samson via Booooooom