Reprint: “Bridge Work” by Susan Straight

June 17, 2024

In celebration of our 2024 Reprint Prize—open now through June 23—we are proud to share this reprint from the inimitable Susan Straight! “Bridge Work” first appeared in Zoetrope, was honored as a Distinguished Story of 2004 in Best American Short Stories 2005 and was later included in Straight’s novel-in-stories, Between Heaven and Here. Later this week, Brandon Williams will break down the story in this month’s Stories that Teach. Be sure to get your own reprints submitted to this year’s contest before submissions close on Sunday!


“Bridge Work” is from Between Heaven and Here, originally published by McSweeney’s. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

She was there the first day Mike’s crew started the earthquake retrofit of the Central Avenue bridge, coming out from the huge oleander bushes that lined the banks along the freeway. He’d never been up close to a horse, only seen pictures of them, but that’s what her legs looked like. Big and round at the thigh, narrow and long at the calf. She had on those tight bike shorts like most of the hookers around Rio Seco.

Mike watched her make her way down the loose dirt, hidden from the freeway by one pepper tree and the huge humped oleanders. The only other people they ever saw here along the interstates were homeless, or prisoners doing cleanup with their bright orange shirts and matching plastic bags. He didn’t like to look at them, since he probably knew some of the guys or their sons. “Hard to tell if it’s men or women, since everybody wears ponytails,” his wife Shelly would say, staring from the slow lane. “I guess it’s better they pick up trash than just sit around in jail. I can’t imagine being out there in this heat.”

I’m out in the heat every day, he thought, with Gary and Les and Jose. Happy to be sweating even in August because Sanderson Construction had gotten the contracts for all the retrofits. Ten bridges in Rio Seco County, and this was his crew’s first. They were setting up the scaffolding, clearing out remnants of someone living in the black cave of overpass. Newspapers, a box soft from someone’s sweat. Coke cans and a pair of socks. Men’s socks. Not hers.

She stopped at the edge of the scaffolding, and the crew all glanced down. “Twenty bucks,” she said. “For whatever.”

Her hair was dark blonde, the color of dried foxtails along the street, and her lips were so chapped Mike saw a trace of blood in a crack. Maybe that was why she kept her mouth closed when she talked.

“Come on,” she said, nodding at Jose. “You want a guera, or what?”

Jose was surprised, Mike could tell. “You speak Spanish?”

“Sometimes,” she said, her breath heaving her small breasts under the tank top. “When I need money.”

Les laughed and said, “Go for it, Jose, come on. She wants you. You’re the one.”

Mike watched Jose look back at the company truck parked in the sandy spot on the other side of the bridge, like he expected Danny Sanderson, the boss’s son, to holler at him over the radio any minute. Les thought that was hilarious. He was constantly ragging on Jose. “You can’t use the truck, you gotta take her back to the bushes,” Les said. “Unless you don’t want none. Too early in the morning, right, cause in Mexico you always slept late? Cause you didn’t have a job.”

“Shut up, man,” Gary said. He hated almost every word Les said. Mike tried not to listen, especially when Les talked about women, because Mike was the only one married and Les usually added on to the end of whatever sex story he told something like, “Well, shit, I guess Mike wouldn’t know, since he’s been screwing the same woman since the Iron Age.”

Gary was only twenty, never been married. Jose’s wife was somewhere in Mexico and he’d been here ten years, and Les was divorced. Twice. That was why he didn’t like women too much, except in a bar and then, Mike guessed, preferably in the dark.

“I got the same job as you now, cabrón,” Jose said, and the girl moved her feet in the dirt, turning around.

“Whatever,” Mike heard her mumble, and then Les said, “Hey. Can you cuss good in Spanish? English, too? Can you say whatever I tell you to?”
She shrugged, and Les climbed on down the scaffold. Jose said, “Shit,” and shook his head.

Gary called, “Hey, Les, I’m not doing your work. I mean it.”

Les just disappeared into the oleander behind the girl. The bushes were so big and the leaves pointed like knives, each hedge was like a line of green-splintered explosions. The county had planted those oleanders along the freeway when it was finished, when Mike was five, and he remembered the stems stuck like arrows in the steep-banked dirt when his dad drove along the black road for the first time, hauling a truckload of crated oranges to Los Angeles. His dad used to rent a house out in Sarrat from the Antoines, and Mike picked oranges after school.

They kept working on the scaffold, laying the wood planks. Didn’t hear anything, didn’t say anything, until Les came back through the tunnel between bushes, the top of his blond brushcut bobbling along like a furry sun. He kept his head down because he was buttoning his jeans, and when he looked up, Mike could tell Les wanted to make sure everyone saw him doing that.

* * *

“What’s a guera?” Gary asked the next day, at dawn. Mike hadn’t seen her since she came out ten minutes after Les the day before, and headed straight down the sidewalk toward the store. Maybe she’d come back after dark, he’d kept thinking while they laid out the rebar. Down Central was a church, a park, a Kentucky Fried, and a liquor store. She was too young to drink, he thought, but hell, she was too young to be asking for twenty dollars and laying down in the dirt. She couldn’t be much older than his daughter Katie.

“A blondie,” Jose said. “Guera means white girl.”

“She’s not a true blonde,” Les said, with that shitty grin like he’d had yesterday, when Mike couldn’t believe he’d walked off the site without even looking back at him or the truck or the sign that said Sidewalk Closed. “All the way down, if you know what I mean,” Les said. Shut up, Mike thought. Shut the hell up. Man, it’s my crew, been my crew five years, and you do too much talking, too much deciding about lunch, and way less work than anybody else. Les was forty, five years older than Mike, and he got away with a lot because of his size and the way he could charm the secretaries and even the guys at the yard with his stories. Mostly the crew just wanted him to shut up because every story got old at dawn on a site, especially under a bridge.

There were crews working all over California, Mike figured, after all the quakes in the last ten years. He’d be smelling the pee and wet dirt and exhaust, climbing up and down the scaffolding as they built it, remembering bunk beds. A line of stuck traffic bumped and screeched behind them early on, but by ten, the street was pretty quiet. That’s when she came down the hill, scuffling and concentrating until she got to the bottom of the scaffold.

Same shorts, same black tank top, same ankle-high black boots. Katie’d had some of those boots two years ago, thrown them away by now. She and Shelly had gone to the mall all the time before Katie left for college in San Francisco. The girl looked up at Jose again. “You don’t like gueras, huh?”
Jose glanced at Mike, then at Les, who motioned his head toward the bushes. Then, what the hell, Les looked at Mike. You wanna play? Mike thought. He said real quiet, “We got a whole lotta work to do today. If we don’t start getting this rebar in, somebody’s gonna steal it.”

The girl laid her head back so far on her neck she looked like a broken Barbie doll. Except she was healthier. Those Barbies Katie and even Shelly played with always gave Mike the creeps. Shelly had kept about twenty of them in Katie’s room, sitting with their legs bent on a shelf, spooky eyes and those boobs like road cones.

“Hey,” the girl said, and something sounded torn in her throat. “Twenty bucks. Whatever you need today. Twenty bucks.”

Her mouth was still half closed, her words mumbled and all wet like she was going to cry. Mike couldn’t look at her. He walked along the wood away from her voice, toward the pile of material stacked inside the chainlike area near the truck.

He heard Les laughing, heard him say something in Spanish, and Mike knew from the sound that Jose had climbed down the scaffold.

* * *

He was thinking sex hadn’t been her job very long. Mike knew women who’d worked like that for years. They looked different. Like Glorette, this woman from Sarrat he’d had a serious crush on during freshman year of high school. It was when they’d lived out in the orange groves and Mike hung out with the other kids at the river, drinking beer after they’d finished picking for the weekend. But his father had three dogs—hunting dogs—and he kept arguing with the grove owner. A man named Enrique. His mother never remembered to keep the dogs in the house, and first they caught gophers and squirrels in the trees. But then they got bloodthirsty, and Mike understood the word. They kept getting out at night and bringing back bodies to the yard—raccoons and skunks and rabbits. They drew the coyotes closer and closer til one night Glorette’s mother screamed because a whole pack of coyotes was in her yard, red eyes and all, waiting for Mike’s dad’s dogs to come out.

His father loved the dogs more than anything else. He moved the furniture out of the little white house the next day. Glorette kissed Mike on the cheek. Her lips smelled like root-beer lipgloss.

Shelly said Glorette had been roaming the streets for years, ever since she got on drugs. One night, Mike had driven from up in the hills to downtown, and he’d passed two women on a corner. Glorette. She was sideways, not looking at cars. But he could see smudges of darkness on her arms. And she stood—like they stood when they worked.

This girl was just there, in the oleander. There were homeless camps in other parts of the city, in the riverbottom and downtown. Why was she living near this bridge?

Mike looked up at the thin wire spikes lining the shelf under the freeway, where the cars were whining over his head, thumping over one crack over and over all day. When his dad used to stop the truck right here, Mike would see the pigeons sitting under the trestles, their shit piled frosty white all along the cement. Except in schoolbooks, it was the closest he ever saw to snow.

He and Shelly drove under here now and then if they came down from the hills and went to the movie theater in the mall. But he figured it had been five years since he’d been to the mall. Katie was a junior at San Francisco State, and Shelly went to the mall with her friends.

Back when they’d just gotten married, homeless guys were already living under this bridge. Two or three men he could make out by their cardboard houses in the shadow, lit cigarettes looking like animal eyes in the dark when Mike idled the truck. Shelly would say, “Damn, can you imagine? Not me, baby. I can’t.”

She never had to imagine it because of him. She’d had him since she was twenty.

* * *

I got nothing to say, he thought, not when Jose came back after about an hour with no wrinkled clothes or marks on him, just a frown so deep between his thick eyebrows it looked like somebody’d run a jackhammer into his skin. Not for the rest of the day, when Les wouldn’t shut up but kept asking what they did, did she blow him or did Mexicans only like missionary, cause it took them back to their fucked-up Mexican past with all the nuns and priests. It just went on and on until Jose took a swing at Les down by the truck around three, and it was over a hundred degrees out there in the sand but dank and wet under the bridge.

Mike saw Les pull his head back like a turtle to avoid the fist. He knew Jose didn’t want to land it, and then Les laughed, and Jose cussed him out in a string of Spanish.

“Call it a day,” Mike shouted, and Jose started for his car, an old Nova he’d parked up the street near the church.

When Mike got home and took a long shower, Shelly was gone. He could see she’d been to another church rummage sale, because there was more junk in the living room. That was the only thing he hated after all these years, the vases and doilies and clothes and plates that looked like other people, smelled like other people, made his house look like someone else’s, someone who couldn’t throw anything away. Shelly’d left a note saying she was at a movie with her friend Cerise, and he must’ve fallen asleep. When they got back, he heard their voices in the kitchen sweet and high as breaking glass.

* * *

The oleander bushes were like black VW Bugs out there in the dawn when they started. Gary had to ask. “Do you think she’s okay in there?”
Les laughed. “Hell yeah. She’s gotten forty bucks in two days.”

“You really touched her?” Gary kept on while he unloaded the rebar. After all these years, the wrinkled iron still felt like giant antennae in Mike’s hands, because that was how he first saw them, when he was Gary’s age.

“Hell, yeah, she blew me. That’s what I gave her twenty bucks for. It wasn’t worth twenty, cause she didn’t hardly know what she was doing,” Les said, drinking his 7-Eleven coffee. “But I got off anyway.”

“I can’t believe you did that,” Gary said, his mouth curling up. “What if she’s got AIDS?”

“Yeah, pendejo, you can get AIDS from a sore and her spit.” Jose shook his head.

“How am I gonna have a sore on my dick?” Les threw his empty cup into the truckbed. Twenty or thirty paper cups. “I don’t use it for a hammer. Shit. If her spit had AIDS, then she swallowed it. And some of me.” He headed toward the scaffold behind Mike. Man, I’m tired of hearing it, Mike thought.

But Gary was right behind them. “And what if you got it? AIDS?” Gary climbed up, tools clanking, and Mike turned to see Les’ boot heel fly past Gary’s face. Then they stood on the narrow planks. Mike dropped the rebar so they would think about work, goddamnit. “You coulda gave it to her,” Gary said.

The cars flew overhead like clouds they couldn’t see, clouds full of cement that scraped along the asphalt and sometimes hit that one pothole with a thunk like a single huge heartbeat. Mike remembered when his wife had the ultrasound pictures with Katie, and her heart was about as big as a speck of rice, but the sound on the machine was loud. Boom, boom, boom. Scared the shit out of him.

Les yelled, “I don’t have AIDS! And if she doesn’t want it, she shouldn’t let guys stick their dicks anywhere, okay? Hey, asshole, I’m doing my job. She’s doin hers. Why don’t you do yours?”

They worked for a long time with nobody talking. The rebar would look like a long low jail cell when they were done, Mike thought. Then we’ll cover the whole thing with concrete, so all you see when you drive is a smooth face where no one could sleep or light a cigarette and watch you roll past in your car.

* * *

Like before, she didn’t come out until the traffic thinned. Was she waking up just now, after a long night? he wondered, hearing her boots in the sand just as he put down the solder gun. Doing what? Did she take her twenty and buy fried chicken and sit in the park all day? Sleep in the church? Did she get high? Give the money to someone else? He doubted there was a man back in the oleander, because Les would’ve said something about it. Jose hadn’t said a damn thing all morning, and when she mumbled, “You know the deal by now,” singling out Gary’s face under the hardhat, Jose walked the other way down the scaffold, twirling his body past Mike where he checked the solder.

“He’s a virgin,” Les said right away, not even looking down at the girl or shoving his hardhat up on his forehead. “He’s savin himself for somebody. Somebody who’ll probably lie to him anyway. Ain’t the first time, won’t be the last.”

Nice foul mood. Les smelled like the alcohol already seeping from his pores and wafting in a steam cloud around him. Mike didn’t know what the hell to do, didn’t even want to look down at her, and Gary’s whole face and neck were like fire in the dim orange light coming through the safety screen. He came over and whispered, “I can’t just drop the money on the ground. That would be rude.”

“I guess,” Mike said, and picked up the solder gun. Gary inched his way down the ladder and handed her a bill, and Mike saw her reach out and grab his wrist, whisper something to him. Then she turned and walked down the street the way she always did, her black shorts dusted gold, her ass too big for California.

That’s what Jose said, laughing nervous. “Man, she’s got a Mexican ass. Two watermelons. But you cabrónes don’t like that here. You like them starving. Like two tortillas.” He laughed his head off while he headed back toward the truck, and Mike saw Les and Gary both watching him.

“Get to it,” Mike said, moving down a section. We’ll be here for a month, he thought, and I’m not watching this shit every day. I know she won’t look at me.

Shelly’s ass was medium-sized when we were in high school. Two what? Two grapefruit? Hell, I don’t know. Two…two sacks of flour now? After Katie, and the two babies that didn’t make it past the ultrasound. She’d heard their hearts. That made it harder. But she had Katie. Shelly’s ass is fine with me. I never looked good, like Chess or Lafayette, back when we were on the football team. I’m not a ballplayer. Not a player of any kind. Just a foreman.

Katie’s butt was so little when I tried to hold her after they came home from the hospital. She kept sliding down my chest, hollering, and Shelly kept taking her away. “Men can’t hold babies right. It’s okay, Mike, it’s my job. Not yours.”

It never was his job to hold her, or touch her. And her butt now—probably the same size her mama’s was, when she was eighteen, and some fool probably touching it when he can, while they’re standing in the hall at the dorm, when they’re walking across the campus. Hopefully he isn’t an asshole, and hopefully they go to class—costs something like five hundred bucks an hour.

“Come on, guys, move it,” Mike said, and he soldered the next section.

* * *

He didn’t know why he drove under the bridge on Sunday. Shelly was at church. Mike told himself he was checking to make sure nobody had ripped off any of the materials, but he knew they wouldn’t be stealing in the daytime and if the stuff was gone, he couldn’t do anything about it until tomorrow.

But when he cruised past slowly, looking up at the scaffolding like empty bookshelves from a distance, he saw Gary coming out of the oleanders. His face red as a burn under his slicked-back hair. Gary looked up and saw the truck, and instead of looking guilty or grinning, he started crying.

“Shit,” Mike said, and opened the door. Gary got in. He nodded his head toward the church parking lot, where he must have been parked. “What the hell you doing?” Mike finally said.

“She told me Les said, ‘Get on your back,’ but then he did what he said.” Gary held his knees like stickshifts.

Mike had to picture it, even if he didn’t want to. Les didn’t want her on her knees in front of him—even that was too kind. He made her open her mouth while she lay there. Her head on the dirt.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “And you?”

He took a big-chest breath. “I wanted to give her another twenty. I told her she should go away, because I don’t like seeing her around.”

“You know her?”

He shook his head. “No, I just don’t want to hear Les no more. I can’t stand it.”

Mike looked at Gary’s stubby red fingers. “You sure you didn’t get in trouble?”

He looked right at Mike. “Hey, I’m not getting AIDS, okay? Rubbers break. I didn’t touch her. And Jose didn’t neither. He told me. He just gave her ten bucks and told her get something to eat. He said he doesn’t need anything like that.”

Gary got out and walked over to his new Dodge pickup. Mike thought, Yeah, Gary can buy a truck and still give money away. He’s only twenty.

* * *

She had to be about eighteen, too, like Katie. On Monday, he waited for her.

Les hadn’t shown up to work. Hangover hell, Mike knew. Les liked being late, making a big deal of what he’d done on the weekend, how much he was hurting today. Because otherwise, he wouldn’t have anything to say.

So it was quiet when she walked out of the bushes, and Mike went down to meet her before she could mumble her usual. Jose and Gary were quiet, and he could hear the crows in the pepper trees, and the rebar Gary dropped on the concrete ringing like a bell.

“What?” she said, and Mike nodded his head toward where she’d come from.

He followed her through the dusty leaves, and it wasn’t far to the little clearing in the bank. The traffic was a roar like wind that never stopped. The girl turned and said, “Your boss isn’t here today, so you want your turn, right?”

Mike felt coffee coming up his throat. “Les isn’t the foreman. I am. I don’t want a turn.”

She sat back on the ground and swung her knees open and closed, moving like something he’d seen before, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He was staring, after all. “What?” she said again.

What—like what do you want? What—like what’s wrong? What—like she thought he’d said something?

He could smell her. Cigarettes and hot sauce from the trash nearby. She had as much stuff collected as Shelly’s kitchen, stocked for earthquakes, floods, riots. Thinking of Shelly made the coffee rise up again. The girl lifted her arm and then he smelled sickly sweet, like she’d put on perfume. Her hair hadn’t been washed. It had ridges and grooves, like when white guys comb through Brylcreem.

“What?” she said, louder, her eyes the same dusty green as the oleander leaves. “I been with a black guy before.”

“Yeah? I haven’t.” He didn’t want to ask her why she was here, where she came from, who—none of it. She didn’t owe him a damn thing until he dropped the twenty. Mike didn’t owe her a damn thing and he wanted to keep it that way. “I don’t want you hanging around my crew, okay?” he said, watching her knees. “I think you should move on.”

“You do? You think I should mosey on down the road? The yellow brick road?”

She sounded sharper, even with her mouth still mumbly, and he said, “You go to high school?”
“I did.”
He wanted to know if she knew Katie. But he couldn’t ask that. “Where?”

“Palm Springs.” Her knees were like two wrinkled tan faces knocking together and swaying away.

This all sounded stupid, but he said, “You graduate?”

“Last year.”

If she’d lived here, maybe she would have known Katie. Probably not. But her eyes, the eyebrows like fingers pointing at each other, the shorts bunched up around her thighs like tiny black tires ringing her skin.

Then the girl grinned for the first time. “What? You can’t fuck someone without a diploma?”

Her teeth were gone, most on the top and only two he could see left on the bottom, like tiny headstones far from each other. “What happened to your mouth?”

“A guy knocked em out. He said I didn’t need them anymore. They just get in the way.”

He wanted to throw up at the raw red dents left in her gums. “When?” Had Les punched her, here by the bridge?

“Last week when I was down there on Palm Avenue. I had just got here. Palm Springs was done.” She swung her knees one more time, then rubbed at her brows so the tiny hairs drooped down like ferns. “Guy from New York did it. He caught me in this alley. Then he—you know. He said he’d try me out.”

Mike rubbed his hands over his head, already sweating.

“I had already gotten away from him one time. Cause him and his girlfriend have this van, and she does guys in there, and he said I had to work for him. I said, Hell fuckin no. And he said no independent contractors out here—he said all this shit about White girl thinks she too good for me, like that. And he punched me out.”

He looked away from her face.

“Then I was sitting there trying to stop the bleeding and his girlfriend comes up and tells me to go. She said her man might fuck me up but she’d kill me. Said she killed some other chick the night before.”

Mike couldn’t help it—he remembered Katie lost a tooth playing soccer, and Shelly put it in milk and they raced down to the dentist. The tooth floating in a sippy cup.

She said, “So—what? You don’t want anything or what? You think I can’t do a black guy?”

He swallowed again and made his voice hard. “I think you can tell I want you to leave before my worker comes back,” he said. “I’m the foreman, okay? I don’t want to call anyone.”

She nodded, serious all of a sudden. “I wouldn’t let him come back anyway. That one dude? He’s psychotic. I feel sorry for you. I saw him twice. You have to see him every day.” She stood up and turned her back to Mike, and he saw prints of leaves on her back, dusty blades on her tank-top. “I was going anyway. You were the last one to hit up. There’s plenty of bridges, right? Plenty of assholes.”

He couldn’t say anything. He turned around, walked up the chalky path through the oleander and past the lone pepper tree. The pink berries Shelly used to collect when they were really poor, living in a studio apartment near the arroyo. Shelly put pepper berries and old bougainvillea flowers and rose petals in a big bowl and said it was potpourri. Like from a department store. Mike smelled the berries when he stepped on them and headed up the bank toward the bridge, where Jose and Gary were pounding away even though he wasn’t there.

Susan Straight has published nine novels, including
Mecca, Highwire Moon, a Finalist for the National Book Award, and A Million Nightingales. Her memoir In the Country of Women was named a best book of 2019 by NPR, The Washington Post, and others. She’s written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, and many other journals.


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