Stories that Teach: “Bridge Work” by Susan Straight—Discussed by Brandon Williams

June 20, 2024

When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.


In “Bridge Work” by Susan Straight, (reprinted in The Masters Review (hey, that’s us!) online June 17, 2024), we meet Mike and his crew, four construction workers whose company has gotten a lucrative contract to retrofit ten bridges throughout Rio Seco County. On their first day of work, a young woman steps out from behind the oleander bushes and propositions the crew: “‘Twenty bucks,’ she said. ‘For whatever.'” Day by day, different members of Mike’s crew follow her back behind the oleanders, some to take advantage of her services and others because they feel badly for her. On a day off, the youngest of Mike’s crew returns to the bridge one more time, to give her a bit more money; at this point, Mike determines that he needs to get her away from the crew, and has a conversation with her where she reveals what has brought her to this point in her life. Unable to control anything, thinking about her life and his daughter’s life and his wife’s life, he leaves and heads back to the crew, where he does all he can do, which is simply go back to doing what the title tells us.

The Basics

This story is written in third person past tense, perhaps the most traditional of storytelling choices. We follow Mike as he instructs his crew, as he works, and we are given full access to his mind. His direct thoughts are reported in italics, but his indirect thoughts make up much of the rest of this work. The author and narrator do not interfere; Mike is telling us this tale, filtered through the third person narratorial stance. Again, all very traditional, all very straightforward. This is a classic story; we haven’t seen much of that in these essays so far, where we’ve been looking at experimental techniques and flashy strategies.

Character as plot

Because of that simplicity, it’s important to think about what this story is trying to do. On a plot level, there’s not a ton of conflict; the characters certainly have tension with each other, but there are no large confrontations or decisions made or things that our characters need to do. This isn’t a plot-based piece. Rather, this is a character sketch, an exploration of Mike and to a certain extent his crew. We are in his thoughts during these moments, and we are learning about him and how he understands his world as a result.

I often tell my students that stories should circle around a character’s most important moment; Susan, as she often does in her incredible writing, makes me and that advice look a fool by showing us this work week that may barely be an anecdote in the minds of most of these characters. And yet, this week does so much work to reveal Mike and his concerns, even if it isn’t a moment he’ll remember in five years: The woman shows up, she interacts with the men, and then she is gone, but in showing up she forces Mike to confront all of the issues he’s been facing with his wife and daughter, and to consider all of the ways that life can fall apart at the seams, especially for the woman who dominate his thought process. His fears for his daughter, his awareness that this girl at the worksite could have known or even been friends with his daughter, his awareness of the girl as walking a similar path as a girl that he’d had a crush on in high school; sure, the moment itself is a small one, with no plotted conflict pyrotechnics (the closest we get to that is the warning from the girl about one of Mike’s workers being a psychopath, and the possibility that something may explode there if we see these characters again) but it pushes Mike to a place where he can no longer be the person that he was without this moment.

And this is the secret to a good character sketch. You’re not simply revealing the character, but you’re finding moments that make them have to explain themselves in ways that change their own fundamental understanding of themselves or the world around them. That, my friends, is called internal conflict, and it’s why we say so often that plot and character are intrinsically linked.


Among SoCal writers, Susan Straight is the patron saint of place, and most specifically of Riverside, where she has spent much of her life and a large portion of her writing (she is also, I suppose I should point out, a dear mentor of mine, serving as an advisor in my MFA program and now a colleague at the University of California, Riverside). This story is set in fictional Rio Seco, a name so close as to not even veil the clear alliteration and allusion to Riverside. If you know the town, there is perhaps enough information to assume exactly which bridge it is; there’s one red light that I sit at every so often and remember this story until it finally clicks over to green and my old Ford Ranger can jolt forward. The oleanders lining the freeway, the movie theater at the mall; Susan has long been able to take things that could exist anywhere and make them exist so deeply in her place that Riverside itself is evoked with all of her details. If I could steal anything from her work, or if I could just beg her for any one talent of hers to pass on, it would be that.

Much of this ability comes from the places where she gets more specific, and more detailed. The Sarrat, in particular, and the history that is evoked of that neighborhood (“It was when they’d lived out in the orange groves and Mike hung out with the other kids at the river” is as close as we get to it in this story itself), is brought up in many of Susan’s works—it’s relatively small in this piece, but the way that she builds neighborhoods and traces the migrations that have created our modern world, makes it clear that one of her enduring projects is to reveal the lives that haven’t yet been seen fully in literature. These spaces, the disappearing orange groves of Riverside, the mountains and arroyos and desert spaces that populate Susan’s stories and that fuel her characters, are so rarely explored; Susan makes damn sure that if she’s the only author writing about these spaces that you’ve read, then you’ll absolutely know them fully while you’re reading her.

Stories in Novels

This story appeared in Susan’s book Between Heaven and Here, which is a collection of stories that all feature a roving cast of characters tied to Rio Seco. More than just a collection with a common theme, however, the book is a novel-in-stories: each story contributes to our understanding of the main conflict in the novel. The challenge of the form is that each story still needs to have its own focus, while still contributing meaningfully to the larger focus of the novel itself. Here, we meet Glorette, who pushes so much of Between Heaven and Here, almost tangentially, as someone who Mike remembers from childhood and still sees every now and again. She is tertiary to the story itself, though her mention in the story places Mike as an ancillary member of the novel; he knows the Sarrat, the small neighborhood that is a deep focus of the novel and much of the Rio Seco trilogy, and he is comfortably familiar with all the main players in the book, but is far enough removed from them and their lives that he can look upon them with the kind of distance that in a novel allows for the reader to start evaluating character perspective and truth and adding complication onto the people we’ve previously been so close to. Using this as part of a novel lets us get a look at something like Glorette’s descent into her life, as well, or an assumed version of it, as she had walked a path very similar to the girl who propels this story.

As for the story itself, bringing in Glorette and the Sarrat and the rest allows Mike and the readers to build immediate empathy for and distance from the girl; Mike knows people who have walked in her shoes, and he intimately knows how this world functions. The story doesn’t have to sit and wallow in the prostitution or the sex, because Mike has seen it play out and knows the consequences thereof. And because of that knowledge, the sketch of his character takes on so much depth, as he considers everything happening around him: his wife and daughter, the men on his crew, Glorette, the job that must get done, and now this girl in front of him that could have been Glorette, that could have known his daughter, and that won’t let him simply put his head down and do the Bridge Work for which he has been contracted.

The other element that placing a story like this in a larger work allows for is a possibility of the story continuing. Mike may show up somewhere else in the novel, or Gary or Les or the girl; and the warning that the girl gives at the end, to be wary of Les, suggests that there may be plot or action to come. In a short story on its own, it’s just one more reminder of the dangers that men may pose to vulnerable women; in a larger work, it’s a plot point that may be continuing.

In conclusion

Susan Straight has long been a personal hero of mine, and this story shows so many of the reasons why. Perfectly built and paced on its own, the story only strengthens when it exists in conversation with the world around it, both the real world that comes from knowing Riverside and the fictional world that Susan has been building in her work for so long. This piece is perfectly standalone, while at the same time complementing and complicating her longer works. It is a story inside a novel as part of a novel of stories, and that novel is one part of her longer narrative efforts to build Rio Seco on the page, and those writings all exist as part of her lifelong work to represent Riverside, and her world and her people, to those who know it and those who never will.

One last thing I don’t think I’ve pointed out yet: the title of this story, “Bridge Work,” and the straightforwardness with which the prostitution is discussed, leads to one other common theme within Susan’s writing: everybody works, everybody is working, and the effort put into that process is both sincere and also something like respected, no matter where a person falls on the societal value chain. While our characters may talk about the girl, make fun or her or insult her, the story and the writing does not—she is moving through life as life allows her to move, and she has fallen into this line of work because it is the way that she has fallen, same as Mike has done with construction and same as his wife has done in falling in with him when they married, and on and on and on it goes.

by Brandon Williams


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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