I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that for writers, life can sometimes seem like a series of vignettes, a compilation of observations that we distill into experiences and memories that propel our work. I’d even postulate that crime fiction writers get a wealth of inspiration from the everyday life going on around us – let’s face it, there is no desert when it comes to crime as inspiration. Just look at your evening news, the majority of lead stories are crime related. If it bleeds, it leads.
I know this is true for me. And over Christmas, I had an experience that shaped my view, sparked an idea, and gave me creative sustenance. I just wasn’t happy about it.
Hubby and I were heading to my parents, and their house is on an island. There are two bridges over to beachside, and we were heading toward the South Causeway, a relatively new structure that allows for large-mast ships to pass through on their journey along the Indialantic waterway. The North Causeway is still a charming drawbridge, the South is mammoth by comparison.
As we reached the base of the bridge, there were cop cars littering the road, and they were directing people to turn away. There have been some terrible accidents on the bridge – the speed limit is much too high, so the first thought was bad smash-up. But I saw a few people walking around at the top and realized, no. It was worse. It was a jumper.
Now, this bridge is big enough to do some serious damage if you went over unwittingly. About four stories high. Not a guaranteed death, but you’d get hurt. Badly.
I was horrified at my immediate reaction. We must pull over. I need to see this. I can work this into a story. I need to assimilate the scene, burn the images into my mental retinas. Before I knew it, I was vocalizing my thoughts. I told hubby we needed to stop. I heard myself giving him directions into the local library parking lot, which sits at the base of the bridge. There was already a group of people doing the same thing. But things got worse. I sickened myself when I realized I had my camera. In my bag, at my feet. And as the car stopped moving, it was in my hand.
A familiar sense of detachment flooded me. I got out of the car, and snapped a few shots, telling myself that if I were a photographer and this were my daily job, I wouldn’t have two seconds of hesitation about taking pictures. I’m simply documenting at this point, a purely dispassionate observer. I am not rooting for this man to jump. I am not glorying in his pain. I am not wondering what it would look like if he actually lets go of the railing he seems to be clinging to as if he really doesn’t want to be doing this. My mind can make all of those images and words for me. I am absorbing.
I am being a vampire.
I’ve seen some pretty nasty things. My research has taken me into darkness. I’ve been at a stabbing scene, seen the results of teenage head versus .44 magnum in a suicide, viewed autopsy photos and crime scene photos. But nothing could have ever prepared me for a group of people, gathered at the base of a very big bridge, all yelling one collective word. “JUMP!”
That’s right. While I’m mantra muttering Don’t Do It under my breath, the redneck assholes who were partaking in an afternoon of someone else’s misfortunes are wrapped in their superiority cloaks, screaming at this poor soul to kill himself.
But what did I look like to them? I’m the one with my camera in the air.
I felt a bit like a naturalist. On the Discovery Channel, you wonder how the videographers and photographers and announcers do it. There’s always the story of the lion pride, and the cub that’s gotten lost. We usually see the happy ending, the cub is reunited with his pride. But the tension I feel leading up to that moment is overwhelming. How many times did the cub not make it? When does reality intrude on the entertainment value?
If the documentarians are true to their work, they know there’s nothing they can do to put the cub back on the road to safety. They can’t interfere; it’s nature’s way. But how do they watch, and record, and voice-over while the hyenas strike?
I always tell myself, as I turn off the show before I find out what happens, that it’s happening right now, all over the world. The weak are being preyed upon by the strong. The naturalists know that if they weren’t there to document the process, it would happen regardless. That’s how I justified my actions at the bridge. If we hadn’t stopped for a soda and had been five minutes earlier, we would have driven by and never known the difference. But since we were there, I felt compelled to, at the very least, give the man’s story some credence. I told hubby if he did jump, at least I could find a way to mention it so he wasn’t lost in utter obscurity, didn’t become just another statistic.
He came down. He lived. I didn’t know that until the next day, when a brief mention in the newspaper handled the situation with surprising delicacy. I’m paraphrasing… Police closed the north Causeway for nearly an hour yesterday as they talked with a despondent man... Despondent. What a perfect word to describe the situation.
You may be surprised by that last bit. Yes, we left. I didn’t want to see what happened. I certainly didn’t want to see him go over. I was testing fate by even stopping and taking pictures. I was lucky that he didn’t let go while I was there.
This nameless, faceless stranger has been grafted into my next book; I’ve got a scene with a jumper. I intend to mine it for every detail I can, answer all the unanswered questions, glorify and inflate the situation to fictional proportions. And I have my memories and pictures to thank for guiding me. All’s well that ends well, right?
If I just weren’t thinking about what drove him to that bridge in the first place...