Start across the Sidney Lanier Bridge from either direction and, just before you reach the crest, you will become convinced that you are going to drive straight into the sky. On a hot July day — when white puffy clouds approach like meringues, seductive with soporific sweetness, clouds that look like the blow-up slides used to rescue passengers from airplanes — that's exactly what you want to do.
But you don't. Because at just the moment that you would let go of the steering wheel and be drawn into the ether like the black-and-white in "Car 54, Where Are You?", gravity and engineering overrule the temptation and you are towed back to earth. Saved and safe.
One of the first books I ever bought through the TAB Book Club was "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder. The plot is simple and made perfectly clear by its first sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." Father Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, witnesses the collapse and it becomes his quest to discover why these five people should have been the ones to die, whether their deaths were "God's will" or just bad luck. Toward that end, he spends six years compiling a book of interviews of everyone who knew the victims. In the end, his quest, as is so often the case, costs him his life.
It is hard not to think of the Marquesa and Esteban and the others as the car I am driving rushes down the incline, hard not to think of them and be grateful that bridge-building is so much better 400 years later. Hard not to lose myself for a moment in wondering, like Father Juniper, how much of what happens to each of us is God's will or luck or, hardest to accept, the unavoidable result of our own often-poor choices.
At the bottom of the bridge the broad blue vista gives way to rusty metal buildings on one side of the road, mid-summer marsh on the other. I can't decide if it is the air-conditioning or the thought of driving off into the sky that makes me shiver.
I cross bridges all the time. The Ogeechee River separates Bulloch County from each of the other three counties in this judicial circuit, so at least five or six times a month I find myself balanced for a few seconds on a span of concrete and iron stretching over its dark brown water. There is a short bridge over a creek about four miles from home and I cross that one twice a day.
Those bridges are different from the 480-foot high "cable-stayed" version that stretches across the South Brunswick River, the one on which the imp of the perverse arrived unbidden to suggest to me that driving off the bridge into the clouds was not only possible, but pleasurable. Crossing those bridges is like playing connect-the-dots: With a distance so short, it is easy to draw a straight line. Crossing the Sidney Lanier is like learning plane geometry.
It reminds me that the in-between is a place of its own and not to be hurried through. It demonstrates that the longer the distance between two points, the greater the likelihood that something exists between them. It teaches me that connecting two of anything, be it pieces of land or PVC pipe or people, requires great attention to detail.
A couple of days later I am home from my brief trip to the beach. In one of those unexplainable moments of synchronicity, my eyes light on my copy of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," over 40 years old, pages faded to the color of weak tea, the glue in the paperback spine grown brittle as dead leaves. I think that maybe I will read it again. Perhaps Father Juniper's search for answers might help me with my own.
Days pass. I finish the book I am reading. I pick up another one. Not "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."
More days pass. I am looking at the notes I made about the Sidney Lanier Bridge, thinking about Father Juniper. I start, with the amazing assistance of Google Search, looking things up. I learn that "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" has been made into a movie on three separate occasions and that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. I also learn that Tony Blair, at a memorial service for the British victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, read the novel's last sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
I suppose it's no wonder that both Father Juniper and his book were burned.